Spotlight: Creative Partnerships to Improve Student Success in Osceola County, FL

Monday, February 28, 2022
Chelsi Chang

It’s no secret that schools across the country are often strapped for resources and time to fully support each student’s individual needs. This is particularly true for schools that serve a majority of students of color and/or those experiencing poverty. Addressing this issue calls us to look back at the old adage: “It takes a village.”

Schools that engage in meaningful partnerships can expand offerings and opportunities to best suit their student population. Coordinator of College and Career Counseling Anthony Cook and the rest of the district team in Osceola County, FL have leveraged a number of partnerships to improve student support and outcomes. We sat down with Cook to learn more about the partnerships that shape and support the growing population of students of color in Osceola County.  

Your district has engaged in a number of cross-district, cross-sector partnerships over the past few years. At a high level, why have partnerships been a priority for you in your work?

As much as it pains me to say this, I cannot move the needle without help. In the last couple of years as I started to think bigger, I realized that I need people to rally around the same vision and the same mission to support what we’re trying to do. 

Partnerships can multiply our impact. For example, I do a monthly incentive for students (raffles for $50 Amazon gift cards) to complete their FAFSA. But I wanted to do something bigger and better; so heading into Christmas, I reached out to UpliftEd and I asked if they had money so we could give out $100 Amazon gift cards, maybe some laptops. Sure enough, they got it together for us. We did a 10 Days to Christmas countdown with giveaways if students presented evidence that they completed their FAFSA. In those 10 days, we got almost 200 FAFSAs turned in. 

Osceola County School District was very influential in the launch of Florida College Access Network’s Plan It Florida initiative, which aims to ensure every high school student graduates with a postsecondary plan. How do you partner with local higher education institutions to facilitate postsecondary transitions for college-going students? 

There are a number of things we have been able to do because of our institutional  partnerships. We are able to provide transportation for dual enrollment opportunities through our MOU with Valencia College. It also helps pay for students’ books and tuition. Our funding with Valencia College allows us to have what we call “Valencia Transition Coaches.” These coaches identify students and work one-on-one with them through everything that’s involved in the transition process. They also help with our summer programming, which mitigates summer melt. Outside of COVID, our district has not seen a significant melt. So our Transition Coaches essentially wrap a pretty bow around our kids and set them at Valencia’s front door so they can persist through college. 

We’ve also networked with people at Universal Technical Institute to help bridge financial gaps. I remember I met a counselor from UTI and I said, “Look, bro. I love your campus. But y’all are expensive, and I don’t want to sell that to our kids if they can’t afford it. Especially when there’s some limitations on financial aid.” You know what? He created scholarships specifically for Osceola County students.

Because of our partnerships with these institutions, I can go outside of the scope of my limitations and dream a little bit bigger and then ask these partners, “Hey, are you willing to come alongside us and do things?”

So you’ve talked a little bit about tracking and analyzing student level data to ensure students are completing what they need to to be college and career ready. How are you able to track that? What has been the most successful?

Our state platform tracks FAFSA completion and FFAA applications, which is our state application for scholarships and grants. We also use Florida College Access Network’s (FCAN) dashboard to track at a student and district level. So that’s important, too, because we can pull from different sources to compile a complete profile on a student. FCAN also has a data ecosystem called CFEED, which is funded by Helios Foundation and partners with Valencia College, University of Central Florida, Osceola Technical College and Orange Technical College. Because of this, we can see in real time what the matriculation rates are. We can even break it down within subgroups and look at longitudinal data. These numbers help us understand where student subgroups are ending up. 

What partnerships do you anticipate will be critical in improving postsecondary outcomes, particularly for students of color? 

Our partnership with UpliftEd is our Local College Access Network (LCAN). We’re actually in the thick of doing our community of practice, which focuses on our ALICE families (Asset Limited, Income Constrained), the majority of whom are Black and Brown families.

We also have a partnership with Sunrise Scholars. They work specifically with under-matched students, and they have partnerships with universities nationwide that cover the full cost of attendance for a Black or Brown students. So if students are academically competitive or are on the cusp of being academically competitive, they take them and they work with them one-on-one and follow them all the way through their collegiate experience. 

Finally, we’re constantly seeing how we can leverage programming and the funding that may be there to help bridge the gap for our Black and Brown males in our partnership with Valencia. 

In addition to postsecondary-specific partnerships, Osceola County also partners with local businesses to provide a number of services to schools and students. Tell us a little bit more about the Partners in Education program. What makes for a good organizational partner? How do you define success in these partnerships?

