University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee




Couple’s $500,000 gift to USF funds tutoring and mentorship program at Sarasota middle school

By Marc R. Masferrer, University Communications and Marketing

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” - Frederick Douglass

Ensuring young students can read, so they are free to accomplish their dreams, is a goal of a literacy program based at the University of South Florida’s Sarasota-Manatee campus that matches USF students with middle schoolers needing support to boost their reading skills — and to set a course for brighter futures.

“I cannot imagine the terror it must be to try to manage life without being able to read,” Mary Kay Henson told the USF students during an orientation session for the Booker Middle School Literacy Initiative. “You’re going to be able to give something that you do without even thinking about it, reading, and you are going to be able to change a life.”

The USF students are tutoring and mentoring students at Sarasota’s most economically disadvantaged middle school as part of the initiative, which is funded by a $500,000 gift from Henson and her husband Joe, noted Sarasota philanthropists. Beyond helping to improve the students’ reading skills, the USF students — of whom only some are considering careers as teachers — are embedding themselves into the children’s lives to provide them with positive role models and new opportunities for success.

booker program

USF Sarasota-Manatee students are mentoring students at Booker Middle School in Sarasota has part of a literacy initiative funded by a $500,000 gift from Sarasota philanthropists Joe and Mary Kay Henson.

The literacy project, led by Sarasota-Manatee education professors Cheryl Ellerbrock and Lindsay Persohn in partnership with Booker academic intervention specialists Holly Ard and Grace Schaeffer, is a passion for the Hensons, prolific funders of numerous community-based projects, including others addressing shortfalls in reading proficiency in local schools.

“The Hensons are an extraordinarily generous couple with genuine love and concern for the children they are reaching through the Booker Middle School Literacy Initiative, and all children in the community,” said Brett Kemker, the Sarasota-Manatee campus’s regional vice chancellor and vice provost for academic affairs and student success. “Their gift to USF has created a unique opportunity for our professors and Booker teachers to develop strategies that benefit not only those middle schoolers with whom our students are working, but with all children needing support to become better readers.”

Booker Principal LaShawn Frost called the USF students working at her school each Friday “brain surgeons.”

"Their goal is to not only accelerate learning for our scholars, but they are going to stimulate brain cells and help them to achieve academic goals,” Frost said. “I am totally confident that the work we are doing here will be a model for the country.”

The USF students are embracing that challenge.

Sejal Keshvara has already graduated from USF with a degree in psychology, but she is taking additional science classes in preparation for dental school.

“I genuinely love to read. It was a big part of my reason to do this,” Keshvara said. “I want to make a difference.”

Booker program

Mary Kay Henson joined orientation sessions for USF Sarasota-Manatee students working as tutors and mentors as part of the  Booker Middle School Literacy Initiative.

Biology major Brayden Bernard, who has previously volunteered for other reading programs, hopes to learn lessons he can apply as he pursues studies and a career in pediatric medicine. As a former patient, Bernard said he appreciates the importance of a pediatrician having good bedside manner with a child.

“I know how important even the shortest interaction can be,” he said.

The Hensons are trying to address the link they see between low literacy rates among some children in Sarasota County and poverty. About half of the students enrolled in Sarasota County public schools come from households below the poverty line, according to the school district.

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 community school, it draws students of varying reading abilities from across Sarasota County.

During the 2021-22 school year, 35 percent of the 280 Booker sixth-graders passed the Florida Standards Assessment on English language arts, compared to 60 percent of sixth-graders in the entire Sarasota school district. Booker’s score, the lowest among the district’s seven regular middle schools, was down from 37 percent the prior year.

booker project

USF Sarasota-Manatee students are being paid $20 an hour to work as tutors and mentors as part of the Booker Middle School Literacy Initiative, funded by a $500,000 grant from Mary Kay Henson and her husband Joe.

Mary Kay Henson joined the USF students for their training sessions, during which Ellerbrock, Persohn, Ard and Schaeffer addressed the various facets of the program, which has been in development for about a year.

Each USF student has been assigned a classroom where they work alongside a teacher to tutor sixth graders in core subjects and provide eighth graders support in algebra. “It is critical to support student academic success at the sixth-grade level,” Ellerbrock said.

The USF cohort is also establishing mentoring relationships by working one-on-one with Booker students to help them grow into lifelong readers. But this is only a starting point.

“You’re not a teacher, they have teachers here,” Ellerbrock, the campus dean for the College of Education at Sarasota-Manatee, told the USF students. “You’re that ‘adult other,’ that cool college student who can help ignite the love of reading and learning within these amazing Booker Middle School students.”

“I envy you because I am too old to do it at this grade level,” Mary Kay Henson said. “I can do it with the little ones because I am the grandmother. You all are so cool because you go to college.”

Booker project

Cheryl Ellerbrock, left, Sarasota-Manatee campus dean for the College of Education, and Mary Kay Henon chat during a training session in the media center at Booker Middle School in Sarasota.

Among the criteria used to match the USF students with the sixth graders were their academic interests and what they like to read.

During orientation sessions, students learned lessons about tutoring, mentoring, what “literacy” truly means and how to communicate with adolescents, especially those with challenging backgrounds. The presenters also walked through the situations the USF students might face when working with the middle schoolers, everything from the physical and psychological changes brought on by puberty to how to address the younger students’ increasing awareness of the world around them, including sometimes difficult questions of fairness and justice.

The organizers also sprinkled their presentations with anecdotes from their teaching careers to illustrate how the USF students might make a difference in their mentees’ lives.

“Your job is to have relationships with these kids,” Ard told the USF students.

booker project

USF Sarasota-Manatee students are working as tutors and mentors for sixth graders as part of the Booker Middle School Literacy Initiative.

The Hensons’ intense interest in improving literacy for children and supporting projects that foster change is a perfect match with USF’s expertise on the subject, said Clara Villanueva, director of development at USF’s Sarasota-Manatee campus and of the Latino Scholarship Program.

“They have put in countless hours working in-person at local schools with educators, staff and school children alike, to promote literacy,” Villanueva said. “They use their platform to effect, inspire and demand change. They have vowed not to stop until every child is reading at grade level, and I believe them.”

The Hensons' gift will support other programs at USF’s Sarasota-Manatee campus, including a clinical health project focused on improving health outcomes for Hispanic families in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

booker project

Joe and Mary Kay Henson, benefactors of the Booker Middle School Literacy Initiative.

The literacy program kicked off Oct. 15 with a day-long orientation for the USF students, who are being paid $20 an hour for their work at Booker Middle. A week later, they attended an additional professional development day focused on reading strategies and mentoring. They then met their mentees.

The program will run through the end of the current school year and through the 2023-24 and 2024-25 school years, as well.

“You have much to give back,” Joe Henson told the USF students. “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. So, we’re pleased to be partners with you, to support you and we are committed to seeing that this is going to be successful. It will be successful because of you.” 

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