Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Pasco County students honored for turning their lives around


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 or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at

2011 Turnaround Achievement Award Recipients

Elijah W. Dalton, Bayonet Point Middle

Kyler Agosto, Centennial Middle

Jazmine Williams, Chasco Middle

Casey Cornelius, Crews Lake Middle

Nelson M. Kelly, Gulf Middle

Mickenzie M. Humphrey, Hudson Middle

Joshua M. Warren, John Long Middle

Malcolm J. Mikell, Pine View Middle

Michael Cummings, River Ridge Middle

Stevie West, Rushe Middle

Danielle Wright, Seven Springs Middle

Denver J. Eldredge, Paul R. Smith Middle

Luke E. Parker, Stewart Middle

Joel J. Figuroa-Perez, Weightman Middle

Kyle Haugen, Anclote High

Tyler Powers, Fivay High

Gail A. Rebis, Gulf High

Raymond "Jake" Muller, Hudson High

Jessica Thomas, Land O'Lakes High

Nikki T. Dukas, Mitchell High

Veronica Y. Pope, Pasco High

Cameron Rodriguez, Ridgewood High

Meghan Kapp, River Ridge High

Sharon C. McNeal, Sunlake High

Alton E. Thorne, Wesley Chapel High

Andrew de las Salas, Wiregrass Ranch High

Michael Kennedy, Zephyrhills High

James G. Smith, Irvin Education Center

Anthony S. Memon, Schwettman Education Center

Rebekah Quintana, Marchman Technical Education Center

Heather L. Huckelby, Moore-Mickens Education Center

Brendan M. Cowdrey, Pasco Middle

Pasco County students honored for turning their lives around 05/05/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 5, 2011 8:58pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Review: Mumford and Sons shower Amalie Arena with love in euphoric Tampa debut


    There are releases, and then there are releases. And minutes into their concert Wednesday at Amalie Arena, Mumford and Sons gave Tampa the latter.

    Mumford and Sons performed at Tampa's Amalie Arena on Sept. 20, 2017.
  2. FEMA to open disaster recovery center in Riverview


    The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it will open a disaster recovery center Thursday in Riverview for Hillsborough County residents impacted by Hurricane Irma.

  3. Life sentence for man convicted in killing of brother of Bucs' Kwon Alexander


    An Alabama man who shot and killed the 17-year-old brother of Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander in 2015 was sentenced to life in prison Wednesday, the Anniston (Ala.) Star reported.

  4. Remember him? Numbers prove Ben Zobrist is one of greatest Rays of all time

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — The first foray back to the Trop by the best manager the Rays have had obscured the second return visit by arguably the second-best player in franchise history.


    Chicago Cubs second baseman Ben Zobrist (18) grounds into a double play to end the top of the third inning of the game between the Chicago Cubs and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.
  5. GOP's new repeal bill would likely leave millions more uninsured, analyses suggest


    WASHINGTON — The latest Republican bid to roll back the Affordable Care Act would likely leave millions of currently insured Americans without health coverage in the coming decades, and strip benefits and protections from millions more, a growing number of independent studies suggest.

    Vice President Mike Pence listens as President Donald Trump talks to reporters about the Graham-Cassidy health care bill during a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi at the Palace Hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, in New York. [Evan Vucci | Associated Press]