All Posts by Jeff Barlis

Adopted siblings thrive in private school after severe neglect in early childhood

Sobel family.

Editor’s note: To mark National Adoption Awareness Month, we highlight the tax credit scholarship that serves children who are or were in Florida’s foster care system.

By JEFF BARLIS

INVERNESS, Fla. – There is no hiding from the nightmarish stories of his early childhood, but Diego Cornelius is grateful to have forgotten most of the details.

Some things he can’t forget, like the time he smelled smoke in their mobile home and woke everyone, saving them, before all of their possessions burned. Or the time he fell from a boat without a life vest, and nearly drowned before his mom jumped in.

Most of the time, he and his sisters were left alone. Their father was gone, their mother addicted to a variety of drugs. Her extended family and boyfriend had lengthy criminal records.

“He always had a struggle to survive,” his adoptive mother said.

These days, 13-year-old Diego is grateful for a lot of things: his younger sisters, Alyssa and Bianca, who look to him as a role model; his former foster parents, who adopted them; and the school choice scholarship that’s allowed them to attend the Catholic school that has embraced them all as family.

X X X

As a foster mom to more than 100 children over the last 22 years, Patricia Sobel knows something about the importance of a caring, structured environment.

That’s why she lit up when she learned about the Step Up For Students scholarship that empowers low-income families to send their kids to the private school of their choice. The scholarship also serves foster children and adopted children who were in Florida’s foster care system.

“I was in shock,” she recalled. “Shock, for two days. I couldn’t believe they were actually eligible for this free education. What a gift!”

When Diego, Alyssa, and Bianca entered Patricia’s life, she realized they were special. Six years ago, they were rescued from a life of severe neglect.

“They were living in a drug house,” Patricia said, her low, soft voice punctuated with warm emotion. “They were in a garage with no running water or electricity. Their teeth were blackened. Their heads were filled with lice. They were so filthy, they had to be bathed at the police station.”

Diego remembers the lice crawling under the tight waves of his reddish-blond hair.

“We had to put mayonnaise in our hair and wear caps over it,” he said. “I still think about that. It means someone is there to care for you and make sure you’re healthy.”

That was just the start. Diego needed a surgical procedure on his eye, and all three children needed counseling and dental work.

For kids who had so little growing up, even small gestures made a big impression.

“If I’m hungry, I just go ask and they ask me what I want,” Diego said. “They make sure we don’t starve. They make sure to protect us. My mom likes to lock the doors each night and make sure the windows are closed.”

“They love us.”

It took time for Diego and his sisters to go from “Pat” and “Chuck” to “Mom” and “Dad,” but now the love is mutual.

X X X

The children have gotten used to the same love and care at Saint John Paul II Catholic School in nearby Lecanto.

“I like the teachers, all of them,” said Alyssa, 11. “They’re kind and they help us.”

Bianca, 10, enjoys learning about religion, something else that was missing in their early years.

None of the siblings attended preschool, and Diego still feels the effects of being behind academically. His biological mother took him to kindergarten for the first week but never brought him back. He doesn’t know why.

When Pat and Chuck sent him to their neighborhood school, Diego was a 6-year-old in kindergarten alongside 5-year-old Alyssa. They remain classmates today.

After a couple of years living in the Sobels’ four-bedroom foster home in Tampa, everything fell into place for adoption. The children’s biological parents no longer had rights to custody. Despite their troubled past, the siblings were vibrant, compassionate, and healthy.

A few months later, Patricia and Charles moved everyone north from bustling Tampa to the rural rolling hills of Inverness to start Don Bosco’s Children’s Home, named after John Bosco, a Catholic saint who dedicated his life to helping disadvantaged youth. The nonprofit had purchased three houses and the lush, tranquil land they sat on. It needed a lot of work – a new roof here, a new air conditioning system there, paint and landscaping everywhere.

Patricia Sobel is executive director of Don Bosco’s Children’s Home in Inverness, Fla.

The Sobels know how to rehabilitate.

Their organization is still getting off the ground. Their goal is to find foster parents to live in the other two houses, to use their home as a blueprint. The need is large and growing.

“I get calls every day to place kids in foster care,” Patricia said.

The number of children entering Florida’s foster care system has risen sharply, and a recent study by the University of South Florida showed a tie to the opioid crisis.

“I’m going to continue taking more children,” Patricia said. “One thing I try to do is get them all in the Step Up For Students program.”

