Welcome to the Step Up For Students blog, “Stepping Beyond the Scholarship.” We’re excited to have you join us as we debut a new forum for our parents, teachers, students and advocates to connect with one another and share their personal experiences with the (income-based) Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs.
We hope to be informative, sharing news about Step Up For Students, our scholarship application periods, participating schools and services, among other topics. We also aim to intrigue you with profiles about our scholarship recipients and their families, our partner schools, our program donors and partners.
In addition, we’d like to help answer your questions and provide a network of support for you as you navigate your child’s educational path. Which private schools accept the scholarships in your community? What combinations of therapies have helped your child with special needs? Is there a homeschool curriculum that really brings results? In the months ahead, we will feature guest bloggers, including parents and educators. We’ll also publish various series, such as a behind- the-scenes look at all things Step Up. We invite you, our readers, to become active participants.
We look forward to growing our blog, and taking this adventure with you. Thank you for reading.
Supporting the well-being of employees ties into the core values of Step Up For Students: Everyone is an asset and every event in an improvement opportunity.
With that in mind, Step Up formed the Wellness Committee this year, and the work of that committee earned a Silver Award at the 2020 Healthiest Companies Award, sponsored by the First Coast Worksite Wellness Council.
“One of the things we’ve seen highlighted during 2020 is the importance of whole life leadership – understanding and supporting your employees better as whole beings,” said Anne White, Step Up’s chief administration officer. “Employees are juggling so much – from children learning at home, co-working from home, worrying about elderly relatives, or job loss within the household, and just trying to stay safe. Well-being encompasses so many aspects of our lives. Strengthening ourselves in each of those areas to face life’s tough challenges is extremely important.”
More than 65 companies from the Jacksonville area received awards in four categories: bronze, silver, gold and platinum. Step Up has 221 employees.
First Coast Worksite Wellness Council provides local companies and wellness professionals with programs, education and resources to optimize their employee health and wellness programs.
According to its website, Silver Award winners “established more of a foundation for their wellness program. In addition to promoting a healthy lifestyle through communications and on-site activities, they’ve also established wellness champions and allocated funds toward the implementation of their program. They also offer programs that address other dimensions of wellness, not just physical well-being.”
Step Up’s Wellness Committee initiated a number of challenges throughout the year aimed at creating positive behaviors and attitudes among employees.
For the week of Sept. 21 to 26, the committee issued the “Move More Challenge” with these instructions: For each “Move More” activity that you (and your family or household, including pets) complete and submit a photo for, you will be entered into a raffle for one randomly selected prize winner. “Move More” activities include a picture of you walking, cycling, running, or completing any other fitness or outdoor activity. Family, pet and/or household photos are encouraged.
“I am so proud of and grateful for the team of employees who initiated our well-being committee with our partners at Hylant (Step Up’s benefits provider), and for the engagement of staff across our organization,” White said. “We are truly honored for their work to be acknowledged with the silver award from the First Coast Worksite Wellness Council, and are committed to continue finding ways to strengthen the well-being of our employees and, in turn, our organization.”
An email arrived in Michele Hopstetter’s inbox on July 16 that made her cry.
“Happy tears,” she said.
The notification came from Step Up For Students and informed Michele and her husband, Dan, that despite the recent increase in their annual income because Michele landed a full-time job, their daughter, Evelyn, will remain eligible for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship until she graduates high school.
The “once in, always in” rule was part of HB7067, signed into law in late June by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The bill expands the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Family Empowerment Scholarship, two income-based programs managed by Step Up. (Parents will need to complete an online application each year to indicate that their children will continue using the scholarship.)
Evelyn used the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship to attend Keswick Christian School in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she excelled last year as a first grader.
“Now she can stay (at Keswick) and continue to do well,” Michele said. “I was ecstatic. I really was. I cried because I was so excited.”
Michele and Dan live in St. Petersburg and have two children. Both attend school with the help of scholarships managed by Step Up.
Their son, Triston, a sixth grader at the LIFT Academy in Seminole, is on the autism spectrum and receives the Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs.
Michele called the scholarships a “godsend.”
“It has helped us tremendously, because both our children are extremely bright,” Michele said, “I’m not just saying that because I’m their mom. I’m saying that because I’ve seen what they’ve done.”
Triston, who turns 12 this month, was 8 when diagnosed with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), severe anxiety and depression.
“It’s been a very challenging time with him,” Michele said. “He’s very high-functioning. Very intelligent. But emotionally and socially he is so far behind.”
Prone to angry outburst, Triston struggled at his neighborhood school. Michele said it was because he had yet to receive his diagnoses and the school’s staff really didn’t know what they were dealing with. She learned of the Gardiner Scholarship from a neighbor and after researching schools, settled on LIFT, a private K-12 school that accepts all students but specializes in those with neurodiversity. Triston began attending the school in the second grade.
“I love everything about LIFT,” Michele said. “I would not take him anywhere else. He is thriving there.”
The Hopstetters learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship as Evelyn was getting ready to enter first grade.
Dan works in the deli department at Publix. Michele said it was a struggle to make ends meet, but they were living in her dad’s house, and he was helping with some of the bills.
Michele was not working at the time. She was finishing her bachelor’s degrees in business management and human resources from the University of Phoenix with a full-time course load from the online university.
She began work on her college degrees in 2009 when the family lived in Chauncey, Ohio.
They moved to St. Petersburg in 2015, and Michele home-schooled Triston until he was diagnosed, and they learned of the Gardiner Scholarship and LIFT.
Having qualified for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Michele began researching private schools in the St. Petersburg area. She settled on Keswick, because she liked the faith-based education and felt Evelyn would be challenged academically.
