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Wednesday, November 10

I remember his first day of kindergarten...

My old VHS video camera, perched on my shoulder like a 20-pound sack of potatoes, captured the joy of our first class of five-year-olds charging through the front door. I wanted to capture this historic moment.

It was 1997. Our new elementary school, CamdenForward, opened its doors to 28 pre-k and kindergarten students.

Like any start-up, UrbanPromise’s CamdenForward School began as a dream. Twenty-five years ago the city of Camden offered parents few educational options—besides underperforming public schools.
 

Parents wanted more for their children: small classes, Christian values, high academic standards, safety and minimal tuition. UrbanPromise believed this was a unique moment to create a new kind of school—a school creating a new generation of Camden leaders steeped in faith, compassion, and academic excellence.

Leading his class that morning was a bubbly, happy, curious boy named Dennis Nelson. Over the years our teachers and staff poured time and attention into Dennis, participating in each of his academic and developmental milestones: elementary school graduation, high school, first job, college, and dean of students at our high school.

Recently, 29-year-old Dennis Nelson was recognized as the KIPP New Jersey 2021 TEAMspy Award winner for his contribution of improving the quality of education in the city of Camden. Dennis teaches 7th grade mathematics at the KIPP school in Lanning Square.

My city. My kids. My responsibility. Growing up in Camden made me the motivated, resilient, caring educator that I am today. I naturally want to see others do well. Because of my diverse experiences at UrbanPromise and in college, I feel that I can connect with anyone.

– DENNIS NELSON
UrbanPromise Alum

Twenty-five years ago—when UrbanPromise took a huge risk to open the CamdenForward School—we dreamed of this day. We dreamed of our graduates, becoming leaders, changing their city. That dream….that dream is now a reality.

Grateful for your faithfulness—

Bruce Main

Founder and President

P.S. Please read the remarkable interview below with Dennis about his journey to become one of Camden’s top teachers.

P.S.S. If you’re interested in partnering with a student at our CamdenForward School or UrbanPromise Academy, contact Jennifer Giordano at (856) 287-9357 or jgiordano@urbanpromiseusa.org.


Dennis K. Nelson III: Growing Up in Camden Made Me The Motivated, Resilient, Caring Educator I Am Today

By TONY GALLOTTO
TAPintoCamden: Your Neighborhood News Online
Published November 5, 2021 at 9:46 AM

This story is another in a series of profiles of Camden students turned educators.  This series is sponsored by the Camden Education Fund.

Meet Dennis K. Nelson III, an 8th-grade math teacher at KIPP Lanning Square Middle School.

This 29-year-old Camden native started teaching last July in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. He is not new to education, but Nelson did not start out in a classroom.

After he earned a liberal arts degree from Rowan University in 2014, with concentrations in sociology and dance, Nelson’s first job was as an administrator at UrbanPromise Academy on North 36th Street. It was where he attended high school after he graduated from its K-8th grade Camden Forward School.

After a few years, Nelson, now a Collingswood resident, became Assistant Dean of Students at KIPP Lanning Square Middle and later did two years as a Behavior Specialist before moving into a classroom.

Recently, Nelson became one of KIPP New Jersey’s 2021 TEAMspy Award winners, receiving the Improvement Award for his school. That award recognizes KIPP educators who create and share academic practices and ideas that help improve the quality of education at KIPP.

Here, in his own words, Dennis Nelson discusses his path into the classroom.

Q. What or who most inspired you to become a teacher? How and why?

I cannot credit my interest in teaching to just one person. There were many. Working at UrbanPromise, I developed a love for mentorship and urban education. I had great relationships with my students. They always said I’d make a great teacher, if I decided to do so. While working as a high school administrator, I would sometimes substitute teach when teachers were absent.

Fast forward to KIPP: One day, a math teacher needed to step out of her classroom for a while. I stepped in. I remember thinking, “this will be the only class that doesn’t receive math instruction today.” So I picked up where she left off and I started to teach. By the end of the period, several students asked me why wasn’t I a teacher. They thanked me for “making math make sense.” From then on, I was unable to shake the feeling that I wanted to be a teacher. I guess this is all because of my students.

Q. Describe your career path?

I began working at UrbanPromise at age 14, as a Street Leader (similar to camp counselor) in their summer programs. I worked for UrbanPromise throughout high school, eventually becoming a Team Leader when I was 16, then a Field Supervisor after becoming a freshman at Rowan.