In the three years they’ve lived in Inverness, they’ve sent all 13 of their children to Saint John Paul II. Patricia has fond memories of her biological daughter, Adrienne, attending Catholic schools. More importantly, she feels a small school with a more individually tailored environment is best for her foster and adopted children.

X X X

Earlier this year as a sixth-grader at SJP2, Diego got in trouble for plagiarizing a paper. His teacher was ready to give him an F. The principal intervened.

“He wasn’t trying to do it on purpose, he just had never been taught the proper way,” said Lee Sayago, himself an energetic newcomer at the school.

Diego was upset. Getting all A’s and making the Principal’s List was a borderline obsession from the time he first attended an assembly and saw his high-achieving classmates receive special recognition.

Bianca, Alyssa, and Diego Cornelius are all smiles at Saint John Paul II Catholic School in Lecanto, Fla.

He got a second chance and beamed with confidence when he pulled Sayago aside to show him his new grade – 97, the highest score of anyone in Grades 6-8.

“It could have been a negative experience,” Sayago said, the corners of his eyes creased with pride. “But the way he handled it was amazing.”

Diego is in the midst of a growth spurt. He loves sports that involve running and lifts weights regularly in hopes of getting “six-pack” abs. After a couple of years of falling just short, he’s made all A’s.

“It’s amazing what a little nourishment and love can do,” Patricia said. “It comes from the home and the school, and then they just grow and blossom.”

About Saint John Paul II Catholic School

Opened in 1985 as part of the Archdiocese of St. Petersburg, St. John Paul II is the only Catholic school in rural Citrus County. The school serves 205 K-8 students, including 81 on Step Up For Students scholarships. SJP2 is a candidate school for the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme and is pursuing authorization as an IB World School. The school administers the MAP Growth test three times a year as well as the Terra Nova Spring test. Annual tuition is $6,645 for K-5 and $6,945 for 6-8.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

Military family on mission to raise awareness for Gardiner scholarships

The Gardiner Scholarship has been a lifeline for the Laurie Guzman and her son Ezra, diagnosed with autism.

By JEFF BARLIS

TAMPA, Fla. – Two months after her son was diagnosed with autism, Laurie Guzman felt broken and defeated, exhausted from searching for the right school.

A scholarship made her whole, if only for a short time.

Ezra was a tall, slender 4-year-old when he and his mom took a tour of LiFT Academy, a private school in Seminole that serves children with special needs.

Meeting the school’s executive director, Ezra furrowed his brow and narrowed his deep brown eyes.

“I’m a bad boy,” he stated as a matter of fact, “so I know you won’t let me come here.”

Kim Kuruzovich, equal parts caring mother and wizened educator, was stunned.

“There are no bad children,” she said, her voice raising an octave. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh, no,” Ezra said, “my teacher told me that. I’m a bad boy. That’s why I got kicked out of school.”

Kuruzovich knelt down to meet Ezra’s gaze and put her hands on his shoulders.

“You are not a bad boy,” she said. “You’re a great boy.”

She turned to Laurie and insisted Ezra enroll, if for no other reason than to learn he’s not bad.

Instantly, Laurie felt a great dam of tension burst with relief. She knew LiFT was where Ezra needed to be.

“I cried on the way home,” Laurie said. “It was heartbreaking. That was the first time I had heard him say he was a bad boy. We don’t use that in our house, so I knew where it was coming from.”

Ezra was 2 when his father, Air Force Sgt. Luis Guzman-Castillo, got orders to move to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Two years later, Ezra’s explosive meltdowns had left whole classrooms trembling in his wake. Laurie was told to find a new preschool.

The diagnosis followed, but it didn’t bring clarity or relief. Instead, raw fear galloped through every synapse of Laurie’s mind as she drove home from the doctor’s office in a daze.

“I knew nothing about anything with autism,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do, where to go, nothing.”

She knew that Ezra was bright and verbal at an early age. She and Luis taught him with flash cards when he was 6 months old.

Ezra was so sweet and charming. Laurie could get lost in his eyes in one moment and then watch storm clouds gather in another.

The meltdowns were devastating. Kicking, screaming, crying, and sometimes running.

“They’re about 45 minutes,” Laurie explained, “and I’d be melting down with him by the end.”

She quit her job as a bank branch manager to stay home with Ezra and his little brother, Elijah. Laurie’s sister, who had two sons with autism back in their home state of Alabama was helpful. But there was so much to learn, it was easy to feel overwhelmed and lonely.

LiFT Academy broke the spell.

