BRADENTON -- Team Success School Principal Fredrick Spence stood on a stage before his students Friday and held up his left hand -- five fingers in the air.
"Five years," he said, his voice wavering.
Five years to get kids to believe in themselves. Five years to get parents to understand that this school matters. Five years to show the community that this program could make a difference.
This year the Team Success charter school at 13th Avenue East was the only Title 1 school in Manatee County to earn an "A" performance grade from the Florida Department of Education. Just two years ago, the school
was given an "F."
Title 1 schools are eligible for federal funds to provide additional resources for economically disadvantaged students.
On Friday, teachers and parents joined the school's 300 students gathered in the cafeteria to celebrate that "A" and to honor a school program that has ensured progress for students.
"Part of the reason athletes play the game is the attention they get from being really good at sports," Spence said. "I took an athletic concept and said it has to work in the classroom."
At Team Success, kids sit in clusters, instead of rows, and sometimes compete to finish academic challenges, said math teacher Edward Viltz. And when they are rewarded for being right, students start to learn that being smart can be cool.
"For some reason they feel that they are part of a culture than needs to dumb down," Viltz said. "We teach them to embrace learning."
The Manatee County Sheriff's Office opened the Team Success school in 1997 to serve Manatee's poorest neighborhoods, but the school floundered. When Spence took over in 2007, major changes were made. He fired all of the teachers in 2009 and made them reapply for their jobs. Only six were asked back. Spence said he's spent the last five years building a quality staff, a staff he believes is the real reason for the school's rapid improvement.
But the effects took a while to be seen and a classroom culture had to be developed, said Board President Doug Colkitt.
"This is a culmination of that building process," Colkitt said.
At the assembly, students won up to $150 for passing FCAT scores. The cash awards, totally $13,800, were a gift from Colkitt, another way Team Success creates motivation to succeed.
Some students, like Alejandro Guerrero, 11, won as much as $400 for his FCAT scores. The fifth-grader loves reading and studies a lot according to his mother, Maria, but still said he was surprised by how well he did.
"Other districts don't do this," Guerrero said of his cash award. "We're special."
Part of Guerrero's success comes from his mother's commitment to her son's education, a commitment the school has tried to instill in every parent. Once, when her car broke down, she walked her children five miles for Saturday tutoring so that they wouldn't miss class.
At the assembly, which also included a student video and a backpack giveaway, teachers and faculty wore blue Superman T-shirts, a reference to the 2010 documentary "Waiting for Superman," that addresses a breakdown in public education in America.
Teachers, parents and students at Team Success are well aware of the problems that face the U.S. educational system. The nation's educational gap and what it means to be "Title 1" were discussed in the assembly for fourth through ninth graders.
Colkitt says that because these issues aren't ignored at Team Success, the idea that poor or minority students are setback in America's educational system can be pushed aside.
"It's openly discussed," Colkitt said. "But that isn't supposed to stop you from succeeding."
Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.