NEWARK, NJ - Greats Oaks Legacy Charter School had a rocky first year after opening its doors to the school's first class of sixth graders in 2011.

The students' state standardized test scores were so low that school year, the school received a warning letter from the state. The school had to achieve significant gains or else it would lose its charter and have to close.

Jared Taillefer, CEO of Great Oaks Legacy Charter Schools, said he and his team spent the summer of 2012 planning and strategizing for a stronger second year. The school welcomed its second class of sixth graders who performed remarkably better, allowing the school to remain open, Taillefer said.

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On Friday, that second class of sixth graders graduated from Great Oaks Legacy Charter High School. The 81 seniors in the class, who will be attending college this fall, received over 850 college acceptances and over $7.6 million in scholarships. 

“While each one of you are part of the school’s narrative, your own stories start today,” Taillefer told the graduates and their families at Symphony Hall. “It is up to you to write the next chapter of your legacy, to leave your mark on new communities beyond our school.”

Great Oaks Charter Schools is a network of schools throughout the Tri-State area and Delaware. In Newark, the network grew from a class of sixth graders in 2011 to a network of four schools in serving 1,600 students in grades Pre-K through 12. Great Oaks merged with Legacy Charter in 2016.

Daniel Agyemang originally started in 2011 but had to repeat his sixth-grade year. He failed two classes by about two points, he told TAPinto.

Agyemang transitioned to Great Oaks from a district school, where he said he went from receiving no homework to about three homework assignments a night.

“At times I wanted to give up and didn’t want to come to school, but my teachers helped me and pushed me through that,” said Agyemang, who will be attending Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, Pennsylvania to study computer science. “It wasn’t an easy journey. All of the negatives, the detentions, coming to school late. Everything was worth it, now I get to move on to the next chapter of my life.”

Supportive teachers were also crucial for Joshua Loperena, whose break from Great Oaks made his high school transition more challenging.

When another charter school opened a new school across the street from his house, Loperena’s parents decided that it was more convenient for him to attend. His dad was able to spend more time working to provide for the family than spending time commuting him back and forth to school, said Loperena.

He completed grades six through eight before transferring to the other charter high school. Although he had good teachers, he knew that he wasn’t learning as much as could, said Loperena. So he convinced his mom to call Taillefer to ask for his spot back at Great Oaks.

“My teachers supported me no matter what,” said Loperena, who returned to Great Oaks in 11th grade. “When I was struggling with an essay or need help with a thesis statement, Mr. Dec would help me straight away. I would come to him with personal stuff as well.”

Loperena will be attending Essex County College in the fall to earn his associate's degree. After graduating, he plans to study journalism at William Paterson University in Wayne.

Like many of the students in the graduating class, commencement speaker state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz was the first in her household to go to college.

She struggled because she realized she was different and didn’t have a network for friends to help when she got there, she said.

“I was running from Newark, I was running from my parents because I thought a man who had a fourth-grade education and a mom with a GED wasn't enough," said Ruiz, who grew up in the city's North Ward. "When I found myself at school and I knew that there was greatness inside of me, I ran home so fast that I don’t think you could see the blaze that I left behind.”

She left the class with messages of hope and lessons of resilience. She urged graduates to use their voice to affect change around them and for times when they are not invited to spaces of power and privilege, have the courage to show up anyway and raise their voice until people listen. 

Ruiz urged them to never stop fighting, a message she tells herself to this day in her position as a state senator. 

“People don’t understand the greatness that exists right here in this room. They'd rather waste their time on headlines and an old story of Newark that doesn’t define who we are...we are great and we are getting greater every day,” she said.

Ruiz congratulated seniors for attending university this fall and earning over $7 million in scholarships.

“This is Newark ladies and gentleman," said Ruiz, "This is greatness. This is the class of 2019.”