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.

St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School in Orlando: Where everyone is welcome


In a middle school science room at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic hangs a quote from Albert Einstein: “You never fail until you stop trying.”

Another poster says, “Everyone is welcome here. Everyone belongs.”

Around teacher Barbara Schirard’s classroom are other posters showing the Periodic Table of Elements and the Earth’s solar system. On a recent fall day, the class was in the middle of a biology lesson.

“What is an internal stimulus?” Schirard asked.

“Feelings of hunger,” a student said.

“What is an external stimulus?” Schirard asked.

The class was quiet for a few moments.

“Remember when I dropped a book and it made you all flinch?” Schirard said. “That’s an external stimulus.”

The students at the Orlando, Florida, school nodded.

Principal Nathan Nadeau smiled as he watched.

“We’re a very good, diverse school,” Nadeau said. “You look at the population of Orlando and we’re a pretty good mirror (of the demographics). We have rich, not-so-rich and middle-class students. We have Vietnamese, Hispanic, African-American and white students.”

Of the 330 students at St. Charles Borromeo, 111 are on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income families, while five students are on the Gardiner Scholarship program for students with certain special needs. Both scholarship programs are managed by Step Up For Students.

The school shares a 20-acre tract with Bishop Moore Catholic School, a private high school where about 85 percent of St. Charles Borromeo graduates attend, and Morning Star Catholic School, which serves students with special needs. The campuses surround St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church located along the picturesque southwest shore of Little Lake Fairview.

According to Nadeau, the atmosphere is so inclusive that some students at St. Charles Borromeo elect to have physical education classes with their peers at Morning Star.

“They’re like a big community,” said Linda Caldwell, a marketing director in the Diocese of Orlando’s Office of Catholic Schools. “What I like is the diversity, all sorts of different kids add to the richness” of the environment.

“Nathan’s wonderful,” Caldwell said. “You can tell he loves the children. He is a very strong principal and doing tremendous work.”

In Holly Tulbert’s middle school English and language arts classroom, vocabulary words are written on a white board: desert, hover, wrath, envy and kleptomaniac. A sign on an adjacent wall reminds students that nouns are “words that names, persons, places and things,” while adjectives “describe nouns and pronouns.”

Still, the classroom is decorated to inspire teenage students.

In a corner stands a large cardboard cutout figure of Legolas, the expert archer from “Lord of the Rings.”

Outside the middle school building on this day, students spent their recess playing soccer in the grass and basketball on an outdoor court. Nearby, a group of students jumped rope.

“Ready, set – jump!” called one girl as another leapt between whirling ropes.

Besides its thriving academic environment, the school has basketball, soccer, track, volleyball and flag football teams that participate in the Catholic Youth League organized by the Diocese of Orlando.

At St. Charles there are 24 classrooms, 20 teachers and 40 employees. This year, 110 new students enrolled at St. Charles, an 11 percent increase over 2016-17.

“There’s a perception that when families come here, nobody pays tuition,” Nadeau said. “But we hold them to the fire to pay (the balance of FTC or Gardiner scholarships) – even if it’s $50 a month. Everybody here has a buy-in or a stake.”

That includes Nadeau, 36, principal at St. Charles since 2014.

One of the school’s five Gardiner scholars is his son Dominic, a 10-year-old fifth-grader. Nadeau’s daughters, Olivia, 8, a third-grader, and Clare, a 4-year-old preschooler, also attend St. Charles Borromeo. Olivia and Clare do not receive scholarships. Nadeau’s wife Mariana Nadeau teaches chemistry at Bishop Moore.

Nadeau’s experience as a father of a child with special needs “gives him a better understanding of what families need,” Caldwell said.

Dominic was medically diagnosed on the autism spectrum at age 5.

“He couldn’t talk at a year and a half, not one single word,” Nadeau said of Dominic. “Everyone tells you he’s fine, but you have to trust your gut. We got him into language therapy. He still gets language therapy twice a week, through Gardiner. He also learns social skills through camps at the YMCA. There are therapists there who work with small groups of kids at the camp, and (the therapy) is also covered by Gardiner.

“An autistic kid can do anything, but they have to be taught,” he said. “You have to teach them about things like personal space.”

While there are relatively few students with special needs at the school, parent Alfredo Ortiz said other students seem to understand they are not all alike and there are no issues with bullies. His son, Christian, a fourth-grader, is also on the autism spectrum and receives a Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up.

“The scholarship has been amazing,” Ortiz said. “Our son has some challenges, but the school has been accommodating and encouraging, but challenging at the same time. He’s been there since the middle of first grade. He was at another Catholic school, but we felt he needed a fresh start at a school that would understand his needs.

“It’s been night and day,” he said. “We’ve been so blessed. The atmosphere at the school is amazing. They’re very disciplined. The teachers are professionals and dedicated.”

Ortiz said Christian was previously bullied at a different Catholic school, but that ended at St. Charles Borromeo.

“Christian is a child with challenges and sometimes he reacts differently than the others,” Ortiz said. “When they do a fire drill he might get rattled with all the noise, but the kids and teachers work well with him. When they go on field trips they’re always looking out for him.

“They encourage him and his social skills have developed tremendously. He’s very funny and outspoken, and they gravitate toward him. When he needs his space, they give him his space. The administrators are willing to accommodate the school to the needs of the students, not the other way around.”

Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@sufs.org.

School choice scholarship ‘saved’ bullying victim


Middle school is tough for a lot of kids. For Valentin Mendez, it was hell.

At night, he would try to sleep on the floor of the downtown Miami gas station where his mother worked the graveyard shift.

In the mornings, he’d think about who was going to beat him up that day.

After school, he’d clutch his mom and cry.

“It was chaos,” he said.

Non-stop bullying left Valentin so hopeless, he dropped out of his neighborhood school in sixth grade and moved to Nicaragua to be with his father. That could have been the end of a heartbreaking story.

