On January 27 the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' new head coach, Greg Schiano, established a vision for the franchise. Core values of Trust, Belief, and Accountability would resonate throughout the organization, and players, coaches and staff would make the most of any opportunities they were given, both on and off the field.
Exactly five months later, the new coach hasn't skipped a beat.
Serving as the keynote speaker at the Pepin Academies' Community Gala in May, Schiano witnessed compelling testimonies by parents and community leaders who have benefitted from the Academies' services. Though he had yet to visit the institution, it became increasingly apparent to Schiano that the school worked tirelessly to positively impact students in need.
On Tuesday, Schiano decided to experience the Academies' good works firsthand, and he was accompanied by a veteran Buccaneer interested in learning more as well, cornerback Aqib Talib.
"Coach told me that he was going to come by [Pepin] and get a tour and learn more about the school and I was in town just working out," said Talib. "So he asked if I wanted to come along. I definitely wanted to come along to see a different learning environment, something I had never seen before, something I didn't know existed, really."
For over an hour, Schiano and Talib met with school administrators and visited with students attending the summer program, providing a special visit for both students and teachers who spend their days overcoming a variety of educational challenges.
"One thing about our students is they are very appreciative, but they don't get very much," said Tom Pepin, whose father, Art, founded the Academies. "It's like when you're on a meal of McDonald's and then all of a sudden you're offered a steak. Today, this is a huge piece of sirloin for these kids, to see them, talk to them. This interaction's been amazing."
Founded in 1999, with the support of the Pepin family and a dedicated group of volunteers, parents, and business leaders, Pepin Academy started as an educational institution for students grades 9-12 with specific learning disabilities. The charter school soon grew to add a full continuum of education, ranging from kindergarten through age 22 and expanding to nearly 500 students.
"The population of learning-disabled students is identified at 10,000 students, and we reach in this school 500 [students], so obviously, there are many more out there that are falling through the cracks," said Pepin. "In regular, mainstream public high school, fifty percent of these students drop out, then they act out, then they end up incarcerated or in some bad situation. So our mission is to replicate to the point that we can house and help as many of these kids as possible."
The nonprofit, tuition-free public school has celebrated over a decade of excellence through the use of unique educational programs and teaching models. Each school – Elementary, Middle, Academy (High School), and the Transitional School of Excellence – creates a therapeutic learning community to promote each student's special needs and gifts. The environment has proven so successful that in the past decade, not one student from Pepin Academies has dropped out.
"To hear the success rate that they have with these young people, 80% getting a regular high school diploma, and 20% getting a special diploma, not one student flunking out, to me that is unparalleled," said Schiano. "The job they do here, they're special. Like any great organization, there are special people here that make it happen. Just to be a small part of it, and be able to help, I am looking forward to it moving forward."
"It just speaks [to] the people who are running this school," added Talib. "They're doing an excellent job, bettering these kids' lives. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers need to do whatever we can do to do our part and help, because this is a really good school. I've never seen anything like it."
Through the use of special environments like the Academies' Neurodevelopmental Skills Lab, students can improve their memory, attention to detail, visual and spatial perception, and auditory processing. In addition, the Multi-Sensory Environment Center promotes positive well-being while decreasing anxiety and stress.
Particularly unique is the Transitional School, a one-of-a-kind program that assists learning-disabled students with job training, placement, and recruitment. In addition to on-site training, students attend classes that continue to increase academic skills, living skills, and employability skills, to help bridge the gap between traditional high school and the world of work.
"It's getting me really excited in just knowing that I'm blessed to be a Buccaneer and have the opportunity to do what I can do to help," added Talib. "Getting to see the kids, they all have learning disabilities; I have people in my family with learning disabilities and they don't have a chance to go to a school like this. Like I said before, I've never seen [a school] like this before. So just to get to come around and have the chance to help to do whatever we can do, it's really exciting."
On their tour of the Academies' facility, Schiano and Talib visited with students in the cafeteria during lunch. Along with taking photos and receiving Buccaneer flags, the students shared their interests on movies, videogames, and sports – where several were already proudly sporting their own Buccaneers gear.
"A lot of them wanted to see the new Batman movie, they talked about Playstation and stuff," said Talib. "They're normal kids, they just have some type of learning disabilities which get embraced when they come to this school. Everyone's normal at this school, so that's a good thing."
"I'm really proud of our players, especially the first six months, seeing all the things that they have been involved with and now this rookie class, all the things they're doing," said Schiano. "It's great for Aqib to give up his time on his vacation.
Also included in the tour was a stop at the library, where the school directors spoke candidly about their students' needs. Whether a child is entering kindergarten or graduating high school, the staff is dedicated to providing the most comprehensive learning experience possible.
"I think it's important for the community to know that we have kids that normally drop out of school end up in the juvenile justice system, but if they get the right kind of help, we can help them have a good future," said Principal Dr. Carolyn Scott. "I think it's important for the more people that understand learning disabilities and how it affects not just today and in school, but how it affects their life, we can get the word out more. That's very important. People won't listen to me, they will listen to the coach – he is somebody that everybody knows, he is important in that world. So when you have somebody that will come out and speak for us, people listen."
For the Buccaneer guests, the message was clear.
"You sit there and say, how grateful are we, how blessed are we, to give back in some small way, in any small way," said Schiano. "If everybody in the organization takes that upon themselves, we can touch a lot of lives, and that is something that we are going to do as a team."