Shamel Donawa

7rnr2k2wLife lessons hit Shamel Donawa the hardest when she was growing up. But as an adult she can find some laughter and good in the tears she shed all those years ago. And she clearly remembers the first sign her life shifted onto a tumultuous path.

Her elementary school graduation in 2000 brought something the good student had never seen before on a report card: a poor grade in math.

“That first D was a shock,” she said.

From there she descended into a downward spiral. That one D turned to many, followed  by failing grades as she moved through her sixth grade and into seventh when she started skipping classes and running with the wrong crowd.  Things worsened after the death of her 18-year-old brother, who accidentally shot himself in 2001.

“That kind of rocked my world,” she said.

Her parents noticed their daughter needed help and reached out. Months after her brother passed, she was given a gift that perhaps saved her life: a Step Up For Students Scholarship. She and her parents chose Heartland Christian Academy (now City of Life Christian Academy) in Kissimmee as her new school in 2002.

“It’s amazing,” said the 2007 high school graduate. “It was the greatest thing that ever could’ve happened to me.”

When she first walked into that school, she immediately saw the difference. She saw no signs of cliques, which pooled like-minded kids at her old school. Still, as she walked the halls and sat in class she was uncomfortable in her new surroundings.

“Why is everyone smiling?” she wondered. “Why is everyone so weird here? It freaked me out because everyone was so nice. I was like, get out of here.”

Things quickly changed as Shamel learned to accept that the smiles on the faces of students and teachers were genuine. She started getting involved in activities like drama and chapel choir. She went on school missions to Honduras.  It was there she realized the borders in her world weren’t closed. Her dream of becoming a nurse could happen, and she could help people, especially children, overseas one day.

“I started to find my place and tragedy struck again,” she recalls of a Saturday in 2003.

The father she loved so much passed away suddenly while working a construction job. His already enlarged heart couldn’t take anymore and he collapsed on the job site, where he took his last breath.

“That was the kind of the man he was – a man with a big heart,” Shamel said with a smile in her voice.

But what happened that very evening and the days, weeks and months that followed was unlike anything she ever saw in public school. One after another her teachers showed up at her house, rallying around her and her family. They offered hugs, shoulders to cry on, compassion and complete understanding.

From that moment on, Shamel, the youngest of five children, felt different.

“It just showed me how, I guess, important I was to them.”

Her school community helped her get back on to the positive path she had begun walking and she never looked back.

Shamel’s former teacher and assistant principal Maria Anthony, who has since retired, recalled how once she settled in, her former student would make a difference just by walking into a room. Shamel was even the academy’s prom queen her senior year – an honor for which the entire student body had a vote, said Mrs. Anthony.

“With just her heart she lights up a community,” she said.

Today, Shamel works at a Kissimmee area hotel as a vacation planner while she waits to be accepted into a nursing program. She completed all of her prerequisites at a local community college, but because nursing schools are flooded with applicants seeking a stable career in an unstable economy she is currently waitlisted at several schools. It’s the only career she’s really aspired to since she was a little girl.

“I’ve always been a helper, even when I was younger,” she said.

Her ultimate goal is to become a registered nurse and combine that knowledge with her love of babies and become a midwife, too. One day, she said, she might even open a birthing center.

Mrs. Anthony says Shamel couldn’t have chosen a more perfect career. She recalls seeing her help families on their overseas missions.

“She would always have a baby in her arms, or a child tugging on her leg,” Mrs. Anthony said.

But no one has a doubt that without the Step Up For Students Scholarship Shamel wouldn’t be anywhere near pursuing such a dream.

“Really, Shamel would not have gone to college without the help of people, without your program,” said Mrs. Anthony.

Whenever she can, Shamel tells others about the program and will always fondly remember her time at Heartland Christian Academy from which she ended up graduating with honors.

“I still have my robe and little tassels,” she said.


