Public high schools in northern New Jersey’s inner cities are in a state of disarray. Some of them are graduating as few as 25% of their students. On the other hand, the private (mostly Catholic) high schools which serve the same demographic populations and geographic areas, graduate between 85 to 95% of their students and virtually all of them go on to institutions of higher learning. There are thousands of minority youth who desire, and would benefit from, a private high school education because of the higher academic standards and better learning environment. Unfortunately, with tuitions ranging from $2,500 to $4,500 per year, most of them simply lack the financial means to do so.
About 15 years ago, Thomas Cash began fulfilling his sense of public responsibility by underwriting the private school tuition for some very needy youth in Jersey City, and he spent time mentoring them as well. Within a few years, he began recruiting friends and colleagues to participate in a similar way. In 1993, Cash secured a 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and called the new organization the Student Partner Alliance (SPA). “Partners” give both personal time as well as money to ensure a better chance for a young boy or girl. Since the early 1990’s, SPA has put nearly 200 boys and girls through private high schools. In the current school year, there are 171 students attending eight different private schools in Jersey City, Newark and the Oranges.
The SPA, as currently organized, has several unique features. Financial need takes priority over academic achievement. There are a number of scholarship funds that exist to help the “best and brightest.” SPA students tend to be more average academically – individuals who would probably “fall through the cracks” if left in a public school. With private education, most will become productive members of society rather than a “statistic.” Also, as SPA has been able to secure foundation gifts to cover administrative expenses, all of the money from partners goes toward paying student tuition. Finally, SPA organizes a number of group activities during the year to encourage interaction between students and their partners. At least one annual gathering involves a charitable activity in order to instill a sense of community responsibility in the students.
While the primary goal of SPA is to give disadvantaged youth a chance to become productive and contributing members of society, there is a strong additional benefit of the program. Most inner-city private schools are running well under capacity. When schools are running under capacity, the cost of educating a student rises. This creates a vicious cycle of tuition increasing, thus pushing down enrollment even further. Over the years, a number of private schools have closed their doors permanently, leaving major voids in communities and neighborhoods which can never be filled. By bringing additional students into these schools, SPA is helping , in a modest way, to stem the tide of increasing tuition, making the schools more accessible to the communities they serve.