Jo’Keal Sweed has a quick mind, polite nature and gentle voice.
You can’t immediately tell she’s been through hell.
A senior at Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High School in Tampa, Jo’Keal can’t remember ever seeing her father, although he occasionally emails her from a Michigan prison.
Nor does she have any memories of her mother. She doesn’t even know if she’s alive.
She was adopted as a baby, and the family soon moved from her native Flint, Michigan, to Tampa. While the weather was much warmer, life was turbulent.
In Tampa, her adopted mother, along with five adopted siblings, moved often. Jo’Keal attended seven elementary and middle schools, never staying at one for more than two consecutive years. She struggled academically, especially with reading, and socially, often fighting with other students – and not just girls.
Although family discord would continue, her academic life flourished at Brooks DeBartolo, an independent charter school where she started ninth grade. She maintains a 3.27 GPA and is on track to graduate on time.
Jo’Keal now has confidence for a future that once seemed to hold little promise. She wants to attend Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU), a historically black college in Tallahassee, next year. She wants to join its ROTC program and eventually enlist in the U.S. Army.
“I like the military benefits and just want to get outside Tampa,” Jo’Keal said. “When I was growing up, the Army recruiters were always coming to my schools to talk about it.”
She credits Brooks DeBartolo’s inclusive, nurturing environment and its teachers, who offer individual attention to students who need it – for helping her navigate circumstances that might have overwhelmed other people.
Jo’Keal was 5 when her adopted mother died, which forced her to live with a much older adopted sister.
That arrangement lasted until June.
“My adopted sister kicked me out, gave me a list of bills to pay,” Jo’Keal said. “Over the summer, she gave me until June 1 to get a job or she’d evict me. I applied all over the place, but I couldn’t find a job. So, on June 1, she came to my room and said, ‘Pack your stuff.’”
If not for the benevolence of a friend’s mother, she could now be living on the streets – or worse. The family ensures that Jo’Keal gets to and from school every day from central Pasco County, a roughly 45-minute one-way trip. Her friend does not attend Brooks DeBartolo.
Asked where she would be if not for the family’s help, Jo’Keal offered a sad smile and a shrug.
“I really don’t know,” she said. “Other friends offered to take me in at their house, but I’m not sure any of that really could have worked out.”
Bonnie Peirano, who teaches personal, career and school development at Brooks DeBartolo, said the latest challenge in Jo’Keal’s life happened just as she seemed to find her academic stride.
“What I noticed about Jo’Keal in 10th grade is that she wasn’t very engaged,” she said. “She did not seem terribly interested in where she would go next or what she would do. But last year, I started to see a change. She kind of suddenly went out of her way in terms of her commitment to my class. She’d even just come by to say hi. She was way more personal.
“This year, she has been extremely focused and very engaged in class, always listening and watching me. That light switch went off and she started taking control of her life. She’s not about merely graduating from high school. She’s putting in the effort and that’s what makes people stand behind you and push you as far as you can go.”
Brooks DeBartolo, an A-rated school for nine consecutive years, has offered that push.
The school was started in 2007 by former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker and NFL Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks and the family of Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., who was a former owner of the San Francisco 49ers.
There are 600 students enrolled at the school, with 600 more on a lottery-style waiting list. Students come from not only Tampa and surrounding towns, but also from neighboring Pasco and Pinellas counties.
“It’s a college- and career-prep focus,” Principal Kristine Bennett said. “We see where each student is at academically and figure out what track they want to go for. We have a wide variety of courses and opportunities to see what they need and want, and we work with them individually to help get them there. Our teachers are our No. 1 resource and make the magic happen. It’s a safe, caring environment.”
When Jo’Keal started at the school, Bennett said she was “academically very guarded and not very open.”
“She had a little bit of an attitude, but she eventually developed trusting relationships with the teachers and started gaining confidence,” Bennett said.
Besides playing on the girls basketball and flag football teams, Jo’Keal has joined the Brooks Bunch Business Boot Camp, a financial literacy after-school program, where students learn to create a budget, manage credit cards and stay out of debt. In recent years the group has traveled to Philadelphia and Detroit to help with community service projects. This year, the group is going to Chicago.
Jo’Keal doesn’t like to think about what her future might look like had she not enrolled at Brooks DeBartolo, which she learned about from a friend.
“The teachers actually care about you,” she said. “If I’m having a bad day, they can tell by my face and they help. Everybody’s great here. They treat me really well.”
Peirano said Jo’Keal’s story has inspired her classmates, as well as her educators.
“She’s a perfect example of someone who, despite all odds, is going to really do something with her life,” Peirano said.