By JEFF BARLIS
BELLE GLADE, Fla. – When she’s in class, the look on Armani Powe’s face is solemn, focused. She doesn’t harden her gaze intentionally. It happens naturally.
“When it comes to my grades,” she says, “I get really serious.”
Armani, 12, turns quiet and a little withdrawn when asked about the bullying she endured in second grade at her neighborhood school.
“It makes me all sad just to remember it,” she explains with the distance of several years.
Armani had one bully with a band of two or three other boys who delighted in embarrassing her daily. They mocked her crooked teeth, her clothes, hair, backpack. Anything and everything and nothing.
She admits she was an inviting target.
“Looking back at my little self, I was quiet and nice and always doing my work, studying all the time, reading a book in class, and not talking,” she said. “That’s probably why they picked on me.”
The taunting chipped away at her self-image. The worst was how she felt about her teeth. She kept asking her mom when she could get braces, but they were too expensive.
One day, Armani was crying when her mother, Roline Powe, was called early to pick her up. Armani said she didn’t want to go to school anymore. She showed her mom a red hand print on her face where her bully had just slapped her.
That was it.
Roline had requested meetings before, but school officials never filed reports. They always promised they would handle it.
“They just downplayed everything,” she said. “I went in at least five times.”
She felt a nauseating mix of anger and guilt in her stomach. She couldn’t stop thinking about the braces she couldn’t afford.
“It was the most horrible thing to not be able to give your child the care they need,” she said. “But not only was she teased, she was hit! All because of her appearance.”
Determined to fix the situation herself, Roline went to nearby Glades Day School to see if private school could be an option. Everyone in this small town knows about Glades Day and its reputation for preparing children for college, trades, and agriculture careers.
She was nervous when she went in for a meeting. A friend who sent her daughter to GDS had told Roline the price of one year’s tuition, and she nearly buckled.
“I could only dream,” she said.
But it came true when an administrator told her about the scholarship from Step Up For Students. It gives lower-income families the power to choose the school that best suits their children’s needs.
This school year, the state instituted the HOPE Scholarship to give victims of bullying the option to transfer to another public school or to an approved private school as soon as their scholarship is approved.
Roline is glad to see the new scholarship in place. It might have helped prevent some of the trauma Armani endured in the weeks after she was slapped.
“It was the hardest thing getting through that year,” said Roline, who was then a substitute teacher at the neighborhood middle school and now works as an assistant teacher. “There were times I had to take a day off of work, go there, and monitor without her seeing me. I’d watch the playground from the parking lot. Sometimes I picked her up 10 minutes early.”
“It was a journey. She made it through, but if she had remained there, she probably would have needed some therapy.”
As it turned out, Glades Day School was all Armani needed.
Head of School Amie Pitts, herself a graduate of Glades Day, has carefully crafted a safe space for learning. Character isn’t just emphasized, it’s talked about by the student body on a weekly basis.
“Environment is a very big deal, and this is a different environment,” she said. “Our mission is a safe family environment, and I think we do a very good job. We pride ourselves on family. We see it as a partnership between the home and the school to raise great kids who are successful in life.”
There’s a friendly feeling that swirls through the school buildings along with the strong breeze that pushes from massive Lake Okeechobee to the north. The 30-acre campus is buttressed by cane fields to the south and east, and a sugar mill looms large across the street with smokestacks constantly churning. It’s a reminder of a life in the fields that Roline so badly wants her children to avoid.
It didn’t take long for Armani to adjust. She quickly went from tentative to curious about her new school. Soon, she was talking to others without feeling scared. They were small steps.
Every Wednesday, students wear orange shirts that say “Bullying” or “Cyberbullying” in a circle with a slash through it. Every Friday, the student body gathers to talk and lift each other up.
“We talk about kindness first,” Armani said. “People talk about what we do and should do in the world. We get it right.”
By the time Armani started her second year, she was joined by older brother Lorenzo and younger brother Shemar.
“It was the best decision I could have made for my family,” Roline said. “And for Armani, it was a game-changer.”
Roline said Glades Day has made her a better, more attentive parent. She doesn’t just help with homework anymore, she has a presence at the school. Everyone knows her as “Momma Powe.”
“She is extremely engaged,” Pitts said. “She’s here every day. She’s at every single sporting event, comes to all the meetings, reads to her son in the media center. She wants better for her kids, and they’re doing very well.”
Armani is a solid B-student striving for more. She asks for help whenever she struggles with a subject. She wants to be a veterinarian someday.
She feels safe now, settled. She has learned how to be brave and confident.
When she looks back at her little self from second grade, she feels a profound difference that goes beyond her long limbs and strong shoulders. She’s comfortable in her own skin and doesn’t worry about her appearance.
Braces fixed her teeth a couple of years ago, and she must be one of the only pre-teens around who’s excited to get them put on for a second time.
“I have a big, cheesy smile,” she said. “My friends love when I smile.”
She does it all the time. Just not when she’s focused in class.
About Glades Day School
Now in its 53rd year, GDS moved from Pahokee to Belle Glade in 1973. The school is accredited by the Florida Council of Independent Schools. Teachers have an average of 20 years of experience. Nineteen GDS employees are graduates. There are 257 K-12 students, including 94 on Step Up For Students Scholarships. The school has a thriving Agri-science program that’s tied to the Future Farmers of America and features welding, gardening, even a hog pen to train students in Grades 7-12. There are also four computer labs and smartboards in several classrooms. Dual enrollment, Advanced Placement and virtual school courses are offered. The Stanford 10 test is administered every March. Annual tuition is $7,800 for K-5; $8,800 for 6-8; and $9,800 for 9-12 with financial aid available. Transportation is available as far east as Royal Palm Beach and as far west as Clewiston.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at email@example.com.