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Vivian Calhoun is raising a princess. She didn’t plan on it, but it’s working out just fine.

She gets to give and receive lots of hugs and kisses from her 6-year-old great-granddaughter, Anastasia, who came into the world to parents who couldn’t take care of her. But with Vivian’s help, the young girl is living much more of a fairy tale than was ever expected.

“She thinks she’s a princess,” Vivian said with a chuckle. “If you ask, she’ll tell you she’s royalty.”

Anastasia’s mother wasn’t able to care for her and her father has never really been a part of her life, Vivian said. And Anastasia’s grandmother, Vivian’s daughter, had problems of her own, so the great-grandmother did the only thing she could: Become Anastasia’s guardian and only true parental figure.

“It was an easy decision,” Vivian said.

Still, Vivian, 68 and a widow after 35 years of marriage, lives on her disability checks. She had to retire from working as a manager for staffing company because back surgery left her with permanent nerve damage. She gets less than $200 monthly from the state to help with Anastasia and does all she can to make the money stretch, she said. But seeing the effects of drugs and violence up close with loved ones, she wanted to ensure that Anastasia had a safe learning environment, and received individualized attention in smaller classrooms in a place that could instill similar values as Vivian was trying to teach at home. She also wanted Anastasia to feel like people at school were an extension of her family. Vivian yearned to send Anastasia to a local private school that matched these needs, but she didn’t have the financial means until a neighbor told her about Step Up For Students.

During the 2011-12 school year, Anastasia started kindergarten at Christ’s Church Academy, formerly called Mandarin Christian School, in Jacksonville and is now 6 and in the first grade.

“Everybody is just so wonderful. It’s been smooth sailing,” Vivian said of the school and Anastasia’s adjustment to school life. “She’s so happy and doing so well.”

Anastasia loves CCA so much, her great grandmother said, that she doesn’t like school vacations and early dismissal days.

“She doesn’t want to leave the school, and that tells me a lot about the school,” Vivian said.

Through school, in addition to her love for princesses and Barbie dolls, Anastasia has become passionate about reading and excels in it. And, Vivian noted with pride, she enjoys homework.

But what she probably enjoys most, Vivian said, is the love and support she gets from CCA faculty and its students.

As the school’s Princess Ball, a father-daughter dance for the kindergarten through fifth-grade girls, approached in April of 2012, Anastasia had a request from Gene Gottlieb, the campus minister.

“Will you be my princess?” he asked her.

By all accounts, Anastasia’s smile at the ball sparkled more than her tiara.

“You could see it in her face. She was lit up,” said her kindergarten teacher Amy Keating. “She was a princess. She felt like everyone else.”

Gene remembered the evening fondly.

“I think it didn’t even matter that I wasn’t her biological father,” he said. “She was in her glory. She acted like any 6-year-old girl. She’s a doll.”

Vivian said that evening created a lifelong memory for Anastasia. But for the great-grandmother, it’s further proof that she’s made the right decision sending her to CCA.

“I thought it was wonderful. That’s just the kind of people they are,” she said. “It’s just a beautiful place.”

About Christ’s Church Academy, Jacksonville, FL

Christ’s Church Academy, a college preparatory school, opened in 1995 as Mandarin Christian School with a mission to foster well-rounded students through Christian values, excellence in academics, athletics and the arts. It began with kindergarten through fifth grade, gradually adding upper levels and now goes through 12th grade.  CCA is set on a nine-acre campus on Old St. Augustine Road in Jacksonville, and is comprised of more than 30 classrooms, plus four music rooms, two art rooms, two Mac labs, a media center, auditorium, gymnasium and two playgrounds. Additionally, the school boasts a 10-acre athletic complex with baseball, softball, soccer and football fields. Spanish is introduced in kindergarten and is included in the curriculum through elementary school, with an option in middle school and a foreign language requirement in high school. The school is a ministry of Christ’s Church of Jacksonville and is accredited by the Florida Council of Independent Schools, Florida Kindergarten Council, Association of Christian Schools International and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Tuition for the 2013-14 schoolyear is $7,570 for K-fifth grades; $8,655 for sixth through eighth; and $9,450 for ninth -12th grades. The school uses TerraNova tests to measure academic success. About 444 students are currently enrolled, 11 of which are Step Up scholars.

Jenkins Family

Sharla and Donald Jenkins are raising six children, but less than a year ago, they were parents of two.

