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ABC News Features Sarasota Acceleration Academy Grads

September 30, 2020 | Jeffrey Good

ABC News Features Sarasota Acceleration Academy Grads image

Renée Gilmore of ABC News featured Sarasota Acceleration Academy grads Bill Lewis and Chris Tillman on her Empowering Voices program. Bill and Chris talked about how SAA staff members helped them re-engage in their high school studies, and how they supported each other on the road to graduation. After getting their diplomas, the two young men enrolled in technical school and are now studying to become HVAC technicians. Click here to watch their interview.

‘Nobody Wants to Be Left Behind:’ Friends Urge Each Other to Graduation — and Beyond

After the campus of Sarasota Acceleration Academies re-opened for the 2020-21 school year, two young men with familiar faces stopped by on their lunch break and strode through the door.

Bill Lewis and Chris Tillman arrived wearing the dark green uniforms of students at Suncoast Technical College, where they had begun studying for careers as heating and air conditioning system technicians. The young men wore something else — the proud smiles of SAA grads. They wanted to stop by to say thank-you to the educators who had helped them so much.

“The first thing I noticed was they had this confidence, this aura,” said Frank Cruz, a graduation candidate advocate (GCA) who had helped to mentor the two. “They were really proud — there was such a difference in them, having gotten their high school diplomas.”

Traditional high school had not been a good fit for either young man. Both struggled with learning differences and said they sometimes struggled to keep up. Special education services were available, but they carried a stigma.

“I always felt separated from everyone else … like they were better,” said Bill. The pace of big classes sometimes had him hurrying through material, added Chris. “I’m hearing (the course material), but it doesn’t stick.”

Each also struggled with personal crises that got in the way of their academic progress — Chris’s mother died and Bill’s father went to prison. Although they were grieving, each worried about being labeled as “one of those kids who doesn’t work.”

The two friends came to the Academy after learning they would not be able to graduate with their class. They faced a choice — return to the school where they had felt defeated, or find another path.

That path led to SAA, which partners with Sarasota County Schools to re-engage young learners who have dropped out or are at high risk of doing so. A guidance counselor and others at their old school urged them to enroll, but that didn’t necessarily mean they arrived ready to buckle down.

“When I first came in, I was lollygagging,” Bill acknowledges.

But he and Chris soon warmed to SAA’s airy and relaxed physical space, the generous personal attention from the educators there, and the fact that they could take breaks as needed to step outside for some fresh air or to grab a sandwich nearby.

And they found themselves influenced by another important factor: peer pressure. The good kind.

The young men surrounded themselves with a crew of fellow graduation candidates, and before long they were cheering — and challenging — each other on. Bill said, “I was like, ‘They’re actually doing their work.’ ”

“We used to make bets, ‘I’m going to finish first.’ ” said Chris. “We used to push each other.”

Chris was the first to graduate, and Bill wasn’t far behind. Both enrolled in the 7-month Suncoast Tech HVAC program. Cruz, who’s been at the academy since it opened in the fall of 2018, said that kind of healthy peer influence makes a big difference. “Nobody wants to be left behind.”

Bill and Chris said there was a “college room” at their old school, but they had never gone inside; they just didn’t consider themselves college material. But at SAA, staff members encouraged them to continue their education and find a potential career path, even helping them after graduation to navigate the application and enrollment process.

Suncoast Tech offers plenty of hands-on learning for a career in a booming industry. Bill stopped by in April for another visit, saying he had seven job offers waiting for him when he finished his training. He is currently working for Sean McCutchenon’s Air Conditioning and Heating in Sarasota.

Both Bill and Chris say they’re grateful to the guidance counselor and others at their old school for pointing them toward SAA — and to SAA staff members like Cruz, Director Monetta Rustin and Content Coach Fred Thomas who never let them give up on themselves.

Said Chris: “I don’t know where he and I would be if we hadn’t come here.”

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