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FIRST ACHIEVEMENT GAP, NOW FUNDING GAP

With a grant gone, a tutoring organization seeks money to keep building on its success.

Stefanie Bay was afraid she would never pass the test she needed to get her high school diploma.

After she failed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test four times, her mother enrolled her in a free tutoring program called Bridging the Achievement Gap.

Three times a week, a tutor worked with her until she was ready to pass the FCAT's math test. Then she passed its reading test. Then, in May, she graduated from Largo High School.

"They make you want to keep going," said Bay, 18, now a nursing student at St. Petersburg College. "It proves you shouldn't give up."

But the program, founded in 2003 by James Feazell Sr., faces the loss of a key source of funding.

Since early 2004, Bridging the Achievement Gap has been funded by a $228,000 four-year grant from the Eckerd Family Foundation. That grant runs out in December, said Jane Soltis, foundation program officer.

Feazell had expected to turn to Pinellas County's Juvenile Welfare Board. But the board, facing reduced property tax revenues, has reduced its support to many social service agencies.

So Feazell, 60, is looking for new support elsewhere.

One sold-out fundraiser already is scheduled this month, and Feazell has no doubt the program will continue. The question, he said, is "how well we're going to be able to deliver."

The students at Bridging the Achievement Gap come from all over Pinellas County.

Three times a week, from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m., tutors work with students at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in the Ridgecrest neighborhood near Largo.

Some students work on homework. Others prepare for the FCAT or college entrance exams.

The program also provides scholarships and helps needy students pay for tests required for college or college applications.

Some students who took part in the program said they struggled with school in general. Others had high grade-point averages, but had difficulty with the FCAT or specific subjects.

Bridget Perenyi, a former Boca Ciega High School student, said she grappled with the FCAT because English isn't her first language. She grew up in Africa speaking Swahili and studying French. "This program helped me tremendously," said Perenyi, 16, who eventually passed the FCAT, graduated from high school and now attends Eckerd College.

The tutoring team includes about a dozen certified teachers from Pinellas County schools and a dozen interns from St. Petersburg College. Honor society students also chip in. The tutors use FCAT results to diagnose students' strengths and weaknesses and other tests to determine how each student learns.

With permission from parents, Feazell checks students' grades and makes sure they have enough credits for their grade level. He then meets with guidance counselors to make sure students have a plan to succeed.

The program provides transportation for many of the students who live in mid Pinellas and attend Largo, Osceola and Seminole high schools. Feazell picks them up in a van and drives them to the tutoring program and back home.

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Feazell got the idea for Bridging the Achievement Gap as he approached retirement with Pinellas County schools about four years ago. The minority recruiter and former Largo High social studies teacher knew a lot of black students were failing the FCAT.

But he was leveled when he saw statistics that showed about 75 percent of the county's African-American students scored below grade level on the tests, compared with 35 to 40 percent of their white peers.

"When I saw those numbers, the implications of that, it was frightening," said Feazell, whose wife, Gwen, is a former Pinellas County elementary school teacher.

Within a couple of months of their retirement in 2003, the couple started tutoring students in their Ridgecrest neighborhood.

The Feazells formed Bridging the Achievement Gap and partnered with a few local schools.

By early 2004, 45 students from Largo, Seminole, Osceola and Pinellas Park high schools attended tutoring sessions at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church and Young Life Center in Ridgecrest.

It began as a program to help bridge the gap between white and black students. But since its inception Bridging the Achievement Gap has helped about 400 students of different races and backgrounds throughout the county, Feazell said.

Last year, tutors worked with 119 students, including 23 high school seniors.

Each year, 64 percent of the students pass the FCAT, and about 16 of them go to college.

As a young man Feazell was awarded a full scholarship to Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. In 2005, the National Education Association awarded him the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Award for leadership and perseverance.

Feazell says he has been successful because others have lent him a helping hand.

"If the Lord invests anything in you, I think you need to turn it around and pay it back," he said.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or lorri@sptimes.com.

Fast facts

Bridging the Achievement Gap

Tutoring begins Aug. 27 at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, 13225 118th St. N, Largo. For information or to help, call 586-4682.

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