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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.

Of courage, basketball and conquering the obstacles in his way: The Justin Williams story

BY ROGER MOONEY

OCOEE, Florida – Justin Williams was 8 when he underwent surgery to allow more room for his brain to grow. For two months he wore a halo brace and a plate on the roof of his mouth to push the bones in his face forward one agonizing millimeter at a time.

At one point, Justin told his dad, John, that he’d rather die than live through that again.

“At the time, I was probably exaggerating,” Justin said, “but it was the worst eight weeks of my life.”

Justin, 18, was born with Apert syndrome, a rare condition where the joints in a baby’s head, face, feet, and hands close while in the womb. He’s undergone surgeries on his feet, hands, face and head – 15 in all. The first was when he was 9 months old. He learned to walk with both feet and hands in casts.

While Justin has endured some difficult moments in his life, he will be the last to say he’s had a difficult life.

“I’ve gone through a lot,” he said, “and it hasn’t affected me.”

Stacy, Justin and John Williams.

Justin grew up on Ocoee, just a short walk from his family’s blueberry farm, where he helps direct the parking during picking season.

He graduated in the spring from Foundation Academy in nearby Winter Garden. He attended the private Christian school since pre-K on a McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities (now the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities, administered by Step Up For Students). He begins classes at Valencia College in August.

Justin was one of the most popular students on campus and certainly the most popular player on the basketball team. His classmates would fill the stands and chant his name until Coach Nathaniel Hughes sent Justin into the game. Then Justin would reward his fans by hitting long-range 3-point shots.

“It’s so much fun to watch him play,” Justin’s mom, Stacy, said. “It blows me away, the support of all the people.”

Justin’s efforts on the court led to his receiving the Jersey Mike’s Naismith High School Basketball Courage Award. The honor is given annually to a male and female high school basketball player who has “gone above and beyond throughout the basketball season and has demonstrated courage in their approach to their team, school, and community.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard him complain, say something was too hard or he couldn’t do it,” Hughes said. “I never heard that, and he has way more reason to complain than I do.”

HE CAN DO IT!

“What is a normal life?” John Williams asked on a recent afternoon at the blueberry farm.

While pregnant with Justin, Stacy said she wondered what type of life he would lead. Would he excel in sports? In school? What would his interests be? His talents? What would he choose for a career?

Justin was born in September 2003 with a craniofacial disorder so rare it is found in 1 in 65,000 to 88,000 babies. Now Stacy and John had entirely different questions: What would Justin’s quality of life be? Could he even go to school?

“When you have a child with special needs, your whole outlook is different because everything changes,” Stacy said, “so you have to find your new normal.”

The new normal included flights to the Craniofacial Center at Medical City Children’s Hospital in Dallas for those surgeries, and what John said seemed like endless months in hotels, as well as nights where he and Stacy tried to sleep on the couch in Justin’s hospital room.

It also included Little League baseball and youth basketball, soccer and golf, and plenty of roughhousing with his cousins around the blueberry farm.

Stacy and John were determined to meet Apert syndrome head on.

Justin would do everything every other kid his age did. They signed him up for baseball when he was 4 even though he had trouble holding a bat because he doesn’t have knuckles in his fingers.

So what if he couldn’t hit the ball? Neither could the other 4-year-olds, John said.

It was the same way in school.

“Do not help him,” Stacy sternly told Justin’s teacher on her son’s first day of kindergarten. “He can do it.”

“I think I scared her,” Stacy said. “I just wanted to give him a chance. You have to give people a chance to be who they can be.”

Maybe people outside of school stared at Justin and made rude comments to Stacy, but at Foundation Academy, Justin was just one of the kids. His popularity grew as he moved up through the grades.

“There is something about Justin that makes everyone love him,” Foundation Principal Sarah Reynolds said. “He is so friendly, so kind. No one sees his disability. No one. It’s just a non-issue.”

With the education choice option that came with the McKay Scholarship, Stacy and John settled on Foundation Academy because they wanted a smaller scholastic setting for Justin, one where his teachers would know and understand his needs and where he could spend the years with the same classmates.

Having the scholarship pay his tuition was huge when Justin was undergoing his surgeries and treatments.

“We, honestly, would not have been able to keep him at the same school had we not had the scholarship,” Stacy said.

J-MONEY

John put up a basketball hoop in the family’s driveway because he thought it was a game Justin could play. He was right. Justin was hooked at an early age.

Justin’s ability score on long-range jump shots earned him the nickname “J-Money” from his teammates because, as Hughes said, “He makes his money on the 3-point line.”

(Watch Justin Williams make his “money from the 3-point line.”)

Justin was not the most talented player on the team, but Hughes said he made the most of his skills. He also understands the game, the way the offense and defense work. Hughes often asked Justin what he thought of something that occurred during a game, and Justin would offer an honest and accurate assessment.

He was also the teammate who kept everyone loose and focused.

“A glue guy you can’t live without as a team,” Hughes said.

As he walked out of the gym after every practice and game, Justin would always find Hughes and say, “Thanks, Coach. See you tomorrow.”

