Welcome

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.

Your friends at Step Up.

Supporters to rally in Tallahassee for Gardiner Scholarship

Step Up For Students scholarship supporters and recipients have rallied several times before in Tallahassee. Back in 2010 the rally was in support of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for low-income children. Today, we rally for the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs.

By LISA A. DAVIS

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – This morning, the buses will roll into the same parking lot at Florida State University – some after driving more than seven hours from Miami. It will not be an easy journey for some who traveled on the motor coaches from all over Florida. They will come from other bus stops, too, in Jacksonville, Tampa, Orlando and Pensacola. Some will drive up in their personal vehicles.

The destination is the same: Waller Park at the Florida State Capitol for the Gardiner Celebration Rally organized by Step Up For Students and its advocacy arm, Florida Voices For Choices.

The mission: to thank Florida legislators and Gov. Ron DeSantis for supporting the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs. Additionally, we are asking for $42 million more in funding for the 2020-21 school year so 4,000 more children with unique abilities can receive the same help as the other children who use the scholarship now.

This year, more than 13,000 students have been funded for the Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students.

Still, it’s not enough.

“Every student with special needs in Florida who would be better served academically through education options deserves this scholarship,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up’s president. “We are so grateful for the support we have had from lawmakers. We applaud them and the work we have done together, but we want to help more children.”

The scholarship is for Florida students 3 years old through 12th grade or age 22, whichever comes first, who have the following diagnoses: autism spectrum disorder, muscular dystrophy, Cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Phelan McDermid syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, spina bifida, Williams syndrome, intellectual disability (severe cognitive impairment), rare diseases as defined by the National Organization for Rare Disorders, anaphylaxis, deaf, visually impaired, dual sensory impaired, traumatic brain injured, hospital or homebound, or three, four or five year-olds who are deemed high-risk due to developmental delays.

It’s children with these challenges– and their parents, educators and other advocates– who made the trek to Tallahassee today. So, yes, it wasn’t easy for many of them. But it was important. That’s why they are here and will let their voices be heard during the rally.

If you’re in the area, join us. It begins at noon. If not, follow us on social media using the hashtag #GardinerCelebrationRally. Also be sure to check out other rally coverage on our sister blog www.redefinedonline.org.

During the rally, parents like Katie Swingle, whose son Gregory is on the autism spectrum and has thrived using the Gardiner Scholarship, will talk about how she is #GratefulForGardiner.

Other parents will share their stories as well. Their stories are so moving that Step Up For Students is kicking off an ongoing social media campaign so families can regularly share their stories. We will tell these stories on our social media channels beginning today, using the hashtag #GratefulForGardiner.

This scholarship is changing lives. Learn how by following us on social media Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. You may also share your story with us by sending your story and contact information to social@sufs.org. Please use #GratefulForGardiner in the subject line.

Lisa A. Davis can be reached at ldavis@sufs.org.

Cal-Maine Foods donates $100,000 to help fund scholarship program for lower-income students

By ASHLEY ZARLE

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January 10, 2020 | DADE CITY, Fla.– Cal-Maine Foods, Inc., the largest producer and marketer of eggs in the United States, has contributed $100,000 to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.

The donation funds about 14 scholarships for deserving K-12 schoolchildren in Florida through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations. The scholarships give lower-income children the opportunity to attend a private or out-of-district school that best meets their learning needs.

“At Cal-Maine Foods, it is very important for us to give back to our community,” said Dolph Baker, CEO of Cal-Maine Foods. “We are proud to partner with Step Up and we know that our support is making a difference in the lives of Florida schoolchildren.”



Cal-Maine Foods VP of Operations Chris Myers presents a $100,000 donation in support of the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program to Step Up For Students Development Officer Diana Allen.

This is the first year that Cal-Maine Foods has partnered with Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Step Up is serving more than 100,400 students for the 2019-20 school year. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

“It is wonderful to have Cal-Maine Foods support our mission of helping disadvantaged schoolchildren access a school that fits their learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “We are grateful for their generosity and support of deserving students in our community.”

Ashley Zarle can be reached at azarle@sufs.org.

Step Up helps Xioamara grow into a strong and successful high school student

By Catherine Durkin Robinson

When her daughter Xioamara Kitchen was born prematurely and with a heart defect, Deaundrice held the baby in her arms, fragile and so tiny, and worried about all the things that concern parents, especially those with premature infants.

Deaundrice, who wasn’t able to attend college and worked in a cafeteria for the local school district, knew the key to a successful life would be found in a terrific school.

