University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee


Fall 2023

Campus Magazine

USF students transform the lives of Sarasota middle schoolers

By Marc R. Masferrer, University Communications and Marketing

More than two dozen students from the University of South Florida’s Sarasota-Manatee campus took on a bold mission during the 2022-23 school year: With the support of Sarasota philanthropists Joe and Mary Kay Henson and their Henson Fund, USF students became mentors for sixth graders from one of Sarasota’s most economically disadvantaged public middle schools, taught them about the transformative power of reading and demonstrated the campus’s ability to address an issue challenging the community.

And they created friendships that may change lives.

The school year ended in May and early indications, based on feedback from Booker Middle School officials and interviews project organizers have conducted with some of the 24 USF mentors, suggest they made a big difference for the middle schoolers and in addressing the Hensons’ goal of having all children read at grade level.

Our goal is for these amazing sixth graders to become life-long readers and learners, that they quest for knowledge and understanding and that they realize they have the potential inside themselves to achieve their dreams.

Cheryl Ellerbrock

“Booker has told us that their assessment scores have improved for their sixth-grade group,” said Lindsay Persohn, an assistant professor of literacy studies on the Sarasota-Manatee campus and one of the leaders of the project. “They said their reading scores were higher than they’ve been.” 

The Booker Literacy Project, however, was not primarily about raising scores on standardized tests. The bigger goal was to have the USF students establish caring, mentoring relationships—even friendships as “adult others” — with 27 sixth graders at Booker and foster in them a belief in themselves and an appreciation for, if not a love of, reading and learning.

Leadership at the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus and at the College of Education are excited about the program’s possibilities.

USF Student mentoring.

USF Sarasota-Manatee student mentors a sixth grader at Booker Middle School in Sarasota.

 “We are delighted to work in partnership with Joe and Mary Kay Henson to support our local schools. This project is one example of how the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee campus and dedicated community members can address a pressing need in the community and change the lives of school children,” said Brett Kemker, vice provost and regional vice chancellor at the Sarasota-Manatee campus.

“Through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Henson, the commitment of the College of Education and its faculty, support of the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus leadership and partnership with Sarasota County Schools, we were able to successfully pilot a literacy initiative that has the potential to change the lives of youth in Sarasota. As dean of the College of Education, it is initiatives such as this that make all we do worthwhile,“ said Anthony Rolle, dean of the College of Education.

Cheryl Ellerbrock, dean of the College of Education on the Sarasota-Manatee campus, was one of the organizers of the Booker project.

“Our goal is for these amazing sixth graders to become life-long readers and learners, that they quest for knowledge and understanding and that they realize they have the potential inside themselves to achieve their dreams,” Ellerbrock said.

Booker is the only Title I middle school in the Sarasota County School District. About four out of five students receive a free or reduced-price lunch each day. Both a magnet and a neighborhood school, it draws students of varying reading abilities from across Sarasota County.

The USF students had contact with just about every sixth grader at the school as they assisted teachers in their classrooms as tutors each Friday. But it was their one-on-one mentoring of a select number of students that made the Booker Literacy Project unique.  

Based on survey information the USF organizers gathered from the mentees and mentors — for example, what kinds of books do they like to read? — Booker officials matched the USF students with sixth graders in a “Secret Society of Readers,” to make it more like a club built on relationships rather than another remedial program that might carry a 
social stigma.

How the relationships between college students and middle schoolers started and evolved was entirely up to them. Organizers provided professional learning and gave the mentors prompts, but what resulted was entirely organic, made possible just by the USF students’ willingness to be present and attentive to the Booker students.

"They’re not quite an authority figure like a teacher would be, but they’re not another sixth-grade student,” said Dulcey Hunter, an education doctoral student and one of the organizers of the initiative. “They really look up to the college students. They just think that they are so amazing and the coolest people in the world. By their very presence and sharing their own experiences, the USF students are affirming and reinforcing the idea that you can do this, too, one day. You can continue to learn and to give back to your community.”

