Jordan Garcia



Cristina Valdes noticed her fourth-grade son’s interest in learning start to fade and his behavior slip during the 2011-12 school year at their local elementary school and immediately took it as a red flag.

Instead of concentrating on his teacher’s lessons, Jordan Garcia asked to take unnecessary bathroom breaks, roamed the halls and fooled around seeking attention, his mother said.

“Jordan’s conduct at school had reached a crossroads and I saw him pulling further away from his interest in school and more towards acting up and being the class clown,” said Cristina. “I felt that if I did not intervene now, I may lose him by the time he started middle school.”

What perplexed Cristina the most was that her son’s grades were among the best in his class, but Jordan’s conduct and a general lackluster for his studies blemished that academic success. What she learned was that her son was often the first in class to finish tests and schoolwork and then he was left without anything structured to do. Jordan didn’t notice his slide, however, but admitted he was bored in school.

“I found my work very easy and since the teachers didn’t have anything else for me, I would make paper balls and try to make three-pointers into the garbage cans,” said Jordan, now a sixth-grader. “My classwork was not very challenging and the homework was easy.”

Cristina also pinpointed the issue and tried to address it.

“I would review his assignments and I saw a lot of repetition in his curriculum. He simply wasn’t being challenged academically. I met with his teachers on several occasions which validated what I already knew – my son was a smart kid, but was bored, which lead to a change of attitude and the beginnings of bad behavior,” said Cristina. “

At one point, she had her son tested for the gifted program, but he missed that option by just a few points, she said.

When Cristina was searching for options, a friend told her about the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program, eventually leading her to Highpoint Academy near their Miami-area home.

“I was thrilled after meeting with Highpoint Academy,” said Cristina. “They represented what I had envisioned for Jordan’s education including interactive teaching methods, small student-teacher ratios and a curriculum that I knew would challenge my son.”

Cristina also was impressed by the school’s warm and nurturing family environment.

“Highpoint students are 21st century learners,” said Principal Alicia Casanova. “Our students are encouraged to use their imagination and to experiment, create, evaluate, analyze, understand, explore, communicate and discover. Our teachers are all trained to stimulate each child’s critical thinking process and creativity.”

Cristina wanted this for her son, but admittance was not guaranteed. Jordan, however, passed the entrance exam with flying colors and was accepted into Highpoint Academy in Miami beginning in the fifth grade.

“I wanted a different educational approach for him but yet couldn’t afford it,” said Cristina. “I am a single mother of three boys and if it wasn’t for the Step Up For Students Scholarship, Jordan would not have had this opportunity.”

Of the 312 students attending Highpoint for the 2013-14 school year, nearly 18 percent, including Jordan, are Step Up scholars.

“We’re very proud to be doing our part to form lifelong learners and certainly, many of our excellent students would not be able to obtain the benefits offered at our wonderful school if it wasn’t for the funds available to them through Step Up For Students,” said Casanova.

For Jordan, attending Highpoint has gotten him back on track.

“My new teachers keep subjects interesting and me and my friends push each other to do better. We help each other with learning and understanding different subjects and I feel that the teachers really care,” said Jordan.

Jordan has found the curriculum more challenging than his prior school’s and in his first year got A’s and B’s. Now in middle school, he got a C for his first grading period, his mother said, but he has vowed to bring it up for his next report card. He has to maintain good grades to move toward his dream of becoming an NBA superstar.

“If you do not do good with your grades and conduct at Highpoint, you are not allowed to play sports,” said Jordan. “I play for the Highpoint team and love that I can excel as a student athlete.”

Of course, Jordan has a backup plan to become a lawyer so that he can provide for his family – a lesson that Jordan learned by watching his single-mom work hard to provide for him and his two brothers.

About Highpoint Academy

Founded in 1976, Highpoint Academy promotes 21st century learning and has Wi-Fi capabilities and computers with flat-screen monitors in every classroom, as well as SMART Boards for interactive learning.  As an additional learning tool, iPads are integrated into the curriculum. The school, which serves children in pre-K through eighth-grade, promotes academic excellence while developing students’ overall character and creative thinking skills, and aims to instill a desire for lifelong learning.

The non-sectarian, co-educational bilingual private school has numerous accreditations including the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, National Council For Private School Accreditation, Council of Bilingual Schools and Florida Council of Independent Schools. It uses the Stanford Achievement Test to measure academic success. Tuition ranges from $6,600 for kindergarten to $7,000 for eighth grade.

Kevin Rodriguez



At 13, Kevin Rodriguez is an old soul. He does not talk much, but listens intently. He loves science, math and history, and hopes to be an architect one day. His interest in science, including figuring out how things work and how things change in different environments, sets an interesting parallel against Kevin’s educational experience.

“I’m interested in how houses and buildings are constructed and want to learn more about different designs,” said Kevin.

Growing up, Kevin was a quiet child always keeping to himself and spent a lot of time reading. Kevin attended his neighborhood elementary school and did OK mostly due to his slightly reclusive, yet inquisitive personality, his mom said. As he reached the higher-grade levels, Kevin started witnessing bullying and insolent activities such as vandalism and destruction of school property.

This was something Kevin’s mother, Sylvia Febus, feared because her older son had a similar experience when he was younger. At that time, Sylvia pulled her older son out of the school and enrolled him in a magnet school from which he graduated. But when Kevin had a similar experience, she could not find an easy solution for him.

