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.
The nonprofit’s Jacksonville office was ranked among the top places to work in that city by the Jacksonville Business Journal, placing third in the category for Large Companies (100-249 employees).
“It is such
an honor that our employees are being recognized for the work they do each day
to create an organizational culture that enables us to fulfill our mission to
the best of our abilities,” said Anne White, Step Up’s chief administrative
The Jacksonville Business Journal
partnered with Quantum Workplace, an employee engagement research firm, to
compile the rankings. Quantum Research surveys employees and analyzes the
results to determine employee satisfaction.
Employees are evaluated in the areas of team effectiveness, retention risk, alignment with goals,
trust with co-workers, individual contribution, manager effectiveness, trust in
senior leaders, feeling valued, work engagement and people practices.
Step Up’s Clearwater office was recently ranked eighth among large companies in the Tampa Bay area by the Tampa Bay Business Journal.
Nationally, Step Up was ranked 19th on Forbes’ list of America’s Top Charities 2018. It was also recognized in 2018 for its financial accountability and transparency from two nonprofit watchdog groups: Charity Navigator and GuideStar. Charity Navigator awarded Step Up a four-star rating for the seventh consecutive year, a credit that only 4 percent of charities have earned by the nation’s top charity evaluator. Step Up has earned the Platinum Seal of Transparency with GuideStar, a public database that evaluates the mission and effectiveness of nonprofits.
was a summer spent reflecting on what went wrong during that senior year, and
why he was required to repeat it.
“Just a lack of motivation on my part,” said Josh, 17.
This lack of
motivation was a never-ending source of frustration for Josh’s mother, Kadirah
Abdel, his guidance counselor, Norman Levitan, and American Prep principal,
sensed a serious student inside Josh yearning for an opportunity to be set
free. He could be engaging with his teachers, capable of leading the class in a
deep discussion on the topic for that day. He could also be disruptive and
unmotivated, unwilling to complete his assignments on time.
she would have allowed Josh to participate last May in the graduation ceremony
and make up the work during summer school, but he failed too many classes to
make that possible. She hoped having Josh repeat his senior year would be a
“I wanted to
give him another chance,” Matos said. “I believed it was a maturity issue and
eventually he would understand that this was his last chance.”
the way I was doing things over the summer,” Josh said. “I thought, ‘Man, I got
really step up, because I’m repeating.’ It was sort of the cataclysmic moment
for me. I knew I had to do something to improve my study ethic.”
taught himself to speak Latin by using the Duolingo app proved what Levitan
always believed about Josh.
bright,” Levitan said.
“A different kid”
fit in at his neighborhood schools.
“He was very
to himself, very shy,” Abdel said. “The other kids were into stuff he wasn’t
The other kids were into pop culture. Josh was into Julius Cesar.
kids read Facebook posts. Josh read the dictionary.
bullied and picked on,” Abdel said. “That was my main concern. That’s when I
knew I had to take action here, do something. I heard about alternative
schools. I did my research, looked up different kinds of schools. There are
alternative schools for kids who have had issues in public schools, because
they didn’t fit in.”
said, administrators at Josh’s neighborhood school wanted to place him in
classes for emotionally challenged students.
have a disability,” Abdel said. “They’re quick to label kids in public school.
They couldn’t put him in special ed, so he was put in this class called ‘EH,’
emotionally handicapped children, basically kids who acted up.”
her son did act up in class, and it was because he was bored.
He moved to
AEF (Alternative Education Foundation) School, a nonprofit private school in
Fort Lauderdale, the following year and stayed through his sophomore year in
“Once he got
to private school, he did a lot better,” Abdel said.
were still issues.
behave so well at (AEF),” Josh said. “I didn’t get along with the students and
finally turned to American Prep, a private school with 150 students with no
more than 12 to a class. Matos said her school is designed for students who
don’t fit in at neighborhood schools. Kids, she said, who “fall through the
different kid,” Matos said. “He likes history. He likes to read, and that is
not very common.”
his classes as a junior. Senior year was a struggle with most of the struggles
“Just a lack
of motivation on my part,” Josh said.
to learn … just on his terms.
reading and studying on his own,” Abdel said. “Not necessarily being told, ‘OK,
you have to study for his test.’ He enjoys studying, but when he wants.”
man,” Josh said. “All the conquests. His abilities as a leader was unrivaled.”
He wants to
be a linguist. He would like to have a career that allows him to write and
speak Latin and Italian.
“I’d like to write books about this stuff,” he said. “Phonology. Nerdy things.”
Josh had to graduate high school.
The wake-up call
At one point
last year, Matos said she thought her school wasn’t the right fit for Josh. But
where would he go? What school would make room for a senior who couldn’t
believes her role as an educator is to keep her students in school. Plus, she
knew Josh could complete the work. He just needed motivation. Because he was still
eligible to receive a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Matos and Abdel felt it
best for Josh to repeat his senior year.
“I think it
was the kick he needed, the wake-up call,” Abdel said. “When he saw his friends
graduate but he didn’t, that’s when he stepped up his game.”