About City of Life Christian Academy (Formerly Heartland Christian Academy)

City of Life Christian Academy was founded in 1991 and has grown from 22 students to 407 under the leadership of Pastors Jeffrey and Amy Smith.  Currently, there are 158 Step Up For Students Scholarship students attending City of Life. The school uses the Stanford Achievement Test annually to gauge student performance. Tuition for the 2012-2013 school year is $5,125 for K-3; $4,850 for K-4; $4,635 for K-5 through grade 5; $4,765 for grades 6 – 11; and $4,970 for Grade 12. Roughly 87.5 percent of City of Life Christian Academy graduates attend academic institutions of higher learning, and many children have received Florida Bright Futures and other scholarships and grants.

Luis Aponte Jr.

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. 

luisaponteWhen Luis Aponte Jr. was profiled as an eighth grader for Step Up For Students in 2007, he dreamt of pursuing a college education.  Now in 2012, there’s no denying that he has achieved his dream and more.

Luis’ graduation from Liberty Christian Academy in 2011 marked the culmination of years of academic diligence, hard work and perseverance: he was the valedictorian of his senior class.

Throughout his school career – first at a neighborhood school and later in private school – Luis made it a priority to study hard and earn top grades. While other students may have been satisfied with earning A’s and B’s, Luis was determined to never see anything lower than an A on his report card.

True to his goal, Luis left Liberty as one of its few students to earn straight A’s, said Lynda Fleming, his former guidance counselor. “He was hardest on himself,” she said. “He’s definitely a peer model for several students, still.”

Luis’ father knew from his own experiences in life that not all schools can fulfill the needs of each child, and he was eager to give his son the opportunity to achieve his dreams. Luis Sr. grew up attending neighborhood schools. His parents dreamed of sending him to private school, but couldn’t afford the tuition. After years of longing, though, his parents finally were able to send him to private school during his senior year of high school. That one year was a life-changing experience for Luis Sr. that he knew he wanted someday for his children.

Unfortunately it seemed that Luis Jr. and his brother Jonach would never get the chance to attend a private school and fulfill their father’s dream. But in 2002, Luis Sr. and his wife Carmen learned that the family met the qualifications for the Step Up For Students program and the boys were enrolled in a private school as Step Up scholars. Luis’ parents saw this as an opportunity to put him in a private school that would provide a challenging learning environment – something they did not feel he was receiving in his public school.

At the time, Luis Jr. was a fourth-grader who performed well at his neighborhood school. However, when he entered his new learning environment at Blue Lake Christian Academy, he rose to the academic challenges he faced and accomplished more than he ever thought he could.

“He put more effort into his schoolwork,” Luis Sr. said. “It was a challenge.”

When he was in the eighth grade, Luis Jr. transferred to Liberty Christian, where he continued to excel. By the time he was a senior, Luis Jr. was balancing classes at school with dual-enrollment at the local community college, working up to 30 hours a week at a grocery store, and playing point guard on the school’s basketball team.

Luis Jr. also was engaged in a friendly battle with another honor student for valedictorian – his girlfriend. By graduation, he had surpassed her for the top spot by .2 percentage points.

Luis Jr. said the small, family-like environments of the schools that he attended on the scholarship enabled him to build close relationships with his schoolmates and teachers and to do well academically. “(With the students), you become like brothers and sisters,” he said. “You end up being a role model because little kids are always around you, looking up to you.”

Today, Luis Jr. is studying radiology at the College of Central Florida. He looks forward to graduating from school, starting his career, and making that competitive girl from high school, his wife. It’s a life that Step Up For Students helped make possible.

About Liberty Christian Academy

Liberty Christian Academy in Tavares, Fla., was founded by the Liberty Baptist Church in 1987, and serves students from prekindergarten to 12th grade. Approximately 181 students attend Liberty Christian, 64 of whom receive Step Up For Students Scholarships. Tuition is $4,500, and Liberty Christian Academy gauges students’ progress by administering the Stanford Achievement Test (Stanford 10). Liberty Christian is accredited by the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (FACCS).


Tyla Cadore

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. 

tyla-cadore---colorIt was 2001, and Joy Worrell-Paul was running out of options to help her children in school. Her daughter Tyla Cadore, 9, was struggling with reading and her literacy skills were continuing to dwindle. Her son Ethan Cadore, 12, was outright failing math.

