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A helping hand for sixth-graders

It wasn't that long ago that Franklin Middle School was on the verge of failing, where students posted below-average test scores.

In the last three years, though, principal Sandra Williams has watched math scores climb above the state average. And she expects reading scores to do the same next year.

Two Clearwater middle schools are hoping for similar results. With the help of a new program, now being used at Franklin, the schools will target more than 200 sixth-graders.

While several factors helped Franklin students improve _ mainly good teaching and curricula _ the east Tampa school had another strategy on its side.

It is called Gaining Early Access and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR-UP, a five-year, $2-million federal program aimed at increasing academic achievement at schools where more than half of students are financially needy.

The project is a joint effort between Franklin, the University of South Florida and the federal government and puts USF students in one-on-one tutoring sessions with students.

A similar program sponsored by USF and the Eckerd Family Foundation began last month at Dunedin Highland and Kennedy middle schools at a cost of $240,000.

"We've been trying to develop a partnership in North Greenwood for years," said Jerry Lieberman, director of the Florida Community Partnership Center at USF. "We felt strongly that the program in east Tampa could be adapted and brought to North Greenwood."

In Clearwater, the program has been dubbed the North Greenwood Students' Enrichment Program and will provide tutors to students before, during and after school, expose them to community events outside of school and match them with mentors. Students will be mentored by USF and St. Petersburg College students. A case manager for both schools will review students' records and coordinate the project.

If more money is raised, the program may track students until they graduate high school, fund teacher training and deliver scholarships to those who successfully complete high school.

Administrators at Dunedin Highland and Kennedy schools are thrilled to get the extra help. Dunedin is willing to do "anything to help students," said assistant principal Stephanie Joyner.

Kennedy principal Freddie Robinson was impressed that USF wants to track the students until they graduate and even provide their parents with workshops for whatever skills they deem necessary.

"I'm a firm believer that the school alone can't educate kids. You need everyone. This is another way to bridge the gap between home, school and the community," she said.

That's why USF spent several years building relationships in the neighborhood with churches and social service organizations.

The Institute for Sisters of Respect, a nonprofit program aimed at helping middle and high school girls develop social and academic skills, is just one of them.

"It's a good strategy," said Psalms Mack, vice president of Sisters of Respect. "We don't have the funds or the resources. USF brings to the table the resources we could not afford or go out and acquire."

Initiatives like the one sponsored by USF often come under fire from community leaders. Some residents fear that when the grant money dries up so will the program or that someone is somehow controlling their lives.

That's not happening in this case, Mack said.

"The issue is how can we serve our kids. That's the most important thing to us."

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