Josh’s grades this year were the highest they’ve been during his high school career.
been studying more, focusing on studying, reviewing,” he said. “I wasn’t
studying last year, and that’s why I was failing tests.”
friends made plans for their freshman years at college, Josh wrapped his mind
around another senior year of high school. He didn’t have a job, so he had
plenty of time on his hands.
What to do?
for a copy of Wheelock’s Latin, which
he received a few years ago, and started teaching himself Latin.
“One day I
was looking at it, staring at it, and I thought, ‘I’ve had this for so long I
should just learn it already,’” he said. “I wasn’t doing anything during the
summer. I was using the internet and stuff. I said let me do something
productive. I just opened up the book.”
productivity not only carried into the classroom this year, but to other parts
of the school.
time this past year mentoring younger students at American Prep, sharing his
experience as a cautionary tale.
he received the Turnaround Student Award during Step Up’s annual Rising Stars
Award event. He was nominated by Matos.
proud of him,” she said.
month, he graduated.
Josh plans to attend Broward College this fall. He is formulating plans for his future. He wants work with words, foreign words. He wants to visit Italy and Greece. Walk where Julius Cesar walked.
He wants to
converse with the locals in their native tongue. He can get by with his Latin
and Italian and Spanish.
He doesn’t speak Greek.
said. “Not yet.”
The K-12 private school has 150 students. More than half are on scholarships from Step Up For Students with the majority on the Gardiner Scholarship. Tuition ranges from $10,500 to $16,000 based on the student’s needs. The school has a comprehensive Exceptional Student Education program focused on the individual needs of each student. It also offers dual enrollment, summer classes, summer camps, athletics and extracurricular activities.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Southern Glazer’s announced the incredible pledge during a celebration honoring the company’s 2018-19 contribution of $150 million, which funds 22,319 scholarships. The scholarships gives lower-income children the opportunity to attend the school that best meets their learning needs.
The celebration was held at Kingdom Academy in Miami where more than half of the students benefit from a Step Up scholarship. Representatives from Southern Glazer’s and Step Up For Students gathered with a few scholarship students to hear how the program helped them move toward their goals for the future.
Since 2010, Southern Glazer’s has generously funded 101,508 scholarships through contributions totaling $615 million to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations.
“At Southern Glazer’s we believe it’s not just
about serving world-class wine and spirits; it’s about serving people, said
Wayne E. Chaplin, CEO, Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits. “We are proud to partner
with Step Up For Students and provide scholarships to thousands of Florida schoolchildren,
so they have access to the educational opportunities they deserve.”
Step Up helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program,
allowing recipients to choose between a scholarship that helps with private
school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to
out-of-county public schools.
“Southern Glazer’s extraordinary commitment to Florida’s
disadvantaged school children through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship
program is producing exceptional results,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step
Up For Students. “Recently, the Urban Institute evaluated graduates of our
program and found students who use the scholarship for at least four years are
99% more likely to attend a four-year college and up to 45% more likely to earn
a bachelor’s degree. Southern Glazer’s is a critical part of this success and
we are grateful for their immense generosity to the students in our community.”
For the 2018-19 school year,
Step Up is serving more than 98,500 students throughout Florida with tuition
scholarships valued at up to $6,519 per student for kindergarten through fifth
grade, $6,815 for sixth through eighth grade, and $7,111 for ninth through 12th grade.
More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program
Tampa middle school students from Tampa Bay Christian Academy are well on their way to be the next generation of environmental leaders as they creatively displayed the importance of recycling in a recent art contest.
In honor of Earth Day, fifth, sixth, and seventh grade students participated in a Recycling and Science Poster Contest organized by Covanta, operator of eight Energy-from-Waste (EfW) facilities in Florida and Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that administers scholarships for Florida schoolchildren.
The contest asked students to visualize their commitment to
recycling and science by depicting a theme, such as Energy-from-Waste,
composting, recycling, electronic recycling and more. For its participation,
the school received a $500 gift card to Staples to be used for school supplies.
Winners were honored for their outstanding design at a
ceremony held on Earth Day.
Through Step Up For Students, Covanta has funded more than 140 scholarships for deserving Florida schoolchildren since 2016. The funds are donated through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which serves lower-income children in Florida and allows them to attend the school of their choice.
“We are proud of the impact we’ve had on Florida
schoolchildren through our contributions to the Step Up For Students
Scholarship Program and were thrilled to see the passion for the environment
that each student displayed in their posters,” said Tom Murphy, client services
manager for Covanta. “It’s fun activities like this one that teach kids the
importance of reduce, reuse and recycle. This also includes educating students
about the fourth R, recovery, which ensures that we recover energy from waste
that cannot otherwise be recycled. We
thank all of the students who submitted posters and encourage them to bring
that same zeal and creativity to make a positive impact in their school and
“Because of companies like Covanta, Florida’s
lower-income students are provided the
educational options they need to succeed,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step
Up For Students. “We are grateful for their partnership, generosity and
commitment to helping students in their community.”
