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.

Step Up For Students opens online “merch” store

By LISA A. DAVIS

There’s no doubt everyone has it in one form or another, like a T-shirt with a favorite band, a ball cap with a No. 1 sports team, a water bottle with a top brand. Yep, we’re talking about “merch.”

Every fan needs a way – or many – to express his or her loyalty to something they support, and now Step Up For Students’ fans do too.

Introducing our online retail store hosted by Print Your Cause, where anyone can purchase merchandise with our branding. Here scholarship families, supporters and even Step Up employees can bring a little Step Up For Students into their wardrobe, cabinets or lockers.

We have merchandise for sale with our logo and then some super fun items we created with our superheroes with sayings customized for parents, employees, advocates, teachers and, of course, scholars. On our Step Up For Students store website, you can find a variety of T-shirts, backpacks, jackets, hats, water bottles, coffee mugs and more. Oh, there’s even a cool scarf for Fido.

Treat your furry family members to some Step Up gear, too.

“Sometimes at Step Up’s events and conferences, the staff wears special branded T-shirts so attendees can easily spot us if they have a question,” said Alissa Randall Fruchtman, Step Up’s Chief Marketing Officer. “To our surprise, many attendees, often scholarship families, have asked if our shirts are available for purchase. So that’s what sparked the idea to create a Step Up merchandise store.”

The store has given more life to Step Up’s superhero characters, too.

Once we decided to create merchandise, it made sense to add our superheroes into the mix because we’ve had such great feedback on our characters. We think they translated amazingly well to T-Shirts and more.”

The coolest part about having an online store is that for every purchase people make, a portion of the money comes right back to Step Up For Students to help serve our scholarship families.

“When we started developing the store concept, we immediately decided we didn’t want to just make it a simple store. We wanted to give back to the scholarship programs, and during our research we discovered a relatively new concept by Print Your Cause,” Randall Fruchtman said. “We’re thrilled to offer this merchandise and give back to the families we serve this way.”

Jayson Tompkins, who also works for a national fundraising software company, said he came up with the idea of creating Print Your Cause with some friends and built it from there.

“It really all started from the overlap of interests and experience of a few close friends. Between three of us, we had years of experience in printing for local organizations, building software, and a passion for working with nonprofits. We saw and experienced ourselves many of the logistical challenges these organizations had with buying too much merchandise in advance – oftentimes wasting precious resources and left with boxes of leftovers. 

“We knew there had to be a better way. So we went to work on a software platform that could utilize our specialized printing techniques to cut the waste, provide consumers with a better experience, and transform how nonprofits are able to sell their brand and Print Your Cause was born out of that mission.”

Tompkins said his company is thrilled to work with Step Up.

“We are excited to have the opportunity to work with such an incredible organization,” he said. “Step Up For Students is a national leader in providing scholarships for children, and it’s truly an honor for us to provide a service that can help further their mission.”

He’s been working closely with the Step Up Marketing Team to launch the online store.

The partnership has gone beautifully, Randall Fruchtman said.

“We’re thrilled to be working with Print Your Cause. They’ve brought great ideas to the store, one of them being the ability to customize the shirts for scholars, teachers, donors, etc.,” she said. “Also, the products are printed on demand, so there isn’t any waste.

So, we invite you to shop our store and feel good about the purchase.

There’s another way to get Step Up merchandise – and for free. Learn how to sign up for our social influencer program and earn points to win prizes including some items from our store. To learn more about that program, go here.

We would love to see what goodies you get. Please take a picture of you showing off your Step Up gear using the hashtag #ISupportStepUp on our social channels, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. We can’t wait to see the photos.

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

With 2 mouse clicks and a login, telepractice brings speech therapy to Gardiner student’s rural home

By ROGER MOONEY

Beth Flowers logs onto the computer set up in the dining area of the family’s home, and within seconds, Allison Geller, the speech language pathologist who will spend the next hour working with Beth’s daughter, appears on the screen.

Welcome to the world of telepractice.

The Flowers live in Perry, Florida, a rural community in the state’s Big Bend where, Beth said, the nearest speech pathologist is 50 miles away in Tallahassee.

Beth could make the 100-mile round trip three times a week with Bralyn, 12, who is on the autism spectrum and is developmentally delayed. But that’s an inconvenience she wants to avoid, especially since her son Drayden, 8, would be included.

“That’s a lot, to load two small kids (in the car),” Beth said. “(And) it’s not that easy for a child with the daily struggle Bralyn deals with.”

Instead, Bralyn, with the help of a Gardiner Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students for children with certain special needs, works with a speech language pathologist who could not be any closer to her home even though the practice is located nearly 200 miles south in Tampa.

Geller is just two mouse clicks and a login away.

How simple is that?

“No kidding,” Beth said. “It’s amazing.”

Heaven-Sent

Bralyn was born 16 weeks premature. She weighed 1 pound, 11 ounces. As an infant, she needed physical therapy so she could hold her head up. She then needed more physical therapy to learn to sit and walk.

Bralyn shows off some of the medals she earned during a Special Olympics competition.

Bralyn lacked hand-eye coordination and muscle tone, but that didn’t stop her from becoming a Special Olympian, who participates in swimming, gymnastics and soccer skills.

She loves tubbing down the nearby Suwanee River, camping and singing.

Especially singing.

Bralyn can cover any song from classic rock to today’s hits.