Valentin Mendez still visits La Progresiva Presbyterian School and principal Melissa Rego regularly.

Valentin Mendez still visits La Progresiva Presbyterian School and principal Melissa Rego regularly.

But thanks to a scholarship, Valentin got a chance to start over at a different school – and to turn everything around.

“The scholarship,” said Valentin’s mother, Jeannethe Ruiz, “saved my son.”

Valentin was born in Miami but lived in Nicaragua with his father, Roberto Mendez, from age 3 to 9. The tall, chubby kid with glasses was an easy target for bullies. That he didn’t speak much English made it worse.

Money was tight, so Valentin and his mom lived in her sister’s apartment in a rough neighborhood near downtown. While Jeannethe worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., Valentin could hear the sound of gunfire and drug raids. She decided to have him sleep on a thin comforter inside the gas station’s plate-glass booth.

“The floor was very cold,” Valentin said, “but at least I knew I was secure.”

That wasn’t the case at school. He lasted a month before mom transferred him to another district middle school. He made it six weeks there.

“Bullies were everywhere,” he said. “I saw people doing drugs. … They were smoking. I saw cocaine as well. It was heavy stuff.”

One rainy morning, a boy spiked a football into a puddle, drenching Valentin with water and dirt. Other kids laughed. Valentin was crushed.

His mom had enough when Valentin told her about boys who terrorized students from beneath a staircase. Valentin spoke out and got punched in the back of his head.

“They grabbed him and beat him up,” Jeannethe said, “and no one from the school said anything to me.”

Valentin begged his mother to send him back to Nicaragua.

“I wasn’t thinking about returning. I just needed to get away, the farther the better,” he said. “The moment the plane touched ground I felt secure.”

Just being with his grandparents and father was a comfort. So was grandma’s red beans and rice.

Valentin figured he’d go to school there, maybe become a construction worker. He had given up on any American dreams.

But back in Miami, his mother was making plans. A neighbor told her about a private school – La Progresiva Presbyterian School in Little Havana. Jeannethe walked by the cluster of vanilla-colored buildings one day and saw a banner for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which helps parents of lower-income students pay tuition. She applied that day.

The family flew Valentin back to Miami to visit the new school and take an assessment test. Between the lost months in his neighborhood schools and the brief time in Nicaragua, he had missed most of the first half of the school year. He still wasn’t speaking much English.

The principal, Melissa Rego, broke the news that Valentin would start in fifth grade. His spirits sank. His mother cried. But Rego had a goal to make Valentin a reader by year’s end, and she determined that having one teacher in fifth grade instead of several teachers in sixth would give him the attention he needed.

There was also the issue of rehabilitating Valentin’s traumatized psyche.

“His self-esteem was shot,” Rego recalled. “The first two weeks were rough. He refused to speak. Val was angry. Val was aggressive. He would lash out at anything.”

It took him a year to get over the flashbacks of being bullied. The intensity of his memories faded as he felt the embrace of his new teacher and classmates.

“I was always the big, chubby kid, but now it broke the ice,” he said. “They looked up to me. They would ask how tall I was. They were always interested in me. They wanted to be my friend, and it felt weird.”

By the end of the first year at La Progresiva, things were better. Valentin’s father rejoined the family that December. Safety and stability became normal again.

“I felt complete,” Valentin said.

At the end of sixth grade, his SAT 10 scores showed he was on grade level for the first time. Rego called him and his mother in to her office separately. Both cried, fearing he was being kicked out. Instead, he was promoted to eighth grade.

“I was speechless,” Valentin said.

Rego’s plan had worked. The school had unlocked his ability to learn. The next year he earned nearly straight A’s.

Valentin made deep, lasting friendships with his new classmates, who inspired him with their work ethic and grades. He graduated with honors and a 3.78 weighted GPA. He also won a science honor and was recognized for completing 300 hours of community service.

“I always knew I was a good student. I just felt I was in the wrong place,” Valentin said. “Getting a scholarship from Step Up For Students gave me a new beginning, a new opportunity in life, to become someone I knew I could become.”

Today, Valentin is a 19-year-old freshman at Miami Dade College, majoring in accounting. He’s no longer chubby and stands 6-foot-5. His dreams are growing bigger than ever. He’s trying to get straight A’s and join an honor society by the end of his first semester. He aims to go to Vanderbilt University.

Valentin’s primary motivation remains his family. His parents never went to college. Dad works in his brother’s tire shop. Mom still works the night shift at the gas station.

“I need to get her out of there,” Valentin said. “I need to get them to retire. I tell them that all the time. They know why I go to school. They support me and I’ll support them. We’re all we have.”

Valentin said he doesn’t regret anything that happened to him. It taught him to believe in himself. It also serves as a lesson to others.

“If I can get away from that, many other kids can as well,” he said. “I just say one thing about my story: Anything is possible.”

About La Progresiva Presbyterian School

Originally founded in Cuba in 1900, the school was taken over by the communist regime in 1961. Ten years later it opened in Little Havana in Miami. Today, the school is accredited by AdvancEd and Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS). There are 660 K-12 students, including 620 on Step Up scholarships. Grades K-8 use the BJU Press curriculum, while 9-12 uses Harcourt/Houghton Mifflin. The school provides iPads for all high school students. The school administers the MAP test three times a year. Tuition for grades K-5 is $540 a month, while 6-12 is $571 a month.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org

Siblings from Argentina adjust and thrive thanks to Step Up For Students’ scholarships

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the redefinED blog on Aug. 7, 2017. The blog is hosted by Step Up For Students and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.By NIA NUÑEZ-BRADY 

In a three-year span, Mariel Ubfal’s world fell apart. Her husband died. She moved her family to the United States. Then she watched as her children struggled in school.