As Xioamara approached school age, Deaundrice faced so many fears. She wanted an environment where her daughter would be safe and where her health condition could be monitored.

Xioamara had been born with a heart that, instead of having chambers, was one massive muscle – essentially, all heart. At 3 months, doctors recommended surgery to create different chambers. As a new, young mother, Deaundrice got second opinions and, after meditating on everything, decided to wait for the surgery.

That meant monthly doctor appointments both near and far.

Three days before Xioamara’s third birthday, Deaundrice scheduled the surgery. She faced another major decision: Entrusting her daughter to the right school afterward. Deaundrice visited schools that friends and family recommended, yet none could provide what her daughter needed.

Xioamara required smaller class sizes, more hands-on learning, and an environment that encouraged intellectual growth. One that had a nurse. That was safe.

Deaundrice thought such a school would be prohibitively expensive.


Xioamara and her mom,
Deaundrice .

Her family lived paycheck to paycheck. Some days Deaundrice wasn’t sure if they would eat. How could she afford tuition to the private school that was the best match for her daughter’s needs?

Then she heard about Step Up For Students and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families that could make such a school, and all it offered, possible for her family.

One day, she was driving down a familiar street and noticed something new: a sign that read, “Step Up Scholarships Accepted.” The school was Sacred Heart Cathedral School in Pensacola.

Deaundrice contacted them the next day and scheduled a visit. Once she toured the facility, she knew they were the best fit for her child. The energy was one of safety, security, and genuine sincerity.

In 2005, Xioamara began kindergarten, thanks to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up that helped pay the tuition. Teachers saw in her a special soul. Xioamara worked hard. The teachers provided that one-on-one attention and care that encouraged her to reach deep down within herself. She began to flourish, socially as well as academically.

When she needed extra help with math, teachers worked with her to understand the problems in a way that made sense. They paid attention to how she processed information and adjusted their teaching styles accordingly.

They lived the motto that every child can learn.

This instilled confidence and showed Xioamara that hard work can lead to success.

Because Sacred Heart went only to eighth grade, Deaundrice faced another hard decision as high school approached. This time, thanks to the confidence that comes from a foundation of love and consistency, Deaundrice and her daughter tackled the high school search together.

District schools in their area offered career academies for students. They knew the curriculum would be rigorous enough in those academies, but Xioamara wanted to continue her education in a smaller environment, more conducive to her learning style and where she felt comfortable.

They chose Pensacola Catholic High School.

Then came another challenge.

During Xioamara’s sophomore year, Deaundrice was diagnosed with a rare cancer and began chemotherapy treatments. She can’t imagine having to undergo such an ordeal without the teachers and staff who rallied in support of them both. To Deaundrice, Pensacola Catholic proved to be more than just a school, it was also family. Thanks to their emotional support, Xioamara and Deaundrice knew they weren’t facing these challenges alone. As Deaundrice entered treatment, Xioamara was supported and didn’t even miss school.

Today, Xioamara is a junior. She has maintained an unweighted GPA of 3.875 throughout high school and was nominated by her teachers to join the National Honor Society. To be recognized for exemplifying the society’s core values – scholarship, leadership, service, and character – was a special moment in her high school career.

Deaundrice’s health is slowly improving. They are both looking toward a future where Xioamara will pursue college, business and any other challenge life throws her way.

Xioamara is no longer a fragile, premature infant or a young girl overcoming adversity. She’s a strong and successful high school student. And with the support of her mom and teachers, there is nothing she can’t do.

All heart indeed.

About Pensacola Catholic High

Established in 1941 in downtown Pensacola, Catholic High has been at its present location since 1958. It is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. It offers dual-enrollment and AP courses. The Adaptive Education Program offers support services for students who have difficulty functioning in the standard curriculum due to an identified learning disability. Pensacola Catholic administers the MAP Growth test three times a year. The school has 786 students, including 133 on Step Up For Students scholarships. Annual tuition is $6,192 for a parish-affiliated student, and $7,920 for a non-affiliated one.

Catherine Durkin Robinson, Executive Director, Advocacy and Civic Engagement, can be reached at crobinson@stepupforstudents.org.

Time to nominate students, teachers, parents for Step Up’s Rising Stars Awards

By ROGER MOONEY

It is time to recognize outstanding members of the Step Up For Students family – students, teachers and parents – for their efforts this school year during our annual Rising Stars Awards program.

