Spotlight on Schools


Alta Vista’s Eagle Academy taps into power of the arts to connect with parents

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Maria Schaedler-Luera

PARENT UNIVERSITY: Maria Schaedler-Luera works with Spanish-speaking parents of Alta Vista Elementary's Eagle Academy students to help them learn English through the arts.

Maria Schaedler-Luera knows firsthand what it’s like to be an immigrant to the U.S. Born in Brazil, she moved to New York City at age 24 to enroll in a musical theater program.

“I had to learn English,” she recalls. “Through that program — which was purely an arts program — I learned the language and learned how to communicate. And I had the arts as a way to express all of my frustrations in the beginning about communicating.”

Her own experience inspired her to help other immigrant parents this past summer at Alta Vista Elementary School in Sarasota, one of the county’s Title I schools. Title I schools receive supplemental federal funding because a high number of their students are from low-income families. Schaedler-Luera’s daughter is currently a second-grader at Alta Vista and has attended the school’s Eagle Academy summer learning program for the past two summers.

In order for students to be part of the summer program, their parents must attend the school’s Parent University as well. “In my daughter’s first year in Eagle Academy, I attended as a parent and took classes,” says Schaedler-Luera. “But as I was doing that, I realized that I could probably be more of an asset for the school if I actually taught one of the classes instead of taking one.”

Schaedler-Luera serves as the program manager for arts integration at Any Given Child Sarasota, which works to expand the quality of and access to arts education in Sarasota County’s schools. In that role, she helps coordinate and manage professional development workshops for county teachers and facilitate arts experience opportunities for students.

She’s seen the role the arts can play in cultural acclimation both in her own life and in the work she’s done in Sarasota and the Boston area, where she developed and taught gallery classes for immigrants at the Harvard Art Museums. So the fluent Portuguese and Spanish speaker approached Alta Vista Principal Barbara Shirley and Assistant Principal Holly Heim about teaching a class for Eagle Academy.

“I thought I could be a good bridge between the school and other parents,” says Schaedler-Luera. “I share a lot of the same interests in regard to the school and its kids, and I understand what these parents have gone through to come here.”  

The Alta Vista administrators were definitely on board with the idea. “It’s always really exciting when we have parents get involved on multiple levels,” says Shirley. “The skills Maria has are very different from some of the skills we have, so it really broadens our ability to provide a variety of programs and resources for our parents.”

Schaedler-Luera created and taught a theater class for Spanish speakers at Eagle Academy during the 2017 summer program. “We’re working to increase opportunities for students to learn through the arts, so why not allow parents to learn through the arts as well?” she says.  

The class combined visual-thinking strategies with theater games. Each class started with an image relating to American history that Schaedler-Luera used to spark discussion. “We’d look at the image and have a conversation and make connections with our own lives,” she says. Those images helped get the class thinking and taught students about their adopted country, including some facts that could come into play for anyone taking the citizenship test.

The class would then move on to active theater games. “It was a simple thing of being able to do some theater work and have the students laugh at themselves as they were doing it,” she says. “They’re really in the moment when they’re doing that. Everything from critical thinking to expressing your emotions and connecting with your whole body is so powerful that it can be transformative.”

Schaedler-Luera is not the only member of her family volunteering at Eagle Academy. Her husband, Will Luera, who serves as director of improv at Florida Studio Theatre, has taught an improv class at Eagle Academy for the past two summers. “He loves it,” she says. “Improv is a whole other world of helping you think on your feet, be present, and listen to each other.”  

Schaedler-Luera had hoped her class would be more bilingual than it was. Some of the students had never had a formal education in Spanish, so they had difficulty reading and writing in their native language. She’d paraphrase things in English whenever she could to help introduce some vocabulary to the parents, who were all eager to learn the language.  

“Their goal is the same goal we have in the district, which is for their kids to succeed,” she says. “They place so much value in education, which is why they’re here. I think one of the great ways to help students is helping their parents. If learning English will help them get a better job and work fewer hours, maybe work just one job instead of two, then they’ll have more time with their kids.”  

While the class was just one step toward that goal of learning English, Schaedler-Luera saw it impact her students in a variety of ways. Through the theater games, she saw changes in parents’ ability to make eye contact with others. “They wouldn’t look at me in the school before the class, because they couldn’t make a connection with me,” she says. “Now that they know me, they will look at me and ask questions, which is big. But that’s just the beginning.” 

