NEW PORT RICHEY
On her first day at Sunlake High School, Lizbeth Ramirez threw a desk at one teacher and threatened another. She ended the year "being taken away" from Sunlake with a 0.0 grade point average and a fighting attitude, behavior specialist Amy Perez recalled. "I thought I was going to be a loser my whole life," the 17-year-old junior said, attributing her problems largely to a lack of stability in her personal life. "I never had somebody there for me to say, 'Everything is going to be okay.' I always thought everything was going to go downhill in my life." Until she turned it around.
On Wednesday, Ramirez was one of 32 turnaround students honored by the Pasco County School District for finding their way back from the brink to become successful in school and in life.
"We think this is the most terrific event of the year," School Board chairwoman Joanne Hurley told the audience Wednesday at the Spartan Manor luncheon. "This celebration is special ... because we know that you have come a long way to get to where you are today."
The room was filled with hugs and tears and much use of the word "awesome" as teachers bragged on their students for making those strides.
The turning point for Ramirez came on Aug. 4, the date Kimberly and Danny Garcia accepted her into their family. Ramirez met the couple through a friend and grew to trust them.
"I wanted a mom. I wanted a family. I told them I had enough of being in trouble," Ramirez said.
And she had seen plenty of trouble. Without stable adults in her life, she didn't make good grades. She picked fights.
"I was terrible, terrible, terrible. I always wanted the worst for everybody," Ramirez said.
She got arrested for battery while in eighth grade. She landed in a juvenile facility for violating probation. She trusted no one, and felt like no one trusted her.
Then Ramirez moved into the Garcia home, at the same time she was returning to Sunlake High for her junior year.
It was hard, she said. Assistant principal Heather Ochs concurred.
The school even had a special walkie-talkie code for Ramirez, Ochs said: "LR is MIA."
"She wouldn't stay in class," Ochs recalled.
Over time, Ramirez said, she came to trust people, including her new boyfriend, Cristian Ospina-Lopez.
"I knew she could do better," said Ospina-Lopez, a senior. "She's really great for me. She has helped me, too. We help each other."
She began to improve her grades from F's to make the honor roll with A's and B's.
She saw success was possible, with support. She hopes someday to repay the favor by becoming a foster care caseworker.
Brett Clark entered Anclote High from Gulf High with 41 absences and straight F's.
School simply didn't interest him.
"I did my work sometimes," said Clark, now a 17-year-old junior. "But it wasn't really on the top of my priority list."
"Nothing, I guess," he admitted. "I was just there."
He played video games, hung out with friends — really, anything but school.
Then one day he showed up at Anclote to learn he had been withdrawn for excessive absences.
"They were going to label me a dropout," he said. "I was realizing the things I wanted to do, I couldn't do without high school."
So he headed back to the school the next day begging for a second chance, recalled his mom, Noreen Kirkland. That's where Clark met graduation enhancement coach Christopher Vergnaud.
They sat and talked about goals and the reality of achieving them. Clark won readmission to school.
"I started bringing my grades up," he said with a proud smile. "After the year is over, I'll be all caught up on all my credits. Next year, I'll be all set. I'll be a true senior."
Vergnaud said Clark provided a different challenge. Many kids on the verge of dropping out have problems with root causes, perhaps drinking or friends making bad choices.
"He was just a quiet kid you could tell had no motivation to do anything with school," Vergnaud said. "He wasn't in trouble. You could just see he had no motivation."
By providing a goal — Clark wants to enter the Air Force — the student, teacher and parents found a way together to get him back on track.
Now he's dedicated with a clear aim, Kirkland said. If he misses the bus, he asks if he can call a cab to get to school.
The 'unlit candle'
Pine View Middle School eighth-grader Amy Laks said she also didn't care about school much while she was a seventh-grader.
"I cared more about my social life than anything else," she admitted.
Science teacher Lisa Sans saw it. "She seemed very quiet, until she was around her friends," Sans said. "Then she was very talkative."
Sans saw more in Amy, though.
"I would watch her in class and I would think that she wasn't listening," she recalled. "I would ask her a question and she would always answer correctly."
Amy was an "unlit candle" just waiting to shine.
In the summer before eighth grade, Amy said she and her friends discussed the need to get serious. Instead of messing around, they decided to study together, challenge each other to do better in school.
"She's having reverse peer pressure," said Eileen Kircher, Amy's grandmother.
Her poor grades have transformed into A's. She always keeps a book nearby to read, in case she's bored. She's talking about going to college and becoming a writer and teacher.
"She's come very far," Kircher said. "We always knew she could do it, and now she does."
Sans wept as she introduced Amy to the audience.
"My student is not an unlit candle," she said. "She is a torch."
Hector Concepcion is short.
It caused him more troubles at Gulf Middle School than he could have imagined.
"I used to get in a lot of fights and a lot of drama. Like, every day," Hector said. "People used to bully me because I was small. So I was like, 'All right. Let's go.' I'd take them on. I would instigate fights."
He became a fixture in assistant principal Sue Lepisto's office.
"He was there as much as I was," she said.
Hector got suspended frequently. His grades hovered in the C and D range. He never got kicked out of school — "My dad would go crazy," he said — but he came close.
As eighth grade approached, Hector's teachers and sisters urged him to have a drama-free year.
"It was his last year," said Angelica Concepcion, one of Hector's older sisters. "I wanted him to do better than me in my last year. ... I want him to go out there and explore."
So he made friends with the bullies. He got involved in track and, believe it or not, basketball. He worked on his dancing skills, which he shows off each year at the school talent show. And he learned how to walk away from a fight.
"Two weeks ago, this kid tries to fight with me. He hit me in the face," Hector said. "I didn't hit back. They were surprised."
Hector made all A's on his most recent report card. Now he is preparing to make the Junior ROTC program at Gulf High next year.
"He lights up a room," Lepisto said. "I am so happy for him. He found out that all that hubbub that was around him isn't what life is all about."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.