The 152 kids currently enrolled at the Schwettman Education Center didn't get there by accident. They earned it, some by fighting, some worse. They proved unworthy of the general school population.
The reasons vary. Broken families, poverty, untreated mental issues. Children feel isolated and angry. They fall behind in class. Some stop going. They all find trouble.
At Schwettman, a so-called "alternative school'' in New Port Richey, specialists focus on the cause of bad behavior. Middle and high school students still get the basic curriculum, but also work on behavior and coping skills so they can succeed when they return to their original schools.
When Kadisha Mason, 18, Abigail Canilo and Eddy Nguyen, both 17, landed at Schwettman this year, they shared a distrust of authority. They had no intention of hiding that fact, of playing the game. This would be just another stop along a frustrating tour of public education and life in general.
But this time they would find something different, something unexpected. They became leaders. They connected to an age-old lesson that has turned around many a poor attitude: No matter how bad you have it, somebody else is worse off.
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A year earlier, Sandy Barley read an article in a Rotary International publication about an Interact Club at a juvenile detention center. Since 1962, thousands of teens have served their communities through this Rotary-sponsored project, but almost all through clubs set up at their traditional high schools. Barley, a Trinity Rotary member, drove by Schwettman and thought, "Hey, why not here?''
Fellow Rotarians easily bought into the idea that great expectations and community service can lift even the most fragile or at-risk children out of their funk.
Which brings us back to Kadisha, Abigail and Eddy. Their teachers and counselors saw something special in them, flashes of brilliance and personality. These students weren't used to such confidence. It started to change their attitudes. Soon they were nominated for the Interact Club along with a younger student, freshman Sherri Collins.
At their first meeting, they joined the Trinity Rotarians serving free Thanksgiving holiday dinners. They started thinking of other good deeds, collecting toys for needy children, selling candy canes to raise money for a charitable project. They weren't certain which project, but that soon became clear.
Barry Poppel, a retired CPA and Trinity Rotary member, introduced the students to Pure Water for the World, a nonprofit that is devoted to providing clean, safe drinking water in developing nations. Poppel is the group's treasurer and regularly travels to help in PWW projects. He has taken several fellow Rotarians to install sanitation systems and water filters in a remote, impoverished region of Honduras.
The Interact students sat and watched Poppel's PowerPoint in silence.
"I'm not usually a crier,'' said Kadisha, the club president. "But this really got to me. After seeing that, I don't waste water anymore.''
Eddy's family fled Vietnam for the Philippines during wartime. He said after watching the scenes from Honduras, he had a dream.
"I was a billionaire,'' he said, "and I solved the nasty water problem in all the countries, including Vietnam.''
All the students wanted to join Poppel on a mission. They donated the money from the candy canes to the cause. Trinity Rotary and another group matched the effort, a grand total of $500, enough to provide a latrine, water filters, education and training for one family in the tiny village of Trojes. Given the frequency of illnesses attributed to contaminated water around the world, the effort possibly saved a life.
It has also changed some attitudes.
"I'm proud of what we have done,'' said Abigail. "I had completely shut down. I came to Schwettman not caring about anything. I've changed. I had no chance to graduate, and now I have no doubt about it.''
Kadisha echoed the sentiment. She entered Schwettman with no expectation of success and now she talks about a career as a registered nurse. On March 23, she'll lead her small group to a Salvation Army soup kitchen.
"I didn't care before,'' she said, walking past a glass case that held a picture of her smiling face and the words "Student of the Month.''
"Now I do.''