“His entire demeanor changed,” said Sylvia. “He became even more reclusive than usual. He would not get out of bed in the morning. He started dreading the idea of going to school, and he lost an interest in learning about new things. This was alarming to me because Kevin had always been more of the bookworm in our family.”

Sylvia knew she would have to become her child’s strongest advocate. She needed to make sure Kevin remained interested in school and decided to seek out every available opportunity, even if it appeared to be financially out of reach.

“Kevin likes to argue science with his older brother and father,” said Sylvia. “He has a passion for understanding the world around him,and it broke my heart to see him slip away from that thirst for knowledge.”

Sylvia’s options were dwindling, and time was running out as Kevin was on track to stay in a school that was not meeting his educational needs and interests. Then she found Landmark Christian School in Haines City and even though it was quite a distance from their home in Kissimmee, she felt it was the place for her son.

“I met with this school and was impressed with their curriculum and overall ideas about education – to me the entire experience seemed wholesome,” said Sylvia. “I also loved that Kevin would be exposed to religion,allowing him to explore his own beliefs.”

Sylvia felt this was exactly what she was looking for when charting a course for Kevin’s education. She knew her child, and she knew he would excel in this environment. As a single-income family, the only problem was figuring out how to afford it.

The answer to Sylvia’s prayers came by way of eavesdropping. Another parent overheard her talking about Kevin’ situation at the doctor’s office and politely offered Sylvia information she considered “good as gold.” This is what led Sylvia to the Step Up For Students website and a scholarship.

Kevin is in his third year as a Step Up scholar. He, along with his mom, couldn’t be happier. He was enrolled in the gifted program at his prior school and continues to excel at that level at Landmark Christian School in Haines City, where he is now an eighth-grader.

Kevin realizes now what his mom has done for him. Because of his love of understanding how things change in different environments, he was able to apply this thought process to his own educational experience and appreciates how his mom, and the Step Up For Students Scholarship, has changed his life forever.

“At the time, I did not know why my mom was so involved in getting me into another school. Knowing now what she did to help me makes me very happy that she got me into Landmark. I really like this school,” said Kevin.

It is going so well, Sylvia said, that another family member will be attending Landmark.

“We are so pleased with Kevin’s progress at Landmark that we’ve enrolled our youngest child, Sophia, into its kindergarten program through the Step Up scholarship,” she said.

About Landmark Christian School

Landmark Christian School (LCS) was founded in 1972 as a ministry of Landmark Baptist Church. The school serves children in preschool through 12th grade and is fully accredited by the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (FACCS). LCS has 163 students enrolled for the 2013-14 school year, including 59 Step Up scholars. Tuition is$3,400 per student for grades kindergarten through fifth, and $3,700 for seventh through 12th grades. The school uses the Stanford 10 test to measure academic achievement. Landmark was established to provide a quality education that placed importance on both academics and spirituality and prides itself on offering students individualized attention, solid academics, enrichment classes, such as music, physical education and art, and Bible study.

Gianna Viale


When Gianna Viale started first grade at the Good Shepherd Catholic School in Orlando, she had no idea there were forces working behind the scenes to ensure she would have the best educational opportunities available to her. But the one person who loves her the most was shaping her life: her mom.

Gianna’s mom, Maria Galindo, made a promise to herself when her daughter was born that no sacrifice would be too great when it came to making sure her daughter had every opportunity she could afford. Being a single mom, Maria admits that she plays the role of mother and father, filling her daughter’s heart and mind with unconditional love and understanding. She acknowledges that though many personal sacrifices were made for her daughter in the early years, the first major decision for Maria came while Gianna was in kindergarten.

“Her kindergarten was a good school, but I noticed that the other parents were not as involved with their kid’s education as I was,” said Maria. “There were certain things I noticed that made me feel a bit uncomfortable. They weren’t horrible things, but I felt that if I was uncomfortable, then my daughter must also feel uncomfortable.”

Maria’s suspicions were verified when she learned her daughter was being bullied and teased from older kids, even while still in kindergarten. She decided to search for a different environment.

A friend told her about the Good Shepherd Catholic School in Orlando and even though it was a bit further from her home than Gianna’s school, she visited immediately. She decided this was the school for her daughter. She knew it would be impossible to afford alone, so she began researching financial assistance and found the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.

This was the turning point Maria was desperately looking for on behalf of her daughter’s education and future. Looking back now, Maria feels that this single event changed the course of her daughter’s educational experience.

Gianna is now a well-rounded fifth-grader at Good Shepherd.

“This year, my scholarship was renewed on April 11th, which happens to be my birthday,” said a smiling Gianna. “I love my school and knowing I was able to stay for my fifth-grade year was the best birthday gift I could have ever asked for.”

Gianna speaks of school with wonderment and a thirst for knowledge that has been developed and nurtured through her years at Good Shepherd. Maria says that Gianna’s positive attitude is partly due to the curriculum practiced at the school, specifically the multi-age classroom (MAC) program.

“The MAC program strengthens our ability to create a continuous progress of learning with our students,” said Jayme Hartmann, Good Shepherd Catholic School principal. “Creating group sessions allows us to accommodate varying skill levels, close educational gaps, support personal growth and create an environment more specific to individual learning needs of our students.”

The MAC program is designed by grouping students from different grades and Gianna’s classroom is shared by fourth- and fifth-graders. This allows each student to remain with the same teacher for two school years.