The move from Argentina to America came in 2008, three years after Mariel’s husband died from cancer. At the time, all four of her children were under the age of 10. “Leaving was not easy,” Mariel said. “But I knew this was the right decision for my kids.”

Starting over wasn’t easy, either.

Being unemployed and underemployed for the first few years, Mariel struggled to pay bills and, at times, even to feed her kids. As if that wasn’t enough, her children began having behavioral and academic issues in their neighborhood schools – something that never happened in Argentina.

After moving to Miami from Argentina, the Mohadeb kids — Agustin, Barbara, Matias, and Sebastian — attended the Rabbi Alexander S. Gross Hebrew Academy in Miami on Florida Tax Credit scholarships through Step Up For Students.

From left, Matias, Agustin, Sebastian, Mariel and Barbara.

Troubles first hit her three eldest – Matias, Agustin, and Barbara Mohadeb.

Matias hated school because he struggled learning a new language. In eighth grade, he earned D’s and F’s and routinely got into fights. Agustin was held back in sixth grade for poor academics. Barbara failed fifth grade because she did not speak the language.

Mariel felt desperate. She called the school and tried setting up meetings with her sons’ teachers, but that proved difficult.

“Maybe it was the language barrier, I’m not sure, but I wasn’t able to help my kids succeed at their local school,” she said.

Mariel searched for a better option and found a school that felt like home, but couldn’t afford the tuition. Then a friend told her about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarships.

It was “the answer to my prayers,” she said.

In 2010, Matias, then 15, and Agustin, then 13, began ninth and seventh grade respectively at Hebrew Academy.

The school is smaller and more family-oriented than their previous schools, Mariel said, and its teachers are more accessible to parents. The curriculum is rigorous and the school has high expectation for student academics and parental involvement, she said.

Progress didn’t happen immediately. Matias’s behavior was terrible in the beginning. At one point, he refused to go to his new school, and Mariel couldn’t get him out of bed.

Matias laughs about the incident now, but at the time he was upset about the change and still feeling combative after his experience in his neighborhood school.

“Basically, I pitched a fit,” he said.

“He is over six feet tall, and I am a small woman,” Mariel recalled. “So, I called the principal and told him what was happening.”

The next thing she knew, Matias not only got up, but apologized.

“I can’t explain how happy I was at that moment,” she said. “All my decisions up to that point were worth it.”

After moving to Miami from Argentina, the Mohadeb kids — Agustin, Barbara, Matias, and Sebastian — attended Hebrew Academy in Miami on Florida tax credit scholarships.

Staff at Hebrew Academy embraced Matias, and he embraced his new school back.

“There were only like 100 students in the high school, so everyone knew you,” he said. “It was a big change. It was smaller and quieter. It was safe. I felt like I could relax.”

Mariel decided to leave Barbara and her youngest, Sebastian, in their local public schools, thinking their experience would be different. But they continued to struggle.

Barbara said although she didn’t speak English well, she was never enrolled in English as a Second Language class. That made learning difficult. Then when she began sixth grade, her attitude changed. She started talking back to her mom and hanging with the wrong crowd.

“I was definitely influenced by my peers,” she said. “Many of my classmates were already doing drugs in middle school. I did not want that for my future.”

Sebastian, meanwhile, was left behind by his teacher during a field trip because he fell asleep on the bus. Mariel filed a complaint that she said resulted in no additional field trips the rest of the year – and other students taking out their frustration on her son.

“The bullying was constant,” she said. “All the students picked on him and harassed him for being Jewish, and (for) being the reason they could no longer attend field trips. It was an awful experience.”

In 2012, Mariel secured two more scholarships, so Sebastian and Barbara could attend Hebrew Academy with their brothers.

Again, everything changed.

Sebastian struggled academically the first two years, but then won the school’s “most improved” award. Barbara also made a turnaround. As with her siblings, her English proficiency benefited from time and one-on-one attention. She described Hebrew Academy as “a family” – united, and with expectations of success.

“That made all the difference,” she said.

After years of her own struggles, Mariel secured a real estate license and now makes a modest living selling homes. She beams with happiness because she sees all her children succeeding.

Matias, now 21, is studying marketing at Florida International University.

Agustin, now 20, is studying sciences at Miami-Dade College and aims to be a chemist.

Barbara, now 19, graduated in June. She is spending a year in Israel, thanks to a community service scholarship, before enrolling in Miami-Dade College to study criminology.

Sebastian, now 17, will begin his senior year in the fall, and hopes to study biomedical sciences in college.

Family members credit the school – and the scholarships that allowed them to attend.

“I can’t imagine what would have happened if I hadn’t gone there,” Matias said. “I don’t want to think about it.”

About Rabbi Alexander S. Gross Hebrew Academy

Founded in 1947 by Rabbi Gross, Hebrew Academy was the first Orthodox Jewish day school south of Baltimore. It’s grown from a few classrooms to a state-of-the-art campus. Last year, the K-12 enrollment of 470 students included 123 on Step Up scholarships. The school offers blended and personalized Learning, STEAM education, Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), and Halacha and Gemara studies. Hebrew Academy embeds technology across all learning environments with iConnect to personalize education for each student. Every year students take the SAT, ACT Aspire, PSAT, and ACT depending on grade level. Tuition ranges from $14,060 to $22,525. In addition to Step Up scholarships, the school raises more than $2 million in private donations a year for tuition assistance.

Step Up For Students’ Jeff Barlis contributed to this story.

Nia Nunez-Brady can be reached at nbrady@sufs.org.