Turns out it was a perfect fit. Evelyn made the honor roll all four quarters as a first grader.
“That’s why she’s going to a school that’s way beyond our (financial) reach,” Michele said. “I know she’ll excel there.”
Diana Dumais, Keswick’s lower school principal, described Evelyn as an enthusiastic student who loves school and arrives each day with a smile on her face.
“She’s a real blessing in the classroom,” Diana said. “The teachers enjoy her little sense of humor. She’s just a great kid all around. She really works hard and wants to do better. She’s just precious.”
While Evelyn was enjoying her first year at Keswick, Michele received her degrees from the University of Phoenix and started working full-time in the human resource department at the Children’s Home Network in Tampa. Her salary raised the family’s income above the income ceiling for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. So, when she applied earlier this year for renewal, her application was denied.
“We were worried about what we were going to do,” Michele said. “We were going to have to move her, because we couldn’t afford (Keswick).”
The tuition for second through fourth grade at Keswick is $11,150 a year. Without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Michele and Dan would have to pay more than $900 a month. That meant they were looking for another school. But that email on July 16 from Step Up changed everything.
Plus, Keswick informed Michele that Evelyn was eligible for some financial aid. That plus the scholarship reduced the tuition to $280 a month plus expenses.
“We would do what we could to help them, to keep Evelyn here,” Diana said.
Life, Michele said, has often gotten in the way for the Hopstetters. But Michele has her degree and a career that she expects to build upon, and Dan is up for a promotion at work. And, because of education choice, their children are thriving in their scholastic settings.
“Having the Step Up For Students’ scholarships has improved (our lives) to where my children are going to make it,” Michele said. “Especially my son.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
The rating is based on Step Up’s demonstration of strong financial health and its commitment to accountability and transparency.
“We are incredibly passionate about what we do and how we do it. We work incredibly hard to change the lives of Florida’s most vulnerable children, but that mission is nothing without the trust of our donors,” said Step Up President Doug Tuthill. “That’s why earning this rating is not only important to us, it’s critical.”
This is the 14th time Step Up has received a four-star rating from Charity Navigator in as many years.
In a letter to Step Up, Charity Navigator President Michael Thatcher wrote, “This is our highest possible rating and indicates your organization adheres to sector best practices and executes its mission in a financially efficient way. Attaining a 4-star rating verifies that Step Up For Students exceeds industry standards and outperforms most charities in your work area. … This exceptional designation from Charity Navigator sets Step Up for Students apart from its peers and demonstrates to the public its trustworthiness.”
Charity Navigator evaluates more than 1.5 million American charities.
“The intent of our work is to provide donors with essential information to give them greater confidence in both the charitable decisions that they make and the nonprofit sector,” Thatcher wrote.
Charity Navigator’s rating is the latest accolade given to Step Up by national organizations.
Saltchuk and its Florida-based companies TOTE, Tropical Shipping, Shoreside Logistics and StratAir, have announced a $160,000 contribution to Step Up For Students, helping Florida schoolchildren attend the K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.
This is the first year that Saltchuk companies partnered with Step Up For Students and the contribution will fund more than 22 K-12 scholarships through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which serves lower-income children in Florida.
“Giving back is at the heart of what it means to be a Saltchuk company,” said Rick Murrell, President & CEO of Saltchuk Logistics. “We believe in supporting the communities in which we work and where our employees live, and we are proud to partner with Step Up For Students and its mission to help Florida schoolchildren find the learning environment that works best for them.”
Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and gives lower-income children the opportunity to attend a private or out-of-district school that best meets their learning needs.
Step Up For Students served more than 100,400 students for the 2019-20 school year. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
“We are grateful for companies like Saltchuk and their generosity and commitment to giving back to their community,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are proud to have Saltchuk companies as partners in our mission to help lower-income Florida families access schools that best fit their children’s needs.”
About Saltchuk Saltchuk is a privately owned family of diversified transportation and distribution companies. The Saltchuk family of companies is proud to include some of the country’s most respected names in cargo transportation and distribution. Together, our companies provide essential services by land, sea, and air. With 29 ports of call in The Bahamas and Caribbean, twice weekly sailings from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico, as well as scheduled and on-demand air cargo throughout the islands, Saltchuk companies deliver everything from fresh food to construction supplies needed for life and business in the islands. We are proud of our family of companies’ economic impact in the region where our companies employ more than 1,900.
Saltchuk companies in Florida include Shoreside Logistics, StratAir, TOTE Maritime, and Tropical Shipping
Editor’s note: This is the second in an occasional series exploring career challenges and successes for those individuals on the autism spectrum.
By ROGER MOONEY
“Everyone has a mountain to climb and autism has not been my mountain, it has been my opportunity for victory.”
– Rachel Barcellona on Instagram
Rachel Barcellona will tell you her disability is not the fact she’s on the autism spectrum. The disability is the way others react to her being on the spectrum.
It’s the obstacles others placed before Barcellona when she was younger, either by teachers who didn’t believe in her ability to learn or classmates who bullied her because they saw her as different.
Barcellona didn’t fit in. She knew that. But here’s the thing: She never wanted to fit in. She wanted to standout.
“Just because I have autism doesn’t mean I can’t shine,” she said.
Oh, she shines.
Her list of accomplishments is quite long. Here are the highlights:
Barcellona, 23, is a fashion model and a beauty queen. She was the first woman on the spectrum to participate in the Miss Florida pageant and is under contract to model personal care and beauty products for Sephora.
She has spoken at the United Nations during World Autism Awareness Day.
Her message: “I think that someone with any disability can become whatever they want. They just have to believe.”
