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FAMU RETAINS LOYALTY OF MANY

Attending the college is part of tradition for many black families.

Jessica Kinsey lights up when she talks about Florida A&M University.

There's "the Set," a see-and-be-seen area on the Tallahassee campus. There are the rolling hills, the football games, and the tingle the marching band sends down your spine.

In a few weeks, the slim, doe-eyed 18-year-old will join all of it. And in doing so, she'll add to a family legacy.

Kinsey's grandfathers were roommates at FAMU. Her mom and dad met in front of the campus post office. A gaggle of uncles and aunts also attended the school.

"I just feel like I belong there," said Kinsey, who graduated from Middleton High School in Tampa this year with a 4.4 grade point average and a Bright Futures scholarship.

Her mother and father wouldn't have it any other way.

"It brings a more positive light to our culture for her, you step onto that campus and you see, 'We are smart,' and 'Hey, we are going somewhere,' " said Deena Kinsey, 43, a 1987 FAMU graduate. "That's what I saw and that's what I want her to see going to FAMU."

Although the school is currently dealing with a host of problems, including finances and accreditation, it remains for many black families a beacon on the hill and a vital element to maintaining family tradition.

Its alumni run deep through every town and city in the state. That's especially true in the Tampa Bay area's black community, where attending FAMU is the rule, not the exception.

"We have in our (African-American) community three strong standing institutions: our families, our churches and our institutions of higher learning, and it's vitally important that we don't give that up," said Kelley Bailey, who along with her husband and eldest son, Stephen, graduated from FAMU. Her son, David, 18, is a freshman there. "We're not going to give up on what's ours."

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It hasn't been an easy couple of years for the state's only public historically black university. FAMU has been plagued with numerous financial management problems and was recently placed on six-month probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, putting it at risk of losing national accreditation.

On July 11, new president James H. Ammons outlined his 100-day plan for rectifying the school's problems. School officials are optimistic.

"They're (SACS) giving us until December," said Roland Gaines, newly appointed vice president of student affairs. "We think that's going to be too much time."

The efforts seem to have calmed the fears of area families.

"I don't want to downplay that the university has to be good stewards of the finances," said Ricardo Kinsey, a 1985 FAMU graduate and Jessica's father. "But as far as academics as a whole, I think it's on par with any other school in Florida - that's not what's in question."

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FAMU's troubles went public around the same time Demetria Wright was finishing her senior year at Riverview High. Everyone was talking about which school they'd chosen. When Wright said FAMU, she got "the look."

At first, the 18 year-old was defensive, but "I really can't even blame people when they get that look on their face because they don't know any better," Wright said. "The media puts so much emphasis on what's wrong with it that they don't look at all the great things."

The Wrights are a military family. They've lived in Italy, Orlando, Jacksonville and Brandon. Wright said she always felt the need to insert her culture wherever she lived. At Riverview High, Wright and a cousin created the Sankofa black history club.

A few years ago, after attending a FAMU orientation with her older brother, Sidney, she felt like she'd finally found a place where she didn't need to force it.

"I saw everybody relaxed, and I really liked the vibes there," said Wright, who hopes to major in political science and then study law. "I really wanted that experience where they're uplifting and they're talking about things that matter to me."

The school's perils do weigh on her mother's mind. If things continue to go downhill at FAMU, Demetria will have to transfer, she said.

"This is a lot, for me to send her up there knowing what's going on," said Lisenda Wright, 43, director of Adventures in Learning day care in Brandon. "But this is a dream for her - so I'm fine with it."

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FAMU is not alone in its financial struggles. There are more than 100 historically black schools in the nation, and several have found themselves in such distress.

Grambling State was put on probation in 2001 by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools after financial records from the school dating back to 1997 were found to be inadequate.

The school has since recovered, but other universities like Morris Brown College haven't done so well. Morris Brown was stripped of its accreditation in 2002.

But historically black schools that have remained viable have done so not only through academics, but also with a healthy dose of something called in loco parentis.

"The university becomes a home or parent by long distance," said Darryl L. Peterkin, director of the Southern Education Foundation's center to serve historically black colleges.

Peterkin attended Yale and Princeton, but taught at Dillard and Xavier in Louisiana, two historically black schools. "I've found as a professor and administrator there is a very strong sense of family."

For a long time, FAMU was one of the few schools blacks could attend in the state. So that familial vibe was first out of necessity.

Now, it's driven by loyalty, Peterkin said.

FAMU has long been considered among the more successful historically black schools, tying Harvard as the top recruiter of National Achievement Scholars in 2001.

This year, the school was recognized as the nation's top producer of black graduates.

It's that combination of history and promise that many say have kept FAMU favorable in the public's eye.

It may have even reinvigorated a community.

It's been a couple of years since Monica Williams Conley attended her alma mater's homecoming. This year, she plans to go.

"Yes, these are trying times, obstacles that we have to overcome," said the Tampa lawyer and '98 FAMU grad. "But in the bigger scheme of things, alumni revere and love FAMU and will not allow anything to happen to the school."

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at nhutcheson@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4162.

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