It takes a community
Once a dropout factory, Evans High School in Orlando has become a model for how to turn around poor-performing schools across the state.
Maynard Evans High School wasn’t always a troubled school. When it first opened in the 1950s in Pine Hills — then a bedroom community of Orlando for workers at Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) — it was considered one of the best in Orange County. But by the mid-2000s, crime and poverty had risen in Pine Hills, and Evans was a shell of its former self. The school building was riddled with peeling paint, creeping mildew and other signs of decay. It had some of the worst dropout, suspension and graduation rates in Central Florida.
The school’s track record was so bad, according to a 2008 Orlando Sentinel article, that more than 2,000 students zoned for Evans had transferred to private schools or other public schools — “anywhere but Evans.” The newspaper pondered in a headline whether the school could even be saved.
A small group of leaders at the Children’s Home Society of Florida, a non-profit in the child welfare space, and the University of Central Florida who’d been collaborating on community and family engagement strategies to tackle intergenerational poverty, abuse and neglect, believed it could and in 2010 set about improving the school. Their solution? Partner with Orange County Public Schools, a local health clinic and others to implement a collaborative, “community school” model pioneered in New York that aims to boost outcomes by delivering a host of services and support to alleviate some of the burdens on students and their families.
“Evans was a pretty heavy lift,” recalls Amy Ellis, director of the UCF Center for Community Schools, which helped to spearhead the community schools endeavor, and change didn’t happen overnight. “It took a whole lot of listening and a desire for all hands to be on deck — the principal, the teachers, the staff members, the community, the core partnerships, all of them together — in order to help elevate the school in a way that really matched the needs of the school and the students,” she says.
Ellis recalls a moment of dejection early on when the team had set up after-school tutoring events and few students showed up. A school leader later explained the problem. “He said, ‘They’re hungry. They have to go home. If you feed them, they’ll come,’ ” Ellis says. Harris Rosen, a local hotelier and philanthropist, and the organization 100 Women Strong agreed to provide meals at the next tutoring event. Hundreds of kids showed up.
Many students at Evans were experiencing the emotional impacts and stress associated with living in poverty. Overcoming stigmas attached to mental health counseling also required a nuanced approach. Community partnership leaders discovered early on that many students were hesitant to sit down with a therapist, but they didn’t mind sitting down with a “life success coach.” In those days, says Ellis, success was measured simply by engagement — “bringing more people into the fold and feeling that trust, that they could actually engage in service and not have it be a threatening or intimidating thing because most of the parents didn’t have good experiences with schools when they were growing up.”
A decade later, Evans is a much different place. Enrollment, which had dwindled to about 1,500 students, is steady at about 2,500 students. The once-dilapidated building was replaced in 2012 with an updated nine-building campus that resembles a small community college, and the services offered inside its walls are helping to tackle problems, such as hunger and toothaches, which can stand in the way of learning.
Tucked inside a small room in Evans’ administration building, a food pantry known as the Trojan Market provides free food, clothing, toiletries and school supplies to about 500 students each month. On the other side of campus, Orange Blossom Family Health provides dental, medical and behavioral health care to students as well as residents of the community. To move from crisis care to prevention, leaders began offering students yoga, cooking classes and health-focused workshops.
Kelly Astro, the Children’s Home Society’s community partnership school director serving Evans High School, says those sorts of offerings can make a world of difference at a school like Evans, where 100% of the students are economically disadvantaged.
“We have a lot of single parents, a lot of parents who are working multiple jobs. We have a lot of families where English is not their native language — in addition to English, Haitian-Creole is a predominant language for many of our families and our students — and just the access to resources is just not there,” Astro says. “There are decisions at home made between, ‘Do I take my child to the dentist’ or ‘do we have groceries for this week,’ and that is now a question that parents don’t have to bat back and forth because those services are provided right here.”
