By GEOFF FOX
In a middle school science room at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic hangs a quote from Albert Einstein: “You never fail until you stop trying.”
Another poster says, “Everyone is welcome here. Everyone belongs.”
Around teacher Barbara Schirard’s classroom are other posters showing the Periodic Table of Elements and the Earth’s solar system. On a recent fall day, the class was in the middle of a biology lesson.
“What is an internal stimulus?” Schirard asked.
“Feelings of hunger,” a student said.
“What is an external stimulus?” Schirard asked.
The class was quiet for a few moments.
“Remember when I dropped a book and it made you all flinch?” Schirard said. “That’s an external stimulus.”
The students at the Orlando, Florida, school nodded.
Principal Nathan Nadeau smiled as he watched.
“We’re a very good, diverse school,” Nadeau said. “You look at the population of Orlando and we’re a pretty good mirror (of the demographics). We have rich, not-so-rich and middle-class students. We have Vietnamese, Hispanic, African-American and white students.”
Of the 330 students at St. Charles Borromeo, 111 are on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income families, while five students are on the Gardiner Scholarship program for students with certain special needs. Both scholarship programs are managed by Step Up For Students.
The school shares a 20-acre tract with Bishop Moore Catholic School, a private high school where about 85 percent of St. Charles Borromeo graduates attend, and Morning Star Catholic School, which serves students with special needs. The campuses surround St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church located along the picturesque southwest shore of Little Lake Fairview.
According to Nadeau, the atmosphere is so inclusive that some students at St. Charles Borromeo elect to have physical education classes with their peers at Morning Star.
“They’re like a big community,” said Linda Caldwell, a marketing director in the Diocese of Orlando’s Office of Catholic Schools. “What I like is the diversity, all sorts of different kids add to the richness” of the environment.
“Nathan’s wonderful,” Caldwell said. “You can tell he loves the children. He is a very strong principal and doing tremendous work.”
In Holly Tulbert’s middle school English and language arts classroom, vocabulary words are written on a white board: desert, hover, wrath, envy and kleptomaniac. A sign on an adjacent wall reminds students that nouns are “words that names, persons, places and things,” while adjectives “describe nouns and pronouns.”
Still, the classroom is decorated to inspire teenage students.
In a corner stands a large cardboard cutout figure of Legolas, the expert archer from “Lord of the Rings.”
Outside the middle school building on this day, students spent their recess playing soccer in the grass and basketball on an outdoor court. Nearby, a group of students jumped rope.
“Ready, set – jump!” called one girl as another leapt between whirling ropes.
Besides its thriving academic environment, the school has basketball, soccer, track, volleyball and flag football teams that participate in the Catholic Youth League organized by the Diocese of Orlando.
At St. Charles there are 24 classrooms, 20 teachers and 40 employees. This year, 110 new students enrolled at St. Charles, an 11 percent increase over 2016-17.
“There’s a perception that when families come here, nobody pays tuition,” Nadeau said. “But we hold them to the fire to pay (the balance of FTC or Gardiner scholarships) – even if it’s $50 a month. Everybody here has a buy-in or a stake.”
That includes Nadeau, 36, principal at St. Charles since 2014.
One of the school’s five Gardiner scholars is his son Dominic, a 10-year-old fifth-grader. Nadeau’s daughters, Olivia, 8, a third-grader, and Clare, a 4-year-old preschooler, also attend St. Charles Borromeo. Olivia and Clare do not receive scholarships. Nadeau’s wife Mariana Nadeau teaches chemistry at Bishop Moore.
Nadeau’s experience as a father of a child with special needs “gives him a better understanding of what families need,” Caldwell said.
Dominic was medically diagnosed on the autism spectrum at age 5.
“He couldn’t talk at a year and a half, not one single word,” Nadeau said of Dominic. “Everyone tells you he’s fine, but you have to trust your gut. We got him into language therapy. He still gets language therapy twice a week, through Gardiner. He also learns social skills through camps at the YMCA. There are therapists there who work with small groups of kids at the camp, and (the therapy) is also covered by Gardiner.
“An autistic kid can do anything, but they have to be taught,” he said. “You have to teach them about things like personal space.”
While there are relatively few students with special needs at the school, parent Alfredo Ortiz said other students seem to understand they are not all alike and there are no issues with bullies. His son, Christian, a fourth-grader, is also on the autism spectrum and receives a Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up.
“The scholarship has been amazing,” Ortiz said. “Our son has some challenges, but the school has been accommodating and encouraging, but challenging at the same time. He’s been there since the middle of first grade. He was at another Catholic school, but we felt he needed a fresh start at a school that would understand his needs.
“It’s been night and day,” he said. “We’ve been so blessed. The atmosphere at the school is amazing. They’re very disciplined. The teachers are professionals and dedicated.”
Ortiz said Christian was previously bullied at a different Catholic school, but that ended at St. Charles Borromeo.
“Christian is a child with challenges and sometimes he reacts differently than the others,” Ortiz said. “When they do a fire drill he might get rattled with all the noise, but the kids and teachers work well with him. When they go on field trips they’re always looking out for him.
“They encourage him and his social skills have developed tremendously. He’s very funny and outspoken, and they gravitate toward him. When he needs his space, they give him his space. The administrators are willing to accommodate the school to the needs of the students, not the other way around.”
Geoff Fox can be reached at email@example.com.
By PAUL SOOST
Dairyland Auto® and Dairyland Cycle® today announced a $500,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program – five times the amount they donated for the 2016-17 school year.
“We are proud to support Florida families through our participation in the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program. We are pleased to be increasing our contribution five-fold this year so that we can benefit more students statewide,” said Pete Anhalt, president of Dairyland Insurance Company. “We look forward to seeing the future achievements of these students.”
This marks the second year that Dairyland Insurance Company, a member of the Sentry Insurance Group of companies, has supported the scholarship program. This year’s contribution will fund more than 75 scholarships in the 2017-18 school year. Since joining Step Up as a corporate partner in 2016, the company has contributed $600,000, the equivalent of 93 scholarships.
Step Up For Students helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which allows recipients to choose between a scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.
“On behalf of Step Up and the families we serve, we thank Dairyland Auto and Dairyland Cycle for their continued support,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “Without our donors help, we would not be able to continue to grow the scholarship program. Because of them, more Florida schoolchildren will be able to attend the school that best meets their learning needs.”
For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for K-5th grade, $6,631 for 6th-8th grade and $6,920 for 9th-12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
About Step Up For Students
Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Students who qualify for the national free or reduced-price lunch, or those who are homeless or in foster or out-of-home care, may qualify. The scholarship provides tuition assistance to the private school of their parents’ choice or financial assistance to offset the transportation cost to an out-of-district public school. Since 2001, Step Up has awarded more than 680,000 scholarships.
Step Up also helps administer state-funded Gardiner Scholarship for Florida students with certain special needs. With the Gardiner Scholarship, recipients may use the funds for a variety of approved services including private tutoring, occupational therapy, instructional materials and other services.
For more information, visit: www.StepUpForStudents.org.
About Dairyland Auto® and Dairyland Cycle®
Dairyland provides affordable rates on auto insurance and motorcycle insurance, with multiple coverage options, money-saving discounts, and experienced customer service to help meet your needs. For more information, visit www.dairylandinsurance.com.
Dairyland Auto® and Dairyland Cycle® property and casualty coverages are underwritten by a member of the Sentry Insurance Group, Stevens Point, WI. For a complete listing of companies, visit DairylandInsurance.com. In Texas, coverages are underwritten by Dairyland County Mutual Insurance Company of Texas, Austin, TX. In California, coverages are underwritten by Viking Insurance Company of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, WI. Policies, coverages, benefits, and discounts are not available in all states. Savings based upon all available discounts. See your policy for complete coverage details.
