Turning things around
By LOGAN NEILL
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 18, 2001
BROOKSVILLE -- Two years ago, Matt Rivera's life was summed up by the most dismal of numbers.
By the end of his sophomore year at Central High School, he had accumulated a grade-point average of 0.001 and had earned just one of the 24 credits needed to receive his diploma.
For the tall, lanky teen with the winning smile, school had become a losing game. Skipping classes earned him numerous suspensions. And when he did show up, he seldom felt motivated to do his work. Matt had, in his own assessment, simply given up on learning.
Fortunately, the people closest to Matt hadn't given up on him.
Many of them were present Wednesday night at the Brooksville Elks Lodge when the 17-year-old received his school's recognition at the annual Hernando Turnaround Achievement Awards banquet.
A jubilant Matt thanked members of his family, friends and teachers for their unwavering support, allowing him to regain his focus on his education and his future. In fact, the young man who was once on the verge of quitting school altogether is now talking of going to college with hopes of studying art and fashion design.
After a year of intensive study in the school's TOPS program, which included summer sessions as well as night classes, Matt now regularly earns A's and B's and maintains better than a C average. Though he realizes there is still a journey ahead, he believes the encouragement he has received over the past year has given him inspiration to last a lifetime.
"I finally realized I had responsibilities, not just to myself but the people around me," said Matt, now a junior at Central. "I used to think nobody cared what I did, but I was wrong about that."
Redemption and success were familiar themes throughout the awards ceremony, which is sponsored each year by Spring Hill Lanes, the Hernando Bowling Association and the Brooksville Elks. Each of Hernando's 18 schools was represented by a student who had conquered obstacles to realize his or her educational potential.
Some of the students had to overcome personal challenges that distracted them from schoolwork. Some had struggled with learning disabilities, while others battled with emotional conflicts that had taken a toll on their academic progress.
J.D. Floyd Elementary fourth-grader Raymond Fonte was one such student. As the biggest kid in his class, the 9-year-old has always been a target of cruel-minded classmates. When they would tease him and call him names, his usual response was to fight.
Over time, Raymond's penchant for taking matters into his own hands became more frequent and usually landed him in the principal's office. In addition, his grades began to suffer.
"I sometimes hated coming to school," Raymond said. "It was always the same thing. I'd get into a fight and I'd go to the principal's office."
Over time, with the help of some counseling, Raymond's frustrations slowly began to dissolve. And though he still endures the teasing, he's less likely to act upon it, said his math teacher, Carol Roberts.
"It's a tremendous difference from what he was last year," said Roberts, who accompanied Raymond to the awards banquet.
Roberts said counseling has helped considerably, but she also believes Raymond finally found a light within himself that made him want to be an achiever.
"I think he suddenly began to see the benefits of trying to look at things from a positive rather than negative perspective," Roberts said. "He realized that he could make those changes himself if he truly wanted to."
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Eighteen students were recipients of this year's Hernando County Turnaround Achievement Awards:
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