On Oct. 30, outgoing St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker awarded his 1,001st Doorways Scholarship during an annual celebration at the Coliseum. It was the last ceremony for Baker, who has made education a key part of his platform during nearly nine years in office. Each year, the mayor gave out 100 to 125 Doorways Scholarships to low-income sixth-graders from St. Petersburg schools. The scholarship, which is a combination of private donations and matching state funds, gives students a Florida prepaid scholarship if they maintain their grades and stay drug and crime free. The scholarship's value has ranged from $10,000 to $15,000, Baker said. Reporter Kameel Stanley recently chatted with Baker about the scholarship and education issues.
Why did you make Doorways Scholarships such a big focus in your education initiatives?
The Pinellas Education Foundation has been doing it for a while. I was familiar with them. I really like what they do. To me, you're trying to give an incentive to kids early on. I focused on sixth-graders because I've always thought that middle school is the time that kids will decide what they're going to do. Most of these kids, none of their family have gone to college. If you can tell them in sixth grade, if you maintain a "C" and stay out of trouble and can go to college … that's amazing. I just think it's a great thing, and it works. Under our program, 93 percent of the kids have graduated from high school, and many are now in college.
Why should cities be involved with their schools?
If our public schools are not great, then people will not want to move into our neighborhoods. Businesses, if our schools aren't great, won't come and open. From a city's standpoint, we want people moving into our neighborhoods and businesses providing jobs. It's important that our schools be good, and I don't think we can be on the sidelines.
A recent Times poll showed that 30 percent of registered voters think the schools are worse now than five years ago. What do you think it will take to get everyone behind the schools?
The elementary schools are doing good. The middle schools are doing better. The high schools are still struggling. But I think there's been a lot of focus on that recently, which is good. We just have to keep focused. We just have to try to keep getting better. We have to keep working to make the schools better and then communicate the successes.
What has made the Doorways Scholarship program a success?
I'm thankful for all the people that've raised money. I think people like to see a tangible result when they contribute. Instead of giving to a cause, they're giving to a child.
What has giving these scholarships out meant to you?
I can't tell you how gratifying it is to see the kids and know they have a chance. Many of these kids just don't get a chance. I think a very high percentage of our kids are the first ones in their families to go to college. I'm often stopped by the parents … I once had a mom, I was at my daughter's softball game, and she said thank you for all you do. She said, 'I'm a single mom with two daughters that weren't doing well. They got scholarships and are doing better.' She said, 'I'm sleeping at night for the first time in two years.'
What was it like giving out your final awards?
It was bittersweet. It's really interesting when you go to the ceremony. It's a very ethnically diverse group. It's just a great cross section of just America and the community. I think one of the things I've loved most about my tenure as mayor has always been my interaction with the kids in our community.
Kameel Stanley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8643.