PENSACOLA, Fla. – Twin brothers Alan and Axel Escobar-Medina grew up so shy that when their mom took them to playgrounds as toddlers, they preferred to play with each other and wouldn’t talk to anyone else.
Rocio Medina knew this would be a problem when it came to school. She is a firm believer in education choice, but when it came to middle school, she didn’t give her twins one.
She and her husband, Atanacio Escobar, moved from Mexico to the United States in 2000 to start a family and find more opportunity. They get by on his income from construction work but want more for their four kids.
Four years ago, near the end of fifth grade at their neighborhood school in Pensacola, she knew exactly what needed to be done about the C’s and D’s her oldest boys, Alan and Axel, were earning.
“I wanted them to go to private school because they were so shy,” she said. “The public middle school was much bigger. I didn’t want them in an environment with so many kids.”
She knew the right fit was at her Catholic church, St. John the Evangelist. She visited the 145-year-old K-8 school and talked to teachers and administrators. Thanks to a family member who sent her kids there, Rocio knew she could afford tuition with a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship from Step Up For Students (which hosts this blog).
“When they came here, you could barely get them to talk to you,” guidance counselor Caroline Bush recalled. “They struggled in most subjects. There was still a language barrier, because they spoke Spanish at home.”
At 12, the identical twins were painfully aware of their strong accents. Once, a student at the neighborhood school told Alan his voice was different and weird.
Shyness was a defense.
“I didn’t really like talking so much,” said Axel, now 15. “I was nervous and scared that my teachers and classmates wouldn’t understand what I was saying.”
Despite the quiet, teachers noticed perseverance and tenacity. They encouraged the twins while Rocio pushed at home. Teachers tutored every day after school. Bush was there regularly to translate.
“It was incredible,” Bush said. “They were very focused. They never gave up.
“When a teacher sees that in a child, you push them further to see how much you can get out of them. You could see their grades going up, and they grew a lot, too.”
They were socializing, participating in after-school activities like the 4-H Club. They tried out for basketball.
“They had never played before in their life,” Rocio said with a laugh. “Everyone was so encouraging. No one ever said they weren’t good. They always told them to keep trying.”
In seventh grade, they were inducted into the National Junior Honor Society. In eighth grade, Alan and Axel continued to be on the honor roll. They had friends they talked and joked with. They even found a sport that was a better fit, thanks to the PE teacher, Sydney Murphy.
“She told me I was fast,” Alan said. “At first, I didn’t want to join the track team, but she said we should, and she stayed after us, so we did. We both run cross country (in high school) now.”
After graduating from St. John in 2018, a proud and content Rocio gave her boys their choice of high schools. They had figured they’d go to Pensacola Catholic High, but a visit to a district magnet school, West Florida School of Advanced Technology, changed their minds.
They liked the school’s 12 career academies (both chose the Critical Care & Emergency Medicine academy) and, ironically, the size and diversity of the student body (more than 1,300, including about 400 in their freshman class) was now a draw.
“It’s a big high school, but I wasn’t worried because they are more secure than they were before,” Rocio said. “I couldn’t be happier.”
She and her sons give much of the credit to three critical years of development at St. John.
“I feel comfortable,” Axel said. “Entering high school, I told myself I’m going to be a new person. I just go right up to people and start talking now.”
About St. John the Evangelist Catholic School
The oldest Catholic elementary school in Florida was established on the former Pensacola Navy Yard in 1874. Part of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, the school moved into its current building in 1948. The school administers the MAP Growth test three times a year as well as the Terra Nova Spring test. There are 250 K-8 students, including 118 on FTC scholarships. Tuition is $5,200.