ST. PETERSBURG — Sixth-grader Kiara Laventure sat in her advanced language arts class at Meadowlawn Middle School. It was seventh period, the day nearly over.
But before she left, her teacher had a big surprise: The 12-year-old won a competitive Doorways College Scholarship, a full ride to a four-year college.
"I kind of jumped up and down," she said Thursday morning, pausing with a smile as she recalled the moment, "but then I got calm because I realized I was in class."
Kiara was one of 62 sixth-graders gathered at the Coliseum in St. Petersburg to celebrate.
"It shows other people that I can succeed in what I'm going for," she said. "This opens up big doors for me."
She and the other recipients signed agreements pledging to maintain good grades and remain drug and crime free.
Each of the scholarships is worth $11,600 after money raised by Mayor Bill Foster is matched by the Pinellas Education Foundation and the state.
This is the 10th year the city's Mayor's Mentors & More program has worked with the Pinellas Education Foundation to provide the scholarships.
This is Foster's first year raising money for the scholarship program started by his predecessor, Rick Baker. He took some criticism last month when he asked city employees to donate to the charity through payroll deductions.
In total, the mayor raised $179,800 for the scholarships. None came from city employees as the payroll deduction program didn't start until mid April, said Lori Matway, the city's administrator of school resources and internships. After the money is matched, students will receive nearly $720,000.
Foster was happy to celebrate "signing day" on Thursday.
"It's a huge deal," he said. "It's nice to be able to reward kids that are striving to make a difference and reward them with guaranteed four years of education and training."
Foster posed for photos with dozens of kids and their families, smiling and, as he joked, sucking in his torso for the camera.
"I couldn't be happier to have met so many young, wonderful people," he told the group. "This was so exciting."