Newark students milling about in front of West Side High School were not waiting for summer classes to start this week.
It was a workday for them as they boarded a yellow school bus at 9:30 a.m. Over an hour later, they were clocking in at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson.
That’s a long way for a job, but 65 kids in khaki pants and blue polo-style shirts don’t mind. Listen to Nysira Welch, 17, and you can see why.
“This has taught me responsibility,” says Welch, an attendant at the “Kingda Ka” roller coaster.
“This has taught me independence…that I can make my own moves, make my own decisions,” she said as she politely let a parent know that his son was too small to ride.
The Urban League of Essex County has something to do with her thinking. West Side High School, which has three schools in the building, is located in the Fairmount section of Newark’s West Ward, an area the Urban League focuses on to improve the community through social and economic development. Part of that work is preparing city youth for employment and showing them what it means to have a job.
Andre Lawrence, 16, didn’t take the opportunity lightly.
“It changed me,” says Lawrence, who operates “El Diablo,” another roller coaster at Great Adventure. “I got to learn how to be a man.”
Rahman Karriem, chief operating officer at the Urban League, has to be smiling right now. And so is Andrea Jones, an administrator at one of the schools. This is what the Urban League hoped to achieve when it coordinated with the MCJ Amelior Foundation, Public Service Electric & Gas and Prudential to create a summer jobs program.
The students attended job readiness workshops, then they used those skills during interviews with Six Flags officials. They had resumes and presence. The boys wore shirts and ties and the girls put on blouses and skirts. Nervousness turned to excitement when they were hired in June to earn $8.38 to $9.88 an hour.
“We believe this is going to create a culture of success because these kids are going to be seen by other kids as leaders, getting jobs and experiences outside of Newark,” says Karriem, who wants to expand the program next year.
Until the social agency got involved, many of the kids say they got tired of rejection from retail stores and fast food restaurants. Six Flags gave them a chance when the Urban League called seeking employment for Newark’s young people.
“They were definitely an asset,” says Kaitlyn Turi, public relations supervisor for the theme park. “With 3,000 jobs to fill every season, we always need lots of folks to treat our guests to a nice day here throughout the summer.”
The students jumped at the chance to work, even if it meant getting home at 10 p.m., and sometimes 1 a.m. if an accident delayed their commute.
The job kept them busy and off the streets. It put money in their pockets and they learned something about themselves. Working with the public is not easy, but they remained patient, humble and positive.
Al-Samir Greene, 17, says he’s personable now and open to mingling with people he doesn’t know, while Anthony Pough, 16, figured out the importance of a budget after his first paycheck.
“I was broke,” he says.
Time management stuck with 16-year-olds Tyrell Moore and Stacy Tynvall. Moore says he wanted to grasp military time – the 24-hour clock the park uses for employees – so he changed the settings on his cellphone to practice.
2000 is quitting time.
“I wanted to learn it more,” he says. “That’s what they use down there.”
Tynvall was juggling school and work. She started out on weekends at the park because she was earning college credits during the week at Essex County College in Newark. When she finished class, Tynvall says she caught a NJ Transit bus from Newark to the amusement park, where she worked the cash register, cooked food and cleaned up at one of the eateries.
“After you work at Six Flags, you can work anywhere,” she says. “There’s so much to learn here and you see so many different things.”
There’s diversity in the workforce and visitors, who could be from Thailand or Jamaica.
And no day is the same.
There might be someone who faints from the heat or a pregnant woman having contractions. Animals show up when they feel like it, a sight that tickles Brianna Passmore, 16, when she comes across groundhogs and possums, gophers and geese.
“I’ll be working and they’ll just come out of nowhere,” says Passmore, a ride operator who wants to be a mechanical engineer.
The long day does end quietly. With sleep in their eyes, the students wake up when the bus drops them off at the school. A Newark police car is there to greet them with school officials. Some wait for rides, others walk home in groups.
There’s no time to waste.
Morning comes early.