Few things are more frustrating, when it comes to improving the education of our children, than the billions of dollars spent each year by federal, state, and city authorities with little or nothing to show for it. Donors have thus turned to private charitable organizations dedicated to improving education without using taxpayer dollars. But which programs work and which don’t? In New York City, one program that focuses strictly on inner city youth and follows them through four years of high school certainly stands out. It’s called Student Sponsor Partners.
Founded in 1986, SSP has a clear focus on what it wants to achieve and how to bring it about: Reaching out to the disadvantaged children of New York City, placing them into successful non-public high schools, and getting them to graduate, diploma in hand, ready for college and beyond—all without government help.
SSP consists of two critical components. First is the financial: The program appeals to donors who generally give in the range of $1,000 each year to help pay for a student’s tuition. Of course, most private schools cost more than a mere $1,000 a year. In fact, sponsors pay for roughly 60 percent of a student’s tuition, the rest coming from fund raisers and nonsponsor corporate donors like American Express, Citicorp, ABC News, and Merrill Lynch, to name a few.
The second component is the mentoring program. Sponsors do more than just donate money. They donate their time as well, serving as successful role models to students who would otherwise be in over their heads. Just the presence of a mentor over a four-year period sends the signal that he or she is committed to helping the child graduate on time. Sponsors and students work out their schedules themselves. While the program asks that they speak on the phone at least once every two weeks and meet at least four times a year, most pairs meet more frequently than that.
In some instances, one can simply offer financial assistance and, if time does not permit mentoring on the side, that student can be matched up with someone else who may have the time but not the money. But more often than not, financial sponsors also take a little time out of their week to offer advice and share their diverse knowledge and experience.
For most of these students, meeting someone with a professional career is a new experience altogether. According to Jane Dowling, executive director of Student Sponsor Partners, “while the financial component is extremely important, the students also look forward to the sponsors as mentors who will help them get through four years of high school. Ultimately, we look for people who can give both time and money.”
Under ordinary conditions, the economic and educational outlook for children living in dense urban jungles is not great. Graduation rates in most of the zoned public high schools in the deteriorating neighborhoods of New York range from 18 percent to 35 percent. Most students come from single-parent households and low-income families. But thanks to SSP, these kids are taken from their difficult surroundings and placed in competitive, mostly Catholic, high schools where the graduation rate is a soaring 95 percent. (It should be noted that the students and their sponsors come from diverse religious and even non-sectarian backgrounds—the Catholic high schools dwell not on religious origins but rather on economic plight. They are dedicated to helping poor students achieve an equal footing with other, more advantaged students nationwide.)
Back in 1986, 45 students (with 45 sponsors) were sent to two Catholic high schools. Today, the number of students currently attending high school under the auspices of SSP has swelled to 1,592. More than 1,400 have graduated—90 percent of them going on to college. SSP has become a $7.6 million program with more than 1,500 sponsors and donors supporting students who attend 21 different schools in the New York area. And now, other cities have started their own Student Sponsor Partners program, from Chicago to San Francisco.
Yet countless students are left out, and innumerable potential sponsors miss their chance to make a difference in their lives and in the lives of others. Last year, SSP received over 1,600 applications for 575 open spots. Dowling hopes to increase the number of available spots: “We are looking to serve 2,000 students in our high school program by fiscal year 2003.” Achieving this, of course, will depend on the generosity of donors at all levels.