Never give up
People believe in Barcellona. She wants them to believe in her. She knows the impact she has in the autism community, especially to young girls who see her as a role model.
“Families can identify with her story because it’s so multifaceted,” said Christine Rover, assistant program director at CARD USF. “It’s health challenges. It’s bullying. It’s ‘How do you get teachers to recognize my talents?’ Parents can relate to that story.”
But can their daughter grow up to be Miss Florida? Can they host a radio show? Can their voices be heard at the U.N.?
Young girls on the spectrum tell Barcellona they want to be models and enter pageants.
“I always tell people to never give up,” Barcellona said.
In the United States, there are more than 3.5 million people on the autism spectrum.
In Florida, Step Up For Students helps schoolchildren on the spectrum meet their educational needs through the Gardiner Scholarship.
Managed by Step Up, the Gardiner Scholarship enables parents to personalize the education for children with certain special needs from age 3 through the 12th grade or age 22, whichever happens first.
During the 2019-20 school year, 13,035 schoolchildren received a Gardiner Scholarship. Of that total, 8,097 (62%) are on autism spectrum. Click here to learn more about the Gardiner Scholarship.
Barcellona grew up in Palm Harbor, Florida. She is the only child of Barbara and Frank Barcellona.
She was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome when she was 3. She also has dyspraxia (a developmental motor coordination disorder), dyscalculia (difficulty in learning math) and epilepsy.
The early prognoses from doctors were not encouraging. They said Barcellona would have a lifetime of learning and physical challenges.
Barbara Barcellona recalled watching Rachel struggle to hang her backpack on a wall hook while in kindergarten.
“I thought to myself, she’s never going to get that,” Barbara said. “As she got older, it was well she got this step and this step. She kept rising to the occasion. When she was younger people told her she would never go to school, and now she’s two semesters away from her bachelor’s degree.”
While she is very open about her past, especially the bullying in middle school, Barcellona doesn’t like to dwell on those days.
“I like to live life in the now,” she said. “I like to be happy and focus on what’s going to happen in the future. Just be positive.”
Her mom tells her that the past plays an important role in the future.
“I sometimes tell her you have to look back to see how far you’ve come,” Barbara said, “and sometimes looking back isn’t always easy.”
Barcellona was 10 when she decided she would change the world.
She was tired of being bullied in middle school and called “The Devil” by classmates and fed up with those who viewed her as different because she was on the spectrum. That included teachers, who she sensed didn’t know how to connect with students with special needs.
“There were lots of us,” she said. “There were autistic (students). There were people with other disabilities that were a lot worse, and nobody knew how to handle them. They were just kind of shoved into a corner, pretty much, and I thought, ‘That isn’t right.’”
Her anger boiled over one day when she couldn’t perform a task, simple to some, maybe, but not to her. Sensing Barcellona’s vulnerability, some of her classmates pounced.
“I could never do anything right,” she said. “They were just yelling at me that I was stupid, so I just yelled at everyone to shut up. Then I got in trouble, of course. The principal asked me, ‘OK Rachel, what’s wrong?’”
“They have me issues!” she screamed.
Then she cried.
“I was very emotional,” she said.
When Barcellona returned home that afternoon she went into her bedroom, grabbed a piece of paper and a pen and started listing the changes she wanted to see in the world.
While she doesn’t remember everything she wrote that afternoon, she remembers what she wrote first. She wanted to have a party for children with special needs.
Barcellona didn’t know it at the time, but she was building the foundation to The Ability Beyond Disabilities. Her ultimate goal is to open a school for students with special needs.
“I really love the fact that she wants to help other people,” Barbara Barcellona said.
People can change
Barbara started entering Rachel in local beauty pageants when she was 4. She thought it might help her daughter cope with her depression. It did.
Standing on the stage, Barcellona felt empowered. She loved to sing. She loved to entertain.
“I remember I got on that stage, I had a fear of coming off of it,” Barcellona said. “I liked showing people that I’m there. I liked just being there. I had a feeling people cared about me for who I was. I didn’t get that when I wasn’t on stage.”
Now, the girl with Asperger’s was drawing attention to herself for different reasons. She placed first at pageants. She was on Tampa Bay area TV shows talking about the difficulties of life on the spectrum and why it shouldn’t be that way. She appeared in the pages of fashion magazines, modeling the latest styles.
She sang the national anthem before a WNBA game in New York and before a Tampa Bay Lightning game in Tampa.
The little girl who was bullied for being different now had hockey and basketball fans cheering and saying, “Wow, I wish I could sing like her.”
Barcellona said it all comes from her heart. It has to. She knows her message must be sincere or people won’t listen.
Her goal is to prove that those on the spectrum can achieve many things. They just need a chance. That is why she is quick to share her story.
“I think she acknowledges that there have been some challenges and struggles for her, but she always says, ‘Yep, that’s life, but I’m not going to let it stop me,’” Rover said. “She really seems to turn it around and use it as fuel and say, ‘I want to help others who’ve had these obstacles put in their way,’ and just shines with it.”
For 10 years, Barcellona received therapy from CARD-USF. Now, she sits on the constituency board, where Rover said Barcellona provides the first-person voice of life on the spectrum.
“To see that come full circle is something I find incredible about her,” Barbara Barcellona said. “She doesn’t need to do that, but she generally wants to help other people. I think the world of her for it.”
Rover credits Barbara and Frank for guiding their daughter through those uneasy childhood moments and supporting her dreams.
“I always thought she was capable of achieving what she wanted to,” Barbara Barcellona said. “But there were oftentimes, especially during middle school, where she faced so many challenges, she had to be very strong. Even though you have a family and a good support system, it has to come from within. Even though we support her 100%, some of the stuff she really had to believe in herself.”
