Donate

Dreams of owning a home, quality schools for the boys come true thanks to education choice scholarship

BY ROGER MOONEY

ORLANDO, Florida – Juliette Harrell was 17 when she told her mom she was pregnant. She was promptly kicked out of her house.

A single mother herself, Juliette’s mom painted a bitter picture of Juliette’s new world.

“My mom told me my life was over. You got to take care of your kids. You can’t do anything,” she said.

Juliette agreed with only one part: She would take care of her baby. But she felt her life was not over, and she was determined to realize her dreams of completing her education, starting a business, owning a home, and raising a family in a nuclear household.

Now, 10 years after Aiden was born, Juliette has realized all but one of those goals. Her childcare business is still in the planning stages. But it will operate out of the home Juliette and her husband, Allen, own at the end of a cul de sac in Orlando, where they live with Aiden and his brothers Amar’e, 6, and Asht’n, 2.

The path to the present wasn’t easy for the Harrells, who found themselves homeless at one point. They remained on course through an unwavering belief in themselves and a Step Up For Students scholarship. The scholarship relieved some of the financial burden and allowed the Harrells to exercise their right to school choice and send Aiden and Amar’e to a private schools located within walking distance of their home.

“The scholarship really has helped us tremendously. I don’t know where I’d be without it,” Juliette said. “The school that we’re zoned for hasn’t been performing well – well, not up to my liking, anyways.”

The Harrell family: Asht’n, Juliette, Aiden, Amar’e and Allen (standing).

Allen was working as a groundskeeper at an Orlando apartment complex when he learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is provided by corporate tax contributions to Step Up For Students. The scholarship allowed Juliette and Allen to enroll Aiden in Orlando Day Nursery, a private pre-K and kindergarten school near their apartment at the time.

Aiden now attends Alpha Learning Academy, a K-5 private school, where he is in the fifth grade. Amar’e attended Orlando Day Nursery for pre-K and kindergarten and is now in the first grade at Alpha Learning Academy.

Juliette said receiving the FTC Scholarship eased the anxiety she had about Aiden’s education.

“For me, it was really important that we not only get the best education, but the education environment that best fit our family,” she said. “At the time, the public school we were zoned for wasn’t the best. I wanted options for (Aiden), and we were looking for the best opportunities for him.”

Education has always been at the forefront of Juliette’s plans. She graduated from high school despite being a teen mom who found herself bouncing between hotels and the homes of family and friends after her mother kicked her out.

“That was really important to me, getting my high school diploma so I didn’t become another statistic,” Juliette said.

Then she received an associate degree from Valencia College in Orlando and a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from the University of Central Florida. Allan has an associate degree from Valencia. He now works in merchandising for City Beverage of Orlando.

The two met in a computer graphics class in high school. Allen was a senior and Juliette a freshman. Juliette saw Allen from across the classroom, walked up and told him they would someday be married. And they are.


Click here to listen to more of Juliette’s story on the reimaginED podcast with Lisa Buie.


Poor money management led to the couple being homeless for six months in 2015. Juliette took Aiden and Amar’e and moved into a woman’s coalition. Allen moved back home with his mom. The separation, Juliette said, made the family bond stronger. It also provided her with the motivation to finish her degree at UCF.

“I felt really hopeless at times,” she said. “I felt like, ‘Why is this happening? What did I do wrong? Why did I go the route that I did?’”

Juliette knew an education was the way out. She wants the same for her boys. She wants to raise them in a stable, two-parent household where they never go hungry and always feel loved.

She wants to open the daycare to help the teen moms and the single parents in the neighborhood. She and Allen have cleared space in their backyard for a community garden, so they can provide fresh vegetables for their neighbors.

Juliette said she feels as if her family is no longer in “survival mode.” Because of that, she said it’s time they help those in their community who can use a hand.

“I want to let other families know that there is a way out of your struggle,” she said. “We did it, and we went to help other people get out of their struggle, also.”

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

Step Up For Students ranked 13th in Forbes list of 100 top American charities

Step Up For Students continues to rise among the top nonprofits in the country, breaking into the top-15 of Forbes’ list of America’s Top 100 Charities 2021.