After relatives wound up in a personal crisis, Sharla and Donald became guardians to their three nieces and nephew. With all of the children ages 9 and under, including one active 3-year-old boy, her life is busier than ever– and the family’s home is louder for sure.

On Oct. 18, the courts finalized the arrangement. Sharla and Donald are now permanent legal guardians to their nieces and nephew, but would love to one day take it a step further and adopt the children. In the meantime, the new additions to the family are treated like they have always been a part of the Jenkins’ clan. For Sharla, that meant providing all the school-aged children with an education that she felt suited the children best.

All five are now Step Up For Students scholars attending Bible Truth Ministries Academy in Tampa, a small private school serving pre-K through eighth grade children. Even Demarcus, the 3-year-old, attends preschool there.

“There was no way I could afford to send them to private school,” said Sharla, who is a full-time volunteer at the school where she teaches and even fills in for the principal when she’s away. Her husband’s income supports the now large family.

The couple’s biological children, Sarah, 9, and Elijah, 7, have been attending Bible Truth since they were in preschool.  And it was important to them that their nieces and nephew got the same education.

After her nieces and nephew were removed from their parents’ home more than a year ago, they were placed together in a group foster home.One of the girls had such an aversion to going to school that eventually the home leaders just let her stay home, missing countless days of school, Sharla said, because it was easier to let her stay home rather than battle. But she now enjoys going to school.

“They all hit the ground running. They all started doing really well,” she said of the nieces and nephews who had all been in their neighborhood school.

Suzette Dean, the school’s principal, is pleased with their progress, too.

“It hasn’t been a year yet, and they weren’t reading when they came and those who could were barely reading,” she recalled. “And they’re reading down to the youngest girl. They’re doing very well in class.”

Back at home, Sharla said, things are going well and the children – who hadn’t even met before the family troubles – are more like siblings than cousins.

Those outside the family from the case workers to attorneys weren’t so sure the two families would blend so well, Sharla said.

“They held their breath. They were waiting for it to fall apart, but it didn’t,” she said. It’s been great.”

Sharla explained to her children that something “bad happened” in their cousin’s family and that they could no longer stay with their parents. The Jenkins children immediately said that their cousins were family and that they should come live with them. After many months of weekend visits, that’s exactly what happened in November 2011.

“They all get along. They all did well together and work together,” she said.

Sharla is most in awe of the changes she sees in Shemara, 9, Eboni, 8, Maresha, 6 and Demarcus, 3. When they first arrived, the children were so uncertain of what the future would hold.

“Now, they are more like carefree, happy-go-lucky (children).They say hi to everyone, and at the end of the day, they know where they’re going.

On an early rainy fall day, the children gathered in a small classroom after school, girls lined on one side of the table and the two boys on another end and talked about their new life. Demarcus climbed atop Elijah’slap and the pair looked content.

“He is his shadow,” Sharla said, with a slight smile.

The girls giggled.  They talked about being part of a big family now.

“The girls are fun,” said Sarah enthusiastically, adding that there are benefits to having more members in the family. “The good thing is we pick up faster, so we can watch TV faster.”

They all agreed.

About Bible Truth Ministries Academy

Principal Suzette Dean started Bible Truth Ministries Academy in 1999 with eight neighborhood children in a converted upstairs apartment of her home in East Tampa. The following year, she and her husband the Rev. Daniel Dean, moved the school into an abandoned house beside a church on East Ellicott Street and in January 2006 relocated to their current location, which they built with their own hands, on North 22nd Street. The pre-K through 12th grade school’s first graduating class in 2008 consisted of only one student  The school currently has about 86 students of which about 20 are Step Up scholars.  The academy has a multi-grade learning environment rather than traditional grade-specific classrooms, and the average class size is 16 students. The school uses the Stanford Achievement Test to measure individual academic success. Tuition for the 2012-2013 school year is $4,300.

Davion Manuel-McKenney

As Step Up For Students celebrates over 10 years of providing low-income families the opportunity to attend the school of their choice, we catch up with scholars who were awarded scholarships that first year.

Davion Manuel-McKenney was just weeks away from starting his new life as a college student when he was flipping through a family photo album and came across an image of his mother and him from many years ago. In the photo, the toddler is perched atop his mother’s lap, her arms are wrapped around his tiny body. And both flash electric smiles.

The reminiscing inspired Davion to post the photograph on his Facebook page with a note to his mother: “We have come a long way. Love U Ma.”