“She’s been our radio in the woods,” her mom said. “She’s right on key. There’ll be no other music. It’s straight a cappella, and before you know it, you’re snapping your fingers.”

Beth and her husband Marti decided to home-school Bralyn when she was 8. That left their daughter without access to the speech therapist provided by their district school. Bralyn’s parents could help her with physical and occupational therapy, but for speech therapy, Bralyn needed a professional, and those are hard to find if you live in Perry. Because of that, Bralyn went two years without speech therapy.

Beth was almost resigned to load her children in the car and make the long commute to Tallahassee when she had an idea.

One night in the summer of 2018, she Googled, “online speech therapy.”

Up popped Connected Speech Pathology, Geller’s practice.

“I was at my wits’ end. I had no idea it even existed,” Beth said. “I was taking a shot in the dark. It was heaven-sent.”

The daily routine

Geller has been a speech language therapist for 18 years. She began her telepractice in the spring of 2018 to reach clients who have transportation issues or cannot leave the house.

Allison Geller has been a speech language pathologist for 18 years.

Telepractice is convenient for stroke victims or Parkinson Disease patients or someone with a weakened immune system and must be in a controlled environment, though those disabilities are not covered with the Gardiner Scholarship.

Melissa Jakubowitz, the coordinator for the telepractice special interest group for the American Speech Language and Hearing Association, said telepractice began in the late 1990s and really took off this decade.

“All the research that is available to date shows that it is as effective (as in-person visits with a speech pathologist),” she said. “There is some newer research with kids on the spectrum showing that it might be more effective for kids on the spectrum than in-person therapy, which is really fascinating to me.

“I am eagerly awaiting for more research to come out in that area because I think it might make a big difference for kids on the spectrum down the road and it may be a more preferred way to treat them if the research holds up.”

Geller, who is licensed to practice in Florida, New York and Kansas, uses Zoom, a video conferencing program that allows Bralyn to access the screen and, with the use of her mouse, click on images and boxes and write answers.

“It’s interactive, so it keeps them engaged,” Geller said. “And kids love the remote control.”

They work together for an hour each week, and Geller leaves Beth with instructions and activities for Bralyn to work on before the next session.

Geller’s work with Bralyn is more than just improving her speech. They work on communication and cognitive skills.

Bralyn is learning the different denominations of money and how to use them, how to interpret traffic and safety signs, recognize the changes in the weather and how to dress accordingly, how to prepare herself to go out in public, how to communicate with an adult as opposed to someone her own age, how to write and mail a letter.

One of the first things Geller did with Bralyn was compose a song about her daily routine so she can perform simple tasks many take for granted without being prompted by her mother. Knowing Bralyn’s love of singing, Geller put the song to the tune of “Happy,” by Pharrell Williams.

“Wake up in the morning it’s a great day …”

That’s followed by wash your face, eat breakfast, make your bed, get dressed and so on.

“Bralyn learned that song in two days,” Beth said. “My child can now sing her daily routine and remember.”

‘Sunshine in my life’

Beth is pleased with the strides her daughter has made in the year she has worked with Geller. Her vocabulary has not only improved, but so has her ability to use words correctly.

The Flowers family.

“Bralyn sometimes says things way out of context, but I can tell when certain subjects have clicked because of how she said it,” Beth said. “If you’re talking about money, she might have said, ‘I have monies to buy things.’ Instead she will say, ‘I have money. I can buy things’ or ‘to buy things with.’”

Geller, who has not met Bralyn or Beth in person (but hopes to the next time the Special Olympics is held in Central Florida), has noticed improvements in Bralyn’s communication skills from watching the videos Beth sends from the Special Olympic competitions.

Geller sees a 12-year-old girl laughing and dancing with the other competitors.

“Her face is lit up. She’s so happy and engaged with her friends,” Geller said. “I think she uses a lot of these social skills and communication skills when she’s out there in the real world communicating with other people.”

Beth said her daughter believes in the Little Mermaid, believes in Prince Charming and cannot wait to become a teenager.

“She wants whatever’s good in the world,” Beth said.

Beth calls Bralyn, “the sunshine in my life. It’s impossible to have a bad day with that much happiness.”

But Beth knows Bralyn will never be able to live unsupervised. Still, she wants her daughter to have as much independence as possible. Improving her communications skills is a huge step in that direction. “I want Bralyn to blossom to her fullest potential and do for herself as much as she can,” Beth said. “Obviously, and she wants that for herself, as well. Without (Geller’s) services, that will hinder her even more.”

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

Want to be a Step Up SuperFan? It’s easy and no capes required

By JUDITH THOMAS

Want to be a Step Up For Students hero, but can’t find your cape?

Here’s the next best thing and it’s at your fingertips: Become a Step Up SuperFan.

No capes required.

How? It’s easy: by staying connected with Step Up and becoming a social ambassador. You’re invited to join the Step Up For Students SuperFans program.

We will begin sending you our most exciting news through email to share with your friends and followers. You choose where you share our content and any commentary you wish to make. You can share it through email, on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or all of the above. Sharing our posts helps spread the word about our programs to those who need it most so they can get the educational help they need.

Helping us spread the word so it gets to those who might not know about our five scholarship programs makes you not just a superfan, but a hero in our eyes. And it’s just plain fun.

The best part? The more you share and participate, the more points you’ll earn towards a monthly giveaway. This month we’re giving away a $20 Amazon gift card and one of Step Up’s new promotional items of your choosing (from a selection).

To join now, click on the link below, connect with one of your social networks and start earning points to win. We are extremely grateful to those who help us get the message out.

JOIN STEP UP FOR STUDENTS SUPERFANS

Step Up offering leadership course for private school leaders and aspiring leaders

By ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students Office of Student Learning is offering the Choice Leader of Excellence Certification program to partner private school leaders and aspiring leaders across Florida.

The online course is run in partnership with BloomBoard, the leading platform for enabling education advancement using micro-credentials.

The program begins Sept. 16 and runs until March 1, 2021.

Each micro-credential, according to BloomBoard, defines a specific goal or purpose; proven growth in practice and competence in each skill, and recognition for that growth through a digital certification for the skill.

“Despite most school leaders’ desire for opportunities to hone their craft and improve key practices for teaching and learning, they simply do not have the time to research and create their own professional growth experiences,” said Carol Macedonia, vice president of the Office of Student Learning at Step Up for Students. “Through this new certification program, Step Up For Students is committed to providing school leaders with personalized, job-embedded professional learning that is tailored to the culture of private education settings and results in a change of practice, not just learning.”

Participants have 18 months to earn eight micro-credentials – six required and two electives – that are designed to foster professional growth and forward thinking for school leaders. To earn a micro-credential, participants must demonstrate competency in specific areas. A certificate is awarded upon earning the eight micro-credentials.

“Step Up for Students believes that the Choice Leader of Excellence Certification Program is an important vehicle by which we can help administrators improve and refine their practice and elevate the impact their school has on the lives of their students,” said Jamie Onorato, Step Up For Students’ Office of Student Learning coordinator.

The required micro-credentials are:

  • Guiding schoolwide positive student conduct.
  • Engaging families in support of student learning.
  • Selecting and facilitating use of common instructional strategies.
  • Adopting a systems approach to school improvement.
  • Developing distributive leadership teams in support of academic success.
  • Your choice: Mission, vision, values.

Participants choose two of the following electives:

  • Equity and cultural responsiveness.
  • Promoting professional learning for continuous improvement.
  • Operations and management.

The benefits of completing this program are school distinction (a searchable filter on Step Up For Students’ ‘Find a School’ tool), board leverage (ability to demonstrate competency as a school leader) and leadership building.

“School leaders have a significant influence on student learning and it’s imperative that we provide them with professional learning opportunities that are personalized to their individual needs,” BloomBoard CEO Sanford Kenyon said. “We’re excited to partner with Step Up for Students to offer private school leaders around the state an opportunity to build capacity while gaining opportunities for incentives and advancement.”

Registration, which closes Aug. 26, is $695. There is a $100 reimbursement upon completion. Payment plans are available.

For more information, contact Onorato at jonorato@sufs.org or 904-616-7765.

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

Lofty grades, lofty goals lead to QuestBridge Scholarships for Jesuit High graduates

By ROGER MOONEY

TAMPA – Trace Nuss was in the library at Jesuit High School a few weeks before Christmas when he received the email that he called, “absolutely life-changing.” He had been accepted to Princeton University on a QuestBridge Scholarship.

“To know that I will be able to go to one of the top universities, not only in the nation but in the entire world and be supported all the way through financially, means the world to me,” Trace, 18, said. “It’s amazing.”

That same day, fellow senior Miguel Coste Jr., received a similar email from QuestBridge. He had been accepted to the University of Notre Dame.

“I’m grateful,” Miguel, 18, said, “Eternally grateful.”

Both young men attended Jesuit, a catholic high school in Tampa, using Florida Tax Credit Scholarships run by Step Up For Students.

Miguel Coste Jr. (left) and Trace Nuss

Miguel and Trace each scored high enough as eighth graders on Jesuit’s entrance exam to qualify for the school’s financial assistance package, which covered roughly half of the tuition. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarships covered the rest.

“We’re so thankful for Step Up and the opportunity they gave him,” said Lisa Nuss, Trace’s mother. “We wanted him to have every opportunity available to him, and we didn’t want any of our circumstances to get in his way.”

Lofty goals

Based in California, QuestBridge is a nonprofit organization that runs the QuestBridge Scholarship. It was designed to help head-of-the-class students from low-income backgrounds attend some of the country’s best colleges and universities.

For Trace, the scholarship means he can major in history and political science at an Ivy League school while setting the foundation for a career as a civil rights attorney. His goal is to protect the rights of those with mental and physical disabilities to ensure they are not abused, a pursuit forged during his years of working with Special Olympic athletes.

For Miguel, it means he will be first in his family to attend college as he begins his journey toward a career as a doctor who brings quality healthcare to lower-income families and neighborhoods. That quest stems from his economic background and the fact both of his parents suffer from debilitating health issues.

“This,” said Miguel’s mom, Nordis Del Toro, “is absolutely fabulous.”

More than 16,000 high school seniors nationwide applied in 2018 for a QuestBridge Scholarship. Only 1,044 were awarded.

Trace and Miguel join Tommy Pham, also a former Step Up recipient and 2018 graduate, as Jesuit’s only QuestBridge scholars since the program began in 2004. Pham recently completed his freshman year at Notre Dame.

