Members of the Plant City community gathered to discuss planning for life after middle school Saturday, Jan. 21.
Last month, Abeba Salter-Woods, assistant principal at Tomlin Middle School, noticed something odd and alarming when speaking with eighth grade students from minority backgrounds.
“I started to have some conversations with them in regard to what they wanted to do when they finished high school,” Salter-Woods said. “The majority of the children told me they had not even thought about finishing eighth grade. They didn’t have any plan for the future.”
According to the Florida Department of Education, there were 137,917 minority students in Hillsborough County from pre-kindergarten through high school during the 2015-2016 school year. That same year, graduation rates among students were 86.2% for white students, 75% for Hispanic students, 69.5% for black students; 91.5% for Asian students, 71.4% for students of Pacific Island descent and 81.3% for students with more than two races. The overall graduation rate for the state was 80.7%.
Salter-Woods became concerned. She knew their position — she’d been there before herself, and said she knew the dangers not having a plan for life.
She knew she needed to change the students’ narrative.
On Saturday, Feb. 21, Salter-Woods helped organize Saving Our Kids, a community forum at Tomlin that brought together students, parents, educators and community members to discuss the importance of planning for life beyond school and options that might exist outside of traditional scholastic education.
Salter-Woods moderated the panel. Forum speakers included Hewitt Grant, a Tomlin alum and driver for the City of Plant City, Carlisle Shepard, a guidance counselor at Riverview High School, Tomlin educator Doncelyn Chaney, Tony Moore, a realtor and employee of the Hillsborough County School District and Michael Anderson, a Plant City native and business owner.
“There was a fine line between students who had a plan and those who didn’t,” Anderson said.
Anderson now lives in Orlando and owns Spice Crafters. He was raised in Plant City and is a product of its middle schools. He was one of the students with a plan, he said, and it was that plan that made all the difference.
But not all of his fellow students shared his same sentiments at the time. Though they had shared interests, including football, Anderson said many of his peers weren’t motivated to succeed.
In the end, it was football that helped Anderson succeed. Knowing that he needed to do well in school to keep playing, he used that as motivation to earn a football scholarship to Florida A&M University, and later a career in software development.
Anderson said his sense of planning also helped him set a second career in motion. An avid watcher of the Food Network and a fan of all things food-related, Anderson told forum attendees that he turned his passion into the specialty-spice business he runs today.
It was a non-linear path, but it’s one that contributes to Anderson’s ultimate message: look beyond traditional academics.
The other forum speakers echoed Anderson’s sentiment. While anyone can go to college, they said, not everyone will and emphasized alternative options including trade schools.
“Trade is important, too,” Shepard said. “If college isn’t for you, have a plan. We’re dropping the ball when it comes to trade schools.”
“Our world runs on trades,” he said.
In fact, there’s a need for it. According to Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, the United States faces a shortage of two million skilled workers over the next 10 years.
Many on the panel, including Chaney, spent time focusing on the contributions from parents and guardians.
Education, she said, takes a holistic approach. To her, teaching is a calling and her students become her children. She pushed the importance of communication between parents and students as well as parents and teachers or administration.
“Through that involvement and communication, we can save our kids,” she said.
The forum ended with questions from the audience. Salter-Woods encouraged students to participate.
Asonya Shabazz, an 11-year-old sixth grader and one of Chaney’s students, raised her hand.
“How long does it take to get your master’s degree?” she asked the panel.
Salter-Woods said another forum is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 11, in the Tomlin Middle School auditorium, 501 N. Woodrow Wilson St.
All are encouraged to join.
Contact Daniel Figueroa IV at [email protected].