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United Way of Northern New Jersey-EDUCATION Success Stories


Impact Stories

Read about how our Education impact is helping the community.

The One Sure Investment: A Quality Start

Economists, parents, business leaders and even politicians agree. One of the surest bets today is investing in quality early childhood education.

Kristal ElliotResearch shows that $1 invested in early education saves communities 7 to 10 percent annually by reducing dropout rates and crime and increasing lifetime earnings.

Each year, United Way of Northern New Jersey makes it possible for about 1,000 children to receive scholarships and get this critical start, preparing our next generation of workers. In addition, parents have peace of mind to focus at work knowing their children are safe in capable and caring hands.

Kristal Elliot sees it firsthand. Since her 3-year-old daughter began attending Children on the Green, a nationally accredited area preschool, the change is measurable.

“She’s learned her colors, she’s learned her shapes,” Kristal says. “She’s learning how to build healthy relationships and how to express her feelings in a positive way.” 

For many families like Kristal’s, the quality care at Children on the Green would be out of reach if not for United Way’s scholarship. For more than a decade, United Way has invested in making quality child care accessible to ALICE® (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) and poverty-level households throughout the region.

“The price of child care is almost similar to paying two rents, and I can’t afford two rents,” says Kristal, a single mother who works full time in the financial services department of a local car dealership.

Investing in the Future

At about $16,000 a year per child, the price of early childhood education is on par with rent or a college education – putting it out of reach for ALICE families. Meanwhile, studies show access to early education is proven to have lasting results.

“Preschool education, it’s the one thing we know works,” says former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean. “There is no argument. Every single piece of research I’ve seen in the last 20 years says that if you give kids preschool education you change their whole future trajectory.”

United Way’s involvement has a dual mission of making it possible for families to access affordable child care and centers to maintain high-quality programs.

Nonprofit centers receive $26 a day from the state to support children from ALICE families living paycheck to paycheck. Along with this subsidy, parents contribute financially, paying what they can afford based on their income. However, this isn’t enough to cover the cost of running a quality program.

United Way funding helps to bridge that gap between the subsidy centers receive and the cost of providing a safe, quality and engaging environment for children. As a result, centers can stay open, parents can be productive employees, and children can start off on the right track. In the end, the community reaps the ultimate benefits.

Off to the Right Start

“I am thankful for United Way,” says Jackeline Alvarez, whose family also benefits from United Way child care scholarships. “My children are able to attend a quality center, and I can go to work and go to school. It really gives me peace of mind.”

The scholarships have been key to providing stability for the family as Jackeline’s husband was struggling to recover from a workplace injury. The cost to send two young children to quality child care was insurmountable for them and yet they were already seeing the positive impacts on their children.

“My dream for my kids is for them to be better than I am, to go to college, to get a degree so they can become something in their lives,” Jackeline says. “I feel that being at Children on the Green they are off to a better start.”

Support United Way and help ALICE and poverty-level families have continued access to affordable, quality child care centers. For more information, click here.


Empowering ALICE to Succeed

It’s a mantra often repeated to young children: Hard work pays off.

El Primer Paso Executive Director Milagros Castro is daily proof for the children she oversees at the nationally-accredited Morris County preschool. In the span of just six years, Milagros rose from being an assistant teacher to taking over as the school’s leader.

Milagros CastroIt took dedication and commitment from Milagros, but she traces back her success to a key element of support from United Way of Northern New Jersey.
“Without the United Way scholarship, I would not be here today,” Milagros says. “It definitely changed my life.”

Milagros is one of the 60 child care educators in the region who has been the beneficiary of a United Way scholarship to pursue a nationally-recognized early childhood training credential called the Child Development Associate or CDA. Through this credential program early childhood educators are trained in developmentally-appropriate practices in the classroom to nurture young children and prepare them for success in kindergarten and beyond.

The scholarship program is a strategic component of United Way’s work to provide ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) and families in poverty access to quality early childhood education.

Quality Teachers Matter

Teachers matter more to student learning than anything else in a school. The CDA training sets the foundation for improving classroom quality and provides a stepping stone for an educator’s career advancement, helping to combat high turnover rates. The average annual turnover rate is more than 30 percent for preschool teaching staff, which is detrimental to children’s development, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

“The CDA was a huge part of where I am today,” Milagros says. “It gave me the tools to help children develop their skills. And it allowed me to get a raise – giving me the chance to stay in the community I wanted to work in. It wasn’t about making money, it was about making ends meet.”

A small school, El Primer Paso could not have afforded the costly training on its own, says Susan O’Donnell, the school’s former executive director and a mentor to Milagros.

“We took a wonderful teacher who had great potential, and we were able to turn her – with United Way’s support – into a very qualified staff person,” Susan says.

