Students learned about virtual reality and use their skills to develop programs in the metaverse as part of a summer youth employment program

Students get paid to learn, work in the metaverse this summer

Students gathered to learn about virtual reality and use their skills to develop programs as part of Newark, N.J.'s summer youth employment program

Cody Piggot runs the virtual reality program and creates projects and lessons for the students. He gets help from another Newark Public Schools alum, Davina George, who helps students on a day-to-day basis. 

Ayomide Adekoya will be a senior at Science Park High School this year and says the program is giving him a head start in the tech field. 

“I feel like this program has sort of given us an advantage,” Adekoya said. “We’ve been able to meet a person in the space and being able to see someone succeed in the field also provides a form of motivation for us.” 

The program partners with nearly 100 university and business communities, nonprofit organizations, and city government departments to place students in jobs throughout Newark. The Newark Workforce Development Board, which oversees the city’s youth program, funded the group’s Oculus headsets, laptops and food.

Marsha Armstrong, the city’s youth program director, puts job seekers through a rigorous interview process before being selected and matched with an employer. 

The program is meant to give students “real-world experience” and prepare them for future jobs, Armstrong said. Interested participants are required to fill out an application online and submit their resumes before they reach the interview stage. 

After that, Armstrong and other program leaders interview students, and selected applicants are placed in positions in local hospitals and nonprofit organizations. The city also launched its first construction and building track as part of the summer jobs program. 

“We have people just really coming to the table trying to figure out how they can help young people,” Armstrong added. 

The program also provides practical education for students, including financial literacy courses every Friday and support for families of those participating. Sometimes, students’ home life may interfere with their work but Armstrong says the goal is to encourage them to get ahead.

“Even if it’s not sometimes just a paycheck, it’s tears and a hug,” Armstrong added. “It’s just helping them know that people in their community are rooting for them and no matter what, we’re not going to allow them to fall.”

Aside from hands-on experience, students get the chance to learn something new during the summer and stay busy. Shamere Holifield, a soon-to-be senior at Weequahic High School, said he would spend his summer playing basketball if it wasn’t for the program. Others such as Ridwanulahi Banjoko said they’re using the opportunity to invest in their future. 

Learning how to code can be difficult, Banjoko said, “but you got people to help you learn this for free.”

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

“My mom at first was skeptical. She said what is this gonna do for you?” Soto said. “But so far, she’s like, actually liking the idea because I tell her every day the things that we do here and how my day is going.”

During last year’s budget meeting, Newark Public Schools superintendent Roger León said this year’s budget would include facility upgrades to enhance career and technical education for 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 leaders 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 that become developers for big companies in the tech space,” Piggot said. “Virtual reality is the future.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization covering public education.

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