UnitedHealthcare celebrates season of giving with record-setting contribution to Step Up For Students

By SHELBY HOBBS, Special to Step Up For Students

NAPLES, Fla. – In this season of giving, UnitedHealthcare announced Dec. 4 a record-breaking contribution of $15 million to Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer the needs-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

Nicholas Zaffiris, CEO of UnitedHealthcare South Florida, shares a message of giving hope through supporting community programs, particularly Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps administer the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income K-12 Florida schoolchildren. Zaffiris announced a $15 contribution to the organization for the 2017-18 schoolyear at an event at Naples Adventist Christian School on Dec. 4.

Nicholas Zaffiris, CEO of UnitedHealthcare South Florida, shares a message of giving hope through supporting community programs, particularly Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps administer the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income K-12 Florida schoolchildren. 

Step Up For Students celebrated the support and contributions of UnitedHealthcare during an event at Naples Adventist Christian School. Since 2009, UnitedHealthcare has contributed more than $88 million to Step Up For Students, providing scholarships for nearly 17,000 students across Florida to attend either an out-of-district public school or private school that best suits their academic needs.

“UnitedHealthcare is proud to partner with Step Up For Students and support this impressive organization which invests in the future of our children,” said Nicholas Zaffiris, CEO of UnitedHealthcare of South Florida. “Especially during the holiday season, it’s important to support programs in our communities that help others. Step Up provides hope for Florida’s children to access a quality education that best fits their needs, and we are glad to support such a worthy initiative.”

Step Up For Students, the nonprofit organization that helps administer the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, is providing opportunities for nearly 105,000 lower-income students across Florida this school year with 441 residing in Collier County

“None of this would be possible without the support of the community and contributions of organizations like UnitedHealthcare,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “I’m just so pleased to know that together with our partners we are making such an important difference in our state by giving students the educational opportunities they deserve.”

At the event, Audrey Wainwright, principal at Naples Adventist Christian School, shared her support for the Step Up organization and thanked UnitedHealthcare for its ongoing commitment to the program. She encouraged other companies to consider participation.

UnitedHealthcare announced a $15 million contribution to Step Up For Students at an event at Naples Adventist Christian School. Pictured (back row center) are Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthil and UnitedHealthcare CEO South Florida Nicholas Zaffiris, along with students from Naples Adventist Christian School.

“I have seen first-hand the benefits of this scholarship program,” Wainwright said. “So many of our students have made tremendous improvements with the help of Step Up For Students, leading to a better future for themselves and our state.”

Scholarship parent Onetia Lansiquot, who spoke at the event, said the scholarship has allowed her to provide her daughter, Leilah, a second-grader at Naples Adventist, with strong academics in a comfortable, secure environment.

“Without Step Up For Students, Leilah would likely be going to a charter or public school,” Lansiquot said before thanking UnitedHealthcare. “I’m sure her progress would be OK, but being in a private school, she gets that extra attention, that extra little push, ensuring that her educational needs are met. You are truly changing lives by investing in the future of our children’s education, and my family is so grateful.”





Scholarship fosters better relationship between school and adoptive brothers

Editor’s note: November is National Adoption Month, which allows us to spotlight that the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, the nation’s largest private school choice program, also extends eligibility year-round to children in foster care. This year, more than 1,200 children in foster care like Camron and Rylan Merritt, who are profiled below, are using the scholarship.


When Camron Merritt came home from first grade with a card inviting him to a birthday party, he didn’t know what it was.

Recently adopted after two turbulent years in foster care, the 6-year-old had never been invited to a birthday party before.

He was the difficult kid with storm clouds behind his dark brown eyes. The one that other children and their parents couldn’t understand.

All of that started to change when Camron’s adoptive parents took him out of his neighborhood school in Bushnell and enrolled him in a private school with a school choice scholarship.

New mom Melissa Merritt cried when she saw the invitation.

“Seeing your kid go from being the outcast, the kid that nobody talks to, to getting invited to a birthday party is such a big deal,” she said.

When they got Camron at age 5, Melissa and husband Brandon put him in the neighborhood school that was closest to her job as a victim’s advocate for the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office. It did not go well.

Adoptive brothers, Cameron, left, and Rylan Merritt, right, thrive at Solid Rock Christian Academy with Step Up For Students income-based scholarships .

Camron’s early childhood was plagued by neglect and exposure to domestic violence and drugs. The emotional damage was made worse by more than 20 foster homes and several schools before he was adopted. He was too much for most people to handle.

“He didn’t trust anybody. He didn’t like loud noises. If there was somebody yelling on TV, he used to run and hide in the bathtub,” Melissa said. “If you said no to him, his little face would scrunch up. He’d cross his arms and stomp his foot.”

At school, Camron wrestled with learning disabilities, severe ADHD and difficulty adjusting.

“Every day I was getting calls to come get him,” Melissa said. “He was hiding under his desk, screaming and throwing things, not paying attention, smacking other kids.”

Because Brandon does pest control work throughout the region, it was Melissa who had to leave her work frequently.

“It was extremely stressful,” she said.

Frustrated with a lack of support and communication from the school, Melissa resolved to find a better option and learned about Step Up For Students scholarships from another adoptive mother. Children in foster care or out-of-home care automatically qualify for the Step Up scholarship and can keep it if they are adopted.

Melissa said Camron’s first private school, a Catholic school in Lecanto, was amazing – welcoming, tight-knit, communicative. But by the end of his first year, he was still having major difficulty with reading.

Melissa and Brandon agonized over the decision to switch schools again. Camron had been through so much change. But Melissa trusted her gut feeling that a better fit was available.

They found Solid Rock Christian Academy in Inverness, a mile and a half from their home. It offered a phonics-based reading curriculum that specializes in helping struggling readers. But the school turned out to be so much more.

Sitting on 12 acres of mostly open land, it has an old-fashioned feel, like the schools Melissa attended. There are chalkboards, beanbag chairs, and teachers who dress up for holidays.

The principal, Sheila Chau, grew up with foster children in her home. Melissa did not know that at the time, but couldn’t be more grateful.

