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Courtesy of Newark Academy

Close to Home

Newark Academy flips the script on boarding school brain drain.

By Mark Stewart

Courtesy of Newark Academy

More than a half-century has passed since Newark Academy left Newark for suburban Essex County. Much has changed in the world during those five-plus decades, but the depth, breadth and quality of the educational experience the school offers has not. Nor has the connection between Newark the city and Newark the Academy. The school has made a determined effort to maintain its historically diverse student body, reaching into the city to attract the best and brightest kids to its Livingston campus.

“Education in Newark is a big part of who we are,” says Lisa Grider, the school’s Director of Institutional Advancement.

Yet some things do change, often in subtle ways. Over time, for instance, Newark Academy found that the city’s top students were increasingly interested in boarding schools. They were leaving town in ninth grade, and then heading off to college after graduation. Having spent eight of their most formative years outside New Jersey, most were not coming back. There are many “up” indicators for Newark’s future, but this is not one of them.

“Where will the next Shavar Jeffries, Ras Baraka or Cory Booker—the next generation of leadership—be coming from?” asks Grider. “They’re not the kids leaving in eighth grade. The smartest kids won’t come back. So the question we asked ourselves was, ‘What can we do to help with education solutions in the city?’”

After some basic research, Newark Academy identified the problem. It’s baked into the way scholarships work at day schools versus boarding schools. Both are backed by robust financial aid packages, but day schools don’t offer scholarships that cover “everything”—and for financially stressed families that’s a potential deal-breaker. Even with free tuition, books and transportation, there are still lots of little costs involved in being a fully engaged student at a suburban day school, and they add up quickly. At boarding schools, just about everything is covered.

To help stem the tide of talent flowing out of the city, Newark Academy established the Newark Scholars program in 2012. This spring, its first three students graduate.

Courtesy of Newark Academy

The Newark Scholars program covers 100 percent of the cost of being a Newark Academy student. And, yes, that’s different than attending Newark Academy. Think of it as “full ride plus”—tuition, books and transportation plus summer enrichment, test prep, athletic equipment, musical instruments, high-speed Internet access in the home and all costs associated with the immersion experiences it requires of its students. The program was created to mirror event the most generous and comprehensive boarding school financial aid packages. There are six Newark Scholars in the student body at any given time—with three graduating this spring, three more will begin their journey this fall. They can enter the school at any point between the 6th and 9th grades. They are young people who either live, or attend school, in Newark and who are at the top of Newark Academy’s admissions pool.

One of the 2016 graduates is Jocelyn Willoughby (left). She had attended a charter school in Newark through eighth grade. A talented student and promising athlete, she was on the radar of several boarding schools, but was determined to stay local for high school. She travels an hour by bus (provided by Newark Academy) to Livingston each morning. The experience, she says, has been well worth the commute.

“All my friends here have different interests, which has made me interested in different things,” Willoughby explains. “The teachers are really involved. I have a great relationship with the staff. To have that environment and chemistry—to see what I have to offer the school, and what the school has to offer me—has been really great.”

Willoughby is headed for the University of Virginia, where she plans to double-major in Business and Anthropology, with a minor in African American Studies. From Charlottesville, she hopes to make a stop in the WNBA before pursuing “a more traditional career.” During her time at Newark Academy, Willoughby sprouted to 6 feet and is now ranked among the Top 10 prep players in the nation at her position. Stanford and Northwestern were among her suitors this fall, but she signed a letter of intent with UVA before Thanksgiving break, ending the recruiting madness in time to enjoy the holidays.

Plotting a future course at age 18 is tricky business, which Willoughby acknowledges. However, she is certain that when she looks back at her years at Newark Academy, the experiences that will be most meaningful to her are the ones she had in the immersion program. Willoughby traveled to Guatemala after her sophomore year to help build homes in remote villages, and helped build and repair houses around New Orleans last summer. She developed a keen interest in exploring new places and cultures, and a deep commitment to community service.

According to Communications Director Debbie Marr, the genesis of the Newark Scholars program was Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million commitment to the city’s public schools in 2010. Things moved quickly after that. The first order of business was to develop a plan for endowing the program, which costs roughly $200,000 a year. The board’s target number was $5 million. A wealthy alum who had attended the school before it moved to Livingston in 1964 loved the idea so much he jump-started the fundraising with a $1 million gift. Heading into 2016, the program was 85 percent of the way to its goal—well ahead of schedule.

“We envisioned support from our older alumni because it gets the people who attended Newark Academy in Newark excited about honoring our history,” says Grider. “The big surprise has been the number of current families that have made gifts specifically to the Newark Scholars program.”

There is indeed a kind of transcendent quality to the Newark Scholars. At many private schools, for instance, the children receiving financial aid are not publicized. At Newark Academy, it’s an honor to be chosen. The Newark Scholars are proud of it and their classmates recognize them in a positive way. They are a point of pride for the entire school community.

Courtesy of Newark Academy

Last year, a current family that generously supports the Democratic Party was invited to a cocktail reception in New York City for President Obama. The invitation encouraged them to bring their high school-age children. Instead of bringing their own kids, the couple brought the five high school-age Newark Scholars (above), including Jocelyn Willoughby, to meet the president.

“These young people are potentially the next generation of leaders in Newark and Essex County,” says Marr. “It was a big moment for them, and a big moment for the school.”

The Obama reception was small and intimate, so each of the Newark Scholars got to spend quality time with the president and have real conversations. It is fun to think about where those conversations might one day lead. Back to Brick City, perhaps?