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By preparing children and adults for the future, Newbridge isn't waiting for Superman

Newbridge Center for Arts and Technology, Cleveland. Photos Bob Perkoski
Newbridge Center for Arts and Technology, Cleveland. Photos Bob Perkoski
A 14-year-old boy tentatively steps into a building filled with sunlight, art and fresh flowers. Sleek computers line the desks of one room while another brims with inviting pottery-throwing equipment. Kids who look a lot like him smile while snacking in a lounge hip enough to rival any Starbucks. The boy is greeted by friendly adults in suits and ties.

"You meanů I can come here?" he asks in disbelief.

One of those adults meets the young man's gaze and responds, "Yes, you can come here."

Recalling the exchange, Jeffrey Johnson, Executive Director of NewBridge, says, "That's when I got it." Suddenly, all the frenetic business of opening a non-profit learning center -- scraping together funding, designing brochures -- faded away, leaving only the work at hand. "And then you get a kid that asks you that question and it all makes sense."

NewBridge, Cleveland's new alternative center for arts and technology, is modeled after Pittsburgh's Manchester Bidwell Training Center. Like that award-winning program, NewBridge provides free career training for adults and after-school classes for urban high school students. Bidwell boasts 85 percent job-placement rates for adult grads and a 90-percent high school graduation rate for its youth participants.

That the NewBridge launch coincided with the debut of the film Waiting for Superman is no small irony. In the movie, Manchester Bidwell founder Bill Strickland talks about urban kids getting left behind by their education system only to wind up in the correction system. The film takes a sobering look at the daunting challenges facing the American classroom, warning that no Superman will be swooping in to make everything all right.

But is Johnson Cleveland's Superman?

"There is no Superman," Johnson replies bluntly. (Don't believe him for a minute.)

Skepticism about the big man in blue tights notwithstanding, Johnson's enthusiasm for his latest endeavor is utterly contagious. "This is my passion," he says. "I love, love, love this. It is indescribable. The impact is immeasurable -- changing lives, launching careers and inspiring minds." That Johnson left a lucrative executive position at Goodyear in order to help those less fortunate than he only adds to his appeal.

"These are at-risk kids," he stresses. "These are kids on the margin."

The NewBridge environment eschews a drab institutional feel in favor of a thoughtful, architectural one. In a word, this place is cool. But the mindful design isn't simply eye candy, promises Johnson. It is designed to foster creativity and learning.

"We put people in an environment that reflects how we feel about them," he says. An airy kitchen is stocked with healthy snacks and drinks, none of which are under lock and key. Student lockers are not protected by combination locks. "They respect the place."

The first teen programs began in October with 85 participants. Classes keep kids engaged by teaching the high-tech media skills that they interact with on a daily basis. The photography tract focuses on classic aspects of design such as color and balance, while the digital arts program teaches them graphics and photo editing skills.

"I'm teaching the elements of visual art -- to introduce photography as a way of seeing," explains Donald Black, digital photography instructor. The benefits, he stresses, move in both directions. "When they get it, when they see it, and their pupils start dilating," he says, "that's the most gratifying part." Black calls it the aha! moment.

Kids in the multimedia class learn about digital music not from a website or YouTube video, but from a real-live Grammy Award-winning producer. Gordon "The Commish" Williams has worked alongside the industry's most illustrious names, from Quincy Jones to Amy Winehouse, but none of that dulls his NewBridge efforts.

"I really wanted to work with younger at-risk kids," says Williams. "And not just one racial demographic. Music is a universal language. It relates to kids of all colors."

Williams calls his classes "edu-tainment," the synthesis of education and entertainment. The equation delivers, he says. "The kids don't even realize the level of sophistication of the work they are doing in the ninth grade, after just six weeks. College kids can't do what they're doing now."

The ceramics program may look like playtime for tactile teens, but along the way to producing pretty pottery, these kids can't help but learn complicated concepts. By mixing their own glazes and firing the clay at very high temperatures, explains Johnson, the children are learning inorganic chemistry and thermodynamics. They also are learning how to be good citizens. "Ceramics grounds us in a very big way," says Johnson.

Slated to launch in early 2011, the adult programs endeavor to place graduates in living wage jobs. "What we do here is from the market back," notes Johnson, explaining that courses are designed around the needs of Cleveland's healthcare industry. The pharmacy technician and phlebotomist/sample collection courses, for example, will train attendees for jobs for that garner salaries of $30,000 or more. Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals helped shape the curriculum, which includes a six-week externship boasting valuable hands-on training.

Tuition for NewBridge students is 100-percent free, funded by organizations such as the Cleveland Foundation, University Hospitals, Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation and Key Bank.

Unfortunately for Johnson and his staff, demand already exceeds supply. With 60 applicants for just 50 slots in the adult program, and applications pouring in daily for the youth program, it is clear that many will leave the process with a heavy heart. One of those folks will most certainly be Johnson.

"It's already breaking my heart," he says.

With sincerity like that, an oversized "S" on his chest would only be redundant.

This story originally appeared in Fresh Water Cleveland.

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