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Newark students dive into the metaverse in six-week summer jobs program

Dante Hernandez, a ninth-grader at tech high school, never imagined that an Oculus headset would be his way of getting to work.

This summer, it is – and his office is in the virtual world.

While some teenagers find retail or restaurant jobs, Hernandez and 50 other Newark students are spending their school vacations in an immersive reality called the Metaverse, a virtual version of everything you can do in real life. For six weeks, students learn the skills to code, develop virtual software, and find ways to put their newfound knowledge to the test.

“We enter a virtual building and everything is there for us. We’re just starting to learn,” Hernandez said. “Things like that opened our eyes more to see, for example, what the metaverse has in store for us in the future.”

This summer, approximately 3,000 Newark students ages 14 to 24 are working in career and technical education-related jobs through the Newark Youth Summer Jobs Program. The city places and pays students each year in a variety of summer jobs and internships where they gain hands-on experience that provides them with the skills needed to achieve their future career goals.

Pressure to provide more vocational and technical education has intensified over the years, especially as the pandemic has forced schools to seek new ways to engage students who have become disconnected from learning. State and local leaders also noted the importance of having more of these programs for high school students seeking opportunities after graduation.

Students sit behind desks in a classroom while wearing white Oculus headsets and learn to code in a virtual reality world.

Newark students put their skills to the test by entering the metaverse and developing code for their own work projects.

Courtesy of Newark Press Office

According to the New Jersey Department of Education, approximately 77,000 high school students in the state participate in vocational and technical education pathways. Experts say students in these pathways have a 10% higher high school graduation rate than those who don’t.

National and local authorities are also pushing for more opportunities for students.

Last week, Governor Phil Murphy awarded school districts and county colleges a second round of grants under the Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act. The grants will fund enhancements and enhancements to vocational and technical education programs at county technical and vocational school districts and county colleges throughout New Jersey.

This year, Newark’s summer program launched its VR trail with 51 students who had little to no VR experience.

Cody Piggot leads the virtual reality program and creates projects and lessons for students. He gets help from another Newark Public Schools alumnus, Davina George, who helps the students on a daily basis.

Ayomide Adekoya will be a senior at Science Park High School this year and says the program gives him a head start in technology.

“I feel like this program kind of gave us an edge,” Adekoya said. “We were able to meet someone in space and seeing someone succeed in the field also gives us a form of motivation.”

The program partners with nearly 100 universities and business communities, nonprofits, and city government departments to place students in jobs throughout Newark. Marsha Armstrong, director of the city’s youth program, puts job seekers through a rigorous interview process before being screened and matched with an employer.

The program is intended to give students “real-world experience” and prepare them for future jobs, Armstrong said. Interested participants should complete an online application and submit their resume before reaching the interview stage.

After that, Armstrong and other program officials interview the students, and selected candidates are placed in positions at local hospitals and nonprofit organizations. The city also launched its first building and construction track under the Summer Jobs program.

“We have people who really come to the table to try to figure out how they can help young people,” Armstrong added.

The program also provides hands-on training for students, including financial literacy classes every Friday and support for participants’ families. Sometimes students’ home life can interfere with their work, but Armstrong says the goal is to encourage them to get ahead.

“Even though sometimes it’s not just a paycheck, it’s tears and a hug,” Armstrong added. “It just helps them know that people in their community have their backs and no matter what, we’re not going to let them down.”

In addition to hands-on experience, students have the chance to learn something new over the summer and stay busy. Shamere Holifield, a future senior at Weequahic High School, said he would spend his summer playing basketball if it weren’t for the program. Others, like Ridwanulahi Banjokl, said they are taking the opportunity to invest in their future.

Learning to code can be difficult, Banjoki said, “but you have people to help you learn it for free.”

Although money is a factor for some families, Lisbeth Soto, who will be a senior at the Donald Payne School of Technology this fall, said the summer program allowed her to introduce her family to a field in which she never imagined being able to work.

“My mother was skeptical at first. She said what will it do for you? Soto said. “But so far she really likes the idea because I tell her every day about the things we do here and how my day is going.”

At last year’s budget meeting, Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León said this year’s budget would include facility upgrades to improve vocational and technical education at the district’s six comprehensive high schools, including East Side, Barringer, Central, Shabazz, Weequahic and West Side. León did not specify what those facility upgrades would be.

The city’s summer youth employment program runs through August, and program officials hope students in its inaugural virtual reality class will transfer their skills to the real world.

“Our goal is to produce talent in our cohort of 50 who will become developers for big companies in the technology space,” Piggott said. “Virtual reality is the future.”

Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org


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