| Guest columnist
Take stock in children. They are the future, our most valuable resource. In Alachua County we have an equity problem, an achievement gap and the graduation rate needs improvement.
The phrase came to life in 1996 when the Education Foundation of Alachua County founded its Take Stock in Children program. It has a proven track record of helping at-risk, low socioeconomic status students achieve success in a very personal way.
The 2020 class of Take Stock in Children boasted a graduation rate of 100%, and all 61 seniors received college acceptance. The program works.
Tim Miles is a great success story. He joined TSIC in 7th grade when Scherwin Henry became his mentor.
Miles is a recent Florida State University graduate with a bachelor of science degree, majoring in statistics and minoring in mathematics; he is now pursuing a business administration and master of science in sports and entertainment management at the University of South Florida. His story could have been very different if not for Mr. Henry.
Tim’s parents divorced when he was in elementary school, which left him as the man of the house. “I knew there wasn’t much I could do to help my mother financially, but I also knew that to be successful and make an impact on my family, I had to focus on my academics,” he said.
“I would not be where I am today without Take Stock in Children, Florida Prepaid and Mr. Henry. The staff at Take Stock in Children and my mentor have always been there to support me, and I will always be grateful for them because they gave me an opportunity to be a first-generation college graduate,” Miles said.
TSIC identifies high-achieving, low-income students in middle school who show the potential to attend college. When accepted into the program, students sign a contract to maintain grades, remain drug and crime-free, follow school rules and agree to meet with a volunteer mentor.
Upon graduation, students receive a two-year Florida Prepaid College Scholarship for use at any college, university or technical program. The scholarship is purchased when students enter the program, so they know it is a real promise.
For many, this scholarship is the catalyst for a better future by providing a pathway to a successful career, thus breaking the cycle of generational poverty. Take Stock students who graduate from college set an example for other family members and friends to succeed.
Volunteer mentors are the most powerful component of the program. The staff recruits people throughout the community and pairs them with students. They typically meet two to four times a month at school during lunch.
All of the meetings since March have been virtual, but they are still happening. Mentors and their mentees build strong relationships over time, many meeting in middle school and continuing through graduation.
I began mentoring a quite intelligent but shy girl in 8th grade who would barely talk to me. Through the years, she learned to advocate for herself, speak confidently in front of groups and maintain focus on her dream of attending a four-year university in another city.
She saw people around her making poor life choices and was determined to keep a steady path. She is a first-generation college student from a single-parent home. With the additional assistance of a TSIC housing scholarship, she attended the University of Central Florida and will graduate next summer.
Support services are a critical component of TSIC as each student is assigned a student success coach who keeps track of their academic progress and meets with them quarterly. Students participate in essay writing workshops and college tours, and receive help with financial aid and college applications.
Our TSIC program is the only one of the 45 programs in the state with a wellness component and a coordinator who connects students and families to local community resources. Some students struggle with academics because they are homeless, have food insecurity, lack adequate school clothing, have no internet service or have mental and emotional health issues. We can help identify the needs and connect families with resources to assist them.
Take Stock in Children currently has 300 students and will add up to 50 more by the end of the year. These students need a Mr. Henry.
Time is a precious gift to help a student achieve a better life. Mentorship works and lifts students one at a time. It is a win-win situation as mentors feel the gratitude of knowing they have made a real difference in someone’s life. Visit educationfoundationac.org to learn how you can be a mentor and change a life.
Shelley Waters is president of the Education Foundation of Alachua County. This piece was written with input from Rachel Debigare, executive director, and Jordan Miles, volunteer administrator.