April 30, 2013 Updated: April 30, 2013 at 6:35 pm
Galileo School of Math and Science eighth-grader Zephan Brown was among 56 students in Colorado Springs School District 11 recognized Tuesday not for academic or athletic success but for perhaps an even more important accomplishment: turning his life around.
At an annual awards ceremony at Tesla Educational Opportunity Center, D-11's Office of Discipline and Attendance praised students for improving their attendance and discipline issues.
'It seems like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, ' Zephan said of the ceremony. 'It's pretty cool. '
Students received $25 vouchers to Poor Richard's Toy Store, Restaurant and Book Store. Five students also won bicycles in a drawing sponsored by Kids on Bikes.
Each elementary, middle and high school in D-11 could nominate up to three students for the award, said Gregory Ecks, director of student discipline services, which oversees the behavior of the district's 28,000 students.
Students' backgrounds involve such infractions as cutting classes, drinking or using drugs, disruptive behavior and other acts of defiance. But all have made noticeable strides at self-improvement.
'The ceremony recognizes a different form of student achievement, ' Ecks said. 'It's an additional way to bring out the positives in what our kids do. '
A fit of 'badness ' enveloped Zephan's life when he started middle school. Chalk it up to peer pressure, teenage growing pains or just making bad choices - Zephan's not really sure what happened - but he began acting up in class and in general.
'I went along with everybody else, ' he said, 'and I went crazy with it. '
Zephan was suspended numerous times for misbehaving. He also started smoking pot.
When he got expelled in seventh grade, he said he realized the severity of his actions.
'It was a whole new story. It made me think of what I'd done and how dumb I could be, ' Zephan said.
Taking online classes at home for one summer and two semesters of school was awful, he said.
'It was lonely. You had to sit at your computer desk and do four hours of work. You didn't interact with nobody, and that sucked, ' Zephan said. 'I thought about being with my friends and my future. I realized I can't mess up in school. Everything starts with school. '
Zephan credits sports and his family for helping him get back on the right track. He plans to play football and basketball at Palmer High School next school year. And the 14-year-old has grown-up advice for other teens: 'Don't just follow in with the crowd. Be somebody who you know you want to be. '
His mom, Carnoah Brown, said the changes are encouraging.
'It's a big improvement, ' she said. 'Before, he didn't want to go to school. Now, he's willing to go to school and be there. '
For second-grader Abigayle Hedges-Austin, trouble started early. She set a record at Columbia Elementary: She was suspended on the first day of school last fall for being aggressive toward classmates and teachers.
'She was angry and hitting other students. Her mother and I divorced, and she had a hard time getting back into the swing of school, ' said her dad, Chris Austin.
Abigayle said she also was sad to have a new teacher because she had the same teacher in kindergarten and first grade. After being suspended for a second time, Abigayle said she didn't want to get suspended again.
'When I got back to school, I turned my attitude around and said to myself, 'Stop being mean,' and I just started being good, ' she said. A strict regimen and schedule, which included getting plenty of sleep, also contributed to Abigayle's progress, according to her dad.
'I'm nicer to kids and the teachers, ' Abigayle said. 'I'm super excited about the award because I was most improved in my class. '