Teaching program promised scholarships, but funding is shaky

Published April 3, 2012

TAMPA — Mekka Mason and her parents were thrilled when they learned a Hillsborough County magnet program would help pay for Mekka, the youngest of six children, to go to college and become a teacher.

Launched four years ago, the Urban Teaching Academy promised scholarships and the cost of books to students who completed the program successfully. In return, they agreed to come back to Hillsborough and teach for three years in urban schools.

"We were just so happy," said Mekka's mother, Earline Graham, who is unemployed and seeking disability. "She was going to be the first one to get a college degree in the family."

But as the academy is about to graduate its first class, school officials are scrambling to fulfill the scholarship promise. Earlier in the school year, Mekka, a senior at Blake High School, and other students in the program at Middleton and Hillsborough high schools were told there wasn't enough money for scholarships.

The program has raised only about $17,000, said Susan King, supervisor of magnet programs for the school district. At last count, 31 students were completing the program.

"Am I disappointed that we didn't raise millions of dollars? Absolutely," she said. "Do I feel that the students gained invaluable experience? Absolutely. Do I feel that we've helped them get into college and become teachers? Absolutely."

School officials are now helping students apply for other scholarships and financial aid. And King is working with the Hillsborough Education Foundation, the district's nonprofit fundraising arm.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who has been contacted by four parents from Blake, is meeting with B. Philip Jones, the foundation's new president today. They will assess the financial needs of each graduating student.

"I have called every one of the parents who have contacted me," Elia said. "I told them, 'Give us some time.' ''

Jones similarly, said, "We're going to make our best effort to enable the school district to fulfill this commitment to the kids."

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In a 2008, recruiting trip at Sligh Middle School for the teaching academy, King told students that the average high school teacher earns $50,000 a year, plus insurance and great job security, for working 10 months.

Then she promised the scholarship for tuition and books, the Times reported at the time.

Heads perked up.

The Urban Teaching Academy, modeled after academies in Broward County and Arizona, was seen as the answer to both a teacher shortage and a chronic demand for educators attuned to inner-city populations.

It was one of several programs Hillsborough kick-started with a $3.12-million magnet grant in 2007. But the academy could not use federal funds for scholarships.

In addition to their regular classes, students shadow and assist teachers in nearby schools. Emily Witt, a junior, said she used to want to teach middle school but is now leaning toward elementary school.

"I actually see the little kids' faces light up. I see that smile on their face," she said. "You have to be patient with them. And you have to be careful what you say."

But she and other students were disappointed to hear about the scholarship fund.

"I would be scared right now if I was a senior," said Emily, 16.

When asked why the academy was launched without a clear source of funding, King said officials did not know how many scholarships they would need. With the rising cost of the Florida prepaid scholarships, it was also unclear how much those plans would cost.

She said she appreciates the efforts of the education foundation. But there has been turnover in the organization. "Every person we talked to in the beginning of about the program is now gone," and then there's the economy, she said.

King said she has contacted Target, Oprah Winfrey's foundation and other groups for aid.

Nikki LaMay, a senior at Blake, is confident she'll get a scholarship to Hillsborough Community College. But she doesn't know how she'll pay for the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg.

"They had us do something like two fundraisers. But if this was the case, we should have been doing more," said Nikki, 17.

• • •

Today's recruits for the Urban Teaching Academy are not promised scholarships. Instead, the district says it will help them seek scholarships and financial aid.

New students will now be accepted only at Blake.

But it's a program worth keeping, said Elia, who is thrilled to nurture home-grown teachers.

Jones said that for starters, he can match the $17,000 with another $17,000 from an HCC fund. School Board member Doretha Edgecomb, whose district includes the three affected schools, said she knows students and parents are concerned.

"I don't want anyone to feel that they were lied to," she said. "I think there was an earnest effort to find scholarships."

She thinks the community needs to do its share to shore up the program. "We're obligated in some way to try to keep our commitment to them."

For Mekka, who had considered acting, singing and law as careers, the Urban Teaching Academy "grounded" her.

"It helped me make a decision," Mekka said. "I'm focused."

But her parents had counted on the scholarship.

"They promised us so much," Mekka said.

Times staff writer John Martin contributed to this report.