View all Articles
Commentary By Howard Husock

The Kids Are All Right — In Jersey City

Culture Philanthropy

America’s “independent sector”—its civil society—is the best-funded and most robust in the world. It consistently develops new and effective approaches to some of the nation’s most serious social problems. Since 2001, the Manhattan Institute has sought to identify and recognize some of the most promising social entrepreneurs and the new non-profits they’ve founded, based on their own original ideas. The more than 50 winners of the Richard Cornuelle award, named for the writer who coined the term independent sector, have addressed challenges as diverse as teaching English to new immigrants, building facilities for charter schools, helping older Americans “age in place,” developing science and engineering curricula for high schools, and helping African-American college students continue through to graduation. Most are supported entirely by private philanthropy. This is the last of four columns in which I’ll profile this year’s winners of the Cornuelle award.

At New City Kids--now in Jersey City, Paterson, Grand Rapids and spreading fast--a new approach to helping disadvantaged kids is showing promise: teens setting good examples for younger kids.

On a humid spring afternoon in a gritty part of Jersey City, New Jersey, neat lines of elementary school children file into New City Kids (NCK), walked over to the building by teen program staff. The kids look frazzled and tired. Just a short while later, after an outdoor play time and a snack, the kids are revived and ready to begin the NCK program.  The building is old and shows lots of wear and tear, but the 85 kids are smiling and orderly.  This is no military-style school program, but rather a program true to the founder’s evangelical Protestant values. According to NCK founder Reverend Trevor Rubingh, the overall goal is to “change the life trajectory of the ‘middle 60%,’” those who are neither the most disadvantaged nor the most gifted. By providing after-school homework help, basic music lessons, and college prep for teen staff, the hope is that a leadership development program will, in Rubingh’s words, accomplish “big, whole-life transformation for at-risk kids,” interrupting the intergenerational cycle of poverty.

But rather than using a staff of highly-paid social workers, New City Kids takes a different approach:  using older kids to help younger ones.  It’s a formula designed both to set good examples—and reinforce the right choices for the older role models.  As Rubingh likes to put it, “Teens need to lead.”

At New City Kids, that’s just what they’re asked to do.  Teen help younger versions of themselves navigate school and life challenges. Rubingh and his staff push kids toward “that moment of discovery [when they can say] I can do this.” The results are small but promising: 134 teens have graduated from the   program. All of them have graduated from high school and matriculated into college. Nine in ten are currently in college and on a path to graduate. The cities where NCK operates after-school centers— three in Jersey City, NJ, one in Paterson, NJ and one in Grand Rapids, MI, are places where the vast majority of students experience school failure rather than this kind of college success.

What’s the secret sauce here?  The NCK motto is Loving Kids for Change. This does not mean fawning or excessive hugging either. The kids are provided a structured environment ruled by a personal concern for each child (and his/her family) and taught the skills to thrive in school and in life. In the program’s signature innovation, this caring and mentoring is done on two levels. Paid adult staff hire and train high school students, most from the neighborhood and some from NCK programs, to be tutors and after-school instructors. The teens, juniors or seniors in high school, are called Teen Life Interns. They are carefully screened, put through exhausting rounds of interviews and a try-out period, supervised, assessed and coached for better performance. Regular youth retreats build a camaraderie that enables many of them to leave behind the negative influences of their neighborhood peer groups.

The teen jobs are part-time, year-round paid positions with a required report card review each quarter. Any drop in grades results in a referral to homework tutoring. Regular performance reviews focus on mature, professional conduct while along the way they learn how to respond to criticism and to benefit from coaching—useful skills for college and for life. Separate training classes teach money management, public speaking, team-building, classroom management. A structured pre-college prep program helps with standardized testing, college applications, college tours, and negotiating financial aid. The impact of all these lessons was clear in excellent manners, strong handshakes and mature demeanor around the younger kids. Half of the teen interns work as homework helpers and half teach activity classes in music or other extracurriculars.

The teen interns are the primary staff for NCK’s two-hour daily after-school program that runs throughout the school year and 4 weeks in the summer. It serves 311 kids from grades one through eight. Featuring 70% structured time, the afternoon is organized around rotations through homework help, music lessons, and a daily community time. Community time is used for age-appropriate learning games (i.e., spelling bees) as well as a weekly Christian praise service of modern hymns. Children whose parents opt them out of religious programming engage in alternate activities. Rubingh estimates that 80-90% of children at NCK are “unchurched,” or have no practicing faith of any kind.  The program is flexible enough to offer various special programs too. Girls on the Run, for instance, allows girls to go out each day and train for an upcoming 5k race. A singing program and dance instruction are also popular. A 5-week sailing program is offered in the summer using a donated sailboat and volunteers from partner churches.

It’s a reminder that traditional recreation-based programs can make a profound difference in lives.

Founder Rev. Rubingh is himself a musician who ran a large Kid’s Church program with a strong music component in Jersey City for 8 years before founding NCK. Music runs through NCK in every way: over 100 original rap songs on academic topics, instrument lessons (keyboard, bass, and drums), and group singing times. NCK annual shows are performed in multiple venues and raise substantial financial support and awareness of the program. Teen interns, trained by (paid) Master Teachers provide instrument lessons around the basic elements of music. Kids that accomplish the annual musical goals are rewarded their own instrument at year’s end.

What about those who do not do the right thing? A well-defined disciplinary protocol means that disruptive or uncooperative students get a couple of chances after calls are made to home—but, if they do not improve,

they are removed from the program. There is a waiting list of students who are delighted to earn the spot. Anyone who acts out violently is immediately removed from the program. The retention rate is 95% for teen mentors. No doubt the option for some kids to receive group therapy with the on-staff psychologist has been a great help. The program fee is $80 per month, but only about half of students pay the full fee. Program staff sit down with any parent who cannot pay and work out a sliding scale fee. Each family pays something.

Rubingh, a child of Christian missionary parents, attended Calvin College in Michigan and got his seminary degree from Princeton Theological. He knew from college days that he was not called to be a suburban pastor but was more interested in urban ministry. He and he wife (who was a fellow student at Princeton) arrived in Jersey City in 1994 with the intention of starting a new church. They were singularly unsuccessful in attracting many adults to their services but they found strong interest among a large group of neighborhood kids. Rubingh said that instead of these setbacks being “obstacles, they presented opportunities.” Thus Kid’s Church was born in 1996, utilizing a spray-painted bus to transport over 300 kids to services. Rubingh and his wife spent weekdays visiting the parents and praying with them. Through this experience, he realized that “working with kids was what I was designed to do.” Watching the children in these families over the years, the church program was reformulated into an after-school program in a church basement in 2003, until funding was secured to purchase the current building in Jersey City.

NCK has five locations on a budget of approximately $1 million a year. Expansion is on the horizon as they build a network office with key professional staff (CFO, a director of development) that will form the infrastructure necessary to bring the model to other parts of New Jersey (Greenville neighborhood) and nationally (Detroit). The fact that the program serves both recently-arrived Coptic Christians alongside Muslim families makes it an exemplar of community-building sorely needed in these politically divided times. The formula of teen leadership, character-building, structure and creative expression through music is exactly the kind of “safe space” that allows children to flourish.

A video link to the latest musical performance, including student testimonials, is right here:

Full-length Jersey City show:

This piece originally appeared at


Howard Husock is the Vice President of Research and Publications at the Manhattan Institute. From 1987 through 2006, he was director of case studies in public policy and management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

This piece originally appeared in Forbes