It was Hughes who nominated Justin for the Naismith award, and the school celebrated the announcement of Justin winning with a pep rally in front of the entire student body. They chanted his name and Justin took a shot, though opting for a high-percentage layup. The crowd went wild as the ball dropped through the net.

There were TV crews from Orlando-area news stations and one shooting a video for the award.

“I like sharing my story and having an impact,” Justin said.

His message?

“You need to lean on your family and friends because they are always there for you, no matter what you’re going through,” he said. “If you’re having a rough day or a hard time, always trust in God. He will make your path straight. I think people get down on themselves because they think they are not normal or not as good as someone else, but I think if they pray and follow God, they will be fine.”

College classes begin soon for Justin. He’s thinking of studying business. He will help Hughes coach this season and wants to someday coach high school basketball.

“He has totally superseded anything I envisioned for him,” Stacy said. “I never thought he would be as awesome as he is. He surprises you all the time. He has the best sense of humor. He never complains about anything. He’s always a try-hard kid, which blows me away.”

As for what she now envisions for Justin’s future, Stacy said, “I think it’s up to him. The sky is the limit. I can’t wait to see in five years where he’s at.”

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

‘Better options’ for their daughter included a move to America and an education choice scholarship

BY ROGER MOONEY

Roberto Porras was at his job as a pharmaceutical rep in his native Venezuela when his wife, Ony, called with the news that she was pregnant.

It was the spring of 2003, and Roberto, overjoyed at the thought of becoming a dad, was concerned about the baby’s future in a country rife with political unrest.

“I started thinking what I can offer to my child, better options,” Roberto said. “At that moment I decided I had to move from there.”

So, he and Ony left their home in Maracaibo and followed family members who had immigrated to Miami.

Diana with all the honors she earned during her four years at Pace High.

On Dec. 24 of that year, Ony gave birth to a girl they named Diana. On May 26 of this year, Diana graduated near the top of her class from Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Miami, having compiled a 5.29 weighted GPA and 33 dual enrollment credits to college.

Diana, 18, will attend Florida International University (FIU), where she plans to double major in computer science and Spanish. Having earned an Ambassador Scholarship from FIU and a Florida Medallion Scholarship plus a Federal Pell Grant, Diana’s college tuition is fully covered.

“We are blessed with her,” Roberto said. “She is very smart.”

The “better options” Roberto hoped to offer his daughter came to fruition in their new home with the help of an education choice scholarship.

Diana received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship to attend Catholic school from kindergarten through 12th grade. The same with her sister, Mariana, who will be an eighth-grader during the 2022-23 school year at Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic School in Miami Lakes.

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship is funded by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.

“Without Step Up, I wouldn’t be here today with all these accolades,” Diana said. “Without Step Up, I wouldn’t have realized what a privilege it is to be in the position that I am, receiving all these opportunities. I have to take advantage of them.

“It’s a privilege to be educated. There are so many people who can’t or don’t want to.”

To say Diana loves to learn is an understatement.

She loves taking notes in class, studying, and getting perfect scores on tests and assignments.

“It’s about focusing on school and not having a life, I guess,” she joked before adding, “Applying the stuff I learn to the real world is the most fun part of it for me.”

During her senior year at Pace, Diana took advance placement (AP) classes in government, literature, computer science and calculus, plus a physics honors course.

She took the AP Spanish exam in May without taking AP Spanish. Diana spent the two days prior to the test studying Spanish literature, then aced the exam.

“She’s that kind of student,” said Hedda Falcon, who teaches computer science and technology at Pace. “She’s so bright. She can do anything.”

For Shadow Day during her senior year, when students follow a teacher around to see what the job entails, Diana chose to shadow Falcon. They each wore the same dress, the same shoes and the same nail polish. It was Diana’s way of paying tribute to the teacher who had the most impact on her education.

“I don’t even know how to say it,” Falcon said. “It was an honor.”

Diana was involved in 10 clubs during her four years at Pace, including STEM Academy, Women in STEM Club, engineering and computer technology. She was also a member of the Spartan Ambassador Society. She was president of several of those clubs. Those roles, Diana said, helped her build leadership skills. It also helped her develop what she called her “public voice.”

“How to talk to classmates. How to talk to teachers,” she said.

Diana took a class in Microsoft as a freshman. Students are required to receive certification in Word, Excel and PowerPoint to pass. Diana went two steps further and received certification in Outlook and Word Expert Level.

It was during a robotics class as a sophomore when Diana realized she loved computers. She helped build a robot that could throw a ball, move around a room and play music, including “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” The computer is named “Bubbles,” and they call the remote used to control it the “Soap Bar.”

“That’s when I realized I just don’t like computers,” she said, “I also want to learn how they are made.”

Diana and her father, Roberto, during Step Up For Students’ Rising Stars Awards event at Monsignor Pace High. Diana received an award for being a Super Senior.

Diana was the valedictorian of her eighth-grade class at Mother of Our Redeemer Catholic School in Miami. As part of her graduation speech, she reflected on how far she came during her nine years at the school. She remembered not being able to speak English when she entered kindergarten and how she could at the end of that school year.

By the eighth grade she knew why her parents moved to the United States.

“I’m very grateful for everything they have done,” she said. “They did not have to go through that, but they did for me and my sister and our futures.”