What I would consider a good partner are those that align with our vision and are active participants in providing opportunities for our students to be exposed to opportunities. Every year we work with different business partners within our community to provide immersive experiences for our students. For example, we have a partnership with Gaylord Palms, a luxury hotel in our area. Many consider Gaylord Palms just a part of the hospitality and tourism industry, but they are so much more than that. They have their own engineering, human resources, financing, marketing, and culinary department. Through Xello we can handpick students who may benefit from a behind-the-scenes day at the hotel. On the trip, students visit the hotel’s underground tunnel system and see how everything works. Then they divide the kids up with different heads of departments at the Gaylord and cater lunch for them. So then it is like an informal Q&A and lunch. I remember one year I sat next to the president of the Gaylord Palms.

There’s also a lot of construction going on in Osceola County. So we’re working with the main construction companies to show kids what jobs in construction can look like. Our construction and technology kids have actually gone onsite. They’ve been able to watch the construction team tear down and fully develop a new bridge. 

Valencia College also helps us find business partners in our community to connect our kids with. We have Lowe’s, Amazon’s, and Lays’ distribution center in our backyard. So we took our kids that are interested in transportation, logistics and distribution, construction and technology, even our marketing and financing kids to the distribution center so they can see all of the jobs in their neighborhood. 

In addition, we have a biotechnology field trip that we take every year. They go to the Lake Nona Medical Facility. Lake Nona Medical Facility has a University of Central Florida, University of South Florida, and a University of Florida medical campus. So not only are students seeing all these jobs in the medical community, but now they’re rubbing shoulders with the traditional college pathways. So you could be a student that wasn’t interested in college and can see, “Oh, I can go to a technical college or I can be in a CTE pathway in high school.”

What has the value of these partnerships meant in navigating the challenges brought by the pandemic? How have you been able to sustain and grow these partnerships over the past couple years?

I am really grateful for our partnership with Broward County. This year, our districts collaborated on hosting a series of virtual FAFSA events and launching a virtual HBCU fair. They approached me and said, “We would normally go into schools and do [events] in person, but let’s make this virtual so it can be for your kids and families, too.” So I think that was kind of a segue for a lot of our partnerships to figure out how we navigate in a virtual space. And ultimately, by having these events be open to any student across our two districts, we were able to have a bigger impact.

As far as our business partnerships, we were supposed to have a mini career fair for about 4,700 eighth graders where they get to meet with our business partners within their career cluster, including hands-on activities to help students get a feel for what that career looks like. We were two weeks out when there was a COVID surge, so we decided to switch to virtual. The fact that our partners were able to switch it to virtual speaks volumes. It was clear they wanted to maintain our relationship because they see the value in it and want to meet the needs of the kids. So they were flexible and made sure the students were able to engage.

I see you have been able to build another, more direct partnership with your students via Instagram. Has social media changed your relationship with your students? Do you find this is an important tool for college and career readiness? 

I would do anything if it gets kids connected and it makes them laugh. That’s just who I am. There are trends on TikTok that I’ve tried to flip and make it be college and career-related. I did the Holy Spirit activate TikTok trend with some college and career-related themes and I think that one has almost 10,000 views on it, which blows my mind. But if that’s what draws kids in to get them what I know they need, then I’m going to do it. I’m trying to be better about branding and messaging. You’ll see I’ve rebranded and now have specific themes on specific days: Monday Check-ins, What Do You Want to Know Wednesdays, Spotlight Fridays. So social media has helped me bridge the gap a little bit. It meets them where they are. 

Finally, what words of advice would you offer to district leaders looking to expand their partnerships to better support students in their journeys to and through postsecondary education?

Number one, say yes. Even if it seems like it’s too much. Start off by saying yes, and being overwhelmed and then backtrack from there. That was my thing when I came in this position, I’m just gonna say yes, who knows? And it led me to partnerships with LCAN, FCAN, Broward County, Florida Virtual, and Bridge to Life. 

Number two, create a clear vision of what you want to provide for your students. You’ve heard me say over and over that I wanted immersive experiences and hands-on activities because then the experience becomes real to them. Most people learn by being active. Leverage who you have within your district.

Number three, work smarter, not harder. Don’t reinvent the wheel, find out who’s doing what you’re doing and reach out to them. Say “Can I get on board? How can I contribute? Are you cool with this?” That’s what happened with Broward and my district. Don’t be scared to ask what they’re doing and how they got there. And be patient, definitely be patient. It took us 12 years to be where we are, and we’re a mid-sized district. This is a decade’s worth of work. You have to figure out what that looks like, what barriers you have, how you’re going to attack those barriers and be patient so that you can get to where you want to be.