'Rays the Grades' program to expand to Pasco this year

Published February 6, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - The Tampa Bay Devil Rays are expanding the "Rays the Grades" program.

This year, Pasco County students will be eligible for the program, which will kick off in March. The program, which was launched a year ago in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, provides free ticket vouchers to students in grades K-8 who show improvement in school.

"The beauty of the program is it's saying to kids: 'If you set goals, if you meet the goals and are accountable, there's something positive at the end,' " said Chip Wichmanowski, executive director of the Pasco Education Foundation.

Each county's education foundation - private entities that raise money for public education - will hand out vouchers for Rays home games to elementary and middle schools.

Principals and teachers at each school will determine the criteria, which could include academic performance, attendance, behavior or any other area administrators identify. The goal is to raise student performance, said Rich Engwall, senior vice president of the Pinellas Education Foundation.

"Every student and educator has unique challenges, and what the Devil Rays wanted to do with this is give educators the opportunity to address those challenges and reward positive behaviors," Engwall said.

Family members who wish to accompany a student will be offered a reduced ticket price.

"It's a very wholesome family-oriented sport and the ballpark experience lends itself to social interaction and family interaction," said team president Matt Silverman.

Last year the team handed out between 150,000 and 200,000 vouchers, Silverman said.

The expansion means that about 300,000 kids will be eligible this year. Silverman said the team hopes to continue the expansion next year.

Engwall said the program was good for the schools as well as the team.

"Baseball is a community sport, and what better way to support the community than to support the schools," Engwall said.