David Brooks, a writer and commentator whose influential Weave Project at the Aspen Institute seeks to build community, has said, “Almost every successful person begins with two beliefs: the future can be better than the present, and I have the power to make it so.”
For Kirsten Russell, Vice President, Community Impact at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, these words resonate, in their hope and in the belief that people can come together to create positive change.
For over 40 years, the Community Foundation has been working to make the future of our community better. An essential part of that effort has been through its support of education. Education, Russell notes, and the opportunities it provides are universal among the donors with whom the foundation works. “When you invest in a person, you’re truly investing in an entire community for today and the generations to come,” Russell said.
This year, the Community Foundation has generously supported two PLANit Sarasota initiatives that will help more students pursue and complete educational pathways after high school: the creation of a directory of resources and a pilot initiative to reach and support “stop-outs” (students who have earned some college credits but stopped attending classes) and “summer-melt” (students who applied to college but never enrolled).
PLANit Sarasota, the local college access network (LCAN) for our county, is an alliance for education and career planning. With the Education Foundation of Sarasota County serving as the convening organization, PLANit Sarasota harnesses the power of over 40 community, education, philanthropic, and business partners to create opportunities for students, especially those who are under-resourced, so they can pursue an education after high school.
Through the support of the Community Foundation, PLANit Sarasota will develop a community resource guide. In it, students and families will find the resources provided by partner organizations compiled into one, easy-to-read pamphlet.
As Russell said of the project, “No matter how resourceful you are, there’s something to be said for having a common place for everyone to go to get information…. It’s incredibly valuable.” To help ensure students most in need of this support can access the guide, PLANit Sarasota will send it to families living in three ZIP codes identified through a recent analysis of economic factors and academic success based on third-grade reading scores.
To help students succeed in earning their college degrees, PLANit Sarasota is also piloting a program to address stop-outs and summer-melt. This exciting regional initiative, fueled in part by the Community Foundation, involves two other LCANs, Leap Tampa Bay and Reach Manatee. It builds off Leap Tampa Bay’s proven model, where a completion coach contacts students who have stopped attending college or never started. The coach works with each student to find a way to remove the barriers keeping students from realizing their dreams of a degree.
“If we didn’t learn this through our individual experiences during Covid,” Russell said, “it is hard to keep yourself going when you have ‘this barrier’ and ‘that challenge.’” She added, “What I love about ‘stop-out’ is that we’re not… saying we have the answer. The data tells us students aren’t finishing, and this initiative will help us understand why. The goal is to hear from students so that we can support them through the disruption.”
Embedded in the Community Foundation’s work and its motto—“Be The One”—is the belief, echoed by David Brooks, that each person has the power to make our community and future better. And when many people come together to support something as important as educating our youth, the lasting impact is so much greater.
As Russell said, “Our community does better when the individuals in the community do better.”