“This programmatic approach has proven to foster a comfort level allowing students to grow at their own pace and to feel safe in expressing their thoughts and learning,” said Hartmann.

Gianna credits the MAC environment to her learning, and more importantly, applying what she has learned in school to elements of her outside world and vice versa.

“Gianna looks for ways to incorporate what she learns at school into her life,” said Maria. “She really makes a conscience effort to make that connection between the two places and she shares with me many things about science, math and all her subjects.”

At the end of the day, Maria said, it was the desire to teach her daughter strong values that led her to make certain personal sacrifices, to work hard for Gianna and to ensure that she has the best education and opportunities possible.

For the future, Gianna hopes that she will be able to stay with Good Shepherd and move onto Bishop Moore Catholic High School, also in Orlando, which she can do only with a Step Up For Students Scholarship. Her mom, steadfast in her desire to give Gianna a safe and quality education, continues to work very hard to meet her part of the financial obligations not covered by the scholarship.

“Seeing my mom work hard for me so that I can go to a school I love, makes me study hard so that I can do the best that I can do,” said Gianna while smiling at her mom. “Together, my mom and I can do anything.”

About Good Shepherd Catholic School

Shortly after Good Shepherd Mission Church in Orlando was built in 1956, the first classes for the school bearing the same name, were held inside the church with Sister Mary Dorothea, the school’s first principal and the Sisters of St. Joseph. That same year, 150 students in grades kindergarten through fourth were housed in three portables.

The first permanent two-story building was built in 1959,where the school remains today. The school now provides preschool to eighth-grade education and more than 525 students are enrolled for the 2013-14 school year, 105 of which are Step Up scholars. Tuition for the 2013-14 school year is $7,344. The school uses the Iowa Assessments to measure academic success.

Demonte Thomas

4s2lcgh8On graduation day 2013 for Franklin Academy in Tallahassee, the sanctuary at Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church was packed with 1,500 guests who came to support the small private school’s 24 graduates.

But there were two students who brought the guests to their feet.

School Principal and Founder Margaret Franklin told the crowd, she had never done this before, and then called Demonte Thomas, 18, and his father, Mario, 40, to walk together down the aisle to receive their diplomas.

“As they marched down together it was just awesome,” recalled Franklin. “The crowd stood up and they were just roaring.”

It was a day for Mario that was along time coming, and one that almost didn’t come for Demonte.

By 11th grade, Demonte was failing at his neighborhood school, which led his parents to secure a Step Up For Students Scholarship for him to attend Franklin Academy, where his brother was already attending and thriving. But Demonte was still not committed to his future, and when his father tried to give him advice, he’d brush it off.

Mario was terrified his son would end up on the street where as a younger man he spent many years as a member of a local gang, and survived being shot twice before realizing he had to change his ways or end up dead.

Mario looked to the school for help with his son, and Principal Franklin reached out to Demonte regularly, but her words didn’t seem to be getting through.

“Demonte came in as a child not really respecting his father,” she said. “He kept saying he (his father) didn’t even have a diploma.”

And that was all about to change.

In 2010, Franklin Academy started an evening program for adults to complete their high school education. When Mario spoke to Principal Franklin about his problems, she convinced him to enroll in the adult program that first year, and the academy covered his tuition. Mario had even convinced his mother, Carolyn Thomas, to finish high school at the academy, and she graduated from Franklin Academy in 2012, at age 56. Mario, however, started dragging his feet when math became a challenge. But eventually, he realized he needed to set the example for Demonte when his son was struggling after his transfer to Franklin Academy.

“I feel like I should have done it a long time ago,” Mario said about finishing high school.

When school started for the 2012-13 school year, Demonte did not have the credits to be classified as a senior and he still wasn’t making much of an effort, earning mostly D’s. As the year went on, however, his father was making great strides, and was even closer to completing graduation requirements than his son.

By January 2013, finally something clicked in Demonte, and he began working harder in his classes than ever before, Franklin said.

Demonte said it was his grandfather, the Rev. Stanley Walker, whose church houses Franklin Academy, who sparked his desire to get serious about academics. He had lectured him before about school, but this time he was more candid, and told him how he, too, was once on the wrong path in life, but turned around.

“The speech my granddaddy gave me had me shed a tear,” he said.  “He had me think of my career. I didn’t want to be a bum on the street, so I had to do what I had to do.”

Demonte started studying and asking for help. His grandmother, a longtime teacher, tutored him while the rest of the family rallied around him. Even when things got tough, Demonte kept his eye on the prize: a diploma.

Not only did Demonte complete the credits he needed to become a senior, he did it well.  In the last two marking periods, he made the honor roll by getting all B’s in his senior-level classes along with the online class he took to stay on track, finishing just six days before his May 31 graduation ceremony

“For me to stand beside my son and to walk down the aisle with my son, it brought tears to my eyes,” said Mario recently, as he welled with tears again. “I was so full of joy. I am still full of joy.”

The experience filled Demonte’s heart, too.

“It was exciting to walk down to the stage with my dad, really exciting. He teared up. I had to hold mine in,” Demonte said. “That was a special moment. I ain’t never going to forget that.”

Both Demonte and Mario start classes at Tallahassee Community College in August. Demonte wants to eventually transfer to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) and perhaps pursue a career in engineering. Mario, who has worked as a cook for years, will work toward a business degree and hopes to open a restaurant one day.

