Photographer Melissa Lyttle documents an academic turnaround at Boca Ciega High School in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“A friend who works at the school board in St. Petersburg, Fla., told me about an amazing turnaround at Boca Ciega High School (aka Bogie) in South St. Petersburg. This is a historically black, economically disadvantaged part of town, mired by segregation, where feeder schools have been labeled as ‘Failure Factories’ by the local paper. About five years ago, Bogie got a new principal, Michael Vigue, who was brought in to help fix the school. Last year, the number of black students graduating from Boca Ciega was at an all-time high. This year, the number of black graduates — 90 percent — surpassed the number of white graduates — 88 percent — for the first time, and the school has the first black valedictorian as far back as anyone can remember.
I went into meet Principal Vigue to see what he was doing differently to change the culture of a school. He told me that it was simple: Teachers started showing the students that they care about and respect them. They shake their hands in the hallway, make eye contact, get to know their names and their families. And then these teachers challenge the students, by encouraging them to get into, and do well in, Advanced Placement classes.
At the end of the school year is an event called ‘Let Them Eat Cake,’ where the graduating seniors who are going onto college, a trade school, the military, or continuing workforce education (ESE students) get treated to cake and a pep rally. I asked if I could come meet some of his seniors and make portraits of them. He gave me unfettered access, and rather than hand-picking the cream of the crop for me to photograph and interact with, he gave me free reign at the pep rally to talk with anyone I wanted. So I picked a variety of students and asked them all a few simple questions. Why’d they pick the school they’re going to? And how did they change throughout high school?”
A version of this article first appeared in the Full Frame blog.