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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.

Sunshine Health donates $20 million to support Florida schoolchildren

Sunshine Health will fund scholarships for 2,625 deserving students with a $20 million contribution to Step Up For Students, the nonprofit organization that manages the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

A longtime partner of Step Up For Students, Sunshine Health has generously funded 8,738 scholarships since 2004 through contributions totaling more than $59.5 million, including its most recent contribution of $20 million. The income-based scholarship program is funded by tax-credited contributions from corporations. The K-12 scholarships allow Florida students to pursue and engage in the best learning environments for their individual needs by attending private or out-of-district public schools.

Sunshine Health, a wholly owned subsidiary of Centene Corporation, is one of the largest healthcare plans in Florida and is committed to transforming the health of the community one person at a time.

A healthy body starts with a healthy mind, and Step Up scholarships help students like Yonas Worku.  Yonas emigrated from Ethiopia when he was 5 and, with the help of a Step Up scholarship, attended Sacred Heart Catholic School before going to Bishop John Snyder High School in Jacksonville.

Yonas Worku, who benefited from the Step Up For Students scholarship, graduated valedictorian from Bishop John Snyder High School and is now attending the University of Florida.

“Step Up was a big help,” Yonas said. “A very big help. We didn’t have any money. It was paycheck-to-paycheck.”

Yonas said he wanted to help his mother, but when he talked of getting a job, she told him to work on school.

“I realized that education was the most important thing in this country and that through it, Yonas can become a better individual,” said his mother, Zinash Tekleweld, who now works as a school janitor. “Education is the key to getting anything that he wants. I realized that it can open many doors for him in the future.”

Yonas recently graduated as valedictorian from Bishop John Snyder High School and is currently taking classes at the University of Florida, where he will major in computer science.

Just like Yonas, thousands of Florida schoolchildren are benefiting from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program managed by Step Up For Students.

“We are committed to improving the health of communities across Florida,” said Nathan Landsbaum, Sunshine Health President and CEO. “Education is an important Social Determinant of Health. We are proud to increase our support of Step Up For Students and provide even more Florida schoolchildren with the educational opportunities they deserve.”

Since 2002, Step Up For Students has awarded more than 1 million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

“Because of this incredible contribution from Sunshine Health, thousands of Florida’s students are provided the educational options they need to succeed,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful for their continued partnership and commitment to transforming the lives of Florida’s schoolchildren.”

Addi’s Memorial Park: A place to remember a brave little girl

By Scott Kent

Outside the second-story window of Addison Sinclair’s pink bedroom in Windermere, Florida, across an asphalt bike path, amidst a copse of oak trees draped in Spanish moss, is a green space that will become a memorial to the little girl who is no longer there to view it.

“Addi,” as she was called by her family and friends, passed away Dec. 29, 2020, after a five-year battle with cancer. She was 8.

“Resilient” is how Kara Sinclair described her daughter, who was diagnosed with Stage IV Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer, when she was 3 years old in 2015. Addi initially endured a year-and-a-half of treatments that included chemotherapy, radiation, and multiple surgeries. Over the next five years, Addi’s cancer recurred nine times.

“She faced things that would knock any adult down. She didn’t let it knock her down,” Kara said. “She always had spunk and charisma. Always looked forward to the next day.”

Kara and her husband, Mark, tried to keep their daughter’s childhood as normal as possible during those difficult times. That included ensuring Addi received an education. She initially tried attending a public school, but she missed so much classroom time because of her treatments that she was forced to stay home. Her kindergarten teacher would come to the house to work with her, but it proved not to be a long-term solution. Addi’s compromised immune system also eventually negated the possibility of class instruction.

Then in 2019 a hospital social worker told Kara about the Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs (now called the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities), administered by Step Up For Students. The program provides families with up to $10,000 annually in an education savings account, which gives them the flexibility to spend the funds in a variety of ways to customize their children’s education – on private school tuition, materials, therapies, etc.

The Sinclairs used theirs to hire an at-home tutor for Addi, and to purchase an online curriculum as well as a laptop computer, books, and educational games. That allowed them to work around her treatment schedules. Addi blossomed as a student.

“She loved her tutor,” Kara said. “She was a hard worker, and once she had consistency in her schoolwork she picked up reading. She always looked forward to her tutor coming in, she enjoyed having someone there to provide hands-on instruction.”

Without the scholarship, Kara said, the tutor and curriculum would’ve been an additional out-of-pocket expense competing with “insane” medical bills.

“We would’ve had to prioritize med over ed,” she said.

It also would’ve hamstrung the family’s ability to provide Addi many of the activities children her age – and beyond – enjoy. Indeed, they packed decades of experiences into Addi’s short lifetime. The family went on several cruises and beach vacations (Addi loved the sand). Addi had more than 10 Disney staycations, visited several theme parks, and traveled to California, New York, South Carolina, Georgia, and Ohio.

