CLEARWATER — Raising her children in the North Greenwood area, Vann Dennis always worried that her daughter and three sons would fall in with the wrong crowd.
So the 43-year-old armed her children with words of wisdom: "You don't have to allow the people in your area to define who you are."
Her daughter, Janessa, now 17, took that advice to heart and has excelled academically. She is a Palm Harbor University High School honor student.
This summer, thanks to a new program called Operation Graduate, Janessa will get a glimpse of ways to go even further.
She and 19 other high-achieving high school students will write resumes, work part time at local businesses and create career portfolios as part of a three-credit-hour course on St. Petersburg College's Clearwater campus. The students, who are rising seniors, will get a taste of college life.
An additional 20 youths ages 15 to 18 who are on juvenile probation will take online courses at the Clearwater Police Department's North Greenwood substation, where laptops will be set up for them. The program will provide a way for them to make up high school credits and get back on track for on-time graduation. They'll also learn life, financial and job-readiness skills from a variety of speakers being lined up to talk to them.
All 40 Operation Graduate youths will be paired with mentors.
"I'm really, really excited because it's the opportunity of a lifetime," Janessa, an aspiring theology and computer science major, said at Thursday's kickoff event in North Greenwood. "It's giving us no choice but to exceed greatness."
Organizers tout Operation Graduate as an intervention tool that will use education to break the cycle of juvenile recidivism for youths who have been in trouble, as well as to encourage at-risk teens who are doing well to continue on their path.
On Thursday, Mayor Frank Hibbard told the students that the unemployment rate among high school graduates is 14 percent. In contrast, the unemployment rate among those with master's or doctorate degrees is 2 percent, he said.
Clearwater police Chief Anthony Holloway said the program "is not about being soft on crime." Instead, he said, it's about options and opportunities.
"This will provide some of the children with a taste of college life and encourage them to further their education," Holloway said. "For others, this is a rare opportunity to get out of the game and get back into the classroom. It's a win for the students and a win for us."
The program targets youths in three Clearwater neighborhoods: North Greenwood, South Greenwood and Wood Valley.
Partners piled onto the project to eliminate obstacles. For example, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is offering summer bus passes to ensure that the teens can get to class. Target Corp. offered jobs, with the opportunity for extended employment if the students perform well. The city of Clearwater offered summer passes to its recreational facilities.
Other partners include the United Way, Pinellas County schools, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and the Upper Pinellas Ministerial Alliance.
Palm Harbor University student Maya Goss, 17, said knowing she'll have a job and earn college credit takes away any stress she might have felt this summer.
And she's eager to figure out her life's passion. "I'm really excited to get a chance to get ahead in life," she said.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.