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Day of celebration for Manatee's Amer-I-Can grads

MANATEE — There were no caps and gowns, nor pomp and circumstance at Tuesday’s commencement.

It didn’t matter to Alexia Gavin, Cecil Richardson, Lonnitra Jefferson and Marcus Anderson as they walked across the Braden River High School auditorium stage wearing big smiles.

The name on their T-shirts was all the recognition they needed:


That and meeting Jim Brown, the NFL Hall of Famer who founded the self-improvement and life skills training program for at-risk Los Angeles youths in 1988 and introduced it to Manatee County in the fall of 2007.

“It was cool to see him in person,” said Sugg Middle’s Gavin.

“You could see their excitement,” said Rep. Ron Reagan, who stood next to Brown at the end of a long line of dignitaries. “They couldn’t wait to get past us to get to him.”

And he couldn’t wait to meet them.

“Today is a day of celebration, and I’m enjoying every bit of it,” said the 73-year-old icon.

More than 120 seventh-graders who completed Amer-I-Can’s semester program were recognized by Brown, Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, Palmetto Police Chief Gary Lowe and Assistant School Superintendent Lynette Edwards, among others.

“This program is results oriented and that’s key,” Superintendent Tim McGonegal said. “What these kids have done with their facilitators makes all the difference in the world.”

Statistically, this year’s Amer-I-Can graduates managed:

n A 25 percent increase in GPA.

n A 56 percent decrease in disciplinary incidents.

n A 78 percent decrease in absenteeism.

“Amer-I-Can showed me you don’t have to be a gangbanger,” Johnson Middle’s Richardson said. “It changed me in a lot of ways.”

“I’m behaving, my GPA is up, I haven’t been in any fights, and my mom is happy,” said Lincoln Middle’s Jefferson.

“At first I didn’t want to be in it. I thought it would be stupid,” said Harllee Middle’s Anderson. “But as we got more involved, I changed.”

Which is the foundation Brown told the students they must build upon.

“Remember,” he said, “never in life let anyone tell you what you can’t do. Because if you take advantage of this educational opportunity and if you put hard work with it, there will be no way you won’t be successful.”