Miami-Dade schools have faced tight budgets in recent years, while some students grapple with issues like homelessness, hunger and family instability. Education-focused nonprofits have stepped into the breach, providing classroom instruction, mentoring and other services.
“We do teaching and learning well, but a lot of nonprofits fill in the gaps in order to develop the whole child,” says Nikolai Vitti, outgoing head of Miami-Dade Public Schools’ education transformation office.
Here’s a look at the ways in which those efforts can transform mentors and teachers as well as students.
City Year combats high dropout rates by focusing on the ABCs: attendance, behavior and course performance. Researchers say that if just one of those factors is off track at the sixth grade level, a student is 25 percent less likely to graduate.
Launched in Miami-Dade in 2008 with 82 members in eight schools, City Year has grown to 185 members working in 15 schools. The national group, which was started in 1988 by two Harvard law graduates, recruits recent college graduates to spend a year of service.
These mentors, wearing signature red jackets, tutor students, call their homes when they miss school and organize mentoring sessions and community projects.
“We’re able to serve the whole school by serving the whole child,” says Saif Ishoof, executive director.
Last year, Luis Sierra, 23, returned to his alma mater, Miami Jackson Senior High in Allapattah, for City Year. After graduating from the University of Miami, the sociology major put graduate school on hold to serve on a 10-member team coordinating after-school activities at Jackson. By May, he says, some of his students were boasting better report cards.
“It gave me a bigger sense of purpose when it comes to mentorship,” says Sierra, who is now a graduate student in education administration at Florida International University.
Budget: $6.3 million including $2.5 million in private-sector donations, $2 million from AmeriCorps’ competitive grant process and $1.8 million in federal school improvement grant money.
Impact: Last school year, 74 percent of students tutored by City Year improved their reading fluency, 53 percent made significant gains in reading and 55 percent improved math skills.
Abused children, homeless teens and other young people in crisis find emergency help at Miami Bridge Youth & Family Service, a 27-year-old nonprofit that runs shelters in Miami and Homestead. No matter the type of emergency, says executive director Mary Andrews, education is a priority and part of the solution.
“When a child is enrolled, it’s a real positive reinforcement,” Andrews says.
In partnership with Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Miami Bridge offers academic advising along with services like therapy and life-skill training. Students, who stay at the shelters and average of 30 to 45 days, attend school at the Bridge campus, their neighborhood school, a charter school or via a GED program or virtual school.
The group’s director of education, Gayle Kofsky, weighs what program would be the best fit. For example, a teen who has failed a high school grade multiple times may do best in a GED program.
Budget: $3.19 million, including $2 million from state government grants and contracts, $365,040 from program services and $272,168 from local grants.
Impact: The nonprofit makes contact with more than 1,100 families a year. “I’m always amazed of the success our kids are able to achieve after all they’ve been through,” Kofsky says.
Big Brothers Big Sisters strives to nurture children by matching them with adults who will mentor them one-on-one. The group has worked for 55 years in Miami-Dade, where it currently serves 2,000 youth.
“The hallmark of Big Brothers Big Sisters is the consistency of the relationship between a volunteer and a child,” says Lydia Muniz, president and chief executive. “That more than anything, research has shown, over time has a significant, positive impact in the life of a child, particularly their self-esteem.”
In Miami-Dade, the program has grown from about 300 children in 1988 to 2,000, says Muniz. The goal: to serve at least 5,000 children per year by 2018.
Some 600 student are expected to participate in the group’s workplace program this year, receiving one-on-one mentorship but also visiting businesses like Baptist Health System, Carnival and the Fontainebleau each month.
“We’re encouraging all of them to think what’s next,” says Muniz, who adds that the group’s biggest need is male mentors.
That means more Bigs like Manuel Arrebola, a police captain with Miami-Dade Public Schools, who last year joined the pilot Bigs in Blue program. He visits his Little Brother, a 12-year-old fifth grader named Darrel, each week at school, where they read in the library, eat lunch in the cafeteria and sometimes just joke around.
“It’s like it’s your child,” says Arrebola, 48 who has a teenage daughter. “It’s become one of the most important things I do.”
Broward’s Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter will turn 40 next year and has about 1,300 active matches, says its chief executive, Ana Cedeño, with 700 to 900 children in line for a match.
About 125 young people in Broward are participating in the organization’s 5-year-old Inspire Within program, which matches youths transitioning out of foster care with adults who serve as life coaches. “It’s smaller but it’s just as important,” Cedeño says.
