Twenty years ago, hotelier and philanthropist Harris Rosen developed and funded a simple approach to improving the lives of families in the poor Orlando neighborhood of Tangelo Park. He provides home-based preschool for all two-, three-, and four-year-old children in the neighborhood, and full college or career scholarships to all students who graduate from Dr. Phillips High School. The results are impressive—high-school graduation rates have soared, crime rates are down, property values are on the rise, and new families are moving into the neighborhood. Could his model be replicated by other donors to improve life outcomes for families in troubled neighborhoods around the country? Mr. Rosen explores this question with The Philanthropy Roundtable.
PHILANTHROPY: Let’s start at the beginning. Why did you decide to devote a significant amount of your philanthropic resources and energy to this one neighborhood?
ROSEN: Throughout my life—from my childhood on the Lower East side of Manhattan, to college, to the army, to the acquisition of my first hotel and then more—it occurred to me that I’ve been blessed with more than I could have ever dreamed about. I wanted to say “Thank you, God,” and “Thank you, America.” How could I somehow expand opportunity for others to grow and prosper in similar ways?
I decided to find an underserved neighborhood where many of the youngsters aren’t thinking about high school, college, or a career, and provide the opportunity for their families to help them get a good education. Fortunately, I found Tangelo Park, a small Orlando neighborhood of about 800 families. Back then, it was one of the worst areas in the state—drug trafficking, prostitution, unsafe streets, and high-school graduation rates of less than 50 percent.
I first thought about funding a college scholarship program, but quickly realized a college scholarship wouldn’t be much help given the high-school dropout rate. I consulted a friend who advised me to reach the kids while they were young. We decided to offer two opportunities—free pre-school for all neighborhood kids between two and four, and free vocational school or college to the Tangelo Park high-school students who were accepted to a Florida two- or four-year public college.
PHILANTHROPY: Once you came up with your idea, how did you introduce it to the community, and how were you received?
ROSEN: I reached out to two leaders—Sam Butler, the neighborhood association head, and Bob Allen, the principal of the elementary school. I asked if they would invite everyone to a community meeting so I could explain the program. Word traveled fast that there was some crazy guy offering free college scholarships to all the neighborhood kids, so by the time the meeting came around, the community center was packed.
First we would create small preschool learning centers that would each house up to six children. We would need ten neighborhood homeowners who were willing to create the centers in their homes. I promised to cover the cost of refurbishing the homes to provide a dedicated area for the kids to eat, play, learn and engage. The homeowner/caregiver would be trained, certified, and paid to teach and care for the kids. I would also cover all the costs associated with the center’s operation—kids’ lunches, computer, toys, etc.
On the college end, any child accepted into a Florida two- or four- year public school or vocational program would receive a full scholarship including books, travel, etc. Once I mentioned that the scholarships would start immediately for all current high-school seniors, the parents realized they wouldn’t have to wait 15 years to receive benefits. The place went crazy—lot of hugs, lot of thanks. That was the beginning, some 20 years ago.
PHILANTHROPY: Before we dive into the details, let’s get to the fun part. Can you share some of the outcomes you’ve witnessed in Tangelo Park over the past 20 years?
ROSEN: Since that time, 250-260 youngsters from the neighborhood have gone to college; the Tangelo Park Elementary School has been designated an “A”-rated Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test school for five of the past seven years (one of only two or three low-income schools to have that top rating). Graduation rates, which were below 50 percent when we started, are now close to 100 percent. GPAs are approaching 3.0. Fifty to 60 percent of the youngsters go to college. The other 40 to 50 percent go to community college, vocational training, or enlist in the military. Close to 80 percent of the four-year college kids graduate, and 32 percent graduate from community colleges—both rates well above the national averages.
On top of this, the neighborhood is changing for the better. People are investing in the neighborhood, beautifying it. Home values, which averaged around $45,000-50,000 when we started, have risen to about $150,000. Instead of mass migration we are seeing people move into the neighborhood. And crime is down by about 63 percent. The sheriff recently told me that he refers to Tangelo Park as “an oasis,” with less crime there than in some affluent communities.
PHILANTHROPY: That’s a lot of positive news coming out of one small community. Let’s take a deeper look. Can you help us better understand the nature of your intervention?
