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After my dad died, my mentors were key to my academic success – and growing up

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Growing up and becoming a man is a challenge for any teenage boy, and no one can do it alone. I was born at Beth Israel and have lived in Newark my whole life. Any child in our city is aware of the unique challenges we face — whether it be the lack of equity in our school system or the toxic and violent environments we must overcome. I have seen firsthand that the paths fellow students and friends take to address the challenges of growing up can affect them for years to come.

Middle school and high school are not just times for academics, but they are moments when, for the first time, students are making their own decisions and prioritizing choices. Having a mentor to help students is not only a great asset, but in Newark we must make it a stronger priority.

As a Newark student I first attended Peshine Avenue School and found it very hard to focus on anything other than watching your back. I could not walk the halls without fights breaking out. I saw it all — student against student, student against security guard, and even student against teachers. I witnessed fist fights, people getting hurt, ambulances taking people to the hospital, weapons being used. It was a violent school, and there was no sense of discipline.

I was also bullied. Luckily, when my dad realized there was an issue, he was there to help me. He connected directly with a bully’s grandmother, we worked the issue out verbally, and I was no longer bothered.

Unfortunately, too soon after that experience my father died. I did not know what to do. I had lost my first mentor.

During the process of grief and reflection, my family chose to change public schools and I started attending People’s Prep, an independent charter high school in Newark.

A big change I noticed was that before the People’s Prep’s school year even started, there was a summer orientation where clear expectations and rules were established for all students. To ensure safety and strong academics, the school had developed a long-term mentoring program for every student, called council. Each council consists of about 15 students and led by a teacher called a council coach.

I did not know it at the time, but the council group I became a part of would become my new mentors. And while no one could ever replace my dad, I certainly would not have finished high school successfully, made the right choices, learned from my wrong decisions, and ultimately attended Fairleigh Dickinson without their guidance.

My People’s Prep council coach and the other students that made up my council group became very close during my four years of high school. The emphasis on mentorship ensured that, even during tough times, I was never alone and always had someone to talk to.

At one point, my girlfriend and I were going through some tough times. Like many teenage boys, I had very little few options for advice, especially without my father. In any other environment, I would have been alone, but my council coach listened to me, guided me, and helped me get through that issue.

My council coach also served as a mentor when it came to college. Beginning my freshman year, we visited colleges many times during the school year, touring the campuses, sitting in on classes, learning about campus life, and ultimately seeing college as a realistic opportunity.

I often think about the many in Newark who have never been provided this kind of support mechanism.

During my four years in high school, I learned that the idea of mentorship is far more important than receiving help during one difficult moment. It needs to be consistent, and that kind of connection can provide a pathway to reaching your dream.

Mentorship was the key to my academic success and helping me address the challenges that I faced growing up. And as I now look beyond my Newark education and toward my future, it is my goal to give back to what has been uniquely provided to me. I hope to have a career focused on mentoring so more Newark students can be provided with what I received at People’s Prep. Students should never be forced to face the struggles of growing up alone.

Too often, between the big policy debates and political fights, we lose a sense of what is important, even when some of the answers are so simple.

Our schools need to be doing more in the area of mentorship. The council coaches at People’s Prep helped to positively affect my life and ultimately allow me to live my dream. But we must remember that there are many students who are without this kind of needed support system every day. These students have dreams just like mine, and we need more mentors to help their dreams come true.

Kashawn Griffin of Newark is a sophomore at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He has lived his whole life in Newark, New Jersey and is a graduate of People’s Prep, the only independent public charter high school in the city.