Each school can nominate up to six individuals, and the first person nominated must be a student.

Those selected will be honored in March and April during ceremonies held in one of 16 locations around the state.

School principals can nominate students for one of the following:

  • High Achieving Student Award. Students who excel in academics, arts or athletics.
  • Turnaround Student Award. A student who struggled when they first attended your school and has since made dramatic improvements.
  • Outstanding Student Character Award. A student who demonstrates outstanding compassion, perseverance, courage, initiative, respect, fairness, integrity, responsibility, honesty or optimism.

Teachers who push students to succeed, who truly represent the power of parent partnerships and focus on building relationships for success or who embrace the importance of continuous improvement and professional development can be nominated for the Exceptional Teacher Award.

Parents or guardians who actively support your school and the education of his or her child are eligible for the Phenomenal Family Member Award.

Deadline for nominations is Jan. 31, 2020 and can be made here.

Before making nominations, please have all necessary information available, including school name, school Florida Department of Education (DOE) number, each nominee’s contact information (name, phone number, email address). Please include a short description of why each person is being nominated.

The Rising Star Award ceremonies are scheduled for the following cities.

  • Miami-Dade North: Monday, March 16
  • Miami-Dade South: Tuesday, March 17
  • Palm Beach: Thursday, March 19
  • Broward: Monday, March 23
  • Leon: Tuesday, March 24
  • Lee: Tuesday, March 24
  • Brevard: Wednesday, March 25
  • Hillsborough: Wednesday, March 25
  • Duval East: Thursday, March 26
  • Pinellas: Thursday, March 26
  • Duval Central: Monday, March 30
  • Volusia: Tuesday, March 31
  • Marion: Tuesday, March 31
  • Escambia: Wednesday, April 1
  • Orange East: Thursday, April 2
  • Orange West: Thursday, April 2

Event locations will be announced at a later date.

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

A different way of learning gives Gardiner scholar the academic LIFT he needs

By ROGER MOONEY

MIAMI LAKES, Fla. – Joshua Sandoval sat at a table inside the LIFT Educational Academy and, with a laser-like focus, wrote in his journal. The topic: What was special about the classroom?

He was on his third sentence.

His mother, Nilsa Roberts, sat two rooms away, watching Joshua on one of four monitors hanging from a wall in the office of Dr. Fabian Redler, the school’s director and founder.

Roberts was, in a word, amazed.

She did not see a child with behavioral issues, as one school labeled her son. She did not see a child who struggled to complete assignments, as some of Joshua’s former teachers complained. Instead, she saw a student quietly going about his task.

“This is amazing,” Roberts said as she stared at her son’s image on the screen. “I’ve never seen him like this. He’s so focused.”

Yes, Joshua, 12, comes with learning challenges.

Joshua and his mom, Nilsa Roberts.

At three months, he was diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis complex, a genetic disorder where the body produces benign tumors. It is a rare disease as defined by the National Organization of Rare Diseases and qualifies Joshua for a Gardiner Scholarship, which is run by Step Up For Students.

Joshua’s tumors are in his brain. They cause daily seizures. The medication he takes makes him fidgety. Staying focused can be a struggle.

But, Roberts said, her son does not have behavioral issues, and he is not, as one teacher told her, unteachable.

Joshua speaks two languages – English and Spanish. He is an avid reader and uses an extensive vocabulary for his age. He knows all the words to all his favorite songs. He interacts well with other children.

He plays right field on his Little League team.

“What I know with Joshua is he’s very smart, and he learns different from other kids,” Roberts said.

She knew if she could find the right school, the right setting, Joshua would thrive. She spent a lot of time looking.

Joshua is in the sixth grade. LIFT is his seventh school.

“Finally,” Roberts said, “we found the place.”

No holding back
The LIFT Educational Academy is part of What’s On Your Mind, a psychology, tutoring and brain fitness center that has three south Florida locations, including one in Miami Lakes, Florida, the same town where Roberts and her family live.

Established by Redler, 20 years ago as a psychology and brain fitness center for children, What’s On Your Mind is well-known for aiding children in developing the brain skills essential for learning and surpassing their abilities through their trademarked programs.

The two decades of consistent progress has resulted in the establishment of LIFT Educational Academy four years ago, after parents urged Redler to start a much-needed unconventional school.

LIFT has 12 students ranging from first to 12th grade. Redler said the school could expand to 24 students.

New students obtain a psychoeducational evaluation to determine cognitive deficiencies in the skills involved in learning – attention, memory, visual processing and processing speed. They receive brain-based exercises to strengthen those areas.