In the beginning, the odds to attend college weren’t in his favor if only the basic facts of his life were considered. He was born to an unwed teenaged mother, who at the time hadn’t completed her own education. But with the love of his mother and family, the determination that was in their genes and the help of many along the way, Davion is now a freshman at Florida State College at Jacksonville.

“There was never a doubt I would go to college,” Davion said during a telephone interview from the new apartment he now shares with three roommates.

Both mother and son said they were saddened to have Davion move about 85 miles north of his home in Ormond Beach, but it was time for him to live out what they have been working toward since his mother, Faith, was just 15. Faith Manuel’s first name seems to guide her. While she became pregnant at age 14 and gave birth at 15, she remained hopeful it would all workout. She married Davion’s father, Nicholas McKenney, and they went on to have two more children. While the couple’s marriage didn’t last, their dedication to their children remained intact and does today. Still, for Faith, the financial struggles that often come with being a single mother were very much a challenge, and when it came time for her eldest child to go to middle school, Faith didn’t like what she saw.

“He was going to be zoned for a school that I was not comfortable with,” she said, adding that there were instances of violence at the school.

Desperate not to send Davion into such an environment, she started researching alternatives – and a way to pay for them. She found Step Up For Students.

“It was always my dream to put my kids through private education,” said Faith, who now has an associate degree and plans on soon furthering her own education.

She wanted to find a school that she felt would be the best fit for her son. She was thrilled when Davion received a Step Up scholarship. When his first scholarship school didn’t work out, he was easily able to transfer with the scholarship to Calvary Christian Academy, which was part of their church in Ormond Beach. The fit was perfect.

“We really got into a family, a network and it spilled into church and school,” Faith said.  “He was immediately embraced by the students and teachers, which helped him excel and go for it.”

At Calvary, Davion had fewer distractions than at his previous schools and was able to focus more on academics. He also was on the school’s track and basketball teams, took on the role of student chaplain and enjoyed spending time with the pre-school children. He graduated from high school in the spring of 2012.

Ronda Crickenberger, his former teacher, guidance counselor and assistant principal recalled Davion, whom she said she considers a son.

“He is one of the most unique young men I have had the good fortune to work with,” said Crickenberger, who recently became principal at The Tabernacle Christian School in Sarasota. “His smile could light up a room. He is intelligent, inquisitive and humble. I think that’s what makes him special.”

She recalled the love and support Davion and his family, especially his mother, had for one another and also credits that with his success.

“I think he knew going to a private school gave him an edge and gave him the opportunity to do something more, to give back to his family and make their life better,” she said. “Davion will be successful at whatever he chooses to do. He’s got the drive to get it done.”

Davion is considering a career in teaching and knows if that’s what he sets out to do, he will do well because of the solid foundation he has built with the help of others. He points to people like Ms. Crickenberger, whom he described as having so much love and passion for her students, his Calvary family as a whole, and the Step Up scholarship as things that have made a difference in his life. But he always goes back to his mother on the one who has truly blessed his life.

When he held the photograph of his younger self and his 17-year-old mom in his hands recently, he reminisced about his life and the woman who made it the best she could.

“I was thinking about everything we’ve gone through together. She was so young when she had me. She chose to keep me. She gave up alot. Growing up, I always had food on the table and clothes and so much love,” Davion said. “I have so much love for my mom I could go on for days about her.”


Calvary Christian Academy first opened its doors in 1985 with 110 students enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade.  The initial construction of the school included the school office building, library and elementary and high school wings on 28-acre property. More facilities, including the gymnasium, cafeteria (fellowship hall) and church office were built three years later. The first high school class of eight students graduated in 1989. For the 2012-2013 schoolyear, 270 students are enrolled including 110 Step Up students. Tuition is $5,250 for grades K- fifth and for grades six through 12 $5,950 annually. They administer the Stanford Achievement Test to gauge students’ progress annually.The school is accredited by both the Florida League of Christian School (FLOCS) and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on colleges (SACS).

The Robaina Family

As Step Up For Students celebrates 10 years of providing low-income families the opportunity to attend the school of their choice, we catch up with scholars who were awarded scholarships that first year. 

uq5tv15rAs a toddler, Arian Robaina came to the United States from Cuba with his family seeking a better life. His wife, Melba, did the same coming from Honduras with her family. Still, after the couple had their three children they realized just being in the United States wasn’t enough.

“I told my wife, ‘You know what? Let’s do better for them,’” Arian recalled.

And better they have done.