Step Up is ranked 13th, the highest ranking for among education charities.

Ashley Elliot

“Step Up For Students is proudly celebrating its 20th anniversary of providing scholarships to underprivileged children, and the Forbes ranking underscores just how far we have come in those two decades,” said Anne Francis, Step Up’s vice president, development.

“We are grateful for the support of our donors, whose support is integral to receiving this honor. With over one million scholarships distributed by Step Up, deserving students are being positively impacted each day, thanks to our generous donors.”

During the past fiscal year, Step Up received $976 million in private donations. The bulk of those donations are contributed from corporations participating in the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) Scholarship Program.

Passed into law in 2001, the FTC Scholarship Program allows companies to receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits against certain tax liabilities. The funds provide K-12 scholarships to children, eligible through their household income.

Ashley Elliott says the FTC scholarship made all the difference. Raised by her grandmother in Lakeland, Fla., Ashley was struggling in high school. She used an FTC scholarship to attend Victory Christian Academy. She went from failing to graduating high school with honors, then earning her associate degree from Valencia College, and is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Central Florida.

“Your education determines your future,” she said. “When I received school choice, it changed my future. I want that opportunity for everyone, not just me.”

LiFT Academy receives boost from Tampa Bay Lightning as it prepares to move to new campus

BY ROGER MOONEY

High above the ice at Amalie Arena during a recent Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game stood Keli Mondello and Kim Kuruzovich, the founders of Learning Independence for Tomorrow (LiFT), and Holly Andrade, a founding teacher. They were bathed in the spotlight while the fans cheered, and the players on the ice below paid tribute with a time-honored hockey salute – tapping the blades of their sticks on the ice.

The three clutched an oversized check made out to LiFT Academy for $50,000. The Lightning Foundation donates that amount during each home game to a Tampa Bay area nonprofit as part of the Lightning Community Hero program presented by Jabil.  LiFT was honored by the Lightning on Jan. 27 during a game against the New Jersey Devils.

Learning Independence for Tomorrow (LiFT) includes LiFT Academy, a K-12 private school, LiFT University Transition Program, a four-year post-high school program, and LiFT Day Program in Seminole, Florida that serves neurodiverse students. Neurodiversity is the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, that falls outside societal standards of typical.

“We’re so excited about it. It’s really good timing,” said Andrade, now the school’s principal.

After nine years, LiFT Academy, LiFT University Transition Program and the LiFT Day Program have outgrown their current locations of rented space from two churches. It’s time for a bigger building that can accommodate the school’s expanding programs and growing enrollment.

With a total enrollment of 147 learners across all its programs and a lengthy waiting list, LiFT simply needs more space. Andrade said the new site will initially double the capacity and could ultimately serve 386 learners.

In December, LiFT purchased a former YMCA building in nearby Clearwater with plans to convert it into a new campus. The LiFTING OUR FUTURE capital campaign has begun to help finance the move, remodel and expansion. The $50,000 grant from the Lightning is a great start.

“We are moving to more centralized location in Pinellas County where we can be a resource and partner for the whole community,” Andrade said. We’re going to be more visible and make a larger impact by enhancing the neurodiverse student experience with a safe and inclusive space to learn, thrive, and succeed.”

LiFT Academy’s enrollment include 65 students who receive the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship) and 47 students who receive the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities. The two scholarship programs will merge on July 1, 2022, and will be managed by Step Up For Students.

LiFT Academy opened its doors Jan. 9, 2013, to 17 K-12 students. At the time, Mondello, Kuruzovich and Andrade each had neurodiverse children who were sophomores at the same high school. Their goal was to create an educational program that focused on independent living for their children and others living with neurodiversity.

LiFT University Transition Program, a four-year program for neurodiverse young adults who won’t follow the typical path for secondary education, opened the following year. LiFT University Transition Program teaches employability skills, independent living skills and social skills. The program has approximately 30 community partners who offer internships, and those internships often lead to paid employment.

