Building a Bond: USF medical students adopt Carl Sagan Academy as community project

May 22, 2007 Stephen Klasko, MD, MBA, dean of the College of Medicine and vice president for USF Health, hosted a continuation ceremony for eighth-graders graduating from Carl Sagan Academy in the USF Health Auditorium. Dr. Klasko encouraged the students make their dreams a reality — “I’m expecting you to do the impossible.” As 13 students filed across the stage to receive their certificates, photos of them appeared on an overhead screen with their future career goals……computer engineer…artist. The ceremony’s attendees members of the COM Class of 2010, who initiated an ongoing community service intiative at the charter school this year.

Tampa, FL (May 21, 2007) – The Carl Sagan Academy students line two sides of the modest cafeteria, where tables and chairs have been pushed to the edges to make room for a dance floor. Girls on one side, boys on the other.

Students in the swing dance class at Carl Sagan Academy practice a step demonstrated by USF medical student Meaghan Dominy. View Flash Photo Gallery

First-year USF medical students Jeila Alai and Meaghan Dominy take turns demonstrating the steps the preteens and teens need to master at this week’s class. “We’re going to be practicing Lollies (a basic swing dance move) a few times so you’ll get to know how it feels,” says Alai, tapping her high-heeled foot back and forth. “So, it’s 1-2 step, 3-4 step, 5-6 step ….One more time.”

Since early April, Alai and Dominy have been teaching Jitterbug-style swing dancing to more than a dozen students. The medical students are helped by several volunteers from Zendah Grotto Hall where they dance on Sunday nights.

By the second half of the class the students, paired into couples, are laughing and chattering as they spin around the dance floor, arms twisting and untwisting, feet tapping and pivoting. Frank Sinatra’s Ain’t That a Kick in the Head blares from the CD player and sunlight streams through open doors. Meanwhile, Alai and Dominy rotate from couple to couple, repositioning arms and feet and occasionally cutting in to demonstrate a move.

Sixth-grader Elizabeth Martinez, 11, admits she’s never heard of swing or Frank Sinatra and says she tends to favor hip hop and rhythm and blues – but she likes learning something new. “The dancing is fun and energizing. I really hope they come back next year!”

Medical student Jeila Alai pairs up dance partners Jankandre Dyal and Shenita Lawton

Tapping Into Their Potential
Alai and Dominy are just two of the 80 first-year medical students who have shared their time and talent this year at Carl Sagan Academy – a charter middle school in one of the most economically depressed areas of Tampa. The College of Medicine’s Class of 2010 adopted the school as an ongoing community outreach project – one they plan to continue next year and pass along to incoming medical students. They call the project USF STARS – USF Students Tutoring and Role Modeling Students.

In addition to tutoring students for two hours each week, the medical student volunteers have organized a book drive, served as chaperones for field trips, helped update the school’s website, led tours to USF to expose the students to a college campus, and sponsored a health fair for students and their parents with the assistance of the Department of Pediatrics Ronald McDonald Care Mobile.

An elective empowerment course for girls, called Kaleidoscope, helps those who have survived sexual abuse or other trauma. The program emphasizes a healthy body image, etiquette and team building – “tools these young women can use to tap into their potential and build the foundation for a positive future,” said medical student Soha Patel, who teaches the course.

This summer the medical students will seek donations to begin a gardening and school beautification project in the fall, including a mural contest for the Academy’s students.

From Tutors to Mentors
At Carl Sagan Academy, most students struggle academically. Many live in poverty and come from single parent households. Some have fathers in prison or families with violent histories, said Principal Kelly Browning, PhD, who credits STARS with helping raise the school’s academic standing.

“What the medical students have done here is absolutely amazing,” said Browning, a USF criminal justice graduate who wrote a grant to help start the charter school. “I really believe the reason our eighth-graders scored 4.2 on the recent FCAT — above the overall statewide average — is because the USF medical students worked one-on-one with them, starting at whatever level needed to improve their math, reading and science skills.”

Nishit Patel, who serves as co-president of the Class of 2010, said the first-year students decided to collectively volunteer for one community service project instead of diffusing their efforts over several projects. Maria Khambaty and Catherine Hough serve as community service co-chairs for the class.

“We’re trying to hone in on all our classmates’ special talents and enthusiasm to make this project a success and have an identifiable long-term impact in the community,” Khambaty said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to make some meaningful changes through our weekly presence at the school.”

Browning is convinced they already have – not only through tutoring but by exposing her students to opportunities they might not otherwise experience, like swing dancing.

“What started as a tutoring program has evolved into a mentorship in which the kids have bonded with the USF students and really want to please them,” Browning said. “These kids crave attention, and when you give them attention it helps bring their grades up.”

During tutoring breaks it’s not unusual to see the medical students engaged in conversations with their young students. “We’ll go outside, sit on a bench and ask questions about how they’re doing,” said Danish Ahmad, class co-president. “I feel like I can help be a role model.”

Carl Sagan Academy scholar Jasmine Woods (left) with her tutor, USF medical student Nina Paidas.

As Simple As a Pencil and a Willingness to Help
Browning is clearly impressed by students like Ahmad and Nina Paidas, who Browning says she would recruit as a teacher if she wasn’t going to be a doctor. Paidas is quick to emphasize that the medical student volunteers receive as much as they give.

“As medical students, we have the privilege of being role models by default,” Paidas said. “These kids give you a light heart. They bring you back to earth and teach you about a whole other side of life that involves the bare essentials… At this school, which lacks books and supplies, it can be as simple as a pencil and people willing to help you.”

“The best way to touch their lives is to relate to them in a way they can understand… which is something we’ll need to do to help our patients as well.”

Back at the swing class on this sunny April afternoon, boys and girls separate into their respective sides of the room during a break. Alai and Dominy continue to demonstrate dance steps to some interested students. When we visited, they had just two weeks left before the school’s first end-of-the-year dance, where the class would perform a popular new-age swing number, Zoot Suit Riot, for an audience of teachers, parents and fellow students. That night the cafeteria would be transformed into “Club Graffiti” with a “bouncer” at the entrance, a D.J, special lighting and the stark white walls covered with the spray-painted butcher paper decorated by students.

The dance, held on May 11, was by all accounts a rousing success.

“The kids did a fantastic job. I was very proud of them, and hope to be able to take them swing dancing at the Grotto to show off their newfound skills,” Alai said. “It’s difficult to command the focus of a large group of teenagers, but it’s worth it when they finally put together all the little parts we’ve been teaching them … I hope these kids take away a love of swing dancing, or dancing in general. But, most of all, I hope they’ve learned that if they put their minds toward accomplishing something, they can do it!”

The College of Medicine Class of 2010 seeks donations for community outreach projects at Carl Sagan Academy. Your contributions will help fund after-school enrichment classes, health fairs and field trips as well as school supplies and books to augment the library. For more information, please contact one of the community service co-chairs, Maria Khambaty at or (727) 946-0004, or Catherine Hough at or (813) 610-0797.

View a clip of USF medical student Danish Ahmad’s interview with a Carl Sagan Academy eighth-grade scholar Jasmine Burney.

- Story by Anne DeLotto Baier
– Photos by Eric Younghans