“She gets it, literally gets it,” Melissa said. “She’s aware of all the issues and challenges. When she talks to Camron, she’s firm but she also shows him respect. She knows what he’s going through.”

Chau estimates at least 10 percent of her students are adopted.

In recent years, the number of children in foster and our-of-home care participating in the nation's largest private school choice program has grown substantially. Source: Step Up For Students

In recent years, the number of children in foster and our-of-home care participating in the nation’s largest private school choice program has grown substantially. Source: Step Up For Students

“I guess word of mouth has spread,” she said. “We nurture the child first. Academics are definitely important, but the first thing we do is look at the child and the circumstances where they’re coming from, and we meet the child where they are. There’s always a root to every child’s difficulties, and I keep that at the forefront with my teachers.”

Camron eased into his new school with summer tutoring and was placed in a special class that combined first and second grade material. It was a challenging time, as Melissa and Brandon adopted another boy, Rylan, who was 5 and came from a background as troubled as his new brother’s.

Like Camron, Rylan struggled in his neighborhood kindergarten while he was in foster care. So when he was adopted, Melissa applied for a Step Up scholarship on a Thursday, got approved on a Friday and had him at Solid Rock the following Monday.

“The process was phenomenal,” said Merritt, who has become a foster care advocate.

Now in their second year at Solid Rock, 8-year-old Camron and 6-year-old Rylan are in a safe, stable environment. Teachers talk to them without raising their voices, and know how to defuse a meltdown.

In a third-grade class with eight other children, Camron still struggles with reading but gets extra attention three times a week. He’s on grade level and has a mix of B’s and C’s. “That’s great for Camron,” Melissa said. “He’s doing very, very well.”

Rylan is on target with his first-grade academics and is doing better emotionally after having trust and behavior issues when he repeated kindergarten last year.

It’s not a utopia, but the school feels like an extended family. The boys have friends. The parents all know each other. It’s a happy place, an extension of the home Melissa and Brandon have made for their boys.

“It was such a relief to have one full day where I actually didn’t get a call from a teacher or a note from a teacher with an angry, frowny face because their behavior was totally crazy,” Melissa said. “They still have bad days like all kids, but they’re few and farther between now.”

About Solid Rock Christian Academy

Established in 1998 and affiliated with Inverness Church of God, the school has 180 K-12 students, including 140 on the Step Up scholarship. It is accredited by the Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS) and nationally through the Association of Christian Teachers and Schools (ACTS). The school uses the A Beka Book curriculum and administers the Stanford 10 test annually. Tuition is $6,500 annually.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

Scholarship gives strength to bullied student


Jacob Monastra came home from school in tears every day.

He struggled in class and was often bullied, practically from the day he started first grade.

“Our hearts were heavy watching our bright little boy’s self-esteem erode before my eyes,” said Lynn Lambo, Jacob’s grandmother and guardian. “He called himself the worst kid in school and thought he was so dumb.”

He had always seemed to toil developmentally and barely spoke until he was 3.

Jacob, a student at New Generation School in Live Oak, is especially fond of teacher Charlene Redish, who has helped him overcome shyness, issues with self-confidence and academic concerns.

During his third grading period of first grade at his neighborhood school in St. Petersburg, Florida, Jacob was a candidate to be held back for a year. Lambo dealt with that as she and husband Daniel began the process of moving with Jacob to Live Oak, a more rural area east of Tallahassee.

Prior to the move, Lambo briefly enrolled Jacob at a learning center in St. Petersburg for additional help. The one on one attention he received enabled him to enter second grade at Suwannee Elementary School in Live Oak, where his teacher was Charlene Redish.

“Jacob came into my classroom very shy and withdrawn,” Redish said. “He was in desperate need of confidence, because of his academic struggles and because of bullying. He would cry easily and didn’t trust anything around him. We had to fight for him so hard.”

While Jacob’s academic struggles continued, he made strides socially. When a disruptive student was new to Redish’s classroom, Jacob befriended him, even teaching him how to share, Redish said. As a form of reciprocation, the other boy helped protect Jacob from bullies.

But Jacob’s academic issues could not be ignored. He passed second grade – with great effort – but continued to struggle in third grade with a new teacher. In November 2016, Redish, a teacher Jacob had grown to admire and trust and still saw every morning before school, left Suwannee Elementary for a job at a private school.

That left Jacob with a new teacher – and more of the same issues.

By January 2017, Lambo was again told her grandson might be held back.

“I was shocked,” she said. “The school year wasn’t even half over, and I didn’t understand how they could tell me that.”

Fortunately for Jacob, help came from a familiar source.

Charlene Redish always kept tabs on Jacob and his family, and the bond between he and Redish proved too deep to break. Redish advised Lambo to send Jacob to her new school, New Generation School, also in Live Oak, for a one-week trial to see how he fit in.

The results were immediate and stunning.

“When I picked him up that (first) day, he said to me ‘This is my new school now,’” Lambo said with pride.

His grandparents quickly applied for and received the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families through Step Up For Students, and enrolled Jacob into New Generation.

With Redish as his new third-grade teacher, Jacob’s transition to the new school was practically flawless.

“It was like night and day at New Generation,” Redish says. “He picked up quickly and became a leader in my classroom.”

Almost overnight, Lambo also saw a change. The smaller class sizes and flexibility of the curriculum was just what Jacob needed.

Jacob Monastra likes digging for rocks, riding four-wheelers with his grandfather and fishing.

Once the quietest kid in a classroom, he is now well known for helping others, raising his hand frequently and almost always answering questions correctly. Every Friday, students at New Generation are released from classes early and have the option to leave at noon or stay in an after-school program until 2 p.m. But Lambo said he’s never once wanted to leave early.

“I used to have to peel him off me,” she said. “Now he’s smiling from ear to ear.”