About Franklin Academy, Tallahassee

The school is located on the campus of Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church. Margaret Franklin started what would become the academy in the garage of her home with her son and five neighborhood boys as her first students. The school currently serves approximately 55 students in grades kindergarten through 12. During the 2012-13 school year, 21 Step Up scholars attended Franklin. Tuition for the 2012-13 school year was $5,000 per student. The school uses the Stanford Achievement Test (Stanford 10) to measure academic achievement. Since 1997, the school has used the Accelerated Christian Education Curriculum (A.C.E), an individualized approach to education, allowing each student to have their own academic plan and work at his or her own pace.

Gaby Garcia

m433attkOrlando Garcia never imagined he’d be a single father, and his friends didn’t think he could handle it.

When his buddies asked him how he could take care of his infant son when he couldn’t even take care of himself, Orlando would shrug it off and quickly answer that he didn’t have a choice.

“When he is sick, I will take him to the doctor,” he told them. “And when he needs medicine, I will go to the pharmacy. When he is wet, I will change his diaper.”

Despite his positive attitude when talking with his friends,Orlando still had some doubt about how he could raise young Gabriel “Gaby” alone — until he saw a man with four young children standing in front of him in line at the grocery store.

“Are you a single dad?” Orlando asked, holding his 1-year-old Gaby. ”Yes,” the man answered.

Orlando smiled, and that moment changed his outlook.

“He looked so happy, and I will never forget that. I remember it like it was yesterday,” Orlando said of his memorable conversation that was nearly 10 years ago.

It gave Orlando the confidence that he could be a good dad, even solo.

For personal reasons, it was best that Orlando and Gaby distance themselves from Gaby’s mother and Orlando became a single dad.

“It’s so sad because he wants that love that only a mother can give, that mother’s love,” Orlando said. “I try. I give him extra kisses. He’s 10 now, and I still treat him like a baby.”

As the years have passed, Orlando and Gaby have made a life that works for them, but when the father saw his son struggling in school and encountering bullies, he didn’t know which way to turn.

“He was doing kind of bad and didn’t want to go to school,” Orlando recalled.

He spoke of his concerns at his church and he was told about Florida College Academy, a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade private school in Temple Terrace, just outside of Tampa.

“I told them I couldn’t afford the $5,000 tuition. I could barely pay my bills,” said Orlando, a construction worker.

Then, he heard about and applied for the Step Up For Students Scholarship. Gaby started at the school in the second grade.

“I noticed he was happier and he was studying every day. He said he loves the school,” Orlando said.

Orlando, who was born in Nicaragua and became a U.S. citizen in 2009, has worked in construction for years, but work has been scarce since the economy stalled.

When he works, he works hard, long hours, returning home dirty, exhausted and with calloused hands – all things Gaby notes.

“He sees me and he feels bad,” Orlando said, adding with a laugh that Gaby wants a clean job. “With all that hard work, I barely make a living.”

And of course, Orlando wants so much more for his son.

“I’m trying to get it into his head that you have to have an education,” Orlando said. “My dream is his dream. My dream is for him to become somebody.”

Orlando says now that Gaby is attending a school that shares both his own moral code, family values and solid academics all within a safe environment, he’s even more hopeful for his son’s future.

“They think like me. They help children. They help their spirituality and their academics,” he said. “It gives me peace of mind that he’s in a great, safe school.”

Gaby is earning A’s and B’s, and his enjoyment of school is obvious.

“Gaby is a young fellow who gets along with his classmates and wears his smile to school and keeps it on throughout each day,” said Principal Lynn Wade.

It’s clear his school community is also doing everything that can be done to ensure Gaby’s success. Because of Orlando’s work, he is unable to drive his son to and from school, so a teacher picks up the boy and brings each day.

“We couldn’t do this without them,” Orlando said.

Gaby’s fourth-grade teacher, Julie Sanchez, says he’s a joy to teach.

“He is a delight to have in the classroom.  He is respectful and sweet, and I am so proud of the young man he is growing into here at FCA.”

Florida College Academy, Temple Terrace

Established in 1958 as a Christian-based, non-denominational school, Florida College Academy (FCA) stresses language arts, science, math, social sciences and Bible principles as a foundation of all education. The school is associated with and governed by Florida College, Hillsborough County’s second oldest institution of higher learning. The partnership brings numerous Florida College students into FCA to provide free tutoring during school hours and after school on a daily basis. For the 2012-13 school year, 37 students of 173 attending the school are Step Up For Students scholars. Tuition ranges from $4,900 for kindergarten to $5,300 for eighth grade. The school uses the Stanford 10 to measure academic achievement.

Kevin Kelly

e64es33mWhile most young men who play high school football dream about making it to the pros, Kevin Kelly knows that it’s highly unlikely he’ll make it to the NFL.

“I probably won’t, and I’m OK with that,” he said recently. “As long as I get to have fun now, I’m OK with it.”

But the starting defensive end and right guard for the Father Lopez Catholic High School Green Waves has a different – perhaps more realistic – dream: Playing college football.

“I’ve really progressed, and I hope to play college ball,” he said.

Kevin, a junior, attends Father Lopez in Daytona Beach with the help of a Step Up scholarship. There, he has been able to refine his athletic and academic talents. He credits the support of his team, watchful eye of his coaches, along with the reduced team size at his school, for granting him the opportunity on the field despite the highly competitive nature of football in Daytona Beach.

