Richard Milburn Academy's final class graduates

Published May 21, 2007

PORT RICHEY - The shouting is over. The combatants are separated. And Veronica Caraballo has just a little more to carry on her shoulders.

The 16-year-old, who opted for special course work to graduate early, should be happier than this. The green cap and gown. The academic medals around her neck. The high school diploma in her hand. The adoring classmates and teachers.

Then her brother and her sister's boyfriend almost got into it after Saturday's graduation. There was yelling and drama and chaos.

The kind of chaos that has consumed Caraballo's life. The kind of chaos that comes with a mother in prison and no real home to call her own.

What has she had to overcome to see this day?

"Pretty much what you see here, " the new graduate said, her eyes dark and puffy.

It's the kind of story you hear a lot at Richard Milburn Academy. Or used to, anyway.

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The Class of 2007 is the academy's last.

Pasco County's only charter high school is closing, so these are its last graduates. All eight of them.

This is where kids on the edge of failure went. Maybe they messed up. Maybe the adults in their lives messed up.

Maybe it was both. Either way, for the past five years, this is where kids could get one more shot.

There could have been as many as 25 graduating. But in March the academy said it would close after a long clash with the school district. The students took it hard. Some transferred. Some got their GED.

Some just dropped out.

Eight did not.

"Just like you didn't give up on your education here, you don't give up on life ..." Art Sands, Richard Milburn Academy's area supervisor, told the graduating class at Saturday's commencement, held at Chasco Middle School. "And to all your parents and friends, don't you ever give up. They can make it. They will be successful. They'll go places in life.

"But don't you ever give up on them."

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Theresa Lopez, Erica Olson and April Philpot didn't give up. Neither did Walter Pooley Jr. and Koreen Reth. Nor did Andrea Ricci and Jeremy Wilgus.

Caraballo almost did.

The teen doesn't go into a lot of details. It started, she said, when she was 14. Her mom went to prison. She had to move in with her sister, then her brother, and now a friend.

She always studied, always had good grades. But what's school when there's nothing else?

"Everything fell down for me, " Caraballo said. "I was getting ready to give up. I couldn't take it anymore."

Friends got her through it. And two years ago she left Tampa's Blake High School.

"She probably would have gotten lost in a big school, " said school director Krista Morton. "She wouldn't have had the care of the teachers, who have embraced her and become her surrogate parents."

Caraballo does without a mom or dad. She got herself to school. She graduated a year early with a 3.45 GPA. She works full-time.

"She's more responsible than a lot of adults, " said guidance counselor Brad Grot.

She wants to go to college in Boston and study law. Mostly, she wants a life - just not this one.

"I've been going through so much already, " she said, "at this point nothing can stop me."

Fast Facts:

Richard Milburn Academy

- Graduates: Eight (seven attended Saturday's ceremony; one senior transferred to Mitchell High School and will graduate there.)

- Notable grads: Andrea Ricci graduated without missing a day of school - not in 12 years. Not in elementary school, not in summer school and not at the academy, where she made the honor roll. Jeremy Wilgus wore his cap and gown on Saturday but qualified to graduate in December.

- Closing for good: The charter school's last day for students is Wednesday. The last day for faculty and staff is Thursday - the day the academy closes its doors for good.