The centers are located at Riverview High, North Port High and now Sarasota High.
The room is full of beanbag chairs and sofas. One wall is chartreuse, though all of them are covered in inspirational quotes, with one reading, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.”
That’s a motto that new mentors in various Sarasota County Schools follow daily.
Three high schools throughout the district — Riverview High, North Port High and, most recently, Sarasota High — have added Student Success Centers, thanks to a partnership with Education Foundation of Sarasota County.
The centers are focused on educating and preparing students for their post-secondary lives, whether that be college, trade school, the military, employment or another avenue. Students can meet with a mentor, funded by the Education Foundation, any time throughout the day.
“We did a lot of research and investigating about what does work for kids,” said Suzanne Burke, the senior director of College Career & Life Readiness. “What we recognize is, as we looked at the data, students have challenges with knowing what their options are for post-secondary, how to pay for it and what the right matches are for them.”
When students walk into the centers, they can expect the mentors to help them “navigate the waters,” said Rebecca Lewis, who runs the Riverview center.
“When students come in, I think they’re a little surprised because it’s more of a relaxed environment, so they really let their guard down,” Lewis said. “I’m there to help them in whatever way I can. I want them to understand what the path may be for them, but really for them to be taking the responsibility to take their steps.”
Lewis said the beginning of the school year tends to be the busiest because students are trying to meet college admission deadlines.
“When a senior walks in here, you can just see the deer-in-the-headlights look, and I say, ‘Just breathe. Just breathe. We’re going to get through this step by step,’” Lewis said, adding that she often makes checklists the students can work through.
As the year continues, Lewis said she sees younger students. Ideally, she said she would like to see every student at least once.
Students can regularly attend writing workshops, ACT preparation classes, college representative meet-and-greets and informational sessions on financial aid. In the first year at North Port and Riverview, the schools totaled a combined 5,000 logins to Naviance, a college-career- and life-readiness platform that students use at the center.
Within Naviance, students can explore careers, find colleges that fit their needs and complete assessments that evaluate their strengths. Additionally, Naviance can be used to store letters of recommendations, transcripts and scholarship data.
Burke said students often feel anxiety about what comes after graduation. “We’ve discovered that kids often need that spark of hope that they can reach their goals, that they can do that,” Burke said. “That’s what we’re aiming to give them.”
Eventually, Burke said she would like to have a center at every high school in the district, but that comes with funding and willing school partners. For now, though, she’s happy with the newest addition: a center at Sarasota High.
Lynn Tosi, who now runs the Sarasota center, said that after 23 years of working in education as a counselor, she’s excited to be on the proactive side.
“It’s great to help students plan for their future, post secondary, throughout their high school careers, not just in that moment of helping them with their immediate needs,” Tosi said.
Tosi is in a temporary space while a new center is built. She hopes to be moved in by January.
Although the centers have direct impacts on students, they also have indirect effects. Burke said the centers have been instrumental in helping students secure scholarships and cited an increase from $5 million to $9 million at North Port during its first year.
“I think a lot of times, students just don’t realize the resources that are out there,” Tosi said. “These centers provide them with a one-stop shop to find any information that is out there to prepare them for their futures, which is just amazing.”