Barcellona is confident in her own abilities and future. She will work in radio. She will have a modeling career. She will build that school for children with special needs.
She will use her platform to change the way people view those on the spectrum, the way they view anyone with a disability.
Every so often Barcellona hears from an old classmate which makes her happy and lets her know her message is being heard.
“The ones that were really mean to me in middle school end up emailing me and telling me how wrong they were, and they were sorry,” she said. “It’s nice to see that people change.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After he helped deliver food to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic in late February, Jack Figueredo helped bring more food to five impoverished families in a nearby town.
The next day, Jack and his mom held a baby shower in another part of the Dominican for 35 financially disadvantaged moms-to-be, arranged by the Rawlings Foundation, a Christian mission and outreach organization.
After the women received their bags filled with much-needed baby supplies, finished their lunches and polished off the sheet cake, Jack took time to reflect and was, in his words, “shocked” at what he witnessed during his two days in the country.
The poverty. The need for food and supplies. The unbridled joy of those he helped.
“We did so much, and yet I wanted to do so much more,” he said. “As soon as we came back to America, I hit the ground running because I want to help all these people.”
So, Jack has plans for a farmer’s market in Miami-Dade County, where he will help deliver fresh produce to low-income families. And he is organizing a campaign to send care packages to members of the armed forces in Afghanistan. He is currently securing permits so he can help feed and clothe the homeless in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Miami and Homestead.
The baby shower went so well, there are plans for another, this one in Venezuela.
It should be noted that Jack is 16 and finishing his sophomore year at Miami’s Westwood Christian School, a private K-12 school that he and his brother Jonas, who recently graduated, attend with the help of Florida Tax Credit Scholarships.
Managed by Step Up For Students, the scholarship enables lower-income families to send their children to private schools.
Westwood provided Jack and Jonas with a quality education in a religious setting. The real estate collapse showed the brothers what life is like for those struggling to get by.
Their parents no longer owned Porsches, and they no longer shopped at high-end stores.
Even during the family’s financial hardship, Helen made the boys pick one wrapped present under the Christmas tree to donate to a needy child. And at Thanksgiving and Easter, the family piled into the car Frank bought for less than $90 at a police auction and made their way to Miami to deliver sandwiches to the homeless who congregate near downtown.
It was part of Helen’s grand lesson to her children: Material things don’t matter. People do.
“The only way these kids are going to appreciate what they had was by seeing what life could be like if they didn’t have much and to instill in them that desire to always want to share, always want to give back, to put humans over material stuff, life over material stuff,” Helen said.
Looking back, Jack said the family trips to feed the homeless were “a great experience.”
“It broke my heart to see a lot of people like this,” Jack said. “I wanted to do something on my own to help them.”
So, Jack decided when he got older, he was going to organize his own charity – Socks and Sandwiches.
That goal became reality last September when Jack started Kids United Foundation. There are five members on the board of directors – Jack and four high school seniors, including Jonas.
“I thought it fit perfectly. Kids helping kids because I’m a kid,” Jack said.
The name was changed because Jack wants to help as many people as possible. And, because it takes time to obtain the permits needed to work with the homeless.
Jack didn’t want to wait. He was upset last summer when he was too young to travel to the Dominican with Helen and Jonas on a mission trip sponsored by the First Baptist Church of Westwood Lakes. Jack was 15, and the minimum age was 16.
“I was kind of bummed,” he said. “This was one of the main reasons I started my own charity. I wanted to help in a way where my age would not be an issue. The only way to do that is if I started it, I did, I created it and I was the boss.”
After hearing Helen’s stories about the extreme poverty she and Jonas encountered on the mission, Jack decided to act.
He came up with the idea of a baby shower after Helen told him of all the pregnant women she saw walking around barefoot and all the small children she saw barely clothed.
They organized a fundraiser Valentine’s Day 2019 at the Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theater in Coral Gables. Kids United received a percentage of the ticket sales. They raised $7,000.
“It was a very successful fundraiser for our first one,” Jack said.
That enabled Kids United to put together gift bags for each of the 35 expectant mothers filled with $72 worth of diapers, bottles and baby clothes.
It also allowed them to buy food for the children in the orphanage and for five additional families in the Dominican.
Jack’s next move was the join the Consortium for a Healthier Miami-Dade, an organization committed to promoting a healthy lifestyle and disease prevention. He was added to the Children’s Issues and Oral Health Committee.
At one of the meetings, Jack suggested a farmer’s market in low-income areas to help children who are not getting enough nutrition in their diet.
The idea was a hit. The question: Who would spearhead the campaign?
“I can do it,” Jack said.
Kids United partnered with Farm Share, a nonprofit that delivers fresh food to needy families and individuals in Florida. In October, Farm Fresh donated 2,800 pounds of produce to Kids United, which then distributed it during a harvest festival at Tropical Park in Miami.
The plan was to hold a farmer’s market four times a year, but the shutdown because of the coronavirus put that plan on hold. It also canceled another dinner theater fundraiser.
Still, Jack’s charity is forging ahead.
With the help of his godfather, Romy Comargo, Jack started H.E.R.O. – Honoring Every Ranger Overseas.
Romy, Helen’s cousin, was a Chief Warrant Officer 3 with the Special Forces. While serving in Afghanistan in 2008, he was shot on the back of the neck and paralyzed from the neck down.
H.E.R.O will send care packages containing comfort food, socks and paper stationary to soldiers overseas. The stationary is so the soldiers can correspond with schoolchildren from the Miami area. Kids United is in the process of contacting schools in that area for volunteers to be pen pals.
