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Scholarship plan sputters at start

Published Oct. 2, 2005

When the four seventh-grade students were told last fall that they would be the first Citrus County recipients of the statewide Take Stock in Children scholarship program, there was plenty of excitement.

The children would receive full tuition to a community college or state university if they kept up their grades, attended school regularly and stayed out of trouble.

The children, chosen from 73 applicants, were picked based on financial need, attitude, motivation and performance.

But after the initial burst of publicity photos and handshakes, parents of the students say, the program seemed to stall.

The school district told the parents that copies of the contracts their children signed would be delivered to them around last Christmas. The copies were never sent.

When Maryann Elizabeth Gray, who received one of the scholarships, began to lag in her Lecanto Middle School English class several months later, she was not able to get the mentoring help the program promised her.

Her family, instead, had to pay a private tutor.

"She's been real upset," said Teresa Gray, Maryann's mother.

Tina Figieri, whose daughter, Jessica, received a scholarship, has been worried that the program might have died. She has heard nothing from the school district about the mentors or the contract.

She said the silence worried her because her daughter was serious about keeping up her side of the bargain. She has made extra efforts to stay ahead on class work when she knows she has to be away from school for things such as dental appointments.

The Grays started asking about the scholarship and whether the sale of Barnett Banks, which is a prime sponsor, would affect the award.

Gray called Linda Miller, the district's point person on the scholarship.

When Gray couldn't get answers, she called the Times to ask whether the scholarship program had folded.

"It's been almost a year, and we got no messages," Gray said.

Miller and Citrus County Education Association President Don Sutton last week apologized for the inconvenience to families of the scholarship recipients.

After hearing the parents' concerns, Miller contacted all four families to tell them that the mentoring program had been delayed but would be starting soon.

She also sent out the contracts, noting that she was not aware that they had not gone out last year. She assured the families that changes at Barnett would not affect the scholarships. The school district, through the Citrus County Education Foundation, has already purchased those scholarships through the Florida Prepaid Tuition Program.

Miller and Sutton attributed the delay to difficulties in setting up mentors and to a crush of duties that must be done through a foundation that has volunteers and no paid staff.

"It simply comes down to a foundation that is a group of volunteers that has no money for administration," Sutton said. "We basically do what we can."

Sutton said the foundation is excited about Take Stock in Children and had hoped to be further along with the mentoring aspect, but "it's just been a little difficult to kick off."

Now the foundation has found a volunteer to keep track of its many projects. That should help, especially because the next batch of scholarship recipients should be announced soon and the workload of coordinating everything will grow.

"We simply apologize," Sutton said. "It wasn't done intentionally, but it was a matter of manpower and ability. The administration turned out to be more than we expected, but we're coping."

Miller agreed.

"I'm sorry that there was miscommunication," Miller said. "We are rectifying everything. We're doing everything we said we were going to do."

Gray said that she was grateful that the scholarship program was secure and that Maryann was looking forward to meeting her mentor during the next couple of weeks. Her daughter is focused on what the program is going to provide her in coming years, she said.

"My daughter wants to be a teacher, and she's already checking into how to do that," Gray said.