LARGO — When Cynthia Davis, a sergeant in the St. Petersburg Police Department, saw her son, Jeremiah Harvey, struggling to maintain a 2.0 grade point average as a freshman at Tarpon Springs High School, she knew right away where he could get help: her old stomping grounds.
She connected her son with James Feazell, an educator who served as a mentor to her growing up in Ridgecrest, a historically African-American community in an unincorporated area west of Largo.
"Where I grew up," she said, "James Feazell has been a force forever."
In 2003, Feazell formalized his efforts by creating the Bridging the Achievement Gap tutoring program in the Greater Ridgecrest area. Davis had heard about the program's successes, so she encouraged Jeremiah to join it.
Now a rising junior, Jeremiah has a 3.86 GPA. On Thursday night, he was among about a dozen individuals — students, educators and community leaders — who were honored during the organization's annual student celebration banquet.
Feazell spent more than 20 years as a teacher at Largo High and as a Pinellas County School District recruiting specialist. In the months before his retirement, he became concerned about the number of black students failing the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
Along with his wife, Gwen, a retired Pinellas County Title 1 paraprofessional, Feazell started his tutoring program for at-risk students, which operates from Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church.
He didn't wait for students to come to him. He picked them up from Largo, Pinellas Park, Seminole and Osceola high schools.
"I wanted to make sure the students had no excuses for not coming,'' he said.
Since its inception almost a decade ago, Bridging the Attendance Gap has tutored 1,102 students, Feazell said. He said 467 of those students have received a high school diploma. Of those, 187 have attended college, a dozen are either enrolled in or have completed graduate programs, nine have attended technical or vocational programs, and 10 have chosen careers in the military.
Thursday's banquet, attended by about 250 guests, is the largest fundraiser of the year for the organization, which operates on about $15,000 annually. Funds come from various sources, including the Pinellas Community Foundation, Birdies for Tampa Bay, the Ministers Steering Committee of the Greater Ridgecrest Area, the Juvenile Welfare Board through the Greater Ridgecrest Area Youth Development Initiative, and Shiloh, as well as individual donations.
Jeremiah, who wants to attend Florida State University and study medicine and cardiology, was invited to speak during the high school spotlight portion of the program.
"The biggest challenge for students is they don't feel they have a support system,'' said Jeremiah after the event.
Over the years, Bridging the Achievement Gap has expanded to include students from around the county, although the shuttle service is still only available at certain schools. The organization has grown to include eight teachers working as tutors. For those considered ready for college, the program helps with SAT/ACT preparation and college applications.
James Rembert, a 1940 Pinellas High graduate and the first principal of Ridgecrest Elementary, was asked by Feazell to share some of his knowledge at the banquet.
"What I want to remind students, what I want you all to go out and say, is that there is no easy road to success in this life" said Rembert, 91. "I forbid you to sit and hope for a golden nugget to fall in your lap, because golden opportunities are not for sitters, but for doers. One must study, study, study.''
Several of Feazell's former Largo High students were also present, including Alonzo Sullivan, a 1987 graduate who went on to play football at the University of Florida. When Sullivan was growing up in Ridgecrest, it was Feazell, a deacon at Shiloh, who encouraged Sullivan's mother to put her son in the community youth football program.
"When I was a kid," Alonzo Sullivan said, "he pushed and pushed us to play football and then, when we went out to the football field, he'd say, 'So let me see your report card. If you don't have the grades, you can't play.' He knows how to motivate kids.''