Reggie Dogan

Reggie Dogan Project Manager


The making of a great teacher

It’s a ridiculous question, one that has been asked for generations, and still asked today: Are great teachers born or made? Reams of research papers and piles of books have dealt with this question, and the answer over and over again is the same: Teachers, like people in every profession, are born. But great teachers are chiseled to their greatness through the fiery furnace of tenacity, toil and tears. A whimsical smile spread across my face when I read the headline on The Atlantic website: “Are great teachers born or made?” I knew from the beginning the anti-climatic ending. As outstanding athletes and gifted musicians are created through dedicated training and demanding practice, so are great teachers. While there are some genetic or God-given traits in rare specimens in all walks of life, by and large, it’s hard work, undeterred ambition and abiding love of learning and sharing knowledge that makes some teachers better than others. “Effective teachers are made over time, through education, perseverance, practice and guidance,” wrote Seattle Education Association President Jonathan Knapp in the Seattle Times. “Newly minted teachers may be shiny and bright, but teachers with experience connect with students. They are the coin of the realm for student achievement. It takes time to get from here to there.” It’s an unfortunate reality that teaching is one of the professions where too many people think that’s it so easy that anyone with half a brain could do it. Most of us don’t think just anyone off the street could whip out a scalpel and perform delicate brain surgery, or put on a blue suit and woo jurors in the courtroom or pull out a calculator and spin numbers like an accountant. Those professions, like many others, require a great deal of training, knowledge and skill before we pay them money for their services. People, nevertheless, would argue that great teachers are born, not made. Perhaps people imagine teaching is easy because in general we’ve all been to school and seen what a teacher does during the day. A good teacher makes teaching look so effortless that you think to yourself, “Hey, I could do this,” while a bad teacher makes you think, “Hey, I could do this better!” I know from experience. My first few days of teaching, I felt like the little boy with his finger in the dike. As soon as I plugged one hole, another one would appear. There were moments during those early days when keeping a classroom full of energy and combustion seemed like an attempt to harness electricity. At any moment the entire lesson could come crashing down (and yes, on occasions lessons did flop like an imploding building). On the outside you try to remain cool, calm and collected, but on the inside you’re about to toss your breakfast, realizing that a few missteps will lead to classroom chaos in even the most well-behaved classes. Eventually, my training and skills kicked in and activities and lessons that would have caused chaos in my first week went by without a hitch. But in every lesson, there was something new for me to work at and make better, or something I needed to do differently and more creatively. I managed to pull things together and remove my proverbial finger from the dike, and instead of a rush of water only a few trickles dropped from the holes. Each day I became a teaching moment and a learning experience for both my students and me. I never thought I was born to teach. I knew that to become a good teacher, like becoming a good leader, lawyer or bricklayer, meant putting in hours of hard work, brick by brick, one day at a time. Find out more about great teachers in The Atlantic. This article originally appeared on Progress+Promise. Read full story


