MANATEE -- The class begins with a simple question: How do you feel today?
Everyone in the Amer-I-Can classroom at King Middle School must answer it. The sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders are supposed to speak honestly, in the first person -- even spontaneously. The responses go around the U-shaped arrangement of desks.
"Extraterrestrial, because I feel like I'm not from Earth."
"Excited, because Thanksgiving break is soon."
"Good ... because it's a normal day."
Weeks ago, the students would have been hesitant to answer, perhaps unwilling to participate. But that's the beauty of the semester-long program that aims to keep troubled or struggling kids on the right track, says King facilitator Vivi Butler.
Trust eventually establishes itself.
"It unburdens them," Butler said. "They open up. They write the most intimate things in their notebook. I see them grow in their reflection of what's going on with themselves."
The Amer-I-Can program, a national anti-gang program created by NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown in 1988, places at-risk middle-school students for one period of their school day with a life-skills facilitator. Teachers or parents recommend students for the class, which is offered at Sugg, King and Harllee middle schools.
Each semester, local dignitaries attend the Amer-I-Can graduation, applauding the program for improving student attitudes or grades, and for providing a safe environment where students can express themselves.
But the Amer-I-Can program is ending, at least for the upcoming semester.
The program is the sole student program cut by administrators as part of the bailout plan to make up for the $3.5 million deficit that seemingly blindsided school officials this fall.
The morning after the program was cut, Amer-I-Can teachers, students and families read about the decision in the Herald.
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The Amer-I-Can facilitators arrived on the first day of school this August on faith. For the first time in the program's history, the Manatee County School District hadn't finalized their contracts, which meant that salaries weren't in place.
Still, the instructors of the 5-year-old Manatee County program never felt that not showing up was an option.
"You can't build a rapport with students when you're gone," Butler said. "I just kept coming to work. I figured it would eventually get worked out, I really did."
The Amer-I-Can contracts were finalized in late September, and facilitators received their first paychecks in October. But the future of the program is in doubt.
The program, which serves about 160 students in the four schools, costs $125,000 to run per semester. Right now the program is slated to end Jan. 18.
Amer-I-Can directors and facilitators are familiar with funding problems, says regional program director Xtavia Bailey, who is independently contracted by the district.
"We understand cuts. We understand bottom lines. We understand deficits," Bailey said. "But we've never had a break in communication from leadership before."
Still, Bailey notes, this is a program that has always fought for its existence. And facilitators will search for every way to bring this special program back.
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It started with Stacy Williams III, a 9-year-old boy caught in gunfire in 2007 during a gang fight outside Orange Ridge-Bullock Elementary School.
It wasn't about black, Bailey said. It wasn't about white. It wasn't about where you lived. It was about a 9-year-old boy who never should have died.
The event rocked the local community, and that year the state approved a grant for three counties, including Manatee, to start the Amer-I-Can program in four district schools.
"Right away the program was just so successful. We had huge graduations," Bailey said. "Everybody embraced what we are doing."
But funds ran dry after the first year.
When it became clear the program was in danger, local law enforcement and school officials raised enough funding for the 2008-09 school year. The school board later took on most of the costs, with occasional help from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. But like other programs in the district, Amer-I-Can has had its share of cuts and changes in the past couple of years.
Bailey says that's OK -- facilitators are grateful to be supported in any way.
"The school system of Manatee County has been so supportive of the program," Bailey said. "We can't even thank them enough for allowing us to continue to do what we like to do, which is be a part of the village."
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The students start as a group who don't necessarily like each other, Butler says. They are guarded.
Some kids are in foster care. Some are in the middle of custody battles. Some are hungry.
So it's important they feel they can relate to their instructors.
Butler will tell them how she grew up in Manatee County in a house packed with extended family. People told her she'd wind up pregnant in high school. She proved them wrong.
Bailey will tell them about living in a car after her mother lost her job. She will talk to them about not giving up.
"We're not here to be your parents," Bailey says to students when she visits Butler's classroom in early November. "We just want to say we've been there. We've done that. You have to be selfish about what you want in life."
Amer-I-Can facilitators help their students get there. They work with guidance counselors and other teachers to monitor grades in other classes. Students work with and are tested on concepts in an Amer-I-Can workbook, such as fiscal responsibility, the importance of family and substance abuse.
And they continue to talk about feelings, dreams and goals. Trust is established. Facilitators say they start noticing things.
Students get more talkative. GPAs sometimes improve. And students slowly start to understand they will have to work hard to change the way people see them.
They start to understand they have control.
Bailey teaches the character-building program to youth at the Manatee County jail Wednesday nights. It doesn't work for everyone, she says, but it works for some. Some get out and find her, she says, and they've started to turn their life around.
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During the summer, Bailey said, she and other program leaders had reached out to the district, asking about the status of facilitator contracts, as well as the results of the program's most recent evaluation, which did not show a strong correlation between increased GPA scores and attendance and participation in the program.
What it did show was that parents and students overwhelmingly thought the program improved their life skills, attitudes, relationships and ability to make good decisions.
But she was unable to connect with district leaders.
On the Tuesday after the school board approved the bailout plan, Bailey received calls from parents and staff who had read that the program had been cut.
Then-interim superintendent Bob Gagnon sent Bailey an email that day, asking to meet, but she wasn't feeling well and couldn't.
But working through the evaluation's discrepancy is a goal for Bailey, Gagnon and new interim superintendent David Gayler, who met in early November to talk about the program's status.
"I think the program could likely be very sustainable," Gayler said last week. "It's a matter of two things: looking at funding and looking at long-term sustainability."
The key to sustainability, Gaylor says, requires an evaluation process that measures success differently. While past evaluations have relied on student and parent surveys, attendance and GPAs records, both the district and Amer-I-Can officials would like to create a process that defines success in specific areas.
They want to be able to measure why a student might make rapid progress in some areas but not others after being in the Amer-I-Can program.
"We just need to do something a little more robust," Gayler said. "The program already appears to be pretty effective in many ways."
Gagnon also offered to get Bailey in touch with the district's grant writers to see if grants could be obtained before next January or August.
Bailey thinks the program can operate on as little as $75,000. School officials aren't sure if they can find funding by January and, if not, hope to bring the program back by next school year.
It's an awkward limbo, admits the 40-year-old Butler, who will have to find a temporary job for the spring if Amer-I-Can goes away for a semester and then returns. School administrators can't even start looking at students to recommend for next semester in the program.
Sometimes Butler has her students write three-word stories about a family member or event in class.
She knows what words she'd use to describe Amer-I-Can.
Explosive. Caring. Introspective.
She worries about needy students who won't get to be part of the program.
"It will create a void of places that deal with a student as a whole person," Butler said. "We'd be missing the opportunity to encourage the kids to do the right thing, one time, that might save their life."
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If you would like to make a donation to the Amer-I-Can program or have ideas about how to generate funding, email regional program Director Xtavia Bailey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.