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.

Nontraditional education, career path leads intern to Step Up For Students

By LORIE JEWELL

Teachers started telling me in the fourth grade that I had a talent for writing. At 10, though, my dream job was long-distance trucking. The idea of getting away and exploring the country from the high perch of a semi seemed like the adventure of a lifetime.

Step Up Marketing Intern Lorie Jewell with her grandson.

Step Up Marketing Intern Lorie Jewell with her grandson.

While a senior at Redford Union High School in Michigan in the early 1980’s, I chose the military as my first career path – one that afforded opportunities to not only develop writing and photography skills as a public affairs specialist, but also drive the U.S. Army’s beast of a truck known as a 5-Ton. In 1985, it was the biggest vehicle in the inventory and I got to drive a few of them during a deployment to South Korea. One or two even had tractor trailers attached, which proved quite the challenge when it came to backing the giant trucks into a makeshift motor pool.

My employment journey has taken many interesting twists and turns since then – a long stint as a Tampa-area newspaper reporter (17 years with The Tampa Tribune), census enumerator, freelance writer, real estate photographer, Uber driver, graduate student and instructor. I’ve seen a lot, done a lot, and thankfully, the voyage continues.

This last gig – graduate school at the University of South Florida – brings me to Step Up For Students’ Marketing Department, where I will be completing an internship for the creative writing master of fine arts program. I’ll be using the skills teachers were so enamored with so long ago to tell the stories of other young people finding their way with the help of similarly inspiring educators – and how Step Up helps bring them together. I also see myself as a walking, talking example of the concept that education does not have to be a one-time, over and done deal. My educational path has been anything but traditional.

As for life outside of grad school – yes, it is possible – I like to say I’m all about the B’s – bowling, bingo, billiards, and babies. I have two adult children; my son is an Army staff sergeant with a wife and two children, while my daughter is a social worker and mother to my Great Dane-mix grand dog, Bailey. I am also an avid knitter and crocheter, which do not start with a B but are nonetheless top free time activity choices.

I believe serendipity has delivered me to Step Up at this point in my life, when education is so firmly ensconced behind the wheel. I’m excited to meet others on similar journeys and I will be honored to tell others all about them. (Insert happy face emoji here.)

Reach Lorie Jewell at ljewell@sufs.org. 

Interim HealthCare Inc. donates $25,000 to Step Up For Students

By LESLY CARDEC, Interim HealthCare Inc.

SUNRISE, Florida – Interim HealthCare Inc., a leading national franchisor of home care, hospice, and healthcare staffing, donated $25,000 to Step Up For Students which helps run the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. This program aims to provide lower-income children in Florida with more learning opportunities through scholarships solely based on financial need.

Interim HealthCare Inc.’s donation will help K-12 students attend a private school, based on their specific academic needs.

“As active members of the South Florida community, we want to help ensure that all students statewide have equal access to educational opportunities,” said Larry Kraska, Interim HealthCare Inc. CEO and President. “We are proud to support Step Up’s mission and support our future leaders.”

Step Up For Students empowers families to pursue and engage in the most appropriate learning options for their children. The tax-credit scholarship supports economically disadvantaged families in Florida who lack the financial resources to access education options. Families may choose between financial assistance for private school tuition and fees or transportation costs to attend a public school in another district.

“We are excited about the opportunity to give back to our local community through our donation to Step Up,” said David Waltzer, Interim HealthCare Inc. CFO. “Step Up provides immeasurable benefits to school-aged children in Florida by promoting equal access and educational options, and we’re glad we can help further its cause.”

A study last year by the Urban Institute found that student recipients of the scholarship program who use the scholarship for four or more years are up to 43 percent more likely to attend college and up to 29 percent more likely to earn an associate degree than their peers in public school. During the 2017-18 school year, more than 105,000 students used the scholarship.

 

Multiple school choice options are just right for this family

By 

Today is back-to-school day for most school districts in Florida.

But for the Plucinski family of Central Florida, it’s back to schools. And not just district schools.

Sisters Cora and Zuri boarded a school bus to start the day at a district elementary school, while mom Corin Plucinski drove brothers Zach and Nathan 30 minutes to a private school. They attend the schools with help from one of Florida’s multiple educational choice scholarships.

From Left to Right: Mark, Cora, Corin, Zuri, Leonte, Nathan and Zachary.

From Left to Right: Mark, Cora, Corin, Zuri, Leonte, Nathan and Zachary.