The LiFT University Transition Program also runs three microbusinesses. These businesses allow students the opportunity to gain social, vocational, and critical thinking skills that will add greatly to their value as an employee. As entrepreneurs, students learn to take risks, manage time, put customers first, seek opportunities to lead and interpersonal skills, all of which are highly transferable skills sought by employers. LiFT Your Fork is a catering service that prepares its neurodiverse students for work in the hospitality industry. LiFT Your Heart makes and sells handmade items such as canvas bags, towels, soaps and scrubs and candles. There is also the LiFT University Cleaning Crew, which has contracts with area churches and movie theaters.

Andrade said, “LiFT’s growth always outpaced our funding. We relied on donations from community partners like Jabil and Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. When Eckerd refurbished its science wing, the college donated furniture and equipment.”

Andrade said she and Kuruzovich carted everything from the college campus to the academy in their “mom vans.”

“We made five trips back and forth, carting science tables, dissection equipment and rolling desk chairs for our teachers,” she said. “That’s how we made it work in the earlier years.”

Kim Kuruzovich, Holly Andrade and Keli Mondello were honored recently as Lightning Community Heros by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Thanks to the Lightning, Andrade said they can now purchase flexible seating options, new furniture, light dimmers for students with visual sensitivities, and additional equipment and fidgets that will serve as therapeutic purposes. These improvements will empower students to focus on their learning, without distractions and discomfort due to their sensory sensitivities. 

“I did it for my son Daniel, and for all the other children like him,” Andrade said. “Neurodiverse children have so much to offer the world. The only thing that holds them back is how the world limits them. But we can change how the world sees them and I want to be a part of that. There’s absolutely nothing like providing an opportunity to help children become what they were destined to be. It was always something that we hoped for and worked for.”

LiFT Academy is the 473rd nonprofit to be named a Lightning Community Hero. Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and his wife, Penny, started the program during the 2011-12 season with a $10 million, five-year commitment to the area. Since then, they have awarded nearly $25 million to more than 600 nonprofits in the greater Tampa Bay area. Last summer, the Viniks announced the program will award another $10 million to nonprofits during the next five seasons.

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

20 years of Educational Opportunity: Once a beneficiary of education choice, Ashley is now an advocate

BY ROGER MOONEY

The first time Ashley Elliott realized her story could make a difference was when she found herself in Washington, D.C., moving from the office of Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Orlando) to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) to talk about the importance of education choice.

It works, Ashley said. You’re looking at proof.

It was a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship that changed the trajectory of her life for the better. She went from being a bullied student with failing grades at her district high school to one who aced her classes and made friends after enrolling in a private school as a junior. She was a college freshman when she was invited to Washington to share her story, and she didn’t hold back.

“If I could change the hearts of legislatures then it meant that things could change for kids in Florida, as well,” Ashley said.

Once a beneficiary of education choice, Ashley is now an advocate for education choice.

“I think where I see myself (in the future) is just always trying to make educational opportunity a continuing option, at least within Florida and hopefully in the U.S.,” she said.

Step Up For Students celebrates its 20th anniversary this school year. Last year, it funded its millionth scholarship. Many have used the FTC scholarship, provided by corporate tax contributions to Step Up, to combat economic hardship and graduate from high school.  And many of those high school graduates have pursued a college education.

Once a beneficiary of education choice, Ashley Elliott now advocates for education choice.

Indeed, research shows Ashley is hardly alone. A 2017 report by the Urban Institute found that FTC students were up to 43 percent more likely than similarly disadvantaged students in public schools to attend a four-year college, and those who were on the scholarship for at least four years were 99 percent more likely to attend college. They also were more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.

 Ashley counts herself among that group of FTC alumni. She already has an associate degree from Valencia College and is on pace to graduate this spring from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor’s degree in history. She would like to pursue a master’s degree in history or education policy, and possibly continue on for a Ph.D. She currently works part-time as a writer for the American Federation for Children and would love to continue working for the nonprofit after she graduates UCF.

Ashley said that “ninth-grade Ashley” never thought any of this was possible.

“She wouldn’t know how I got here. She would be confused,” she said. “But ninth-grade Ashley would be happy for me.”

