PINELLAS PARK — "Please don't make me go in there."
Many mornings, Sharon Platter said, her son made that plea as the car idled outside Bay Vista Fundamental School.
Steven, then a fourth-grader, had dyslexia and struggled to read. Other kids made fun of him. His teacher admitted she was not qualified to help him, Platter said.
She transferred him to Center Academy in Pinellas Park, a private school that serves children with learning disabilities and other challenges.
One of the first people they met was Patricia Lambert, then the school's assistant principal. Platter got the feeling Mrs. Lambert cared about each student and was won over.
"The turnaround in fifth grade was amazing," said Platter, 56, who now teaches art at Center.
Mrs. Lambert, who died July 25 at 65, was the school's driving force. A teacher at Center since 1984, she became principal a decade ago, shepherding and challenging its 100 or so students.
Founded in St. Petersburg in 1968, Center now occupies 10 acres in Pinellas Park, and is one of 10 Center academies in the state, including four in the Tampa Bay area.
A slickly produced yearbook shows fifth- to the 12th-graders. Some are smiling, some smirking. They are shown looking curious or indifferent in class, hunched over chessboards or playing three-on-three basketball. They wear their hair long or short or bright orange.
Most kids are at Center because they were bogged down in the public school system. Their issues include ADHD, mild autism, Tourette syndrome and other emotional or physical disabilities.
At Center, they have found a home. The unquestioned den mother and academic leader there for the last decade was Mrs. Lambert.
"A lot of kids felt themselves to be failures," said Jacky Dickerson, 31, a 10-year teacher at Center. "From the initial meeting with her, she let them know that they weren't, and that the academy was a place where they could be successful."
Mrs. Lambert made herself approachable to students, dividing her time between her office and a desk in the computer lab where teachers also conduct classes. She often called the students "priceless," and dubbed one girl a "priceless princess."
She could also be direct, even blunt when students strayed.
"She would just lay it on the line," said Cynthia Byfield, 63, who has taught at Center for 17 years. "She wouldn't ask them what they did wrong. She would just say, 'You did this, and what are you going to do about it?'
"She never sugarcoated, and I think they respected her for it."
Mrs. Lambert was also a private person who seldom allowed photos to be taken of her. She grew up in New York state and earned a master's degree at Stony Brook University. She taught English at Paul Smith's College before joining Center Academy.
She rewarded students who showed initiative, assigning older kids to help teach a class or hanging a student's artwork in the school's lobby.
"She had the ability to take a student who was getting agitated or upset, talk to them and turn it around very quickly, in a way that not only helped the student to calm down but also gave them a sense of 'I can do this, I can be successful,' " said Andrew Hicks, the school's chief executive and clinical director. "She respected them and treated them as an adult, and not just a little kid who was getting frustrated."
The school estimates that three-quarters of its graduates have gone on to college, with many of the rest going into trade school, law enforcement or the military. The school recently notified families of students that Mrs. Lambert had died of cancer.
"She was a really good person to confide in," said Steven Platter, the formerly reticent fourth-grader who graduated from Center in 2009. "There were so many students that she helped, students who had problems. After talking with her, they eventually started opening up to people. Things started working out for them."
Now 19, Steven is a Bright Futures scholar at the University of South Florida. He thinks he might want to be an accountant.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.