“At Father Lopez, I was able to start in my sophomore year,” Kevin said. “Being on a smaller team, they were able to help me more, coach me up more. The coaching was great, and my teammates were unbelievable.”

While he’s always enjoyed playing the game, Kevin didn’t always have such a passion for football. Now, it’s as if he never wants the game to end.

“When I made my first touchdown, I really didn’t want to stop,” he said.

Before Kevin learned he had to fight hard to win in football, he was taught that you have to work hard to succeed academically. Actually, he said, the lesson he learned at Sacred Heart School in New Smyrna Beach, where he attended kindergarten through eighth grade, pertains to life in general. His former math teacher, Aven Bacon, used a tough-love approach.

“She really pushed me. If I started to get lazy, she would threaten to put me in the lower class,” Kevin recalled. “That really taught me you have to work hard to get what you want.”

Bacon remembers Kevin’s seventh and eighth grade years well.

“I had to push him sometimes,” she said with honest laughter. “I never gave up on him. He was very, very capable. He was a nice young man, but sometimes he would walk on the edge, and sometimes he fell off a bit.”

She’s proud to know he’s on track now, she said, and the teacher and former student now see each other often when Kevin visits Sacred Heart as an ambassador to future Father Lopez students. And they always share a hug.

“My husband always tells me that the kids coming back are my report card,” Bacon said.

That kind of teacher dedication and a warm, nurturing atmosphere is why Kevin’s mother, Ann Spilman, wanted her sons to attend Father Lopez .

“I went to Catholic schools,and I wanted a small community, a Christian community, obviously, because that was my background,” she said.

As a single mother, it was important for Ann to send her sons to a school that would become an extension to their family. Her older son, Thomas, also went to Sacred Heart without the assistance of Step Up because, at the time, the program had different requirements under which he didn’t qualify. His grandparents helped cover the cost of his schooling.

She called Step Up a blessing to allow Kevin the kind of education she wanted for him.

“I wanted him to be challenged,” Ann said about Kevin. “And he is.”

Not only that, she said, he goes above and beyond. The school requires 100 hours of community service hours for graduation, and as a junior, Kevin already has 500, including two medical mission trips to Nicaragua with Corner of Love, an international mission organization. Kevin’s cumulative GPA is about a 3.6, but last grading period, he earned at 4.2.

“I’ve really tried to buckle down,” he said. “I’ve had to show them (colleges) that I was willing to work hard.”

Father Lopez Principal Lee Sayago has noticed Kevin’s progression.

“He’s one of our brightest students,” he said. “He’s a hard worker off and on the field.”

For Kevin, that’s the perfect mix of success, and he’s prepared even if football doesn’t work out at college. He plans on majoring in criminal justice and would like to one day work for the Department of Homeland Security. He’s hoping to help out with the burden of college tuition by perhaps being awarded a football scholarship to a Division II school, which is where recruiters have told him he would most likely have his best shot.

“That would be a huge help to my family,” he said.

FatherLopez Catholic High School, Daytona Beach

Father Lopez Catholic High School boasts more than 50 years of providing “a rigorous college-preparatory program of studies in a faith-filled environment.” Founded in 1959, the school was built by the Diocese of St. Augustine at 960 Madison Ave., in Daytona Beach and replaced several area parish schools. The school was named after Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, the Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles’s Spanish expedition to Florida. About a decade into its existence, the school was transferred to the administration of the Diocese of Orlando by which it continues to be run. The diocese purchased 80 acres of land on LPGA Boulevard in 2004 and built a state-of-the-art facility which opened its doors in 2008. The old school property was sold to finance the new campus.The school currently has 403 students, 50 of whom are Step Up scholars. In the past couple of years, the school has seen its largest enrollment increases since 1985. Of the 2012 graduating class, 100 percent of the 67 students went on to college with 63 percent attending a four-year university or college.  During the 2011-12 school year, Father Lopez added an International Student Program, recruiting students from across the seas from China and parts of Europe. The school is accredited by AdvancED,formerly known as the Southern Association of School and Colleges, and uses the PSAT test to measure students’ academic success. Tuition for the 2013-14 school year has been set at $10,100 for non-parishioners, with a $500 annual discount for parish members.

Isaiah Vargas

w3gosa4kIsaiah Vargas entered the world addicted to drugs.

As the toxins were purged from his tiny body in the hospital, he had repeated seizures and fought to stay alive. His first two months of life were spent in the neonatal intensive care unit, said his grandmother, Cheryl Valladares.

“They didn’t give us a good prognosis on him,” she said. But Isaiah is now a fourth-grade Step Up For Students scholar at New Jerusalem Christian Academy in Seffner and excels academically. The 10-year-old student also plays the flute at school, and takes gymnastics at the local YMCA.

Still, he didn’t completely escape the perils of his mother’s drug addiction. Nor did she.

Isaiah’s eyes have been crossed since birth, which made sitting up and walking more of a challenge early on, and he would fall more often than a typical toddler. He also was born with spina bifida occulta, a spinal cord disorder resulting in sensory delays, so when he did fall, he couldn’t feel pain and still doesn’t feel it the way most people do. The disorder has made it difficult for his family to know when his injuries are significant. He still has difficulty with fine motor skills and shows little emotion.

For the third time, he had eye surgery in November 2012 in hopes of further straightening them. This is only some of what he copes with each day.

His mother didn’t fare as well.

