Markel Jackson stopped by Sarasota Acceleration Academies one day to eat pizza with his former classmates and teachers, to fill them in on his job and plans for the future — and to laugh, laugh and laugh some more.
“My favorite memory of you, Markel, is you coming in with your kitty cat headphones,” teased SAA Director Monetta Rustin. Markel grinned, then protested, “Hey, those were really good headphones!”
The lunchtime reunion was a celebration in more ways than one. After he was unable to balance his work and school commitments at a traditional high school, Markel worried that he would not be able to earn his diploma. But for the support given him by the SAA team, he says, he might not have reached that goal.
Instead, Markel proudly joined the Class of 2021.
“The more time you spend here, the more you get to know the people,” he says of SAA, which works in partnership with the Sarasota County Schools to provide a non-traditional path to graduation for students who haven’t found success in other settings. “You’ve got a good bunch of people here who are going to look out for you and help you succeed.”
Markel started off strong, powering through courses and inspiring his younger sisters to seek his help in doing homework. He told them, “If y’all need help, you just come and ask me.”
But the young man was also juggling a lot. He was working full-time at a fast food restaurant until late at night and had to help out at home when his mom worked the overnight shift as a phlebotomist at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. Sometimes, he was bone-tired and had trouble maintaining his academic momentum.
“I fell off, started being lazy,” he acknowledges.
And that’s when the SAA staff kicked into gear. Graduation candidate advocates Frank Cruz and Curtis Hayes prodded him repeatedly, saying “Get on it! Always calling me, texting me, just always looking out for me.”
Khaliah Augustin, the soft-spoken and patient math content coach, gave Markel as much one-on-one help as he needed. “Anything I didn’t understand 100 percent, she was there to back me.”
And then there were his classmates, moving from being “graduation candidates” to graduates.
“I would see the names of graduates and that kind of sparked me. I was happy that they were done but I was disappointed in myself because I knew that I had joined the academy before them,” he says. “I decided that I needed to get it together if I was going to finish.”
And finish he did, becoming the first of the five children in his family to earn his high school diploma this spring. He got a good job working at UPS, and has plans to turn his artistic skills into a career.
“My big dream is to have my own company in art, graphic design and animation,” he says. He might even try to win admission to the renowned Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota.
Wherever his future leads, Markel says, his time at SAA gave him a surer sense of himself.
“It helped me work on my self esteem. I always thought I’d be better off as the quiet kid in the back of the classroom,” he says. But at Acceleration Academies, he learned to have confidence in his ability to learn, to speak up, to seize his future.
“It’s a real positive energy here that helped me up.”