Embracing success

Sylvia Corrica intervened at her daughter's school and helped a group learn about life.

Published May 24, 2007

Jessica Baker picks a slip of paper from the basket and reads out loud. "Who are three people who have helped you?" She looks around the table. Krystal, Courtney, Derrick, Grace, Christian. Almost the whole group is here. One student has transferred to a career center. Another stopped coming after he got his GED. Jessica directs her answer to their teacher. "You know your name goes first," she says.

Every Friday, Sylvia Corrica has called them to the guidance suite at Bloomingdale High School. She takes about 30 minutes around lunchtime. These students can't afford to miss classes.

When the sessions started two years ago, each was failing at least two classes. She picked their names at random, except for one. Courtney Corrica is her daughter, and the reason for creating the group.

When Courtney started failing in high school, Corrica left elementary schools after 17 years as a speech pathologist. She found a similar position at the high school level and volunteered to take on a handful of students that no one could reach.

Students like Jessica, 17, who at the beginning of the year was at least nine credits behind where she needed to be to graduate.

Twice a week, Corrica waited after school while Jessica crammed for credits. She gave her a ride to night school, where Jessica crammed some more.

She helped Jessica land a job at Walgreens. She guided her to resources that made the expenses of prom and Disney's Grad Nite possible.

Wednesday night, Jessica got to walk at graduation. She's a half-credit shy of her diploma, and will earn it this summer. Corrica cheered for her in the stands -- every bit as loud as when her Courtney received a diploma.

Both girls say they wouldn't have made it without the lessons learned in the group Corrica conceived over many sleepless nights.

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Corrica named the group "The Oaks Foundation." She sees the students as the branches, reaching upward. The leaves are the community they form with their peers.

If her daughter needed help, she knew there were others like her on Bloomingdale's grassy campus in the well-to-do suburbs of east Hillsborough.

Courtney took gifted classes in elementary and middle school. When she hit high school, her report cards turned into a succession of D's and F's.

Corrica met with guidance counselors. She was told that Courtney knew what she had to do, and wasn't doing it. They couldn't help.

The turning point came when Courtney's grade-point average fell too low to continue on a college track. The counselor recommended moving her to a technical career path.

Corrica, 50, blamed herself. Had she nurtured too much after the death of her husband, Courtney's stepfather? Given too much to her students at school, and not enough at home?

"Somehow, I had lost sight of my own child in helping to build others," she recalls. "I felt as a mom, in order to change any of it, I needed to be in the door."

Corrica told the guidance counselors to do what had to be done on the books for career tracking. In her mind, however, college wasn't optional for her daughter.

She took a high school job and pitched her plan for a group intervention with weekly meetings, academic plans and a focus on self-esteem.

"I wanted her to see that the same things I'm saying at home, I'm saying to them," Corrica says. "Their listening to me, their heads nodding -- yes, yes, yes -- kind of made her listen."

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When the group started, Courtney was a junior. Her grade point average stood at 0.7.

She graduated with a 2.32 GPA. She's not ready for her mother's alma mater, the University of Florida, but hopes to transfer after two years at Hillsborough Community College.

Courtney, 17, cried after seeing her final grades. She went home and told her mother: Thank you.

"I needed that extra push, too," Courtney says. "I thought I was the only one in that situation."

Courtney saw a classmate struggle with organization, a strong suit for her. She helped him make a binder to keep track of assignments.

When she saw another student in the group made an A, Courtney realized she could, too. One success led to another.

"I wasn't close to any of the teachers," said Krystal Vega, 17. "Nobody could help me, because they didn't know me."

Krystal, a junior, came from a small private school. She had not told anyone at Bloomingdale that she is dyslexic.

Once she shared her situation with Corrica, the teacher could help her enroll in the appropriate classes. Now Krystal is making A's in a subject she had been failing.

For Mother's Day, Krystal made Corrica a handmade card.

"Thank you," she wrote, "for helping me to get out of the big hole that I was in."

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The group started with 15 students, a mix of sophomores and juniors. Some graduated last year. Seven remained with Corrica this spring.

She wanted them to be able to stand on a stage and hear applause. She organized a year-end banquet -- complete with invitations, programs and trophies.

Noel Leon, 19, attended with his mother. He has stopped attending Bloomingdale after earning his GED earlier this year. He was a student there for five years.

Now he considers technical school to study mechanics, or HCC. He feels confident, even though his decision was hard for his mother.

"I'm happy to be out of high school, that's the main thing," he says.

Corrica, on the other hand, will be back at school next year, looking for new branches and leaves to nurture.

And instead of starting with 15 students, she plans to work with 20.

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 226-3400.