She became a Daisy Girl Scout, and was thrilled to earn badges and win the top Cookie Sales award. Addi also had an artistic side. She made jewelry. She put on puppet shows. She loved all musicals. She enjoyed singing, and she took a dance class. She learned to swim, and her parents built a swimming pool in the back yard, where she spent hours with her friends and “became a little fish.”

Kara said her daughter “never took a nap” and “rarely sat down,” bouncing through the house with the energy of a typical 8-year-old.

The last two months of her life, Addi finally began to slow down. But even when she wasn’t feeling well in her final days, her mother said, she was polite and always used her manners.

Addi passed away at home four days after Christmas, surrounded by her parents, her older brother William, her puppies, and her beloved doll baby.

Addi provided many lasting memories in her short time on earth, but her parents wanted something more. Something physical that others could experience, connecting it to the little girl who brought so much joy to those who knew her. A place where you can hear children’s laughter and families can go as a distraction from what life throws at us. As the Sinclairs said, childhood is short, and none of us know what tomorrow will bring.

That’s when they got the idea to turn that green space outside Addi’s bedroom window into a memorial park for other children and families to play in.

“It seemed like a perfect fit,” Kara said. “She would meet up with neighborhood friends there, and she always said it should have picnic table and swing. It makes sense. She was a kid. She played.”

Addi’s Memorial Park is planned to have that picnic table and swing, as well as benches and playground equipment, such as slides, climbing areas, and a crawl tunnel. The neighborhood homeowner’s association approved the proposal and has agreed to maintain the park.

The Sinclairs are seeking assistance in funding the project. They plan to hold fundraisers (COVID-19 permitting), and they have an online page that accepts donations.

When completed next year – hopefully, Kara said, by Addi’s birthdate of April 4 – they expect the memorial park that bears her name to reflect the qualities that defined their daughter: playful, caring, positive, always with a smile on her face.

Scott Kent, assistant director, strategic communications, can be reached at skent@sufs.org.

The curious climb of neurodivergent actor JJ Humphrey as he prepares for the biggest role of his career

BY ROGER MOONEY

TAMPA ­­– Christopher Boone knows every prime number up to 7,057. He hates the color yellow. He loves trains. He does not like to be touched. He loves animals. He has a pet rat named Toby.

Christopher is the main character in Mark Haddon’s novel, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Though it is never stated, it is implied that the 15-year-old is on the autism spectrum. Christopher lives a complicated life, and that life becomes even more complicated with a gruesome discovery that leads to several life-altering revelations and one epic journey on a train.

JJ Humphrey, 17, is on the spectrum. He is an actor who lives in central Florida and receives the Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with Unique Abilities. The scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, covers his homeschooling as well as his drama and music classes.

For some time, JJ has wanted to play Christopher Boone in the stage adaptation of Haddon’s book, going so far as to say it’s on his “bucket list.”

“I really like the character and I can relate to him,” JJ said. “I want to see the world through his eyes for a little while.”

JJ Humphrey rehearsing for a scene where he flies during the play, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

JJ’s wish comes true this holiday season when he stars in the Tampa Repertory Theater’s production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” (Click here for schedule and tickets.)

This is the biggest role of his young acting career. It is a significant role, as well, given that JJ is a neurodivergent actor playing a neurodivergent character.

“I feel like it’s important because not a lot of characters are neurodiverse,” JJ said. “There are more neurotypical characters in general. I feel a neurodiverse person playing a neurodiverse character is important, and I feel like that’s how it should be a majority of the time, if not all of the time.”

Emilia Sargent, the play’s director and the producing artistic director of the Tampa Repertory Theater, said there was a concerted effort to cast a neurodivergent actor for Christopher’s role. She asked Mickey Rowe for recommendations. Rowe was the first neurodivergent actor to play Christopher when he starred in the Broadway production. Rowe recommended JJ, whom he had met previously.

JJ nailed the audition.

“He was Christopher when he walked in the door,” Sargent said.


JJ has been acting in community theaters around Central Florida for nine years. He’s had small roles in two movies, “At the End of the Day” and “Wish.”

“It’s what he eats, sleeps, breathes,” said JJ’s mom, Michelle Humphrey.

He has played Young Shrek in “Shrek the Musical,” Max in “The Grinch who Stole Christmas,” Scut Farkus in “A Christmas Story,” and Olaf in “Frozen.”

How JJ became involved in acting is, as he said, “an interesting story.”

JJ loves all things Star Wars, and the family was at Star Wars weekend at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Ashley Eckstein, who voiced Ahsoka Tano in the Star Wars franchise, was the host of one of the shows. She asked for a volunteer to do a Chewbacca imitation. JJ raised his hand. His imitation and the confidence and energy he showed while performing it in front of a packed room so impressed Eckstein, she told the Humphreys she felt he should try theater.

