Celebrating success in closing the achievement gap

BY CINDY CARTER, Staff Writer

LARGO – A fundraiser banquet was held last Thurs., Aug. 13 at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, 13255 118th St. N, in order to spotlight the successes the Bridging the Achievement Gap (BTAG) program has made over the last 12 years.

“We’re going to spotlight our students and celebrate what this program is all about,” said Minister Bambi Jones who believes in the message of the BTAG program.

Armed with retired teachers to help, BTAG has taken the staggering statistics of over a decade and shattered them. It’s no secret African-American children were left behind in education, citing a devastating 57 percent failure rate among black students who took the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

“We often see the negative side of what’s going on with our children,” said District 7 School Board Member Rene Flowers. “You don’t see Bay News 9, Channel 10, 8, 13, or 28 in this room acknowledging the fact that over 1,700 students have made it.”

James Feazell and wife Gwen are credited with undertaking the awesome responsibility each year to not only bridge the gap, but to shut the door on it forever. “There are awesome communities working together,” said Feazell. “Black, white, trying to help.”

That’s where Patrick Helms of BTAG comes in. He had no issues appealing for donations. He believes there are so many issues facing American today, but the one that most everyone can agree on is the need to help students in need.

“Tonight we are a community, citizens who have come together for one common cause,” he said noting that education is the cause that transcends racial boundaries, church denominations and any of our differences. It’s something everyone needs and that everyone has in common.

Flowers used the platform to reference a recent report highlighting the current failure of local elementary schools in the heart of south St. Petersburg. She acknowledged that there is still much work to be done, but didn’t want to point fingers. “We all have a role in making sure that our future is secure,” she explained. “And to do that you don’t point fingers. You pull up your pants, roll up your sleeves and you just dig in and do the work.”

Flowers also stated that high schools such as Gibbs, Boca Ciega, Dixie Hollins and Lakewood, African-American students, who were struggling in past years, are now surpassing their Caucasian counterparts.

Students enrolled in BTAG are offered reliable transportation and qualified retired and current educators spend their time making sure that they excel academically. Positive reinforcement and praise are relied on to help close the achievement gap.

Seminole High School student Arielle Sorrells even spoke of the great difference that BTAG had made in her life. A rising senior, she has always been involved in student life. Being a section leader for her school marching band and academic clubs have made her college ready.

Sorrells has benefitted over the years from the services of BTAG and credits the Feazell’s for making her educational success a reality with their guidance and support. Help was always made available to her. She recalls her BTAG instructors staying late to help her with her studies in pre-calculus. “I have not yet come short of at least honor roll,” she said.

Guest Speaker Barbara Thornton, a former principal of Largo High School, spent nearly 40 years in education as a teacher, principal and assistant superintendent before retiring in 2011. She has sat on the BTAG advisory board from its inception. She collects quotes to inspire herself and others to make a difference.

“It helps me to see the hope in something,” Thornton said. “There’s a lot of negativity.”

She spoke of Feazell’s original vision to involve the entire community, the entire village. That meant being involved in a student’s life and using every resource to back them up, such as the church, the school, families, the community, and of course, the students themselves.

Some of the schools BTAG reached out to are Pinellas Park High, Osceola Fundamental High School, Boca Ceiga, Tarpon Springs and Seminole High.

“We were asking for some of their school funds,” said Thornton. “That’s not an easy thing to do.”  The principals were happy to oblige giving students such as Simone Yuille, a young lady at the University of Florida, a chance at a quality education.

She too felt the support from her BTAG instructors and credits them for getting her through the difficult times, guiding her in the ways of higher education. “Each and every one of those students all know that this program is for them individually and each one has their own stories on how they benefitted from it,” said Yuille.

Feazell was awarded the Shaft of Light Award from Bethune Cookman University for demonstrating how to turn years of hardship, frustrations, disappointment and confusion into shafts of light. Gwen also was honored for her contribution to BTAG and for displaying love, courage and dignity. She was awarded a framed copy of an excerpt from the Last Will and Testament of founder Mary McLeod Bethune.

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