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Kids turn expectations, Bard's words into something grand

Published January 5, 2007


Expect more.

Expect fifth- through eighth-grade students to go to school 11 hours a day, six days a week, 11 months a year.

Expect them to start their days at 7:30 a.m. with a convocation. Expect them to say "sir" and "ma'am," and expect their posture to be exemplary. Expect their days to wend into the night, if that's what it takes.

Expect them to master Shakespearean English and perform Romeo and Juliet.

Expect more from the students at Academy Prep's Tampa campus, and then marvel at the results. Immersed in intense test preparations and longing for the holidays, the kids still found time for an enchanting stage production.

And the kids, not the teachers, insisted the performance include the original complex verse Shakespeare wrote more than 400 years ago.

"It was tough at first but then once we got into it, it came naturally," said Imani Smith, who played Juliet last month in the modernized production. "You put your own character and your own feelings into it."

The play, which incorporated the Ybor City school's step team and used hip-hop music to segue between scenes, flooded Academy Prep's small auditorium with inspiration.

Parents and visitors walked away overwhelmed by the boundless potential of these inner-city kids. You realized they're capable of anything when they're challenged and motivated.

"I thought they were going to be on stage reading their scripts, that they weren't going to memorize their lines," drama teacher Kristy Craig said. "Within probably seven or eight rehearsals, the scripts were out the window. They absolutely exceeded my expectations. They always do."

Craig came to the school as an AmeriCorps volunteer four years ago. Her plan was simple: stay for 10 months and help the struggling urban kids reach the level of average middle class white students.

Plans change. Craig gave up her pursuit of a New York acting career largely because the students have stolen her heart and changed her life.

"Within three months of being here, we all, as the Academy Prep staff team, put the bar way up here and made the expectation that they were going to rise above that," Craig said. "I was shocked to realize how quickly after I got here, that if I say you're going to memorize a two-page monologue, they say, 'Yeah, I can handle that.'

"We never waver from that."

Of course, administrators use more than eloquent soliloquies to measure student success. The students who started in fifth grade four years ago were below grade level.

Now they test at 10th and 11th grade levels. Overall attendance is 98 percent.

What the school needs, however, is more mentors from the African-American and Hispanic communities.

"It's important that the students see successful adults who are minorities," said director of development Betsy Draper.

Contact Draper at (813) 248-5600, or go to for more information.

Soon the students will set the example. Harris, a seventh-grader, will choose from a list of prep schools when she leaves next year.

"I love it here," Harris said. "Who doesn't love it here? We're challenged to our potential. It just all works together."

It works for one simple reason: Expect more, and you will get more.

That's all I'm saying.

[Last modified January 16, 2007, 09:53:52]

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