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Reading scholarship boosts confidence, scores

By LISA A. DAVIS

In third grade, Kiersten Covic’s reading score on the Florida Standards Assessments (FSA) was high enough where it signaled that she would likely excel in English Language Arts the following school year.

Instead, her grade plummeted to “below satisfactory.”

It wasn’t the only thing that plunged. So did her confidence.

Fortunately, her mother, Kelly Covic, learned about the Reading Scholarship Accounts managed by Step Up For Students that could help pay for a reading program called ENCORE! Reading at Kiersten’s school, Dayspring Academy.

Kiersten Covic benefited from the Reading Scholarship Accounts program during the 2018-19 school year.

 In 2018, Florida lawmakers created the reading scholarship to help public school students in third through fifth grade who struggle with reading. The program offers parents access to Education Savings Accounts, worth $500 each, to pay for tuition and fees for approved part-time tutoring, summer and after-school literacy programs, instructional materials and curriculum related to reading or literacy. Third through fifth grade public school students who scored a 1 or 2 on the third or fourth grade English Language Arts (ELA) section of the Florida Standards Assessments in the prior year are eligible.

With a score of 2 on the English Language Arts section of the test, Kiersten qualified. Her mother applied for the scholarship, was approved and enrolled Kiersten into the program at the A-rated public charter school in New Port Richey during the 2018-19 school year.

“When I first found out that I had to do this, I was disappointed,” said Kiersten, now a sixth grader at the school. “I thought of myself as stupid that I had to take this course.”

But soon she started reaping the benefits of the after-school reading program when her

grades had an uptick. Kiersten enjoyed the variety of methods the program used with reading assignments, writing prompts based on the books, vocabulary building activities and testing. She also found the program’s point-and-reward system motivating, using things like a prize box for students and the promise of a pizza party for good work.

Dayspring educators designed the program after the creation of the scholarship, answering the call to further help struggling readers.

“We designed the program to provide targeted instruction to small groups of learners. We saw this as an opportunity for our learners to receive additional support from their teachers,” said Wendy Finlay, Dayspring principal.

 “We had six teachers teaching in our ENCORE! program to ensure that our groups would remain small and the instruction remained individualized and differentiated.”

That formula worked for Kiersten.

“I feel more confident about (reading) because we went over a lot of stuff and some of the vocabulary we went over was on the test, and I would not have known it if we didn’t,” Kiersten said.

The program was enough to boost her reading grade on the state test to a 3, a perfectly acceptable grade to put her back on track for success.

“We were really, really thrilled and relieved,”said Kelly Covic.

Kiersten was not the only one whose reading improved in the program.

“The first year of ENCORE! was a success,” Finlay said. “Our data indicates we had a 14% gain with our lowest 25% in the area of ELA. Not only did we see lowest quartile gains, we also saw an overall increase in our learning gains in ELA. Our overall achievement level in the area of ELA increased by 9%.”

Covic, who teaches music at Dayspring Academy, said she is thankful for the reading scholarship and its benefits for her daughter and other struggling young readers.

“The earlier you can intervene into your child’s reading the better because it is so vital for their success,” she said. “Reading is such a cornerstone of everything that it’s important to get this down.”

Supporters to rally in Tallahassee for Gardiner Scholarship

Step Up For Students scholarship supporters and recipients have rallied several times before in Tallahassee. Back in 2010 the rally was in support of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for low-income children. Today, we rally for the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs.

By LISA A. DAVIS

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – This morning, the buses will roll into the same parking lot at Florida State University – some after driving more than seven hours from Miami. It will not be an easy journey for some who traveled on the motor coaches from all over Florida. They will come from other bus stops, too, in Jacksonville, Tampa, Orlando and Pensacola. Some will drive up in their personal vehicles.

The destination is the same: Waller Park at the Florida State Capitol for the Gardiner Celebration Rally organized by Step Up For Students and its advocacy arm, Florida Voices For Choices.

The mission: to thank Florida legislators and Gov. Ron DeSantis for supporting the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs. Additionally, we are asking for $42 million more in funding for the 2020-21 school year so 4,000 more children with unique abilities can receive the same help as the other children who use the scholarship now.

