Winter Haven High students are at the center of a groundbreaking mentorship program in Polk County.
Twenty-seven juniors from WHHS have been matched with professionals from CenterState Bank, who will serve as their mentors through the next school year. It is the first School-to-Work mentoring program launched in Polk County by the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization.
The initiative targets students who are possibly at risk of not graduating — giving them exposure to work environments and pairing them with mentors who can encourage them to stay in school and successfully transition to adult life.
“Having a caring adult and positive role model to help guide you through those very important final two years of high school … is an invaluable experience,” said Stephen Koch, president and chief executive of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay.
At Winter Haven-based CenterState Bank, the participating students from WHHS meet monthly with their mentors and also receive instruction on financial education and other topics. On Thursday, officials from Polk County Public Schools were in attendance as the students met with their mentors for the third time since the program kicked off last year.
Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd urged the WHHS juniors to make the most of the opportunity.
“Listen to your mentors, ask lots of questions,” she said. “This is something that’s going to make an impact on your life, and an impact in our community.”
Brett Rawls, CenterState’s chief administrative officer, said the bank jumped at the chance to start the first School-to-Work program in its hometown. Even in these early stages, he says the mentoring relationships have been rewarding for the bank’s employees, and CenterState hopes that other businesses will follow suit and get involved with local students.
“CenterState doesn’t want a monopoly on this,” Rawls said.
Winter Haven High’s Alonzo James, 17, said he was intrigued by the program after hearing about it from his uncle who works as a teacher.
“I saw an opportunity in it, because sometimes I do need help in school when I’m falling back a little bit,” said James, a starting linebacker for the WHHS Blue Devils. When he meets with his mentor, James said they talk about the importance of grit and determination, and he says the experience helps him stay focused on school and self-improvement.
Alonzo’s mentor, James Spence, is an IT asset manager for CenterState. As a youth, he said he benefited greatly from having mentors in his church and community, which inspired him to volunteer for the School-to-Work program.
“It was a no-brainer to participate in something like this,” Spence said. “Here at the bank, one of our core values is long-term horizons, and there’s not a better long-term horizon to work toward than students in your own community.”