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For students, school is 'there for us'

Academy Prep Center holds its first reunion after years of serving at-risk kids in fifth through eighth grades.

Published August 9, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Midway through his sophomore year of high school, Theo Williamson was on the phone with Keturah Mills - just "checking in" - when he mentioned his graphing calculator had broken.

Mills, director of graduate support at Academy Prep Center of St. Petersburg, sprung into action.

Within days, Williamson, 17, got a call asking him to come over to Academy Prep. Mills had secured a new calculator for him, and it was ready to be picked up.

"They've made sure that if we need anything, they're there for us," Williamson said.

On Saturday, Williamson, who will be a freshman at Eckerd College this fall, joined dozens of other Academy Prep graduates for the school's first reunion.

"I want to make sure they stay connected to Academy Prep and each other. It's a chance for them to come back and see the changes at the school and meet up with teachers they haven't seen in awhile," Mills said.

As the early afternoon sun rose higher, graduates and their relatives joined Academy Prep staffers under large tents provided by Teen Arts, Sports and Cultural Opportunities, or TASCO. The shade offered respite from the heat as the group ate a lunch of chicken marsala, penne pasta with pomodoro sauce and house salad catered by Carrabba's Italian Grill on Fourth Street. Smaller kids rode down a large, inflatable slide while a DJ played music, which every now and again was pierced by squeals of delight exchanged by graduates reuniting with friends and former teachers.

"They did a good job of providing good role models. I still talk to a lot of my teachers. How many people remember their middle school teachers?" asked Semeon Madir, 18.

Madir said the close-knit relationships he developed at Academy Prep are partly what inspired him to study education when he enters Jacksonville State University in Alabama this fall.

The academy, beginning it's 10th year, is a private school for at-risk kids who qualify for need-based scholarships. "We're looking for the kid who has the ability, but maybe isn't thriving in a public school setting. We deliver individualized attention, and we have created a community here. It's almost like a family," Mills said.

The development and continuity of those personal relationships are a key part of the school's success rate, Mills said.

Out of the 87 students who have graduated from Academy Prep since the school's inception, 95 percent are still in high school or have graduated and gone on to college.

Students in grades 5 through 8 attend the school year-round on scholarships provided by local businesses, organizations and individuals. Graduate support staffers help the students identify potential high schools and help them secure scholarships if needed. "We utilize our resources and our knowledge of the system," said Mills, adding that she and graduate support assistant Elizabeth Perkins spend a lot of time cultivating relationships with schools.

More then 35 percent of graduates currently attend private schools, and 32 percent attend public schools. But the support doesn't end once a child goes on to high school, Mills said. Academy staffers act as a safety net, making themselves endlessly available to graduates who might need help, or just the sound of a friendly voice.

"They always need stability in their lives, someone they can come to. I think it's very important," Perkins said.

Ann Freemon, who was at the reunion with her nephew, William Johnson, said the support the school provides is a priceless resource. "I like the mentoring they provide. They don't leave you. They continue to follow you. You always have someone who is available to him," Freemon said.

Johnson, 17, will begin his final year at St. Petersburg Catholic High School this fall with a 3.8 grade point average and the title of senior class president. His was one of many success stories shared at Saturday's reunion. Many students said they were thriving at their new high schools and appreciated the opportunities afforded by Academy Prep.

Theo Williamson, the student who got a new calculator without asking, said the school has had a major impact on his life.

"It's opened a lot of doors," he said.


Academy Prep Center of St. Petersburg is at 2301 22nd Ave. S. Call 322-0800 or visit the Web site at

[Last modified August 8, 2006, 11:37:40]

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