One of the tenets of the school is that parents are the experts on their children, so engagement is high. Kuruzovich, who has a daughter with autism, has an inviting way of sharing 20-plus years of experience with parents who are just learning how to navigate this world.

She told Laurie about the Gardiner Scholarship, a state program that allows families with children who have special needs to pay for therapy, tuition and other education-related services of their choice.

“The Gardiner Scholarship literally changed our lives,” Laurie said. “It made it so we are actually able to breathe. It gave me hope that my son can get help and learn like every other kid. I didn’t know that was going to be possible.”

Ezra felt more comfortable right away. He made friends. One teacher wondered if he really had autism.

Just wait, Kuruzovich said.

“When we saw it, it was pretty big,” she said of the inevitable first meltdown. “But it’s not a negative.”

That was the biggest relief to Laurie, who used to lose sleep worrying Ezra would get kicked out the next time he knocked over a desk. But at LiFT, the teachers, administrators and his therapists all know how to avoid and defuse meltdowns.

One year later, Ezra is in first grade, studying at a second-grade level. He even represented the school recently when some business people came to visit, telling them: “I love this school because I’m really safe. I can be who I am. People like me here.”

With structures in place at school and a home, everything was going well. Laurie had a plan to go back to work.

Then Luis’ new orders came. They’re moving to Alabama in January.

“Ezra is about to experience the biggest transition of his life,” Laurie said. “And he doesn’t do well with transition anyway. His school is going to change. His friends are going to change. His support is going to change. All of that keeps me up at night.”

Laurie has family in Alabama, but there is no special needs scholarship. The school she found charges $8,000 for tuition – paid up front. It’s a price tag that would make any working-class family swoon.

A proposal in the U.S. House of Representatives to create education spending accounts for some military families would have helped the Guzmans, but the House Rules Committee did not include it for a vote in May.

Rather than panicking, Laurie feels herself rising to the challenge of helping to create a scholarship.

Now, she’s the one with marching orders.

“We were meant to come to Tampa,” she said. “We were meant to get the diagnosis. We were meant to come to LiFT. And I am meant to go to Alabama and make the difference I can make.”

“That’s my mission, to talk to people eye to eye and say what we need, what would help. I’ll say, ‘Look at a mother and a father who got a diagnosis that was completely devastating, thinking our lives were over. And they’re not.’ ”

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

Scholarship, private school led a tormented girl to happiness

By JEFF BARLIS

MIAMI – It’s hard to miss Nicole Meneses at Pneuma Christian Academy. If she’s not front and center in every photo on every social media post, she’s stealing the show with her exuberance.

Her smile, so wide it almost looks painful, is full of braces. But she doesn’t have the slightest hint of self-consciousness.

“I’ve come a long way,” she said. “I’m thankful every day to be here.”

The happiest student at the school says you wouldn’t recognize her before Pneuma. She was bullied, depressed, and hated going to her neighborhood school.

Then her mother found out about a scholarship that would change their lives, and that led them to Pneuma.

What started as teases and taunts in first grade, turned into a campaign of insults and exclusion in second grade. Nicole’s school was a half-mile walk from the villa where she lived with her parents and older sister. It was a large, newly built K-8 with more than 1,500 students. She felt lost.

“They said I was ugly, fat, dumb,” she said, recalling the boys and girls who tormented her daily.

She hid in bathrooms or found an empty classroom to cry in. It was a sprawling checkerboard of a campus with green squares between each building. There were lots of places to hide.

“If it was during class, I would ask to get water and then go walk,” she said. “I would call my mom to leave early, and I’d go home and cry to her.”

“I hated it. It was so stressful, I couldn’t concentrate. I almost failed second grade.”

Every day, Nicole tried to find an excuse to not go. Her mom, Rosalaris Perez, started sweetly singing a song of sarcastic encouragement in Spanish:

I’m tired
I’m sleepy
My foot hurts
My stomach hurts
My head hurts
I don’t want to go to school
I don’t want to go to school

Nicole’s response was always the same: “OK, Mom, it’s a beautiful school, but only for skinny girls.”

Her self-esteem was in shambles.

“I didn’t hate myself,” she said, “but I felt different. I was just living with a lot of sadness in my life.”

With every tearful afternoon, Rosalaris, an affectionate and fiery Cuban immigrant, grew more frustrated. She saw Nicole’s report cards littered with F’s, D’s and C’s and went in to complain about the bullying. There was always a language barrier. Once, her temper flared, and she was escorted off campus.

She knew what had to be done.

