There are comeback kids, and then there's Jason Carpenter.
The blind senior at Pinellas Park High School missed 93 of 180 days last school year due to family problems. But last semester, he got straight A's and made the dean's list.
Because of his perseverance in dealing with his vision impairment amid a highly unstable home life, Carpenter was awarded the Young Heroes Award in the high school category by the Pinellas County School Board.
"I just wanted to do well," said Carpenter, 19. "I wanted to graduate and have a successful life. I didn't want to live paycheck to paycheck like I saw my family do. That's what motivates me."
Carpenter's father died of alcoholism-related health issues when he was 11, and his mom has been in and out of jail all his life. His three older siblings, a brother and two sisters, were never around much.
Not wanting to follow the pattern, Carpenter moved out in August 2009 and began supporting himself with a part-time job at Publix, where he works at least 12 hours a week as a bag boy. He also has received Social Security benefits since his father died.
Carpenter has juvenile macular degeneration, a retinal disorder that affects his central vision and progressively worsens as he gets older.
Though he has worn glasses since age 5, the disorder was not discovered until high school.
During the first three years, Carpenter resisted getting help from vision teachers or meeting other blind students.
And with no one who understood his vision problems, he often felt lonely and angry. With no encouragement or support at home, his grades suffered.
He stopped coming to school altogether when family problems intensified during his junior year.
After failing most of his classes last year, he knew it was time for a change.
He moved in with a friend of his mother's who lives in St. Petersburg and threw himself into his schoolwork.
In school he began using a handheld electronic magnifier to read in-class assignments and tests. For homework assignments, he reads large-print books on a computer screen or listens to his books on tape.
This school year, he started learning to read and write Braille. He also receives orientation and mobility training, where he learns techniques for maneuvering around unfamiliar buildings and streets with a cane for the blind.
Carpenter takes many of his courses online, sitting for long hours in front of a school computer because he does not have one of his own.
The constant stress on his eyes is often physically draining, but nothing can deter Carpenter from his goal of getting his high school diploma and entering college.
His vision teacher, Jill Pfluke, said she has seen few kids as motivated as Carpenter.
"He needed to realize that he was in control of his destiny. That's a huge commitment for a teenager," Pfluke said. "But his determination and vision of himself has changed. He certainly has a big test ahead of him, but I have every confidence in him."
Last semester, Carpenter completed almost three semesters' worth of coursework to recover credits he had missed and to raise his GPA. He also began receiving rehabilitation services at Lighthouse of Pinellas, a program for the visually impaired in Largo.
At his current rate, Carpenter is on track to graduate on time. He is saving money for next year, when he will start St. Petersburg College.
He's not sure what he wants to be yet, but he likes the outdoors so he plans to major in parks and recreation-leisure services.
"I just don't want to struggle," Carpenter said. "I didn't want to end up like the rest of my family. So I slowly changed my way of thinking."
Tania Karas can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or firstname.lastname@example.org.