June 16, 2024

IT’S 3:45 P.M. IN EARLY OCTOBER, and teenage girls in baggy T-shirts, flowing braids, and COVID-19 face masks stream off the yellow school bus, their energy bubbling over even as they’re uncertain of where to direct it. But these girls aren’t shifting gears to go home, hang out with friends, or tackle the latest viral TikTok challenge, as many of their classmates in the Trenton public school district will do this evening. 

Instead, the young women are disembarking on the campus of the Lawrenceville School, a leafy private boarding school on a sprawling campus full of red-brick buildings down the road from Princeton, as participants in HomeWorks — a free, academically rigorous after-school program for young women of color from lower-income backgrounds in Trenton, started by Natalie Tung ’18. After dropping off their backpacks in their rooms in a gray stone dormitory reserved just for them, the girls will start the second half of their school day. For the next six hours, the “scholars,” as the program refers to its participants, will take part in a structured schedule of study time, dinner, presentations by guest speakers, and one-on-one tutoring — with a few hours for free time. 

At 10 p.m., it’s time for lights out. The girls — who during the day attend different public high schools in Trenton — will turn their cellphones over to their house mother for the night, then sleep in their Lawrenceville dorm. In the morning each school day, the bus will drop them off at their schools in Trenton, starting the process once more. On the weekends, they return home to their families.

The evening has an orderly rhythm, steadily moving from session to session, a direct contrast to the more leisurely movements of the Lawrenceville students, who move side-by-side with the HomeWorks scholars in the dining hall and across the campus but rarely interact with them. 

“You have your normal schoolwork and school day and you’re interacting socially with everybody at your school, then you come here to [HomeWorks’] programming and have a busy schedule,” says Darae, a sunny 17-year-old with a corona of light brown, Afro curls that dip over her eyes. She has been with HomeWorks since it started three years ago; now she’s a peer leader. “But [HomeWorks] also just feels like going home, you know? At least to me, it doesn’t feel like just a boarding program. I’m going home to girls who I care about and girls who care about me. I’m going home to adults who care about me and vice versa. I’m going home to support where I need it, you know, academically and socially and emotionally — really all around.”

Natalie Tung ’18 founded HomeWorks as a summer pilot program while still a Princeton student.

Photo: Sameer A. Khan h’21

EDUCATORS AND education-reform experts commonly say that much of what can hinder the progress of students in urban public schools actually happens outside of the classroom. In lower-income households and communities, a disruption can trigger cascading events that result in a loss of learning opportunities for students. For example, family financial issues can lead to homelessness — occasional or long-term — that in turn causes truancies that prevent students from getting subsidized meals in school, a lack of nutrition that hinders physical and neurological development. Limited access to affordable health care can mean many ailments go untreated. And violence and abuse within neighborhoods can further scar students’ social and emotional growth. 

Some educators have proposed creating urban public boarding schools that could cater to these nonacademic needs, but according to one study by Harvard economist Roland Fryer, educating a student at such a school can cost three times as much as the usual per-pupil cost for traditional daytime education. Successful public boarding schools do exist, such as the network of SEED schools — co-founded by Rajiv Vinnakota ’93 — in Washington, D.C., Maryland, Miami, and soon in Los Angeles. Those schools, which also are independently operated charter schools, have succeeded in raising the financial donations and pro bono supports that are essential to providing both education and housing to young adults from lower-income backgrounds.

But beyond costs, some critics raise concerns that urban public boarding schools remove the highest-achieving students from their neighborhood schools, draining communities of potential future leaders inside and outside of the classrooms. At the same time, critics say, the students in boarding programs are left to infer that the very communities in which they grew up are barriers to their individual success. 

Tung believes that HomeWorks, which she founded in 2017, could circumvent the problems of both price and brain drain. By letting the Trenton Public Schools handle the core part of the students’ education, HomeWorks saves money while focusing on providing individualized tutoring along with out-of-school academic and social supports, such as workshops on how to recognize the warning signs of abusive relationships and physical- and mental-wellness sessions. 

“We’re so excited about this model because not only is it replicating boarding schools without the bureaucracy, high fixed costs, and scalability issues of running an actual school, it’s also reversing the narrative that our kids need to leave their marginalized communities in order to be successful,” says Tung. “We know that Trenton is incredible and has so much to offer. There’s so much richness to this city. Why not stay here and have our girls work together to stay in their neighborhoods and build up their community?”