JJ joined the Out of the Box troupe for actors with unique abilities at the Lakeland Community Theater and instantly found himself at home on the stage.

“I love to make people laugh and smile,” he said. “When you work hard on a scene and it’s a funny scene and the whole audience starts laughing, it is the best feeling to make people smile and know that you’re making them happy and that you’re entertaining him.”

Initially, JJ faced obstacles.

The physical part of acting could present a challenge. In one play, JJ was required to go from sitting on a stool to standing in one smooth move. He couldn’t do it without knocking over the stool. JJ was receiving occupational therapy at the time. He worked on it with his therapist. When the production opened, JJ could accomplish the move without knocking the stool into the orchestra pit.

McGowan said JJ comes without an ego. And, while some, if not most teenagers are not willing to make a fool of themselves in public, JJ is willing to if that’s what the script calls for.

“I think that’s really worked to his advantage,” she said. “He can see it for what it is. If it has to be funny, he’ll make it funny. It’s not intimidating to him.”

Dan Chesnika, executive director of Theatre Winter Haven, has worked with JJ for seven years and has shared the stage with him in several productions. He said it’s impossible to see JJ on stage and not fall in love with him. He said JJ is a “courageous” actor who can make a part uniquely his.

“He confirms what I think about theater, that it’s a home for people who march to their own drummer,” Chesnika said. “JJ’s on the spectrum, and he sees the world just a little differently than a lot of other kids, but that makes him better in a theater. I’m really proud that JJ thrives in this environment. I admire the kid a lot.”

Jordan Woods-Robinson is an actor who played Eric Raleigh in “The Walking Dead” TV series. Like McGowan and Chesnika, Woods-Robinson is one of JJ’s many acting coaches. He called JJ’s role in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” an “amazing opportunity.”

“I hope it opens doors,” he said. “I know he’s going to tackle it with great aplomb. I hope many people see this and want to continue working with him.”


JJ is a member of the Florida Youth Council and the Epilepsy Florida Youth Advocacy Council. He has worked with elementary school children as part of Chesnika’s group, Drama Time Live. He serves as an acting teacher and mentor with the Out of the Box troupe.

JJ with Mickey Rowe.

JJ said he would like to someday teach acting. Right now, though, he’s busy trying to forge a career in the medium he loves. Landing the lead role in a series on TV or for a streaming service is his goal.

At the same time, he knows he is an advocate for neurodiverse actors.

“I feel like me doing this is showing that any neurodiverse actor can do what I’m doing with training and putting enough work into it,” he said.

Christopher Boone wants to be an astronaut and soar among the stars, though he knows his fear of traveling will crush that dream. JJ Humphrey wants to soar among the stars, too. On Broadway. On TV. In the movies.

“Acting started out just for fun and it became a career choice,” he said.

Those who work with him say he is talented enough to have those dreams.

“If all the stars align,” Chesnika said, “why not?”

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

Entirety K-12: Where learning is fueled by the imagination

BY ROGER MOONEY

BROOKSVILLE – Six individuals who attend Entirety K-12 private school form two lines of three inside the studio used for physical education. Normally, the six would be called students, but at this moment they are known as the “talent.”

In a few minutes, they will go through various workouts – squats and burpees and curls with hand weights. This will be recorded by the video production class as it updates the “Take a Tour” video on the school’s website.

Entirety K-12 students (from left) Colin Galiardo, Vadin Mankotya and Adlin Sowder hang out in the tree house behind the school’s campus.

Penny Bryson, Entirety K-12 owner and principal, walks among the talent, making final preparations before recording.

“I want authentic workout faces,” she says.

It is a Friday in early October, and that means it’s “Talent & Tools” day at the school. Monday through Thursday are for the core courses. On Fridays, the entire student body spends the day on one of eight elective classes. Architecture and engineering, culinary, and dance are year-long courses. Some students opt for the rotation of video production, art, forensics, and acts of service, with each running for eight weeks.

“These are elective courses to develop a talent or to build skills for your life’s toolbox,” Bryson says. “We are known for being a talent development school.”

Entirety K-12’s motto is “Learning. Fueled by imagination.” All things are possible.

In video production, the students learn all phases of making a video, from selecting the talent to storyboarding to setting a production schedule, to prepping the set, to recording and editing the video. The 14 students follow Tyler Mauriello, a professional videographer who teaches the course, around the school building as he sets up and explains the shots.

Earlier, Bryson showed the class the current “Take a Tour” video and sought their input on how to improve it. She wants the students to think of themselves as directors and the video as more of a project for a client than an assignment for a class. To that end, she constantly reminds them that “time is money.”