This year, more than 13,000 students have been funded for the Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students.

Still, it’s not enough.

“Every student with special needs in Florida who would be better served academically through education options deserves this scholarship,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up’s president. “We are so grateful for the support we have had from lawmakers. We applaud them and the work we have done together, but we want to help more children.”

The scholarship is for Florida students 3 years old through 12th grade or age 22, whichever comes first, who have the following diagnoses: autism spectrum disorder, muscular dystrophy, Cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Phelan McDermid syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, spina bifida, Williams syndrome, intellectual disability (severe cognitive impairment), rare diseases as defined by the National Organization for Rare Disorders, anaphylaxis, deaf, visually impaired, dual sensory impaired, traumatic brain injured, hospital or homebound, or three, four or five year-olds who are deemed high-risk due to developmental delays.

It’s children with these challenges– and their parents, educators and other advocates– who made the trek to Tallahassee today. So, yes, it wasn’t easy for many of them. But it was important. That’s why they are here and will let their voices be heard during the rally.

If you’re in the area, join us. It begins at noon. If not, follow us on social media using the hashtag #GardinerCelebrationRally. Also be sure to check out other rally coverage on our sister blog www.redefinedonline.org.

During the rally, parents like Katie Swingle, whose son Gregory is on the autism spectrum and has thrived using the Gardiner Scholarship, will talk about how she is #GratefulForGardiner.

Other parents will share their stories as well. Their stories are so moving that Step Up For Students is kicking off an ongoing social media campaign so families can regularly share their stories. We will tell these stories on our social media channels beginning today, using the hashtag #GratefulForGardiner.

This scholarship is changing lives. Learn how by following us on social media Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. You may also share your story with us by sending your story and contact information to social@sufs.org. Please use #GratefulForGardiner in the subject line.

Lisa A. Davis can be reached at ldavis@sufs.org.

Cal-Maine Foods donates $100,000 to help fund scholarship program for lower-income students

By ASHLEY ZARLE

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January 10, 2020 | DADE CITY, Fla.– Cal-Maine Foods, Inc., the largest producer and marketer of eggs in the United States, has contributed $100,000 to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.

The donation funds about 14 scholarships for deserving K-12 schoolchildren in Florida through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations. The scholarships give lower-income children the opportunity to attend a private or out-of-district school that best meets their learning needs.

“At Cal-Maine Foods, it is very important for us to give back to our community,” said Dolph Baker, CEO of Cal-Maine Foods. “We are proud to partner with Step Up and we know that our support is making a difference in the lives of Florida schoolchildren.”



Cal-Maine Foods VP of Operations Chris Myers presents a $100,000 donation in support of the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program to Step Up For Students Development Officer Diana Allen.

This is the first year that Cal-Maine Foods has partnered with Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Step Up is serving more than 100,400 students for the 2019-20 school year. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

“It is wonderful to have Cal-Maine Foods support our mission of helping disadvantaged schoolchildren access a school that fits their learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “We are grateful for their generosity and support of deserving students in our community.”

Ashley Zarle can be reached at azarle@sufs.org.

Jacksonville teen reaps benefits of Step Up Scholarship

By JEFF BARLIS

When Kayla Fudge was a newborn, her mother struggled to take care of her. In swooped Kayla’s great aunt Glendora like a guardian angel. She loved. She nurtured. And she taught.

A public school teacher for 14 years, Glendora Jackson-Fudge raised three children of her own before adopting Kayla when she was 2. Glendora and husband Michael Fudge, a landscaper for 31 years, didn’t have much money. But as parents they were full of fun, wisdom, and old-school values.

“They’re mom and dad to me,” said Kayla, who was born and raised in Jacksonville. “They didn’t have to take me, they wanted to. That makes me feel special. I know they believe in me if no one else does.”

That belief propelled the 20-year-old to college. She is only one credit away from earning her associate degree. Kayla still lives under her parents’ roof, but those old-school sensibilities mean she pays for room and board, does chores, and works part time.


Kayla Fudge, right, and her great aunt and “guardian angel” Glendora Jackson-Fudge.