The exercises are tailored to each student and integrated in their English Language Arts and Mathematics curriculum.

“The school itself is a perfect scenario for a child that is really behind and can use every single day to catch up both academically and deal with the issues that have been holding him back, which are all those cognitive areas,” Redler said.

Maritza Perera, school counselor, Joshua, Nilsa and Dr. Fabian Redler, director and founder of LIFT Educational Academy in Miami Lakes, Florida.

Roberts found What’s On Your Mind two years ago while researching education options for Joshua. She brought him in for an evaluation, signed him up for the summer program then enrolled him in LIFT.

“But what was unique with Joshua was the seizures. We didn’t know what to expect in terms of whether the brain training would stick, because of all his seizures,” Redler said. “We had to work as much as we could to just develop his ability. Whatever stays, stays. Whatever doesn’t, doesn’t. At the end of the day, it’s given him the best interventions that he can have. So far, it’s been awesome.”

‘Kind of like a miracle’

Joshua has had three brain surgeries, the first when he was 3. He still has tumors in his brain, including one in his right eye.

While Joshua can have as many as three seizures a day, he senses when one is coming on and he can usually go to a quiet place.

His body stiffens and his breathing increases. He feels a pounding inside his head. His eyes open wide and his right hand goes straight up. He can hear people talk, and it helps if someone is telling him he will be OK. The seizures last between 90 seconds and 3 minutes and occur mostly in the morning or when he’s going to bed.

“He’s embarrassed by it, but he does a good job of hiding it,” Roberts said.

Except when he can’t, which happened often at his prior schools. Some classmates made fun of him, which made him angry. The fact that he was behind his classmates in learning – reading at a grade level or two below them – also made him angry. He felt like an outsider and started acting up, so it became a behavioral thing,” Roberts said.

In the fourth grade, Joshua was placed in a class for students with behavioral issues. Roberts said it was a lost year in terms of academic growth.

“He learned literally nothing that year,” Roberts said, “because in the first week of school, they gave up on my child.”

She said finding Redler and his program has been “kind of like a miracle.”

“Before it was, ‘He’s on medicine so he can’t focus. He’s had seizures and he can’t focus,’” Roberts said. “He’s able to do it now, and I think those exercises have helped a lot. I think it’s meant for his way of learning.”

“Joshua is going to do amazing’

Maritza Perera, the school counselor at LIFT, interrupted Joshua while he was writing in his journal. His presence was requested in Redler’s office, so he could talk about his school for this story.

Joshua was not happy. He was only two sentences into his journal assignment.

He was shy, unusually so, according to his mom.

Do you like going to school here, he was asked.

Joshua in his Little League uniform.

He nodded.

Why?

“It’s fun.”

What makes it fun?

“I’m learning.”

Do you want to share what you were writing in your journal?

Joshua shook his head no.

Do you like brain training?

A nod.

What exercise do you like best?

“Mental Treasure Box.”

Redler found the answer interesting.

“Mental Treasure Box is for when thoughts come in that have nothing to do with what your focused on,” Redler explained. “You’re trained to take those thoughts and put them in your mental treasure box and go back to them later.”

After a few questions about baseball – Joshua likes the Miami Marlins and bats right-handed even though he’s a natural lefty – he returned to his classroom and his journal.

Roberts watched her son on the wall monitor. School has been a struggle for Joshua, but she’s confident he is finally in the right setting.

Now that he is no longer a lost student, Roberts sees a brighter picture when she thinks about Joshua’s future.

“I’m very positive about Joshua. Joshua is going to do amazing,” she said. “I see him continuing to grow in education. I can see Joshua going to college. I can see him having a job, a very good job somewhere and being independent. I can see him doing that.”

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Making the most of the opportunity, resources, investment that come with Step Up scholarship

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in a three-part series for Giving Tuesday on how the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, provided a bright future for a student from a lower-income family.

By ROGER MOONEY

Tommy Pham spent seven weeks during the summer of 2019 working at a medical clinic in a small town in Guatemala. He traveled to the Central American country on his own, lived with a host family and used the Spanish he learned in high school to communicate.

He worked with the nurses, taking the blood pressure and recording heights and weights of patients. He would give health clinics, teaching the residents how to clean their food and even how to clean their hands before eating.

“I didn’t want to leave,” he said. “You would think that after being away from home in a foreign country for seven weeks that you would be excited to come back home. But for me, I wanted to stay and continue to work. To me, that work felt meaningful.” 