Gaby Camargo is Venezuelan. She told Jack that she and her husband would help fund the trip if the next Kids United baby shower was held in Venezuela.
The coronavirus has placed a temporary hold on Jack’s idea for Seniors vs. Seniors trivia, where high school seniors compete against residents at the Allegro Senior Living facility in Dadeland.
Originally, Helen advised her son to stick with one charitable endeavor.
“We want to help people, but we don’t want to be committed to one thing,” Jack said. “That’s why we’re committed to such a wide variety of events, and we want to do what no one else is doing.”
Helen also impressed the importance of education on her sons. Both are top-of-the-class students at Westwood and members of the National Honor Society.
Jonas is a finalist for the Silver Knights Award. Held annually by the Miami Herald, the awards go to students who have high grades while making significant contributions to their schools and communities. Jonas, who holds a second-degree black belt in taekwondo, teaches self-defense to Westwood students in grades kindergarten through third. He is headed to the University of Miami with plans to become a lawyer.
Jack is following the same path as Jonas.
No one wants to be poor, Helen said. No one wants to see their business collapse and the savings disappear because of a downward turn of the economy.
But, out of their struggle grew a desire from Jonas and Jack to help those less fortunate.
“We are getting Kids United Foundation off the ground,” Jack said, “but we are barely scratching the surface of what we want to do.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
Editor’s note. This story was originally posted on Jan. 14, 2019 on redefinED, another blog sponsored by Step Up For Students. We’re taking a look back at some of our scholars in recent years. Today, Jordyn Simmons-Outland continues to feel safe because of the Hope Scholarship. To sign up for our philanthropic newsletter, please click here.
LAKE PLACID, Florida — Jordyn Simmons-Outland is a fifth grader who was in need of a lifeline. The 10-year-old has a sweet demeanor and a love for the online video game Fortnite. However, his lack of self-confidence made him a target for bullying in his public school since the second grade. Teased about his weight. Tripped and hit. Complaints to teachers and administrators failed to bring relief.
In the past year, the physical and emotional abuse had become so bad, he told his grandparents he wished he were dead. He began seeing a therapist.
A new state school choice scholarship, the first of its kind in the nation, provided him with hope – literally.
“I don’t know what I’d do if the scholarship wasn’t available,” said his grandmother, Cathy Simmons, who has been a fierce advocate for her grandson most his life.
Jordyn is the first recipient of Florida’s Hope Scholarship, created by the Legislature in 2018 to give K-12 public school children relief from bullying and violence. The scholarship is run by Step Up For Students. More than 47,000 students in Florida reported being bullied during the 2016-17 school year.
The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district. The scholarship value depends on the grade level: $6,519 for K-5, $6,815 for 6-8, and $7,111 for 9-12. The transportation scholarship is worth up to $750 and can be used to attend any out-of-district public school with available space. The scholarships are funded by consumers who choose to redirect up to $105 of their motor vehicle purchase taxes to the program.
Applications for the new scholarships opened Nov. 1 2018, which proved timely for Jordyn.
His grandmother went to Lakeview Christian School in Lake Placid to inquire about tuition costs. With Cathy and Danny in the process of selling their furniture business, money has been tight. However, Lakeview’s school administrator, Christena Villarreal, and her assistant told her about the new Hope Scholarship.
The Simmonses immediately enrolled Jordyn into Lakeview Christian, then began the process of applying for the Hope. They became conditionally eligible Nov. 2. Cathy received the acceptance letter Nov. 30.
It was like Independence Day.
“I was sitting (upstairs) in the rocking chair when I got the email,” she said. “I just wanted to scream, ‘Hallelujah! Thank you, God!’”
The scholarship means Jordyn can stay in the school where he now fits in. He feels welcomed and comfortable.
“They knew how he was when he got there,” Simmons said of the Lakeview Christian staff. “Jordyn didn’t just go there from the old school. He took baggage with him, too. He took stuff with him to that school.”
Nevertheless, Jordyn says he wasn’t nervous his first day there. “I knew it was going to be good.”
He doesn’t like to talk about his previous school, but he lights up when the subject turns to his new one.
“The people are nice,” he says.
Since the change, not once has he complained he didn’t want to go to school. In fact, after being laid up in bed with an inner ear infection followed by the stomach flu near the end of Christmas break, Jordyn was excited to return to school Jan. 7, 2019.
Simmons and Villareal both point to Lakeview Christian’s smaller class sizes as making a big difference for students like Jordyn.
“I like to think we’re a safe place for bullied students,” said Villareal, who noted the school has had several students transfer there because they were bullied elsewhere. “In other schools they might get lost in the shuffle.”
Simmons shows pics of a smiling Jordyn in his fifth-grade class, getting hugged by his teacher, interacting with classmates during their holiday party. According to a Nov. 14, 2018 school progress report, Jordyn “is a pleasure to have in class” and “is very polite and courteous.”
A fresh start in a more welcoming environment has boosted Jordyn’s confidence. Two months ago, he did a mile run at school in 17 minutes. By mid-December, with the help of his new classmates, he completed it in 14 minutes.
“I’m probably the last one to finish, so I’d get really tired and out of breath,” he said. “And they would all get up and try to help me finish it.” They’d cheer him on and run with him. He says he’s now shooting for finishing in 11 minutes, “maybe 10.”
At Lakeview Christian’s elementary school Christmas concert Dec. 18, 2019 Jordyn was one of six students chosen to sing at the front of stage. He wasn’t forced to do it – he volunteered.
So far, 469 private schools have signed up to participate in the Hope Scholarship, and 67 students have been awarded the scholarship. Jordyn and his grandmother are excited and thankful that he was the first.