By PAUL SOOST
AutoNation, Inc. (NYSE: AN), America’s largest automotive retailer, announced Tuesday a $3 million contribution to Step Up For Students. The funding will provide as many as 459 K-12 scholarships for the 2017-18 school year, allowing lower-income children in Broward and Miami-Dade Counties to attend the school that best meets their learning needs.
This is the second year that AutoNation has partnered with Step Up For Students, bringing its total to $6 million in support.
In celebration of the scholarship contribution, AutoNation associates collected backpacks filled with school supplies. The backpacks were presented to Kelly Lonstein, Headmistress of Fort Lauderdale Preparatory School, a participating school in the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program. More than 50 percent of the students attending Fort Lauderdale Preparatory School are recipients of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is managed by Step Up For Students.
Recently selected by Forbes Magazine as one of America’s “100 Best Corporate Citizens”, AutoNation takes great pride in supporting initiatives that focus on the well-being of their communities. “We are gratified to know that our investment in Florida’s youth through Step Up For Students will help hundreds of deserving children reach their academic goals,” said Cheryl Miller, AutoNation’s Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice President.
Step Up For Students helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships to qualified lower-income families throughout Florida. Scholarships are funded by corporations that receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for their contributions. The program allows recipients to choose between a scholarship to help with private school tuition and fees, or a transportation scholarship to attend an out-of-district public school.
“We are thrilled that corporate partners like AutoNation continue to support Step Up For Students and their commitment to making a difference in the community,” said Anne White, Step Up For Students chief operating officer. “Thanks to their generosity, more Florida families will have options for their children.”
For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students will serve more than 102,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at an average of $6,330 per student. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
About AutoNation, Inc.
AutoNation, America’s largest automotive retailer, through its bold leadership, innovation and its comprehensive brand extensions, is transforming the automotive industry. As of June 30, 2017, AutoNation owned and operated 364 new vehicle franchises from coast to coast. AutoNation has sold over 11 million vehicles, the first automotive retailer to reach this milestone. AutoNation’s success is driven by a commitment to delivering a peerless experience through customer-focused sales and service processes. Through its Drive Pink initiative, AutoNation is committed to drive out cancer, create awareness and support critical research. AutoNation continues to be a proud supporter of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and other cancer-related charities.
Please visit investors.autonation.com, www.autonation.com, www.autonationdrive.com, www.twitter.com/autonation, www.twitter.com/CEOMikeJackson, www.facebook.com/autonation, and www.facebook.com/CEOMikeJackson, where AutoNation discloses additional information about the Company, its business, and its results of operations.
About Step Up For Students
Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Students who qualify for the national free or reduced-price lunch program, or those who are homeless or in foster or out-of-home care, may qualify. The scholarship program provides tuition assistance to the private school of their parents’ choice or financial assistance to offset the transportation cost to an out-of-district public school. Since 2001, Step Up has awarded nearly 580,000 scholarships.
Step Up also helps administer the state-funded Gardiner Scholarship Program for Florida students with certain special needs. With the Gardiner Scholarship, recipients may use the funds for a variety of approved services including private tutoring, occupational therapy, instructional materials and other services.
For more information, visit: www.StepUpForStudents.org.
Keaton Wall is the youngest worker in Step Up For Students’ Clearwater office, but he may also be the most indispensable.
As a IT Support Specialist and the essential one-stop-shop for any co-worker with a technical issue, Wall, 21, is the man who keeps the wires plugged in at Step Up.
And he seems to possess an old soul to complement his technological gifts.
“I am a big geek when it comes to hardware and understanding how a system is running,” Wall says in his unique, fast-paced cadence. “With network administration, I can still deal with hardware-type stuff but on a larger scale. And it allows me to help people, which I enjoy, but once again, on a larger scale than just say a computer technician.”
Wall is the son of Bryan Wall, of Nottingham, England, a former Hollywood set designer, and mother, Cheryl Wall, of Long Island, New York. He has half-siblings over 15 years older than he and his younger sister.
