Newark, NJ—Every Monday and Thursday afternoon, 25 TEAM Academy eighth graders meet inside a classroom after school, but the gathering seems more like a class of college students—they sit poised, attentive and anxious to learn.

On this particular Monday, student presenters Marcus and Ibrahim stand at the front of the room to present today’s topic: HIV/AIDS.

The students, prepared with a detailed Power Point, present an overview of the topic, then begin a conversation about the cultural context of the disease, with issues such as race, poverty and education debated among the students. 

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Students are then given the opportunity to share their personal experiences.

Eighth-grader Jalen Freeman stands up to tell his story. His great-grandmother, Geneva Morrison, started Newark’s Agape Ministry years ago after her daughter—Jalen’s grandmother—contracted HIV. Jalen's grandmother later gave birth to a daughter—Jalen’s mother—who was born with AIDS.

Although Jalen has lost both his mother and grandmother to the disease, he is determined to continue his great-grandmother's legacy and now helps run the ministry, as well as volunteering at Newark’s Broadway House, a specialized facility for those living with HIV/AIDS.

A girl sitting at the back of the class raises her hand.

“My grandmother also died of AIDS,” she said.

These are the members of the school's Siwaju club, started last year by TEAM Academy teacher, Bilal Walker.

Walker, a third-generation Newarker and a TEAM alumnus, started the club at the middle school as a way to better prepare the youngsters for life’s challenges once they leave the security of their school environment.

“I was looking for a catalyst to honor some of our most resilient eight graders,” Walker said. “Being an Afro-centric person, I’m into rites of passage.”

The word Siwaju is Yoruba, the language of the Yoruba people—an ethnic group of southwestern and north-central Nigeria, as well as southern and central Benin, of more than 40 million people that make up one of the largest populations in Africa.

“Siwaju means forward,” Walker said. “I took the word, took the meaning behind it, and created this initiative.”

In order to join the Siwaju club, students must complete a detailed application and provide letters of recommendation. They must also maintain a 2.8 GPA and complete 30 hours of community service.

In the club, students conduct their own seminars on a variety of topics such as jobs and career, mental health, interactions with law enforcement, financial literacy, homosexuality and emotional competency, among others.

After the presentations, students give the presenters feedback.

“It creates transparency between the students and their colleagues,” Walker said. "Students have come to the realization that although they’re young, they are a lot more entrenched and aware of society and what it has in store for them. Kids have come to appreciate a lot of the conversations we’ve had.”

At the end of the meeting, students talk about what it is that keeps them coming back to the club twice a week—even on days off such as this particular Monday.

“It’s kind of like a comfort place,” said eight-grader Jeremiah. “We sometimes just comfort each other. I like coming here just to get my comfort.”

“It helps me learn things that I need to know and to help out my community,” said a student sitting at the front of the class. “It is a place for me to feel comfortable talking about different topics and to be myself. As a black kid, I get to flourish with other black children."

The club holds a ceremony in May, where students are presented with a special stole made of student-selected fabric.

Students who complete club requirements earn their stoles and wear them to their commencement ceremony as a badge of honor.

“We push students to be the best they can be,” Walker said. “Siwaju is a right. We have to hold them to a particular standard.”

Founded in 2002, KIPP TEAM Academy is the network's first charter school and has a student population of 390 students in grades 5-8. KIPP:NJ operates eight schools throughout Newark.