The couple realized that a solid academic background was the key to a prosperous life for their children.  When their eldest son, Arian Jr., entered middle school, the Robainas immediately noticed changes from his elementary school. By his second day, Arian Jr. was being pushed around by other children. The Robainas started looking for another school, but knew they couldn’t afford private school. They considered their options, including putting their house up for sale to move to another school district, but then they heard about the Step Up for Students Scholarship Program from a friend and applied. They qualified and sent all three children to Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, now called Our Lady of the Holy Rosary-St. Richard Catholic School, in Cutler Bay near Miami. The youngest, Yanni, now 16, started in first grade.

“It was heaven sent,” Melba said about Step Up. “I am so thankful for the scholarship program.”

Arian and Melba had attended college, but when they started a family their focus shifted and they never completed their degrees. Arian worked two jobs so Melba could stay home with the children before they started school. All along the way, they stressed to their two sons and daughter the importance of education, which included obtaining a college degree.  The couple remained involved in their children’s school and with planning their futures.

“For your kids to be successful, you really have to be on top of it,” Arian Sr. said.

Theirs and their children’s hard work is paying off.

“They do appreciate all we’ve done for them,” said a proud Arian Sr. “They come home with good grades.”

The mutual respect is clear.

“There are my role models,” said Melari Robaina, the middle child, said of her parents. “They worked so hard to give us an education.”

The Robainas were in the Step Up Program for five years at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. Arian Jr. started high school at Archbishop Coleman Carroll High before the family no longer met the income requirements.

“We weren’t getting any help, but we weren’t making enough money to send three kids to (private) school,” Arian Sr. said.

So, keeping education a priority, they packed up the three kids in 2006 and moved to Arizona where they have a similar scholarship programs with different income requirements. The Robaina children received scholarships from the Catholic Education Arizona program. All of the Robainas have maintained excellent grades, have received numerous academic honors and all are National Honor Society members. Two of the three, Arian Jr., and Melari, graduated from high school and went onto universities. Arian Jr. just completed his junior year at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. and is considering a career in sports medicine.

“Ever since I was little they wanted us to get educated,” Arian Jr. said about his parents. “It (the scholarships) helped my parents greatly back then. It helped me succeed.”

Melari just completed her freshman year at Loyola University in New Orleans and plans to become a veterinarian.

“It would have been harder for my family without those resources. Those resources helped our family a lot,” Melari said. “We’re really grateful for it.”

Both college students are on scholarship.

The youngest, Yanni, just completed his sophomore year at Seton Catholic Prep High in Chandler, AZ, and is already looking ahead to college. He is considering applying to schools like Duke University, Ava Maria University and Catholic University. He already realizes the sacrifices his parents have made to ensure he and his siblings get a concrete education.

“I think it’s pretty cool,” he said. “Not every parent can do that.”

Arian Sr. now works as a waiter and Melba works at a local casino. They continue to struggle financially and appreciate beyond words, they say, the financial support they have received for educating their children.

“Hopefully, their life is a little easier. My wife and I had it hard,” he said.

Our Lady of the Holy Rosary-St. Richard Catholic School

Our Lady of the Holy Rosary-St. Richard Catholic School opened its doors in 1959, but was known then as simply as Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Catholic  School. Founded  by the sisters of St. Joseph it is run by the Archdiocese of Miami. The school changed its name last year when the church unified with another local church St. Richard’s Parish in Palmetto Bay. Children can attend pre-K through eighth grade at the school (Step Up doesn’t apply to pre-k) and tuition is $6,750 for kindergarten through fifth and $6,950 for sixth through eighth grades. The school measures academic success with the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. For the 2011-2012 school year, of their nearly 390 students, approximately 78 students were on Step Up.

Melody Cherfils

Melody Cherfils never thought she would want to be a doctor. By the eighth grade she had failing grades and wasn’t getting the support at school she craved. As a child from a single-parent home, even a complete high school education seemed unattainable.

“For me to graduate was a major accomplishment,” said the 2006 graduate of Miami Union Academy. “They (academy teachers) pushed us and they said we could achieve what society said we couldn’t achieve.”

Life still has had its twists and turns, but Melody remains dedicated to fulfilling her goals.

“I hope to one day become an MD in ophthalmology,” she said confidently.

Those aspirations, she says, never would have been possible without her mother discovering the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.

Melody’s mom, Mellie Prophete, noticed that her daughter, as well as her two sons, needed help and started looking for it. But raising a family alone meant money was beyond tight.