His father’s work put him in touch with technology and computers from a young age – and even inspired his name. He is named in honor of movie star Michael Keaton, who became friends with Bryan Wall when they worked on the original “Batman” film. They bonded over a shared interest in ancient British history.
“I got into artwork on computers and wanted to know how they worked,” Bryan Wall says in a friendly British accent, speaking on a layover between flights at his current job as a corporate trainer for AutoNation. “Keaton and I built computers together. He really got into the technical side of things when friends and neighbors had repair issues. He dove in deep, learned how to build them from scratch, and took it to the next level when he went to school, with programming and such.”
That next level began when Keaton Wall applied for the Career Academy of Information at Northeast High School in St. Petersburg. He attended there for two years until he decided that waking up at 4 a.m. to catch a 5 a.m. bus to attend 7 a.m. classes was too much of a burden.
He switched schools, and graduated from Clearwater High School while dual enrolled at St. Petersburg College. He earned his diploma with a semester and a half of college already completed.
“When I graduated high school, I was not completely certain where I wanted to go, since most universities all have generic ‘computer science’ degrees, which all focus mainly on programming, which I hate,” Keaton Wall says.
Armed with an associate’s degree, he is still enrolled at SPC. He has earned certificates for computer support, Microsoft server administration, and Linux system administration. He is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in technology development and management, with a minor in project management.
He spends his free time like many young men – hanging out with his friends, playing video games and strumming his guitar. When it comes to music, he is able to sing both the most intense heavy metal songs in an unrecognizable ragged voice, and strum acoustic, improvised melodies often focused on his angst with the opposite sex.
He went into full geek mode during a recent employee luncheon in the Step Up offices, when he brought out a virtual-reality headset and helped a half-dozen of his co-workers explore the future of gaming.
He never fails to leave an impression.
“Keaton is a problem solver, always in good spirits and is well-versed in hardware,” says Rebeca Figueroa, a project manager at Step Up, who shares a cubicle wall with Keaton. “He’s always assisting me with my computer needs and has provided great guidance. He’s an old soul.
“Keaton is a lot more mature than I’ve seen a 21-year-old be. He’s grounded, knows what he wants, has a great profession and is very stable for his age. He writes music, listens with intent and never judges a situation. These qualities show not only a well-rounded individual, but one that has been around enough to have experience in life.”
He may also have a wandering spirit. The way he sees it, it’s only a matter of time before he leaves the sunny shores of Pinellas County for the bright lights of New York.
“New York is just so alive and energetic, and it’s very modern. It’s a massive city filled with everything,” he says. “It draws me to it because I am very energetic. I like how big it is and how it makes me feel so small. I can be anything there that I can put my mind to. There’s also not a palm tree in sight, which makes me happy.”
Until then, he remains a vital cog in the wheel of Step Up’s Clearwater operations. Some may find that remarkable, but it’s no surprise to his family.
“We are all just so proud of him,” Bryan Wall says. “He was never a trouble growing up, always had great friends. We are so proud to see what he’s a part of at such a young age.”
Step Up is a state-approved nonprofit scholarship funding organization that helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC), which provides K-12 scholarships legislatively and related support to give disadvantaged families the freedom to choose the best learning options for their children. For the 2015-16 school year, Step Up is serving nearly 78,000 in more than 1,500 private schools throughout the state.
“The most impactful way to improve a child’s life and future is through education. IBERIABANK Corporation first partnered with Step Up For Students in 2015 with a $1.5 million contribution,” said Daryl G. Byrd, president and CEO of IBERIABANK Corporation. “We are proud to share that over the last two years, our donation has helped provide 583 scholarships for low-income Florida students.”
“We are grateful for the generosity of our donors, and for their commitment to help provide Florida families the opportunity to choose the educational environment that best suits their children’s needs,” said Doug Tuthill, president for Step Up For Students. “IBERIABANK is a wonderful partner and we are thankful for their continued support in making dreams come true for families across the state.”