In many parts of the country, this may be unusual. But in Florida, which offers one of the robust arrays of school choice in the country, it’s increasingly common. Growing numbers of families have different children attending different schools in different educational sectors.

To the Plucinskis, whose oldest is now headed to college after graduating from a district high school, there’s nothing odd about it.

“When you’ve got five kids you’re always juggling something anyway,” Corin Plucinski said.

Thirty years ago, roughly 90 percent of Florida students in pre-K through 12 attended assigned district schools, and about 10 percent attended private schools. Beyond a handful of magnet schools, there was no state-supported school choice.

Fast forward a generation. Today, 46 percent of Florida students – 1.7 million – attend something other than their assigned district schools. About 300,000 attend charter schools. Another 300,000 attend private schools. Most of the rest attend options created by school districts, from magnet schools and career academies to IB and dual enrollment programs.

This flourishing landscape gives parents more opportunities to find the right fit for their kids. And for many families, that means one child in this sector, another in that sector.

Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Corin and her husband Mark knew they wanted a big family. When they discovered they couldn’t have children of their own, they turned to the foster care system. Soon they welcomed siblings Cora, Zuri, Zach and Nathan into their home. Not long after, Leonte joined the family as the new big brother.

The Plucinskis moved to Florida two years ago, in part to escape Milwaukee winters and to start fresh as a family. They were pleasantly surprised by what they discovered.

As a multi-racial family, the Plucisnkis felt Milwaukee was far too segregated. People talked. Others stared and judged. In the Orlando area, there was none of that.

“It’s more racially diverse here,” Corin said of her new neighborhood in east Orlando. Even her kids were shocked by the diversity. Florida wasn’t just black and white like Milwaukee, it was multi-colored. The warm weather, lush palm trees and nearby beaches didn’t hurt either.

They also discovered something else. Florida’s public schools, in their view, were better. Way better.

“Moving to Florida has been a world of change,” said Corin about Florida’s K-12 education system.

Florida public schools had smaller classes, which allowed Zuri (now in third grade) and Leonte to get the extra help they needed. She also felt her kids were being held to a higher standard.

Leonte struggled with the higher expectations at first, but his new public school teachers provided extra help to raise his scores on the state standardized test and the SAT. He finished his senior year at East River High School in Orlando with his GPA comfortably above 3.0. Leonte will be a freshman at Seminole State College this year and wants to become a fireman when he graduates.

Zuri loves her public school, East Lake Elementary, and is excited to welcome her little sister Cora to the kindergarten class.

Meanwhile, Zachary (seventh grade) and Nathan (fifth grade), will both attend The Arbor School in Winter Springs, a private school for children with special needs. Both have multiple learning disabilities, and both use the Gardiner Scholarship, an education savings account for students with special needs. The program is administered by Step Up For Students.

Zachary and Nathan weren’t always private school students. They’ve tried public school, home education and Florida Virtual School too.

For Zachary, a district elementary school worked better in Florida than in Milwaukee. In Wisconsin, he struggled so much in his public school that he was home schooled by his adoptive mom instead. But in Florida, he was able to flourish thanks to smaller class sizes and teachers that his parents said put in extra effort.

Middle school was a different story, however. The school was just too big and held too many distractions. Zachary’s grades began to suffer. That’s when Plucinski turned to the Gardiner Scholarship.

Zachary’s grades dramatically improved at The Arbor School, from D’s and F’s to A’s and B’s.

Until this year, Nathan had only been home schooled. He needed occupational, physical, speech and behavioral therapy, all of which made attending a traditional school difficult.

This year will be Nathan’s first at The Arbor School with his big brother. He’s already made friends at the school and Plucinski believes the option will be a great fit for him.

Public or private? It doesn’t matter to the Plucinskis.

“We’re just happier,” Corin Plucinski said. “This is how schools are supposed to be.”

Patrick R. Gibbons can be reached at pgibbons@sufs.org.

 

After school choice helps her, she helps Puerto Rico

By JEFF BARLIS

Last fall, as she started her senior year in high school, IvonD’liz Chernoff was full of love and gratitude. She was excelling in school. She had overcome years of ridicule. She was headed for college.

Tracking a monster hurricane was the last thing on her mind.

But there it was. Maria. Tearing through her beloved Puerto Rico.

After a Step Up For Students scholarship changed her life, IvonD’liz Chernoff set out to help others by raising more than $12,000 for Hurricane Maria relief for Puerto Rico last fall.

