Khalil Turner wore a tuxedo for the first time for the Write Field program’s graduation ceremony. Last year, the soft-spoken student had trouble staying on track during class and was afraid to raise his hand.
But on the night of the ceremony, dressed in that tuxedo, Turner felt comfortable in the spotlight. In front of a crowd of friends, family, mentors and special guests, he felt like he was on the red carpet. He was “doing something big,” he said.
Turner and 27 other young men were honored as graduates of the sixth class of the Write Field Program during a ceremony at the Poynter Institute on the evening of June 10, 2017. Veronica Cintron, evening anchor from Bay News 9, served as emcee. Keynote speaker Michael Clayton, NFL Super Bowl XLVI Champion, former Tampa Bay Buccaneer, mentor and entrepreneur, delivered a resonating message about the importance of education. If you work hard and are enthusiastic about what you’re doing, he said, it will be a stepping stone to the next big thing.
The Write Field is a writing and academic achievement program for middle school African-American and Hispanic boys in the Pinellas County school system. The program teaches young men to learn writing skills, public speaking and critical thinking. For many, like Turner, the experience also fosters confidence.
Over the course of 10 Saturdays, the boys met with local journalists, community officials, professional athletes, and businessmen to reinforce the communication skills they will need to complete high school. Jake Odorizzi, starting pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays, sat down for interviews with the students. Wells Fargo took them on a behind-the-scenes tour of its St. Pete Beach branch. Hip-hop poet Jonathan Moody performed and then helped them craft their own poetry. WTSP anchor Reginald Roundtree spoke to the group about public speaking, and then the class took turns addressing each other in a public speaking setting with the help of senior Poynter Scholar Roy Peter Clark.
Write Field was conceived in 2011 after south St. Petersburg received national attention for the deaths of three police officers, one killed by a 16-year-old-boy. The elementary schools servicing black neighborhoods were dubbed “Failure Factories,” and a report found Pinellas County had one of the nation’s highest dropout rates among black male students. Poynter and several community partners, including the Tampa Bay Rays Foundation, Wells Fargo and Blue Cross Blue Shield, responded by developing the program.
The Community Foundation of Tampa Bay funded research to measure the impact of the program on the young men over time. The Pinellas County Schools analyzed grade point averages and promotion rates for participants compared to other African American boys at the same schools. They found that since 2011, Write Field participants showed increased grade-point averages and at least 94 percent promoted to the next grade.
Program co-director Ernest Hooper is optimistic about the graduates’ futures.
“We have empirical evidence that over the years, the Write Field has positively impacted school grades and academic performance...We have to hope the lessons we impart create a ripple effect in each student that reverberates through the community.”
Stephen Thomas, executive director of the Rays Baseball Foundation, agreed that the growth of the students in the program is essential.
“We realize the importance and impact that this program had on kids in Pinellas County. It has been amazing to see their growth from the beginning to the end of the program.”
Hooper and Demorris Lee serve as co-directors of the program. Hooper is the Hillsborough community editor and columnist at the Tampa Bay Times. Lee is a communications coordinator for Pinellas County Schools and a former journalist at the Tampa Bay Times.
Hooper and Lee helped the students produce a book, a first for the program. It compiles writing pieces by each of the graduates. Hooper said the book is “another tangible piece of evidence that we're awakening minds and fueling a passion for writing.”
The co-directors’ forward for the book captures the heart of the program:
The writing assignments have forced the boys to look deep inside their experiences and given them a safe place to write about and discuss their ups, downs, hopes and dreams...One of our goals is to ensure they understand strong writing can make a powerful impact on their success. While they’ve unlocked the power of writing, they’ve also unlocked our hearts.
Hooper is already developing plans for the next class.
“We both want to embrace the kids and be part of the village that's guiding them down the right path,” he said. “We want to find new ways to connect and help the students understand we truly care. If these kids look back after reaching the pinnacle of high school graduation and entering college and decide we deserve even an ounce of credit, I'll be overjoyed.”
Turner is already giving credit to the program. He has gained confidence, developed his writing skills, and is ready for high school. He also learned an important life lesson.
“Every successful person has failed several times,” he said.
Knowing this gives him the courage to “step up and take the plate,” for his writing, academics and future.
He’s looking forward to wearing more tuxedos.
Special thanks to 2016-17 sponsors of the Write Field program:
The City of St. Petersburg
The Tampa Bay Rays Foundation
Community Foundation of Tampa Bay
St. Petersburg Police Department
University of South Florida St. Petersburg
Sacino's Formalwear and Men's Clothier
Pinellas County Schools