IBERIABANK Corporation is a financial holding company with 298 combined offices, including 198 bank branch offices and three loan production offices in Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, Florida, and Georgia, 22 title insurance offices in Arkansas and Louisiana, and mortgage representatives in 65 locations in 10 states. The Company has eight locations with representatives of IBERIA Wealth Advisors in four states, and one IBERIA Capital Partners, L.L.C. office in New Orleans. Iberia Financial Services, LLC is a wholly owned subsidiary of IBERIABANK and has 22 registered offices with representatives in seven states. Follow IBERIABANK on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.
About Step Up For Students
Step Up For Students is a 501(c) 3 that helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Students who qualify for free-or reduced-price lunch, or those who are homeless or in foster or out-of-home care may qualify. Since 2001, Step Up has awarded more than 479,000 scholarships.
Step Up also helps administer the state-funded Gardiner Scholarship (formerly called Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts) for Florida students with certain special needs. With the Gardiner Scholarship, recipients may use the funds for a variety of approved services including private tutoring, occupational therapy, instructional materials and other services.
For more information, visit: http://www.StepUpForStudents.org
So with their family-owned radio station back on solid ground, the couple decided not to reapply for the tuition assistance that helped keep their son, Derek, enrolled at Trinitas Christian School in Pensacola since kindergarten.
“Things were turning around for us, financially,’’ Lisa said.
But shortly after Derek began his sophomore year in 2011, his father, who managed the radio station, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He died three months later.
“Everything went upside down,’’ recalled Lisa, who works as a special events coordinator at the small private school that graduated her two older sons (who weren’t on scholarship).
While the new widow struggled emotionally, she also faced growing financial challenges that threatened Derek’s future at Trinitas.
“We thought we were going to have to change schools, and I would have to change jobs,’’ said Lisa, who knew her school would try to help – but she didn’t want to create a hardship for them.
Instead, Derek was able to regain the scholarship and remain in the school where teachers and students are like a second family. He received his diploma in May with 13 other seniors, many of whom he had known since he was 5.
With all the turmoil in his life, “this definitely made a very huge difference,’’ said Derek, now 18. “Staying in that school would have been the decision I would have wanted to make and with (Step Up’s) help, I was able to stay to the end. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gotten the full experience of Trinitas.’’
And it was the experience of a lifetime, said Derek, who, with a 3.6 GPA, was elected to the National Honor Society his senior year.
He immersed himself in the school’s classical Christian teachings that blend traditional courses, such as English, math and history, with the Bible through the trivium – a systematic method of learning relying on logic and rhetoric to help promote critical thinking.
For instance, students study Plato and Aristotle to understand the mechanics of a good debate.
But there still was plenty of time for sports, like soccer, where Derek started off on the bench.
“We were young and small,’’ he said. “And we lost all of our games.’’
But the “sweeper’’ and the rest of his teammates got better, he said, prompting Derek to try basketball. But a professional sports career probably isn’t the path Derek will pursue. Instead, the family’s musical roots keep calling.
His grandfather, Gerald “Papa Don” Schroeder, is a former record producer, radio personality, singer and songwriter who still owns WPNN AM 790 in Pensacola. He produced hit singles in the ‘60s and ‘70s by R&B performers.
“I sing in the shower,’’ joked Derek, whose uncle runs the station now.
Derek plays the piano, having taken lessons as a child. He likes the idea of doing something in the music field, but for now he’s finishing out the summer working at the lawn care business he started with his brothers and helping coach soccer at Trinitas.
In the fall, Derek begins his freshman year at the liberal arts school, New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho.
“It will be hard to leave,’’ Derek said. “I’m sure I’ll be homesick.’’
But he’s traveling with two Trinitas classmates and joining another school family from Florida already attending St. Andrews.
“I’ll have instant friends,’’ Derek said.
