New Jersey’s first all-male public school celebrates its first graduating class

The cheers were loud as Samuel Colon’s name was called Wednesday evening to receive his high school diploma.

His family was applauding, and so were his teachers, but the most powerful whoops came from his classmates at Eagle Academy of Young Men in Newark. The 42 graduating seniors were “founding members” of the school, which opened in 2012 as the first all-male public school in New Jersey, and they had traded their signature blazers and ties for caps and gowns after seven years together.

Colon, who will be attending New Jersey City University in the fall, said he wants to come back to Eagle Academy one day to be a teacher or track coach.

“I really want to come back and make an impact on the youth,” he said. “I learned a lot from Eagle, and it played a big role in my life.”

Colon and his classmates entered Eagle Academy in sixth grade with city officials exuberant about the new school, the fourth replica of an all-boys school in Harlem.

“The idea of having a single-sex school focused on our young men — I knew it had the ingredients of greatness,” then-Mayor Cory Booker said during a 2012 speech at the school.

Seven years later, much has changed in Newark. Booker is in the U.S. Senate, and the city’s schools have been restored to local control. Yet the problems that Eagle Academy aims to address are hardly resolved: Many black male students do not complete high school, and many also are involved in the criminal justice system.

“We know that when crime happens within our community, there’s a large population of black and Latino males as a part of that,” Principal Semone Morant said. “We need to counteract that with schools that provide positive vibes such as Eagle Academy to let those young men know that there’s another way.”

To foster those feelings, Eagle Academy teaches its students “real-life” skills, like how to tie a tie, and instills in them the school’s “C.L.E.A.R.” motto — confidence, leadership, effort, academic excellence and resilience. It also assigns them to “houses” named after black male leaders — Malcolm X Shabazz, Nelson Mandela, Roberto Clemente, and Muhammad Ali — with the goal of fostering an intimate community for each student.

This type of community-building, Morant said, makes many of the students feel like their “brother’s keeper.” The phrase, which came up repeatedly at graduation, is also the name of an Obama administration initiative to improve education and opportunities for young men of color.

Yet the strong community hasn’t translated into academic success. Fewer than a third of this year’s graduates met New Jersey’s standards on the 2018 state reading exams, and the school has landed on the state’s list of low-performing schools, meaning that it could face intervention in the future if achievement doesn’t improve.

The school started with 80 sixth graders, but over time half of them exited the graduating class. Some fell behind while others, in some cases, dropped out entirely. According to school officials, after the school was moved from the Central Ward to the South Ward in 2014, many parents were concerned about longer commutes and transferred their sons to other schools.

Morant said new Newark Superintendent Roger León’s ideas about how to boost performance are welcome at his school.

“We’ve really been trying to be aligned with the district’s vision for providing interventions and academic support for all scholars,” Morant said. “We just try to tailor it particularly for the way boys learn, which is distinctly different than young ladies.”

All of this year’s graduates have been accepted to at least one college, school leaders said. Some plan to enter job-training programs or the military.

“You are already eagles,” Newark school board member A’Dorian Murray-Thomas said during Wednesday’s ceremony. “All you have to do is soar.”

Ajani Carter joined Samuel Colon in graduating this week. His mother, Rochelle Green-Carter, said she decided to send Ajani to Eagle Academy because “it was just something different.”

“It was the perfect opportunity for him to have that brotherhood,” she said. “That’s what Eagle Academy is all about — making those bonds that last forever.”