Jacob breezed through third grade at New Generation and is now working through fourth grade, again under the tutelage of Redish. Now 9, he recently earned the New Generation Spirit Award, awarded to the student who most symbolizes integrity, kindness and the school’s purpose.

At school, Jacob and a few of his close friends often embark on playground archaeological digs, looking for rocks and pretending they are minerals.

Outside the classroom, Jacob enjoys fishing and recently caught a 13-inch crappie. He also enjoys riding a four-wheeler with his grandfather.

Jacob’s future is the brightest it has ever been.

“I am so happy they were able to get a scholarship for Jacob,” Redish said. “It was truly a blessing.”

Reach David Hudson Tuthill at dhudson@sufs.org.



Jacksonville private school, scholarship fueled student’s emotional turnaround

Lost.That’s where Pamela Howard feared her son, Malik Ferrell, would end up after years of struggles at different schools in Jacksonville.She couldn’t afford to let that happen. Malik needed a caring environment, especially after he and his family were rocked by the murder of his older brother, Derrell Baker.

Malik Ferrell turned his life around at The Potter’s House Christian Academy in Jacksonville.

Pamela had been searching for the right fit for Malik – four different schools in four years.

Finally a friend told her about the Step Up For Students scholarship, which allowed her to send him to The Potter’s House Christian Academy.

That’s where Malik’s life unraveled – and where he ultimately put it all back together.

“Having the opportunity to go to a private school helped get him on track,” Pamela said. “I cannot even tell you the difference it made in his life.”

At his neighborhood school, Malik made mostly D’s in second grade, then mostly F’s in third grade, which he had to repeat.

Three years and three schools later, at the age of 11, he got a fresh start at The Potter’s House.

Then the unthinkable happened.

Just weeks after Malik enrolled, Derrell, 17, was killed in a drive-by shooting. Police had no suspects. There were no arrests.

Pamela was working full-time at Blue Cross Blue Shield, taking complaints in the executive department. The grief and stress overwhelmed her, and the mother of five went on disability. She now works part-time doing billing at McKesson.

“Seeing my momma cry and my sisters cry, it was … it was just a lot to deal with,” Malik said. “That was my only big brother, so there was nothing for me to look up to.”

Derrell was everything to Malik – best friend, football hero, protector, disciplinarian, role model.

When he was killed “I really didn’t care about anything,” Malik said. “It messed me up in school. I was getting in trouble almost every day. I was getting in fights for no reason.”

“He would keep a lot of stuff in,” said Lela Johnson, now principal at The Potter’s House. “He wouldn’t talk to people, and I think what he was doing was trying to see who he could trust.”

With great patience, teachers and administrators taught Malik life skills and self-awareness in addition to academics. It took time, but Malik came to trust mentors like the dean, the guidance counselor, the assistant principal (Mrs. Johnson) and the football coach.

With his grades stabilizing to a C average, Malik began playing varsity football in eighth grade. He had natural talent, just like his brother.

Small, quick and athletic, they both played defensive back and played it well. Derrell was nicknamed “Hype,” and after his death, people began calling Malik “Lil’ Hype.”

By the end of 10th grade, Malik was starting to draw offers for college scholarships. He met with Mrs. Johnson, who charted a course for improved grades, test scores, and behavior.

For the first time in his life, Malik had purpose.

“That summer after 10th grade he had it all together,” Pamela said. “I didn’t have to say a word. He just grew up. The child was in his room, he was constantly doing homework, online classes, volunteering … I mean, I didn’t know who he was! He made a huge, huge turnaround.”

Malik Ferrell’s graduation was an emotional moment for he and his family.

Football helped heal Malik’s wounded heart, and in his final two years of high school he maintained a solid B-average with no behavior issues. His senior year became an extended celebration. First, he turned 18. Then came football signing day, when he announced in front of teammates, classmates and family that he was going to Tusculum College in Tennessee. Then came graduation.

Derrell wasn’t able to do any of those things, but he was with Malik the whole time. He was the inspiration.

“Malik was graduating for himself and he was graduating for his big brother,” Pamela said. When he walked across the stage, he said, “Ma, I did it. I did it for both of us.”

Malik didn’t play in his first season at Tusculum, but now halfway through his freshman year he is proud of his grades – some A’s, some B’s and one C. He’s looking forward to spring football and pursuing a career in sports broadcasting.

Pamela said her Malik’s accomplishments would not have been possible without The Potter’s House and the Step Up scholarship.

“It was amazing,” she said. “I felt completely blessed to even have the scholarship. I don’t know what I would have done without it. I was just thankful, because I honestly knew that I could not afford to send my children to private school and have the opportunity to have someone invest in them. These people go above and beyond. They pour themselves into these students and give of themselves off the clock.”

“To see my son just completely turn around, there aren’t even words. That he overcame these struggles and turned out to become the young man that he is, there are no words to even explain how proud I am of him.”

About The Potter’s House Christian Academy

The school opened in Jacksonville in 1996 with five teachers under the direction of Lady Narlene McLaughlin, wife of Bishop Vaughn McLaughlin. It now has two locations – an elementary and a high school – with 45 full-time staffers and 436 K-12 students, including 348 on the Step Up For Students scholarship. The non-denominational school uses a combination of curricula, including A Beka and Bob Jones University Press. It uses the Stanford 10 as its annual assessment test and the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test. Tuition is $3,900 for K3 and K4, $4,650 for K5, $4,910 for grades 1-5, and $5,000 for grades 6-12.

Scholarship alum grateful after being selected in the NFL draft


Anthony Walker Jr. sat in his home, ear to cell phone, new coach on the line. Then came the announcement on TV in the spring that had the room full of family and friends explode in celebration.

With the 161st pick in the NFL draft, the Indianapolis Colts select Anthony Walker Jr., linebacker from Northwestern …

Step Up For Students* scholars have gone on to all kinds of impressive accomplishments. Now they can add the NFL to the collective list.

