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    Students’ turnarounds recognized

    Pinellas schools honor 46 middle and high school students whose attitudes, behavior or grades improved during this school year.

    By LORRI HELFAND

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 8, 2001


    PINELLAS PARK -- Ashley Trusso, 14, didn't see a future for herself. She started using drugs, skipping school and running away from home.

    photo
    [Times photo: Scott Keeler]
    Teacher Ann Spear, left, helps Safety Harbor Middle School eighth-grader Ashley Trusso, 14.
    "If you knew her a year ago, you'd think there was no hope for this child," said her mother, Rhonda Trusso. "The police dispatcher knew me by name."

    Ashley's temper was so volatile, her mother was concerned that Ashley was a threat to the family.

    "I was afraid of her," Mrs. Trusso said. "We thought that there was no hope and that we were going to have to send her away."

    But a year later, Ashley is a bubbly eighth-grader at Safety Harbor Middle School who can't wait to get home and cuddle her 1-year-old sister, Aris. Yesterday, she and 45 other middle and high school students were honored at the 16th Annual Pinellas County Turnaround Achievement Awards breakfast at Banquet Masters in Pinellas Park.

    The school district presents the award, which recognizes students for improving their attitudes, behavior or grades.

    Ashley almost didn't give herself the chance for her turnaround. She said she was abused by her birth parents before she was adopted by the Trussos. Last year, teen angst, magnified by a rough childhood, made her turn her frustration inward. she said. She overdosed on antidepressants.

    Ashley was rushed to the hospital, just in the nick of time.

    "I really felt like nobody cared about me even though they were right there by my side," she said.

    Doctors were able to save her, but it was a close call. They told her that if she had arrived at the hospital a half-hour later, she could have gone into a coma, Mrs. Trusso said.

    At the same time Ashley was in the hospital, her mother was preparing to give birth to a baby girl.

    As Ashley considered the impending birth, something clicked. Mrs. Trusso noticed an immediate change in her daughter's attitude.

    Ashley decided she had a good reason to change her ways.

    "I had a little baby sister on the way. I realized that I couldn't be doing the things I was doing. I didn't want her to be raised in that environment," she said. The baby was born in May 2000.

    When Ashley came to school that fall, her teachers barely recognized her. She went from failing grades to the honor roll and she has received three Winning Warrior awards, which recognize students at Safety Harbor Middle for showing responsibility and respect for others.

    Her teacher and mentor, Ann Spear, said Ashley truly turned herself around.

    "She did it all herself, because what she was doing wasn't going to get her anywhere," Spear said. "She's like a totally different person."

    Another student honored at the breakfast, Justine Cameron, 17, a senior in the Pinellas Technical Education Centers TEAM Program in St. Petersburg, also excelled against the odds.

    She previously attended Lakewood High School, where she was "hanging out with the wrong crowd," skipping school and failing classes, she said. She wanted to make a new start at PTEC, but last summer, a surprise dampened her hopes of graduation.

    "When I found out I was pregnant, I didn't think I was going to make it all the way," she said.

    But support from her guidance counselor, Harry Cottrell, gave her confidence to succeed. "He's been there for me through my ups and downs," she said.

    Now with a healthy, 3-month-old boy, Jaydan, she has a 4.0 average and perfect attendance, and dreams of working with children with Down's syndrome.

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