“I couldn’t look away,” IvonD’liz recounted. “Houses with roofs coming off, water coming in from the ocean. It was terrifying … heartbreaking. The worst part was the aftermath, seeing people suffering, kids crying because they don’t have a home or food or because their dolls are gone with the storm.”

I have to do something, she thought.

So she did. The girl who failed third grade was now student body president. The girl rescued by a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students now found the strength to rescue others.

I can move mountains, she thought.

IvonD’liz, also known as Ivon or Ivy, was born in Orlando. But in her heart, she’s Puerto Rican. She moved to the U.S. territory when she was three months old, and didn’t return to central Florida, to live with her grandparents, until she was 5. “I’m a pure Latina,” she said with an accent, a broad smile and a little shimmy that sent her tight, black curls into a dance. “My whole family shares that Puerto Rican spice.”

Florida turned out to be turbulent. When Ivon began attending her neighborhood kindergarten, she didn’t know English. She soon became comfortable speaking it. But reading?

“Reading was really difficult,” she said, “especially when you had to stand up. I would stutter. The kids who knew English would laugh.”

Ivon felt the sting of classmates calling her dumb. She cried a lot.

When her mom got married a few years later, she took Ivon and her two sisters from their grandparents’ home and moved south to Poinciana. In school, Ivon continued to struggle. She was bullied by a boy who picked on her incessantly. She got mostly F’s and D’s. She didn’t have many friends.

“I didn’t feel accepted,” she said.

After a falling out with her mother, Ivon and her two sisters moved back to Orlando to live with their grandparents. Despite financial hardships, it was peaceful and stable. Ivon’s grades rebounded.

As a freshman at her neighborhood high school, Ivon did well and was happy. But she told her grandmother, Luz Ruiz, she wanted to leave because the classes were so large.

“I didn’t like the fact that when I didn’t understand anything, they couldn’t slow it down for me,” she said. “I wanted to go somewhere where I could have a one-on-one conversation with a teacher.”

Enter Raising Knowledge Academy. Ivon and her grandmother toured the school and met the principal, a strong, warm-hearted woman named Ariam Cotto. It was too late to get a Step Up scholarship, Ms. Cotto explained. But when she saw Ivon’s enthusiasm for the school, she worked out an affordable payment plan with Ivon’s grandmother, who worked in housekeeping at Disney.

“She saw something in me,” Ivon said. “I was so happy I was crying when we left.”

It took time for Ivon to find her groove. But with a Step Up scholarship in place for her 11th grade year, the self-admitted goofy kid started taking school more seriously. In her senior year, she was elected student body president.

Then Maria happened.

The destruction devastated Ivon. But it also spurred her to action.

She immediately went to Cotto, and they came up with a plan.

It was simple at first. Ivon and some students stood at the busy intersection near the school with signs for hurricane relief, waving a Puerto Rican flag and selling water bottles. The early donations were encouraging. The first time someone handed Ivon $40 was stunning. But she was thinking bigger.

While Cotto called local officials, Ivon galvanized the entire school community – students, parents, their churches. It took weeks to plan and even longer to coordinate with a church in Puerto Rico, but the refocused efforts paid off.

Donations streamed in – food, supplies, aid kits and money ($1,000 in one day gave everyone shivers of empowered delight). Students filled bags and boxes with supplies for women, men, children and babies.

“She raised more than $7,000 and another $5,000 in food and clothing,” Mrs. Cotto said, crediting Ivon as the driving force. “She’s a wonderful leader.”

Ivon accumulated 120 volunteer hours in two months. At graduation, the school gave her its Citizenship Award.

She finished with a 3.5 GPA. She was also accepted to Adventist University of Health Sciences, where she plans to become a pediatric cancer nurse.

Ivon’s nursing aspirations began five years ago, when she learned from post-operation hospital nurses how to care for her grandparents at home. She cries happily at the thought of how much they’ve done for her.

Grandma couldn’t be prouder to see how Ivon has grown. She credits Raising Knowledge Academy. “There were moments when Ivon fell down,” she said, “and they helped her get back up.”

She’s well on her way to paying it forward.

