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Elevating Excellence: Pinellas Schools program boosts students' access to college

Pinellas County has raised its graduation rate to 92%, the highest rate among Florida's 10 largest public school districts.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Students are being presented with more opportunities for higher education, and intervention through programs at Pinellas County Schools is happening earlier through a program called Elevating Excellence.

The program is Pinellas Schools' "initiative to provide high-achieving students and their families a personalized path to college success."

“Elevating Excellence looks at a larger pool of students. We had college tours, we had the ability to get their Bright Futures service hours,” Lori Matway, the associate superintendent of Student and Community Support Services, said. “We need to make sure that you’re a productive citizen, moving on for a lifetime of college and career.” 

Dr. Lewis Brinson is ensuring that the school district's reach will continue to stretch farther.  

“We have to make sure we provide equity,” Dr. Brinson said.

Dr. Brinson partnered with Mychal Wynn about four years ago through Wynn’s program, Foundation for Ensuring Access and Equity.

“Particularly for students from lower income backgrounds, first-generation students, students attending Title 1, or otherwise low performing schools that the focus was: just motivate them to do their schoolwork,” Wynn said.

Wynn believes the students could do better. Time has reflected as much, through numbers. 

“50 percent of the students who we’ve worked with in the class of 2022 are attending college on school scholarships,” he said,

Sydney Soskin is a former student in his program. Soskin will be a junior this fall at The University of Chicago. 

“Neuroscience and psychology,” she said. “I’m a premed, so med school.

Soskin said when she was a high school student in Pinellas County Schools, she and her mom were homeless. 

“If I didn’t get a full ride to college, I wasn’t going to college. You can’t just take out loans when you’re living penny-by-penny. That’s not how it works,” she explained. “Everything just started to spiral out of control. My mom got really sick, so her health deteriorated. And so then, after her health deteriorated and she couldn’t work anymore, we were poor. Very, very poor. I don’t really think some people understand what it’s like to live off disability.” 

Matway said students also receive help with ACT and SAT preparation as well as financial aid assistance through Elevating Excellence, which runs year-round.

“The hug that wraps around kids. We want to make sure that we take away any barriers to college and career access,” she said.

The effort, since 2013, has improved graduation rates.

“Our graduation rate is ten-fold, we are up to 92 percent, which is the highest in the state,” Matway said. 

“The evidence says: if you give students hope for the future, then you can get them to work harder today,” Wynn said.

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