Through IGNITE, Students of Greater Newark Get a Fresh Set of Experiences

03/18/2015 09:20 am ET | Updated May 16, 2015

The other day on my drive home I was listening KPFK to the story about education. The journalist, who is a producer on the show did a piece on the success rate post high school of a few students given scholarships to go to college, and what happened next in their journey. The results were surprising. This fascinating important and short case study reminded me of my cousin who is an educator in Newark, and the conversation we had recently on the challenges he and his colleagues face daily. Most recently they have founded and formed an organization that I feel is a revolutionary way to help these students toward a more successful future. The following is a brief but important discussion about what they are doing to help their students, and an easy way that anyone can get involved and contribute to the future of these youth.

(Student on a hiking excursion at the Delaware Water Gap last fall)

"This was extremely fun and totally different than anything I've ever done." - 10th grade Passaic High School student after a hiking excursion to the Delaware Water Gap

Many students across the country are able to explore the various academic, cultural, and social institutions of their region. Through these experiences, they develop cultural capital that prepares them for success in adulthood. But in the greater Newark area, tourists and outsiders often have more exposure and access to the region's rich cultural institutions than do the very students who live here. A few teachers in Newark, Passaic and Elizabeth have witnessed this disparity firsthand. We, a group of passionate public school educators, came together in 2012 and started IGNITE Greater Newark, a 501(c)3 organization, as an attempt to bridge this opportunity gap.

At our inception we asked ourselves: How can we facilitate important experiences that students have never done before? IGNITE has come up with a system that partners with teachers in Greater Newark to identify students at the "tipping point"--those who would benefit most from a new cultural experience. The tipping point looks different for different students: sometimes students need reinvestment in their education; other times the motivation and drive are present but the knowledge and skills needed to navigate college and the world outside of their neighborhood are missing.

Teachers from schools across Greater Newark nominate students for experiences with a survey online. Afterwards, IGNITE matches students with excursions that fit their interests and seem most likely to benefit their academic trajectory. We then plan and execute these excursions. Students participate free of charge.

Our organization seeks to provide intimate experiences for students of Greater Newark that will impact their academic motivation and trajectory. In doing so, we plan, organize and execute excursions with three to ten students and at least two volunteer excursion leaders to different educational and cultural spaces in the tri-state area. In the past year alone, we have taken students on excursions that include: touring Bryn Mawr College, hiking at the Delaware Water Gap, touring Rutgers University New Brunswick, exploring downtown Manhattan and New York University, traversing Central Park, walking the Chelsea neighborhood and the High Line, viewing and discussing the movie Selma, and touring the Metropolitan Museum of Art and American Museum of Natural History. This week, we are planning excursions to peruse art galleries in Chelsea, a hiking trip in western New Jersey, and a volunteering trip to a food pantry followed by a walking tour of midtown Manhattan.

(Excursion leaders Colin Hennessy Elliott, Aditya Patel and Amirpasha Zandieh taking a break in Union Square park with students during a lower Manhattan excursion last spring)

"My favorite part of the trip was meeting new people and learning new things." - 11th grade Central High School (Newark) student after an excursion exploring Lower Manhattan

We have seen the impact these trips can have on students and would like to grow our efforts.
One of our students, a 12th grader at Technology High School in Newark put it well: "this program can help a lot of students expand their thinking and experiences." In our growth, we hope to find ways to facilitate continued connection with other students and positive adult role models, as well as increase the frequency of our excursions. Currently, through IGNITE Greater Newark, students receive important cultural capital, as well as interactions with positive, influential role models and peers from different communities, as an investment in their future. We hope to continue this mission.

(Eight students with excursion leaders Andrew Gonzalez, Sam Bendinelli, and Jackelyn Rivera at the observatory on the Rutgers University New Brunswick Campus in February)

"We all got a firsthand experience of the college life and its requirements." - 11th grade Technology High School (Newark) student after an excursion to Rutgers University New Brunswick Campus

If you would like to learn more about IGNITE Greater Newark, or would like to get involved: feel free to reach out by contacting Colin at 973-798-8214, or emailing us at:

Cheers from the Brick City,
Colin Hennessy Elliott,
Amirpasha Zandieh,
Sam Bendinelli,
And the rest of the IGNITE team
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