“I always said if I could afford it, I would send my kids to private school,” she said, adding that she always thought that would be a better option for her kids, who needed a closer relationship with teachers.

Then Mellie heard about Step Up’s scholarship and soon the single mom who didn’t think she had options, was providing three of her children with a Step Up funded education at private school.

“My kids have excelled since the beginning of the scholarship program,” she said proudly. “They’ve excelled academically and athletically.”

Her son, Dayvon Prophete, graduated from Community Christian High School in Melbourne and he now attends a local community college in Brevard County. Her son, Trevaughn Remy, who has been on the Step Up program since the second grade, will graduate from Melbourne Central Catholic High next year. He’s on the track, basketball and football teams and dreams of one day playing college football, but he’s looking toward a career in either civil engineering or sports medicine. He credits Step Up with giving him the opportunity to go to better schools.

“I had more time to work with the teacher,” he said, touting the small classrooms. “It helped me get better grades.”

Melody is proud of her brothers, too. And she’s grateful to her mom for reaching out and applying for the scholarships.

“With her making that move, I felt like she really wants us to succeed. She wanted us to have a better life,” she said.

Melody says the atmosphere and fewer students at Miami Union Academy made all the difference.

Cornelia Sewer, Miami Union’s registrar, remembers Melody’s first days at school.

“She was a quiet student,” she said. “When she came she was a little hesitant, but she got into it.”

Melody was involved in extracurricular activities like choir and got to travel to different states for class trips.

“The family atmosphere, she said that really impacted her,” Cornelia recalled. “She was so happy to be here.”

After graduating from Miami Union Academy, Melody attended Oakwood University in Huntsville, Ala. to study nursing, but in 2008 moved to Houston, Tex. to be near her father.

“I was just homesick,” she said. “I really did miss home and I wanted to be in an environment where I was comfortable.”

Melody has settled into Houston, has married and has a 1-year-old daughter, Aaliyah. Along the way, she stumbled into the optical business, selling glasses and found a passion for the industry. To her a career in ophthalmology makes sense.

“I found it was very intriguing and fun,” she said of the optical field.

Melody plans on finishing her undergraduate work at a local college to move toward that goal of becoming a doctor. She concedes now that she’s a mom it will be more difficult, but she doesn’t have any doubt she’ll make it. Her family is extremely supportive.

“Just that encouragement makes me want to keep on doing what I’m doing,” she said.

When Mellie considers Melody’s accomplishments and thinks what the scholarships have given to her family, she has a sense of relief knowing that without Step Up the outcome could have been very different.

“They’ve had some troubles, but they came through,” she boasted.

She doesn’t forget the schools her children attended either.

“There were parents there, teachers there who actually encouraged me and my kids: You can do it.”

About Miami Union Academy

“We prepare young minds for the Future,” is the mantra for Miami Union Academy, which was established in 1917 as a Seventh-day Adventists school. The school’s mission isn’t only a spiritual one; it’s one that combines a challenging academic environment with one that’s rich in tradition with service, character building and leadership. The Pre-K-12 school is operated by 12 constituent Seven-day Adventists churches in the Southeastern Conference. About 294 students from diverse backgrounds attended the school during the 2011-2012 school year. Of those, 170 were Step Up scholars. The school is accredited by the National Council for Private School, Middle States Accreditation and the Accrediting Association of North American Division. To measure academic success, the school uses the Iowa Basic Test of Basic Skills for grades 3 through 8; and the ACT for high school students. Tuition for the 2012-2013 school year is $5,600 for kindergarten; $6,466 for 1st grade; $6,581 for 2nd through 5th; $6,921 for 6th and 7th; $7,071 for 8th; $8,307 for 9th and 10th; $8,407 for 11th; and $9,098 for 12th.

Shamel Donawa

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

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

“That first D was a shock,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Luis Aponte Jr.

As Step Up For Students celebrates over 10 years of providing low-income families the opportunity to attend the school of their choice, we catch up with scholars who were awarded scholarships that first year. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Liberty Christian Academy

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


Tyla Cadore

As Step Up For Students celebrates over 10 years of providing low-income families the opportunity to attend the school of their choice, we catch up with scholars who were awarded scholarships that first year. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was a big help,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Seacoast Christian Academy

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

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

Mercedes Gonzalez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s part of the vision,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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


About Beacon of Hope Christian School

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

Danielle Stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Archbishop Curley Notre Dame

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