The opportunity arose because of the work Tommy did during his freshman year at the University of Notre Dame, where he is now a sophomore pre-med major with a full scholarship.

He earned the opportunity to go to Notre Dame because of the work he did at Jesuit High School in his hometown of Tampa, Florida. There, Tommy was a top student, active in the school’s clubs and a participant in summer mission trips.

The opportunity to attend Jesuit came about with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Managed by Step Up For Students, the scholarship enables K-12 students from lower-income families receive a private school education.

If Tommy, 19, were to talk to students who received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for the first time, he would use words like “opportunity” and “resources” and “investment,” as in those who donate to the scholarship are investing in your future, so use the resources now available to you and make the most of this opportunity.

(Read Part I and Part II of the three-part series about Tommy)

“It’s really up to them on how much they want to change what they have right now, their own circumstances,” Tommy said. “My own circumstances pushed me to work a little harder, work a little extra so that I could go beyond ‘average.'”

“I’ll have to admit, it’s easier said than done, for sure.”

But it can be done.

Tommy is a good example.

His parents, who emigrated from Vietnam in the mid-1990s, are employed in the service industry, sometimes balancing two jobs as a waiter or waitresses to provide for Tommy and his younger sister, Jennifer, who attends the Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

They pushed their children academically so Tommy and Jennifer would never have to run from job to job in an effort to make ends meet.

Tommy is aware of the sacrifices made by his parents. The best way he can thank them, he said, is to max out on his academic opportunities.

He did that at Jesuit, earning a coveted QuestBridge scholarship.

Tommy at a birthday party last summer with his host family
during his seven-week stay in Guatemala.

Students who receive a QuestBridge Scholarship call them life-changing. Started in the mid-2000s at Stanford University, the scholarship provides a full four-year scholarship for top academic students from lower-income families at some of the country’s top colleges and universities.

Tommy, now a sophomore at Notre Dame, is majoring in neuroscience and behavior. He is thinking of becoming a neurosurgeon.

His course load this semester includes organic chemistry II, physics, neuroscience, psychology and theology. He is also conducting research for a way to analyze certain molecules that might inhibit cancer immunotherapy.

He spent the fall break with classmates in West Virginia, helping to build wheelchair accessible paths and picnic areas at the New River Gorge in the southern part of the state.

Tommy was always a top student, but he admits he might not have made it this far without the opportunity provided by Step Up. It allowed him to attend a top academic high school and not be intimidated by classmates who came from wealthier backgrounds.

“With Step Up, I am just like any other kid at Jesuit,” he said. “It feels like the playing field is more balanced. For those being supported by Step Up, we pretty much have the same resources right now like the other students. We don’t have to worry so much about being at a disadvantage. Instead, we can focus on being grateful and thankful for the opportunity that we have as a result of Step Up. The opportunity doesn’t come out of nowhere. People are donating to the scholarship so that we can further our own education, and we should be appreciative of that.

“But what I become is on me. What we have as resources can only push us so far in our lives. But what we do with those resources can really change the outcome of our own lives.”

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Volunteering at MDA camp in high school helped former Step Up scholar find his life’s calling

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a three-part series for Giving Tuesday on how the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, provided a bright future for a student from a lower-income family.

By ROGER MOONEY

Tommy Pham decided he wanted to become a doctor during a week at a Muscular Dystrophy Association summer camp, helping children who have been affected by the disease that weakens the muscles.

There was swimming and horseback riding, dancing and zip-lining. Fun activities, for sure.

But Tommy and the other volunteers were on-call 24 hours a day to help the children eat and shower, brush their teeth and use the bathroom – simple tasks for most, but, monumental obstacles for these young campers.

“It was probably the first time in my life where I had to actually take care of somebody else besides myself,” Tommy said. “It helped me grow as an individual, for sure.”

That growth led Tommy to the University of Notre Dame, where he is a sophomore in the pre-med program.

“It was definitely an experience that called me into the medical field,” Tommy said. “Definitely.”

Tommy, 19, attended the camp the summer before his senior year at Jesuit High, a private Catholic school in his hometown of Tampa, Florida. The life-altering week was one of several of what Tommy called “resources” available at Jesuit that helped shape who he is today.

(Read the first installment of the three-part series about Tommy here.)

There were the academic resources that allowed Tommy to become an honor student and earn a QuestBridge Scholarship that pays for his entire college education.

