The eyes of lawmakers and the lenses of cameras trained on him as he stepped to the podium and told his story.
How he skipped classes almost every day in his neighborhood school. How a private school straightened him out. How a Florida tax credit scholarship made it possible. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the scholarship program.)
“I just felt like I had to do it,” Deion said. “They never got to hear the voice of someone who actually needed the scholarship to go to school.”
Three years later, Deion’s story of hope and opportunity includes moving new chapters. Now 20, he’s working his way through college. He’s also a frequent visitor to Betton Hills School, the tiny Tallahassee school he credits with turning his life around.
“If I didn’t go to Betton Hills,” he said, “I probably wouldn’t have finished school.”
Deion’s early education came on the streets. He was the youngest out there late at night, small and skinny and quiet, hanging around grown men.
To some in his neighborhood, success meant selling dope, and at the age of 8 he occasionally counted the money. He got paid for it a couple of times. Mostly it was just something to do.
With his mom typically working three jobs, including one at night, most days it was up to Deion to get his younger sister and brother ready for school; to and from school; and then fed and put to bed.
Then he went out.
“I knew what I was doing was wrong, but sometimes you’ve just got to make the wrong choices” he said with a twinge of Deep South drawl. “Most of my life that was my life.”
In middle school, Deion sold drugs for a while. He skipped class nearly every day.
“It was a fashion show to him,” said mom, Kedra Lockwood. “He felt school was a place to hide out and basically do what he wanted.”
Somehow, hiding out still resulted in mostly C’s on Deion’s report cards. Kedra wasn’t aware of his rash of truancy until a teacher called late in 8th grade. That’s when she decided to change his school with a Step Up scholarship and, it turns out, the course of his life.
Deion laughs softly at the memory of the transition. He and his mom visited Betton Hills for a tour, and when he saw the green-and-gold uniforms and little classrooms, he said, “I’m not comin’ here!”
A week later, Deion was wearing that uniform – and hating it. He spent the last nine weeks of eighth grade getting in trouble.
“My first day I got like three detentions,” he said. “I used the bathroom without permission. I had my shirt untucked and my pants were sagging. And I cursed at a teacher.”
What surprised Deion the most was he couldn’t hide anymore. If he wasn’t in class, the school called his mom. If he didn’t turn in his work, he heard about it from the teacher.
“It took a little while to get to know him,” said Caroline Accorsini, who was a teacher when Deion arrived in 2011 and is now the school director. “First you’re a teacher, you’re an enemy. Then you start talking to him and letting him have his voice heard, and that helped with some of the growth. Some of it was trust.”
Trust was new territory, but welcome. Street life had become a repetitive dead end that Deion was outgrowing. As he got older, the fights of his youth took a more dangerous turn. He saw shots fired. He saw friends go to jail.
At Betton Hills, no one made a stronger connection with Deion than the new PE teacher, who arrived in his sophomore year. Coach Duane Robinson saw himself in Deion. They came from similar neighborhoods.
“He wanted to prove himself,” said Robinson, now the school vice principal. “He just needed somebody to believe in him and help him.”
Slowly but surely Deion’s magnetic personality and natural leadership ability drew other students into his orbit.
Robinson created a club for the high school boys, and Deion became the leader who organized meetings, fund-raisers, and field trips.
“He became my go-to person,” Robinson said. “Whenever I needed anything, any written work done, computer work done, messages, he made sure the boys toed the line. You could just see a change in him.”
As Deion began to see “Coach” as the father figure he never had, the club’s activities began to inform his outlook on life. Fun trips to the bowling alley and FSU’s outdoor recreation area were balanced by eye-opening visits to the jail and homeless shelter. The club emphasized community service by collecting food for Thanksgiving baskets, and raising money for breast cancer research and children’s Christmas presents.
Betton Hills became Deion’s second home. He stopped going out late with his neighborhood friends, and his grades and behavior became superlative, culminating with all A’s and one B his senior year.
Now he’s at Tallahassee Community College, taking a full load of classes. He studies computer engineering and dreams of opening his own repair store.
But life has never been easy for Deion. He works two fast food jobs to pay for school and help his mother, who no longer works after breaking her neck in a fall last year.
She couldn’t be more proud of the man her son has become.
“I tell him that all the time,” Kedra said. “He could have been in someone’s jail cell. Thank God he’s not. He’s very responsible. He’s very mature.”
Once or twice a week, when he needs guidance or just wants to give his spirits a lift, Deion stops by the school. He helps Coach Robinson with PE class or Mrs. Accorsini in the computer lab. He soaks up the love of the students, who still adore him two years after he graduated.
It gives him perspective.
“People told me I wasn’t going to make it past 16,” he said. “Now I’m a grown man, never been to jail. I’m out here free and I’m living. Man, it’s a blessing.”
About Betton Hills School
Specializing in helping students with learning disabilities and students below grade level, the school had 81 students in grades 1-12 last year, including 49 on McKay Scholarships, 22 on the Step Up scholarship, and five on the Gardiner Scholarship. Inspiration for the curriculum for grades 1-8 comes from the Core Knowledge Foundation, while high school grades use Florida state standards as a guide. With the help of Step Up’s Office of Student Learning, Betton Hills will switch this fall to NWEA’s Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test to track learning growth. Tuition is $8,500 with in-house scholarships awarded by need.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.