Palmetto summer program encourages year-round excellence through work, academic support

For the past four summers, Kaci Newsome cleaned graffiti, scraped gum off desks, removed crayon marks and lifted heavy furniture. Once, she found a dead lizard.

“It was like a skeleton,” she said. “I just picked up and threw it out.”

Newsome is one of about 100 students who participate in the summer program each year run by Educational Consortium Consultants Inc., the brainchild of former district employee and former school board member Barbara Harvey.

The program aims to put money in students’ pockets each summer as they work with custodians to clean the schools, but the students also take academic and enrichment classes in the afternoon. The program also runs in the school year using space in the Anna Gayle Resource Center and the Kelly Brown Career Development Center.

Students are expected to maintain high grades, keep out of legal trouble and to marry before parenting a child. Harvey and her team don’t set strict requirements on who can participate in the program and they don’t turn anyone away who needs helps. Most students in the program live at or below the poverty line.

“In my opinion, all children today are at-risk,” Harvey said from the Anna Gayle center, as students practiced a dance routine to hip-hop music in the next room.

Somebody who looks like them

In 1995, Harvey retired from her first career, working in the school district. She was the director of elementary education when she retired but had worked as a principal and classroom teacher as well.

She began to realize there was a real problem in the county. Parents of children of color weren’t sending their kids to school, either because the parents were internalizing bad feelings from their experiences at school or because the parents weren’t around. Harvey and some others began helping these parents navigate the school system. It could be as simple as sitting in meetings with school officials and providing support.

“We helped cross that line,” she said.

The reality of drugs and the decline in church-going families created a new reality, Harvey said, in that many children of color weren’t seeing people who looked like them in leadership positions.

“A child can go through school now and never have a teacher who looks like them,” Harvey said. “For many of the children who are here, just a hand on the shoulder by somebody who looks like them means a lot.”

The majority of Harvey’s employees “look like” the children in the program. Harvey has recently started to hire some younger employees for the summer program, to help teach the dance and computer coding enrichment classes to provide younger role models for the students.

“That value is there,” she said.

She wants to show the students in the program they, too, can finish high school and be successful.

Strict requirements

When students join the program they sign a pledge, and Harvey makes them recite it daily.

“If I wake them up at midnight, they better be able to say it,” Harvey said.

The pledge says the students will maintain A’s and B’s on their report cards, will follow all school rules, will stay crime and drug free, will graduate high school, will pursue a career and will marry before parenting a child. Students also declare themselves winners each day and pledge to say something if they see something, “because I know silence hurts.”

During the school year, tutors in the program monitor student grades and step in if grades start to slip. During the summer, students get extra help in math and English Language Arts to avoid losing any insight during the summer months.

Personal hygiene — which more than one student in the program calls “sex ed” — is another important component. Speakers also come in to talk to students about different careers they can pursue after high school.

“My goal is for them to be moving ahead,” Harvey said.

During the school year, students go on trips to different colleges for a first-hand experience of what college is like. While college may not be the path for every student in the program, Harvey and her team expect them all to finish high school.

“You can finish high school, that’s not an option,” she said.

Something to do

The students in Harvey’s program may only have an inkling of the benefits the program provides.

“It gives us something to do over the summer,” Newsome said.

Newsome, a 17-year-old Palmetto resident, is saving up her paycheck money to buy books and supplies at State College of Florida. Newsome graduated from Palmetto High School last month, and took some dual enrollment SCF classes while still in high school. She wants to pursue engineering one day and has worked in Harvey’s program for the past four years.

For her second year at Tilman, Newsome was working with Anissa Washington, a 17-year-old who’ll start her senior year at Palmetto High in August. On Monday, they were moving furniture from the carpeted area of a classroom to the tile floor, and preparing the carpet to be steam cleaned.

In a classroom across the school, 15-year-old Reese Lyons and 15-year-old Judonn Davis worked on cleaning a carpet together.

“I like it here,” Reese said.

The four students help supplement the work the custodian do and are a major help, said custodian Kody McNear, who helps supervise the students. During the summer, the schools basically get a scrub down and the students really help.

“It provides extra hands and extra help,” McNear said.

McNear, Lyons and Davis all attended Tillman when they were in elementary school. It gives them an extra set of pride to be cleaning their own school.

Down the road, 16-year-old Rodney McCullough hopes to use the money he’s earned in the program to buy himself a car. He’ll be a junior at Palmetto High this fall and he’s in his first year with the program.

One of his favorite parts of the program is the personal hygiene, or “sex ed” class.

“They help you become aware of things you really aren’t aware of,” he said.

Shoestring budget

The school district pays the students who work as summer custodians, and can accommodate about 100 kids per summer, which is why Harvey’s program caps out at that many.

The consortium operates on a tight budget, funded by grants. Harvey, who just turned 75, doesn’t collect a paycheck and her staff doesn’t work for much either, she said. All told, funding hovers around $150,000 per year, and Harvey said she’s always looking for new sources of money to help the kids.

On the wish list? A van to transport the students around.

Those in the program now are responsible for their own transportation, which can make getting the children to and from their work assignment difficult. Harvey is trying to encourage the students to use more of the county buses, but a van would also help with field trips.

“We need to do more,” Harvey said.

Meghin Delaney: 941-745-7081, @MeghinDelaney

For more on this program, visit www.servingeverychild.com or call the Anna Gayle Resource Center at 941-723-6879.