By: Noemi Y. Perez
The Immokalee Foundation was established 30 years ago to support education and professional development for students in Immokalee, Florida, where more than half of the children between the ages of five and 17 live below the poverty level. Like many other low-income communities across the country, the children of Immokalee have more responsibility and less support than most of their middle-income peers. And, because many of these children’s parents are migrant farmworkers, they have additional challenges that are complex and unique: they live far away from a large town center with opportunities for entertainment and employment; their parents work from dawn to dusk harvesting food to feed our nation; and they often have to help with younger siblings. They may even have a job to help pay their family’s bills.
Even so, The Immokalee Foundation is making a difference for these kids in a way that will not only allow for a more productive future but will positively impact their community. The Immokalee Foundation’s students have achieved outstanding academic success. Remarkably, 100 percent of the students have graduated from high school, 100 percent have a post-secondary plan for a professional career, and 92 percent graduate with a postsecondary certificate or degree. These results are best-in-class among organizations serving children at risk.
And these best-in-class students are succeeding with great enthusiasm. By participating in the Foundation’s programs, students in this community are choosing to spend their personal time participating in additional educational events. Not many young people today welcome the chance to essentially add extra educational activities to their already busy school and work schedules.
Understanding the unique challenges
As migrant farm workers, many parents of the Foundation’s students harvest produce and follow the crops up north in the spring and early summer. This means students’ school schedules are interrupted on an annual basis, having to leave school in April, enroll in another state to complete the school year, and then return to Immokalee in late October. It’s not hard to imagine how challenging it would be for these children to stay engaged and learn in school while having to adapt to new people, places, and routines. And it’s easy to understand why it is hard for Immokalee’s young people to envision anything outside of their normal lives without opportunities and/or individuals who can guide and encourage them to strive for more.
Defining the best approach for maximum impact
When faced with so many challenges, it’s difficult for educators and community leaders to determine which needs to address first and how to help. The Foundation conducted a needs assessment in 2006 to identify priorities and inform planning efforts. The result determined that early literacy, after-school educational programs, college preparation, and technical skills were the most essential needs that the schools could not address at that time, primarily due to funding issues. The Immokalee Foundation was providing grants and scholarships to the community, but after the study, the Board decided it was best for the Foundation to provide direct programming targeted to specific educational needs.
Creating pathways to success
The first step is helping students establish a strong reading foundation. The Immokalee Readers program works to build literacy skills for elementary-aged children who are reading below grade level. The program comes with a personal touch, providing high school tutors, supervised by certified professional teachers, to work one-on-one with young readers – helping to enhance reading skills, and most importantly, build lasting mentor-like friendships.
In addition to services for elementary-aged students, The Immokalee Foundation provides a variety of services to help prepare the community’s middle and high school students for college. These services include college scholarships that have enabled a majority of them to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.
In 2019-2020, the Foundation launched a new initiative called Career Pathways, designed to prepare students for professional careers in job categories that are in demand in Southwest Florida. The individual pathways include:
· Business Management and Entrepreneurship
· Education and Human Services
· Engineering and Construction Management
The overriding objective of this initiative is to ensure that every student acquires the technical skills, hands-on experience, and marketable credentials that lead to a professional career and financial independence.
To avoid the outdated misconceptions and stigma often associated with technical education, the program does not pigeonhole students into a college-bound vs. technical school track. Instead, every Foundation student is exposed to a common career-oriented curriculum and is empowered to discover and pursue the career path that best fits his or her interests, capabilities and goals.
Utilizing education technology to personalize and differentiate instruction
Everyone likes to talk about personalized learning that is focused on a student’s goals, but how do you expose kids to these things when their worlds don’t allow them to understand what opportunities are available to them? While many of the community’s students are being raised in non-English speaking households, literacy remains essential to helping these children become successful. The Immokalee Foundation found Achieve3000 Literacy to be a great fit for their program.
The online learning platform includes a Career Center that is designed to help students connect learning and literacy to future opportunities. The students can see their current reading level and the requirements needed for the careers they are interested in, all while becoming exposed to news and articles about their chosen industry. It’s truly a personalized, wrap-around educational experience. Not only are improved reading skills a benefit to the students, but the school district benefits because students are able to test out of remedial courses and take advantage of dual enrollment and career academy courses. (Read more about Immokalee’s work with Achieve3000 Literacy here.)
Gaining hands-on experience with project-based learning
Because it’s difficult for students to access work experiences outside the community, the Foundation decided to bring work opportunities to the students. One example is The Learning Lab, an innovative new component of the Career Pathways initiative, and an 18-home subdivision in Immokalee that will serve as a hands-on professional career experience. Students who are following the Career Pathway curriculums for Engineering & Construction Management and Business Management & Entrepreneurship work with industry professionals to learn about and experience the processes of land development, home construction, and marketing and sales.
Creating more than just great student outcomes
According to Collier County School Board member Roy Terry, “Over the past decade, Immokalee High School has increased its graduation rate from below 40 percent to 93 percent. Without the intensive interventions and support of The Immokalee Foundation, most students would not have a postsecondary career plan. The Foundation provides the afterschool and summer education, professional development and career counseling needed for Immokalee’s youth to take full advantage of the school district’s Career and Technical programs. The Foundation also provides students with postsecondary scholarships that lead to well-paying, in-demand professional careers.”
To learn more about the foundation, visit immokaleefoundation.org.
Noemi Y. Perez, who was raised in Immokalee, has worked for The Immokalee Foundation for 12 years and currently serves as the foundation’s CEO. After earning a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from Hodges University, Perez chose to use her knowledge and experience to serve her community through The Immokalee Foundation’s programs and services.