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Banquet canceled, schools still honor students who turned it around

Teachers head to the teens’ homes to celebrate. One student suddenly “took off," his assistant principal recalled. “We really couldn’t stop him from that point."

For Desmond McBride, getting to graduation didn’t always look likely.

He bounced from school to school, constantly getting in trouble, learning little and having the (bad) grades to show for it.

“I was worried about hanging out with friends and girls and all that,” McBride, 18, explained. “I never really understood that school comes first. I was never truly tuned in and focused on school.”

When he went to enroll in Pasco County’s River Ridge High as a junior — his third high school in three years — his grade-point average was so low he feared they wouldn’t let him in. His record of poor academic performance paired with his insolent, angry attitude did him no good.

“I had to show everyone I’m not the person they think I am,” McBride said.

On Thursday, his effort paid off, as his principal, assistant principal and former school social worker showed up in his front yard to recognize him as River Ridge High’s turnaround student of the year.

Most springs, the Pasco school district celebrates its middle and high school turnaround students with a full buffet luncheon, live music, and inspirational speeches aimed at conveying the value they place on the teens who have overcome obstacles to find success.

Social distancing squashed that opportunity for this season. But organizer Ramón Suarez, who oversees the district’s graduation enhancement program, refused to allow the recognition to disappear.

So he organized five teams of educators to travel portions of the county, visiting each honoree at home with a sign, plaque and yes, still a speech describing just how special each student is.

It was a decidedly low key affair, with students and their teachers alike showing up in shorts rather than suits. The emotional impact remained, even through the face masks and lack of hugs.

“I never thought I’d be reading this speech with a mask on,” River Ridge assistant principal Ron Bruno said as he didn’t shake hands with McBride and stood six feet away in the driveway, principal Toni Zetzsche taking photos with her phone.

Toni Zetzsche, principal of River Ridge High, makes a picture of graduating senior Desmond McBride, 18, while he is being recognized Thursday as the school’s Turnaround Student of the Year. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

Bruno recounted McBride’s early struggles, and his lack of interest in school. But then, he said, change came fast.

Football played a role — he long wanted to be on the team — and helped the defensive lineman find a new place in school and life.

“All of a sudden he just took off. ... We really couldn’t stop him from that point," Bruno said. Once a mostly F student, “He would fight with his teachers to get A’s. ... He’s an awesome kid.”

Somewhat estranged from his parents and other relatives, McBride lives with best friend Trinity Peck and her mom, Angel Withrock, who said they invited him into their home so he could remain at River Ridge rather than be pulled out by his family just as he was turning the corner.

“I saw he was really pulling himself up,” Withrock said. “He’s done just amazing.”

Peck said she knew from the first time she met McBride he had it in him. “He just needed someone to push him toward it.”

Now ready to study to become a police officer, McBride said refocusing on football and positive friends showed him what it can be like to succeed. He’ll get his diploma in June.

“I just felt like the sky was the limit,” he said.

It’s a message he offers to others who might find themselves in a similar situation.

“You’ve got to put your priorities in place,” he said. “No. 1, get your diploma and get out. Half these people you goof around with, these people are not going to be there for you when you need to pay your bills, when you’re low and you need help.”

Lisette Ramirez is Land O'Lakes High School's 2020 Turnaround Student of the Year. [Pasco County school district]

The idea of taking care of yourself rather than others resonated as well for Lisette Ramirez, Land O’Lake High’s turnaround student.

Like McBride, Ramirez found herself staring at the possibility of not graduating this spring. She faced a different set of problems.

“Freshman year, it was kind of difficult. I just ended up spiraling into a very negative place, not because of what was around me, but just mentally,” the senior said. “I dug a hole for myself.”

She stopped going to school and stopped caring. People would inquire after her, but she dismissed them.

“I stayed home,” Ramirez said. “It was the worst.”

Junior year brought the revelation that she couldn’t go on this way. There would be life after high school, and it had to be better.

“I always knew, even though I put myself in that negative head space, I wanted to be someone in the future,” she said.

So like McBride, Ramirez focused on credit recovery courses and summer school to bolster her grade point average and catch up with her peers. With the support of her brother, some teachers and her guidance counselor, she’s now ready to become her family’s first high school graduate.

She plans to study to become a veterinarian.

“They knew I could do it. It was just me,” she said, adding that she’d advise others in her situation to remember themselves and focus on the future.

Though the award ceremony had become a 20-minute visit without many trappings, it still meant a lot to the students.

“It feels like my hard work paid off,” McBride said, grinning widely. “It just feels like it all came together. I finally got the pieces, and the puzzle has come together.”

That made it all worthwhile, principal Zetzsche said as she walked back to her car.

“I’m just glad we were able to get out and do this.”

Besides McBride and Ramirez, the Pasco County school district’s 2020 turnaround students are: Matthew Langlais, Bayonet Point Middle; Makayla Medina, Schwettman Education Center; Chad Brady, Hudson Middle; Matthew Ward, Chasco Middle; Cheynne Scott, Fivay High; Nevaeh Pilgrim, Hudson High; Prince Ferguson, Gulf Middle; Alexa Cruz, Gulf High; Kaydence Eklund, Paul R. Smith Middle; Joshua Williams, Anclote High; Nicolas Beach, Krinn Technical High; Rachael Thompson, Mitchell High; Nathanael Lone, Seven Springs Middle; Hunter Maggiacomo, Sunlake High; Iris Morales, Cypress Creek High; Cristian Rentas, Cypress Creek Middle; Shawkat Badawy, Pine View Middle; Ian McNeill, Pasco eSchool Middle; David Lopata, River Ridge Middle; Nicholas Cameron, Rushe Middle; Anna Smith, Crews Lake Middle; Leonardo Farias, Irvin Education Center; Pablo Montoya, Pasco High; Ariana Starks, Pasco Middle; Inoshka Diaz Quinones, Wesley Chapel High; Fausto Vallejo, Centennial Middle; Christopher Chaney, Achieve Center of Pasco; Evanely Velazquez, Zephyrhills High; Sharibel Vasquez, Stewart Middle; Zavier Bailey, Pasco eSchool High; Madison Pastrana, Weightman Middle; Michael Davis, Long Middle; Ja’Wuan Wilson, Wiregrass Ranch High.