Ilene Wilkins, CEO
Winter Garden, Florida

Unlocking Children’s Potential (UCP) Charter Schools

Learning to Do Better
In her role a foster parent, Ilene became passionate about education reform. “I saw these kids bounced around and not getting the education they needed. I realized then that we need to do better for kids in school.” In 1995, Ilene joined UCP in West Orange, Florida, then a private pre-k program serving about 50 students with cerebral palsy. Yet Ilene and her colleagues soon understood that supporting children with special needs did mean isolating them. Ilene recalls speaking to a colleague whose nephew had cerebral palsy. “She said, “our kids need to be included to be educated properly. Could we develop a program to do that?”

“Inclusion is Our Focus”
In 2001, UCP became the only school in Florida to open its doors to students both with and without special needs. UCP currently serves 3,500 students across eight campuses, their academic experiences all guided by an educational model of inclusion. “We have a strong belief in and commitment to the idea that if you get kids learning together at an early age, they don’t see differences and they just see each other as peers.”

Making Dreams a Reality
“We had two dreams: to own something of our own and to meet the needs of our growing waiting list.” After nearly two decades of being located in a shopping center, UCP began to make plans for a separate building for one of their campuses. While exploring their funding options, UCP was introduced to Civic Builders. From Civic, UCP received a New Markets Tax Credit loan of $10 million along with valuable guidance on the construction process. “Civic was a great partner and we loved working with them. They helped us plan many aspects of the project such as data collection. We really learned a lot from them.”

For UCP, the new building meant nearly doubling the number of students served. “We went from a 12,000 to a 28,000 square foot building. We were serving about 270 children total – now at full capacity we will be at almost 400.” In addition, the expansion means a range of new, much-needed facilities. “We were able to add a new cafeteria and community room as well as a large gym for physical therapy so that’s been really helpful. The classrooms are also larger and we were able to put teacher planning rooms in between each of them so that has had a great impact.”

A Special Kind of Student
For the future of UCP, Ilene intends to expand the school’s reach and increase grade levels. She and her colleagues also continue to find new, innovative ways to support their existing students. “We’re always looking to make progress for our kids.” Ilene also remains grateful to the UCP community. “It does take a special kind of parent. Our parents want the academics, but they also want their kids to be good people, to respect everybody and embrace differences.”

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