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Gilbert Brothers

xrdpcrmyImagine coming home to discover your house was foreclosed on.

Beverly Gilbert doesn’t have to imagine. That was the reality she faced in April 2011.

She came home with her two sons, Ulysees III and Uriah, before a football practice to find a foreclosed sign in the yard of her house in Ocala. Since she wasn’t the person responsible for handling all of the household finances, she was unaware this was in the works.

“That was a real shock,” Beverly said.

Family belongings had been moved out of the house and into the yard. As a result, Beverly and her two children moved elsewhere in Ocala.

That year continued to be a rollercoaster ride.

In the summer of 2011, Beverly was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent a mastectomy on her left side that fall, and is now cancer-free. The day after Beverly’s surgery, her youngest son Uriah, underwent his own surgery. Years before, he had crashed into an oak tree while driving a four-wheeler. He fractured his head and broke his nose, requiring intensive care. He recovered, but needed surgery in 2011 to remove some debris from the incident embedded under his chin.

Changes continued for the Gilbert family as Beverly formally separated from her husband that September.

The only positive thing in her eldest son, Ulysees’ life, at the time, was his experience at Trinity Catholic High in Ocala which lent some stability during a very unpredictable chapter in his life.  He was enrolled in the ninth grade and played football. He would take his little brother to games and practices. He made new friends there.

Because of the separation, Beverly, a second grade teacher in the public school system, was now confronted with how to pay for Ulysees’ education. She was able to work with the school to keep him enrolled.

“Trinity bent over backward to make it easy for him to stay there,” his mother said.

But she now was left with figuring out how to pay for Uriah’s tuition. She called herself the “New Poor in America,” meaning someone who works every day and has a decent job but can’t afford anything, such as a new car or replacement car parts.

She had applied for the Step Up Scholarship for Ulysees in the past, but said she was denied because her household income exceeded the qualifying guidelines.  Ulysees completed 8th grade in public school and enrolled into Trinity for ninth grade, in the 2011-12 school year.

She decided to apply again for Step Up, but this time for Uriah.  And she was met with success.

“It was a very emotional moment when they sent me the letter saying that he was approved,” she said.

Beverly enrolled Uriah at Trinity Catholic at the start of the 2012-13 school year with the help from the Step Up scholarship when he was in the eighth grade.

Uriah was at first reluctant to go to Trinity. He wanted to follow his friends into neighborhood high school.

But Beverly says he’s blended in quite well at the new school. He’s rising to meet the school’s rigid expectations, Beverly said. He went from being a B-C student in middle school to being an A-B-C student. Being in a college “prep school” allows students to spread their wings.  She likes that it’s a close-knit school. Coaches have even had her children over to their homes for dinner.

Uriah likes playing football, and Trinity Catholic makes it clear that student athletes have to maintain good grades, Beverly said.

“He is Johnny-on-it,” as far as his schoolwork is concerned, his mother said.

Uriah’s coaches told him that if he worked hard enough, he could make the varsity team as a freshman. He did.

Associate head football coach Justin Wentworth said Uriah, who plays defensive tackle, is one of only three freshman on the varsity team and has played four varsity games. He said the head football coach expects players to maintain at least a 2.5 GPA to stay on the team. Practice doesn’t begin until 90 minutes after school ends to give students time for more assistance with academics.

“(Uriah) takes advantage of it and spends extra time with his teachers,” Wentworth said.

Every student is challenged when they enter Trinity Catholic, but Uriah has done a good a job at meeting academic standards, his coach said. Uriah is 6-foot-3, and brings both physical presence and knowledge to the field. Uriah, 14, and Ulysees, 16, play well together, too, the coach said.

“It feels pretty good to be recognized for all the hard work,” Uriah said.

About Trinity Catholic

Trinity Catholic High School is a private Catholic school in Ocala. The campus building opened its doors 2002, although it actually starting holding classes two years earlier in portables and in a middle school campus while the current campus was being built.

There are about 555 students enrolled at the school, 82 of whom are Step Up scholars. It accepts both Catholic and non-Catholic students. Its academic offerings include 22 honors courses, 19 AP courses and 11 dual enrollment courses. About 98 percent of students go on to a four-year college.

The school offers more than 40 activities, including sports, choir, Habitat for Humanity, Spanish and French Honor Society. The Campus Ministry offers daily prayer, class and school masses and the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.  Tuition for the 2013-14 school year is $8,900. Trinity Catholic is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. It uses the PSAT to measure academic success.

