Newark’s new reengagement center connects city youth with career, educational opportunities

A group of people cheer while a person holds a giant pair of scissors after cutting a red ribbon.
The Newark reengagement center is located at 375 McCarter Highway within the city's One-Stop Career Center. (Jessie Gómez / Chalkbeat)

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Stephan Young says he’s in his “grown-man stage” – and a long way since his release from federal prison last August where he served five-and-a-half years for a drug-related charge.

During his time in prison, Young says he reflected on the challenges that kept him from staying in school and the decisions that led him to choose a life on the streets. He also thought about his now 7-year-old son and the personal change he wanted to make for him.

After his release, Young knew he needed to find a safe and healthy way to provide for his son but didn’t know where to go or who to ask for help. That’s when the halfway house where he was staying referred him to Newark’s reengagement services. It was an opportunity that changed his life, Young said.

The 25-year-old Newark native told his story in front of dozens of city leaders at Tuesday’s grand opening of Newark’s new reengagement center located at the city’s One-Stop Career Center on McCarter Highway.

The new center, a partnership between the city of Newark and Newark Public Schools, is a one-stop hub aimed at addressing the barriers that prevent young people from reengaging in education or entering the workforce. The city will continue to partner with community-based organizations and other city departments to target students who may be at risk of dropping out of school, teens who require help to get on a better path, or others who may be referred from city departments.

The center will provide youth with local services such as school placement advising, access to academic enrichment, social support, and modified instructional programming. Young adults over the age of 21 will be referred to GED and high school equivalency program options to complete their education before entering workforce training programs.

Before prison, Young spent most of his teen years with his grandmother but he fell in with a bad crowd. His experience reflects that of thousands of youth in Newark and across the country who disengage from school due to violence, an unstable home life, trauma, or other barriers. Eventually, young people like Young gradually disengage from learning, and without adequate support and interventions, they may drop out of school.

A group of people dressed in business clothes stand behind a podium in a conference room with gray walls.
Newark native Stephan Young sought help from the city's reengagement center after serving five years in federal prison. (Jessie Gómez / Chalkbeat)

In Newark, roughly 4,000 teens and young adults between the ages of 16 and 20 are not in school, and about 3,000 more between 15 and 21 are at risk of leaving school without a high school diploma, according to a 2018 report conducted by the Newark Opportunity Youth Network. The pandemic exacerbated those numbers, say city leaders, who are looking to change the trajectory for teens and young adults ages 13-24 who they call “Opportunity Youth.”

Young remembers his first visit with members of the reengagement center: “I was sitting there puzzled but happy on the inside looking at how many people wanted to help me and they didn’t even know me yet.”

But reenagement isn’t a one-size-fits-all effort, said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka during Tuesday’s grand opening ceremony. Using federal and city dollars, multiple state and city departments will work together on the third floor of the One-Stop Career Center, which is also home to the city’s youth career center.

“We are going to allow parents and kids to have options to be able to specify a program just for them or tailor it for them,” Baraka said. “It may be a charter school, it may be a Newark public school, or maybe neither of those.”

Tyreek Rolon is the newly appointed director of the center and director of NewarkWorks and the Summer Youth Employment Program. NewarkWorks will collaborate with the center as well as the city’s Office of Violence Prevention and Trauma Recovery and Workforce Development department to develop a plan for youth.

Karen Gaylord, the executive director of the Newark Workforce Development department, said Baraka has been clear in his mandate to provide academic and career support to young people.

At the reengagement center, teens and young adults will meet with career, educational, or social workers to determine what programs and department services fit best with their needs. Participants are then placed in one of three available tracks. Youth in need of completing their high school degree will be placed on an educational track, those needing career or employment assistance will be placed in a vocational training program, and others requiring more personal help will be placed on a social, emotional, and well-being track.

“We want to treat the whole person,” said Rolon on Tuesday. “The main goal that we want our young adults to understand is that we want to get you educated first. Then we will provide the resources, skills, and tools around employment.”

Young, one of the first participants of the reengagement center’s services, says he is blessed to have found support in his community. After spending a few months completing a GED program in prison, Young will attend Rutgers University Newark this fall where he will major in business. He will be the first man in his family to finish college, a goal he aims to achieve for his son.

Young says the streets “cloud up your mind up and thinking.” “But once you have a sit-down with someone, you open up about life and what you’re doing wrong and what you’re doing right,” Young added. “The reengagement center showed me a lot.”

Newark residents can contact the reengagement center by calling the department at 973-733-8500 or filling out a questionnaire form online.

Jessie Gómez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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