April 23, 2019 - “You’re dumb. You’ll never amount to nothing. You can’t do nothing.”
These are words Zayla Brown said she has heard all of her life from those around her.
With those words in her head, Brown found herself flailing; always in trouble for fighting, failing her classes, and at 15-years-old, still struggling to pass the eighth grade.
It was at this crossroads that Brown made a life-changing decision.
Inspired by the success of her sister, Brown enrolled in the district’s Bridge to Success Academy – a program to help students who are two or more academic years behind get back on track to graduating with their original class.
Initially reluctant to enroll because of the stigma of the school being for “dumb kids," Brown said she was amazed at both the intelligence of her classmates and the support she found from the BTS school community.
Messages from her principal and teachers like “You’re a Winner” and “You’re Worth Fighting For” soon unseated the negative messages from her past, and she began to flourish.
On Thursday, April 25, Brown will be among 130 BTS students who will participate in the Mid-Year Promotion Ceremony, recognizing that regardless of where they started, they are now back on track to graduate with their original class.
“It feels good because there were so many people who doubted me, telling me I was not going to be nothing,” Brown said. “It was always in me. I just needed an extra push, and that’s what I got here.”
That’s the goal, said BTS principal Aleya Prier. The 20-year educator has headed the BTS program for six years and says her mission has been to establish a culture where students believe in themselves and know that they have the ability to win.
“Our students are absolutely amazing," said Prier. "The problem is that they just don't know it. They have an issue with belief. They don’t believe they have the right to be great. We have to do a lot of building and pouring and uplifting them.”
She covers her school with positive affirmations, and preaches the gospel of winning each day over the loudspeaker. When students enter the building, they hear the words to the song, “You’re Worth Fighting For.” Prier’s three messages that she wants students to internalize are:
1. Today, we win!
2. You’re worth fighting for!
3. Potential + Persistence = Promise!
"Once children believe in themselves, they perform better and desire more for themselves," said Prier. "Therefore, it's our job not just to educate, but to help them see the power and potential they have within them and draw it out."
Markayla Bell is another BTS student who says she began to realize her potential through the school. Like Brown, Bell heard the same criticisms of herself and her fellow BTS classmates. She even cried when she realized that – after falling behind in her magnet school – she would have to attend BTS to get caught up.
However, it wasn’t long before she began believing the school’s powerful, positive messages and listening to her teachers who told her to look beyond the now.
“The teachers pushed us,” said Bell. “They’re training us for beyond high school. They’re training us for college and for our future careers as lawyers and business leaders.”
Also like Brown, Bell found a family among her classmates, and was amazed at how they challenged each other’s stereotypes of BTS students.
The assumption, said Bell, is that students got held back because they were not bright. But everyone’s road to BTS is unique and many of their stories involve trauma unrelated to school, she said. This includes her classmate Dorian, who said he wasn’t able to concentrate in school after seeing family members murdered.
Regardless of their stories, students agree the encouragement they get at the Bridge to Success Academy is what makes all the difference.
“We just need to see the support from the adults we trust,” said Bell. “This school doesn’t give up on you.”
Now as another successful cohort gets ready to graduate on Thursday, Prier says that it’s still hard for her to put into words how she feels looking at the success of her students.
“It is a sense of overwhelming pride,” said Prier. “We are truly responding to intervention for children in our county.”
The Bridge to Success ceremony will be on Thursday, April 25 at 6 p.m. at Ribault High School.