Partner News

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Florida: Beyond School Walls

Mentoring has long been a proven tactic for successfully getting students into a postsecondary education and beyond. Mentors provide guidance to students when they need it most and also help expose the students to life and job skills that they would otherwise not know about.

Here in Northeast Florida, Big Brothers Big Sisters is on a mission to enrich students' lives through their mentoring programs. The organization has been particularly enjoying the immense success of one of their newest programs: Beyond School Walls. 

Beyond School Walls (BSW) connects mentors from local businesses with career academy students focused on the same targeted industry. Partnerships like these enrich the education and preparation of the career academy students by providing meaningful and relevant workplace experiences. Students who participate in the program are transported to business sites to meet with their mentors and learn about the business and industry. Impressively, of the over 250 students served by the program, 100% have graduated from high school and 80% were accepted into college.  

We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Sara Alford, the Vice President of Programs at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Florida, to discuss the Beyond School Walls program. 


Q: Could you give us a brief history of Big Brothers Big Sisters and the growth of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Florida? 

A: Big Brothers Big Sisters is the nation’s largest, strongest mentoring organization. It was started in 1904 up in the New York area by people who stopped and paid attention to patterns. There was a bailiff who noticed the same young men coming through the court system and he had the foresight to stop and say, “What is the pattern between these young men and what can I do?”. It turned out all of the young men had one thing in common: a lack of a positive male role model in their lives. So, the bailiff enlisted the help of his men’s church group to act as mentors for these young men, and Big Brothers Big Sisters was born. In less than 10 years, it has made its way all the way down to Jacksonville, Florida. So, we have been open here in Northeast Florida since 1914. We really started with community-based mentoring—that’s the heart of what we do—and then expanded into school-based mentoring and then our Beyond School Walls work within the last 25 years or so.


Q: How did the Beyond School Walls program come about?

A: It was definitely a product of necessity! Around 1994, we started to realize that, although we weren’t focusing on academic work, we were directly impacting the academic success of the kids in our program. That led us to start asking questions like: “Well what if we started to do that work intentionally? How much better and how much more of an impact could we have?”. So, we started to do our school-based programming, where we would push into the school day and we would bring mentors into the schools and they would get incorporated into the efforts of the student. Around 2008/2009, the Great Recession hit and we started to see a huge falloff of mentors, who were no longer able to take a break in the workday and drive to the schools. Because of this, we really started thinking about models that would flip the opportunity on the head and take that travel away from the mentor and give it to the child and, in doing so, also expand the opportunities and exposure for the child. Meanwhile, Comcast, NBC Universal and Big Brothers Big Sisters up in Philadelphia had been partnering for a while and had actually piloted the Beyond School Walls program. We eventually decided to give it a try here [in Northeast Florida]. Comcast was amazing and actually became our first surrogate partner in our market and we were able to launch [the program] here.


Q: Can you tell us a bit more about how Beyond School Walls has been recently refocused as a workforce initiative for NEFL?

A: We initially started by working on our opportunity youth— most were kids in the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program. We worked with them rigorously for the first few years of our BSW program, but it was a grant-funded program and the grant funding eventually dried up. Because of that, a lot of schools started to lose the opportunity to provide that program. About that same time, Dr. Vitti was coming up from Miami to be the superintendent here and he was a huge proponent of Big Brothers Big Sisters in Miami and their school-work programming and has always had a very centric focus on academies and career development. So, he kind of asked us to reconsider realigning our strategic partnership so that career academy kids were going to partners who had direct interface with the industries and academies that they were associated with.


Q: Which industry sector do you currently have the strongest partnerships in and which industry sector would you like to improve or increase partnerships in?

A: The industry that is most represented in our current partnerships is logistics. Right now, we are partnered with JAXPORT, Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA), and even Hyatt, because hotel management and operation is actually all about logistics. In terms of where we would like to grow our partnerships, I would definitely have to say in the medical field. We are underrepresented in that industry at the moment and that’s probably our next biggest opportunity. 


Q: What are some of the goals for Beyond School Walls for 2017 and beyond?

A: Right now, we have 13 different partnerships in 11 schools in the area. There are 16 high schools in Jacksonville and one major goal of ours is to have at least one partnership in every high school here. Then, of course, another goal is to not just stop there, but to also serve each type of academy that they have within the school and then backfill. What’s unique about our program is that it’s a three or four year commitment for the company, the mentors and the student, but that also creates a kind of a void for those underclassmen; we grab 9th graders and we take them until 12th grade year, but it means these three cohorts of kids that follow them don’t get the opportunity. So, it would be great if we could find and secure enough partners to be able to backfill and make sure that more kids in Jacksonville get workplace exposure as well as insight and ignition of ideas and opportunities beyond what they already have pre-formulated for any given industry. 


Q: What is your favorite "success story" from the program? 

A: I can think of a lot of individual students' stories, but I can also think of general stories that are really exciting! There is definitely one story that has really stuck with me, though. We had a kid who loved all things medical, but was never going to be the person to run the intervention and put her hand on the wound. She really saw no in-road for her to be in the medical field and, of course, she was devastated and she was going to drop out of the academy. But we noticed, through her interview, that she was also very artistic and artistically inclined, so we went to Mayo and we found a medical illustrator to be her mentor. The moment that she realized she could be an artist or a photographer or whatever fit her talents and could still interface with the field that she had a passion about, it was like fireworks went off! She realized that she could still come work at a hospital and she could still be part of this thing that she wanted to move forward, but she could also still use her talent, her skills, and her interest to do that. And to me, that’s like the quintessential example of what this program is all about.


Q: If a company wanted to get involved with Beyond School Walls, how could they do so?

A: Anyone who is interested in getting involved with the Beyond School Walls program could absolutely reach out to me; I am readily available to answer any questions that companies may have about the program! I can be contacted at or at 904.727.9797 Ext. 1129

Interested companies can also visit our website to learn more about the program, check out some of the great photos we have on there of the program and our students/mentors, and see the what companies/organizations already have partnerships in place with us.