Today, HomeWorks employs a core staff of eight people, including Vilma Jimenez ’18, the development and program manager, and works with volunteers. (A board of trustees and an advisory group — both of which include Princeton alumni — help steer the organization.) Revenue in fiscal year 2021 was about $273,000, up from about $80,000 three years earlier. 

“HomeWorks is a very worthy model to test and see whether or not we can make it work for a couple of reasons,” says Vinnakota, who is now president of the Institute for Citizens & Scholars, in Princeton. “Number one is there isn’t any one model that holds the answer to all situations or all communities or all students. Having the ability to try different models is really important to see what we can learn from it.

“The second [reason] is that the model that HomeWorks is trying is, frankly, just cheaper,” Vinnakota says. “Though you don’t want to have all situations be driven by cost, [the affordability] certainly helps you when you try to calculate on a policy level what’s the return on investment.”

Students in the program receive one-on-one tutoring from adult mentors like House Director Erica Hundley.

Photo: Sameer A. Khan h’21

TUNG STARTED ON THE PATH that would lead her to create HomeWorks when she was still an undergraduate at Princeton. Her academic experiences before she entered college had shown her how large a role a school’s learning environment can play in a student’s academic growth. For example, as a child growing up in Hong Kong, she found the school she attended to be impersonal, which in turn limited her success in the classroom.

“It was very numbers-driven in everything. We were even called by our numbers,” Tung says. “I was number 31. [The school] was all about testing. I think because of that, in terms of the culture of the school, I didn’t have a lot of confidence growing up. I was also just failing a lot of my classes and a lot of the tests, and I ended up repeating third grade.”

Her academic turnaround began at age 13, when her family moved to the United States and Tung enrolled at the Lawrenceville School. “Living in a dorm with 40 other women who were my age who were from all around the world, that environment was just unlike anything I’d ever experienced before,” she says. “It made me more empathetic and more confident, more vulnerable. And it also made me realize that when women come together and when we lift each other up and when we’re being nice to each other and cheering each other on, it changes everything.”

A class at Princeton on social entrepreneurship further awakened Tung to new possibilities. Even before she took the class, she was enticed by the idea of one day creating a new boarding school experience, one that was fully accessible to students from lower-income backgrounds. She says the course helped her realize that she didn’t need to wait until she reached middle age to pursue that goal. 

Of course, operating a boarding school while still a college student wasn’t a viable option, but Tung took her first steps toward her goal by becoming a student teacher in the Trenton school district through Princeton’s Program in Teacher Preparation. While she relished her interactions with students, she observed firsthand the ways in which the school district was unable to meet their needs fully. Widespread chronic absenteeism and low test scores on crucial math and English exams were common. 

“It’s not the kids’ fault. It’s not the parents’ fault. It’s not the teachers’ fault,” says Tung. “It’s the system’s fault that this is all happening. And it was really frustrating. It was really heartbreaking.”

The summer before she graduated from Princeton, Tung started HomeWorks as a small summer pilot program; after she graduated, it became an after-school program. She chose to have the program enroll only girls because she wanted them to learn how powerful women can become when they support one another.

“For women, specifically Black and brown women, there’s the intersection of being not only a person of color — and all of the challenges and systemic injustices that come with that — but also gender,” she says. “Understanding what it means to be a girl in this world and not feel completely safe, we wanted to build a program that teaches them to be confident, where they don’t feel they have to put each other down to be at the top.”

HomeWorks recruits its scholars by starting with nominations from eighth-grade teachers and counselors at Trenton middle schools. “We specifically look for kids who are ready and willing to be all in,” Tung says. After receiving a nomination, the students and their families go through an application process that includes several rounds of interviews, including a final peer-group interview with already-participating scholars. For the 2021–22 school year, HomeWorks received 30 applications and enrolled five new students, for a total of 11. 

The screening process aims to identify young women who are willing to make the commitment HomeWorks requires, becoming a part of its community while forgoing some of the time they could share with family and friends from school. The scholars acknowledge that tradeoff but say the experience in the boarding program makes it worthwhile.

Darae has four siblings; her two older brothers and older sister no longer live at home, so it’s her younger sister who misses her most when Darae is with HomeWorks during the week. “She believes that what I’m doing here is really great,” Darae says. “She tells me all the time how proud of me she is. Sometimes she acts like she doesn’t really care I’m away from home, but I know they do get lonely [when I’m gone] because I’m the star of the house.”

