top header

October 2020 Newsletter

Ya La’Ford’s latest mural leaves St. Petersburg students dripping in hope

October 7, 2020

She’s working with the Florida Orchestra on the project, too.


DECBD59137AE4CD0BF28DB8ACEF6187ALast I spoke with Ya La’ford, she was planning a patchwork quilt design for her latest community mural project in St. Pete’s Warehouse Arts District. Each participant—children from St. Petersburg’s Mt. Zion Christian Academy and Pinellas County Foster Care—was to paint a 6-by-12-inch square inspired by today's movement for equality and justice. The mural was set to debut Aug. 28 on the 57-year anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Then the pandemic delayed school re-openings throughout Pinellas County; 2020’s double crises strike again. Like twin tornadoes, the coronavirus and incidents of police brutality took turns upending everything in their path. What should we talk about today, America’s great struggle to control the coronavirus pandemic or America’s great struggle for equality? On Wednesday Sept. 23, Breonna Taylor’s killers got off. On Friday Sept. 25, Florida entered Phase 3 despite a 5-11% state average infection rate (depending on who’s calculating it). What do we speak to? What do we paint to today?

You can imagine my surprise when I pulled into St. Pete’s Warehouse Arts District and the mural in progress was not patchwork at all. Instead, I saw the beginnings of a beautiful sunrise.

Was this a new dawn kind of hopefulness?

“It was,” says La’ford. “And like a coming out of sorts. [These kids have] been trapped. They haven't had any field trips; they've been in their houses; and the one thing that was consistent is the fact that a day starts and there's a sunrise every day."

Diagonal lines of blue, yellow, neon orange and pink climb a third of the way up the wall—as high as the children, ages 8-11, could reach. Usually, La’ford has local kids place their hand print upon her community mural projects; then she layers her artwork over this. But this time La’ford asked each child to paint a line, guided by a strip of green painter’s tape. Paint intentionally drips from the lines.

“They went from putting their hand on a space to now literally dripping hope, and dripping the rays of the sun, and dripping these ideas of what it means to them,” says La’ford.

She pointed to a key taped to the wall. Each color has meaning. Blue is the ocean, yellow is the sun, orange is the sunrise, and pink the horizon. Above this, La’ford is adding the wind in purple and the sky in a darker blue color.

“The piece is called ‘Woven’ because we need to be patched together, says La’ford, “and piece by piece, I think there's hope.”

The last-minute design change isn’t the only thing that’s new about La’ford’s latest project.

La’ford started writing songs during the pandemic, and she’s adding music to “Woven” in collaboration with The Florida Orchestra.

“I love working with the orchestra as we find the intersection between art and music,” says La’ford. “They were with us at the school on Wednesday [via Zoom], teaching the kids what an orchestra is, the instruments that are played, and the families of instruments.”

The students also learned about overtones. When you pluck a string on an instrument, it produces more than one tone. The vibrations of the string also produce sound octaves higher than the main tone. These are called overtones. When you play a note on an instrument, all these tones come together in harmony to produce the sound we recognize as a note. The idea that one note could be composed of many interdependent tones really resonated with La’ford, who’s been exploring interconnectivity through art ever since studying sociology and anthropology (in addition to art) in college.

“I think it's been a life's journey—even more than just college,” says La’ford. “I'm a first-generation American; I'm Jamaican. I grew up with Bob Marley in my ears. So it's a lot of different things. Bob Marley kind of singing in my ears, over and over again, that we need each other, that we're one.”

She quotes the refrain from Marley’s “One Love”: One love, one heart. Let’s get together and feel alright.

“These are the things that have been deeply rooted inside of me,” says La’ford. “There's value in each other, in understanding we're all essential, in loving each other, and in knowing that every single mark, every single drip, every single mistake, every single genius move…Everything is considered essential and filled with love and purpose.”

In America, we don’t celebrate human connection as often as we should. It took a pandemic and social distancing for some of us to finally realize how important human connection is, but La’ford knew it all along. These human connections are part of what’s made her so successful in the Tampa Bay area. The relationships she’s forged through her community projects keep the work coming.

“[This project] was born from the community,” says La’ford. “Smith & Associates Real Estate, who houses our community, wanted to again work with me, [along with] the Lovelady family and the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about La’ford’s work either. I’ve followed her to Fairmount Park Elementary School, Tempus Projects, and Al Lang Stadium over the past couple years, because I know the work will always be good and La’ford will always have something interesting to say.

Two days before I drove down to meet with La’ford at the mural site, people protesting the Breonna Taylor verdict clashed with restaurant-goers on St. Pete’s Beach Drive. Driving back home after my visit, I passed another group of protestors. This time they were lining Beach Drive with “Ron DeathSantis” signs. These are the days the kids worked on their sunrise.

Much has changed in 2020, but much has stayed the same. As long as the Earth continues to spin on its axis, there will still be a sunrise. And as long as America continues to fuck up, there will be people protesting in the streets and artists painting messages of hope on the walls of St. Pete.

