On Tuesday, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris paid a special visit to Walton Academy for the Performing Arts, a charter school located just a few miles from team headquarters. The drive was short but the purpose was important: Morris wanted to congratulate Walton's students and faculty on a monumental turnaround in the school's academic performance.
Walton Academy saw 100 percent of its fourth grade class receive a proficient score of four or higher on this year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). Last year, the school's score was just 31 percent.
"It's great to come here and really reward the people that have done a good job," Morris said. "They really showed what excellence is about."
The Buccaneers' gregarious head coach, who has focused his community outreach efforts on education, spoke to the students about the importance of academics and developing strong work habits.
"The reason I'm out here is because you guys can be just like me, if not better," Morris told his young audience. "I like to come to these events so I can let you know this: I'm you. There's no difference. You can be your very best self every single day."
Morris also urged the students to make sure their excellent FCAT performance was just the beginning. If they continue to work hard, he assured them, their biggest accomplishments still lie ahead of them.
"Do not let this be your greatest moment," he said. "This is just the beginning. You're going to have more tests, you're going to do better on those tests and continue to make us proud and continue to grow."
Coach Morris' commitment to education isn't the only thing connecting him to the academy. Coincidentally, both Morris and Walton Principal Tanika Walton grew up in Newark, New Jersey.
"We are from the same home town," Morris said. "It's ironic; it's a small world. Everybody goes to different places and embraces their communities. To go somewhere and see people influencing the community that they live in is always a positive thing."
Morris recalled his own academic experiences during his speech and shed light on his passion for education. He told students his parents wouldn't let him play football for the first two years of high school because his academic performance wasn't up to their standards.
"The reason I was really inspired to make sure everyone learned the importance of education is because I had to learn that a little bit later in life," he said. "My parents didn't let me play high school football in ninth or 10th grade because I didn't meet their standards. I met the academic standards of the state, but not in my parents' eyes, and it was the best thing they did for me."
Walton Academy is a small school where 93 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches. Principal Walton, the school's founder, attributes the recent FCAT success to an overhaul of the entire academic program.
"This has been a transformational year for us," she said. "We've revamped how we are implementing things and the staff has taken hold of the vision of the school and is really running with it."
Principal Walton also thanked students and parents for their continuing support and gave special thanks to her dedicated staff for their tireless efforts and ability to succeed despite many obstacles.
"This has been an amazing school year," she said. "I want to take this time to truly say thank you to my staff, from the bottom of my heart, for not just coming to work every day but giving it everything they have."
Principal Walton also explained that the changes did not take place overnight, and that support from organizations like the Buccaneers helped and continues to help inspire the teachers and students.
"We took the time to get the right people, we hired a writing coach, all the teachers went through professional development," Walton said. "We want to thank the Buccaneers and Coach Morris – it's unbelievable that he would take the time out to recognize our students. I'm so thankful he came."
The Walton students got the chance to showcase their musical talent during Morris' visit, as well, performing two original songs with lead vocal performances by second grader Nyah Ceperano and fifth grader Tylia Damien. The Buccaneers Coach was amazed at their talent and passion for music and complimented Ceperano and Damien on their acts.
"I go a lot of places and I see genuine energy," said Morris. "But to see it spread around the student body like it has here is truly unbelievable in my opinion."
Morris then took part in a Q&A session with the students, answering queries about his favorite movie, which Buccaneers player has been on the team the longest and what his favorite subject was in school. He then posed for pictures while the students enjoyed a free lunch from Pizza Hut, a Buccaneers Pewter Partner.
Throughout it all, Morris stressed the importance of education, acknowledging the role the Buccaneers play in supporting the community.
"When you become the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, there is a lot of responsibility," he said. "Not just the stuff we write about and see every day, but also the stuff that's in the community, that's outside of your building, outside the small walls as well. I want to help us have young, inspiring community leaders, and they are all going to grow up loving the Bucs and remembering these moments."