Once in Miami, Roberto entered nursing school, juggling a full-time job and his family with his studies. He is now a nurse at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood.

Earning top grades was Diana’s way of saying, “Thank you” for the opportunity of an education.

“That’s a maturity level you don’t see a lot of in high school,” Falcon said. “She appreciates what her parents have done for her.”

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

School is not out for summer at TRU Prep Academy, which has adopted a year-round schedule

BY ROGER MOONEY

MIAMI GARDENS, Florida – The calendar said it was July 6, but parents pulled their cars to a stop outside TRU Prep Academy and students stepped out wearing their standard school attire – black slacks, white shirts, and red ties.

School is out for summer in most parts of the country, but at TRU Prep it was very much in session, with students returning $500 cash loan online from summer vacation only the day before.

Welcome to a year-round school.

Students at TRU Prep Academy in Miami Gardens returned for the 2022-23 school year on July 5.

The private K-12 school in Miami Gardens, where nearly all the 100 students receive an education choice scholarship administered by Step Up For Students, moved to the alternative format during the 2021-22 school year. Classes begin during the first full week of July and run for six weeks, followed by a week off. The six-weeks-on, one-week-off block continues until the Memorial Day weekend in May, with a two-week break for Thanksgiving, a two-week break for Christmas, and other holidays off mixed in.

The summer break is basically the month of June.

The idea is to reduce the “summer slide” in knowledge gained the previous school year by giving students and teachers breaks throughout the year to recoup the time off missed with the shorter summer — and to recharge.

“When I first heard about it, I was actually happy,” said seventh-grader Justin Haynes. “The week off helps me relax, and when we come back, I feel refreshed.”

According to the website Resilient Educator, a number of school districts throughout the country have moved from the traditional school calendar to year-round classes. A study by Duke University showed students who attend year-round schools have a “slight advantage” over their counterparts who enjoy the traditional 10- to 12-week summer vacation.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) reported that students, particularly those from economically disadvantaged areas, struggle to retain the material they learned from the previous year when they return from the long summer break.

“This is true pretty much in every educational setting: We spent at least half of the first quarter of school reviewing,” said Andrea Muhammad, TRU Prep’s dean of academics and high school instructor. “If you take a child and give them two-and-half, three months off and expect them to remember everything, there’s going to be a ‘What am I supposed to be doing?’ feel.”

Mario Smith, TRU Prep’s founder and executive director, realized a goal nearly two decades in the making when he opened the school in August 2018. A graduate of nearby Monsignor Pace High School and Kansas State University, Smith said he wanted to create a scholastic setting that would “mesh sports and education together.” He resigned from his job as a teacher and football coach at Pace in 2013 to pursue this dream.

Smith, who starred as a football player at Pace and Kansas State and spent three seasons playing in the Canadian Football League, wanted to better prepare students for college life, especially those who could earn an athletic scholarship. In addition to the core classes, TRU Prep offers classes in sports management, sports journalism and sports medicine. To be eligible to play a sport, TRU Prep athletes must maintain a 2.5 grade point average, which is above the 2.3 mandated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the 2.0 mandated by the state of Florida.

Smith said he is grateful for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Education Options because it allows students “an opportunity to be in an environment that best suits their needs. (TRU Prep has) a family feel, and having those scholarships, it allows the students to be in this environment.”

Looking for a way to combat the summer slide, Smith and the administrators began talking about the year-round calendar in 2019 and implemented it for the 2021-22 school year.

Like any ground-shaking change to the norm, the new schedule took a little getting used to. Attending school in July while your friends — and, in some cases brothers or sisters — were off, was a bit of a shock for the students.

“That’s not a big deal anymore,” said eighth-grader Azraa Muhammad.

Having a full week off after only six weeks was another shock to the system, though nearly everyone involved said it was welcomed.

“It helps me think about what I just learned,” Azraa said.

It was during that second six-week block that Andrea Muhammad said everything began to feel normal.

“It’s became the natural flow for us,” said Lakeisha Saunders, who teaches the elementary school. “Before you knew it, it was May.”

Andrea Muhammad teaches a middle school class on July 6, one day after students at TRU Prep returned from summer vacation.

Teachers used those weeks off to prepare lesson plans for the upcoming block

“(The week off) also allows those students who were a little bit behind to get extra help from some of us without the distraction of being in the classroom,” Muhammad said.

Some students missed the first week or two of the new school year because they are attending an academic or enrichment camp. Those students will use the off weeks to make up whatever work they missed.

Schools in the Miami Gardens area were summer silent on July 6. Morning commuters did not slow for the blinking lights of school zones or school buses stopped to pick up passengers.

But it was classes as usual inside TRU Prep. Saunders was teaching elementary students about making a household budget. A morning rainstorm passed outside while her students asked questions about paying utility bills and setting aside money for groceries.

Those students were beginning their second turn at a year-round school calendar. Alani Hunte, a fourth grader, said she didn’t mind, even if it meant getting up a 6 a.m. to go to school in July.

“Because,” she said with a measure of pride, “my dad said I’m going to be smarter than everybody.”

