Seven boys and one girl sat at half-circle tables with two teachers, solving division problems.
It was more than an hour before Lacoochee Elementary began classes, and 15 minutes before students were officially allowed on campus.
But these children and their teachers come early every morning. They have more than a year of material to make up, to get to middle school with their peers.
"I've been here a long time," said Renson Oregon, 12. "I want to go to sixth. I'm ready to go on to middle school and then go on to get a career."
Getting there was so important that just the rumor of extra help motivated them.
"When we saw (principal Latoya) Jordan, we didn't run her down. We just had to walk fast to ask her could we be in the program," said Roberto Gomez, 12.
Teachers Jaime Darley and Chasity Vento volunteered their time, driving as much as an hour to school, because they saw the urgency in getting the students back on track.
They had learned no one who had been held back twice at Lacoochee ever had graduated from high school, and they wanted to change that statistic.
"I love them," Vento said, as she watched the kids play a computer math game. "If it weren't for them, I wouldn't be doing it."
She and Darley have agreed to help the students and their Pasco Middle School teachers with the transition. They planned to keep tutoring even through the summer, and the kids are willing.
In financially strapped Lacoochee, such a commitment can mean family sacrifice. That does not go unnoticed by Jordan and her team. Rather, it made them more determined.
The kids appreciate that dedication, calling their teachers "awesome" for assisting them down the path to success.
"I've got to stay straight," Roberto said, "and can't do no curves on that."
• • •
The Pasco school district last week recognized students from each middle and high school who had turned around their performance.
They included a boy who told the audience he never expected to graduate and then broke down, unable to continue thanking his teachers for helping him to a diploma; and a girl who overcame her dysfunctional family and homelessness.
It was just 33 children.
But as Pasco High teacher Cindy McCarthy noted, "For every story you've heard, there are 100 more just like them."
District officials applauded the students, who grinned as if no one had ever cheered them before. They also reminded the kids that the journey isn't over.
Event host Terry Aunchman ended the ceremony by quoting Aristotle: "Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives — choice, not chance, determines your destiny."
The next steps belong to the students.
Have ideas for us to consider? Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614.