Support local journalism in these crazy days. Our small but mighty team is working tirelessly to bring you up to the minute news on how Coronavirus is affecting Tampa and surrounding areas. Please consider making a one time or monthly donation to help support our staff. Every little bit helps.

Subscribe to our newsletter and follow @cl_tampabay on Twitter. Follow Creative Loafing Tampa Bay on Google News, too.

Young Good Samaritans

October 10, 2019

BY DEXTER MCCREE, Feature Writer

young good samaritansST. PETERSBURG — There are still Good Samaritans in this community, and many of them are yet learning. There are those who see a need and have a heart to serve people. Mt. Zion Christian Academy (MZCA) students are taught the lesson of it being more blessed to give than to receive.

By now, most people in the country are aware of the catastrophic disaster in the Bahamas. Hurricane Dorian, regarded as the worst natural disaster in the country’s history, struck the island nation.

Most structures were flattened or swept off into the sea, and at least 70,000 people were left homeless. Thousands of homes were reported destroyed, and at least 58 deaths recorded.

The exact death toll is unknown, but news sources in the Bahamas suggested that it will likely be significantly higher.

Helping others is a daily task and lesson taught at MZCA. Picking up a book for someone, helping someone tie a shoe, cheering for another student who has done well are all small ways that the students learn to be caring and responsible adults.

After hearing Hurricane Dorian ravaged the Bahamas, the students wanted to reach beyond the classroom. They wanted to get involved.

The students launched a relief help drive collecting care packages to send to the devasted families in the Bahamas. The teachers, students and their parents donated washcloths, soap, hand sanitizers, undergarments, toothbrushes, toothpaste and several other personal items.

“Even if a student could not donate, he or she could still make a difference through preparation and well wishes,” said Franca Sheehy, principal at MZCA. “What good is it if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Faith, by itself is not enough. If it is not accompanied by action, it is dead.”

Each student prepared their care package in a pencil box with a personal note to the recipient to let them know that they have not been forgotten. The packages were taken to a Bahama relief drop-off at Bob’s Carpet and Flooring to be shipped to the Bahamas.

The students felt empowered by their actions; however, they maintained a sense of humility, seeming to realize that it could have happened to them.

They were pleased by being able to touch the lives of children in another part of the world in a helpful and positive way.

Students helping other students is a way to teach that giving without wanting anything in return can be powerful and rewarding.

Taking heed to the stories they learn in school — lessons from the Good Samaritan and having a caring heart and desire to make a difference — will push students at MZCA to be the leaders that every community needs. Through their actions, they were keeping their faith and feeling blessed.

To reach Dexter McCree, email

If you can sing it, you can learn it: How music is helping schoolchildren improve their reading

September 25, 2019


if you can sing itST. PETERSBURG, Fla. –During the weeks leading up to the start of fifth grade, when Cee J Knause was home doing not much of anything, she found herself singing the Short Vowel Song.

“A … a … a …a … apple

E … e … e … e … egg.”

Or the Long Vowel Song.

“I got an a for apron

An e for eagle.”

Sometimes, Cee J sang “The Ballad of the Silent E.”

“She sings those songs all day,” her mom, Kellie Mendheim said. “Sometimes she lets me sing them.”

Cee J, now in the fifth grade at Mount Zion, improved her reading last spring through Winning Reading Boost

Cee J is a student at the Mount Zion Christian Academy in St. Petersburg. Like nearly all of her 90 schoolmates, she attends the K-5 private school using a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families. The program is managed by Step Up For Students.

Cee J learned those songs last spring when she participated in the Winning Reading Boost program for second-graders and above who struggled to read.

They are catchy tunes, and that is the point.

Sue Dickson, a former first-grade teacher and Safety Harbor, Florida, resident, wrote them years ago. The songs were the foundation of Dickson’s Sing, Spell, Read and Write, a widely successful phonics-based program published in 1972 that taught children to read. A decade later, when Dickson saw the need to reach older non-readers, she wrote Winning, a 90-hour intervention program with age appropriate stories and songs that had tremendous success in jails and teen detention centers.

“If you can sing it, you can learn it,” Dickson said.

Mount Zion was used as a pilot program last spring with 10 students participating. Cee J, then in fourth grade, was one of those students.

“The program went very well,” Mount Zion principal Franca Sheehy said. “We saw results.”

Students who misread more than five fluency words out of 60 on a K-1 phonics test were included in the program. Combined, the 10 students averaged nearly 27 missed words. Only one, a third-grader, missed fewer than 10, and that student missed nine.

“I love it,” said Cee J, who missed 29 of the 60 words. “When I didn’t do Winning Reading Boost, I used to struggle at reading. As soon as I started this, it started helping me, and I love how the songs made it fun.”

Cee J’s struggles stemmed from reading too fast, causing her to miss words. Winning Reading taught her to read at a slower pace, which increased her fluency learning.