Trinitas Christian School is a nondenominational K-12 school that teaches in the classical tradition, coordinating lessons with the stages of child development. Instruction is focused largely on the development of critical thinking skills with an emphasis on logic and rhetoric. Students study Latin and read the classics. Of the 187 students enrolled in 2013-14, 35 were Step Up scholars. Academic achievement is measured by the Comprehensive Testing Program (CTP). Trinitas is accredited by the Association of Classical Christian Schools (ACCS) and Christian Schools of Florida.
She also liked that the Palm Coast school, where her daughter, Killian, attends preschool and starts kindergarten in the fall, offered a strong academic program.
“It’s an embracing, family-type of environment,’’ said Korkes, who noted features, such as security cameras, and varied school activities like soccer, chorus, music and cheerleading. “I love Christ the King.’’
What made it even better for her was that Christ the King is a Lutheran school, where 20 percent of students and their families, like the Korkeses, practice the faith.
“So that was a double-plus,’’ she said.
Another bonus: The family qualified for a Step Up For Students scholarship which will cover all but $600 of the school’s annual tuition – $5,880 in 2014-15.
“We have to pay a minimum,’’ said Korkes, a part-time hospice nurse whose husband, Brett, works at a local Steak ’n Shake. “But if it wasn’t for the Step Up program, I don’t know what we would have done. We didn’t have a back-up plan.’’
Christ the King leaders require families pay a portion of tuition “because we want them to be stakeholders,’’ said Principal Jeff Loberger, a longtime private school principal who came to Florida two years ago from Omaha, NE. “We want them to be connected to teachers.’’
And now to the campus. The school doesn’t offer transportation services because, “I want parents to be on campus every day,’’ Loberger said. “We offer online grading so they can see immediately how their children are doing. My goal is to never have a parent say, ‘I didn’t know that was happening.’ ’’
Christ the King parents are active volunteers and fundraisers, collecting dollars with their kids to help pay for events like school field trips, known as Discover America Trips. Students travel to cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C., with at least one college campus visit on the itinerary. But they have to earn the privilege to participate by maintaining good grades, attendance and behavior.
It’s all part of a complete education, Loberger said.
Parents also are at the heart of the school’s growth. The private school was founded by Pastor Phil Huebner, who started the church in his living room. A year later, he saw a need for more educational opportunities.
The tight-knit congregation had few options when it came to school choice in rural Flagler County, and even fewer opportunities to attend a school devoted to their faith. So Christ the King started a preschool and rented space from the school district to accommodate a handful of students.
As the church grew, congregants raised enough money for a new building and took the school with them. The following year, working moms and dads in the community pleaded with Huebner to add more children and, by 2010, those same parents successfully lobbied for a kindergarten class.
Today, demand continues to drive growth at Christ the King Lutheran School. Students in pre-K through eighth grade are housed in a modular building on church grounds. In 2013-14, there were 235 boys and girls enrolled. Future plans call for a $10 million new facility with a gym and cafeteria, and – to the relief of many Christ the King parents – all four levels of high school.
Filling those extra seats shouldn’t be difficult – usually all it takes is another parent’s referral and a school tour, Loberger said.
“It’s word of mouth, word of mouth, word of mouth,’’ he said. “You’re going to come in and you’re going to see it and you’re not going to want to leave it.’’
About Christ the King Lutheran School
Christ the King Lutheran School is a faith-based school in Palm Coast with 235 students in pre-K through eighth grade enrolled in 2013-14; of those eligible, 40 percent were Step Up scholars. Students participate in the Individualized Push Curriculum, which allows students to learn at their own pace. Academic gains are measured annually by the Stanford 10 test. Students get to choose extra-curricular activities such as chorus, music, cheerleading and/or soccer. And they participate in field trips to destinations such as Washington, D.C., and Chicago for additional learning experiences.
Denisha Merriweather attended Esprit de Corps Center for Learning in Jacksonville with help from a Step Up For Students scholarship, and graduated in 2010. Upon her graduation from the University of West Florida in May 2014, the American Federation for Children created this video of her story to share at its National Policy Summit to showcase how having educational options can make a difference in child’s life.