As a mother and educator, Glendora knew best. After Kayla attended her neighborhood elementary school, Glendora switched her to private school. Kayla was always a bright student with grades to match. Glendora was watching over her and knew she would do even better with an education customized for her.

Through online research, Glendora found Step Up For Students, which administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship .

A native of Jacksonville’s southside, Glendora was a working mom who put in enough nights and weekends to earn two master’s degrees in education. She taught social science in district schools. One day she fell coming out of her classroom and tore cartilage in her knee. She endured unbearable pain for three years before retiring in 2010.

“We lost a big chunk of my teaching income, like 60%, when I had to retire and go on disability,” Glendora said. “So, the scholarship really helped. And my husband’s work is seasonal. We were able to survive. If we didn’t have that scholarship, we wouldn’t have been able to pay for private school.”

It took just two weeks at Kayla’s neighborhood middle school for Glendora to make the decision.

“Kayla couldn’t take it there,” Glendora said. “I couldn’t even take being a substitute teacher there, so I couldn’t imagine her staying there. All the fights, the drama, the disruption in the classrooms.

“And Kayla wasn’t being challenged, either. She was bored. I thought she would do better with more individualized attention.”

Glendora and Kayla say the scholarship was like a ladder to fulfilling her potential. The neighborhood schools were swelling with students, and Kayla felt like she didn’t belong and couldn’t stand out.

“In public school, my mom said I would dumb myself down to blend in. I didn’t think she was right,” Kayla said. “But when I got to different schools with more people on the same academic level as me, I really felt what she was talking about.”

She longed for classroom challenges, but just as important was a brightly lit stage and her desire to explore performance art.

Glendora knew Kayla had talent when she was in fourth grade. She sang a Celine Dion song and won first place in a summer camp talent show.

Kayla is excited about the Tyler Perry audition and knows her dreams are within reach.

Kayla has a strong, soulful voice and graceful movements. Her almond eyes convey myriad emotions. Her personality sparkles in conversation, but on the stage she really comes alive.

Bishop Kenny High School was Kayla’s third private school, and when she arrived for 11th grade, she quickly found it was worth the wait.

“It really made me more excited about academics,” Kayla said. “I wasn’t just remembering information for a test, I was actually learning skills. But the biggest thing was I had a lot more opportunity to show my personality than at other schools.”

Kayla’s guidance counselor, Scott Sberna, pushed her to get better grades, but more importantly, he pushed her to enter the school pageant. She wasn’t going to do it, but he wouldn’t let it go. When he saw the spark of Kayla’s passion, he motivated and encouraged her to go for it.

“The pageant is a very big deal to a lot of families and young ladies in our school,” Sberna said. “Tryouts start before the Christmas holiday. Practices run three days a week or more until dress rehearsal. Many families hire private pageant coaches.”

Kayla had scant experience doing plays at her previous high school. This was a solo shot, and a pressure cooker at that.

“Typically, we have six to 10 visiting queens and members of their court (from nearby high schools) who come for the show and support their BKHS friends competing,” Sberna said.

For her performance, Kayla danced while singing “Almost There” from Disney’s “Princess and the Frog.” The applause was thunderous. She was the pageant runner-up and won the award for most talented. She created a YouTube page to share a video of the performance.

Her confidence soared.

That led to an audition for a performing arts college in Los Angeles. She was accepted, but tuition was about $22,000 a year even with the school granting a scholarship. It was out of reach, but not out of her heart.

Kayla went on to graduate magna cum laude with a 3.89 grade point average. She attends Florida State College in Jacksonville, where she has a 3.2 grade point average studying physical therapy and has never gotten a C. She’s thinking about transferring to the University of Central Florida for a seven-year physical therapy program. She’s also considering the University of North Florida to switch her focus to animal care.

She sings at church and still dreams of performing. To keep that dream in the forefront, Glendora is bringing Kayla to a Tyler Perry audition in Atlanta later in November.

“My goals after college are to be a physical therapist, have my doctorate in physical therapy specifically and to be an actress at the same time, which is a weird combo, but it’s completely achievable,” says Kayla with a bright smile. She knows her future is bright.