Schaedler-Luera is hoping it’s also just the beginning of her work with immigrant parents at Alta Vista Elementary. She plans to see if the group would like to continue meeting throughout the year and would be open to helping develop similar experiences for immigrant parents at other Sarasota County schools.  

“I know from being in the district that we focus a lot on teachers and students, but it’s a passion of mine to expand that to parents as well,” she says. “You have to start somewhere, and relationship building is the number-one place to start. If these parents can have successful relationships with other people in the school and learn in the process, they will be able to have more successful experiences and more positive interactions with their kids.” 

Community rallies together to provide books for Brookside Middle classroom after Hurricane Irma

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Christmas came a few months early for 125 eighth-graders in Danielle Forbes’ language arts class at Brookside Middle School

Over the past week, Forbes has received dozens of boxes filled with brand new books for her classroom to replace the nearly 200 books that were lost while the school was being used as an evacuation shelter during Hurricane Irma Sept. 9-11. 

Forbes’ classroom was one of many that were opened to families during the storm and when she returned to school, she found her textbooks, plants and other items in different places around the room as a result of the evacuees concern regarding objects in the room becoming projectiles. But she couldn’t find her novels. 

Knowing how important the books were to her as a language arts teacher, but more importantly to her students, Forbes posted a message on Facebook about what happened. Two of her friends on Facebook shared the post, which has since gone viral with nearly 300 shares. 

“Books are incredibly important to us,” says Forbes. “I’ve been so excited with how many readers I have in class. A lot of them go home and read a book, and it helps give them the feeling that they are not alone. I thought of those kids especially. They need those books.” 

Forbes and her students were overwhelmed by the response from not only the local Sarasota community but from people across the country, as far away as California, whom they have never met. 

“It’s been such a huge blessing to my students,” says Forbes. “The entire country is taking care of my students. So many of my kids go home and maybe don’t feel as important because their parents are busy working multiple jobs to put food on the table, but this just shows that people they’ve never met care about them.”

“It’s teaching them the importance of community and doing the right thing when you can,” says Forbes. “It honestly feels like Christmas every single day.”

Every time a new box arrives, Forbes and her students open it together in anticipation. Most recently, the students received a box with the entire “Harry Potter” series, which drew a round of applause from the students. The students also were excited to receive a copy of “Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind,” which explores Middle Eastern culture. 

Forbes inherited many of the books from other teachers — one, in particular, had been working on her classroom library for more than 20 years. Forbes has been teaching for eight years; and while her book collection featured many books near and dear to her heart, she’s enjoyed seeing so many new novels come in that are more relevant to what her students are interested in. 

“Honestly, they are so excited about reading,” says Forbes. “They keep asking if more books are coming and if we can have a day where all we do in class is read these books. I know reading isn’t every child’s favorite thing to do, so for me that’s what’s been so amazing.”

While some of the boxes have had notes inside as well, the majority of the packages, such as one from “Manatee County Momma” have been sent anonymously. 

In addition to sharing Forbes’ post on Facebook, one of her friends also started a fundraiser, which has raised more than $900 — all from strangers. An author also contacted Forbes, after donating quite a few books from their Rex Malone series, because they want to do a talk with her students.

Forbes had each of her students write down their favorite books, and if any of those books don’t arrive in the mail, she plans to purchase those books for the classroom with those funds. 

“There are so many people that we would love to say ‘Thank You’ too, but they were too humble to share their name or address,” says Forbes. “We just want to give a great big huge ‘Thank You’ to the community.  We’re so grateful to them for showing so much kindness. This just shows that good really conquers all.”

North Port High provides more than 3,500 evacuees with a safe place to call home

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THANK YOU: Words left on the campus of North Port High School for being a safe place during the storm.

For nearly a week, the hallways of North Port High School remained silent — void of students, faculty and staff who faced an unwelcome break from school in the wake of Hurricane Irma. 

As for the classrooms, well that’s a different story.

The voices of husbands and wives, parents and young children and friends and neighbors could be heard loud and clear.

Each of the more than 3,500 people housed inside the walls of North Port High Sept. 9-11 had their own individual reasons for being there that weekend, but their final message to the school remained the same: “Thank you”

“Thank you for giving us a place to stay, ‘to call home,’ during this stressful time. God bless us all.”

“Thank you NPHS for your hospitality. We will never forget your graciousness and generosity.”

“This place saved our lives.”

“With much love and appreciation from your Irma guests.”

Those are just a few of the messages that were sprawled on dry erase boards across North Port High, as evacuees prepared to return to their homes after Sarasota County avoided meeting Hurricane Irma head on.

“I don’t think everyone gets to see that,” says Brandon Johnson, North Port High’s principal. “Many of the evacuees had written messages to our teachers thanking them for allowing them to use their classrooms. They didn’t have to do that.”

North Port High was one of 14 Sarasota County Schools that operated as emergency shelters during Hurricane Irma, housing more than 19,000 evacuees and their pets.

As a tier two school, Johnson anticipated the school would open sooner rather than later based on Hurricane Irma’s projected track.

It didn’t take long for Johnson to receive the call. It was go time.

With about a day to prepare, Johnson met with his administrative team, organized paperwork and tried to think of everything he needed to do to make sure the school was ready to welcome evacuees.

“It was very much go mode,” says Johnson. “It was about safety, security and making people feel comfortable.”

Within five minutes of opening Saturday morning, 250 people had already made their way toward the doors. Less than an hour later, the gymnasium was full.

Johnson, who had never opened a hurricane shelter before, thought 1,000 people might show up. By 11 a.m., it was evident it was going to be more than that.

Johnson called Michael Andreas, the school district’s director of safety, security and emergency management, and apprised him of the situation. He then asked Andreas just how many people could North Port High hold?

“He said ‘Well Brandon, your capacity is almost 4,000,’” recalls Johnson. “I just smiled and said ‘OK’ and off we went.”

For the next seven hours, Johnson welcomed more than 3,500 evacuees and pets into the school.

At 6 p.m. that night, Johnson returned briefly to his Lakewood Ranch home to pick up his wife, Rashea Johnson, a teacher at Brentwood Elementary who is nearly seven months pregnant. The two returned to North Port High later that night and remained at the school until Sept. 11.

“It was nice to have her with me and know that she was safe,” says Johnson. “We were incredibly fortunate.”

Over the next two days, Johnson watched as administrators, teachers, volunteers and guests stepped up to help wherever they could. Johnson and his fellow administrators never went to sleep, opting to walk the hallways, listen to evacuation stories and offer updates every few hours.

On Sunday afternoon, Johnson saw 15 people making food — none of which were part of the original hurricane shelter team — so that everyone could eat dinner before the school went on lockdown.

These were people who saw a need to help and were willing to do whatever it took to make the experience comfortable for the evacuees whether it was delivering food and supplies or simply offering words of encouragement.

“It’s amazing how people come together,” says Johnson. “I witnessed it. I just want to thank everyone. Personally for me, I think it went better than expected. I didn’t know what to expect, but my main purpose was to make sure people were safe.”

Riverview High principal humbled to welcome nearly 2,500 evacuees during Hurricane Irma

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Paul Burns was nervous. 

The Riverview High School principal, who moved to Florida three years ago from St. Louis, had never been in a hurricane before let alone been responsible for nearly 2,500 people during one of the largest evacuations to ever hit Sarasota County. 

But when Sarasota County Assistant Superintendent Laura Kingsley called at 12:49 p.m. September 9th and informed him that they needed to open Riverview High as a hurricane shelter, Burns realized this wasn’t about him being nervous. 

This was about saving lives.   

“I felt my mission was to provide a safe place to save people’s lives,” says Burns. “It was about the safety and security of our community members and evacuees. I was on a life-saving mission.”   

Burns and his administrative team opened Riverview’s doors that same afternoon. As a tier three school, he knew there was always a possibility that Riverview High would be used a hurricane shelter.   

But what Burns wasn’t prepared for was the sheer number of concerned citizens, children, friends and students filling the campus’ breezeway. By the time the school went on “lockdown,” nearly 2,500 evacuees had made their way inside.  

“It was very humbling to welcome that many guests,” says Burns. “I assumed they would have a backpack, maybe an inflatable bed, some water and food and that would be it. To see the amount of possessions people carried with them was very surprising.” 

As a principal, Burns’ daily role is to provide safety and security to the students, faculty and staff of Riverview High. During Hurricane Irma, that role shifted to making sure the evacuees housed inside Riverview High were safe, secure and apprised of the situation going on outside. 

Burns walked the hallways throughout the day and late into the night chatting with people and checking in to make sure their needs were being met. In the back of his mind, Burns kept referring back to the three ‘Cs’: competence, calmness and confidence.   

“Many folks were anxious about the storm, so I knew it was up to us to exude competence, stay calm and remain confident in what we were doing,” says Burns.   

During his visits with evacuees, Burns heard incredible stories of people who left their homes behind, such as a man who fled his houseboat at Marina Jack, not expecting to have a home to return to when the weekend was over.   

“It was stories like that which really stood out to me as I walked the halls and chatted with evacuees,” says Burns.

For two days, Burns watched as two members of his administrative team, their families and guests volunteered their time, offering to do whatever it took to shed some light on a difficult situation. From cooking and serving three meals a day to helping treat pets and helping alleviate the fears of their friends and neighbors, Burns saw Riverview High provide a source of hope to countless members of the community.

“It was just moving to see folks do that,” says Burns. “It was a real community feel to keep that place running. While it was an exhausting time, it was also a powerfully exhilarating time. There were times when I was so overcome with emotion because so many guests sought me out to let me know how thankful and appreciative they were for having a safe place to stay and being provided with meals.”

“Those simple ‘thank you’s” that you get over and over again, it just makes you realize that we were doing the right thing providing this service, and we’ll continue to provide for the community in the future,” says Burns. “It was such a positive and powerful experience for me.”

Meal planning: Good preparation helped Sarasota County Schools’ Food and Nutrition Services feed Irma evacuees at the County’s shelters

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MEAL PLANNING: Beverly Girard, Director Food and Nutrition Services Sarasota County Schools during Hurricane Irma with Sgt. Carillo, Sarasota County Sheriff's Office
Beverly Girard has been preparing for a storm like Hurricane Irma ever since she became the director of Sarasota County Schools’ Food and Nutrition Services back in 1991. Shortly after she started, Hurricane Andrew tore through the east coast of Florida. She witnessed the aftermath firsthand when accompanying her husband to the area, where he was assisting FEMA with recovery efforts.

“I saw the devastation, and I thought, our department isn’t ready for this,” she says. “So we started getting very serious about planning and training.”

For the past two decades, Food and Nutrition Services staff members have gone through annual training to prepare for disasters. Each year, hurricane supplies are brought into every school and remain in place until the conclusion of hurricane season.

Hurricane Charley and the other storms during the active 2004 season gave the district lots of practice. “But what I always told my staff was that everything up to this point was a drill,” says Girard. “Every time we had done this in the past just made us better able to respond this time.”

And the department responded. Fourteen of the district’s 53 schools were used as emergency shelters during Hurricane Irma, and about 60 - 70 Food and Nutrition Services staff members prepared 125,000 to 150,000 meals for evacuees.

Girard led the effort from Tatum Ridge Elementary School in Sarasota with the help of her personal cell phone and a radio. “Some of our employees who worked at the shelters were newer employees who hadn’t gone through this before,” she says. “I didn’t want to tell them I was scared, because I wasn’t. But I was concerned for them because our numbers just kept growing. We had simply never experienced that magnitude of people coming to the shelters and for that length of time.”

Food and Nutrition Services is considered a district department that’s operationally essential during a disaster. When managers are hired, they’re told that they are part of a team that’s responsible for disaster feeding in the county. But other employees who weren’t required to be there stepped forward to assist, along with a host of volunteers. “They just said, ‘What can we do to help?’,” says Girard. “We love the people who volunteered with us and for us.”

Proper preparation proved vital for feeding the community before, during and after the storm. “A big part of our success this last week was the training we had done and the fact that we had resources ready when it became apparent that Irma was coming our way,” says Girard.

As the forecast kept shifting the storm west, Food and Nutrition Services immediately sprang into action. “In the flip of a switch, we go from being the providers of the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs to being an emergency feeding program,” says Girard.

The department got in touch with its distributor Gordon Food Service, along with its dairy and paper suppliers, to get additional supplies delivered as soon as possible. It also began moving supplies from schools that weren’t going to be used as shelters to schools that would be housing storm evacuees.

And the work didn’t stop the storm is over. All Faiths Food Bank has put together an emergency food distribution network, and Sarasota County Schools’ Connect-ED messaging system and social media accounts helped spread the word about distribution sites throughout the county, including some in the parking lots of schools like Toledo Blade Elementary in North Port. Food distribution sites were open in north and south county locations on September 14 and 15, with the possibility of some weekend sites as well.

“Everyone is just trying to make sure that our community is served,” says Girard. “One of the things you hear sometimes about governmental and nongovernmental agencies is that everyone is in a silo. But we are so not in silos in Sarasota County. One hand stops and the other hand starts. It’s amazing.”

