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Blake High School has students tutoring students

TAMPA HEIGHTS

Briana Binns plays the violin, listens to classical music and loves Jamaican food. The senior hates writing papers, but is an excellent student with a timid smile.

Justina James, a freshman, plays basketball. She loves the sport's physical contact. She also likes a style of hip-hop dancing called "krump" and hates the Lifetime channel. Wearing a big golden belt and a hood over her head, the 14-year-old calls herself a tough girl.

"She gives me a headache," one says of the other.

"She gives me a double headache," the other replies.

Both attend Howard W. Blake High School and, considering their differing interests, it's no surprise that they never interacted until an innovative tutoring program brought them together.

The Principal's Special Forces Team was created to transform Blake from a D school, which it has been the past two years, to a B school.

And what will it take for this high school of more than 1,400 students to jump two grade levels? An estimated 80 to 100 freshmen and sophomores scoring 3 or better on the FCAT, which is graded on a scale from 1 to 5, according to Van Ayres, assistant principal for curriculum.

"Three is the magic number," Ayres said.

The tutoring program paired about 100 high achieving upperclassmen with 100 low performing underclassmen. It was launched last October with Suncoast Earth Force, a nonprofit organization that empowers students to create their own voice by identifying problems and solving them.

The tutoring team, which is composed of students from both the school's traditional and magnet programs, focuses on a student-to-student relationship in preparation for FCAT testing, which takes place from March 10 to 19.

The alliance resulted in traditional and magnet kids, some of whom would not normally interact, coming together.

"I think it's a missing piece; we have done everything else," said school principal Jacqueline Haynes. "Being an urban school, there is lots of challenge."

Magnets are added

Blake first opened its doors in 1956 as one of two black high schools in Tampa. (Middleton High School was the other.)

It shut down after segregation ended in Tampa, then reopened in 1997 at a new school on N Boulevard. This time, Blake added a magnet program for visual, communication and performing arts, which was designed to promote diversity by bringing more students from the suburban areas into the inner city.

A few years after the school opened within the ZIP code 33607, the 2000 U.S. Census recorded that the median household income was $27,056 and 14.4 percent of the population over 25 years old held college degrees.

Today, 47 percent of Blake's 1,440 students are African-American; 27 percent are white and 20 percent are Hispanic. While the school has integrated racially, students say a gap now exists between magnet and traditional kids.

"Some magnets feel like they are better," said Dontae Iverson, a senior in the magnet program. "But every kid, traditional or magnet, has talent."

Others say magnet students have more privileges and receive more attention and help from the faculty.

"It makes traditional students think: 'Well, I am just a traditional student, why should I do good?' " said Salina Peace, a traditional senior.

However, English teacher John Fairweather said magnet students get less attention than they should.

The majority of Blake's lower-performing students are in the traditional program, he said. "Therefore, we are forced to spend more resources and efforts on the traditional students."

Volunteers help out

Jeannette Bradley has been a volunteer and life coach at Blake for the past five years. She is also the founder of What We Could Be Inc., a life coaching organization for kids, which served as a liaison between the school and Suncoast Earth Force to create the new tutoring program.

"Over the past couple of years there has been a progressively visible change in the makeup of the more advanced classes in an effort to ensure both magnet and traditional students experience the same advantages," she said.

For instance, some magnet elective courses are now offered to traditional students also.

The tutoring program could help further bridge the gap.

Pairs of students study over lunch or after extracurricular practices. Sometimes they meet at Starbucks.

Tutors are charged and feel like they have a purpose.

"I want the Class of '09 to be the one that made a difference," said Peace who tutors magnet freshman Victoria Uy.

On the other hand, some who are being tutored are not so excited.

"It takes away my fun, but he helps," said magnet freshman Wayne Price, who is being tutored by Iverson. "Sometimes, I see Dontae, I have to turn the other way."

Some pairs had a rocky start.

Binns and James had trouble connecting. Their personalities sometimes clash, but they are still learning to work together.

"She tries to put on this tough exterior, but she is soft-hearted," said Binns.

Ask any of the students how much time they have until FCAT testing, and they tell you. As of today, it's about three weeks.

Ayres is optimistic that efforts such as the tutoring program have put Blake on track to earning that B.

"We have a very good school," he said.

Alessandra Da Pra can be reached at adapra@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3434.

fast facts

You can help, too

Volunteers from Suncoast Earth Force and What We Could Be Inc. are raising $100,000 for college scholarships to be awarded to the students as incentives. If you would like to donate to the Principal's Special Forces Team at Blake High School, visit the site at www.whatwecouldbeinc.com.

Blake High School has students tutoring students 02/12/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 16, 2009 2:08pm]

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