The path to Princeton

Trace is the only child of Lisa and Richard Nuss Jr. Richard suffers from Brown-Séquard syndrome, a neurological condition caused by a lesion in the spinal cord, and is unable to work. Whatever financial hardship that presented certainly didn’t hold Trace back inside or outside the classroom.

He is one of 161 high school seniors nationwide to be named a Presidential Scholar, an honor that came with a trip in June to Washington D.C. and a meet-and-greet with President Donald Trump.

“It’s just amazing to be recognized for all the hard work and dedication I’ve put into my studies,” he said.

Trace scored a 1550 on his SAT, graduated high school with an unweighted 4.0 GPA and was a National Merit semifinalist. He was a member of Jesuit’s Key Club, the Tampa Mayor’s Youth Corps and received the H. Norman Schwarzkopf Leadership Award from the West Point Society.

Trace was honored in March by the Tampa Bay Lightning as a Community Hero of Tomorrow. (Photo provided by the Tampa Bay Lightning)

Trace was honored in March as a Community Hero of Tomorrow by the Tampa Bay Lightning for his work with Special Olympics, something he began doing during his freshman year at Jesuit.

“Once I was there, some of the athletes were like, ‘Oh Trace, can you come to our football practice? Can you come to our volleyball practice? And I slowly and slowly got more involved with all the different sports that Special Olympics offers and got to see how life-changing these activities are for people,” he said.

The Lightning awards $50,000 to a community hero every home game. Half goes to the student’s education; the other half goes to a charity of his choice. Trace chose the Special Olympics of Florida and Superstars of Hillsborough.

The Lightning provide a suite for the Community Hero honoree. Trace filled it with Special Olympic athletes.

A captain of Jesuit’s bowling team as a senior, Trace received a scholarship from the U.S. Bowling Congress, was named to the Dexter High School All-American Bowling Team and received the 2019 Chuck Hall Stars of Tomorrow Award by the International Bowling Campus Youth Committee.

He recently competed in his second Teen Masters, the top tournament for teenage bowlers.

Trace, who carries a 209 average and once bowled a 300 game as a freshman, coaches and supervises the Superstars Bowling League in Tampa for bowlers with physical and cognitive disabilities.

“He’s an inherently good person who’s kind and compassionate,” Lisa Nuss said. “He’s wanted to change the world for as long as I can remember.”

One of the more impactful moments of his high school career came last summer during a Jesuit-sponsored mission trip to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. There, Trace and several of his classmates encountered children living in extreme poverty.

“Their life was such hardship and difficulty that it’s something that I’ll never experience,” Trace said. “It was kind of a life-changing moment to see how the poverty in some places in the country and how much it needs to be changed and aided.”

When he returned home, Trace wrote a note to his mom, thanking her for letting him attend the mission. Then he filled a few boxes with toys and supplies and mailed them to the reservation.

“I’m truly thankful for the Step Up scholarship,” Trace said. “I feel that’s what drives me to service, because someone is doing the service for me, so I want to give back to the community, give back to other people. I want to pay it forward.”

The path to Notre Dame

Miguel will major in premed and minor in poverty studies.

Why poverty studies?

“I enjoy helping people in that state of living,” he said.

Since his freshman year, Miguel has volunteered at Tampa Bay Harvest, an organization that collects and distributes food to the hungry and homeless in the bay area.

“I think that helped him set his goal when he realized how many people in this world are needy,” Nordis said.

Miguel (top) captured a district wrestling title during his senior year.

Like Trace, Miguel has an unweighted 4.0 GPA and was a member of Jesuit’s Key Club. He scored a 1510 on the SAT, is an AP Scholar with Distinction and was a tri-valedictorian of his graduation class.

He also served as a peer minister and an alter server during his four years in high school.

Last winter, Miguel won a district championship as a member of Jesuit’s wrestling team.

His parents, Miguel Coste Sr., and Nordis, endured their own hardship when they emigrated from their native countries – Miguel Sr. from the Dominican Republic when he was 30; Nordis from Cuba when she was 8.

Miguel Sr. was born without the use of his left arm. He managed to find work as a truck driver until he was injured 10 years ago and forced to retire. He does not speak English well, but managed to volunteer his time at Jesuit as often as possible during the last four years.

Nordis worked at a printing company before having to quit because of diabetes and arthritis.

The couple is also raising two granddaughters because their mother is in prison.

Miguel works at a restaurant to help his parents pay some bills. He also volunteers this summer in the interventional radiology department at St. Joe’s Hospital in Tampa.

Those who apply for a QuestBridge Scholarship are required to write a series of essays – some general, others aimed at a specific school.

One essay asked applicants to write about themselves.

“I wrote about what drives me, my parents and the sacrifices they made, and my siblings, they didn’t meet their potential and how that motivated me,” Miguel said. “I see everything kind of as a competition, because that’s what it is. You’re competing when you go to school. You’re competing to get a better education to be more successful. I used my socioeconomic status and everyone around me as a competition. I didn’t deliberately think about it. It was a subconscious one.”

Nordis first heard her son talk of being a doctor when he was a sophomore.

“Junior year, he was insisting he was going to be a doctor,” he said. “I was so proud of him. Not many kids his age have their goals set up on being a doctor.”

The right situation

Miguel and Trace set themselves up for college during their time at Jesuit. Trace figured he was heading to the University of Florida.

“I had always been a Gator fan,” Trace said. “I always loved the University of Florida. I never thought these schools outside of Florida were a possibility.”

