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LAST-CHANCE CHAMPION for CHANGE

As they file through the door of the Star Center's tiny cafeteria the students can't help but run into Calvin Brown.

Every morning the teacher pitches in on the serving line. And, as always, he's got the charm going.

"How's it going? You want some juice?" he calls out to a young man who has frequently been absent this semester. Despite the pleasant greeting, Brown gets only a sullen nod in reply.

"Nice of you to decide to be with us today," he calls as the young teen turns away and shuffles toward the lunch hall.

Brown is unfazed by the silent treatment. He must be, he says. He likes being in the cafeteria when breakfast is served because it allows him to show a positive attitude that he hopes will make the day go smoother.

"After all," he says, "I need all the help I can get."

For 12 or so middle school-aged boys, Brown's seventh-grade class is the last-chance stop in Hernando County's education system.

Their disruptive nature keeps them from attending mainstream school, even ones with the most forgiving exceptional student education programs. Some have been kicked out for fighting; others for excessive absences. Some have had stays in juvenile detention facilities. Whatever the reason, they can't go back to their original school unless they can be productive and well-behaved.

And that's where Brown comes in.

The 34-year-old educator has spent much of the last 10 years working with adolescents who have fallen through the cracks of the school system. In a tiny classroom near the back of the Star Center, he tries to bring them up both academically and socially. It's an uphill battle.

Many are already deeply entrenched in the ways of the street. Few have the luxury of a stable home life. And most have a clear distrust of adults.

"Trust is probably the hardest thing for me to win with these kids," Brown said. "Many of them have displaced their admiration for grownups to the point where they've shut them out. I feel if I can at least do that, then the rest of the teaching is just taking the right steps at the right time.

That's where Brown's natural skills as a communicator come in.

Standing at a white wooden lectern at the front of the classroom, he's like a preacher crossed with a rapper, tossing out hip slang and gestures with a flair that captures the attention of even the most tough-skinned kids.

That bond is something he takes seriously. He prides himself on being a good listener, and is quick to pile on praise and rewards for those who show extra effort.

"You have to understand that a lot of them don't get the kind of love and attention that most kids get," Brown said. "I hate hearing people say that the only way to teach these kids is to punish them all the time. Part of the trouble is that someone's already tried it, and it didn't work. Yes, they need to be held responsible for their actions, but what's better is to teach them how to think about consequences before they act."

While the majority of school time is devoted to teaching subjects such as math, reading, writing, science and history, Brown reserves every Wednesday to the study and discussion of proper social skills.

Talking about issues such as self-control, tolerance and teamwork have helped many students explore more positive avenues of dealing with their disruptive attitudes.

Also, Brown and classroom aide Bob Robinson combine forces with other teachers and counselors for a weekly class in violence prevention.

"Reaching them at an age before they fall under peer pressure is very important in deciding how their future's going to turn out," Brown said. "I've seen it happen so many times, and once they get past the point of caring about it, you can lose them quickly."

A Hernando County native, Brown's close community ties have always been a source of inspiration in his involvement with young people. Outside school, he is a volunteer coach in football, baseball and track programs at several schools. He and his wife, Oephilia, are also involved in youth outreach programs at Josephine Street Church and through the Jerome Brown Community Center.

The center is named after Calvin's late brother, Jerome, who died in a Brooksville car crash in 1992.

Calvin Brown credits his brother, a well-admired pro football star with the Philadelphia Eagles, with a sense that every young person can be reached if there are those who are willing to go the extra step.

"These are kids who need straight answers, and I think Jerome helped me to recognize that I have a talent for doing that," Brown said. "He was the kind of person who would have loved to be here every day."

It's not surprising that with his own background in sports, Brown enjoys taking his students to physical education in the afternoons. Playing flag football, softball and basketball they learn to respect each other and to work as teammates.

"One of the most important things we can teach our children is how much they are a part of the world around them," Brown said. "No one can go it alone. You have to depend on people and you have to be dependable yourself. Games teach us that."

Despite the demanding job, Brown says he has no plans to leave the Star Center any time soon. To him, it would be abandoning a mission that has become dear in his life.

"I give God the thanks for making this a rewarding experience for me," Brown said. "I know not every kid's going to go out and be a success. The odds are too much against it. But every once in a while, one of them lets me know that at least a little bit has sunk through. And trust me, that's a wonderful feeling to have in your life."

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