In the late 1980s, Tom Cash observed that students attending top quality, college preparatory high schools in their neighborhoods were more prepared to qualify for college admission and scholarships than those without the same advantages. He wanted to help worthy students gain that competitive edge, so he provided ten students in Jersey City with tuition assistance that would make it possible for them to attend St. Mary’s High School.
That generous decision was the genesis of Student/Partner Alliance, an organization formed in 1993 that would go on to help young people succeed by encouraging them to reach for higher goals and achieve their full potential. Tom’s friends and business partners learned of his personal contributions and shared his goals. Together they decided to embrace a common mission supporting motivated high school students at private high schools in New Jersey’s urban areas of Essex, Hudson and Union counties. By offering tuition assistance and mentoring to increase their chances for college admission and scholarships, these students would ultimately go on to lead successful and productive lives.
In the decades since then, Student/Partner Alliance has provided scholarships and mentoring to more than 2,000 students from low-income areas in New Jersey. In the last five academic years they are proud to boast of a 100% high school graduation and college enrollment rate.
When Margaret (Maggie) Momber joined the staff as the Executive Director in October 2011, she brought business experience to her new role, having enjoyed a 15-year career as an international banker living in France and Germany. Her corporate and government experience and financial background, coupled with her exposure to many different cultures, enabled her to bring a unique perspective to her work as a nonprofit executive.
Today she is drawing on those important competencies in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The S/PA Board, which combines a lot of financial expertise and talent with great generosity, along with Maggie’s background in finance has led to the organization’s present strong financial position. Since S/PA provides four year scholarships, they have created a robust reserve fund to ensure each child’s scholarship is covered from 9th grade through graduation, especially when the unforeseen occurs.
No one could have anticipated this pandemic.
Maggie had an early warning of what was coming as her colleagues in Italy, France and Germany began sharing the news of the unprecedented situation they were experiencing. As the pandemic spread rapidly across Asia and Europe, and then on to the United States, Maggie, her staff and Board were quickly preparing for every possibility. Led by the Board President, Emmett Daly, In just four days the Board itself raised over $75,000 in emergency funds necessary to help their low-income students continue paying their monthly tuition costs this year, even as their families were dealing with the significant economic strain of unemployment as a result of the statewide call for shelter-at-home and others became ill.
As the virus took hold in New Jersey, the board and staff agreed that they would need to find new and unorthodox ways to accomplish their mission, at least for the short term.
At the heart of their mission is the interview process to choose new students. That was the first thing to change. Previously they interviewed their selected candidates in person. Realizing that there would be NO in person meetings, and understanding how daunting participating in a video interview would be for these eight graders, they upended the entire procedure. Instead of speaking with the students, they drew on extensive relationships with school leaders for guidance and then used on line tools to communicate with the students and their families. Using different channels to keep communication open, they were able to make educated, smart decisions even when the basic concept of in-person conversation was unavailable.
The second change came when all the existing upcoming events had to be cancelled. Instead, a more extensive mentor support system was quickly implemented and mentors were encouraged to communicate with all on-line options. The need for these essential programs did not go away – what changed is the delivery mechanism.
The third change came when the staff began working from home. When Maggie first got the heads-up about the disruptions from COVID-19 taking place internationally, she immediately filed a grant request to purchase laptops for her staff. Since most of the team only had access to personal laptops without all their office files, she knew they would be at a disadvantage when they would be working remotely. That quick decision will help make the transition to working from home much smoother and more effective.
A fourth change is using Zoom for weekly staff meetings and a move to on-line Board meetings for the foreseeable future.
More adaptive changes are on the way.
In the next weeks on-line training and orientation programs will be developed and rolled out to accommodate the students and fill in the gaps left by in-person meetings.
Under the guidance of Emmett J. Daly, President of the Board, Thomas A. Cash, Chairman of the Board and Margaret Momber, Executive Director, S/PA is resilient, prepared, and determined to weather any storm.