“We are proud of the impact we’ve had on Florida schoolchildren through our contributions to the Step Up For Students Scholarship program and were thrilled to see the passion for the environment that each student displayed in their posters,” Murphy said. “It’s fun activities like this one that teach kids the importance of reduce, reuse and recycle. This also includes educating students about the fourth R, recovery, which ensures that we recover energy from waste that cannot otherwise be recycled. We thank all of the students who submitted posters and encourage them to bring that same zeal and creativity to future opportunities to make a positive impact in their school and community.”
Covanta’s EfW operations provide sustainable waste management to Florida that generates enough renewable energy to power more than 300,000 area homes and businesses.
LAKE CITY, Fla. – Sitting in the principal’s office of her twin sons’ school, Kim Glover pushed aside a couple of strands of wavy, auburn hair and took a breath to compose herself as she recounted the boys’ stunning transformation.
“I’ll try not to cry,” she said with her mellifluous Southern drawl.
After the family endured a drawn-out, painful divorce, Torey and Trinidy went from failing classroom distractions to model students, from being retained in seventh grade to posting high GPAs.
“You can see how much this environment makes a difference,” Kim said with a sweep of her arm as if to highlight the abundance of open, green space, and the peaceful sounds of farm animals and children that waft through the 20-acre campus.
“It’s smaller classrooms. It’s teachers giving more one on one. They give you their phone numbers. It’s a family environment.”
Kim heard about the scholarship from a staffer at the neighborhood elementary school, where her oldest son, Trey, had been held back in first grade and was struggling with dyslexia. He got on track at LCCA. The twins followed after trying the neighborhood school for one week and not liking it.
Torey and Trinidy are fraternal twins, but hard to tell apart. They have the same angular faces with side-swept, light brown hair that falls in their eyes. They prefer to wear muted colors. They’re best friends who idolize their older brother, love baseball and being outdoors. Kim sometimes thinks they’re telepathic.
Seeing their parents’ marriage fall apart and being caught literally in the middle of mental and physical abuse took an awful toll.
“It got very bad,” Kim said. “When we split, it got violent. I went into a shelter for three months with all three boys. It took four years to get a divorce.”
The twins shut down at school. They were chronically tardy, disregarded classwork and talked incessantly.
“We were focused on socializing, mainly hanging out with friends, becoming teenagers,” Trinidy said. “Our priorities were screwed up.”
Torey and Trinidy had been behind after arriving at LCCA in second grade unable to read. It helped that principal Tana Norris and pastor/administrator Pete Beaulieu had known the family since the boys were little.
“We could have pushed them forward and hoped they would catch on at some point,” said Beaulieu, who had been the children’s pastor. “Holding somebody back is never an easy decision. But they were going through stress at home, and they were in the middle of searching for themselves.”
Too many D’s and F’s in seventh grade gave Torey and Trinidy no choice but to repeat. Friends asked what happened but were supportive. Teachers rallied. Everyone lifted them up with care, sensitivity, and good advice.
The twins took it to heart.
“I just got tired of failing,” Torey said.
Their teacher told Kim how Torey decided he wanted to get good grades because he saw how hard his mom worked, and he wanted to take care of her.
“That was heartbreaking in a good way,” she said.
The changes came suddenly. Kim remembers coming home one evening to Torey and Trinidy doing homework. She felt their foreheads.
Are you my child?
What’s going on?
“That light just clicked on,” Norris said.
Since eighth grade, C’s are rare. Kim has stopped worrying and no longer has to nag about school.
“They tell me what’s going on,” she said. “I hear them talking about school, classes, tests, and homework. It makes me proud.”
Torey and Trinidy give much of the credit to LCCA and their teachers.
“We have really close interactions with the teachers,” Trinidy said. “It’s nice. In the small classrooms you get a bond with all of your friends and even with the teachers. It feels like they’re one of your best friends or even a family member.”
The twins are in 10th grade now. Torey has a 3.75 GPA; Trinidy has a 3.41. They talk about starting careers after high school, although their ideas seem to change daily. They have a firm belief in themselves that Norris says wasn’t there before.
“They’re totally different,” she said. “They have goals and they have things they want to do, and they know they can accomplish them because they’re successful.”
About Lake City Christian Academy
Norris opened the school on a 1-acre lot with a 3,000-square-foot building in 1994 with 25 students. In 2000, LCCA moved to a vast campus with a 21-stall horse barn, a lighted equestrian arena, farming areas, a dance studio, a chapel, softball and baseball fields, a covered basketball court, 15 classrooms and a cafeteria. LCCA employs an experiential learning approach with farming, equestrian and video game design programs. Every student has an individual learning plan. BJU Press and Abeka are among the classroom materials. The independent, non-denominational school is accredited by Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS), and has 242 K-12 students, including 132 on Step Up For Students Florida Tax Credit scholarships. The Stanford 10 test is administered in April and STAR reading and math assessments are given three times a year. K-12 tuition is $6,000. Jeff Barlis can be reached at email@example.com.
“We are proud of this recognition,” said Step Up president Doug Tuthill. “We strive for a work culture that is nurturing and joyful and allows our employees to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities.”
Sixty Tampa Bay area companies were nominated for
recognition across four categories: Small (10-24 employees); Medium (25-49
employees), Large (50-99 employees); and Extra-Large (100-plus employees).
Quantum Workplace surveyed employees at the nominated
companies and evaluated each in the areas of team
effectiveness, retention risk, alignment with goals, trust with co-workers,
individual contribution, manager effectiveness, trust in senior leaders,
feeling valued, work engagement and people practices.
It described Step Up’s company culture with the
“That really sums us up,” Tuthill said. “Our
employees are passionate about what they do. This passionate caring is why they
have such a positive impact on the families we serve.”
“Irish Catholic guilt,” she says with a rhythmic chuckle, adding that she only had intended to help with the hiring process when the school drafted her.
Five years later, she’s still brimming with infectious energy that flashes from her baby blue eyes, and she’s found a way to marry her knack for building relationships with a natural instinct for being a private school administrator.
Some folks just aren’t meant to retire.
“I know!” she beams. “I’ve tried it a few times. I think I’m getting the hang of it now.”
Hughes did it all in Lee County public schools. A teacher in the county’s first middle school program, a principal, district director for elementary and secondary education. She opened a few schools, won blue ribbons and other awards, worked as a curriculum director in jails, retention centers, and drug rehabilitation centers before twice being coaxed out of retirement to start ninth-grade programs.
Now she’s the leader and beating heart of a thriving Catholic school – 315 K-8 students, up from 295 last year and 275 the year before – and she couldn’t be happier. Seventy-nine students use a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families. Step Up For Students administers the scholarships.
“This place is just different, and it’s a pleasure,” she said during a recent tour. “These folks have known each other for years, but they welcome new people in. The understanding is that you join the culture of caring and building faith. Hearts and minds, it’s not just words in a mission statement. They pondered it. These teachers do more. They know every child by name.”
It’s no coincidence that Hughes and assistant principal Bambi Giles, who spent more than four years in Lee and Collier county schools, have hired educators with a similar public school background. Ten of the school’s 23 teachers, in fact.
It’s also no surprise that Hughes and those teachers have maintained their ties. For years, teachers at St. Andrews have participated in professional development with the Lee County district, learning about classroom management, teaching strategies and exceptional student education.
“Once you’re a member of the school district of Lee County, you’re part of our family,” said Lynn Harrell, executive director of leadership, professional development and recruitment for Lee County schools. “Judi was for lots and lots of years. That makes it just a little bit easier, just like in any family, to keep and maintain that relationship so that we’re working together. Because in the end, we’re all working for children.”
Hughes was a mentor to Harrell earlier in her career when Harrell was a school administrator. It’s just one of myriad relationships forged through years of work and trust and common goals.
“Our relationship with Lee County is really wonderful,” said Giles, noting the weight that Hughes’ name carries. “They are very professional. They’ll answer any questions. They’ll contact us. It’s never a problem.”
“It shows that education is not an us-against-them proposition,” he said. “Instead it’s all about collaboration to benefit all of Florida’s school children. Hopefully we can encourage other schools and districts to work together.”
Every Wednesday at St. Andrew there is early dismissal for teachers to collaborate and do professional development.
“I just think that’s what runs everything,” Hughes said.
Some of those former public school educators at St. Andrew, like first-grade teacher Crystal Melton, get two emails every Monday morning about professional development offerings – one from Giles and one from a former public school mentor.
This group-within-a-group of teachers has helped the members transition from public to private. They’re all grateful for the extensive training they received in the public school system, but they’re also quick to state their reasons for choosing to teach at a private school.
Music teacher Julius Davis simply feels more at home in a spiritual environment. Davis, in his first year at St. Andrew, said he feels “set free” to be himself and exude his principles. Christmastime was particularly satisfying after nearly 20 years in public schools.
“I grew up in a black Baptist church, and I’ve played (music) for Methodist churches,” he said. “Coming here, the emphasis on the spiritual, this is the first time I’ve been able to teach stuff I grew up with. I wasn’t allowed to do that in the public school.”
Others, like Melton, kindergarten teacher Susie Loughren, and fifth-grade teacher Lisa Olson, have children at St. Andrew. But while the family atmosphere contributes greatly to their happiness, their choice to teach in private school was more complex.
Loughren, in her second year at St. Andrew after seven years teaching in public schools, feels she can be more creative, has more freedom and less test anxiety.
“The administration trusts us that we’re going to do what’s best in the interests of those children,” she said. “So if something goes on in your classroom and you need to focus on a social, emotional skill, you take that liberty to do it. It’s not just about getting in the academic rigor. We do it on a daily basis, but we have the opportunity to stop and do those teachable moments.”
Hughes recognized that stress, saw the anxious teachers who were afraid to break from the mold, “afraid of their own shadow,” as she saw it. There was more and more emphasis on tests and fewer field trips.
At St. Andrew, she works to pump confidence and empowerment into her staff.
“I’m happy I made the choice to come here, because I didn’t end my teaching career at a time when things weren’t going as positively,” she said. “I felt the stress of the teachers and couldn’t do anything to help them. They were losing their identity, feeling like they don’t have any choice or any power.