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

How do you turn students into readers? At Alpha Learning Academy, by turning a classroom into a library

BY ROGER MOONEY

ORLANDO, Florida – Shakelia Henderson sat behind the desk inside a classroom that was recently converted into a library and nodded at the shelves full of books that lined the walls.

“This,” she said, “is the beginning of a literacy journey that’s going to make our kids stronger. I really do believe that.”

Henderson just completed her fourth year as principal at Alpha Learning Academy in Orlando, a K-5 private school. The majority of the 139 students attend with the help of education choice scholarships administered by Step Up For Students.

Henderson, who has been in education for nearly 25 years, is keenly aware of the role reading plays in a child’s learning. A student who struggles to read is more likely to struggle in other subjects.

“It’s important for students to engage with books to become strong readers, because reading is the foundation of all the subject areas,” said Henderson, an English major in college who taught language arts before moving into the administrative side of education.

She was aware ALA did not have a library when she became the principal and made it her mission to correct that. It took three years to get the project rolling and almost another year to convert a classroom into a library, obtain books and add labels to each so they can be filed probably and monitored through the checkout system.

The library opened May 1 with six ribbon-cutting ceremonies – one for each grade.

Naasir Laird, who enters the second grade in August, said he was “so excited” when he found out his school was getting a library.

“I like that we can read books, and we can all have fun reading them,” he said. “It’s really fun when I come here.”

Naasir’s mom, Toccara West, is equally thrilled.

“He loves going to the library,” she said, adding her son’s reading improved during the first month the library was open.

West was among the army of ALA parents who volunteered to turn what was once a classroom used for art and Spanish into one filled with 10 bookcases. Chairs dot the room, spaced far enough apart so students can have a little privacy when they sit and read. The room is decorated with a superhero theme as voted on by the students.

Nearly all the books are used and donated, and each had to be labeled so they could be scanned into Booksource, a computerized management tool. It was a time-consuming labor of love for the parents who lugged home boxes of books to be labeled.

Booksource allows Henderson and Ashlei James, ALA’s administrative assistant and assistant librarian, to check the books in and out and monitor what the children are reading. “The Wild Robot” quickly emerged as a favorite, so Henderson and James recognized the need to obtain more books on robots.

Historically, ALA students have underperformed in reading. The school addresses that with Wilson Language Training. But Henderson feels the need to go beyond that, to make reading a force of habit for as many students as possible. She hopes having a room filled with books of all topics accessible to all the students will be the first bricks of a foundation needed for academic success.

“In addition to what students are assigned to read by their teachers, I also want the students to fall in love with the aesthetic feel of reading and read what they want for their pleasure,” Henderson said. “And I also want them to build their home libraries. We know the more a child reads, the better reader they become.”

The ALA library contains books on Martin Luther King Jr. and Black history. Books on science and technology. Books on superheroes and sports. Bookcases are labeled by grade, but there is one designated for advanced readers. That’s where DeMarko Avant found “Star Wars: The Legends of Luke Skywalker.”

DeMarko, who is headed to the fifth grade, said he visits the library often, sometimes as much as three times a week. He reads at home, he said, usually before bedtime and usually about Star Wars or the Ninja Mutant Turtles or The Flash.

“I like superhero books,” he said.

Ashlei Jameses’ daughter Nhyla, who starts the third grade in August, said she loves reading about Black history, especially Ruby Bridges, a pillar of the civil rights movement who famously integrated an elementary school in New Orleans when she was 6.

“It is really important for me for her to have this (library) experience in a school that she goes to,” Ashlei James said.

James remembered visiting a bookstore for the first time when she was in middle school. She couldn’t believe there was a store dedicated solely to books. She feels children today are missing out on the experience of reading books and visiting bookstores and libraries.

Ashlei James, Alpha Learning Academy’s administrative assistant and assistant librarian, and school principal Shakelia Henderson.

“I feel like in this day and age, kids know how to do everything on phones, on computers. They know all that. To me, bringing them back to actually sitting down and reading a book, that’s good stock,” she said. “You can’t get away from that.”

Henderson agreed.

“There’s nothing like a book,” she said. “I think our children are very used to using their devices, their phones, iPads and tablets. They work wonders, but the old fashioned, having a book in your hand, nothing replaces that, in my opinion.

“This (library) has a ton of potential. I am very proud. In my career, this is in top-three. This is monumental and it has impacted the lives of our children immediately.

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

After taking charge of his education, Step Up alumni achieves goal of attending University of Florida

BY ROGER MOONEY

On a Wednesday morning in early January, a day after he turned 20, Josep Amiguet walked into a classroom inside Matherly Hall on the edge of campus for his intermediate microeconomics class, his first as a student at the University of Florida.

“OK,” he remembers thinking, “I’m here.”

It took three years of laser-like focus on his studies at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami and three semesters of work at Santa Fe College in Gainesville before Josep reached his goal of enrolling at Florida and studying economics.

“It really was a good feeling,” he said.

Josep’s path to Florida wasn’t as straight as he would have liked. A poor year academically as a freshman at Columbus, which he attended on an education choice scholarship, forced the South Miami native to play catchup during his final three years at the private Catholic high school. He was not accepted to Florida after graduating Columbus in the spring of 2020. So, he attended Santa Fe to work on an associate degree, graduating in December 2021.