A voice of tolerance comes to Pensacola

Homosexuality is considered taboo in some places, but in Uganda it used to be punishable by life in prison or even death. The Rev. Mark Kiyimba led outspoken and fearless opposition to proposed anti-homosexuality legislation in the East African county. While judges on Friday struck down the legislation on a technicality, activists say homosexuality remains a criminal offense under colonial-era laws. So, in essence, Kiyimba’s fight is far from over. The human rights activist and minister and founder of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Uganda, has spent most of his adult life fighting for the rights of homosexuals and against discrimination of people affected by HIV/AIDS in his country. Kiyimba, now an exile in Uganda, is coming to Pensacola to share his message of hope and tell stories of his struggle for human rights for those facing intolerance and discrimination in his native land. A reception to welcome and honor Kiyimba will be at 6 p.m. Monday at Polonza Bistro, 286 N. Palafox. It is sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Red Ribbon Foundation. Keyontay Humphries, regional organizer for the ACLU of Northwest Florida, said it is important for the ACLU to acknowledge and for Pensacola to hear about Kiyimba’s contributions to civil rights and non-discriminatory practices in Uganda and its relationship to American policy. For too long Ugandan officials criminalized HIV by connecting the disease to homosexuality, thereby disavowing treatment to children affected with the disease, Humphries said. “His heart is for children and his ministry is for children,” Humphries said. “My excitement is because he is such a strong advocate for kids.” In a recent blog post, Kiyimba lamented the sad reality that in the past five years high-profile Western leaders and celebrity pastors supported by American Christian organizations have visited homophobic churches in Uganda that promote intolerance and punishment against gays. “What we need is for influential high profile religious leaders who are tolerant and anti-hatred, to show solidarity with the more progressive churches of Uganda,” Kiyimba said. “We need to organize large religious conferences that teach a gospel of love and dignity for all.” Kiyimba knows firsthand about the power of and pressure from people who are intolerant and oppose homosexuality in Uganda. Police often questioned and accused him of using his church and school to recruit homosexuals, he said. While the government and many religious groups in Uganda spread a message of hate, Kiyimba promotes and preaches love. He runs a primary school for more than 650 students, many of whom have been affected by HIV/AIDS, as well as a children’s home for AIDS orphans near Masaka, Uganda. Kiyimba’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. He received the National Education Association’s Virginia Uribe Award for Creative Leadership in Human Rights in Washington, D.C. last month.  The award is presented to a person whose activities in human rights significantly impact those facing discrimination due to their sexual orientation. As a human rights activist and the recipient of numerous national and international awards, Kiyimba is an extraordinary man and minister who has made a significant impact on education and achievement of equal opportunity for people discrimination in Uganda.  “If faith leaders change their tone and begin speaking out against hate and violence, then we can turn the tide of faith-based intolerance in Uganda,” he said. “We can tell those who promote hate and violence in the name of God, that they no longer speak in the name of all communities of faith.” This article originally appeared on Progress+Promise. Read full story


“A Legacy of Building Peace” comes to area

Three different men from three different parts of the world who practiced three different religions found common ground on one principle: a hope for peace. Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Daisaku Ikeda dedicated their lives to the ideals of peace and nonviolence in the midst of tremendous adversity and opposition. In memory and honor of their great works comes the Gandhi, King, Ikeda: “A Legacy of Building Peace” exhibit as part of the MLK Living Legacy Celebration. The touring exhibit will open for display on Aug. 16 at the Mattie Kelly Arts Center Galleries at Northwest Florida State College in Niceville. A keynote address by Lawrence E. Carter Sr., dean of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel will open the ceremony. Carter, curator and professor of religion at Morehouse College in Atlanta, developed the exhibition as a tribute and lasting legacy to the three activists who fought selflessly in their lifetimes to promote peace, nonviolence and justice for all people. Gail Morgan, peace and community relations director for Soka Gakkai International-USA from Panama City to Mobile, said the exhibit was created to help break down artificial barriers that separate people by race, belief systems and cultural traditions. “It will link people from diverse communities with a common dream of peace,” said Morgan, who helped organize efforts to bring the exhibit to Northwest Florida State College. Read full story