“Here they are free to make sound educational choices. And they have to be sound, because they have to show how it’s going to help with the standards. We give them as much freedom as we can. And they really own part of this school.”
OCOEE, Fla. – The young teacher called, tears choking her words. She wanted to quit.
On the other end of the line was Rose Theagene, horrified but not surprised. She knew her youngest son, Darryl Dutervil, was on the verge of expulsion due to escalating behavior problems in first grade at his neighborhood school.
“He threw a chair at the teacher, and it almost hit another student,” she recalled. “He was pushing and hitting kids. Parents were complaining. It was very bad. At the meeting, I just said I would take Darryl out of the school to save everyone the trouble.”
Rose had her theories about what was behind Darryl’s problems. He had been diagnosed with ADHD and the medicine was making him feel sick. At home, she said, his behavior was fine but only because she spoiled him.
After years of working in customer care for a health care company and attending school as a single mother of two, Rose became a licensed practical nurse two years ago, around the time she withdrew Darryl. A fellow nurse told her about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which helps lower-income families with private school tuition.
It took almost two years and an ill-fated move to Daytona Beach for work reasons, but in January 2017, Rose finally found a school – Glad Tidings Academy – where Darryl and older brother Stacey Singleton were at home.
The teacher who went beyond
Parents and students alike love Andrene Donaldson. She’s fair and compassionate, but she can be tough and blunt, too. A former public school teacher in Jamaica, her thick accent floats through the classroom like music. But all it takes is one look, and the students know she’s serious.
“She has so much fun with them that they instantly know when she’s not happy,” said Glad Tidings principal Amanda Bleggi.
Donaldson was Stacey’s sixth-grade teacher last year. He was a breeze. Good student. Shy, honest, and respectful.
This year, Donaldson teaches Darryl in third grade. Within two days, she, too, thought she might give up.
Darryl was angry and aggressive all the time. He screamed. He cursed. He never had anything nice to say to his classmates. He would snap and toss chairs. Once, he pushed Donaldson.
“Last year,” he said meekly, “was challenging.”
Donaldson made it a point to always respond with patience, understanding, and soft tones.
“He expected me to be mad at him, but I just never treated him the way he expected,” she said. “When he was negative, I was positive.”
One Saturday, Donaldson’s husband bought her a success board for Darryl to track his achievements. They started small. Two hours a day of good behavior slowly turned into one full day a week. She rewarded him with certificates, snacks, pencils, erasers, and sometimes something sweet.
“I couldn’t believe the amount of work and effort she put into just one child,” Bleggi said. “But he started to see he could succeed. It was that board.”
It was a matter of trust, too.
“When I’m angry, she calms me down,” Darryl said. “She’ll take me outside to take deep breaths, and then she lets me come back in and try again, over and over again. If I make her mad, she still loves me.”
The principal who understood
It was Bleggi, a Long Islander who became a customer relations expert in her previous career with Disney, who recognized that academics were quietly fueling Darryl’s loud outbursts.
“When he came to us, he was failing everything,” she said. “He had no confidence in himself. He didn’t believe he could do his work. There were little things he couldn’t understand, so he would get frustrated and embarrassed.”
There were countless incidents, several worthy of dismissal. But Bleggi dug in her heels.
“He should have been expelled, but I knew that wouldn’t do anything,” she said. “He would just be shoved along.”
She called Rose in for a talk and assured her that Darryl wasn’t going anywhere. Rose was taken aback. She had expected the opposite.
“When she said that, it gave me a chance to breathe,” Rose said. “They are fighting for him.”
The mom who pushed
In her new job, Rose was adjusting to working 12-hour shifts – at night. She got off at 7 a.m. and still made sure the kids got to school on time.
But every morning by 10, she expected a call from the school about Darryl. Desperately tired, she tried bribing him with ice cream and pizza.
“Just let Mommy sleep until 3 o’clock,” she pleaded.
Last fall, the calls stopped coming. Donaldson was using an app to communicate with parents. It made a ping on Rose’s phone whenever she got a message. That noise used to wake her up at 10 a.m. as well, but it was gradually replaced with photos of Darryl at work and at play, updates to his success board, and other encouraging notes.
It wasn’t an overnight transformation, but the extra communication helped. Rose got more involved during the day. She was getting fewer calls and pings, but she insisted on coming in to talk to Darryl every time.
It felt like she, Donaldson, and Bleggi were on the same page. Their patience became her patience. Their positive message hers.
She marveled at Darryl’s improvements this year and shined proudly when she saw A’s, B’s and one C on his report card.
“Darryl would wake up early, ready to go to school,” she said. “He would say, ‘Mommy, I’m going to have a good day today. You can sleep. You don’t have to worry.’ That’s when I knew the changes were real.”
The brother who led
At Glad Tidings, big brother Stacey was worried and afraid Darryl would get expelled and end up in a bad school. But at their neighborhood school, Stacey felt the sting of being lumped in and labeled.
“I heard teachers say, ‘There goes Darryl’s brother,’ ” Stacey said. “That’s why I didn’t want him to be bad, because it also reflects on me and my family.”
