The Turnaround Achievement Awards showcase kids who overcame obstacles to get on a positive path.
By LOGAN MABE
Published April 24, 2004
TAMPA - Julia Cobb Barnes was in a reminiscent mood Friday, talking about Carmen Olmeda-Masso, the teenage girl who had become her star student at Young Middle School.
"Every morning she was like the president of the breakfast club because she was in the in-school suspension class before it even opened," said Barnes, describing Carmen as one of the most obnoxious and hard-headed girls she'd ever known.
And for a decade, Barnes taught school in prison.
"During sixth grade I was the most loud, profane, disrespectful, rude young woman," Carmen admitted. But things changed when Carmen met Barnes, who runs the school district's Connect-A-Kid program, a mentoring and dropout prevention program.
Clutching her gleaming Turnaround Achievement Award plaque, Carmen thanked Barnes for giving her life new direction. "Now I'm a new person with a new vision," the eighth-grader said. "Now I have a future."
Carmen's story was just one of 70 similar accounts of scholastic redemption Thursday night and Friday morning at the Turnaround Achievement Awards for high school and middle school students.
The awards, now in their 18th year, showcase students who have overcome long, often daunting odds to get their lives on a successful track.
Case in point: Hillsborough sheriff's deputy Ken Turner. Turner was a Turnaround Achievement Award winner in 1987, the very first year they were held. Now newly married and successful in his law enforcement career, Turner was a middle school misfit and all-around troublemaker before he won his plaque that year.
Today, he's a member of the department's SWAT team and the vice squad's canine unit.
"Cherish the problems in your life," Turner told the middle school students at his Friday morning keynote address. "Because they make you who you are."
Or consider sheriff's Maj. Elaine White, commander of the Orient Road jail, who grew up in a family of migrant farm workers but managed to earn a scholarship to Florida State University. While attending Haines City High School in Polk County, White saw a future that included "hooking up with a man, living in the Auburndale mobile home park and having some kids. That was it."
Only when a teacher told her, "You can control your own destiny with an education," did she see a way out.
"I struggled through a migrant farm. I struggled through high school. I struggled through college," White said. "But I made it."
Some of the students winning this year's awards have been down harrowing roads just as rocky.
Kids like Armwood High senior John Keasler, whose drug-addicted parents left him a legacy of heroin and hypodermic needles. By the age of 15, Keasler was living under an overpass, "looking for a fix," he said. Now, he's on a college track.
Or King High School's Paul Beach, whose freshman year was marked by an in-class arrest for possession of marijuana. After completing a residential rehab program, Beach got involved with the school's culinary arts team, which just won first place in a statewide competition.
Then there was Jarrod Earle of Riverview High, whose all-F freshman year left him with a perfect 0.0 grade point average. Four years later, he carries a strong B average and takes honors courses.
"I've overcome a lot of obstacles, like being a drug addict," Earle said. "I want to thank everyone who believed in me. This is the first plaque that I've ever gotten that meant something."
Anne Chatfield, supervisor of reading in the district's dropout prevention program, said the key to each student's turnaround was finding a connection with someone, anyone who could get past their rough exterior and touch them in a place that was not yet hardened or hurt.
"Most of the time, it's a connection with a caring adult," Chatfield said. "We live for these moments. It's why we're in this profession, to make a difference."