Growing up in Lakeland, Florida, Ashley described her life as the “epitome of American poverty.” She and her younger brother were adopted by their grandmother. They both call Juanita McKinnon “Mom.”

 Despite the love at home and the sacrifices made by Juanita, who gave up her retirement years to raise her grandchildren, Ashley didn’t see much of a future for herself. She didn’t think she would graduate high school. She was resigned to being what she called “a statistic.”

But the principal and a teacher at the alternative high school she attended took an interest in Ashley. When they moved to a private school, they asked Ashley to move, too. With the help of the FTC scholarship, Ashley entered Victory Christian Academy as a junior and went from a student with failing grades and discipline issues to one who earned A’s and B’s and graduated with honors.

“Your education determines your future,” she said. “When I received school choice, it changed my future. I want that opportunity for everyone, not just me.”

Ashley and her mom, Juanita McKinnon.

Ashley forged tight bonds with her teachers at Victory Christian. She remains in touch with many of them. She’ll ask some to proofread a paper before she turns it into one of her college professors.

“They’re always there when I need them,” she said. “I know I can go back and get the help I need at any point in my life.”

Ashley is quick to recount a parent/teacher conference during eight grade where she and Juanita met with seven of her teachers. Two thought Ashley could salvage her grades and graduate. Ashley felt the other five had given up on her.

It was only recently when sharing that story with a couple of her college friends when one asked, “Did you ever think you weren’t receiving the proper help?” that Ashley fully grasped what it meant.

“And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re right,’” she said. “Because when I went to Victory there were the proper teachers to help me. A lot of it was about finding the right environment that worked for me.”

That’s what Ashley advocates for: The proper learning environment for every student. It can be achieved, she said, if families have a say, a chance to choose the education environment for their children.

In February, Ashley spoke to lawmakers in New Mexico. She told them that according to social statistics she should be a high school dropout, not someone who is a few credits shy of a college degree.

“It makes me really frustrated and upset that while our kids are going through the system and suffering, (lawmakers) are saying, ‘Wait. Wait. Just wait for it to be fixed. We’re working on it. Give it some time,’” she said.

“While legislators are saying that, school choice will be there to give an option for students who don’t have that time to wait. There’s no time to wait for a kid who’s trying to get through school. You have to be educated. I want to make sure that educational opportunities are always an option.”

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

Step Up For Students celebrates 20 years of providing Families Choices

Florida’s largest nonprofit scholarship administrator is celebrating its 20th anniversary of providing families more options in their children’s education.

Step Up For Students, a 501c3 nonprofit based in Jacksonville and St. Petersburg, has awarded more than 1 million scholarships since it was founded in 2002. Today, Step Up administers five of the state’s K-12 scholarship programs: the donor-supported Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) and the taxpayer-funded Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options (FES-EO), for low- and middle-income students; the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA, formerly Gardiner); the Reading Scholarship for public school students in grades 3-5 with low reading test scores; and the Hope Scholarship for bullied students.

Denisha Merriweather, who used a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship to attend a private school, is a testament to the power of education choice.

Step Up currently serves more than 170,000 students, most of them lower-income or with special needs. The scholarships empower their families to access the learning options that work best for their children so they can maximize their potential.

“As I reflect upon the last 20 years, I want to thank all the legislators, educators and donors who made this program and this movement possible,” said John Kirtley, chairman and founder of Step Up for Students. “As important, I want to thank the families who were empowered by the scholarships to give their students the chance to find an educational environment that best suited their individual needs.”

Florida has witnessed a sea change in education over the last 20 years. Once languishing at the bottom, Florida has skyrocketed to No. 3 in the nation in K-12 achievement, according to Education Week. With a focus on matching the child to the right education environment, Florida created a variety of educational options, including Step Up’s scholarships, to meet the needs of students. Today, almost half of the state’s 3.6 million students attend schools other than their assigned neighborhood school.

Scholarship students, and the private schools serving them, have played a role in the state’s educational success.

An Urban Institute analysis of the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship found recipients were shown to be up to 99% more likely to attend four-year colleges, and 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees, than like students in public schools.

