It’s been more than a month since Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida, but many of the state’s residents are still scrambling to recover from the storm’s devastating aftermath.
“Whether your own house sustained damage or you’re one of the businesses that still doesn’t have power, you see the ripple effects throughout the entire community where you live,” said Lisa Church, vice president of Champions for Learning, an education foundation based in Collier County.
While Irma threw the entire county and surrounding areas into disarray, the focus for Church and colleague Jessica Manchette — Champions for Learning’s senior director of programs — was Collier’s students.
Fortunately, Church and Manchette were uniquely positioned to formulate a rapid plan of action thanks to their work coordinating Future Ready Collier, a local college access network (LCAN) of more than 50 organizations working to boost educational achievement for the county’s students.
“Our work together as an LCAN — with all the relationships and trust that has been built — has positioned us to know how to adapt and leverage resources quickly,” Church said. “The best example of this is Collier County Public Schools (CCPS) and Champions for Learning taking the lead with the support of our other partners.”
“We are all working together to be sure this senior class isn’t going to lose ground.”
The idea sprung from Champions for Learning’s desire to establish a free college application week for Collier students in the aftermath of Irma. FGCU president Mike Martin suggested expanding it to include all students in the state.
“After considering how Florida Power & Light has said this storm caused the most widespread damage in its history — affecting all 35 Florida counties it serves — we decided the right thing to do was waive the application fee for all state residents,” Martin said in a press release. “Every little bit helps in times of crisis.”
Leslie Ricciardelli, Collier County Public Schools’ executive director for secondary programs, said the storm struck at a particularly inopportune time for the Class of 2018.
“For seniors, September is the most important month and when we have a lot of our Financial Aid Nights,” Ricciardelli said. The district was only able to host Financial Aid Nights at two of its nine high schools prior to Irma’s arrival. “We had these plans for every high school, and it’s so critical because the students have so many questions.”
One of the top priorities was figuring out a way to reschedule those Financial Aid Nights. Prior to the hurricane, Future Ready Collier had a meeting scheduled for late September to establish an action plan for the year. After the storm, it was quickly decided to use that meeting to craft a strategy plan to support the county’s high school seniors.
“We jumped in feet first with the district,” Manchette said. “We talked about what was missed and what the priorities should be now. It wasn’t just important to get the right messaging out, but we had to have the right timing so that we didn’t create more stress for the families.”
The result was the first-ever Virtual Financial Aid Information Night on October 11. In addition to having financial aid experts and volunteers assist students and their families at five different locations, the event was streamed live online and broadcast on The Education Channel.
“There was some attendance by parents at each location, but the real power will be in being able use the video from that event as a resource,” said Peggy Aune, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at CCPS. “School staff can use portions of it or show it in its entirety. We are very excited about that.”
Due to the cancellation of so many Financial Aid Nights, the district also prepped its counselors on the changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) so they could go directly into senior-only classes to cover different aspects of federal financial aid.
“I’m interested to see if our FAFSA completions go up with the amount of legwork done by our counselors this year,” Ricciardelli said.
To that end, there are three FAFSA completion events at Collier County high schools this month. Two of them took place October 14 (at Immokalee High School and Lorenzo Walker Technical High School), while the third is scheduled for October 28 at Golden Gate High School.
The Guadalupe Center — which offers early education, afterschool tutoring for K-2nd grade, and high school tutoring programs for children in Immokalee — provided crucial support for the FAFSA completion event at Immokalee High and has served the entire community in the aftermath of the storm.
Immokalee, an unincorporated area of Collier that has one of the highest poverty rates in the state, was among the hardest hit sections of Florida. About a quarter of Immokalee’s housing is comprised of mobile homes, according to the Naples Daily News, and the storm affected 3 out of 5 trailers.
“Two weeks after the storm, we were a distribution point for water, canned food, diapers, and a lot more,” said Dawn Montecalvo, president of the Guadalupe Center.
Montecalvo said her organization’s involvement with Future Ready Collier helped her allocate resources more efficiently.
“Since we’ve been sitting in a room with Future Ready Collier and other organizations, it’s very easy for me to pick up the phone and ask what they need,” Montecalvo said. “Would that have happened 5 to 10 years ago? I don’t know…but it’s certainly happening now.”
The Guadalupe Center is also careful to consider students’ needs that might go beyond the classroom.
“My staff has been really amazing with listening to the kids and asking the right questions because a lot of times you ask kids how they’re doing after the hurricane, and they’ll just say ‘I’m fine,’” Montecalvo said. “We had a student who lost everything, and we were trying to get them a computer and a homecoming dress.
“You can forget the things that are important to students, but we’re also making sure they don’t allow the storm to interrupt their goals.”