Walker’s parents secured a Florida tax credit scholarship so he could attend a private middle school, wanting a better situation for him academically and socially. Walker went on to Monsignor Edward Pace High School, a private school in Miami Gardens.

“He’s thrived academically, socially and athletically,” said Anthony Walker Sr., his father and one of his football coaches at Monsignor Pace. “We couldn’t be happier and more proud of him.”

Led by his dream of playing in the NFL, Anthony Jr. was always a good student and hard worker. He knows his parents put him in position to succeed. But the scholarship was important, he said, because his parents wouldn’t have been able to afford tuition without it.

“There’s definitely a noticeable difference going to a private school,” he said. “There are a lot less distractions. It’s more than just education. There are outside pressures, teen peer pressure to do anything but succeed in school. So me being in the private school setting limited that and kept me on the right track.”

Success on the field and in the classroom translated to Walker getting recruited by revered academic institutions like Northwestern, Stanford, and Duke. All have excellent football programs.

When Northwestern offered a scholarship, Walker accepted and moved to Evanston, Ill. The structure and time-management skills he learned at Monsignor Pace helped him balance school and football.

Getting drafted is only one of this year’s big milestones. Walker is set to graduate in June with a degree in Learning and Organizational Change. After his playing career, he hopes to work in an NFL front office and one day be a general manager.

“The degree is way more important than the football,” Walker said. “but to be able to get both is awesome.”

About Monsignor Edward Pace High School

Founded in 1961, Monsignor Pace is located on 44 acres in Miami Gardens and part of the Archdiocese of Miami. It’s a member of the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) and accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). The school has a 1-to-14 teacher-to-student ratio with 830 students in grades 9-12, including 377 on the Step Up scholarship. With a focus on college preparation, the school boasts a 100 percent graduation rate and 99 percent college attendance. The school annually administers the PSAT, Aspire and ACT tests for various grades. Tuition is $11,725 for grades 9-11 and $11,975 for grade 12.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org


Tampa Catholic grad going from one scholarship to another


When she walked across the stage as a freshly minted graduate of Tampa Catholic High School in May 2017, Cheyenne Daphney looked out at the audience cheering in the downtown theater and thought about all the help she got along the way.

Cheyenne Daphney and mom DJ Ruhland celebrate after the graduation ceremony in downtown Tampa.

Her mom, DJ Ruhland; her basketball coach, Matt Rocha; her teammates; and the rest of her Tampa Catholic family – they were all there giving a standing ovation.

Cheyenne also thought about the tax credit scholarship that made private school possible, and how she will soon start a new scholarship this summer at St. Petersburg College.

“I’ve got butterflies,” she said after the ceremony. “I’m so grateful. Tampa Catholic turned me around. I really don’t feel I would have made it to college without Tampa Catholic or Step Up.”

In ninth grade at her neighborhood school, Cheyenne’s grades slipped so badly her mom told the basketball coach to bench her despite being the best player on the team.

The discipline didn’t work and Cheyenne’s grades continued to slide. She even earned an F in one class and had to take an online summer course to make up for it.

DJ decided to make a change.

She secured a Step Up scholarship, which helps low-income and working-class students pay for private school tuition. Then she enrolled Cheyenne at Tampa Catholic, something she had always dreamed of but never thought she could afford.

Results were immediate.

“Within the first month, it was a whole different child,” DJ said. “She was calling me and telling me, ‘Mom, my homework is done,’ instead of me practically standing over her at 9 o’clock at night screaming about getting her homework done.”

There were higher expectations at TC, a warm atmosphere and smaller classes with more one-on-one attention.

It took time for Cheyenne to fully adjust, as girls basketball coach and theology teacher Matthew Rocha could clearly see.

“I could definitely tell that she felt like, ‘Oh, I’m in a school with a bunch of rich kids,’ ” he said. “She didn’t know necessarily where she fit.”

Thanks to her basketball family, though, Cheyenne started to open up. She told friends and teammates about the financial struggles that led her mom to move them into an extended stay hotel.

“I was kind of nervous for them to find out where I live,” she said, describing carpools that started off picking her up a couple of blocks from the hotel. “After a while, once I started to know the people here, I was more open to letting people know where I live.”

New challenges arose. A few months after arriving at TC, Cheyenne suffered a major knee injury, had surgery, and spent a week in the hospital with a life-threatening infection. A few months after that, DJ suffered a major stroke.

“It was a lot to go through,” DJ said, “but we got through it.”

Medical bills and time away from work, however, caused a financial strain.

Cheyenne “basically didn’t have things that we consider to be necessities,” Rocha said. “She didn’t have rides to go places. There were several nights where she wasn’t sure she would have dinner. One of our coaches would stop and get her something to eat to make sure that she had food.”

The team helped in other ways. Older teammates gave Cheyenne their uniforms and textbooks when they graduated. Carpools from a friend’s parent meant less time on the bus, and more time for DJ and Cheyenne to spend together on weekday mornings.

“Everybody treated me as a family,” Cheyenne said. “It was embarrassing to me (to be homeless), but my mom was so strong. It was a struggle, but we overcame it together as one. So now, I own it. It doesn’t make me sad or embarrassed anymore.”

Now Cheyenne is a graduate coming off a 3.1 GPA in her final year. It took two seasons to recover on the basketball court, but she hit her stride during her senior season and earned a scholarship to play for St. Pete College. She starts on July 1.

“The weight just lifted off my back,” Cheyenne said of her new scholarship. “I felt so free knowing I can continue school.”

That was always been the plan.

“I am so proud of her,” said DJ. “She’s turned out to be an amazing young woman who has a lot of amazing things ahead. Without moving her to Tampa Catholic, which was only possible because of Step Up For Students, I don’t think we’d be saying those same things today.”