See what Denisha has to say about the difference educational choice made in her life.
Mario had started hanging out with the wrong crowd, Kenia said. And he wasn’t making good grades at his neighborhood school, and he refused to do his classwork. Then came the arguments with his teachers. Back at home, the family was going through a turbulent period, too. Kenia had divorced Mario’s father and began working two jobs.
Then the family faced another difficult situation. In March 2012, someone broke into their home in Winter Garden and stole Mario’s videogame system. Another break-in followed that same week, and this time, the intruders took several of the family’s belongings, including TVs, laptops, computers and all of Mario’s video games. Kenia and Mario suspect the culprits were people he knew.
“I took it as a big blow,” Mario said. “I kind of screwed up.”
Kenia, the mother of three, said she told Mario she didn’t want him to become like some of the people he was hanging out with.
“I don’t want you to be like that,” she remembers telling Mario. “I want you to be someone good.”
Kenia knew she had to do something to change Mario’s life. She quit one of her jobs so she could be home more to make sure he wasn’t hanging out with the wrong crowd, she said.
She turned to the Step Up For Students Scholarship and applied for Mario. In 10th grade, he enrolled at Bishop Moore Catholic High School, a private school in Orlando, with the help of a scholarship for the 2012-13 school year. Mario has loved playing football since he was in middle school and his mother told him he would have the opportunity to play at his new school.
Still, his career at Bishop Moore started out rough. He had been a B-C student in his neighborhood school and was placed on academic probation after enrolling in Bishop Moore.
“Mario came to Bishop Moore with little understanding of how intelligent and capable he truly is,” Mario’s guidance counselor, Eric Hennes, wrote in an e-mail. “His lack of motivation and minimal appreciation for a good education contributed to a high degree of apathy.”
Mario’s academic-watch contract required him to have meetings with his guidance counselor throughout the year. They talked about everything from grades to family life and goals. His behavior began to improve. Mario’s teachers and guidance counselor were then able to see his potential and push him academically, Hennes said.
“Not only did he start realizing his potential, but his grades improved … so much so that it was almost a point and one-half (increase in GPA),” Hennes said. “Difficult to achieve for any student.”
Mario said he also benefited from having a new set of classmates. There are a lot of good students at Bishop Moore, Mario said, and they positively affected him academically.
Kenia agrees. “They’re much better influences on my son’s life,” she said.
Kenia said she’s proud of her son and that he wants to go college. She said the staff at Bishop Moore cares about students there. She is kept updated on Mario’s experience.
“They believe in the kids,” she said
Kenia is applying for a Step Up scholarship for her youngest daughter Gabriella to attend St. Charles School, right next to Bishop Moore. Gabriella, who is entering the sixth grade, had been a Step Up scholar in kindergarten and first grade, but had stopped receiving the scholarship due to changes in the family’s financial situation.
As for Mario, he has two professional goals: He wants to play football and he wants to be an engineer. Now in his junior year, he said he has a 4.0 GPA. He loves math because he’s good at it. He played defensive tackle on Bishop Moore’s football team. He is interested in attending University of Central Florida, University of Florida, University of Miami, Florida International University or the University of Notre Dame.
“Bishop Moore really changed me,” Mario said. “Bishop Moore would be a perfect place for anyone to restart your life.”
Hennes, found Mario’s changes remarkable. “Mario is now a Bishop Moore athlete who knows how to balance grades and sports, excelling in both. He is mature, responsible, accountable, serious about his future and goal-oriented. Of my eight years as a school guidance counselor, I have never seen such turn-around and maturation in one student.”
About Bishop Moore Catholic High School
Bishop Moore is a private Catholic school in Orlando and has been in operation for more than 60 years. It currently has 1,140 students, 33 of whom are Step Up scholars. It earned accreditation from AdvancED. The school offers college prep courses, and 99 percent of students enter college. It offers more than 50 clubs and activities, 50 sports teams and a campus ministry. Tuition for the 2013-14 school year is $13,380. The school uses the PSAT to measure annual academic gains.