He reapplied to Florida and was accepted, receiving the confirmation email last November while studying for a psychology exam.

“It was a cool moment,” he said.

What wasn’t cool, Josep will tell you, was what he called the “below staller” grades on his report card as a Columbus freshman and the weeks he spent in summer school.

“Why am I here?” he remembered asking himself.

Especially when the reason he attended Columbus was because of the school’s demanding academic course load. Josep wanted to be challenged academically, the better to prepare him for college loans-cash.net .

“I want to go to a good college and pursue a degree that can allow me to make enough money to take care of my family, because that’s all I care about,” he said. “I want to take care of my mom and take care of my dad. They’ve been through a lot, and I want to take care of them.”

He scored high enough on his entrance exams to take honors courses as a freshman. And that’s when Josep’s life took some unexpected turns.

Josep and his mom, Kathy.

His father, Jose, was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia, which forced his mother, Kathy to quit her job as a medical sales rep so she could care for her husband. That forced the family to sell their house and move in with Josep’s grandfather, who is wheelchair-bound, and grandmother, who suffered from dementia. But that house was too small, so Josep lived with an aunt until a room could be converted into a bedroom. When Josep was able to reunite with his family, his grandmother passed away.

“A lot of things in my personal life kept changing,” Josep said.

The one constant was his new school, which Josep was able to attend with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students.

“(The scholarship) was one of the driving forces that made me into the person I am today,” he said. “My parents couldn’t have afforded Columbus without the help of the scholarship, a thousand percent.

“I was very appreciative to my parents and Step Up, of course, and everyone at Columbus. Step Up has afforded me a lot of opportunities, I have taken advantage of them.”

Kathy had attended Catholic schools and wanted the same education for her son. With all that was going on at home, she was sure she didn’t have to worry about Josep keeping up his grades. He was a straight-A student while attending Catholic grammar school.

But Josep struggled academically at his new school and finished freshman year with a GPA below 2.0.

People tell Josep he was a victim of his circumstances. He doesn’t agree. He spent so many hours each night texting friends and watching YouTube that he neglected his schoolwork.

“I would actually get to school and not have any homework done,” he said. “I hadn’t studied for anything. I just did not perform at all.”

School guidance counselors would later ask Josep why he didn’t tell them about his problems at home.

“He’s a private person,” Kathy said. “We’re private people.”

And Kathy was so busy caring for Jose and his ailing parents that Josep was able to hide his failing grades.

“He’s a smart kid. He’s always did well in school. I never had to supervise him,” she said. “(When he moved in with his aunt) I said, ‘OK, I’m going to give him that liberty.’ But I never realized how difficult it would be for him.”

Summer school was a wake-up call for Josep. So was his sophomore schedule.

“I got bumped down to the classes below honors, and I wasn’t happy about that at all,” he said.

He took the initiative to meet with a guidance counselor and developed an academic plan that would help him overcome his poor start to high school.  He attacked his education, taking a total of 13 honors courses over his last three years. As a sophomore, Josep interned at MasTec, a Fortune 500 infrastructure engineering and construction company based in Coral Gables. He interned at two Miami law firms during the summer before his senior year.

He graduated with honors, lifting that 1.75 GPA from his freshman year to a 3.75 weighted GPA for his high school career.

“I just tried to make the most out of my situation after I got my head in the game,” he said.

Jose, who worked as a compliance auditor before he became sick, is doing better after undergoing a stem cell transplant. But he’s unable to return to work.

“It’s been a process,” Kathy said. “But we didn’t have to worry about Josep’s education.”

Josep is spending this summer interning at the Insigneo Financial Group in Miami. He’s putting in long hours, occasionally working nights and weekends. He loves it. This is what he was aiming for as a sophomore when he turned around his academic direction.

“I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t continue the path I was on.”

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

Former Step Up For Students scholar chasing major league dream

BY ROGER MOONEY

On a sun-dappled Sunday afternoon in mid-April, Jay Allen gave his mother a gift she will treasure forever.

With Deanna Singletary among the family members sitting in the front row behind the third base dugout at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida, Jay hit his first home run of the season for the Daytona Tortugas, the Class A minor-league team in the Cincinnati Reds organization.

It was the first time Deanna saw her son hit a home run since he began playing professional baseball last summer. The two-run shot to left-center field provided the winning runs in a 4-3 victory against the Palm Beach Cardinals.

To say she was excited is a gross understatement.

“He hits it out and I jump up and down screaming,” Deanna said. “I’m known for that. I’m the loud one.

 “It is still unbelievable.”

Jay and his mom, Deanna.

Jay, 19, has been hitting home runs since he began playing baseball when he was 9: In Little League, travel ball and at John Carroll High School, the private Catholic school near his Fort Pierce home that he attended with the help of an education choice scholarship.

A center fielder, Jay was picked in the first round (30th overall) of the 2021 Major League Baseball draft by the Reds after a stellar athletic career at John Carroll that saw him star in football, basketball, and baseball.

“It’s a dream come true, for sure,” Jay said. “Everybody always pictures when they start playing sports to be a professional and when that happens, it’s a surreal moment.”

