LARGO — Homeless students in Pinellas County public schools could get a place to call home and a ticket to college as early as January.
Starting Right Now, a Hillsborough County nonprofit organization, has settled on the school district’s vacant Harris TIPS building, 4600 Haines Road, St. Petersburg, to launch the Pinellas wing of its comprehensive homeless youth program.
The homeless teens who have participated in Starting Right Now in Tampa have a 100 percent high school graduation rate, said Lori Matway, Pinellas associate superintendent of student and community support. Students in 10th and 11th grades go through an extensive interview process before being accepted into the program, but once they do they “become part of their family,” Matway said at a school board discussion Tuesday.
Starting Right Now staff members stay throughout their students’ high school and college years. The program pays for everything from dental and medical care to clothing and transportation, as well as college costs. Even students enrolled in college get funding for expenses such as housing, food, clothing, supplies and tuition. Funding for each student comes from local business groups.
“They’re very particular with the students they select. They go through a two-hour long interview process ... but they know what to look for in students,” Matway said. “It may not necessarily be the ones that have been the most successful. It’s that resilience factor that they look for. They have taken students that no one else would take — with criminal records and attendance issues — and it’s amazing where they are now.”
Because of the extensive support the students receive, space in the program’s housing is limited. At maximum capacity, the Pinellas program could accommodate 30 males and 30 females in separate dormitory facilities at Harris TIPS, a school for teen parents that closed in 2011. The school will be converted to a dormitory with a living room, dining room and bedrooms, said Michael Bessette, Pinellas associate superintendent of operational services. Two wings of the building had been remodeled for preschool.
With more than 3,000 documented homeless students in Pinellas County, the program fills a huge and growing need. In comparison, in 2007-08, there were 962, according to the school district.
The district’s Homeless Education Assistance Team has culled a list of students to be interviewed for the program, Matway said.
When students are identified as homeless or “couch hoppers” — going from home to home and friend to friend — teachers and guidance counselors can refer them to see if they would be a candidate for the program, Matway said.
The exceptionally successful program was started in Hillsborough seven years ago by Vicki Sokolik and Tampa Bay Rays President Matt Silverman. At least 100 students have been referred to Starting Right Now by the Hillsborough school district, and about 40 to 50 are pursuing a higher education.
Each student is paired with a mentor who contacts the student daily, following them through high school, into college and beyond. When the program’s college students get a break from classes, and as their friends head home for vacation, many return to the Starting Right Now house to spend time with their surrogate families.
“It’s our mentor program on steroids,” Matway said. “It becomes their home.”
School district officials are finalizing a contract with Starting Right Now, and then must start the extensive process of rezoning, which includes four or five public hearings, before the old school building can house students.
Starting Right Now must form a new governing board for Pinellas County; its first meeting is Aug. 26. Board members so far include Pinellas schools Superintendent Michael Grego; Silverman; Jim Myers, former chairman of the Pinellas Education Foundation; and Jabil’s vice president of human resources, Phil Hubbell.
“We’re pulling together some really powerful men and women to support this cause, and it will be our Starting Right Now, not Hillsborough’s Starting Right Now,” Matway said.
Starting Right Now will fund the renovations for Harris TIPS, but the building will belong to the school board and may be used however the board deems fit if the program ends. Improvements must meet the school district’s criteria, but the project has no cost to the district, Grego said.
“I would have never guessed this would be the cause or reason for us holding onto this building, but when I first walked through with Vicki (Sokolik) it was like it was made for this,” Grego said. “It has two wings, two kitchens. This is going to really help our students.”
About $816,000 in grants and contributions were made to Starting Right Now in 2012. Many students who complete the program and become successful adults end up making donations to the group, Grego said.
In Hillsborough, the program houses about 22 students in a remodeled home on Bayshore Boulevard.
There is extensive work to be done at Harris TIPS, but the program has found great support countywide, Grego said.