Achieve Foundation celebrates 20 years of excellence

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Achieve Foundation hosted a nostalgic celebration highlighting 20 years of resounding success with the Achieve Volunteer Tutor Program and also the retirement of founding Executive Director Deborah Prinz at the Orange Lawn Tennis Club in South Orange on June 5.

The event, “Wine Tasting and Conversation,” featuring Hank Zona of The Grapes Unwrapped, also honored the Stephen and Mary Birch Foundation, the Haberman Family Foundation and Orange Orphan Society, which have provided major funding for the volunteer program since 2001.

Event sponsors include longtime corporate supporters of Achieve, Berkowitz Lichtstein LLC and RegentAtlantic, and wine tastings were poured courtesy of Ann Laskowski of Keller Williams MidTown Direct Realty and local resident Patricia A. Bell.

“The event was really nice for me personally to hear about all of those who have been touched either by Deborah or the Achieve Foundation,” Jenifer Strugger, Achieve’s vice president of communication, said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “I have lived in Maplewood for 15 years, I have kids in the school district, and am very familiar with the Achieve Foundation. My daughter has been tutoring with them since middle school.”

Established in 1997, the program pairs students at academic risk, whose families often cannot afford private tutors, with trained volunteer tutors who offer assistance at no cost. Since its inception, more than 2,000 adult and teen volunteers have assisted more than 3,000 students across all district schools, contributing a free service valued at $25,000 to $50,000 annually. Teachers and guidance counselors refer students for tutoring to ensure that those intended to benefit from the program are the first served.

At the time of its conception, Prinz was serving as president of the South Orange Middle School Home School Association; she and some other parents wondered if having trained volunteer student tutors would benefit those whose families could not afford to pay for outside help.

The establishment of the AVTP soon led to the emergence of today’s Achieve Foundation, which provides significant funding to support a wide range of initiatives that promote outstanding, innovative public education in the SOMA schools.

Today, the Achieve Foundation has expanded its offerings to include the annual Maker Madness STEAM fair, the 2014 restoration of the Columbia High School Auditorium, and pilot programs later adopted by the district, such as Beyond the Bell elementary afterschool enrichment and the acclaimed high school robotics program. In 2017, the number of annual teacher grants awarded — since the first three in 2000 — reached 874, totalling nearly $1 million.

“Many people helped me to get the tutoring program and the Achieve Foundation off the ground and enabled them to grow into the reliable and effective institutions they are today,” Prinz said in a recent letter to the News-Record. “The legions of volunteers: tutors, board members, event planners and others who go beyond the call to drive Achieve’s programs are the heart and soul of our organization. Our lifeblood is the steady stream of financial support we receive from foundations like those we’re honoring tonight, plus the local families and businesses who contribute more than 80 percent of our funding.

“It’s the hundreds of South Orange and Maplewood School District staff members, however, who provide the spark for our work,” she continued. “A highlight of my job was spending time with educators, shaping their ideas into viable projects and thinking of creative ways to support them. From STEAM education to restorative classroom strategies to making mosaics out of glass, they have kept me current and made it possible for me to seem knowledgeable about subjects that were completely beyond my grasp. At a time when teachers are often underappreciated, I’m honored to have helped facilitate their contributions.”

Achieve Foundation will continue to drive forward its educational initiatives, now with Eileen Collins Neri, the former donations manager, at the organization’s helm as the interim executive director, effective July 1.

“I grew up in Maplewood, live in South Orange and graduated from Columbia High School,” Neri said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “I’ve been with the organization for 10 years, starting with the Night of 100 Dinners, and then became a board member and transitioned to the donations manager position. I got involved because my kids were spread out in three different schools in the district and this was an opportunity to do some volunteering.”

Neri said her most recent position as a director of development for a senior citizens facility in Chatham and her time as the volunteer manager for Achieve Foundation have given her keen insight on how to move the foundation forward.

“I know a lot of the donors through my work with our donor database, and I know what it’s like to be on the other side as a volunteer with the organization. We are in a great position because we do a lot of things really well. Our goal is to support the district and fill in the blanks that the district isn’t able to manage due to budget constraints,” she said. “We want to keep doing the good things we are doing with the teacher grants, and hopefully also attract some new volunteers to come on board. Amy Forman has done a great job with expanding our volunteer outreach. We have 31 high school students who have been volunteering with us for three or more years.”

In addition to strengthening current operations, Neri would also like to breathe new life into former initiatives that have gone dormant over time.

“I would like to revisit the donor honor roll; it hasn’t been nurtured the way it used to. It’s a major donor program where people pledge a certain amount over a specific period of time,” she said. “We will also continue talking to township committees, volunteers, chambers of commerce, everyone involved with the students. We want to ensure that we are coordinating our efforts and pooling our energies and not stepping on toes or repeating work.”

The tutor program has worked hard to expand its range both with the schools it serves and in terms of the services available.

“This is my fifth or sixth year doing the tutor program, and we expanded the program a couple of years ago so that we are now in the high school,” Forman, Achieve’s program coordinator, said in a recent phone interview with the News-Record. “We used to recruit during lunch once a week and talk to students who either needed to be a student or wanted to volunteer. The limited time that the coordinator was in the building didn’t allow us to reach everyone because we could only reach the students who ate in the cafeteria at the time we were there.”

But Forman said that CHS, valuing the importance of the program, worked to increase Achieve’s presence in the school.

“The school provided me an office so now I am there three days a week, and I can also meet with the students after school or during study hall,” she said. “We were also able to expand the hours from after school, evening and weekends to also meet during other free periods during the day, which really enable us to meet more needs of high school students if they are on a sports team or work nights and weekends.”

The middle school tutoring program began five years ago and mostly sees eighth-graders tutoring sixth-graders, Forman said; each year, approximately 40 middle school students tutor other middle school students or elementary school students.

“Another change is a pilot program where adult volunteers work with rising seniors during the spring of their junior year and the fall of their senior year working on college admissions essays,” Forman said. “This has been especially helpful for those whose parents aren’t familiar with the college application process, don’t speak English, etc. They help with brainstorming ideas for essays and explaining the common application. We started the program in September of this year, with the current class graduating in 2018.”

The positive feedback that Forman has received from both volunteers and recipients regarding this and the other programs offered confirms for her that the Achieve Foundation is on the right track in serving the needs of the community.

“If kids are showing up early in the morning or late at night, that tells me that we are doing something right,” she said, adding that having 31 students “who are willing to come in early in the morning or late at night gives me hope in this world.”

“People are very cynical and might say the students are doing it for college applications, but whenever I ask one of them to help, they are always willing to put aside an hour of their free time to help someone else,” Forman continued. “Students come back every year for tutoring and I think it’s really hard to find volunteer work where you can see the impact that you’re making. When these volunteers leave at the end of the year knowing that they truly helped another student succeed, I think that’s why students keep coming back.”

Photos Courtesy of Claire Sinclair