Newark, NJ—Newark’s American History High School may be the epitome of homegrown innovation.
Established in 2007 as Newark Public School’s fifth Magnet school by founder and former principal Robert Gregory—recently appointed as Interim Superintendent of Newark Public Schools—the high school has created an on-site space for students with autism to gain hands-on experience in a variety of skills.
Located in the city’s High Street Historic District, the school includes a program with approximately 34 students who place along the autism spectrum.
AHHS Principal Jasonn Denard said the school ran into challenges in placing students with autism in local vocational settings and so a decision was made to create a space inside the school for students to gain the vocational experience they need.
“We decided to start in our own school,” Denard said. “We once had our own school store under former principal Robert Gregory and we decided to bring it back."
The store, which will sell school supplies, school merchandise and items through its bake sale fundraisers, will offer students with autism an opportunity to learn real-world skills such as customer service, management, bookkeeping, cashiering and inventory.
The space will also serve as a venue for other fundraisers and after-school events.
“The goal is to give kids an authentic experience working in a real-life setting,” Denard said. “This was done to fill a vocational need.”
Denard, along with several staff and faculty members, set to work on resurrecting the store that soon turned into a full-fledged community service project and a much-anticipated space among students throughout the school.
Collaborating on the project was professional artist Elijah Minton, 27, a West Orange native who was connected to Denard through a social worker at the school.
Minton was asked to bring the room to life through a series of murals, which he offered to do at no cost.
“My autism-related artwork was inspired by the symbols of puzzle pieces which represents the complexity of autism and the vast array of different types of people who are affected by it," Minton said. "I honestly hadn't had much experience with autistic children before this project on a personal level but those who I met blew my mind.”
Minton, who is self-taught, said the inspiration behind his murals—all painted with spray paint—was his desire to transform the classroom into an actual experience.
“I wanted it to be almost like a world for them to step into and enjoy while learning at school,” said Minton, noting the mural depicting a female was an actual student at the school.
"We decided that it would be nice to incorporate those who would actually be using the space to better connect with the students," Minton said. "My hopes are that my gift inspires others to support the school in their efforts to supply and prepare the store. Things like this should be funded because all kids deserve an equal opportunity, but I know that in recent years the budget for art has been cut dramatically across the board.”
Minton is currently being commissioned by the City of Newark to complete a mural on Bergen Avenue and plans on creating a nonprofit organization to fund mural projects in low-income communities.
“I love that spray paint allows me to work quickly so that I can donate my time to make good things happen," he said. "My sole purpose is to inspire people of all ages to chase their dreams.”
Denard said seniors at the school remember the school store fondly from their freshman years and anticipate its grand reopening, which is set for next week.
“These seniors remember our having a school store and are excited for the rebirth of it,” he said. "Students can get vocational experience and be the face of the store."
American History High School was established as a collaboration between the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Rutgers University and the New Jersey Historical Society, with a mission that every student attends and graduates from college.
The school boasts a rigorous curriculum, with students offered an opportunity to graduate with 16 college credits in addition to taking Advanced Placement courses.
The school capitalizes upon access to historical resources throughout Newark and beyond and emphasizes the study of social sciences through the lens of American History.