“Parents are increasingly insisting on a public education system that is able to provide each child with an effective and efficient customized education,” Step Up President Doug Tuthill said. “Helping parents achieve this vision for the last 20 years has been an honor and a privilege. The next 20 years are really going to be amazing.”

Denisha Merriweather is a testament to the power of education choice.

The daughter of a teenaged mom and high school dropout, raised in poverty, Denisha thought she was destined for a similar path. Receiving a scholarship from Step Up For Students changed her life.

Denisha had been a troubled student who was held back twice at her assigned public schools. But when she went to live with her godmother in sixth grade, her guardian applied for and received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. That allowed Denisha to afford tuition at the private school of her choice, Esprit de Corps Center of Learning in Jacksonville, where she blossomed.

Denisha went on to graduate with honors, earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of West Florida and a master’s degree in social work from the University of South Florida. From there she served as School Choice and Youth Liaison to the Secretary of Education at the U.S. Department of Education. In 2020 she founded Black Minds Matter, an organization devoted to promoting the development of high-quality school options for Black students. Recently she became the first scholarship student alumnus to serve as a member of Step Up’s Board of Directors.

“I’m just so grateful,” Denisha said. “This never would have been possible without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.”

For more information about the scholarship programs, or for help arranging an interview with a scholarship family, contact Scott Kent, assistant director of strategic communications, at 727-451-9832 or skent@sufs.org, or visit www.StepUpForStudents.org.

Step Up’s Rising Stars Award programs returns this year with in-person and virtual events

BY ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students’ Rising Stars Award program returns this year with in-person events, a virtual event and a new category – the Super Senior Award.

“Step Up For Students celebrates our outstanding scholarship students every year through our Rising Stars Award ceremonies across the state,” said Jamila Wiltshire, Student Learning & Partner Success manager at Step Up.

“We are excited to return to in-person events this school year. Here at Step Up for Students, we know the importance of celebrating a year of everyday victories and growth which is pivotal to our students.”

Because of the challenges presented by COVID-19, the 2020-21 event was held virtually. Five in-person events are planned for this spring:

  • April 26 – Monsignor Pace High School in Miami and Impact Christian Academy in Jacksonville.
  • April 27 – Abundant Life Christian Academy in Fort Lauderdale.
  • April 28 – Saint Andrew Catholic School in Orlando and Cristo Rey Tampa Salesian High School in Tampa.

In addition, all Rising Stars Award scholars will be honored May 3 during a virtual event.

Principals can nominate students from Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC), Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options (FES-EO), Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique abilities (formerly Gardiner Scholarship) and Hope Scholarship in one of four categories:

  • High Achieving Student Award. Students who excel in academics, arts or athletics.
  • Turnaround Student Award. A student who struggled when they first attended your school and has since made dramatic improvements.
  • Outstanding Student Character Award. A student who demonstrates outstanding compassion, perseverance, courage, initiative, respect, fairness, integrity, responsibility, honesty or optimism.
  • Super Senior Award. A senior who demonstrates academic achievement, leadership, community service and/or extra-curricular achievement.

Click here to nominate your students. Deadline for nominations is Feb. 11.

Principals can nominate up to three students. McKay Scholarship students are not eligible.

Before you begin making your nominations, please have all necessary information available, including: school name, school DOE number, each nominee’s contact information (name, phone number, email address), and a short description of why each student is being nominated.

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

The Foundation Academy students march for unity, education choice at MLK Jr. Day parade

BY ROGER MOONEY

For Daarina Cue, an 11th grader at The Foundation Academy in Jacksonville, marching in the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade is a “great experience.”

The people who line the parade route cheer the students as they pass by while carrying large photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and other luminary figures of Black history.

Elementary grade students at The Foundation Academy in Jacksonville ride on the school’s float during the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade.

It is not lost on Daarina that some of those people received a much different reaction when they marched during the civil rights movement

The parade, Daarina said, “is very meaningful, since it’s our history. It also means a lot since we see what they accomplished in life. We can keep doing what they did.”

