Meet The Team

Hello Step Up family and supporters,

We’re pleased to meet you or get reacquainted with you! We will be providing content to you on our new blog, “Stepping Beyond the Scholarship.”  With a team of our talented writers we are thrilled to be part of this new journey, and where it might take us. This is Step Up For Students’ story, which means it’s YOUR story. Whether you have a question, a comment or a story idea, we’d love to hear from you. Our emails are below. Working together we can make this a great community in the blogosphere. Thanks for coming along in this new adventure. #WeAreStepUp4Students

Alissa Randall 

Alissa Randall


Alissa is a Jersey girl who loves living in Florida and enjoys exploring, antiquing and finding that rare gem.

Alissa leads two departments at Step Up For Students, Marketing and Advancement.

Marketing is responsible for promotion, community outreach, content development, branding and donor events. Additionally, the department creates marketing programs and recruits scholarship applicants. Advancement is responsible for raising unrestricted funds to help families get the most from their scholarships.

Prior to joining Step Up, Alissa spent 10 years in key account strategy and development, most recently as a director at Cox Target Media, a division of Cox Enterprises, Inc. She also served as a senior account manager at ORB Interactive, an interactive advertising agency offering proprietary media tools exclusively to major corporations for online marketing. She has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Roger Williams University, a master’s in media from The New School for Social Research and a master’s in computer animation from William Paterson University.

Fun fact: Many years ago, Alissa worked at Digital Domain as a coordinator on the movie, “The Fifth Element.’’

Reach her at

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Sherri and Annabelle

Sherri Ackerman 

A former newspaper reporter, Sherri covered social services and education, among other news beats, most recently as a staff writer for The Tampa Tribune. She also happily worked on stories on travel and eating, two other favorite topics.

Growing up, school choice for Sherri and her sister meant moving frequently with their mother and grandmother. Sherri attended nine public schools in three states before graduating from Brandon High in Florida. College followed, paid for with a small grant and loan, and jobs as an oyster shucker, bank teller, bartender and waiter before — finally! — landing a writing job at a community newspaper. Sherri has a bachelor’s degree in mass communications/news editing from the University of South Florida in Tampa.

The mother of two children who attend a charter elementary school, Sherri enjoys family road trips with husband Steve traveling to the annual cousin reunion in her home state of Indiana, camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and searching for vintage junk and the best she-crab chowder along the East Coast.

As a public relations manager at Step Up For Students, she works with media across the country, promoting scholarship programs and Step Up’s public service announcements. She also writes stories about the families Step Up serves to help make more parents aware of their educational options.

Have a great story for Sherri? Reach her at Follow her on Twitter: @SherriAckerman1

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Lisa and Olivia

Lisa A. Davis

Lisa is a longtime storyteller whose first-grade public school teacher in Massachusetts kick-started her love of writing by encouraging students to choose a sticker for the top of their lined paper and crafting a story about the picture. Lisa couldn’t get enough stickers. Her love affair with writing led her to a career in news reporting that spanned two decades and two states, with her cutting her journalistic teeth at The Boston Globe while a student at Northeastern University.

When Lisa could no longer afford college in Boston, she moved to the Tampa Bay area where college was more affordable, earning her bachelor’s degree in creative writing at the University of South Florida in Tampa. After spending more than a decade at The Tampa Tribune, she joined Step Up For Students in 2012, and traded in writing about the mostly bad in society to writing stories about what’s good, and has loved telling Step Up For Students’ stories ever since.

During her downtime, she and her husband are often involved in some sort of do-it-yourself project, and spending time with their daughter. Lisa loves her family and friends, the Red Sox, U2, making old things pretty again, antiquing, thrifting and traveling so her daughter can experience amazing things like fireflies in the mountains of North Carolina and singing “Sweet Caroline” at Fenway Park in Boston. Lisa adores all thing vintage, and she and her family of three are renovating a 1972 Shasta trailer, their future cottage on wheels. She, her hubby and their daughter live in 1920’s bungalow in Tampa, and their only child attends a Hillsborough County charter school. Lisa is also pretty handy with a glue gun.

As Step Up’s Public Relations and Social Media Manager, she oversees the company social media, the Step Up For Students blog, annual report, newsletter and produced the company’s first PSA. She also assists with media, securing and working with event speakers, and otherwise spreading the word about Step Up’s scholarship programs.