Miguel was interested in Florida, Florida State and Boston College.

Then, during their junior year, Fernando Rodriguez, Jesuit’s director of college counseling, told them both about QuestBridge.

As they moved through the application process, they were matched with some of the top colleges in the country. So, Miguel added Vanderbilt and Notre Dame to his list of colleges. Trace added Notre Dame and Princeton.

Now, Miguel is headed Notre Dame.

“I was fortunate enough to be placed in the right situation to succeed,” Miguel said, “and (QuestBridge) recognize that.”

And Trace is headed to Princeton.

“The Ivy League wasn’t even … that’s like a dream,” Trace said. “I didn’t think that was even possible. It’s been some road.”

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

About Jesuit High School

Established in 1899, Jesuit High has 800 students enrolled in grades 9 through 12. Jesuit provides a college prep curriculum to prepare students for higher education. Tuition is $16,765 plus fees. Need-based financial aid and merit scholarships are available to those who qualify.

Read! Read! Read!

By CAROL MACEDONIA

Kids Who Read Beat Summer Slide. Studies show that access to books during the summer prevents a drastic loss in reading skill - especially for kids in need. (PRNewsFoto/First Book)

today's lesson snipIf this graphic above caught your attention, read on.  As a parent of a now-grown son who is a successful attorney, I can tell you that years ago I was that parent trying to figure how to get my very athletic, very intelligent son to enjoy – or at least partake in –  reading that was not  a “school assignment.” I was determined to have him love reading even if it was the last thing he wanted to do!!!  For him, it wasn’t that he couldn’t read, rather, it was he simply didn’t see the need to read.   So I set out to create reasons why a 9-year-old would actually want to pick up some form of text (notice I didn’t say a book) and read. Now 20 years later, I’m happy to report that although it took some time my plan worked!!

So here’s my summer formula for reading with reluctant readers!! READ, READ, READ and then read some more!

First, figure out what makes your child click. Is water sports? Climbing trees? Creepy bugs? Or things that bump in the night? Summer can be a busy time for families to fit reading into their daily routine, but like the Nike ad says, “Just Do  It!” Make it a habit that is embraced by your whole family.

That’s right, mom, dad, auntie and grandpa need to be seen reading and TALKING about what they read! A habit only takes 21 days to establish and after that it is very hard to break.

(Do you know any children who struggle to read? Step Up For Students offers the Reading Scholarship Accounts for parents with children in public school to access services for their children in grades three through five who are having trouble reading. Click here to learn more.)

I also know the importance of walking the talk and decided that whatever I would entice my son to read, I’d also read. This opened up great avenues for conversation and eventually even spirited debates about the virtues of a character in a book or predicting just how the story would end.  Conversations about what we were reading often branched off into other topics and created common grounds for reflections and clarifying our beliefs and value.kids on books

Throughout the summer months, I stayed focused on my son’s passions and one morning next to his cereal bowl, I left a magazine article that featured a 10-year-old who ran a triathlon. To challenge my very competitive son I simply said, “Wow, did you see that a 10-year-old finished a triathlon, I wonder if you could too?”  With that single statement he was hooked and off he went to devour the story and soon returned to share his plan for competing in a local race. I did a happy dance, as not only was he planning to compete in a triathlon, he actually asked if I had anything else he could read about world-class runners!

Then we set a target of books to read in a month. I should have known my son was predestined to be an attorney when he wanted to negotiate the numbers of pages of text versus pictures in the book that would constitute reaching his goal. Speaking of pictures, don’t ignore the strategically placed illustrations. Those pictures are great for connecting the story to real-life experiences: predicting what happens next and why, thinking about the author’s purpose for writing the book, and sharing the “movie in the reader’s mind” that the story was conjuring. For our plan, we finally agreed on 10 books or news articles (not too long!) for each month.

5fingerNext, pick “Just Right Books” with your reader As we went off to search for the books that he wouldn’t be able to put down, I had to make sure he had the “Just Right Book” in his hands— not too easy, but not too hard! A super easy way to make sure your child is selecting a book that they won’t labor over and forget why they are reading or speed through with little thought to the meaning is to use the 5 Finger Rule to pick a “Just Right Book,” Kids learn this quickly and for the most part it is a fail-safe quickie to help ensure you have “just right books” for your children.

Now Read every day! So armed with a backpack of those “Just Right Books,” the next step in the plan was to read every day. It doesn’t matter what it is just read something! Bear in mind this did not mean that I set the kitchen timer and had my son read until it buzzed. No way!! Do we, as impassioned readers, read that way? I tried to make it authentic, real. Some days I even read him stories from the newspaper. You guessed it, usually from the sports section, of course, or he’d read the classified ads, looking for a cheap bike, or we’d read together a chapter of one of his “Just Right Books” or while we were in the grocery store I’d give him a detailed list (ex. 2 ½  pounds of jumbo tiger shrimp) that he was responsible for finding. And I made sure he saw me reading. I wanted him to see that I set time aside in our hectic day to slow down and read. It’s that important.

Our Summer Reading Plan became a tradition in our family. Even to the extent of taking a special book or two on vacations to the beach or mountains. Now fast forward to this summer when my now 30-year old very professional, but still extremely sports-minded attorney son stopped by the house this spring. He was dropping off a Mothers Day gift: “The Autobiography of Mark Twain.” It was a great gift and great book, but the greatest gift was his words that accompanied the book, “Hey Mom I’m reading this too. Get started so we can talk about this guys’s crazy life!”