Throughout college, I worked several seasonal jobs at Walmart, Macy’s, and even maintenance at Cherry Hill towers.  After graduating from Rowan in 2014, I got a job at UrbanPromise Academy as an assistant to the principal. It was administrative work, but I also taught a developmental skills class. UrbanPromise always felt like home. I was comfortable at that job.

While working at UrbanPromise, I got a second job as a residential counselor at a juvenile detention center. I enjoyed the job, because of the relationships I built with the boys. But, I couldn’t help them as much as I wanted, so worked there for only a few months.

I continued to work at the UrbanPromise high school, but it began feeling stagnant. By chance, I came across an email from KIPP that was several months old, sent after I submitted a job application. I urgently emailed back to KIPP, hoping I still had a chance. And as you can see, I did.

Q. How did growing up in Camden affect your teaching or help you connect with students?

My city. My kids. My responsibility. Growing up in Camden made me the motivated, resilient, caring educator that I am today. I naturally want to see others do well. Because of my diverse experiences at UrbanPromise and in college, I feel that I can connect with anyone.

Growing up here has sharpened my lens. I see the endless potential in our city and youth. For a long time, I wondered, “why this, why that, and what if.” As an educator of Camden youth, I must help them answer those questions about life and our society, but I must also equip my students with a “What Now?” philosophy.  Being a good educator here, starts and continues with strong relationships.

Q. What are you proud of as a teacher? Favorite teaching success story?

I am really proud of beginning my teaching career during the pandemic. What I assumed would be the hardest thing in the world, actually turned out to be pretty good. If I could change one thing, I would increase student-engagement. Being at home took a toll on students.

If I had to choose a favorite success story, it would have to be the hangouts I had with my students on Zoom. We became so close that we sometimes wanted to hang out after class just to talk about life and watch shows on Netflix. Developing virtual relationships was new to me, but somehow it worked out equally well as in-person.

Q. What are lessons have you learned by being a teacher?

No student will understand everything the first time.
Sometimes you, as the teacher, have to change your approach.
Be willing to adapt.
Teach the whole child, not just the math student.
Students need more than a safe space, they need a space where they can thrive in.
Be the teacher they deserve.
t’s okay. And if it isn’t; there’s time.

Q.What are teachers' strongest qualities? How do these qualities lead to success?

A teacher’s strongest qualities are their ability to connect with students and to maximize student potential.

We often look at a strict teacher as the teacher who is doing the best job teaching because they appear to have well-managed classrooms. But, students should feel valued in their classrooms. They must know that their responsibility is not to stay quiet and complete assignments, but to engage in lessons, collaborate, and to ask thought-provoking questions. Classes should still be engaging and fun. Teachers must connect with students genuinely to understand their needs. This will show students that they are cared for, and that their teachers can be trusted. When students trust their educators and feel cared for, they will learn a lot more. This will change their outlook on education, hopefully nurturing a greater hunger for success, whatever that may look like for them.

Q. What advice would you give to someone considering a teaching career?

I would advise them to be absolutely certain this is the career for them. Teaching is very rewarding, but it can also be very challenging. Some of those challenges – like walking into a classroom in the middle of a pandemic – can be unexpected, even surprising. Always be flexible. Always keep learning. And always put your students first. 

Wednesday, November 10

Since our inception in 1988, the UrbanPromise mission has not changed. Our programs might be a little different and broader, but our core commitments are the same.

Our people have always focused on equipping Camden’s children and teens with the skills needed for academic achievement, life management, spiritual growth and Christian leadership.

As a leader, the question I’m always asking: Are we fulfilling our mission?

So when I watched this year’s Virtual Night of Promise and witnessed the testimonials of Tamia, Dajah, Micah, Jasmine and others I was convinced—again—that our mission is being fulfilled.

Dajah embodies our mission as she seeks her university degree in speech pathology, desiring to open a practice to help families who lack resources for these kind of services. Her life vision was birthed at UrbanPromise through our schools, summer camps, job programs, Bible studies, mentorship and service projects. Academic skills, life skills, faith and leadership have all been nurtured during her 13-year sojourn at UrbanPromise. It’s no accident that this young woman is focused and determined to make a difference in her community. The same is true for Tamia, Micah and Jasmine.

Exceptional, impactful, healthy, purposed lives don’t happen by accident. Intentional investment, over many years, is the difference maker.

That’s why I need you again this year. Your generosity allows our staff and volunteers to keep fulfilling our mission.  Fulfilling our mission is changing Camden and the world.

Grateful for your support—

Bruce Main
President and Founder

Wednesday, October 6

Children’s laughter, moving buses, bouncing basketballs, flying water balloons, raucous singing, dramatic Bible teachings….all beautiful sounds for those who love summer youth ministry.

This summer felt somewhat “normal” for UrbanPromise—with in-person summer camps, jobs for teens, swim trips, canoeing on the Cooper River and overnight camping. Youth were grateful. Parents were elated to have their children out of the house.

UrbanPromise schools also re-opened after Labor Day to in-person learning. Our team is vigilant about the ever-changing dynamics of this pandemic. Please continue to pray for our students and teachers. More than ever, our students NEED an UNINTERRUPTED school year.

As of September our After School programs, StreetLeader teen employment programs, Boat Building, Wellness and Trekker programs are all underway in their critical work—engaging our young people outside of the traditional classroom.

We thank you for sharing your generous spirit with us so UrbanPromise can continue to do the work we are so passionate about. We hope to see you this coming year. More than ever, we need to unite around our children.

Thank you for your generosity!

Bruce Main
President & Founder


View Impact Report

Thursday, September 16

What does UrbanPromise do to quench the thirst of hundreds of children and teens during a hot and humid summer?

We call our friends at Pepsi and the deliver pallets of FREE WATER, Snapple and juices.  Thank you Pepsi of Pennsauken for your help this summer.

Not only did Pepsi quench our thirst, their management hosted tours for our youth—sharing opportunities for employment and career options.  Our young people learned about product distribution, technology and how companies can be great corporate citizens.

“I really enjoyed our field trip to Pepsi,” claimed one teen. “It was amazing to see everything that goes into bringing a product to the public...the research, marketing, science, and production. I'll never look at a Snapple the same way again.”

Pepsi is one of many local companies who assist UrbanPromise. We’re grateful for corporate leadership who want to partner with organizations, like ours, who are making a positive impact in the southern New Jersey area.

Monday, September 6

“In just five weeks, look what we did!” Voice lifting with excitement, she continued, “Can you imagine the difference we can make by keeping this program rolling for the entire year?”

Great question: What can we do if we keep this rolling? What’s the program….

Our full-time volunteer librarian, Sue Bartholomew, was sharing with me the success of UrbanPromise’s five-week intensive summer school program.

“Every student I assessed improved one reading level. It’s remarkable the difference that focused, individualized tutoring can make," Sue shared.

I was elated to hear this news, especially after reading the current, sobering McKinsey and Company report titled "The Lingering Effects of Unfinished Learning". After collecting educational data from across the country, researchers conclude that most American students find themselves three to four months behind in math and reading. In low-income communities, unfinished learning is even greater (six to seven months) and will only accentuate existing academic disparities. The report projects an increase in high school dropouts. Lower college admissions are inevitable.

That’s why I’m so impressed with Sue and her cadre of teachers and volunteers.

"Our students didn’t simply maintain—they made gains! Our volunteers have something that a paycheck can’t buy," Sue boasted, "Passion. Love. Dedication.”

This fall—more than ever in the 33-year history of UrbanPromise—a strategic academic focus is needed to help our children and teens reclaim their “unfinished learning.”

It won’t be easy. But our team is compelled and committed to make it happen. Seriously, we’re compelled. We’re committed.

Yet we need resources to execute our mission. Whether you partner with a student, help ensure our teens stay focused and equipped for college this year, help recruit, train and mobilize a volunteer, or make sure all of our children attending after school programs are receiving tutoring and wellness services - there is no doubt we need you in order to do this important work.

There is unfinished business—“unfinished learning” to be exact.

With your help, I am confident we can close the gap in these coming months.

Let’s do this!

Bruce Main
Founder and President

P.S. We have an exciting opportunity! The Mary Anton Memorial Scholarship Fund has committed to matching dollar-for-dollar the first THREE new student partners - this is amazing!!! As a Partner you will be paired with one of our students in K-12th (your preference) and have the chance to get to know them over the course of the school year through correspondences and in-person events at our school.