Joy, a mother very involved in her children’s education, knew that Tyla and Ethan needed a change or their struggles would only worsen.

Midway through the new 2001-2002 school year, Joy had had enough. Tyla, a second-grader, wasn’t reading any better than she had the previous school year and Ethan continued to do poorly as well. She explored sending Tyla and Ethan to Seacoast Christian Academy, a private school in Jacksonville that she felt could meet the learning needs of both of her children. However, the single mother quickly realized that her budget couldn’t absorb the cost.

But after hearing about Step Up For Students through a friend, Joy thought she might have a chance to make a difference for her children. Within minutes of talking with her friend, Joy was on the phone with Seacoast administrators and applying for the scholarship.

When school resumed in January 2002 following the end of winter break, Tyla and Ethan were Seacoast students. They were among the first group of students to be awarded the scholarship in its inaugural year.

After a few months, Joy could see improvement. Tyla’s teachers took her aside and worked with her one-on-one until she could read well on her grade level. Ethan, meanwhile, was grasping math concepts with ease. Joy’s bet that Seacoast’s increased personal assistance from teachers would boost Tyla and Ethan’s academic performance paid off.

The scholarship was key to Tyla and Ethan’s success, Joy said.

“It was a big help,” she said.

The Cadores “were incredible students,” said Elton Brooke, principal of Seacoast Christian Academy.

“They had to work hard but they did excellently,” he said.

In 2007, Ethan graduated in the top half of his senior class. He’s now a Marine.

Tyla attended Seacoast until 2008, when she entered eighth grade. That year, Joy remarried and the family no longer met the scholarship program’s income requirements. Tyla was homeschooled for a year and then attended her neighborhood high school as a freshman. But after a lackluster school year where she breezed through assignments, she transferred to a virtual school when she entered 10th grade.

Today, Tyla is a senior who counts math and English among her favorite subjects and regularly earns As and Bs. The future teacher, who carries a 3.5 GPA, said she’s looking forward to graduation and reviewing colleges.

Tyla said her favorite memories of Seacoast are its inviting environment and the teachers and fellow students who felt like family.

That experience would not have been possible without Step Up For Students, she said.

“(The scholarship) changed things for the better,” she said. “Knowing that I had a scholarship, I wanted to get good grades.”

About Seacoast Christian Academy

Seacoast Christian Academy began in 1991 as a small home school program housed by a local church. Over the years, the school’s rapid growth forced operators to move to another location in 1996 and open Seacoast Christian Preschool in 1998. In 2011, the school’s K-5 grades became a charter school, Seacoast Charter Academy.

Today, Seacoast Christian Academy is a 6-12 school that enrolls more than 430 students. Annual tuition is $6,000 for grade 6, $6,200 for grade 7, $6,400 for grade 8 and $6,600 for grades 9-12. Student progress is measured annually using the Terra Nova standardized test. Seacoast Christian Academy is accredited by the Association of Christian Schools International.

Mercedes Gonzalez

mercedesgonzalez-color-nlHector and Maria Gonzalez knew something was wrong midway through their daughter Mercedes’ second year at preschool. Mercedes had always been a bright and bubbly girl; now she was sullen and quiet and no longer liked going to school.  The Gonzalez’ soon learned Mercedes was being bullied by other students and her teachers had labeled her a troublemaker after defending herself.

Then her teachers delivered some grim news: There was no way Mercedes would be able to keep up academically with her peers.

The couple was  devastated, but they knew Mercedes wasn’t the problem. This school was just not a good fit for her.

Mercedes’ class work consisted mostly of coloring and not much learning. The couple immediately began looking for a new school.

“She’s smart, but the environment (at that school)…wasn’t good (for her),” said Hector, a mechanic.

On the advice of friends, Hector and Maria made an appointment to visit Beacon of Hope Christian School and talk with school founder Pastor LaVoy Newton, a familiar face the pair had often seen in the community.