My Summer Reading Plan had worked!!!

Carol Macedonia is the vice president and founder of Step Up’s Office of Student Learning department. She came to us eight years ago after a 31-year career in the Pinellas County School District, where she rose to an assistant superintendent of schools. 

Florida Parent Network becomes Florida Voices For Choices

By LISA A. DAVIS

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The Florida Parent Network is now Florida Voices For Choices, a change that reflects the many supporters — beyond parents
— for the education choice movement.

Catherine Durkin Robinson

“While parents and their children are at the core of what we do, our advocates include grandparents, foster parents, educators, alumni, faith leaders and more,” said Catherine Durkin Robinson, executive director of Florida Voices For Choices. “It was time we make our name more encompassing of all of our supporters.”

But the name is all that’s changed.

“New name. Same mission,” Robinson said.

Florida Voices For Choices, the advocacy arm of Step Up For Students, organizes and mobilizes its members. Step Up For Students, a Florida-based nonprofit scholarship funding organization and the largest of its kind in the nation, served more than 110,000 children in Florida for the 2018-19 school year through four scholarship programs.

With Robinson and her team at the helm in Florida, they are among the hundreds of thousands of advocates fighting for children to be educated based on how they learn, rather than where they live.

“Instead of forming different networks, we’re more powerful together. We’re proud of this name change to Florida Voices For Choices,” Robinson said. “We still organize advocates for scholarship programs, charter schools, magnets, virtual schools, homeschools and vouchers. “

The group, which also partners with the Florida Charter School Alliance, works with supporters year-round to mobilize advocates in support of legislation that will get more children off waiting lists and into great schools. They also register voters and keep advocates aware of lawmakers who support, and oppose, their rights to choose the best school or learning environment for their kids. One of its most successful events was back in January 2016, when it organized more than 10,000 Florida Tax Credit Scholarship supporters from throughout Florida to march in Tallahassee when a lawsuit threatened to close down the program.

“That was an amazing day,” Robinson recalled. “But every day brings a new challenge and we need these programs for schoolchildren to continue to gain strength. We still fight for educational equity for all.”

Follow Florida Voices For Choices on social media and text FVFC to 52886 for timely updates.

Young readers learn value of collaboration as friends help a skunk find his stink

By ROGER MOONEY

It’s a sad day for a skunk who loses his stink, especially when the skunk is the sheriff, and his stink is his way of keeping the locals in line.

Ah, but that is the plight of Señor Olor.

The coauthors hope this is the first in a series of books that teach social emotional learning lessons to children pre-K to second grade.

When Bandido the raccoon is seen robbing the grocery store, the sheriff arrives to save the day.

“Put your paws up, or I’ll spray,” shouts the sheriff.

Bring it on, says Bandido.

The sheriff spins, raises his tail and …

¡Nada!

“What’s wrong, Señor? Cat got your stink?” shouts Bandido, as he makes off with his ill-gotten booty.

So begins the tale of Señor Olor, the hero of “The Skunk Who Lost His Stink.”

Published in late-December of 2018, the children’s book aimed at readers pre-K-to-second grade, was coauthored by Jessica Sergiacomi and Jacquelyn Covert, both 32.

Sergiacomi taught first grade at Miami Shores Presbyterian Church School, a K-5 school that accepts Step Up For Students scholarships. (Beginning in August, Sergiacomi will teach third grade at Miami Country Day School in Miami Shores.) She received the Exceptional Teacher Award in February at the Rising Stars Event, hosted by Step Up.

“She’s so creative,” said Emily Ashworth, whose son Wesley is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum and attends Miami Shores Presbyterian on a Gardiner Scholarship, administered by Step Up.

So is Covert, who attended The Benjamin School in Palm Beach and is now a Realtor living with her family in Charleston, S.C.

The two became friends in 2005 during move-in day of their freshman year at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.

They began writing books together during their junior year and have written close to 15. All are children’s books with a strong message.

“The Skunk Who Lost His Stink” is the first to be self-published.

The idea, Sergiacomi said, came from her dad.

“It was a few years ago, and my dad said, ‘Baby skunks don’t spray.’ I thought, ‘Oh, that would be a cool title, ‘The Skunk Who Lost His Stink,’ and it went from there,” Sergiacomi said.

It took them an hour to write the first draft.

“We cracked up the whole time,” Covert said.

That’s because they mix humor with a storyline of collaboration.

“Having friends who help. Having friends by your side,” Sergiacomi said.

Ivanna the Iguana, Aramis Dillo the armadillo, and Quill the porcupine join Señor Olor as he journeys to meet the wise grey wolf.

They believe wise grey wolf will help the sheriff find his stink.

Spoiler alert: She does.

She suddenly howls and scares the, um, stink out of the sheriff.

The coauthors: Jackie Covert and Jessica Sergiacomi

That part causes quite the stir when Sergiacomi and Covert read their book to children at schools and libraries.

“We do get a lot of giggles,” Covert said.

The children howl along with the wise grey wolf, and Sergiacomi, dressed in a skunk costume she bought on Amazon, pretends to find her stink.

“This is why (Sergiacomi is) so great,” Ashworth said. “She really gets into the minds of these kids and figures them out. It’s the perfect lower-elementary school level humor, and they think it’s hilarious.”

