Philip’s Academy Charter School of Newark officially welcomed its pre-kindergarten program today with a gala ribbon-cutting event at the school in Newark’s Central Ward.

A host of state and city officials, including New Jersey State Senator M. Teresa Ruiz, Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins, joined school leaders, parents and teachers in celebrating the city’s first free Pre-K program.

Sixty new pre-k students were welcomed at the start of the school year, joining the academy’s 375 students in grades K-8.

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Started 25 years ago as St. Philip’s Academy, Philip’s Academy made history in 2013 when it became the first independent school in New Jersey to convert to a charter School under a new state law.

Managed by charter management organization Philip’s Education Partners (PEP), the school boasts a 95 percent student retention rate, with 95 percent of its alumni accepted into four-year colleges. The school serves students from Newark, Irvington and East Orange and has a second location in Paterson.

Philip’s Education Partners CEO Miguel Brito said that the school has established a long history of student success in Newark.

“As we think about effectuating change for underserved children in our urban centers, education is at the heart of that,” Brito said. “We believe that access to a free, high-quality education that propels them from the life they have been handed to the life they always dreamed of, is the right of every child, regardless of their ZIP code.”

The school’s curriculum is based around EcoSpaces Education, an innovative program developed to educate students and families on health, nutrition and wellness. 

The program was started eight years ago as a fundamental component of the PEP platform with a mission to prioritize food literacy by giving students a hands-on understanding of food and nutrition.

The school made headlines five years ago after it launched the first urban farming lab through a partnership with Aerofarms, a company formed by a group of entrepreneurs who now operate two large facilities in Newark and partner with the school to help supplement their food service program.

EcoSpaces features a rooftop garden, teaching kitchen and an indoor urban farming lab. The school also runs a healthy lunch program, with nutritious meals prepared for students from scratch and on-site.

Philip’s Education Partners Chief Strategy Officer Marcy Bostwick welcomed the school's many partners who helped the new program come to fruition.

“We are so thankful to so many of you who supported us along the way,” she said.

Ruiz, who sits on the Senate Education Committee, said she wants to author new legislation specifically geared for children ages 0-5.

“When a child is born, their brains are like malleable plastic,” she said, quoting a neurosurgeon she referenced. “The possibilities are endless. It’s what will happen in our classrooms that will change our city.”

Chaneyfield Jenkins said that she was thrilled when the school moved to the Central Ward several years ago.

“Philip’s Academy is a stabilizing factor that is needed in the City of Newark,” she said.

A representative for Sen. Cory Booker was there to congratulate the school on behalf of the former mayor of Newark, lauding Philip’s Academy for its “exceptional programming and abundant educational resources.”

Parent Shelita Chandler also addressed the assembled guests to speak about the transformative impact the school has had on her four-year-old daughter who attends the new pre-kindergarten program.

“She learns new things, and she eats new things,” she said. “She came home and said she ate squash and chickpeas and chicken parmesan. I said, 'since when do you eat squash'?"

Brito said it is the responsibility of adults to provide the best educational opportunities to every child.

“Opening a pre-kindergarten program is a logical next step towards ensuring that opportunity for a growing number of children every year,” he said.