Written by Steinur Bell, senior writer.
It’s the day before a new school year begins, and I’m at the Sarasota High School Student Success Center to find out what goes into preparing for a new year. I follow Cheryl Haller, a College Career Advisor with the Education Foundation of Sarasota County, to her desk, where a student has left a folded, ripped form full of community service hours. Cheryl unfolds it, tapes up the tear, and notices missing information. She searches the student’s contact information and sends her a message so that the hours, crucial to a Bright Futures scholarship, can be counted.
With that issue addressed, we begin to discuss the Student Success Center, but a tall young man comes in and sits down next to me. He flashes Cheryl and me a big, shy smile that belies his past trauma. Last spring, he was shot in the chest at the Sarasota County Fair. In the months following this awful incident, as he recovered, he couldn’t focus and spent hours at the Student Success Center, trying to get caught up. It would take summer school to earn the credits he needed to graduate, which he did.
Now he’s here to check in with Cheryl and formulate a plan—and I get to see Cheryl in action. She lists possible junior colleges and focuses on one, in Fort Myers, which she thinks would be a great fit. She pulls up the roster of the basketball team, and she suggests a possible winter enrollment. They discuss FAFSA and online courses he could take to fill in gaps and show junior colleges that he is serious about academics. They discuss the backup plan, State College of Florida because he needs a backup plan. All the while, Cheryl makes notes on Posts-its, which she adds to his folder and to her desk. She schedules their next meeting and plans to bring in his coaches and the principal so they can all help him realize his dream of playing basketball while earning a college degree.
We begin to talk again, and Cheryl’s fellow advisor, Davian Spires, comes over to discuss scheduling. Classroom visits to the Student Success Center have been altered. A club day has changed. Seniors will be visiting to discuss Bright Futures and begin formulating plans. Last week, incoming freshmen toured the Student Success Center so they could learn about this valuable resource. Cheryl fills another Post-it with reminders. I notice more Post-it notes.
Her phone pings. She shows me BAND, a group communication app that allows her to connect with all her advisees at once. Cheryl loves it. A student has written asking about her class size for a college application. All the other students will see how one of their peers is already deep into planning for college. Some, Cheryl notes, will be motivated to begin too. She replies to the student, sharing information that will reach all her advisees.
The fire alarm begins to squawk. The administration is getting ready, testing their systems. A few teachers are putting the finishing touches on their rooms. And as we walk outside amid the deafening noise, I realize that for Cheryl, there hasn’t been much time preparing for the new school year. She’s been preparing students to build their plans all summer.