April 14, 2021-- In the fall of 2019, it was announced that the United Way of Monmouth and Ocean Counties would be funding a pre-apprenticeship program at High School South with a $30,000 grant. It was dubbed Project SPEAR-IT (South’s Pre-Vocational Educational Alternatives Resource Institute), and it was well on its way to providing hands-on instruction and training for students seeking a more career and technical educational pathway.
Then, a pandemic happened. This did not stop Project SPEAR-IT, but did force it to make some adjustments. When the 2020-2021 school year began, restrictions were still in place; however, in some ways, it pivoted the program to new, enriching, and practical paths.
“Because students could not leave the building,” said Principal Mike Citta, “we shifted our focus from outside work experiences to opportunities right here at High School South. Our SPEAR-IT students have completely renovated our school’s cafetorium, resheeted and spackled the hallways, and even renovated the bleachers.
“Not only have our students completed thousands of dollars worth of improvements to our school, they’ve gained invaluable experience, and caught the attention of other students, who are now interested in learning more about what Project SPEAR-IT is. Despite the challenges, the program has been a home run.”
The students were also primarily responsible for renovating and designing the program’s space, which they did throughout the early part of 2020. But outfitting the space was complicated by the pandemic, which delayed a planned donation of stools and materials from Milwaukee Tool.
In stepped Toms River School Board President Joseph Nardini who, a contractor himself, provided board support for the school’s initial project application to UWMOC. He then helped secure the donation by working out the logistics with Milwaukee Tool, and the name-brand stools arrived at the end of February, just in time for the transition to increased in-person learning.
"The program has been a home run." - High School South Principal Mike Citta
The program was built not only to survive a pandemic, but to thrive beyond the confines of the grant period, which technically ended with the 2019-2020 school year. It’s done just that.
Most recently, Project SPEAR-IT lead teacher Timothy O'Leary collaborated with the United Way of Monmouth and Ocean Counties to create official signage for the space. Originally, the plan was to unveil traditional signage at a grand-opening event, but Covid-19 put a stop to that. And for the better too, as that extra time enabled the project partners to orchestrate a better idea: Why not let the students create the signage? This is, after all, supposed be a hands-on program, right? Right.
"We are so excited to complete this sign for everyone to know who made this whole thing possible," said O'Leary. "The fact that the United Way has provided this opportunity to this school is a dream come true."
The signage-- see below for more details on how it all came together-- has been a microcosm of the program itself in that it’s been worth the wait.
“United Way is thrilled to continue our partnership with Toms River High School South as part of our work in youth vocation and employment,” said President and CEO of United Way of Monmouth and Ocean Counties Lori-Anne McLane. “The students in the Project SPEAR-IT program and the administration have taken the curveballs this pandemic has thrown in stride and continued their hard work to better themselves and their school. We could not be more proud to collaborate on a sign and have a presence in the Project SPEAR-IT classroom to show the students that they have our support.”
Principal Citta’s biggest takeaway thus far has been how the program has so closely tied its participating students to their school.
“They feel intimately involved with the school,” he said. “They’re helping to change it for the better, physically, and in turn they’re feeling a sense of pride in their work, kinship with each other, and establishing a bond with High School South that we hope lasts a lifetime.”
Project SPEAR-IT, it seems, is definitely living up to its name.