MANATEE -- It was after school hours, but students in school board member Barbara Harvey's program had not put down the books. The middle and high school students huddled around white boards covered in algebraic equations and tested each other's knowledge on interactive computer programs.
For the past 17 years, Harvey has run a program that gives students after-school tutoring and mentoring as well as a sense of responsibility. Students also get the opportunity to make wages by cleaning their schools.
Harvey started the program, called Education Consultants Consortium Inc., with educators Cleveland Pearcy and Doretha Pratt in 1995 upon their retirement. They added the workforce leg of the program in 2004 when summer jobs for students were scarce. Harvey said she noticed idle time contributed to crime and declining grades.
"It is organized to work with teen pregnancy, drug abuse and crime involvement," Harvey said. "When I retired, I noticed a problem of children not graduating high school."
The program meets after school Monday through Thursday in the Kelly-Brown Career Development Center. The nearby Anne E. Gayle Resource Center opens if the program needs more room, and it also serves as a space for tutoring younger students.
Harvey said the tutors review the
students' report cards to identify the subject areas where they are struggling.
The program allows students to complete their homework in a focused environment with their mentors. Students also engage in SAT and ACT prep, as well as character and self-esteem building classes.
"The goal is for the kids to pursue a career, graduate, remain drug free and get married before becoming parents," Harvey said.
Alexis Brinson, a junior, has been attending the program since sixth grade. Brinson said she started with Cs, but now has all As and Bs.
Keilyla Brooks, also a junior, said she came to the program with straight As but noticed her grades slipping when she started high school.
"Regular classes were easy, but when I started taking ACE classes, my grades started to drop," Brooks said. "I started coming here more often, and now I have As and Bs again."
The program is sponsored and kept running by fundraisers, grants and local sponsors. The tutors are paid, and many are Manatee County teachers. The program is free for students and their families.
The school workforce development program is supported through grants. Educational Consultants Consortium Inc. received a $53,000 children services grant this year.
"It allows us to provide tutoring and allows the kids to make a stipend and have responsibilities," Harvey said. "And they do this in a matter that is free from crime, free from drugs and without babies."
Harvey said the students are mentored by custodians at schools.
The school board was employing companies to clean, scraping gum off tables and chairs, until a neighborhood summit concluded that students could do the work for pay and character-building.
"They did the work, made money, and had more respect for the schools they attend," Harvey said.
The in-school workforce development program runs during the summer. Students make minimum wage for up to 20 hours per week.
Students must be in Educational Consultants Consortium's academic program to qualify, and there is an online application.
"Just like a real job," Harvey said.
In addition to working for money, students attend workshops on proper dress, interviews and resume writing.
Workforce development also includes a program that allows students to shadow professionals in the careers they have interest in, including health care fields and beauty salons.
Harvey said this gives students the opportunity to have real conversations about the field, the work required to get the job and the potential salaries.
Brooks said the program helped her realize the career path to become a pharmacist, changing her first plan after hearing about the details and reality of becoming a nurse.
"Being a pharmacist seemed more interesting, and I like the salary," Brooks said.
Brooks said her favorite part of the program has been the field trips.
Harvey said that over spring break and summer, the students and their parents help raise funds to take educational field trips that include college campus tours.
Last year, the students visited colleges in Miami. The year before that, they raised enough funds for a week in Washington, D.C.
"This allows the students to learn so much more, especially when the college students come to talk with them," Harvey said.
Jamie Simmons, a former student of Harvey's and the grandmother of a student in the Educational Consultants Consortium program, said the program has helped her granddaughter in many ways.
"She has curbed her attitude, and when she got her report card, she was so proud of herself, and I was, too," Simmons said.
Simmons said this is the first year her granddaughter, a 10th-grader at Southeast High School, is in the program.
Fundraisers to keep the program running include spaghetti dinners, family fish fries, car washes and a dance for the students.
Simmons said she is heading a funding initiative for donations of $200 in exchange for an advertisement on the Kelly-Brown Carer Development Center.
"It's a community effort," Simmons said.
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081