Privately-funded education program transformed its Florida community, inspires others

(Lisa Buie | reimaginED) – A public school district in the Hoosier State that is seeking to expand education opportunities to its youngest learners has drawn inspiration from a privately funded…

(Lisa Buie | reimaginED) – A public school district in the Hoosier State that is seeking to expand education opportunities to its youngest learners has drawn inspiration from a privately funded program in Florida that has changed its community for the better.

Fort Wayne Community Schools recently sent a team of six to visit the Tangelo Park Program in Orlando, Florida. Created in 1993 by hotelier and philanthropist Harris Rosen, the program offers free preschool for children ages 2 through 4 living in the Tangelo Park area. It is funded through Rosen’s nonprofit organization, Rosen Foundation.

The nonprofit also provides resources for parents and full scholarships to college or vocational school to all of the area’s high school graduates.

Fort Wayne Superintendent Mark Daniel described the Orlando program as delivering “unbelievable results” during a recent school board meeting, according to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.

Before the program began, Tangelo Park, a community near International Drive in the shadow of the area’s theme parks and resorts, was plagued by overt drug dealing and use, poor school attendance, declining test scores and dropout rates of about 25%. Most of the neighborhood’s 2,500 residents came from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

Rosen, who owns eight hotels and resorts in the Orlando area, was looking for a way to give back to his community when an Orange County commissioner told him about Tangelo Park. He began meeting with community groups whose members were also seeking to improve the neighborhood.

The result was the three-fold program that includes free, mostly home-based preschools for small groups of children as well as a resource center that offered training to parents, along with the scholarship program that covers tuition, fees, textbooks, and housing for neighborhood students who earn high school diplomas and go on to college or vocational school.

The program also allows middle and high school students access to resources that aid in navigating public schools and college admissions.

Since its inception, Rosen has donated more than $12 million to the program, which also has received support from many Orlando groups including the Orlando Magic and the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation.

As a result of those investments and the work of community partners such as the Tangelo Park YMCA, Tangelo Park Elementary School, Tangelo Baptist Church and the Tangelo Park Civic Association, Tangelo Park experienced a dramatic turnaround.

Today, virtually 100% of the Tangelo students graduate with a regular diploma – 98% since the program’s inception. Grade point averages have steadily increased and are predicted to exceed 3.0 in the coming years. The program has produced more than 160 college graduates since it began.

Property values have risen from an average of $45,000 to $150,000. Rosen’s program also has made the neighborhood desirable to parents who want the educational benefits for their children.

In 2010, University of Western Ontario economics professor Lance Lochner conducted a study on the program and determined that crime had been reduced by 63% and drug dealing has been essentially eradiated. He calculated that every dollar invested by the Rosen Foundation in Tangelo Park results in a return of $7 to society.

“We have a lot of students who grew up in the community, and they’re returning,” said JuaNita Reed, a retired guidance counselor at Dr. Phillips High School, who now oversees the college scholarship program for the Rosen Foundation. “They now have families, and they want their families to take advantage of this program.”

(You can listen to a podcast featuring Rosen, Reed and program statistics coordinator Chuck Dziuban of the foundation here.)

Rosen says the foundation has become more of a safety net as more students excel in school and earn scholarships on their own. He has begun encouraging other communities to replicate the program, which was expanded in 2017 to the Parramore community near downtown Orlando.

For Fort Wayne, the biggest challenge will be funding. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates Fort Wayne has more than 18,000 children younger than 5. With 908 students, the school system has the largest pre-K class statewide this academic year.

The Hoosier State relies on federal Title I funds which are limited to schools that serve children living in high poverty areas, as well On My Way Pre-K, a state program for students who meet income guidelines. But Stockman said the money is designed to help students attend established programs, not start new ones.

The district also offers preschool at two magnet schools, a Montessori school and an early childhood center, and funds those programs through the district budget. Officials say access to those programs is limited.

Fort Wayne officials hope to find their community’s own version of Harris Rosen.

“We are identifying and meeting with potential partners, including neighborhood associations,” district spokeswoman Krista Stockman said.