Sometimes a positive influence can go a long way toward changing someone’s life for the better. For Efrain Monterroso, that person was Marion Friedman, his English teacher at Hightstown High School. For Friedman, it was the people who had helped her through school as a struggling single mother.
Now, both of them are ready to give back. Friedman and Monterroso are the co-founders of PACE Education, a one-on-one mentoring program catering exclusively to low-income students. “A lot of personalized tutoring and mentoring is catered toward high-income families, and we’re trying to make it achievable for everyone,” Monterroso says.
The idea for PACE arose two years ago in a meeting over winter break as Monterroso was finishing his degree at Montclair State University and preparing for a semester as a student-teacher. PACE formally launched this March when it was certified as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
In addition to Monterosso and Friedman, who holds masters degrees in teaching and educational leadership from the College of New Jersey and Montclair State, PACE employs mentors with experience in education in a range of grade levels and subject matters. All of them work full-time as public school teachers. “Our mentors are amazing teachers in the classroom, and they’re dedicated individuals who really want to connect with people and help,” Monterroso says.
Each student in the program is matched with a mentor, whom they meet with for one hour per week. Rather than pair the student with a mentor whose expertise is in a subject the student struggles with, they match based on areas the student excels in. “The reason we usually cater toward the area they’re more high achieving in is we want to cause more of a buy-in into what their relationship with their mentor would be,” Monterroso explains.
Payment is on a sliding scale from $0 to $20 per session. “We also take into account how many family members and how many children are in the program in order to make this a very feasible program and something that someone can achieve and afford,” Monterroso says. “We then subsidize the payment of the mentor with grants and hopefully state and federal funding in order to be able to subsidize that price.” The organization also accepts donations.
“One of the beliefs that Marion has is to be able to pay teachers and professionals a livable hourly rate” that takes into account their level of experience and expertise, Monterroso says, noting that he and Friedman are working for free while the program gets off the ground.
PACE’s offerings go beyond academic support. “We provide the mentoring, we have the social-emotional learning component, we have college and career readiness counselors, and we also have a dietician,” Monterroso says.
“After they are partnered with their mentor, it’s up to the mentor to decide what other services these students may need. A lot of the times we forgot about the fact the student might need help with mental health or college and career readiness. We also want to partner the mentee with someone who can help them outside of academics. We want to make it about the whole child.”
To that end, PACE also collaborates with other nonprofits in the Mercer County area. For example, by working with Rise Community Service Partnership in Hightstown, they’re able to direct students toward that group’s food pantry and thrift store or even provide vouchers for new clothes from the thrift store. Catholic Charities also has a food pantry as well as mental health services to which PACE mentors can refer their mentees.
Another partnership is with Lawrence-based HomeFront. “HomeFront has a lot of homelessness assistance, so if our families need rental assistance, assistance with electricity, with water, they have partnerships that assist people with that,” Monterroso says. PACE, in return, can be a resource for the youth living in HomeFront’s shelter. “We can be their bridge between leaving the homeless shelter to living out in the real world,” he says. PACE mentors also support HomeFront clients who are working to achieve their GED.
While PACE is based in Mercer County, the group has formed a national partnership with the Bonner Foundation, which works with universities throughout the country. “Students in service learning are working with us,” Monterroso says, doing research on how to help parents with virtual learning and also conducting a virtual reading group that shares bedtime stories.
Monterroso was born and raised in East Windsor after his parents immigrated from Guatemala. “I’m very fortunate that they chose this location due to the diversity and endless amount of opportunities. As a minority student, adapting to the American culture can be very specific, even though I was born and raised here. In addition to that my dad was deported the summer between my fifth and sixth grade years. I spent many summers and breaks and additional school days in Guatemala.”
As a result of spending his childhood split between two cultures, Monterroso was inspired to become a Spanish teacher at his alma mater, Hightstown High School. “I wanted to share that perspective in the classroom as to cultural difference,” he says.
But he was also driven to give back to a school that had offered him so many opportunities. “I feel like after graduating from my school district I just knew that I wanted to give back and I felt that teaching was the way.”
PACE Education. Marion Friedman and Efrain Monterroso, co-founders. www.paceeducation.org.