Astro recalls the day that a student and her mother, who’d just become homeless, showed up at the Hub, the section of the administration building where the partnership efforts are headquartered, with a single suitcase holding all of their belongings. “They came here because they felt safe to come here. They had no idea where else to go. They came here,” she says.
Focus on 4 E’s
Jarvis Wheeler, a former student and one-time teacher at Evans, was Evans’ second community partnership director. He says when he was a teacher at the school, only one in 10 students referred for counseling would take advantage of it and, on average, they’d attend just one counseling session. “Now, two full-time counselors on campus are seeing 50-plus kids, and they’re completing those treatment plans having 10-plus sessions,” he says. Teachers also recognize that students exhibiting challenging behavior might be expressing trauma that’s better addressed through mental health support than disciplinary actions. “It’s a game changer,” he says.
The area around campus is safer now, too. In the old days, for example, it wasn’t unusual for law enforcement to show up at school dismissal to try to deal with potential violence.
Wheeler worked with local law enforcement to address a trouble spot — a nearby gas station known for drug dealing, fights, shootings and other problems — and invited the gas station owner to be part of the school’s Community Leadership Council. “We were able to host a pep rally at that gas station. We were able to get law enforcement to collaborate with us and provide surveillance and rotations,” he says, and a Community Watch initiative provided an “extra set of eyes and ears for our students when they left home.”
The efforts made an impact. Crime around the school plummeted, disciplinary referrals dropped by up to 50%, and everyone took notice. “I remember being director and we were at a high school football game and some students coming up and saying, ‘They don’t even bump no more at Evans. What’s going on?’ ” Wheeler recalls. “Bump is a slang word for fighting. That was such a strong indicator to me, hearing it from the students themselves and the former alumni. Yeah, it’s a different school now.”
Academic gains started showing up a few years into the effort. “When we started at Evans, it was a triple-F dropout factory, with graduation rates of 64%,” says Andry Sweet, president and CEO of the Children’s Home Society of Florida. By the time the first ninth-grade class became seniors, graduation rates rose to 99%. The school earned its first ever B grade in 2012 and has maintained a C since 2014 (except for 2017, when it slipped back to a D).
College acceptances at Evans are on the rise, too, growing 185% since 2012 — and community partnership leaders aim to build on that success. “We are now shifting gears to have a much more intentional focus on college and career-readiness,” says Astro, the community partnership director. When students graduate Evans, she says, they’re expected to have a plan that falls into one of four E’s: Enrollment in a two-year, four-year or technical college program; employment in a job with a career path that brings them career satisfaction; enlistment with the military; or pursuing an experience that will serve as a bridge to one of those steps.
The local business community has also stepped in to help. Last fall, Disney sponsored a FAFSA Extravaganza for seniors at Evans. The 183 students who attended got a chance to win theme park tickets, Orlando Magic tickets and other prizes. Representatives from UCF, Valencia College and Rollins College walked the students and their families through the federal financial aid forms. More students completed FAFSA forms that night than they did in the entire previous year.
“That’s the gateway for our community to be able to pay for college. Virtually all of our students will receive the full Pell grant, and that’s $6,500. If they’re not doing this, they’re leaving that on the table,” says Astro. “Overall, I think it built an enormous amount of trust with the families.”
Evans’ transformation has sparked growth in the community partnership model across the state. Today, 29 public schools have fully implemented the strategy and seven more are in the planning phases of development, working with UCF’s Center for Community Schools to become fully operational by July.
Many are seeing similar results. At Edward H. White High School in Jacksonville, graduation rates increased from 67% to 96% between 2015, the year it became a community partnership school, and 2021. At C.A. Weis Elementary School in Pensacola, disciplinary referrals dropped by more than 90% between 2016 and 2020, and the percentage of students showing gains in reading is 8% higher than the school district and 7% higher in math. At Mort Elementary in Tampa, teacher retention has improved and averaged 13% higher than at five comparable schools between 2013 and 2018.
