The COVID-19 pandemic forced Dr. Synthia Doaks to re-evaluate the way she was helping students and families in her community achieve their education and career goals.
In early 2020, Doaks had recently become the director at Endeavor Elementary: A Community Partnership School in Cocoa. When the pandemic started affecting the 600 students at the school, she realized there were limits to the help she could offer.
“I was baptized in COVID,” Doaks said. “We were working 17-hour days making sure students had access to health care, food, and clothes, but I realized that was putting a band-aid on a bigger problem.”
Earlier this year, Doaks became the first director of Elevate Brevard, the local college access network (LCAN) serving Brevard County.
The LCAN is a collaboration of more than 50 community partners working to elevate the lives of Brevard residents by increasing their access to educational opportunities after high school and sustainable employment.
“Instead of me taking their children to the doctor or giving them food, why don’t we find a way to get parents in school so they can close the skills gap and get these jobs that are open?” Doaks said. “I want them to have jobs with benefits like time off, so they can take their kids to the doctor themselves.”
Discussions for a Brevard County LCAN began in 2019, which was followed by CareerSource Brevard initiating a community exploration in November 2020 to assess the area’s readiness. In 2021, Family Promise of Brevard came aboard as the LCAN’s new backbone organization, which also led to the creation of Elevate Brevard work groups and a leadership circle.
Last August, Doaks attended her first Elevate Brevard leadership call.
“Everything I was thinking about was what Elevate Brevard was doing in terms of empowering students and giving them access to postsecondary education,” she said.
Doaks was asked to be a part of the leadership circle thanks to her involvement with the Cocoa 32922 community. Currently, only 18% of working-age residents in the 32922 zip code have earned an associate’s degree or higher, which is significantly behind the city of Cocoa’s overall 52% rate and Brevard County’s 45% rate.
Doaks became Elevate Brevard’s director this past January, and the LCAN is starting with a neighborhood focus in the 32922 zip code, with the intent to replace and scale the work to other parts of the county.
She also praised United Way of Brevard for spearheading the 321 FAFSA Liftoff initiative, a partnership with Elevate Brevard, Brevard Public Schools, and Eastern Florida State College. Through the initiative, the United Way is providing $2,500 mini-grants to nine county high schools with a five-year average of less than 50% FAFSA completion.
“The United Way has really taken that and run with it,” Doaks said.
Meanwhile, Doaks herself leveraged her 16 years in the community to spread the word about the benefits of increased educational attainment.
“I managed to build this network of principals whom I can call my friends, so I can hit them up on email and ask them when their registration dates are and if I can have a table there,” Doaks said.
Doaks notes that Elevate Brevard is a staff of one, which meant she was personally tabling at each Cocoa school this past summer. By the start of the fall, Doaks said she convinced about 165 parents to re-enroll in school.
“I had all these parents walk past me on these registration days at all these different schools, but 165 stopped and had a testimonial of how they want to change and do better,” she said.
Although the challenge can be daunting — Doaks likens her position to “juggling water balloons with angora mittens” — she remains motivated by the profound impact she can have in a student’s life.
“I can’t say that we’re going to get 60,000 people to go to college, but what I can say is that this week I’m going to help someone go back to school or find a better job,” Doaks said. “I can’t change the whole world, but I can help change one person’s world.”
To learn more about Elevate Brevard, visit the LCAN’s website, which launched in April.