Darryl idolizes his brother. He wears his hair in the same kind of flat top with shaved sides as Stacey. They’re both stocky. They have the same cheeky grin. Stacey knew he could get through to Darryl. At Glad Tidings, he checked on his brother regularly.
“He looks after me,” Darryl said. “Even more than my mom.”
Stacey made a ritual of guiding his brother, made him his responsibility.
“Every morning, I gave him a pep talk of what not to do and what to do,” he said. “If there’s a person bothering you, just ignore him or tell the teacher.”
Stacey could see how those long, confidential talks really helped. Rose also felt it was a turning point when Darryl realized he was embarrassing his brother.
“I’m proud of him,” Stacey said. “I tell him ‘Good job’ a lot now, and I let him play with my video games more often.”
It’s always been about attention for Darryl, but now he feels the difference between positive and negative.
The more marks he got on his success board, the more often he went to Bleggi’s office to show her.
“By December,” she said, “I was looking at a new kid.”
Donaldson asked Bleggi to give Darryl a part in the Christmas play.
“It was a big deal for him,” Donaldson said. “Being in the play showed him and everybody that he wasn’t an outcast.”
It meant a lot more than positive reinforcement to Darryl.
“There were a lot of people, like a thousand,” he recounted. “I tried to act cool, but my heart was beating. When it was over, I felt happy. My family was proud of me.”
Darryl is happier, having more fun, getting in trouble less often and getting much better grades. Donaldson says his reading level is way up. He helps in the classroom, cleaning up and handing out folders and papers to his fellow students. He fits in at Glad Tidings in a way that he never had in school before.
“The whole school loves him,” Bleggi said. “We’re able to see his little personality now, instead of him being angry and disrespectful all the time.”
“I used to cringe every time I would hear his name, but now he comes up and gives me the biggest hugs. I can’t wait to see him in the morning. I can’t wait to hear what grade he got on his test, and he always comes up to show me now. It’s probably one of my favorite stories since working here. It’s been the most impressive turnaround I’ve seen any student make.”
About Glad Tidings Academy
Opened as a preschool in 2005, Glad Tidings expanded to kindergarten in 2014 and opened a second campus for K-8 in 2016. The school plans to have ninth grade next year and to add grades 10-12 each year thereafter. Glad Tidings is accredited and certified by Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS). There are 108 K-8 students, including 75 on Step Up For Students FTC scholarship. Glad Tidings emphasizes a child’s emotional, physical, relational, and cognitive development. The school uses Bob Jones University Press and Abeka curricula. The MAP Growth test is administered three times a year. Annual tuition is $5,940 for K-5 and $6,370 for 6-8.
MIAMI – The conversations eventually moved from the house to the garage, far away from the boys, who were too young to understand the words used by their parents but could certainly sense the worry in their voices.
bubble? Recession? Bankruptcy?
What did the
boys know about those things? Why should they?
Figueredo was 6 at the time. His brother, Jack, was 4.
“We didn’t want the boys to know what was
going on,” their mom, Helen, said.
It was 2008
and the real estate company owned by Helen and her husband, Frank, was crumbling.
heavy into real estate when the bubble burst,” Helen Figueredo said, “and we were
left holding the bag.”
recession cost them everything: Their business. Their savings. Their house.
They filed for bankruptcy twice and ended up in foreclosure.
Figueredo took a job working for the state of Florida as a claims adjuster. It
paid $38,000 a year. They were clearing 10-times as much with their real estate
grand in Miami with a family of four and two kids in private school,” he said.
The boys were attending Westwood Christian School, a pre-K through 12 private school in Miami. During those talks in the garage away from curious ears, the No. 1 topic was how to keep the boys at Westwood. Besides a roof over their head, this was their priority.
The Figueredos met with school officials and told them of their rapidly diminishing finances. That’s when they learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarship covered half the tuition.
Thomson, Westwood’s head administrator and secondary school principal, recalled
that 2008 meeting.
“They definitely were at a crossroads of having to possibly uproot their boys from our school and our church and our philosophy and into a different environment that they just weren’t comfortable with,” he said. “They were introduced to Step Up, and it has been very beneficial to them over the years as it has with many families. It definitely is kind of a success story for that family.”
16, is a junior at Westwood. Jack, 14, is a freshman. What the two have
accomplished scholastically with the help of Step Up is impressive. What they
have accomplished away from school with the support of their parents is equally
vice president of the junior class, president of the high school band, a second
chair trumpeter on the all-district band and has qualified for the all-state
band. He is ranked in the top-5 of his class with a GPA above 4.0, is a member
of the National Honor Society and a member of the debate team.
“I just love
to argue,” he said.
Jonas is a worship
leader at Westwood and finished first last year in a preaching competition at
the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. He is a student
ambassador and a former varsity soccer player.
In his spare time, Jonas is a second-degree black belt in taekwondo who competes nationally and teaches anti-bullying, anti-abduction and self-defense classes to younger children, including those at Westwood. He has plans to teach the same at a women’s shelter. He volunteers for Bugles Across America and plays taps at funerals for veterans.
