Signing Day isn't just for athletes

A community event celebrates academic successes in poor neighborhoods.

Published May 18, 2007

TAMPA -- Keyara Franklin could have been another statistic.

Broken bones from a car accident kept her home much of her freshman year, and she changed high schools three times in as many years.

But she took a harder road than dropping out of school.

She signed up for college-level, Advanced Placement courses, and stuck it out through the homework and tests -- and being the only black student in the classroom.

"It would have been easy to give up," said Keyara, 18. "I just kind of told myself that I want to succeed in life and do things toward my future that would make my future better."

Keyara will head to the University of Central Florida after graduating from Wharton High School next week.

Thursday night, she learned how much the community values her effort. Keyara and 30 other students from some of Hillsborough's poorest neighborhoods were invited to the First Annual Academic Letter of Intent Signing Day Dinner.

It was time, community leaders decided, to celebrate academics with the fanfare usually devoted to athletics.

They snapped photos of students behind college T-shirts. They each signed a pact vowing to earn a degree in four years.

"When I started attending Middleton, it was all about athletics," said Ralphy Adelson, 18, who plans to study biology at the University of Florida and is the valedictorian of Middleton High School. "It's getting around that academics is equally important."

That's exactly the message that Rep. Betty Reed hoped to send to the voters she represents in House District 59, a collection of heavily black neighborhoods from east Tampa to Temple Terrace to Progress Village. She knows much work remains.

District 59 claimed just one percent of more than 2, 800 Hillsborough students with four or more AP classes on their resumes. Most individual high schools count more students reaching that bar. Plant High School, at the high end, has 339.

"We need to turn up the volume on academic excellence in the black community," said local activist Jason Mims, 53, one of the organizers of the letter signing event. "We've got to encourage people who may be wondering, 'Is it okay to take these AP classes?'"

When he and Reed teamed up, they found untold success stories. The students whom they identified tout acceptance letters from elite schools, such as the University of Florida and Morehouse College.

Most are black, and bucking the academic achievement gap of white and minority students. Just 8 percent of Hillsborough students who have taken four-plus AP classes are black.

Reed saw that many didn't understand the importance of AP classes when her own grandson passed them up for an easier schedule. They can count for college credits, giving the student a head start in college.

They also weigh heavily in college admission decisions.

This spring, Reed helped pass a bill to make sure minority families know when their children are eligible for advance classes.

Her co-sponsor, Democratic Sen. Tony Hill, drove in from Jacksonville to watch the letter-signing ceremony in the cafeteria at Blake High School. He wants to take the concept national through Omega Psi Phi, a fraternity.

The event featured typical graduation fare and speeches about staying focused. Until organizers realized an oversight -- they didn't know who in the room was a class valedictorian.

The students were asked to stand. One rose, then another, a third, a fourth.

The cheers could have come from a football stadium.

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts: Academic achievers

House District 59 counted 31 seniors graduating with four or more AP courses, out more than 2, 800 Hillsborough students meeting the standard. The House District 59 students who attended the First Annual Academic Letter of Intent Signing Day Dinner: