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Local program helps elevate students

Mark Parker



Ja'tanaisha Thompson, 17, was just 16 years old when she graduated from Gibbs High School. Photos provided.

Like many students at Gibbs High School, Ja’Tanaisha Thompson dreamt of attending college; unlike most of her classmates, she enrolled at the University of Florida at 16 years old.

In addition to Thompson’s hard work and dedication, a program unique to Pinellas County – Elevating Excellence – helped to serve as a launchpad for her accomplishment. The Pinellas Education Foundation, in partnership with the Helios Education Foundation, implemented the program to help area students needing support achieve their post-high school dreams.

Elevating Excellence launched in June 2018 through a $1.3 million Helios grant. The Pinellas County Schools (PCS) initiative provides high-achieving, low-income and underserved students and their families with a personalized pathway to college success.

Thompson, who turned 17 in July, is a first-generation college student. As such, she said the initiative was a vital resource through the application process.

“I didn’t really know how to write an application,” Thompson said. “I didn’t know what to include. I didn’t know what I needed. It did help me foster the ideas I needed for my essay – how to write them, how to make sure that my essay would be very, very good.”

While Elevating Excellence focuses on identifying and helping individual students, program officials also established College Planning Centers in 17 PCS high schools. The goal is to widen the often narrow pathway for students who lack the resources and support to realize their dreams of post-secondary education.

Over the summer, Thompson attended one of the program’s several seminars. According to its website, the sessions helped students find a “best-fit college,” provided financial information and resources, and helped students prepare for the SAT, applications and entrance essays.

New this year was NCAA Clearinghouse information for athletes, exploring Big Futures Scholarships, a community service hours project for Bright Futures Scholarships and college campus tours. The seminars took place at Countryside, Pinellas Park and Gibbs High Schools. Elevating Excellence also offers activities and events throughout the school year.

Thompson credited the Elevating Excellence program helping her gain admission to the University of Florida.

Thompson graduated from Gibbs at 16 and began her college career at UF in June, as a criminology major. “Yes, they always do,” she replied when asked if fellow Gators comment about her youthful appearance.

Elevating Excellence, said Thompson, provided a great benefit when it came time to take the SAT. She relayed the testing strategies helped her manage her time wisely, something she struggled with before joining the program.

Thompson said she “had to write tons of essays to get to college,” and educators with Elevating Excellence taught her to write concisely and purposefully.

“I had to know exactly what to say and how to say it,” she added.

Thompson’s path to becoming a college freshman at 16 began in middle school. There, she took advanced classes that counted towards high school requirements. By the time she started at Gibbs High, she had the same number of course credits as a sophomore.

She never let up, either, taking online classes in addition to her regular coursework. By her sophomore year of high school, Thompson said she was considered a senior academically.

UF offered resources that fit her needs, explained Thompson, and it became her college of choice. She said the university not only offered an unmatched financial aid package but “they also foster a really great community for first-generation students.

“And I feel like some others kind of don’t,” she added. “They don’t really understand that there are first-generation students who need that guidance. It let me know that they actually care about their first-generation students, who don’t have the same opportunities as others.”

Thompson expects to graduate from college in 2026, at 20 years old. After UF, she plans to enroll in law school, earn her Juris doctorate by 23, pass the bar exam and become a criminal defense attorney.

While unsure if her career will lead her back to St. Petersburg, she realizes there is plenty of time left to decide. For now, Thompson noted her family lives here, and she will always visit the city.

She also expressed her gratitude to everyone involved with Elevating Excellence for providing her with the skills necessary for college acceptance and, eventually, her career. After graduating early, Thompson said all her friends are still in high school, and she recommends they utilize the College Career Center and program.

“I would just like to say a very huge thank you for giving me the opportunity to really bring myself out in my testing and my writing,” she said. “And if you can, do Elevating Excellence because it really does help you with the stuff you need.”

For more information on Elevating Excellence, visit the website here.



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  1. Avatar

    Shirley Hayes

    October 26, 2022at5:33 pm

    She could have attended classes at both schools, No one should be ‘pressed’ about this. We should be happy for this young lady.

  2. Avatar

    Destiny J Stamp

    October 26, 2022at6:23 am

    The stole she is wearing is a Boca ciega high school one by the way …

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