Due to complications with her birth in 2006, Sophia Brown was in need of intensive medical care after entering the world. She almost died, said her mother Stephanie Vitale Brown, and was in the hospital for three weeks, requiring breathing assistance while there.
She was diagnosed with hypotonia, or low muscle tone, and strabismus, more commonly known as crossed eyes. Sophia’s conditions have resulted in her having trouble with her eyesight, strength and motor skills, and it prevented her from walking until she was 22 months old. Stephanie worked closely with various specialists to help Sophia with everything from physical to speech issues.
When it came time for Sophia to start her formal education, Stephanie dreaded enrolling her in their neighborhood school. She was concerned she would get lost in the large class sizes and worried she wouldn’t keep up with the other children. She can’t run as fast as other kids, is clumsy and falls a lot and has trouble walking up stairs, Stephanie said.
Her mother wanted another option for her daughter. Enrolling her in Morningside Academy, a private school in Port St. Lucie, was an attractive prospect in part because Stephanie already had a relationship with the school. Sophia’s older sister, Gianna, now 12 and in the seventh grade, has attended Morningside since pre-kindergarten. In addition, Stephanie and her family had also attended the affiliated Morningside Church for about a decade.
Stephanie was attending college herself when Sophia was entering school. She has been studying nursing and is currently unemployed so she can go to school and care for her children. Her husband, Mark Brown, works in construction.
“I would not have been able to afford to send her to Morningside,” Stephanie said.
Stephanie said she learned about the Step Up For Students Scholarship through Morningside because staff there knew the family was having financial problems. Stephanie applied for the scholarship and got it for Sophia. For several years, Stephanie and Mark were able to pay for Gianna’s tuition, but now that they are struggling financially even more, Gianna doesn’t qualify for the scholarship program because of the law requiring Step Up Scholarship recipients to attend public school the year before being eligible for sixth-12th grades.
Sophia started at Morningside as a kindergartener during the 2011-12 school year, and her challenges were immediately addressed. She couldn’t reach the soap dispenser or open the bathroom door in kindergarten because she was too short and not strong enough. So her kindergarten teacher put a stool up to the sink so she could reach it and bought an extra soap dispenser she could easily reach as well. Someone was assigned to help her open the bathroom door.
Sophia also participates in Morningside’s award-wining music program playing the violin, and other students help her by carrying her instrument.
Stephanie said Sophia, who is now 7 and in second grade, is getting the attention she needs at Morningside. It puts her mother’s mind at ease.
“It doesn’t even feel like I’m sending her to school,” Stephanie said. “It feels like I’m sending her to be with family.”
Sophia has flourished academically at Morningside. Stephanie said she is very smart and likes to read, and that her reading is advanced. She has made the honor roll and principal’s honor roll and was named Student of the Month in September 2013. She has needed minimal help from her mother to receive straight A’s, and Stephanie credits the school for that.
Laurie Gagne taught both Sophia and her sister in kindergarten. She remembers seeing Sophia blossom to the point where she was able to climb the stairs at a talent show and display a piece of art to the audience. Gagne said she’s proud to work for a school where teachers pay attention not only to their students’ academic growth but their spiritual development.
“They truly care so much about the child,” she said.
Morningside Academy is a private Christian school on Florida’s Treasure Coast and serves students in pre-kindergarten-12th grade. It was founded in 1987 and is accredited by the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools and it uses the Stanford Achievement Test to measure academic success. For the 2013-2014 school year, tuition rates vary with grade level of the student and begin as low as $484 per month. It currently serves 450 students of whom about 89 are Step Up scholars. The average class size is about 20 students, although that varies for Morningside’s middle and upper schools. It has a highly regarded arts program with three award-winning orchestras, and the kids regularly go to competitions.