As the couple toured the school, Maria, a homemaker, became certain Beacon of Hope was the perfect school for Mercedes.

“I went into a K4 class and the kids were reading,” she said. “I thought ‘wow, my kid is K5 and she’s not doing that.”

It was the school’s diverse makeup that won over Hector.

“I like that I see all races and languages, and they can respect who she is,” he said.

For Pastor Newton, it was important that Beacon of Hope be culturally and ethnically diverse.

“It’s part of the vision,” he said.

Shortly after their visit, the Gonzalez family made arrangements to transfer Mercedes to Beacon of Hope the following school year with the help of a Step Up For Students Scholarship. Pastor Newton and Principal Mary Whitfield worked with the Gonzalez family to get Mercedes ready to enter school at the same level as her peers.

When school started up again, the girl who once dreaded going to school had disappeared. By the third day, Mercedes was so comfortable at her new school she told her mother she didn’t need her to escort her to class.

Two years later, Mercedes is a top student who loves math and has lots of friends. Now in second grade, the seven-year-old is one of 63 Step Up scholars enrolled at Beacon of Hope.

Mercedes immediately noticed differences between her old school and Beacon of Hope, especially in the classroom. Hours of coloring and little instruction gave way to engaging lessons and caring teachers. Soon, Mercedes was learning how to read.

“I like it here because the teachers are nice to people and it’s fun,” she said.

Mercedes now loves school so much she gets upset when she can’t attend because of holiday breaks.“It is amazing,” Hector said. “We couldn’t do it without Step Up.”


About Beacon of Hope Christian School

Beacon of Hope Christian School was established in 1999 by Pastor LaVoy Newton and his wife Kelli. It opened in September of that year with 18 students. By 2010, Beacon of Hope had more than 100 students enrolled and had graduated its first senior class. Currently, approximately 153 students in grades K-12 attend the school. Annual tuition is $3,630. Beacon of Hope is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and Florida League of Christian Schools. The school also is accredited by the Church of God Association of Christian Schools.  Student academic progress is evaluated annually using the Stanford Achievement Test.

Danielle Stone

danielle-stone---colornlWhen Danielle Stone crosses the stage next June to collect her diploma at Miami’s Archbishop Curley Notre Dame, she’ll join an exclusive club in her family: high school graduate.

Danielle, 17, can name just three members within her immediate and extended family who’ve earned a diploma. Some years ago, Danielle wasn’t so sure she’d get the chance to finish high school either. Although a bright student who liked her teachers and got along well with classmates, Danielle found it difficult to get interested in learning throughout her elementary school years. She couldn’t get motivated in her classwork and worried too much about big tests. The result was average grades and detachment from school activities.

In sixth grade, Danielle enrolled in a charter middle school. Because the school was small, she was able to nurture relationships with her teachers who zeroed in on her learning needs and identified academic problem areas. As a result, Danielle’s motivation to do well in school improved.

More changes that would test Danielle’s mettle were ahead. The summer before her freshman year of high school, Danielle’s family moved across town. The news items that she read about her new neighborhood school included reports of violence and gangs. Danielle knew if she attended that school, she risked sliding back to being an unmotivated student or worse. Danielle’s pleas with her mother, Sharick, to let her attend the high school in her old neighborhood fell on deaf ears.

Both Danielle and her mother, Sharick, were unsure of the next step. The answer came to them while walking to their neighborhood store when they saw the sign for Archbishop Curley Notre Dame.

Sharick eventually visited the school and met with members of the administration. She liked the school but balked at enrolling Danielle because the tuition was out of reach. But she changed her mind once the family was awarded a Step Up for Students scholarship and enrolled Danielle in the school. About 97 Step Up scholars attend Archbishop Curley Notre Dame.

It’s a decision that Danielle is sure changed her life for the better. While many of her friends from her old school and neighborhood have become teen moms or have dropped out of school, Danielle is researching her top choices for college where she hopes to study veterinarian medicine.

At Archbishop Curley Notre Dame, Danielle is active on the cross country track and soccer teams. She likes the variety of classes she’s been able to take, especially a class on world religions. Mostly important, Danielle likes it that her teachers are easily accessible and know the students individually.

“I like it because it’s small,” she said. “It’s really big on family atmosphere.”

Sharick, too, likes the personalized attention Danielle receives. When Danielle was struggling in a few classes last school year, her teachers called a meeting with Sharick to discuss a plan to get Danielle back on track.

“The scholarship has been such a blessing,” Sharick said.

Danielle was irate when her family moved and she learned she wouldn’t attend the same school as her friends from the old neighborhood. Now, she’s glad she didn’t.

“I don’t think I would have finished high school,” she said. “I think I would have ended up way worse than I am now.”

About Archbishop Curley Notre Dame

A 1981 merger of Archbishop Curley High School and Notre Dame Academy, ACND is rooted in the educational traditions and charism of the Priests of the Archdiocese of St. Augustine and Miami, by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Brothers of the Holy Cross. Serving more than 300 students in grades 6 through 12, Archbishop Curley offers a college preparatory curriculum. Tuition ranges from $9,400 for grades 6-8 to $10,355 for grades 9-11. Tuition for seniors is $10,655.

Jacob Rogers

jacob-rogers---color---nlTammy Ducat will never forget the day two years ago when she and her son Jacob Rogers were attending the neighborhood school’s orientation to meet Jacob’s new teacher. Jacob, then entering fifth grade, had always looked forward to the new school year. But as the two entered his new classroom, Jacob looked around at the other students and suddenly became rigid.

After leaving the school, Jacob began to cry and pleaded with his mother to keep him home. He told her he didn’t want to go to school if it meant he would be in that class. Tammy was baffled by Jacob’s behavior and pleaded for an explanation. After some coaxing, Jacob revealed he was in the same class with boys that bullied him the previous school year.

Tammy immediately requested a meeting with school administrators, hoping that their interference would quell the bullying. But their reactions were disappointing.

“They said ‘kids will be kids’’’, Tammy said. She was assured that the bullying would cease once the boys had more time to adjust to the new school year. Tammy reluctantly agreed to keep Jacob in the class.

But as the weeks passed, the bullying continued and Jacob’s behavior dramatically changed. The once bright and outgoing youngster became sullen and withdrawn. He began displaying flashes of aggression toward his younger brother and sister. Jacob’s report card was littered with Ds and Fs.

Fed up, Tammy asked school officials to transfer her son to a different class but her request was rebuffed. The other fifth-grade classes were overcrowded, school officials said.

It wasn’t until after Jacob’s bully dangled him upside down in the restroom that school officials finally took action. Jacob’s bully was suspended for three days – and at exactly the same time as school was canceled for a coming hurricane. Tammy knew the bullying would start up again once school resumed.

Feeling helpless, Tammy contacted the local law enforcement but was told that since they weren’t called when the incident occurred, they couldn’t interfere.

It was then that Tammy decided to find a different school for Jacob. She contacted her sister, whose children attended Escambia Christian with the assistance of a Step Up For Students scholarship. After learning more about the school and the scholarship, Tammy applied and was approved for both.

Today, Jacob, 12, is a happy and well-adjusted seventh-grader at Escambia Christian School where he attends with his siblings and cousins.

Since arriving at Escambia – where he’s one of 87 Step Up scholars – Jacob is greatly respected by his peers and his grades have improved, said Principal Frank Thomann.

“He’s not the top student in his class, but he’s diligent,” he said.

Jacob, who wants to be an archaeologist, counts history and science among his favorite subjects. He likes that Escambia Christian is small and he’s made good friends.

Most importantly, he’s no longer bullied.

“It’s much more fun and they spend more time with us,” he said. “I like this school.”


About Escambia Christian School

Established in 1964, Escambia Christian School is nestled on seven acres of land on Pensacola’s west side. It serves 140 students in grades pre-K through 8. Student academic progress is evaluated annually using the Stanford Achievement Test. Annual tuition is $4,450.

