People’s Prep is a charter school which first opened its doors on Bergen Street in Newark five years ago. The school serves students from roughly 25 middle schools throughout the city. Most of those students enter the 9th grade two or more years behind grade level in math and English Language Arts. The mission of the school is to prepare students to graduate from college as informed, involved and resilient citizens.
People’s Prep founder and school leader is South Orange resident Jessica Rooney. Originally from Vermont, Rooney graduated from Smith College and was a public school Spanish teacher at New Design High School on the Lower East Side for four years before she began considering work in Newark as a comparable focus to her previous experience.
“If someone had asked me, out of ignorance, I would have thought that Newark was like parts of the Bronx or parts of Brooklyn like East New York,” said Rooney. What she found instead was a unique and dynamic medium-sized city, still affected by the riots and white flight, but with networks of long family lines and the pride, community, and resilience that comes with that.
At the age of 28, Rooney began training with the selective New Leaders for New Schools program, a year-long urban school leader program that teaches participants every facet of creating and running a new small school, from how to write a charter, to how to recruit staff and create a board of directors. A year before she launched People’s Prep, Rooney worked at The Newark Charter School Fund, which helped provide her with with the training and expertise to found her own school.
Last year, the school has graduated its first class. In a city where only 12.7% of the population holds a college degree, 84% of the class of 2015 currently attends a 2-4 year undergraduate program. Every time a student is accepted into college, a fog horn sounds through the school — which takes place at a frequency 40% more often than the district average.
While People’s Prep is a product and microcosm of its home city, the school’s main tool for academic and emotional support is instilling universal values of goodwill. Rooney’s office has six banners on display: grit, empathy, achievement, curiosity, humility, enthusiasm. As the school leader, she is charged with inculcating these ideas beyond posters and into every real movement of the day.
Teachers are trained to recognize demonstrations of these values by spotting their accompanying “sub-actions.” For example, for “grit,” a sub-action includes “finding another way:” e.g., using a creative method to solve a math problem that stumps the class. If a student completes a sub-action, it is noted by the teacher and recorded the next day with potential demerits in the student’s daily Culture Report which also gives the past day’s GPA and how that day’s performance affected their overall GPA.
“Adults should not be the only ones who know about a kid’s life,” Rooney said. Students review Culture Reports over breakfast as a community, learning together how each day of the year breaks down into its own effort and inertia, transforming the big task of education reform into the daily goal of submitting homework and supporting one’s peers.
The school day also includes two English courses (one in literature and one in conventions) and a daily advisory meeting. After class, teachers hold office hours until 5 pm to help with the homework that is required in every subject every single night of the school year. When students are not seeking extra academic support they can get involved with clubs organized by NJPAC or a boat construction company that facilitates the building of a sail boat and its initial voyage. During summers, People’s Prep holds summer school and works with nonprofits and companies such as United Way, Teach for America, and The City of Newark to organize internship placements.
After planning school days, summer programs, and college matriculation, the next step is ensuring that students who graduate have the resources and support to make it through the next four years. This is a full time job for People’s Prep alumni coordinator and a critical resource the public school system overlooks. The faculty anxiously awaits that next point of departure and its inevitable success.
When People’s Prep was founded, teachers and staff would recruit students every day through every facet of neighborhood life: by knocking on doors, leafletting football games and parks, speaking with folks at barbershops, churches, and mosques to name a few. Although the school is no longer new, “we still do all of those activities to ensure that we’re fully enrolled each year and reaching 8th graders in every corner of the city,” said Rooney.
“We said we were going to send your kid to college and we did everything to make that happen,” said Rooney.
To support People’s Prep, consider donating time as a mentor, tutor, or community partner. For more information, visit their website. To learn more about supporting People’s Prep, contact Development Officer, Parinaz Cole, at [email protected] or make a donation online.
The public is invited to People’s Prep’s Student Art Show on Friday, March 18 from 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm at Gallery Aferro, 73 Market St, Newark, NJ. Select student art work will be auctioned beginning at 7:30pm; wine and hors d’oeuvres will be served.