Kyle Baltuch, senior vice president of economic opportunity and early learning at the Florida Chamber Foundation, works with the state’s business community on tackling the root causes of poverty and says those sort of results are striking and the approach merits expansion.
“Nobody really is all that interested in your inputs. Inputs are hopes. Outcomes are results, and when you look at our community partnership schools through Children’s Home Society across the state of Florida, the results are real, and they’re tangible, and they’re extraordinarily impressive,” Baltuch says. “When you have those results spread across diverse communities, in rural communities, in metro communities and in suburbs — man, keep feeding that engine until it doesn’t work. We haven’t lost out on that return yet.”
Community partnership schools receive $7.1 million from the state, which is distributed through a competitive grant program by the UCF Center for Community Schools. Local partners are required to come up with at least a 25% match. The total costs of operating a program in a school differ based on student population, complexity of student needs and other variables, but generally speaking, it costs about $300,000 to fund the coordination of a fully operational community partnership school.
“That breaks down to $2 per student, per day,” says Andry Sweet, president and CEO of the Children’s Home Society of Florida, which is a “core partner” in 27 of the 36 community partnership schools in Florida. “It’s less than the cost of their lunch or an after-school program.”
This year, the organization is asking the Legislature for $11 million to support programs at existing schools and expand to eight more schools. The government funding is only part of the equation in helping the schools succeed, Sweet acknowledges. “We have to bring in community support to show that the community has skin in the game because we want to be able to expand the model and spread those resources to as many sites as possible.”
Community Partnership Schools
BACKGROUND: In 2009, Dave Bundy, then president and CEO of the Children’s Home Society of Florida, the largest statewide provider of services devoted to children and families, and Michael Frumkin, then dean of the UCF College of Health and Public Affairs, were exploring strategies to successfully break intergenerational cycles of poverty, abuse and neglect. Both had heard about a community schools program in New York City spearheaded by CHS’ sister organization, the Children’s Aid Society. Intrigued, they traveled to New York to see firsthand how it worked. They returned from the trip determined to start a community school and found a “willing partner” in Orange County Public Schools.
BEGINNINGS: Co-founded in 2010 at Evans High School in Orlando by the Children’s Home Society of Florida, Orange County Public Schools and the University of Central Florida.
KEY ELEMENTS: The initiative involves a long-term partnership of at least four core partners — usually the school district, a non-profit, a health care provider and a college or university — who collaborate with the community to bring resources and opportunities to students and families, such as academic support, health care, clothing, meals, counseling, mentoring and more. CPS staff generally include four people, including a director, an expanded learning academic coordinator, a health and wellness coordinator and a family and community engagement coordinator.
STARTING ONE: Today, there are 36 community partnership schools in Florida (including seven in the planning phase of development) serving more than 33,000 public school students and their communities. Schools are typically Title 1 eligible and include elementary, middle and high schools. School stakeholders interested in pursuing a community partnership can apply to be registered as a community partnership school through UCF. Once a school has registered to join the UCF-certification planning track to become a community partnership school, it’s eligible for technical assistance and can apply for available planning or implementation grants. (The full certification process takes a couple of years). Schools can also become CPS on their own, but they must register through UCF’s Center for Community Schools.
More information: ccie.ucf.edu/communityschools/certification
EDUCATION: Wheeler earned a bachelor’s degree in sport and fitness administration/management from Florida State University in 2009 and a master’s of public administration and master’s of social work from FSU in 2011.
FAMILY TIES: Wheeler’s 7-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter both attend the Orange County Public Schools Academic Center for Excellence, a community partnership school in Orlando. He leads a fatherhood initiative called All Pro Dads at the school. “It’s been fulfilling and enriching for me and my family personally. This is not something I’m just talking about. This is definitely something I believe in and something my children are benefiting from directly,” he says.
Escaping the Cycle
Jarvis Wheeler can relate to the students his program serves. The Orlando native attended Evans High School and faced his own challenges. “My upbringing, it was just me and my mother and my sister, and we grew up in poverty,” he says.
