Prodigy program's state funding on the chopping block

Prodigy program is not on governor's proposed budget list.
Rory Flaherty teaches an elementary school guitar class as part of Prodigy at the University Area Community Center. LENORA LAKE   |   Special to the Times
Rory Flaherty teaches an elementary school guitar class as part of Prodigy at the University Area Community Center.LENORA LAKE | Special to the Times
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Updated

UNIVERSITY AREA — Each day after school, 11-year-old Jose (last name withheld on request) goes to the University Area Community Center to participate in the free Prodigy Cultural Arts Program for ages 7 to 17.

The Museum of Science and Industry Partnership School student said he loves his Elementary School Guitar Class, which he has attended for about a year.

"I really like it when we get to play," Jose said, adding his favorite music is from the movie Star Wars.

He also takes other classes in the program that offers dance, art, spoken word, theater and other music classes. He receives academic tutoring and is assigned to a "success coach."

But Jose and thousands of other students in Hillsborough and six other counties may have to endure a drastic reduction in Prodigy's supportive services because of state budget cuts.

The program, which received $4.6 million from the state of Florida last year, is not in Gov. Rick Scott's proposed budget for this year.

"If we lose this program, that is 1,000 (Hillsborough) students not coming to a program," Prodigy director Mike Trepper said.

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Trepper stressed the funding cuts mean far more than just eliminating art classes. Prodigy emphasizes an "holistic model" and also offers family support. The effort is offered through the nonprofit University Area Community Development Corporation out of the University Area Community Center.

"The wrap-around services are total support," Trepper said.

Prodigy, which began in 2000 at the community center, now reaches 2,300 students at 13 partner sites and 45 locations.

In Hillsborough County, programs are offered at the community center as well as in Brandon, Valrico, Ruskin, Town 'n Country and Sulphur Springs.

Prodigy began with the mission of transforming lives when now-Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist served as a state legislator and chairman of the UACDC board.

It first served as an intervention program for juvenile offenders and provided diversionary activities for the offenders' siblings and others. In recent years it switched to a free diversionary program for all at-risk kids.

The program operated under the auspices of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, but shifted last year to the Florida Department of Education (DOE).

"But this year DOE is pushing us back out," Trepper said. "We need to land somewhere."

He said almost 100 percent of the Prodigy budget comes from state appropriations.

To participate in Prodigy, a student submits an application and completes a youth survey. Those chosen exhibit high-risk qualities such as academic problems, Trepper said.

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To try to preserve funding, Prodigy launched an awareness campaign targeting city, county and state elected officials as well as the media and community members.

The program's Prodigy Showcases series, including one set for Saturday at the University Area Community Center, are open to the public at no charge. Students will perform "The Art of Storytelling" at 11 a.m. and exhibit their art work.

UACDC staff has lobbied several legislators to include funding for Prodigy. State Rep. Sean Shaw, D-Tampa, stated in an email, that he will, "vigorously advocate" for the program.

"Every child deserves a well-rounded education that allows them to fully grow and achieve their greatest potential," Shaw wrote. "For many underprivileged youths in our community, the Prodigy program may be their only opportunity to participate in the cultural arts."

Trepper said the program has relied on state funding mainly since its founding in 2000 but in the last couple of years also has explored other sources such as fundraisers, grants, local funding and donations.

"We are not just standing still," Trepper said.

Contact Lenora Lake at [email protected]

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