JACKSONVILLE, FLA. — Lorenzo Simmons'S passions are the same as most of his ninth-grade classmates: Nike, Michael Jordan, Jacksonville's NFL football team. His pencil doodles of athletic shoes, however, hint of a teen with an artistic knack.
But Lorenzo lives on the wrong side of the tracks in a cinder-block home with a trampled, crab-grass lawn. Any dreams of tapping those passions and using his talents to become a designer or an architect were only vague and distant hopes.
Then about a year ago, he signed a contract vowing to keep his grades up, stay off drugs and out of trouble. In exchange, Lorenzo was given a gift that allowed him to see a world beyond his next pickup game: the promise of a free college education.
"If all through elementary school and junior high you are working under the impression that you're not going to college and then someone tells you you can? That has a whole lot of impact on how you see things, how you perceive your life," says Nat Glover. The sheriff of Jacksonville, Fla., believes in the Take Stock in Children program so much he donated three years of his pension fund to it.
What sets this program apart from other efforts to keep teens in school, experts say, is that its success is based on a unique combination of elements: a contract, a promise of higher education, a mentor, and corporate backing.
Take Stock in Children is also the largest program of its kind. And it's being launched in one of America's most difficult proving grounds - Florida has the second-highest school dropout rate in the country.
Early numbers indicate wide success. In the program's prototype, begun in Pinellas County, Fla., seven years ago, a full 97 percent of those who signed the contract either continued in the program or went on to postsecondary education. Though no numbers are yet available for the two-year-old statewide program, an evaluation process overseen by international management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and the state departments of Justice and Education is in place.
Is it working?
But some juvenile crime experts say the Take Stock program may not take the mentoring concept far enough. Most of the mentors are employees of sponsoring corporations who are expected only to spend one lunch period a week with their child, helping with homework and talking about the future.
David Brotherton, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, says a setup like that does more to make the mentor feel good than to create a safety net for a child. "A mentor is someone who's there all the time, not once a week," he says. "It's someone who can help teens interpret difficult, contradictory life circumstances."
He also questions whether the program is reaching the truly needy. "If teens make it through school, they've survived. The kids you really need to deal with are those who get pushed out of school for all kinds of reasons. Those are the ones who get labeled and get into the criminal-justice system."
And not all Take Stock in Children participants have received the kind of attention that Lorenzo Simmons has. Taniko Coney is a bright, thoughtful 10th-grader at Andrew Jackson High School who signed onto the program in September. Yet she has not even been assigned a mentor. Program leaders say attracting mentors has been extremely difficult.
While Taniko is grateful to have the chance to go to college, the fact that she doesn't have a mentor could explain one of the primary sentiments she's felt since receiving the scholarship: anxiety. "Everything I do now, my mom says, 'You've got to do it better now that you got the scholarship.' It's a lot of pressure sometimes," Taniko says.
The program can be traced back to a south Florida superintendent who saw a photo of a child his family sponsored overseas. Doorways, as the Pinellas County version was called, sought out local business sponsors to pay for low-income kids' college education. In exchange for their contribution, they got a picture of a scholarship winner and could also mentor the child.
The program reached out to middle-schoolers in hopes of lowering the dropout rate. In May 1996, five years after the program had begun, 30 scholarship winners had completed their first year of college.
At about that time, Florida's largest bank, Barnett Banks, began searching for a new outlet for community involvement. A bank board member knew of the Pinellas County project and suggested the company take a look.
Barnett began networking and soon other large corporations, like Publix Super Markets, AT&T, CSX Transportations, and Tropicana were on board to the tune of millions of dollars. Today, replicas of the Pinellas County prototype have been established in 51 of Florida's 67 counties - though each program is slightly different because each has local leadership and reflects its community's needs.
Third-to ninth-graders who fall below the federal poverty line, have a grade-point average of 2.5 or higher, and show potential are chosen by a committee of teachers and community leaders. They sign a contract pledging to stay free from crime and drugs and not let their grades drop. Once the student graduates from high school he or she is guaranteed two years at a Florida community college or vocational school and two more years at a state-run, four-year college. The program has raised some $8 million from corporate and individual donors.
"I always wanted to go to college," says Lorenzo, his dazzling smile muted for this serious thought, "but I didn't know how I was going to get there."
Room to grow
Take Stock in Children's goals for the future are even more ambitious than what it's already achieved. Tomorrow, the group launches a major publicity initiative in Florida to attract more donors and more mentors. The goal is to create 14,000 scholarships.
But program organizers say Take Stock in Children will always remain focused on helping local children through the involvement of the local community.
"Talk about making an impact on someone's life," says Kenneth Campbell, senior vice president of the organization and mentor to Lorenzo. "To have a young man look you in the eye and say ... 'Mr. Ken, from the time I get up in the morning, there's violence all around me.... But you've given me a new purpose in my life.' That's making a difference. I don't really understand it ... but I think something miraculous happens when people care about people."