NEWARK — Russell Wight didn’t go on Oprah to make a splashy announcement about his efforts to give kids in New Jersey’s largest city a better education.
The idea probably didn’t even occur to him. Wight kept a low profile while his foundation funded hundreds of deserving students in private schools.
“That’s kind of my decision,” Wight said. “I’m not egocentric; I’m a private person. I have zero interest in personal publicity.”
The 71-year-old real estate developer admitted it may be time to step forward and take a bow for the work the Wight Foundation has done during the past 25 years, as his goal is to replicate the program in other cities.
Success stories abound. Simone Mack-Bright recalled growing up in a family racked by drug use and violence in the late 1980s and signing up for as many extracurricular programs as she could “just to get out of the house.” A turning point came when a woman who worked in the lunch room at her middle school told her about the foundation’s scholarship program to place deserving students in prep schools.
With little experience traveling outside Newark, a visit to the Lawrenceville School “blew my mind,” Mack-Bright said. She saw her future, and eventually applied and was accepted to the Pennington School, graduated and went on to Rutgers and NYU, earning a master’s in higher education administration. Her daughter Amina plans to become a second-generation Foundation student.
“They gave me a lot of support,” Mack-Bright said. “When things in my family were turbulent at times, they never gave up on me. It changed my life, and it saved my life.”
The program operates out of a relatively modest, 17th-floor office in the heart of Newark. Promising seventh-grade students sign up for intensive weekend and summer academic sessions, and those who demonstrate the ability to perform at the required level are rewarded with prep school scholarships. At school, their progress is monitored closely and support given when needed.
In an average year, about two dozen students will start at prep schools, Wight said. Most have graduated from prep school and gone on to four-year colleges.
“We are about access, and the key to that access is the intimate environment.” Foundation executive director Rhonda Auguste said. “We’re saying, ‘Why shouldn’t all children have that access? Why should only rich kids have it?'”
Wight, a trustee and general partner of Vornado Realty Trust, lives in Boca Raton, Fla., and Aspen, Colo. He started the foundation in the mid-1980s after watching a documentary about the plight of inner-city youths in Newark. His early fears that prep schools would resist diversifying their student bodies dissolved after he spoke at a conference and was “besieged” by school officials eager to recruit minority students.
“Most successful endeavors usually are a series of coincidences that work out well down the line,” he said. “I thought the challenge would be to the get the kids into the schools, but it turned out to be finding the kids.”
Foundation officials spread the word by going directly to local schools in the Newark area and giving presentations. Surprisingly, they weren’t received in all communities, according to Auguste; some districts shut them out for fear they would lose state funding.
“I actually had one superintendent tell me that for each child we took into the program, they would lose $12,000,” she said.
The program’s ripple effect is evident in the Crawford family of Newark. Of three siblings helped by the Foundation, two have pursued careers in education; parents Barbara and Ed Crawford remain involved in the Foundation even though their children are several years out of college.
“There’s nothing I could do to pay the Wight Foundation back for what they’ve done for my children,” Barbara Crawford said.