Neil Thompson is the youngest superintendent at Charles Perry Partners, Inc. With two degrees from Santa Fe College, a wife and two young children, some might say Thompson has it all.
His road to success, however, has been far from easy.
During his childhood, Thompson’s father struggled with drug addiction, which led to him being in and out of jail, leaving Thompson and his brothers living with uncertainty. Because of the instability he faced at home, Thompson developed a desire to go to college and create a better future for himself. However, because no one in his family had been to college, it was hard for him to imagine how he might get there.
In 2005, Thompson applied and was accepted into the Take Stock in Children program, which provided the stability, hope and motivation he needed to reach his goals.
Thompson credits the Take Stock in Children Program, saying, “Had it not been for the Take Stock program and the discipline required to keep my scholarship, I would not have been able to stay out of trouble.”
Take Stock in Children is a scholarship and mentoring program of The Education Foundation of Alachua County that, by its own definition, helps students move from at-risk to at-promise. Students are eligible in 7th through 9th grades, provided they have a minimum 2.5 grade point average (GPA) and are receiving free or reduced lunch.
Once selected, each student and their parent/guardian must sign a contract agreeing to stay in school, remain crime and drug free, maintain a 2.5 GPA, have good behavior and attendance in school, and meet with a volunteer mentor on a consistent basis. When students meet the requirements and stay in the program, they are awarded a two-year Florida Prepaid college scholarship upon high school graduation.
In addition to receiving the scholarship, students also participate in workshops to explore career opportunities and attend college tours.
“Our goal for every student is that they will develop into independent adults who advocate for themselves so that they can break the cycle of poverty in their own adult lives,” said Tia Brock, The Education Foundation’s program director for Take Stock in Children.
Students enrolled in Take Stock in Children have a 96 percent high school graduation rate. The graduation rate for students in the same demographic not enrolled in Take Stock is 57 percent.
These staggering results are the reason The Education Foundation has tripled program enrollment over the last six years.
“In 2012, we had 116 students,” Brock said, “but our Board of Directors saw Take Stock in Children as a way to help bridge the achievement gap and decided to expand the program. Today we have nearly 350 students enrolled.”
While Take Stock in Children certainly addresses inequities in education, it is just one way that The Education Foundation is working to close the gap in our local community.
The Education Foundation also has a program called Senior Scholarships, which awards high school seniors scholarships to attend college. The foundation has over 40 established partnerships with local families, businesses and civic organizations that have created scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $60,000, each with their own qualifications to further support students pursuing their education goals.
Joey Fluriach, special events and program director for The Education Foundation, believes the Senior Scholarship Program helps to level the playing field for college scholarships.
“Our broad selection of scholarships is one of the most inclusive available to public school students,” he said. “We provide opportunities for every kind of student to receive support, regardless of academic achievement or financial status.”
Fluriach said the Senior Scholarship program supported 69 students in May by providing them with a combined $242,000.
Aside from working directly with students, The Education Foundation also works alongside the Alachua County Public Schools to help the District meet its equity goals.
In September of 2017, the Alachua County Public Schools established the Office of Education Equity and Outreach, led by Director Valerie Freeman. During the 2017-2018 school year, Freeman facilitated a book study on Courageous Conversations about Race, by Glen Singleton, with all school principals and other administrators.
In June of 2018, The Education Foundation partnered with the Office of Education Equity and Outreach to host Singleton for the District’s Ed Summit, where the author spent all day with the principals, administrators and additional teachers discussing race relations.
“Singleton’s visit confirmed that if we all work together in the best interest of all our students, then we will achieve our ultimate goal of becoming an equity showcase district that will meet and exceed the needs of all our students,” Freeman said.
Moving forward, The Education Foundation is continuing to work with the Office of Education Equity and Outreach by supporting a new initiative known as AVID, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination.
AVID works with students who are traditionally underrepresented in honors and advanced-placement coursework. Students in the program are enrolled in advanced-level classes, but also in an AVID elective course. During the elective, students receive tutoring, develop time-management skills, study skills, and learn about college terminology and requirements. The ultimate goal is for those students to be academically and socially ready for post-secondary education.
During the 2018 school year, AVID will be piloted at Westwood Middle School, Gainesville High School, Mebane Middle School and Santa Fe High School.
“We were very interested in supporting AVID from the first time it was explained to us,” Brock said. “Working with Take Stock in Children has shown us that traditional after-school intervention methods often do not work for underrepresented students, due to transportation issues and other barriers. We truly believe that embedding the support during the school day will be the key to helping these students reach their full potential and excel in their higher-level courses.”
Aside from partnering with the Office of Education Equity and Outreach, the Foundation is also piloting two middle school “collaborative tech classrooms.”
“We are excited to pilot these classrooms at Kanapaha and Mebane – two middle schools that do not have magnet programs,” Fluriach said. “We are expecting this revolutionary idea to foster better student/teacher relationships and to give all students the 21st-century skills they’ll need to succeed in our rapidly evolving world. By creating an environment that revolves around collaboration and technological innovation, we are expanding opportunities for students to learn in a professional setting modeled after the changes we’ve seen to the modern workplace.”
No matter which program or initiative, The Education Foundation’s goal is that all students will be able to reach their full potential, and that every story will turn out like Neil Thompson’s. With the right amount of support, Thompson was able to reach his dreams.
Most recently, Thompson has joined the Board of Directors of The Education Foundation, so that he can give back to an organization that had invested so much in him.
For more information about how you can support The Education Foundation, visit our website at www.edfoundationac.org.
A Tale of Two Shoes
While The Education Foundation is working to address the education inequities in Alachua County, this issue is much bigger than just one organization. Two years ago, The Education Foundation Board of Directors created the Tale of Two Shoes campaign to raise awareness about the education gap in Alachua County. On the fifth Friday of each month, community members are invited to wear mismatched shoes with the hopes that their shoes will foster conversations about our education gap and in turn help to create solutions.
“Tale of Two Shoes is an easy and effective way for us all to help raise awareness,” said Dug Jones, associate vice president of Santa Fe College and former Board President of The Education Foundation. “When people ask why your shoes don’t match, we can all share the facts. Alachua County has some of the most high-achieving students in the state, but also has nearly 50 percent of children eligible for free and reduced lunch. We need to close that gap so everyone can succeed. I love being a part of A Tale of Two Shoes because it is such an easy and effective way to help spread the important message about educational equity in our community.”
The next opportunity to support this campaign is on Friday, November 30th. Individuals wanting to get involved can simply wear mismatched shoes and join the conversation about how to close the achievement gap and see all Alachua County students reach their full potential.