Earning the CDA was just the beginning for Milagros, who then went on to apply those credits to help complete her bachelor’s degree. United Way also helped her with a scholarship that she used to purchase expensive textbooks. Now, Milagros is pursuing a master’s degree.

Long-term Societal Benefits

Once enrolled in the CDA program, Milagros says she came to better understand and be proud of the lasting, positive impact she could have on the lives of the children under her care.

Quality experiences during a child’s formative years are shown to have positive ripple effects not only in the lives of individual children, but across communities. Children who have attended quality early childhood programs are more likely to graduate high school and have higher earnings as adults – reducing the costs that can weigh on a community to address crime and delinquency.

Milagros sees this firsthand, watching how children grow during the two years they spend at El Primer Paso.

Many of the children come in as 3 year olds with limited English-language skills, but by the time they leave for kindergarten, they are able to stand at a microphone and speak in front of adults.

“I hope to maintain the high quality we have here and serve more children,” Milagros says. “I never thought I would be sitting here as executive director. I want to continue all the work we do here for many years.”

Support United Way and help provide scholarships for early childhood educators to pursue higher training and improve children’s lives through the nationally-recognized Child Development Associate program. Click here to learn more.


Keeping Quality Child Care Centers Open

In operation for nearly 50 years, the Ada Budrick Child Care and Learning Center is not only a Boonton institution but a lifeline for the majority of families it serves – ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) and poverty-level households. But like many centers in New Jersey, Ada Budrick experienced financial difficulties following the start of the recession and found itself on the brink of closing.

kids group and teacherFortunately, United Way of Northern New Jersey was able to help, orchestrating a merger that saw the Greater Morristown YMCA take over management of the center.

Today, enrollment is up at Ada Budrick and students enjoy free access to swim and gym classes at the YMCA. Ada Budrick is also now home to a state-of-the-art STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) classroom thanks in part to United Way providing nearly $5,000 in materials and organizing almost $1,000 in volunteered
professional services.

Ada Budrick is just one of several success stories. Throughout its region, United Way has helped four other struggling centers, including ones in Morris and Sussex counties. As a result, a total of 300 children from ALICE and poverty-level families continue to have access to quality affordable care each year. 

“I think about the magnitude of children that have been helped as a result – and the families – if you look at it long term, United Way has done a wonderful job in affecting the quality of people’s lives,” said Carol Armour, executive director of the Greater Morristown YMCA.

Making a Critical Impact

Having access to quality affordable child care not only allows parents to keep working, it has a critical impact on a child’s life. Studies indicate quality early childhood experiences help set the groundwork for success, both in school and life.

Yet, the cost of quality child care – at about $16,000 a year per child – is out of reach for many ALICE families in New Jersey. And with about 260 child care centers closing since 2010, according to the state, the search for affordable care has gotten even tougher.

“The centers we help act as a safety net for ALICE families, allowing parents to be productive, reliable workers and contribute to their communities,” said United Way Success By 6®Associate Director Kathy Kwasnik. “In addition to strengthening the local economy with workers, quality care also saves communities the cost of children
falling behind and having to play catch up down the road.”

Helping Centers Thrive

In addition to Ada Budrick, United Way helped prevent the closure of Collinsville Child Care Center by brokering another merger with the Greater Morristown YMCA. Today, enrollment is up and the Morristown center is thriving.

Enrollment is also up at Parsippany Child Day Care Center where United Way worked with the board to avoid a potential closing. Likewise, United Way marshalled a variety of resources to help Enrichment Center at West Side not only remain in its Hopatcong location, but also expand its capacity to serve the local ALICE population.

And United Way ensured ALICE families did not lose access to quality affordable child care when a Madison center was facing financial difficulties. United Way helped jumpstart negotiations with the F.M. Kirby Children’s Center of the Madison Area YMCA. The Kirby Center agreed to expand its capacity to serve the additional children, avoiding a crisis and allowing for a seamless transition.

“Through the efforts of United Way and community leaders, we were able to sidestep an economic crisis for those families served in Madison,” said Kwasnik. “By ensuring access to quality affordable care throughout the region, we are investing not only in the future of our children but our communities as well.”

Support United Way and help ALICE and poverty-level families have continued access to affordable, quality child care centers. Click here to learn more.


Expanding Access to Quality Child Care

Armed with rating systems for restaurants, hotels, and movies, consumers can easily make informed choices about where to eat or sleep or what to watch. And yet, when it comes to one of the most important institutions today – child care – parents are left making a decision about the well-being of their children with little more to go on than their instinct.

2 young latin kidsUnited Way of Northern New Jersey Success By 6 is working to change that by partnering with the New Jersey Department of Education and the state Division of Family Development on a statewide standard quality ratings system for all child care centers. Known as Grow NJ Kids, the rating system is intended to create a set of identical standards used to evaluate centers, giving parents clear information and guidance on center quality. “Establishing a uniform quality rating gives parents an invaluable tool that can help them make more informed choices about quality care for their youngest children,” said United Way of Northern New Jersey Success By 6 Associate Director Kathy Kwasnik. “Parents can be reassured that their children are being left in capable hands and receiving quality care.”

Setting the Groundwork for Success

Finding the right care not only eases a parent’s mind, it has a critical impact on a child’s life. Studies indicate quality early childhood experiences help set the groundwork for success, both in school and life. However, for ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) and poverty-level households, accessing quality and affordable child care is a struggle.
According to the latest United Way ALICE Report, child care in this region can range from $1,000 to $1,700 a month. For struggling families, the cost of child care is often the most expensive line item in the family budget – sometimes even more than housing.
United Way Success By 6 is focused on making sure our community’s youngest members have access to high-quality care and that organizations have the tools needed to provide such care. As a result of United Way being at the forefront of these issues, nonprofit child care centers in our region are among the first to be measured using Grow NJ Kids.

Stronger Centers, Stronger Future

Specifically, 15 United Way partner child care centers in Morris County and four in Somerset County were included in the state’s pilot of Grow NJ Kids. Participating centers will be able to see how they rate under the new system, getting a head start on improving their scores and their center’s quality. Centers are being measured on safety, leadership, quality, training, and accountability.

“This is a terrific opportunity for our local centers,” said Gail Reuther, president of the Morris County Child Care Directors Association, which has members participating in the pilot. “We are honored to be among the first to test a system we believe can strengthen our centers, children, and communities for the long term.”

Once the program expands statewide, more than 400 centers will have their quality evaluated each year.

“Finding a quality, affordable child care program can be daunting,” Kwasnik said. “When we know that the first few years of a child’s life are so critical to future success in school and life, we think this can be a valuable tool to help centers improve quality as well as help parents make educated decisions.”

United Way invested $20,000 to have its partner centers included in the state’s test drive of Grow NJ Kids. The United Way funding makes it possible for the centers to receive independent evaluations of how they perform against those standards from early childhood education experts at William Paterson University. Click here to learn more.


We Help Youth Thrive

When a fifth-grade student at Lincoln Park Middle School walks down the hallway, chances are he or she will feel comfortable to say hello to a passing eighth grader – and probably by name.

That can be a big deal for each student’s morale.  And this seemingly simple act says a lot two girls walkingabout a school’s culture.

Creating a healthy school culture is a process that takes purpose, action, and time – along with the right resources.

Lincoln Park Middle School represents approximately 400 students in fifth through eighth grades. In 2012, the school committed to the School Culture and Climate Initiative, led by United Way of Northern New Jersey Youth Empowerment Alliance and the College of Saint Elizabeth Center for Human and Social Development.

“United Way has been critical to our success, guiding us through the process of assessing and improving our culture, providing resources, and connecting us to industry thought leaders and other schools going through similar challenges,” says Meyer.

Creating a Positive Culture

This initiative provides school districts in northern New Jersey with the means to improve their culture and climate. The result is an environment where children can thrive emotionally, physically, and academically, and where students, the family, and the wider community are engaged in the schools.

“The goals are to help schools improve culture and climate, increase students’ social emotional skills and character development, decrease bullying and school violence, increase student engagement, and increase students’ perception that their schools are safe and supportive of them,” says Liz Warner, leader of Youth Empowerment Alliance and co-director of the School Culture and Climate Initiative.

The process begins with a survey completed by students, faculty, staff, and parents. The team at the College of Saint Elizabeth’s School Culture and Climate lab analyzes the data. Then our expert consultants work together with the schools to capitalize on opportunities to create a positive school environment. The actual changes made at a school are recommended by the students themselves.

This process is based on years of research from top educational organizations that shows children with strong social and emotional skills who are in schools with a positive culture and climate have fewer disciplinary issues and higher academic achievement.

Students Lead the Way

“Based on the survey data, we completely changed the structure of our school so that fifth through eighth grades were intermingled,” says Meyer. “Students initiated team-building activities throughout the year that involve mixed grades. Now, we’ve found that students respect each other more because they know each other.”

Every middle school is unique, but the universal goal is for every student who walks down the hallway to feel like it’s a safe place in which he or she is comfortable to participate.

“United Way guided us in letting go and letting the kids lead the way,” says Lincoln Park Culture and Climate leader and teacher, David Winston. “If you want to make a change it needs to come from your stakeholders, which for us is our students.”

These students are inspired to make a difference in their school now and continue to make a difference in our world, tomorrow.

United Way and the College of Saint Elizabeth are working with more than 50 schools in 12 districts, representing more than 25,000 students – that’s huge potential for positive impact in our community. Click here to learn more.


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