“It would not surprise me if she does all three,” Sberna said. “She has the intelligence, grit, and chops to do it all. She deserves all the credit for pushing herself to where she is today.”

Judith Thomas, Step Up’s social media manager, contributed to this report.


Today (and every day) we celebrate you, Step Up donors

By JUDITH THOMAS

Today, Step Up For Students celebrates National Philanthropy Day. We want to thank all those who have donated and supported our efforts throughout the years. You’ve helped us change the face of education in Florida. Because of your valuable support, we’re changing our community every day.

How? The numbers tell the story.

  • More than 136,000 students use Step Up For Students scholarships this school year.
  • Since 2001, more than 784,000 Florida Tax Credit Scholarships have been awarded.
  • Five education choice programs are available through Step Up.
  • More than 1,800 private schools partner with Step Up.

All of this is possible because of our donors and supporters like you. Thank you!

National Philanthropy Day recognizes and pays tribute to the great contributions that philanthropy makes. Step Up especially wants to recognize the people who are active in the philanthropic community and the difference their contribution makes in our lives, our communities and our world – to our scholars and their families.

When National Philanthropy Day was first celebrated in 1986, according to the Association of Fundraising Professionals, President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation officially recognizing Nov. 15, 1986, as the commemorative day.

Here at Step Up, we’re thankful for our supporters every day! Without you, none of this would be possible.

Happy National Philanthropy Day!

Judith Thomas, Step Up For Students social media manager, can be reached at jthomas@suf.org.

Republic National Distributing Company donates $65 million to help fund scholarship program for lower-income students

By Ashley Zarle

TAMPA, Fla.– Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC), one of the nation’s leading wholesale alcohol beverage distributors, has once again contributed $65 million to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.

RNDC celebrated on Oct. 22 the substantial donation while visiting Tampa Catholic High School students who use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students. RNDC’s contribution funds 9,339 scholarships for deserving K-12 Florida schoolchildren. The scholarships give lower-income children the opportunity to attend a private or out-of-district school that best meets their learning needs.

“At Republic National Distributing Company, we are committed to making a positive difference that enriches the spirit and well-being of our associates, communities, and business partners”, said Ron Barcena, executive vice president of RNDC. “We know that our partnership with Step Up For Students is doing just that and we are proud to help provide thousands of Florida schoolchildren with the educational opportunities they deserve.”


Republic National Distributing Company announced a $65 million contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are Step Up For Students Founder & Chairman John Kirtley, Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill, and RNDC Florida Executive Vice President Ron Barcena. They are joined by Tampa Catholic High School students who are benefiting from the scholarship.

While visiting Tampa Catholic High School, RNDC representatives had a chance to experience the zSpace Lab. zSpace is a virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) system that uses a unique stylus and eyewear to create an interactive experience covering subjects like animal dissection and anatomy, but also others like geography and history. Users can access a frog dissection model, as well as other 3D programs like simulated archaeological digs or interactive geometry. Students enjoyed showing the representatives how to use the program and the different courses that are available.


Tampa Catholic High School students, who use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students, had fun showing
Republic National Distributing Company key account manager Perry Thomas how to use the zSpace program.

Since 2012, Republic National Distributing Company has generously funded 49,675 scholarships through contributions totaling $310 million to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations. Step Up is serving more than 100,400 students for the 2019-20 school year. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

“RNDC has once again shown their incredible commitment to Florida’s disadvantaged schoolchildren through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program which is producing exceptional results,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “Recently, the Urban Institute evaluated graduates of our program and found students who use the scholarship for at least four years are 99% more likely to attend a four-year college and up to 45% more likely than their public school peers to earn a bachelor’s degree. RNDC is a critical part of this success and we are grateful for their support of deserving students in our community.”

Ashley Zarle can be reached at AZarle@StepUpForStudents.org.

Step Up For Students opens online “merch” store

By LISA A. DAVIS

There’s no doubt everyone has it in one form or another, like a T-shirt with a favorite band, a ball cap with a No. 1 sports team, a water bottle with a top brand. Yep, we’re talking about “merch.”

Every fan needs a way – or many – to express his or her loyalty to something they support, and now Step Up For Students’ fans do too.

