An Orlando Business Solution to a National Crisis
By Mary Deatrick
As impoverished neighborhoods nationwide are gripped with recent turmoil and the demand for much-needed change, residents and leaders of the Orlando community of Tangelo Park reflect back to 1993, when their once-underserved community was at a similar crossroads, in despair and in desperate need of hope.
Now retired, Dr. Robert Allen was the Tangelo Park Elementary School principal from 1991 to 2006. “When I started there, the school facility was already about 40 years old,” he said recently. “We had little or no parent or business involvement.”
Tangelo Park was characterized as a low socioeconomic community with drug problems, a highly transient population, poor school attendance, declining test scores and a high level of high school dropouts.
“On my first day as principal driving into Tangelo Park, I witnessed several young men on corners near the school participating in drug buys,” Allen said. “I frequently observed police foot and car chases in front of the school from my office window. I made it a point to arrive at the school early in the morning so that the PE teacher and I could check the sports field to look for discarded drug items or stolen and abandoned cars. It was not unusual for me to be called by the police at least two to three times a week after midnight to report to the school because of break-ins and theft of school property and equipment.”
With years of established rampant crime and too few students graduating, and even fewer finishing college, there was little reason for the 3,000 Tangelo Park residents to believe there could be a better life.
Fast-forward to 2020. This spring, every Tangelo Park high school senior graduated. Almost all of the 24 grads have plans to attend college. For many years now, the modest but well-kept homes in this revitalized suburb, where children now play freely in front yards, have painted a picture of pride in the neighborhood. As one mother stated, if anyone tries to sell drugs to the children in Tangelo Park, that person is run out of the community.
Today, if a police officer is spotted in the neighborhood, it is most likely to represent the department for one of the many community organizations such as the YMCA, Baptist Church, civic associations and the University of Central Florida and feeder public schools that are on the board of the Tangelo Park Program. A committed community and business collaboration established in 1993, the Tangelo Park Program encouraged residents to think beyond the geographic borders of the neighborhood. And it’s the springboard that instilled the community’s significant reinvention.
“We all shared — and continue to share — the same vision that the Tangelo Park community had some of the brightest minds, most talented students, supportive parents and the potential to become an outstanding community with a little help from our business partners,” Allen said.
Enter Harris Rosen, president and COO of Rosen Hotels & Resorts. By the spring of 1993, Rosen’s success with his collection of Orlando hotels had motivated him to give back to the community that had so richly rewarded him. Orange County Commissioner Mable Butler led him to Tangelo Park, 10 minutes from his International Drive hotels.
As the first college graduate in his family, Rosen firmly agreed that education could be the defining factor to drive change. He immediately committed to fund scholarships for every high school senior from Tangelo Park — beginning with those graduating that year. The full scholarships included room and board, books and tuition for any Florida-based vocational/technical school or two- or four-year college. In 2017, Rosen added three annual scholarships to the private Rollins College in Winter Park.
“I’ve always believed there to be as much talent in impoverished communities as there is behind every gated community,” Rosen said. “To make change happen, we had to do something drastic. We needed to establish a new paradigm in which a business is
accountable and truly becomes a community partner in deed, not just word and a check. I can say from firsthand experience that with this commitment, the business, as well as the community, will be deeply rewarded.”
Today, 438 Rosen scholarships have been awarded, producing 224 college and 15 vocational school degrees. Based on a study by Lance Lochner, Ph.D., of Western Ontario University, the program returns $7 for every $1 invested.
Another benefit: Crime has decreased 78%. According to Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings: “As Orange County sheriff, I was involved with the Tangelo Park Program and observed as it evolved to result in less crime than most other communities in Orlando. I began to refer to it as a ‘quiet oasis.’ This was a remarkable transformation, considering how much crime and drugs there were at the onset of the program.”
With the newfound security comes a freedom to focus on more productive outlets like school. The youth are so instilled with the value of education that the Rosen scholarships are now a safety net, with many students earning their own scholarships through academic achievement.
“Knowing that I had the opportunity to receive a full scholarship to attend college definitely encouraged me to study harder in school,” said Tia Anderson, who graduated from Florida A&M University this year with a doctor of pharmacy degree. “The Rosen scholarship gave me an opportunity in life that many do not get the chance to experience. It gave me an opportunity to network, to find myself away from home, and to ultimately come back and help those in my community.”
In 1993, Rosen also established childcare centers in homes throughout the neighborhood. He paid the salaries for the newly created jobs and equipped each center with computers and other supplies, providing free learning environments for the children, who are ages 2 to 4. The majority of these preschoolers demonstrate superior readiness skills, giving them a boost to success as they enter public school.
A parent resource center supported by a diversely populated board has immersed the community in a culture of learning. Rosen also funds an alternative spring break that allows students from Ivy League school Cornell University in New York to stay for a week at Rosen Shingle Creek while learning about and contributing to the program.
Akheem Mitchell will enter his sophomore year at Rollins College this fall. “I was in fifth grade when the Cornell students visited our classroom and I came to understand how this scholarship could secure my future,” he said. “And I realized that someone I didn’t even know cared enough to give this to me, which made me even more grateful and motivated. My mother is so joyful that I’m able to focus on studies without stressing about money, too. I’ve always wanted to go to law school to become a criminal defense attorney to help those who are wrongly accused or fined, and now I know I can live my dream.”
As the former Tangelo Park Elementary principal, Allen praised the philanthropic efforts. “The Rosen Tangelo Park Program provided the spark needed for the betterment of the community and families by providing the best education possible for all students.”
Rosen believes his $13.5 million commitment over the course of the program has been money well spent. He has always encouraged other businesses to follow his lead in adopting an underprivileged community. But in 2017, he doubled down on his commitment and adopted his second community, the urban Orlando Parramore neighborhood, providing the same kinds of resources — although five times greater.
“College graduates can expect to earn a million dollars more in their lifetimes and a high school graduate $500,000 more when compared to non-grads,” Rosen said. “In today’s world, programs like ours are more needed than ever and can help solve this national crisis. Imagine what our country would be like if businesses everywhere simply adopted one neighborhood each like Tangelo Park. We would change America one community at a time.”