Student Sponsor Partners Helps Inner-city Teens Make Their Mark in World

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For more than 25 years, Student Sponsor Partners has provided financial support and mentoring to help at-risk students in the inner city attend nonpublic high schools, primarily Catholic schools.

Student Sponsor Partners (SSP), a nonprofit organization founded in 1986, serves students in Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. Blessed Sacrament-St. Gabriel High School in New Rochelle will be added for the 2012-2013 school year, bringing the number of partner schools to 27. More than 5,000 students have graduated from the program’s schools.

Founded by the noted financier and philanthropist Peter M. Flanigan, SSP started with 45 students and 45 sponsors in two high schools in the Archdiocese of New York: Cathedral High School in Manhattan and Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx. Flanigan serves on the SSP board of directors and sponsors 17 students himself.

Flanigan, now an adviser to UBS Securities LLC, also founded the Patrons Program, and the Center for Education Innovation of the Manhattan Institute.

Among SSP students, the graduation rate is 85 percent, with a college matriculation rate of 95 percent among those who graduate. When discussing those numbers, Flanigan told CNY, “Those statistics show that it works.”

“People are concerned, and rightly concerned, about giving the kids who most need it, a decent education,” he said.

Adults can become involved in SSP as financial sponsors, mentors or as both a sponsor and mentor for a student. “The ideal relationship is when someone is paying a student’s tuition and mentoring them,” said Dr. Margaret Minson, executive director of SSP.

The personal relationship between mentor and student is a highlight of SSP, she said. Mentors make a four-year commitment to their student, meeting with him or her in person from four to six times a year. Mentors also are in monthly contact with their student by phone or e-mail. Mentors have “a lasting impact” on students, Dr. Minson said.

At each partner school, a coordinator serves as a liaison between the students and the SSP office. The coordinators receive a stipend through the Altman Foundation. In the Archdiocese of New York, all of the partner schools are Catholic. While not a Catholic agency, SSP works closely in partnership with the Inner-City Scholarship Fund, under the leadership of Susan George, executive director, and the Patrons Program, headed by Jill Kafka, executive director. “We couldn’t do what we do without these partnerships,” Dr. Minson said.

The chair of SSP’s board of directors is Jim Healy, who worked for some 30 years as head of fixed income at Credit Suisse.

There is an extensive application process for students in the program. Students are academically average or below average, with families earning less than $10,000 per person in the household per year.

In 2011, 526 students entered the SSP program—the largest number in its history. Dr. Minson said, “Because of the fine educators in these schools, the SSP students have a chance to really thrive academically and personally.”

Many SSP graduates continue their involvement with the program. Some 50 graduates now serve as mentors.

Grace Urena is an SSP alumna who works at the SSP office in midtown Manhattan. With the assistance of a sponsor, she attended Msgr. Scanlan High School in the Bronx, and continued her studies at Columbia University, earning a degree in Latino and ethnic studies.

“I had a great sponsor who encouraged me to step outside my boundaries,” she told CNY. She returned as a professional to SSP because of the “great things that they do for students.”

“It’s nice to be a part of that,” she said.

Bob Niehaus, managing partner of a private equity fund and vice chair of the SSP board of directors, has sponsored and mentored six students since 1988. “The fact that SSP both provides a quality education and mentoring appealed to me,” he said.

“Many of these teenagers are really eager to improve their lot in life, to get ahead. You can provide them a window or a roadmap in how to do that,” he said.

“You have a chance to really open their eyes to what our society and our country has to offer,” he said, including broadening avenues for advancement, educational opportunities and scholarships.

“If you can get these kids through high school, they in large part graduate from college. It’s an opportunity to both change a life and help a young person who wants to climb out of poverty,” he said.

Being a mentor and sponsor is also a lot of fun, he said. “Young people have a lot of enthusiasm,” he said. The program organizes special events and activities for sponsors and students including softball games, ice skating parties, sporting events and dance recitals.

Jorge Fernandez, a senior at La Salle Academy in Manhattan, is sponsored and mentored by Niehaus. “SSP gave me the opportunity to come to Catholic school,” Jorge said. “Thinking back to eighth grade, all my friends were going to the local high school. I see them on the streets now, and they are up to no good. If I didn’t have the opportunity to come to La Salle, I’d be with them on the streets up to no good.”

Of his sponsor and mentor, he said, “It’s motivated me to get good grades and get work done so I can go on to college and maybe one day be in his position and be able to give back to a student who is struggling to get along.” Jorge told CNY that he has already been accepted to several colleges, and is waiting to hear back from others before he makes a decision.

“This program really helps a number of students get a much better education,” he said. “It really has been life-changing for me.”

Speaking of the importance of Student Sponsor Partners, Peter Flanigan said, “If you look at the graduation rates and the college-ready rates of the children graduating from our inner city public high schools, you will see why it is necessary.” According to figures on the New York City Department of Education Web site, the 2010 graduation rate for students of New York City public high schools was approximately 65 percent.

“I hope and believe the American people do recognize how tragically inadequate the inner-city public school system is for those young people from the inner city, and how much that problem has to be solved,” Flanigan said.

Asked if SSP has fulfilled his original vision, Flanigan responded, “Perhaps it’s asking too much that we can help every student that wants it.” He noted the need for more sponsors and financial supporters, saying, “We have more children that want it than we can serve.”

Information: www.sspnyc.org

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