A year earlier, Nicole’s older sister also needed a way out of her neighborhood high school. She struggled so badly and got so depressed, she attempted suicide.

Rosalaris felt trapped. She worked part-time as a receptionist and clerk at a physical therapy clinic. Her boyfriend – Nicole’s father Carlos Meneses – was a swimming teacher. They couldn’t afford private school. Then an acquaintance told them about the Step Up For Students scholarship that helps low-income families afford tuition.

After applying, Rosalaris got a list of nearby schools and went through it alphabetically until she found Pneuma. It’s a small school surrounded by two large green fields and filled with bright colors and warm, caring teachers inside.

Nicole Meneses, center, is a mainstay on Pneuma Academy’s Facebook page.

While she was in second grade struggling, Nicole saw how much happier her sister was and how quickly she turned herself around. Nicole was overjoyed when her scholarship was awarded. In third grade at Pneuma, a sense of relief washed over her. She achieved honor roll throughout the year.

Making friends wasn’t as easy, because she was nervous at first. But soon she let her guard down, made friends, and found a home. There were no more excuses in the morning – Nicole was in love with going to school.

Sometimes, on mornings she feels tired, she sings her mom’s song to herself. It’s something she laughs about now.

“I’m thankful every day,” she said. “Here, they always talk about how important it is to love yourself. I accept myself now, and I love myself just the way I am.”

It shows up every day. It’s the way she helps other students. It’s pushing herself to new heights, like singing in front of the school.

“She’s a star here,” principal Yohanna Ramirez said. “She’s so happy. She’s not the same student. She’s a leader. She’s confident now, and we can see it.”

What Rosalaris sees is Nicole comes home happy every day. It’s a profound change, one that’s more welcome than the academic honors that continue to roll in.

“I prefer my daughter’s happiness over straight A’s,” she said, trying to hold back tears. “I get emotional, because if there is no Step Up for me, there is no Pneuma for Nicole.”

About Pneuma Christian Academy

Opened in 2009 and affiliated with non-denominational Pneuma Church, the school expanded from its roots as an online and homeschool hub to serve pre-K through 12. There are 92 students enrolled, including 75 with Step Up For Students scholarships. Curriculum includes Bob Jones University Press and Ignitia for elementary school. The elementary school is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Pneuma administers the MAP Growth test three times a year. Tuition is $7,031.75 for Kindergarten and 1st grade; $7,119.75 for 2nd-5th; $7,265.50 for middle school; and $7,414 for high school.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org

Scholarship helps smiles return for student and her parents

Editor’s note: This story was originally posted on redefinED on February 10, 2017.

By JEFF BARLIS

Maria and Marcos Verciano will never forget the anguish over their daughter’s struggles in third and fourth grade. That’s why they’re so grateful for the scholarship that changed their lives.

At first it was the D’s and F’s on Hadassa’s report cards that raised their concern. Then the poor progress reports, all of the meetings at their neighborhood school in Destin, Florida, being told Hadassa wasn’t on track to make the next grade level – it all added up to a serious strain on the family.

Hadassa’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis didn’t do much to change her path, either.

Hadassa Verciano, 12, has improved her academics at Rocky Bayou Christian School in Niceville, Fla. “It’s way easier to learn,” she said. “If you don’t understand something the teachers explain it really well.”

Hadassa Verciano, 12, has improved her academics at Rocky Bayou Christian School in Destin, Fla. “It’s way easier to learn,” she said. “If you don’t understand something the teachers explain it really well.”

“They just set her apart and gave her more time to do the tests, but nothing more than that,” Maria said. “It was so sad for me, for her dad and for her, because she felt different from the other students. She felt like she was not accepted.”

“It was kind of overwhelming to think that she wouldn’t make it to fourth and fifth grade, that this was going to be her life forever. It was a very bad feeling that she was always behind.”

When Hadassa’s normally bright spirit and enthusiasm for school turned to dejection, her parents knew they had to make a change.

A Step Up For Students scholarship empowered them to do it.

The couple had always dreamed of sending Hadassa to a private school, but with Marcos’ work installing pavers and Maria’s job managing a beach house, they could never afford it. At their small Brazilian church, they found out about Rocky Bayou Christian School, a place that caters to all manner of students with different educational needs.

At Rocky Bayou’s Destin campus, principal Joe Quilit told Maria about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which helps lower-income families afford tuition. She applied, but it was too late in the school year. All of the scholarships had been awarded. Continue reading

School choice gave this educator a LiFT

By JEFF BARLIS

SEMINOLE, Fla. – Kim Kuruzovich’s daughter Gina has moderate autism, speech apraxia and dyslexic tendencies. She began a suite of therapies at age 2, then, at age 4, saw a psychologist for an educational evaluation.

The expert wasn’t encouraging.

“He told us, ‘You can look forward to Gina putting pencils in a box,’ ” recalled Kuruzovich, who has more than 20 years of experience teaching students with disabilities.

Kim Kuruzovich, an educator with more than 20 years experience in public, private and home schools, is executive director of LiFT Academy, a private school for students with special needs. Of 130 students, 124 attend with help from state-supported school choice scholarships.

Kim Kuruzovich, an educator with more than 20 years experience in public, private and home schools, is executive director of LiFT Academy, a private school for students with special needs. Of 130 students, 124 attend with help from state-supported school choice scholarships.

She and husband Mike drove home in stunned silence. It took a couple of months, but they snapped out of the haze and chose to ignore that doctor. It was the start of Kuruzovich learning to trust her instincts as a parent as much as she trusted her instincts as an educator.

Now, 19 years later, Kuruzovich is executive director of a private school built on those instincts.

LiFT, which stands for Learning Independence for Tomorrow, opened in 2013 with 17 students and five unpaid teachers who wore every hat imaginable. Today, it operates on two spacious, tree-lined church campuses. They serve more than 130 students with special needs, 124 of whom attend thanks to state-supported school choice scholarships.

“I never, ever wanted to go into administration. Ever,” Kuruzovich said. “I only ever wanted to be a teacher. I love teaching. I love seeing the kid get it and feel good about themselves.”

“What I found is I still get it as an administrator, but I get it in a bigger way. Now it’s not just my classroom, it’s every kid in this school.”

Before LiFT, Kuruzovich had taught in public, private and home schools. Her passion and talents helped make LiFT possible.

So did school choice.

Three state-supported scholarships – the McKay Scholarship, a voucher for students with disabilities; the Gardiner Scholarship, an education savings account for students with certain special needs such as autism; and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students – allow many LiFT parents to access a school they wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise. Step Up For Students helps run the Gardiner and Florida Tax Credit scholarships. But those scholarships also opened doors for Kuruzovich and her colleagues. It gave them power to create a school that could best serve those parents – and sync with their own visions of what a school should be.

In Florida, where school choice is becoming mainstream, more and more educators like Kuruzovich are walking through those doors.

***

It’s the first week of the school year, and Kuruzovich is in peak form – gliding through hallways and classrooms, a fast-talking, wise-cracking, blond blur of smiles and warmth.

The sheer number of inside jokes she shares with her students highlights how deep her connection runs with each of them.

Kuruzovich leads a robust faculty of 40-plus and oversees two growing programs – K-12 LiFT Academy and a four-year post-secondary transition program called LiFT University.

There’s also a post-graduate program so new it doesn’t have a name.

What it does have is Gina, its first enrollee.

“It’s a pilot program,” Kuruzovich said, “and she’s the pilot.”

Look beyond Gina’s darker hair, eyes and complexion, and you’ll see mom’s smile and bubbly charm. Kuruzovich began teaching special ed years before Gina was born, but her daughter has been the inspiration behind most everything at LiFT.

There isn’t anything Kuruzovich hasn’t done and seen from the perspective of both teacher and parent, which explains one of her guiding philosophies at LiFT: “Parents are the experts.”

As a strong-willed public school teacher, Kuruzovich craved autonomy and often bucked administration to work directly with parents. But being a parent changed the way she thought about teaching. She had experienced the system from both sides and learned the importance of listening to parents.

When Gina was in public school, Kuruzovich wielded her knowledge of the IEP Matrix like a magic wand. She knew how to get what was needed. She was the parent who didn’t back down.

“I want to make sure my kids get everything they deserve and have the right to get,” she said. “And I want that for every kid here, too.”

“There are a lot of people who don’t have that knowledge. So if you don’t go out and figure it out yourself or have a background, you’re stuck. And that’s sad. Not everybody has the resources that I had, the background that I had to make good decisions.”

That explains the tightness of the LiFT community. Collaboration and engagement are wired into the walls.

“It’s not a cookie cutter,” said Betsy Torop, whose son was in the first class to graduate LiFT University last May and whose daughter is now a senior in LiFT Academy. Both attended public schools, and they eventually ran into the limits of what those schools could provide. “There’s a particular willingness to talk about what the child needs and to make that change. Kim set that tone.”

***

After years of navigating public school as a mom and becoming entrenched in the advocacy community, it was finally time to return to teaching.

Kuruzovich spent six years at a private school, where she valued the freedom to do things differently. Gina was enrolled, too. They became close with several of the moms and children with neurodiversities who were the same age as Gina.

When the school struggled with administrative issues (and eventually closed), a parent asked Kuruzovich to home-school her child along with Gina. Another urged her to open a school.

Kuruzovich and some of her mom friends there had already been working on a business plan for a transition program named LiFT University that would serve their kids and others after high school. But with some of their kids in 11th grade, suddenly there was a need for a K-12 school instead.

LiFT Academy was born six weeks later.

“We basically went online,” Kuruzovich said, “and searched for ‘How do you open a private school in Florida?’ ”

Fast forward six years. Last spring, Gina walked with the first graduating class at LiFT U. Like her two classmates, she has a job, strives to live as independently as possible, and wants to get out of her parents’ house.

That’s Kuruzovich’s next goal – a long-term living community for young adults, which could also offer a residence for LiFT University students. It’s not something she ever foresaw, but Kuruzovich has learned to listen to the universe.

As always, Gina is the guide. If she wants it, it means there are others who do, too. She works four days a week at a retirement community and spends every Friday at LiFT, working with her post-grad teacher on their craft and design microbusiness. She goes out to movies with friends, goes on dates, uses ride-sharing services frequently.

“Things I always wanted for my daughter, I’ll fight tooth and nail for them,” Kuruzovich said, “but could she really do them? Turns out, yeah.”

“She certainly can do more than put pencils in a box.”

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

From bullied and failing to Hope, honors and college

By JEFF BARLIS

Sheila James and daughter Adaijah Jackson are all smiles at Hope Academy.

GROVELAND, Fla. – The sign at their church trumpeted the opening of a new private school:

HOPE ACADEMY
NOW ENROLLING

For Adaijah Jackson and her mother, Sheila James, the word Hope was all they saw.

“It was an answer to prayer,” Sheila said, smiling and shaking her head at the memory. “The timing was just perfect.”

Adaijah (pronounced Ahd-asia) was desperate to leave the neighborhood school where she had nearly failed 10th grade.

Sheila was a single mom with two children and a job working the overnight shift at a convenience store. She never thought she could afford Hope. But the school told her about the Florida Tax Credit scholarship from Step Up For Students that covered tuition.

“It changed our lives,” she said. “I wish I would have known about the scholarship earlier.”

As a child, Adaijah was very bright and happy. You couldn’t miss her gleaming eyes and deep dimples, because she smiled all the time. She was a sensitive soul at 10, and her life was thrown into turmoil when her great grandmother died, and her parents split a few months later.

That’s when Sheila and her kids moved to Miami to live with her parents. Adaijah had been a strong student in a small PK-5 charter school in Orlando, but suddenly she was finishing fifth grade in a new neighborhood and a much larger school.

“It was the worst thing ever,” she said, recalling the confusion she felt walking into classrooms with two or three times the number of students she was accustomed to.

They lived in Miami for just eight months before moving back north to Minneola, about 30 miles west of Orlando. But the switch to large neighborhood schools had just begun, and Adaijah continued to feel like an outsider, even with a clean slate at the start of middle school.

“I didn’t know anyone,” she said. “It was hard to fit in with a large group of people.”

That’s when the bullying began.

“They used to call me bad names – fat, chubby, short,” she said. “They made fun of my natural hair. I have curly, kinky hair sitting up on my head, and it’s really poofy. I grew up loving my hair.”

She switched to extensions, wigs and weaves. Anything to try to fit in.

She found no friends among the girls, and the boys were merciless. They catcalled when she ate lunch and when she tried to exercise in PE class.

“It was torture,” she said. “They wrecked my self-esteem.”

Adaijah went from A’s and B’s in sixth grade to B’s and C’s in eighth. High school, with more than 2,000 students, was worse. She kept to herself for most of her freshman year, but her desire for acceptance took on more urgency, and she settled for any friends she could get.

They skipped class constantly and hardly studied. At home, Adaijah was angry all the time, talking back and getting in petty fights with younger brother Adrian.

She wasn’t herself. Her GPA bottomed out at 1.3. It was time for a change.

“I could not go back for my junior year,” she said. “I knew I was either going to be arrested or get pregnant. I was not going to make it to college.”

Hope Preparatory Academy in Groveland, Fla., opened in 2016.

Then she found Hope.

Adaijah and her brother were among the first of 25 students to enroll. Everyone was smiling again.

Though she was quiet and guarded at first, Adaijah knew she belonged. She felt safe and comfortable. With only a handful of classmates, she got to know her teachers personally, just how it was at her charter elementary school.

She bought in to everything – even the dress code and no-cellphone policy. She recovered some lost credits, turned her grades completely around, and became a role model to the younger students.

Principal Eucretiae Waite and her staff had a hard time connecting this Adaijah to her past.

“We couldn’t believe that she was really struggling, but of course we saw the transcript,” Waite said. “She came here and was just phenomenal. We figured it was just because we’re a small school and she got more attention.”

“She was willing to help in the classroom and outside the classroom. She would stay after school. We would have to literally take her home sometimes. Like, ‘Adaijah are you going home today?’ ”

In two years at Hope Academy, Adaijah got all A’s and one B and graduated last spring with honors. Teachers and administrators had promised to get her ready for college, and together, that promise was fulfilled.

Adaijah was accepted to South Florida, Florida International, Florida Atlantic and Southeastern among others. But she decided to attend Tallahassee Community College. She started in August and is loving the confidence that has come with her newfound independence.

She plans to stay at TCC for two years before going to Florida State to study physical therapy.

Why not go straight to one of those universities?

“I wasn’t ready for a four-year school,” she said. “I like the smaller setting.”

Adaijah didn’t just survive her rocky roads, she learned from the bumps. She’s planning to build a business in Houston or Atlanta someday, and she knows just the steps to get there.

“I’ve always thrived in small situations,” she said. “So for me to even think about big cities … it’s like, ‘Whoa, you are really growing.’ ”

Thanks, in part, to finding Hope.

About Hope Preparatory Academy

Opened in 2016, the school is affiliated with non-denominational Hope International Church in Groveland. It has 76 students in grades 6-12, 63 of whom use Step Up For Students scholarships. The school uses the Edgenuity curriculum with an emphasis on college prep courses. The Terranova 3 test is administered annually, and high school students also take the SAT and ACT. Tuition is $6,300 for grades 6-8 and $6,700 for grades 9-12.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

Choosing the right school helped turn tragedy into triumph

By JEFF BARLIS

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – In the damp, rising heat of a late-morning graduation ceremony in May, with historic Farragut Hall as a backdrop, a hush crept through the crowd of students, relatives, friends, and faculty as they anticipated the next name.

Marquis Lambert

The roar was pent-up and prolonged, louder than one family could possibly deliver. This was the sound of the entire Admiral Farragut Academy family cheering and tearing up for the senior who 10 months prior had been a celebrated football player one day and was fighting for his life in intensive care the next.

As Marquis walked slowly across the stage to receive his diploma with a shy, child-like smile, parents LaTaura Blount and Mark Lambert swelled with joy, gratitude, pride, and even some disbelief.

Marquis at Admiral Farragut Academy graduation with parents Mark Lambert and LaTaura Blount.

“This almost didn’t happen for us,” LaTaura said.

Memories washed over them in waves.

Four years ago, a Florida tax credit scholarship made it possible to join the Farragut family. It was the perfect fit. Marquis dreamed of a future in football. His parents dreamed of an academic turnaround after their oldest son was just getting by in his neighborhood school with a C average.

“The standards, the rules, and the curriculum … I knew it would be a fresh start,” said LaTaura, who had heard about the Step Up For Students scholarship from a friend.

She was 16 when she had Marquis. She and Mark were kids trying to grow up. She worked jobs as a nursing home caregiver, a teacher and a pharmacy technician. Mark delivered phone books and traveled frequently.

Their home was as warm as their smiles, with three boys, plenty of noise and laughter. But money was always tight.

That’s why Mark and LaTaura always instilled the importance of academics. They didn’t go to college, but their children would.

“Sports can be taken away, but nobody can take away what you’ve learned and what you’ve earned,” LaTaura preached.

For football-crazy Marquis, the message only landed when it was echoed by coaches, peers and college recruiters. As he added muscle to his lean 5-foot-10 frame, he soared to a 3.7 GPA in his junior year. His dream (and his parents’) was coming into focus.

“He’d been playing football since he was little, and he had this expectation his entire life,” said Angie Koebel, who is Academic Services Director at Farragut and a doting school mom to Marquis. “That was his ticket out. He started thinking about his grades and doing better and changing, growing up.”

His coaches saw it, too.

There were only a handful of seniors on Farragut’s 2018 football team, and they were as close as brothers. Early in the spring, Marquis was the only one without a scholarship offer.

“We sat down and made a plan,” head coach Rick Kravitz said. “He worked his butt off to make himself a very good player, a recruitable player. He went from having no offers to 12 offers in a three-week period. It was just beginning to pick up even more when he had the accident.”

Marquis was driving to football practice on July 17, 2017 when a gold SUV cut in front of him. He swerved on the wet pavement, skipped over a curb and wrapped his car around a tree.

The fire department had to use the Jaws of Life to free Marquis from the wreckage.

The scene was horrific. Marquis was pronounced dead after paramedics arrived. But a nurse who was driving by and heard the crash from afar, stopped and noticed his fingers moving. Without her intervention – oxygen and the fire department’s Jaws of Life – Marquis would not have lived.

He had a traumatic brain hemorrhage, a broken neck, a torn meniscus in his knee, nerve damage in his arm, and was in a coma for two weeks. He spent 41 days in the hospital.

He wasn’t alone for a minute. Mark and LaTaura stopped working to be by his side every day. Marquis’ closest friends – the senior football players – and his position coach visited daily. Coach Kravitz and three teachers visited regularly.

The Farragut family rallied.

“They made sure we had food, donations came in (through a GoFundMe page),” LaTaura said, “and being there mentally for us was the biggest thing, because I wasn’t there at all. I was in pieces.”

When Marquis started to wake up, he wasn’t himself. Intense pain made him angry. He lashed out verbally and physically. It was hard for everyone to watch. LaTaura cried every night. But her boy was alive.

“I don’t remember anything,” Marquis said. “They had me on a lot of medicine. I remember my parents telling me I was acting funny. I was cussing a lot, being loud. Nurses were aggravated.”

Therapy – physical, speech and occupational – was grueling. But in August, just as he was getting out of a wheelchair and starting to walk, a birthday party in the hospital cafeteria lifted Marquis’ spirits. The entire football team came as a surprise.

“That’s how much he was loved,” Kravitz said.

The party inspired Marquis. He worked harder in therapy. He wanted out of that hospital, and there was a bigger goal – the first football game of the season.

Administrators at Farragut said not to rush, but everyone had their hopes up. On the day of the game, Marquis got out, had his hair cut and went to the stadium. In the locker room, he saw they had retired his jersey, put his No. 3 on helmet stickers, and didn’t allow anyone to use his locker.

“It meant a lot,” he said.

He put on his jersey, prayed with his team and led them out.

“They announced one of the captains would be Marquis,” LaTaura said, recalling her surprise at the reaction. “It was kind of a sad moment. Everybody started crying. The parents knew what was going on, but they hadn’t seen him. They were expecting him to be in a wheelchair.”

Marquis came out in a golf cart, smiling. He walked to the middle of the field to gasps and did the coin toss. In the Disney version of this story, Farragut would play its most inspired game and win big. But that didn’t happen. Real life is more complex, and Marquis had a hard time not being on the field for his senior season. Coach Kravitz explained why recruiters stopped calling.

“There was a lot of sadness watching everybody play,” Marquis said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get back out there.”

Despite a rigorous schedule of therapy, Marquis was determined to get back to school and graduate with his class.

Football was over, but he turned his determination to school and graduating with his class. Juggling therapy and school, he improved at both. By the end of the year he was going to physical therapy just once a week and no longer needed help in class. He was accepted to St. Petersburg College, where he starts Aug. 14 with a full class load and a plan to become a pharmacist.

Graduation was an inspiration to so many at Farragut, but Marquis had a different perspective. He calmly soaked it all in, felt the love, and was proud he accomplished his goal. He just wanted to be with his classmates and feel normal.

It was the same thing at prom a few weeks earlier.

“I had a good time,” he said. “Music, dancing, laughing, good talks with friends.

“I’m glad I didn’t miss it.”

So is the Farragut family.

About Admiral Farragut Academy

Opened in 1945 as the second campus of its namesake in New Jersey, is one of only two honor naval schools in the country and is re-accredited annually by the U.S. Department of the Navy. Last year, the school served 457 PreK-12 students, including 38 on Step Up For Students scholarships. The school annually administers the Terra Nova 3 test to students in grades 2-7 and the PSAT to students in grades 8-11. Tuition is $13,000 annually for Kindergarten, $16,300 for Grades 1-5, $18,900 for Grades 6 and 7, and $23,300 for high school. Payment plans and financial aid are available.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.