Rollins and Fern Creek Elementary's Long-Term Partnership Makes the Grade

March 09, 2010

Rollins College senior Kaley Sinclair knows that third grader James Jackson at Fern Creek Elementary School in Orlando likes break dancing and SpongeBob and someday wants to travel to China and Texas. Since Kaley has been James's school mentor for the past four years, she knows more about him than just his grades. She’s someone with whom he reads and talks and on whom he relies.

With more than 83 percent of Fern Creek’s students receiving free or reduced-cost lunches and a 23 percent homeless rate, consistent mentorships like the one Kaley provides are a “must-have” for the school, says Fern Creek Principal Patrick Galatowitsch. That’s why the elementary school has one of the largest mentorship programs in the district – with 125 regular mentors, nearly half of whom are Rollins students.

But Rollins’ long-term commitment to its neighbor goes beyond mentorship. From on-campus college visits … to helping develop a new science lab … to teaching robotics … to painting classrooms … to donating more than 1,000 books to the library, Rollins is intrinsically involved in all aspects of school life.

In fact, you’ll find at least one person from the College on-site at Fern Creek every day. It’s one of the reasons why Fern Creek credits Rollins with helping elevate it from a “C”-rated school to “A” status over the course of the partnership.

“The impact of this collaborative effort goes beyond the donations and mentors,” said Galatowitsch. “It is truly an inseparable partnership, teaching everyone that community service is a life-long commitment, and reinforcing the Rollins mission of building responsible global citizens.”

Rollins also hosts the bi-annual “Pathways to College Day,” inviting all Fern Creek students to reframe their mindset from thinking, “Will I go to college?” to thinking “Where will I go to college?” Wearing shirts boasting “Future College Graduate,” the children take campus tours, meet students and faculty and attend a variety of classes featuring “university” activities geared to elementary students.

The partnership began nearly nine years ago when Professor of Biology Eileen Gregory was researching why science and math was critical in helping elementary students succeed later on, especially in areas where children are underserved and higher risk. Research shows that a child who graduates from college with a degree in math or science is more likely to break the poverty cycle for his/her family.

“Since Fern Creek was lacking parent volunteers to help with academic initiatives and improvements, Rollins was able to help fill this void,” said Holly Vanture, president of the Fern Creek Elementary School Foundation.

For that reason, Gregory helped create Fern Creek’s Science Academy, a program designed to increase students’ exposure to science. The Academy spawned “Science Night,” a program where nearly 100 Fern Creek students, parents and Rollins volunteers regularly participate in after-school science activities and experiments.

Fern Creek has indeed benefitted from this long-term partnership, but Micki Meyer, director of the office of community engagement at Rollins, is quick to point out that the College has been equally impacted.

“Many Rollins students who have participated in these service-learning projects have been inspired to work in education,” said Meyer. “Some of our students now work full-time at Fern Creek.” Among them: Suzy Plott, who currently serves as community and mentor coordinator at the elementary school.

Principal Galatowitsch and Meyer say this collaboration is a good example of taking full advantage of economically feasible options to help local schools.

“In tough times, it’s critical to find interesting and creative ways to share resources with public schools,” added Meyer. “Human-to-human connections are free – all it takes is time, willingness to partner, and shared learning at the center.”

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