He can play
the piano, guitar, ukulele and harmonica. He helped put together a musical
production at Villa Lyan Academy, a school in Miami for children and young
adults with special needs.
Jack, is a freshman. His GPA is above 4.0, he is a third chair trumpeter in the
all-district band and has qualified for the all-state band, was president of
the middle school band as an eighth-grader and was instrumental in bringing
back the high school debate team. He is a student ambassador and was the goalie
on the varsity soccer team from the sixth to eighth grades.
In his spare time, Jack plans to race a Mustang next season in the National Auto Sports Association, where you can drive when you’re 14. He is in the process of starting his own nonprofit to feed and clothe the homeless, called “Socks and Sandwiches.”
Helen and Frank
Figueredo started the nonprofit “Kids United Foundation” several years ago to
send clothes and food to homeless children in Columbia.
boys were young, Helen Figueredo took them to Miami’s Little Havana when she
brought food to the homeless.
that,” Jack said. “It was a great experience. It broke my heart to see a lot of
people like this. I wanted to do something on my own to help them.”
plays the piano and violin.
middle school, both brothers worked as pages for Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, when she
was a state representative in South Florida.
thankful for them to be a part of our school,” Bill Thomson, Westwood’s head
administrator and secondary school principal, said.
‘You’re going to law school’
thought about becoming a criminal profiler for the FBI. Jack would love to race
cars professionally. Both plan on attending law school.
getting a law degree is mandatory for the Figueredo boys.
told them, ‘You don’t need to worry about what you’re going to do. You can
worry about that when you graduate law school,’” Helen Figueredo said. “I do
believe that a law degree is a license to do whatever you want to do.”
agree with her,” Jonas said. “With a law degree you have more options. Maybe I
do become a lawyer. Maybe a I don’t. But I do have the law degree with me.”
for the future of the Figueredo boys appear limitless. That’s why their parents
felt compelled to keep their sons at Westwood.
The couple made
the sacrifices for their boys to continue there. They sold their luxury cars
and Frank picked up an older car at a police auction for $89. They rented a
house owned by the school for $550 a month and began to slowly rebuild their
teaches wisdom,” Frank Figueredo said, “and with wisdom, you learn to learn.”
He currently works as a bodily injury adjuster for an insurance company. Helen, who has a degree in business administration and a master’s in educational leadership, works part time as a health care risk management consultant.
our lifestyle upside down to teach them what is important, what really
matters,” Helen Figueredo said. “A car? Or knowledge and wisdom? It’s taught
them not to be materialistic. It’s taught them that people are more important.”
Jonas and Jack
are aware of the changes made by their parents. They know the role Step Up
played in their education. They are thankful for both.
(at Westwood) since I was 2 years old,” Jonas said. “It shaped me to who I am
“It’s a great education,” Jack added. “The
staff, all the teachers, they’re all very supportive, very friendly. They’re
always willing to help.”
The boys are
eager to see what they can accomplish in the future.
go to law school,” Helen Figueredo said.
About Westwood Christian School
in 1959 by the First Baptist Church of Westwood Lake, the school provides Biblical
and academic education for 550 students from pre-K-12, including more than 230 who
are on Step Up For Students’ scholarships. Students must pass an entrance exam
to gain enrollment. The school has state recognized
band, choir, drama and art programs. All teachers are fully
accredited with the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools,
Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools and the National Council for
Private School Accreditation.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ZEPHYRHILLS – Sitting opposite where his
8-year-old granddaughter stood near their dining room table, George Hill, nodded
at the second-grader and said, “We’ve been blessed, really, just (because of)
the kind of person that she is. She’s dedicated. She’s smart. She’s a hard
another word to describe Skylar Goeb: Perseverant.
know it by looking at her as she stood alongside her grandmother, quiet, though
filling the room with her mega-watt smile, but Skylar had a rough start to
She was born
addicted to the opioids her mother took while pregnant. She doesn’t know her
mother, and her mother wants nothing to do with her.
write her. She doesn’t try to get a hold of her. Nothing,” George Hill said.
But Skylar, a Florida Tax Credit scholar, is flourishing with the love and guidance of her grandparents who have raised her since she was an infant.
Skylar loves school, too. She is a straight-A student at Heritage Academy in Zephyrhills, a K2 through eighth grade Christian school founded in 1998,
she was one of 10 students honored as the Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of
Commerce Citizens of the Month. Students are nominated by their teachers. One
student from every school in Zephyrhills is honored each month. From that pool,
one is selected in June as the chamber’s citizen of the year.
Michelle Walls, director of operations and finance at Heritage Academy, Skylar
was nominated because she met the following criteria:
for academic excellence.
qualities in the classroom.
in their community.
an attitude in harmony with the goals and spirit of our school.
proud,” her grandmother, Robin Hill, said.
one January afternoon at the family’s Zephyrhills home how she felt about the
academic honor, Skylar turned toward her grandmother and whispered, “Good.”
say a whole lot. She’s kind of reserved,” said Rene Campbell, Skylar’s teacher
at Heritage Academy. “When I talk to her, I have to pull things out.”
learning, seem to boost her confidence, however.