About Raising Knowledge Academy

Opened in 2015, the non-denominational non-profit had 92 K-12 students last year, including 46 on Step Up scholarships. The school uses Alpha and Omega Publications’ Horizons and Ignitia curriculums, which allow students to customize elective learning in addition to five core subjects. It offers advanced classes and dual enrollment through Valencia College. Its teachers are state certified, class sizes are between 8-10 students, and the school administers NWEA’s Measures of Academic Performance (MAP) test. Tuition is $6,100.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org

Continental National Bank helps Florida schoolchildren with $100,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By PAUL SOOST 

MIAMI – Continental National Bank recently celebrated its $100,000 contribution to Step Up For Students, funding 15 K-12 scholarships during the 2017-18 school year. The scholarships allowed lower-income children the opportunity to attend the school that best met their learning needs.

It was the second consecutive year that Continental National Bank, a full-service community bank established in Miami in 1974, has partnered with Step Up For Students, contributing a total of $250,000 and providing 40 scholarships.

Continental National Bank presented Step Up For Students with a check for $100,000 which provided 15 lower-income children with scholarships to attend the K-12 school of their choice. Pictured (adults from left to right) are Carol Thomas, vice president of the Office of Student Learning, Step Up For Students, Sonia Canessa-Gonzalez, chief financial officer, Continental National Bank, Natalia Arana, marketing manager, Continental National Bank and Gina Lynch, vice president of Operations and Organizational Improvement, Step Up For Students. They are joined by several Step Up scholars from PenTab Academy and Trinity Christian Academy in Miami.

Continental National Bank presented Step Up For Students with a check for $100,000 which provided 15 lower-income children with scholarships to attend the K-12 school of their choice. Pictured (adults from left to right) are Carol Thomas, vice president of the Office of Student Learning, Step Up For Students, Sonia Canessa-Gonzalez, chief financial officer, Continental National Bank, Natalia Arana, marketing manager, Continental National Bank and Gina Lynch, vice president of Operations and Organizational Improvement, Step Up For Students. They are joined by several Step Up scholars from PenTab Academy and Trinity Christian Academy in Miami.

“Our community needs investments that lift our children up. We are constantly working to make our community better, stronger and fairer and we focus on many of our efforts in our children,” said Sonia Canessa-Gonzalez, Chief Financial Officer of Continental National Bank. “We are proud of our relationship with Step Up For Students and look forward to making a difference in our South Florida community.”

Step Up For Students helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which allows recipients to choose between a scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools. The program is funded by corporations through dollar-for-dollar tax-credited donations.

“Thanks to corporate partners like Continental National Bank, more Florida schoolchildren are able to attend schools that best meet their learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “We are grateful for Continental National Bank’s generous contribution that is helping Florida students, as well as their community outreach efforts.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students served more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for K through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participated in the scholarship program statewide.

Reach Paul Soost at psoost@sufs.org.

American Income Life donates $25,000 to Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By PAUL SOOST

American Income Life, a provider of life, accident and supplemental health insurance, announced on June 25 a $25,000 contribution to Step Up For Students, helping lower-income children attend the K-12 school that best fits their learning needs. The contribution will fund three  scholarships for the 2018-19 school year.

This is the first time that American Income has partnered with Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations.

American Income Life presents Step Up For Students with a contribution of $25,000 which will fund three scholarships for lower-income Florida schoolchildren to attend the school of their choice through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Pictured are (left to right) Steve Greer, chief executive officer, AIL/NILICO Agency Division, David Bryant, Step Up For Students development officer, and David Zolphin, president, AIL/NILICO Agency Division

American Income Life presents Step Up For Students with a contribution of $25,000 which will fund three scholarships for lower-income Florida schoolchildren to attend the school of their choice through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Pictured are (left to right) Steve Greer, chief executive officer, AIL/NILICO Agency Division, David Bryant, Step Up For Students development officer, and David Zolphin, president, AIL/NILICO Agency Division

“American Income Life takes an active role in giving back to the community, in places we live, work and visit. We’re proud to partner with Step Up For Students and to help shape the lives of children through educational opportunities,” said Chief Executive Officer, AIL Agency Division Steve Greer. “Supporting Step Up’s mission will help develop future leaders in our communities and we’re excited to be involved.”

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged schoolchildren allows parents and schoolchildren to choose between a K-12 scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

“We are thrilled that American Income Life has joined us in our efforts to provide educational options for lower-income families in Florida,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “We are grateful for their generosity, and to its employees’ efforts to improve the lives of people living in their communities.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students served more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade, and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Paul Soost can be reached at psoost@sufs.org.