Hunter called it a “near peer” relationship. Ellerbrock and Persohn said the goal was for the USF students to become “adult others” in the lives of the middle schoolers.

“The mentorship aspect looks a lot like friendship,” Persohn said. “It’s getting to know the student. It’s understanding what they like, what they don’t like, what their goals are, what their aspirations are, what their background is and what their home life looks like. Then they work to support their students to really find success in their schooling and, of course, ultimately in their lives.”

As in any true friendship, the Booker students were not the only ones who benefited. Hunter and Karyn Mendez, a doctoral candidate helping to organize the project, recounted how some of the mentors told them that participating in the project had renewed their own appreciation for reading, especially for enjoyment. Reconnecting with themselves as readers gave them another way to connect with the middle schoolers.

“Quite a few of the mentors that I talked to,” Mendez said, “talked about their own reading experience for the student and let them see, ‘Hey, this isn’t a problem that just you are dealing with. I’m also having that experience. Let’s figure this out together and work to improve my life and yours, as well.’”

Persohn said organizers didn’t expect that the connections between the USF students and the Booker sixth graders, as well as among the mentors as a group, would be as strong as they turned out to be so quickly, and that the mentors would enjoy as many benefits as they did.

“One mentor came up to me one day and said, ‘I found myself talking about reading with my friends. I can’t remember the last time I did that,” Persohn recounted. “So, it’s those kinds of positive side effects, I think, that we didn’t really have our finger on at the beginning, but certainly as the program went on, those things really came to light.”

Thanks to the Hensons, the USF students were paid $20 an hour while at Booker each Friday. Persohn said the financial support from The Henson Fund injected stability into the project that might not have been possible if they had to rely on volunteers.

“You have much to give back,” Joe Henson told the USF students during an orientation session last year. “One of the things you can take from this program is the lifetime satisfaction of knowing that you influenced the life trajectory of someone else.” 

USF Students at Booker Middle

Students from the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee campus served as mentors for sixth-graders at Booker Middle School in Sarasota, as part of the Booker Literacy Project, the 2022-23 school year.

USF students who served as mentors eagerly embraced their role

Mary Kay Henson attended the Secret Society of Reader sessions each week.

“I observed not only the growing relationship between USF student-mentors and their mentees, but also the relationships and bonds among the USF student-mentors themselves,” she said. “We’re dedicated to working to develop programs that support the caring and deserving USF students. They’re fantastic.”

Persohn said they are organizing and analyzing the data they have gathered from the project and preparing manuscripts for research and practitioner publications, as well as to inform the next iteration of the program.

For example, Persohn said they would like to strengthen relationships with parents to help support student success.

They will be expanding the program to follow sixth graders to seventh grade, add a new cohort of sixth graders and work with fifth graders at the feeder elementary schools. The mentoring will be the emphasis going forward, Persohn said. Returning members of SSR will also engage in an inquiry and experiential initiative to encourage civic engagement, critical thinking and problem solving.

Additionally, Persohn is developing a separate “read aloud” program that will have some of her students at USF work with children in two Sarasota elementary schools that feed to Booker Middle.

“My education students will work with second-grade students at Gocio and Tuttle elementary schools to provide enrichment in vocabulary instruction through read alouds and relationships,” Persohn said. “We are working toward building a vertical relationship with students who will track through Gocio, Tuttle, Booker Middle and beyond.”

One thing already is certain: The Booker project has strengthened the ties, not only between the students from USF and Booker, but also between the Sarasota-Manatee campus and the community. It has shown the public that the university is here to help address the community’s challenges.

“I think a program like this affirms USF’s commitment to the communities we work within,” Persohn said. “It feeds a cycle of productivity, of continuous learning, of connectedness, and of giving back in our communities.”

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About Sarasota-Manatee Campus Magazine

Momentum is published by USF Research and Innovation and the Office of University Communications and Marketing on the Sarasota-Manatee campus. The University of South Florida, a member of the Association of American Universities, is a high-impact research university with campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee.