Portraits of an Urban School Turnaround
Boca Ciega’s valedictorian Da’Jhai Monroe, 17, is graduating with a 4.7 weighted GPA and is going to Florida State University to study biology and public policy. She was also accepted to Cornell University. “Overall I think I’ve gained a lot of confidence from being in high school. When I first came in, I was kind of shy and introverted. And I guess the more years I progressed, I started to understand my own potential.”
Photographer Melissa Lyttle documents an academic turnaround at Boca Ciega High School in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“A friend who works at the school board in St. Petersburg, Fla., told me about an amazing turnaround at Boca Ciega High School (aka Bogie) in South St. Petersburg. This is a historically black, economically disadvantaged part of town, mired by segregation, where feeder schools have been labeled as ‘Failure Factories’ by the local paper. About five years ago, Bogie got a new principal, Michael Vigue, who was brought in to help fix the school. Last year, the number of black students graduating from Boca Ciega was at an all-time high. This year, the number of black graduates — 90 percent — surpassed the number of white graduates — 88 percent — for the first time, and the school has the first black valedictorian as far back as anyone can remember.
I went into meet Principal Vigue to see what he was doing differently to change the culture of a school. He told me that it was simple: Teachers started showing the students that they care about and respect them. They shake their hands in the hallway, make eye contact, get to know their names and their families. And then these teachers challenge the students, by encouraging them to get into, and do well in, Advanced Placement classes.
At the end of the school year is an event called ‘Let Them Eat Cake,’ where the graduating seniors who are going onto college, a trade school, the military, or continuing workforce education (ESE students) get treated to cake and a pep rally. I asked if I could come meet some of his seniors and make portraits of them. He gave me unfettered access, and rather than hand-picking the cream of the crop for me to photograph and interact with, he gave me free reign at the pep rally to talk with anyone I wanted. So I picked a variety of students and asked them all a few simple questions. Why’d they pick the school they’re going to? And how did they change throughout high school?”
Daiquana Ware, 17, is going to Florida A&M University. “I was always a good kid, I always made great grades. I believe it’s important to have an empowerment between African Americans and being surrounded by people that look like you and have the same goals as you. My high school experience has been amazing. Bogie has helped me in so many ways, especially my AVID (college readiness) program.”
Koby Wynn, 18, is going to Jacksonville University where he’ll be playing football and studying kinesiology in hopes of becoming a physical therapist. “JU was recruiting me for football, but when I went to visit I just fell in love with the school. It’s a close tight-knit community. The campus is not too big, not a lot of students, about 2400 students. And that’s what I’m used to, a small close-knit setting.”
Au’Bryanna Clayton, 18, is going to Florida State University where she’s going to be pre-med and study chemistry. “FSU is a really big campus, and I like big. And they have my major. I came into high school the quiet kind–shy, didn’t really speak out. And I’m leaving very ambitious… ready for the world.”
Colin Thompson, 18, is going to Florida International University to become an athletic trainer. “I love the Miami area. And when I toured the campus, I fell in love with it. I finished high school with a 3.8 weighted GPA, I was captain of the soccer team, and finished in the top 6 position in my ROTC brigade, and I’m running for Prom King. I grew out of my shell in high school and became more of a leader — and I attribute that mainly to ROTC.”
Destiny Weaver, 18, is graduating with a 4.3 weighted GPA and going to the University of San Francisco to study psychology before going to medical school. “I went to visit UC-Berkeley, and just really liked San Francisco. It’s very cultured and there’s a lot of good opportunities for me there. Growing and maturing I’ve been able to see, especially with my teachers helping me out, who really cares about me who really wants me to do well in school and how that’s really going to help me in school. High school just gave me more of an overall appreciation for knowledge.”
Zaria Maynard, 18, is graduating with a 4.0 GPA and is going to Florida State University to study nursing. “I toured FSU’s campus, and I knew it was the school for me. It was just the vibe I got and the people I met there — I knew that I needed to go there. Coming to Bogie has really helped me try new things, and it’s opened so many doors. It helped me be able to attend FSU.”
Christian Greene, 17, is graduating early — at the end of his junior year — with what he hopes will be at least a 3.0 GPA and joining the Marines. He’s heading straight to Parris Island in South Carolina. “Ever since I was a little kids I’ve always admired the United States Marine Corps — their uniform and their honor and their integrity. It’s just about the pride of being a United States Marine.” He was in the ROTC for the last two years of high school and hopes to make the Marines his career.
Diana Stancic, 18, is going to USF-St Pete and is currently undecided on a major, though she wants to do something in medicine or engineering. She’s graduating with a 4.6 weighted GPA. “I feel as though USF-St. Pete might ease me into college life. I was considering going to an Ivy League School, but this is close to home and it’ll get me into the college scene before I’m ready to maybe either transfer or go onto an upper echelon graduate school.”
Noah Bussell, 18, is going to Michigan State. He’s originally from Michigan and still has family there. “Michigan State is in the Big Ten, and I know it’s a great school. I’m most looking forward to going to a college where no one knows me.”
Ashley Aquil, 17, is going to Florida State University to study biology. “My heart wasn’t really set on FSU, but once I got on the campus it felt like home. And staying in state was important to me for financial reasons, and they offered a really good financial aid package as well.” On high school she says: “Academically in the last 4 years, I became much more focused and much more dedicated to school work because I understood the value of an education — and I just grew. Boca Ciega is a really great place to mature. your teachers are so invested, and they care about you. I’m way more knowledgeable and way more experienced and ready to go to college and be successful.”
Anna Warrington, 17, is graduating with a 4.1 GPA going to attend Eckerd College and hopes to study marine biology. “I chose Eckerd because it’s a great campus, and it really speaks to me, and it seemed like a good fit for me.” She was homeschooled until her junior year, when she took one class at a public school. For most of her senior year she was dual-enrolled at a local community college and a public high school. This last semester she was fully enrolled as a Boca Ciega High School student. “Public School really brought my personality out and I made a great group of friends,” she said.”I just really enjoy the atmosphere of being with other students.”
David Gonzalez, 18, plans on getting his A.A. degree at St. Pete College before transferring to the University of South Florida to study microbiology. He’s graduating with a 4.53. “I got accepted to USF, but I’m going to SPC to save some money.”
Students surround Principal Michael Vigue at Boca Ciega High School’s “Let Them Eat Cake” event, where the graduating seniors who are going onto college, a trade school, the military, or continuing workforce education (ESE students) get treated to cake and a pep rally.