NEW PORT RICHEY
Cadeshia Jackson admits she was "always a trouble maker."
"There were bomb threats," Jackson said, smiling bashfully. "It's embarrassing. Battery on a (law enforcement officer). A lot of anger."
She was expelled for two years while a sixth grader at Paul R. Smith Middle School. From there, Jackson was in and out of schools and juvenile justice programs, a dozen in all.
"Three years ago she was sent to live with relatives in Georgia so the Florida folks could have a break," said guidance counselor Lucy Cooper.
But even in Georgia, Jackson had problems. She landed in a juvenile program there, as well, and became pregnant at 16.
"I got really upset," said her dad, Gary Burch, who drove north to take his daughter back home. "I said, 'We're going to change things.'"
Change she did.
Jackson, now 19, enrolled in the Pasco County School District's Cyesis program for teen parents at Marchman Technical Education Center, and became a student leader and role model, ready to graduate on time in May. She plans to begin a patient care technology program in the fall, with a goal of becoming an Air Force nurse.
"I went from a monster to an angel," she said, holding 2-year-old son, Jamarques, in her lap. "I give it all to God."
On Wednesday, she was recognized with a Pasco County Turnaround Achievement Award. The school district annually honors one student from each middle and high school who has made significant improvement in grades, attitude and attendance, sometimes all of those and more.
"It's never too late to change your path or become the person you are meant to be," Cooper said.
It's also no time to sit back and relax, Burch observed.
"We keep praying and hoping the Lord will give her the direction to keep going," he said. "I'm glad she's still working at it."
That message rang true for the many students, parents and educators attending the tearful yet cheerful luncheon and ceremony.
Bayonet Point Middle School seventh-grader Dominic Shamblin was recognized for improving his behavior and grades. He acted on a challenge from his grandmother to prove he could succeed.
The award doesn't mark the end of the journey, though.
"I know I could have done a lot better," Dominic said.
Land O'Lakes High senior Michelle Chacon found her way to an on-time graduation, overcoming several obstacles along the way. She thanked the adults for having hope in her, and said she always will remember the lessons she has learned along the way.
"There is always hope," Chacon said. "Just believe."
District superintendent Kurt Browning praised the students for their comebacks, calling them "inspiring" and "incredible."
Teachers said they were honored to have helped the children, and looked forward to seeing others turn themselves around.
"It's about the power of love and relationships," said Irvin Education Center teacher Jose Olmo. "Sometimes, we adults forget what it's like to be a teenager. We need to keep that in mind."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org