Michael Ferreira gravitated toward Rep. Larry Lee’s story.
The fact that Lee failed the first grade and overcome obstacles to go on to college, the NFL, the insurance business and the Florida House intrigued him.
“I was not always the model student,” Lee, D-Port St. Lucie, recalled. “I never had any serious disciplinary problems, but I did have academic challenges.”
Lee asked students at Allapattah Flats K-8, including Michael, to participate in a program he created called Journey to Success. The goal: Help them overcome the barriers that trauma and poverty had placed in their paths.
Michael jumped at the chance.
Lee made a simple promise to the 15 male students in October 2017. If they stayed out of trouble and kept their GPAs above 2.0, they would receive a reward: a blazer and a trip to Tallahassee to observe the legislative session.
This week, nine students, including Ferreira earned that trip. However, only six could attend. The other six students, who did not qualify, are still struggling, but school officials say they are still working with them. They have not been disqualified.
Michael said the program encouraged him to improve his academics, stay out of trouble and do the right thing.
The students involved are taking ownership of their learning as they choose to partake in such a program.
Renee Adderly-Clark, the school’s dean, said the students are taking more initiative. They come to her when they miss work and ask about ways to improve. The young men also encouraged each other, reminding themselves of the reward of going to the capital.
“They kept asking: when are we going to see Mr. Lee?” she said, laughing. As a member of a club, they feel part of something positive.
Michael, a seventh grader, improved his GPA from a 2.0 to 3.0 while in the program. He said Journey to Success is the first club he has ever been involved in.
“It has been a really good experience,” he said.
Adderly-Clark said the students look up to Lee as someone who has overcome adversity.
The students arrived at the Capitol Wednesday in gold blazers, symbolizing Lee’s desire for them to strive to go for the gold. A pair of Fort Pierce businesses donated the business attire and helped pay for food during the students’ trip.
Michael acknowledges he was nervous at first, but then he became more acclimated as he met Rep. Lee and other state officials, including Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who also hails from Florida’s Treasure Coast region and House Speaker Richard Corcoran.
Adderly-Clark said one student commented that he had never wore a pair of dress shoes in his life.
Lee said he wants to show these students not only how to be successful in school but also in life. He hopes to take them to an NFL game and a play on Broadway in the future.
“I want to take them out of their environment they are in and let them see a bigger and broader world and encourage them to dream big dreams,” he said.
Further, Lee said he hopes to encourage the young men that, if they don’t go to college, to consider a military career or vocational program.
After the recent shooting in Parkland killed 17 students, Lee said it is more important than ever to reach out to students.
“I am thankful that Ms. Adderly-Clark identified these boys because she saw the possibility of these kids getting into serious trouble one day because of the path they were on,” he said. “It is my goal to invest in these boys early so society doesn’t have to spend money on them with prisons in the future.”
Investing in students is critical to changing outcomes, Lee said.
Adderly-Clark said it takes a village to help children in schools.
Right now, people often want to kick children out of school when they misbehave. That, Lee said, is not the answer.
“Many times, we see all the bad, but we don’t look underneath and see the possibility of good,” he said. “It is up to us to help that kid discover his or her hidden talent. Many of (these students) are a diamond in the rough.”