BTAG’s dynamic duo retiring

BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer

LARGO – Every year, the Bridging the Achievement Gap (BTAG) program holds a banquet in August to highlight the successes of the program and the students they serve, and this year was no different. Founders James and Gwen Feazell proudly announced that since the birth of the program in 2003, 2,120 students have been served.

What was different this year was the mood of the room, for it was announced that the Feazells are retiring…for the second time. The program will now be administered by the Greater Ridgecrest YMCA.

Rotating students from Largo, Seminole, Osceola, Pinellas Park, Clearwater, Dunedin, Tarpon Springs, Gibbs and Countryside High Schools, 1,592 students have graduated with high school diplomas, 512 are attending college or a university, 407 have graduated from college, 17 are attending graduate schools, 10 have earned graduate degrees, 117 have attended technical school and 51 are enjoying military careers.

For 14 years, BTAG has brought together parents, teachers and the community in an effort to close the academic achievement gap between culturally diverse students in Pinellas County Schools.

The Feazells assembled a team of current and retired educators, volunteers and financial contributors to offer quality tutoring and reliable transportation. BTAG developed a systematic concept of using “the 4 Rs”—Relationship, Relevance, Rigor, Result—to ensure that their students succeed by meeting academic and social expectations.

The room was filled with teachers, school board members, elected officials all there to celebrate the successes of BTAG.

“When you look at the Feazell family, you’re seeing a positive family. You’re seeing what happens when there’s leadership from the top,” said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. “It’s not the school board’s job to raise our children; law enforcement can’t fix the problem; the schools can’t fix the problems. We have to educate and mentor our children. Set role models for our children. That’s the only way it’s going to turn around.”

Commissioners Welch and Pat Gerard presented Mr. Feazell the key to the county for 50 years of service to youths in Pinellas County.

And if anyone deserves praise for a lifetime of service, it’s Mr. Feazell. In 1967 he started off as a tutor and as a youth director with the Community Service Foundation. He worked for Pinellas Opportunity Council in an anti-poverty program, the Youth Core and Comprehensive Employment Training, the Educational Functional Literacy Program, was once the director of the Ridgecrest Free Clinic, and of course, was a dynamic teacher.

Mr. Feazell started a baseball league, was involved in youth football, coached basketball teams and even won championships.

While working as a minority recruiter for Pinellas County Schools in 2002, Mr. Feazell heard the dismal report that then-Superintendent Howard Hinesley gave that 57 percent of African-Americans high school students were failing the FCAT.

“He wanted to talk to me about an idea he had,” said former Largo High Principal Barbara Thornton.

Frustrated about student progress, Thornton said Mr. Feazell came up with a comprehensive plan that wasn’t just another tutoring program. He wanted to involve the village: the church, school, family, community, the students.

Thornton, Edward Hobson, Jim Dyson, Eckerd Family Foundation and the Pinellas County School system all got on board and BTAG opened its door for the 2003-04 school year.

Thornton thanked Pastor Willie McClendon of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church for not only opening his doors and letting the program use the facility but also providing the church vans for transportation “not to mention the moral and spiritual support he gave,” said Thornton.

The program would not have been a success without funds from the school board, educators volunteering their time, parents making sure their children attended the program and the students putting in the hard work.

BTAG was such a success with helping students pass the FCAT and graduate from high school, they added SAT and ACT prep work and advisors to help students through the maze of applying for college.

Rev. Hobson, senior vice president of Young Life Organization and one of the key players in helping BTAG get off the ground, was the keynote speaker. He encouraged the crowd to get involved with their community and not be stifled by failure.

He gave an example of the unsuccessful cleaning franchise he once owned. Hobson doesn’t consider it a failure because he learned about business, etiquette and what to do and not to do. If not for his stint in the office cleaning business, “I probably would not be a senior vice president…”

“Even if you know you’re going to make mistakes, still do something,” Hobson said. “Our schools need you, our communities need you.  It’s too many of us sitting around doing nothing.”

Former BTAG student Kadara Williams thanked the Feazells for putting their time into her and helping her get in St. Petersburg College. Former BTAG parent Maria Price thanked the program for using her children as encouragers for other students.

“I thank BTAG for picking the kids up, providing a snack, providing a safe place and being a loving support system,” said Price.

The 2017-18 school year will see new leadership with the program, and Director of Greater Ridgecrest YMCA Brad Barnes is up for the challenge.

“When I walked into the room tonight, I had about eight people come up to me and say, ‘man you’ve got some big shoes to fill.’ I don’t because you don’t fill the shoes of a legend. All you can do is hope that someday you can make them proud and that’s my goal.”

The Feazells thanked everyone related to the program from the kitchen committee to the transportation supervisors to all the tutors, administrators and the program participants.

“The time has come now to close the final curtain for us as the founder and co-founder of our BTAG program,” said Mrs. Gwen. “Praise the Lord. I am ready to travel.”

Congratulations for 14 successful years with BTAG and 50 years of being a community servant.

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