Jay was carving up the competition on the athletic fields in the Fort Pierce area as a middle schooler when Deanna decided she wanted a better education environment for her son. The mother of one of Jay’s teammates told her about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is supported by corporate donations to Step Up For Students. She applied and was accepted.

Jay attended Saint Anastasia Catholic School as an eighth-grader before moving on to John Carroll for high school.

“It was the best decision that I have made, honestly,” Deanna said. “Jay excelled in school. It was a smaller school, so the teachers are more hands-on. Financially, if I didn’t have Step Up, there was no way Jay would have been able to go to Saint Anastasia and John Carroll.”

Deanna’s two daughters – Ayonna Mitchell and Da’Nasia Davis – also receive the scholarships. Ayonna is going into her junior year at John Carroll; Da’Nasia begins her freshman year there in August.

“The (FTC) scholarship gave us a better opportunity,” Jay said. “It got us in a better school, and we rolled from there.”

John Carroll Principal Corey Heroux said Jay received mostly A’s and B’s in a course load that included honors classes.

“We’re very big on you’re a student/athlete,” she said. “You’re a student first and you can only be an athlete if you are taking care of your business in the classroom.

“We’re proud of having vigorous coursework, and he put the time in and took care of his business.”

Jay said he appreciated how the faculty at John Carroll pushed him academically.

Jay heading toward home plate. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Dowd.)

“It wasn’t easy,” he said, “but they made it their priority to make sure you were going to go to the next level and be a college student.”

Jay had several scholarship offers even after committing to play baseball at the University of Florida as a sophomore. Some college coaches continued to recruit Jay, trying to woo him to their campus with the promise of playing both football and baseball. But a fractured ankle suffered during football as an eighth-grader nudged Jay in the direction of baseball. He still has two screws in his ankle.

Ultimately, none of those coaches would have landed Jay. He opted for pro ball after the being drafted by the Reds.

“I felt the odds of me being a better baseball player than a better football player was in my favor,” he said. “You never know how it’s going to turn out and I did get hurt playing football and that took a little toll.”

Jay, who is 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, is rated the fifth-best prospect in the Reds minor league system by MLB.com. He began his pro career last summer in the Arizona Complex League before moving this season to the Reds’ Class A team in Daytona Beach. Playing in front of a host of family members, friends, staff and faculty from John Carroll and Saint Anastasia, and former teammates and coaches during most games played on Florida’s East Coast, Allen is among the team leaders in every offensive category.

Eric Davis, a two-time All-Star center fielder with the Reds during his 17-year Major League career, has worked with Jay since last summer. He is eager to see how Jay develops now that he can focus solely on baseball for the first time in his life.

“He has a lot of talent, and the more games he plays, the more he’ll understand,” Davis said after a watching Jay play recently in Clearwater. “He’s a tremendous upside for our organization and we’re proud to have him.”

Before each at-bat, Jay writes the letters “GS” in the dirt with the nob of his bat to honor his grandmother Gwendolyn Singletary, who recently passed away. Jay also has her name embroidered on his glove. His grandfather, Willie Singletary, taught Jay how to play center field by hitting buckets filled with baseballs to him whenever he could.

Willie, Deanna and her fiancé Eddie Davis attend as many of Jay’s games as they can. Deanna said she enjoys watching her son sign autographs for young fans before and after the games as much as she enjoys watching him play.

“Honestly, the enjoyable thing is Jay is doing things that he loves,” Deanna said. “I’m so happy for him.”

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

Education choice brought liberty, opportunity for immigrant

For Leidiana Candelario, moving from the Dominican Republic to Miami at age 8 was a major lifestyle transition.

It didn’t go very well at first — until an education choice scholarship from Step Up For Students changed everything.

Leidiana was miserable in her assigned elementary school, describing herself as an “outcast.” Her unfamiliarity with English made her a target of bullying.

“Every weekday I anxiously waited to go home from school, as home became my shelter,” she says.

Home for the family of five was a small room behind her father’s shop. Those cramped quarters were preferable to the misery she was enduring in school.  But her future was grim.

“I was unable to see a light at the end of the tunnel,” she says.

A ray of hope appeared in the form of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students, administered by Step Up For Students. After her parents applied and were awarded the scholarship, they now had options:  They could afford to send Lediana and her two sisters to the school they chose because it was the best fit for their needs – La Progresiva Presbyterian School.

“The moment my father, with excitement in his eyes, told me ‘Mi hija, nos dieron la beca!’ (“My daughter, they gave us the scholarship!”), I knew the best of changes would come,” Leidiana said.

At La Progresiva, Leidiana blossomed. No longer an outcast, she was warmly received, and thrived. The school’s principal, Melissa Rego, is a former public school teacher who also is the daughter of Cuban exiles. The student body includes many descendants of Cubans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, and Dominicans. More than two-thirds don’t have parents who attended college.

Lediana no longer looked at her home as a safe shelter from school. Now, school felt like a second home. It was family, too.

In 2018, after nine years on the tax credit scholarship, Lediana graduated high school. Two years later, she graduated Miami-Dade College with a degree in English. She’s now back where her success story began as a scared fourth-grader – teaching at La Progresiva, where 635 students are attending on income-based scholarship this year.

