Gibbs 25th annual alumni cookout highlights the need for help in Pinellas County schools

BY HOLLY KESTENIS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – Gibbs High School is one of the oldest schools in Pinellas County with more than nine decades of students have passed through its halls. And with so many years of students, the Gibbs Alumni Association’s yearly picnics are a time where old friends can connect, and new ones can be made.

Young and old piled in for the fried fish, barbeque chicken and all the picnic accouterments.

Gibbs principal Reuben Hepburn reached out to the partygoers to give back to the school that gave them so much. Although monetary donations are always welcome, Hepburn knows the value of mentoring a child and the impact of just spending time with them can have.

“Your presence, your love, your character and concern for these young people matter,” said Hepburn. “There’s a young person who’s starving for the love and care that you could provide for them.”

The school currently has a pantry providing food for families in need. Started by the football program, it is a way Gibbs hopes to extend that extra hand students need to come to school prepared to learn.

“We have students that we have to feed first, and I’m not just talking about breakfast,” Hepburn said, reminding alums of the financial situation some of their students deal with daily. “They need so much.”

Representative Wengay Newton concurred. He wants not only the alumni to pitch in at Gibbs, but also the black community to wake up to what’s going on in the district with education.

“You don’t know the underbelly of what’s happening with these black schools,” Newton explained. He spoke on the graduation rate and how even though a student is allowed to walk with their class, they aren’t all being handed diplomas. Some are just certificates of attendance.

“That’s because these kids are coming out of here with seventh and eighth-grade reading levels. Don’t be fooled.”

Newton is responsible for fighting for the needs of not only Pinellas County, but parts of Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota Counties as well. He focused on the newly released Florida Standards Assessments (FSA) scores and the pipeline to prison link when it comes to providing future prison beds based on third-grade scores.

“Seventy-six percent of those kids cannot read, and most of them look like you and me,” he said.

Newton doesn’t think it’s the money though. Resources are thrown at failing schools to provide extra tutoring, computers and salaries for highly qualified teachers, yet the same schools year after year find themselves failing.

He is in contact with teachers throughout the county in target schools and routinely speaks with principals. His consensus? The problem isn’t money; it’s accountability.

Newton routinely tells of the outside forces that predominately black schools are dealing with. From parents overdosing on the weekends to gun violence, there is more to providing an education than meets the eyes.

With the approved budget for next year’s juvenile jail beds standing at 88.6 million dollars, more needs to be done to work with families outside of school. Newton and Hepburn both shared that many students in the system are homeless, yet still attending classes if for nothing else but nourishment. He made a call to mobilize the community soldiers to get involved.

Many Pinellas County Schools offer families support services. Gibbs has a program where students and families can do their laundry at the school on weekends, all supplies provided for free.

Newton, part of the Black Caucus, provides scholarship money and is partnering with FAMU and Florida State in a 75/25 split for kids that are in school that needs help. They are providing paid internships in Tallahassee for interested students. But more is required to give kids an out that doesn’t involve turning to crime.

“This system works off human capital. If we just keep blinking, they’re going to keep locking them up,” said Newton. “If we don’t get serious and deliberate about our young people they’re going to perish.”

Picnic talk turned to plans of raising money for a new sign above the gym to mark the name change to the Freddie Dyles Gymnasium early next year. To help contribute to the signage, please send donations to Gibbs High School C/O Gibbs Alumni Association to 850 34th St. S, St. Petersburg, FL 33711.

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