EAST ORANGE, NJ — Designed to mitigate the social and emotional learning loss suffered by junior high and high school students due to the coronavirus pandemic, the city of East Orange began its summer enrichment program early — and has concluded its first cohort, an afterschool program for students of the East Orange School District which ran for eight weeks, four days per week.
Part of the East Orange “Stands Strong Against COVID” initiative of East Orange Mayor Ted Green, the learning enrichment program was endorsed by the East Orange City Council and spearheaded by LaDonna Johns, manager of the Mayor’s Office of Employment & Training. The program included 80 students, who learned the fundamentals of marketing and entrepreneurship through launching a T-shirt or personal care and makeup business, in addition to other coursework that focused on social and emotional learning, fitness as a business opportunity, and social justice and civic engagement, as well as college prep. The students received earning incentives equaling up to $12 per hour for their participation supported by the nonprofit organization Grades4Life.
“It is my responsibility as mayor of the city of East Orange to put critical resources where they are most needed during a time of crisis,” Green said. “The pandemic struck, but we struck back through a number of initiatives, including this virtual academic enrichment program to better ensure the health, well-being and future of our students.”
The after-school enrichment program is a continuation of the East Orange Summer Work Experience Program launched virtually in 2020, which brought workforce certifications, entrepreneurial skills, as well as social justice and college prep courses to more than 300 students throughout the summer.
In addition to the continuation of the Summer Work Experience Program for 2021, the East Orange School District this year will offer a number of other summer school enrichment programs, in-person and full day, for all students to help counteract the social, emotional and learning loss due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We thank Mayor Green for his foresight and his commitment to our students,” East Orange School District Superintendent AbdulSaleem Hasan said. “We’ve expanded and started our enrichment program early because there was no time to wait. The research to date clearly shows that time away from the classroom can readily translate into social, emotional and learning loss — and the longer the time away, the greater the loss. These programs, as well as others we have planned, are designed to help bridge the learning gap and bring opportunity, hope and marketable skills to our students.”
The Summer Work Experience Program, as well as the After-School Enrichment Program, was delivered to East Orange junior high and high school students virtually through the VIP Online Academy, headed by Jamila T. Davis, author, activist and entrepreneur. Davis, who recently submitted her doctorate dissertation on “Life Coaching: A Weapon to Dethrone the Trauma-to-Prison Pipeline,” said, “Programs like this are essential because they help students to build their self-confidence through accomplishment, tap into their potential and avoid the traps of negative influences.”
VIP Online Academy uses an earn-to-learn model in which students are paid for their participation upon successful completion of the program. Using credible messengers, celebrities and accomplished professionals, VIP Online Academy teaches social, emotional, vocational and entrepreneurial skills, as well as social justice and civic engagement.
The social justice and civic engagement course was led by Angelo Pinto, a founding member and senior strategist for Justice League NYC and Until Freedom, a national civil rights organization dedicated to addressing systemic and racial injustice, as well as other forms of socioeconomic disparities. Taking what they learned from the course, students from the course participated in a Town Hall meeting with Green, advocating for justice in the recent police shootings of George Floyd, Maurice Gordon and Breonna Taylor, as well as developing more opportunities to improve relationships between young people and law enforcement locally.
The college preparatory workshop was led by professor Juan Rios, director of the Master of Social Work Program at Seton Hall University.
“This program shows young men and women the power of the possible,” said Rios, who also leads the Community Care & Justice Program in South Orange. “The school-to-prison pipeline is the most destructive, wasteful and expensive route imaginable. It costs more than $50,000 per year to incarcerate someone in New Jersey. The CDC’s research shows that making these small investments in social and cultural capital for youth — before it’s too late — can pay major societal dividends over time.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s community guide, “students who received social-emotional skills training had high school completion rates that were, on average, 13.7 percentage points greater than those in comparison populations — 86 percent vs. 72.3 percent, respectively. … Students who received mentoring and counseling had high school completion rates that were, on average, 9.4 percentage points greater than those in comparison populations — 93.1 percent vs. 83.7 percent, respectively.”
In addition to subject-specific curricula and college prep, students in the enrichment program were taught coping skills, how to meditate and ways to “push past” difficult situations, including the challenging emotional issues brought on or exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Realizing the need for self-care and mental health training on a wider scale — especially as students adjust to the return to the classroom after a year-plus away — students in the program approached Hasan in a virtual program recap and asked for a continuation of the program, and for more formalized training in the field so they can become mental health peer coaches to help other students mitigate the learning loss wrought by COVID-19.
Saying that she “absolutely loved this class,” Kimberly Cross, a senior at East Orange Campus High School who has earned a full scholarship to Princeton University, talked about the value the program has had in her life over the last eight weeks. She noted that “learning self-care and self-love along with meditation, how to cope and how to deal with certain people” was having an impact on her daily life as she implements these “good tools,” along with daily affirmations in her life both in and outside of school. She also said she thought it would help her and others with grades, saying, “You can’t keep up your good grades if you have bad mental health.”
Cross and numerous other students within the cohort advocated for expansion of the program “so it can touch more people.”
Taken by the overwhelmingly positive response and affirmation of the students, Hasan approved the expansion of the program and invited a number of the students in attendance to become part of his Student Advisory Council for the Superintendent.
Training for the mental health peer coaching certificates will be led by Rios along with other social work professors from Seton Hall University and other universities this summer. In addition to developing an additional resource for at-risk students, the training is expected to help prepare students for future jobs in social work, counseling and program development. The Mental Health Peer Counseling Program is slated to be part of the 2021 Summer Work Experience Program.
“The mental health of our community — especially now in the midst of this pandemic — is of paramount importance,” Green said. “An investment in the well-being and successful transition of our children is an investment in the future of East Orange — and the first step in healing is to recognize when you need help and then seeking the appropriate resources to help you do so. The fact that our students proactively recommended adding mental health counseling to this program is a true testament to their growth, maturity and resilience throughout this ongoing crisis, as well as testament to the work and commitment of the East Orange School District.”
East Orange will hold a virtual Town Hall meeting on the topic of mental health and resources currently available to its residents on Wednesday, May 19, at 6 p.m. It can be viewed on Facebook or YouTube on the city’s official pages @EastOrangeCityHall.
Applications are now being accepted for the 2021 East Orange Summer Work Experience Program at www.eastorangeswep.org until May 17. East Orange would like to expand the program to meet the needs of more students but is constrained financially. If a business, individual or corporation would like to make a donation to expand the program or to help sponsor a student, contact LaDonna Johns at 973-677-8914 or LaDonna.Johns@eastorange-nj.gov.
Photos Courtesy of Seton Hall University