Suspension policy step in right direction

Escambia County School District’s new suspension policy took me down memory lane. It got me musing about the time I earned a three-day pass from school for what was really much ado about nothing. A teacher said I “mocked” her. I still today chuckle at the oxymoron. Some teachers make a mockery of themselves without much help from their students. What I recall is that the teacher said something I didn’t want to hear, and I contorted and twisted my face while mouthing “blah, blah, blah silently.” Enough histrionics, they reasoned, to warrant three days of R & R for me. I couldn’t wait to plop down Ohio Player’s “Heaven Must Be Like This” on my turntable. Being out of school was heaven on earth. My parents were at work, my two brothers were at school and I was home alone as punishment for a school infraction. School has to be the only place in the world where you can get time off for bad behavior. Drunk on RC Cola and stuffed with Cheez Whiz and Ritz crackers, I lounged around watching Theodore Cleaver get into mischief and following Fred and Barney around Bedrock. It’s wasn’t quite “Ferris Bueller Day Off”, but hey, who’s complaining? If being at home alone with no teachers or tests, no treacherous bus rides or terrible lunches, I wonder why I didn’t find more mischief to get a free ticket home. Because suspensions are usually more pleasurable than punishment, I applaud Escambia schools for the new policy that allows students to make up homework and tests they miss while suspended. The School District decided to change the policy – which previously prohibited students from receiving a grade on work assigned during the out-of-school suspensions – in order to better ensure student success. That makes much so more sense than sending a kid home for basically what amounts to a short vacation, sometimes without parental supervision or pedagogical oversight. Malcolm Thomas, superintendent of Escambia County schools, surmised that suspensions – especially the lengthy ones of up to 10 days – could place students in the position of getting a failing grade because of the amount of work or tests they missed. So, instead of sending them home with not much to do except watch TV, play video games or, God forbid, get in more trouble, the district now gives them the option of making up their work and earning a grade. Besides, suspending students from school isn’t very effective anyway. Time magazine, in a 2012 article, asked the question: “Does Suspending Students Work?” Not much. In fact, suspensions may do more harm than good. Studies have shown that out-of-school suspensions put students on the fast track to falling behind, dropping out and going to jail. What’s more, some groups are disproportionately suspended more than others. Researchers in the April 2012 “Journal of School Violence” noted that most school districts used out-of-school suspensions even for minor disciplinary issues even though they tend to exacerbate problem behaviors and also may lead to academic problems. Even more, out-of-school suspensions are not fairly applied with minority youth being assigned punitive suspensions at greater rates than non-minority youth, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Education. The reasons suspensions oftentimes don’t succeed are rather obvious. For one, students are not in class and miss out the on very reason they go to school: to learn. Secondly, allowing students a few free days or weeks from school is anything but punishment for many of them, especially those who more likely to get in trouble and have an aversion to school anyway. In defense of school officials, they need some kind of measures to punish students who consistently break rules and cause mayhem in the classroom. Out-of-school suspension, however, should be a last resort. We need students at school in class every minute of the school day. They can’t afford a few days of rest and relaxation as this highly advanced, technological world passes them by. I remember my suspension as if it were yesterday. It was my first and only out-of-school suspension, though in today’s world of stricter rules and harsher punishment for seemingly innocuous offenses, I probably would have spent many more days at home instead of at school. I was fortunate to be studious enough that my grades didn’t suffer as a result. But too many kids miss too many days because of minor infractions and never catch up. The reality is that most of the students who get suspended are the ones who need school the most. At-risk, troubled students already are far behind in the classroom. Suspensions only put farther behind with little chance of ever catching up. We need to find more ways to keep students in school and on track to become productive high school graduates instead of destructive high school dropouts. Escambia County School District’s new suspension policy is on the right track to do just that. This article originally appeared on Progress+Promise. Read full story


Getting ahead in the lab

A nearly $1 million grant will boost research for University of West Florida faculty and help students pursue post-graduate degrees. The Maximizing Access to Research Career Programs through Undergraduate Student Training in Academic Research grant, or MARC U-STAR, will go to support underrepresented undergraduate students seeking doctorate or medical/doctorate degrees in biomedical and behavioral sciences. The $930,000 grant will allow students to spent more time doing research and preparing them for high-caliber graduate programs. The grant program also supports efforts to strengthen the science course curricula and teaching skills of faculty and biomedical research training at colleges and universities with a high enrollment of students from underrepresented groups. UWF professors Karen Molek, director of Chemistry Scholars, and Michael Huggins, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, applied and secured the grant, which will be distributed over the next five years. “Dr Huggins and I have the privilege of using this award to mentor students and help them achieve greater success than they ever dreamed,” Molek said in a press release. “Research scientists capable of solving health concerns of the 21st century will require collaborative research from a diverse workforce.” The grant will be used to pay tuition and a portion of housing expenses for UWF students participating in the MARC Scholars Programs. It also will pay summer stipends for students to conduct research on and off campus during the summer semester. A portion of the grant will fund small research stipends for 17 UWF professors from biology, chemistry and physics departments who will mentor MARC Scholars in the research lab. The grant will enhance the university’s efforts to expand the UWF Chemistry Scholars program into other STEM departments across campus and get more federal grants. “(This) grant will allow UWF to increase the opportunities for students majoring in biology, chemistry and physics by providing them with experiences and training that will help them be outstanding scientists, researchers and physicians,” Huggins said. “The mentoring and research training provided to students will play a critical role in their professional development, helping to ensure they have the best chances of being successful.” This article originally appeared on Progress+Promise. Read full story