Scholarship student soars after hurdling language barrier

By JEFF BARLIS

The day after Maria Corrales’ tear-soaked graduation ceremony from St. Brendan High School, her mother, Carmen Urquijo, still searched for perspective.

“I have no words,” said Urquijo of her oldest daughter’s path from Cuba to Miami, a four-year journey that saw a girl who didn’t speak any English transform into a college-bound honors student.

A moment later the words spilled forth.

“Proud, grateful, full of joy that she was able to achieve so much,” Carmen said in Spanish. As Maria translated, a slight blush came over her golden skin.

A scholarship helped Maria Corrales soar academically and overcome a language barrier after leaving Cuba, leading to graduation.

A scholarship helped Maria Corrales soar academically and overcome a language barrier after leaving Cuba, leading to graduation.

Maria’s journey is a testament to perseverance and opportunity. St. Brendan became a second home, a refuge and a springboard to the American dream. But Maria’s family wouldn’t have been able to afford tuition had it not been for the Step Up For Students scholarship that helps lower-income families.

The journey began in the hilly town of Santa Clara, Cuba. Maria was one of the top students in her middle school, but knew from her parents that studies were no guarantee of success in Cuba. Her mom was a doctor, but the profession paid very little. Her father, Fabio Corrales, studied to be an electrician but ended up a businessman who worked with artisans.

The family was comfortable, but a future in Florida looked far brighter.

Maria, then 15, said it was difficult leaving friends, relatives, the family home and her boyfriend. But once she and her sister, Mariangel, then 11, got settled into school, they realized English and assimilating were ever harder. There were a lot of tears.

“I thought I was coming to Disney,” Maria said. “But it was tough.”

While Mariangel went to the neighborhood middle school, the family’s Catholic faith led Maria to St. Brendan (Mariangel now attends St. Brendan and is happy and thriving). Even with the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up, and financial aid from the school, money was tight. Carmen and Fabio had to make do with low-paying jobs and couldn’t afford a car.

The city bus Maria took every morning was cold and depressing. No one talked. Everyone looked tired. She was typically among the first to arrive to a quiet, lonely campus.

“Mornings were very hard,” she said, “because I knew I had a whole day of not understanding anything. I had to pay attention because I had to get something out of the class. It felt like I wasn’t in the right place.”

Normally a chatterbox, Maria hardly spoke her freshman year. She was embarrassed. She doubted herself and the decision to move. The girl who got all A’s in Cuba received a D in English in the first quarter.

But she had an angel at St. Brendan.

Tayra Ichino ran the English lab after school three days a week. Maria attended every one, feeling relief as she entered the room. There, Ms. Ichino would translate, explain assignments, and absorb any doubts and fears with relentless encouragement.

Tayra Ichino celebrates the graduation of her student, Maria Corrales.

Maria was such a positive, hard-working student, Ichino said, it felt good to help her. By third quarter of freshman year, she was making all A’s. By year’s end, she was accepted into the school’s STEM academy.

“That shows how much studying and reviewing she was doing, because it’s not just sitting with me,” Ichino said. “She had to go home and study twice as hard as any student who already had the language.”

That summer, Maria’s progress with English accelerated even more. She spent seven weeks as a camp counselor for 8-year-old girls where there was no getting around the language barrier. The girls bluntly asked her why she spoke so strangely. The ones who spoke Spanish helped her.

“It helped me come out of my shell,” Maria said. “After camp, I said, ‘OK, I can speak.’ ”

The embarrassment gone, Maria set about conquering St. Brendan. The student body seemed larger as she made more English-speaking friends. She took harder classes and thrived.

“She just completely turned it on,” said guidance counselor Carlos Nuñez.

Now a graduate, Maria’s accomplishments are staggering: English Honor Society (“which is amazing,” Nuñez said, “because she couldn’t even put a sentence together when she first started”), National Honor Society, Math Honor Society, Science Honor Society, Social Sciences Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society, varsity swimming, president of the STEM Academy, and unanimous winner of the Archbishop’s Catholic Leadership award.

“This girl is remarkable,” said St. Brendan principal Jose Rodelgo-Bueno. “We were worried when we gave her admission, but she has better grades than people who were born here.”

Maria was accepted into the honors program at Florida International University, where she will study civil engineering. She wants to own a firm someday and build bridges, buildings and expressways.

“The sky’s the limit and I can accomplish anything,” she said. “I learned that at St. Brendan.”

