Newark Looks To Stem Tide Of High School Dropouts

Nearly 83 percent of students graduate high school in New Jersey, but it’s a much different situation here in the state’s largest city where just 62 percent graduated last year. The reasons kids drop out vary — among them are boredom, pregnancy, and economic hardships. But there is a way to get them back on track, says Duncan Harrison, the Coordinator of the Youth Education and Employment Success Center, also known as the YES Center.

“Our goal is to engage dropouts and out-of-school youth and place them back into school where they can obtain their high school diploma .. so that’s number one goal here as well as providing wrap around services.” Duncan Harrison, YES Center coordinator

Services like tutoring, mentoring, and counseling are offered here by a variety of different groups and partners including Rutgers Newark, the Salvation Army, and the City of Newark. Rahkim Bryant, a GED student, says the personalized attention he is getting here is helping him meet his goal to get a GED and go to college to study film.

“I used to hate math when i first walked in here but the teachers …. helped me love math. They make education fun,” said Bryant.

Before Bryant became involved in the YES Center’s program for dropouts, he says he lacked focus and motivation. But Bryant found inspiration from counselor Erick Graham, because this former dropout-turned-graduate has walked in his shoes.

Said youth counselor Erick Graham, “a lot of them sit and talk to me, tell me about situations at home, why they’re on the streets.”

Keeping kids off the streets takes early intervention, says Erica Key. She runs a truancy program at the YES Center.

“From my experience with the teenagers, it’s not too late. Most of the kids that we have here are hungry for an opportunity, so you strike when they’re open to it.”

The YES Center has helped more than 6,000 young people since 2008. It’s unclear how many of them have actually graduated high school. But the staff here says there are plenty of success stories. Eric Graham cites his own story saying that if he can change, anybody can.

But traditional public high school isn’t for everyone, says Harrison. That’s why the City of Newark offers alternatives such as the Newark Leadership Academy where a student can learn a trade such as carpentry.

No matter what path these young people choose, the staff here wants them to make wise choices because what they do or don’t do could impact them the rest of their lives. For example, the median income for high school dropouts is roughly $23,000 compared to $42,000 for graduates, including GED diploma holders. This translates into a loss of approximately $630,000 in income for a person who did not complete high school. Erick Graham admits money motivated him to go back to school saying “it was like, a good feeling bringing home my own money.”

Staff members realize they can’t help everybody but are motivated by the young people they do affect by helping them reach their full potential.

“You win some, you lose some,” said Key. “But the fact is you win more than what you’re losing. So that’s what we’re here for, that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Desiree Taylor files this report from Newark.