NJ LEEP Helps Students Prepare for College

By Michael Hill

Nakyah Lucas of Newark’s University High School has a full-ride scholarship to attend the College of Holy Cross.

“I’m really excited,” she said.

A dozens schools accepted Nakyah and she attributes that to NJ LEEP.

“I think they helped me find myself and my place in the world. I think they also broadened my horizon,” she said.

Nakyah and all the other high school seniors in NJ LEEP, the after-school, college prep program, are college bound for the sixth straight year — 93 percent this time going to four-year schools, including the University of Chicago, Georgetown, Smith, Rutgers and more.

“For us it’s really about ensuring that our kids get into the best possible college that they can, but, just as important that they’re successful once they get there,” said NJ LEEP Executive Director Matthew Feinstein.

“Again, we’re trying to connect ourselves through opportunity post attending that school,” said teacher Onaje Crawford.

NJ LEEP stands for New Jersey Law and Education Empowerment Project. It recruits eighth-graders in and around Newark, puts them through a rigorous five-week Seton Hall University Law School program because it says the study of law is daunting.

“Through the law we can teach essential skills, from critical reading, to analytical thinking to public speaking skills,” Feinstein said.

Nakyah — who wants to practice law — shook off her shyness and fear of public speaking to become debate champion twice.

“When you’re in court they’re going to look at you and listen and I had to grow out of that shell so that I could do more things in college,” she said.

“And we want to make sure that our kids have had that experience of working through challenging material before ever having stepped on to a college campus,” Feinstein said.

After school and on Saturdays, NJ LEEP teaches the seniors college readiness and social and emotional skills and habits, how to handle big work loads, how to avoid credit card debt, how to build a community of help and it shows their families how to support them from now to the working world.

The big goal. The big hope.

“Really to change the trajectory of their lives,” said College Bound Program Director Elizabeth Abitanto.

Abitanto draws on her personal experience to manage and direct NJ LEEP’s college bound program.

“Every time they get into a college I feel like I’ve gotten myself into college and so it’s sort of redoing that process all over again and the opportunities that I wasn’t afforded, the ways I wasn’t challenged, I’m able to impact them in that way,” she said.

NJ LEEP says it gets most of its funding from private donations. It’s a 9-year-old nonprofit that touts its record of preparing seniors for the rigors of the real world.

“It’s not just about taking the students who have the best grades and are taking the hardest classes. We’re looking for students who are willing to work for it,” Feinstein said.

“It’s not just a work relationship. It’s a work, personal, everything. It’s like a second family to me,” Nakyah said.

A second family nurturing a young scholar to success.