Lew Williams wanted to be an attorney.
As the oldest of seven kids in a single-parent household, he was planning to join the Army to get a college education. But his high school English teacher "saved" him in his senior year, handing him a college acceptance letter with a year's tuition paid.
"This inspired him to go into education," his widow Arthurene Williams said last week.
A 40-year Florida educator and a Pinellas County School Board member before his unexpected death in December 2011, Williams left such a strong legacy that district officials quickly vowed to start a program in his memory. In recent months it has started to take shape.
The Lew Williams Project aims to eliminate the achievement gap by leveling the playing field for 1- to 4-year-olds living in poverty, said Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego.
Of the 8,007 children who entered Pinellas public school kindergartens for the 2011-12 school year, 2,171 were not ready, the district says. Most of them hail from the neighborhoods in southern St. Petersburg, Lealman, Largo, Clearwater and Tarpon Springs.
"If we do this right, if we get them early and ready for kindergarten, we're giving them the opportunity to graduate in 13 years," said Jim Madden, a recently retired deputy superintendent who has volunteered to keep working on the project.
Arthurene Williams said the project is a fitting tribute to her husband.
"He was a gentle giant in his field, and he wanted to make sure that every child had an opportunity to succeed," she said. "He was a struggling student, and all indicators in his life deemed that he was doomed to fail."
District officials have budgeted roughly $2.5 million to renovate the Pinellas Technical Education Center St. Petersburg campus and the shuttered Kings Highway Elementary campus in Clearwater. The sites will accommodate 350 students, said Mike Bessette, associate superintendent of facilities and operations. The district also has set aside $4 million to pay for teachers, supplies and utilities.
Costs for the project will be shared by the Early Learning Coalition, the Juvenile Welfare Board and the district, according to district records. District officials aim to open the PTEC site in August for the 2013-14 school year.
Classrooms will be staffed by certified teachers, Madden said.
"The key component is, everything we do will be research-based and based on best practices," said Gail Ramsdell, coordinator for early childhood education in Pinellas schools. "Hopefully, what we are learning and developing will be shared with other preschools and home day cares."
In the next five years, district officials want to expand the project to other locations and use the PTEC and Kings Highway sites as models for Gibbs High and St. Petersburg College students studying education.
The project is part of the district's ambitious plans to boost early learning options for students. Those plans include applying for grants totalling about $70.3 million from the federal Head Start program.
"Think of it as a big umbrella, and under that umbrella you will have different ways to get services if you have a child who is four years old or younger," Madden said.
Arthurene Williams said her husband would be happy about how the project is coming along. Experience told him that learning needs to start before kindergarten, which was why he started a preschool and ran for school board, she said.
"One passion of his was making sure those kids have the tools they need to go into elementary school with … so that they don't start at a deficit. It's keeping the main thing, the main thing."