BY SARAH NORCINI Neighborhood News Bureau
ST. PETERSBURG – When LaDai Haywood was a fifth grader, she appeared in a promotional video for her new school, the Academy Prep Center for Education.
Someday, she vowed, she would return to the St. Petersburg private school to show the students they could succeed.
Thirteen years later, she has done just that.
Haywood, who graduated from Academy Prep and then Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa and the University of Central Florida, is back at Academy Prep as a teacher, mentor and role model.
If she had not attended the rigorous St. Petersburg school in grades 5 through 8, her “life would be so different,” she said. Now she glows inwardly “when you can tell that you’ve had a positive influence on the kids, when they have that light bulb moment.”
Since it opened in 1997 at 2301 22nd Ave. S, the school’s mission has been threefold: provide a rigorous college preparatory curriculum and enriching extracurricular activities for its students, and then give them ongoing support during their high school and college years.
Then as now, the school is designed to break what development manager Jocelyn Lister calls “the cycle of generational poverty.” It serves students whose families live below the poverty line in a part of the city where less than half the adults have a high school diploma.
The school, which is funded by donations from individuals and corporations, is open six days a week, 11 hours a day for 11 months of the year. For its first three years, it served only boys. Then in 2000, it began admitting girls.
That was the year that Haywood, now 24, entered the school. It was the idea of her parents, Paul and Daynette Haywood, she said. In public school, she was a straight A student – “bright but I needed a challenge.”
Academy Prep gave her that challenge over the next four years. It also propelled her to high school at the prestigious Berkeley Prep in Tampa, where she thrived academically and competed in the long jump for the track team, and then the University of Central Florida.
At UCF, Haywood got a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, with concentrations in life sciences and education. She minored in African-American studies.
Her love of science translated into her first job in 2013, as a teacher back at Academy Prep. She teaches math, but there’s more to her day than teaching.
She is one of a half dozen Academy Prep teachers who are there as part of the federal AmeriCorps program, which provides public-service jobs for young adults in schools, nonprofit organizations, public agencies and faith-based groups around the country.
At Academy Prep, the AmeriCorps teachers live on campus – it’s suggested but not required, Haywood said – while getting a monthly stipend, a biweekly food allowance and an academic scholarship at the end of the year.
A typical day for Haywood begins at 7 a.m., when she and the other AmeriCorps teachers help serve breakfast and supervise the students.
She has no class during first period, so she prepares lesson plans, helps another teacher or does administrative tasks. During second period she teaches fifth- and sixth-grade math. Then there’s another free period, followed by recess and lunch, when two AmeriCorps teachers serve the meal and the others supervise. A free period follows, then two supplementary math classes and an enrichment period (yoga, knitting and book club). She also supervises golf and tennis.
The school day finishes with study hall. At 6 p.m. – 11 hours after she started – Haywood is done.
At the end of the day, Haywood said, she is glad she lives where she works. She “can just go upstairs” and “vent” with the other teachers.
On alternating Saturdays, the students have enrichment activities and field trips. As a student, Haywood’s favorite field trips were sailing and going to a Dale Chihuly glass art exhibit and a performance of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
As a teacher, her favorite field trips have been various museums, a local science center and a beach cleanup.
Haywood said she appreciates the opportunities for students in the school’s new science, technology, engineering and mathematics lab at the school. “Kids are going to be the future.”
In the years ahead, she said, she would like to stay in the education field. She wants to work with students, she said, but after this experience she is ready to branch out.
“I feel like I can do anything.”
Sarah Norcini is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.