About Saint Brendan High School

Originally a seminary high school in 1959, St. Brendan went co-ed after an enrollment decline and re-opened with its present name in 1975. Today’s student body is about 70 percent female and 98 percent Hispanic. Part of the Archdiocese of Miami, the school sits on 33 acres that are shared with the seminary. There are 1,187 9-12th graders, including 284 on Step Up scholarships. The school has an academies program similar to college majors, in which freshmen apply to one of four academies – law/business, medical, engineering, and fine arts. More than half of the teachers hold advanced degrees. The school administers the SAT and ACT annually. Tuition is $10,250 a year with financial aid available to qualified families.

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

Brave warrior, inspiring model flourishes with scholarship

By DAVID HUDSON TUTHILL

Her name means “Brave Warrior” in Spanish.

That might not conjure up the image of a 6-year-old girl with blonde hair, glasses and a smile so bright she became the first person with Down syndrome to become a main model for a major fashion brand.

Born with Down syndrome, Valentina Guerrero, started modeling at 9 months old.

But, Valentina Guerrero always defies expectations.

The oldest child of Cecilia Elizalde and Juan Fernando Guerrero, Valentina was born Sept. 16, 2011. Her parents didn’t learn Valentina had Down syndrome until after her birth.  Each year, roughly 6,000 children in the U.S. are born with the genetic condition according to the Centers for Disease Control.

A Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs has helped Valentina shatter incorrect assumptions many people make about people with Down syndrome. Step Up For Students helps manage the scholarship.

“I realized how incredible individuals with Down syndrome are,” Elizalde said. “They’re so evolved on a spiritual level, and we have so much to learn from them. But we don’t hear enough of that. We hear outdated comments about their potential. I wanted to help change that perception.”

The family, including younger brother Oliver, 3, lives in Miami. Other family members remain in their native Ecuador.

Valentina was a few months old when her parents realized some of the challenges she could face. They soon had her working with occupational, physical and speech therapists.

Adriana Tilley, an occupational therapist with 33 years of experience, has been working with Valentina since she was a baby.  Tilley says Elizalde and Guerrero are deeply involved with their daughter’s care, which has had a huge influence on her development. The Gardiner Scholarship helps pay for the care.

“The parents have been incredible and a huge member of the team,” Tilley says. “Valentina is like any other kid, with some limitations. But, we all have limitations.”

Tilley’s six years of work with Valentina have helped the child make tremendous strides in her personality. She constantly is asking how other people are feeling. Tilley marvels at the young woman she’s helped nurture over the past six years.

“She’s met all her milestones and is doing great,” Tilley says. “Now she is learning how to do everything by herself. I’ve loved working with her and learning from her family.”

Even as a baby, Valentina began shattering stereotypes.

She was 9 months old when she began taking the modeling world by storm. Family connections led her to European fashion designer Dolores Cortés. By 2013, she was the main model for the company’s children collection DC Kids USA 2013.  In the ensuing years, Valentina has been featured in a plethora of media outlets, including People Magazine, Down Syndrome World and MTV Tres. She also has modeled for brands such as Walmart, GAP, Toys R Us and Carter’s, the children’s clothing company.

A Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs has helped Valentina Guerreno shatter incorrect assumptions many people make about people with Down syndrome.

Her accomplishments resonated as far away as her family’s native Ecuador – to the extent that the country’s former vice president, Lenin Moreno, wrote Valentina a letter, calling her an inspiration. Moreno is now Ecuador’s President.

“We didn’t take the fame too seriously,” says Elizalde, a former television producer, consultant and music show host on the Spanish-language PBS station V-me. “I saw it as a platform for us to communicate an important message. It was a little hectic having to go from therapies to having cameras all over. It was kind of surreal.”

Social media has played a major role in Valentina’s fame. Thanks to her mother, there are countless photos and videos across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, documenting her life and various activities.

Elizalde also recently began a Spanish language parenting channel on YouTube. She hopes to pass on to other families some of the techniques and therapies that have most helped her family.

She is a firm believer in the adage that it takes a village to raise a child such as Valentina, which is why the family feels so fortunate to be able to choose the right educational path for her.

Valentina enrolled in a three-year pre-K class at Morningside K-8 Academy in Miami. By her third year, she was in class with over 20 kids, one teacher, and an aid. Despite the class size, and with Valentina the only child in class with Down syndrome, the school was largely successful in meeting her needs. When Kindergarten rolled around however, the family toured different school options.

