During its upcoming annual luncheon, the Academy Prep Center of St. Petersburg is honoring five “Fabulous Females” for their contributions to the community while raising money to further its mission of improving the lives of underserved students.
Located at 2301 22nd Ave. S., Academy Prep is a self-funded, nationally accredited nonprofit middle school in South St. Petersburg. Students attend the school for up to 11 hours a day, six days a week and 11 months per year on full scholarships provided by the community’s generosity. The 14th Annual Luncheon, held on Friday, May 6, at TradeWinds Island Resort, will highlight female leaders in the community and support the school’s scholarship program.
The 2022 Fabulous Females include Bridgette Heller, co-founder and CEO of the Shirley Proctor Puller Foundation; Kimberly G. Jackson, executive director of The Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions at St. Petersburg College; Susan Mittermayr, managing principal and founding partner of Sabal Trust; Karyn Tash, teacher and student advocate; and Beth Vivio, president of Corporate Fitness Works.
Heller said the school empowers students to become future community leaders – and the luncheon’s purpose, combined with the connections to the people it highlights, provides a valuable example for children to follow.
“I think it’s a great way to introduce their student body to that concept of contribution,” she said. “And really making a difference where you live.”
Heller explained that students introduce and interview the honorees, who also visit the school and spend time just wandering the halls and meeting the children. She believes that seeing community leaders interested and invested in their success also benefits the students.
Academy Prep provides the opportunity for kids to elevate their educational skills, even those barely meeting grade-level expectations, Heller said. She added that it also fosters a love for knowledge and continuous learning long after a student moves on to high school.
“I love the outcomes,” she said. “It’s like 99-100% of the kids are actually moving on to high school, and you just don’t get better than that.”
Heller said many men in the community are deserving of recognition, but it is rare that an organization shines a spotlight on women making a difference in varying fields. She noted the Fabulous Females represent business, nonprofits and education.
Heller believes the program is especially valuable to Academy Prep’s underserved female children. As someone who grew up in St. Pete, achieved success and is now able to make a positive impact in the city, she said that when students look at her, she hopes they see themselves.
“The fact that they can see that level of success being obtained by someone within the community – regardless of race, but certainly as a woman – it makes a huge difference to have that example put forward for them.”
Heller said that one of the honorees taught an educator who works for the Shirley Proctor Puller Foundation’s (SPPF) M.A.S.T.R. Kids Program, who told Heller how she made a difference in her life.
“And I’ve heard people say that about my mom,” said Heller. “That she changed their lives.
“I just feel so blessed to share the podium with someone who had that impact on somebody that I know and value tremendously as an employee.”
Heller founded SPPF in honor of her late mother, a lifelong educator who implored others to help improve educational outcomes for children in the community. In 2016, under the SPPF umbrella, Heller launched the Math-Art-Science-Technology-Reading (M.A.S.T.R.) Kids summer program. Following its success, a year-round after-school program followed in 2020.
The program is flourishing, said Heller, and recently expanded to a second location. She added that 88% of children who remained in the program through the pandemic showed significant improvement. Heller said her relationship with Pinellas County Schools (PCS) is better than ever – and Kevin Hendrick, associate superintendent of teaching & learning services for PCS and a finalist for the superintendent position, is an ardent and appreciated supporter.
“We’ve actually had a couple of kids who have gone onto Academy Prep,” added Heller. “Which is something incredibly wonderful that allows us to make this connection even stronger and makes this award even more meaningful for me.
“Because that’s sort of an aspiration – honestly – that I set.”
Heller’s program serves children from kindergarten through eighth grade. She called it wonderful when her fifth graders are able to attend Academy Prep because it increases their odds of graduating high school “dramatically.”
Heller noted that parents of students at Academy Prep must sign contracts and commit to the program, calling it a self-selected group. She added that the school provides different levels of training for teachers and different expectations for students. Her program, PCS and everyone throughout the community should strive to replicate that success, Heller said.
“It’s not that all of them (children) necessarily have to go to college preparatory programs, but at least they have the choice,” she said. “That’s what I really believe is important – that we give our kids the opportunity for a great education.”