She enjoys hearing a good story. Reach her at


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Estefania “Nia” Nunez-Brady 

Estefania (her friends call her Nia) is a world traveler, a baseball lover and a political junkie. When she’s not working, she is canoeing on Tampa Bay with her husband, playing with her dog, Boogers or enjoying a sporting event.

Estefania  was raised in Colombia with her two parents and brother. Thanks to an approved political asylum, she and her family moved to the United States in 1999.  She made Miami her home for 15 years, where she went to many public schools, graduated from Miami-Dade College and Florida International University with double major in Political Science and English. Later, she completed her Master’s Degree in Conflict Analysis & Resolution from NOVA Southeastern University.

She moved to the Tampa Bay area at the end of 2014, married her lifelong best friend and strives to make her mixed-breed rescued dog’s life the best she can.

Before joining Step Up For Students, Estefania worked for the Board of County Commissioners in Miami-Dade as a communications and media specialist and as a marketing director for the Ultimate Titan.

As a Digital Marketing Specialist, Estefania works to promote Step Up For Students through newsletters, earned media, public service announcements and more. She is also responsible for updating the website, sharing student and school stories and much more.

You can reach Estefania at



Paul Soost 

“Following his dream” is what brought Paul to the sunny state of Florida. Born and raised in the Midwest – Minnesota and Illinois to be exact – cruise ships were not a common sight except for on television. But at an early age, Paul decided he wanted to work on a cruise ship.

College courses at Illinois State University (Go Redbirds!) were chosen with this in mind, leading Paul to bachelor’s degrees in Public Relations and Recreation & Park Administration. An internship, followed by a full-time job with Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, helped pave the path to Florida. But he was still 60 miles from the nearest port.

Paul was elated when Disney announced they were launching two cruise ships, thus allowing Paul to realize a dream as he became part of the marketing team for Disney Cruise Line! Adventures onboard and to Caribbean islands and other exotic destinations were finally a reality.

After stepping back on land, Paul has worked with Children’s Home Society of Florida and Massey Services, a pest control service.

In his free time, Paul enjoys playing softball and singing in the church choir, but not at the same time! He loves to travel and plans to fill up the pages of his second Passport. He volunteers for IDignity and the Adult Literacy League. Paul’s ideal afternoon? Taking in a baseball game at a MLB stadium.

Paul joined Step Up For Students in May 2015 as Marketing Manager, where he’s excited to be developing marketing programs and donor events. He’s thrilled by the opportunity to work for a tremendous organization that helps Florida students “follow their dreams.”

Reach Paul at


2015 Back-to-School Sales Tax Holiday in Florida Starts Friday

By Lisa A. Davis

back_to_school_blackboardIt’s that time of year again. Summer fun is winding down and back-to-school preparation is upon us and over the next few weeks schools will open their doors to the 2015-16 school year. Most parents have their children’s school supply list in hand. And it’s long. So long. Binders, pencils and glue sticks. Oh my! And let’s not forget lunch boxes, backpacks, school uniform, shoes and so much more. We cringe at what it will cost, but we look forward to that one important reprieve we get during this season: Florida’s 10-day Sales Tax Holiday.

This year’s holiday begins at 12:-01 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 7 and runs through 11:59 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 16. And for this we are thankful. The lists of tax-free purchases includes most clothing priced under $100 per item such as fitness clothes, baseball cleats, blouses, book bags, barrettes, construction paper, calculators, highlighters and so much more.

Don’t forget this isn’t only available for students, adults can take advantage of it too from everything from work uniforms, hunting vest to pantyhose and diapers.

For a complete list of tax-exempt items, please visit Sales Tax Holiday list.

Or scan this QR code to bring the link up on your mobile device:

QR code Sale Tax Holiday


Happy Shopping!

Layla and Jeremiah Cirino


Layla and Jeremiah Cirino

By Lisa A. Davis

Meet Layla and Jeremiah Cirino of Kissimmee. They began their academic life attending their neighborhood school, but as the years went by, the school became overcrowded and the environment made learning a challenge for the siblings.

Jeremiah was bullied. Layla faced violence in the classroom. Their mom, Adrienne Cirino, was desperate to find an alternative school for her children, but as a single mother private school seemed out of reach. Then she heard about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program and applied through Step Up For Students. Soon, Layla’s grades were back to her usual A’s and B’s and Jeremiah was doing better than ever.

