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New Director of PYA Looks To Forward Program's Mission

Candace Braun

After a search that extended on for months, Dr. Rebecca White Johnson was recently announced as the new executive director for Princeton Young Achievers.

Coming out of retirement after devoting 34 years of her life to education, Dr. Johnson was hired in February. PYA is an after-school program that assists at-risk youths in neighborhood learning centers in Princeton. The program currently serves 140 elementary school children, from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. on weekdays.

Dr. Johnson brings the organization a wealth of educational experience, including curriculum development, staff training, and organizational management, said Jeffrey Graber, assistant superintendent of Princeton Regional Schools: "You couldn't have found a better person. She will be great for PYA and great for the children."

A New Jersey resident since she moved here from Indiana with her husband in 1970, Dr. Johnson has had several previous jobs in education, her most recent being the principal of Franklin Park Elementary School in Franklin Township, where she resides.

Her other jobs have included vice principal for curriculum and instruction at Ewing High School, and administrative supervisor for personnel with the Freehold Regional High School. Dr. Johnson also worked for the State Department of Education in the office of equal education opportunities, has served on the NJ State Advisory Committee for Bilingual Education, and has been an adjunct professor to future teachers at The College of New Jersey.

Along with her professional career, she has served as a member of Franklin Township's Board of Education, and as a Board member liaison to the Somerset County Board of Education.

Dr. Johnson is married with one daughter, who is also married and lives in Pennsylvania.

Bob Ginsburg, principal at Johnson Park Elementary School, said he has known Dr. Johnson for years, and believes she is "a visionary, a strong leader, is able to set boundaries, and is good at communicating with parents and community organizations."

Although she had not intended to come out of retirement, Dr. Johnson said that it was the organization's mission that led her to take on the task. Her wish is to make the vision of a high quality academic after-school program a reality.

"An after-school program should create a different environment for its learners and not just be 'more of the same,'" she said, adding that more challenging, exciting, and rewarding activities in a different environment will enhance what is learned in school.

She added that as an African American, she believes she can "serve to inspire youngsters from non-majority backgrounds to see themselves as learners able to reach whatever goals they set for themselves."

Subhead: Facing Obstacles

But the new executive director is coming into the program at a difficult time.

Last fall, following an investigation, police arrested the former director, Nichelle Hill, and her assistant, Beverly Harrington, in connection with the purchase of more than $6,000 in personal computer equipment on the organization's credit card.

"It's unfortunate what happened in the past. My task is to get things back on target, and move forward," said Dr. Johnson.

The program is also facing a difficult year because the district was forced to cut its funding to non-profit organizations like PYA that cannot be closely monitored by the schools. The organization has lost $65,000 of its $270,000 budget for the 2005-2006 school year.

However, said Dr. Johnson, Superintendent Judith Wilson is largely in favor of the organization, and has said she may be able to help PYA in other ways, such as providing certified staff members at the center. The amount of help the program receives is largely dependent on the result of this week's school elections, she added.

In the meantime, Dr. Johnson is writing grants and looking to other sources of funding, as well as exploring other fundraising possibilities.

Along with the money it has received from the district in the past, PYA is also supported by individual donors and written grants through different foundations, such as United Way and the Princeton Area Community Foundation.

But despite the obstacles, the new director's number one goal is to continue providing the best services she can to Princeton students.

"I believe that all children can learn, given the right environment and encouragement," she said.

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