Laisha Daley remembers the day the assistant principal called her into his office.
It was 1993. Daley was a freshman at Tarpon Springs High, eager to become the first in her family to graduate from college.
When the good news escaped her school administrator's lips, Daley exhaled.
She'd been picked for the then-nascent Doorways Scholarship Program, a four-year college scholarship for students from low-income homes who keep good grades, attend school and stay drug- and crime-free. For Daley, an already driven teenager, it was the most concrete sign yet that she was on her way to achieving her dreams.
"It was this huge amount of relief," said Daley, 32, now a senior project manager at Catalina Marketing in St. Petersburg.
Twenty years since launching Doorways, the Pinellas Education Foundation says it has awarded 4,000 scholarships and received $15 million in donations.
Last year, four of Pinellas County's valedictorians were Doorways scholars.
News of a troubled two-year-old scholarship effort in Hillsborough County shows how difficult it can be to achieve such a glowing track record.
There, the school district established the Urban Teaching Academy to boost teaching ranks in urban schools, but managed to raise only $17,000 — barely enough to help pay for books and tuition for its first class of 31.
Pinellas Education Foundation president Terry Boehm said he wonders if the Hillsborough effort would have benefitted from piggybacking on an established scholarship-granting organization such as Take Stock in Children, a statewide program created in 1995, which partners with Doorways and was modeled after the Pinellas effort.
At the core of Doorways' success, Boehm said, is a public-private fundraising partnership that demands accountability from the students as well as the foundation that runs it. Private donations are matched dollar for dollar by the state through the Florida Prepaid College Foundation. Today, the value of each scholarship totals $13,600.
Students are identified for the program as early as sixth grade and then matched with mentors who are expected to help them navigate the sometimes difficult path from poverty to educational success. The Doorways staff tracks student progress and mentor connections. Students who don't keep the terms of their agreement to attend school, don't achieve a C or better and don't stay out of legal trouble, forfeit their scholarships.
Tahrell Jones, valedictorian of his class at Lakewood High in St. Petersburg, knew he could meet those requirements. He already was a good student when he got involved in Doorways two years ago.
But the program gave him additional incentive to succeed, he said, first by setting high standards in — and out of — the classroom, then by linking him with a mentor.
"It helped me by showing me that there were people that care for you,'' said Tahrell, 17.
His mentor, Lakewood principal Bob Vicari, said Tahrell made it easy.
"Academically, he was just setting the world on fire,'' Vicari said.
Last school year, he paired Tahrell with a high-achieving senior, who talked about college and how to prepare. That made a huge impression on the junior.
"He knew the next year he was going to have to make decisions,'' Vicari said.
Like whether to go to Florida Atlantic University or the University of Central Florida to study marine biology or science — a choice made easier, Tahrell said, thanks to Doorways.
"I would have gone to school regardless, even if I had to take out a loan,'' said the student with a 4.3 GPA. "But it definitely would have been a hardship.''
Johnny Boykins, 26, a former recipient, said his family also welcomed the financial boost. The 2004 graduate of Gibbs High in St. Petersburg applied his scholarship to Eckerd College, where he double-majored in political science and communications before graduating in 2009.
"Given that college today is becoming more out of reach for more people, that gave me and my family a little peace of mind that I was going to have a scholarship, that it was going to pay for a great deal of the college," said Boykins, who works as a political campaign coordinator.
With 20 years on record now, Doorways alumni like Boykins are giving back. He mentors students at Bay Point Middle in St. Petersburg, and Daley, a 2001 graduate of Florida State University, serves on the Doorways Scholarship Committee and is helping organize a 5K fundraiser.
Darlene Liparoto of Tarpon Springs said that's how it should be. Liparoto was matched to mentor Daley through her last three years of high school.
"It's an awesome program," said Liparoto, who met with Daley once a week to listen to her concerns and cheer her dreams.
Today, Boehm said, Doorways has 950 mentors on the roll for 1,368 students and is always looking for more. Some mentors work with multiple pupils.
Jack Critchfield, retired Progress Energy executive and Pinellas Education Foundation leader who helped establish the Doorways program, said it fills a need that never ends: "There are always going to be youngsters who need this kind of assistance."
In Daley's family, the scholarship had a powerful impact. In addition to fulfilling her own dream of finishing college, it inspired Daley's mother to go back to school.
"When I saw her graduate," Ivette Alvarado, 55, said, "it really gave me the push I needed to go forward and finish."
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The 2012 Doorways scholarship winners will be recognized Saturday at the Tampa Bay Rays game.
Times correspondents Sylvia Lim and Sherri Ackerman contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or [email protected]