Valerie Lanham has an unusual lesson for her students: Be wrong.
In a lesson on the novella The Little Prince, Lanham encourages students to offer their opinions without worrying about the correct answer.
"Think deep," the adjunct professor tells her class at St. Petersburg College's Tarpon Springs campus. "Peel back layers."
Lanham teaches remedial English to a group of 20 students in SPC's "Summer of Success" program. The program reaches out to students who are the first in their family to attend college, will enter the regular college program in the fall and who might struggle to adjust.
The six-week program, which ends July 22, provides textbooks and three course credits free of charge. It is funded entirely by grants.
The program's main goals are retaining students and improving their placement test scores, coordinator Jackie Addis said. It also introduces them to the pace and responsibilities of college life.
"Before college, the fall comes and it's overwhelming to them," Addis said. "If they've made it through six weeks of the program, when fall comes they're ready to integrate themselves with other students on campus."
The program is in its second year at the Tarpon Springs and Seminole campuses of SPC, but it has been at the St. Petersburg and Clearwater campuses for about 15 years, Addis said. Of the 20 students who participated in Tarpon Springs last year, 18 are still enrolled in college, she said.
Students take remedial English and math as well as three courses for credit: career & life planning, computer literacy and study skills. They also take field trips to places such as the Innisbrook Resort, SPC's criminal justice program at the Allstate Center, and SPC's Health Education Center.
"We're pulling them from a high school mentality to a college mentality," Lanham said. "They don't have a perspective to relate it to."
Matt Ryan, 20, expected college to be more like high school.
"I like the freedom of it, the whole ability to speak our minds," he said. "Instead of being told what to think, we're asked our opinions."
Ryan attended high school in Miami and passed the GED test to earn his diploma last fall. Before coming to St. Petersburg College, he worked as a back waiter at P.F. Chang's China Bistro in Miami for two years.
"It's a change, but I think it's for the better," Ryan said. "I didn't want to work in a restaurant for the rest of my life."
Students also learn practical skills such as how to schedule classes, what resources the college offers and how to identify their learning styles. Lanham even tries to teach students the value of being on time.
"If they're tardy, they have to write an extra essay," she said. "I want to set the expectation that it's not a meander-in thing, even though college is a voluntary thing."
Abigail Beebe, 17, said she initially registered for Summer of Success because she wanted to get ahead in college. It can be hard to attend classes and field trips every day while friends have their summers free, she said.
"In high school you have people pushing and helping you all the way," Beebe said. "In college, it's all on you."
Beebe, who recently graduated from Palm Harbor University High School, said she plans to complete an associate's degree at SPC, transfer to a university and pursue a career in nursing.
For Ashlee White, 18, the program has shown her how to manage her time and get assignments in on time. White, an East Lake High School grad, said she leaves sticky notes on her laptop to remind her to stay focused.
Like the other students in the program, White is the first member of her family to attend college. She said she hopes her experiences will pave the way for future generations to pursue higher education.
"I have the chance to make a difference in my family, to show it's possible," she said.
Katie Park can be reached at (727) 445-4154 or firstname.lastname@example.org.