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USF program aids disadvantaged

Published Oct. 9, 2005

The subject matter is grim: cancer and how it affects minority communities.

But what 15-year-old Cortez Thompson of St. Petersburg has learned this past week may not only save his life but also help him get into college.

He and about 70 other economically disadvantaged students from Pinellas, Hillsborough and Lee counties have participated in the University of South Florida's College Reach Out Program.

The students, who are in grades nine to 11, spend a week at USF's Tampa campus to introduce them to the college experience.

Cortez and many of his fellow students also are learning about cancer for the first time.

"It taught me to be careful about certain things, like staying out of the sun and diet," said Cortez, a Gibbs High School student.

"It also made me more aware of what I can do to prevent cancer in myself and in my family."

The week of learning didn't end Friday, however.

The students will be tutored at USF on Saturdays in math, science and English to prepare them for college.

Lawrence Morehouse, the USF political science professor who developed the model for the program, said about 95 percent of the students who attend the program graduate from high school.

Moorehouse said many go on to college and get scholarships.

The program, which started in 1984 as a tutorial program but became a residential program to give the students more hands-on experience, is paid for by the state Legislature, Morehouse said.

He added that the program's financing was in jeopardy until legislators reviewed the program and its subsequent success last summer.

Morehouse said students also have responded positively to the program because it challenges them to learn, something that is too often missing in school.

"These kids are much more intelligent than people, especially the school system, assume," he said. "We have high expectations. Too often the expectations are too low."

Students like Skyra Reaves, 15, agree.

"It's a real good program," said Reaves, a Plant City High School student with a 4.0 grade-point average.

"It's hands-on experience. A lot of the time you're looked over (because you're black)."

In the program, the students are divided into groups to work on presentations about what they have learned.

The presentations are made using various forms, including a newsletter, lectures and a videotape.

Morehouse said the students, who must wake up every morning at 6 and work long hours with their teams to turn out the best presentation.

"We're trying to teach them to work with each other," he said. "Whether the work is completed depends on each group."

With the presentations, the students are improving their writing and communication skills, in addition to learning about cancer and its effects.

"We are talking about issues relevant to the students," Morehouse said.

Last year the students learned about environmental problems, especially polluting in minority communities.

After this year's lessons on cancer, some of the students said they were going to talk to their families about the disease and how to prevent it.

"My aunt smokes and I'm going to tell her not to," said Temeka Simmons of Robinson High School.

Morehouse, who has eight or nine people from USF, high school and junior high school helping him, said that to enhance the program for next summer and include more students, more money and more help are needed.

"We need more. We need to involve more students," Morehouse said. "We need more staff. We do the best we can."