When police officers knocked at her door, she locked the dead bolt and hid inside. Melinda Deravil was 15 and hadn't gone to school for a whole year. Later that summer, her mother had enough of her eldest daughter's rebellion and, in frustration, signed over parental rights. That's the short story of how Melinda entered foster care just before she turned sweet 16. She wore tan jumpsuits in juvenile detention centers, bounced around to several schools and ran away from a group foster home. By last fall, at age 17, she had only 11 credits — less than half of what she needed to graduate.
But today, her story line has drastically changed. What she admits was a bad attitude turned into grim determination.
Somehow she accomplished what many — even herself — might have thought unthinkable. In six months' time, Melinda Deravil finished two years of high school to receive her diploma with her rightful class.
Simply put, she says, "I didn't want to be left behind."
• • •
The trouble started for Melinda at the end of eighth grade.
Instead of going to school, she hung out with friends, some in their 20s. In ninth grade at King High, she wandered the halls in the mornings before sneaking out to go back home.
Wilda Laborde is a single mother, working as a nurse with three more daughters at home. She called the police more times than she could remember, trying to make her daughter obey. She sent Melinda to live with her father in North Carolina. It wasn't a good fit. She came back.
Melinda says her mother, originally from Haiti, is strict. She wanted to dictate whom Melinda could date and insisted she go to school. But the daughter wanted to do her own thing.
Signing over parental rights was a desperate measure.
"I did that because I loved her," Laborde said. "I wanted her to get help."
Now, Melinda knows she did wrong. She knows she is better off without those friends and with a diploma.
She hit bottom one Christmas, while in a juvenile detention center. A guard there gave Melinda her only gift: a basket of candy and body wash. She bawled like a baby, missing her family.
She had started high school at Tampa Bay Tech, then transferred to King, then PACE Center for Girls, Chamberlain, Middleton and Blake.
At Blake, she enrolled in a last-chance program for students with excessive absences. She was kicked out early in the 2010-2011 school year for having an attitude, she said. The program included a stipulation that a student expelled can't enroll in another district high school, Melinda said.
Seminole Heights Charter High School is an exception to that rule. It opened in August and is aimed at young adults who are at risk of dropping out or who already have.
When staffers arrived in the mornings to open the school, they often found Melinda waiting at the door. The online curriculum allows students to work at their own pace and eliminates distractions, such as homeroom and class changes.
On an admittance test, Melinda scored at college level and especially high in reading, said Bobby Smith, principal at the school. These skills helped her master the material, he said.
She came to the school in November with 11 credits toward a diploma that requires 24. At times she questioned whether she could pull it off. She got stressed and obsessively recalculated the classes she needed.
"She was like a machine, so focused," said her teacher, Debby Guice. "Some days she wouldn't even come up for air."
She took various science, English and math courses, struggling through precalculus. But some never gave up on her, including Smith, her teachers and her boyfriend Jonathon Shaw.
Melinda graduated with the school's first class of 13.
During the graduation ceremony last week, she stood at a podium and spoke with a sweet tone, exuding confidence. She acknowledged the teachers who told her she could do it. And she did, boosting her GPA from 2.2 to 3.2.
She crossed the stage and took her diploma, along with the others who had overcome hardships. Shaw handed her roses. Her cousins, sisters and her mother cheered.
For the next few months, she'll continue living in a group foster home in East Tampa. She stays to herself there, she says, reading mysteries and sci-fi in a bedroom she shares. Although many events were hard to endure, she says the foster care system has worked for her.
On Aug. 20, she turns 18. From the system, she will get a basket with a pillow, blanket, a few pots and pans, and silverware, then be sent on her way. A counselor will help her find an apartment. She plans to enroll in Hillsborough Community College this fall and eventually become an ob-gyn.
"I'm very, very proud of her," said her mother.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3431.