Newark Vocational High School is open again. Its building is still closed.

Newark Vocational High School was poised for a grand re-opening this fall. 

Led by a new principal, the revamped high school was set to return to its own building, after spending several years cooped up inside a shared campus. Its new home was supposed to be decked out with state-of-the-art facilities where students would learn trades like printing and culinary arts.

“We actually have a new high school opening up in September of 2019 called Newark Vocational High School,” Superintendent Roger León said in December. “That will be opening up at 301 West Kinney, here in our great city. We’re extremely excited.”

Yet when Aziz Dao went to that address Wednesday morning to enroll his nephew, he found the doors locked and signs directing him to a different building up the street.

“I was very surprised when I got there,” Dao said, as he and his nephew set off to the alternate site.

It turns out the district was not able to complete construction on Newark Vocational’s building at West Kinney before the new school year began this week. That has left Newark Vocational stranded inside a former elementary school building. The temporary space is a far cry from the renovated building that Newark Vocational students were promised, which is supposed to feature cutting-edge facilities that simulate actual workplaces.

The temporary site is also housing New Jersey Regional Day, a district-run school for children with multiple disabilities, while that school’s roof is repaired.

León broke the news to people at Newark Vocational last month, according to a school employee. But he didn’t say when they would finally be able to move into their own building.

“The superintendent didn’t want to give us a date,” said the employee, who declined to be named. “He just said we’ll be there soon.”

A sign outside Newark Vocational High School’s building at 301 W. Kinney St. (Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat)

The district has provided scant public information about Newark Vocational and its relocation. No details can be found on the district website, and a spokesperson did not respond to questions. A student said Wednesday that he showed up to the West Kinney building on the first day of school only to be sent to the alternate site at 150 Newton Street, about a 10-minute walk away.

Financial challenges appear to have hobbled the district’s efforts to revamp the school’s building in time for the new school year.

Newark Vocational previously occupied the building at West Kinney in the city’s Central Ward until 2014, when the school was downgraded to a program and moved into West Side High School’s campus, according to state records.

In December, León said he was restoring Newark Vocational to a full school in its own building, which would reopen this September with a single class of ninth-graders. It would then grow by one grade each year. 

The move to relaunch the high school as a fully equipped vocational school appears to be part of León’s broader effort to better prepare students for good-paying jobs — and to convince students to remain in the district for high school rather than opting into popular and well-funded vocational high schools run by Essex County.

“In four years, we’re going to see an incredible high school that will compete for children who want to have an incredible high school experience,” León said about Newark Vocational.

The revamped school is slated to feature cutting-edge facilities where students can train for careers in printing, culinary arts, and the hospitality and tourism industry, officials have said. The facilities are to include a mock hotel lobby and a model restaurant in the school cafeteria, according to the school employee.

In March, a district official said those renovations would entail significant construction — and the removal of dangerous asbestos. 

“There are electrical and plumbing requirements, which means you open the wall,” said Valerie Wilson, the district’s school business administrator. “And you open the wall, you abate asbestos or remediate.”

The state’s School Development Authority, which oversees facilities in high-poverty districts, provided a grant to help cover the cost of the renovations, according to an agency spokesperson. The state funds covered work on the building’s exterior, including its roof and windows.

The district was responsible for covering the other costs and managing the project, the state spokesperson said. The district set aside $2 million for its portion of the work.

However, in a letter to the state education commissioner last month requesting emergency funding, León said the district had been forced to make staffing cuts and postpone repairs due to budget constraints. The $2 million renovation of Newark Vocational was listed as one of the cuts.

Mary Bennett, a former Newark principal who was hired to help audit the district’s facilities this year, said that construction is still underway at Newark Vocational. Bennett, who did not personally review the West Kinney site, said she believed the building would “probably” open around the middle of this school year.

In the meantime, Newark Vocational students are still taking career classes even though they don’t have access to the new facilities, the school employee said.

Sefora Bobb, whose child attends New Jersey Regional Day School, said the different schools seem to be getting along well while they temporarily share space in the former elementary school building.

“There’s enough space in there for everyone,” she said.