“Uplifting Miami, Together:” Achieve Miami Celebrates 7 Years
November 10, 2022
Reading Time: 7minutes
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 the Board Chair for Teach for America Miami-Dade (TFA) and Founder of Achieve Miami, she’s witnessed the impact of great teachers, as well as the unique benefits of bringing together high school students from different backgrounds to mentor elementary students from the county’s most 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 TFA and learned so much about public education and teaching,” said Leslie. “I fell in love with the organization and the dozens of corps members – some of the brightest college graduates across the country – who served as TFA teachers. The impact they made teaching students at underserved schools was remarkable.”
Within a few years, Leslie joined TFA’s board and eventually became its longest-standing Board Chair in the country. Today, she serves on their national council while also running her own nonprofit, one of Aventura Mall’s community partners: Achieve Miami.
Leslie gained her inspiration for Achieve Miami during her time with TFA, when she launched programs to complement TFA teachers’ amazing work. She realized no matter how hard a teacher worked, there was always more to do and a greater impact to be made. Achieve Miami’s flagship program, Achieve Saturdays, brings together high school students from across Miami-Dade to read, write, mentor, and play with underserved elementary students, while connecting high school students in this common mission.
“We immediately saw that peer-to-peer learning and mentoring was incredibly magical,” recalled Leslie. “Eventually, I knew I needed to dedicate myself more fully to this work, 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 700 kids, and our Achieve Scholars program provides college readiness support to Title I high school students throughout Dade County,” said Leslie.
The organization currently works with over 100 local schools ranging from Title 1 and elite public schools to charter and private schools.
“What I love most is our ability to connect students from all backgrounds,” said Leslie. “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 Miami 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 Leslie. “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 expanded to include Give Miami Day – which returns on Thursday, November 17 – and the nonprofit’s Best Look Forward and Senior Send-Off events.
“In each of our nine Title I high schools, we have cohorts of scholars that are mentored by a professional team throughout the year. The goal is for the students to be college-ready and have a plan by the time they graduate,” said Leslie. “The culmination is a big event called Senior Send-Off. Aventura Mall donated space for us and helped facilitate partnerships. Over 100 scholars 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 offered styling tips, professional guidance, and interview prep, followed by a shopping spree. Each of the 61 students who attended sent a handwritten “Thank You” note to Aventura Mall with a picture of themselves wearing their selected outfit.
Achieve Miami recently shared exciting new initiatives and program updates:
· Its newest initiative, the Teacher Accelerator Program – TAP! – combines the powers and skills of Achieve Miami, the University of Miami, and Teach For America Miami-Dade to collaboratively build a new cohort of teachers for Miami’s students and future.
·Achieve Saturdays continue to bring together high school students from across Miami to read, write, mentor, and play with underserved elementary students.
·Achieve Music is booming this fall: the program has grown from 208 students last year to 300+ this year, with a waitlist at all six of its current sites. The organization proudly launched its first middle school program at Caribbean K-8 Center.
·Achieve Scholars have already taken at least one ACT pre-test, perfected their essays, and begun researching scholarships and financial aid packages to make college a reality for all.
· Achieve Miami seniors recently participated in College Application Night, where the organization brought together representatives from Miami-Dade and FIU to explain the application process, describe the requirements, and walk students through submitting online applications to each of these schools.
For Leslie, Achieve Miami comes down to the future we all share – one that will be undoubtedly 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 Leslie. “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.”