There were other resources, the clubs and summer volunteer programs, that added to his personal growth.

They were available to Tommy because of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarship enables students from lower-income families to attend private schools that best fit their learning needs.

Tommy’s parents are from Vietnam. They emigrated to Florida 25 years ago and both work in the service industry. They often work two jobs each to help care for Tommy and his younger sister Jennifer, a senior at the Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa. Jennifer attends the private high school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

Tommy understands the sacrifices his parents made with the hope he could attain the American dream. He was eager to use every resource available at Jesuit to move him in that direction.

A neuroscience and behavior major at Notre Dame, Tommy wants to become a doctor that helps those in financial need. That desire to work among the underprivileged was born the summer before his junior year. He spent a week on a mission trip to northern Georgia. While Tommy’s family struggled to make ends meet, this was the first time he experienced extreme poverty.


Tommy spent his fall break at Notre Dame with classmates in West Virginia, helping to build wheelchair accessible paths and picnic areas at the New River Gorge.

“I realized we can do much more than just work in our local community,” Tommy said. “It broadened my idea of community service. It also expanded my comfort zone.”

The courses, clubs and volunteer programs at Jesuit are designed to move the students along to higher education. That was always Tommy’s goal.

“But I didn’t completely understand the whole application process until junior year,” he said. “Realizing, ‘Oh wait, money is a big factor, too.’ I thought maybe if I work hard on my academics that I could eventually get into a top college.”  

And that’s what happened.

The QuestBridge Scholarship was founded by Stanford University in the mid-2000s to give top academic high school seniors from lower-income families the opportunity to attend a top college or university.

Tommy was one of 918 students nationwide from the class of 2018 to earn a QuestBridge scholarship. He was the first from Jesuit to receive one.

He attends school in Indiana, more than 1,100 miles from his hometown. He was introduced during his freshman year to northern winters. For the first time in his life, he saw snow and experienced subfreezing temperatures.

The educational setting is different, but Tommy feels comfortable in his new surroundings. While challenged by the workload associated with pre-med courses, Tommy is prepared.

“I’m much more confident in myself, much more confident in my own abilities,” he said, “just knowing that there is a supportive community (at Notre Dame) that is always willing to help you grow, not only academically but also emotionally and spiritually. Jesuit definitely introduced me to that aspect of learning. For that, I’m very thankful.”

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Step Up scholarship leads to top grades in high school and pre-med classes at Notre Dame

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a three-part series for Giving Tuesday on how the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, provided a bright future for a student from a lower-income family.

By ROGER MOONEY

More than 80,000 fans squeezed their way into Notre Dame Stadium on the first Saturday of November 2019 to see the football team pull off a thrilling last-minute comeback victory.

Normally, Tommy Pham would have been in the student section, screaming himself silly with his schoolmates as the Fighting Irish rallied for the win. But on that Saturday, the sophomore from Tampa, Florida who majors in neuroscience and behavior, found himself in another part of campus, getting a jump on some schoolwork.

Would Tommy loved to have been across campus at the football game? You bet.

But he is in the pre-med track with his sights set squarely on medical school and a career as a doctor, perhaps a neurosurgeon, though Tommy has a few years before he has to pick a specialty.

It’s that ability to ignore distractions and immerse himself in the resources available at his schools that served Tommy well during his four years at Jesuit High in Tampa and now at the University of Notre Dame outside of South Bend, Indiana, which he attends on a full academic scholarship.

If you’re looking for someone who took full advantage of the opportunities provided by a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students, Tommy is your man.

“I’m very blessed knowing I can use these resources to grow emotionally, academically,” Tommy, 19, said, “so that later on in life I can be at the place in my life that my parents have always wanted to be in but couldn’t due to their limited resources.”

Tommy’s parents emigrated from Vietnam to the United States 25 years ago. They are both employed in the service industry, sometimes working two jobs each to make ends meet.

This left Tommy to look after his younger sister, Jennifer, who is nearly two years younger and is a senior at the Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa. Like her brother, Jennifer attends a private high school with the help of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

“I was almost like a third parent, in a way,” Tommy said. “I matured much quicker as a child than other kids.”

Tommy’s parents always stressed education. Using the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Tommy left his district school for Incarnation Catholic School as a sixthgrader. From there, he scored high enough on the entrance exam to earn a spot at Jesuit.

An honor student who graduated near the top of his class, Tommy turned that Jesuit education into a QuestBridge Scholarship, which covers 100 percent of the cost of his college education.

