Not far from bustling downtown Tampa and just west of University of South Florida, there is a transformative movement happening — one that is changing lives, strengthening families and rarely getting the attention it deserves.
In Hillsborough, a county where 12 percent of the population lives in poverty, a startling 30.4 percent are at or below the line in the 33613 ZIP code. That number could paint a grim picture for Mort Elementary on Bearss Avenue — where a startling 94 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged, in a school once known for its transient population and troubling scholastic declines.
But over the past five years, a new reality tells a much different story.
Whereas statistics show more than one-third of children living in poverty aren’t ready for kindergarten, students at Mort are bucking that trend. In the school where parental involvement was once nearly nonexistent, the VIP Parent Program is overflowing with engagement.
What makes Mort stand out?
In 2016, with planning help from the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, Mort adopted the Community Partnership Schools model to create a long-term partnership among Children’s Home Society of Florida, Hillsborough County Public Schools, Tampa Family Health Centers, Tampa Innovation Partnership, the University of South Florida and the Hillsborough Education Foundation.
Mort joined a growing number of Florida schools that have implemented this strategy proven to elevate student success by addressing some of the most pressing barriers affecting children’s ability to learn: hunger, homelessness, exposure to violence, untreated mental health challenges, access to health care and more. Also topping the list: access to positive, safe after-school activities, which is proven to improve academics.
Why is this so important?
If children are hungry, they can’t learn. If they’re in pain from an untreated toothache, they can’t concentrate. If they’re carrying the weight of heavy adult problems including taking care of younger siblings, they can’t focus on schoolwork. And if the engagement stops when the final bell rings, they’re missing tremendous opportunities to realize their full potential.
The Community Partnership School addresses all that — and more. Bringing services right to the campus, the model offers students convenient access to health care, mental health services, mentoring and tutoring, and — at Mort — 12 extra-curricular programs to offer expanded learning at school.
But it doesn’t stop with the students; the beauty of this model is that its holistic approach extends to the families, understanding that family engagement is closely linked to better student behavior, higher academic achievement and improved social skills.
This long-term approach is truly only the beginning of success for these students. Building upon the strong foundation they receive at Mort, they’re more likely to continue their academic growth.
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Whereas statistics try to tell a disturbing story of future dropouts and continued cycles of poverty — simply because of a ZIP code — these students are telling their own story. One of hope, opportunities, dreams and success. A story that has unlimited potential — because this community believes in them.
And they’re not alone. Mort is one of 29 Community Partnership Schools in 12 county districts throughout Florida, schools poised to give students the opportunities statistics tend to steal. In every location a visionary principal and dedicated faculty play an essential role in the model’s success.
But it’s not easy, and it cannot be done in a silo. While every Community Partnership School relies on the support of its unique community, they also rely on the commitment of state support.
This legislative session, lawmakers are considering an allocation of $10 million to sustain and expand Florida’s Community Partnership Schools. The model has been tested and proven successful in reducing failure, enhancing the health and well-being of children, and engaging family members and community allies in paving a path to success — in school and in life.
We all know that when it comes to children, it’s not whether we pay, it’s when. Rather than paying the cost of failure, let’s invest in success.
Your voice can be the difference for Florida’s students — and our collective futures.
Jack Levine, Founder of the 4Generations Institute, serves as a family policy advocate, based in Tallahassee. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information visit www.chsfl.org and click to Community Partnership Schools.