“I’m very blessed that Step Up has brought the love of school back to my kids,’’ Adrienne said. “They’re getting an education and I can see the light shining in them. They love to learn. They started going and they just excelled.” Read their full story here.

A message from Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill

Pres-Desk_Final resizeWelcome to Step Up For Students’ newest way to connect to you: our families, donors and community partners. We’re excited about this new blog and we hope you will join the conversation. We want this blog to be an interactive place for you to learn, become engaged, and yes, maybe even be entertained. doug-tuthill

Here you’ll find important information about scholarship news, legislative and program updates, and we’ll give you a closer look at what we do, how we do it and why. We will share stories about our scholars and their families, the schools that are improving our scholars’ lives, and the occupational therapists and others who are working with our unique needs scholars. We will give you behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Step Up organization, the people who make it tick, how we do our work, and why we enjoy it so much. We feel blessed to do work that is so rewarding and enriching.

We will show you how our Public Service Announcements come to life, and what goes into organizing a donor event. We will share advice about how students can be most successful, and spotlight teachers who are helping transform the lives of the children they teach. We’ll introduce you to the folks in our Office of Student Learning who are going into schools and helping educators and parents bridge the gap between home and school in hopes of giving all students a better chance to succeed. We want to get to know you better, and you us. We’re excited to kick this blog off and deepen our relationship with those who have joined us in our quest to provide every child with an equal opportunity to succeed.

As we prepare to start yet another school year, from where I sit the future is bright. This fall about 78,000 students will be using Step Up tax credit scholarships and about 5,000 will be using Step Up Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA).  We’ll pay out approximately $465 million in scholarships during the 2015-16 school year, and we’ve rebuilt our online payment system for our PLSA families to help make that process more effective, efficient and easier to use.

I started teaching in Florida in 1977 and I’ve never been more optimistic about the long-term future of education. Parents are becoming more empowered and engaged in their children’s education, and teachers and schools are becoming more sophisticated in meeting the unique needs of each child.  We’re also getting better at using technology to help us meet each child’s needs.  The days of one-size-fits-all education are ending and we’re moving toward a time when all children will have access to an education that is customized to meet their needs.  But while the future is bright, getting there will remain a struggle, which is why we need to stay united in our efforts to help all children.  Our intent is to use this blog as one tool to help us work more closely together as we build a better future for all children.

Please join us.

Have a successful and happy 2015-16 school year,

Doug Tuthill

Step Up For Students President




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.

Derek Schroeder

8fedmcu2After a decade of their son using a Step Up For Students scholarship, Lisa and Michael Schroeder wanted another student to benefit from the opportunity.

So with their family-owned radio station back on solid ground, the couple decided not to reapply for the tuition assistance that helped keep their son, Derek, enrolled at Trinitas Christian School in Pensacola since kindergarten.

“Things were turning around for us, financially,’’ Lisa said.

But shortly after Derek began his sophomore year in 2011, his father, who managed the radio station, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He died three months later.

“Everything went upside down,’’ recalled Lisa, who works as a special events coordinator at the small private school that graduated her two older sons (who weren’t on scholarship).

While the new widow struggled emotionally, she also faced growing financial challenges that threatened Derek’s future at Trinitas.

“We thought we were going to have to change schools, and I would have to change jobs,’’ said Lisa, who knew her school would try to help – but she didn’t want to create a hardship for them.

Instead, Derek was able to regain the scholarship and remain in the school where teachers and students are like a second family. He received his diploma in May with 13 other seniors, many of whom he had known since he was 5.

With all the turmoil in his life, “this definitely made a very huge difference,’’ said Derek, now 18.  “Staying in that school would have been the decision I would have wanted to make and with (Step Up’s) help, I was able to stay to the end. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gotten the full experience of Trinitas.’’

And it was the experience of a lifetime, said Derek, who, with a 3.6 GPA, was elected to the National Honor Society his senior year.

He immersed himself in the school’s classical Christian teachings that blend traditional courses, such as English, math and history, with the Bible through the trivium – a systematic method of learning relying on logic and rhetoric to help promote critical thinking.

For instance, students study Plato and Aristotle to understand the mechanics of a good debate.

But there still was plenty of time for sports, like soccer, where Derek started off on the bench.

“We were young and small,’’ he said. “And we lost all of our games.’’

But the “sweeper’’ and the rest of his teammates got better, he said, prompting Derek to try basketball. But a professional sports career probably isn’t the path Derek will pursue. Instead, the family’s musical roots keep calling.