QuestBridge, is a California-based nonprofit designed to help academically gifted students from low-income families attend some of the top colleges and universities in the country.

Tommy said he has thanked his parents “many, many times” for pushing him academically and pursuing a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

“There were times I wouldn’t see them at home,” he said. “Seeing that cycle for a long time made me realize they definitely made a lot of sacrifices. It takes a lot of energy to do that every single day for 18 years of my life. It definitely pushed me harder to work and minimize the excuses I make for myself.”

Tommy earned a coveted QuestBridge Scholarship because of his academic success at Jesuit High in Tampa.

He has often wondered what his life would look like now had he not received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Given his work ethic and his desire to learn, Tommy knows he would be in college. But where? Would he be in a pre-med program? Would he even want to be a doctor?

He thinks the resources at his neighborhood school would have been limited compared to Jesuit’s.

It was while volunteering at a camp for children with Muscular Dystrophy before his senior year when Tommy realized he wanted to be a doctor. Having seen extreme poverty during a mission trip the previous summer to the Appalachia area of Georgia, Tommy decided he wanted to work with low-income and disadvantaged patients.

“My life could be really different, and I’m not sure if that difference would be a good thing or a bad thing,” Tommy said. “But I know for sure the values I have today were because of the opportunities Jesuit offered. I value education, but I also value personal development, as well, and I’m not sure if that personal development would have been as great like it was for me at Jesuit had I gone to a different school. I definitely value that part of my high school experience, for sure.”

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

#99ReasonsToGive to Step Up For Students this GivingTuesday

By JUDITH THOMAS

On Tuesday, Dec. 3, Step Up For Students is participating in Giving Tuesday and would like your support to ensure a bright future for disadvantaged Florida schoolchildren.

To assist Florida children who can use a helping hand, please donate to Step Up here, or, better yet, get your friends and family involved with a Facebook Fundraiser.

“We encourage Step Up supporters and friends to create a Facebook Fundraiser for $99 this Giving Tuesday season,” says Karis Tuner, Step Up’s director, development. “We chose that amount because a major study by the Urban Institute showed that Florida Tax Credit students who were on the scholarship for at least four years were 99% more likely to attend college than their peers. That’s an amazing number and we believe it should be celebrated!”


Step Up’s goal is to have at least 99 Facebook Fundraisers created, raising an amount of $99 each. Click here for instructions on how to create a Facebook Fundraiser or watch this short video. Fundraisers can be created now through Dec. 3 for the Giving Tuesday campaign.


Kayla Fudge, a Step Up graduate who is featured in the video, is one of the 99% of students that is now attending college. She was on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for more than four years and graduated high school magna cum laude with a 3.89 grade point average. Thanks to Step Up supporters like you, she has a very bright future ahead of her. She is only one of #99ReasonsToGive this Giving Tuesday. Learn more about her story here.

Giving Tuesday was started in 2012 by the 92nd Street Y in New York to generate online donations to charities on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. It falls after Black Friday and Cyber Monday and was created as a day to give back before the end of the year.

In 2018, over $400 million where raised online, and overall, the Giving Tuesday movement has raised more than $1 billion online in the U.S. alone in the past seven years, according to the Giving Tuesday organization.

A gift made to Step Up today means disadvantaged children like Kayla can access numerous educational resources that best suits their needs.

Step Up provides scholarships to more than 136,000 schoolchildren in Florida through five scholarships that help lower-income families, students with special needs, students who are victims of bullying and struggling readers.

Social Media Manager Judith Thomas can be reached at jthomas@sufs.org.

Jacksonville teen reaps benefits of Step Up Scholarship

By JEFF BARLIS

When Kayla Fudge was a newborn, her mother struggled to take care of her. In swooped Kayla’s great aunt Glendora like a guardian angel. She loved. She nurtured. And she taught.

A public school teacher for 14 years, Glendora Jackson-Fudge raised three children of her own before adopting Kayla when she was 2. Glendora and husband Michael Fudge, a landscaper for 31 years, didn’t have much money. But as parents they were full of fun, wisdom, and old-school values.

“They’re mom and dad to me,” said Kayla, who was born and raised in Jacksonville. “They didn’t have to take me, they wanted to. That makes me feel special. I know they believe in me if no one else does.”

That belief propelled the 20-year-old to college. She is only one credit away from earning her associate degree. Kayla still lives under her parents’ roof, but those old-school sensibilities mean she pays for room and board, does chores, and works part time.


