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Students mentor disadvantaged children in Florida

Florida is a popular spring break destination, but for nine Cornell students, it wasn't the beach they headed for, but schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods outside of Orlando, Fla.

For a week, they mentored and tutored preschool, elementary, middle school and high school students as part of the Tangelo Park Pilot Program, which was founded by Harris Rosen '61. In 1994 Rosen launched the program to not only provide free preschool and adult education classes, but a free college education within the Florida state system for all students in the working-class neighborhood of Tangelo Park who graduate from high school. So far, he has assisted almost 400 students from the formerly drug- and crime-ridden neighborhood.

For the second year in a row, a group of Cornell students spent spring break at Tangelo Park as part of the Alternative Breaks program, an initiative of Cornell's Public Service Center. They were hosted by Rosen, who covered all but their transportation costs, at his Rosen Shingle Creek resort and spent their days in such activities as helping students in classes, working on classroom projects, preparing students for an astronomy night at the Orlando Science Center, reading stories, painting and playing educational games with the younger children.

In the evenings, they learned about how Tangelo Park parents partner with their children's schools to ensure the students are getting the education they need to succeed. They also talked with high school students about college life and college admissions, and attended a Tangelo Park Advisory Board meeting.

"This allowed us to see how the residents continue to work together to make their community one that is safe and welcoming," said Lisa Casey, a Cornell Law School student who led the student trip. "We also had a chance to speak with different residents, hearing their firsthand accounts of the radical changes that have been made in their neighborhood in the last 15 years alone."

Since the program started, crime in the neighborhood has dropped by 67 percent, and the high school dropout rate has plummeted to 0 percent from 25 percent. Also, approximately 65 percent of high school students go on to college and graduate, according to Rosen.

"This kind of program, if replicated, will change our society," Rosen told USA Today in 2007. He said that this kind of charitable giving is particularly rewarding because of his personal involvement in the initiative. His larger hope is that others will emulate the program and provide disadvantaged children with hope.

The students on the trip were certainly inspired: "It was refreshing to ... interact with a community that was so animated by the changes it's made and continues to make," Casey reflected. "That aspect of it gave me hope that a similar initiative can be implemented elsewhere. The trip also revived my drive to provide whatever resources (be they in the form of services, money or goods) I can to helping those who have not been provided with the same opportunities that I've had throughout my life."

"I really enjoyed the interactions with the students and the kids," added Frank Ma '12. "I learned a lot about the obstacles the community faces in trying to improve the quality of education and how much one person, in this case Mr. Rosen, can do to help the community improve itself. Being around all the kids and seeing the great amount of potential they had really made me realize how important it is to give every kid a great education."

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Nicola Pytell