Fifteen-year-old Nkosazana is a sophomore in the HomeWorks program who aspires to study abroad, perhaps in Italy or South Korea, and become an anesthesiologist. Because she is an only child, the boarding program offered a new social opportunity. “I’m not very used to being around other girls that much, so at first, I wasn’t too pleased with the idea of staying overnight with other girls,” she says. “But once I got used to it, it was easier because I found girls that were just like me going through the same situation being at home by themselves. They might not have been only children, but they have older siblings who leave.”

The scholars must sometimes explain to their Trenton classmates why they can’t socialize after school. The other students “ask a lot of questions,” Darae says. “Typically, I tell them, you know, ‘I’m going to a boarding program. I like it.’ You know, that’s the most important part. I tell them a little bit about what we do.”

HomeWorks participants, shown in a dorm at the Lawrenceville School, often speak about the friendship and support they receive from other students.

Photo: Sameer A. Khan h’21

THE COVID PANDEMIC, with its sudden move to online classes, presented special challenges for HomeWorks. The program began bringing its scholars to its site during the day, where they could attend their Trenton classes online.

“Virtual schooling [at home] was really tough for our kids. It was hard,” says Tung. “Maybe they didn’t have a computer to use, or they didn’t have Wi-Fi …. Their parents were at work or the kids had distractions at home. We had meals here, and we provided a space where really all they had to do was just learn.”

The pandemic also limited opportunities for field trips and cultural activities, but the program made the most of what it had. When President Joe Biden declared Juneteenth a federal holiday this year, the students participated in celebrations and demonstrations in Trenton. Last spring, they took part in a competition co-sponsored by the Reinvention Lab at Teach For America and the NinetyNine Products sneaker brand. Challenged to create a sneaker design that embodied the future of learning, the HomeWorks team focused on the idea of inclusivity, creating the “Diaspora” running shoe in shades of brown, beige, yellow, and tan to represent “the diversity of girls,” with black shoelaces to symbolize “being tied together for life.” “With each step, I remember the power that our melanin holds, creating legacies in our own communities,” Darae said during the video conference that was part of the shoe’s final pitch. The process helped the young women build skills in conceptualization, collaboration, and marketing.

Even before COVID, managing the daunting challenges of urban education was “much trickier than we anticipated,” says Kris Schulte ’83, who chairs the HomeWorks board and works full time as a teacher at the Lawrenceville School. “Part of the challenge is that the kids are really all over the place in where they are academically.”

To address these challenges, HomeWorks has dedicated more time this year to one-on-one tutoring and invested in an adaptive-learning math software program that provides each girl with a personalized set of problems focused on the areas in which she is weaker. A simple schedule change — moving study hours to after dinner — has also helped. “We previously had those hours in the afternoon, and, frankly, it kept getting preempted by everything you can imagine, like bus delays,” says Schulte. “And the kids needed a break anyway. So now it’s this sort of sacred time after dinner — an hour and a half — and that change is having an effect.”

Tung attributes HomeWorks’ growth to buy-in from the Trenton community: the girls who enroll in the program, their parents and families, their schools. Those close to the program cite Tung’s leadership as the heart and soul of the organization.

“Natalie has dedicated her life — the life of someone who could do many, many powerful things on a grand scale — to focus on this need in this particularly beleaguered city,” says James Kerney II, a trustee of the James Kerney Foundation, which gave HomeWorks a $50,000 grant that purchased its school bus. “She’s got a structure in place to do as much as she possibly can to guarantee that investments that go into the program are going to be used wisely. And that it’s going to serve the longevity of the program.”

Recently, HomeWorks purchased a house near Cadwalader Park in Trenton that is intended to serve as its headquarters and dormitories. It will need to raise an estimated $1.5 million to pay for essential renovations, but when it’s ready, the new building will allow HomeWorks to expand to its desired capacity: 10 scholars from each year of high school, for a total of 40. Eventually, Tung hopes to create chapters of HomeWorks across the country and perhaps even around the world. 

It’s still a work in progress, but already HomeWorks has built a sense of community among its students, the young women say, instilling each with confidence that she can meet her goals in school and life. That’s a message Darae imparts to her housemates daily. 

“I think here, we just want to teach every one of the girls, your voice should be the loudest, your voice should be heard,” she says. “And if they don’t want to hear you, make them. There’s strength in emotion. There’s strength in love. There’s strength in community. And I think that’s why this is the place where you come back and you feel strong. You feel loved, because we want you to have open arms for each and every one that goes here.” 

Kenneth Terrell ’93, a former education editor for U.S. News & World Report, is a writer and editor for AARP.