Kayla Fudge, right, and her great aunt and “guardian angel” Glendora Jackson-Fudge.

As a mother and educator, Glendora knew best. After Kayla attended her neighborhood elementary school, Glendora switched her to private school. Kayla was always a bright student with grades to match. Glendora was watching over her and knew she would do even better with an education customized for her.

Through online research, Glendora found Step Up For Students, which administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship .

A native of Jacksonville’s southside, Glendora was a working mom who put in enough nights and weekends to earn two master’s degrees in education. She taught social science in district schools. One day she fell coming out of her classroom and tore cartilage in her knee. She endured unbearable pain for three years before retiring in 2010.

“We lost a big chunk of my teaching income, like 60%, when I had to retire and go on disability,” Glendora said. “So, the scholarship really helped. And my husband’s work is seasonal. We were able to survive. If we didn’t have that scholarship, we wouldn’t have been able to pay for private school.”

It took just two weeks at Kayla’s neighborhood middle school for Glendora to make the decision.

“Kayla couldn’t take it there,” Glendora said. “I couldn’t even take being a substitute teacher there, so I couldn’t imagine her staying there. All the fights, the drama, the disruption in the classrooms.

“And Kayla wasn’t being challenged, either. She was bored. I thought she would do better with more individualized attention.”

Glendora and Kayla say the scholarship was like a ladder to fulfilling her potential. The neighborhood schools were swelling with students, and Kayla felt like she didn’t belong and couldn’t stand out.

“In public school, my mom said I would dumb myself down to blend in. I didn’t think she was right,” Kayla said. “But when I got to different schools with more people on the same academic level as me, I really felt what she was talking about.”

She longed for classroom challenges, but just as important was a brightly lit stage and her desire to explore performance art.

Glendora knew Kayla had talent when she was in fourth grade. She sang a Celine Dion song and won first place in a summer camp talent show.

Kayla is excited about the Tyler Perry audition and knows her dreams are within reach.

Kayla has a strong, soulful voice and graceful movements. Her almond eyes convey myriad emotions. Her personality sparkles in conversation, but on the stage she really comes alive.

Bishop Kenny High School was Kayla’s third private school, and when she arrived for 11th grade, she quickly found it was worth the wait.

“It really made me more excited about academics,” Kayla said. “I wasn’t just remembering information for a test, I was actually learning skills. But the biggest thing was I had a lot more opportunity to show my personality than at other schools.”

Kayla’s guidance counselor, Scott Sberna, pushed her to get better grades, but more importantly, he pushed her to enter the school pageant. She wasn’t going to do it, but he wouldn’t let it go. When he saw the spark of Kayla’s passion, he motivated and encouraged her to go for it.

“The pageant is a very big deal to a lot of families and young ladies in our school,” Sberna said. “Tryouts start before the Christmas holiday. Practices run three days a week or more until dress rehearsal. Many families hire private pageant coaches.”

Kayla had scant experience doing plays at her previous high school. This was a solo shot, and a pressure cooker at that.

“Typically, we have six to 10 visiting queens and members of their court (from nearby high schools) who come for the show and support their BKHS friends competing,” Sberna said.

For her performance, Kayla danced while singing “Almost There” from Disney’s “Princess and the Frog.” The applause was thunderous. She was the pageant runner-up and won the award for most talented. She created a YouTube page to share a video of the performance.

Her confidence soared.

That led to an audition for a performing arts college in Los Angeles. She was accepted, but tuition was about $22,000 a year even with the school granting a scholarship. It was out of reach, but not out of her heart.

Kayla went on to graduate magna cum laude with a 3.89 grade point average. She attends Florida State College in Jacksonville, where she has a 3.2 grade point average studying physical therapy and has never gotten a C. She’s thinking about transferring to the University of Central Florida for a seven-year physical therapy program. She’s also considering the University of North Florida to switch her focus to animal care.

She sings at church and still dreams of performing. To keep that dream in the forefront, Glendora is bringing Kayla to a Tyler Perry audition in Atlanta later in November.

“My goals after college are to be a physical therapist, have my doctorate in physical therapy specifically and to be an actress at the same time, which is a weird combo, but it’s completely achievable,” says Kayla with a bright smile. She knows her future is bright.

“It would not surprise me if she does all three,” Sberna said. “She has the intelligence, grit, and chops to do it all. She deserves all the credit for pushing herself to where she is today.”

Judith Thomas, Step Up’s social media manager, contributed to this report.


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