UCF doubling program to help at-risk kids succeed

A program that found its legs in an Orange County high school is now getting a big nod of confidence from the state.

Governor Ron Desantis recently signed Senate Bill 7070 into law which includes additional funding and authorization for the University of Central Florida to expand the Community Schools initiative. The model first started forming about 10 years ago at Orlando's Evans High School.

"Looking at root cause. Looking at what's keeping these students from performing at a way that we know what they want to," said Amy Ellis for the UCF Center for Community Schools.

Evans, located in the Pine Hills neighborhood, had a large population of students growing up in challenging conditions.

"There was a lot of violence, a lot around that area, not because we were bad students, just because we were in bad situations," said Tim Only, a graduate of Evans and of the Community Schools model. "Some people my age would go do certain things, so they could help their mother keep the lights on. Not many role models over there."

Only said he too worried his life would end up caught in the cycle, but instead he is now a junior at Florida State studying criminology, and he said the program is to thank. Leaders at UCF said it's a four-way partnership between them, a school district, a local nonprofit, and a healthcare provider.

The partnership sets up a complex support system inside the schools so that the teachers can focus on teaching while the community can help the kids, their families, and their neighborhoods through the challenges of the area and life.

"We take resources, and we embed them into the school," said Ellis.

"Healthcare on campus, behavior health counselors on campus, clothing provided, nutritional services provided," said Jarvis Wheeler from the Children's Home Society of Florida, the non-profit in the model.

Wheeler said the kids in the schools involved have been able to focus more on their education as a result; even replacing a lot of the problematic activities in their lives with their educational endeavors instead. The results, leaders say clear at Evans.

"We've seen the graduation rate increase from 64 percent to 90 percent, we've seen crime in the community within a one-mile radius of Evans decrease by 20 percent," said Wheeler.

Only said he still feels like he can go back to the staff and support system at Evans when he needs a boost.

"That's the big thing about the community schools: it helped us during our lowest moments of our life to build us back up," said Only.

Since its start, the initiative has spread to 14 schools across the state and with the new boost from the governor.  Ellis said they hope to nearly double in the next year.