Wheeler escaped the cycle, he says, because of positive influences. “I didn’t grow up with a community school, unfortunately, but I did have a community,” he says. Wheeler also found a strong social support system in the churches the family attended. “That’s where my friends were; that’s where I had positive role models; that’s where I had inspiration,” he says.
Wheeler discovered the value of having a mentor while attending FSU. “I started to give back and volunteer myself,” he says. He recalls “leaping with joy” when he got his first $200 paycheck for working with a program that paired high school seniors with college students to help them succeed. “I couldn’t believe that somebody was paying me to do this work. That’s when something clicked in me. I knew I had found my passion,” he says.
After graduating, Wheeler returned to Evans, first as a tutor and then as a program teacher helping to prepare students for college. In 2013, the school’s principal tapped Wheeler to become community partnership school director. “That was my dream job,” he says. Today, Wheeler oversees the community partnership school initiative across the state for Children’s Home Society of Florida, which serves as the core partner in 27 out of 36 community partnership schools in Florida.
Wheeler emphasizes that community partnership schools are tailored to the school’s unique needs, and it “really takes on the makeup of the local community.”
Sabal Palm Elementary in Leon County gives free haircuts for students — the idea being that kids will perform better and become more motivated when they feel better about themselves. Wilkinson Junior High School, a community partnership school in Middleburg in Clay County, has a food bank and offers laundry services.
Wheeler emphasizes the kids served by community partnership schools have just as much potential to thrive and succeed as do students from wealthier backgrounds. “Their ceilings are just as high as everyone else’s. Oftentimes, it’s the ground floor that needs raising,” he says.
Filling in the Blanks
Encouraged by the progress at Evans High School after the implementation of a community partnership strategy, Orange County Public School leaders decided several years ago to build a K-8 school based on the model in Orlando’s Parramore neighborhood just of west of downtown.
Kids in Parramore hadn’t had a neighborhood school since the early 1970s, when two all Black schools were closed and students were bused to other elementary schools throughout the district. Today, the neighborhood near downtown has its own school: The OCPS Academic Center for Excellence, which opened in 2017.
The 252,000-sq.-ft. center, located across from UCF’s downtown campus, features a 30,000-sq.-ft. preschool, funded by the Harris Rosen Foundation, that’s free to any resident of Parramore. It’s open Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m and remains open even when schools are closed for the summer or holidays and winter break. There’s also an onsite clinic operated by Orange Blossom Family Health that provides medical and dental care for students.
Older kids have an array of expanded learning opportunities. In the center’s gardening club, for instance, kindergartners through second-graders learn from volunteers at Fleet Farming and other local farmers about where food comes from and how to grow their own food in urban settings. That’s critical information, says Jania Fuller, director of OCPS ACE, in low-income neighborhoods where there are limited grocery stores and healthy food options. Third- through fifth-graders can participate in a culinary club, where three times a week a chef from Valencia College teaches them how to cook
The campus is also home to a two-story Boys & Girls Club (the largest in Central Florida) that provides a range of activities — from dance and music production to website development — for kids in first through 12th grade. “Really the goal is that all of our students have somewhere that is safe to go after school, where they’re still building their character and their skills,” Fuller says.
Academic success is still a work in progress at ACE, says Seth Daub, who took over as principal in 2021. “When I got here, the school was an F-school based on the state assessment. We moved it 110 points to a C. This year, it’s a new state assessment. Our hopes are to move it to a B. We’re working hard on that,” he says.
But Daub says the community school approach gives him and other educators at the school more time to focus on core schoolwork. When a student had an earache earlier this year, for example, he took the child down the hall to the clinic to be seen. “Those kind of things I can take off my plate. It’s a huge relief and a huge benefit,” Daub says. At a previous school, he says, he’d still have gotten the child help, but he would have had to expend a great deal of time setting it all up. “We did a lot of those things, but I did it on my own, so it burned me out,” he says.