New ‘student advocates’ spend all day at Orlando middle schools solving problems

5 adults work full-time at 5 different middle schools

ORLANDO, Fla.. – It’s a solution from Central Florida’s largest city to combat the rise of violence and poor behavior in our schools.

The city of Orlando, for the first time ever, has embedded five full-time adults into five middle schools to work with boys who are troubled and struggling.

The schools identify the young men and send them to “lead student advocates” like Elliot Cohen.

Cohen, employed full-time at Roberto Clemente Middle School, is a mentor, motivator, friend and even a father figure, among other things, to 25 young men.

“I share with the kids right off the bat I’m not a dean, I’m not a principal, I’m not a safety coordinator,” Cohen said. “What I am is an individual that’s here to represent you. Which is what an advocate does. You speak on behalf of someone else.”

Cohen meets with the young men for a morning huddle, checks on them in their classrooms throughout the day, finds each of them for 1-on-1 meetings, eats lunch with them and in between speaks with their parents or guardians.

The idea is the advocates figure out why a student is struggling, failing, fighting or missing school and they try and fix it.

“What’s causing the referrals, what’s causing the expulsions, what’s causing the suspension, what’s causing the kid to not show up at the school on time,” Cohen said. “Because if we don’t address those we know what the future holds for them. We don’t want to see them go to prison.”

Is the individual attention from lead student advocates making students better and schools safer?

Abe Morris, Orlando City Youth and Families Division manager, said, “I believe so.”

“I think it is helping our schools be successful with what they do towards getting kids to graduation,” Morris said. “And getting them to be members of society who are contributing.”

Morris brought Cohen and the four other student advocates to the five Orlando middle schools full time for the first time this year - Roberto Clemente, Carver, College Park, Ace and Memorial Middle.

The City’s My Brother’s Keeper program, which provides wrap-around support for boys and young men of color, is spending $1.7 million this year for the advocates and all of the things they do, like buying vehicles to drive the students to activities, community centers, even meals, before and after schools.

The Student Advocates are scheduled from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but Cohen said that’s never a typical day. Recently, he drove several young men to Suit City after school to rent a tuxedo for an awards ceremony. After the tuxedo rental, the young men were hungry so Cohen took them to McDonald’s for dinner. One young man didn’t eat the meal, but rather took it home to his family.

Cohen said that night it wasn’t until 9:30 p.m. that he made it home after dropping off the students.

Cohen said some of the young men are already coming around, bringing up their grades and refocusing on school.

The middle school principal recently approached Cohen about a student for whom he has been advocating.

“He said well you’ll want to know the student has all As and two Bs,” Cohen said. “Last year, the student had some behavioral issues as well, so not just grades but behaviors. And I went to the student and I said what is the difference between last year and this year, I need to know. The student said to me something you’ve been talking about with us for quite some time it’s, it’s the people you hang around, your influences make an impact on how successful you will be. So even though I talked about it, he had to incorporate that in his own life. "

Cohen said that same young man is now becoming a leader to his peers.

“All we’re doing is telling them we believe in the possibility of succeeding in life and we’re here to do all that we can to make sure that that happens,” Cohen said.

And that is something some of the young men have never heard their whole life, Cohen admitted.

Cohen’s biggest challenge is that there aren’t more of him. The city of Orlando said it wants to add more advocates in middle schools and eventually high schools but first they must collect data to prove the Student Advocates are getting results.

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About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for News 6 and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting.