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.”

Eddie, Emily and their son Julian

Eddie and Emily Cruz rely on the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts program to help send their son, Julian, to a Montessori school for children who are deaf or, like him, hearing impaired. Julian also has cerebral palsy and other medical conditions that make him eligible for the new scholarship designed specifically for children with special needs.

“Kids with special needs need special care,” says mom Emily.

Sualba Alejandro

Ten-year-old Sualba Alejandro planted her Size 3 feet on the Faith Christian Academy stage in Orlando and tried to stay calm.

In the audience, dozens of parents, children and school administrators were on hand to recognize Step Up For Students’ Scholars of Excellence.  The event united Step Up families from throughout Central Florida and was hosted at a school that is 30 minutes from Sualba’s school of choice in Kissimmee. Sitting near the front row were Sualba’s mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, eager to see their high honor roll student receive her medallion.

“I was kind of nervous to go on stage,” Sualba said later. “But I felt happy.”

So did her mother.

“It was like a fairy tale for me,” said Sualba Guerrero, a supermarket bookkeeper who has an older son with special needs.

She never dreamed she could afford to send her daughter to private school and, thanks to an A-rated district elementary school in Orlando, she never worried about it. But after Sualba completed third grade, the family moved to a neighborhood in Kissimmee where Guerrero believed the school wouldn’t be a good fit for Sualba, described by former teachers as gifted.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m not putting her there,’ ” said Guerrero, who spent her summer searching for other options.

One day at the doctor’s office, Guerrero saw a sign about Step Up For Students and its K-12 scholarship program. She went home and Googled the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, learning it helps pay for private school tuition and other fees. After studying the eligibility rules, she applied. A few weeks later, an acceptance letter arrived.

“I was jumping up and down!” Guerrero said.

But there was more work to do. Guerrero, who has college degrees in technology and communications from her native Ecuador, researched all the schools in her area accepting the Step Up scholarship. Armed with a list of her top 10 picks, she set out to find the one.

Trinity Lutheran School in Kissimmee was No. 11. Guerrero couldn’t locate the school during an earlier trip and had moved it down her list. That day, though, she somehow found it. Trinity’s school leaders and students eagerly welcomed Guerrero, who was impressed with the congenial atmosphere.

Still, she went home and did even more research just to be certain. Trinity Lutheran is a 34-year-old school affiliated with a church that began more than a half-century ago in a sleepy little town near Walt Disney World.

The school has managed to keep its small-town charm, though. There are 150 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, Principal Sheila Miles said. Of those, 70 percent are Step Up scholars.

“This has been our biggest year, yet,” said Miles, who has worked at the school for six years – two years as principal.

School curriculum follows the Sunshine State Standards. Students take the national Stanford 10 assessment annually. They have a technology lab and P.E. twice a week. There’s art, music and Spanish. Middle-schoolers get to participate in the Junior Achievement program.

“It’s a new challenge for them,” Miles said. “We are getting them ready to look at what they can do beyond school.”

Class sizes average about 15 students to one teacher. Sualba, who enrolled in the school as a fourth-grader, has 12 students in her entire fifth-grade class this year.

“We’re one big family, so we work together and we know all of our students,” Miles said.

During the recent Step Up awards ceremony, where students on the scholarship received an award for academic achievement, the principal described Sualba as “small in stature but huge in presence.” She takes advantage of every sport offered at Trinity, including basketball, badminton and soccer – where “she doesn’t take any prisoners,” Miles joked.

Sualba wants to try everything. And there’s a good reason. Sualba’s big brother, Adrian, can’t do a lot of the things he wants because he has cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus and other disabilities stemming from being born premature, his mother said.

“She is like the older sister,” Guerrero said. “She brings him the wheelchair. She brings the medicine. She tries to include him in everything. And she’s always taking care of him.”

It also may be why Sualba wants to be a doctor – perhaps an ophthalmologist, but definitely someone who always is helping others.

She may be tiny, her mother said, but Sualba’s heart is mighty.

About Trinity Lutheran School, Kissimmee, FL

In 1981, Trinity Lutheran Church members expanded their ministry to include a private school. Today, Trinity Lutheran School is a pre-K through 8th grade school accredited by the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod through their National Lutheran Schools Accreditation Program. Of the 150 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, 105 are Step Up scholars. Academic growth is measured annually by the national Stanford Achievement Test 10. K-8 tuition for the 2015-16 school year ranges from $5,485 to $5,750.

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