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Making the grade

Published May 23, 2007


At her eighth-grade graduation ceremony last week, Laterrica Mathis, 14, spoke with the confidence and poise of a professional public speaker about the lessons she has learned at Academy Prep Center of St. Petersburg.

She said the small, nondenominational private school had changed her life for the better. "They prepare you to be able to do everything that comes along."

High praise, indeed, but in the 10 years since its formation, the school can point to an impressive list of accomplishments, big plans and many loyal friends.

In the fall, Laterrica will begin her freshman year of high school on full scholarship at the Masters School, a prestigious - and expensive - boarding school in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

Her classmates will scatter to magnet programs and private schools throughout the county, but Laterrica said she knows they'll always be welcome at Academy Prep. "Even after you graduate, you're still part of the family, " she said.

                                                                                             * * *

Academy Prep, at 2301 22nd Ave. S, opened with one class of fifth-grade boys. Founded by a small group of local philanthropists and educators, it has since expanded to include girls and now serves about 100 students in grades 5 through 8. All of the students qualify for free and reduced-cost lunch, typically an indicator of poverty. They attend the school on scholarships paid for by individual and corporate donors.

"The community has been very supportive. This school would not exist without that support, " said Joy Petit, who was recently named vice president of development for the Academy Prep Foundation. The foundation oversees operations and funding for the St. Petersburg school and its sister school, Academy Prep Center of Tampa.

After nearly a decade of providing rigorous classroom instruction, mandatory study halls, firm discipline and long-term support to students and families, school officials point to the high retention rate of students as an indicator of success.

Of the 102 students who finished the eighth grade at Academy Prep, 94 percent are attending high school or have graduated, said director of graduate support Keturah Mills.

The school takes a multifaceted approach to education, which includes a commitment to academics, cultural enrichment through the arts and after-school programs and strong parental involvement, Mills said.

The school also offers a graduate support program that helps students prepare for the transition to a new school and then follows them through their high school and college years. "We act as the guide and we help to navigate our students through their academic process, " Mills said.

The graduate support staff helps secure scholarships for students, receives regular updates on grades, and visits students at their new schools. "We're committed to be there for them through secondary school and college, " Mills said.

                                                                                             * * *

Each school day starts with a convocation to set the tone for the day. Students can make prayer requests or announcements before they learn a new word of the day. "It's a subtle thing we're trying to do to establish that education begins when you hit the campus, " Mills said.

The day starts at 7 a.m. and can go as late as 6 p.m. for students who are required to attend study hall to boost their grade point averages. Saturday programs and a month-long summer session help keep the kids on track, Mills said.

Students are encouraged to do community service. "To whom much is given, much is required, " Mills said. "Our students are very blessed in that we have the support of the community (and) corporate donors, so it is only natural that they should give back a portion of what they have received."

The long hours and high expectations require commitment, said trustee John Erik Savitsky, former vice president for development for the Academy Prep Foundation.

Prospective students are screened carefully. "The kids and their families really have to want to be here, " he said.

                                                                                             * * *

While the students haven't changed much over the years - they still come to Academy Prep with the same needs and wants and fears and hopes - school officials said they have tried to continuously adjust to better serve their students.

"We have upgraded our expectations as we have learned and grown, " said Ben Fisher, executive director of the foundation

The school is in the process of overhauling its curriculum to better reflect a college preparatory track, Mills said. New computers will soon be installed in each classroom, thanks to a private donation. And the Academy Prep Foundation is trying to secure funding for schools in Lakeland, Sarasota and possibly Clearwater, Fisher said.

School officials have also changed the way they place graduating students, looking more closely at potential schools, trying to match student to school.

"We learned from our mistakes in the beginning. In our zeal to provide our kids with the best opportunities, we didn't initially look at that component, " Mills said.

                                                                                             * * *

Laterrica Mathis' mom, Lajwanta Yo'Seph, said she thinks the Masters School will be a perfect fit for her daughter, who has become more self-confident and independent during her time at Academy Prep.

"I never would have imagined that my daughter would be going off to a boarding school, " she said.

Academy Prep was like a dream come true, Yo'Seph said. "I've always wanted my children to go to a private school but could never afford it, so when I heard about this opportunity, I jumped on it."

Though Laterrica will be hundreds of miles away, she can expect regular visits from graduate support staffers, who will try to help her as she makes her way into adulthood, Mills said.

"Once an Academy Prep graduate, you're always a part of the family."

94 percent: Graduation rate of Academy Prep Center students.

67 percent: Graduation rate of Pinellas County Schools students in 2005 .

46 percent: Graduation rate for black Pinellas County Schools students in 2005.

Fast Facts:

School numbers

Current budget is $1.3-million, coming from public and private donors, fundraising and corporate tax credit scholarships.

The school is considering applicants for the June 4 start of the summer session. Call (727) 322-0800.

Sources: Academy Prep Center of St. Petersburg, Florida Department of Education

[Last modified May 23, 2007, 07:46:03]

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