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Sarasota Grads Celebrate Their Grit and Hopes

June 16, 2021 | Jeffrey Good

Victoria Santiago gazed out at her fellow graduates in the Sarasota Acceleration Academies Class of 2021 and reminded them of the quality that had brought each one of them to Commencement Day.

“Do you know what we all have in common? That we were determined,” she said. “We were all determined to graduate — and that day has finally come.”

The room full of grads, their families and educators erupted in cheers.


Each of the more than 50 young people who have earned their high school diplomas in the 2021 academic year has their own story. Victoria is a native of Puerto Rico who took advantage of SAA’s personalized curriculum to both excel in her coursework and dance full-time at the Sarasota Cuban Ballet School. Dillon and Collin Erb dropped out but then got their high school careers back on track with transportation, coaching and encouragement from SAA team members. Paloma Perez made her Mexico-born mother and grandfather proud by returning to high school and taking a big step toward the college education she will soon begin in Gainesville.

SAA Director Monetta Rustin greeted the graduates and their supporters by reminding them that, to her team of educators and advocates, the young learners are more than names on a school attendance chart.

“We go home and we think about you. We worry about you. We try to think of ways we can help you even more,” Rustin said. “So this is one of the happiest days of our year.”

It was a deliriously happy day for many of the grads gathered at Suncoast Technical College. Many of them had dropped out of school for reasons including needing to work full-time during the traditional school day, feeling overwhelmed by family responsibilities, or finding that they could not thrive in the large classes and standardized curriculum of traditional schools. They found a better path at SAA, which works in partnership with the public school district.

Paloma Perez is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, including a mother who came to the United States not speaking a word of English and became the first in her family to earn an American high school diploma.

Mother fixes cap for her daughter at graduation ceremony


For many years, Paloma was a strong student, earning good grades and making steady progress. But then she lost her father and grandmother in the course of a year, and saw her drive and focus drain away. She began hanging out with friends who urged her to skip school, and she went along with the crowd.

Partway through her junior year, she dropped out. She began to wonder if she would ever earn her diploma — until she found Sarasota Acceleration Academies. There, even when she would start to fall off pace, staff members urged her not to give up.

“They kept pushing me, kept texting me,” she recalled.

Twin brothers Dillon and Collin Erb also struggled with motivation, sleeping in after the traditional school day had begun, falling behind in their coursework and beginning to give up hope — until they found SAA.

Two brothers in cap and gown showcase their new diplmoas

There they were able to fit their coursework around their work and sleep schedules, to take advantage of the transportation provided by the school to come on campus for one-on-one support, and to find gentle-but-firm encouragement to keep making progress toward their diplomas.

In addition to working through online coursework from home, said Dillon, “you can come to the campus and be motivated by the teachers. If you’re going through a tough time and struggling with something, I genuinely felt I could come to the site and get some good advice and get back on track.”

All three grads said they were grateful for the second chance they found at Acceleration Academies, and hopeful that other students who would benefit from a non-traditional path will follow in their footsteps.

“There’s an entire list of kids like me at school,” said Collin. “This gives them a potential option to put their lives in a good spot. I think that’s amazing. I thank all you guys for your help.”

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