When former Sen. Gary Siplin was running for office, the community expressed a belief that there was a need in Central Florida for a place where teenagers who face social, economic or environmental barriers could work and learn during the summer. So Siplin gathered with fellow leaders to establish the Professional Opportunities Program for Students (POPS) as a summer job program in 2001.
The nonprofit organization has since expanded across Central Florida and now works within four schools in Orange County and two schools in Osceola County. The entire program is serving a total of 300-400 students across the state and about 150 students locally.
The program’s goal is to ensure that students are progressing through school, graduating on time, and are fully prepared to complete a post-secondary experience – whether it is college, military or a career. It also aids students in keeping their GPAs above a 2.0 throughout high school. Each student is required to do 25 hours of community service to keep them actively involved in the community.
“We have a workshop program that is probably at the heart of the development,” Mary Alice Fish, resource development manager at POPS, says. These monthly workshops are focused on teaching life skills such as excelling at interviews, creating and sticking to a budget, dressing for success, and developing professional and personal etiquette. “[We’re] helping to create some self-esteem, self-assurance and personal development so that they’re prepared when they do enter the workforce … they’ve got these skillsets being built.”
There are a number of opportunities available through POPS that help students prepare for college. Campus tours are scheduled along with SAT and ACT prep courses. Counselors provide assistance in building resumes and portfolios that students can bring with them to interviews.
Austin Quinones is a POPS alumnus and current Valencia College freshman who has benefited greatly from his involvement with the organization. “I didn’t even realize all the different activities, programs and extracurricular things I was doing until I sat down with my counselor and went over all the things that I did, which made my resume really stand out,” he says.
POPS strives to give students a balance between educational assistance and career readiness by offering each student a paid internship opportunity over the summer to gain valued experience in his or her desired field before he or she heads to college. “All the research is showing that summer work experience is one of the most important things for kids to help them achieve graduation because they see the connection between work and education,” Fish says.
The percentage of POPS students who continue on to graduate from college is extremely high and many find jobs at the places they once interned in high school. POPS alumni are even prepared for success in their everyday lives. “If I was to look at it, each day I use something I learned in POPS,” Quinones says.