Growing by LEEPs and bounds: Law, education nonprofit helping underserved students — with help from Newark business giants

By Meg Fry
Newark | Feb 13, 2019 at 7:00 am
From our print edition

Current research suggests just 25 percent of public school students in Newark will earn a college degree, Claire Dragon said. 

But the New Jersey Law and Education Empowerment Project, or NJ LEEP, an intense college access and success program for low-income and first-generation high school and college students in the greater Newark area, has been working to change that for more than a decade.

“Every student who has graduated from our program has gone to college, with 85 percent still in school,” Dragon, managing director for external engagement at NJ LEEP, said. 

Executive Director Matthew Feinstein said the Newark-based nonprofit works with more than 50 corporate partners to help provide these students with the academic, social and emotional skills necessary to succeed both in school and in their future careers at no cost.  

“Since opening our doors 12 years ago, NJ LEEP has been incredibly fortunate to have the support and partnership of dozens of corporate partners,” he said. “Because of their support, we are able to offer our students career exposure through field trips and a week-on-the-job program, mentorship through a Constitutional Law and Debate program, and professional contacts through networking events.”

The program has attracted many of the heavyweights of the New Jersey business community, including Prudential Financial, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, Gibbons P.C., McCarter & English, Verizon, Honeywell, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley. 

“Thanks to our partners, our students and families are more connected to each other and to their community, which makes us all more successful,” Feinstein said. 

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NJ LEEP was originally founded in 2006 as a diversity pipeline program, in partnership with Seton Hall Law School in Newark, with four classes since graduating from college. 

Today, the program serves nearly 140 high school and an additional 140 college students annually. 

“Our program was founded for those with a particular interest in law, but, today, we use law as a way to teach transferrable skills such as public speaking, writing, critical thinking and analysis,” Dragon said. “The goal is not simply to build another class of lawyers, even though many of our students are interested in law, but more so to build skills and expose our students to different career tracks and opportunities.” 

With 14 staff members, NJ LEEP works to recruit applicants from dozens of Newark-area middle schools. This past year, it presented to more than 1,500 students about the program as well as provided information on how to pre-apply and attend group information sessions. 

Out of the more than 100 students who applied and interviewed, 67 eighth-grade graduates were accepted into the initial five-week-long Summer Law Institute, taught by law students and overseen by NJ LEEP.

For five days per week, students learn about criminal law, the trial process and the legal profession from law students, practicing attorneys and law professors, as well as take part in skills workshops and field trips prior to their participation in a three-day mock trial competition. 

“We create a lot of summer programming with our corporate partners, such as inviting guest speakers to come and speak with the students each morning about their career paths,” Dragon said. “We also went on five field trips last summer, including to visit New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Anne Patterson and with Gov. (Phil) Murphy’s team, as well as the legal offices at some of our corporate partners.” 

At the conclusion of the summer program, 50 students chose to move forward with NJ LEEP’s four-year College Bound Program. 

“We look for students who are highly motivated, honest with themselves and can accept challenges,” Dragon said. 

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NJ LEEP’s College Bound Program is a big time commitment for teenagers, with students attending after-school classes at least twice per week, as well as at least two Saturday writing and reading courses per month, throughout their four years of high school.  

As freshmen, they attend a once-per-week Life Skills Class intended to help them both transition into and excel in high school, despite rigorous demands.  

“They learn about study skills and time management, colleges and careers, health and sexuality, conflict resolution, and professional development skills,” Dragon said. 

Students then spend four weeks of the following summer in the Week-On-the-Job Program, where nearly 30 corporations and government organizations partner with NJ LEEP to host between four and six students each for four days at a time. 

Sophomore students then begin the Constitutional Law and Debate Program offered by NJ LEEP, in which students learn about the three branches of government and the Constitution, as well as participate in three debates annually in partnership with attorney mentors. 

Though mentorship and debate, as well as weekend reading and writing classes, will continue throughout junior and senior year, the focus shifts toward college preparation for upperclassmen, Dragon said, beginning with a five-week ACT test prep course in the summer. 

“From the first diagnostic test to the last, our students typically see an average increase of three points,” she said. “We then work with our juniors to help them research and create a college list based on what their ACT scores and grades are.” 

The summer before senior year is spent on at least 15 college applications per student and career exposure, Dragon said.

A stable home environment, parents who attended college, freedom from want or fear — these are things that can be taken for granted, but should not be. I have had the privilege of meeting NJ LEEP students who have incredible talent and drive. All they need is for someone to give them the tools and the opportunity, and NJ LEEP is doing that. — Craig Silliman, general counsel, Verizon

“Students write many versions of their personal statement and college essays, as well as apply for scholarships,” she said. “They also attend Columbia University’s College   Fair and visit various organizations for career mentoring.  

NJ LEEP also provides financial aid application and transition workshops for both students and their families.  

