This is Sherry Howard's chance. She scans the school auditorium packed with parents, looking for her next volunteer. Gibbs High School hasn't had an active PTA in two years. Though community groups have voiced loud interest in helping the academically troubled campus, the numbers of those showing follow-through have lagged behind. Now, it's Howard's job as the school's family and community liaison to change all that.
As the open house crowd of parents begins to disperse, she trails a fast-moving woman in green whose child is in the arts magnet.
"Are you interested in volunteering with the PTA?" Howard asks, tapping the woman on the back.
"I would," the woman answers, still walking — if my time weren't already taken up at my son's elementary school, she adds.
"Do you want to be a mentor?" Howard offers quickly.
"Um," the woman says, with an apprehensive over-the-shoulder glance. "No."
• • •
More than most Pinellas County schools, Gibbs inspires the passions of people who love it and those who despair over it. And yet getting a community concerned enough to embrace it with honest-to-God volunteer hours, mentoring services and sustained parental support has been an uphill battle.
"We've been ranting and raving about Gibbs for 5,000 years," said Watson Haynes, leader of an organization charged with overseeing the district's efforts to equitably educate black students.
Last year, after poor student test scores landed the school an F grade, a concerned group calling themselves the "Dream Team" promised 222 volunteers to it and two other area schools.
According to Howard's records, seven showed up.
The school is always looking for mentors, but when they needed enough for 49 students for its "Gladiator Challenge," principal Kevin Gordon agreed to do the job for all of them in the absence of other volunteers.
The school relies on a key group of do-gooders — the school historian, alumni from the Class of 1968 or '63, a few parents who are always stepping up — then asks for more time from the people already tasked with educating the kids: teachers.
It isn't ideal.
But, on a campus where almost 62 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches, where active parental support for the neediest kids is rare, where educators are burdened with workloads that exceed those of a more successful school, what is?
Two weeks ago, the state Department of Education added Gibbs to its list of 22 worst-performing schools in the state.
Howard doesn't like that news. But she's using the buzz over it to try to recruit more adults to serve as mentors, tutors and PTA members. Her principal increased her hours to 37 a week this year from 20 per week last year, the only Pinellas County high school to do so.
"I have to get them now," Howard says. "It is the critical time."
• • •
Last year, though 249 people were signed up to be Gibbs volunteers, just 172 people logged 6,365 hours.
It sounds like a lot by the raw numbers, but it's far short of the need for a 1,600-student school where 67 percent of students aren't reading at grade level.
Twenty-one of those volunteers were tutors. And 61 were mentors, an area where Howard believes adults could make the biggest difference in these students' lives.
Gypsy Gallardo, leader of last year's Dream Team effort, chalked up lackluster participation to a gridlock in the district's volunteer screening and poor funding and coordination. But she hopes things are changing.
Last week, during a meeting of several black leaders concerned with education, discussion turned to Gibbs and what can be done to fix it and other schools like it.
More than 80 years ago, Gibbs was built as the county's first high school for black students. During integration, it became home to one of the area's most highly touted arts magnets. In 2007, the district invested an unprecedented $58 million for a new campus. And last year, it became the county's first F-graded high school. Its black student population is now 63 percent.
Henry Johnson, a recruiter for St. Petersburg College who spends time volunteering and working with Gibbs counselors and students, offered his own thoughts at the meeting: "I think we can come up with many great ideas, but until you get an army of folks in these homes, teaching these kids, you're not going to turn them around."
People nodded. Some voiced similar sentiments. Then, the meeting ended.
• • •
Valarie Westbrooks leans over a blue-draped table and fills out a parent volunteer form.
"What are you interested in?" Howard asks from behind the table. "PTA?"
"Good job!" Howard says. "You will be getting a call from me."
Last year, when her oldest daughter was a freshman, Westbrooks couldn't make parent night. A single, working mother, she tried to split her time between Gibbs and her youngest girl's middle school.
But it was hard.
Byronda Sails, 16, now a sophomore, slipped off the honor roll. She struggled with algebra and honors English. She didn't pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test reading and math segments, required for graduation. Westbrooks tried to stay in touch with Byronda's teachers by e-mail. But, this year, with both girls at Gibbs and the school under pressure to improve its state standing, she feels the need to do more. A lot more. "I decided that if I tried to get close and personal, she'll be able to see that me and the teachers are like twins," Westbrooks said.
• • •
Howard has goals. She wants to increase the volunteer force by 25 percent to 215, from 172 last year. But even that wouldn't take care of all the need. Only a small pool of those who have signed up so far have said they would be willing to mentor.
When Howard's not recruiting volunteers, she's hunting for donations from local businesses.
Snacks for Saturday FCAT tutoring, anyone? Gift certificates for positive behavior incentives? Catering for an awards banquet?
Some business owners have declined to help when they learn the aid is for Gibbs, she said.
Howard, who used to work in sales, says she's staying persistent and optimistic. She's learned how to take no for an answer, but she's searching hard for yes.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or firstname.lastname@example.org.