A Level Playing Field

July 27, 2021

By Rob Humphreys ’16MBA

Neil Otto ’05 pictured on top of a playground near campus.
Photo by Scott Cook.

Neil Otto ’05 helped create a unique partnership that gives teaching aides a pathway to classrooms of their own.

Former teacher Neil Otto ’05 had a deeply personal pathway to Rollins. Now he’s inspiring other educators by removing roadblocks and creating new pathways to their dreams.

Ironically enough, Otto’s path began with playing a little hooky from school.

To celebrate his 11th birthday, Otto spent the day at Rollins with his brother, Todd Bequette ’93. They went to taekwondo and science class, played frisbee on Mills Lawn, watched a baseball game, hung out with friends. It was the best day of the young man’s life, and he fell in love with the idea of being a Tar.

Not unlike the paraeducators he’s helping today through Rollins’ innovative Pathways to Teaching program with Orange County Public Schools (OCPS), Otto didn’t take a traditional path to campus. In his case, grades were an issue coming out of high school—plus, he’d be footing the bill for his college expenses. So, after getting his start at Valencia College, he transferred to Rollins’ Hamilton Holt School and majored in economics.

Otto began his career at Title I elementary schools before moving to human resources and talent acquisition in the OCPS district office. Knowing the desire of many teaching assistants to earn their four-year degrees, he became the driving force behind a new program for paraeducators with at least 60 credit hours or an associate’s degree.

Pathways to Teaching launched in 2019 with 14 students in the Holt school’s education program. All 14 are still enrolled, and 10 became part of the first graduating class this past December. The second cohort started in August 2020 with 21 students, and the third is in the planning stages. Rollins is also exploring expanding the program to Seminole County Public Schools.

Neil Otto ’05 pictured on a colorful playground near Rollins’ campus.
Photo by Scott Cook.

For his exceptional leadership to the College and his community through volunteerism and service activities, Otto received Rollins’ 2021 Alumni Service Award.

“When I started in the recruitment office at OCPS, I had always wanted to work with Rollins in some way,” says Otto. “So I met with Micki Meyer [Lord Family assistant vice president for student affairs – community], and we started having organic conversations about how we could take paraeducators to the next level. Our thinking was, ‘These are dedicated professionals in schools who are in high-need areas. Why not try to help them overcome the hurdles they couldn’t get over by themselves?’”

One of the biggest hurdles was the requirement that paraeducators complete an unpaid internship.

“When you’re working full time with kids of your own, having no income is not an option,” explains Otto. “So we got together with some people at the district office and found a way to pay for incentives like books and a laptop. We also pay their normal hourly rate while they’re doing their internship and guarantee them an instructional position with the district once they graduate. After we got those pieces together, we had some bigger meetings and organized it more for moving the program forward.”

The initial response to the program was overwhelming, with over 100 paraeducators showing up to the first informational meeting. Even through the pandemic, interest has remained strong.

“These are people who have always wanted to be teachers,” says Otto. “And you don’t go into education for the money. You do it because you feel you can make an impact in students’ lives and in your community. So they’re hopeful for their degree and finishing something they started a long time ago.”

In addition to serving as a major catalyst for the Pathways to Teaching program, Otto also frequently volunteers his time and expertise through the College’s Center for Career & Life Planning (CCLP), helping Rollins students progress on their own paths to personal and professional success.

“I would say that Neil is our single-most engaged alum with regard to sharing his experience in order to support students’ career development,” says Norah Pérez, director of experiential learning in CCLP. “Along with being a dependable resource for students, he’s also incredibly open and approachable, meeting students where they are. He’s an invaluable career champion.”

Students wearing caps and gowns walk to a commencement ceremony on Rollins College’s campus.

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