P.P.S. Here’s the link to the McKinsey and Company Report: https://mck.co/3sK4Vbh
 

Support our work with a donation

Saturday, August 14

Summer of Impact: All Camp Day

It’s a glorious tradition birthed in desperation. 

Our staff needed a trophy for the morning’s “All Camp” Olympics—an inter-camp competition pitting UrbanPromise’s multiple summer camps against one another. After games were played, songs sung, and races raced the winning team needed to be recognized.

“Urban” legend recalls that an intern found a plastic milk crate, spray-painted it gold, filled it with candy and created the “Golden Crate”. 

A trophy was created. A tradition was born.  Thirty years later, children in Camden still want to win this coveted prize.  Bragging rights for the year, candy for the team and the pride of being part of an enduring legacy. 

So congratulations to this summer’s Golden Crate winner…Drum Roll….

Our Camp Peace program from South Camden under the leadership of director, Derrick Sondrini! 

“Children were so happy to be out of their houses again,” shared StreetLeader Director, Tony Vega. “The social connection and daily schedule provided a hopeful environment after a long, difficult year.”

Not to diminish the accomplishment of winning the Golden Crate, but I also need to congratulate the ENTIRE UrbanPromise Summer team for delivering an incredible experience for our city’s young people.

Congratulations on planning and implementing a COVID-free (yes! No cases!), dynamic, safe, education-based, faith-enriching and fun summer experience for hundreds of children and teens.

As donors and partners, please know this work only exists because of your generosity and prayers. Our team is grateful—

Bruce Main
Founder & President

PS. Please enjoy the short video from our All Camp Day: https://vimeo.com/587310300  You’ll sense the energy, excitement and fun UrbanPromise provides.  

Friday, July 23

There was no place to park my car as I pulled up to UrbanPromise last Wednesday. Finally I landed a spot next to the dumpster at the end of Rudderow Street (hoping trash pickup was Thursday and not later that day).

I have no issues surrendering a convenient parking spot for a worthy cause. Today’s forfeit was well worth the extra block hike—in 90 degree heat—to my air-conditioned office.

You see, the upper parking lot at UrbanPromise is often sequestered by our program staff for special events.  Three-on-three basketball tournaments, community fairs, and our Thanksgiving Turkey Bowl. Today: our annual Summer Camp Carnival.

This is no ordinary carnival. Our staff and volunteers take “home-made” and “low budget” to a whole new level.  Every year I’m amazed at the creative uses of recycled cardboard boxes, discarded plywood, poster paint and junk from the remote corners of the campus storage closet.

Summer Camp Carnival may not rival the technology and special effects of Six Flags or Disney World, but if laughter and smiles are happiness indicators, this event beats the best of the theme parks.

“It’s just good old-fashion fun,” claims Camp Peace Site Director Derrick Sondrini. “Kids love the simplicity of it all. It’s like turning the clocks back to a more innocent time. Sure it’s a little corny. But the kids feel the love.”

And that’s a big part of our mission at UrbanPromise. We want to get back to the basics of what’s important for children—fun, safety, human connection, belonging, laughter and being in the presence of adults who care. We want to show kids that, with a little imagination and hard work, you can transform an empty park lot and a pile of junk into a festival.

And this is what you—our partners—helped create for 200 children, 50 teens, 20 medical student volunteers from Rowan University and our summer team of counselors and staff. You created a joy-filled memory in a year marred with isolation, despair and disconnecting. For that I’ll give up my parking space….every day.

Grateful always—

Bruce Main
Founder & President

PS. Check out the short video to see the Carnival in action: https://vimeo.com/578241926

Friday, July 2

 

I peeked through the door, looked down the hallway and witnessed a sight that fills me with joy.

Small tables. Two chairs at each. Occupied.

Each “make-shift” station held a student and an adult volunteer—hunched over a text book, focused on the material at hand, quietly dialoging—absorbed in the process of learning. I never tire of witnessing this kind of event.  

It’s UrbanPromise Summer School 2021. Needed this year more than ever. Nothing fancy—just good old fashion, one-on-one, hard work. 

“Some of our students lost significant academic ground this past year,” revealed Terry Bullock, our elementary school principal. “Our hope is to get them back on track. It’s patient work. It’s happening. Little victories each day.”

Getting students back to grade level is no easy task. There’s no computer chip to make up the loss, no fancy video series, no magic bullets. It’s a process of moving backwards before moving forward. It’s mobilizing enough caring adults to give our young people the kind of individualized attention needed to reclaim lost ground.

