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New leader at Philadelphia Futures aims to build on organization’s success

  • sara woods alan brian nilsen abn photography
    Alan Brian Nilsen, ABN Photography

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It’s the first week of new leadership at Philadelphia Futures, and Sara Woods, who now heads the nonprofit that provides resources for low-income, first-generation-to-college students, said she will work hard to build on the organization’s success.

“We want to get more students. ... We want to make sure the world knows about Philly Futures,” Woods said.

“[I know that] I have a lot of learning to do, but I hope to encourage and engage and empower the staff to do the amazing work they’re already doing.”

Woods started in her new role on March 6, succeeding Joan Mazzotti, who announced in October that she would be stepping down after leading the organization for 16 years.

“I’m confident that [Woods will] bring a wealth of new ideas and new sources of support for the organization. I wish Sara all the best, because she’s going to have the best job in Philly,” said Mazzotti in an interview.   

As the new executive director, Woods will preside over a nonprofit that has doubled its staff, nearly tripled its budget, and helped more than 500 students go to college. Philadelphia Futures helps high school students apply to and successfully attend college, through direct service programs and broader community outreach.

Its direct service programs include Sponsor-a-Scholar, which pairs every student with a long-term mentor, and College Connection partnerships, which give students admissions and scholarship assistance at partner colleges, including Arcadia University, Dickinson College, Drexel University, Franklin & Marshall College, Gettysburg College, Haverford College, Lafayette College, Lehigh University, and Penn State University. Those partnerships help ensure adequate financial aid and institutional support.

Philadelphia Futures' community outreach initiatives include the release of a free Step Up to College mobile app so that students can receive customized information about the college application process. The app gives students easier access to key components of the Step Up to College Guide, an admissions resource for college-bound students and their families.   

“We have to meet students where they are, and technology is a tool where we can expand our reach,” said Woods. “We want to make sure [college application] information is out there.”

Woods said the organization uses metrics for success to help measure its impact, such as “how many students graduate from high school and college, move on to receive a degree or certificate beyond their undergraduate degree, are employed, and are homeowners."

“I think in any organization you need to be able to show the impact of your work. You need to be showing that you’re doing a good job,” Woods said

Before joining Philadelphia Futures, Woods served as executive director of Philadelphia VIP, a pro bono legal services hub for low-income clients. She said the two organizations have several similarities.

Philadelphia Futures and Philadelphia VIP “are all about giving folks a tool for economic self-sufficiency. The wonderful thing about Futures is that we’re getting folks before they get to VIP,” she said.

Woods’ transition to an educational organization seems natural, given her history. “I’m the daughter of a teacher. I’ve always been in the educational space in some way,” she said.

Woods did her undergraduate work in women’s studies and psychology at Penn State University and earned a law degree from Villanova University. She also created and taught a class at Villanova Law School for 10 years, in addition to running a pro bono program there.

She said, “I went to law school because I wanted to have a voice in making sure folks have a tool for economic self-sufficiency. I knew a J.D. would help with that.”

She said that her teaching experience at Villanova Law and her work at Philadelphia VIP helped her develop strong leadership skills that she hopes to use in her new role at Philadelphia Futures. The energy of the students, she said, is also sure to serve her well in her new position.

“You can’t replicate the energy that students have. Their vision, their excitement about what’s to come. ... I thrive on that energy. I’m excited.”

 

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