On the first day of classes last month, a group of students at Science Park High School made a beeline for Karen Gaylord’s office.

Gaylord was the school staffer who oversaw a number of popular, privately funded extracurricular programs. One taught students to code and build robots; another, for young men, combined tutoring, college visits, and chess.

But when the students arrived at the office that day, eager to snag spots in the programs, they were greeted with bad news: Gaylord was gone, and the programs she managed were suspended.

“I didn’t know what to say to those babies,” said a parent volunteer, Celestine Swain, who was there that day. “They said, ‘Mom filled out the paperwork.’ I said, ‘Just hold onto the paperwork, honey, until further notice.’”

Why the well-liked programs suddenly disappeared, just as they were expected to grow, is something of a mystery. But clues have started to emerge.

The programs were bankrolled by New Jersey Advocates for Education, a nonprofit that gets most of its funding from a wealthy donor, Malcolm Robinson. The organization aims to help high-achieving, low-income students in Newark and nearby cities earn college degrees by providing scholarships and academic support.

In 2015, the group expanded its mission, creating the Garden State Scholars program to serve male students with middling grades. It also offered Saturday courses in robotics, coding, and aviation, as well as SAT prep and internship training.

Based primarily at Science Park, the programs also served students from other schools. All told, up to 400 students benefited from the initiatives each year, according to a person familiar with them.

Before this school year, Robinson had been in talks with the district about bringing the programs to additional schools, according to the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss private negotiations. Gaylord, the community engagement specialist at Science Park, would move into a new role overseeing the expansion. 

On paper, the arrangement seemed like a model of the “strong reciprocal partnerships” that Superintendent Roger León called for in his recent district plan. Yet, the district never created the new role. That left Gaylord, who had relinquished her Science Park position, without a job. And it appears to have turned off the private funding stream, leaving the programs in limbo. 

If there was some other cause of the programs’ disappearance, no one has said so publicly. New Jersey Advocates for Education and Newark Public Schools did not respond to multiple requests for comment; Robinson could not be reached.

Meanwhile, students who were looking forward to the programs all summer have not been given a clear explanation.

Newark Students Union
Azé Williams, a senior at Science Park High School, said the missing programs had been “transformative” for students.
PHOTO CREDIT: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

In response, members of the Newark Students Union emailed León multiple times last month asking about the programs but never received a response. Azé Williams, a member of the group and a senior at Science Park, raised the issue at a recent school board meeting: “Students need these programs,” she told the board. “They are very transformative.”

Williams, who is the daughter of Celestine Swain, added in an interview that students had been left “in the dark” as the adults privately decide the fate of the programs.

“Since we are the people who ultimately have to deal with the consequences of their decisions,” she said, “we should at least know what’s going on.”

By all accounts, Robinson is a very private benefactor. A Montclair resident who heads a private investment firm, he co-founded the group that became New Jersey Advocates for Education, or NJAE, in 2004. In 2017, his family foundation gave the group about $460,000, which appeared to be its main source of revenue, according to tax filings. A Star-Ledger column about the group’s work said Robinson “prefers to stay behind the scenes and pay for everything.”

The young men in NJAE’s Garden State Scholars program received tutoring in math and English twice a week while also learning about personal finance, health, and relationships from adult “life advisors,” according to a program description. They also have toured historically black colleges and universities, practiced boxing and yoga, and studied the science of sleep and stress management with volunteers from Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, a person involved with the program said.

“Being in GSS opened up a world of opportunities for me,” said Diyambah Tamana, a graduate of Newark’s American History High School, according to a recent article in a Rutgers publication.

The weekend coding and robotics classes were open to all students, not just young men. A related summer camp allowed students to develop those skills while also taking field trips to Google’s offices and NJIT. NJAE paid about 20 people — many of them Newark teachers — to staff those programs and Garden State Scholars.

Through his family foundation, Robinson has also paid for about 10 Newark 11th-graders over the past several years to attend The School for Ethics and Global Leadership, a highly selective semester-long program based in Washington, D.C. In addition to covering the students’ tuition and room and board, which is about $32,000, Robinson paid for their travel, meals, and even business attire. Williams was one of the recipients.

“I cannot say I would be the person I am today without having gone to Washington, D.C., and studied there for a semester,” she said.

Now, the Garden State Scholars, coding, robotics, and aviation programs are all on hold. (Robinson is still giving out scholarships for the D.C. school, though it’s unclear how long that will continue without a dedicated district point person, like Gaylord, to help coordinate.)

On a recent afternoon, three Science Park eighth-graders lamented the loss of the programs, which they said had sharpened their academic skills while also exposing them to new people and experiences.

“I found out I had a passion for chess and there were tutors. Having fun and extra help didn’t hurt,” said one of the young men. “I’m really gonna miss it.”

“Now it’s canceled,” his friend added. “All those opportunities are gone.”

Devna Bose contributed reporting.