PRIDE in Polk County

USF’s three-year teacher training program has brought a significant injection of diversity to Polk County public schools.

By Barbara Melendez

      USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (May 27, 2014) – Polk County’s public schools have been enriched by the investment of $1.2 million in Race to the Top funds to educate 42 male and minority teachers in the three-year-long endeavor known as Project PRIDE.

This group of new teachers is helping to diversify the pool of teaching talent in the county’s classrooms. The last and largest cohort of students, 20 in all, graduated from USF's College of Education this spring and Project PRIDE concluded its three-year run with a gala celebration to honor all 42 graduates.

The new and previous graduates celebrated at The Club at Eaglebrooke, in Lakeland with guests representing the many parties that shared in Project PRIDE’s success – among them USF College of Education faculty and members of the Polk County School Board, the administrators of the grant. Polk County State College faculty and staff added their applause and congratulations as well. Also on hand were program mentors who played a pivotal role in the students’ success.

Following opening and welcoming remarks from Project PRIDE principal investigator and USF faculty member John Liontas; Assistant Vice President Charles Thybulle for corporate sponsor Fifth Third Bank; Chane Eplin, Bureau Chief of Student Achievement, FL DOE; Jacqueline Byrd, Deputy Superintendent, Polk County Public Schools; USF College of Education Dean Vasti Torres, Naomi Boyer, Associate Vice-President, Strategic Initiatives, Polk State College; Dorina Sackman 2014 Florida Teacher of the Year delivered the keynote address.

Also in attendance were Polk County Public Schools Regional Assistant Superintendent Debbie Henderson; Polk County School Board Members Hazel Sellers and Debra Wright; and from the Florida DOE Deputy Chancellor for Educator Quality Brian Dassler and Educator Recruitment, Development, and Retention Bureau Chief Eileen McDaniel.

Tom Freijo, Co-PI Project PRIDE, provided the history of Project PRIDE before the presentation of this year’s graduates. He said, “And here we are, three years – almost to the day – after we got started with Project PRIDE, and virtually every goal has been met! But it would have never happened except for a marvelous cooperative effort between USF, Polk County Schools, Polk State College, and the Florida DOE.”

Speaking on behalf of the FLDOE, Eplin said, “We are very proud of the partnership that has been created.”

Boyer added her thoughts on that partnership, “This project is a clear representation of what can happen with collaboration. The collaboration between the State, PSC, USF and the school district was instrumental for making this happen.”

Reminiscing, Liontas remarked, “This has been the place you call your home, this has been the world, your world, for the last three years. I do believe you can change the world. We all believe you can change the world. For your individual success shall become our collective PRIDE. Polk County’s children will soon become your children to mold.”

Like Liontas, every speaker touched on the central concern of Project PRIDE – the children who will benefit from this influx of new teachers.

Byrd said, “I say to you, I challenge you, to continue creating footsteps, continue creating an impact that is positive for all children.”

And Dean Torres’ added, “What I hope for each one of you is that you become a lynchpin in someone’s life.”

Florida Teacher of the Year Sackman spoke from her experience as an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher who has 15 years of classroom experience. She encouraged the new graduates with words of inspiration, “Project PRIDE shows you exactly what it takes to become a true leader and educator. Be an educator who lives to inspire and empower via excellence.”

USF Assistant Professor Soria Colomer, who with Cheryl Joe and Karen Kemp from Polk County Schools, coordinated monthly professional development seminars, noted, “The PRIDE graduates have devoted hours outside their traditional teacher education program to become supportive, yet demanding teachers who purposefully affirm each student’s diversity.”

From his perspective as mentoring coordinator Nathan Thomas said, “We changed the lives of all the students who graduated from Project Pride, while also enhancing diversity in the school district. It was an inspiring experience for all of us – and I know all the children as well as the children who see themselves reflected among the teaching staff, directly or indirectly, will be impacted in a very positive way.”

Liontas, an associate professor of ESOL and his co-PI, Freijo, a visiting instructor in the College of Education’s Department of Measurement and Research, said there are no plans to continue Project PRIDE, but the school district will continue to provide mentoring over the next year to support the past and current PRIDE graduates.

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563