But there is more to “The Skunk Who Lost His Stink” than some potty humor.

Sergiacomi wants to learn Spanish, so she and Covert sprinkled Spanish words throughout the book.

Señor Olor translates to Mr. Stink.

The Bandido (bandit) robs La Basura (the trash), which is the local grocery store. The characters live in El Pueblo de Animales (The Village of the Animals).

To give their young female readers a strong female character, the coauthors made the wise grey wolf a female.

There is also a social emotional learning (SEL) theme to the book. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning defines social emotional learning as the process where students learn how to manage and understand emotions, act responsibly, maintain positive relationships, achieve goals and display empathy.

Patricia Handly, the former curriculum director at Miami Shores Presbyterian, taught Sergiacomi how to teach social emotional learning.

“It’s really the key,” Sergiacomi said. “It’s a big part of my motivation for teaching. I feel very passionate about SEL, and I incorporate it in my daily lessons. I am the teacher I am today because of (Handly).”

Sergiacomi dresses like the hero of her book when visiting schools and libraries for readings.

While it took Sergiacomi and Covert an hour to write the story, it took them nearly four years to get it published. The biggest piece was finding an illustrator. They used Richard Kenyon, Sergiacomi’s friend from elementary school.

The two authors are already working on a sequel with an anti-violence theme.

“We’ll find out the raccoon is not so bad at all,” Sergiacomi said. “He’s stealing food to feed his cousins. Everyone has a little good in them. He’s trying to help his friends.”

There is talk of a prequel, a story of how Señor Olor became sheriff. If you pay close attention to the illustrations on the first page of the text, you’ll notice photos hanging on the wall of Señor Olor’s home of the sheriffs in his family. One is a female.

Señora Olor?

“These are just ideas floating around,” Sergiacomi said.

The coauthors want to continue this series before moving on to some of their other unpublished works.

“It’s a start,” Sergiacomi said. “The goal is to have a whole bunch of these books with social emotional learning themes.”

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

A science project and a hit movie has this scholar reaching for the stars

By ROGER MOONEY

PENSACOLA, Fla. – Zanaya Chase wants to be a fashion designer. Or a scientist.

Or, a fashion designer and scientist.

“I want to make products that can better this world,” she said.

For as long as she can remember, Zanaya wanted to design outfits that are mall-hip or red carpet-chic. Lately, she’s thought of another avenue for her creativity: spacesuits. Functional and stylish.

“If a lady wants to go into space and she wants to look good, I got something for her,” said Zanaya, 12, a sixth-grader at the Dixon School of Arts & Sciences in Pensacola.

“Why not?” asked her mother, Zoila Davis, who is thrilled to hear her daughter talk confidently about her future.

The science project at nearby Carpenter Creek has opened a new world for Dixon students Zanaya Chase, Ty’Shawn Jenkins and Jayla Brown

“I always tell her, ‘You do what makes you happy. Do what you like and what interests you and not somebody else,’” Davis said. “Just do something productive. That’s all I ask.”

Getting Zanaya to this point was not easy. It took three schools, one hit motion picture, her inclusion in a school science project and a chance encounter with an African-American female scientist at NASA.

“It’s turned out wonderful, just as we hoped it would,” said Margo Long, Zanaya’s aunt and the parent liaison at the Dixon School.

Expanding minds

It was former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, “The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of bigger ideas, never returns to its original size.

Dixon School principal Donna Curry embraces that concept.

Curry believes there is a switch inside each student that once flipped, unleashes unlimited potential.

She sees the Dixon School as a launching pad of possibilities for her students, nearly all of whom come from lower-income households and attend the K-8 private school with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students.

Dixon principal Donna Curry

“Many of our children have lost hope (because of their economic situation),” Curry said. “They don’t see themselves going anywhere or doing anything other than what they see (on the streets). So to turn that light on and for them to say, ‘I want to be an engineer,’ or ‘I want to be a scientist,’ or ‘I want to be a fashion designer,’ or ‘I want to be a chef,’ and know that the light is on, we found the switch.”

For Zanaya, who has a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, flipping that switch came in steps, the first of which was when Davis enrolled her daughter in the Dixon School.

Finding the switch

Zanaya attended her neighborhood school for two years and passed her classes, but said she didn’t feel as if she was learning anything. She attended a private school in third grade but didn’t think it was a good fit.

Life away from school during that time wasn’t easy. Her parents had starts and stops trying to make it as a family, and Zanaya spent time with her father in Miami and her mother in Pensacola.

Long noticed her niece never seemed happy.

“You could tell she had a lot of heaviness on her,” Long said. “She was in a dark place.”

Zanaya, who lives with her mom just north of Pensacola, was going into the fourth grade when her aunt joined the Dixon staff. Zanaya, enticed by the school that emphasis art and science and is heavy on project-based learning, quickly followed.

The art side of Dixon appealed to Zanaya. Davis said her daughter would spend hours cutting construction paper and, using her imagination, made things she wanted, like a laptop or a cell phone.

“She is very, very creative,” Davis said.

The move “Hidden Figures,” with its strong African-American female characters, had an impact on Zanaya.

Step Two occurred when Long took Zanaya to see the movie, “Hidden Figures,” a film about a trio of African-American female mathematicians and engineers who worked at NASA and played a pivotal role during the early 1960s when John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth.

“That actually inspired me,” Zanaya said.