“Even with Step Up For Students there was still tuition to be paid, and there were times when making that tuition payment was not easy. It was an investment – a do-able investment. Without Step Up For Students it wouldn’t have been do-able.”

About Tampa Catholic High School

Established in 1962, Tampa Catholic serves 754 students in grades 9-12, including 100 on the Step Up For Students scholarship. The average class has 24 students and a student/teacher ratio of 14:1. TC’s campus is at 4630 N. Rome Ave. in Tampa. Accredited by AdvancED, TC offers a wide-ranging curriculum with three programs tailored to each student’s performance – honors, college prep, and academic assistance – as well as 15 Advanced Placement courses and seven dual-enrollment courses. Depending on grade level, Tampa Catholic uses either the PSAT or PACT test. Tuition is $12,950 a year with discounts for parish members. The school annually gives $500,000 in need-based tuition assistance.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

Scholarship, Kingdom Academy spurred turnaround for Miami student

Eleven-year-old Henezy Berrios’ sparkling brown eyes crinkle in the corners when she smiles, which is just about all the time. She has boundless, contagious enthusiasm. She loves to dance and crack jokes.

Henezy Berrios

She’s the girl that everyone in school likes.

But you would have hardly recognized her in first grade at her neighborhood school in Miami. She was quiet and withdrawn, afraid to ask for help, made fun of because she couldn’t read.

The D’s and F’s and diagnoses of ADHD and dyslexia set off alarms for her mother, Liliana Arguello. She resolved to find a better fit for Henezy’s education, and thanks to a Step Up For Students scholarship was able to access a private school called Kingdom Academy.

There, her daughter’s fears faded as her reading skills blossomed. A different Henezy emerged.

“Her self esteem and attitude has completely changed,” Liliana said. “I was going crazy. You need reading for everything, and I was already seeing her frustration. I said this is not going to happen.”

Liliana was 15 when she got pregnant with Henezy. Now in her mid-20s, she’s a single mother of two who works two or three housekeeping jobs every day. The remaining tuition after the scholarship and other school expenses take much of her paycheck, sometimes leaving little money for food.

Stress is a persistent companion, and Liliana rarely has the time, energy or resources to be as engaged a parent as she would like. That made it all the more important to find the right school.

When Henezy stumbled in her neighborhood school, Liliana found a tutor she could barely afford who told her about the Step Up For Students scholarship. It empowers low-income families to choose from more than 1,700 private schools statewide.

Liliana applied and received a list of 10 schools near her home. In between jobs and on breaks she visited all 10, took tours and asked lots of questions before picking Kingdom Academy.

Sitting on a little lot ringed by oaks and palms, the academy building is small and filled to capacity. It’s also clean and well-lit, full of Smartboards, laptops and dedicated teachers. Including before- and after-care, Henezy is at school from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and can eat three meals a day there.

“It’s a blessing,” Liliana said.

Henezy repeated first grade at Kingdom Academy and was still below grade level in reading throughout her first year. She needed help with unfamiliar words and lacked confidence when reading aloud. But she never got down or gave up.

“We saw her effort,” said principal Elena Navarro. “She’s a very determined girl. It’s wonderful. You could see that maybe she just wasn’t being worked with before.”

By the end of her first year, Henezy was a B student overall with a C in reading. She was improving all around and letting her personality bubble forth. She worked well in small groups and connected with teachers who helped her stay focused with interactive, non-traditional lessons. They let her set a fast pace and move around instead of sitting all day.

“(My teacher) helps a lot,” said Henezy, now in fourth grade. “Sometimes she gives me extra time to do stuff. … Sometimes she puts on a song about it. Sometimes she teaches it to us in a funny way.”

Today Henezy Berrios is a bright fourth-grader with a growing aptitude and appreciation for reading.

Eventually, the new school’s approach clicked. Henezy began to love the books that were once a chore.

“I used to feel like I couldn’t do it,” she said. “I couldn’t read the words, so I was like, ‘Oh my god, what is it?!’ Now I feel like these books are amazing and I always should have read them.”

Henezy’s gains this year are stunning.

Kingdom Academy tracks student scores on the standardized Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test. Step Up For Students’ Office of Student Learning is supporting Kingdom Academy and a number of participating private schools to analyze MAP data to improve instruction. (Step Up For Students also publishes this blog.)

At the beginning of the year, Henezy was just below the nationwide average in reading. In December, her mid-year results showed gains that were greater than 99 percent of fourth-graders who took the test nationwide.

“I was freaking out,” said Henezy’s fourth-grade teacher, Jessica Gonzalez. “I was trying to figure out if I wrote it down wrong the first time. I had to double check everything. I even went to her teacher last year and showed her the jump. It was a huge deal for me. For her, too, obviously. Her smile just blew up when I showed her.”

Liliana cried, but that’s not uncommon these days with all of Henezy’s growth. Henezy talks often about her goals in life – a huge house, a farm, a car. She wants to buy her mom a house and a car, too.

“She’s amazing,” Liliana said. “She’s the one who motivates me and keeps me going.”

“I am so relieved to know that my child is going to have a successful life, go to college and do big things, whatever she wants to do. She’s not going to have to struggle.”

About Kingdom Academy

Founded in Miami in 1990, the non-denominational Christian school offers an emphasis on business and financial literacy. It holds family workshops to help parents understand the curriculum and improve their own financial literacy skills, and offers Rosetta Stone to those trying to learn English. The school is accredited by AdvancED and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) among others. It serves 250 students from grades K-8, including 175 on the Step Up scholarship. Elementary grades use Pearson Scott Foresman curriculum materials for core subjects, while middle school classes are aligned to local, state and national standards with an eye on career or post-secondary options. The school administers the Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP) as its standardized test three times a yearTuition is $7,560 for K-8.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

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