Guest column: Working for brighter futures for high school students

Guest commentary

Today, Sunday, millions of people will be tuned into the Grammy Awards to watch with interest a story about an innovative music teacher in Vermont who uses music to help at-risk kids finish high school.

Although it is not up for a Grammy Award and is without the fanfare of a red carpet, we in Southwest Florida have our very own innovative and award-winning high school program — Destination Graduation.

Designed and initiated by the Southwest Florida Workforce Development Board, this program is a comprehensive in-school mentoring and academic intervention program designed for high school students seriously at risk of dropping out of school. It is already yielding big dividends far beyond the participants’ high school years.

The goal: To divert individuals from the resource-draining path of the juvenile justice system, welfare programs, adult incarceration and other social expenditure programs and to better prepare at-risk students not only for high school graduation but postsecondary education. They will then enter the workforce as self-sufficient, wage-earning, tax-paying contributors. Taking all participates into consideration, the lifetime return on investment (ROI) is estimated in the millions of dollars.

Simply put, here’s how it works: Partnering with the five regional school boards and several area businesses, mentors are assigned to individual schools to provide work-readiness training, one-on-one counseling and individualized academic assistance so students can attend school regularly and improve grades, with one very large incentive — a summer job.

The not-so-simple part: Twenty-five students are identified at each school as being at the greatest risk of dropping out, generally those in the bottom 25 percent in terms of academic progress. Students and their parent or guardian sign a “contract” containing behavioral and progress goals in the areas of academic and workplace readiness skills. As goals are achieved, the student earns eligibility to be placed in a summer job.

The envelope, please: The program began mid-year in 2009 serving 50 students in two area high schools, expanded modestly each year, and this year we are serving more than 300 students in 12 area schools.

Our average graduation rate over the last four years is close to 94 percent; 61 percent are currently in college, 7 percent are participating in technical training at a local school, 10 percent joined the military, and 22 percent are working full-time.

For many of these students, the academic coaching they receive is an important turning point in their lives. In addition, the social and workplace skills these students develop during the school year and their subsequent summer employment opportunities add to both their self-esteem and self-confidence. This impacts not only the student, but the school as well.

“The mentoring and accountability, along with the summer work program, have been invaluable and highly effective in motivating students to achieve beyond their own expectations,” said Jose Hernandez, principal of Golden Gate High School.

The summer work experience is a key aspect of the program. With the expertise and workplace knowledge of our employer partners, we are helping to shape our future workforce.

And the winner is: Most employers find this experience to be a valuable and rewarding one. “Overall, Gina, you met all of our expectations for performance during your work at First National Bank of the Gulf Coast. It has been a pleasure working with you and watching your growth in the banking environment. Congratulations on a job well done,” wrote Jeff Turner, senior vice president, First National Bank of the Gulf Coast, to one participant.

Destination Gradation needs you, the business community of Naples, to get involved and become a business partner.

For more details about the Destination Graduation program, please contact Bill Roshon, youth program coordinator at Southwest Florida Workforce Development Board, 9530 Marketplace Road, Suite 104, Fort Myers, 33912. Call 239-225-2500, ext. 15222, or email broshon@swflworks.org.

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