Igniting Dreams

At Valencia’s adopted elementary school, children are starting to see
themselves as college material.


Abdriel Figueroa is a soft-spoken fourth-grader from Puerto Rico who likes to play baseball and hopes to be a doctor. But first the Central Avenue Elementary School student must master long division.

“If I say 53 inches, how many feet is that?” asks his mentor, Valencia College student Luis Medrano, as they sit in a classroom with their desks pushed together.

Abdriel taps the air with his fingers, calculating: “4 feet 5 inches.”

Then Medrano gives Abdriel a harder problem. “What about 99 inches?”

“I’ve got it,” Abdriel says. He picks up a dry-erase board and starts to divide the number by 12. But he winds up with a remainder that’s bigger than his divisor. With a little help from his mentor, he eventually gets it right.

Kathleen Plinske

Kathleen Plinske, president of Valencia’s Osceola and Lake Nona campuses, led the effort to adopt Central Avenue Elementary.

Medrano started mentoring Abdriel last fall, when he learned that the Osceola Campus of Valencia had “adopted” his alma mater (where his little brother is now a first-grader). “I want to give back to my elementary school,” he says.

Central Avenue had the lowest reading scores in Osceola County last year, with only 26 percent of third-graders passing the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and just 17 percent passing in math. The school district superintendent shared these concerns with Dr. Kathleen Plinske, president of Valencia’s Osceola Campus.

“I thought, certainly we can send Valencia students to mentor fourth-graders,” Plinske says. “But is there something more we can do? Can we adopt the school?”

The answer was an enthusiastic yes. College officials met with Principal Trenisha Simmons to find out the best ways to help, and a partnership was born. Since then Valencia has hosted a day of mock college, donated food, and sent more than 50 student and staff volunteers to serve as weekly reading partners and mentors to Central Avenue third- and fourth-graders. “They are helping to build that child’s internal desire to be their best and to overcome obstacles,” says Simmons, and “building that desire to learn.”

Abdriel Figueroa gets help on his schoolwork from mentor, Luis Medrano.

Abdriel Figueroa gets help on his schoolwork from mentor, Luis Medrano. Photographs by Tom Burton

The kids love it and look forward to their Valencia student coming in.”

While Abdriel deals with products and quotients, his school confronts some other daunting numbers. Sixty-five percent of students who started school at Central Avenue in the fall will finish the year somewhere else. (Pawn shops and apartment complexes near the school suggest a community in flux, and about 10 percent of students’ families are homeless.)

Because of the high student turnover, says Simmons, “you’re always having to re-teach expectations and re-teach school procedures.” But this challenge makes her determined. “If you’re here five months, the whole year, or two months, we want this to be the best experience you can have.” The extra role models from Valencia are a help. “The kids love their teachers and listen to their teachers, but when they hear something coming from a teenager, they think, ‘This must be cool,’” Simmons says.  On top of that, it’s “one more person coming here just for me. So I must be special.” She encourages mentors to spend time getting to know their students, reminding them, “When you remove the numbers, there is a child there.”

Money bills

“I think the adoption of Central Avenue is so central to our mission of community outreach and responding to our partners’ needs,” says Plinske. The project is also aligned with the “Got College?” effort to boost college attendance throughout Osceola County. “It’s becoming clearer that, if we don’t start these conversations earlier, by the time students are in high school, they’re more difficult. If a student doesn’t see themselves as college material, it’s hard to change that mindset.”

According to Sarah McKenney, Central Avenue’s dean of students, Valencia volunteers “have really embraced our school 110 percent. They want to know what they can do outside of mentoring for us. They’ve helped with shelving books, working in the cafeteria. They’ve asked, ‘Can we go into the classrooms?’

“It’s been an amazing experience,” she adds. “The kids love it and look forward to their Valencia student coming in.”

Valencia instructors have also stepped in to help. Liz Earle, a professor of reading, takes part in the Bookmark Buddies program, tutoring a third-grader from Colombia who was on the cusp of passing the state reading exam. Earle started her career as an elementary and middle school teacher and says she enjoys the opportunity to work with younger students again. (During a recent visit she spent a few minutes talking with her student, “a very motivated little boy,” about the baby tooth he’d just lost.) Central Avenue families speak 17 different languages, and while Simmons considers this diversity an asset, she knows it’s critical for her students to be proficient in English.

