N.J. pastor and congregation commit to bridging the gaps of a broken educational system
LOUISVILLE – Everywhere he looked, the Rev. Allen Shelton saw tremendous gaps — gaps that were keeping high school-aged young people of color like Tariq Mayo from succeeding in life.
Shelton, a veteran educator, community advocate and pastor, was determined not to watch Tariq — and so many other promising youth — fall through the cracks of an increasingly broken educational system.
Shelton wanted nothing more than to ensure the future success of primarily urban, adolescent young people who seemed to be destined for the school-to-prison pipeline. In 2010 he founded Good Success Academies, a not-for-profit organization that was for him a logical extension of his work as a local pastor.
“I was in the midst of pursuing my Doctor of Education degree when we saw as a congregation that there was a major deficit in terms of educational achievement and college graduation rates,” said Shelton, who was pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Montclair, New Jersey, at the time. “At-risk youth of color attending urban public schools had no chance of success in getting good, high-paying positions.”
Although Good Success traces its roots to Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, where Shelton served the church’s youth tutoring program as a pastoral intern in 1998, the nonprofit was officially launched in 2010 by the (Shelton) Trinity Church to address educational inequity in the Newark public school system by providing supplemental learning designed to bridge the academic gap.
Initially, the college/career readiness began as a program for newly confirmed youth at Trinity. “Together with members who were educators at the church in Montclair, we originally created something we called the Life Preparatory Academy, where we worked to fill in the gaps,” Shelton said. “In addition to a Bible study for confirmed students, we had an academic college writing class where a teacher worked with the kids and moved them to writing at a college level. We also provided an opportunity for them to explore careers by working with members of our congregation.”
As the burgeoning program outgrew the church and continued to expand beyond its original goal of serving Montclair-area youth, it became clear that Good Success Academies needed to be established — with Shelton becoming its executive director. The new name of the program became Life Academy/Project Life.
In the 12 years since its founding, the once-local initiative — in partnership with Montclair State University and Rutgers University — now impacts youth from Newark, Irvington, the Oranges, Montclair, Paterson, Glen Ridge and Bloomfield, readying them for college, work and the world.
“We prepare youth for college, trade school, the workplace and responsible adulthood through a college and career readiness program in two phases, an academic year program and a summer employment program,” explained Shelton. “Our entrepreneurship component empowers youth to succeed in the workplace by teaching them how to develop, launch and operate a small business.”
Since 2020, that business has been a local farm market named Sweet Roots Produce. Through their participation, youth gain invaluable skills in organization, teamwork, business math, professional excellence, customer service, food science and community support. In addition to running the market in Montclair, they also make weekly donations of fresh produce to Toni’s Kitchen, a local food ministry.
“We define success as more than just success on the job,” added Shelton. “We define success as being a responsible, civic-minded, active, engaged adult giving back to your community.”
Helping youth to achieve their God-given potential is what the Pentecost Offering — one of the PC(USA)’s four Special Offerings — is all about. Not only do gifts to the Pentecost Offering benefit at-risk children and youth through the “Educate a Child, Transform the World” national initiative, but the Offering also encourages, develops and supports the church’s young people through the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program and the Presbyterian Youth Triennium.
Forty percent of the Pentecost Offering is retained by individual congregations for local ministries such as Good Success Academies, while the remaining 60% is used to support children at risk, youth and young adults through ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
Although the Pentecost Offering may be taken anytime, most congregations receive it on Pentecost Sunday, which this year falls on May 28.
“I find it exciting that these amazing young people are learning about farming, natural foods, land, agribusiness and marketing skills,” said the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, coordinator of the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People at the Presbyterian Mission Agency and staff person for the PC(USA)’s Educate a Child, Transform the World initiative. “Having been born and raised in Newark, one of the target cities where this program operates, I am excited to know that more opportunities are being created through this program for so many of our young people who have the skills, talent, intelligence and drive for entrepreneurship.”
Tariq, for one, is grateful for his Good Success experience — both for its focus on college preparation as well as its summer employment program.
“I got into Good Success because our [high school] principal was handing out flyers,” recalled Tariq. “It helped me to get a job. Previously I didn’t know what to wear or what to say at an interview. Good Success helped me figure it out, including what type of suits to wear.”
Tariq also credits Good Success with helping him to write the application essays that earned him acceptance into Montclair State University, where he is now studying computer science.
It also — quite literally — helped the 18-year-old stop and smell the flowers.
“Working the farmstand, I was able to learn how to cultivate flowers,” said Tariq. “I learned a lot about flowers and vegetables, like seeing tomatoes growing then taking some home. I also made lasting friendships.”
In addition to impacting the individual lives of young people of color, Good Success Academies is simultaneously addressing the root causes that perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline — the charge at the heart of Matthew 25.
“This program seamlessly embodies the Matthew 25 vision in that all the foci are evident in the work Good Success does in its surrounding communities,” said Johnson, referencing the vision’s commitment to build congregational vitality, dismantle structural racism and eradicate systemic poverty. “Good Success recognizes that it must equip Black youth to be able to see their work and worth and recognize their potential. The program acknowledges and teaches the importance of education as a way of resistance to racist tropes, stereotypes and misunderstandings about Black youth, while at the same time promoting and teaching the skills they need to dismantle racism and overcome systemic oppression through education, entrepreneurship, financial freedom and self-determination.”
Johnson added that because a collective of congregations and mid councils — Roseville Presbyterian Church, First Irvington Presbyterian Church, First and Trinity Presbyterian Church, Watchung Presbyterian Church, the Presbytery of Northeast New Jersey and the Synod of the Northeast — also contribute to the program in a myriad of ways, Good Success also promotes the Matthew 25 goal of building congregational vitality.
Because these churches make a commitment to receive the Pentecost Offering, there is more support, both volunteer and financial, to keep programs like Good Success going.
“If someone wanted to know why they should give to the Pentecost Offering,” Tariq said, “I would explain to them that Good Success Academies allows young people to get a better understanding of how to get a job and how to be a leader. Young people can learn more about themselves that they didn’t know previously.”
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By giving to the Pentecost Offering, your congregation participates in helping our children, youth, and young adults grow up to proclaim with the Psalmist, "O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds."