Little Catholic school has big impact on Step Up scholar

By JEFF BARLIS

Eventually, Jodi Haley said, she had enough. She felt she had no choice but to remove her son Jessie from his neighborhood school.

She was fed up with his failing grades, crushed every time she saw him cry about school, bewildered by the mysterious headaches he came home with every day.

All of that went away when Jessie got back on track at a little Catholic school, where Jodi credits a scholarship for opening the door.

From left, Pat Carrol, Dr. Anna Adam and Patricia Gutierrez celebrate Jessie Haley’s Turnaround Student award.

In their town of Frostproof, Florida, Jodi said, the neighborhood school just wasn’t working for Jessie, even though it had been a good fit for his three older brothers.

“He was really struggling and it was heartbreaking,” said Jodi, a divorced mother of six who works as a technician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “(My fear was) that he would eventually quit school and then go down a bad path.”

At the end of Jessie’s third grade year, school officials told his mom he would have to be retained because he was so far behind. Around the same time, he was diagnosed with dyslexia. Jodi knew her son needed help, immediately.

Coincidentally, she came across a flyer for St. Catherine Catholic School in nearby Sebring. The principal at the time, Dr. Anna Adam, tested and evaluated Jessie.

Now principal at a Catholic school in New York City, Dr. Adam can vividly recall the anguish on Jessie’s face when she met him. He was sweet and polite, but the uncertainty in his eyes and smile revealed how quiet and painfully shy he could be in the classroom.

“He came in as pretty much a non-reader,” Dr. Adam said. “But I didn’t want to retain him. I think if he would have been retained he would have been absolutely crushed, and we would have lost him. That would have been the end of him. He just would have curled up in a hole and gone away.”

Dr. Adam was confident she and her staff could work with Jessie, and Jodi’s heart soared. Not only had she found the right school, but they also told her about the  income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students that enabled her to afford the tuition.

In the three-building school with its small classes, Dr. Adam and Jessie’s teacher, Katherine Spencer, were able to give him lots of one-on-one attention. Getting him to read was a challenge.

“I felt for him so much,” Adam said. “He would cry and cry, because he tried so hard and just wasn’t getting it. We set up a lot of accommodations and modifications for him (in class).”

In getting to know Jessie, his teachers found out about his love for animals of all shapes and sizes (“We have everything – horses, dogs, and cats and ferrets and guinea pigs,” Jodi said of the rural Haley family home. “But he does like sharks and whales and tigers … things that’ll eat ya.”). They often tied Jessie’s assignments to those interests to keep him engaged and better unlock his abilities.

“We were taking the time to find out about him as a person, not as a student, but as a person at home,” Dr. Adam said. “So when we did ask him to write we made sure it was something that he knew about.”

Improvement came slowly, but Jodi saw progress in Jessie’s first report card. At a meeting with Ms. Spencer, Jodi was overwhelmed with emotion.

“Something finally clicked,” Jodi said. “You could tell he was beginning to understand the concepts and wasn’t freezing up. It was wonderful. I went and thanked the teacher. And hey, I’m crying now because I can’t believe it’s finally happening and he’s doing good, he’s learning now.”

The drive from Frostproof to Sebring and back every day was more than an hour, but worth it. Jessie’s headaches were gone. He no longer cried about homework.

“It was the teachers,” he said. “They would work it through with me step by step.”

Three years later, Jessie graduated St. Catherine’s sixth grade and was honored as the school’s top turnaround student.

“From where he was it was amazing,” Dr. Adam said. “He’s going to always have to work hard, but I think that’s what we gave him – the confidence to know that he could.”

Today Jessie is in 8th grade, back in his neighborhood school – and doing well.

“He made A’s and B’s in his last report card,” Jodi said, “and is determined to make all A’s on his next one.”

About St. Catherine Catholic School

First opened in 2008, St. Catherine is the only Catholic school in Highlands County, and part of the Diocese of Venice. It serves 119 pre-K through sixth-grade students, including 57 on the Step Up For Students scholarship. Principal Jorge Rivera touts the school’s emphasis on technology and writing skills. The school administers the Iowa Test of Basic Skills annually. K-6 tuition is $6,250 a year.

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

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