OCOEE, Fla. – The young teacher called, tears choking her words. She wanted to quit.
On the other end of the line was Rose Theagene, horrified but not surprised. She knew her youngest son, Darryl Dutervil, was on the verge of expulsion due to escalating behavior problems in first grade at his neighborhood school.
“He threw a chair at the teacher, and it almost hit another student,” she recalled. “He was pushing and hitting kids. Parents were complaining. It was very bad. At the meeting, I just said I would take Darryl out of the school to save everyone the trouble.”
Rose had her theories about what was behind Darryl’s problems. He had been diagnosed with ADHD and the medicine was making him feel sick. At home, she said, his behavior was fine but only because she spoiled him.
After years of working in customer care for a health care company and attending school as a single mother of two, Rose became a licensed practical nurse two years ago, around the time she withdrew Darryl. A fellow nurse told her about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which helps lower-income families with private school tuition. (The scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.)
It took almost two years and an ill-fated move to Daytona Beach for work reasons, but in January 2017, Rose finally found a school – Glad Tidings Academy – where Darryl and older brother Stacey Singleton were at home.
The teacher who went beyond
Parents and students alike love Andrene Donaldson. She’s fair and compassionate, but she can be tough and blunt, too. A former public school teacher in Jamaica, her thick accent floats through the classroom like music. But all it takes is one look, and the students know she’s serious.
“She has so much fun with them that they instantly know when she’s not happy,” said Glad Tidings principal Amanda Bleggi.
Donaldson was Stacey’s sixth-grade teacher last year. He was a breeze. Good student. Shy, honest, and respectful.
This year, Donaldson teaches Darryl in third grade. Within two days, she, too, thought she might give up.
Darryl was angry and aggressive all the time. He screamed. He cursed. He never had anything nice to say to his classmates. He would snap and toss chairs. Once, he pushed Donaldson.
“Last year,” he said meekly, “was challenging.”
Donaldson made it a point to always respond with patience, understanding, and soft tones.
“He expected me to be mad at him, but I just never treated him the way he expected,” she said. “When he was negative, I was positive.”
One Saturday, Donaldson’s husband bought her a success board for Darryl to track his achievements. They started small. Two hours a day of good behavior slowly turned into one full day a week. She rewarded him with certificates, snacks, pencils, erasers, and sometimes something sweet.
“I couldn’t believe the amount of work and effort she put into just one child,” Bleggi said. “But he started to see he could succeed. It was that board.”
It was a matter of trust, too.
“When I’m angry, she calms me down,” Darryl said. “She’ll take me outside to take deep breaths, and then she lets me come back in and try again, over and over again. If I make her mad, she still loves me.”
The principal who understood
It was Bleggi, a Long Islander who became a customer relations expert in her previous career with Disney, who recognized that academics were quietly fueling Darryl’s loud outbursts.
“When he came to us, he was failing everything,” she said. “He had no confidence in himself. He didn’t believe he could do his work. There were little things he couldn’t understand, so he would get frustrated and embarrassed.”
There were countless incidents, several worthy of dismissal. But Bleggi dug in her heels.
“He should have been expelled, but I knew that wouldn’t do anything,” she said. “He would just be shoved along.”
She called Rose in for a talk and assured her that Darryl wasn’t going anywhere. Rose was taken aback. She had expected the opposite.
“When she said that, it gave me a chance to breathe,” Rose said. “They are fighting for him.”
The mom who pushed
In her new job, Rose was adjusting to working 12-hour shifts – at night. She got off at 7 a.m. and still made sure the kids got to school on time.
But every morning by 10, she expected a call from the school about Darryl. Desperately tired, she tried bribing him with ice cream and pizza.
“Just let Mommy sleep until 3 o’clock,” she pleaded.
Last fall, the calls stopped coming. Donaldson was using an app to communicate with parents. It made a ping on Rose’s phone whenever she got a message. That noise used to wake her up at 10 a.m. as well, but it was gradually replaced with photos of Darryl at work and at play, updates to his success board, and other encouraging notes.
It wasn’t an overnight transformation, but the extra communication helped. Rose got more involved during the day. She was getting fewer calls and pings, but she insisted on coming in to talk to Darryl every time.
It felt like she, Donaldson, and Bleggi were on the same page. Their patience became her patience. Their positive message hers.
She marveled at Darryl’s improvements this year and shined proudly when she saw A’s, B’s and one C on his report card.
“Darryl would wake up early, ready to go to school,” she said. “He would say, ‘Mommy, I’m going to have a good day today. You can sleep. You don’t have to worry.’ That’s when I knew the changes were real.”
The brother who led
At Glad Tidings, big brother Stacey was worried and afraid Darryl would get expelled and end up in a bad school. But at their neighborhood school, Stacey felt the sting of being lumped in and labeled.
“I heard teachers say, ‘There goes Darryl’s brother,’ ” Stacey said. “That’s why I didn’t want him to be bad, because it also reflects on me and my family.”
Darryl idolizes his brother. He wears his hair in the same kind of flat top with shaved sides as Stacey. They’re both stocky. They have the same cheeky grin. Stacey knew he could get through to Darryl. At Glad Tidings, he checked on his brother regularly.
“He looks after me,” Darryl said. “Even more than my mom.”
Stacey made a ritual of guiding his brother, made him his responsibility.
“Every morning, I gave him a pep talk of what not to do and what to do,” he said. “If there’s a person bothering you, just ignore him or tell the teacher.”
Stacey could see how those long, confidential talks really helped. Rose also felt it was a turning point when Darryl realized he was embarrassing his brother.
“I’m proud of him,” Stacey said. “I tell him ‘Good job’ a lot now, and I let him play with my video games more often.”
It’s always been about attention for Darryl, but now he feels the difference between positive and negative.
The more marks he got on his success board, the more often he went to Bleggi’s office to show her.
“By December,” she said, “I was looking at a new kid.”
Donaldson asked Bleggi to give Darryl a part in the Christmas play.
“It was a big deal for him,” Donaldson said. “Being in the play showed him and everybody that he wasn’t an outcast.”
It meant a lot more than positive reinforcement to Darryl.
“There were a lot of people, like a thousand,” he recounted. “I tried to act cool, but my heart was beating. When it was over, I felt happy. My family was proud of me.”
Darryl is happier, having more fun, getting in trouble less often and getting much better grades. Donaldson says his reading level is way up. He helps in the classroom, cleaning up and handing out folders and papers to his fellow students. He fits in at Glad Tidings in a way that he never had in school before.
“The whole school loves him,” Bleggi said. “We’re able to see his little personality now, instead of him being angry and disrespectful all the time.”
“I used to cringe every time I would hear his name, but now he comes up and gives me the biggest hugs. I can’t wait to see him in the morning. I can’t wait to hear what grade he got on his test, and he always comes up to show me now. It’s probably one of my favorite stories since working here. It’s been the most impressive turnaround I’ve seen any student make.”
About Glad Tidings Academy
Opened as a preschool in 2005, Glad Tidings expanded to kindergarten in 2014 and opened a second campus for K-8 in 2016. The school plans to have ninth grade next year and to add grades 10-12 each year thereafter. Glad Tidings is accredited and certified by Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS). There are 108 K-8 students, including 75 on Step Up For Students FTC scholarship. Glad Tidings emphasizes a child’s emotional, physical, relational, and cognitive development. The school uses Bob Jones University Press and Abeka curricula. The MAP Growth test is administered three times a year. Annual tuition is $5,940 for K-5 and $6,370 for 6-8.