by Clayton Marsh

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 or 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.

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 of 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. PYA has discovered such a partner in the Princeton Family YMCA. 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 revealed significant potential for synergies and reductions in PYA’s overhead and administrative costs. Finally, 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-’12 school year (and beyond), fully staffed and ready to help the same children in each of PYA’s three learning centers. Ann Vershbow will also continue to serve as the PYA Education Director, and four members of the PYA board, including myself, have joined the Y’s Board of Directors.

We hope that our donors will continue to support PYA, knowing that their contributions will resource a program that will now benefit from greater administrative efficiencies and reduced overhead. Thanks to our many volunteers, donors, and friends, we have delivered PYA into the hands of a community partner committed to its growth and improvement for many years to come.

Chaos or community? Today the answer in Princeton is clear.

Clayton Marsh

Marsh is president of the PYA Board.

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