News of February’s deadly school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, sent waves of shock and terror through the community.
Just 10 minutes south of the shooting that took 17 lives, students at Coral Springs Charter School struggled to process the tragedy. The next day, many of them went to their known “safe zone” – Joey Melendez’s drama classroom.
“Students from all different class periods flooded into my room to sit in our circle on the floor and talk about what was going on and what they were feeling,” said Melendez, a Coral Springs Charter alum who is in his third year of teaching at his alma mater. “They knew they could open themselves to the most real emotions without the fear of being judged.
“My room has always been a place of comfort for them, and this time some of them began to see that everything they have learned within the past two years – about spreading less hate and more kindness – had a reason why.”
For Melendez, 26, who teaches middle school theater, high school introduction to film and American Sign Language, being an educator means much more than classroom work and textbook assignments. He aims to impart life lessons to students at a school that helped him through the most difficult moments in his own life – even after he graduated.
His students appreciate the human connection.
“He can relate to you with anything,” seventh-grader Lily Escobar said. “He’s like your best friend.”
Ninth-grader Kelly Gillan agreed. Besides the real-world lessons Melendez has conveyed, she said her life has flourished since she joined the drama club a couple years ago.
“I have so many more friends now than I ever had before,” she said. “And you can talk to him about anything.”
Melendez was raised near the school by a hardworking single mother, Louise Melendez, who instilled a never-quit attitude in her son. His maternal grandparents, Joseph Cipriani and Carmela Cipriani, lived across the street.
“We were a very close Italian family,” Melendez said. “My mom and my grandparents raised me. I’d stay with my grandparents on the weekends and we had family dinners every Sunday.”
His grandmother, he said, was his best friend.
He attended his neighborhood school until eighth grade. His mother had long wanted him to attend Coral Springs Charter because she heard positive reviews of the school. He struggled somewhat with math but didn’t have many academic issues, and bullying was never a problem. After being on a waiting list for two years, he enrolled at Coral Springs Charter in eighth grade.
Melendez immediately appreciated the smaller class sizes and personal attention from teachers. He soon immersed himself in the middle school drama and chorus productions. By high school, he was performing in productions such as “The Crucible,” “Fame,” “Into the Woods” and “Twelfth Night.”
Tragedy struck his family when Melendez was in 11th grade. His grandmother unexpectedly died the day he was scheduled to perform with the school’s chorus.
“The teachers were very loving, caring and concerned,” he said. “In a smaller school, you really get to know the students and families.”
After graduating from Coral Springs Charter in 2011, he enrolled at Broward Community College, where he started learning American Sign Language. In his second year there, his grandfather died. Around that time, his mother had to give up their condominium and they moved into his grandparents’ former home.
Soon after her father died, Louise Melendez fell and broke her shoulder. The recovery was arduous and she spent more than a year out of work. By then, Joey Melendez had enrolled at Florida Atlantic University as a communications major. He was taking classes full time and working three jobs.
In the summer of 2014, Joey Melendez, by then fluent in American Sign Language, attended Camp Endeavor in Dundee, a camp for deaf children. A day before the camp ended, Melendez got a text from a neighbor, saying they couldn’t reach his mother.
Joey Melendez couldn’t reach her, either.
“If I called, she would always pick up, but this time she didn’t,” he said.
Alarmed, he asked his sister to go to their house. Paramedics were already there when she arrived.
After about a week in the intensive care unit at a local hospital, Louise Melendez died of liver and kidney failure.
“My sister and I held her hand. Within a minute or two, we saw the flat line,” Melendez said. “The nurse came in and turned off the monitor. She took her last breath.”
At her funeral, Joey Melendez said he was overwhelmed by the attendance of dozens of friends, educators and staff from Coral Springs Charter.
“We have a motto: ‘Once a Panther, always a Panther.’ The teachers are just always there for you. Always,” he said. “The first few holidays after she died – July 4th, Thanksgiving, Christmas – they were all reaching out to me to include me in their own family celebrations. That was very impactful.”
On his own for the first time, Melendez had to learn to juggle a full work and college schedule, while looking for a new home. Just before she fell ill, Louise Melendez had received an eviction notice.
Her death left Melendez with no help to pay for tuition or living expenses
But Louise Melendez didn’t raise a slacker.
Joey Melendez continued working three jobs and maintaining a full-time college schedule. He graduated from FAU in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in communications.
He was seeking full-time employment when he received a call from Jodi Robins, assistant principal at Coral Springs Charter, who sought a middle school drama teacher. Robins said Melendez made an immediate impact on the school.
“He brings a lot of excitement and energy and he’s super-creative,” Robins said. “The students love his classes. He challenges them, but they love the sign language class. We were able to open up an extra sign language class this year because so many kids asked for it.”
The benefits of arts-infused education may be incalculable.
“It gives a lot of kids the opportunity to be successful outside the classroom and the chance to express themselves,” Robins said. “Music helps with math and they’re reading materials they wouldn’t read in class. They’re learning to interact with people and accept other people’s talents and weaknesses. It rounds them out.”
Melendez’s productions of “Peter Pan” and “The Lion King” drew rave reviews from parents, teachers and students. This year, he plans to direct “Hair Spray.”
Coral Springs Charter Principal Gary Springer said Melendez’s success is based on the relationships he builds with students.
“He’s endearing and has that quality about him that kids enjoy,” Springer said. “Once you get that from a student, they’ll run through a wall for you. It’s about being real and doing it. You don’t have to fake it. He’s real and transparent. That’s what pays off.
“We’re not creating widgets. Our product is a human being. To be able to form that, when they’re most impressionable, and have that kind of role model is invaluable.”
Despite the tragedies he has endured, Melendez’s face is parted by a near-constant smile. He is pursuing his passion among friends and co-workers who have been there for him in his darkest times. And he is molding young minds with a simple, effective philosophy.
“At the end of the day, I like to teach life lessons,” he said. “It’s not just about the class. It’s learning about who you are and what you’re going to be to others.”
About Florida’s charter schools
Florida is home to more than 650 public charter schools, enrolling more than 295,000 students. Sixty-two percent are black or Hispanic; more than half qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches. The Florida Department of Education classifies 189 charter schools as academically high-performing.
Part of the Charter Schools USA family of schools, Coral Springs Charter was established in 1999. It has been an A-rated school since 2004, according to the Florida Department of Education.