Physical education teacher Ashley Sims has each of the talent walk through their workout while Mauriello walks among them, setting up his shot.

Finally, everyone is ready.

“Quiet on the set!” Bryson yells.

Action.


Entirety K-12, in its current form, started in 2013. Located just north of downtown Brooksville, it occupies a building that was once a storage facility with a dance studio in the front. It has a student body of 130, with 60% receiving one of the scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.

The school year begins in August and runs through June, with the students having every fifth week off. The teachers spend that week on lesson planning and meetings. The students get a breather from what Bryson said is four weeks of intense learning.

“We go to school for four weeks and we get a week off. Who doesn’t like that?” said Vadin Mankotya, a seventh-grader.

Bryson is a speech and language pathologist who specialized in phonological disorder and dyslexia. She spent 10 years working in a district school system before leaving to conduct a research project.

Entirety K-12 principal Penny Bryson created a unique learning experience for her students.

One of the students in her study was on the autism spectrum. He responded so well that his mother asked Bryson if he could remain in the study the following year as his form of school. Another parent wanted the same for her daughter, so Bryson opened a school for children with dyslexia. All the students were hand-picked, and each was a gifted student. That was in 2011.

The study concluded the following year, but the parents wanted their children to remain with Bryson. So, she hired a teacher and opened the school for students of all abilities, calling it Academy at the Beat.

In 2013, with the student population growing, Bryson hired more teachers and changed the school’s name to Entirety K-12.

While Bryson is the owner and principal, she does not place herself at the top of the staff’s hierarchy.

“We have what I call a platform program,” Bryson said. “We don’t have a top down. It’s a lateral. We all work as one team. We all have our role.”

And she fills the staff with professionals. Sims is a certified personal trainer. Kaylee La Placa is an art teacher with a visual arts and marketing degree from the University of South Florida.

La Placa recalled the day four years ago when she interviewed for a position at Entirety K-12.

“It was so different than anything I thought it would be and anything I’m used to,” she said.

Each school year has a theme, and the theme is divided into four sections. This year’s theme is wild – Wild West, Wild Imagination, Wildlife, and Wild Design. The teachers tailor their lessons around these themes.

“The things the kids get to experience here, not just in the class but on field trips, it’s so awesome,” La Placa said.

The students themselves have roles beyond the classroom. They help set up the school in the morning and clean up after the last class. They make the decorations for the float that traditionally wins first place at Brooksville’s annual Christmas parade. La Placa’s art students paint the murals that decorate the hallways.

“You cannot get bored here,” Vadin said. “There’s just so much to do.”

That’s Bryson’s point. She doesn’t want the students to feel as if they are simply going to school.

“I love Entirety K-12,” said Jennifer Mankotya, Vadin’s mom. “Vadin has been at a couple of different schools, and this one is absolutely amazing. Obviously, you can see their teaching mechanisms are different than normal. I’ve never seen a school like this.

“My son does not like to miss school. He doesn’t. He has fun at school.”


Adlin Sowder soared above the trees and over a river last January during the four-day school outing to a campsite in Ocala. The seventh-grader, along with nearly every student at Entirety K-12, was ziplining.

The middle school students read Edgar Rice Burroughs’s classic novel, “Tarzan of the Apes.” Bryson wanted the students to experience life in the jungle, or life as close to a jungle as kids from central Florida can get.

They camped, hiked, kayaked, swam and went ziplining.

To prepare, the students learned about the plants and wildlife they would encounter. They learned to measure food, so they would have enough to eat. Bryson even had them learn how to swing from one rope to another.

She wanted them to feel like Tarzan.

“We did,” Adlin said, “when we were (ziplining) through the trees.”

After reading about Tarzan, the students at Entirety K-12 spent
four weeks camping in Ocala to get a feel
for what it is like to live in a jungle.

Bryson sees the yearly outings as personal development trips.

“Quietly embedded in every trip is a skill they are weak in,” she said.

One year, the students flew to Washington, D.C. They learned how to find their way around an airport and how to navigate a subway system. Bryson wants her students to realize they can function away from their parents and, in the case of the Tarzan trip, without their iPhones and laptops.

Bryson wants them to expand their comfort zone, which was the purpose of the zipline.

“It was one of the scariest moments, but also one of the most peaceful,” Vadin said. “It was beautiful up there. You could see the river. It was like you were on top of the world.”

When asked about his camping experience, sixth-grader Colin Galiardo said, “We lived the life of Tarzan. It was awesome.”

This year’s trip: Busch Gardens in Tampa, where the students will be embedded with the zoologists for four days, 24/7.

“The trips are experiencing life in its own context,” Bryson said. “You can say, ‘Oh, this is what a zoologist does,’ but unless you are there with the animals, you really don’t know what a zoologist does. You can say this is how Tarzan lived, or this is what it’s like to live in the Congo, but you really don’t know unless you experience it.

