Eradicating illiteracy in south St. Pete

By LAURA MULROONEY, Neighborhood News Bureau

ST. PETERSBURG — When a child reads a book, they’re shown the entrance to a world they’ve never seen before. Once they walk through that door, they are given the ability to form new images and sensations in their minds that are not perceived through senses such as sight or sound.

She spent her whole adult life educating; it was her only professional job. Shirley Proctor Puller spent 35 years in a classroom at Northeast High School, turning down administrative positions because her passion was for the magic that happens in the classroom.

Her belief was that if you put a book in a kid’s hand you expand their world, they are able to see beyond the world they live in and you get them out of that three to five mile radius they grew up in.

Children Learning, featuredIn 2014, Bill Puller founded the Shirley Proctor Puller Foundation (SPPF) in honor of his late wife and her dedication to teaching and eradicating illiteracy in the community.

“We want the community to know how committed we are; we have the tools and the resources to move our kids forward,” said Puller. “We have to remember that these kids need help, they’re failing and we need to help them.”

Puller believes that when part of the community is failing, another must step up and make the difference; this is where the SPPF fits in.

There are currently three components to the foundation, with a fourth on the way.

Initially, the foundation’s primary goal was to provide new, age appropriate books, free of charge to children from infancy to adolescence. “Kids emulate. All they know is the world they live in. When you are able to give a kid books, you expand their world. They are able to see beyond the world they live in,” explained Puller.

The mission soon expanded to include a summer program designed to reduce learning loss over the summer months. The program is available to all elementary and middle school level children from the south St. Petersburg area.

“Most students lose about two months of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer months,” according to research gathered by the national Summer Learning Association (NSLA).

SPPF’s summer camp, known as the M.A.S.T.R Kids Program (Math-Arts-Science-Technology-Reading), has been designed to enhance both academic performance and self-esteem. It will prepare children to excel intellectually, psychologically, emotionally and physically.

The summer camp is staffed with state certified teachers, reading and STEM specialists and a Behavioral Specialist. It is based at the University Preparatory Academy, 1701 10th St S, St. Petersburg.

“When the school doors close [for the summer], many children struggle to access educational opportunities, as well as basic needs such as healthy meals and adequate adult supervision,” according to NSLA.

The M.A.S.T.R Kids Program fulfills all of those needs.

During the school year, SPPF offers tutoring through a partnership with Eckerd College and other educational programs in south St. Petersburg to increase skill levels and expand comprehension.

“At its busiest, 38 students received help from up to 16 tutors…students have reported improvement of up to two grades in a semester,” said Jennifer Hughes, SPPF executive director. Students are recommended for the tutoring program by their individual teachers.

Future plans include adding a reading component. Puller believes that when children see their mentors and role models excited about reading, they will become interested and excited about it too.

The foundation is still in need of supplies for their summer camp and increased overall participation with the organization.

“We’re looking for community advocates and board members, we’re looking for sponsors that will provide books of color, that have role models for our kids,” said Puller.

For more details, the SPPF website is or on Facebook at SPPFoundation.

Laura Mulrooney is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

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