BROOKSVILLE — The Central High School student just would not go to school.
On any given day, assistant principal Latressa Jones says, she could call him at home and he'd be there. He didn't want to go to class. And the adults in his life couldn't force him.
So the school paired the freshman up with Greg Sheldon, a mentor through the nonprofit Communities in Schools of Hernando County, the local affiliate of the nation's largest dropout prevention organization.
Everything started to change.
A Central graduate turned successful building contractor, Sheldon, 34, talked to the boy about his own struggles growing up — parents who divorced when he was young, his lack of stability, being poor, his past attitude problems. Where many others had failed, he got through to the student.
"I saw myself as that student," he said.
The same goes for seven other students whom Sheldon mentored during the past school year.
Their attendance improved. The number of behavioral issues dropped. They started turning in more assignments.
"They don't turn a deaf ear to Greg," Jones said. "He has the influence to be able to change their perspective."
The School District needs more like him.
Sheldon is one of 18 Communities in Schools mentors at Central and Hernando high schools, volunteering with a primary objective of improving the schools' dropout rate.
It's a big task.
The program just finished its second year — its final year of funding through the district, which received money through the federal Race to the Top program. Hernando and Central were targeted because they have been the two lowest-performing high schools in the county.
"Our biggest concern is raising sufficient funds for the upcoming school year to maintain our current efforts," said Tracy Echols, executive director for the program.
To sustain where it is now, the program will need to lean more heavily on donations, Echols said.
The program is trying to raise $118,000 by December — enough for three full-time site coordinators and the executive director's position. Donations currently stand at about $6,500.
The program provides much more than mentoring for at-risk students.
It provides families access to food, community services and clothing. It also provides volunteering opportunities and the chance for students to participate in leadership activities by bringing in speakers and helping with career research and development.
Educators at both Central and Hernando tout its success.
"We have more hands now," Jones said. "Our guidance department is phenomenal, but they're working with over 1,100 students. To be able to meet with every student one on one every day to be able to provide that kind of intensive conversation can be a big challenge. These extended arms have really boosted."
Hernando assistant principal Angela Miller Royal called the volunteers an amazing resource, helping everyone from at-risk students to higher achievers.
"It's like having an extra set of hands to kind of help us with these students," Royal said.
Communities in Schools provided its most intensive help, known as case-managed services, for nearly 170 students this school year at Hernando and Central — a significant jump from the past year. Far more were helped through preventive services, Echols said.
Numerous students have benefited from the services, she said.
She said there are students who made C's and D's who are now B students. One student who had gotten all F's pulled up most of those grades.
The program's focus is beyond just academically at-risk students.
Last year, it was able to help a homeless student through a number of setbacks. When he didn't have a tuxedo for prom, one was provided. When he couldn't afford to pay a late fee for a college entry test, the program picked up the cost. Graduation needs? Covered. Help with college supplies? Check.
Mary Koczan, the Central site coordinator, said school funding is tight, and the organization needs more help.
"We have to find the money," she said. "We need sponsors. We need fundraisers.
"If we can provide a funding source, then we can continue."
Added Jones: "We've been successful off of shoestrings, and now we need more."
Her pitch: Successful students make for a successful community.
"These will be the people that fill your business; these will be the people that help you to grow," she said. "These will be the students that help Hernando County to be greater and better."
Danny Valentine can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.