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Students in the Summer for Success program learn video production skills.

By Marco Santana

As he reflects on the time spent this summer with prospective Beacon College students, shivers run down mathematics instructor Angel Maldonado’s spine.

He marvels at the transformation he sees in young high school students from the day they arrive for the three-week Summer For Success program to their final day.

When Maldonado sees an introvert, for example, break out and lead a team through an exercise, he says it’s what he looks forward to most as an educator.

“It’s a moment of pride because you see that the effects of the efforts we have put into the program are there,” he said. “It is working and it’s not just what I did. But what everybody here did to affect these students. It’s important to let them know we are proud of them.”

The Summer for Success program this year welcomed a record 165 students to the Beacon College campus for a preview of what to expect when they attend college. It marked the seventh year of the program.

Students come to Leesburg from all over the country. This year, two territories and one international country were also represented.

Instructors and school leaders meet the parents as they arrive to campus and outline the upcoming three weeks.

Brody Glidden, director of summer programming, said the first 48 to 72 hours are crucial.

“We are building a bond,” he said. “We are very intentional when it comes to onboarding and orientation. Parents bring their students in and, if we can get parents energized while they are here, the students buy into it because their parents do.”

While Glidden runs the show, dozens of others, including Beacon faculty, teaching assistant undergrads from the area and others, contribute to creating a welcoming vibe for the students.

Overall, the program runs on a roughly 3-to-1 teacher-to-student ratio.

That’s not an accident.

“I don’t want any of the students to think they are just another dollar or statistic,” he said of keeping the ratio low, which results in more personalized instruction. The program is, intensive, meaning students, instructors, counselors and everyone involved interact regularly.

As students navigate Summer for Success, Glidden said it’s important for him and his staff to be upfront both about what Beacon College represents and how it can benefit the students.

“We own our identity,” he said. “Our population is so unique and special but we have the coolest students. It’s the most rewarding thing I have ever done.”

By the end of the three weeks, Glidden considers himself like a big brother to the future collegians.

For some, the feeling is mutual.

Glidden’s demeanor helped Mack Henry, 18, feel comfortable almost immediately when she arrived on campus.

Henry, who will be a senior this fall in New Jersey, said she was nervous when she arrived in Leesburg.

Then she met Glidden.

“I always struggled in a school setting when I was in a public school,” said Henry, who struggles with anxiety. “But this is my dream school. It feels like everything I could want on a campus.”

Henry first interviewed to attend the summer program in February.

Once she heard she would be a part of this year’s class, she immediately jumped online to learn more about the campus.

She said, with a laugh, that she has had so much fun on campus she sometimes forgets to check in with her parents.

“I felt welcome as soon as I got here,” she said. “When I was accepted, I went on YouTube to find out more. This place has lived up to the hype.”

Her experience has been similar to that of other students.

When Addisyn Simino was growing up in New Hampshire, she would often daydream in class and be in her own little world.

It would frustrate teachers.

As much as they tried to intervene, Addisyn would not participate in discussion or do what her teacher wanted her to do.

It wasn’t until a teacher recognized her symptoms as potentially indicating a learning disability that she got help.

“I still have a hard time sometimes,” she said. “But because classrooms here are smaller, it is well suited and made for kids with learning disabilities. Teachers here know how to responsibly help without making students feel bad.”

Simino’s struggle with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder affects her ability to stay focused on projects or tasks.

It’s not that her condition has disappeared while at Summer for Success.

Instead, the SFS team knows how to handle it in a way that Addisyn does not feel marginalized or isolated.

“When I first got here, I was super-nervous,” she said. “I thought I’d be the odd one out and an outcast. Then I realized we are all the same. It makes it easier to get into conversations here.”

To create that camaraderie among students, frequent activities are planned during the program.

Beacon College takes advantage of its location in Central Florida to take campers on field trips to places like Walt Disney World, SeaWorld and Kennedy Space Center.

“We are learning-disability forward,” said Maldonado, the math teacher who also teaches robotics. “It’s about getting them out of their comfort zone both socially and academically. Having students be open about their learning differences makes it easier for everyone involved.”

As students navigate the three weeks, they learn to be more open.

They talk often about their learning disabilities.

It’s a far cry from when they arrive timid, closed off and hoping to see some positive feedback on the school from their parents.

“All students can learn and they will learn,” he said. “It’s just about us meeting certain expectations, focusing on their strengths and not their weaknesses in order to meet our goal in this class, task or activity.”