Simmons wanted to make the idea of college more concrete for Central Avenue students. So, in February, Valencia invited fourth- and fifth-graders to campus for a day of learning, fun, and smashed bananas. As college students for a day, they got to sample ice cream made with liquid nitrogen. They witnessed the spectacular effects of freezing flowers and bananas in liquid nitrogen and dropping them on the floor. The students also got a lesson on fractions by measuring out fruit punch and tested their engineering skills by seeing who could construct the tallest candy-toothpick tower sturdy enough to hold a paperweight. “For the vast majority of them, it was their first time setting foot on a college campus,” Simmons says.


Central Avenue students measure fruit punch to learn fractions during a recent visit to Valencia.

Valencia students entertained an audience from Central Avenue Elementary by making ice cream with liquid nitrogen.

At the end of the day, they left with totebags full of books donated by the Education Foundation of Osceola County and Goodwill Central Florida. The two schools were laying plans for another campus visit in May.

A big smile breaks across Abdriel’s face when asked about his day in college. “Oh it was awesome,” he says. “My favorite part was when we were building a tower with toothpicks and gummies.”

McKenney adds, “It’s more than coming and working with them academically. It’s building those relationships and sharing with them that there is something outside of elementary and middle and high school the kids might not have thought about.”

saturnRecognizing that hunger is another big concern for Central Avenue (with 100 percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunches), Valencia has donated food for the school pantry—nonperishables as well as vegetables grown in its campus garden that can be sent home over the weekend. (Valencia’s horticulture department is also helping Central Avenue expand its own school garden.) According to Simmons, the extra food makes a difference. If students have been hungry all weekend, then on Monday “they’re not going to be thinking about academics.”

When Medrano arrives at Central Avenue on a recent Wednesday morning, he signs in at the front desk and picks up a volunteer badge. Running into his former first-grade teacher, he stops for a quick hug. Then he’s off to Abdriel’s fourth-grade classroom, where his teacher has prepared a bright yellow folder of materials to work on. They head for a room specially reserved for students and their mentors.

After chatting for a bit, they get to work. Abdriel looks at pictures of clocks and writes the time next to each one of them. “Muy bien,” says Medrano. Next comes a review of some measurements and division—a bit harder.

Finally, they focus on reading. Abdriel quietly reads aloud a passage titled, “Who Owns the Arctic?” and Medrano questions him about the main idea.

At the end of the year, Central Avenue will examine test scores and other assessments to measure the effects of the partnership. What they’re already seeing, says Simmons, are improvements in students’ self-esteem and ability to verbalize what they know in front of their classmates.

According to McKenney, Abdriel has “come out of his shell” since Medrano started mentoring him. “That is probably just important as the academic portion of it: being able to speak or explain what it is that you know.”

Medrano adds, “In the fall he did have a little more trouble with English, but it’s surprising to me how he got the language really quick. He’s really bright in math and I enjoy when sometimes he teaches me new tricks in multiplication and division. That’s cool.” In giving back to his alma mater, Medrano says he’s gained new leadership skills, which will help him pursue his goal of a career in business administration.

Abdriel thinks his mentor is pretty cool, too. “He teaches me things I didn’t know.” Now, he says, his English has improved enough that he’s able to help his mother when they go shopping.

“He believes his classmates are going to college, and no one can take
that away from him.”

Plinske’s voice catches when she talks about the power of the partnership. At the end of the first campus visit, she recalls, “There were probably 50 or 60 Valencia volunteers standing as a group and waving goodbye to the kids. When the last little boy boarded the bus, he got halfway up and turned around. And he proclaimed, ‘We’ll see you when we’re older.’ And then he got back on the bus,” she says. “He believes his classmates are going to college, and no one can take that away from him.”


While Valencia has a long history of community outreach, the college has been working to broaden these efforts as part of its accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Examples of recent projects include:

Valencia engineering professor Deb Hall and her students teamed up with fifth-graders at Tildenville Elementary School in Winter Garden to build three solar power generators for Uganda orphanages. (While connecting wires, the kids made the connection that science and technology can improve lives around the world.)

Valencia’s horticulture department worked with volunteers at the Edgewood Children’s Ranch to turn acres of land into an experimental garden that provides educational opportunities for the young people who live and attend school there. It’s hoped that the garden might one day produce income for the ranch.

Valencia East launched a health academy at Lawton Chiles Elementary School, offering hands-on lessons about how much sugar lurks in some of their favorite drinks, how to brush their teeth properly, and how to take care of their bodies through exercise.