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11-year-old Manatee student leaves behavior problems in past thanks to grandmother, Moody Elementary program

MANATEE -- When Jontavious Foster first joined the “behavior” class at Moody Elementary for children with severe emotional and behavioral problems three years ago, he did things that would have caused most kids to get kicked out of school.

He tried to overturn desks, shouted at his teachers, threw things and constantly argued with other kids. He was angry, fearful and defensive most of the time -- emotions his grandmother says grew out of experiences like seeing his father carry a gun, being passed around among relatives’ homes, and being blamed for even the misbehavior of his little sister.

Today, Jontavious, 11, is studying full time in a regular classroom rather than a “behavior” classroom. He’s earning As, Bs and Cs rather than Ds. He’s now what his teacher calls a “team player.”

“He works well with groups, helps other people, is a good listener and wants to participate,” says Krista Francies, fifth-grade teacher at Moody Elementary. “And he’s got parents who love him, believe in him and trust him.”

Only about 300 students districtwide are categorized as having emotional and behavioral disturbances, according to Manatee district officials. As a participant in Moody’s “behavior” class -- the only elementary class districtwide that has three teachers and is open to troubled kids from any school in the county that qualify -- Jontavious was among the county’s most troubled and disruptive youngsters.

The fact that he has earned his way out of that program and is thriving in a regular classroom is being called “exceptional,” “remarkable” and “a true success story” by his family, teachers and district administrators.

Jontavious -- whose nickname is “JonFabulous” -- doesn’t make a big deal about his new way of living.

“I want to stay out of getting in trouble,” he says, when asked what helped him change.

He came to the Manatee County school district from Lee County, where his disruptive behavior had grown so extreme that he had been kicked out of several schools, says grandmother Delores Lee, who is now Jontavious’ legal guardian.

His troubles seemed to start when he was a baby and his mother was incarcerated for the first time.

“He felt the absence of his mother,” said Lee, describing how Jontavious spent the next five years moving among the homes of his paternal grandparents, his mother and his aunt.

One of the most traumatic experiences Jontavious remembers is seeing his father, who is now in a federal penitentiary, carry a gun to a friend’s house.

“I was afraid he would get hurt or that he would hurt someone else,” Jontavious remembers.

He felt the pain of being treated like the least-loved child when his younger sister was born, Lee says, and remembers being blamed for not only what he did wrong, but what she did wrong, too.

About a year after his mother was sentenced to prison a second time, Jontavious finally came to live with Lee when he was 7. His grandmother had already been traveling to Fort Myers up to three times a week to answer calls from school officials about Jontavious’ problems at school.

Once Lee took custody of her grandson, she immediately turned to the Manatee school district for help in addressing his problems.

“His grandma came in and said straight up, ‘I need to understand this child,’ ” said Ralph McElhiney, one of the three teachers in Moody’s “behavior” class. “She said, ‘I don’t understand him. Help me to help him.’ ”

Lee joined a group called Grandparents as Parents, offered by Manatee Children’s Services. In addition to receiving guidance on how to be a parent instead of a grandparent, the group offers monthly networking with others in similar situations.

Lee continued to be accessible to her grandson and his teachers as they helped Jontavious understand why he was “acting out”: If she couldn’t travel to the school immediately to talk with Jontavious about controlling his behavior, Lee would get on the phone with him and talk. She helped Jontavious feel comfortable sharing his fears and resentment.

She encouraged him to join her lifelong faith in God.

“I explained to him that we’re a Christian family here,” Lee said, “and at first he was fearful of what that meant. But he began to realize that’s a loving thing.”

Jontavious’ faith has become so important to him that he wrote a tribute to God: “Thanks to you, God, I am on the right track. I’m on my way toward a good life and helping others to see no matter how you start out, God can always help you finish.”

Finally, Lee ensured she treated both Jontavious and his little sister equally, offsetting the years he had experienced of being labeled the bad kid.

“He realized and started seeing that he was loved, cared for and stable,” Lee said. “He didn’t want to be in that fear any more. He wanted to be free, to be happy.”

Jontavious’ transition out of the “behavior” class and into a mainstream classroom wasn’t without its setbacks. Francies recalls how, at the start of the year, Jontavious would test her boundaries.

“But as we built a relationship, he started listening to me,” she said. “He also realized there are so many teachers communicating about him.”

Jontavious also took a few months to lower his defensiveness, Francies said. He would consistently respond to his teacher’s discipline with “it wasn’t me,” even when it was. “Now, we’ve broken down that wall where his honesty is coming through.”

For Lee, Jontavious’ success is a reminder to other grandparents that they can handle taking on the parent role for a second round, even if at first the task might seem daunting. It’s also a reminder that not all kids who start out on a troubled path need to stay headed in that direction.

And for Jontavious’ teachers, his success helps illustrate that emotional and behavioral disabilities can, like physical disabilities, be addressed in a way that prevents them from interfering with a good education.

“The handicap with kids in our program isn’t any different than a child in a wheelchair,” McElhiney said. “Only you don’t see the wheelchair in this case.

“Jontavious is a good boy. He didn’t want to have behavioral problems. He’s a really neat kid who is deep and takes things to heart.

“What we do here is help kids like Jontavious find a way to fix their problems. We help them figure out what’s wrong.”

Christine Hawes, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.