Scholarship student & dad overcome struggles, graduate together

Demonte Thomas and his father, Mario, at graduation.
Demonte Thomas and his father, Mario, at graduation.

On graduation day 2013 for Franklin Academy in Tallahassee, the sanctuary at Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church was packed with 1,500 guests who came to support the small private school’s 24 graduates.

But there were two students who brought the guests to their feet.

School Principal and Founder Margaret Franklin told the crowd, she had never done this before, and then called Demonte Thomas, 18, and his father, Mario, 40, to walk together down the aisle to receive their diplomas.

“As they marched down together it was just awesome,” recalled Franklin. “The crowd stood up and they were just roaring.”

It was a day for Mario that was a long time coming, and one that almost didn’t come for Demonte.

By 11th grade, Demonte was failing at his neighborhood school, which led his parents to secure a Step Up For Students Scholarship for him to attend Franklin Academy, where his brother was already attending and thriving. (The tax credit scholarships are sometimes called private school vouchers; they’re administered by Step Up, which co-hosts this blog.) But Demonte was still not committed to his future, and when his father tried to give him advice, he’d brush it off.

Mario was terrified his son would end up on the street where as a younger man he spent many years as a member of a local gang, and survived being shot twice before realizing he had to change his ways or end up dead.

Mario looked to the school for help with his son, and Principal Franklin reached out to Demonte regularly, but her words didn’t seem to be getting through.

“Demonte came in as a child not really respecting his father,” she said. “He kept saying he (his father) didn’t even have a diploma.”

And that was all about to change.

In 2010, Franklin Academy started an evening program for adults to complete their high school education. When Mario spoke to Principal Franklin about his problems, she convinced him to enroll in the adult program that first year, and the academy covered his tuition. Mario had even convinced his mother, Carolyn Thomas, to finish high school at the academy, and she graduated from Franklin Academy in 2012, at age 56. Mario, however, started dragging his feet when math became a challenge. But eventually, he realized he needed to set the example for Demonte when his son was struggling after his transfer to Franklin Academy.

“I feel like I should have done it a long time ago,” Mario said about finishing high school.

When school started for the 2012-13 school year, Demonte did not have the credits to be classified as a senior and he still wasn’t making much of an effort, earning mostly D’s. As the year went on, however, his father was making great strides, and was even closer to completing graduation requirements than his son.

By January 2013, finally something clicked in Demonte, and he began working harder in his classes than ever before, Franklin said.

Demonte said it was his grandfather, the Rev. Stanley Walker, whose church houses Franklin Academy, who sparked his desire to get serious about academics. He had lectured him before about school, but this time he was more candid, and told him how he, too, was once on the wrong path in life, but turned around.

“The speech my granddaddy gave me had me shed a tear,” he said.  “He had me think of my career. I didn’t want to be a bum on the street, so I had to do what I had to do.”

Demonte started studying and asking for help. His grandmother, a longtime teacher, tutored him while the rest of the family rallied around him. Even when things got tough, Demonte kept his eye on the prize: a diploma.

Not only did Demonte complete the credits he needed to become a senior, he did it well.  In the last two marking periods, he made the honor roll by getting all B’s in his senior-level classes along with the online class he took to stay on track, finishing just six days before his May 31 graduation ceremony

“For me to stand beside my son and to walk down the aisle with my son, it brought tears to my eyes,” said Mario recently, as he welled with tears again. “I was so full of joy. I am still full of joy.”

The experience filled Demonte’s heart, too.

“It was exciting to walk down to the stage with my dad, really exciting. He teared up. I had to hold mine in,” Demonte said. “That was a special moment. I ain’t never going to forget that.”

Both Demonte and Mario start classes at Tallahassee Community College in August. Demonte wants to eventually transfer to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) and perhaps pursue a career in engineering. Mario, who has worked as a cook for years, will work toward a business degree and hopes to open a restaurant one day.

About Franklin Academy, Tallahassee

The school is located on the campus of Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church. Margaret Franklin started what would become the academy in the garage of her home with her son and five neighborhood boys as her first students. The school currently serves approximately 55 students in grades kindergarten through 12. During the 2012-13 school year, 21 Step Up scholars attended Franklin. Tuition for the 2012-13 school year was $5,000 per student. The school uses the Stanford Achievement Test (Stanford 10) to measure academic achievement. Since 1997, the school has used the Accelerated Christian Education Curriculum (A.C.E), an individualized approach to education, allowing each student to have their own academic plan and work at his or her own pace.

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BY Lisa A. Davis

Lisa A. Davis, a Massachusetts native, cut her journalistic teeth in the Boston market as a student reporter for The Boston Globe and moved to the Tampa Bay area in 1994, where she continued her nearly 20-year career. For more than a decade, she covered crime, courts and local government for The Tampa Tribune, and most recently was a correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). She joined Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that oversees the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program for low-income children, in May 2012 as the public relations manager and chief storyteller.