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Comment on : Princeton Young Achievers and Princeton Family YMCA Combine Resources Enabling After-school Programs to Continue

Princeton Young Achievers and Princeton Family YMCA Combine Resources Enabling After-school Programs to Continue

Several years ago, one of the teachers at the Princeton Young Achievers learning center on Clay Street called me with amazing news: right there, on a shelf filled with dog-eared children’s books, she discovered a signed, first edition of Martin Luther King’s Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos of Community?  The title of Dr. King’s work holds the critical question that has faced PYA since its founding in 1993.  Thanks to our many community partners, volunteers, donors and the Princeton Family YMCA, we have found the answer: here is a story of hope, perseverance and discovery in the heart of the Princeton community.


Eighteen years ago, a small group of concerned parents and educators, led by the late Dr. Shirley Paris, collaborated with Princeton Regional Schools and our two housing authorities (Princeton Community Housing and Princeton Housing Authority) to create Princeton Young Achievers, an after-school program that has worked diligently and creatively to support the educational needs of Princeton’s underserved children.  (Today, nearly 13 percent of the students in the Princeton Regional Schools receive free- and reduced-price lunch, a keyindicator for purposes of calculating federal education aid under Title 1.)  The after-school enrichment programs at each of PYA’s three learning centers have seen several notable improvements over the past four years: new literacy and reading programs; new computers and educational software; enhanced teacher training and retention; a comprehensive re-organization of our learning spaces; and the engagement of our first Education Director, Ann Vershbow (former principal of the Ethical Culture School in New York), who works closely with our students, teachers and volunteers.  The PYA after-school program is now widely recognized as a key resource in the lives of the many families and children it serves in Princeton.


While the quality of our program has improved steadily, PYA has nevertheless struggled to raise enough funding to support the academic needs of these children.  In this most challenging economy, a significant number of foundations drastically reduced their financial support for PYA and other small community-based organizations.  In fact, despite the growth our individual donor base in recent years, it became clear last winter that we would soon be forced to reduce our teaching and administrative staff and implement other cost-cutting measures that would compromise program quality.  In view of this predicament, PYA began to call upon potential community partners who might help us build an alliance that could address the achievement gap in Princeton on a more financially sustainable and comprehensive basis -- an alliance that could bring greater resources to bear on a problem of national concern that has put down deeper roots in Princeton than many would like to admit.


PYA has discovered such a partner in the Princeton Family YMCA, a community organization that responded with remarkable dispatch and insight when it first learned of PYA’s financial predicament. Last spring, during an intensive series of meetings with the Y’s board chair (David Sandahl), CEO (Kate Bech) and other members of its leadership team, we discovered that the Y has shifted its focus to three program areas (Youth Development, Healthy Living and Social Responsibility) and that PYA’s after-school program would fit naturally within the first of these.  We also recognized that the children and families that PYA serves would benefit greatly from the Y’s Healthy Living and Social Responsibility programs.  Further discussions and diligence confirmed a close alignment in our respective vision and goals and revealed significant potential for synergies and reductions in PYA’s overhead and administrative costs.  Finally, I should say that we were greatly impressed with the integrity and effectiveness of the Y’s leadership.


For all of these reasons, the PYA Board of Directors and the Princeton YMCA Board of Directors voted unanimously last spring to combine resources in a way that will allow the PYA after-school programs to continue during the 2011-2012 school year (and beyond), fully staffed and ready to help the same children in each of PYA’s three learning centers.  Ann will also continue to serve as the PYA Education Director, and four members of the PYA board, includingmyself, have joined the Y’s Board of Directors.  My colleagues and I will continue to steward the PYA program and build upon its past success as it enters this new and exciting chapter of its service to the Princeton community.


Combining resources with the Y will enable PYA to do even more for the children and families it has served since 1993.  Indeed, there is so much more that should and can be done to mitigate the forces that conspire to prevent many of Princeton’s underserved children from fulfilling their academic potential.  They need, for example, enrichment programs that remain open during the weekends and during the extended holidays and summer vacations.  Their parents also need workshops and other resources to help them be more effective as advocates for their children as they navigate the challenges and opportunities of the PRS curriculum.  We take enormous pride in what we have accomplished at PYA over the past 18 years, but as a part of the Y, our after-school program will be positioned to leverage greater resources and overcome other limitations that have constrained our work in the past.


When the PYA board voted to join forces with the Y, we also made a commitment to continue seeking support from the foundations and donors whose generosity has made it possible for our after-school program to grow stronger over the years.  We sincerely hope that our donors will continue to support PYA, knowing that their ongoing contributions will resource a program that will now benefit from greater administrative efficiencies and reduced overhead.  Indeed, thanks to the dedication of our many volunteers, donors, and friends, we have delivered PYA into the hands of a community partner that is committed to its growth and improvement for many more years to come.