Food and Nutrition Services also prepared for students to return to school on September 18. As soon as the storm was over, staff began assessing the situation at each school. The internal temperatures of every freezer were checked, and every freezer but one remained at appropriate levels.

“We had invested in really good equipment over the years,” says Girard. “The freezer boxes themselves held their temperatures, and I was delighted. We were able to save our department and essentially the federal government hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

New food deliveries were made on Thursday and Friday, restocking all cafeterias for the resumption of classes. “We’re ready for breakfast and lunch on Monday,” Girard said on the weekend before school reopened in Sarasota County. “And our staff cannot wait to see the kids.”

“I am incredibly proud to be the director of this program and to represent all of the wonderful people in our program who worked so hard to make this happen,” continues Girard. “And it was the combined work of all the agencies in Sarasota County. All of the first responders and all of the people in our community who take care of children and the elderly have a special blessing on them, I believe in my heart. I really pray that our community remembers how important the folks who provide these services are.”

North Port principal’s comforting words reassure hurricane evacuees

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COMFORTING WORDS: National Guard with evacuees and NPHS Principal Brandon Johnson.

Debbie Hall didn’t know whether to stay or leave the sheltered confines of North Port High School.

As Hurricane Irma threatened to make landfall in Sarasota County, Hall drove to North Port High Sept. 9 after the private residence she had planned to evacuate to also went under a mandatory evacuation.

The high school was the closest shelter to her Holiday Park mobile home, and she had already helped five of her neighbors get set up there. But after waiting in line for roughly an hour, Hall’s heart sank when she saw a sign on the registration desk stating that dogs and evacuees would be housed in separate areas of the school.

The news didn’t sit well with Hall who walked away from the desk in utter disbelief. After having driven away from her home expecting not to have anything to come back to, the thought of being separated from her dog, CJ, was more than Hall could bear.

Hall didn’t know what she was going to do until a man with a purple shirt assured her everything was going to be OK.

That man was Brandon Johnson, the North Port High principal.

Johnson told her to get her dog’s kennel and wait for him to come back. When he returned, he escorted Hall up to the second floor to one of the school’s biology labs. Hall and CJ, along with seven other evacuees and their dogs, would call the classroom home for nearly three days.

“Each of us had a different reason why we were there and why we could not be separated from our dogs,” says Hall, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “It was difficult, but they made it work for us. The principal told me it would be OK and it was.”
With a laptop set up to play movies and a community food table at their disposal,

Hall and her seven fellow evacuees, ranging in age from 25 to 90, made the most of a difficult situation.

The group even set up lawn chairs on the balcony and watched the majority of the storm pass by.

“It was like being on vacation in a motel,” adds Hall. “We were all good for each other. It ended up being the best scenario. The people next to us became neighbors. Everyone was helping everybody.”
None of the eight evacuees knew each other before that weekend; but for nearly three days, they shared countless stories and thoughts on life as Hurricane Irma tore through Florida.

Each of those people had their own story as to how they got there,” says Hall. “Every one of us was supposed to be in that room with everyone who was there. There’s no doubt in my mind. That’s just how it was. It was meant to be, and we were all OK with it.”

North Port High expected to house 1,000 people during the storm. By the time the school finally closed its doors, more than 3,500 evacuees and their pets had made their way inside.

Over the next 48 hours, Johnson kept the evacuees informed of the situation outside, but at the same time tried to alleviate everyone’s concerns and make sure they were taken care of.
“He was like a bee — just everywhere,” says Hall. “If you have to evacuate, I would do it again. We were very well taken care of. It was a good experience. To be on such short notice, they made things work in a very organized way.”

Hall returned home Sept. 11 to find her carport and some plants had been destroyed — all of which she says can be replaced.

“It’ll be OK,” says Hall. “I still have a home. It’s an experience I wouldn’t want to have to go through again; but if I did, I would want it to be just like that. If I knew it would turn out the same way, I would not hesitate to do it again.”

Constructing his future: Booker High grad Tyler Richards went from reluctant student to a man with a plan

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CONSTRUCTING HIS FUTURE: Tyler Richards with Dr. Todd Bowden.

Tyler Richards didn’t get off to a great start at Booker High School. He wanted to play football at Sarasota High School, but he ran into some trouble with school choice paperwork. So when he was assigned to Booker High, he wasn’t exactly happy.

“When I first got to Booker I was just real stubborn,” says Richards. “If a teacher told me to do something, I’d say no, I don’t want to do that. I never came to school, and when I did come to school, I would come right when lunch started and then sleep the rest of the day.”

