The first thing you notice about Robert Clark is his smile, then his energy, as he strides down the halls of LEAD, his new charter high school that will open in September.
The modern LEAD building at 201 Bergen Street is alive with activity, as Clark’s team gets ready to open its doors to 92 students in just a few short weeks.
Clark pokes his head into every classroom to check on the progress—smart boards are being hoisted onto walls, desks are finding their homes and wiring is being installed.
“How’s it going?” he asks a group of guys working in a freshly-painted classroom on the second floor.
All is well, they tell Clark, who smiles and moves on to the next room.
“By Friday, all these desks will be in place,” says Clark.
This is the realization of a dream, a mission of a man who has devoted his years to Newark’s youth.
Clark is known to Newarkers as the founder and executive director of YouthBuild Newark, a youth and community development agency that has served Newark’s disconnected youth for more than 12 years.
At the core of YouthBuild Newark’s philosophy, Clark says, is the belief that when disconnected young people are provided with a nurturing, loving environment, along with a a relevant education and the skills they need, they develop into productive and self-reliant members of the community.
Now Clark, the first YB graduate to establish a YouthBuild program, is taking his more than 22 years of experience in youth development and is opening a school aimed specifically at nontraditional students—the first of its kind in the city.
LEAD Charter School is designed to look, feel and operate radically differently from traditional high schools, and it will stay true to the philosophy upon which YouthBuild was built, Clark says.
The school was established for young people who find themselves on the margins of the traditional system, many of whom share the same experiences—they are traditionally poor, older and male. Drugs, jail and premature death are often part of the equation, Clark says.
The high school will serve students ages 16-20, and up to age 21 for those students with an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). Students will be taught core subjects, be provided with individual supports and be set on the path to 21st century careers.
“I’m trying to strategically make a point,” Clark said. “This is the balance that this education reform conversation has been seeking. This is a second-chance school; we’re targeting students who are over age or over credited. These students often feel like a problem to be solved. They lose trust, and that leads to chaos. When you respond with love, young people begin to trust you. We’ve bureaucratized youth development out of education.”
The goal is high school graduation, college and then transitioning to a successful career.
Vocational training in the fields of construction, allied health and culinary arts will ready students for the future, Clark said. In addition, the LEAD arts program will partner students with local artists in the hopes of providing opportunities to pursue real world, hands-on creative expression.
Partners in the LEAD endeavor include the City of Newark, Newark Public Schools, the Office of the Chancellor at Rutgers University and several community-based partners.
Clark’s face lights up when he talks about his faculty, which is made up of about 15 of the best and brightest, culled from a group of outstanding educators and administrators.
“We’ve got some great people,” Clark said. “The talent is here in Newark. We have many talented people and have access to great networks of learning.”
Mark Comesanas, executive director of programs and instruction, comes to LEAD from Uplift Academy in Newark, where he served for several years as the school’s principal.
“I’ve been working with Rob for six or seven years on this,” Comesanas said. “We’re finally seeing it come to fruition. In a very broad sense, I’m hoping to build out a systemic response to what I’ve seen as an educator.”
According to Comesanas, poverty and punishment loom large in educational systems.
“Those are big systems,” he said. “They create negative outcomes. We must create a counter-system.”
At the core of LEAD is providing social, emotional and academic support for young people, Comesanas says.
“This is implementing 40 years of YouthBuild Newark experience,” he says. “We are implementing a youth development model and we are telling youth that they are the greatest asset to change. The model at LEAD will be true to YouthBuild. It’s worked for 40 years; my job is to make sure that model is implemented.”
Setting young people on a successful path to college and career is what it’s all about, Comesanas says.
“The goal is not necessarily to get from chapter one to 15 in a U.S. History class,” notes Comesanas. “The goal is to get you the skills to get to college.”
Juan Acevedo, principal at LEAD, said that the team is ready to set each incoming student on an individualized path to success.
"We at LEAD are looking to provide an opportunity that redefines what success looks like for each of our students," Acevedo said. "We recognize that each young person comes with a unique circumstance and we are ready to meet them at their level and guide them to achieve their goals whether that be post-secondary education or career employment."
Acevedo said that LEAD will be innovative in its approach to ensuring students get the education and skills they need.
"One of the approaches that LEAD takes with young people is that we are certainly an accelerated high school providing young people the ability to acquire credits at a faster pace," he said. "We will be partnering with the innovative Summit Learning platform this year to ensure our young people are mastering both the academic content and cognitive skills necessary for success."
The school will also provide students with Career Technical Education (CTE) in Construction, where young people can acquire their National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) certification in year one.
LEAD plans to expand its CTE courses in a multitude of fields in years two and three including coding, culinary arts and allied health."
According to Comesanas, each aspect of the program is carefully planned down to the smallest detail, and all based on plenty of research.
“The bulk of academic classes are in the morning, when the brain is most awake,” he said. “In the afternoons, we have the hands-on things, like career and tech education classes.”
LEAD students will also participate in a service learning project, where the high schoolers will choose a specific challenge that faces their community, come up with a plan to solve it and then implement that plan.
“That’s part of our secret sauce,” Comesanas said, noting the leadership qualities that the program fosters.
Michele Mason, Executive Director of the Newark Charter School Fund, said that NCSF is honored to support the opening of LEAD. She said founder Clark has recognized the deep gap in educational services necessary to effectively serve one of the most underserved populations of children in Newark.
"There are almost five million Opportunity Youth—young people in America over-aged and disconnected from school and work," Mason said. "Over 7,000 Opportunity Youth live in Newark. LEAD Charter School is an important component of Newark’s Opportunity Youth Network (OYN), which is a blended model of charter and NPS schools that work together, along with other community partners, to serve Opportunity Youth. NCSF supports Rob Clark and these kinds of creative solutions to meet the needs of Newark’s children and families.”
LEAD is just one option available to over-aged and under-credited students in Newark's Opportunity Youth Network, Clark said.
"This effort aims to create and manage a network of options designed to meet the needs of the city's young people who have left school, are struggling in schools and looking to prepare for the workforce," Clark said. "This is, in fact, a citywide approach to supporting young people. It's not just a school."
Clark maintains that schools like LEAD need to finally become part of the education conversation.
“There’s been the charter-district debate, but no one’s been fighting for this kind of school,” Clark said. “We need to recognize these kinds of young people as the key to survival for any community. These kids will stay here—we’re developing the community by developing these young people. They will be parents, so how do you create parents? We need to create community stewards.”
Clark said he hopes to develop partnerships with other charter schools.
“I’m excited to have the opportunity to build an initiative that really focuses on a student that the city struggles to serve,” he said.