ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Shirley Proctor Puller Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to closing the achievement gap for students living in South St. Pete. They offer after-school programs for children and teens of all ages, and over the summer months, one of their programs focuses on middle and high school students — the High School M.A.S.T.R. Plan Program.

What You Need To Know

  • The Shirley Proctor Puller Foundation's High School M.A.S.T.R. Plan Program is for middle and high school students who live in South St. Pete

  • The goal is to close the achievement gap and increrase graduation rates

  • Students explore trade school career options, learn interview and communication skills, study black history, and learn financial literacy

The purpose is to expose teens to different college and career options, while teaching them valuable skills so they can set goals for their own futures and keep focused through those formative years.

The High School M.A.S.T.R. Plan Program students took their weekly Black history lesson out of the classroom and into a place where the history itself happened.

“This space that you’re in was a segregated grocery store, and so my uncles, my parents, my grandparents could not set foot in this building as it was erected,” said Marcus Brooks, executive director for the Foundation for a Healthy St. Peterburg’s Center for Healthy Equity.

The Shirley Proctor Puller Foundation partnered with the Foundation for a Healthy St. Peterburg, which intentionally re-wrote the purpose of the building to advance equity, and now, Pinellas County’s civil rights history lines the walls with pictures and descriptions of events.

“We were learning and talking about Black history and more Black history in St. Pete and the origins of some of the places we see every day,” said Torri Gammage, who is going into the seventh grade at Thurgood Marshall Middle School.

Gammage has been in the M.A.S.T.R. Program for four years and said she’s found the Black history lessons to be very important. 

“So that we don’t make the same mistakes over again and we can know why certain things happened and how it affects us, and how we should react to it,” she said.

That is exactly why the foundation includes Black history in its high school M.A.S.T.R. Program.

“What we’ve discovered is that if the kids can get some exposure to African American history, they’re typically very grounded in who they are, why they are here, what are their unique strengths,” said Bridgette Heller, co-founder and chief executive officer of the Shirley Proctor Puller Foundation.

The confidence it builds is key, Heller said.

The foundation first focused on just closing the achievement gap for reading and math, but then realized that even when students were at grade level, their graduation rates were still lower than other populations. So it created this program.

“We interviewed people in the community to determine some of the barriers, and the key was that our kids weren’t really prepared," Heller said. "They didn’t really know or understand what kinds of careers were out there, or what those careers meant or how high school connected to careers, and so we set out to try to do that for them.” 

Through field trips and a partnership with Pinellas Technical College, Heller said the gap is closing because teenagers enrolled in it now have goals.

“If you can stay focused on the goal and why you’re there, it makes all the difference,” she said. 

Gammage's goal is to become a cosmetologist, and she said through the friends she’s made here, there’s nothing that can stop her.

“You don’t find a lot of people like that at school and stuff. If they’re in the program, then they’re learning a lot of the same stuff you are, and you can talk to them about that kind of stuff,” Gammage said.

Students in the High School M.A.S.T.R. Plan Program are exposed to eight different career trades at Pinellas Technical College and also learn how to interview and communicate, as well as financial literacy.