NEWARK, NJ - Oprah Winfrey's surprise visit to West Side High School on Friday to announce a $500,000 gift to support the school's "Lights On" program could lead to the expansion of the program district-wide.
The program provides a safe space with food and activities for kids to hang out every Friday from 6 p.m. until almost midnight.
Newark School Superintendent Roger León said Winfrey's gift will allow the school to maximize the time students attend the Lights On program. The donation also provides a unique opportunity to help expand the program to more schools throughout the district.
León said as he plans to bring the program to other schools, the district will also collect data on how it impacts student academic performance and attendance.
“We have hundreds of students who are coming here and spending hours into the evening. So we're looking at the implications of attendance during the day and what academic benefits are afforded to the kids,” León told TAPinto Newark.
Students will be tracked in order to assess the benefits students receive from the program. “We know that they’re excelling and we want to be able to make a determination that this program is integral to that progress,” León said.
Board Member A’Dorian Murray-Thomas fondly remembered when the initiative was in its early startup stages. Principal Akbar Cook recruited volunteers and pulled the dollars together to make it happen at West Side, she said.
“This is something that was built from the ground up with an enormous about of sweat equity,” Murray-Thomas said during a board retreat on Saturday. “I think it's going to look different in other spaces but I think this is something that is scalable.“
As Cook was being interviewed by Oprah on Friday, Board Member Flohisha Hill observed that it was a bit hard for him to give undivided attention to the interview because he was so concerned by what the kids were doing.
Hill and other board members support scaling Cook’s model but know that his care for the students is what truly makes it special.
“He genuinely cares about those kids,” Hill said. She brings her son to Lights On and engages with students often. “His program is genuine and sincere, so it's not something you can teach, it’s something that’s already been in you.”
“You can’t teach heart,” León said.
Winfrey's donation still needs to be accepted officially by the school board at its May 28 board meeting.