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Principal is proof that caring teachers can alter a student's path in life

Once a "troubled" child, Panther Ridge's Janjay Gehndyu leads Visible Men Academy in Bradenton.

Janjay Gehndyu says his education at Lakewood Ranch High School paved the way for his success in life.
Janjay Gehndyu says his education at Lakewood Ranch High School paved the way for his success in life.
Photo by Jay Heater
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Panther Ridge's Janjay Gehndyu is in demand.

He is one of the region's top academic tutors and in July became a board member for the Lakewood Ranch Community Fund, quickly setting up the Junior Humanitarian of the Year award that debuts this year.

His value as a school administrator has risen quickly, and it is likely he could have his pick of jobs.

But his current one was a somewhat odd decision.

He became the principal at the Visible Men Academy for K-5 students in Bradenton.

Those who know the School District of Manatee County charter school know that it takes kids who have struggled elsewhere. It wouldn't be too harsh to say other schools didn't want them.

The overall school rating, when Gehndyu arrived in September 2021, was an F.

Getting involved

So why would Gehndyu jeopardize his budding career by taking what some would consider an impossible situation?

"I was that kid," Gehndyu said. "I talked too much, and I couldn't sit down in a seat. In elementary school I struggled, going to five different schools."

His parents, Sondra Lee and Hussay Gehndyu, eventually guided him to Tara Elementary School, and things began to turn around.

"About fifth grade, I started to pull out of having trouble," he said. "People kept saying, 'We believe in you.' Becoming a member of the safety patrol — I know that might sound funny — was a huge thing for me. I wanted to help people, and I was helping by showing little kids to their class. Having leadership tasks was important."

Eventually, he attended Braden River Middle School and Lakewood Ranch High School. The teachers changed everything for him.

"When I got into middle school, I was heavily involved in sports," he said. "So that was a carrot to do well in academics. My parents wouldn't let me go to soccer games (if he wasn't doing well academically)."

During his elementary school days, he said he never thought of himself as a problem child, just a kid who had a lot of energy. 

"I called myself a nomad," he said. "I just wandered."

Keeping his nose clean

But by middle school, he knew he had to "keep my nose clean."

"I learned not to blurt out answers," he said. "I learned to not walk around the classroom to get my energy out."

Things became even better at Lakewood Ranch High, where he had instructors like history teacher Don French.

"I was very lucky because I had mentors," he said. "(Don French) said, 'Just choose something you want to do in life. Is that to go to college, … the military?' I ended up going to college. He told me that maybe someday I could come back and work with him in the district. That's what I did."

He credits much of his success as an adult to Lakewood Ranch High.

"If it wasn't for LWR, I wouldn't be here now," he said. "It opened up a whole new world for me. I never had seen that much land and that blew my mind. There were cows roaming around. I didn't even know State Road 70 went that far. My world was small, but my parents were determined to make sure my world didn't stay small."

Janjay Gehndyu stands in the end zone at Lakewood Ranch High were he scored a touchdown during the school's first year in 1998.
Photo by Jay Heater

Now at Visible Men Academy, he is trying to provide the kind of support he received. Without that support, he said it is scary to consider where he might have ended up.

The school itself has made major progress, receiving a "preliminary" overall grade of C for the last school year. Gehndyu said schools haven't received an official grade since COVID-19.

"We are only going up," he said. "We have more time on task for our academic students. We have been modifying our disciplinary actions. Instead of sending kids home, we put them on flexible or action seating. They can pedal and balance themselves while they are completing math problems. It helps."

He has added more family events to the school's schedule and more open houses, inviting the community to showcase the students' work. While the classes on the 921 63rd Avenue E. property are held in portables, the school is hoping to secure the property next door (donated to the school by Manatee County) for a permanent building. 

Naiema Frieson, the chair of the board for Visible Men Academy, said Gehndyu is vested in the area having grown up in Manatee County.

"We benefit from his understanding of his own personal experience," she said. "He has a real passion for education, and that assures that our sons are getting excited about education."

"These kids need somebody," Gehndyu said. "It's about giving them opportunities, things they don't know about. It could be as simple as teaching them about archery or golf or sewing or cooking. A lot of our parents work 14- to 15-hour days because they are single parents or because they earn poor salaries and must work more. No matter whether you are wealthy or poor, everyone wants their kids to be successful. They want something different for their kids."

Currently, the school has 72 students, but Gehndyu is hoping that builds to 400 in the future.

Time for sports

The school could use the numbers as Gehndyu has added football, soccer and golf programs. He said parents ask him to make sure their sons get to practice for whatever the sport might be.

Gehndyu counters by asking, "Can you make sure he is there for the school day, too?

"You can't play sports here until your grades are in order."

Gehndyu credits sports as an important part of his growth. As a freshman at Lakewood Ranch High in 1998, the school's first year, he said he scored the first-ever Mustangs touchdown on the home field.

"We were playing Manatee the second game of the year," he said. "It was the third quarter, and we were down 21-0. In the first game (on the road), the team scored 76 points against us."

Both coaches and players in the new program were frustrated. Manatee had just scored another touchdown and was preparing to kick off.

"The coach said, 'Return this to the house,'" Gehndyu said. "I just caught it and ran up the middle. It was the fastest I ever had run in my life. My mom still has that article in a shrine."

He gave up football the following year because "I'm 5-foot-6 on a good day." However, he set the school records in the 100 and 200 meters competing in track and field and played soccer. His track records have since fallen.

All through his school days, he said his mother and father continued to believe in him.

"I am just happy that now I can have an impact on the lives I see," he said. "I try to find a way to get more parents involved. We have mentors who come into the school. We recruit them. You can move 70 students with 20 volunteers. There is something about people just spending time with a child. The possibilities become endless.

"My mother says, 'You have found your purpose.' I don't think I could go back into a regular school."

Jackie Gehndyu said her husband has, indeed, found his purpose.

"Some people are born with a gift of being social," she said. "He is charismatic and he connects well with people wherever he is. People are attracted to his personality.

"He has worked in successful schools and he knows what it takes to be great. He knows what an A school looks like."

Janjay Gehndyu said moving Visible Men Academy's overall grade even higher will take time and patience, and he is not the most patient guy.

"That's why I have teachers," he said. "I just try to live by a set of values and principles, and let the kids see me live by those principles."

His principles include being a family man. Jackie works with him every day both at home and at Visible Men's Academy, and at their Academic Empowerment Agency. They have two children, 8-year-old Ellie and 5-year-old Emmitt.

Despite his considerable responsibilities, Gehndyu joined the Lakewood Ranch Community Fund to give back to a community that has meant so much to him. With the Community Fund, he has started the Junior Humanitarian of the Year award to go with the fund's already-established Humanitarian of the Year award.



Jay Heater

Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.

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