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Dream Team volunteers pledge to help close black achievement gap in Pinellas schools

ST. PETERSBURG — When they saw their alma mater's grade, their hearts sank.

F? How could it be an F?

"I'm not going to take that," said Yvonne Reed, Gibbs High School class of 1957.

Her friend Ada Davis concurred. She remembered the old days, when students left school primed for the future. But now?

"I don't see the encouragement that we got when we were kids," said Davis, class of '58. "That's what I'm here to do."

Saturday, they came to Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg for orientation with the Dream Team, a project designed to make strides at three Pinellas schools with high minority populations: Gibbs, Maximo Elementary and Baypoint Middle.

Dream Team volunteers will mentor, tutor, sponsor field trips, find clothes and jobs for needy kids and supervise community service projects.

The notion is thrilling, said superintendent Julie Janssen.

"I'm excited we have the expression of commitment, but there has to be follow-through. Everybody has to do their part. … We're asking for accountability on all sides, not only from ourselves but also on the part of those who have agreed to help us. We're counting on them."

So far, the Dream Team has 222 official volunteers, said Gypsy Gallardo, one of the project's leaders.

"We're starting with what we have," she said. "It may build to 300 over the year."

The need is dire.

Black students in Pinellas lag severely behind their white peers. At Gibbs, fewer than a third of sophomores were reading at grade level last year — just 13 percent among black sophomores.

"We have a lot of work to do, and it's going to take the effort of the Dream Team, everyone in this room and the entire community," Gibbs principal Kevin Gordon said Saturday. He urged parents to take cell phones during school hours — they'll be banned in the cafeteria next year anyway, he said.

"Work with us, and we'll make sure your child gets a good education and a high school diploma."

The Dream Team is spearheaded by Gallardo, former Pinellas teachers union president Michelle Dennard and teacher Tamika Hughes-Leeks.

They have teamed with community organizations like My Daughter's Keeper of Tampa Bay and 5000 Role Models of Excellence.

"The Dream Team, I think, is going to be a powerful vehicle," said My Daughter's Keeper president Donna Welch. "To me, it's one of the most powerful things I've seen in a long time."

Saturday, she explained mentoring to the volunteers — what it really means.

The phone calls in the middle of the night, the tears, the hard talks. The smart, promising kids who act out because they're not getting attention at home.

"They just want that support," she said. "They want to know that you hear them. They want you to keep it real."

After the orientation, she planned to visit a young girl who needed her help.

She reached in a bag and pulled out a pregnancy test.

Times staff writer Donna Winchester contributed to this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

Dream Team volunteers pledge to help close black achievement gap in Pinellas schools 08/15/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 15, 2009 9:30pm]
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