Newark students learn life skills through glassmaking

A Newark student gathers glass from a 2,000 degree furnace while others melt glass rods over a flame.

“Glass is fascinating. Fire, glass, it’s dangerous, so it’s attractive to young people. Arts, in it of themselves, are transformational,” said Barbara Heisler, CEO of GlassRoots.

GlassRoots is a Newark-based nonprofit founded by a Rutgers professor 17 years ago.

“We use the glass arts to attract, engage and change young people’s lives. Fire and glass let us talk about science. They let us talk about math and also personal change,” said Heisler.

The arts education organization works with schools in and around Newark. One of the programs offered, Business and Entrepreneurship, runs through the school year. Students visit once a week for six hours in the flame shop. Some create glass beads.

In the hot shop, 14-year-old student Jean-Paul Campos is in the process of making a blown glass cup.

“It’s fun, it’s like nothing I’ve ever done,” said Campos.

“Our metal rods are like giant straws. What that allows it to do is go to one end of the rod, blow into it and inflate the glass on the other end. That’s why it’s called glass blowing,” said Malcolm Morano, a glass blowing apprentice at GlassRoots.

Although they’re all learning the art of glassmaking from teaching artists, that’s not the overall goal, says Heisler.

“For high school students, our desire is to create personal development and exposure to different options in their lives. A lot of these students will never become artists. The skills that they learn here will serve them well — resilience, persistence, cooperation, collaboration. It’s a great method for engaging and changing,” said Heisler.

Sixteen-year-old Maria Escobar wants to be a nurse.

“This shows me how to work with other people and how to act. It shows my personality to others,” she said.

“A program like this has given me an opportunity to explore and let me see what I want to do beyond high school,” said student Mara Flores.

The teens pay a small fee to participate based on household income. The majority of the tuition is covered by private donations and grants. Students also learn entrepreneurial skills like pricing and customer analysis. At the end of the school year, they present a mock business plan to a panel of judges.

“I want them to understand they can be successful in something new, that they can take healthy risks, that there are adults around to support them and that they have lots of options for their lives,” said Heisler.

The students will graduate from the program this May.