Step Three happened in 2017 when Curry allowed Zanaya to join Jayla Brown and Ty’Shawn Jenkins, Dixon students who are a grade ahead of Zanaya, in a science project that required them to test water samples at Carpenter Creek, measure the width and depth of the creek and interview fisherman to determine which fish swim there.

Their findings earned them the status of “citizen scientist” and landed them a spot on the exhibition floor at the American Geophysical Union, held that December in New Orleans.

According to the organization’s website, the conference is “the largest worldwide conference in the geophysical sciences, attracting more than 22,000 Earth and space scientists, educators, students, and other leaders.”

For Zanaya, the switch was fully flipped at the convention when she met a NASA scientist.

“When I saw her, I said, ‘Oh my gosh. She’s a lady, and she’s African-American,’” Zanaya said. “I do want to learn about science and outer space. I always wonder if there is more than this universe.”

Hope for the future

Working alongside Jayla and Ty’Shawn in the mud at the creek served as motivation for Zanaya.

Dixon science teacher Michaela Norman, Jayla, Elizabeth Eubanks (who coordinates the science project), Ty’Shawn, Zanaya and Margo Long at Step Up’s Rising Star event in February.

Phase II of their Carpenter Creek project required them to identify the insects that are part of the food chain. Once again, they were invited to the American Geophysical Union conference, held December 2018 in Washington D.C.

The trio have begun work on Phase III, which requires them to develop their own questions about life at the creek and research the answers. A trip to the America Geophysical Union conference this December in San Francisco rides on this phase.

Both Ty’Shawn and Jayla, who attend Dixon on Florida Tax Credit scholarships, are excellent students, and both are excited about their future.

Everyone who knows Jayla, 12, tells her she would be a perfect fit as a criminal profiler at the CIA. She agrees. She enjoys watching crime shows, and she describes herself as the quiet observer in class.

“I like to get in people’s head and figure out why they do the things they do,” she said.

So, a future with the CIA?

“One day,” she said.

For Ty’Shawn, also 12, it might be a life studying living things.

“I really want to start learning what insects and other animals do to our world, our lives,” he said.

Great Expectations

Long, who came to Dixon after a career in law enforcement that included stints as a police officer and a prison guard working death row, is excited to work with students who have high expectations for their futures.

“It is amazing that for all of the negative that is on TV that these children still have the hope and the dream,” she said. “As far as they’re concerned, it is possible. No one has taken that innocence away from them or dulled that possibility that it can happen, so go for it.”A

Zanaya returns home from school each afternoon eager to tell her mom about what she learned that day. Davis said her daughter never talked like that before she began attending Dixon.

“Her mind has really opened,” Davis said. “It’s been a complete turnaround. She’s very independent. I don’t have to check on her with her schoolwork. She’s on top of her assignments. She communicated with her teachers. She gets good grades.

“They really did find that switch.”

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

About the Dixon School of Arts & Sciences

Founded in 2008, the private K-8 school offers a fine arts, science, technology, engineering, arts and math. The school blends core academics with field trips and the arts. Tuition is $4,600 plus an additional $2,400 in registration, fees, books and supplied, transportation and field trips. More than 90 percent of the students are on Step Up scholarships.

Step Up’s Jacksonville office ranked among best places to work in that city

BY ROGER MOONEY

The honors continue to roll in for Step Up For Students.

The nonprofit’s Jacksonville office was ranked among the top places to work in that city by the Jacksonville Business Journal, placing third in the category for Large Companies (100-249 employees).

“It is such an honor that our employees are being recognized for the work they do each day to create an organizational culture that enables us to fulfill our mission to the best of our abilities,” said Anne White, Step Up’s chief administrative officer.

Representing Step Up’s Jacksonville office at the event were
(top row from left) Jessica Detmer, Diana Beane, Anne White, Renae Sweeney, Kym Beelman (bottom row from left) Judith Thomas, Andrea Thoermer and Kaitlyn Laudenslager

The Jacksonville Business Journal partnered with Quantum Workplace, an employee engagement research firm, to compile the rankings. Quantum Research surveys employees and analyzes the results to determine employee satisfaction.

Employees are evaluated in the areas of team effectiveness, retention risk, alignment with goals, trust with co-workers, individual contribution, manager effectiveness, trust in senior leaders, feeling valued, work engagement and people practices.

The results were announced May 23 at an event held at the Baseball Grounds at Jacksonville.

Step Up’s Clearwater office was recently ranked eighth among large companies in the Tampa Bay area by the Tampa Bay Business Journal.

Nationally, Step Up was ranked 19th on Forbes’ list of America’s Top Charities 2018. It was also recognized in 2018 for its financial accountability and transparency from two nonprofit watchdog groups: Charity Navigator and GuideStar. Charity Navigator awarded Step Up a four-star rating for the seventh consecutive year, a credit that only 4 percent of charities have earned by the nation’s top charity evaluator. Step Up has earned the Platinum Seal of Transparency with GuideStar, a public database that evaluates the mission and effectiveness of nonprofits.

Step Up helps more than 115,000 pre-K-12 children annually in Florida gain access to education options by helping manage five scholarship programs: The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and recently created Family Empowerment Scholarship for lower-income families; the Gardiner Scholarship for children with special needs or unique abilities; the Hope Scholarship for students who have been bullied at a public school; and the Reading Scholarship Accounts for children in grades 3-5 who struggle with reading.

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

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