Campbell asks for a volunteer to come to the front of the class and solve a
math problem, Skylar’s shyness evaporates.
“If I ask if
someone can help me, she’ll raise her hand,” Campbell said. “She has a willing
spirit to learn.”
Balance beams and parallel bars
Skylar also is
certainly not shy when she’s competing in gymnastics – she placed fifth last
year at the state championships.
On the walls
of her bedroom are several hooks that strain to hold the 60 medals she has won
competing in gymnastics, including that state award. Across the hall you’ll
find Skylar’s favorite room.
painted light blue, the room is empty
but for a horizontal bar that sits on supports four feet above the beige
carpet, a balance beam raised a few inches off the floor, a pink mat and two
plastic bins for the white chalk Skylar rubs on her hands to increase her grip
as she swings around the bar.
It is here
that Skylar spends hours practicing gymnastics.
Skylar is a
blonde-haired pixie, who loves all things pink, adores unicorns and especially
loves sailing over bars and flipping across beams.
enrolled Skylar in gymnastics when she was 3, because they wanted her involved
in an activity that would allow her to exercise. By the time Skylar was 5, her
grandparents knew gymnastics was more than an after-school activity.
competition,” George Hill said. “Some girls get nervous. She’s like, ‘Let’s
Her idol is
American gymnast Simone Biles, the four-time world all-around champion who won
four gold medals and a bronze at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
great,” Skylar said.
girl her age enrolled in gymnastics, Skylar would love to compete in the
January, Skylar began training in Fast Track, a program designed for kids with
natural gymnastic ability, strength and flexibility. It is an advanced program,
especially for girls her age.
also a part of the Tops Program, where gymnasts travel around the state and are
tested on different physical abilities as they relate to gymnastics.
very dedicated,” said her coach, Jacqueline Vogel. “I actually don’t know if she’s
ever missed a practice intentionally unless it was for something for school.”
ran through her gymnastics scheduled – 13 hours a week over four nights at
Premier Gymnastics in Wesley Chapel – her grandmother asked, “What comes
always on the run,” added George Hill, “but she keeps her grades top-notch.”
been writing in cursive since kindergarten, and her penmanship is text-book
history, science, spelling, reading and math. Especially math.
“When we get
in the car, she brings her book and makes up math problems,” her grandmother,
Robin Hill, said. “She has a mind for numbers.”
“She has a
great memory, too,” added her grandfather. “That helps.”
said Skylar is getting everything she can out of her Step Up scholarship.
“It’s been a
blessing,” he said. “It’s placed her in the best learning environment she can
be in. It also got her in a Christian school, which is important to us.”
The rough start
64, is an engineer with Frontier Communications. He has worked for the company
for 31 years, starting in the late 1970s when it was known as GTE. Robin Hill, 63,
retired after working more than 20 years at the Pizza Hut in Brandon, Fla.
raised four children. Raising a grandchild is certainly not something they
planned, but life has a funny way of grabbing you by surprise.
father, Steven Hill, is finishing a seven-year prison sentence for a series of
crimes he committed with Skylar’s mom. He is scheduled to be released in
October. Skylar visits him in a transitional housing facility in Tarpon
“We take (Skylar) to see him. She knows who he is. We don’t try to hide anything,” George Hill said. “They get along super great. They play together when she’s there. They’re good together.”
tried to put her up for adoption before giving birth. The Hills hired a lawyer
and successfully prevented it. They received court-ordered legal custody of
their granddaughter when she was 8 weeks old. Skylar calls her grandparents
“Mom” and “Dad.”
went through, we would have never known where she went,” George Hill said. “We
weren’t going to let her go. Who knows what kind of household she would have
went to? You just never know. It’s been a blessing for her and for us.”
did not list a father on the birth certificate, which is why Skylar has her
mother’s last name.
went to prison in 2012 on a litany of charges that included burglary, dealing
in stolen property, possession of a controlled substance and petit theft,
according to court records.
mother, who served an 18-month prison term, now lives in Ohio and is out of her
life. Her father can soon enter it on a more regular basis.
how that goes,” George Hill said.
Hills do know is they never could have imagined how raising Skylar could so
profoundly change their lives.
comes to Skylar, the Hills, wouldn’t want it any other way, especially when you
consider what might have been had the adoption gone through.
it’s a blessing. Really, I do,” George Hill said. “For sure, she keeps you
About Heritage Academy
1998 under the ministry of Oasis World Outreach, Heritage Academy is a pre-K-8
school that serves 160 students, including 54on Step Up scholarships. The school uses the Abeka curriculum, and
the education is based on Biblical truth. The curriculum
consists of reading, writing, comprehension, study skills, critical thinking,
problem solving, and number skills. Spanish, art, music and physical education
are also offered. Annual tuition is $6,080 for K2-K3; $3,610 for K4-VPK; $6,500
for K5-fifth grade; $6,800 for sixth-eighth grade. Before and after school care
and tutoring are available for a fee.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.