ST. PETERSBURG — Janiece Simmons wasn’t expecting much when she arrived at Shorecrest Preparatory School last year for its inaugural fair for historically black colleges and universities.
She wandered through the 20-some tables, taking a pamphlet here and there. A junior at Gulfport’s Boca Ciega High School, she had to prove to her mom that she at least tried, she said.
But when Simmons passed the table for Tennessee State University — adorned with a big, royal blue banner — something clicked. She lingered there, listening to recruiters’ pitches about what the school had to offer, and her post-high school dream started taking shape.
"I came home and showed everything to my mom and said, ‘This is the school that I want to go to,’" said Simmons, now 17 and a senior at Lakewood High School. "Ever since I left the fair, I have known I want to go to that school."
On Sunday, hundreds of college hopefuls like Simmons are expected to visit Shorecrest for its second annual fair, put on in conjunction with the local chapter of Jack and Jill of America, Inc., a national organization working to improve quality of life for African-American children.
Organizers say the fair is part of Shorecrest’s effort to better connect with the diverse community of St. Petersburg, where it opened in 1923. Roderick Fludd, the school’s director of diversity and inclusion, hopes it boosts the school’s minority enrollment, too.
In the past, Shorecrest "has been considered the rich, white school," said Fludd, who was hired in 2017. "At one point it may have been that there were not a lot of students of color here … when it was not a school aspiring to be as diverse as it is."
Today, about 80 percent of the school’s students are white, according to Shorecrest spokesperson Rachel Barrett. Of the 20 percent that aren’t, 3 percent are African-American.
"Our student body is becoming more and more diverse," she said, pointing to the school’s strategic plan.
One of the five priorities listed in the plan is to "demonstrate and deepen a community-wide commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion." Actions steps toward that goal are to recruit minority candidates for jobs, offer professional development about diversity for students and families, and expand international and cultural studies.
"We are making sure that people in St. Petersburg are aware that we are here and aware that this is not a closed campus," Fludd said. "Providing opportunities like the HBCU fair, so African-American students can come on our campus, is a step toward that."
More than 30 colleges are registered for Sunday’s event, Jack and Jill representative Crystal Pruitt said. As co-chair of the fair, she said she hopes the more than 600 students signed up to attend find possibilities that haven’t even crossed their minds. About 400 students attended last year’s event.
"Sometimes, for financial reasons, students can’t travel to these schools," she said. "The fact that we’re bringing them here so they can meet with recruiters face-to-face makes a big difference."
Before attending the fair last year, Simmons planned to go to the University of Central Florida in Orlando. But the human connection she made with recruiters from Tennessee State won her over, so she applied.
"They have sent me a letter saying that so far, my application looks good," she said. "It’s still my dream school."
Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareevs.