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‘Just For Girls’ gives welcome reprieve

A small poster hangs low on a side wall, low enough to be in a child’s line of sight, bold enough to catch almost anyone’s eye.

“If you think nobody cares, think again!” it declares.

That says so much about Just For Girls, an alternative education program for sixth, seventh- and eighth-grade girls in Manatee County.

Its practical walls and billboards are loaded with such signs in the Palmetto center, all focused on giving girls every reason in the world to live. And to live as success stories, proud of who they are.

The annual graduation ceremony last Tuesday sent 13 such girls on to high school, with plenty of fanfare to celebrate their successes. Students like Katya Rodriguez have learned how to be proud of the young woman she’s becoming.

“Just For Girls makes me feel like somebody really needs me,” she told us as she stood proudly at the podium to deliver “My Story.”

The people responsible for helping thousands of girls like her were gathered in the room — and you’d think they’d need far more adults to pull this off.

But there’s a lot of power packed in that collection of people.

Executive Director Becky Canesse has empowered the small teaching staff — a half-dozen educators who have won the adoration of those girls with tough love and phenomenally enduring teaching skills — to make the school a family. And the success comes in large part because this community supports their efforts.

Much of it started 40 years ago with Jane Pratt leading the way. She saw a void and rallied the community to fill it. The school was dedicated to her Tuesday for her leadership and courage.

One of the more touching moments of the ceremony came when teacher Jim Long came forward for the commencement speech. News of his retirement brought an outcry from the girls.

He had their attention for every word — including words near and dear to my heart, encouraging them to always read. Books. Textbooks. Newspapers. They use the Bradenton Herald every day, he said, to teach real-life lessons.

He quizzed them on “contiguous” in geography — they knew — and reminded them with a fatherly smile that, when they started dating, to remind their boyfriends “Not too much contiguous.” The parents applauded, the girls giggled. And the outside crush of the world seemed at bay for a bit.

These girls have a hard life ahead, but they’re so much more prepared because of people like Dee Ralph, longtime program director at the school.

As she introduced Jim, Dee acknowledged how much impact they had on the girls’ lives. She referred to the wise words of Henry Brooks Adams:

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”