L-R, Midtown Academy Assistant Principal E. Ste’Phan Lane, Principal Portia Slaughter, Toriano Parker and Rene Flowers
BY HOLLY KESTENIS, Staff Writer ST. PETERSBURG – The St. Petersburg Country Club hosted a breakfast to not only pay tribute to the Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association but to raise money for musical instruments for students at the new Midtown Academy Center for Cultural Arts and Gifted Studies, 1701 10th St. S.
“You have made a melodious sound that can never be duplicated,” said mistress of ceremony Kyesha Robinson. “You have sounded the call from the note of G to the note of E; you are making the difference.” With artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway and Ray Charles all at one time performing at the Manhattan Casino, the rich tradition of music and the performing arts is being kept alive in south St. Petersburg with the new Midtown Academy geared towards music. “We know when a student finds that thing that they can attach themselves to. Not only do we see their behavior change, but we see their grades begin to rise,” said Pinellas County School Board Chair Rene Flowers, who orchestrated the breakfast to ensure students attending the revamped Midtown Academy will have access to instruments for home practice. Flowers’ partner in crime, President and CEO of Advantage Village Academy Toriano Parker, encouraged the room to give money for resources and programs currently coming out of the academy as well as the implementation of programs in the future. “A lot of bad things come out of the school system,” said Parker, “so when you see positive things like at Midtown, you want to draw attention to it.” Positive things such as community outreach projects going on now to gather support for Midtown Academy and other in need schools in the district to obtain school supplies for students and teachers. Also, money for youth initiative grants that enable young people to work in the summer at various jobs around the city. Flowers wanted also to use the breakfast to also pay tribute to the Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association (ADTBJA). Downing was a great piano talent and worked toward perpetuating jazz among young people everywhere he went. In his later years, he organized music programs at Gibbs High School. Flowers remembers Downing always being amicable at church and willing to tickle the ivories even when he may not have felt quite up to it, so she reached out to the ADTBJA. “I wanted them to know how much jazz means to the community and what music means and can do for our students,” said Flowers. Already involved in bringing outreach programs to school children, the ADTBJA was thrilled to adopt and come on board at Midtown Academy. Downing’s daughter, Dierdre Downing-Jackson, spoke of him devoting his life to letting people know that God came first and that music was meant to glorify Him. “He always empowered young people,” Downing-Jackson said, proud of the legacy that her father left. “He truly believed that music was the universal language and it is absolutely the one thing children, I don’t care what color they are, can relate to.” Flowers plans to hold a special ceremony for all who contributed to the Midtown Academy. So far, $2,693 has been collected with another $1,600 coming in from projected donations. “Our students need to know that the community is behind them,” averred Flowers, who encouraged all attendees to mentor a child. Just one hour of a volunteer’s time could be the only hour a child has in a day where they have the full attention of an adult who is concerned and cares about their future, she advised. Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Grego concurred. He was approached by Flowers about the fundraiser breakfast to gain community attention for Midtown Academy and was thrilled. “It really resonates with me when a community gets behind anything,” said Grego, “especially if it’s in the area of education.” Grego encouraged the community to keep the momentum going and to continue to use their contacts and community resources to do great things in not only the Midtown area but around St. Petersburg. If you’d like to contribute to funding the Midtown Academy Center for the Cultural Arts and Gifted Studies, or just want to get involved, contact Midtown Academy at (727) 893-1358.