In Newark, a new high school offers a refuge to students who stumble — and, for some, a path to graduation

Two years ago, Naysha Powell needed a lot of things. At the top of her list was a school.

Before that year, Powell had attended a high-performing charter school in Newark. Privately, she was still reeling from the murder of her older brother a few years back, which had sent her mother on a downward spiral and led Powell into foster care. At school, she strained under the exacting rules and heavy workload and was held back twice. Then she became pregnant.

A 15-year-old eighth-grader, she switched to a traditional school in neighboring East Orange, where she lived. Hours before eighth-grade graduation, she gave birth to her son, Kameron.

Now with her child’s future to consider along with her own, she was determined to get a high school diploma. But the high school in East Orange felt like an extension of the middle school she didn’t like, and getting a GED seemed like a cop-out. “I’m too smart for this,” she thought.

That was when, in the summer of 2017, Powell’s older sister told her about a new high school opening in Newark’s Central Ward called LEAD Charter School. No one knew much about it yet, but it sounded promising.

An alternative high school, LEAD was designed for students like Powell who had tumbled off track. Most of its students would come from other high schools where they faced disciplinary problems or fell far behind in their classes, often amid turmoil outside of school — from homelessness and drug use to violence and incarceration. Some had dropped out of school before; others were on the verge.

Many Newark students fit that description. In 2016, the district estimated that 4,000 high-school-age students had stopped attending school and another 3,000 high schoolers were at risk of leaving without a diploma. Yet they had few places to turn: Before LEAD opened, the only options were an evening school for adult students to earn diplomas and an alternative high school, called Uplift Academy, that enrolls just over 100 students.

The next few years would be make-or-break for Powell and for LEAD. The school had promised to vault some of the most struggling students in the city to graduation in just two years, and under New Jersey’s charter school laws, falling short could cause it to close. Its founders also hoped the Newark district would bring the school’s approach to more students, but the imminent arrival of a new superintendent raised questions about that possibility. And for Powell and her classmates, new obstacles would emerge seemingly every day, requiring an all-hands-on-deck effort to keep them moving toward the finish line.

Yet Powell was optimistic as she enrolled at LEAD a few weeks before her 16th birthday, joining the school’s first cohort of students. She put her faith in the phrase painted in orange and yellow above the school’s main desk: “Trust the Process.”

Catching students before they slip away

In the first part of the process, LEAD tries to create a safe haven for students who have nearly given up on school.

That begins with a two-week orientation called “mental toughness” and continues with school-wide meetings each morning. Every week, a team of staff members reviews students’ academic progress and troubleshoots their out-of-school issues.

Next, LEAD works to catch students up in their learning while preparing them for life after high school. Students study math, English, and other academic subjects for three weeks, then switch to training in construction, healthcare, or computer technology for the next three-week cycle. The goal is for each student to leave the school in two years or less with a diploma in hand and college or job plans lined up.

The idea sprang from a longtime youth advocate named Robert Clark. A high school dropout himself, Clark got a second chance through a national nonprofit called YouthBuild USA that trains young people in construction while helping them earn high school diplomas. After attending college, he founded a YouthBuild site in Newark.

In 2011, Clark began advising Newark Public Schools on how to support potential dropouts. Eventually, his group would manage a district intake hub for struggling students, a long-term suspension center, and Uplift.

The experience convinced him that Newark students needed another option when they are failing at school, or their schools are failing them. The New Jersey education department agreed, approving YouthBuild Newark’s application to open LEAD in 2017 — making it the state’s first alternative charter school.

Today, the school has roughly 240 students. They range in age from 16 to 21 and hail from high schools — both traditional and charter — across Newark and surrounding areas. (As a charter, LEAD is able to enroll students who live outside its home district.) Most students spent at least two years at their prior schools. Some chose to leave; others were not given a choice.

“A lot of young people will say, ‘They didn’t want me there, and I didn’t want to be there,” said Gisele Bartley, one of LEAD’s “advocate-counselors” who support students with academic and personal issues.

LEAD aims to deliver the opposite message by cultivating a community within the school. During the orientation program, which is part mixer and part bootcamp, students do pushups and untangle themselves from human knots. Together, they do community-service projects.

And they tell their stories. When Powell shared hers in August 2017, to her surprise, no one rolled their eyes or sucked their teeth.

“When I got it out, I saw that they were really listening to my story to get to understand me,” she said. “I really became comfortable in the community.”

During weekly small-group meetings and daily schoolwide assemblies, students share their experiences and get encouragement from adults and classmates alike. At one in February, students cheered after a classmate took off his hat to comply with a school rule. Bartley praised LaMonica Cheatum, a transfer from East Orange who rides a bus 90 minutes each way to LEAD, for showing up. Then Cheatum took a turn sharing an inspirational quote, a responsibility that rotates among students.

“Life is like a coin,” she read from her phone, “you can spin it the way you wish, but you only spin it once.”

A classmate offered his interpretation: “Compare it to my situation now,” he said. “I spinned it this way by choosing to come to school. I didn’t have to, but I did.” The group applauded.

