ORLANDO – Mia Freytas navigates the hallways of Renaissance Charter School at Hunter’s Creek like a rock star, high-fiving teachers, blowing kisses to first-graders who rush up to hug her, and leaning in close to girls who grab her hands and whisper secrets.
Bobbing along the bustling corridors during class change, the bubbly 14-year-old, auburn curls bouncing, hustles so she won’t be late.
These days, it’s important to her to show up on time.
A year ago, the same girl arrived at Renaissance angry and guarded, angling for a fight. Her teachers saw promise but wondered how long it would take for her to settle in. They worried when she neglected to turn in assignments and picked fights with classmates.
In hindsight, Mia knows she had some growing up to do.
“I gave a lot of attitude,” she said. “I was looking for drama. I acted out because I wanted to be expelled.”
It didn’t take long for principal Robert Acosta to call Mia to his office. He explained that if she wanted to remain at Renaissance, she would have to make some changes. He also said if she wanted to participate in extracurricular activities – performing arts club, volleyball, cheerleading – she would have to bring her grades up.
Mia’s father, Victor, who dropped out of school at 16 to become a plumber’s apprentice, had watched his daughter’s grades drop from As and Bs to Cs and Ds as she moved from a district-run elementary school to a district-run middle school. He saw her attitude at home turn surly, and he grew weary of arguing with her about doing homework and chores.
“She wasn’t listening to daddy, she wasn’t listening to mommy,” Victor said. “We knew we had to address these things sooner rather than later.”
While Victor chalked up most of Mia’s struggles to growing pains, he knew she was still dealing with his separation in 2013 from Mia’s mother, Isela, and the loss of her stepsister, Circe, who died of cancer two months later, at age 39.
“Mia picked up the broken glass and tried to keep on going,” Victor said. “But it was difficult for her.”
Victor didn’t fault Mia’s former school, where he said teachers didn’t have time to pay attention to every student. But he hoped that enrolling Mia at Renaissance, with its smaller classes, mandatory uniforms and strict discipline, would make a difference.
Part of the Charter Schools USA family of schools, Renaissance Charter School at Hunter’s Creek is governed by the Renaissance Foundation, which has been operating high-performing charters in Florida for more than a decade. The school occupies 105,000 square feet in a shopping center near downtown Orlando, and enrolls 1,099 students in grades K-8. Its school grade in 2016-17 was a B, despite 66 percent of its students being eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch.
The turning point for Mia came with the conference in the principal’s office.
It made her realize how much she didn’t want to return to her old school, where she hid in the girls’ bathroom to avoid going to class, where her phone was stolen and her clothes went missing from her locker. It also showed her that someone at her new school cared about her.
“I began to realize that people were kind here,” she said. “I began to see it’s like a big family. It’s not about being popular, it’s about learning to respect others.”
Once Mia’s attitude changed, she started making friends. Once her grades improved, she became eligible to participate in the extracurricular activities Acosta had promised her.
She joined the performing arts club and landed the role of Peter Quince in the school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She earned a place on the cheerleading team. She began volunteering at the school’s aftercare program, getting snacks for the younger kids and helping them with their homework, which led to an invitation to help start a new character-building program.
“It makes me feel like a grown-up,” Mia said of her new opportunities. “It’s hard to act out when you’re trying to be a role model.”
Mia’s academic turnaround is mirrored in her home life. She and dad no longer get into fights about homework and chores. She’s come to realize that having a good attitude at home is just as important as having a good attitude at school.
“I still have some maturing to do,” she said. “But I think that will come.”
Lowbaba Karim, a teaching assistant at Renaissance who tutored Mia every day after school when she saw Mia struggling with pre-algebra, said she’s noticed a tremendous difference.
“Last year she had good days and bad days,” Karim said. “This year, she has all good days.”
Principal Acosta is not surprised.
“She came here with a rebellious attitude,” he said. “She thought it was her against the authorities. We let her know, ‘We’re with you. We’re on your side.’ ”
No one is more thrilled than Victor. Recently diagnosed with renal failure, he continues to keep a vigilant eye on her online progress reports and makes direct contact with her teachers when he picks her up from school.
“She’s on the right track,” Victor said. “I can trust her. I’ve come to respect her vision for the future.”
That future now includes classes at a modeling studio, learning to play the cello – and making a plan for college. Mia wants to start visiting schools as early as next year. She hopes to become a lawyer, like her stepsister, Circe. Or a forensic anthropologist, or a nurse, or maybe a teacher.
Victor gives Renaissance the credit.
“It’s the parents’ responsibility to make sure their children have the tools they need,” he said. “But it’s the school’s responsibility to cooperate with the family, to help guide the children.”
The difference in Mia’s “before” and “after,” Victor said, “is like the distance from here to the moon.”
About Florida’s charter schools
Florida is home to more than 650 public charter schools in 46 of its 67 districts. They enroll more than 280,000 students, 62 percent of whom are black or Hispanic. More than half qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches. As of September 2017, the state classified 171 charter schools as academically high-performing. More information is available from the Florida Department of Education.