As a new academic year begins at every education level, Florida Gulf Coast University not only takes its own students under wing, but extends the Eagle eye to future students.
That’s when the university reaches out and nurtures the newest crop of CROP students, helping to prepare and inspire first-generation collegians of tomorrow in grades six through 12 to pursue postsecondary education.
Established by the Florida Legislature in 1983, the College Reach-Out Program strives to motivate and support students who, due to economic conditions, otherwise would be unlikely to seek a college education. And as implemented by FGCU in the five-county Southwest Florida region, it’s a program run successfully and efficiently.
Of the 14 state colleges and universities that applied for a slice of $1 million total in Florida Department of Education CROP funding for the 2017-18 academic year, 12 earned grants. And with an accountability score of 103 of a possible 106 points for its performance in 2016-17, FGCU ranked third in the state — and best of any school implementing CROP independently, or not part of a multiple-school consortium. As a result, FGCU is one of just four applicants to receive increased funding for the year with a total grant of almost $78,000, which the university is required to match in cash and in-kind services.
It’s all good news — again — for Kristian Boyce, CROP and Scholars Program assistant director in FGCU’s Office of Outreach Programs. Under Boyce’s oversight in 2016-17, FGCU reached a total of 465 qualifying students in 21 CROP programs throughout Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties based in schools that have at least 50 percent of the student body qualifying for free- or reduced-lunch programs.
Without the help of Boyce and his team of on-site teachers, counselors and coordinators in the grassroots schools, many of these students wouldn’t even go so far as to dream the dream of higher education.
“These are just kids, and besides school, some have jobs, and even have to help out their families with household expenses. They need to make the commitment to join a program that helps them make time to plan for their future,” said Boyce, who emigrated to the U.S. from the United Kingdom 12 years ago, spent time in similar roles in Washington state and with the Florida DOE, and is now in his fifth year at FGCU in a job that’s funded by the state CROP grant.
Part of the challenge for Boyce and his staff — who train the in-school program leaders, create the curriculum and arrange college visits and other “field-trip”-style programs — is breaking cultural barriers and even unrealistic expectations. “In Latin families, the men traditionally go to work and the women stay home and care for the family,” he said. “We also get a lot of kids who talk about getting athletic scholarships, but then we talk to them about the backup plan.”
Then comes the issue of showing students and their families how they can afford a college education. “They see the price of college and they are in shock,” Boyce said. “We try to speak to them in terms that make sense. For instance, if they are working a part-time job at $8 an hour and work 10 hours a week, they make $80. We try to make them understand that if they spend that 10 hours applying for scholarships, the potential is there for a lot more than $80.”
In the schools, CROP counselors meet with the students as a group at least two hours a week, usually after classes. The kids get tutoring help, a support system that encourages them to eye the future, and preparation for standardized tests. “That’s been our big emphasis the past two years — to get the test scores up, because the average scores of our students in the five-county area are below FGCU admission requirements,” Boyce said. “The main thing is to get the kids into a secondary plan, whether it be a two-year school, four-year school, apprenticeship, getting a job or even enlisting in the military.”
The FGCU team has had quantifiable success in its CROP mission. In the past two years, compared to the state average high-school graduation rate of about 78 percent and the postsecondary education attendance rate of about 61 percent, CROP students guided by FGCU have achieved a 99 percent graduation rate and a 94 percent postsecondary rate. While most local CROP students begin their higher-education careers at Florida SouthWestern State College, many go on to FGCU (15 of 120 graduating seniors enrolled at FGCU in 2016-17) and some have even attended universities such as Duke, Brown and Virginia Tech.
One of those success stories is Dakendo Michel, who earned a bachelor’s degree in social work at FGCU in 2015 and is working toward a master’s with the eventual goal of being a clinician. He also serves as Talent Search coordinator at East Lee High School, which coincidentally is just starting a CROP program.
A first-generation student of Haitian descent, the 24-year-old Michel got involved with CROP in middle school, when he said he “didn’t even know what a college looked like.”
“The college-trip portion of the CROP program made me think, ‘I can do this,’” he recalled. He stayed with CROP through his Fort Myers High School years and earned a 3.5 GPA, but didn’t have the standardized test scores to get into a four-year school. His CROP leader steered Michel toward FSW, then known as Edison State College. From there, he would go on to graduate magna cum laude from what is now the Marieb College of Health & Human Services as Undergraduate Student of the Year.
Michel’s advice to youngsters now walking in his shoes? “Take advantage of all the help you can get while you can,” he said. “I wanted to break that generational cycle of not going to college, and CROP kept me on track. Get involved, stay active and have fun while you’re doing it. CROP works like a big family and offers a great support system. Now, I can go back to Fort Myers High, and the kids look up to me and say, ‘I can do it, too.’”