BY JEFF BARLIS
When Deondre Pride transferred to Victory Christian Academy as a junior in high school, it took him all of three days to come to a conclusion.
He told his mom, “This is not the school for me.”
Mom wasn’t having it.
“There was no conversation,” Deanna Joyner recalled. “When he spoke, I ended it.”
Deanna, a single mom, had transferred four of her five children from their neighborhood school in Polk County to Victory Christian in large part because Deondre, her oldest son, was struggling.
The move was only possible because of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, a program that gives low-income parents the ability to access private schools that may be a better fit for their children. In Deondre’s case, the scholarship through Step Up For Students changed the course of his life.
Before the scholarship and the new school, Deanna said, “Deondre kind of got lost in the cracks.”
At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Deondre was a rising star at defensive end for his local public high school – the only sophomore starter on defense. But in that same year his GPA fell to a 2.1.
In his mother’s words, Deondre had “flopped” and was no longer able to balance school with sports.
“He wasn’t mature,” Deanna said. “Big boy, big size, big voice, but he wasn’t mature. He’s always had his hand held to a certain degree.”
Sometimes he didn’t bother to show up for class at his old school. Other times he didn’t take notes, follow instructions or stay awake.
“As long as I’m good in football I don’t have to worry about doing this work,” Deondre recalled thinking.
At his old school, Deondre would serve an in-school suspension if he got in trouble. No classes. Just sit there all day.
Not at VCA.
“Instead of trying to get you out of here,” Deondre said, “they try to get you in here.”
The headmaster at VCA, Karla Collins, had known Deondre’s father, Eugene Pride, and Deanna since they were teenagers. Both were students who struggled in high school.
Deanna called herself a “late-bloomer” who once juggled four jobs in order to get a master’s degree, become a teacher, and give her children a better life. She watched Deondre carefully in high school and feared he was headed down the same road.But with Collins’ hands-on approach, there was no chance of Deondre falling through the cracks.
“He’s in a fishbowl here,” Collins said. “He can’t hide.”
Deondre sensed all of this in his first three days and came up with a plan to go back to his former school.
“I would always come in the morning (to VCA) with the attitude like I don’t want to be here at all,” he said. “I decided to do whatever I’ve got to do to get kicked out of this school for failing.”
Collins recognized a familiar pattern.
“It’s easier to start over than to deal with your issues,” she said, “and we just make them deal with their issues.”
That kind of attention is one of the biggest differences between schools with enrollments of 460 versus 1,500.
Deondre was never taken out of classes at VCA. If he got in trouble, football coach Tommy Lewis would cut his playing time.
“It makes you learn,” Deondre said.
The importance of academics was reinforced when high-profile college football programs started recruiting Deondre. One week he would beam to his friends about a call from a coach at a powerhouse school. The next week the same coach would call back to say Deondre was no longer being recruited because of grades.
“It was heartbreaking,” Deondre said.
By the end of his junior year, a motivated Deondre had a 3.0 GPA and was a force at outside linebacker on Victory Christian’s state champion football team.
Late in the school year, he met with a football coach from Coffeyville, a community college in Kansas. Deondre was offered a scholarship on the spot.
“It was just like, ‘Whew!’ Joy and everything, just so uplifting,” he said. “It felt amazing.”
Fast forward nearly a year and Deondre has a 3.85 GPA in a senior year that has been a model of focus.
In a few weeks he will become the first in his family to graduate from high school and attend college.
Sometimes Deondre thinks about all the ways in which his graduation could have been derailed. He thinks about his father, uncle and cousins. Why weren’t they able to get to college?
“I know for a fact if I had stayed at (his former school) I would not be talking about going to college,” Deondre said. “It probably would have been like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to go to school or go hang out on the corner.’ All my family and friends are in Lake Wales, and they’re the same exact way.”
With feelings of luck, gratitude and accomplishment, there’s no getting the smile off of Deondre’s face these days. His dreams of playing college football and studying agriculture will soon be reality.
He likes to tell his story to younger student athletes at Victory Christian. He likes to impart the biggest lesson he learned — academics come before athletics.
“It’s been a journey,” he said. “Just being here turned me into a man.”
It was all part of Deanna’s plan. Her son, who used to be obsessed with getting football scholarship offers from Division-1 schools, is now a serious student.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s D-1, D-2, or D-3,” she said. “What matters is de-gree.”
Reach Jeff Barlis at firstname.lastname@example.org.