Semaj Iwan Mack

6qztmxkrEven in the womb, doctors noticed Semaj Iwan Mack was considerably smaller than other babies. By the time he was 3, physicians decided it was time to start growth hormones, but before they began decided to perform an MRI – just in case.

That’s when they discovered a cyst growing on the toddler’s pituitary gland, said his mother Bridget Geiger Pye. The pea-sized gland sits at the base of the brain and naturally produces, among other things, the growth hormone.

“It was causing him not to grow well,” she said.

Three weeks after the cyst’s discovery in 2011, surgeons performed a procedure not to remove the cyst, but to puncture it and create a drainage system to alleviate pressure on Semaj’s brain. But, Bridget said, something went terribly wrong.

“The doctor accidentally nicked a vessel in his brain,” she said.

The result was similar to a stroke, causing paralysis on Semaj’s left side.

“He was on life support for two days,” Bridget said. “He woke up and had tubes and everything draining from him. We lived in the hospital and he couldn’t move. He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t do anything.”

He had to learn to walk and talk all over again. Still, Semaj was home by that Christmas and was able to run again for the first time that January.

“They said that he was healing so fast because he was a child,” Bridget recalled. “Of course, I believe in the power of prayer.”

More than two years later, Semaj, now a kindergartener, is doing beautifully. He still doesn’t have full mobility and needs to use his two hands to perform a simple task such as holding a school folder, and he still requires speech and occupational therapy, but he has come a long way since those days immediately following surgery. And while he once didn’t even register on the growth charts for his age group, he is within the 10th percentile in height. He’s still the shortest boy in his class, but he’s on par with some of the girls, Bridget said.

When it came time for Semaj to start kindergarten, Bridget, who also has two grown children, wanted to make sure he would get the extra attention he needed. She toured the neighborhood school.

“I felt like my son would get pushed aside and forgotten,” said the single mom. “Maybe even pushed into a special (needs) class.”

And she didn’t think she could send him to a private school. While Semaj was still recovering in the hospital, Bridget lost her job in the U.S. Navy when her position was deemed non-critical after the Navy restructured due to overstaffing. After her dismissal, she took on a job paying $25,000 less a year.

She thought private school was impossible at this point, and then her son’s babysitter told her about Step Up. “The Step Up program has eased my mind so much that I can’t put into words how thankful I am,” Bridget said. “My son is loved at that school and he’s getting the extra attention and time he needs.”

Semaj attends Trinity Christian Academy in Jacksonville, which is the same school he attended in preschool when his mother had the better-paying job.

“He’s getting the one-on-one attention he needs,” Bridget said. “The school is small so all of the teachers and principal know him.”

Kingergarten teacher Jennifer Isaac speaks very highly of Semaj.

“Semaj is just one of those students when he walks into the room, he has a presence. He has a big personality.  He’s always positive. He is very sweet, very nice, very loving,” she said.

Jennifer has seen much improvement in Semaj since the beginning of the year. “He struggles with his fine motor sills, but academically, he’s one of my top students,” she said. “He’s really progressing.”

Some of that progress is noticed when he has an easier time hanging his coat up on a hook, or closing the top of his snack container. His frustration caused from not being able to easily perform certain tasks, like opening his school folders, has mellowed.

“If he was anywhere else,” said Jennifer, “I think he could get lost in a crowd.”


About Trinity Christian Academy

Established in 1967, Trinity Christian Academy currently serves over 1,500 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Nearly 310 of those students are Step Up scholars. Trinity Christian is dedicated to educating the entire student, academically, spiritually and socially, and hires qualified teachers to provide that strong foundation. The school also offers chapel services, music, physical education classes, and numerous athletics programs. For the 2013-14 school year, tuition ranges from $4,399 for kindergarteners to $6,358 for 12th-graders. The school uses Stanford Achievement Tests to measure academic success. It is accredited by Southern Association of Colleges and Schools – Council on Accreditation and School Improvement, as well as through the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Inc.

Gabriel Shimoni

eyzdcjklKathryn Miller worried when her son Gabriel Shimoni started waking up sick to his stomach in the mornings and complaining he didn’t want to go to school.

She learned Gabriel’s boredom in his second-grade classroom stemmed from a lack of being challenged academically, and when Gabriel stopped focusing on his lessons, he disrupted the class with his chatter. Kathryn was called into the school for a parent-teacher conference a couple times over the year to discuss his behavior.

Kathryn’s concern grew when Gabriel told her that kids on the safety patrol made fun of him and threatened to beat him up.

Stress from the situation made him physically ill, she said.