Freeing students from the ‘boulders’ they carry

By design, LEAD serves young people in crisis.

Nearly all its students arrive two years off pace to graduate on time because they’re missing many credits, are older than the typical student in their grade, or both — all risk factors for dropping out. On average, their math and reading skills fall between the sixth- and seventh-grade level when they arrive, according to the school’s internal tests. Most come from low-income families and many cope with threats outside school, including court involvement and unstable housing — more risk factors.

Gisele Bartley (center) is one of LEAD’s “advocate-counselors,” who enmesh themselves in students’ lives. (Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat)

LEAD must act like an emergency responder, administering to students’ personal needs while jolting their education back to life. That was the case with Powell.

Just as Powell was getting into a rhythm at school, her family members said they could no longer babysit Kameron each day. So LEAD stepped in.

The school gave her a laptop and let her work from home. Teachers emailed her daily assignments. Juan Acevedo, LEAD’s head of school, spent hours on the phone with Powell, helping her schedule bursts of work around Kameron’s naps and feedings.

Cynthia-Rae Hills, a math teacher who lives a few blocks from where Powell was staying in Newark, invited her over for weekly tutoring and dinner with Hills’ family. When Powell couldn’t stay for a holiday dinner, Hills gave her banana pudding and cinnamon rolls to go.

Powell managed to pass all her classes. But then fresh problems arose.

Because of a rift with her mother, Powell and her baby had been living on and off with her sisters and other relatives. But in the summer of 2018, Powell and her child had no place to stay. So she called Bartley, her advocate-counselor. School was on break, yet Bartley snapped into action. Within the hour, she had arranged for a service to pick up Powell and Kameron, take them to a family shelter, and help them find long-term housing.

“I’m carrying boulders in my bookbag with all this stuff,” Powell said. “They’re like, ‘OK, well take the boulders out your backpack and put them in mine.’”

Bartley is just one of several advocate-counselors who, like almost all LEAD’s staff and students, are black or Hispanic, and who enmesh themselves in students’ lives. They advise students, accompany them to court hearings, and help set goals for school and life. They also text and call students at all hours, coaxing them to show up to class and stay out of trouble.

“He’ll text me at 12, one in the morning on Friday or Saturday because he know it’s Friday or Saturday,” said Justin Hall, who transferred to LEAD from a charter school where he was frequently suspended. “Like, ‘What you doing?’”

Another student, Lachaka Price, had stopped showing up to the traditional high school she attended in Newark. A 16-year-old ninth-grader, she said students there talked over the teachers; she also clashed with classmates. She enrolled at LEAD earlier this year. Shortly after, her boyfriend died. Bartley, her new advocate-counselor, consoled her.

“She welcomed me with open arms and an open heart and she listened to what was going on with me,” Price said. “Now, I’ll be down on the inside, but being at school really makes me happy.”

“When I’m at school,” she went on, “my mind is focused. I’m always on top, on task, worried about the topic. I don’t worry about other things going on in life.”

On the hook for results

The team at LEAD knows they can point to any number of students who have found a refuge at the school. But that isn’t enough. They must also show results.

“Everybody in the city is watching what we’re doing,” said Darrell Price, the school’s director of student services, during a meeting with students in November.

LEAD classes combine guidance from teachers with online lessons — an increasingly popular approach known as “personalized learning.” At alternative high schools, where students enter at vastly different skill levels, computer-based courses allow students to earn the credits they need to graduate at their own pace. But it’s unclear how much students can really learn that way; one recent study in Milwaukee found that online courses actually lowered students’ year-end test scores.

Mark Comesañas, who oversees instruction and programs at LEAD, said the school often finds itself in a “tug-of-war” between accommodating students who have long struggled in school and challenging them intellectually.

“We believe culturally that we’ve done enough so you can actually give them something rigorous. But it’s still hard,” said Comesañas, who previously was the principal of Uplift. “The rigor of what we do in the classroom is definitely something we’re cognizant of.”

The school said more than 60 percent of students saw their scores rise in English and math this school year on tests commonly used to measure student growth, which the school administers separately from the required state exams. But the most prominent marker that the public — and more importantly, LEAD’s state authorizers — will use to gauge the school’s success is its graduation rate, which was just 29 percent last year.

That four-year graduation rate is miles below state and district averages. But it’s in line with other alternative schools, which, by design, serve students who are off-track to earn diplomas in four years.

Experts say these schools’ low graduation rates can obscure their effectiveness. For instance, a study that followed a group of off-track students in New York City found that about 30 percent of those who attended alternative high schools graduated in six years — compared to just over 13 percent of those who stayed in traditional schools. For that reason, advocates across the country have pushed states to develop better ways to measure the performance of alternative schools. (LEAD officials said they’re discussing alternative measures with the state.)

Jody Ernst, the co-founder of Momentum Strategy & Research, a nonprofit that studies and advises alternative schools, said they are sometimes forced to close based on metrics that don’t capture their true quality. She worries about what that means for their students.

“If these schools aren’t around to help serve them, then they’re going to remain dropouts — and we’ve seen all the research on criminal and health outcomes and their potential for earning, which is so much lower if they can’t cross that diploma threshold,” Ernst said. “These schools are really needed.”

