FORT MYERS, Fla. (Feb. 23, 2016) – Mariam Riveron, Cleef Joseph and Latham Johnson, students from three different Southwest Florida high schools, were surprised to learn they face the same challenges despite the miles separating them.
The students share similar obstacles to attaining a post-secondary education and dilemmas about choosing school activities and sports or finding a part-time job to help their families.
Mariam, Cleef and Latham were among the 27 students from 16 Southwest Florida high schools attending the 2016 FutureMakers Regional Student Summit at Hodges University in Fort Myers. They openly discussed their thoughts about challenges they confront at school, at home and in their communities, and the changes they can make to improve their opportunities for post-secondary education and successful careers.
As members of the Student Leadership Team, the students were given the opportunity to have a voice in shaping the future of Southwest Florida and helping the FutureMakers Coalition understand the struggles of students throughout the five-county region. Students were also invited to join the Coalition and its Regional Action Teams.
“We don’t know what your life is like,” Sarah Owen, president and CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, told them in opening the Feb. 12 summit. “We want to get into your brains. You’re speaking for all students in Southwest Florida.”
The Community Foundation is the anchor organization for the FutureMakers Coalition, which is dedicated to increasing the number of Southwest Florida residents with college degrees and post-secondary certifications from 27 to 40 percent by 2025. The summit was designed to engage and involve students as context experts by understanding their educational and career aspirations, and challenges from their perspective.
Students also revealed their goals for 2025 in a video booth.
The cross-county, cross-school district meeting of the minds was an educational process for the students as well. They learned about successful programs at other schools and discovered they’re not alone with their current and future concerns.
The teenagers participated in three sessions, responding with emoticon stickers and Post-It notes to poster questions delving into their perceptions of their communities and neighborhoods, commenting on obstacles and also offering suggestions for success. Artists Doug MacGregor and Steve Turner sketched students’ responses to facilitated conversations about challenges and changes.
“It’s important to hear from the students about their challenges but also to have them discuss solutions,” said Cindy Banyai, an evaluation and research consultant for the Community Foundation. “They had great ideas and were very passionate about addressing these obstacles. Each group coalesced, building upon the suggestions and input from their peers.”
Students candidly discussed their concerns about financing a college education. They also talked about the reality of leaving home and being independent, of growing up, and the need for guidance in filling out college applications and managing finances.
“We need direction,” said Dunbar High’s Latham Johnson. “I feel we’ve been given the tools, but we’re not doing what we need to do. I feel like I should be doing more.”
“At school we don’t really talk a lot about getting ready for college,” said Francisca St. Germain from Cape Coral. “I only have two years and don’t know how to get ready. I don’t know what to do.”
Maintaining motivation, overcoming peer pressure by aligning with positive classmates, an overemphasis on Florida Comprehension Assessment Test scores and teaching to the FCAT were among the common themes students discussed.
“A test doesn’t define who we are or what we can do,” one student noted. “Someone might fail the FCAT but be able to do the job better.”
Rachel Valdes-Moya, a student at Clewiston High School and aspiring journalist, said the school’s “power hour” has been a step toward change. The classroom time is an opportunity to build a positive peer network, study, work with guidance counselors and prepare for SATs.
Students from Charlotte County hope to introduce the concept to their schools.
Mariana Ruiz-Vallejo, a sophomore from Marco Island, said she feels academically prepared for college but not socially because she’s worried about leaving home. She’s also concerned about finding scholarships.
Several students also discussed personal decisions about working to help their single-parent families or continuing with sports and extracurricular activities to improve their chances for college. Talking face to face, cellphones stowed in backpacks and purses, they offered support and advice.
“Money is a big problem right now,” said Cleef, a Haiti-born Fort Myers High junior and football player who wants to be an engineer. “My mum works two jobs, and I want to help. I feel bad I don’t have a job.”
His group mates Latham and Clewiston High’s Mariam urged him to stick with sports.
“I’ve been working since I was 13 but stopped because my grades dropped,” Mariam told him. “I’m the kind of person who believes if I want it, I will get it.”
A former wrestler Latham told Cleef he often regrets his decision to drop the sport to work.
“Playing football is your job,” Jessica Burgos, a career coach at Clewiston High, told Cleef. “Don’t discredit the time and effort you put into football. You can get scholarships. You have the rest of your life to work.”
Several summit students said they want to make their families proud by becoming first-generation college graduates.
Jessica Senatus transferred from Lely High to Mason Classical Academy to focus on her studies. “I’m from Haiti, and my family has sacrificed in every way. It’s up to me to carry the family legacy.”
“My family is from Cuba, and they think when you go to the United States, you automatically go to college,” Mariam said.
The FutureMakers Coalition will calibrate summit information into a regional report that will be shared with the Southwest Florida community.
Of the students attending the summit, 19 signed up for the Coalition and Regional Action Teams in their communities, giving them “a student voice at a bigger level,” said Tessa LeSage, director of social innovation and sustainability for the Southwest Florida Community Foundation. “You’re making a difference.”
The student leaders were selected to represent their schools after participating in countywide summits.
“These students demonstrated exemplary interest, articulation and passion for regional change around educational attainment,” said Banyai. “As participants in FutureMakers events and Regional Action Team meetings, they will bring the student voice, as context experts, to the discussion and development of co-designed projects and programs. This work may be considered as part of a student’s community-service learning.”
The student voice is a valuable component to the Coalition’s emphasis on cradle-to-career initiatives, said Owen.
“All too often adults think they have the solutions for our children, but how could we possibly know what’s going on in their lives without hearing from them?” she said. “We invited these high-school freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors to talk about the real issues facing them every day, to have honest meaningful conversations with us about the obstacles that might prevent them from going on to traditional or technical college, and we’ve given them an outlet to speak up on a regional basis with regional stakeholders.”
Summit partners included Hodges University, the Rocket Lounge, HyperTeam, Promotional Incentives, Domino’s Pizza and the Lumina Foundation.
Formed in 2015 around existing regional collaborations, the FutureMakers Coalition’s goal is to transform the workforce by increasing the number of college degrees and post-secondary certifications from 27 percent to 40 percent by 2025 throughout Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties. The coalition is committed to creating a cradle-to-career pathway to ensure success for traditional students and adult learners.
The FutureMakers Coalition is one of Lumina Foundation’s 75 national Community Partners in Attainment. Residents are encouraged to join and support this community-changing initiative. For more information, visit www.FutureMakersCoalition.com, call 239-274-5900 or email Tessa LeSage at TLeSage@floridacommunity.com.