BY CINDY CARTER, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — It’s no secret that former Mayor Rick Baker feels that education is very important. As mayor of St. Petersburg for eight years, he made it his mission to be involved even though working to improve schools isn’t normally a mayor’s job.
“I like to do stuff that is moving the dial, that actually produces change,” said Baker.
Like raising money from private donors to implement the Doorway Scholarship for students on free and reduced lunches. With 93 percent of recipients graduating high school and heading off to college with an extra $1,000 a year in scholarships, Baker believes his commitment to low-income families is evident.
He recalled rebuilding the historic Jordan Park Elementary School to house a head start program and to maintain the character of the community, and how the city went from zero “A” elementary schools to more than 20, with no “D” or “F” K-5 schools.
“I’ll gladly go over all the education programs I did,” Baker said.
He said when he sees an issue that needs to be addressed that he dives into it full force. While in office he tracked down mentors for at-risk students and used his business connections to pair up two organizations with each school.
“The education component is important,” explained Baker. “When I was in office we had our public schools feeling supported.”
His team recruited roughly a hundred businesses and matched them with schools. As partners, the businesses provided strategic help and dollars for schools to use for supplies, tutoring and mentoring services.
For instance, the Top Apple Schools program was implemented, which offered incentives for principals to work toward being or staying an “A” school.
“I think great public schools are the key opportunity for the people in our community,” said Baker. “When I was mayor we had an aggressive public school program.”
Baker talked about recruiting great teachers in the past with interest-free loans if they taught in the Pinellas County School system, and believes the result of such programs and the care taken to provide what was needed made St. Petersburg schools stronger.
His current agenda consists of creating an ABC Mayor’s Apprenticeship Program mirroring Tampa’s ABC Apprenticeship Training Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC). Like ABC, Baker envisions removing barriers for students.
“Right now, ABC is recruiting kids out of high school with either a high school degree or GED,” he said, citing contractors have a shortage of workers with qualified trade skills. Students are paid to train at night and then receive compensation for working at the actual job site.
After four years, the program is complete and apprentices earn a certificate so they can continue to work in the jobs they held during the program. Baker believes the program will remove some of the barriers students run into after earning their trade certificates.
“Then those kids can get the skills and work with the jobs we already have,” said Baker, ready to call on his 100 plus business ties he’s made over the years.
He’s not afraid to call on his connections to set up any program he deems necessary to further the education of young minds and aims for transparency in all his plans.
“You gotta dig into the weeds and show people the details of stuff,” Baker said.