As part of an ongoing series, Florida College Access Network will profile the innovative efforts of our partners to make college readiness, access, and success a reality for all Floridians. This week we profile Champions for Learning, a Naples-based ally in Goal 2025, a statewide initiative to increase the percentage of Florida residents who hold a high-quality degree or certificate to 60% by the year 2025.

In Southwest Florida, Collier County-based Champions for Learning has taken the first flinty efforts at forming a local college access network. That means pooling together schools, education non-profits and business leaders and getting them to share a common language about what needs to be done to make college success a reality for first-generation students.

What brought these groups together was a number—twenty-eight percent. That’s the share of high school seniors at one Collier County high school in 2011-12 who completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA, the cornerstone document that secures college grants, loans and even scholarships for aspiring college students. For Susan McManus, director of the Naples-based Champions for Learning, that number didn’t just sound low. It rang an alarm.

“When you begin looking at the data, there’s a lot of questions about why this low number exists. What are the reasons? What’s the cause?” asked McManus. “What’s also really interesting about the FAFSA number is that it’s a good indicator of where the student is at in the planning process.”

As an example, she cites a local student and family who got through the whole process of successfully completing a FAFSA only to be stopped cold by a section that asks for the colleges to which the financial aid form should be sent. The family was baffled, their daughter had not yet applied to a college. “There is a checklist of what comes first and we learned we need to do much better educating the community on what those steps are. Our focus on FAFSA completion can be a tool for this,” adds McManus.

The low FAFSA completion rate was part of a package of data provided last summer by the Florida College Access Network to Collier County stakeholders like Champions for Learning.  Known as the Education Foundation of Collier County until last year, Champions for Learning is a private non-profit organization that fosters community involvement in education through targeted grants that support innovative teacher practices. They also convene community groups to help determine the course of education in this Southwest Florida county.

“That workforce and college-readiness data brought us very close to several partners in our area,” says McManus.

Last September, the group convened a meeting of local education, student and business leaders, all of whom were spurred to action by this concrete example of what was lacking in the area’s college-going culture. Local business leaders, accustomed to the story encoded in profit-and-loss statements, now had a solid figure and could help brainstorm pragmatic interventions. Champions for Learning now had a renewed sense of mission. By adopting increased FAFSA completion as a metric of success, they had a quantifiable goal that could involve the entire Naples community in a host of new, effective practices in the region’s college readiness culture.

As one practical measure, Champions for Learning paired off with Take Stock in Children to raise money to provide 12 full-tuition scholarships to Golden Gate High School juniors to attend Edison State College.  But it also developed a long-term plan that brought several of the area’s key stakeholders into ensuring that the next generation of Collier County graduates have the skills needed to be high-quality and highly-credentialed employees in the workforce.

Dubbed “The Real World,” this evolving public-private project aims to impart a host of “real world” soft-skills that will allow graduating high school seniors to nimbly navigate the world of college and develop real, in-demand workforce talents.

Here’s the concept: In high school, academic classes would foster practical talents in written communication, public speaking, networking and leadership. After-school programs and non-profits could imagine new ways to realistically introduce students to a range of careers. Under The Real World banner, business professionals would serve as mentors, either sharing their career journeys in school presentations or serving as mentors who could work closely with one or two students over the long-term. Other community volunteers will be recruited to provide help with college prep essentials such as essay writing, test prep and application completion. High school student ambassadors would serve as peer influencers, mentoring middle school students to stay on a college readiness track and delivering speeches directly to businesses to help recruit new volunteer mentors.

It’s an ambitious plan made possible by leveraging the power of data and harnessing existing community relationships. The group has already made several strides at pushing that FAFSA completion rate up through school visits and a robust College Goal Sunday event held last month.

Yet as McManus points out, what has driven this reform, “is not always the data.” One of the people that made The Real World project feel both possible and necessary was Laura Santamaria, a college student in social policy at Northwestern University in Chicago and a Gates Millennium Scholar who interned at Champions for Learning last summer. Laura grew up in Collier County after emigrating from Colombia as a young child.

“Because my parents didn’t know English and had no idea how the school system worked in the U.S., I had to learn to navigate the education system all by myself when I was nine years old,” she wrote in a statement that was read at the Champions for Learning community meeting last fall.  She would embark on a journey to college, with her parents’ love, but little guidance, pushing her way through financial aid, term papers and deadlines with an explorer’s sense of risk and wonder.

Laura plans to return to Collier County and help establish a culture of college readiness. Her words addressing her own troubled but ultimately successful venture at college serve as a coda for the entire project. “My hope is that fewer students fall through the cracks and more are given concrete tools and valuable real-world experiences early in their education so that they are better informed about the different options available to them after high school and what these options really mean.”

Or as McManus puts it, “There’s so much emphasis on high school graduation as the finish line when it’s actually our starting line.”

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