His grandfather, Gerald “Papa Don” Schroeder, is a former record producer, radio personality, singer and songwriter who still owns WPNN AM 790 in Pensacola. He produced hit singles in the ‘60s and ‘70s by R&B performers.

“I sing in the shower,’’ joked Derek, whose uncle runs the station now.

Derek plays the piano, having taken lessons as a child. He likes the idea of doing something in the music field, but for now he’s finishing out the summer working at the lawn care business he started with his brothers and helping coach soccer at Trinitas.

In the fall, Derek begins his freshman year at the liberal arts school, New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho.

“It will be hard to leave,’’ Derek said. “I’m sure I’ll be homesick.’’

But he’s traveling with two Trinitas classmates and joining another school family from Florida already attending St. Andrews.

“I’ll have instant friends,’’ Derek said.


Trinitas Christian School is a nondenominational K-12 school that teaches in the classical tradition, coordinating lessons with the stages of child development. Instruction is focused largely on the development of critical thinking skills with an emphasis on logic and rhetoric. Students study Latin and read the classics. Of the 187 students enrolled in 2013-14, 35 were Step Up scholars. Academic achievement is measured by the Comprehensive Testing Program (CTP). Trinitas is accredited by the Association of Classical Christian Schools (ACCS) and Christian Schools of Florida.

Killian Korkes

h9afnzeuWhen Kelly Korkes visited Christ the King Lutheran School for the first time, she fell in love with its small class sizes – 13 students to one teacher – and the safe atmosphere.

She also liked that the Palm Coast school, where her daughter, Killian, attends preschool and starts kindergarten in the fall, offered a strong academic program.

“It’s an embracing, family-type of environment,’’ said Korkes, who noted features, such as security cameras, and varied school activities like soccer, chorus, music and cheerleading. “I love Christ the King.’’

What made it even better for her was that Christ the King is a Lutheran school, where 20 percent of students and their families, like the Korkeses, practice the faith.

“So that was a double-plus,’’ she said.

Another bonus: The family qualified for a Step Up For Students scholarship which will cover all but $600 of the school’s annual tuition – $5,880 in 2014-15.

“We have to pay a minimum,’’ said Korkes, a part-time hospice nurse whose husband, Brett, works at a local Steak ’n Shake. “But if it wasn’t for the Step Up program, I don’t know what we would have done. We didn’t have a back-up plan.’’

Christ the King leaders require families pay a portion of tuition “because we want them to be stakeholders,’’ said Principal Jeff Loberger, a longtime private school principal who came to Florida two years ago from Omaha, NE. “We want them to be connected to teachers.’’

And now to the campus. The school doesn’t offer transportation services because, “I want parents to be on campus every day,’’ Loberger said. “We offer online grading so they can see immediately how their children are doing. My goal is to never have a parent say, ‘I didn’t know that was happening.’ ’’

Christ the King parents are active volunteers and fundraisers, collecting dollars with their kids to help pay for events like school field trips, known as Discover America Trips. Students travel to cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C., with at least one college campus visit on the itinerary. But they have to earn the privilege to participate by maintaining good grades, attendance and behavior.

It’s all part of a complete education, Loberger said.

Parents also are at the heart of the school’s growth. The private school was founded by Pastor Phil Huebner, who started the church in his living room. A year later, he saw a need for more educational opportunities.

The tight-knit congregation had few options when it came to school choice in rural Flagler County, and even fewer opportunities to attend a school devoted to their faith. So Christ the King started a preschool and rented space from the school district to accommodate a handful of students.
As the church grew, congregants raised enough money for a new building and took the school with them. The following year, working moms and dads in the community pleaded with Huebner to add more children and, by 2010, those same parents successfully lobbied for a kindergarten class.

Today, demand continues to drive growth at Christ the King Lutheran School. Students in pre-K through eighth grade are housed in a modular building on church grounds. In 2013-14, there were 235 boys and girls enrolled. Future plans call for a $10 million new facility with a gym and cafeteria, and – to the relief of many Christ the King parents – all four levels of high school.

Filling those extra seats shouldn’t be difficult – usually all it takes is another parent’s referral and a school tour, Loberger said.

“It’s word of mouth, word of mouth, word of mouth,’’ he said. “You’re going to come in and you’re going to see it and you’re not going to want to leave it.’’