“It’s learning what something feels like for real.”

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

Florida Reading Scholarship program helps twins stay on pace and excel in middle school

BY LISA BUIE

TAMPA – Since they were babies, Darnell Taylor’s identical twin daughters, Janae, and Sasha, have loved books.

First, picture books, then chapter books.

Now, the 12-year-olds are finding novels on BookTok, the bookish community on TikTok, where people post videos recommending books, make pithy observations about reading, and share their love of literature. Some selections include “Red, White & Royal Blue,” “Ugly Love,” and “The Invisible Life.”

Taylor couldn’t be more pleased.

“They can travel the world with books,” said the UPS employee, who works from her home in a northern suburb of Tampa. “Their English teacher loves that they love to read.”

Though avid readers who were bringing home great grades on classwork and report cards, one of the Taylor twins — Mom won’t say which one — scored just one point shy passing the state’s standardized English and Language Arts test in elementary school.

The result surprised Taylor, who had seen nothing to indicate either of her girls were not on grade level. She immediately began searching for resources and found the Step Up For Students website, where she learned about and applied for the Reading Scholarship Accounts program.

Identical twins Janae Taylor, left, and Sasha Taylor, who attend Union Park Charter Academy north of Tampa, both have benefited from the family’s participation in the Florida Reading Scholarship Accounts program.

“I went into mommy drive,” said Taylor, who has been heavily involved her children’s education since their pre-kindergarten days. “Teachers have a lot of students, so my goal was to fill the gap.”

Fill it she did, with tutoring programs offered by her daughters’ district school and a Lenovo laptop she bought with Reading Scholarship funds. The twin who was one point off course was able to access Reading Plus, an online literacy program that improves fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary, and provides motivation to read.

The combined efforts helped her raise her scores and allowed her to move up to fourth grade with her twin. An unexpected but welcome benefit was that her twin was able to further boost her reading skills.

Each scholarship is worth $500 per student and is available to public school students in grades 3-5 who score below a Level 3 on the standardized English Language Arts test in the prior school year. Florida law requires a passing grade on the standardized test for promotion to fourth grade.

Research shows that as textbook material gets more complex, students who are still struggling in reading get further behind. A long-term study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that students who are not proficient readers by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than those who are proficient.

With 1,177 scholarships awarded so far this year, the Reading Scholarship Accounts program has been rising in popularity as families seek to make up learning losses that resulted from the coronavirus pandemic. To offer additional assistance, the Florida Legislature last year approved the New Worlds Reading Initiative, a $270 million literacy program that delivers one free book per month to traditional district and charter school students in kindergarten through fifth grade who are reading below grade level.

Today, Janae, and Sasha, who weighed just 3 pounds at birth, are excelling at their STEM charter school. They are on the honor roll and taking honors algebra. Janae hopes to one day work in theater, and Sasha dreams of becoming an astronaut.

As twins, they can be competitive when it comes to schoolwork, Taylor said, but she takes that in stride, because they also help each other. The family’s Reading Scholarship Account has provided an excellent opportunity for them to do just that.

Lisa Buie is a senior writer at reimaginEDonline.org.

STEP UP FOR STUDENTS APPOINTS DENISHA MERRIWEATHER TO ITS BOARD OF DIRECTORS

Step Up For Students, the nation’s largest education choice scholarship funding organization, is proud to announce that Denisha Merriweather has been appointed to its Board of Directors. The Jacksonville native becomes the first scholarship program alumnus to serve on the non-profit’s board.

Denisha Merriweather

Denisha previously served as School Choice and Youth Liaison to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at the U.S. Department of Education. She currently is Director of Public Relations and Content Marketing at the American Federation for Children and founder of Black Minds Matter, an organization devoted to promoting the development of high-quality school options for Black students. Denisha was recently awarded the 2021 Maverick PAC Future 40 award for her work in education advocacy. Denisha has shared her voice on education freedom across the country and her work has been published in the Wall Street JournalPragerU, the Washington Examiner, EducationWeek, Real Clear, Fox News , among other outlets.

Raised in poverty, Merriweather had been a troubled student who was held back twice at her assigned public schools. In the sixth grade she received the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship which allowed her family to afford tuition at a private school in Jacksonville, where she blossomed. She has been a passionate advocate for education freedom since.

Merriweather earned a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary social science from the University of West Florida, and a master’s degree in social work from the University of South Florida.

“Denisha embodies the power of educational choice,” said John Kirtley, chairman and founder of Step Up For Students. “I first knew she was special when she led a rally of over 5,000 people in Tallahassee as a high school senior to support a choice bill. It is a great honor to have her on our board.”

The nine-member Board of Directors is the governing and fiduciary body for Step Up. It sets policy, develops and approves strategic plans and the related allocation of resources, and is responsible for the organization’s performance.

South Florida Auto Dealers Association contributes $21 million to fund Hope Scholarships for state’s most vulnerable students

Miami Beach, FL Step Up For Students, the non-profit organization that manages Florida’s Hope Scholarship Program, recently recognized the South Florida Automobile Dealers Association (SFADA) and its dealer members with the Partners For Hope Award for supporting the program since its inception.

Collectively, SFADA’s dealer members have contributed $21,887,000 to fund Hope Scholarships for victims of school violence or bullying.

In 2018, the Florida Legislature created the Hope Scholarship Program. This program was established to provide the parent of a public-school student who was subjected to violence, harassment, and or bullying the opportunity to transfer the student to another public school or request a scholarship for the student to enroll in and attend an eligible private school.

The K-12 Hope Scholarships are funded through a $105 tax election option the state offers to customers who purchase or register a vehicle in Florida. Tax elections are at no cost to customers because the $105 is collected out of the state sales tax customers already owe from purchasing or registering a vehicle in Florida.

“We are honored to have the South Florida Automobile Dealers Association as a partner in our mission to provide our state’s most vulnerable students with the opportunity to refocus on their education in a new learning environment,” said Bill Ussery, Hope’s Development Officer at Step Up For Students. “It is because of the support of South Florida dealerships that more than 208,000 customers agreed to make a Hope tax election.

“Because of the support of SFADA’s dealer members, more than 2,100 Florida public school students are attending another school with a new outlook on life and learning.”

Debra Koebel, chief financial officer of the South Florida Automobile Dealers Association, accepts the “Partners for Hope Award” from Bill Ussery, Florida’s Hope Scholarship Development Officer at Step Up For Students, during the Miami International Auto Show.

 “Our dealer members have supported the worthwhile efforts of many organizations throughout the years,” said Ari Wildstein, Chairman of the South Florida Automobile Dealers Association. “By supporting the Hope Scholarship, we are truly making a positive difference in the lives of children in our communities. Many of our customers said it was a ‘feel good’ decision for them to sign the Hope form.”

“On behalf of the state of Florida and the Hope Scholarship Program, I’m pleased to present the Partner for Hope Award. Critical to this program’s success is the support from the SFADA and its nearly 200 new car dealer members throughout Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties,” Ussery added. “These dealerships along with their finance and business managers have demonstrated a strong commitment to support Florida’s students by actively informing customers about the Hope Scholarship and the tax election option. We also recognize each dealership’s accounting staff for their work in collecting and reporting each customer tax election to the Department of Revenue and submitting the funds to Step Up For Students every month.” 

Prenda microschools provide education choice opportunities for educators as well as students

BY ROGER MOONEY

After 13 years of teaching at district schools in Shreveport, Louisiana, Pam Lee was searching for something that would give the students what she called a “better opportunity” to succeed.

Disappointed in Louisiana’s education system, which annually ranks near the bottom in the nation, Lee’s passion for her job was slowly eroding. She wanted to continue teaching, but she desperately needed a change.

“I felt that there was something bigger,” Lee said, “and I was praying every day I would find it.”

The answer came in the form of a Facebook ad for Prenda, a network of K-8 microschools headquartered in Arizona. “Open your own microschool,” it read. Lee was intrigued. She clicked on the ad, and within 24 hours had talked to a Prenda representative and was making plans to open her own microschool.

Lee loved Prenda’s model: small classes of five to 10 students that can meet in the teacher’s (called “guides”) home or at a facility that meets state safety requirements; the ability for guides to set the curriculum and for students to learn at their own pace; and the flexibility for guides to set their own class hours, which run no more than 25 hours a week.

Students at a Prenda Microschool in Glendale, Arizona.

Lee opened a Prenda Microschool Den of Shreveport in September, which meets at a local daycare center. After more than a dozen years of teaching within the guidelines set by district schools, Lee said she hasn’t once looked back.

“I think Prenda is heaven-sent, actually, for us here in Louisiana,” Lee said. “My students are kind of the ones that get looked over in class. I have a fifth-grader who can’t read at all. Just having Prenda come here and me having the opportunity to reach those kids has been amazing.”

Lee’s is a case of education choice saving the student as well as the educator.

“This is what I was praying for, for years and years,” Lee said. “I say divine intervention is what brought Prenda to me.”

***

Prenda Microschools was founded in 2018 by Kelly Smith, who holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from Brigham Young University and a master’s degree in plasmas and fusion from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was intrigued with the way the students in the computer programming class he taught at a Mesa, Arizona library showed up each week and worked hard at Code Club. Smith realized kids learn better if they are interested in what they are learning.