Helping the village raise readers

Peter Nowak’s investment in the restaurant business has paid off. He now owns and operates six McDonald’s in Pensacola. Nowak is hoping that his investment in early learning pays off as well. Nowak’s Learn & Earn project at Woodlands Heights Community Resource Center is designed to help preschool children learn while earning coupons for free meals at McDonald’s. “If we don’t start here, we don’t have a chance in high school,” said Nowak, CEO of Nowak Enterprises. “I want people to come to the center to get an early start and talk about early learning.” The Earn & Learn program will offer more than 100 video messages in areas such as phonics, geography, math and language arts. Designed in 2012 with the help of the Early Learning Coalition, the program follows the lessons of the state’s voluntary prekindergarten curriculum. Woodland Heights director Thomas Brame said training for programs starts this week. He hopes by the next week for children to begin their lessons. Woodland Heights already has seven computers used mostly by adults, teenagers and older children. There were no computers or programs available for preschool children. The Learn & Earn project will bring in additional tablets and computers for the children to use alongside their parents. “We’re really excited about it,” Brame said. “To have prek programs is really nice.” When the learning stations open, children will use nametags to log into the computers. They will receive credentials after their parents sign them up. From there, the system will remember and record the work they have completed in what’s called L3 (Look, Listen, Learn) Once a child has watched a certain number of messages, his/her parents will receive a text coupon for meals at Nowak’s McDonald’s on Bayou Boulevard to thank them for participating. Nowak’s idea to create the early learning program came to him at a conference in Cincinnati on generational poverty. He said he didn’t fully understand the issues relating to poverty, but had seen its effects on some employees at his restaurants. “For most people there is no way out other than education,” Nowak said. “And it has to start at an early age.” Nowak knows that his project is a small step toward a bigger goal of providing quality preschool for every child in Escambia. He hopes to get community and business leaders interested in and excited about early childhood education. “This is not just the responsibility of families,” he said. “We are connected together in the community we live in and we need to embrace it.” Nowak has gained support from Mayor Ashton Hayward, who he described as “a great advocate for early learning.” It was Hayward who suggested to Nowak to use Woodland Heights as the incubator for the early learning program. The center is near Pensacola Village, a low-income housing project. Many of its residents use the center for various activities, including computer access and summer programs. “It is critical to expose children to education and reading, which builds a foundation to learning,” Hayward said.  “We want to expose as many children as we can to early learning at Woodland Heights.” Research indicates that providing quality education for children before they turn 5-years-old yields significant long-term benefits. One study showed that young people who were in preschool programs are more likely to graduate from high school, to own homes, to become better citizens and even have longer marriages. Other studies show children engaged in preschool programs are less likely to repeat grades, need special education or get into future trouble with the law. Nowak and Hayward hope business owners, public officials and community leaders come aboard to enhance and expand early learning throughout Escambia County. “It’s critical to tie early education to the workforce,” Hayward said. “Early learning is paramount to the success of our children.” This article originally appeared on Progress+Promise. Read full story