Introducing our online retail store hosted by Print Your Cause, where anyone can purchase merchandise with our branding. Here scholarship families, supporters and even Step Up employees can bring a little Step Up For Students into their wardrobe, cabinets or lockers.

We have merchandise for sale with our logo and then some super fun items we created with our superheroes with sayings customized for parents, employees, advocates, teachers and, of course, scholars. On our Step Up For Students store website, you can find a variety of T-shirts, backpacks, jackets, hats, water bottles, coffee mugs and more. Oh, there’s even a cool scarf for Fido.

Treat your furry family members to some Step Up gear, too.

“Sometimes at Step Up’s events and conferences, the staff wears special branded T-shirts so attendees can easily spot us if they have a question,” said Alissa Randall Fruchtman, Step Up’s Chief Marketing Officer. “To our surprise, many attendees, often scholarship families, have asked if our shirts are available for purchase. So that’s what sparked the idea to create a Step Up merchandise store.”

The store has given more life to Step Up’s superhero characters, too.

Once we decided to create merchandise, it made sense to add our superheroes into the mix because we’ve had such great feedback on our characters. We think they translated amazingly well to T-Shirts and more.”

The coolest part about having an online store is that for every purchase people make, a portion of the money comes right back to Step Up For Students to help serve our scholarship families.

“When we started developing the store concept, we immediately decided we didn’t want to just make it a simple store. We wanted to give back to the scholarship programs, and during our research we discovered a relatively new concept by Print Your Cause,” Randall Fruchtman said. “We’re thrilled to offer this merchandise and give back to the families we serve this way.”

Jayson Tompkins, who also works for a national fundraising software company, said he came up with the idea of creating Print Your Cause with some friends and built it from there.

“It really all started from the overlap of interests and experience of a few close friends. Between three of us, we had years of experience in printing for local organizations, building software, and a passion for working with nonprofits. We saw and experienced ourselves many of the logistical challenges these organizations had with buying too much merchandise in advance – oftentimes wasting precious resources and left with boxes of leftovers. 

“We knew there had to be a better way. So we went to work on a software platform that could utilize our specialized printing techniques to cut the waste, provide consumers with a better experience, and transform how nonprofits are able to sell their brand and Print Your Cause was born out of that mission.”

Tompkins said his company is thrilled to work with Step Up.

“We are excited to have the opportunity to work with such an incredible organization,” he said. “Step Up For Students is a national leader in providing scholarships for children, and it’s truly an honor for us to provide a service that can help further their mission.”

He’s been working closely with the Step Up Marketing Team to launch the online store.

The partnership has gone beautifully, Randall Fruchtman said.

“We’re thrilled to be working with Print Your Cause. They’ve brought great ideas to the store, one of them being the ability to customize the shirts for scholars, teachers, donors, etc.,” she said. “Also, the products are printed on demand, so there isn’t any waste.

So, we invite you to shop our store and feel good about the purchase.

There’s another way to get Step Up merchandise – and for free. Learn how to sign up for our social influencer program and earn points to win prizes including some items from our store. To learn more about that program, go here.

We would love to see what goodies you get. Please take a picture of you showing off your Step Up gear using the hashtag #ISupportStepUp on our social channels, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. We can’t wait to see the photos.

Lisa A. Davis can be reached at ldavis@sufs.org. �

Read! Read! Read!

By CAROL MACEDONIA

Kids Who Read Beat Summer Slide. Studies show that access to books during the summer prevents a drastic loss in reading skill - especially for kids in need. (PRNewsFoto/First Book)

today's lesson snipIf this graphic above caught your attention, read on.  As a parent of a now-grown son who is a successful attorney, I can tell you that years ago I was that parent trying to figure how to get my very athletic, very intelligent son to enjoy – or at least partake in –  reading that was not  a “school assignment.” I was determined to have him love reading even if it was the last thing he wanted to do!!!  For him, it wasn’t that he couldn’t read, rather, it was he simply didn’t see the need to read.   So I set out to create reasons why a 9-year-old would actually want to pick up some form of text (notice I didn’t say a book) and read. Now 20 years later, I’m happy to report that although it took some time my plan worked!!

