June 7, 2023

HomeWorks Highlights Young Women, the Power of Academics, and Community

SCHOLARS AND LEADERS: At Homeworks Trenton, founded by a 2018 Princeton University graduate, young women from marginalized communities engage in activities focused on academics and leadership skills in a free residential program. (Photo courtesy of HomeWorks)

By Donald Gilpin

HomeWorks Trenton has been helping marginalized teenaged girls in a free after-school residential program established in 2016, and is now looking to quadruple its student population and move into a recently-purchased three-story house at 1212 Edgewood Avenue in Trenton.

HomeWorks has seen impressive growth in support and its impact on its students, academically and personally, over the past seven years, and its Executive Director Natalie Tung sees no limits to its future possibilities.

Tung, who founded the organization when she was an undergraduate at Princeton University and student teaching at Trenton Central High School, had come from her home in Hong Kong to attend The Lawrenceville School for four years before coming to Princeton. She saw the potential of the boarding school model for the girls she was teaching in Trenton.

“I had such an amazing experience at Lawrenceville, not only with the learning and the education, which is so incredible, but also living in a dorm with 40 other girls,” she said. “It was the first time I had an experience where girls were really lifting each other up. It was such a powerful community of women coming together. I realized the power of women and the power of community.”

As she was earning her teaching certificate while attending college, Tung developed her idea for HomeWorks. “I saw how Trenton is such a beautiful, amazing community,” she said. “The students there were amazing, but because of the challenges, because of the systemic injustices, the kids had so many more challenges than what I had seen at Lawrenceville or among students in neighboring school systems.”

She continued, “As a sophomore at Princeton I was thinking, ‘What if I could replicate the Lawrenceville model at HomeWorks and bring it to the public schools, to girls in marginalized communities?’”

HomeWorks now is replicating the boarding school experience for 12 young women, who stay overnight in dorms throughout the week and are transported to and from their public schools. Every afternoon they engage in activities focused on academics and “identity-driven leadership,” after which they eat a family-style meal and stay in the HomeWorks dorm with two full-time staff members.

The schedule includes more than 400 hours of programming per year for each student, including everything from group therapy to field trips to Philadelphia and New York City; to coding, poetry writing, finance, and investments; to swimming lessons, a social justice curriculum, and more.

After dinner each night the students have study hall and tutoring, more than 180 hours of tutoring per student each year.

Tung cited some of the achievements of HomeWorks over the past year, including a 98 percent attendance rate and 90 percent median GPA as compared to the Trenton school system where 36 percent of students are chronically absent and the median GPA is about 67 percent.

“These kids are going into a school system where there are a lot of challenges,” said Tung. “Ninety percent not on grade level for math, 80 percent not on grade level for English. It’s a beautiful community, but there are a lot of extra challenges, that specifically girls and specifically Black and Latino girls have to overcome with their families. We’re committed to work with them to overcome all these challenges.”

Cameron, a graduating senior this year, was accepted at six different colleges and will be going to The College of New Jersey for computer science. Darae, a HomeWorks scholar from 2017 until her graduation in 2022 and a peer leader, was accepted by eight New Jersey colleges and universities and is attending Montclair State University on a full scholarship.

Since 2016, HomeWorks’ diverse team has grown to eight staff, eight board members, and more than 20 volunteers. HomeWorks has been recognized and supported by Princeton University, McKinsey and Company, Echoing Green, Comcast, Hollister, TRESemme, Camelback Ventures, Barclays, Vital Voices, The Rachael Ray Show, and more.

The 501(c)(3) organization is now trying to raise $3 million to renovate its new property at 1212 Edgewood in order to expand the program to more than 40 girls and also to “be more sustainable and an anchor in the community,” Tung said. The building has been unoccupied for more than 10 years, and Tung is hoping to work with the community to revamp the building and revitalize that part of the neighborhood.

Plans for renovation include dorm rooms for students, housing for staff, a study space, a dining room, a teaching kitchen, and office space for administrators. A large outdoor area on the property would be used for classes, social gatherings, and a recreational area.

“When I look at the building, I envision being able to have 40 scholars there,” said Tung, as quoted in a Real Estate NJ article. “I see it being just an incredibly warm, inviting space and a community space where everyone is excited to come back. It’s a place where all of our kids are living, but also wanting to push each other to grow and to really thrive in their academic space, to thrive in the community, to pursue new things, whether it’s in arts, sports, coding, or computers — anything they want to do, they have that ability to use this space to really pursue and to grow.”

Tung shared her vision for the ongoing expansion of HomeWorks. “By providing a safe academic and residential space, HomeWorks scholars all over the world will gain the tools to achieve their full potential, and collectively break down social injustices in their home communities and beyond through ground-up, people-driven systemic change,” she wrote. “We are starting in Trenton, New Jersey.”

Tung added, “We’re always looking for volunteers, always looking for tutors and programmers, and we’re also looking for support for our building. Please reach out through our website at homeworkstrenton.org.”