No one guarantees scholarships for graduates of Academy Preparatory Center, no matter how tough their stories are. This year's graduating eighth-graders all got a little speech in the fifth grade.
"If you think I'm going to lift a pen to help you get a scholarship just because you're black or Hispanic or educationally disadvantaged, you're wrong," Head of School Lincoln Tamayo told each of them. "But what we'll do if you get yourself out of bed and work as hard as you can every day is this: We'll move heaven and earth."
On Wednesday night, heaven and earth moved.
They are children defined by the outside world as "economically disadvantaged," mostly children from East Tampa and Ybor City whose family incomes must fall near the poverty line for them to be able to go to Academy Prep.
Of the 25 who graduated Wednesday night, 18 received scholarships to private prep high schools — including Jesuit, Academy of the Holy Names, Berkeley and Tampa Prep.
Just as Tamayo had told them, the children got nothing handed to them. All had to meet the toughest prep school admission standards in Tampa.
"You're not handed things," said Ashley Lindo, this year's valedictorian.
Parents cheered and cried. In their neighborhoods, this is as close as it gets to a ticket to success.
The school opened in 2003 in Ybor City's original, creaky-stair grammar school. It's the sister school of St. Petersburg's Academy Prep, opened in 1997.
Each child agrees to 11-hour school days that begin with breakfast at 7:10, prayers at 7:30, studies until 2:30, tutoring and cleanup until 3:30, dance, karate, chess, sports or art until 4:40, and then study hall until 6. Girls and boys are segregated.
The school claims that 87 percent of them go on to graduate from high school.
Their commencement speaker, Florida Supreme Court Justice Peggy Quince, told them she was one of them — one of five children of a single father who grew up in poverty. Looking at their young faces, she couldn't resist some motherly advice. Ditch the potato chips, she told them.
"Try carrots and celery."
The school is tough, even unforgiving of broken promises, said graduating eighth-grader Brayan Martinez, 15. For him to make it, he said, it had to be that way.
Brayan came to Tampa from Cuba when he was 3. His is a Spanish-speaking household. Tampa may as well have been on another planet.
He said he was "forced" by family to go to Academy Prep after his older brother had bounced through public schools. "I was afraid Brayan would be dragged into that," said his mother, Noelvys Contrera.
Like many of the others, Brayan speaks with a frank maturity unusual in middle school. "Coming here," he said, "turned out to be the greatest decision I've made so far in my life."
In the fifth-grade, Brayan rode a public bus from Brandon every day to be at school by 7. He translated all the scholarship applications for his family.
He is now headed to an even more distant planet, on full scholarship — St. Andrew's-Sewanee School, a boarding school in Tennessee.
No one's forcing him this time. He wants the independence.
"That's where true self-esteem comes," said Tamayo. "I tell everyone of them, 'You are a unique individual, a beautiful human being. Do something with that.' "
His message comes with an implied or-else.
Eight weeks ago, "with graduation on the horizon," Tamayo cut loose an eighth-grader because he had failed to keep a C average. As devastating for the boy and everyone else at school as that was, Tamayo said, "It was important for him — and for his classmates — to see the consequences."
Tamayo hates it when people ask his graduating students, "What are you going to do in the real world?"
"School," he tells them, "is the real world."
John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or [email protected]