At age 18, Kristi became entangled in drugs, said her mother, Cheryl. She had grown up with a supportive family and gained a solid educational background, but started running with the wrong crowd, Cheryl said. She married another drug user when she was 25, and had Benjamin that same year.

Cheryl was awarded guardianship of her two grandsons in 2004 after her daughter had been arrested on previous drug charges. Shortly after, Cheryl lost her job managing a chiropractic office in Tampa where she was employed for seven
years, she said, because her boss told her she would be out too much with Isaiah’s doctor’s appointments. She has worked at a much lower paying job without benefits ever since.

By the time Isaiah was 3 and in preschool, administrators and teachers at his neighborhood school were overwhelmed by his physical challenges and ultimately placed him in special education classes, despite his obvious intelligence, Cheryl said.

“His mind’s intact,” Cheryl would tell school teachers and administrators. “Please don’t treat him like he’s mentally handicapped.”

By first grade, Isaiah was given yet another lifeline by the educators in his family, who founded and still run New Jerusalem Christian Academy in Seffner, just outside of Tampa. His aunt, Dari Valladares, is the principal at New Jerusalem, which was started by her mother, Miriam Gonzalez. Dari first informally tested Isaiah to see if he could follow directions, knew his sounds, letters and numbers and had the ability to write and hold scissors and pencils. While he has a shaky hand when writing or holding scissors because of his lack of hand-eye coordination due to his sensory delay and vision problems, he did well on everything else.
“I didn’t want to put him here if he wasn’t ready,” Dari said.

Cheryl couldn’t afford the tuition on her own, but applied and received Step Up scholarships for the boys. “It was the best thing that has happened,” she said. “Financially, things have been a struggle, but the boys are getting what they need.”

Both boys seem happy and comfortable at school, but Isaiah especially shines. Dari calls him a social butterfly. His passion is gymnastics, and he smiles when he has a chance to show off his handstand on the playground. The brothers seem to enjoy hamming it up when photographs are snapped. They also clearly have a special bond with their principal and aunt.

“Academically, he’s done phenomenally,” Dari said of Isaiah. “He’s done phenomenally socially. In the special needs class (at his previous school) he didn’t really talk.”

Benjamin is doing well in school, but has a difficult time focusing because he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, one of the most common childhood behavioral disorders, thought to be a result of all he has gone through. He enjoys
playing on school sports teams like soccer and volleyball. Both boys, in fact, take behavioral modification medication, and are benefitting from being in small classrooms and receiving one-on-one attention, Cheryl said. She’s confident they will both succeed in life, but she is especially pleased with Isaiah’s
transformation so far.

“He’s been at the top of his class the whole time,” his grandmother says. “The boy is just amazing because he found out he’s smart.”

About New Jerusalem Christian Academy

Miriam Gonzalez, who with her husband, Elvin, has been pastoring New Jerusalem Church, now called New Jerusalem International Ministries, since 1991. She opened a New Jerusalem Christian Academy on the same property in 1996, where her daughter Dari Valladares now serves as principal. After making the decision to start a school, Gonzalez earned her master’s degree in Christian education and said she mostly relied on prayer and donations to open the school, which now serves students preK-2 through middle school. Currently, the school
has about 140 students, of which 43 students are Step Up scholars. In addition to standard curriculum, it also offers classes including dance, band and TV production. The school uses the TerraNova assessment test to measure individual academic success. Tuition for the 2012-13 school year is$4,000 for grades kindergarten through fifth grade and $4,500 for middle school students.


Vivian Calhoun is raising a princess. She didn’t plan on it, but it’s working out just fine.

She gets to give and receive lots of hugs and kisses from her 6-year-old great-granddaughter, Anastasia, who came into the world to parents who couldn’t take care of her. But with Vivian’s help, the young girl is living much more of a fairy tale than was ever expected.

“She thinks she’s a princess,” Vivian said with a chuckle. “If you ask, she’ll tell you she’s royalty.”

Anastasia’s mother wasn’t able to care for her and her father has never really been a part of her life, Vivian said. And Anastasia’s grandmother, Vivian’s daughter, had problems of her own, so the great-grandmother did the only thing she could: Become Anastasia’s guardian and only true parental figure.

“It was an easy decision,” Vivian said.

Still, Vivian, 68 and a widow after 35 years of marriage, lives on her disability checks. She had to retire from working as a manager for staffing company because back surgery left her with permanent nerve damage. She gets less than $200 monthly from the state to help with Anastasia and does all she can to make the money stretch, she said. But seeing the effects of drugs and violence up close with loved ones, she wanted to ensure that Anastasia had a safe learning environment, and received individualized attention in smaller classrooms in a place that could instill similar values as Vivian was trying to teach at home. She also wanted Anastasia to feel like people at school were an extension of her family. Vivian yearned to send Anastasia to a local private school that matched these needs, but she didn’t have the financial means until a neighbor told her about Step Up For Students.

During the 2011-12 school year, Anastasia started kindergarten at Christ’s Church Academy, formerly called Mandarin Christian School, in Jacksonville and is now 6 and in the first grade.

“Everybody is just so wonderful. It’s been smooth sailing,” Vivian said of the school and Anastasia’s adjustment to school life. “She’s so happy and doing so well.”

Anastasia loves CCA so much, her great grandmother said, that she doesn’t like school vacations and early dismissal days.

“She doesn’t want to leave the school, and that tells me a lot about the school,” Vivian said.

