Problem: In Newark, pandemic-induced school closures have significantly disrupted student academic progress, with only 9% of Newark students meeting state expectations in math and 11% of students meeting expectations in reading. Parents are demanding intensive learning support for their children but the district is largely indifferent.
Solution: In a city often riven by fractious posturing for power, three groups break the mold and coalesce around the establishment of a faith-based initiative called “Newark Unites Tutoring Center,” anchored by best practices to accelerate learning for 9th and 10th grade students throughout the city.
This collective response to an academic crisis came about through a home-grown collaboration among Reverend Dr. David Jefferson of Metropolitan Baptist Church, Jared Taillefer, Executive Director of Great Oaks Legacy Charter School, and Kyle Rosenkrans, Executive Director of the New Jersey Children’s Foundation (NJCF). They explained to me that the Newark Unites initiative was prompted, in part, by a town hall in June called “Where Do We Go from Here: COVID’s Impact on Education in Newark and the Lessons that Can Be Learned.” There, parent after parent expressed frustration and anger at their children’s learning loss after months of interrupted schooling and inadequate remote instruction.
Pastor Jefferson said, “these families were looking for solutions. I am in the business of hope– after all, I preside over the largest group of Newark parishioners in the city. So, given the urgency of the moment and this overwhelming consensus of parents that their children need immediate help, I knew we had to come up with a plan, especially since my congregants don’t have the resources to pay for it themselves.”
The plan evolved over the next two months, culminating in this threefold partnership. Pastor Jefferson, Taillefer, and Rosenkrans were also influenced by a Project Ready poll that asked Newark voters, in part, how Newark should spend over $200 million in federal stimulus dollars to supplement education. An astounding 92% said the money should go to one-on-one tutoring, 35 points higher than the New Jersey average.
“What if I told you there is a non-profit that is a specialist in learning loss and driven by results?” asked Rosenkrans, whose foundation is funding the initiative. “What if I said we had the city’s largest church with the greatest impact? What if we brought them together to create a program that uses one of the greatest interventions to stem learning loss and expand it to other students across the city and get them back on track?”
This effort is anchored by Great Oaks, well known for its distinctive tutoring model. This public charter, which came to Newark a decade ago, serves 1,600 K-12th graders and has gained national and state recognition during the pandemic for providing one of the most effective, research-based interventions to address learning loss. At Great Oaks, “tutor fellows” support teachers, students, and parents all year long, which leads to both college matriculation rates of 80-90%–far higher than the state average– and a more diverse teaching staff.
And, in a dash of serendipity, Great Oaks is in the midst of a long-planned expansion; now, part of that expansion will be the new community Tutoring Center, which will provide individualized support to 9th and 10th graders throughout the city in reading and algebra.
“Tutoring works,” explained Taillefer. “There is a real hunger for it right now in Newark and it is our moral responsibility to respond to this call to action with substance. There is not one single solution to addressing the historic and unprecedented learning loss we have seen in Newark over the last year and half, but we must do something and the Center can be a start.”
Added Pastor Jefferson, “parents have lost so much confidence, so much trust in the district. They feel their voices have not been heard. Recent reports have even suggested that district leaders have attempted to hide valuable data from parents – this is unacceptable. So let’s get the best of what we have. There’s something about a faith-based institution that leads to trust, that leads to hope. We’re laying the groundwork for a bigger expansion, a different vision of education in Newark that can break through barriers.”
“This is not about politics,” he continued. “This is about children and families, about getting past polarization and distractions. We always say children are our future. I say children are our present. There’s no time to waste. We have to act now because we have a big problem. Our solution is the creation of Newark Unites Tutoring Center.”
The Newark Unites Tutoring Center will be located at Metropolitan Baptist Church at 149 Springfield Ave, Newark, NJ. The Church itself has a long history of community-based education initiatives, including their mentorship program with the Eagle Academy School for Boys, partnering with the Leaguers to host its own preschool program, and hosting summer “Freedom Schools” to support learning in Newark. Metropolitan will also provide snacks, school materials, and security during the tutoring sessions.
The free tutoring program will be available to 9th and 10th graders from any Newark public school and will take place starting in September. Those enrolled will be expected to attend each Saturday with their designated tutor. Families interested in the service can sign up here or by going on the Great Oaks website. The program will accept students on a first-come, first-serve basis.