People’s Preparatory Charter School has been on a mission to give back since it first opened its doors in the summer of 2011.

Located in the heart of Newark, the high school draws students from all five wards and 30 middle schools and is a growing community of learners, teachers and staff all working to support the People’s Prep core values of grit, empathy, achievement, curiosity, humility, and enthusiasm.

The school boasts a rigorous college preparatory curriculum and an extended school-day and school-year calendar, with an emphasis on real-world experience and community involvement and service.

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With a student population of 380, students come from a wide range of educational backgrounds, with 23 percent of the school's students classified as having disabilities. Ninety-five percent of its graduates will be first generation college graduates.

Students receive a strong and sustained support system beginning in ninth grade through its Council program--a single-gender group of up to 15 students led by a council coach--an initiative that lies at the core of the school's unique and comprehensive programming.

Students remain with their councils throughout all four years of high school, with council coaches acting as academic advisors and students meeting regularly with their groups to collaborate and create long and short term academic and social goals. 

Raised by educators and coming from a strong background in education, school leader Jessica Rooney believes that students need solid options when it comes to college and career and that today's youth can meaningfully contribute if given the right opportunities.

“The mission of the school is to prepare students to graduate from the college of their choice as informed, involved and resilient citizens,” Rooney said. “Part of our design in our initial charter eight years ago was a community work program, which connects students to internships in the city. This is a real source of pride for us.”

In 2013, People’s Prep launched its internship program, which places students with more than 20 different external organizations such as Teach for America, United Way, University Hospital, Newark City Hall and NJPAC, among others.

During their internships, students in grades 10-12 design websites, create blog posts, update social media, plan events, assist customers and teach younger students, among other tasks, and develop a wide range of skills in preparation for future jobs and careers.

After participating in 10 hours of training and while receiving ongoing professional development, students intern twice a week from September to June, totaling five hours per week, or 175 hours throughout the school year.

“Teens have a lot to give and a ton to learn and we recognized this,” Rooney said. “This program is a huge part of a student’s identity. It informs what they want to do after high school and after college and how they spend their summers.”

Rooney said the goal was to give students the experiences they could not get inside the school building.

“Our students are helpful and lend a helping hand,” she said. “We have kids literally in every corner of Newark. Newark has a lot to give and we want the kids to know about it. Newark has a lot of challenges but it’s also very dynamic and we want the kids to be proud of where they’re from.”

From the internship program stemmed the school’s Day of Service, which was launched last month.

As part of the program, students get a chance to give back to Newark and surrounding communities at organizations and agencies such as the Community Food Bank of New Jersey in Hillside, Reeves-Reed Arboretum in Summit and Earth Keepers in Newark’s Branch Brook Park.

People’s Prep Community Program Coordinator Amy Pozmantier Eberly said students were fully invested in the initiative.

"It was really incredible because kids you wouldn't expect to be super invested were really invested in their projects," Pozmantier Eberly said. "Everyone was very serious about their jobs and they showed a lot of grit. I'm glad that we did it and I'm hoping we can do more of these days again."

Volunteer Day is another initiative of giving and collaboration, where school staff and board members spend the day with students on a mission to beautify the school.

“This is a part of our ethos, which is to be in the service of others,” Rooney said. “It was a really cold day but everyone did it with a full heart.”

As part of the school’s regular community service program, students volunteer their time at organizations and agencies throughout the area such as Habitat for Humanity, where students have built homes for needy families.

Others have volunteered at La Casa de Don Pedro to paint over a vandalized wall to make space for a mural, as well as helping out at the Community Food Bank’s mobile food pantry program and local soup kitchens.

The school’s community initiatives all align with the upcoming #GivingTuesday, a global day of giving fueled by collaboration and social media.

Launched in 2012, the initiative is celebrated on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving and officially kicks off the charitable season, when many focus on their holiday and end-of-year giving.

Participating in the #GivingTuesday initiative for the second year, Rooney said the focus will be on fundraising for the school’s expansive college program, with the appeal centered on college preparation and persistence.

"In grades 9-11, that means college prep activities like college tours, summer programs, and dual enrollment courses," Rooney said. "In 12th grade, we use donations for test fees, college deposits, addition tours and emergency travel funds. For students in college we use these monies for alumni programming, pre-college courses, offer paid summer internships and text book and computer lending libraries."

Funds are provided by friends, supporters and partners of the school, including members of the leadership team, school board members and staff.

“We are establishing a base of funders,” Rooney said. “The Office of College Placement does a huge amount of programming. It’s the heart of the organization and inextricably linked to the mission of the organization.”

Rooney said the goal is to expose students to a diverse choice of colleges each year beginning in ninth grade.

“Our commitment is for our students to see four colleges per year on our dime,” she said. “Kids get to see all kinds of college campuses.”

The school helps fund the college application process as well.

“The college application process be make or break, so the school tries to foot the bill,” she said.

Rooney said she is proud of the school accomplishments and is excited to see it continue to thrive.

“We’re not huge, we’re not land rich and we don’t have a CMO,” Rooney said, referring to a Charter Management Organization. “But we really pride ourselves on working with students, wherever they are coming from. We do a lot of work that a lot of people don’t want to do. I’m proud of what we’ve become.”