For nearly two decades, Achieve Miami founder Leslie Miller Saiontz has volunteered her time in support of improving education – and life – for students across Miami-Dade County. As a former Board Chair for Teach for America (TOA), she witnessed first-hand the impact of great teachers, as well as the unique benefits of bringing together college graduates and students from the county’s underserved schools.
“I was working full-time but always felt a calling to help students at schools in lower socio-economic parts of Miami-Dade. I got involved with TOA and learned so much about public education and teaching,” said Saiontz. “I fell in love with the organization and the dozens of volunteers – some of the brightest college graduates across the country – who partnered with TOA teachers. The impact they made teaching students at underserved schools was remarkable.”
Within a few years, Saiontz joined TOA’s board and eventually became its longest-standing Board Chair in the country. Today, she serves on the national council while also running her own nonprofit, one of Aventura Mall’s community partners: Achieve Miami.
Saiontz gained her inspiration for Achieve Miami during her time with TOA, when she started a few programs to help during the “summer slide,” weekends and holidays, when schools were closed, and students found themselves without at-home support. She decided to partner students from a low-income elementary school with those from a private high school through a “come-together lens” – and the result was game-changing.
“We immediately saw this peer-to-peer learning and mentoring was incredibly magical,” recalled Saiontz. “Eventually, I knew I needed to create something specific to this programming, so I started Achieve Miami.”
Founded in 2015, Achieve Miami is a nonprofit with a mission to advance educational equity in Miami-Dade County by providing meaningful educational experiences that bridge disparities – and demonstrate the power of students learning with and from each other. Today, Achieve Miami has positively impacted thousands of students through literacy, music, service, leadership, and college readiness programming to help them succeed in higher education, their careers and beyond.
“We offer weekend programs, a full six-week summer program that serves over 1,000 kids, and our Achieve Scholars program, which will provide college readiness support to seniors at high schools throughout the county,” said Saiontz.
The organization currently works with over 70 local institutions ranging from Title 1 and elite public schools to charter and private schools.
“What I love most is ability to connect students from all different backgrounds,” said Saiontz. “I take equal pride in all my high school students – they’re all going to be adults. They’ll all have
their own paths, experiences and interests. Through these programs, we’re uplifting our shared Miami, together.”
Achieve has been able to expand its programming not only because of its team, volunteers, and interns, but also its community partners. “I love that Aventura Mall came to us and said, ‘we’re a part of this bigger community, what can we do to help?’” said Saiontz. “We have this unbelievable opportunity to do great things, thanks to our partners and collaborators. They’re paying attention and supporting one another not just to validate the program, but to spread its wings and involve the rest of Miami’s communities.”
Aventura Mall’s partnership with Achieve Miami started in the organization’s earlier days, when the shopping center would sponsor summer field trips. Since then, the partnership has gone on to include Give Miami Day and the nonprofit’s Best Look Forward and Senior Send-Off.
“In each of our nine Title I high schools, we have cohorts of scholars that are mentored by a professional team throughout year. They have monthly get-togethers, weekly check-ins and such. The goal is for the students to be college-ready and have a plan by the time they graduate,” said Saiontz. “The culmination is a big event called Senior Send-Off. Aventura Mall had donated a space for us and helped facilitate partnerships. Over 100 scholars all got dressed and celebrated. I don’t know if we had ever felt that much energy in one event!”
Most recently, Aventura Mall worked with its Macy’s store to connect Achieve Miami’s Title I high school students with professional stylists that helped teach them how to dress for success. Each of the 61 students that attended sent a handwritten “Thank You” note to Aventura Mall with a picture of themselves wearing their selected outfit. In addition to the styling tips, the students received professional guidance, interview prep and outfits to keep.
For Saiontz, Achieve Miami comes down to the future we all share – one that will undoubtedly be better if we invest our time in one another.
“Achieve Miami isn’t about creating one-off moments where you show up to volunteer or wrap a gift – we want people to think about the impact they can make as an active participant in the future,” said Saiontz. “We need to create and embrace a diverse cohort of minds. Achieve Miami uplifts students from all different backgrounds and brings them together through commonality and connectivity. That’s what’s going to make the biggest difference in our collective future.”
To learn more about Achieve Miami, visit www.achievemiami.org.