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School Is First Step In Mom's Road From Poverty

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SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) — One day, she started painting.

Her beige living room was plain and bare because she couldn't hang any pictures on the cement walls. It felt like a prison, she said, in the Sarasota public housing project where she lived for the past five years.

She slapped on paint christened with a cheery-sounding name — watermelon slushy, although don't you dare call it pink, she warned.

"I wanted to be free," said Artrius "Artie" Edwards. "So I started painting."

______

Edwards wants something better for her two sons, who are ages 4 and 7.

She walks her oldest boy, A'Terious, to the bus stop one morning. She wipes his faces and straightens the stubborn collar on his school uniform polo shirt. She waits for Bus 1227 to stop on the street and all the neighborhood children line up.

Edwards is one of the loudest moms as she cheers for him during track practice or when he wins an award at Alta Vista Elementary.

She tells him often she loves him.

Edwards and the boys live in The Courts, a public housing complex off Orange Avenue in the heart of Newton.

She doesn't always feel safe here.

Gunshots ringing out into the night. The fear that somebody will run through her home after a shooting if her door is left open.

Not far away in the neighborhood, two British tourists were gunned down early one morning in 2011.

Edwards received a phone call from her friend, telling her to look outside. She saw figures running away.

"I shut the door so quick," Edwards, 26, says.

She wants to move out someday, so her sons realize that not all neighborhoods are like this.

"It's a whole another world outside of this circle, of this little community. There's something totally different," Edwards says.

But while they stay, Edwards tries to make her home feel more comfortable. She paints the living room the new color and leaves her Bible, the pages open and passages highlighted in blue, on the table.

The boys sleep at their grandparents' homes four nights a week while Edwards works as a stocker at a big-box retailer.

She doesn't mind the overnight hours, even when her co-workers seem like zombies. She sleeps four hours a night.

__________

Edwards grew up the third oldest out of a family of five. She doesn't remember her mother helping her with homework or being affectionate.

Her mother was rarely home. She didn't have time to sleep.

Edwards' mother worked a day job and an overnight job to support her family as a single mother.

"We never saw her," Edwards says. "That time you need your mother, to me, is when you're getting older."

Edwards hardened.

She liked math, her favorite subject. But she hated school. She transferred from Booker High to Sarasota High to escape her problems, she said.

"I was rough. I didn't care about anything. Disrespectful. I just didn't want to be there. I was a kid," Edwards says. "You start liking boys and everything interests you instead of school.

She walked with her 2006 graduating class in the ceremony although she failed her FCAT reading text after several attempts, she said.

The test stopped her from becoming a real high school graduate.

________

There is no elaborate lobby, no large parking lot, no lengthy payroll of teachers at Suncoast Technical College (formerly Sarasota County Technical Institute) campus in the city's Newtown neighborhood.

It is simple, one-story building off Orange Avenue. Most of the staff is unpaid volunteers.

This is where Edwards returned to school.

She was tired of working dead-end jobs, all while raising the boys as a single mother. It felt like she was reliving her mother's life, Edwards says.

"It was a generational curse," she says.

"One day, the Lord just hit me. What are you going to be doing five years from now?"

Mark Morin, a retired businessman, tutored her on math to prepare her for the GED exam.

He worked with students who had been failed, in some way, by the educational system. Some dropped out in sixth grade while others were like Edwards. They were so close, their fingers almost grasping the high school diploma, but the FCAT stood in their way.

The staff brought in cakes to celebrate success. They tried to cheer their students, to make them believe in themselves again.

Edwards stood out.

Morin could tell that she was motivated because she always did her homework and didn't miss her tutoring sessions, even while raising the boys and her stocker job.

"She's just gone of these bright, bubbly people," Morin said. "When you're around her, she affects everybody."

____________

Edwards lets A'Terious skip school on a Tuesday. She wants him to see this day. The boys are wiggling in the fourth row next to her father.

She is dressed in a cap and gown in the front of the seven newest GED recipients at the Robert Taylor Complex for their official ceremony.

Edwards self-consciously tugs at her tassel as she waits.

When Edwards' name is called, she dances across the stage and raises her arms in the air triumphantly. She waves to the boys and they wave back.

Her father, Arthur Edwards, holds his cell phone up to capture the moment.

"She did it on her own," he says. "Nobody can take credit for what she chose to do."

With the boys watching, Edwards tosses her mortarboard high into the air.

_________

Her two sons are home from school and day care and play in the back bedroom of Edwards' home.

Her youngest child, Ammond, hangs like a gymnast on his metal bunk bed in the Superman-theme room.

"Watch this!" the 4-year-old giggles.

A'Terious is quieter and less rowdy. He is proud of the books that are overflowing on the shelf.

Edwards reminds them to clean their bedroom.

It's a rare moment she is at home.

In the months since her GED graduation, Edwards transferred to the main SCTI campus. At night, she still works her overnight job.

She wants to be an accountant; numbers excite her.

She applies at University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee to pursue a college degree.

She wants to fight that generational curse.

It's a process, Edwards says.

Step by step.

(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be
published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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