Elizalde was worried about finding the right setting to meet Valentina’s needs. A friend recommended the family check out Von Wedel Montessori School in Miami. As soon as the family walked in, they knew they had found the perfect place for Valentina and her brother, Oliver.

At Von Wedel, the family creates an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, in conjunction with the principal, teachers and with input from Tilley. Valentina thrives in that setting, and Elizalde loves the philosophy of Montessori – to allow children to develop at their own unique pace, to work independently, and embrace the joy of self-discovery.

“None of her peers notice her disability,” Elizalde says. “They acknowledge that we are all different. It’s a really beautiful environment for her.”

A typical week for Valentina is full of activities. On Monday, there’s swimming lessons after school lets out at 3 p.m. She has occupational and speech therapies on Tuesday. On Wednesday, it’s ballet class. By Thursday, she’s back in the pool. Friday is usually a day to relax and spend time with some of her friends or fit in a modeling gig. Valentina loves going to the playground and to different museums. There is also a standing weekly Friday night dinner with family.

Valentina says she wants to be a chef when she grows up. She likes to play with her kitchen set. Her mother sees a different path, however.  She thinks Valentina is a natural teacher.

Nearly every day at home, Valentina lines up her stuffed animals and reads to them and leads them in a class. The process goes on for a couple hours. Her younger brother Oliver is the only non-stuffed attendee, and she has helped him learn to speak English.

Six years old and with a life so fast paced, it’s hard to imagine the higher levels Valentina Guerrero will reach. With the help of her school, the boundless energy of her mother, and their family’s mission to spread positivity about individuals with Down syndrome, her capacity is endless.

“She’s a warrior,” Elizalde says. “When she has a goal, she fights for it and achieves it.”

Visit Cecilia Elizalde’s YouTube Channel.

David Hudson Tuthill can be reached at dhudson@sufs.org.

Football? Academics? Scholarship student chooses both at Dartmouth

By JEFF BARLIS

Robert Crockett III is engaged in hand-to-hand combat with his uncooperative red-and-white striped necktie as a photographer sets him up for the next shot.

On a bright, breezy spring day at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, teachers and fellow students say hi as they walk past without an ounce of surprise to see the affable senior representing the school. With his close-cropped hair and perfect smile, Robert is a star on campus.

Getting accepted to Dartmouth College has only added to the mystique.

“We need to buy him a lifetime supply of school sweatshirts to have him be the face of a Columbus alumnus,” said English teacher Bob Linfors. “He’s a success. I don’t know how much credit we should get for molding him, but he’s somebody to put on our posters.”

Robert Crockett III is headed to Dartmouth College to play football and study pre-med.

Robert Crockett III is headed to Dartmouth College to play football and study pre-med.

When Robert came to Columbus for ninth grade, it was his third school in three years. He excelled at a K-8 magnet school through seventh grade, but mom Stacy Preston, who also grew up in Miami, wanted Robert to get the big neighborhood school experience for eighth grade. It turned out to be too easy.

She knew about Columbus, where a nephew had gone years prior, but it came with a daunting price tag. Then a friend whose son went to Columbus told her about the Step Up For Students scholarship, which helps lower-income families with tuition.

Stacy has worked in HR at the University of Miami for 11 years. She’s separated from husband Robert Crockett Jr., who works for a moving company. Neither went to college after high school, but Stacy is now just four credits shy of getting her bachelor’s degree.

She raised Robert with an expectation of college but said “it hasn’t been common in our family. That’s what got me back to school. I couldn’t push my kids and not be an example.”

Stacy didn’t know how Robert would do in an elite private school, but she didn’t need to worry. According to Columbus principal David Pugh, Robert excelled at the school from day one and is taking five Honors and two Advanced Placement courses as a senior.

“Sometimes it can be a difficult transition to a competitive college preparatory school, and he’s met all of our expectations,” Pugh said. “For four years, Robert has worn his uniform impeccably.”

Robert wears another uniform as captain of the football team.

Growing up in this football-crazed city, Robert fell in love with the sport at age four. He put on his 11-year-old brother’s helmet and pads and ran around his house and yard yelling, “Hut! Hut!”

“The helmet was about to take him over, the pads were way too big,” Stacy recalled. “It was super cute. But that’s him. He’s been at this a long time.”

Dad was the football parent who coached pee wee leagues. Mom was the school parent who demanded that academics come first. She’d seen other parents put sports first and wasn’t having it.