“Hope is the best description. I keep thinking ‘There is hope, there is hope, there is hope.’ ” Simmons said. “I can’t wait to tell everyone what a blessing the Hope Scholarship has been. Now there’s peace.”
About Lake View Christian School
Lakeview Christian School opened in 1985 and offers Pre-K (for 3-year-olds) through eighth grade. During the 2018-19 school year, the school had 127 students, 59 of whom received the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, four received the Gardiner Scholarship, and one received the new Hope Scholarship. All of the classroom teachers are four-year college graduates.
Editor’s note: This story was originally posted on June 28, 2018. We are taking a look back at some of our scholarship stories from the past. Valentina Guerrero continues to thrive using the Gardiner Scholarship. To sign up for our philanthropic newsletter, please click here.
By DAVID HUDSON TUTHILL
Her name means “Brave Warrior” in Spanish.
That might not conjure up the image of a 6-year-old girl with blonde hair, glasses and a smile so bright she became the first person with Down syndrome to become a main model for a major fashion brand.
Born with Down syndrome, Valentina Guerrero, started modeling at 9 months old.
The oldest child of Cecilia Elizalde and Juan Fernando Guerrero, Valentina was born Sept. 16, 2011. Her parents didn’t learn Valentina had Down syndrome until after her birth. Each year, roughly 6,000 children in the U.S. are born with the genetic condition according to the Centers for Disease Control.
A Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs has helped Valentina shatter incorrect assumptions many people make about people with Down syndrome. Step Up For Students helps manage the scholarship.
“I realized how incredible individuals with Down syndrome are,” Elizalde said. “They’re so evolved on a spiritual level, and we have so much to learn from them. But we don’t hear enough of that. We hear outdated comments about their potential. I wanted to help change that perception.”
The family, including younger brother Oliver, 3, lives in Miami. Other family members remain in their native Ecuador.
Valentina was a few months old when her parents realized some of the challenges she could face. They soon had her working with occupational, physical and speech therapists.
Adriana Tilley, an occupational therapist with 33 years of experience, has been working with Valentina since she was a baby. Tilley says Elizalde and Guerrero are deeply involved with their daughter’s care, which has had a huge influence on her development. The Gardiner Scholarship helps pay for the care.
“The parents have been incredible and a huge member of the team,” Tilley says. “Valentina is like any other kid, with some limitations. But, we all have limitations.”
Tilley’s six years of work with Valentina have helped the child make tremendous strides in her personality. She constantly is asking how other people are feeling. Tilley marvels at the young woman she’s helped nurture over the past six years.
“She’s met all her milestones and is doing great,” Tilley says. “Now she is learning how to do everything by herself. I’ve loved working with her and learning from her family.”
Even as a baby, Valentina began shattering stereotypes.
She was 9 months old when she began taking the modeling world by storm. Family connections led her to European fashion designer Dolores Cortés. By 2013, she was the main model for the company’s children collection DC Kids USA 2013. In the ensuing years, Valentina has been featured in a plethora of media outlets, including People Magazine, Down Syndrome World and MTV Tres. She also has modeled for brands such as Walmart, GAP, Toys R Us and Carter’s, the children’s clothing company.
A Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs has helped Valentina Guerreno shatter incorrect assumptions many people make about people with Down syndrome.
Her accomplishments resonated as far away as her family’s native Ecuador – to the extent that the country’s former vice president, Lenin Moreno, wrote Valentina a letter, calling her an inspiration. Moreno is now Ecuador’s President.
“We didn’t take the fame too seriously,” says Elizalde, a former television producer, consultant and music show host on the Spanish-language PBS station V-me. “I saw it as a platform for us to communicate an important message. It was a little hectic having to go from therapies to having cameras all over. It was kind of surreal.”
Social media has played a major role in Valentina’s fame. Thanks to her mother, there are countless photos and videos across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, documenting her life and various activities.
Elizalde also recently began a Spanish language parenting channel on YouTube. She hopes to pass on to other families some of the techniques and therapies that have most helped her family.
She is a firm believer in the adage that it takes a village to raise a child such as Valentina, which is why the family feels so fortunate to be able to choose the right educational path for her.
Valentina enrolled in a three-year pre-K class at Morningside K-8 Academy in Miami. By her third year, she was in class with over 20 kids, one teacher, and an aid. Despite the class size, and with Valentina the only child in class with Down syndrome, the school was largely successful in meeting her needs. When Kindergarten rolled around however, the family toured different school options.
Elizalde was worried about finding the right setting to meet Valentina’s needs. A friend recommended the family check out Von Wedel Montessori School in Miami. As soon as the family walked in, they knew they had found the perfect place for Valentina and her brother, Oliver.
At Von Wedel, the family creates an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, in conjunction with the principal, teachers and with input from Tilley. Valentina thrives in that setting, and Elizalde loves the philosophy of Montessori – to allow children to develop at their own unique pace, to work independently, and embrace the joy of self-discovery.
“None of her peers notice her disability,” Elizalde says. “They acknowledge that we are all different. It’s a really beautiful environment for her.”
A typical week for Valentina is full of activities. On Monday, there’s swimming lessons after school lets out at 3 p.m. She has occupational and speech therapies on Tuesday. On Wednesday, it’s ballet class. By Thursday, she’s back in the pool. Friday is usually a day to relax and spend time with some of her friends or fit in a modeling gig. Valentina loves going to the playground and to different museums. There is also a standing weekly Friday night dinner with family.
Valentina says she wants to be a chef when she grows up. She likes to play with her kitchen set. Her mother sees a different path, however. She thinks Valentina is a natural teacher.
