When high school student Sherman Milton entered the Pasco County’s Take Stock in Children program, he had no idea the impact it would have on his life.
Through the program, he gained access to academic resources, and a mentorship, which helped him to graduate from high school — which then led to college and, now, a career in real estate in East Pasco County.
He recently shared his experience at a Take Stock in Children fundraiser.
Take Stock in Children has been mentoring at-risk students for more than two decades to help them become successful academically.
Established in 1995, the statewide organization serves all 67 counties and is funded by the Department of Education.
“What our program does is incentivize our students to continue reaching their goals,” said Rosanne Heyser, executive director of the Pasco County branch. “We are there to provide their motivation – a road map to their success.”
To help make this happen, Take Stock has partnered with various institutions, such as educational foundations and businesses.
While there is one umbrella organization, each county has a branch in conjunction with its school district, which may operate by different guidelines.
Selecting a child
Pasco County’s program focuses on preparing eighth-graders, as they’re on the verge of high school years.
The program invites guidance counselors from both public and charter schools to train them on how to identify eighth-graders who have academic or economic hardships.
In some cases, students come from homes where parents work multiple jobs and are unable to dedicate sufficient time to their children, Heyser said.
Counselors recommend these students to Take Stock in Children.
Students, along with their parents, can sign a contract to remain in the program throughout high school – providing they meet program criteria.
Under that criteria, a student must be on free or reduced school lunch, maintain a 2.5 grade point average, must demonstrate exceptional attendance and behavior in school, and must participate in Take Stock events.
Once they enroll in high school, students who participate in the program have access to a wide range of resources.
Program staff frequently interact with students, hold educational workshops, monitor grades and stay in contact with parents.
Because of the collaboration with district schools, the program is aware of students who are experiencing declining grades, and the program can intervene to create a success plan for students to improve their performance.
College readiness coaches also help students prepare for collegiate life.
“By doing that combination, we really get to know these kids quite well,” Heyser said.
A constant, friendly face
Mentors also help.
These volunteers are trained to effectively communicate with students, find common interests and help them with schoolwork.
Mentors play an important role, Heyser said.
“It can create a huge impact on a student by just having somebody that is [an] adult role model to talk to,” she added.
Mentors meet with their proteges on school grounds, typically during lunch or a study hour.
They are asked to identify a student’s talents or interests and to encourage them to think about how to turn their niche into a practical career.
Team projects include helping students create mock resumes and cover letters – practice that will come in handy when they enter the workforce.
The teaching goes both ways between mentors and students.
In April, students who are now in college will be reuniting with the mentors they had in high school during a Take Stock in Children event in Pasco.
As part of a panel, they will provide insights to mentors who are helping current teens prepare for college life.
When Take Stock in Children began in Florida, its sole purpose was to increase the high school graduation rate, Heyser said. And, over the years, it has been highly successful — increasing the graduation rate for students in its program to 96 percent.
However, Take Stock has shifted its focus to helping students in its program to enroll in college and have the skills necessary to graduate from college.
“Our newest goal that was created this year is to have a 96-percent college graduation rate,” Heyser mentioned of the program’s intentions.
Right now the graduation rate for Take Stock college students is at 67 percent.
She admitted that it’s a challenge but one that can be achieved – considering what has been accomplished this far.
At the collegiate level, students are assigned a college completion coach who helps find resources addressing any academic or financial needs.
And, while away at school, students must still stay in contact with the program – submitting their grades every year for review.
Although the willingness may be there, the cost of college is a major obstacle for many students, which can prevent them from continuing their studies.
The program partners with many organizations, which provide scholarships.
The Pasco program receives donations and has mentor volunteers from the Zephyrhills Rotary Club, the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce, the North Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce, and others.
The organization also has an agreement with the Florida Pre-Paid College Foundation, which matches dollar-for-dollar the amount that donors contribute.
“That’s how we can afford to have so many students partake of this,” Heyser said.
Light at the tunnel’s end
After college graduation, Take Stock in Children alumni often stay in touch with the organization.
Many speak at events, offering their personal testimonies.
It gives staff and mentors an opportunity to see firsthand the kind of impact the program can have.
That’s where people like Milton come in.
He recently spoke at a fundraiser, encouraging donors to help students who are in the kind of situation he was in.
He’s just one of the alumni who has used the opportunities the program offers to prosper.
Another former alumni is now a Pasco County lawyer, with prospects of making partner at a law firm.
During her 15 years with Take Stock in Children, Heyser said she has witnessed the incredible perseverance youths possess, despite the odds against them.
“We literally see miracles happen,” Heyser said. “We have kids who are in wheelchairs and have physical disabilities in addition to the economic challenges they face.”
Outside Heyser’s office there’s a bulletin board with photographs of students who have come through the program.
She can point to a face, recall the name, and talk about the individual’s journey.
As she recounts their achievements, her eyes fill with tears.
In a nutshell, supporting such transformations is what Take Stock in Children is all about.
To become a mentor, or learn more about the program, visit TakeStockInChildren.org.
Published March 06, 2019