ROSEN: It really is quite simple: it’s all about developing lifelong expectations and helping families achieve those expectations. We let the parents know that college is taken care of—we pay all tuition, room and board, books, and travel. The parents are determined to take advantage of this opportunity. There are no GPA or other requirements. They just have to make sure their kids stay in school and are accepted to college. We help the parents develop whatever skills they need to accomplish that. Thanks to our partnership with the University of Central Florida we are able to mentor the parents so they are comfortable doing homework with their children, interacting with their kids’ teachers and principal, and encouraging their kids to go to school properly dressed and respectful to their teachers. Many of the parents did not have good educational experiences themselves, so this is a big deal for some of them. But we are with them the whole time, helping them develop whatever skills they need to help their children.
PHILANTHROPY: Preschools are offered everywhere with varying degrees of success. What makes yours different?
ROSEN: The pre-schools foster relationships in the community. There are fewer than six kids in each home preschool. The schools are operated by the homeowner, who we vet, train, and certify, thanks to a partnership with the University of Central Florida. In essence, they are very much like the neighborhood moms of the 1950s who watched over all the neighborhood kids. The majority of 2-year-old program students enter elementary school on or above track.
This helped something else unexpectedly work out beautifully—because the schools are right in the neighborhood and the parents know the people who are taking care of their kids, many of the parents saw the opportunity to go back to school and further their own education.
We’ve seen wonderful relationships develop in the community over time, in part because people are united around a common purpose: helping their kids get the best education.
PHILANTHROPY: What kinds of cost considerations should donors think about?
ROSEN: It's not expensive: it costs approximately $5,000 to $6,000 per year for each child in preschool; and $5,000 to $6,000 per college student. Donors have to be comfortable with those numbers, and they need to be comfortable funding a program in perpetuity. I’ve committed to doing this until Tangelo Park becomes an affluent gated community, where the average home is valued at $1 million or more.
And there are a number of side benefits to consider. When we started, I was spending about $700,000 for both the pre-school program and the college scholarship program, approximately $350,000 for each program. Today, we are spending the same for the pre-school program but only about $200,000 for the college scholarship program, even though we are sending more kids to college. This is because the kids are increasingly qualifying for outside scholarships as their outcomes and achievements improve. I have essentially become a “safety net” for the college scholarships.
Also, the program has attracted support from other community organizations including the Tangelo Park YMCA, the Tangelo Baptist Church, and the Tangelo Park Civic Association. These organizations offer additional services and benefits to the residents, in part, because we’ve fostered a supportive community environment.
In 2008, we had an independent evaluation performed by associate economics professor Lance Lochner at the University of Western Ontario. He calculated a 7:1 return on investment based on increased lifetime labor market earnings and reductions in social costs associated with local crime.
PHILANTHROPY: Can this be replicated in other communities? If so, where do you see the best prospects for success?
ROSEN: Tangelo Park is somewhat unique because it is a small suburban neighborhood with clearly defined boundaries. It’s far easier to identify identify the residents here than it would be in than an urban neighborhood in New York, Chicago, or Baltimore. I am currently looking to replicate the program in a larger neighborhood in central Florida that is five to six times the size of Tangelo Park, so I’ve been thinking about the ideal set up:
- Make sure the neighborhood is clearly defined so you know who the children and families are who qualify for the scholarships
- All the kids should go to the same elementary, middle, and high school. (The neighborhood we are looking at is so keen to have this program that they’ve agreed to build the school system in that way. This new school design may include classrooms for all of the preschoolers (two to four year olds) as well as the elementary and middle school children.)
It would be great to create the necessary intimate environment you need to have resident-owned single-family homes that can be retrofitted to provide dedicated lunch area, play, and learning areas.
PHILANTHROPY: Is there a specific aspect of the program that you’ve most enjoyed?
ROSEN: Our preschool graduations which are held at the church, complete with caps and gowns. I give out the diplomas and I switch the tassel on their caps to the other side. That’s one of the magic moments. For some of the parents, it’s the first graduation they’ve ever attended. I tell them to get used to a string of future graduations and successes—elementary school, middle school, high school, and hopefully college…
PHILANTHROPY: What additional advice would you give to other donors?
ROSEN: If there was a program like Tangelo Park in every underserved neighborhood in America we would close prisons, build more colleges, and lift our economy in such a positive way that would be mind boggling. These new college grads would shop, create, invent, develop. It would change America.
I invite other donors to join me in this. Wealthy Americans have a tarnished image. We are viewed as selfish and greedy. People want to boost taxes on the rich to fund more government programs for the poor. But we can do this without the public sector. Let’s step up to the plate and start transforming neighborhoods across America, one community at time.