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From left to right, Assistant Superintendent Marc Natanagara; High School ELA Supervisor Tonya Rivera; High School South teacher Tim O'Leary; HSS Principal Mike Citta; Director of Curriculum 6-12 Norma DeNoia; and United Way of Monmouth and Ocean Counties Vice President of Community Impact Christine Jagerburger meet Sept. 24 to discuss Project SPEAR-IT.

$30,000 Grant Will Support Space for, Pathway to Vocational Opportunities

Toms River Regional Schools is proud to announce a grant award from United Way of Monmouth and Ocean Counties (UWMOC) to pilot a pre-vocational initiative at High School South. Led by Principal Mike Citta and alternative education teacher Timothy O’Leary, the SPEAR-IT (South’s Pre-Vocational Educational Alternatives Resource Institute) program is based on a growing need and interest in public schools for authentic career and technical education (CTE) experiences.

The initiative also supports district-wide annual goals to promote equity and individualization in both its programs and the supports it offers students, from on-site therapists to staff training in social emotional learning to girls coding field experiences.

“At Toms River South our goal will always be to graduate students and supply them with the tools they need to be successful in life,” says Citta. “We recognize that success can be measured in many different ways and the path is not always the same.”

Working with the district grant writing team, Citta and O’Leary proposed a program that would especially help at-risk students who often disqualify themselves from vocational programs before they even get to their sophomore and junior years. The district is partnering with the Ocean County Vocational Technical Schools (OCTVS) to make sure the program pathways work.

Toms River Regional has had other successful career initiatives recently. Students as young as 5th grade participated in leadership summer camps to learn about life skills important to relating with others, like empathy and communication. The district is a state leader in problem based learning and makerspaces, where students tackle real world issues while gaining practical skills, from manufacturing to coding. And in 2016, it established nine Career Academy strands, ranging from sustainability to entrepreneurship, at its three high schools.

Citta believes the $30,000 award will not only create a model pre-vocational pathway, but will increase student commitment to their education, improve attendance, and decrease dropout rates. As part of the grant, HSS will remodel a space that is dedicated to the program, and facilitate at least 10 field experiences for students.

Board President Joe Nardini-- a licensed electrician himself-- has long been a champion of authentic work experiences, and he helped connect the Project SPEAR-IT team with partnership commitments from several local trade organizations. “Any time a student can get their hands on tools and solve real world problems, the more doors will open for them, whether college-bound or heading right into the workforce after graduation,” says Nardini.

SPEAR-IT will help students become aware of diverse careers in the technology, advanced manufacturing, and construction industries, incorporate experiences on and off site to explore work environments, test skills needed to be successful in those careers, and help become eligible for and interested in many of the thirty shared time career programs offered at OCVTS.

UWMOC invited the district to speak about the program at its Sept. 17 board meeting, during which the grant was officially approved and ratified. Representatives from United Way met with the project team at High School South Sept. 24 to scope out the new space and discuss next steps.

“As one of our four core community impact initiatives, UWMOC places a high value on youth career pathways,” states Lori-Anne McLane, President & CEO of United Way of Monmouth and Ocean Counties. “We are proud to partner with Toms River Regional Schools to ensure that the youth in our community are able to create a vision and plan for their future, and provide them with the support needed to succeed.”

The school hopes to have the initial phase of Project SPEAR-IT implemented by the end of this November. The grant from United Way of Monmouth and Ocean Counties offers the possibility of funding for a second year, which the school and district plan to pursue. UWMOC is currently making plans to present Toms River Regional Schools with a grant award check during an upcoming board meeting. A grand opening of the remodeled classroom will be announced. The district welcomes the community’s involvement in celebrating this new and exciting initiative.

About United Way of Monmouth and Ocean Counties

United Way of Monmouth and Ocean Counties mobilizes donors, volunteers and community partners to improve the lives of youth and their families. The organization’s vision is that every child is successful, every family is financially stable, and every community we serve is stronger. To learn more, visit

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