More than 70 students, staffers and parents of The Foundation Academy participated Jan. 17 in Jacksonville’s 41st MLK Holiday Grand Parade. It was the seventh consecutive year the private K-12 school has marched in the parade.

“Our diverse school wanted to show that we honor our African-American brothers and sisters,” Principal Nadia Hionides said.

Daarina and Nasiyah both said their participation in the parade was a “great experience.”

This year’s theme was “Strength In Unity.” The float, pulled by one of the school’s vans, was lined with cutout figures depicting children of every race and nationality holding hands. Those who walked alongside wore sandwich boards with photos of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Mae Jemison (first black female astronaut to travel into space), Fredrick Jones (inventor, entrepreneur), George Washington Carver, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and other notable people in Black history.

“The first time I learned about the history of myself, I really got to see how my ancestors used to be, and I am honestly proud to be Black,” said Nasiyah Halls, a seventh grader.

Nasiyah echoed Daarina’s sentiment when he said participating in the parade was “a great experience.”

“Loved the people. Loved the energy,” he said.

Like Daarina, Nasiyah attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The Foundation Academy has a student body of 375, with 231 attending on a Step Up scholarship. That total includes 179 on FTC Scholarships.

In a head start to National School Choice Week, which begins Jan. 23, the school incorporated education choice into its celebration. Students wore yellow National School Choice Week scarves. Those in the elementary grades who rode on the float wore orange T-shirts from Step Up that included the words “Parent Power.”

Many of those who walked wore blue T-shirts with the words “I AM ESSENTIAL” printed on the front. Tia Unthink, the school’s admissions director, said that message is shared among the student body every day.

“When you come to our school, you don’t see one color, you see all colors represented,” she said. “You see multiple nationalities represented, and that’s the only way we will ever present ourselves, because we are all children of God. We are all capable and are excellent in what we do. We want the students who attend TFA to see themselves in leadership.”

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

Conn’s HomePlus Supports Florida Students Through Scholarship Program

Conn’s HomePlus has contributed $174,000 to Step Up For Students, helping 23 deserving Florida schoolchildren access the right education to help them succeed.

This is the first year Conn’s HomePlus has partnered with Step Up For Students to contribute to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, an income-based scholarship program funded by tax-credited contributions from corporations. The K-12 scholarships allow Florida students to pursue and engage in the best learning environments for their individual needs by attending a private school or public school different than their zoned district school.

Conn’s HomePlus is one of the top consumer goods retailers in the country whose mission is to make it possible for everyone to purchase quality, long-lasting products for their home. Through their partnership with Step Up, they also support the mission of giving students access to the educational options they need. Step Up scholarships help provide those options to students like Joshua Brutus, a senior at Tampa Bay Christian Academy (TBCA).

Joshua Brutus, who benefits from a Step Up For Students scholarship, is a senior at
Tampa Bay Christian Academy who plans to attend college and start his own nonprofit.

Joshua was once considered the class clown until he was appointed junior class president by the principal of TBCA — a decision intended to draw out Joshua’s full potential. Joshua rose to the challenge, becoming a class leader and earning A’s and B’s.

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

Joshua also understands the importance of the support he is getting from the Step Up scholarship because it gives him the ability to attend Tampa Bay Christian Academy.

“I’m very fortunate that I get to go here and get the support from them,” Joshua said.

Just like Joshua, tens of thousands of Florida schoolchildren are able to access the learning environment that works best for them with the help of a Step Up scholarship, which are possible because of the support of companies like Conn’s HomePlus.  

“At Conn’s HomePlus, we are committed to supporting students and families in the communities where we live and work,” said Chandra Holt, Conn’s HomePlus President and CEO. “We believe in the mission of Step Up For Students and are excited to partner with them to help provide Florida students the educational options they need to succeed.”  

In February 2019, the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, released results of a study on the effectiveness of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, the nation’s largest private K-12 scholarship program. The study found that students on scholarship for four or more years were up to 99% more likely to attend a four-year college than their peers in public school, and up to 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.

