A Pandemic, Police Violence, and the Academic Gap

Sherry Paramore is President of ELEVATE Orlando, a civic non-profit dedicated to equipping and empowering underserved youth to graduate with a plan for the future.

From the politicized onset of a pandemic to protests against racial injustice, 2020 has given us plenty to think about. COVID-19 has cast a harsh light on inequality in our hospitals, workplaces and courtrooms – and as classrooms open this fall, inequality in our schools.

Back-to-school coverage in TV and the news has focused on one dilemma: Should parents send kids back to school, or keep them at home? But for some families, there’s no choice at all.

In low-income households across Central Florida, parents don’t have the choice to work remotely. Many work hourly as laborers, housekeepers, or cashiers. For students, free breakfasts and lunches at school may be their only reliable source of food. They may not have access to groceries or electricity at home, let alone a Zoom-ready Wi-Fi connection.




At ELEVATE Orlando – an academic mentorship nonprofit working in conjunction with the public school system – we serve students based on household income, not race. But 89% of our students are Black, 7% are Hispanic, and just 3% are White. In conversations about access to education, we usually hear the phrase “first-generation college student” – but many of the students involved in ELEVATE are first-generation high school students.

The educational achievement gap has always been there. But like so many other things, COVID-19 has forced us to reexamine what we’ve always done – and with that awareness comes the opportunity for change.

  • Moving beyond the classroom. Not all kids have an adult in their life who can help them register for the SAT, apply for colleges, set up a savings account for tuition, or learn to drive. That’s why ELEVATE forges long-term student-mentor relationships that don’t end when school closes for the day. Any time a student needs help – connecting to virtual learning, practicing for interviews, planning for college, or just dealing with tough times – there’s an adult ready to support them.
  • Encouraging diverse voices. Whether by connecting female students to women role models in business, science, technology and engineering; encouraging students of color to participate in discussions about racial justice and positive activism; or giving urban youth the tools they need to pursue skilled careers, ELEVATE strives to empower kids from every background to succeed.
  • Creating real change. At ELEVATE, we serve more than 2,000 students each week across 19 schools in Central Florida. Since 2009, 98% of students enrolled in ELEVATE have graduated high school, and 96% moved on to college, the military, or a vocational school.

After COVID-19 triggered a wave of financial insecurity and job loss, more students than ever will need help to access the same opportunities as their peers. To serve that rising need, we rely on the support of community members and volunteers.

Whether by guiding a student through algebra homework over Zoom as a volunteer tutor; donating to help sustain our staff of full-time mentors and advocates; or giving a talk about your career as a panel speaker, you can help to change lives. For more information on how to get involved, email info@elevateorlando.org.

America was founded on the belief that anyone, from any background, can build a better future from humble beginnings. And, at ELEVATE, we believe that’s possible – with mentoring, career guidance, one-on-one support – and, yes, a stable Wi-Fi connection.

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