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"He found that people cared about him'

(ran SE edition of LT)

The youth and the man glanced at each other from a distance in one of this city's most depressed neighborhoods.

The youth had become a rebel, a dropout, an apprentice drug dealer. Over the years he had avoided, or sometimes taunted, the man _ a diehard who always encouraged the neighborhood kids to get their educations.

But that Sunday afternoon, April 2, 1989, would be significantly different. The wayward youth, Anquante Fowler, called out to the caring man, David Archie. They talked for 2{ hours, sitting on the hood of a car.

And they decided that Anquante could escape the inescapable: He could transform himself at age 15 from a drug dealer into a model student.

Anquante (pronounced ah-KWAN-tay) does not come from model circumstances. He has never met his father, who lives in St. Petersburg. His twin brother is in prison in North Florida for aggravated assault. His mother struggles to raise another set of twin sons, a daughter and two children of a relative who is away with a drug addiction, Anquante said.

As a child, "I felt that I wasn't getting much attention at all," he said.

But he saw a way to change that. He saw young men with flashy jewelry, driving Cadillacs with $3,000 sound systems. They would let boys like Anquante drive.

So Anquante dropped out after only half a semester at Tarpon Springs High School.

But life in the streets gradually took on a tarnish. Cool friends got arrested, and their fancy cars got seized.

If the Sunday afternoon with David Archie didn't seal Anquante's change of heart, the rest of the week did.

That Monday morning, a friend, Shaun Bryant, was found dead. The medical examiner said Shaun had snorted a fatal dose of cocaine.

Anquante attended a wrenching funeral that Saturday. There, he said, "I promised myself that I would earn a diploma and get a college education."

So Anquante restarted the ninth grade that fall. Teachers were supportive but skeptical.

His first report card changed everything. Anquante scored a 3.5 grade-point average, midway between all As and all Bs. His instructors heaped on the praise. Word spread through the faculty, and Anquante got pats on the back from teachers he scarcely knew.

"A 1.5 was all he needed to play football," Archie recalled. "He could have just gone through the motions. But he wanted to excel."

Anquante's GPA at Tarpon is now 3.0, including a solid year of Fs when he dropped out. He is college-bound, probably as a football player.

What made the difference?

"I think it's because he found that people cared about him," said Christy Richards, an assistant principal who cared a lot.

"David Archie showed him there are people who do care," said Sandy Beverly, a bookkeeper at the school who also cares.

"It's very important to show young people that you care," Archie said.

Anquante and 342 classmates graduated on the football field Thursday night.

Near the steps to the stage, Anquante got a hug from Ms. Richards. When his name was called, he shot his right hand skyward. He marched back to his seat beaming, shouting and exchanging high-fives with his fellow graduates.

Finally, his row sat down. But not Anquante. He remained on his feet for several long moments, the only standing figure in a maroon sea of graduates, soaking in the sweet glory of success.

Bill Coats is chief of the Times' Palm Harbor bureau.