Even as a seventh grader at Academy Prep Center of St. Petersburg, Byron Ellis doesn’t hesitate when asked which subject he enjoys most.
“My favorite is history,” Ellis said. “All my teachers are cool, but history is about dipping into the past. And I like knowing what came before me.”
History tells us this: Because he’s a student at the challenging school in Florida, Ellis has a better future ahead of him. Curriculums at both campuses, including one across the bay in Tampa, are demanding. Competition to gain admittance is fierce. And the cost would be prohibitive, if not for grants and corporate and individual donations to the private schools.
How expensive? Florida’s Step Up for Students scholarships provide for $5,700 of the $17,000 annual cost per student. The rest is covered through fund-raising. Students from families at or below the poverty level are eligible after passing a three-week summer evaluation course and showing academic potential.
Once enrolled, students from the fifth through the eighth grades find Academy Prep Center provides rigorous instruction in and out of the classroom.
Each day begins with a convocation. Students file through the door and greet the school head with a handshake and eye contact, a point that is emphasized often. Visitors are greeted, as well, with a firm shake, a big smile and a first-name greeting.
“Self-esteem here is earned,” said Lincoln Tamayo, head of the Tampa school. “We strive every day to teach our students that the more one handles responsibility and the more one achieves, the more one earns self-esteem.”
Students are on campus for 11 hours a day, six days a week and the school year extends 11 months.
The two Tampa Bay campuses have been so successful that there remains a long waiting list for new students. And the alumni base continues to expand, as students move to private schools in Florida and throughout the South to prep schools in New England that have produced U.S. Presidents, and on to Ivy League universities.
The Tampa school, which inhabits a building first erected in 1908, sits in the middle of a neighborhood where less than 45 percent of adults have high school degrees. The problem, Tamayo said, is all about lack of opportunity. Ninety-seven percent of students who complete Academy Prep’s program graduate from high school.
“It’s important here that we create a nurturing and vibrant community,” Tamayo said. “We focus on what is right with us, and with the world. And our mission is to empower and inspire students to become future community leaders. We really need 500 Academy Preps in Florida alone.”
To continue to thrive and expand, Academy Prep Center partners with corporate and community leaders, including Marty Lanahan. The West Florida Area President for Regions Bank, Lanahan has been inspired by Tamayo and his teachers since she first moved to the area.
“Academy Prep takes the most challenging kids out of some of the most challenging environments in the Tampa Bay market,” Lanahan said. “And with the commitment of their parents, with the commitment to their education and a lot of hard work, they turn them into rock stars.”
Three years ago, Lanahan was instrumental in starting a partnership with Regions associates to teach financial education to fifth graders at the Tampa and St. Petersburg campuses. Four associates per school started the classes, now there are 12 at each school. Next year, that number expands to 16 per school when associates teaching the original fifth graders follow them to the eighth grade. “We’re teaching them financial education but, candidly, we’re teaching them so much more,” Lanahan said. “We’re teaching them about mentorship, and about helping others.”
Courses cover budgeting, opportunity costs and decision making.
Associates at Regions who commit to coach now work with the same students, beginning in the fifth grade, and continue teaching them until they graduate at the conclusion of the eighth grade, meeting on a regular basis, developing true friendships and becoming immersed in the community.
Bibiana Gomez is in her third year as a volunteer coach. A Business Banking Relationship Team Administrator at Regions in Tampa, Gomez has accompanied her students from the fifth to the seventh grade and is already dreading next year.
“Each month, I’m with the same class, and I don’t want it to end,” Gomez said. “I started out wanting to inspire a couple of children. Now, they inspire me. These students are so smart, they are so eager to learn and they ask insightful, smart questions. That’s why I always look forward to coming back.”
Gina Burkett heads the St. Pete campus. She said Regions associates have made a habit of developing a rapport with students.
“Regions does a good job of presenting themselves,” Burkett said. “They bring financial education down to the level of the students, and their teaching methods reach this age group and resonate.”
Jonathan Bonner, the Program Manager at the Academy Prep Center of St. Pete also sees the relationship favorably.
“Regions Bank has been awesome,” Bonner said. “It’s amazing to see a bank do what they are doing – not only investing in time but in the lives of these students.”
And that’s what matters most for all: Preparing students who will lead the next generation.
“This is the best middle school in St. Pete,” Bonner said. “Here, it’s not only about promoting good grades. One of the first things you’ll learn when you get here is how to look someone in the eye and shake hands. We’re just as interested in social, character building because that makes you truly successful.”
As a seventh grader, Byron Ellis has learned how to meet a stranger, offer a smile and a firm handshake while looking someone in the eye. In the classroom, he’s learned about American History and how to manage his money.
Like his peers, he carries himself with a maturity that belies his age. After leaving a public school that was deemed to be failing by the state, he’s motivated by the academic challenge each and every day.
“My friends in the neighborhood say I’ve changed a lot. But they all agree I’ve changed for the better,” Ellis said.
Each day begins with students reciting a pledge. The key words that resonate most with Ellis: ‘Yes, I can.”
“It tells me you can be anything you want to be, as long as you stay dedicated and focused and committed,” he said. “I realize the mission of Academy Prep is to take teens and mold them for greatness. I won’t let them down.”