LARGO — A decade ago, longtime educator James Feazell and his wife, Gwen, grew so worried about the high percentage of African-American high school students failing the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test that they started a nonprofit tutoring program to help them.
Last week, James Feazell stood in a banquet room crowded with more than 200 people and celebrated the 10th successful year of that organization, called Bridging the Achievement Gap, or BTAG. The young people who have been helped academically, emotionally and socially by BTAG populated the room and the pages of the banquet program.
The Student Celebration Banquet is the group's annual fundraiser. Held Thursday at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Largo, the banquet proceeds will buy the gas used to transport BTAG students by bus to their tutoring sessions and help pay students' cost of taking the SAT and ACT tests for college admission, Feazell said.
BTAG has plenty of good news to celebrate. This year's success stories alone consisted of 39 new high school graduates, including Largo High School salutatorian Adriana Wilson, and five 2013 college graduates.
During the 10 years of the program, leaders said, 1,313 students have been served, 502 have graduated with high school diplomas, 223 are attending college, 99 have graduated from college, three have completed graduate school, six are currently attending graduate school, 11 have completed technical or vocational programs, and 14 have launched military careers.
Many of the students helped by BTAG were identified as struggling or likely to fail to graduate high school. Once signed up, the students are surrounded by a supportive corps of volunteers, including teachers, tutors and mentors. They receive free academic tutoring, peer mediation and group counseling, leadership skills and post-high school planning.
The goal, Feazell said, is to ensure that students receive a high school diploma, not a certificate, so they can go on to college or complete technical school or a military career.
BTAG works closely with the high schools the students attend. In 2013, the group worked with 104 students from 10 Pinellas high schools from Seminole to Tarpon Springs.
That partnership between school and community was praised by Largo High principal Brad Finkbiner at the banquet.
"Largo High School had over 60 percent of its students who were considered to have the lowest reading levels pass the reading section (of the FCAT)," he said. "We also showed a 14 percent increase in at-risk students graduating within four years. I believe this was a result of the outstanding educators at LHS and the support and resources offered by BTAG."
The keynote speaker at the banquet was Rudy Falana, superintendent of the Burke County (Georgia) School District, who demonstrates well the potential the Feazells say children have, no matter their background.
Falana, one of 16 children in his family, grew up in the low-income Ridgecrest/Baskins neighborhood just west of Largo. A star athlete in three sports at Largo High, he attended Florida State University on an athletic scholarship.
After college, he returned to Largo to teach and coach at Largo Middle School and Countryside High School. He eventually became principal of Coachman Fundamental Middle School before moving to Georgia as a high school principal.
A year ago, he was appointed the first African-American superintendent of the Burke County schools.