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Monks use 6th century rulebook to inspire Newark students

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NEWARK, N.J. (PIX11) -- No matter what neighborhood you live in, there are certain smells, landmarks and sounds that you identify with.

For many living in Newark, New Jersey, it is unfortunately sounds of gunshots and police sirens that have become all too familiar to many of the residents. They are sounds that have become standard, the norm, on a daily basis.

Newark is now the seventh deadliest city in America. It's a city where 28 percent of the population live below the poverty line and only 64 percent graduate high school.

Many teenagers growing up in the Brick City say the odds are simply stacked against them.

" I didn't think I'd have a choice," said 17-year-old Muqkadeen Poole. "I never thought I would be able to get out of Newark."

"Honestly, I think what Newark is lacking, what the people of Newark are lacking, is identity," 18-year-old Tyler Hayes said.

However, these teenagers' views are now changing and evolving thanks to their high school, which is located in the heart of Newark.

At a quick glance, Saint Benedict's Prep may look like any other ordinary Catholic high school in any given city. However, it's one of the few high schools across the country that can also call themselves a monastery, home to a group of Benedictine monks who pray as many as five times a day.

The students who attend St. Benedict's admit they were skeptical these men could help them -- let alone relate to their experience.

" I did not know what a monk was. They were these weird guys in robes that I just got used to," said one student.

Father Edwin Leahy opened the school in 1973, a time when Newark was in a state of turmoil. His mission was to foster a healthy environment and sense of community for teenagers -- a safe haven.

"What makes this place different is it's like a diner -- it's open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," says Father Leahy.

The school has a near 100 percent graduation rate in a city that has far less than that. Father Edwin credits high expectations and discipline for the astonishing results.

The students can choose to live on campus or at home. But that isn't all. If a student is having a rough time at home for a night, a week, a month, the dorm is always open for them.

Senior Muqkadeen Poole has an incredible story growing up in Newark. Muqkadeen grew up as the man of the house - his father was incarcerated at a young age. He felt trapped and scared growing up in Newark, thinking that his only option as a career was a convenience store.

"In seventh grade, I thought I would only work at a Walgreens or CVS," said Deen. "It was through St. Benedict's that I realized it was possible to make it."

So, you may be wondering how the monks are able to transform the lives of teens. Well, the monks follow an ancient sixth-century rulebook which was used to foster community in the year 530 A.D. The book used thousands of years ago still rings true today.

The number one rule at St. Benedict's that every student relates to: Brotherhood.

"Whatever hurts my brother, hurts me."

That is a motto posted all over the school. Senior Tyler Hayes is in the minority at the school -- he's white -- and says that does not matter.

"I do stand out, " Hayes said. "My friends ask me if it's weird being one of the few white kids and to be honest, I never really had a problem with it."

"The hardest rule for anyone to follow in life is obedience," Father Edwin said.

Obedience. A simple word, and one the students let play out. That is because they are in charge, they run the school, the halls, the cafeteria. Father Edwin says that is how they learn the rules of life -- the rules to then take back onto the streets of Newark.

"If you are in a gang, have drugs on you, or a weapon, here or in the neighborhood, you can't be here," Father Edwin said.

Not every student makes it through Saint Benedict's school. Some students get kicked out, others drop out. It's the students like Muka that learn when you believe in yourself, and reach out to someone you may not normally reach out to, anything is possible.

"I want to now be a director, CEO of a corporation - the point I want to make is that I can now be any of those things. I can be whatever I want, and I love it," said Muqkadeen Poole.