Nearly every day at home, Valentina lines up her stuffed animals and reads to them and leads them in a class. The process goes on for a couple hours. Her younger brother Oliver is the only non-stuffed attendee, and she has helped him learn to speak English.
Six years old and with a life so fast paced, it’s hard to imagine the higher levels Valentina Guerrero will reach. With the help of her school, the boundless energy of her mother, and their family’s mission to spread positivity about individuals with Down syndrome, her capacity is endless.
“She’s a warrior,” Elizalde says. “When she has a goal, she fights for it and achieves it.”
A pamphlet for a new private Catholic high school arrived in the mail one day when Abi’ya Wright was in the eighth grade. Four words jumped off the pages: “Corporate Work Study Program.”
Abi’ya noticed that Cristo Rey Tampa Salesian High School in Tampa, which would accept its first students the following August, was the only high school in the Tampa area that offered such a program.
“I was like, ‘Oh that’s a high school I can go to,’” she said.
And so, she did.
In August 2016, Abi’ya joined the students who comprised the first-ever freshman class at Cristo Rey. They took their first awkward steps as high schoolers together in a setting foreign to nearly every high school student. Cristo Rey’s first school year included only ninth graders.
Some, like Nicole Singletary, were also drawn to the school by the Corporate Work Study Program, where every student spends one day a week doing office work as entry-level employees at one of 50 Tampa Bay area business, including Step Up For Students.
Others, like Aydin Montero and Jose Calixto, were attracted by the school’s commitment to prepare each student for a college education.
“It was kind of weird at first, because we were the only class there, and nobody really knew what to expect,” Nicole said. “We were learning as we were going.”
Cristo Rey added a freshman class each year after its inaugural year, making the 2019-20 school year the first with freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. It also makes the Class of 2020 its first graduating class.
So, naturally, Abi’ya, Nicole, Aydin and Jose and the other 40 seniors are part of the school’s historic milestone. The Cristo Rey seniors are proud of that unique honor.
“It feels like an accomplishment because were the first ones to test it out. Yes, it was hard work. We didn’t have all the teachers to cover all the classes, some of the elective classes. Some of us had to do online classes, but we still made it work,” Jose said. “At the end, it’s a great honor.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the senior prom was canceled, and the school’s first traditional graduation ceremony was rescheduled from June 6 to Aug. 8. Until that time, the school honored the graduating class with social media posts and a walk-through block party, where the students received swag bags, senior T-shirts and photos.
The pandemic made for a bumpy end to the high school experience for the seniors.
“Still lots to celebrate, though,” said school principal Matt Torano.
The path less taken
Torano said he doesn’t know if he could do what the seniors did – commit to a high school as eighth graders when, at the time, the high school was in name only.
“They chose the path less taken. They forged ahead not really knowing what it meant, not really knowing what was going to happen,” he said. “That alone is impressive to me, because I don’t know if I would have had, as a 14- or 15-year-old, the guts to do that.”
Cristo Rey is located in a lower-income section of Tampa. It is designed for students from lower-income families, many of whom will be the first in their family to either graduate from high school or attend college or both.
“Their parents are hardworking folks but never had the opportunities to consider college as a pathway,” Torano said. “They want better for their children, and they want their children to be the first to go to college and be the first to experience the benefits of that four-year degree.”
Nearly everyone in the senior class – 98% – are headed to a college or university.
“It’s just something that’s been calling to me,” she said. “I enjoy the medical field and just being in the medical environment.”
Abi’ya is headed to Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., where she will study criminology in advance of a career as an FBI profiler.
“I mostly chose that one because, one, it’s not in Florida. I didn’t want to go to any school in Florida, because I want to branch out,” she said. “And two, it’s a small, private school. I want to have the same school environment as high school, because it’s easier for me to learn that way.”
Jose is taking a gap year with some online courses mixed in. If the COVID-19 travel restrictions are relaxed, he plans to travel to Mexico and visit family. After that, Jose said he will enroll at Hillsborough Community College for two years then head to St. Leo University. He’s thinking of majoring in business.
Aydin will study software engineering at Florida Institute of Technology across the state in Melbourne. He is the first one in his family to graduate high school and he will be the first to attend college.
“I feel like I’m representing myself and my family,” he said of graduating from Cristo Rey. “My mom was really focused on me getting through high school and to college. I think that’s one of the reasons she chose (Cristo Rey), because she knew I would have a better chance going on to college.”
Real life experience
With every student in every grade participating, the Corporate Work Study Program is, naturally, a huge part of the Cristo Rey experience. Participating businesses include those in health care, finance, law, engineering, food and beverage, law enforcement and education.
Abi’ya and Jose worked at Step Up. Nicole worked at a law firm. Aydin worked at three different companies, including a commercial real estate firm.
The students are paid a salary for each job experience, but the salary goes toward their tuition.
Yearly tuition for Cristo Rey is approximately $18,000. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship covers 40% of that, as does the Corporate Work Study Program. Philanthropic contributions cover 14%, leaving the families to pay 6%. Torano said that comes out to $65 per month for the parents.
“So, to get a Catholic college preparatory experience for 65 bucks a month, that’s a heck of a deal,” he said.
Spending time in a work-setting helps the students build people skills and gain confidence. They also create a network of contacts who can be relied upon to write recommendations for college and, maybe in a few years, for jobs.
“For me, it was kind of scary at first,” said Abi’ya, who initially was intimidated working among adults. “I was not a very sociable person, and it made me extremely nervous to talk to people or have the potential of talking to someone.
“I’m much, much better now.”
It may have been an unusual start, but once that first freshman class settled in, they encountered a high school experience similar to their peers around the country.