He got just 2.5 credits his freshman year, receiving Ds and Fs in all of his classes. But fast-forward to 2017, and this reluctant student who once had a 0.3 GPA wound up graduating from Booker with a 2.7 GPA.

What changed him? Poor choices that led to meeting the right people.

After his freshman year, he got arrested. “My decisions were really just me not listening to my conscience,” he says. “Coming from a childhood seeing the things I saw and experienced, I really had no filter for my bad side and didn’t care about the consequences.”

But that proved to be a turning point for him. “When I got in trouble, I realized it was time to get everything on track,” he says. “I had to sit there and think about what I really wanted to do with my life.”

Richards decided he wanted to work in construction. “My whole life, I always liked getting my hands dirty,” he says. “I like building and fixing things. Every time I see new construction being built up, I always want to know what’s on the inside of it, not just what I’m looking at.”

During his sophomore year at Booker High, he was talking with his guidance counselor about his arrest and career aspirations. She introduced him to School Resource Officer Dominic Harris, who runs a local mentoring group called Brotherhood of Men. “After I got into that, that was when everything started blowing up for me,” says Richards.

Brotherhood of Men had started fixing up homes donated by the City of Sarasota and then selling them to community members. “I was taking young men and teaching them trades,” says Harris. “And when Tyler started showing up to meetings, he pretty much took it head on. He didn’t miss any meetings, he paid attention and he started showing up on Saturdays to work on homes, everything from landscaping and clearing out the old stuff in the home to demolition and plumbing. He was just willing to learn and a very motivated young man.”

Through that group, Richards not only acquired skills but also made connections with local folks in the construction industry. One of those connections, Ernest DuBose II — a construction project manager for Sarasota County Schools — brought him to the attention of Bright Future Electric, where Richards began working while still a senior at Booker High.

“He’s a very intriguing young man,” says Steve Panagiotakis, vice president of operations for Bright Future Electric in Sarasota. “You can see how smart he is, and he’s very eager to learn different trades. We have him on a small crew so we can expose him to as much electrical work as we can.”

Panagiotakis is willing to take a bit of a chance on kids like Richards who may have some trouble in their backgrounds — though he can’t exactly pinpoint why. It’s something of a feeling he has. “Each one of them is a little different,” he says. “I think the only thing I see in common is that they are driven to succeed and they’re all willing to do anything it takes.”

That’s definitely been the case for Richards. “After I turned 18 and started at Bright Future, that’s when it started to escalate,” he says. “I started to get myself in the mode when I wake up in the morning that I need to make sure I go to sleep better than how I woke up.”

Today this young man who once either slept through or didn’t show up for school has big plans for himself. In addition to working full-time at Bright Future, he’s enrolled in the electrical program at Suncoast Technical College and is starting his associate’s degree in construction management at State College of Florida.

After earning his journeyman’s electrical license, he wants to get his master electrical license. After getting his associate’s degree, he plans to attend Everglades University and obtain a master’s degree in construction management. At some point he also wants to do “a little touch of plumbing, just to get a feel for it.” The ultimate goal? His own general contracting firm and, eventually, his own electrical and plumbing subcontractor companies.

“It’s unbelievable where this young man came from and where he is now,” says Harris. “And who can imagine where he’s going to go? He told us he will be a millionaire and I believe it, because of his work and dedication.”

Richards knows he might not be where he is today if he hadn’t attended Booker High School. “They understand exactly where everybody could be coming from,” he says. “And that’s why they try their hardest to do as much as they can to make sure everybody makes it. I’m the type of person who believes everything happens for a reason.”

Richards has shared his story with other students at Booker High and other members of Brotherhood of Men. “I can see in the young kids how I saw myself,” he says. “But I learned my lesson. I tell them it’s not just play all the time. That nerdy kid you’re making fun of in class — you should take some notes from that nerdy kid. Because that’s what I did; I paid attention.”

“Meeting Tyler has let me know that what I’m doing in the community is not in vain,” says Harris. “You just reach out and help him a little bit and he turns it into something huge. He’s the kid who makes you want to keep going. He’s the kid who makes you say I need to get to that meeting, because who knows if there’s another Tyler in that group?”

Richards knows he’s still got a long road ahead, but he’s keeping his career dreams at the forefront. “I’m ready,” he says. “Sometimes I wish I could just go to sleep and wake up and it’ll all be there. But it’s a process I’ve got to go through.”

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