Six Belleville High School freshmen are taking a giant “leep” forward with their admission into the highly competitive New Jersey Law Education Empowerment Project (LEEP).
The participating ninth-graders are: Melissa Martinez, Safiyyah Rahim, Sydney Gomez, Domenica Guaman, Alisa Lopez and Paul Sanchez.
NJLEEP is a nonprofit organization in the greater Newark area that partners with Seton Hall Law School to mentor students through a rigorous program to get them ready to attend a four-year school after graduation.
Now in its ninth year, the program currently accomodates 116 students from Belleville, Newark, Jersey City, East Orange, Elizabeth, East Orange, Irvington, South Orange and Maplewood in Life Skills and Saturday writing classes, constitutional law debates, SAT prep classes and the college application program during their secondary school tenure.
After completing eighthgrade, the students accepted into the program are enrolled in a Summer Law Institute, a five-week criminal law course taught by law students from the Seton Hall University School of Law and other law schools with attorneys, judges and law professors as guest speakers, and weekly field trips to law firms, courthouses, and public interest legal organizations, culminating in a mock trial competition in front of sitting New Jersey judges.
After completing the summer session, participants are invited to apply for NJ LEEP’s four-year college bound program.
Belleville’s Domenica Guaman said the grueling admission process began when the students were still in eighth grade and were competing with 300 of their peers seeking entrance to the program.
“It starts with group interviews, then there are one-on-one interviews,” Guaman recalled. “Then they ask you to write essays on why you want to be in the program, then you need to get recommendations from two teachers, then there’s another interview. And you have to have an 85 average or higher.”
This past July, Melissa Martinez said, summer vacation gave way to the discipline of an academic schedule with classes Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, in Newark. “We learned about law, things that happen in the courtroom,” she said.
On top of that, students attended classes on Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and on Thursday nights, 4 to 6 p.m., where they learned about life skills, conflict and resolution and law-related issues.
There were also Friday visits to law firms in the offices of firms like Prudential Financial, Goldman Sachs, American Express, Wyndham Worldwide in New York and New Jersey.
Now, as high school freshmen, the Belleville six are receiving tutoring, as needed, in support of their regular academic schedule, along with life skills and transitioning to the demands of high school studies. They are also being evaluated for placements in upcoming summer internships with various law firms in the region.
“It’s very difficult to balance everything, handling honors classes in history, geometry, biology and English, plus playing soccer,” Martinez said. “But LEEP has helped me with time management and has helped me organize myself better.”
Guaman, also in the honors program, said that since beginning her LEEP experience, “I have grown as a person and as a student. I have learned many new study habits that allow me to do better in school and management my time more wisely. I also have found that I am more confident when public speaking and can confidently have a professional conversation with an adult ….
“At NJLEEP we are a family and I am so grateful to be a part of such an empowering community.”
Her fellow students had similar responses.
With the benefit of NJLEEP, Alisa Lopez found that her writing “has improved significantly,” Sydney Gomez is “now able to … present myself appropriately in any professional setting,” Sefiyyah Rahim is motivated “to always try my hardest and strive for success,” and Paula Sanchez can “communicate more efficiently and in a professional manner.”
– Ron Leir