Bringing the global community home

Students who study a foreign language score higher on math and language arts as well as have higher verbal scores on standardized tests, studies show. “Why should we teach our children a foreign language?” said anthropologist Dr. Kathryn McGowan. “Learning a second language vastly improves overall school performance.” McGowan shared her findings on the importance of early language education as the keynote speaker at Global Corner’s annual Explorers’ Luncheon this week at the Pensacola Yacht Club. The lack of language skills also impacts how businesses operate. More than 30 percent of large companies in the U.S. believe they lost business because of the lack of foreign language skills, McGowan said. “We’re falling behind and suffering the consequences,” she said. “It is academically, financially and culturally necessary to broaden language skills.” Most children in elementary schools in the U.S. don’t study foreign languages, but nearly all children in European countries do, she said. Programs like Global Corner are taking steps to help bridge the language gap in elementary schools by exposing young students to foreign countries. In its seventh year, Global Corner has brought the world to schools throughout Northwest Florida. Each school year, Global Corner features a new country, engaging students in a global experience without leaving the classroom. Through hands-on activities with educational poster boards as backdrops, students learn about the language, culture, geography, food and art of people around the world. More than 43,000 virtual trips have taken students to countries including Japan, Spain, Egypt and Brazil. This year the students took a virtual trip to Europe with the Passport to Italy tour. Global Corner presented a glimpse of what students learn in a classroom during Tuesday’s luncheon and silent auction. Decorative poster boards covered with various faces and places in Italy stood on tables, surrounded by colorful and creative collections of artifacts, ceramic masks and artwork. Topics included Italy’s culture, music, art, festivals and the city of Rome. At the end of the school year, students competed in the “Why I Love the Global Corner” essay contest. Gulf Breeze Elementary School first-grader Ansley Ballenger’s essay was selected from the kindergarten through second-grade category. On vacation in South Carolina, Ansley shared her winning words on an iPad via the Internet. Natalia Mercado, 9, a fourth-grader at Oriole Beach Elementary School, penned the winning essay in the third- through fifth-grade category. She stood confidently in front of about 100 people at the luncheon to read her winning prose.  “It is fun to learn about Italy when you have the Global Corner to teach you,” Natalia said. “Because of this experience, I would one day like to visit Italy.” Natalia’s teacher, Valerie Ceravolo, said she was impressed that her students remembered so much information from Global Corner’s visit to Oriole Beach last month. “It’s superb how they incorporate different parts of the country in the lessons,” Ceravolo said. “They bring the country to them, which makes it enjoyable and educational.” Learning about other parts of the world goes a long way in helping understanding other people and how they live. Global Corner is a good place for children in Northwest Florida to begin their lesson. This article originally appeared on Progress+Promise. Read full story


Honoring a Pensacola legend

The Eastside Neighborhood Association wants to keep the life and legacy of one of its greatest sons alive. The association members, along with a newly created museum board, envision transforming Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr.’s boyhood home into a museum. The house on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive is now a memorial plaza. If the eastside residents have their way, the home of the nation’s first black general will become a monument in memory of James’ contribution to his community and country.  “His legacy is so important to this city,” said Jeannie Rhoden, association president. “We needs things and people like this to inspire our children to do great things.” Pensacola City Council recently approved an architectural design and cost feasibility study up to $25,000 to look at developing the museum and linking it with the Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. Summer Flight Academy. The flight academy is a program designed to expose young people to science and aviation in a summer program that includes academics and flight training. While the Chappie James Museum Board is in its infancy stages, it plans to establish a foundation with six of the eight members having museum board background. As the two groups iron out specifics, they both agree on restoring the white five-room, “shotgun” style wooden house on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive into a repository of James’ memorabilia and historical artifacts of his life in Pensacola and the military. The groups also envision including an office, classrooms and gift shop. James was a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force who in 1975 became the first African American to reach the rank of four-star general. Born in Pensacola, James attended Tuskegee Institute and was one of the famed “Tuskegee Airmen.” Read full story


