About 100 movers and shakers gathered recently in a Bel Mar Shores waterside mansion. They snacked on finger sandwiches, spicy cheese dip and cakes spread across marble countertops and a dining room table that overlooked a circular pool. Near the front door, brochures invited donations for a worthy cause. A platinum level sponsorship: $10,000. For some it was a refreshing, albeit unlikely, scene — largely because of the reason they were there. The benefactor of this fundraiser? St. Peter Claver Catholic School, a private urban facility on the brink of closing just a year ago.
Until recently, many of Tampa's leaders and philanthropists were unaware of the school's plight or thought it had already closed.
But lately, school officials say, there's a resurgence at the school on N Governor Street. And part of the reason is their new development director, former City Council candidate Julie Jenkins.
Earlier this year, administrators were looking for someone to expand the school's fundraising and awareness efforts. They asked Jon Jones, executive director of the Catholic Foundation for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, if he knew anyone.
"He sent me Julie," said principal Sister Maria Babatunde.
Now, "A lot of people are seeing what we're putting into the school," Babatunde said, "and seeing what we're doing."
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The saving of St. Peter Claver Catholic School started with Babatunde and a school board that never gave up. But it's future, some believe, has much to do with Jenkins.
Her ability to keep and make connections, to market and raise funds, school officials say, has been the necessary spark plug to rejuvenate the state's oldest active black parochial school.
Two nuns opened St. Peter Claver in 1894 with 16 students on Morgan Street as a school for black children. Ten days later, arsonists burned it down, objecting to its location in the "white and retired portion of the city."
Rebuilt that same year in a black neighborhood, the school later moved and now operates in a brick building it has resided in for 82 years.
Over decades, St. Peter Claver became a bustling school with many noteworthy alumni. But a perfect financial storm hit in 2007. The Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg stopped subsidizing private schools and began offering individual scholarships and tuition assistance to Catholic students instead. St. Peter Claver lost an annual $250,000 contribution.
Also that year, Central Park Village, a 484-unit public housing complex nearby that had been a major source of students, was demolished.
Enrollment sank and the school began operating at a loss.
Babatunde refused to let the school close. Parishioners at nearby St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, alumni, private donors and companies gave what they could. Still, Babatunde acknowledged, the school was about "95 percent" close to shutting down last year.
But school leaders kept touting the school's viability, showing donors their five-year plan that projected enrollment surging to 150. They explained how the school served a critical need. Fifty-five percent of parents' income levels fall below $26,000.
Slowly St. Peter Claver began to rebound.
"The little miracle that could," Jenkins said.
Enrollment rose from about 80 two years ago to nearly 100. The Derek Jeter Turn 2 Foundation covers tuition for about 15 students. Other donors, including a construction company building a giant commercial and residential complex on the old Central Park complex grounds, donated air conditioners and 18 computers.
Named Encore, that construction project gives the school the most hope, as school officials believe it could someday house many future St. Peter Claver students.
Slowly, people are buying into the school's vision.
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After her loss in the March municipal election, Jenkins put out feelers for a marketing or development job. She knew the Catholic foundation's Jon Jones from Saint Leo University, where she had been a student and he had worked as a director in various capacities.
With Jenkins' strong community involvement and track record in South Tampa — the city's tony philanthropic area — Jones saw opportunity.
"I knew she has great connections throughout South Tampa," he said. "This is what that school needs."
Jenkins saw it as a perfect match, as well, allowing her to jump into the marketing and development realm she has wanted to work in at a school that didn't have a strong fundraising structure. She made her own business cards and press releases and has been drawing on all her contacts as a longtime neighborhood activist and political candidate.
Jenkins left no stone unturned, even calling her political opponent during what had been a cordial campaign.
"I'm here because of my friendship with Julie," council member Harry Cohen said during the Bel Mar fundraiser last week.
One of the first calls Jenkins made after she took her new job was to Cohen. She asked if he could have St. Peter Claver's church priest conduct the invocation before a City Council meeting. It would also give her an opportunity to speak briefly to council members about the school. Cohen quickly scheduled them in.
"This is really important to us as a city," said council member Mary Mulhern, who also attended the fundraiser. "It's part of our history, and I want to support it."
Many longtime city residents remember the school during its more prominent days but didn't know it was still alive — until Jenkins told them.
"I hadn't heard about it for years and thought it was closed," said Toni Thompson, who hosted the fundraiser.
Jenkins' efforts seem to be working. Last week, the Dr. Chris Swain and Debbie Swain Charitable Fund donated $30,000 to the school's computer lab.
At the fundraiser, Jenkins presented a giant check symbolizing the donation to a grateful school principal and school board.
"I never want the word 'closed' with St. Peter Claver ever again," said Sonja Garcia, the St. Peter Claver's board president. "We're only moving forward."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.