As Gabriel approached third grade, his mother learned he was going to be enrolled in a combined second- and third-grade class which was comprised of eight third-graders and 12 second-graders. Kathryn was disappointed because she thought Gabriel should have been promoted to the combined third- and fourth-grade class. She was told this was because he had earned good grades in second grade and had shown he was capable of working alone, but budget cuts were also to blame, Kathryn said.

“If a student has earned merit or achieved recognition, then he would be rewarded for that by promotion into a higher-level grade with peers that can challenge him, not maintain him,” she said. “That is how it works in life in most other fields of interest whether sports, career or even college. You receive recognition, you gain merit, you advance.”

Kathryn, a divorced single mother of two who works as a librarian’s assistant in Ormond Beach, didn’t think private school would be an option for Gabriel.

“Being a single parent, it’s not always easy, and you’re always looking for the best you can give your children, and you don’t always have the resources,” Kathryn said.

Then she learned about the Step Up For Students Scholarship, and was relieved when she heard Gabriel had been awarded a scholarship during the same week that Gabriel was set to start third grade at his neighborhood school.

“This was like the skies opened up, and I was just being shown some favor in life,” Kathryn said.

Kathryn toured participating private school campuses near her home in Ormond Beach and found Temple Beth-El School, which is affiliated with Temple Beth-El.

“Every expectation I had as a parent was met when we went there,” she said. “I mean the first thing the director said was: ‘We do not allow bullying here.’”

In fact, Director Malka Altman herself will get involved when she hears about bullying, and her teachers also take swift action.

Kathryn was also told the school would be more challenging than Gabriel’s previous school, and this pleased her.

“I would drop him off and go to work and just feel content in knowing that he was learning in an environment that he was content in,” she said about Temple Beth-El, where Gabriel entered a combined third- and fourth-grade class at the start of the 2012-13 school year. He received all A’s on every one of his report cards and was recognized by the school director for his achievements.

Gabriel’s younger sister Noa attends Temple Beth-El School, too, thanks to Step Up For Students. The two children are the only Step Up students at the school.

Kathryn attended a private school and appreciates its values. One of those is stability, she said. When kids have to endure a separation or divorce, it helps to have a place that’s very stable and routine. Temple Beth-El was a stabilizing factor for Gabriel. Kathryn says her kids benefit from going to a school with a diverse population.

Since entering Temple Beth-El, Gabriel’s confidence has grown. He also has come home mentally fatigued, which to his mother is a good sign he’s being challenged academically. He’s become more interested in his schoolwork, Kathryn said.

Gabriel is now 9 and in a combined fourth- and fifth-grade class. He’s become an avid reader and enjoys science as well as being a member of the Boy Scouts and taking trumpet lessons.

Gabriel’s teacher Francine MacDonald has made a big impression. She’s helped him learn self-discipline such as how to do his homework under his own initiative, without prompting from his mother. She pushed him to rise to challenges.

“She’ll make learning fun,” Gabriel said.

Kathryn thinks that another important value of a private school education is that it teaches students to become people of character.

“That’s what I feel (Gabriel) has been given at this school,” Kathryn said. “The opportunity to grow into a person of character.”


About Temple Beth-El School

Temple Beth-El School is a private elementary and preschool school serving 2-year-olds through fifth-graders in Ormond Beach. Co-founded by Malka Altman in 1983, it is affiliated with Temple Beth-El. About 175 students were enrolled for the 2013-14 school, two of which are Step Up scholars. The school employs 40 teachers, many of whom have been at the school for two decades.   In addition to its classrooms, the school has multiple playgrounds for different age groups, a social hall with stage and a 3,000-square-foot gymnasium.

The school places value on teaching children a second language and offers Spanish classes. It also offers preschool and after-school services and an after–school academy that includes soccer, karate, piano lessons and many other activities.

Tuition for the 2013-14 school year is $4,950. The school uses The Stanford Achievement Test to measure academic success.

Jordan Garcia



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

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

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

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

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

Cristina also pinpointed the issue and tried to address it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Highpoint Academy

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

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

Kevin Rodriguez



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Landmark Christian School

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

Gianna Viale


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Good Shepherd Catholic School

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

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

Demonte Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that was all about to change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The experience filled Demonte’s heart, too.

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

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

About Franklin Academy, Tallahassee

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

Gaby Garcia

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

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

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

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

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

Orlando smiled, and that moment changed his outlook.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florida College Academy, Temple Terrace

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

Kevin Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FatherLopez Catholic High School, Daytona Beach

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

Isaiah Vargas

w3gosa4kIsaiah Vargas entered the world addicted to drugs.

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

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

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

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

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

His mother didn’t fare as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About New Jerusalem Christian Academy

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