Last fall, I visited Fern Creek Elementary — a school full of poor and even homeless children that is thriving thanks to local businesses and volunteers.
At Fern Creek, parents help out, artists visit, churches contribute and businesses send both tutors and big checks.
Even better, though: The philanthropic fever is spreading.
This week, Liberty Middle School in east Orange County will kick off a similar effort. On Thursday night, parents and neighbors will join local businesses and nonprofits to see how they, too, can work together to best help students — and make the school the heart of the community. Local representatives from Florida Hospital, AllState and others have already signed on.
Organizer Scott Kidd said he read about Fern Creek and simply decided: "I could do that, too. I should do that."
This, my friends, is what it's all about.
You see, politicians in this state have made their stance on education very clear: Public schools are a second-class priority. Teachers are often treated as the enemy.
Despite pretty talk on the campaign trail, per-pupil funding levels are lower than they were years ago. And there's a continued and concerted effort to divert money away from traditional public schools and toward for-profit ones.
So, forget the politicians.
That's what Kidd, whose wife works at Liberty as a media specialist, decided after reading about Fern Creek where, after kids had their basic needs met, test scores soared with passing rates of 80 and 90 percent.
Kidd wanted the same success at Liberty. So he met with principal Rolando Bailey, who dreams of making his school what schools used to be — "a foundation and resource for the entire community."
Bailey has an uphill battle. Many of his students don't speak English. Even fewer of the parents do.
The school already offers after-hours classes to students who are struggling. But Bailey knows to truly bring the parents in, he needs to offer evening classes for them as well.
Here's the rub: The state doesn't give Bailey the money to pay for the things he already does — much less the additional things he needs.
So he and Kidd are taking matters into their own hands, looking to local partners for help.
I wish them luck. Not just for their sake, but for other principals who also need help — principals such as Lynne Wassatt at Rock Lake Elementary, which continues to struggle.
It's easy for critics to cavalierly suggest that the teachers at Rock Lake should simply work harder and that parents there should be more involved. The reality is quite different.
Nearly 30 percent of the students at this west Orlando school are homeless. Most of the others are poor.
Some come to school hungry, more concerned about filling their tiny bellies than acing an FCAT.
"The parents here are good, hard-working people," Wassatt explained. "But they have to take a bus to get to the hotel where they're working the night shift. And then there's a long bus ride home. Sometimes another job. They are good parents. But it's a hard life."
These are the harsh realities faced by teachers all over Florida.
Some schools are plush with volunteers and resources. Schools in tony ZIP codes can collect more than $100,000 a year.
Wassatt, on the other hand, uses 25-cent Popsicle sales to try to raise $100 at a time.
The good news is: Many are already helping.
On Friday, I was privileged to be part of a ceremony honoring volunteers and businesses who help Orange County's schools.
We paid tribute to combat veterans, college students, theme parks and small businesses who were stepping up.
Among them were two groups — a young-lawyers association and a consulting firm — that help Wassatt and the kids at Rock Lake by providing backpacks and clothing.
But Wassatt has a long way to go to provide what Fern Creek does — tutoring and mentoring for every child, food for them to eat on the weekend and the technology that other schools already have.
That's where you come in. And your company. Or your group of friends. Or your civic group.
Practically every school in this state can use help.
Call one up. Ask what you can do. If you're in Orange County, the Foundation for Orange County Public Schools can help point you in the right direction at 407-317-3261.
I still believe that parents need to be vocal with the politicians who should do better by our schools. (Trust me: It was only because so many of you protested cuts last year that some of the funding was restored this year.)
But it also starts in our own backyards.
And the last time we talked about these stepping up and helping out, people actually did so.
Let's keep this momentum going.
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