As Cortez Brown graduates from Florida State University College of Medicine on Saturday, he will remember his mother and the sacrifices she made for him.
“Since day one, my mother has preached education,” said Brown, noting that his mother, Octavia Curtis, dropped out of high school after giving birth to his older sister, who died at age 2. “(My mom) quit because family came first.”
Brown remembered his single, working mother on Saturday at the Vero Beach Highlands Clubhouse, where he unveiled plans for Octavian Village, an innovative nonprofit named after her that will provide better educational opportunities for underprivileged students in Indian River County.
For Brown, his commitment to giving back to a community that raised him as a student is complementing the passion for education his mother instilled in him from kindergarten at Rosewood Magnet School.
“She was in college (before her GED) at the time,” Brown said, noting that her income at the time was so low that he was eligible to get a free lunch at school. “She never gave up.”
Culture shock led to diamond in the rough
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Brown, who attended traditional schools in Indian River County before entering the county charter high school as a freshman, also received what he called his first “culture shock.”
As a sophomore, he suffered a second shock when he transferred to St. Edward’s School, where he saw a new world with different kinds of classmates and teachers, extracurricular activities and nighttime class trips from a campus on the Indian River Lagoon.
Like many public school students transitioning to independent schools, Brown was initially unprepared for the academic rigor, said Mike Mersky, the former principal of St. Edward’s and a board member of Octavian Village.
“It’s based on experience,” Mersky said, noting that when he met Brown as a high school sophomore, he was a “diamond in the rough.”
“What Cortez wants to do is give (kids like him) important experiences sooner,” Mersky said, noting that Brown has an incredible work ethic. “I would never bet against Cortez. If he sets his mind to something, he’ll get it done.”
That ethic led to a great career in high school and a chance to attend Sewanee: the University of the South in the hills of southeastern Tennessee.
At Sewanee, Brown reflected on his journey and designed a program for young people as he was. The original aim: to prevent a decline in learning during the summer, known in pedagogy as the ‘summer slide’.
“I was that kid drinking chocolate milk at home and watching ‘Sponge Bob’ instead of going to the library or on some trip,” Brown told me in June 2019, when I wrote about the fourth annual ProStudents summer program that was offered at St. Edwards.
ProStudents creates opportunities
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I spent a few hours that summer, in awe, watching 23 up-and-coming fifth- and sixth-graders from Indian River Academy (home to many lower-income students and formerly Highlands Elementary), Brown’s home from grades 3 to 5, embarked on a four-week program.
The morning I was there, a group of MacBooks were using and learning software to create personally designed keychains on 3D printers. Another used iPads to program and control robotic vehicles made with Lego and controlled by Bluetooth technology.
In the afternoon they went swimming and did other recreational activities that they might not have been able to do otherwise.
Diane Fannin, then director of the Indian River Academy, was skeptical at first, but saw the amazing experience her students had.
“I can’t tell you how many times a parent would stop and tell me how important ProStudents were to their child,” said Fannin, who now teaches the third grade of North County Charter.
Many Indian River Academy parents are unable to take their children to Riverside Theater or to play sports. ProStudents took the kids by bus across the bridge to St. Edward’s and “opened their eyes to see new things out there.
Male role models important
Dig deeper: Read the Octavian Village flyer explaining the program
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“It was just very different,” Fannin continued. “(Some of the IRA students) never have enriching experiences.”
Such experiences are critical, Brown said.
“Exposure leads to expansion,” Brown, who entered an orthopedic surgery residency at the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC Medical Center after graduating, recently told me.
“I was exposed to so much,” he said, noting that he grew up on the mainland as a college student eligible for a free lunch at school. “We experienced different lives in Vero Beach compared to my peers in St Ed’s.
“None of them were superior. It was just sideways movements. I realized how different… my friends experienced Vero Beach… Oslo, Fellsmere, Windsor, Castaway… very different experiences.
“But we’re still a lot more alike than we were different. But our trajectories were different.”
He’s seen the same thing in college and medical school.
“If you look left and right, there’s a lot of people from K to 12 who could be here or even ahead of me, but they’re not here,” he said. “They missed opportunities. It wasn’t because their ability wasn’t there.”
Brown said he was blessed by a mother, a pharmaceutical tech at Walgreens, who did what she could to create opportunities.
“I’ve always had great male mentors in my life thanks to her,” he said, citing coaches, neighbors, educators and others — part of his supportive village. “She sought them out.”
One was Timothy McGilberry, the accountant father of a fellow student in Brown’s seventh-grade Bible study class. Here, Brown befriended the man’s son, Thomas B. McGilberry, a graduate of Vero Beach High School. The two rooms together in Tallahassee and McGilberry, a businessman in Orlando, sits on the board of Octavian Village.
Octavian Village has innovative plan
After speaking with representatives from numerous schools and nonprofits serving children in Indian River County, Brown said the virtual Octavian Village would partner with as many people as possible and offer a variety of services:
Continuing and expanding the ProStudents summer programon hiatus this year due to renovations at St. Edward, he said.
He wants to make sure that students “get off the ground” when they enter high school. ProStudents will help them through pre-program testing, identifying strengths and weaknesses, with a focus on science, technology, engineering and math.
Addressing a teacher shortage for students by creating a ProStudents tutoring portal on the web.
The new idea: Use university students, who often need volunteer hours for Greek or other organizations, to connect with young people digitally.
“This is the tech age,” Brown said. “If we can land a person on the moon countless times, we can connect our students here with educators across the country.”
Everything goes back to his mother.
“She’s been in my corner from the start,” he said. “We plan to have a program that is in the corner of Indian River County’s students and nurturing them along the way.”
This column reflects the opinion of Laurence Reisman. Contact him by email at [email protected], phone at 772-978-2223, Facebook.com/larryreisman or Twitter @LaurenceReisman