It began with one microschool made up of seven kids from Smith’s neighborhood. Its mission: to “empower learners.”

“That’s what this is,” said Rachelle Gibson, Prenda’s New Markets Team Leader. “Let them be who they are and become who they are meant to be. It isn’t just education. ‘Empower Learners’ at its core means children understand that they can do anything once they learn how to learn and appreciate who they are as a person.”

Today, there are more than 2,500 students in 300 Prenda Microschools stretched across 5 states. Gibson is overseeing the organization’s expansion into a 6th state – Florida.

With Florida being a leader in education choice, and with the scholarships to K-12 private schools administered by Step Up For Students, the Sunshine State has always been at the top of Prenda’s expansion list. Gibson said there is support for microschools in Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville.

The key is finding guides.

“People who are educationally minded with the entrepreneurial spirit, here is an opportunity in Florida to serve kids who really need it in a really incredible way,” she said.

Gibson said 30% of Prenda guides are certified teachers, but it is not a requirement. Guides can be moms looking to get back into the workforce, or who homeschool their own children and want to take on a few more students. Guides can be teachers looking for another way of teaching, or seniors who are retired but want to work with children for 25 hours a week.

“It’s an opportunity for all of those people to find a really great way to impact kids and make a difference,” Gibson said.

Ideally, Prenda Microschools are divided into three age groups: K-second grade, third through fifth, and sixth through eighth, though that can change based on the availability of microschools and the ages of the children in that area. The microschools can be held at locations such as community centers, churches, tutoring venues, gymnastics centers or dance studios.

Prenda Microschools meet all the state requirements for a school, and the students learn the core subjects, Gibson said. What separates them from other schools is the microschools are limited to five to 10 students, and the guides have the autonomy to tailor their lessons to topics and subjects that interest the students.

“We feel like there is an opportunity to change the world because a different educational environment will unlock things that kids aren’t getting right now,” Gibson said.

***

With October coming to an end, Beth Garcia expects the students in her microschool to be interested in Halloween.

“If they want to learn about pumpkins this month, we’ll learn about pumpkins,” she said. “They wanted to learn about bats, so we added bats. They wanted to learn about flowers, so we did that.”

Students learning about gardening at a Prenda Microschool in Glendale, Arizona.

Garcia is in her second year as a guide in Sahuarita, Arizona. A teacher with five years’ experience in district schools, Garcia was teaching preschool out of her home when she learned about Prenda’s microschools. With her son ready for kindergarten, she thought it was a great way to homeschool him. Some of the other parents thought so, too, and asked Garcia if their child could continue under her tutelage. So Little Fox Preschool became Little Fox 2 Prenda Microschool, with eight students in grades K-2.

“I definitely love Prenda,” Garcia said. “I love the fact that kids can work at their own pace. It’s very tailored to a child. If a child is in first grade and still working at a kinder level, that’s OK. There are no standards that need to be met as far as (district) school system. We can tailor it to them.”

A Guide and her student at a Prenda Microschool in
Buckeye, Arizona.

Garcia said she knows where all eight students are academically, which allows her the freedom to adjust the lessons accordingly. She also loves the smaller class size and the fact she can teach from her home, which allows her to spend time with her youngest son, who is a year away from beginning kindergarten.

“I like the freedom as a guide to be able to tailor our curriculum around student interest,” Garcia said. “That’s the fun part of teaching, I think.”

 The oldest of Garcia’s three children is her daughter Alanah, 10. Alanah struggled in her district school. She found the lessons moving too fast, which caused anxiety and behavioral problems. She had to repeat the third grade.

Alanah now attends a Prenda Microschool, where she is doing well academically and making friends.

“She’s like a whole different child,” Garcia said. “I really think for her, Prenda has saved her soul. I really believe that.”

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

From class clown to class leader with the help of an education choice scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

TAMPA – One of Margene Avery’s first moves as principal at Tampa Bay Christian Academy was to install a student government. For junior class president, she chose Joshua Brutus, an immensely popular yet irresponsible student who was content to coast through high school.

Joshua summed up his reaction in one word: “Me?”

“My freshman, sophomore year, I don’t want to say I was the class clown, but I was the class clown,” Joshua said. “I never got any big responsibilities. But to step into those shoes, I was surprised.”

The teachers and administrators at the pre-K through 12 private school saw Joshua’s potential. Avery felt that putting him in charge of his class would turn Joshua into a serious student.

“When he applies himself, he really does well,” Avery said. “He has a great common sense as well as intellectual capacity.”

Joshua, 17, now a senior, attends TBCA on a scholarship for private schools managed by Step Up For Students.

While surprised at his appointment, Joshua was also energized by the confidence shown in him by Avery and TBCA Head of School Matthew Peavyhouse. He went from being the class clown to being class leader, from being a lethargic student to one who earns A’s and B’s.

