By RON MATUS
Two years ago, Jordan Massie was lost and hurt. Rocked by turbulence at home, she was skipping school and hanging with the wrong crowd. Drugs swirled around her. At one point, she watched a friend sell OxyContin to a pregnant classmate.
Two years later, the 18-year-old Jacksonville, Fla. student graduated June 2 as the salutatorian of her class. She’s racked up $10,000 in college scholarships.
She sees a future in healing.
Credit a girl with guts, a vow to Grandma, and The Foundation Academy, a school for square pegs that shored up her strength. Credit, too, a scholarship that gave her access to that school and, from there, a real path to living out her dreams.
“People at the school want you to succeed so much. That’s something you’re going to latch on to, whether you want to or not,” Jordan said. “I don’t know how you can still go towards the negative when they want the positive for you.”
The spiral down began in ninth grade. Darkness descended on Jordan’s family – mental illness, domestic violence, jail, death. Relationships frayed and snapped. Over the next few years, she would spend far more time than a teenager should in hospitals, nursing homes, hospices – a girl with emotional wounds, still tending to family members who were hurt or dying.
Jordan said it’s not an excuse, but “I dragged that to school with me, and I went in all the wrong directions.” The girl who was on the honor roll in middle school stopped turning in work, then stopped going to class. Things got even worse in 10th grade.
Then, in the middle of the year, her grandmother died. Months later, she could still hear Grandma’s voice: “Work hard. Stay in school. Don’t get stuck in a dead-end job.”
“I felt like I didn’t get to make her proud while she was here,” Jordan said, “so I needed to make her proud now.”
Jordan didn’t think she could do that at the school she was in. Some teachers there told her she’d never amount to anything. Others just dialed it in. There was, she said, no spark.
She thought back to happier times, to the school she attended in sixth grade. For that one year, before her family moved, she lived next door to a gem: The Foundation Academy, a preK-12 school with 280 students. Thanks to a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, her family could afford to enroll her.
Jordan’s mom, a sales associate at Wal-Mart, loved the school’s understated spirituality. Jordan loved the emphasis on responsibility. She worked with students of all ages on dance and theater productions, and everybody had to do their part.
Jordan couldn’t get a tax-credit scholarship for her junior year; growing demand led to early application deadlines. But the school’s principal, Nadia Hionides, allowed her to attend for $100 a month until Jordan’s mom, Elizabeth Waterman, secured a scholarship through Step Up For Students for 2015-16 school year.
The turnaround was immediate.
“I had not done work in so long, I was actually excited about doing things,” Jordan said.
Among the 1,600 private schools that participate in the tax credit scholarship program, The Foundation Academy is fairly distinctive. It stresses project-based learning and community service, arts and the environment. It sits on 23 acres with an organic garden and an aquaponics pond. It offers Bible study and tai chi.
The mix is perfect, Hionides said, for kids who feel like they don’t fit in.
“The design of our school is because kids generally feel like misfits. But when they come to The Foundation Academy, they see everyone’s a misfit,” Hionides said. “You come in knowing everybody needs help. You just join the team, and you help, and you get help. And it works.”
Returning to The Foundation Academy, Jordan dove back into school work. After a guest speaker at school talked about domestic violence, she found herself writing about it for two hours for a class assignment. She focused her senior project on cancer after her uncle passed away. She organized a blood drive.
She also cut ties to the past, avoiding old friends and keeping her head in the books. “I basically became like a hermit crab,” she said.
When Hionides announced at the senior cookout that Jordan was salutatorian, cheers erupted while Jordan stood speechless. She said she wanted to let the tears roll, but couldn’t allow herself just yet.
No such restraint for Mom. “It was amazing,” Waterman said. “I cried and cried and cried.”
Now Jordan is working on her graduation speech, about how much The Foundation Academy changed her life. “We’ve drawn strength from each other,” she is going to tell her teachers and classmates, “and overcome things we didn’t think we could.”
Jordan is also focused on what’s next. She plans to attend Florida State College at Jacksonville this fall.
She wants to be a nurse.
She said she was inspired by the hospice workers who tended to her uncle. They treated everyone like family. They understood the pain. They radiated calm in the midst of the storm.
That, Jordan said, is who she strives to be.
About Foundation Academy
The Foundation Academy in Jacksonville was founded in 1988, with a mission to “educate children using arts integration in a family-like environment, helping each student become a critical thinker, a lifelong learner, and grow in knowing that God loves them.” It serves 280 students in PreK-12, and currently enrolls 106 students with tax credit scholarships. It is fully accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Tuition is $6,000 for grades K-5, $7,000 for grades 6-8, and $8,000 for grades 9-12. The school administers the Stanford Achievement Test.