Keyante Scott


Of the 11 children Dorothy Stephenson has raised – two hers and the rest relatives – all but one attended Orange County public schools.

“They did really well,’’ Dorothy said. “They all got their diplomas.’’

But niece Keyante Scott, diagnosed with a learning disability, couldn’t keep pace with her neighborhood elementary school peers – and her teachers couldn’t seem to help.

“They just kept retaining her,’’ said Dorothy, a reimbursement specialist for 4C Community Coordinated Child Care in Orlando.

When Keyante was headed into the sixth grade – and another year of struggles – her aunt searched for options. A private school with small classes and a strong academic focus seemed like the perfect solution, until Dorothy, a single parent, saw the price tag.

That’s when she discovered she could receive tuition assistance with the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, a program Step Up For Students helps administer.

After qualifying, Dorothy enrolled Keyante into Bridge to Independence, a college-preparatory private school in Orlando that accepts the scholarship.

“I liked what I saw,’’ Dorothy said.

Within the first year, the shy girl whose confidence took a nosedive in her old school became a social butterfly. Keyante’s grades also improved dramatically.

“I noticed it on the very first report card,’’ her aunt said. “I was amazed.’’

And teachers at Keyante’s new school quickly determined she didn’t have a learning disability, Dorothy said. Her niece, now 18 and a senior at Bridge to Independence, just needed more time to understand the fundamentals.

“She needed some of the basics,’’ said Theresa Smith-Givens, a science teacher and the school’s curriculum director. “The stepping stones weren’t there for her to put it together.’’

Bridge to Independence was able to give Keyante more individual attention with class sizes between six to 17 students, depending on the subject, Smith-Givens said. In addition, Keyante is eligible for Title I funding that provides students from low-income neighborhoods with extra help in reading and math.

“It was hard at first,’’ Keyante said.

But her determination and all the extras paid off with Keyante’s grade point average jumping recently from a 2.86 to about 3.2, Smith-Givens said

“Keyante has done an excellent job,’’ Smith-Givens said. “She’s stuck in there with her goals this year and stayed focused on graduation.’’

The teen also has started thinking more about life beyond high school, where her favorite classes are geometry and theater, and she serves as a mentor to younger students.

Bridge to Independence helps with that, too, Smith-Givens said, taking students on college tours and showing, by example, how to reach professional and personal goals through education.

“We (faculty and staff) post our credentials to show them this is how you get where you want to be,’’ said Smith-Givens, who has a doctorate degree. “It isn’t a fluke how you get there.’’

Keyante, who dreams of opening a hair salon someday, now plans to attend nearby Valencia College to receive her cosmetology license. On the horizon: the possibility of continuing her education and obtaining a bachelor’s degree in business.

All music to her aunt’s ears.

“I am so grateful she got this opportunity,’’ Dorothy said. Bridge to Independence “gave her incentive to succeed.’’

About Bridge to Independence

Bridge to Independence is a 13-year-old K-12 private school in Orlando with an emphasis on reading, collaboration and problem-solving to help develop the whole child. The college preparatory school offers rigorous academics, including training in the arts and sciences, as well as character education. Of the school’s 130 students, 81 are Step Up scholars. Academic achievement is measured by the Stanford 10 national assessment. Annual tuition ranges from $6,400 to $6,800, with another $500 toward bus transportation.

Shawnay Glenn

shawnayShawnay Glenn’s neighborhood school seemed like a good fit as she began her formal education.

Prekindergarten through first grade were good years for the little girl with the big smile, her mother recalled. But by second grade, there were signs of struggle.

“We started getting called in for conferences,’’ Melody Rodriguez said. “I had always heard, ‘She’s wonderful. We love her.’ ’’

But now teachers also were telling her Shawnay was having a hard time with reading and math.

So the single mom devoted more time toward sharpening Shawnay’s skills. They shared books and focused on telling stories to bolster Shawnay’s reading comprehension and memory. They practiced addition and subtraction relentlessly. Still, a third-grade state assessment showed Shawnay wasn’t improving – she was falling further behind.