Joshua Brutus began the school year with a bang at Tampa Bay Christian Academy, earning student of the month honors for August.

“He’s become a man that I am proud is graduating from this school,” Peavyhouse said. “He’s grown a great deal, more than anything, character wise. He’s become a strong young man.”

Joshua has big plans for his future: a college education, possibly a career as an electrical engineer. He wants to start a nonprofit to help Black boys in economically struggling communities around Tampa transition from middle school to high school. He wants to show the same belief in them as the TBCA teachers and administrators have shown in him.

“Because not everyone has what I have, and I’m very fortunate that I get to go here and get the support from them,” Joshua said.

Celene Flerine, Joshua’s mother, wanted her son to attend TBCA for the benefits that come with attending a private school with a student population of 200: small class sizes, more one-on-one attention from the teachers, and the support offered by the administration.

“I felt the people at this school, the principal and teachers, are happy to help you with your children,” she said. “If there is any problem, if your child doesn’t do homework, they call you and say this is not working, this is not good.

“That’s what I want, because I don’t want for them to wait for six months or one year to find out my child isn’t doing good at your school. Then it’s too late. At this school, they make sure they work together (with parents). You go talk to them. They open the door for you. This is a good school for me.”

Celene knew what Joshua was capable of achieving and reminded him of that every time he brought home a disappointing report card.

“When I was a younger, I was like, ‘Why do they expect so much of me? I’m just a regular kid. I don’t want to do all this stuff,’” Joshua said. “And now that I’m here, I feel like I should have listened from the beginning, because if I had listened from the beginning, I could be way smarter, have more opportunities.”

Joshua kicked off his senior year by earning student of the month honors for August. He is working hard during his final year at TBCA to bring his GPA from a 2.8 to a 3.0, which he hopes will make him eligible for financial assistance to college.

He was proud of what he accomplished in class once he began to apply himself and he was proud that he made his mother, well, proud.

“My mom is really happy for me,” he said. “She just wants the best for me. And now all her efforts weren’t in vain. I’m actually trying, and she sees that I’m trying and she’s proud of me, which makes me proud of myself.”

Joshua loves reading the classics, like Beowulf.

Joshua, who wants to be an electrical engineer, said he wants to be a person who makes a difference in his community. That’s why he’s interested in starting his nonprofit.

The idea came to life during a class discussion with Peavyhouse, who posed this question: What makes high school freshmen so annoying? Peavyhouse was looking for serious answers, and Joshua provided one: “They don’t know what they don’t know.”

Joshua’s solution was to offer a mentorship program to those who lack male role models. Those young men get lost, Joshua said, because they have no one to show them the importance of an education, that a 3.0 GPA is better than a 2.0 and a 3.5 is better than a 3.0. It’s hard to believe in yourself, Joshua said, when no one believes in you.

Speaking from his own experiences, Joshua said, “I just saw a lot of people with potential that they never really could do anything about it because of their situation. They need help.

“They can be the smartest person in the world living in poverty and not having the means or the support to actually be someone in life, and they could be. But instead, it gets thrown out the window. It’s just a waste of potential.”

Being named junior class president ignited the serious student that for so long, lay dormant inside Joshua.

“They make me feel like I’m worth something,” he said, “that I can actually do something with my life. Junior year I said, ‘Enough is enough, because I want to have a future.’”

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

State, Step Up working to fund students

Several families with students on the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA, formerly Gardiner) and the income-based Family Empowerment Scholarship-Educational Options (FES-EO) recently have expressed frustration with delays in the first quarterly payment to their scholarships.

Today, Step Up For Students and the Florida Department of Education sent this joint email to affected families:

Dear Parent/Guardian,

Thank you very much for reaching out, and we understand the concerns regarding funding for your child’s school of choice. Thankfully, this is an isolated data entry error in approximately 15 school districts. We are confident all payments will be successfully processed and verified by mid-October, or earlier.

In fact, 80% of these data entry errors, which made it appear some scholarship students were “double-enrolled,” have already been corrected. About 15 school districts reported students as still being enrolled in a district-run school, even though the students had actually enrolled in non-public schools through a scholarship program.

The Florida Department of Education (FDOE) has been working with Step Up For Students and these 15 districts to ensure errors are corrected as quickly as possible, in order that funds can subsequently follow students to the school of their choice. Once corrected, Step Up For Students will notify families when their student’s funding is deposited. In the meantime, families will continue to receive updates from Step Up for Students.

Contact us by visiting our website at www.StepUpForStudents.org and using the Online Chat option or by calling our Service Center at 877-735-7837. Our Scholarship Service Center is open Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. ET. We are here to help you.

Step Up For Students and the Florida Department of Education

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