The Academy is a Place For Those Who Have Stumbled in Their Lives as I Had

The featured student address this week comes from Michael Coffey, a member of the class of 2017 Simon Youth Academy in partnership with Charlotte County Schools, Port Charlotte, FL. 

In his graduation address, Michael explains what the Academy meant to him.


Good evening, Mr. Dionisio, school board members, Academy faculty and staff and all my friends and family. My name is Michael Coffey.

l’m terrified of public speaking, so when I was asked to do a speech today, l was pretty nervous to say the very least. Among many things’ this is something The Academy has helped me with during my few short years in attendance. Had I gone to some other high school, I probably would’ve flown under the radar and never been asked, never left my comfort zone, and never experienced any sort of personal growth.

Simon Youth Academy, Michael Coffey delivers his speech while Principal, Jack Ham (left) looks on.

Once there, I was met with apparently kind teachers and did well in my classes. I knew a few of the other students there already, so fitting in wasn’t too hard, and eventually I began to open up again. Over time, however, I began to see the same problems I had in middle school: weird little cliques among the student body, the assigning less than-engaging material by some of the teachers, and what I sometimes felt was a thin veneer of caring over more shady practices of favoritism and contempt for students who held contrasting opinions on the part of some of the staff.

Then, in 2014, my home life underwent a huge, foundational change for the worse as my family life seemed to crumble away, piece by piece. When I inevitably fell behind at school, the teachers didn’t try to find out why. lt was actually the opposite; it felt almost as if there was a mad rush to show me to the door. I don’t know the reason for this; perhaps charter schools would rather jettison troubled students rather than jeopardize a school grade or a funding concern. I felt cut off, as if I were a gangrenous foot; as if I couldn’t be helped. ln addition to this, my “friends” there began to talk, and not always behind your back, saying things like “he’s being too sensitive about his family” or, worse, that I should simply get over what had happened…because in their eyes, it just wasn’t a big deal.

But it was a big deal. lt was a VERY big deal. lt felt like someone had torn a rug out from beneath my feet, and I realized how transient and unimportant that stage of my life really was, that nobody I’d meet would be worth investing time and energy into again, and that ultimately the world only opens its arms to those who keep their heads down and never struggle. The Academy quickly proved that assumption wrong.

Speaking of assumptions the Academy proves wrong: There’s the horrible, incorrect and frankly stupid assumption that many people make is that the Academy is where all the “bad kids” go to finish high school. As I learned, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Every single student in attendance there wants to finish school, and nothing more. The Academy is a place for those who have stumbled in their lives as I had. But I fell into that same trap, too: I probably wouldn’t even have considered it if it weren’t for Mr. Ham. I met with him to discuss getting a GED at 15 and working until I was ready for college, but it was in that meeting that I was persuaded to give The Academy a shot. I hesitantly signed the admission forms.

That fall, I began the most developmentally beneficial years of my life. I came into school with a lot of pent-up anger at a ton of different sources. I had no friends, no intention of making friends, and just wanted to be finished as soon as I could.

Early on, I questioned my choice; however, I discovered that the reason students are encouraged to come to The Academy is that the staff really does care, and that fact really instills a sense of camaraderie in the students.

Ms. Lukackova was the first teacher of many to really make me laugh and be engaged in class, and just about every teacher since has followed suit. The first student that really got me to talk was Edward Ciborowski; I remember the first time we talked on the bus on the way home. I was trying to sleep, but there was a lot of noise…and this fellow student, this stranger, told the other students to quiet down because he thought I was asleep. So much for a school of “bad kids.” That was the first step toward having the first real group of friends I’d ever had. He introduced me to all of my other friends at the Academy over time, and with those people I learned to open up and get over the misconceptions I had about friends never sticking around. I started to shed that habit of keeping to myself; I had conversations with teachers, some of whom I’d consider to be more friends than teachers.

I’d like to thank Mr. Bernicchi, who helped me to see things from perspectives that I might not ordinarily see; Ms. Lukackova and Mr. Meyer, who both helped me to grasp my least favorite subject: math; Mrs. Meyer who improved my sense of business and helped me to understand the way businesses and finance work on a deeper level; Ms. Richards and Mrs. Greenwood who taught me the fundamentals of genetics and environmental science, two fields that will undoubtedly shape the development of humanity; Mr. Ashley, who reinforced what I already suspected about U.S. History, and with whom I shared many funny and interesting anecdotes; and Mr. Baker, who, in the short time I’ve known him, has been able to get me to volunteer for things I might not normally do, to put myself out there socially, and even to write the speech I delivered today.

And finally, l’d like to thank my friends; Edward Ciborowski, Matt Lane, Cole Wert, Samantha Savich, Tyler Matteau, and every student who’s shown me even the slightest hint of kindness and compassion, which is a list far too long to write. With the help of these people, I was able to graduate half a year early, and tackle some extremely stressful family issues this year, and to forgive everything that was done to me and to my family.

It’s been quite a time of change for me. But l’ll admit l’m proud of my progress, and a lot of that progress can be chalked up to this so-called school of last chances. Thank you all. And best of luck to my fellow graduates – may you always remember what brought you to the halls of The Academy…and may you find as much comfort in the knowledge, the answers, and the strength you found here as I have.

Thank you, and congratulations to the class of 2017.

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