Booker High School is most known for its Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) program, however, the college and career planning services offered to the student body, including the Booker Promise, make the school stand apart. This program, paired with the Guaranteed Admission Partnership developed by New College, will likely make the transition into college for academically driven students much easier.
The Booker Promise is a new scholarship program that begins in the students’ first year of high school. Upon graduation, student recipients are offered a scholarship for a two-year associate degree or technical certificate covering tuition and fees at a qualifying Florida public college or technical school, though students can use this scholarship for a private or out-of-state school if they desire. The Booker Promise aims to fulfill the high school’s vision, created by Principal Rachel Shelley, states that 100 percent of Booker High School students will graduate college or career ready to become functioning members of society.
Starting this year, ninth-graders are implementing the various tools used by The Booker Way to prepare eligible students—those who are economically deprived and academically oriented—for the Booker Promise. Essentially, The Booker Way covers all aspects of the college and career initiatives that will guide and support them in receiving a Booker Promise scholarship. Ninth-graders are required to take career assessments, attend grade level assemblies, visit the school’s college and career room, join one school club, volunteer and participate in many other activities. As they advance through high school, the requirements change in order for students to better develop their post-secondary plans. For current ninth-graders who are interested in attending college, they will have the opportunity to attend State College of Florida to gain college credit while enrolled in high school by staying on track with The Booker Way.
“When our students become seniors, the way we’ve created this schedule now for ninth-graders, they will only need two required classes,” Shelly said. “Then I went to state College of Florida and asked ‘will you help me with transportation?’ and they said ‘yes, we will have a bus starting in August that will come to Booker High School during the day to take them to State College of Florida.’”
Shelley believes the hardest part of college is not academic rigor, but the financial cost. According to the Department of Education, student loan debt increased to $1.6 trillion in 2019, making student loans the second largest debt category in the U.S. behind mortgage debt.
Promise programs are not unique to Booker; there are numerous programs nationwide that help fund college education to high school students, and not all are exclusive to single high schools. Some programs extend district-wide, and even celebrities like Lebron James have their own promise schools.
“You have the Pittsburgh Promise, The Kalamazoo Promise and Texas Promise where their entire district is funded by big huge philanthropists and donors and foundations with what they call ‘old money’ and you can automatically, [economically deprived or not], get into one of their state schools with no cost of tuition and fees,” Shelley said.
Inspired by other promise schools, Shelley was determined to create something similar for her students.
“Why not take a leap of faith?” Shelley asked. “Instead of just hoping our students will leave with a post-secondary plan, why not come up with a way to help pay for some of their college? Hence, the Booker Promise.”
Shelley was persistent in asking a local philanthropist, Micheal Shealton, if he would be willing to help fund and create the Booker Promise, and on the fourth try he finally agreed and is currently the Chair of the Booker Promise Board of Directors.
“And the fourth conversation I’ll never forget, it was on my birthday in 2019, I asked him again and he said yes and I just knew it was a perfect fit,” Shelley recalled. “Within a four-month period he created and launched our very own 501(c)(3) called Booker Promise.”
Aside from the Booker Promise, New College has recently developed a direct admission program with Booker High School called the Guaranteed Admission Partnership, which allows Booker students to be accepted if they apply and meet the academic requirements. There are also mentorship connections between the two schools.
General Counsel David Fugett has been a mentor to Booker Law Academy students for over a year and is involved in reoccurring collaborations between Booker and New College. Recently, both schools have assisted each other by providing a collaborative work space for their law programs.
“[Booker’s] mock trial team came to practice at College Hall, and we actually invited the mock trial students at New College to come help,” Fugett said.
Booker’s Law Academy was also able to practice in the Jane Bancroft Cook Library over winter break while the Selby Library downtown was being renovated. As for the recent competition in Orlando, the New College mock trial team went to the courtroom at Booker which, for some students, was the first time they practiced in that type of setting. New College students not only helped through mentorship, but donations as well.
“I’ve had one New College student donate a laptop,” Fugett said.
Fugett mentioned that several students from the Law Academy have approached him with interest in New College. For students at Booker interested in law and staying local, New College is an ideal match. In fact, according to Fugett, law-prospective students from New College can go to any law school they want.
“Looking at the stats we’ve been putting New College students into the top law schools in the country,” Fugett said. “Just got one into Columbia this year, which is a fifth rank law school in the nation. Within the last six years they’ve gotten accepted into Stanford, University of Chicago, Duke, Michigan [basically] all top 14 schools.”
Fugett puts emphasis on New College’s educational system.
“[Law schools are] going to see that you’ve done a thesis, which tells [them] that you can read a lot, research and write while defending what you write which is exactly what they want,” Fugett said. “So they will see that in every single New College [student’s] resume but nowhere else [plus] the ISPs.”
Collaboration between Booker and New College dates back to 1967 when the high school closed as part of desegregation. The predominantly Black student body was bused to other local high schools for a semester. However, desegregation was not a very welcoming process for the students from Booker.
“They had a terrible time, the white students at Sarasota [High] and Riverview [High] were very cruel and used the ‘N-word’ and threw things at them,” Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Bill Woodson said.
Though despite the harsh treatment, the then Booker students decided enough was enough when the Black middle and elementary schools were said to close as well.
“They were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we don’t want our little brothers and sisters going through the same kind of crap that we’re going through, we’re gonna do something,’” Woodson recalled.
As a result, the students boycotted for weeks and about 80 to 90 percent of students did not go to school. This caused the school board to create a new plan and agreed to re-open Booker High the following year.
“You’ll see around the country that there were a lot of Black schools that were closed and forced busing of the Black students to white schools because that’s how they did desegregation, but Sarasota is the one place where students fought back,” Woodson said.
During the time of strike, the students went to what were known as freedom schools. They mostly consisted of churches or private homes and were taught by New College students and faculty.
“So even back in 1967 there was stuff going on between New College and Booker High School,” Woodson said.
Overall, the Booker Promise is a wonderful program and the school’s collaborations with New College will likely become a more prominent partnership to help students interested in higher education consider New College.