Florida fifth-grader does his homework on school choice

For two years, the fifth-grader with a flair for conversation has been a student in an all-boys classroom in Brandon, where teachers speak a little louder and encourage bursts of activity.

Classmates stand when responding to questions. They address each other formally, using last names.

Cameron Rodriguez loves it.

Cameron Rodriguez and his mom, Amy Jo, researched all of their options for middle school next year. Their top pick? Boys Preparatory Academy at Franklin Middle Magnet School in Tampa, Fla.
Cameron Rodriguez and his mom, Amy Jo, researched all of their options for middle school next year. Their top pick? Boys Preparatory Academy at Franklin Middle Magnet School in Tampa, Fla.

“I’m definitely more comfortable,’’ said the 11-year-old A-and-B student, who has a little sister and likes hanging out with girls – just not while he’s trying to learn. “Around girls, you would definitely be more nervous.’’Heading into sixth grade, Cameron doesn’t want the experience to end. So with mom’s help – and with a convenient prompt from a public speaking contest – Cameron began researching his school choice options last semester.

He started with his school district in Hillsborough County, which is home to two single-gender middle schools, one for girls and one for boys.

Cameron had heard about the Boys Academy at Franklin Magnet Middle School after a few of the school’s upperclassmen stopped by his school, Hugo Schmidt Elementary.

They boasted of “hundreds of activities’’ at the collegiate middle school, including a golf program and iPads for every student. They showed off uniforms of light blue oxford button down shirts, khaki slacks and striped ties. They said Cameron and the other boys would be called “men of distinction.”

Cameron, who plans to start his own business one day, liked being called a man – a lot.

He went online to the district’s website and found more about the school than even the academy’s lead teacher, Amanda Sheets, said she knew. “Here, the student hasn’t even set foot on the campus, yet, and we’ve already touched him,’’ said Sheets, who oversees tours at the academy.

Cameron channeled his fervor into a speech he delivered for an annual public speaking contest. He wrote about how boys and girls learn differently. How it’s easier to concentrate in class. How he’s not worried about giving the wrong answer.

He practiced reading his speech aloud, over and over.

That diligence earned him a shot at the Nov. 30 schoolwide competition, where Cameron went up against five other fifth-graders. In a room full of judges, teachers, peers and his dad, Cameron walked up to the microphone and gave it his all.

He talked about being himself in an all-boys class, and about how much better single-gender education is – for him.

“In conclusion,’’ Cameron told the crowd, “I feel that you should have an option to attend a classroom where you can learn in a comfortable environment. That comfortable environment, for me, is an all boys’ class.’’

Cameron’s mom, Amy Jo, couldn’t come to the big event due to injuries from an accident. Instead, she watched Cameron on a video her husband, Rick, later posted to YouTube. Her son lost to a classmate, but Cameron still came home a winner.

“You want your kids to love school,’’ Amy Jo said.

Her son’s speech was “purely his passion,’’ she said, to persuade students and parents that there are other options to consider.

Cameron strongly recommends finding the right fit for kids when it comes to classrooms and schools. His parents agree.

“Talk to your kids – it’s about their educational experience,’’ Amy Jo said. “If something is not working, find a different avenue.’’

Cameron and his family got lucky, they said, when Hugo Schmidt decided to experiment with single-gender classrooms within a traditional elementary setting.

“To have the choice truly made an impact on Cameron,’’ Amy Jo said.

She helped Cameron apply to the boys’ academy and eight other schools, including Williams International Baccalaureate Middle Magnet School and another district magnet, Progress Village School of the Arts. They also applied to Terrace Community Middle School, a charter school in the district, but had to pass on private school due to the cost.

Franklin tops the list, though.

Like other students vying for a seat in a district choice school, Cameron’s name will go into a lottery with results expected at the end of the month.

He’s counting on getting his pick. Franklin provides bus transportation, but Cameron will have to rise at 5:30 instead of 6:30 each morning to catch it.

He’s so excited, his mom said, that he’s already setting his alarm an hour earlier.

Avatar photo

BY Sherri Ackerman

Sherri Ackerman is the former associate editor of redefinED. She is a former correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times and reporter for The Tampa Tribune, writing about everything from cops and courts to social services and education. She grew up in Indiana and moved to Tampa as a teenager, graduating from Brandon High School and, later, from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications/news editing. Sherri passed away in March 2016.


Thanks Sherri, it’s a great article! I will let you know if we get into Franklin!
Such a pleasure meeting you and having you interview Cameron is our home.

Catherine Lucas

I am Cameron’s homeroom, science, and language arts teacher at Hugo Schmidt. Your article captures just a small glimpse of Cameron’s personality and passion. He is a very special boy. I too hope that he gets picked in the lottery to attend Boys Preparatory Academy. He will be an asset to them. Many of our boys from last year currently attend BPA and have been described by Amanda Sheets as leaders in the BPA family.

There is, however, something I need to clarify. In your article your wrote:

“Cameron and his family got lucky, they said, when Hugo Schmidt decided to experiment with single gender classrooms within a traditional elementary setting.”

The School District of Hillsborough County has an issue with anything we do with our students being labeled an “experiment” because we DO NOT experiment with children. The Single Gender model was adopted at Hugo Schmidt Elementary as a research based option that was introduced with academic and attendance rationals to encourage higher attendance rates and academic achievement. All the teacher who teach single gender classrooms have received extensive hours of training.

This is our third year with the single gender model and we have seen a consistent increase in days attended, and a higher academic achievement in reading, specifically for our boys. We have also seen a significant drop in behavior referrals for boys in our single gender classes. This is of course not unique results in single gender classrooms that utilize the strategies we learn through our trainings, it is the norm. Because when done right the students in single gender classrooms, especially those who struggled in the past, soar.

The single gender model is something I personally believe in as an educator. It makes me a better teacher because I know how to connect with my boys and I know what strategies to use to keep them engaged and to keep them pushing to be the best they can be.

Sherri Ackerman

Hi Catherine,
Thanks so much for your excellent comments. Cameron spoke very highly of his teachers, including you. And I certainly didn’t mean to offend you or others at the school by calling the program an “experiment.” I have written before about single-gender education in this district and beyond, and I am aware of the extensive research and evaluation involved. For Cameron’s family, it was an experiment on their part – a new way of learning they chose to pursue and one they now fully believe has contributed greatly to his educational experience.

Thank you again for responding and offering us more information about the program.

Sherri Ackerman

Comments are closed.