‘An exciting day’: Eatonville students eligible for new college scholarships

Orlando Sentinel | By Leslie Postal | June 22, 2021

Eatonville students who graduate from Orange County’s public high schools could be offered college scholarships under a new initiative modeled after the scholarship program hotelier Harris Rosen began nearly 30 years ago in another of the county’s low-income communities.

Travel + Leisure Co., the resort and media conglomerate, will finance the new program that aims to eventually provide up to 200 scholarships, company and school district leaders announced Tuesday.

The scholarships will be offered to Eatonville students who attend Hungerford Elementary School and later graduate from either Edgewater, Evans or Wekiva high schools, the three schools to which students from the town are zoned. The programwill cover their costs at a Florida public college, university or technical school.

“It’s an exciting day for Orange County Public Schools. There’s a new scholarship in town,” said Superintendent Barbara Jenkins. “It is so heartwarming and so encouraging,” she added, and an effort that will help with that “dream of equity.”

Orange County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Jenkins, announces the partnership and scholarships for students who attend Hungerford Elementary in Eatonville through the support of Michael Brown, president and CEO of Travel + Leisure Co.
Orange County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Jenkins, announces the partnership and scholarships for students who attend Hungerford Elementary in Eatonville through the support of Michael Brown, president and CEO of Travel + Leisure Co. (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)

Like the Rosen program it is modeled on, the Travel + Leisure Charitable Foundation’s scholarship program also plans to provide free preschool to Eatonville’s youngest students while helping with college costs once students have earned a high school diploma

The program will kick off this coming school year with scholarships for 27 eligible teenagers who are to start 12th grade in August, school district officials said.

Michael Brown, CEO of Travel + Leisure, said he heard Rosen give a presentation on his program about two years ago and was inspired. The Rosen program began in Tangelo Park in 1994, serving what was then a downtrodden neighborhood in the county’s tourist region. It later expanded to Parramore, one of Orlando’s poorest neighborhoods.

Brown recalled listeningto Rosen speak at an economic development event at the Amway Center andthinking that, if his company could ever take on a similar project, it needed to make that commitment.

“Today is that day,” he said, speaking at a press conference at the school district’s headquarters to announce the new effort.

The death of George Floyd last summer prompted more conversations in the company about helping communities that needed assistance, Brown said. And Eatonville — the first Black incorporated municipality in the country — seemed the perfect choice for a corporation now headquartered in Central Florida, he added.

Eatonville, founded in 1887 by freed slaves, bills itself as the first town in the country to be incorporated and run by Black residents. It is best known as the home of author Zora Neale Hurston and the annual festival that celebrates her work.

The town has a limited tax base, however, and has struggled economically, with many residents earning well below the region’s median income.

Mayor Eddie Cole noted the town will celebrate its 134th birthday in August. “What a great early birthday surprise,” he said at the press conference.

“This gift is not a hand out but a hand up,” he added, and one that will help make real students’ dreams of college.

Rosen, who has long urged other wealthy individuals and companies to replicate this program, said he was thrilled it had finally happened.

“Mike, God bless you,” he said. “It’s only taken three decades. It has been something that has been driving me crazy.”

osen began his program in Tangelo Park, seeking to help children who lived in poverty not far from the tourist mecca where he made his fortune. Preschool gives them an educational head start, and the program then works to make sure children graduate from high school — its graduation rates are near 100% now — and have a path to higher education.

The program has had 224 college graduates to date.

Karen Castor Dentel, the Orange County School Board member who represents Eatonville, said in an email that the new scholarships could be equally “transformative” to town students and their families and could help combat “the devastating effect of concentrated poverty on a community.”

Travel + Leisure’s “generosity,” she added, will show “Hungerford students that you have faith in their abilities to achieve greatness and that their lives are worthy of your investment.”

Brown declined to say how much his company’s charitable arm would be donating to fund the new program.

School officials said eligible students and their parents will be contacted so that they can apply for the new scholarships.

Image: Michael Brown, president and CEO of Travel + Leisure Co. announced the new partnership with Orange County Public Schools to provide scholarships for students who attend Hungerford Elementary in Eatonville, Orlando, Fla., Tuesday, June 22, 2021. (Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel)

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