When Dunedin High School seniors need help navigating their paths to college or a job after graduation, they can turn to “Miss Lessley.”
As the school’s college and career coordinator, Carole Lessley helps the students map out post-graduation plans for success, identify schools offering the academic programs they’re interested in, work through the college application process, find and apply for scholarship and financial aid opportunities, prepare for standardized tests and stay on top of application deadlines.
Of course, a four-year college degree is not the only route to a good-paying job. The College and Career Centers connect interested students with career certification programs at Saint Petersburg College and Pinellas Technical College. Cyber security, drone pilot training and certification as an emergency medical technician or an electrical lineman are a few examples of the workforce training opportunities available. There are apprenticeships at the national firm Power Design in several construction-related trades and military service opportunities.
“Any student can look and find something they want,” says Campbell Hudson, a Dunedin senior planning to attend Seton Hall University on a scholarship. “Miss Lessley has said before she wants everyone to leave high school and have a plan, whether its college, career or the military.”
In 2020, the nonprofit Pinellas Education Foundation and Pinellas County Schools partnered on the College and Career Centers program to ensure every student has the opportunity and guidance to create a plan for the future. After starting in a handful of schools that first year, the centers are now in all 17 high schools in the school district.
“We take great pride in the expansion of the centers to every high school this year," says Pinellas Education Foundation Chief Executive Officer Kim Jowell. "We appreciate the district’s commitment to this work and are grateful for the dedication of the center’s coordinators in helping students and their families create a post-secondary success plan. Having students that are well-prepared for life after high school builds a brighter future for them and the community."
At Dunedin High, students walk down a hallway lined with college banners and flags to reach Lessley’s office, which just happens to be next door to senior guidance counselor Ann Matthews. For students, it’s a one-stop shop.
Dunedin High School seniors Kate Abrams, Campbell Hudson, Joel Suaz and Emmanuel Chanda work together in the school's College and Career Center office.
“Miss Matthews handles everything in our current senior life, dual enrollment classes, whatever else we want to do,” says senior Joel Suaz, who plans to study business in college. “Ongoing into our future, it’s Miss Lessley.”
The College and Career Centers have an open-door policy to help all interested students identify and work toward college and career goals. Through Pinellas Education Foundation’s Elevating Excellence initiative, the centers also work to help high-achieving, low-income minority students who would be first-generation college students. That effort has its roots in data showing that economically disadvantaged and minority students who qualified for Bright Futures scholarships were underrepresented among the students receiving the scholarships.
Helios Education Foundation, the Richard O. Jacobsen Foundation and Pinellas County Schools fund the centers. The LEAP Tampa Bay Network has been a key community partner to accelerate the work done to increase the completion of post-secondary education.
Numbers show the centers’ impact. During the 2022-23 school year, nearly 7,300 students received one-on-one support. More than 4,500 students received assistance applying for Bright Futures scholarships and nearly 3,900 received assistance with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the official form to apply for college financial aid. Thanks to the centers, the FAFSA completion rate increased by 4.6 percent across the school district.
Navigating the alphabet soup
On a Friday morning in November, four Dunedin High School seniors are in the school’s College and Career Center office entering personal information in a computer system to create their IDs for the upcoming FAFSA application cycle, which is set to open by December 31st.
It’s just one example of how the college and career coordinators help students navigate a complicated alphabet soup of acronyms related to the college application process- FAFSA, SAT, ACT, SSAR (student self-reported student academic record), the University of Central Florida’s SPARK form. The list goes on.
“You have to figure out everything you need, all the deadlines,” says Kate Abrams, a Dunedin senior who plans to study environmental science. “It can be very overwhelming just to navigate through all that because different colleges have different requirements to apply.”
Abrams says Lessley provided assistance and answers with the forms, kept her informed of looming deadlines and “even wrote me a letter of recommendation for one school.”
Dunedin senior Emmanuel Chanda, who plans to study aerospace engineering, says that with the help of Lessley and the school’s College and Career Center, he’s been accepted to several colleges, learned about scholarship opportunities and interned at Bank of America. Chanda says he’s in Lessley’s office twice a week.
“She’s always there for us,” he says. “You can always depend on her to help you.”
The school’s center also has an easy-to-use website that is a one-stop resource center for information on scholarships, tips for admissions essays, financial aid, Bright Futures, the ACT and SAT, academic programs, internships, workforce training and military opportunities. The site is typically updated weekly.
A transformative program
Over the decades, Pinellas Education Foundation and Pinellas County Schools have partnered to launch several initiatives- the Doorways program that evolved into the statewide Take Stock in Children program, Enterprise Village and, most recently, the Pinellas Early Literacy Initiative- that have gone on to be models for statewide programs.
During Pinellas Education Foundation’s annual ChangeMakers breakfast celebration in December, the College and Career Centers program shares the spotlight with those innovative initiatives. At the event, Dulce Rodriguez Escamilla, also a senior at Dunedin High, shares her experience with the College and Career Centers.
Rodriguez Escamilla says SAT preparation offered through the program helped raise her test scores and the financial aid assistance has helped her navigate the “daunting” college application process. She also shares the more personal impact of the mentorship she received and the community service she performed through the program.
“These programs are not just a support system,” she says. “They are also a source of inspiration and a motivator for change.” Dunedin High School senior Dulce Rodriguez Escamilla describes the "transformative" effect her experience with the College and Career Centers program had on her during Pinellas Education Foundation's annual ChangeMakers event.
Rodriguez Escamilla says she initially planned to study architecture in college. After doing community service through the program with preschool children and elementary school students, she wants to work in child development and now plans to study psychology. It’s an example of how the “transformative” impact of the program goes beyond assistance and guidance with the college application and financial aid processes, she says.
“These programs truly give every student a chance to shine,” she says.
For more information, go to Pinellas Schools College and Career Centers and Pinellas Education Foundation.