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SAA’s Frank Cruz: ‘I Just Want to Be a Beacon for These Guys’

June 8, 2021 | Jeffrey Good

SAA’s Frank Cruz: ‘I Just Want to Be a Beacon for These Guys’ image

When Jamese Williams arrived at Sarasota Acceleration Academies, the first person to welcome her was a fast-talking, deep-feeling guy from the Bronx, Frank Cruz. And he didn’t leave her side until Jamese had realized her dream of a high school diploma.

“He’s that mentor, that father figure almost,” she says. “He always knew if I was having a bad day, without me even having to say something.” And when he pushed her to focus on her studies, “I couldn’t help but say, ‘Okay, Frank.’ ”

Cruz is a graduation candidate advocate who has been on staff since SAA opened in 2018. If he knows more than a little about the struggles of the young learners who show up looking for a second chance, it’s because he’s been where they are — and then some.

Cruz was one of five children in a family of Puerto Rican immigrants. During his childhood, “bed” was a mattress placed atop milk crates. When they moved into public housing, he says, “it was like moving up.” His father was an alcoholic who never really showed up, and his mother died of complications from AIDS when she was just 45.

“These kids don’t know my backstory,” says Cruz, who’s now 45 and a father himself. “But they know where I’m going coming from.”

Frank Cruz and graduation candidate Alissia Guzman. “You want some water for the road?” he asks her as she prepares to take a bus home. “It’s going to be hot.”Frank Cruz and graduation candidate Alissia Guzman. “You want some water for the road?” he asks her as she prepares to take a bus home. “It’s going to be hot.”

 

After his mother died, he began a downward spiral, running the streets, spending more time in clubs than on his future. Then he met the woman who would become his co-parent, and she challenged him to return to school, find a productive path.

“I wanted to be the best version of myself,” he says. “I just didn’t know what that was.”

He applied for a data entry job at an after-school program, but its leader saw greater potential in the young man. He sent Cruz into Spanish Harlem to evangelize about the opportunities. “A lot of these kids didn’t even know how to spell their names in third grade,” he recalls. He would tell their immigrant parents, “Your kid was born here. It’s his right to be educated.”

He moved on to a high school program and eventually found his way to Florida and Sarasota Acceleration Academies. Stop by campus and you can’t miss him. He’s a human perpetual motion machine, dialing up a graduation candidate who’s fallen off track to urge her back on, arranging for transportation for a homeless young woman, ordering pizza to feed young learners who might not otherwise have a good lunch.

“You want a Lyft. Tell your mom I’m getting you a Lyft,” he tells one, Alissia Guzman. She demurs, saying she’s fine with the public bus. “You want some water for the road?” he says. “It’s going to be hot.”

Many young people come to Acceleration Academies because traditional school didn’t work for them, for one last chance at the diploma that could open the door to higher education, a better job, a future with dignity instead of the familiar patterns of failure.

“I just want to be a beacon for these guys,” he says. “When you lose sight, just look for me.”


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