As Brett Couch weaves through the Sulphur Springs neighborhood of metropolitan Tampa early one autumn morning, he notices the school children. Dressed in school uniforms and wearing backpacks they make their way by foot to the local elementary school. The excitement of a new school day is evident.
Then he sees the parents who accompany them. And more parents – and grandparents – manning the corners and managing the steady traffic in orderly fashion.
“The first thing that made me smile is seeing the number of parents wearing reflective vests and holding stop signs at intersections,” said Couch, East Regional President for Regions Bank. “There must have been 25 to 30 on my way in. When kids look around and see how involved their parents are in this community, it shows them the importance of school.”
Based in downtown Tampa, Couch is taking a day to see first-hand changes that have earned Sulphur Springs Elementary School notice throughout the state.
Sulphur Springs Elementary, located in an economically challenged area, once received the lowest grade possible in statewide academic testing. Since Principal Julie Scardino’s arrival five years ago, grades and attendance have improved dramatically.
“I taught here 20 years ago, and since then the neighborhood has changed so much,” Scardino said. “It’s more diverse. Meanwhile, this has become a true community school. There are no buses to get students here, so everyone walks to school.”
The sense of community has helped rally families around the school. And the efforts of Scardino, her staff and others have played a big role in helping redefine the school’s culture.
A big change has been the inclusion of two YMCA programs. Layla’s House is an early childhood community learning center dedicated to providing free programs and activities for children from birth to age 5, allowing them to be healthy, developmentally on track and ready to learn when they enter kindergarten. And an after-school program offers unique educational and cultural opportunities, as well as a sense of structure that fits within the school’s parameters throughout the academic calendar year. The YMCA extends its program throughout the summer, ensuring students don’t lose their zest for learning.
“The school emphasizes the culture and discipline during the day and we emphasize it at night,” said Tom Looby, President and CEO of Tampa Metro YMCA. “Here, the Y supports close to 30 after-school programs in Tampa. But this one is on steroids.”
From the time the final school bell rings, the after-school program keeps students active and challenged until 6 p.m. Programs include cheerleading, gymnastics and computer coding. The day includes not only a snack, but dinner – a big plus for parents working and trying to stretch every dollar.
“This is not babysitting,” said Lakema Massey, the Sulphur Springs YMCA Director of Operations. “We keep the kids engaged every minute of the day. And that’s important because our YMCA is a YMCA without walls. We are located at the school and we are part of the community.”
On this day, the students get an extra surprise they weren’t expecting: A pair of new shoes. Cindy McGarrigle, the Area Marketing Manager for Regions in Tampa, has used the bank’s annual Share The Good campaign to purchase new shoes for close to 150 students in the after-school program. One by one, classes are brought into a room, where the students are given a new pair of sneakers that will, hopefully, last throughout the school year.
“We can’t wait to get the shoes to the children,” Massey said. “Our kids walk to and from school every day, so shoes are so important. And this is such a great addition for them.”
It costs the Sulphur Springs YMCA more than $3,000 per student to run the after-school program annually, yet families are only charged $35 per child, which covers all activities including field trips and meals. To subsidize the rest, the Y looks to community and corporate support.
That’s where Regions plays an important role.
Couch is passionate about everything the YMCA does. He’s a past board chairman of the Tampa Metro YMCA. “The Y makes families strong, kids strong and communities strong,” Couch said. “It aligns with our own core values.”
Like Couch, David Christian works as a volunteer with the YMCA, serving on the governance board. In his role as Regions’ Community Affairs Manager in Florida, Christian sees the magic behind the scenes that is happening at Sulphur Springs daily.
“I get to represent this bank, this corporate giant, in a way that touches the lives of these kids,” Christian said. “These kids represent our future. I remember growing up as a kid, wondering how my life would turn out. I learned that it’s important to have an anchor, and that’s what the Y provides. And Regions contributes from a financial standpoint and through the involvement of our associates.”
In addition to monetary support, Regions associates teach financial education classes for students and parents. By being an active member of the neighborhood, Regions provides better opportunities for small businesses to grow, helping everyone in the community.
“Because schools are graded, programs likes Regions financial education and YMCA enrichment build the whole child and impact everyone,” said Scardino, the principal. “We have a lot of working families. In fact, some of these parents are working two or three jobs to make ends meet. There are a lot of hardships, and some of the students need help with things from school supplies to clothes. Our partnerships with Regions and the YMCA can best help them meet their needs.”
Couch takes it in as smiling students move between classes. He knows what is happening at the school, and how the YMCA and Regions make a positive impact. He also sees a bigger change that can resonate for years to come.
“The best way to eradicate poverty is through education,” Couch said. “When children and their parents are engaged in school, this becomes its own education ecosystem. All parts must work together to make it happen. And when everyone is doing more, it makes life better for everyone.”