Breaking school-to-prison pipeline

A student is more likely to be arrested and possibly face felony charges for fighting in Florida than any other state in the nation. The Sunshine State leads the nation in school-based arrests, and the school-to-prison pipeline is funneling students out of the classroom into the criminal justice system at alarming rates, says the American Civil Liberties Union. Keyontay Humphries, regional organizer for the ACLU in Pensacola,  says Escambia County incarcerates more children per capita than any other county in the state. “Schools have a role to play to fix this growing problem,” Humphries says. “In the schools, there is a failure to provide intervention, remediation and support for these children.” Humphries is working to raise awareness of the issue. She recently spoke at Bethel AME Church in an event sponsored by Pensacola Community Partners (Rebuilding the Village). In 2011-12, Escambia County sent 865 children to detention centers and 219 young people to juvenile prisons, Humphries says. During that same time, Florida recorded the highest number of school-based arrests in the country. About 12,000 students were arrested 13,870 times in Florida public schools, according to a report in the Orlando Sentinel. Most of the arrests, 67 percent, were for infractions like fist fights, dress-code violations and talking back – misbehavior that, in Florida and other places, increasingly results in misdemeanor criminal charges. Humphries says she’s currently working on a case that involves a second-grader in Escambia County who was arrested for excessive crying. Even though the Sheriff’s Office dropped charges, the child’s family is pursuing civil charges, Humphries says.  “Through bias and negative perceptions, they now have put in place policies and laws that set children up to fail,” she says. “These laws are strong on punishment that pushes children out of the classroom into the prison system.” Too many of these children, according to data, are black or Hispanic. Statistics show that students of color are more likely than their counterparts to get caught in this destructive pipeline of punishment. Across the U.S., the race gap in student punishments is wide, according to the Department of Education civil rights data from 2011 to 2012. Black students without disabilities are suspended or expelled three times as often as white students without disabilities. Students with disabilities, often emotional or behavioral disorders, are also overrepresented in suspensions, the data show. As a result, they drift from graduation by harsh punishment – suspensions, expulsions and even arrests – that leave them disenfranchised and more likely to quit school and become trapped in the criminal justice system. Donna Curry, a retired human resource manager for Exxon Mobile attended the event. Curry says she said is concerned about statistics that put Escambia County high on the list for arresting children. Schools, she says, used to be a safe haven for children, but not any more. “If schools are not a safe place, and kids can’t get an education, they end up in prison, can’t get a job or take care of their families,” she says. “We have to do a better job than just kicking them out.” Curry says while the problems are many, the “blame game” is not the answer. “Each of us must come together to do our part,” Curry says. “We have a lot of work to do with the school system, the Sheriff’s Office and the parents.” Humphries says community leaders too often point to poverty as the root cause of the problems in schools and the community.  “To blame poverty alone is not justification for the problems,” Humphries says. “It is disgraceful for the stakeholders to say it’s everybody’s fault but their own.” Steps to fix the growing problem of children getting entangled in the criminal justice system, Humphries says. Include community involvement, parental engagement and teachers and principals taking an active interest in a child’s social development, not just his or her academic achievements. Other ways to help, Humphries believes, include more accountability, voter participation, sensitivity training on gender and race for teachers and using data to highlight patterns and behaviors. It will take some policy changes and public education to cut the flow of the pipeline, Humphries says.  “Criminal justice is for punishment,” she says. “Juvenile justice is about rehabilitation.” This article originally appeared on Progress+Promise. Read full story


Town hall fact check: Education

Malcolm Thomas, superintendent of Escambia schools, talked a lot about education Tuesday at the District 3 Town Hall Meeting. When a question was raised about what young people can do to fix their lives after getting in trouble or dropping out of school, Thomas stressed the importance of high school graduation. He told a story about a 16-year-old student who dropped out so he could get more hours on his job. Thomas pointed out that parents can play a role in preventing their children from dropping out because a students needs parental permission to quit school. “In the state of Florida you cannot drop out of school if you’re under the age of 18 unless a parent or guardian signs the form,” Thomas said. FACT CHECK: True, according Florida Statute 1003.21(1)(c)  “When a student reaches 16 years of age he/she is no longer required to attend school if he/she files the required formal declaration of intent to terminate school enrollment with the school district and the declaration is signed by a parent. The declaration must acknowledge that leaving school will likely reduce the student’s earning potential. The school district is required to notify the child’s parent or legal guardian that the student has filed a declaration of intent to leave school.” Read full story


