Beginning this month, Florida College Access Network will begin profiling the innovative efforts of our partners to make college readiness a reality for all Floridians. This week we profile, Educate Tomorrow, a Miami ally in Goal 2025, a statewide initiative to increase the percentage of adults who hold a degree or certificate to 60% by the year 2025. 

A little-known Florida law provides free tuition at all public colleges and universities for foster youth as well as youth adopted from departmental custody. On top of that, these students can apply for Road to Independence scholarships which provide Medicare health coverage and a living stipend of just over $1,000 a month, up to the age of 23.

Passed in 2002, these laws are powerful policy tools that can make college a reality for some of the state’s most marginalized teenagers. Yet years after the laws’ passage, few leaders in education or child welfare knew how to utilize them.

“At the time no one was using it,” says Brett McNaught of Educate Tomorrow. “It was only two years old.  Miami-Dade College didn’t have a process for it. DCF didn’t yet have a protocol for it. The public schools didn’t know about it.”

McNaught is the CEO of Educate Tomorrow, a Miami-based non-profit that provides the skills, technical guidance and social support young adults coming out of the foster system will need to enter higher education or the workforce. “Transitioning youth often became legal adults without having first gained the basic life, social, and emotional skills that most young adults acquire from a family environment,” writes the group on their web site. “Educate Tomorrow makes considerable effort to fill this gap.”

The organization began in 2003, when Melanie Damian, McNaught’s sister-in-law, was volunteering as a guardian ad litem, assisting kids in foster care with their dependency court cases. She came across one student who excelled in high school. Yet when she asked him where he planned to attend college, he responded, “I can’t go to college. I’m in foster care.”

Shocked by his answer, Melanie and her four sisters began combing through Florida legal codes where they discovered both the tuition waiver and the living assistance scholarship, which would make college possible for this young man. Realizing there were potentially thousands of students in foster care who could benefit from an agency that cut through red tape and lit up the path to college, the four sisters would form the non-profit Educate Tomorrow.

Three years ago, they began to see their first crop of students walk across a stage, diploma in hand. Educate Tomorrow now counts seventeen college graduates, master’s and bachelor’s degree holders among their ranks, from colleges such as Tulane, Florida State, the University of Miami, Florida International University and Florida A&M University. Dozens more are currently working their way through higher education.

“We try and be a point person and a community for the educational needs of transitioning foster youth,” says McNaught. “A lot of our students come to us from a case management agency. Often judges refer youth to us after they have come to court for one of their dependency hearings. We make sure they have an advocate, a mentor, someone who knows their rights and can advocate for them within the school system.”

The cornerstone of the program is its one-on-one educational mentorship, where foster youth are paired with local professionals who work alongside them to create and carry out an educational goal plan. Program staff aid in navigating financial aid and school bureaucracies to make sure the youth receive every benefit to which they are entitled and make every deadline for which they are responsible.

Last month, Educate Tomorrow opened a mentee resource center, where youth can access cutting edge test-prep and educational software, preparing them for FCAT, SAT, PERT, and ACT.  An educational counselor provides help with resumes, financial planning, skill assessment and career guidance. The service remains open to any student in a Miami-Dade high school or college.

“Without big intervention from us, taking a really close look at these kids, it can be really difficult for them to progress to college readiness,” says McNaught. Not all  of Educate Tomorrow’s students find a way into college so easily. “We have a lot of students that are in remedial classes in junior college. They did not get the level of high school education that they needed to be successful in college.”

Nowadays, Educate Tomorrow counts Antonio Shelton, one of the program’s earliest alums, among its board of directors. Shelton was once a foster youth in Miami-Dade County. In 2004 he earned an associate’s degree in recording arts from Fullsail University in Orlando with the help of Educate Tomorrow. Today, he is a sound engineer at Miami’s CP+B, an international ad agency that counts Microsoft and American Express among its clients.

Achieving independence through education isn’t an easy path, let alone without a family of your own to guide you. Yet by providing the adult support of mentors who can meet their specialized needs, Educate Tomorrow has shown that college readiness can happen when a striving student is provided with intense planning and robust social support.

“These students are self-motivated,” says McNaught. “They just needed help from someone to navigate the system.”

top photo: Educate Tomorrow board members Antonio Shelton (l) and Chris Damian (r) at the White House in 2010.The Miami group was one of twenty innovative organizations invited by the President as part of National Mentoring Month.

Follow Florida Goal 2025 on Twitter @FloridaGoal2025

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