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An arrest becomes a new lease on life

Mike Sidman came in with a reputation. He left with one too. "They warned us about him," Brenda Glass said. "They said, "Watch out for this one.' And I took it as a personal challenge."

The result was a remarkable turnaround for the 22-year-old New Port Richey man who before November appeared headed for ruin. A 10th grade dropout, Sidman had spent his late teen years drifting through several states, in and out of halfway houses and drug rehab centers because, as he put it, "I had no place else to go."

And, predictably, he finally wound up in jail. Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies last fall charged him with burglary of an automobile after the theft of a car stereo. A judge sentenced him to three years probation.

"Since (moving to) Florida, being arrested was the best thing to happen to me," Sidman said last week. "It gave me the incentive to get with the program. Once was enough. I don't intend to make jail a habit. But I do intend to leave my mark on this world."

Because he was a first offender and his crime did not involve violence, Sidman was given the opportunity to enter a relatively new state-funded program that recognizes the key to prevent men and women from falling into a pattern of criminal behavior is to educate them. Without a high school diploma, it is difficult to find a job. The result of that is often welfare or trouble with the law.

When Sidman first arrived for the Probationers Educational Growth (PEG) program at Pasco Adult Education, he brought an attitude.

"The first time I talked to him," recalled PEG Coordinator Brenda Glass, "he wouldn't look me in the eye. Most of the people referred here come without any special mention from their probation officer. But Mike had established quite a notoriety. He'd been banned from the public schools."

But Glass had a feeling. "He was obviously bright," she said. "In fact, he aced the test (to evaluate his educational level)."

Sidman quickly demonstrated an academic expertise. He even wound up tutoring students who needed extra help. And over the next few months, he endeared himself so much to the Adult Ed staff that they thought it not the least bit unusual that he should sit regularly in Glass' chair with his feet on the desk.

"The (PEG) program is all right," he allowed. "But it's not so much the program as the people in it. It's always nice to have help."

Sidman walked two and a half miles each day to the Schwettman Adult Education Center for classes because he did not have a car. He did so well on his way to earning a General Educational Development (GED) diploma that the Private Industry Council selected him to receive a scholarship to the Pinellas Vocational Technical Institute, where he plans to become a certified auto mechanic.

"He'll do it," Glass beamed. "He's a whiz at everything. He took on our computer system here and in no time was telling us things about it."

Sidman's intelligence is obvious. So why did it take an arrest for him to decide to join what he calls "the system"?

"Let's say I had a troubled youth," said Sidman, who explained that his mother and stepfather lost their home in Connecticut when he was 13 and their business failed. "Mom went into the hospital. Things fell apart." As he began getting into trouble at school, "people put me down a lot.

"I had to learn at a young age to take care of myself. I've done a lot of things that I'm not too proud of, but I had to stay alive. It did what had to be done. But I've come to know the value of finishing school. Earning money depends on it. I don't want to have just what the Joneses have. I want it all _ yesterday. I was discouraged. I can't really complain now."

At graduation ceremonies Wednesday night, Sidman was among 21 probationers accepting a diploma. Glass gave him special mention as the "turnaround student of the year."

Whether Sidman lives up to his potential remains to be seen. He still admits to having "an attitude" about some people, but the PEG program has given him an opportunity to get his life under control. Since its inception in 1989, when a Pasco probation officer reacted to concerns that some of his referrals did not have the education to correctly fill out a form, PEG has meant more than 100 high school diplomas _ and a world of self-esteem _ to men and women who were skidding. Many of them have gone on to higher education. What began as a Pasco program has grown to nine other school districts.

It should be statewide.