That’s why school is happening in our hallways and classrooms this summer. Alphabets, time tables, pronouns and sentence structure—whatever is needed to get our students to the next mile marker—is being reviewed and mastered.

This is what UrbanPromise does best. We’re a mission driven community, willing to travel the extra mile, ensuring no child is left behind.

None of this happens without you—our partners. Once again, your generous support is allowing this important work to continue.

Grateful always—

Bruce Main
Founder & President

PS. Check out the short video to get a glimpse of summer school: https://vimeo.com/576753093

Friday, July 2

Summer at UrbanPromise

Would you take a summer job on a boat if you couldn't swim?

For most of us, the answer is no way. But at UrbanPromise we encourage kids to try new things, try hard things, try things we never imagined we could do.

When Carina applied for a StreetLeader job with our celebrated RiverGuides program, she knew she couldn’t swim. A friend had prodded her to apply so they could both spend the summer getting paid to guide tours down the Tidal Cooper River. Once she realized she would have to go through the rigorous training program and learn to properly paddle, steer the canoe and (gulp)...swim, she didn’t back down.

Days in the local swimming pool culminated in a jump into the deep end - has there ever been a better metaphor for facing life’s challenges? Carina jumped.

Surrounded by caring and supportive UrbanPromise staff, Carina emerged from the pool to applause, grinning ear to ear. A mere three days later she spent the day on the river, intentionally capsizing her canoe to practice rescue techniques. This summer, she will proudly wear a t-shirt that says CREW on the back. If you haven’t been given a tour of the river yet, you are missing out.

Carina won’t be the only kid trying something new this summer. 54 teens will be employed at UrbanPromise, in either our StreetLeader or RiverGuide Programs, and for many it will be their first job, first paycheck, first adult responsibility.

There will be many firsts for our young people this summer at UrbanPromise. Some will try a practice test for the SAT for the first time. Some will learn to ride a bike. Some will tour local corporations and get exposure to potential future careers. Some will open their first checking account. Some will try yoga. Some will walk over the Ben Franklin Bridge. Have you tried that yet?

To say we are excited to welcome back hundreds of kids to our summer camps is a wild understatement.

Thursday, May 27

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” shared Terry Bullock, our principal and a 12-year veteran of UrbanPromise’s CamdenForward School.

“At least a quarter of our students are 30 percent behind where they need to be,” she added. “Summer is going to be critical.”

It wasn’t the conversation I wanted to have at this time of year. Despite the challenges of the past year, we hoped to keep all our students on track to pass. Our teachers and staff have worked really hard over the last 14 months through a combination of remote, hybrid and in-person learning.

“It’s not just academics,” she lamented. “Some kids have really suffered emotionally. One student who typically has all As and Bs is now failing. Many of our students have struggled with depression and anxiety. The disruption of daily schedules and social interaction has been devastating.

What I love about Ms. Bullock and our teaching staff is that they never quit. Their number one priority is ensuring their students learn, pass their material, move to the next grade and are emotionally healthy.

“This summer we’ll be requiring summer school for a portion of elementary and high school students,” adds Ms. Bullock, with an air of optimistic determination. “It’s critical they don’t lose ground. We need to avoid the slide and catch up.”

The cost for us to provide summer school is $1,200 per student, a total of $48,000. The good news, we are able to use $21,000 through the CARES Act towards our summer school costs. But that only covers $525 per child for a 6-week summer school experience. Not nearly enough to cover the $1,200 needed for each student.

And you know, $675 for a 6-week academic summer program (with food) is a bargain.

It’s urgent we don’t lose these kids. That’s why I’m writing you. I know you will help!

  • $112.50 will cover 1 week of summer school for a student
  • $225 will cover 2 weeks of summer school for a student
  • $675 will cover 6 weeks of summer school for a student

Of course, I’d be delighted if you sponsored multiple children.

As our team continues to deal with the post-pandemic aftermath, please keep them in your prayers.

In advance, I thank you—as do our staff, parents and students.

With gratitude—

Bruce Main
President & Founder

P.S. We’re delighted to continuing offering city-wide summer camps, job training for teens and expeditionary learning opportunities. These programs offer positive summer engagement and enrichment opportunities that are more necessary than ever after a challenging year of isolation for so many. We are thankful to be engaging more kids more regularly again.

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