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

“With the support of Conn’s HomePlus, even more students in Florida will be given access to the educational environment that works best for them,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful for their generosity and commitment to helping students throughout Florida.”

Reading grades improve, love of books grows with the help of Florida’s Reading Scholarship

BY ROGER MOONEY

Lindsey Pawlishen was so confident she would pass her love of reading to her daughter that she asked for and received children’s books instead of traditional gifts at the baby shower.

She began reading to Samantha when Samantha was an infant expecting to instill that love of reading.

But Samantha didn’t love reading.

“I didn’t understand it,” Lindsey said, “because everybody said if you read to your kids as soon as they are born, they’re going to be readers, but that didn’t work.”

It would turn out that Samantha’s lack of interest had something to do with the fact she struggled to read. She scored low on the English Language Arts (ELA) section of the Florida Standards Assessments as a third grader during the 2020-21 school year. That made her eligible for Florida’s Reading Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students.

Samantha’s reading scores have improved and her love of reading has increased with the help of the Reading Scholarship.

The scholarship was created to help public school students in third through fifth grade who struggle with reading. Those who scored a 1 or 2 on the third- or fourth-grade ELA section of the Florida Standards Assessments in the prior year are eligible.

The program offers parents access to Education Savings Accounts, worth $500 each, to pay for tuition and fees for approved part-time tutoring, summer and after-school literacy programs, instructional materials and curriculum related to reading or literacy.

Lindsey was told about the scholarship from the principal at Samantha’s school. She applied for the scholarship last summer and was accepted. She used the funds to buy an iPad and downloaded the Epic! app.

Epic! provides digital books and videos for children 12 and under. It suggests books based on what the child is reading and tracks their progress for the parents. It also has educational features.

“It makes it easier for me to read, because if I don’t know what a word is, I can tap on it, and it will sound it out,” said Samantha, 9, a fourth-grader at Imagine School Lakewood Ranch, a charter school in Manatee County.

Samantha is still a grade level below in reading, but she is gaining ground. An A student in her other classes, she has raised her grade this year in literature to a B. Lindsey said she will gladly take that. It’s much better than seeing her daughter feel what she described as “defeated.”

“I was sad for her, because she was getting frustrated, not understanding why she wasn’t picking up reading,” Lindsey said. “I couldn’t figure out how to help her. I felt bad she wasn’t picking up.”

Samantha used to roll her eyes when her mother told her about the adventures she could have by simply reading a book. Now, Samantha goes to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, having discovered the Harry Potter series. She also loves The Baby-Sitters Club series.

Samantha plays defense on a travel ice hockey team, practicing twice a week at a rink an hour north of the family’s home in Palmetto. It makes Lindsey happy to see her daughter with her nose in a book during the long rides to and from games and practices.

When asked what it was like to read before she received the Reading Scholarship, Samantha said, “It was a little bit hard.”

Now, “it’s finally clicking,” Lindsey said. “That is nice to see, because I was always in a book when I was a kid.”

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

Education choice scholarship leads Step Up student-athlete to U.S. Naval Academy

BY ROGER MOONEY

Denim Edwards slid to his knees as he caught the ball in the end zone, scoring a touchdown on what would be his last play of his high school football career.

It came late in Christopher Columbus High’s loss at Venice High during the state semifinals earlier this month. Moments later, Denim, a senior, stood alone on the field as his teammates trudged toward the locker room.

He stared into the distance.

What’s next?

“Manhood,” said Denim’s dad, Terence Edwards.

The next time Denim, a 5-foot-7, 190-pound running back with breakaway speed, touches a football will be for the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, Rhode Island. He will attend the school next year as he prepares for life at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

Denim Edwards signs a national letter of intent to attend the U.S Naval Academy while his mother, Michelle Witherspoon, watches.

Denim is about to enter a world of 5:30 a.m. alarms, endless salutes, “Yes, Sir,” and “No, Sir,” demanding academic workloads and “Beat Army!”

It’s a world not suited for everyone.

Denim can’t wait.

“It’s a brotherhood,” he said, “like the school I attend now.”