“And I said to myself, ‘If she’s struggling now, in elementary school, what’s going to happen in middle school?’ ’’ Melody said. “I’ve got to see if I can turn this around.’’

Mother and daughter continued to study together. But when Shawnay started sixth grade last fall, they agreed to try something new.

Melody had heard about Sacred Heart Catholic School, a small, private school in Pinellas Park and part of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg school system. She soon learned Shawnay qualified for tuition assistance through Step Up For Students, which helps administer the means-tested Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

Everything was falling into place for Shawnay’s fresh start.

“I just knew I wanted a different direction for her,’’ Melody said. “I wanted her to be exposed to a different way of learning.’’

Melody was impressed with Sacred Heart’s friendly atmosphere and commitment to academic excellence – for every student. She found the school’s religious foundation also was appealing.

“They really understand that there are students who don’t learn the same way,’’ Melody said.

Shawnay spent a day shadowing a student at her new school, where she immediately noticed a more caring attitude among peers and staff. Students weren’t taunting each other in the halls. Teachers were funny – and supportive. Today, they are among her most vocal cheerleaders, letting her know how much time she has left when taking standardized tests and not making everything about her performance.

“There was a lot of pressure at my old school,’’ where class sizes were about double Sacred Heart’s 12 to 15 students per teacher, Shawnay said. “That’s really better for me because in a big class, I get really nervous.’’

Now she’s confident enough to raise her hand, even when she’s not sure she has the right answer. Shawnay is so comfortable at her new school, she willingly tries new things – like track.

“I’m not very good at it,’’ she said, but that isn’t keeping her from trying out for the soccer team.

She still has some catching up to do in reading and math, her mom said, but Shawnay has her eye on a career creating computer games or maybe becoming a scientist or veterinarian. Science is her favorite class.

“In science, you never stop learning,’’ she said.

Now she’s in a place where she has a good support system to help fulfill those dreams.

At Sacred Heart, more than 50 percent of middle-school students are reading at a high school level, Principal Heather Boyle said. Second-graders, who have been at the school since kindergarten, are using a phonics-based system and have gained two years of learning in one year.

The school invested in Samsung tablets and is applying for a grant to purchase Chromebooks so students can keep pace with advanced technology. There’s also an effort underway to start an early-learning program at the school.

In addition, Sacred Heart is one of five schools in the nation taking part in a pilot project through the University of Notre Dame’s prestigious ACE Academies. ACE (Alliance for Catholic Education) focuses on strengthening Catholic schools and the communities they serve through intensive academic and advancement programs.

At Sacred Heart, ACE has helped beef up the school’s reading curriculum, enrollment – even professional development – with the addition of an on-site coordinator, and teaching and learning specialists. ACE is where Boyle received her administrative training before taking the helm at Sacred Heart two years ago.

Since then, enrollment has grown 40 percent, she said, with 235 students in pre-K through eighth grade. Of those students, 137 receive the tax credit scholarship.

Shawnay is grateful to be among them.

“I think the scholarship gave me a chance …’’ she said.

About Sacred Heart Catholic School, Pinellas Park

Sacred Heart Catholic School is a small, private, pre-K through eighth grade school affiliated with a neighborhood church in Pinellas Park. Five nuns opened the school in the fall of 1959 with 50 students for three grade levels. For two decades, it continued adding grades and now serves pre-K through eighth grade. It has 235 students, 137 of whom use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The school, part of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg school system, is accredited by the Florida Catholic Conference. Students take the national Iowa Tests of Basic Skills annually. Tuition for the 2014-15 school year is $4,700.

Melody and her daughter Shawnay

Melody Rodriguez dreamed of finding a small private school for her daughter, Shawnay, to blossom academically and socially. But the single mother never realized she could afford it until she applied for the K-12 Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. The income-based program helps struggling families pay for tuition and other fees at participating private schools. Today, Shawnay is thriving in a school that truly meets her needs.

“She feels safe, she feels confident. Go for it, try it,” Melody says about applying for the scholarship. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing. You’ll see it in your kids as they grow.”