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Turning a school around

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Above, Fern Creek Elementary students participated in Dr. Gregory's microbiology class, where they extracted DNA from strawberries as part of the "Pathways to College Day" event.

With their college buddies by their side, 150 fourth and fifth-graders at Fern Creek Elementary played with tangrams in a geometry class, took a course on global biodiversity of wildlife and learned to speak Japanese during the Rollins College “Pathways to College Day” event on Wednesday, March 24.

The biannual event, which brings in kindergarten through second-grade Fern Creek students in the fall, allows students the opportunity to be college students for a day, where they donned “Future College Graduate” T-shirts, sat-in on college classes and interacted with college students to get a true day-in-the-life-of experience.

Patrick Galatowitsch, Fern Creek principal, said that the partnership with Rollins is like a “meeting of the souls” and delivers the message that, “It’s not whether students will go to college, but instead where they’ll go.”

Fern Creek is considered an “at risk” school because more than 83 percent of its students are on the free and reduced lunch program, while about 20 percent of its students are homeless.

The exclusive partnership between Rollins and Fern Creek began in 2001 to boost Fern Creek’s school rating and has since included not only the “Pathways to College Day” event, which began in 2006, but an extensive, one-on-one mentoring program that mutually benefits both parties.

Michele Meyer, director of the Office of Community Engagement at Rollins, said, “There is not a day that goes by where a Rollins student, staff or faculty member isn't on the Fern Creek campus…Connecting curriculum, mentoring and education is a key component to college awareness for children at Fern Creek.”

Rollins students learn just as much though, she said. “Many learn that they are interested in education and serving as advocates for children in our community.”

Since the partnership, the school has gone from an “F” school to an “A” school.

Suzy Plott, a recent Rollins graduate who participated in the program as a student, now serves as the community and mentor coordinator at Fern Creek, where she says it’s all about “planting the seed” of college being an attainable option early on.

By instilling this mindset now, Plott said children can get motivated and excited for college by raising their grades and planning ahead.

For Khristian Burke, third-grader at Fern Creek, the program is fun and important to her because, “The things you learn in elementary [school], you can learn more about [in college.]

She said she hopes to be a writer one day, as she and her college buddy worked to extract DNA from strawberries as part of a biology class demonstration.

Burke’s lab partner, Molly Uelmen, marine biology junior at Rollins, said, “I think it’s definitely an important program because a lot of these kids come from parents with backgrounds that didn’t include college…For some, they could be the first college graduates in their family. This just gives them a new perspective for their futures.”

Susan Peterson, fifth-grade teacher at Fern Creek, said, “Rollins doesn’t just encourage our students to go to college, they take them there!”