“School choice meant opportunities and inevitable growth,” Leidiana says. “Thanks to school choice, I learned to love education. I learned to reach for my wildest dreams.

“Choice brings liberty. Choice brings opportunity. Choice brings life.”

School Choice Boyz: Christopher Columbus High in Miami shows a recipe for success

Nathan Cunneen offered some thoughts on Christopher Columbus High School in Miami after he and Walter Blanks Jr. visited the school earlier this year, Nathan and Walter teamed to form the School Choice Boyz, a podcast to bring the value of education choice to a younger audience. They work for the American Federation of Children, where Walter is the press secretary and Nathen is a communications associate. 

A Recipe for a Great School: Christopher Columbus High School

During a Spring trip to Miami, the School Choice Boyz had the opportunity to tour and explore Christopher Columbus High School, a Marist Brothers institution serving the Miami area. We were impressed with everything at CCHS, from academics to world-class extracurriculars. They deliver incredible value to students and their community, which includes a significant population of students utilizing Florida school choice programs like those managed by Step Up For Students. Here are some thoughts from our visit about what makes CHS – and any school – such a success.

Culture is everything:

Christopher Columbus has experienced incredible success since its founding in 1958. Frankly, there’s too much to fit into this short description. One hundred percent of Columbus Explorers are accepted to college, and the class of 2021 earned more than 20 million dollars’ worth of collegiate scholarships. The school has an Emmy-winning broadcast journalism program. The robotics program won the state championship in 2020. The debate team consistently ranks in the top 10% nationally. Teams win state titles in multiple sports on a regular basis. The school offers more than 70 career, service, or social-oriented clubs and honor societies. You get the point.

Principal David Pugh and Betty Vinson, the head of CCHS’s guidance department, very kindly showed us around the school and shared its success, attributing these achievements to the tight-knit family environment that the school has cultivated. Principal Pugh explained how for many of their students, the faces of teachers, administrators, and coaches are the first and last that they see each day. Columbus is where life happens for many of these students. Every morning before 5 AM, students begin to gather outside of campus to wait for the doors to open.

It was obvious that students want to be there, which makes all their accomplishments seem like the only natural outcome. Students love to learn, and the results speak for themselves.

Success begets success:

CCHS has a long history of alumni involvement. Nearly half of the existing staff are alumni of the school. This trend again speaks to the family culture at work at this school — time has shown that graduates want to remain involved. Betty assured us, “When you ask one of our students where they went to school, they don’t respond with University of Florida, or Miami, or even Georgetown. They tell you they went to Christopher Columbus.”

Alumni who no longer live in Miami stay involved in other ways. NFL star C.J. Henderson, currently of the Carolina Panthers, donated to the school to build world-class athletic training facilities. He attended the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students. Marcus Lemonis, the host of CNBC’s The Profit, returns to the school to mentor Business Club members. The institution has created a positive feedback loop by fostering a family environment and delivering in the ways that matter. CCHS’s past success is now contributing to its current success.

School choice opens endless doors:

Roughly 45% of Columbus students utilize the Florida tax-credit scholarship or other forms of school choice. Yet how each student is funded is somewhat of an afterthought. We asked Betty how school choice has impacted the growth of the school. She said, “At this school, every dollar is used to the benefit of the students. I honestly could not tell you the difference between scholarship dollars and others. Every dollar follows the student.”

That sentiment powerfully reflects the significance of school choice. Because of school choice programs in the background, many students and faculty can enjoy an excellent educational experience in the foreground. The end goal, after much more progress is made, is for school choice to disappear into the background. “Every dollar following the student,” is something we should be able to take completely for granted. At CCHS, and many other schools in Florida, that’s exactly the case.

Christopher Columbus High School shows a recipe for success in the education space, and the potential that exists when dollars follow students. Beyond the joy of everyone there, the most telling moment of the visit came when we were waiting outside the school for our Uber back to our hotel. We had said goodbye to the helpful staff and were standing by the road when three students went out of their way to approach us, ask us how we were doing, and tell us how awesome their school was. We did not ask them any questions – they just wanted to tell us that they love their school. Every student should have that feeling. School choice can open that possibility for countless students like it has in Florida, if only states are bold enough to take that step.

Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc. allocates $12 million to help Florida students

Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc., announced June 2 a $12 million contribution to Step Up For Students, helping nearly 1,575 deserving Florida schoolchildren access the right education to help them succeed.

Since partnering with Step Up For Students in 2012, Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc., a leading wine, spirits, and beer distributor, has generously funded nearly 13,040 scholarships through contributions totaling $85.1 million to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.  Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based scholarship program, which is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations. It allows parents and students to choose between a scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to a different public school.

“Johnson Brothers of Florida is proud to have partnered with Step Up For Students for the past 10 years to help Florida schoolchildren access the best education for them,” said Frank Galante, regional president of Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc. “We are committed to supporting students and families throughout the state and we know our partnership with Step Up For Students is doing just that.”

Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc. announced a $12 million contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (from left to right) are Principal of Icon Preparatory Academy Dr. Dwayne Raiford, President of Step Up For Students Doug Tuthill, General Sales Manager for Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc. Mike Madden, General Manager for Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc. Cullen Sullivan, and Vice President of Development for Step Up for Students Anne Francis.

Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc. celebrated this remarkable donation during a company meeting at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. Company representatives had the opportunity to hear about the impact of their investment and the importance of the scholarship from Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill, and Icon Preparatory School Principal Dr. Dwayne Raiford. Icon Preparatory School is located in Tampa and serves students in grades K-12, with more than 93% of its students benefitting from a Step Up For Students scholarship.

“It is clear that Johnson Brothers of Florida is committed to helping Florida students succeed,” Tuthill said. “Because of their support over the last 10 years, thousands of students throughout the state had access to the educational environment that works best for them, and we are truly grateful for their continued partnership.”

Since 2002, Step Up For Students has awarded more than 1 million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. More than 2,000 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Education choice alumni has clear vision for his future: ‘I want to be a missionary’

BY ROGER MOONEY

FORT MYERS, Florida – Zechariah Edwards sat inside the principal’s office at Sonshine Christian Academy one morning during the final days of his senior year and talked about his future.

“I want to be a missionary,” he said.

Interesting. Why?

“That’s a pretty good question.”

After a few moments of thought, he said, “As a Christian, I feel I have to spread the word to people who don’t know.”

That’s a pretty good answer.

Zech, 17, has a vision for his future that is evolving. He’s not unlike a lot of recent high school graduates in that way. Not too long ago he thought of becoming a doctor. Then a math teacher. Now, a missionary.

“Now I’m set on that,” he said.

Rebecca and Zechariah Edwards.

Zech was the valedictorian of his graduating class at Sonshine Christian, a K-12 private school in Fort Myers where he attended on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.

He received the Super Senior Award at this year’s Rising Stars Awards event. Hosted by Step Up, Rising Stars recognizes students in four categories: Outstanding Character, High Achievement, Turnaround Student and Super Senior. A Super Senior demonstrates academic achievement, leadership, community service and extra-curricular activities.

Zech is headed to Florida Gulf Coast University and plans to major in civil engineering. Thanks to the credits accumulated through dual enrollment at Baptist College of Florida and Southeastern University, he’ll begin his first year with three semesters worth of college credits.

“I think Zech has received a good education (at Sonshine Christian), a strong one” said his mom, Rebecca. “He’s well-rounded in his academics.”

Rebecca is also the principal of Sonshine Christian, so she views the school’s education value from two sides – parent and employee. She wouldn’t work there if she didn’t believe in the school. Nor would she send her children there.

Zech is the third of Eric’s and Rebecca’s children to attend Sonshine Christian. Renae and Timothy have graduated. Matthew is a rising sophomore.

After homeschooling their three oldest for several years, the Edwardses looked for a Christian school. With the help of the tax credit scholarships, they were able to afford Sonshine Christian, which is not far from their home in Alva.

“With Step Up, I’m so thankful we didn’t have to choose public school. We could choose something else,” Rebecca said.

“If I had to put all four of my kids in private school, you’re talking a lot of money. The Step Up programs allows families to have that option that didn’t have that option before. It gives you an option to have a school choice, and there are so many parents here who are able to make a choice where without Step Up they wouldn’t have that ability.”

Zech was president of the student council and captain of both the basketball and flag football teams. He’s a preschool leader and involved in several ministries at his church. An avid chess player, Zech won regional championships during the past two years at the Accelerated Christian Education student convention. He beat his older brother Timothy in 2021 and his younger brother Matthew this past April during the finals.

Zech will pursue a degree in civil engineering at Florida Gulf Coast University.

He works at Bellacino’s Pizza & Grinders in Fort Myers, doing everything from washing dishes to busing tables to answering phones to making pizza and grinders.

Not surprisingly, the valedictorian tutors his classmates in a variety of classes, including math. Especially math.

He loves math, namely precalculus.

“That was fun,” he said. “It was a struggle, but it was fun.”

That was his thought process in becoming a doctor. It would be hard but also fun. But the more he thought about it, the less enamored he became with the idea.

So, he turned to math, his favorite subject. He could become a math teacher, maybe even return to Sonshine Christian. But the excitement surrounding that quickly faded.

It was early in the 2021-22 school year when an evangelist visited the school. Zech was drawn to his stories of work as a missionary. He listened to more accounts of missionary work during a four-day Christian retreat in February. The more he heard, the more he was sold.

“I felt like God was telling me to pursue that,” he said.

A civil engineering degree will give him a background in designing, building and maintaining both physical and natural environments. Just what one needs to work as a missionary in underdeveloped or financially strapped regions of the world.

Zech will receive an early introduction into that life in June when he attends Puerto Rico on a mission trip. He knows the work won’t be easy.

“That makes it fun,” he said. “That makes it interesting.”

His sister Renae, now a preschool teacher, went on several mission trips to the Dominican Republic during high school, so serving their faith in that way runs in the Edwards family.

“I think it’s a good opportunity if Zechariah feels that missionary work is what he wants to do,” Rebecca said. “He needs to step out there and see, get the experience.

“It’s a good first step. Still a big step, and I think it will be good for his leadership. He’s shown a lot of leadership skills this year. I think it will be good experience for him to see what the next step is going to be.”

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

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