Local students make big difference

Rocker Jon Bon Jovi and Today Show co-anchors Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie were the shining stars at the Make A Difference Awards Luncheon this month in Washington, D.C. But a tiny Escambia County school shared the spotlight with the big stars at the annual event honoring volunteerism. Escambia Charter School proved that size really doesn’t matter. Students at the smallest public high school in the county made a big difference by collecting and distributing hundreds of pounds of canned goods and snacks to the needy. Their charitable work was among 14 grassroots volunteer efforts across the U.S. recognized during the awards ceremony. She’Kerion Thompkins, along with the school’s principal, Jerome Chisolm, traveled to Washington to accept the award on April 10. For Thompson, it was surreal to take his first flight and make his first visit to the nation’s capital for doing something worthwhile. “I have never done anything like this before,” said Thompkins, 17, a junior in his second year at the school. “I didn’t know helping people could be so rewarding.” The award goes farther than personal satisfaction. The school also received $10,000, which the students gave to a local women’s prison ministry. In addition to the 14 award winners, Lauer and Guthrie received awards for their advocacy of the show’s Shine a Light campaign, promoting volunteerism across the country. Bon Jovi – the Grammy-award winning musician, philanthropist and founder of the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation – also was recognized for his commitment to giving back the community. NBC correspondent Jenna Bush Hager served as master of ceremonies for the event. Make A Difference Day is the nation’s largest day of service, bringing together millions of Americans to volunteer in their local neighborhoods and communities. It was started in 1992 by Gannett Co. Inc.’s USA WEEKEND Magazine, along with partners, Newman’s Own Inc. and Points of Light. Escambia Charter School was selected from thousands of nationwide volunteer initiatives that took place during the 2013 Make A Difference Day. The school, just off U.S. 29 in Cantonment, serves about 120 mostly at-risk students who were removed from public schools because of bad behavior or failing grades. It was the only organization in the entire state to receive a Make A Difference Award last year. The school’s volunteer project began in September when students collected or contributed 300 pounds of canned good and snacks for a food pantry and the USO, as well as 60 boxes of clothes for three shelters. On Make A Difference Day on Oct. 26, 20 students, with 15 parents and teachers, organized and delivered donations – then split into teams to do yard work for four elderly or disabled homeowners. Their volunteer efforts have led to even more charitable work. Last week, some students prepared food for 100 homeless people. They are planning more projects throughout the year. Chisolm, the school’s principal, hopes the students learn valuable lessons from helping others. “Providing helping hands will teach them to concentrate on the power within them instead of focuses on the problems surrounding them,” he said. “We are looking at adopting a slogan that says: ‘Enter to learn; depart to serve.’ ” As bright as the stars shined at the awards ceremony, Escambia Charter students showed that anyone, not just the rich or famous, truly can make a difference. “This has inspired me to take more of a leadership role and try to influence others to do the same,” Thompkins said. “Doing something for other people makes me feel good inside.” This article originally appeared on Progress+Promise. Read full story


Better living through chemistry

Attending graduate school never occurred to Janae Baptiste until she joined the University of West Florida’s Chemistry Scholars Program. Now Baptiste is pursuing a doctoral degree in chemistry at the University of Maryland. “Interacting with and talking to faculty motivated me to pursue higher education,” said Baptiste, who received a biochemistry degree in 2013. “They believed in me and that made me believe in myself.” UWF’s Chemistry Scholars Program’s mission is to recruit and retain high-achieving chemistry students and to increase the number of students pursuing doctoral or dual medicine/doctoral degrees, both with an emphasis on under-represented, or minority, students. Baptiste is among a group of 11 students who were accepted in the program’s inaugural class. Since the program’s inception in 2011, the number of under-represented chemistry students pursuing professional or medical degrees has increased from 2 percent from 2008 through 2012 to 31 percent in the 2013-2014 academic year. UWF assistant chemistry professor Karen Sinclair Molek, the program’s director, credits the success of the program to motivated students and faculty. Spending more time with students gave professors more opportunities to talk freely with students about social, economic, ethnic and financial issues affecting their lives, she said. Going beyond the role of mentoring, they began discussing ways the students could break down barriers that could hinder them from seeking a post-graduate education, Molek said. “I can give you stats all day, but what matters most is that the faculty got on the ground with students to improve retention, talk about the quality of their education and help them decide where they’re going,” Molek said. “That has helped not just minority, but majority students as well.” UWF’s Chem Scholar Program is modeled after the Meyerhoff Scholars Program set up by Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, and the Meyerhoff Graduate Fellows Program directed by Michael Summers, a UWF chemistry graduate. Students in the program meet monthly to hear guest speakers discuss summer research programs and post-graduate opportunities, receive career advice, participate in peer-to-peer mentoring and receive professional development and mentoring from faculty in the chemistry department. The program’s goals include: — Increasing the retention of students, especially under-represented chemistry students. —  Increasing the percentage of students pursuing post-graduate education. —  Providing scholarships, priority registration and graduation honors. Molek said about 55 percent of UWF chemistry students go onto graduate or professional programs. UWF plans to expand the program to other STEM areas. It already has submitted a $2.1 million proposal to the National Institute of Health for a biology and physics scholar program. Baptiste, a graduate of Escambia High School, postponed a job search to continue her education, thanks to the Chem Scholars Program. “I had planned to look for a job in Pensacola in a related field,” she said. “Now, I’m really looking forward to the challenges of working through difficult projects to get the results of achieving a Ph.D.” This article originally appeared on Progress+Promise. Read full story