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 Achievers program of the Sarasota YMCA, 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. 

College readiness isn’t the first phrase that springs to mind when you mention the YMCA. Yet with a clear mission to develop a healthy body, mind and spirit among youth, Sarasota’s Y has pioneered a unique program that pairs working professionals with high school students to get youth to explore careers and set realistic educational goals.

Called “Achievers,” this program of two dozen students and their mentors is a dynamic example of how Florida organizations whose mission statements fall far from traditional college readiness, can contribute in concrete ways to getting high school students prepared for higher education. The Achievers program at the Sarasota Y has been operating for nearly 25 years.

Simple in design, the program works like this. Adult achievers, professionals in law, healthcare, business, the arts and other fields, are partnered with students over the course of several months to explore careers and educational training in a mentorship fashion. “What the achievers do is about college and career readiness,” says Jone Williams, who oversees the program for the Sarasota YMCA. “The kids, the parents, the professionals, who we call adult achievers, all have to sign a contract agreeing to commit 40 hours to mentoring.”

Williams says that mentoring can take a variety of forms. “It can be job shadowing, researching that field with the student, tutoring in job-specific areas, or just walking them through their own professional development, explaining step by step, ‘this is what you have to do to be where I am now’.'”

The adult achievers are recruited into the program based on interest surveys returned by students. Then Williams goes to work burning up the phones, using her social network and the YMCA’s institutional reputation to bring adult achievers into the fold.  “I will find professionals in nursing, in forensics, in the health field, in physical therapy who can come and work with the students,” says Williams. “Some will come and speak to students as a group while other may just be paired with students who are interested in the field.”

As the program spans three decades, some of the adult achievers were once YMCA students themselves in the 1990s. “We call them Adult Achiever alumni and they have a lot of success stories. They come back and help out with the programs. They stay in contact and are more than willing to help,” says Williams.

Many students come to learn about Achievers through attending the Y’s fitness and sports programs. Others find out through their high school, where Williams promotes the Y’s college readiness program. “Some of the schools have what they call tap time or rap time, every Wednesday morning, when students can go to any club meetings,” says Williams. “I’m there from 10 to 12:30 during the four lunch periods. We provide a meal and we let the students know what we have to offer.”

“I will find professionals in nursing, in forensics, in the health field, in physical therapy who can come and work with the students,” says Jone Williams.

Beyond forging a direct link between higher education and a professional career, the Achievers programs provides concrete details on what steps students must complete to enter college. “We do a college tour piece for seniors and juniors. We’ve implemented the KnowHow2Go curriculum,” says Williams. “We tell them if you’re a freshman and you plan to go to college, these are the classes you need to take. We work with them on writing the college application essay.”

Making deadlines is a key component of the curriculum and it’s why Williams requires that both parents and students in the program sign an agreement prior to entrance. “We include the parents and let them know what the deadlines are. Parents can push them to take the ACT or the SAT. The time sneaks up on them really fast. A lot of students will miss it without that push from their parents,” adds Williams. Mentors in the Achievers program have also recently volunteered their time for College Goal Sunday, helping high school seniors get their FAFSAs completed before Florida’s priority deadline of March 1, potentially allowing them to qualify for a number of state grants.

So while the YMCA may not be a household name in college readiness, it remains a highly recognizable and easily accessible institution to the families of first-generation college hopefuls. For Achiever students lacking big-name institutional references, it can also play an indirect role in accessing jobs. “One young lady in Achievers, she was an English major, we were able to recommend her for a summer job at Northern Trust here in Sarasota. Later when she graduated, there was an opening at company headquarters in Chicago, which she won out over a hundred other applicants,” says Williams. “We have a lot of success stories here.”

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