Shakeila Bogle-Duke, who teaches Winning Reading Boost at Mount Zion, said Cee J showed the most improvement of the 10 students.

“Everyone showed some growth,” Bogle-Duke said. “It was significant in others and a little less in one or two.”

Students gained confidence in their ability to read. Using phonics, they learned to decode words, rather than guess at them. Those who entered as choppy readers learned to read at a smoother pace.

Sheehy was so impressed with Winning Reading Boost that it was added to the 2019-20 budget. It will be used throughout the school year after they identify which students need the intervention program.

Why Johnny can’t read

An October 2018 story in the New York Times referenced a study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress that found only four of 10 fourth graders were competent readers. A big reason, the story stated, is students are not taught to read phonically, meaning they do not learn to decode words.

This is not a new development. Dickson began teaching first grade in the 1950s in Arlington, Virginia, when it was forbidden to teach phonics, learning by decoding the relationship between sounds and spelling.

“The schools of education ridiculed the teaching of phonics,” she said. “It was just awful.”

Sue Dickson began writing songs for her reading programs in the 1960s.

Because she was fresh out of college and just beginning her career, Dickson complied with the school district’s stance during her first two years as a teacher. Yet, she knew she failed those students who didn’t pass reading.

In 1955, Rudolf Flesch wrote, “Why Johnny Can’t Read: And what you can do about it.” The book advocated phonics over the standard reading by sight, often referred to as “Look-say.”

Reading the book reinforced Dickson’s belief that the school district’s stance was wrong. Not only could she see that from the reading scores of her students, but also with her younger brother, David, who struggled with reading. Dickson saw first-hand the impact that had on David’s education.

“I was tuned-in to the problems that come along when a kid can’t read. He was ruined,” Dickson said. “I was looking for a way to fix it, and I found what was wrong.”

She began teaching phonics to her students, and their reading scores improved. Eventually, Dickson was asked to teach reading her way during summer school.

She realized some students struggled because they were tripped up by what she called, “hidden bloopers,” like the difference in the graphic forms of the letters “a” and “g” in written text, and addressed them in her programs.

Throughout the 1960s, Dickson combined her love of music with her love of teaching, sat at her piano and composed the songs for Sing, Spell, Read and Write.

The program went nationwide in the 1970s, and school districts reported improved reading scores by students who participated.

“It’s earth-shaking,” Dickson said of the program’s success.

‘It’s the music’

In 2015, The Tampa Bay Times ran a series on how the Pinellas County School Board in Tampa Bay turned five once average public schools in low-income areas into what it termed, “Failure Factories.”

Searching for help, a grass roots St. Petersburg community reached out to Don Pemberton at University of Florida’s Lastinger Center, an innovative hub that brings together the latest developments in academic research and practice to improve education. Lisa Langley, Lastinger’s chief of staff, along with the UF team, Sue Dickson and her daughter Dianne Dickson-Fix (a retired elementary school teacher in Pinellas County) updated Winning and created Winning Reading Boost for students in grades 2 and up.

The new program involves 36 sequenced steps to independent reading through songs and games and four books.

“Anything we want the kids to memorize is in the songs, because the songs provide the repetition to make the learning fast and easy,” Dickson-Fix said.

The lessons are put to music – rock, rap, country and calypso.

Shakeila Bogle-Duke, who teaches Winning Reading Boost at Mount Zion, said all the students in last spring’s program improved their reading.

“It’s a hands-on approach and it gets them excited to do the stories,” said Bogle-Duke, the Mount Zion teacher. “The stories are not very long, so they get through each part. They’re using the skills and they are reminded about what they just learned to use as a tool for what they’re reading.”

To prevent students from stumbling over words they don’t know, there is not one word in the story that hasn’t already been covered.

“Sue thought it out,” Langley said. “It’s like a shaky foundation for a house. She had to knock that house down and rebuild that foundation.”

Why does it work?

“It’s the music,” Bogle-Duke said.

Sheehy agreed. She said her students don’t have a problem learning Bible verses and pledges when they sing them.

“They are able to memorize this information, and music helps them memorize the sounds,” Sheehy said. “You hear them singing that song later. Eventually, the more they sing it, they start putting the dots together and realize what they are singing. The lightbulb goes on.”

Mendheim, Cee J’s mom, said she was glad when her daughter was asked last spring to join the program.

“I was teaching Cee J to read, but I wanted someone to take it a step forward,” she said. “She was reading, but not how I wanted her to read.”

When told she was in the program, Cee J said her response was, “OK, I’m struggling. I need to practice.”

Cee J continued to read her Winning Reading Boost books over the summer. She even erased her answers so she could take the quizzes over.

Cee J’s reward for improving? A bookshelf in her bedroom and books to put on the shelf.

“It’s really important to read,” Cee J said, “because when you grow up, you have to pay bills and stuff, and you have to know what it says that you have to pay.”

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at