“Especially being a minority or first-generation college student at schools that may look vastly different than those they attended in their communities, we want to help our students best acclimate to college, in both their social lives and academically,” Dragon said. “We at least make sure to inform and encourage our students to access the resources that will be available to them, including counseling, academic advising, and college career centers.” 

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Last year, NJ LEEP created a specific program for college students. Dragon said the need is there. 

“Our students are smart and driven, but, sometimes, they find themselves outpaced when they go to college, as many students do,” she said. “We now work with our students to help them stay on track, choose their majors and choose whether or not to pursue graduate school, because we want to make sure our students are graduating within four years, with as little debt as possible, and with both career exposure and corporate internships under their belts.

“Our mission is to have our kids graduate from college career-ready so that they can make a difference in their lives, their family’s lives, and in their communities.” 

Craig Silliman, general counsel for Verizon, said the program helps fill gaps. He said it can be easy to forget how many people open doors for us on our paths to success.  

“A stable home environment, parents who attended college, freedom from want or fear — these are things that can be taken for granted, but should not be,” Stillman said. “I have had the privilege of meeting NJ LEEP students who have incredible talent and drive. 

“All they need is for someone to give them the tools and the opportunity, and NJ LEEP is doing that.” 

Now, NJ LEEP plans to start even earlier, launching a new program for middle school students this summer, Dragon said. 

“As we look to the next phase of NJ LEEP’s growth, going from 120 students served in 2016 to 250 in 2019 and 450 in 2022, we are thrilled to continue to work with our corporate partners to ensure we provide our students and their families with access to the opportunities they deserve,” Feinstein said. 

How top companies help create college path for underserved students in Newark area 

The New Jersey Law and Education Empowerment Project is an intensive four-year college access and success program for low-income and first-generation high school and college students in the greater Newark area.

Since it was founded in 2006, NJ LEEP has helped hundreds of underserved children find a path to college. 

Claire Dragon, managing director for external engagement, said the nonprofit works with more than 50 corporate partners to help provide these students with the academic, social and emotional skills necessary to succeed both in school and in their future careers at no cost.  

Dragon said more than 100 attorneys from major corporations and law firms meet with students one-on-one year-round to help mentor them in both their academics and future careers.

“It’s a combination of job shadowing, with some legal departments hosting mock trial competitions and many companies assigning mentors to students who then take them on client visits,” Dragon said. “For example, last year, Prudential took students to the courthouse to observe a public case.”

The connection goes further than one day, however.

Prudential pairs NJ LEEP students with attorney mentors who remain with the same student from sophomore to senior year, to assist them with the preparation of arguments, written legal briefs and law-related activities, the company said.

Robert Johnson, chief diversity officer at Gibbons P.C. in Newark, said the firm has been part of the program for more than a decade.

“Our first students joined us in 2008, and, to date, we have hosted 54 students,” he said. “Each year, approximately 25 Gibbons attorneys and staff participate in the NJ LEEP program.”

Matthew Wapner, a Newark-based litigation partner at McCarter & English and 12-year mentor with NJ LEEP, said the mentorship often extends beyond homework. 

“We also meet for lunch, which lends to the guidance we give them on school and life issues, and in many cases, where warranted, we write letters of recommendations for them to send to colleges,” Wapner said. “But the lifelong bond survives long after their sophomore year. 

“For example, one of the kids I worked with is now in graduate school, and I recently took him to a pro football game.” 

The program is also extending beyond the legal profession.

This past summer a specifically non-legal-focused week was added with organizations such as Honeywell in Morris Plains, including students meeting with Honeywell’s aerospace and software engineers and visiting flight operations at the Morristown Airport.

Making sure the program teaches soft skills and life skills is important, Dragon said. 

In January, Prudential Financial hosted its second annual career networking event in January, inviting more than a dozen organizations, including Deloitte, Marketsmith Inc., Panasonic and Verizon, to conduct resume reviews and mock interviews while participating in the job and internship fair and networking opportunities. 

“This past summer, volunteers at Bank of America completed mock job interviews and resume reviews with our students, while Morgan Stanley hosted an interactive financial workshop to help our students learn how to budget while in school and after they graduate,” Dragon said. 

For many of the students, both the on-the-job and mentoring experiences provide their first exposures to corporate settings, Zenola Harper, vice president of litigation, labor and employment at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey in Newark, said. 

“It has been exciting and rewarding to see so many of them discover a career or area of interest after hearing a senior leader share their personal journey or passion,” Harper said. “The employees who volunteer to support the students return year after year because they are passionate about helping these smart, motivated and talented students see and realize their potential.” 

Conversation Starter

Reach Claire Dragon, of NJ LEEP, at: cdragon@njleep.org or 973-297-1555, ext. 208.

Meg Fry | mfry@roi-nj.com | megfry3