About Christ the King Lutheran School

Christ the King Lutheran School is a faith-based school in Palm Coast with 235 students in pre-K through eighth grade enrolled in 2013-14; of those eligible, 40 percent were Step Up scholars. Students participate in the Individualized Push Curriculum, which allows students to learn at their own pace. Academic gains are measured annually by the Stanford 10 test. Students get to choose extra-curricular activities such as chorus, music, cheerleading and/or soccer. And they participate in field trips to destinations such as Washington, D.C., and Chicago for additional learning experiences.

Denisha Merriweather

Denisha Merriweather attended Esprit de Corps Center for Learning in Jacksonville with help from a Step Up For Students scholarship, and graduated in 2010. Upon her graduation from the University of West Florida in May 2014, the American Federation for Children created this video of her story to share at its National Policy Summit to showcase how having educational options can make a difference in child’s life.

See what Denisha has to say about the difference educational choice made in her life.

Mario Tobar

yxmn4c8lMario Tobar was in his freshman year of high school when his mother, Kenia Palacios, confronted him about his choices and path in life.

Mario had started hanging out with the wrong crowd, Kenia said. And he wasn’t making good grades at his neighborhood school, and he refused to do his classwork. Then came the arguments with his teachers. Back at home, the family was going through a turbulent period, too. Kenia had divorced Mario’s father and began working two jobs.

Then the family faced another difficult situation. In March 2012, someone broke into their home in Winter Garden and stole Mario’s videogame system.  Another break-in followed that same week, and this time, the intruders took several of the family’s belongings, including TVs, laptops, computers and all of Mario’s video games. Kenia and Mario suspect the culprits were people he knew.

“I took it as a big blow,” Mario said. “I kind of screwed up.”

Kenia, the mother of three, said she told Mario she didn’t want him to become like some of the people he was hanging out with.

“I don’t want you to be like that,” she remembers telling Mario. “I want you to be someone good.”

Kenia knew she had to do something to change Mario’s life. She quit one of her jobs so she could be home more to make sure he wasn’t hanging out with the wrong crowd, she said.

She turned to the Step Up For Students Scholarship and applied for Mario. In 10th grade, he enrolled at Bishop Moore Catholic High School, a private school in Orlando, with the help of a scholarship for the 2012-13 school year. Mario has loved playing football since he was in middle school and his mother told him he would have the opportunity to play at his new school.

Still, his career at Bishop Moore started out rough. He had been a B-C student in his neighborhood school and was placed on academic probation after enrolling in Bishop Moore.

“Mario came to Bishop Moore with little understanding of how intelligent and capable he truly is,” Mario’s guidance counselor, Eric Hennes, wrote in an e-mail. “His lack of motivation and minimal appreciation for a good education contributed to a high degree of apathy.”

Mario’s academic-watch contract required him to have meetings with his guidance counselor throughout the year. They talked about everything from grades to family life and goals.  His behavior began to improve. Mario’s teachers and guidance counselor were then able to see his potential and push him academically, Hennes said.

“Not only did he start realizing his potential, but his grades improved … so much so that it was almost a point and one-half (increase in GPA),” Hennes said. “Difficult to achieve for any student.”

Mario said he also benefited from having a new set of classmates. There are a lot of good students at Bishop Moore, Mario said, and they positively affected him academically.

Kenia agrees. “They’re much better influences on my son’s life,” she said.

Kenia said she’s proud of her son and that he wants to go college. She said the staff at Bishop Moore cares about students there. She is kept updated on Mario’s experience.

“They believe in the kids,” she said

Kenia is applying for a Step Up scholarship for her youngest daughter Gabriella to attend St. Charles School, right next to Bishop Moore. Gabriella, who is entering the sixth grade, had been a Step Up scholar in kindergarten and first grade, but had stopped receiving the scholarship due to changes in the family’s financial situation.

As for Mario, he has two professional goals: He wants to play football and he wants to be an engineer. Now in his junior year, he said he has a 4.0 GPA. He loves math because he’s good at it. He played defensive tackle on Bishop Moore’s football team. He is interested in attending University of Central Florida, University of Florida, University of Miami, Florida International University or the University of Notre Dame.

“Bishop Moore really changed me,” Mario said. “Bishop Moore would be a perfect place for anyone to restart your life.”

