Alliance for Education seeks public support to boost programs

classroomThe new school year is in full swing but there was no summer break for the Greenwich Alliance for Education. The non-profit agency, dedicated to enhancing public education through private fund raising, worked all summer to get things set for fall.

There’s a full roster of programs aimed toward all grade levels this year as, buoyed by the great success of the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program at Greenwich High School, the benefits of the alliance’s grants can be seen. The AVID program, which is now also in Central Middle School and will be at Western for the 2015-16 school year, was started at GHS by the alliance and has since been taken over by the district. It helps, through teaching and guidance, to get Greenwich students to be the first in their families to go to college, and with classes in all four grades at the high school and expansion into the middle school it’s considered an unqualified success helping students achieve at a higher level.

“This success is just wonderful,” Julie Faryniarz, the alliance’s executive director, told the Post during a recent interview. “It takes time to be able to pilot something and the opportunity to do this and see its success is so worthwhile. Our whole board loves AVID. We can see, especially if you have the chance to see them in the classroom, the students who are benefiting from it. They are being lifted up. The quality of the teachers in this program is amazing. Their dedication to the kids goes above and beyond the school day.”

Ms. Faryniarz said that the success shows that these things can take time but that it’s worth the investment made by the Greenwich Alliance for Education and all its supporters. This has been a long-term program that even predates Ms. Faryniarz’s involvement, and she says it is a true example of the kind of benefit the group tries to have with its grants. This all stemmed from an initial investment of $33,000 from the alliance, a significant sum for the group, and she praised those who had the vision to do it.

The alliance has many programs it continues to fund looking to enhance opportunities for Greenwich public school students, including the Tuning In to Music program where music lessons are provided to allow talented young musicians to really achieve. There’s the Digital Divide program that has provided students without access to computers or the Internet at home the chance to play on an even field with others, something that’s even more important as the district continues its digital learning program. Plus there’s the Going Places with Books program that works with seven area preschools to promote literacy, including through the always popular Greenwich Alliance for Education Storymobile.

This year the alliance is also helping with the “innovation lab” at Greenwich High School by funding the research and development of the program. Ms. Faryniarz called it a “new way of approaching teaching” where five teachers have come together on what is essentially a school within a school to deal with global changes and how that impacts teaching in the classroom. The teachers cover several subject areas and they are all working together to find the best way to teach and improve student performance overall. The program is just starting but it has the full support of the GHS administration, and Ms. Faryniarz said the alliance is really excited about being a part of the development.

“Innovation in the schools is so important,” Ms. Faryniarz said. “Nothing should be stagnant.”

But, despite the program being fully run and funded by the district now, the alliance still has its eye on AVID. It helps with events like the yearly graduation ceremony and the development and training at Western Middle School, and is now working on scholarships to help keep the students in college. The costs of higher education are exorbitant and it is often difficult for families of AVID students to meet tuition costs. That’s where the alliance’s college assistance program (CAP) comes in.

“We believe in these kids,” Ms. Faryniarz said. “They have done everything that was asked of them at Greenwich High School. They graduated. They went to college. We still want to help them, though, so we started the CAP program and it’s a two-part program. One part is we provided for two years gift cards for students who graduated from AVID to purchase books and supplies when they got to school. Then, this past summer, we provided scholarships to the class of 2013. We gave two $2,000 scholarships to students.”

But that was only a small boost, and the alliance is looking to do more. According to Ms. Faryniarz, there were seven applicants overall from the original AVID class of 2013 with only two receiving scholarships. She said there is a $50,000 gap beyond what the students need and what the alliance can currently provide. She said the hope is that the fund can be built up and that students will be able to reapply on a yearly basis for help, not just with paying for books but for help with tuition. Filling the entire $50,000 gap is not the alliance’s goal, but the group wants to have a greater impact through growing the fund and having it available to better address those needs.

“These kids have done everything that’s been asked of them,” Ms. Faryniarz said. “They’ve gotten to college. We don’t want them to leave college because they can’t pay to be there. We know that you need  college in order to be successful and support yourself. It leads to so many greater challenges.”

A big part of the qualification for CAP to get help to stay in school isn’t just grades and performance, though that’s also very important. It also involves maintaining a connection to the program. Just because they’re no longer at GHS, they can still be a big help to the AVID program as an example to kids currently taking the classes.

“We want these kids connecting back,” Ms. Faryniarz said. “We want to learn about what they’re doing in college and we also want them to use their knowledge to be able to help the younger kids that are going through AVID.”

But being able to support CAP is reliant on the support of the public for the alliance and that’s true of all the grants it provides. As a 501(c)3 non-profit, donations from the public are needed and Ms. Faryniarz said through programs like AVID and CAP, the positive impact of investing in these children can be seen. There are other alliance programs that benefit as well.

The alliance is looking to grow and enhance its mentoring program this year. That began with the AVID class of 2013 but Ms. Faryniarz said she feels it was started a little bit too late. In 2014 it was started earlier and allowed students the chance to meet with mentors from the beginning of the second semester into the spring when the seniors began their GHS-sponsored internships, and the impact was more visible. Because of that, the alliance wants to see it grow and has a need for members of the community to volunteer as mentors.

“It’s a great program,” Ms. Faryniarz said. “The people who express interest go through a few training sessions and we hope that they stay with their students for at least two years, preferably for the four years the student is in school. We want them to act as a sounding board for the student. We know some relationships are going to be phenomenal and some aren’t. You’re going to find that with everything. But there can be a real impact. We had a case where a student communicated to their mentor that they weren’t happy in school and the AVID teacher was able to reach out to that student, and they worked together to transfer that student to a better place. It was all communication. We had another case where there were financial issues and the mentor was able to reach out and find scholarships that were available.”

Ms. Faryniarz said some people have stepped up to volunteer as mentors because they were the first in their families to go to college and they know the challenges facing these students. But all types of people are welcome to volunteer. There are certain skill sets that are being looked for in mentors so if, for example, a student expresses interest in being an engineer or a lawyer the alliance would have someone to connect them with. The hope is that this kind of mentoring relationship could eventually lead to an internship or a job or another opportunity. It’s not an obligation but it could lead to something and it’s a way to support a student.”

Ms. Faryniarz said the alliance is encouraged by the initial results of the program and will adjust it as needed as more is learned. But the one thing that is clear is that more mentors are needed from the community. The AVID program continues to grow and this year there are two classes for freshmen instead of one as in prior years.

Other involvement is also being encouraged. Ms. Faryniarz said she wants to make sure and hear ideas for future grants. She urges people with ideas for enhancing public education to come to the alliance with proposals for possible pilot programs. It could potentially lead to a grant, and Ms. Faryniarz said that can’t happen unless people reach out to her and the alliance.

“We’ve got a lot of teachers out there with a lot of ideas,” Ms. Faryniarz, noting that AVID was an idea that first came from California and was brought to the alliance’s attention by a Greenwich teacher. “Bring them to us. Let’s have the conversation. Let’s see what it turns into.”

More information about all alliance programs and how to get involved may be found online at Greenwichalliance.org.

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