The Mission: to transform the lives of underserved youth through a 10-year comprehensive program that develops passion-driven, global leaders.
Usher’s New Look, founded in 1999 by then 20-year-old pop star Usher Raymond, boasts a 100 percent graduation rate. That means out of the thousands of students who have moved in and out of the program, all of them have gone on to graduate high school. What’s even better is that 98 percent of those students go on to higher education or job placement. How? Pure motivation, they say, and for the 1.3 million high school students who drop-out every year, Usher’s New Look is an imperative solution. Here’s why it matters.
From the Back of an Atlanta Courtroom
In 1999, Usher and his mom, Jonnetta Patton, sat in the back of a courtroom listening to the hearings of local teens. As their stories unraveled in front of the judge, Usher began to piece them back together with a common thread — the lack of mentorship, opportunity and exposure for long-term growth.
Nearly eighteen years later, UNL has now touched the lives of over 42,000 youth around the world.
Steppingblocks sat down with three leading team members at Usher’s New Look in Atlanta, Yvette Cook (President), Careshia Moore (National Program Director, now Interim President & CEO) and Kamara Cobb (National Program Coordinator), to discuss how Usher’s New Look has achieved success in underserved communities throughout the country through three core programs: Powered by Service for middle schoolers, The Leadership Academy for high schoolers and Moguls in Training for college students.
Powered by Service: Sparking the Next Generation
UNL joins forces with low-income schools where students can benefit most from the empowerment this organization provides. U.S. News reports school districts with the highest rates of poverty receive about $1,000 less per student in state and local funding than those with the lowest rates of poverty. And UNL provides the extra boost of resources these schools may be missing. Students receive an introduction to UNL’s 10-year comprehensive program in eighth grade during Powered by Service, a one-day leadership training facilitated by UNL’s peer trainers.
“We don’t just stay in this building,” said Moore, referring to UNL’s Spark Center where students come to nurture their education and build their unique skill set. Based on a survey of its participants, 88 percent of UNL students don’t have a safe space to study after school or on the weekends, so in addition to the Spark Center, students have access to another haven for learning — The Spark Tank. It’s the room with the white board walls where the biggest thoughts and dreams come to life. Those same walls allowed Cobb’s business pitch to flourish as she prepared for a UNL-hosted pitch competition when she herself was a student there.
“We also have free Wi-Fi. Some of our students don’t have internet at home, so they come here to use the computers,” said Moore.
UNL travels to underserved schools to foster relationships with administrative staff and to find students with potential for the program. Specifically, they look for students who possess leadership qualities but are deprived the motivation and opportunity to cultivate their skills. Sparking the next generation is achieved through their recruitment program, community outreach initiatives and general word of mouth from family and friends.
“We do have students that love it so much that they bring friends on, and we also have parents who call and say, ‘how do I get my student in,’” said Cobb remembering her own introduction to the UNL family.
Through the program’s middle school workshop, Powered by Service, in conjunction with Emory’s Goizueta Business School, students can explore their own leadership capabilities, browse career paths and find their passion, aka, their “spark.” By learning to channel their unique identity into creative solutions they are building a pathway to benefit their families, their communities and, ultimately, their future. The four- to six-hour intensive experience is the prerequisite for UNL’s Leadership Academy.
Middle school students participate in the Powered by Service peer-to-peer mentoring program to identify their passion, learn principles of leadership and gain exposure to the importance of civic engagement.
The Leadership Academy: When Sparks Fly
Though students begin to explore their spark in middle school, UNL’s Leadership Academy is where they get a chance to spread their wings. Through a peer-to-peer delivery model, students receive 400 hours of training over a four-year period from UNL alumni and staff.
When high school students join the four-year Leadership Academy program, they are exposed to the tools and skill sets necessary to achieve success in higher education and in their eventual careers.
“We currently have a Powered by Service in Brown Middle School and Leadership Academy in Washington High School and Pebblebrook High School, and it was purely through relationships with other organizations like United Way and The Housing Authority,” said Cobb.
But the academy is more than a curriculum.
“We have a game room for students who want to learn coding. We have SAT/ACT prep, a reading lab,” said Moore. “We’ve done robotics popups, music, theater, cooking classes and even a 12-week long writing lab where at the end, students had their books published.” UNL surveys students to determine what their interests are and encourages them to grow and nourish their passions through these events.
The students also take this time to collaborate and build with one another. “When they need assistance they’re not afraid to ask.” said Moore. Students can bounce their academic talents off one another, while also taking advantage of UNL coordinators and staff.
The Four Pillars: A Formula for Success
UNL’s Leadership Academy utilizes four main pillars in the ninth through 12th grade high school program: talent, education, career and service.
For ninth graders, the talent pillar helps students learn their spark in-depth. They analyze how it resonates in the real world and if those goals match their own. 10th graders in the education pillar are equipped with tools that assist in setting those goals and navigating the transition from high school to college. Juniors, in preparation for their first job, gain access to job shadowing opportunities, resume reviews and mock interview experiences. Finally, college bound seniors are prepped through philanthropy. They attend service projects and have the chance to develop their own.
All UNL programming is youth-centric and delivered peer-to-peer by slightly older students who have successfully completed the program.
Every year at graduation, seniors are awarded their National Leadership Certification from Emory Goizueta Business School and UNLswag. The younger students know that to be honored, they’ll have graduate, too.
Steppingblocks and Usher’s New Look
Steppingblocks has partnered with UNL to provide students nearing college with guidance on how to plan realistically. Students can explore tuition and costs, find billions in scholarship funds and prepare for a career that suits their passion — their spark.
For the 86 percent of UNL students who will be first generation college students, access to career tools and financial education is critical, and we know just as well as UNL does, that no student should have to go it alone.