For nearly two decades, an empty lot in Newark’s South Ward stood as a testament to the failure of the state school-building agency that had razed a thriving neighborhood in 2005, promising to construct a new high school on the site. The high school was never built. But recently, thanks to $17 million from philanthropist Brian Maher, former CEO of Maher Terminals in the Port of New York and New Jersey, and his daughter, Amanda Maher, a state-of-the art school, the Clinton Hill Early Childhood Education Center, has finally opened on the site.
The cheery building is bright with sunshine, plants and wall decorations at eye-level for little ones; the courtyard sports climbing structures, toys, and padded flooring. The school is making quality child care, which is both limited and expensive, accessible to those who need it most.
Last fall, the learning center for 198 children age six weeks to five years, which opened in 2022, received a New Jersey Future 2023 Smart Growth Award for “transforming a long-vacant urban site in Newark into a thriving and vibrant destination for the youngest community members.”
The Mahers have been working to improve early childhood education for the poorest New Jersey families for decades, ever since the family sold their business, one of the largest privately held container terminals in the world, in 2007. Determined to find a philanthropic mission that would truly make a difference in the lives of the economically disadvantaged, the Mahers focused on early education.
The state had led the way in the push for early education with the New Jersey Supreme Court’s 1985 Abbott decision, which decreed that all 3- and 4-year-olds in the highest-poverty school districts receive a free, high-quality pre-K education. The problem: The state neglected to provide the necessary funding. The Maher Charitable Foundation was formed with a primary mission of providing educational opportunities for financially disadvantaged students and families, and one of its first initiatives was an early-education advocacy group, PreK Our Way. The nonprofit’s aim was to persuade the state to fulfill its mandate to fund pre-K for the poor.
Putting their efforts into education was a no-brainer for the family. Brian’s wife, Sandra, was an elementary school teacher; Amanda has a PhD in political philosophy and teaches at Drexel University. The family had a lot of help from early-ed gurus such as Barbara Reisman of the Early Childhood Funders Collaborative, who became a senior advisor to the Maher Foundation.
“Education is one of the most effective tools we have for empowering individuals, overcoming inequity, and realizing social progress,” says Brian Maher. His daughter adds, “Early childhood education, and having the school embedded in the community, is incredibly important for the long-term success of children. This was the obvious work we should be doing, could do, and that would make a difference.”
Helping expand preschool facilities wasn’t new to the Mahers. In 2012, they built an infant-and-toddler addition to the early-education center run by Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark; following that, they partnered with the Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation to renovate Children’s Day Preschool in Passaic, which provides early education primarily to children of recent arrivals to the country. Their efforts, and those of other pre-K advocates, have borne fruit: Access to preschool for the state’s poorest families has dramatically expanded. New Jersey now has pre-K in more than 275 school districts, up from just 31 in the 1990s, and ranks fourth in the nation for early childhood education, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers.
As recognition of the importance of preschool education in combating poverty grows, universal pre-K has become the new rallying cry. Last February, Democratic Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey’s 11th District and other lawmakers introduced a child-care bill in Congress that would offer high-quality early education to every child in the country.
Building the Clinton Hill facility on state land from the ground up was challenging, with red tape aplenty. Though abandoned, the land had to be purchased from the state, and private providers had to be found to run the programs with state and federal funds. The pre-K provider, Clinton Hill Early Education Center, moved from its cramped location across the street, where children had been attending pre-K in trailers, and La Casa de Don Pedro was chosen to provide the instruction for children aged three and under.
Before building, the Mahers traveled to see various models of early childhood education. “One of the things that really resonated with us was schools that were embedded in the community,” says Brian Maher. “They didn’t just provide early childhood education. We saw one in New York that had a health center and a dentist, and also provided opportunities for parents to come in and connect with services and other members of the community.”
By a stroke of luck, Clinton Hill Early Learning Center has ended up being just such a vibrant center of community. The Mahers had hired an “amazing” local man, Khaatim Sherrer El, during the building phase as a consultant and then as building manager. During the process, they discovered that he was also helping residents obtain fair housing, environmental justice and food security. The Mahers provided seed money for Sherrer El to launch the Clinton Hill Community Action group, which is based in the building and has become a “huge force” in the community, says Amanda Maher.
“We didn’t plan on having Clinton Hill Community Action from the beginning; it happened organically, but the fact that it happened is really awesome,” she says. “It ended up being much more of a community-oriented project than we had originally envisioned. We were just going to build a building—and then this whole thing kind of came out. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we just kept meeting really great people doing great work and wanted to support them.”
The work of Sherrer El and the community-action group is becoming more important as the area gentrifies, thanks in part to the Clinton Hill Early Learning Center. Sherrer El and others in the action group advocate for residents, 60 percent of whom are impoverished, as rising rents and prices make their day-to-day survival more precarious.
Addressing families’ practical needs is entwined with the Mahers’ mission of putting children on a long-term trajectory to success, they say. “Equally important to an early education for kids is their parents’ security in term of employment and housing and all the other things that go into making a kid’s life manageable,” says Amanda Maher. “Embedding the students in a larger ecosystem of services and community really is important to their long-term success.”
Now that the Mahers have found the people and programs to run the school, the final stage is letting it go. They’re looking to transfer the building’s ownership to the community and thinking about their next project. “It has to be something that moves the needle, that has an impact,” says Brian Maher. “Building a school like this, kids benefit from it on a daily basis. It’s a tall order to find projects like that.”