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Last October, Thomas Milbry set aside his marketing studies once or twice per week to mentor freshmen at Evans Community High School in Pine Hills. In this troubled, high-crime neighborhood, many students lack support at home to succeed in school. But with the help of UCF and volunteers like Milbry, ECS has been changing that.

Tucked away off Silver Star Road, ECS is the first “community school” in Florida, providing Pine Hills high school students with extra development initiatives, such as tutoring after normal school hours. ECS also aims to help students flourish during difficult home situations, whether that means donating a handicapped van to a disabled student whose parents couldn’t afford one, or providing a student’s mother, who was suddenly and tragically shot, with an at-home nurse aide.

In 2013, the U.S. Census reported that 23 percent of the town’s population was living below poverty level — compared with 19 percent in Orlando — and about 30 percent of the city’s residents were children.

The “community school” concept aims to address those issues by giving students holistic care. Along with extra academic services and mental health counseling, the school has its own wellness center with a physician, dentist and nurse on staff.

UCF is one of four partners that support ECS with mentoring through a Freshman Success class. Volunteers from campus also help organize focus groups with community members and families to analyze what other projects need to be implemented at the school.

“The main reason is because the needs of this community are great,” said Amy Ellis, assistant director of the Center for Community Schools and Child Welfare Innovation at UCF. The center, which is behind UCF’s involvement with ECS, has a goal of becoming a model for other areas in Florida to establish their own community schools. “When we first began, the school was a D/F school. It was a struggling, inner-city high school.”

Nine years later, the Orange County school is rated a B/C, with 2,484 students enrolled last year, and more than 300 enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program.

According to data provided by the school, only 64 percent of seniors graduated in 2005, but now that statistic has increased to 78 percent.

“I’m a product of a great mentorship,” said ECS director Jarvis Wheeler, remembering his own mentor in college at Florida State University — whom he is now naming his son Lawrence after. “He was a leader on campus. I didn’t even think that existed.”

Wheeler extended an invitation to UCF to begin a mentoring program at ECS last fall.

UCF molecular and microbiology alumnus Nathan Wooding, a volunteer coordinator last spring semester, dedicated six days per week to help ECS grow and sustain its programs. Along with recruiting other volunteers from UCF, Wooding managed the school’s food pantry, helped organize school events and spearheaded the freshmen mentoring program.

Wooding’s own mentee was a senior track runner who had to leave his dedication to the team to focus on grades in order to graduate.

“A lot of [students] at Evans High School may not have family who have gone to college,” Wooding said. “[My mentee] wasn’t aware of scholarships or how university admissions work. … He didn’t always have someone to talk to.”

Wooding said his former mentee, now a Valencia College student, is hoping to pursue a business degree.

Also involved with ECS is Hannah Nguyen, a UCF health services administration graduate student. Nguyen said her department is working on streamlining programs to train mentors, and is brainstorming for ways to bridge together prospective UCF volunteers with the school itself.

“The system would guide mentors if they don’t know how to mentor in a certain situation,” she said. “We’ve [also] identified a disconnect between UCF and Evans students. … There are still a lot of students not familiar with Evans.”

To help connect UCF and ECS students with one another, Nguyen said a weeklong “UCF Take-Over” event is planned for October. More than 30 campus organizations will showcase their services to ECS students.

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Nada Hassanein is a Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @nhassanein_or email her at NadaH@CentralFloridaFuture.com.

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