The judges read the names of the Tropicana speech contest winners slowly, starting with third place.
"When I didn't hear them call me for second, I thought, 'I'm either first, or I'm not going to place,'" recalled Javion Hammer, the fourth-grader who represented Cox Elementary School.
He heard the "J." There were three kids in a row with a J name, though.
Then they said, "Javion."
"My eyes were wide. My mouth was wide," the 10-year-old said, smiling brightly. "Everybody looked at me."
Javion had become the first student from Cox to win the annual competition of 26 fourth- and fifth-graders from east and central Pasco. (The west side schools have a separate contest.) He was thrilled, not only for himself, but for his school.
Cox, which serves a heavily low-income area, struggled in the past to get the academic results it desired. At one point, federal No Child Left Behind rules forced the school into restructuring.
After years of effort, the school now has 98 percent of its fourth-graders passing the FCAT Writing test. Growing numbers of children are performing at or above grade level on the other FCAT sections. And there's Javion's success.
"We were so proud," principal Yvonne Reins said. "When I first heard him practicing for us, I thought, 'He nailed it.'"
Reins attributed the growing list of school successes to dedicated teachers, lots of professional development and, perhaps more than anything, increased expectations. A student's economic status should not matter, she insisted.
"That's huge," she said. "If we have the bar set low, that's as far as they'll go. If we set the bar high, they'll reach it."
Javion's teacher, Mary Nicholson, said she and her colleagues work to make sure lessons engage students, often with games to make learning fun. If they find something that works, they share it. Once the students find success, they take more risks that lead to continued improvement.
That also requires the use of much data, Nicholson said.
And that gets Javion rolling. His winning speech tackled that very topic.
The title: Why I Hate Tests.
"Pre-tests, post-tests, short tests, long tests, easy tests or hard tests - all kinds of worthless tests," he said, reciting the opening. "Do you know kids have to take all sorts of tests day in and day out? Well, I hate every one of these tests."
He offered 10 reasons. They're boring. They put too much pressure on you. They don't show how smart you really are.
"Tests are not my thing," Javion said, still reciting. "Why can't the district ban tests from school forever? ... Our teachers test us to death. Don't they have anything better to do?"
He said he came up with the topic after listening to his classmates groan after one day in particular where they had a reading test, then a math test, then a writing test in advance of FCAT Writing.
"We barely have time to get on computers," he lamented.
Javion, who admits he's not shy, said his grandfather inspired him to do the speech, his grandmother gave him hints on how not to get nervous, and his football coach reminded him that even through struggles can come success.
All those lessons came in handy at the May 5 district competition as he stood before the crowd speaking without hesitation, and without notes.
"It could have been somebody else that won," he admitted. "I'm not saying my speech was the best, because it wasn't. I think I won because I didn't really have any cards, I looked at the audience the entire time and I had a lot of laughs. ... It's really special."
Now that he's won the district competition, Javion has his eye on next year's contest.
"On Mother's Day, I was talking to my cousin," he said. "I was saying, 'How come they have Mother's Day and Father's Day but no Children's Day?' My mother said, 'That could be your next speech.'"
He's already begun working on it.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.