Through school, in addition to her love for princesses and Barbie dolls, Anastasia has become passionate about reading and excels in it. And, Vivian noted with pride, she enjoys homework.

But what she probably enjoys most, Vivian said, is the love and support she gets from CCA faculty and its students.

As the school’s Princess Ball, a father-daughter dance for the kindergarten through fifth-grade girls, approached in April of 2012, Anastasia had a request from Gene Gottlieb, the campus minister.

“Will you be my princess?” he asked her.

By all accounts, Anastasia’s smile at the ball sparkled more than her tiara.

“You could see it in her face. She was lit up,” said her kindergarten teacher Amy Keating. “She was a princess. She felt like everyone else.”

Gene remembered the evening fondly.

“I think it didn’t even matter that I wasn’t her biological father,” he said. “She was in her glory. She acted like any 6-year-old girl. She’s a doll.”

Vivian said that evening created a lifelong memory for Anastasia. But for the great-grandmother, it’s further proof that she’s made the right decision sending her to CCA.

“I thought it was wonderful. That’s just the kind of people they are,” she said. “It’s just a beautiful place.”

About Christ’s Church Academy, Jacksonville, FL

Christ’s Church Academy, a college preparatory school, opened in 1995 as Mandarin Christian School with a mission to foster well-rounded students through Christian values, excellence in academics, athletics and the arts. It began with kindergarten through fifth grade, gradually adding upper levels and now goes through 12th grade.  CCA is set on a nine-acre campus on Old St. Augustine Road in Jacksonville, and is comprised of more than 30 classrooms, plus four music rooms, two art rooms, two Mac labs, a media center, auditorium, gymnasium and two playgrounds. Additionally, the school boasts a 10-acre athletic complex with baseball, softball, soccer and football fields. Spanish is introduced in kindergarten and is included in the curriculum through elementary school, with an option in middle school and a foreign language requirement in high school. The school is a ministry of Christ’s Church of Jacksonville and is accredited by the Florida Council of Independent Schools, Florida Kindergarten Council, Association of Christian Schools International and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Tuition for the 2013-14 schoolyear is $7,570 for K-fifth grades; $8,655 for sixth through eighth; and $9,450 for ninth -12th grades. The school uses TerraNova tests to measure academic success. About 444 students are currently enrolled, 11 of which are Step Up scholars.

Jenkins Family

Sharla and Donald Jenkins are raising six children, but less than a year ago, they were parents of two.

After relatives wound up in a personal crisis, Sharla and Donald became guardians to their three nieces and nephew. With all of the children ages 9 and under, including one active 3-year-old boy, her life is busier than ever– and the family’s home is louder for sure.

On Oct. 18, the courts finalized the arrangement. Sharla and Donald are now permanent legal guardians to their nieces and nephew, but would love to one day take it a step further and adopt the children. In the meantime, the new additions to the family are treated like they have always been a part of the Jenkins’ clan. For Sharla, that meant providing all the school-aged children with an education that she felt suited the children best.

All five are now Step Up For Students scholars attending Bible Truth Ministries Academy in Tampa, a small private school serving pre-K through eighth grade children. Even Demarcus, the 3-year-old, attends preschool there.

“There was no way I could afford to send them to private school,” said Sharla, who is a full-time volunteer at the school where she teaches and even fills in for the principal when she’s away. Her husband’s income supports the now large family.

The couple’s biological children, Sarah, 9, and Elijah, 7, have been attending Bible Truth since they were in preschool.  And it was important to them that their nieces and nephew got the same education.

After her nieces and nephew were removed from their parents’ home more than a year ago, they were placed together in a group foster home.One of the girls had such an aversion to going to school that eventually the home leaders just let her stay home, missing countless days of school, Sharla said, because it was easier to let her stay home rather than battle. But she now enjoys going to school.

“They all hit the ground running. They all started doing really well,” she said of the nieces and nephews who had all been in their neighborhood school.

Suzette Dean, the school’s principal, is pleased with their progress, too.

“It hasn’t been a year yet, and they weren’t reading when they came and those who could were barely reading,” she recalled. “And they’re reading down to the youngest girl. They’re doing very well in class.”

Back at home, Sharla said, things are going well and the children – who hadn’t even met before the family troubles – are more like siblings than cousins.

Those outside the family from the case workers to attorneys weren’t so sure the two families would blend so well, Sharla said.

“They held their breath. They were waiting for it to fall apart, but it didn’t,” she said. It’s been great.”

Sharla explained to her children that something “bad happened” in their cousin’s family and that they could no longer stay with their parents. The Jenkins children immediately said that their cousins were family and that they should come live with them. After many months of weekend visits, that’s exactly what happened in November 2011.

“They all get along. They all did well together and work together,” she said.

Sharla is most in awe of the changes she sees in Shemara, 9, Eboni, 8, Maresha, 6 and Demarcus, 3. When they first arrived, the children were so uncertain of what the future would hold.

“Now, they are more like carefree, happy-go-lucky (children).They say hi to everyone, and at the end of the day, they know where they’re going.

On an early rainy fall day, the children gathered in a small classroom after school, girls lined on one side of the table and the two boys on another end and talked about their new life. Demarcus climbed atop Elijah’slap and the pair looked content.

“He is his shadow,” Sharla said, with a slight smile.

The girls giggled.  They talked about being part of a big family now.

