Jake Muller dreamed of playing varsity basketball in high school. He tried out for the River Ridge team as a freshman, but broke his ankle on the first day. Things went downhill from there. Muller, now 17, started skipping school, hanging out with his older girlfriend he now calls a "bad influence" and generally making "dumb decisions." Before long, the straight F student was a dropout.
"I didn't want to be successful," he explained. "I didn't want to do anything. I wanted to stay home and be with this girl."
It took some time and some hair-raising events to change his life. But change did come.
And Thursday, the Pasco school district recognized Muller as one of its top turnaround students for 2011.
Since enrolling in Hudson High last fall, he began making As, earning only one B in three quarters. Through adult, after-school and online courses, he made up many of his missed credits, putting him on track to graduate next year. And he found a desire to succeed.
"I've been teaching 19 years, and I've had countless students come through my classroom. A lot of them tell me about turning it on, or changing their lives," said Steve Casel, Muller's homeroom teacher. "There are very few who have the discipline and the stamina to keep it up. … He said, 'I'm going to do it.' I was kind of doubtful. He did it."
Over pasta and cheesecake, with enough tissues around for the inevitable tearing up, teachers and parents celebrated students from all of Pasco's middle and high schools who found a new path away from the troubles that plagued them.
Denver Eldredge held the dubious distinction of having been among the top three students referred to the principal's office at Paul R. Smith Middle during 2009-10.
"I was just trying to be the leader of sixth grade and the class clown," the 13-year-old said. "I had to make my name in school."
What also was going on was his parents' divorce.
"He started to act up," said Denver's mom, Mary Pate, recalling the many times he got suspended and she had to pick him up because he wasn't even allowed on the bus home. "He just did not care at that point because of everything that was going on."
When she got on an even keel, Pate pushed him to straighten up. Guidance counselor Leslie Wood kept after him to drop his "wrong crowd" friends and focus on doing well in school.
Now, Wood said, "I can't even tell you how wonderful he is this year."
Denver said their encouragement and positive rewards for doing well boosted his resolve.
It took a struggle with the FCAT to get senior Veronica Pope to improve her attitude at Pasco High School.
"I was bad at school," said Pope, 18. "I didn't listen. I didn't care. I felt like I couldn't be touched."
She was smart enough to get by. And charismatic enough to become a school leader. But reality hit hard when she had trouble with FCAT reading.
"I was having trouble passing," Pope said. So she buckled down. "I was about to be an adult. It was time to act like an adult."
She started doing her work, stopped mouthing off and persuaded many friends to do the same. Now she's on track to graduate in May, with plans to attend culinary school.
"She is very charismatic," assistant principal Norman Brown said. "When she chose to use it in a positive sense, they came right in line."
Her mom, Sondra Pope, said she knew her daughter could make it.
"Yes, she is headstrong. But I wasn't worried because I know what she is capable of," Mrs. Pope said, adding that the once-quiet Veronica had changed her behavior after losing a brother and her godfather. "I just had to stand behind her and push her, and continue to love and support her."
Home life, combined with school, often can be the key to success or failure. That proved true for Hudson's Jake Muller, too.
A straight F student at River Ridge, he dropped out of high school after ninth grade and, despite two short-lived efforts to return, stayed away for nearly two years. He told officials he was taking virtual courses, but he never did the work.
By the time he was supposed to be a junior, he barely had enough credits to be a sophomore.
Then his life changed.
He dropped his girlfriend after a big argument. Not long after, he returned to his Shady Hills home to find it on fire with his parents inside.
He dragged them to safety. His mom, Heidi, says her son saved their lives.
In many ways, he saved his own, too.
"It made me realize I can't keep going on that way," Muller said. "It made me realize I have to count on myself to be successful."
He moved in with a friend while his family repaired the house. And he enrolled in Hudson High, where he had been rezoned.
He started taking school seriously, working with teachers and assistant principal Michelle Williams to see what he had to do to get back on track.
"If I'm going to go to school, I'm going to go to school and take it seriously and get the job done," Muller said.
He surprised his teachers with his resolve and his parents with his top grades. And he even got to achieve his dream.
With Casel's support, he found a spot on the Hudson High varsity basketball team. First he was manager, until his grade-point average was good enough, and then he got a uniform.
"One of the last games, I got to play," said Muller, who proudly wore a team T-shirt rather than a jacket and tie to Thursday's event.
He scored, made a rebound, and hit two shots from the free throw line.
"I never thought I would get on the court. … It felt so good," he said. "I never got to reach my potential. At least I got to hit the floor."
After graduation, Muller hopes to go to college and eventually own a business. Assistant principal Williams said she believes he can do it, and that he'll be a role model for others like him.
"Jake came with a large group of students from River Ridge who were struggling," she said. "He's been an amazing example for that group."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.