Picture: Saratoga Sponsor-A-Scholar 2013 Graduation, provided by SSAS from their website at saratogasponsorascholar.org.
By Colette Linton
SARATOGA SPRINGS - In 2007, Jim LaVigne was describing a plan for an initiative that would prepare ten Saratoga High School sophomores, who were financially in need of assistance, each year by supplying additional support and direction to help them meet their goals and enter college. By the end of that meeting, LaVigne was one of the founding board members as well as volunteer executive director of Saratoga Sponsor-A-Scholar with 36 pledges of $10, 000 over five years to get the program running.
Seven years later, 54 students have been accepted into the SSAS program and 26 students have started a college career, an opportunity many nearly dismissed as an impossibility prior to the program.
Unlike scholarships and grants, SSAS begins during a student’s sophomore year in high school and works to reinforce a base of academic achievement during the next three years by providing resources to its participants through the help of volunteer mentors, academic tutors, the program's board members and two of Saratoga High School’s guidance counselors.
"It's a local cause," LaVigne said. "It's all Saratoga Springs kids. They come back, and they add to the fabric of the community. It is not a gift to these kids. We expect them to fulfill the terms of their contract, attend the homework sessions, use tutors go on school trips be responsible, do volunteer work and just be good citizens."
If students are accepted into the program, they sign a contract to meet specific requirements during the term of the program. They are to meet with their mentor once a month, maintain their grades above 80 or attend tutoring, have a productive summer, behave in a manner consistent with the standards of SSAS, and attend mandatory weekly study skills programs. In return, SSAS dedicates $10,000 to "each scholar's enrichment" - $4,000 during their last three years of high school for supplies, study skill seminars, tutoring, PSAT and SAT training and entrance fees, seminars on the college application and scholarship process, college visits and attendance to cultural events; and $1,500 is dedicated to each scholar for each year they successfully complete in college.
The nonprofit reaches out to the population of students each year that are financially in need and qualify for federally assisted/free school lunch program. Currently, 1, 200 students in the Saratoga Springs school district are eligible for federal lunch assistance, and those that are in high school may loose sight and motivation to continue academics after graduation without outside support.
Within those 1,200 kids, there are those that are really bright, LaVigne said. "They have incentive, they have personality and everything that is needed to succeed, but they don’t have the same opportunities."
The opportunities LaVigne referred to range from discussions with parents about he possibility of attending college to extracurricular activities that could be added to a college vitae, trips to college campuses to gather a sense of the atmosphere, and paying for the fees associated with applying to college and aptitude exams.
A part of SSAS' goal is to make up for the opportunities students might otherwise miss due to a lack of finances and or resources.
"What we promise those kids (SSAS participants) is that for the last three years of high school we give them the opportunities, and we give them the tools that the other kids have and we teach them about how to get into college," LaVigne said. "They just need that precipitating factor and Sponsor-A-Scholar is that. We tell them, we show them, we convince them that they are able to do this and that they can go. They can get out with a reasonable amount of debt and that they can have a much better life."
High school junior and SSAS participant Davawn Hartz, whose interests are in acting and creative writing, said that without the SSAS program "I would definitely see myself as lost".
"I'd still have the drive, but I'd be lost," he said. "It shows you where to direct your hard work."
The program is a continuous element in the lives of SSAS students as well as coordination between the nonprofit and the school. This relationship is aided by high school counselors, Brandy Crary and Matt Nelson, who help ensure that students are maintaining their grades, that the students stay focused and they help chart the route to college.
Mentors in the program are additional supports serving as adult role models that help students identify college resources. They are also paired together to try and be a compliment to the students' skills and interests in addition to encouraging students to meet challenges and grow.
"They don't take away the obstacles," Hartz said. "They get you through them."
Mentors, like the board members, are volunteers that do many tasks that are unlimited in scope in order to strengthen the students' relationship with the community and broaden their prospects for higher education. One such relationship is between senior Becky Tibbatts and her mentor, Nedra Stimpfle. The two were paired together two and a half years ago, and they both remarked on the changes that have taken place regarding Tibbatts' outlook on college as an affordable, obtainable opportunity.
"It's hard to imaging my life without Sponsor-A-Scholar," Tibbatts said. "It has changed my life so much. I wouldn't say that I was naive, but I wouldn't put together what it took to get into college: how much tests cost. It is a lot less stressful."
"She was very shy," Stimpfle said "What the program does is create more possibility in different areas for that (personal development) to happen. She is more confident."
"Yes, definitely," Tibbatts said in response to Stimpfle's observation. "Back then, I was so scared."
The chance to have a relationship with another adult is important for the students because it is a common part of many experiences that take place in the community as well as in terms of guiding students to and trough opportunities, Stimpfle said. "And for many of these students, it's not in their picture at all."
SSAS is currently looking for mentors for next year as well as individuals interested in being future board members. The program will also host its annual event "Bowling For Scholars" in May. For more information, visit saratogasponsorascholar.org.