“The girls are fun,” said Sarah enthusiastically, adding that there are benefits to having more members in the family. “The good thing is we pick up faster, so we can watch TV faster.”

They all agreed.

About Bible Truth Ministries Academy

Principal Suzette Dean started Bible Truth Ministries Academy in 1999 with eight neighborhood children in a converted upstairs apartment of her home in East Tampa. The following year, she and her husband the Rev. Daniel Dean, moved the school into an abandoned house beside a church on East Ellicott Street and in January 2006 relocated to their current location, which they built with their own hands, on North 22nd Street. The pre-K through 12th grade school’s first graduating class in 2008 consisted of only one student  The school currently has about 86 students of which about 20 are Step Up scholars.  The academy has a multi-grade learning environment rather than traditional grade-specific classrooms, and the average class size is 16 students. The school uses the Stanford Achievement Test to measure individual academic success. Tuition for the 2012-2013 school year is $4,300.

Davion Manuel-McKenney

As Step Up For Students celebrates over 10 years of providing low-income families the opportunity to attend the school of their choice, we catch up with scholars who were awarded scholarships that first year.

Davion Manuel-McKenney was just weeks away from starting his new life as a college student when he was flipping through a family photo album and came across an image of his mother and him from many years ago. In the photo, the toddler is perched atop his mother’s lap, her arms are wrapped around his tiny body. And both flash electric smiles.

The reminiscing inspired Davion to post the photograph on his Facebook page with a note to his mother: “We have come a long way. Love U Ma.”

In the beginning, the odds to attend college weren’t in his favor if only the basic facts of his life were considered. He was born to an unwed teenaged mother, who at the time hadn’t completed her own education. But with the love of his mother and family, the determination that was in their genes and the help of many along the way, Davion is now a freshman at Florida State College at Jacksonville.

“There was never a doubt I would go to college,” Davion said during a telephone interview from the new apartment he now shares with three roommates.

Both mother and son said they were saddened to have Davion move about 85 miles north of his home in Ormond Beach, but it was time for him to live out what they have been working toward since his mother, Faith, was just 15. Faith Manuel’s first name seems to guide her. While she became pregnant at age 14 and gave birth at 15, she remained hopeful it would all workout. She married Davion’s father, Nicholas McKenney, and they went on to have two more children. While the couple’s marriage didn’t last, their dedication to their children remained intact and does today. Still, for Faith, the financial struggles that often come with being a single mother were very much a challenge, and when it came time for her eldest child to go to middle school, Faith didn’t like what she saw.

“He was going to be zoned for a school that I was not comfortable with,” she said, adding that there were instances of violence at the school.

Desperate not to send Davion into such an environment, she started researching alternatives – and a way to pay for them. She found Step Up For Students.

“It was always my dream to put my kids through private education,” said Faith, who now has an associate degree and plans on soon furthering her own education.

She wanted to find a school that she felt would be the best fit for her son. She was thrilled when Davion received a Step Up scholarship. When his first scholarship school didn’t work out, he was easily able to transfer with the scholarship to Calvary Christian Academy, which was part of their church in Ormond Beach. The fit was perfect.

“We really got into a family, a network and it spilled into church and school,” Faith said.  “He was immediately embraced by the students and teachers, which helped him excel and go for it.”

At Calvary, Davion had fewer distractions than at his previous schools and was able to focus more on academics. He also was on the school’s track and basketball teams, took on the role of student chaplain and enjoyed spending time with the pre-school children. He graduated from high school in the spring of 2012.

Ronda Crickenberger, his former teacher, guidance counselor and assistant principal recalled Davion, whom she said she considers a son.

“He is one of the most unique young men I have had the good fortune to work with,” said Crickenberger, who recently became principal at The Tabernacle Christian School in Sarasota. “His smile could light up a room. He is intelligent, inquisitive and humble. I think that’s what makes him special.”

She recalled the love and support Davion and his family, especially his mother, had for one another and also credits that with his success.

“I think he knew going to a private school gave him an edge and gave him the opportunity to do something more, to give back to his family and make their life better,” she said. “Davion will be successful at whatever he chooses to do. He’s got the drive to get it done.”

Davion is considering a career in teaching and knows if that’s what he sets out to do, he will do well because of the solid foundation he has built with the help of others. He points to people like Ms. Crickenberger, whom he described as having so much love and passion for her students, his Calvary family as a whole, and the Step Up scholarship as things that have made a difference in his life. But he always goes back to his mother on the one who has truly blessed his life.

When he held the photograph of his younger self and his 17-year-old mom in his hands recently, he reminisced about his life and the woman who made it the best she could.

“I was thinking about everything we’ve gone through together. She was so young when she had me. She chose to keep me. She gave up alot. Growing up, I always had food on the table and clothes and so much love,” Davion said. “I have so much love for my mom I could go on for days about her.”


Calvary Christian Academy first opened its doors in 1985 with 110 students enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade.  The initial construction of the school included the school office building, library and elementary and high school wings on 28-acre property. More facilities, including the gymnasium, cafeteria (fellowship hall) and church office were built three years later. The first high school class of eight students graduated in 1989. For the 2012-2013 schoolyear, 270 students are enrolled including 110 Step Up students. Tuition is $5,250 for grades K- fifth and for grades six through 12 $5,950 annually. They administer the Stanford Achievement Test to gauge students’ progress annually.The school is accredited by both the Florida League of Christian School (FLOCS) and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on colleges (SACS).