On the morning of September 27, nearly 30 community leaders and educators met at the Barcodes building in Brooksville for a kickoff meeting of the Local College Access Network (LCAN), Spark. The network operates between Pasco and Hernando counties and encompasses 15 organizations across several sectors. The goal of this leadership council was to “collaborate about equitable access to college attainment and career achievement in our community.” Through their discussions on Wednesday as well as future meetings, the group is looking to help citizens of all ages attend college or find a career.
Christina Sowers and Turner Arbour were happy to show people what they have been working on and to get the ball rolling. This initiative is important as it will help empower the individual and bring jobs back to the two counties. According to Arbour, over half of the workers residing in Pasco County commute to Hillsborough and surrounding counties. A project a year and a half in the making, they were looking forward to finally being able to communicate with the leaders from around the counties on Wednesday.
“It’s come so far in the past year,” said Arbour, the Senior Economic Development Manager of Pasco EDC. “I’m really excited that today is kind of the culmination of the past year’s work to really bring in the outside community partners to see what we’ve been doing, to get their feedback on where we should be going, then to really hone our vision, and see where we can make an impact. Really excited to work with everybody here and to keep moving that forward through our groups.”
The gathering started with introductions and the best icebreaker of all: food. Afterward, Chuck Tiernan, the Director of LEAP Tampa Bay College Access Network, familiarized everyone with LCANs by way of a presentation on these organizations. Tiernan listed various groups around the state that share the same purpose as LEAP and Spark. These include Bridge 2 Life, which covers Broward, and Aspire, which helps a trio of other counties in the state.
The meeting was then split up into two groups. Arbour led one group while Sowers, the Workforce Manager at Careersource Pasco Hernando, led the other in a separate room. During these smaller group sessions, individuals recounted examples of students who have struggled with college admissions and workshopped how to remedy this.
“It’s the first time that Pasco and Hernando County are joining together for [LCANs],” said Sowers. “I think that’s an important piece to see those communities come together… We’ve seen today by a raise of hands that there’s several individuals that are meeting with us today to have the important conversation about college access, attainment, and local college access. They’re new to the table, so hearing their voices today has been really great.”
Wendy Beard, Coordinator of Pathways to Success Academy and Adult Education at Wilton Simpson Technical College, noted a time when a student texted her at 11:30 at night to ask what “being in default” meant. The student was raised by her grandmother, who was not versed in filling out FAFSA forms either, so Beard was happy to help. The educator always maintains a positive and supportive tone when students come to her with questions like these. Otherwise, Beard knows the student might shy away from reaching out a second time and not receive the help they need. In this instance, the student continued to reach out with questions due to Beard’s accommodating approach.
To alleviate this concern, Beard recommended the creation of a mentor position that checks up on students to make sure they are informed and prepared for the next step in their lives. Nathaniel Brown, Coordinator of the Global and Multicultural Awareness/Equity Services Department at PHSC, echoed this sentiment when he advocated for “wraparound services” that would work to provide another point of contact for students to troubleshoot issues. “Providing that intermediate support is key,” said Brown.
As Sowers has been working with Careersource Pasco Hernando for ten years, she has a passion for helping people find their careers through college or other avenues. “The data says it, and anyone you speak to knows it. That’s what drives your empowerment. That’s what drives you doing great at home with your family,” said Sowers. She has been pleased that families have been having important conversations surrounding these issues. Moving forward, Sowers and Arbour are looking to increase the number of parents at these monthly leadership councils to gain a better perspective of what may be ailing the community concerning jobs and schooling.
The pair are also planning to hold many more meetings and events in the coming weeks. There will be a separate leadership council for Spark on the 19th of October, while the next meeting of the smaller groups will meet sometime tentatively in October.