Today, Stacy simultaneously beams and deflects credit when she talks about Dartmouth. From an early age, she guided Robert, the second of her three boys. But he didn’t need much pushing.

“He saw how I was with his older brother,” she said. “You came in, sat down, got a snack and did your homework. As a little kid, Robert would want to do homework, too, and he wasn’t even in school. We would have to sit him at the table with his older brother and give him pencil and paper, and he couldn’t even spell his name yet. That’s just been him from the very beginning. He was a different kid.”

The kind who could learn from others’ mistakes.

Early on, it was no TV or going outside when older brother De’vante Davis didn’t bring home good grades.

Later, it was the threat of losing football privileges.

“I just looked at someone doing bad and said, ‘I don’t want to be like that,’ ” he said. “I think about my parents and football. If I mess up that’s all over with. Colleges wouldn’t be interested. I don’t want to be that kid that messes up and gets everything taken away because I did something stupid.”

Before his senior year, Robert’s inner circle was mostly football friends, some of whom he’s known since pee wee ball. Some are big-time college football recruits, All-Americans who chose football-factory colleges like Alabama, Florida and Miami. Others went down the wrong road, but he’s lost touch with them.

Robert dreams his road will lead to a shot at the NFL. But he has another dream – becoming a surgeon – and he knows pre-med classes at Dartmouth will be more important than any game.

“It really hasn’t hit me yet that I’m going to an Ivy League school,” he said with an arched eyebrow and amused smile. “I don’t puff out my chest. I’m just staying focused, because me getting there and me graduating from there are two different things. I have to do everything I need to do first.”

About Christopher Columbus High School

Established by the Archdiocese of Miami in 1958, Columbus is one of 14 Catholic schools in the U.S. ministered by the Marist Brothers and the only one in the southeast. Within the Marist tradition, the school emphasizes personal development and community service in addition to a college prep curriculum that includes extensive AP and dual-enrollment classes. More than half of the staff hold advanced degrees. Accredited by AdvancEd and a member of the National Catholic Educational Association, the school annually administers the SAT and ACT. There are 1,688 students, including 250 on Step Up scholarships. Tuition is $10,700 a year. Financial assistance is available for qualified families, but each family must contribute something toward their tuition.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org

Frontline Insurance helps Florida schoolchildren with a $1.1 million contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By PAUL SOOST

 Frontline Insurance, a provider of property and casualty insurance for coastal homeowners, announced on May 10 a $1.1 million donation to Step Up For Students, helping lower-income children attend the K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.

The contribution was celebrated at Holy Cross Lutheran Academy in Sanford with an activity helping students get prepared for the upcoming hurricane season.

Holy Cross fifth-graders learned about hurricanes and how they can help make sure their families are prepared, should a hurricane threaten Florida. Students assembled safety kits to take home for their families.

Frontline Insurance Vice President of Business Development Brian Smith (behind check left) presents Step Up For Students CFO Joe Pfountz (behind check right) with a $1.1 million donation. The donation will provide 163 scholarships for Florida schoolchildren through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. They are joined by several students from Holy Cross Lutheran Academy in Sanford who are benefiting from the scholarship.

During the event, Frontline Insurance Vice President of Business Development Brian Smith presented the $1.1 million check to Step Up For Students. The donation will fund 163 K-12 scholarships for the 2017-18 school year through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which serves lower-income children in Florida so they can attend the school of their choice. About 90 students at Holy Cross use the tax-credit scholarship.

“Frontline Insurance is proud to be active in our Florida communities, educating children and families on the importance of being prepared for hurricane season,” said Smith. “We’re even more excited to help Florida children and families prepare for a successful future through our support of educational choice and the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program. Finding the right learning environment for every child will help put them on the path to future success.”

During its four-year partnership with Step Up, Frontline Insurance has donated $3.56 million dollars to Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged schoolchildren. The program is funded with tax-credited donations and allows parents and schoolchildren to choose between a K-12 scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

“Since 2014, more than 570 Florida schoolchildren have been able to attend the school of their choice thanks to the generosity of Frontline Insurance. We are truly grateful that Frontline Insurance joins us in our mission to provide educational options for deserving families,” said Step Up CFO Joe Pfountz. “On behalf of Step Up and the families we serve, we thank Frontline Insurance for its continued commitment and support.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade, and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Paul Soost can be reached at psoost@sufs.org.

 

 

 

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