Nicole played on the basketball, volleyball and soccer teams. She joined the youth ministry, worked on the yearbook staff and helped start the audio-visual club.
Abi’ya helped start the anime club as a junior. Aydin was captain of the basketball team as a senior.
All the seniors played four square volleyball outside the school building as often as possible.
When asked for his favorite highlight of high school, Jose said, “My friends, because the school is not really big and we knew each other for four years, we started becoming a family. We were comfortable with each other.”
It’s all over now for the seniors, except for the traditional graduation. All that remains of the class of 2020 is their legacy.
“A lot of freshmen and sophomores came up to me and said, ‘You guys are amazing. Thank you for starting the path,’” Nicole said. “It’s kind of reassuring that we were doing a good job, and the school is going to be remembered for generations to come.”
That is the hope of Principal Torano.
A Tampa native, Torano looks around at the other private high schools in Tampa, including Jesuit High that dates back to 1899, and sees the contributions their alumni have made to the city of Tampa. It will take time, he admits, but he expects Cristo Rey graduates to have the same impact.
“Hopefully in 50 years they talk about Cristo Rey in kind of the same breath as these institutions that have been so instrumental in moving Tampa forward into each next step of the evolution that we have experienced as a city,” he said. “And it all started here. It started with this class. There had to be a first one and hats off to these men and women for taking a chance and making it happen.”
Step Up manages five scholarships that provide K through 12 education choices to students from lower-income families, those with certain special needs, students who have been bullied at a public school and struggling readers in public school in grades three through five.
A parent or guardian might ask: What scholarship do I qualify for?
Well, let’s take a look using these examples.
Scholarships for children from lower-income families
The Figueredos were eligible for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two income-based scholarships managed by Step Up. The other is the Family Empowerment Scholarships. Both scholarships are based on a family’s financial need, and both give families a choice to find a new learning environment for their child.
Parents use a single application for the scholarships and Step Up determines eligibility for either the tax-credit scholarship or the newer Family Empowerment Scholarship.
In the case of the Figueredos, it was the Westwood Christian School, a private pre-K through 12 school near their Miami home. Both boys entered when they were eligible for pre-K. Jonas recently graduated from the private school near the top of his class with a scholarship to the University of Miami. Jack just completed his sophomore year and is following in his brother’s academic footsteps.
Scholarships for children with certain special needs
Diagnosed with high-functioning autism at age three, Nicholas was nearing the end of the eighth grade. It was time for Phyllis to search for a high school that could accommodate her son’s needs.
She feared that the large neighborhood high school would present a threatening environment, that Nicholas would be an easy target for bullies. She worried that Nicholas would be intimidated by the large class sizes.
A friend told her about Monsignor Pace High School, located in Miami Lakes, 10 miles from their home. Upon visiting the school, Phyliss learned of the Gardiner Scholarship, which allows parents to personalize the education of their pre-K through 12 children with certain special needs by directing money toward a combination of approved programs and providers. (A list of special needs covered by the Gardiner Scholarship is found here under “eligibility requirements.”)
The Gardiner Scholarship helped cover the tuition at Pace.
Phyllis was relieved.
“That was phenomenal,” Phyllis said. “We were so excited there was something out there for him.”
Nicolas graduated with honors and recently finished his first year at Broward College, where he is studying environmental science.
Scholarship for students who have been bullied
Jordyn Simmons-Outland had been a target of bullies in his public school since the second grade. The physical and emotional toll over the next two years was so intense that Jordyn told his grandparents that he wished he were dead. He began to see a therapist.
In 2018, the Florida Legislature created the Hope Scholarship to give relief for K-12 public school children from bullying and violence. The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district.
Jordyn was the first-ever recipient of the Hope Scholarship. He began attending Lakeview Christian School in Lake Placid, Florida as a fifth grader in the fall of 2018.
“Hope is the best description (for the scholarship). I keep thinking ‘There is hope, there is hope, there is hope,’” said Cathy Simmons, Jordyn’s grandmother. “I can’t wait to tell everyone what a blessing the Hope Scholarship has been. Now there’s peace.”
Scholarship for students struggling to read
In third grade, Kiersten Covic’s reading score on the Florida Standards Assessments (FSA) was high enough where it signaled that she would likely excel in English Language Arts the following school year.
Instead, her grade plummeted to “below satisfactory.”
It wasn’t the only thing that plunged. So did her confidence.
Fortunately, her mother, Kelly Covic, learned about the Reading Scholarship Accounts managed by Step Up For Students that could help pay for a reading program called ENCORE! Reading at Kiersten’s school, Dayspring Academy.
In 2018, Florida lawmakers created the reading scholarship to help public school students in third through fifth grade who struggle with reading. The program offers parents access to Education Savings Accounts, worth $500 each, to pay for tuition and fees for approved part-time tutoring, summer and after-school literacy programs, instructional materials and curriculum related to reading or literacy.
Third through fifth grade public school students who scored a 1 or 2 on the third or fourth grade English Language Arts (ELA) section of the Florida Standards Assessments in the prior year are eligible. (Due to COVID-19, the reading portion of the test was canceled. The Florida Department of Education is assessing eligibility requirements for the 2020-21 school year.)
With a score of 2 on the English Language Arts section of the test, Kiersten qualified. Her mother applied for the scholarship, was approved and enrolled Kiersten into the program at the A-rated public charter school in New Port Richey during the 2018-19 school year.
The program was enough to boost her reading grade on the state test to a 3, a perfectly acceptable grade to put her back on track for success.
“We were really, really thrilled and relieved,” said her mom.
Again, to learn more about the Step Up scholarships, click here. To read more stories about how those scholarships impact the lives of the Step Up scholars, click here.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.