Denim entered Columbus in Miami as a sophomore during the 2019-20 school year. He attends the all-male Catholic high school on a Family Empowerment Scholarship. Managed by Step Up For Students, the FES funds K-12 education choice for students from low- and middle-income families.

“I think it’s an excellent scholarship program,” said Denim’s mother, Michelle Witherspoon. “What I really like about it is, most scholarships you apply for are low-income based. The middle class, you tend to have to pay for everything. The Step Up scholarships provides opportunities for middle income families who need help.”

Michelle has a Ph.D. in leadership in education and is an assistant professor of communications at Miami Dade College. Terence drove a fuel truck for a construction company when he suffered a near-fatal heart attack one morning in 2016. As a result, he has a permanent defibrillator inserted in his chest and cannot work.

Denim’s parents were looking for a high school with high academic standards that would prepare their son for college when they settled on Columbus. That the school excels in athletics – especially football – was a plus.

“If we didn’t have (the scholarship),” Terence said, “we wouldn’t have been here. Denim was able to accomplish what he needed to accomplish as far as his education.”

Columbus Principal David Pugh said from the moment he first stepped on campus, Denim exhibited the qualities the school looks to instill in every student.

“In the classroom, in the hallways, on the field, he leads by example,” Pugh said. “He’s a respectful young man. He does everything right.”

Columbus used “We Lead” as the marketing slogan for this school year. Denim, who has been a captain on the football team during his two seasons, was chosen as one of the campaign’s student ambassadors.

“There couldn’t be anyone better than Denim to lead us in our advertising,” Pugh said.

The term leader is used often when people talk about Denim. He’s proud of that label. He shares his insights into the position with the younger running backs in the program, coaching them on how to run with the ball. How to use their vision. When to cut. When to stiff-arm a tackler.

“I feel I was born to lead because I am very vocal,” he said. “I love all my teammates. I want to be there for all of them.”

That trait carries to his life off the field. Denim is part of a group that is forming a club for the Black students at Columbus, the first of its kind at the school. He is an honor roll student who arrived on campus each day at 5:30 a.m. during football season so he would be on time for practice, which began at 6 a.m. He plans to serve as an assistant track coach this spring.

All students at Columbus are required to volunteer in the community. Denim’s volunteer work goes a step further. He is a member of the Kudos Youth Group, sponsored by the National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa, his mom’s sorority.

Denim plans to represent this uniform with the same dedication, discipline and leadership as he displayed at Columbus High.

For that, Denim volunteers at a food pantry, works with a domestic violence awareness campaign, and helps collect trash after youth football games. He wrote letters to grandparents in the neighborhood for Grandparents Day and wrote letters to military veterans for Veterans Day.

His message to the veterans was simple: “Thank you for fighting for our country. I appreciate that so much. You didn’t have to. You put your life on the line for the country.”

Denim could add that he’s a future Midshipman since he officially committed to Navy on Dec. 15, which was the first day high school seniors could sign a letter of intent to attend a college and play a sport.

His interest in Navy began last year when the Navy coaches showed an interest in him. Last July, Denim and his parents visited the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, Navy and Wake Forest University. He decided on Navy during that visit. It helped that he has an idea of what to expect from two former teammates who are on the football team.

Also, Navy reminded him of Columbus.

“They say when you’re an alumni of Columbus, you’re always going to be a part of that scene. You’re always going to go back there. You get relationships out of it, relationships you don’t get at any other school,” he said.

Terence gave his son a long, emotional embrace after that final football game. He talked about what Denim accomplished at Columbus and what he endured.

And there is this: Denim almost lost his father when Terence had the heart attack. He almost lost him again when Terence was hospitalized late in 2019 with an aorta dissection. No one knew at the time that Terence had contracted the virus that would become known as COVID-19.

“He stood tall. He made it through. I’m proud of him,” Terence said.

It’s that toughness, plus his academic prowess, plus his desire to be a leader, that should serve Denim well at Navy. Or, as his dad said, manhood.

“This isn’t the end,” Terence said after the final game. “This is a beginning. He has another life to start.”

A life made possible with the help of an education choice scholarship.

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