She says the biggest need is awareness of the program and its outcomes. For example, 89 percent of Broward children in BBBS show improved academics and 79 percent say they are more optimistic about the future.
Budget: $4.27 million, including 33 percent from government funding, 22 percent from special events, 15 percent from foundations and 9 percent from the United Way.
Impact: With about 350 agencies across the country, Big Brothers Big Sisters serves nearly 630,000 children, volunteers and families.
Teach for America
Despite a successful career, entrepreneur Renee O’Connor wanted to do more. A speech by President Barack Obama and an article about Teach for America inspired her to apply. She is now in her second year at her alma mater, Miami Norland Senior, in Miami Gardens as one of about 300 Teach for America members in Miami-Dade.
O’Connor, a native of Jamaica, teaches English and reading to students who have failed the state’s standardized test. Last year, 38 percent of her students jumped more than two grades in their reading level. Some are starting to talk about college. “I see the change coming,” she says.
The national group recruits high-achieving college graduates and professionals who commit to teaching at high-need schools for two years. The goal: close achievement gaps.
Rachel Faust, a Teach for America alum, has continued to teach at Van E. Blanton Elementary. “It changed the way that I want to make an impact. I’m passionate about education,” says Faust, 24, who won $100,000 for her school with a moving letter to the Ellen DeGeneres talk show.
Budget: $6.7 million in 2012, including $3.4 million from foundations and grants, $1.7 million in public money (mainly a federal Race to the Top grant) and $1.3 million from individual donors.
Impact: At Holmes Elementary, where it has worked for six years, Teach for America found the passing rate for fifth graders who had TFA instructors was 83 percent compared with 26 percent for other fifth graders.
Breakthrough Miami recruits highly motivated students from public schools for an intensive, long-term program designed to ensure they graduate high school and attend college.
Candidates face two or more risk factors for missing those marks: qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, being a minority, being the first in the family to attend college, learning English as a second language and/or growing up in a single-parent household.
About 300 students in fourth grade filled out the college-like application last cycle. Some 150 students were accepted. The program runs from fifth to 12th grade. Started in the early 1990s as Summer Bridge, it has worked with nearly 2,000 students.
Students take part in intensive summer workshops and Saturday sessions during the school year plus additional mentoring, tutoring and field trips.
“We’re working with students that are highly motivated and we don’t want them to lose that motivation,” says Lauren Kellner, the site director at Ransom Everglades School, one of five private schools that donate space and resources to Breakthrough.
The group’s second mission is to inspire young people to work in education. Student teachers, coached by master teachers, lead the summer program. Top high school and college students are recruited from public and private schools to be intern teachers.
Elissa Vanaver, director of strategic development, says the challenges facing urban schools are formidable. “They’re trying to do a lot with a little, and their burden is great.” She says the greatest need at Breakthrough is “for the community to recognize the long-term value of investing in these bright students.”
Budget: $1.6 million, with 46 percent from foundations, 14 percent from corporations, 25 percent from the Children’s Trust and 15 percent from individual donors.
Impact: In 2011-2012, 72 percent of graduating Breakthrough seniors entered four-year colleges, compared with 44 percent of similar students, according to an analysis by the University of Miami.
Its estimated that in six years, 60 percent of jobs in Florida will require a college education, but only 42 percent of adult residents will have a degree. College Summit, a national group founded 18 years ago, is working to close that gap.
This year, College Summit will serve 14,000 South Florida students at 11 high schools in Dade and two in Broward.
“Far too many academically capable, low-income students are not going to college,” says Raquel Figueroa, regional program manager. “Many have the ability to be the first in their family to have a degree but they lack the resources.”
College Summit trains student leaders, who then run campaigns at their schools centered around college applications, federal student aid and school choice. The goal is to create a sustainable program that a school can continue.
Malherbe Felix, who was raised by a single mom in a Creole-speaking house, says participating in the program at North Miami Beach Senior High turned college from a fantasy into reality.
Before visiting Nova Southeastern University, Felix says, he questioned if he was bright enough for college. “In high school you go through the FCAT. It took me a third try to pass. It brought down my self-esteem.”
Now he returns from Florida State University over the summer to be an alumni leader coordinator for the program. “It inspired me. I just want to keep on inspiring others.”
Budget: $910,000, with 25 percent in federal school improvement grant money in Miami-Dade and a separate grant in Broward. Foundation support provides the rest of the funding.
Impact: Last school year, 75 percent of seniors at College Summit schools completed at least one college application, 78 percent took the SAT or ACT and 53 percent completed financial aid paperwork.