The number of students from Jones, Evans and Oak Ridge high schools in Orlando who earn degrees from the University of Central Florida (UCF) may soon increase thanks to a $2 million grant from Helios Education Foundation.

This philanthropic partnership between Helios and UCF will launch the UCF Downtown Scholars Initiative (UCF DSI) this summer to create new pathways to success at UCF for qualified students at the target schools. Inspired by Helios’ leadership and generosity, the university is also contributing funds to the new initiative, resulting in a combined investment of $3.25 million.

“There are incredible lifelong and generational benefits to an education at a metropolitan research university like UCF,” UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright says. “Through this partnership with Helios, we are opening educational pathways that unleash the potential of these students and empower them to pursue excellence, earn success and boost their upward mobility.”

Initially, UCF DSI will benefit rising seniors at Jones High School who wish to attend UCF — with Evans and Oak Ridge high schools added in years three and four of the program. The initiative offers pre-collegiate programming and support, first-year student mentoring and a summer bridge program where students will live on-campus at UCF Downtown.

Coaches from UCF DSI will work one-on-one with students to support a seamless transition to college. Summer bridge programs have been shown to increase the first-year retention rate among economically and educationally disadvantaged college students.

“The UCF Downtown Scholars Initiative will ensure that our students are exposed to, and prepared for, an exceptional college education right in their backyard,” says Allison J. Kirby, Jones High School principal.

Jones High School is one of Orlando’s oldest high schools, established in the 1890s. The school operated as Orlando’s only public school for Black students for a half-century. Jones High distinguished alumni include Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, actor Wesley Snipes, nationally recognized physicist Sylvester James Gates Jr. and former chief judge of Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit Belvin Perry Jr.  Evans High School opened in 1958 during the height of segregation and was finally desegregated in 1971. Today, the school is minority majority and boasts distinguished alumni, including NBA basketball players Kenneth Lavon “Chucky” Atkins and Darryl Dawkins, singer and producer Brian McKnight and former Florida state representative Dick Batchelor. Notable alumni from Oak Ridge High include former Florida Secretary of State and Orlando Mayor Glenda Hood.

A 2021 survey of Black students in Florida conducted by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, and funded by Helios Education Foundation, found that the “gap between postsecondary intentions and enrollment rates — also known as ‘summer melt’ — disproportionately affects community college and Black students.” Concerns about family obligations, college affordability and lack of support navigating the enrollment and application process create additional barriers for Black college student applicants, according to the survey.

Navigating the application process and making the transition to college can be challenging for students, particularly those entering as first-generation college students. UCF has a history of providing access and working with the community to recruit and support students who might not otherwise consider college or successfully navigate their way to and through the application, admissions and enrollment processes.

Alyssa Chambers, a Jones High School senior, is one of the first UCF DSI participants to receive her acceptance to UCF.

“I feel very proud and grateful for the opportunity,” she says. “UCF has always been the school I wanted to attend, because I grew up here in Orlando, so when I heard about this program, I knew I had to jump on it!”

When Chambers begins the UCF DSI Summer Bridge program this June, she will be the first in her family to attend college.

“A high-quality education and a postsecondary degree should be accessible and achievable for every student,” says Paul Luna, Helios Education Foundation president and CEO. “Through focused investments and partnership like that with UCF, we hope to create pathways where more Black students can reach success.”

Grant funding secured from Helios Education Foundation will cover tuition, housing, books and related expenses for UCF DSI participants. In addition to the Downtown Scholars Initiative, the Helios Education Foundation continues its partnership with UCF in support of first-generation college students. In 2017, Helios provided a planning grant to UCF to design an educational network that works collaboratively to improve educational access and success for residents in Parramore. In 2019, Helios provided additional grant funding to continue the work through the Parramore Education and Innovation District initiative.

In addition, Jones High School and Evans High School are also Community Partnership Schools, a model developed by the UCF Center for Community Schools to provide a wide variety of academic support and enrichment opportunities as well as primary medical, dental and behavioral healthcare for the students, the students’ families and the surrounding community.