LEAD also struggles with attendance, something that bedevils even traditional schools in Newark. Last year, on average, about a quarter of LEAD’s students missed school each day. Many are chronically absent, tardy, or both.

LEAD’s head of school, Juan Acevedo, called an emergency assembly to discuss attendance. (Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat)

One Friday afternoon in February, Acevedo, the head of school, interrupted classes to hold an emergency assembly on attendance. “Little by little, people have started not coming, not coming, not coming, as if this is acceptable,” he told the students, who listened in stunned silence. To enforce the start time, he said, the school would start turning away stragglers who arrived after 8:30 a.m. — a desperate move to boost attendance that could easily do the opposite. (Acevedo said later that tardy students were transported to an off-site “reengagement center” but not sent home. He and school leaders also said attendance improved after the assembly.)

Yet for all the sticks and carrots the school uses to prod students to class, the forces beyond the school’s control pulling students in the other direction can be strong. Two LEAD students were sent to jail this year, and two were shot.

Even in school, the outside world is never far removed. One bright afternoon this May, the students in an American History class were learning about civic activism. Teacher Danny Cerdas had tailored the online curriculum to his students: How could they halt the gun violence in Newark?

At one table, Nyjahmis Mickens and Alecia Snipes highlighted news articles about recent shootings in the city. Each had a personal connection to the violence.

Mickens lives down the street from the Chinese restaurant where an 18-year-old was gunned down in March. Snipes’ 19-year-old cousin was shot to death that same night in East Orange.

“It has a negative toll on all of us,” said Snipes, who is 17 and knew three people killed in a spate of shootings that month, which some called “March Madness.”

“You don’t know who to trust, basically,” said Mickens, who is 18.

“Our whole generation is just traumatized,” Snipes added. “And it’s not going to end any time soon.”

Unfinished missions

People had warned Comesañas, the instructional leader at LEAD, that a new school’s second year is often harder than the first. They were right.

LEAD’s average attendance rate dropped to around 65 percent this year, Comesañas said last month. Most students attend class more often at LEAD than they did at their previous schools, he said. But still, the absences were worrisome.

LEAD expects around 75 students to earn diplomas by August. (Its graduation rate will depend on when its students first began high school, not when they started at LEAD.) About 14 percent of students left this year before graduating. The school hopes to convince some to return, but others moved or changed phone numbers and appear to be gone for good.

Naysha Powell (Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat)

“We’re giving ourselves a C,” Comesañas said. Beginning in the fall, they are aiming for better attendance, fewer students who leave mid-year, and more who graduate. “We have some good outcomes, but we want great outcomes.”

To spur those improvements, LEAD is shaking up its leadership. Acevedo is leaving the school, while Price will assume a yet-to-be-determined role, and Comesañas will become the principal.

Meanwhile, Robert Clark’s partnership with the district to support struggling students is facing its own setback.

Clark’s group, YouthBuild Newark, oversees the Newark Opportunity Youth Network, a citywide effort involving LEAD and other agencies that help young people get jobs and diplomas. It formed in 2016 as a partnership between the city, Rutgers University-Newark, several philanthropies and community-based groups, and the Newark school district, then headed by a state-appointed superintendent, Christopher Cerf.

Now, the district is led by a locally chosen superintendent, Roger León, who has been reassessing the system’s partnerships. He recently decided to cut ties between Uplift, the district’s alternative school, and Clark’s group, according to Clark. Soon, León may tell Clark’s group it is no longer needed to run the district’s suspension center and intake hub, which helps find new placements for students who left school. (A district spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.)

Clark said he hopes to continue partnering with the district in some form. He still believes that Newark needs a citywide strategy to catch struggling students before they become “disconnected youth” — detached from school and work and at heightened risk of long-term unemployment, poor health, and incarceration.

“You can’t ignore this population; they’re going to show up somewhere,” Clark said. “We’ve got to figure out how to work together.”

As LEAD’s founders consider the school’s future, Naysha Powell has been contemplating her own.

Sitting in the principal’s office last month, where the spring sunlight splashed the pale-blue walls around her, Powell recalled how she had entered LEAD just two years earlier. Then, she was an overage ninth-grader with a newborn. Now, she is weeks away from earning a diploma and, she hopes, starting college.

At each step on her journey, LEAD helped carry her boulders. Even now, school staffers are inquiring about housing for Powell and her son at the two private colleges that have admitted her, and checking on her application to Rutgers, her top choice. When Powell again became homeless last month, LEAD team members helped get her into a family shelter. The school even promised to cover her expenses so she could attend prom.

The experience inspired Powell to study to become a school social worker. She has learned the lesson LEAD tries to teach its students — to strive for their community’s betterment, as well as their own.

“I know that a lot of people are proud of me,” Powell said that spring morning as the school year drew to a close. “But I feel like my mission won’t be complete until I bring everyone up with me. That’s when I’ll really be proud of myself.”

Update: This story was updated to include school officials’ formal job titles and additional information about efforts to improve student attendance.