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Turnarounds earn students moment in the spotlight

They once were troubled and defiant. Now they bask in praise of parents and teachers.

By MELANIE AVE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2001


TAMPA -- Markus Raines admits it. He was a bad kid -- fighting, stealing, clowning around, skipping school, hanging with the wrong crowd.

"School was Markus' playground," said Ferrell Middle School counselor Latonya Anderson. "Whatever trouble he could get in, he got in."

After repeating seventh grade and barely making it to eighth this year, Markus was encouraged by an older brother to ask himself: "What's going on?"

On Tuesday, nearly a year after his transformation, the 14-year-old appeared changed, sporting close-cropped hair, a black tie and white dress shirt and peppering his language with "yes sirs" and "yes ma'ams."

"I have to start doing my work in school if I want to grow up and be somebody," said Markus, who dreams of being an architect.

Markus was one of 38 former class clowns, potential dropouts and juvenile delinquents who were recognized Tuesday for making an about-face in attitude, grades and behavior.

Most said they were encouraged by a worried parent or a concerned teacher who stepped in and made them realize they were at a crossroads.

"Now I feel like I can do anything," said Deverie Ware, who had to repeat seventh grade at Rodgers Middle School but now is preparing for advanced classes.

The middle school students received plaques and kudos at the 15th annual Turnaround Achievement Awards at the Florida Aquarium, sponsored by the Tampa Bay Bowling Proprietors Association. Twenty-one high school students will be honored Thursday.

The winners were chosen by their teachers, counselors and principals, who told touching stories Tuesday about the marked changes they had witnessed.

They talked of students who spent more time suspended than in class and used filthy, disrespectful language. Some were angry, depressed and withdrawn. These students now answer questions in class, appear on the honor roll and serve as role models to their peers.

Their teachers offered words of praise such as "super," "amazing" and "tremendous."

Alice Lopez, whose son Ferman Lopez III received Wilson Middle School's award, cried throughout the entire morning program.

"It was a joyful cry," she said. "I was so proud of all of them."

Daniel Ware said the ceremony made his daughter's success more worthwhile.

"I can recognize her for her hard work, but when the school recognizes her, it's good for her self-esteem," he said. "It's like more of a reward for her hard work."

Some of the students overcame odds such as living in orphanages or surviving the death of parents.

Roland Park Middle School teacher Ross Boyd said Thea Russell was a student whom teachers didn't want in their classes. And when he saw her walking down the hall, he would say, "Thank God she is someone else's problem."

When her name appeared on his class roll this year, "I asked, "What have I done wrong?' I couldn't have been more wrong. She's become a real sweetheart and a real leader."

Davidsen Middle School teacher Tina Brown described student Fernando Nunez as a lazy but smart student. At the beginning of the school year, several teachers recognized his potential and decided to help him realize it, too.

Since then, he hasn't scored below a 90 on any class work.

"When you ask him why he does it, he says he made a promise to his mom, "because I love her,' " Brown recalled.

"We're so proud of him."

- Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or melanie@sptimes.com.

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