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 follow the The Rotary Futures College Resource Center at  Venice High School  in Southwest Florida, an 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.

For a decade now, students at Venice High School in Southwest Florida have had on-campus access to an agency solely devoted to getting them into college. Known as The Rotary Futures College Resource Center, the center is housed in a vividly painted portable classroom, where it provides staff, volunteers and 13 computers where students can apply to college and vocational school, learn about financial aid and scholarships, and get linked to education, career, and life opportunities.

“Our name is a little misleading.  When we created our program, we went to Rotary and asked if they would like to support this idea. Because they were first on board and committed to giving us funds, we named it after them,” says Kim Kindell, director of Rotary Futures.  “They give us one-third of our operating budget and have continued to do so since we started in 2003.”

Kindell has been with the organization since its inception as both a founding board member and as its only full-time staff. Over its 11 years of existence, it has served over 48,000 students and delivered more than $15 million dollars in local and institutional scholarships. Last year’s class of 2012, received $3.4 million in scholarships alone.

With the help of local programming company Kantel Data Systems, Rotary Futures created its own proprietary database of scholarships. “Students enter their information, test scores, grades, interests, college plans and it will search through the database and give them options that they should consider and review in a little more depth,” says Kindell. “It’s not unusual that a student might get up to 120 scholarships to review. They are given a list that opens up in order of upcoming deadlines with the websites linked so students can go home and work on them.”

Key to the program’s success is its location. For the past several years, students have had easy access to Rotary Futures’ services, Tuesday through Friday, just by walking through the doors of the on-campus portable classroom, no appointment required. Open during lunch and for 90 minutes after classes finish, the office also receives students through the school day, with hall passes from their teachers. “We’re located right here in the school. I think that was crucial. There was another attempt to have it off-campus but we couldn’t get the students to go there,” says Kindell.  “Now we’ve become part of the school’s culture.”

This fall, when a newly constructed Venice High School opens, Rotary Futures will get space right inside the front doors, ensuring its long-term survival and allowing students to access its services even longer after the school day ends.  Despite being tightly integrated into the school’s physical premises, the agency guardedly maintains its financial and organizational independence. “It’s one thing that has made our program successful. Because we have remained with our own funding and staffing, we have been able to maintain continuity and we haven’t been subject to any budget cuts,” adds Kindell.

By staying in the same place, working with the same agency, Kindell has been able to cultivate deep relationships with scholarship-granting foundations like the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, the Selby Foundation and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. For ten years, she has continued to network with the State College of Florida, Sarasota-Manatee and USF Sarasota-Manatee, the schools that absorb the majority of Venice High School college-bound grads.

When Rotary Futures first opened, Kindell admits that she did get some pushback from school staff. “Initially, our guidance counselors were a little taken aback.  We had to tell them that we were not here to say they weren’t doing a good job.  We understand that you can’t do any more than what you’re being asked to do already,” says Kindell. “We have a fabulous relationship with our students and the total support of our principal.”

Rotary Futures also provides comprehensive assistance for students looking for vocational training as well. “We make every attempt to say postsecondary instead of college, but to be honest, the majority are headed to community colleges or universities,” says Kindell.  “The program is also open to adults in our community.”

After a decade at the same job performing college access activities, Kindell points to some recurring issues which frustrate students’ search for financial aid. “I think it’s still hard to make parents understand how important it is to complete the FAFSA in a timely manner,” Kindell says.  “They are a little hesitant to provide that sort of data. It’s hard to make them understand that they can complete the FAFSA with estimated tax numbers and that’s fine as well.  Colleges have hard, earlier deadlines even though the tax deadline may not be until mid-April.”

While the majority of their funding comes from outside the Rotary Club, the household name helps garner outside funding and engenders community trust.  Rotarians have been consistent in their support for the club, providing the innovative college access group a model of how other longstanding, well-known service organizations can partner with high schools and private funders to make a real impact on forging a local, college-going culture.

“We always wondered why no one else tried to recreate our program,” says Kindell.  “Certainly a lot of people have talked to us about replicating it.”

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