Hennes, found Mario’s changes remarkable. “Mario is now a Bishop Moore athlete who knows how to balance grades and sports, excelling in both. He is mature, responsible, accountable, serious about his future and goal-oriented. Of my eight years as a school guidance counselor, I have never seen such turn-around and maturation in one student.”

About Bishop Moore Catholic High School

Bishop Moore is a private Catholic school in Orlando and has been in operation for more than 60 years. It currently has 1,140 students, 33 of whom are Step Up scholars. It earned accreditation from AdvancED. The school offers college prep courses, and 99 percent of students enter college. It offers more than 50 clubs and activities, 50 sports teams and a campus ministry. Tuition for the 2013-14 school year is $13,380. The school uses the PSAT to measure annual academic gains.

Sophia Brown

2szuwq3yDue to complications with her birth in 2006, Sophia Brown was in need of intensive medical care after entering the world. She almost died, said her mother Stephanie Vitale Brown, and was in the hospital for three weeks, requiring breathing assistance while there.

She was diagnosed with hypotonia, or low muscle tone, and strabismus, more commonly known as crossed eyes. Sophia’s conditions have resulted in her having trouble with her eyesight, strength and motor skills, and it prevented her from walking until she was 22 months old. Stephanie worked closely with various specialists to help Sophia with everything from physical to speech issues.

When it came time for Sophia to start her formal education, Stephanie dreaded enrolling her in their neighborhood school. She was concerned she would get lost in the large class sizes and worried she wouldn’t keep up with the other children. She can’t run as fast as other kids, is clumsy and falls a lot and has trouble walking up stairs, Stephanie said.

Her mother wanted another option for her daughter. Enrolling her in Morningside Academy, a private school in Port St. Lucie, was an attractive prospect in part because Stephanie already had a relationship with the school. Sophia’s older sister, Gianna, now 12 and in the seventh grade, has attended Morningside since pre-kindergarten. In addition, Stephanie and her family had also attended the affiliated Morningside Church for about a decade.

Stephanie was attending college herself when Sophia was entering school. She has been studying nursing and is currently unemployed so she can go to school and care for her children. Her husband, Mark Brown, works in construction.

“I would not have been able to afford to send her to Morningside,” Stephanie said.

Stephanie said she learned about the Step Up For Students Scholarship through Morningside because staff there knew the family was having financial problems. Stephanie applied for the scholarship and got it for Sophia. For several years, Stephanie and Mark were able to pay for Gianna’s tuition, but now that they are struggling financially even more, Gianna doesn’t qualify for the scholarship program because of the law requiring Step Up Scholarship recipients to attend public school the year before being eligible for sixth-12th grades.

Sophia started at Morningside as a kindergartener during the 2011-12 school year, and her challenges were immediately addressed. She couldn’t reach the soap dispenser or open the bathroom door in kindergarten because she was too short and not strong enough. So her kindergarten teacher put a stool up to the sink so she could reach it and bought an extra soap dispenser she could easily reach as well. Someone was assigned to help her open the bathroom door.

Sophia also participates in Morningside’s award-wining music program playing the violin, and other students help her by carrying her instrument.

Stephanie said Sophia, who is now 7 and in second grade, is getting the attention she needs at Morningside. It puts her mother’s mind at ease.

“It doesn’t even feel like I’m sending her to school,” Stephanie said. “It feels like I’m sending her to be with family.”

Sophia has flourished academically at Morningside. Stephanie said she is very smart and likes to read, and that her reading is advanced. She has made the honor roll and principal’s honor roll and was named Student of the Month in September 2013. She has needed minimal help from her mother to receive straight A’s, and Stephanie credits the school for that.

Laurie Gagne taught both Sophia and her sister in kindergarten. She remembers seeing Sophia blossom to the point where she was able to climb the stairs at a talent show and display a piece of art to the audience. Gagne said she’s proud to work for a school where teachers pay attention not only to their students’ academic growth but their spiritual development.

“They truly care so much about the child,” she said.



Morningside Academy is a private Christian school on Florida’s Treasure Coast and serves students in pre-kindergarten-12th grade. It was founded in 1987 and is accredited by the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools and it uses the Stanford Achievement Test to measure academic success. For the 2013-2014 school year, tuition rates vary with grade level of the student and begin as low as $484 per month. It currently serves 450 students of whom about 89 are Step Up scholars. The average class size is about 20 students, although that varies for Morningside’s middle and upper schools.  It has a highly regarded arts program with three award-winning orchestras, and the kids regularly go to competitions.