This wasn't supposed to be a huge birthday for Haidee Graves.
Between work as an operator for the Cheetah Hunt roller coaster at Busch Gardens and classes at St. Petersburg College, there wasn't much time to plan. She'd ring in her 20th year quietly with her family at a Chili's restaurant.
But first, Graves' mother told her that she had to drop off some paperwork Tuesday morning at the Tampa Jet Center. She asked if Graves would come along.
A woman asked Graves' name and then took her to a conference room. When she opened the door, Graves saw family members, TV cameras, University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft and advertising executive Jordan Zimmerman.
She was handed a four-year education, right there, in a $30,000 check.
Three months earlier, Zimmerman, a USF alum and founder of Zimmerman Advertising, was disgruntled with Florida's education. He found out that just 27 percent of fourth-graders had passed the FCAT.
He turned to his blog, yousleepwhenyoudie.com, and put out a TV commercial to be aired around the state.
"Did you know that when the students didn't pass the standards of the FCAT tests, they lowered them?" he asked. Newspaper headlines pointing toward an ailing education system drifted across the screen.
Zimmerman has voiced his passion for education before. He said he and his wife created the Denise and Jordan Zimmerman Family Foundation to put underprivileged students through college. Hearing other students' views on the state's public education, he reasoned, would be worth another full scholarship to USF.
He asked for a short essay, "and you might just win a college education."
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Graves was homeschooled until high school. After two stints at Gulf High in New Port Richey, she decided public school wasn't for her. She said she watched advanced-placement students sometimes fail out of basic-level courses because they were unengaged by teachers.
When she saw Zimmerman's blog post asking for a 250-word-or-less solution to the state's education problem, she said she knew "it was something that would be easy to write about."
On June 17, she posted her essay calling for more engaging teachers.
"Do they have a passion for teaching? Do they connect with the children? Do they realize the impact they can have on every single student in the classroom?" she wrote. "These are the questions Florida schools need to be asking when hiring new teachers."
The essay was one of 1,118 that flooded in. One, Zimmerman said, had a single-minded proposition: It begged for "teachers that don't just teach from books, they teach from their heart and soul."
"There's no silver bullet (for better education)," he said, "other than that."
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She didn't expect to win.
Graves had been a USF Bulls fan since she was a little girl going to football games. Later, she found out the university boasted a prominent international affairs program and had an ROTC program, too. An aspiring Army officer, it would have been her dream, if she could only afford the tuition.
The New Port Richey student started her freshman year at St. Petersburg College this fall, hoping her hard work might lead toward a scholarship.
But Tuesday morning in the conference room with Zimmerman, the check and her family welling with tears, she got more than she ever dreamed. Those 238 words had earned her $30,000 in tuition.
"It was better than any birthday present I could have imagined," she said. "It made my next four years."
The idea of going to USF had been so far off, she hadn't applied yet. She said she plans to fill out her application today for the spring or summer semester 2013.
Before that, though, she'd have dinner with her family at Chili's to celebrate the birthday that wasn't supposed to be huge.
Alex Orlando can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.