The West Side Unit of the Boys and Girls Club on Littleton Avenue closed nearly a decade ago, but many who grew up in Newark’s West Ward retained an emotional connection to the empty building. 

For many, the building was a reminder of a time when kids from the neighborhood had a place to go where adults cared about them, looked out for them, taught them, and kept them out of trouble.

So when it came time to raze the building, those kids, now adults, had a difficult time.

Sign Up for E-News

"This is sad, man," Craig Canzata told Star-Ledger columnist Barry Carter last year as the bricks began tumbling into a pile of debris. "This is hard, man. This was the place."

In its place, a new $35 million building rose and on Monday, the ribbon was cut, marking the opening of KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy, a public high school operated by the KIPP NJ charter network.

“Strong schools build strong communities. Today was about more than dedicating a new facility – it was about coming together to celebrate as a community the hard work of our kids and teachers,” said Ryan Hill, the founder and CEO of KIPP NJ.

“With this new facility, KIPP New Jersey continues to invest in the community as well as in the education of future generations of leaders,” Hill said. “This facility drastically enhances the quality of services we can provide at KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy in order to equip our kids to change the world.”

KIPP NJ is among the largest charter networks in New Jersey. The network serves more than 4,500 students in grades K-12 in Newark and Camden and, in the next few years, will grow to 15 schools in Newark and ten in Camden, serving more than 7,300 students.

Newark Collegiate Academy was previously located in a newly constructed building on Norfolk Street, between Orange Street and Sussex Ave., but the school outgrew the space. Uncommon Schools, another charter network in the city is leasing the building temporarily.

One major drawback to the Norfolk Street building was that the location did not have any athletic fields. The Littleton Avenue location has a 130-foot by 120-foot turf field next to the building that was funded with donations from the NFL Foundation/NY Giants and Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC).

Several NY Giants players came to the ribbon cutting and huddled up with students after the ceremony.

“I am excited to know that these great kids will receive a first class physical education as part of their high school experience,” said Jonathan Casillas, New York Giants linebacker and defensive captain.

Casillas, who grew up in Linden, noted that he did not have a facility like Newark Collegiate when he was growing up.

“I couldn't be more excited for the opportunity ahead of these boys and girls,” Casillas said.

In addition to the Giants, a host of local dignitaries attended the ribbon cutting, including West Ward Councilman Joe McCallum, Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins and Newark Schools Superintendent Christopher Cerf. Mayor Ras Baraka did not attend, but sent his West Ward emissary, who also happened to be a Cowboys fan, which allowed for some good-natured ribbing.

“You are going to have an attachment to this building,” Chaneyfield Jenkins told the students. “You can’t help but be proud of this building, you can’t help but be proud that this sits in the City of Newark, you can’t help but be proud that this is in the West Ward.”

With the capacity for 900 students, grades 9-12, the new building features multiple floors of classrooms each outfitted with state-of-the-art technology, a dedicated science suite, performing arts classrooms, a large library space, and enhanced exterior lighting and CCTV cameras for added security.

Designed by KSS Architects and built by Phelps Construction Group, the 104,000-square-foot building took a little more than a year to complete.

“In the past few years we have had the privilege of being involved in several Charter School projects in Newark," said Douglas Phelps, president of the Boonton-based Phelps Construction Group, which also built Teacher's Village on Halsey Street. "I have had the privilege of seeing firsthand the difference these schools are making in the lives of these kids and their families. We are very proud to know we are playing even a small part in helping.”

Financing for construction came from LISC, Prudential, and Enterprise. 

“The benefit these facilities will have on the community is immeasurable, and will last far into the future,” said Denise Scott, LISC’s executive vice president for national programs. “A strong school in a beautiful building, and a field where students can play safely and where families can come together, are components of a healthy, vital neighborhood that everyone deserves.”

In addition to serving as a school, Newark Collegiate will serve as a community institution. Construction of the school employed 36 local residents from the City of Newark and Newark Collegiate Academy will work closely with local groups to host events and develop community-driven programs.