NEW PORT RICHEY — Leslie Lara was, by her own admission, a "really bad student" when she arrived at Gulf High School four years ago.
Sometimes she would go to school, but skip classes — especially the ones she didn't care for, such as math. Even if she rolled into a classroom, Lara admits, she didn't pay much attention.
Other times, she hung out with friends in a nearby park.
Lara heard the message to take freshman year seriously, because it's hard to catch up if you fall behind.
"I just kind of shrugged it off, just like, I'll worry about it later," said the 17-year-old, who was recognized in April as her school's Turnaround Student of the Year. "Then later was too late."
By the end of her junior year, Lara had a grade-point average of 0.8. She had earned four credits toward graduation. When she saw those numbers on paper, something clicked.
"I had to face reality, like what was I going to do in the future," said Lara, who wants to study cosmetology or welding or chiropractic care. "I had to change. I had to focus on my grades."
She took computerized credit recovery courses and stayed after school to make up missed and failed work. She earned all As and Bs on her senior-year classes.
By late April, Lara achieved what she had thought inconceivable: She was on track to graduate alongside the kids she had entered high school with.
"I think it was just a matter of a couple of us believing in her when she didn't," said Patrick McKay, the guidance counselor who introduced Lara at the district's annual Turnaround Student awards luncheon. "She went from a D-F student to an A-B student in the classroom. Everything started to become As and Bs when she decided to make that commitment and believe in herself."
For 31 years, the Pasco County school district has recognized students like Lara, who find success in the face of adversity, boredom or other hurdles. They're kids who didn't connect with school, but took advantage of second chances.
Deputy superintendent Ray Gadd helped initiate the first celebration and told students during a luncheon they have reason to be proud.
"You're taking this opportunity right now to be a different person," Gadd said.
"Don't let anybody or anything get in the way of these dreams," School Board chairwoman Alison Crumbley added. "Stay focused. Just stay on that path."
For Lara, a persistent, supportive brother made a difference. For others, motivation came in other forms.
Sports proved the incentive for Javionah Davis, a Weightman Middle School eighth-grader.
She said she started sixth grade as a "crazy troublemaker," not doing her class work, running around campus, talking back to teachers.
"I just didn't want to do it," she recalled. She wanted to be a basketball star, but her grades and behavior prevented her from participating.
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It took her mom, cousins and the Weightman basketball coach to help Davis see where she was headed.
"They said that stars prove who they are. They do not let people talk about them. They do their work, and they don't care what other people say," she said.
She got tutoring and started treating people the way she wanted to be treated. Her grades rose, as did her opportunities.
"I'm going to keep it up," Davis said. "I realize if I want my future, I need to do what I need to do."
River Ridge High senior Kaden Winchell found his smart phone more interesting than his classes as he entered ninth grade.
He'd watch videos, surf the internet, peruse social media — anything rather than pay attention.
"I didn't think it was a big deal at the time," Winchell said.
It didn't help, he added, that some teachers weren't interesting and others weren't present. For math, he had a substitute for three months, and he fell far behind.
After his sophomore year, his GPA was 1.7 "or maybe lower. I honestly don't remember."
He recognized that he was in a tough spot. He wanted to go to college and do something with his life.
Part of his answer was to associate with different people. Winchell began hanging out with teens who applied themselves and got good grades.
"They were doing really good, and I should be doing really good, too," he said.
He studied, got tutoring and completed his credit recovery courses on his way to an on-time graduation.
"It's an opportunity for students who realize their mistakes to get it done," he said.
Wiregrass Ranch High senior Jackson Francis saw his world change when his father was diagnosed with cancer.
Never a perfect student, he stopped caring about school, rarely turned in his homework and failed classes. His GPA plummeted. He became angry and withdrawn.
By his senior year, he had five courses to make up, plus his senior requirements. He was a day away from dropping out.
But he saw his dad fighting an illness and still going to work and moving forward. That inspired him. Like others, he also got the list — the one that showed how far behind he was.
"It was a wake-up call," he said. "There was no summer school after this. This was it."
The district's credit recovery program allowed him to catch up so he can graduate this spring.
"We're really proud," said his dad, Shawn Francis. "At one point, we were wondering if he would get there. … This shows he does have the ability. It's all attitude."
That little thing — attitude — can make a big difference.
For Cypress Creek Middle eighth-grader Gabriella Rios, it meant not getting involved in everyone else's drama and focusing on herself.
Her counselor "told me that school is more important than the people at it, that they're not going to be able to be with you the rest of your life," Rios said.
She switched her group of friends and took a lead from one who showed what it was like to succeed in school.
"That made me not want to go back," Rios said.
For C'Andre Brown, a Pasco Middle eighth-grader, it meant not being lazy.
"I just decided to do my work," he said. "I was like, I'm going to high school. I've got to change all this and get right."
His mom, Julie Hicks, said he felt the responsibility from home, too.
His ill grandmother passed away, Hicks said, and "he had to make her proud and do what she expected him to do. He's been a good kid ever since."
Gulf High's Leslie Lara acknowledged that it isn't always easy to find motivation to work hard or stay focused.
She's already advising some of her former fellow class skippers — now friends again — on how to get through credit recovery.
"It's just better off to start good your freshman year, just go at it," Lara said. "So your last year, you don't have to worry."
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at email@example.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.
2018-19 Pasco County Turnaround Students
Dylan Holland-Wright, Achieve Center of Pasco Nilda Delgado, Anclote High School Zachariah Germann, Bayonet Point Middle School Fatima Morales, Centennial Middle School Ken Cobbs, Charles S. Rushe Middle School Jaheim Ellenwood, Chasco Middle School Thomas Fatolitis, Crews Lake Middle School Stwart Garcia, Cypress Creek Middle-High School Gabriella Rios, Cypress Creek Middle-High School Caleb Poston, Dr. John Long Middle School Dakota Hatch, Fivay High School Leslie Lara, Gulf High School David McDaniel, Gulf Middle School Brodie Haith, Harry Schwettman Education Center Heather Seitz, Hudson High School Brooke Beck, Hudson Middle School Nicole Schroeder, J. W. Mitchell High School Stevie McKnight, James Irvin Education Center Jacob Cloutier, Land O' Lakes High School Ezekiel Gross, Pasco eSchool- MS Matthew Behrle, Pasco eSchool- HS Benancio Valdez, Pasco High School C'andre Brown, Pasco Middle School David Bidigare, Paul R. Smith Middle School Sigure Oneal, Pine View Middle School David Jaramillo, R. B. Stewart Middle School Kaden Winchell, River Ridge High School Shelby Lopata, River Ridge Middle School Marissa Ellis, Seven Springs Middle School Kristian Garza, Sunlake High School Javionah Davis, T. E. Weightman Middle School Dimytri Gassler, Wendell Krinn Technical High School Sophie Keller, Wesley Chapel High School Jackson Francis, Wiregrass Ranch High School Jack Seymour, Zephyrhills High School