So here’s my summer formula for reading with reluctant readers!! READ, READ, READ and then read some more!

First, figure out what makes your child click. Is water sports? Climbing trees? Creepy bugs? Or things that bump in the night? Summer can be a busy time for families to fit reading into their daily routine, but like the Nike ad says, “Just Do  It!” Make it a habit that is embraced by your whole family.

That’s right, mom, dad, auntie and grandpa need to be seen reading and TALKING about what they read! A habit only takes 21 days to establish and after that it is very hard to break.

(Do you know any children who struggle to read? Step Up For Students offers the Reading Scholarship Accounts for parents with children in public school to access services for their children in grades three through five who are having trouble reading. Click here to learn more.)

I also know the importance of walking the talk and decided that whatever I would entice my son to read, I’d also read. This opened up great avenues for conversation and eventually even spirited debates about the virtues of a character in a book or predicting just how the story would end.  Conversations about what we were reading often branched off into other topics and created common grounds for reflections and clarifying our beliefs and value.kids on books

Throughout the summer months, I stayed focused on my son’s passions and one morning next to his cereal bowl, I left a magazine article that featured a 10-year-old who ran a triathlon. To challenge my very competitive son I simply said, “Wow, did you see that a 10-year-old finished a triathlon, I wonder if you could too?”  With that single statement he was hooked and off he went to devour the story and soon returned to share his plan for competing in a local race. I did a happy dance, as not only was he planning to compete in a triathlon, he actually asked if I had anything else he could read about world-class runners!

Then we set a target of books to read in a month. I should have known my son was predestined to be an attorney when he wanted to negotiate the numbers of pages of text versus pictures in the book that would constitute reaching his goal. Speaking of pictures, don’t ignore the strategically placed illustrations. Those pictures are great for connecting the story to real-life experiences: predicting what happens next and why, thinking about the author’s purpose for writing the book, and sharing the “movie in the reader’s mind” that the story was conjuring. For our plan, we finally agreed on 10 books or news articles (not too long!) for each month.

5fingerNext, pick “Just Right Books” with your reader As we went off to search for the books that he wouldn’t be able to put down, I had to make sure he had the “Just Right Book” in his hands— not too easy, but not too hard! A super easy way to make sure your child is selecting a book that they won’t labor over and forget why they are reading or speed through with little thought to the meaning is to use the 5 Finger Rule to pick a “Just Right Book,” Kids learn this quickly and for the most part it is a fail-safe quickie to help ensure you have “just right books” for your children.

Now Read every day! So armed with a backpack of those “Just Right Books,” the next step in the plan was to read every day. It doesn’t matter what it is just read something! Bear in mind this did not mean that I set the kitchen timer and had my son read until it buzzed. No way!! Do we, as impassioned readers, read that way? I tried to make it authentic, real. Some days I even read him stories from the newspaper. You guessed it, usually from the sports section, of course, or he’d read the classified ads, looking for a cheap bike, or we’d read together a chapter of one of his “Just Right Books” or while we were in the grocery store I’d give him a detailed list (ex. 2 ½  pounds of jumbo tiger shrimp) that he was responsible for finding. And I made sure he saw me reading. I wanted him to see that I set time aside in our hectic day to slow down and read. It’s that important.

Our Summer Reading Plan became a tradition in our family. Even to the extent of taking a special book or two on vacations to the beach or mountains. Now fast forward to this summer when my now 30-year old very professional, but still extremely sports-minded attorney son stopped by the house this spring. He was dropping off a Mothers Day gift: “The Autobiography of Mark Twain.” It was a great gift and great book, but the greatest gift was his words that accompanied the book, “Hey Mom I’m reading this too. Get started so we can talk about this guys’s crazy life!”

My Summer Reading Plan had worked!!!

Carol Macedonia is the vice president and founder of Step Up’s Office of Student Learning department. She came to us eight years ago after a 31-year career in the Pinellas County School District, where she rose to an assistant superintendent of schools. 

Florida Parent Network becomes Florida Voices For Choices

By LISA A. DAVIS

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The Florida Parent Network is now Florida Voices For Choices, a change that reflects the many supporters — beyond parents
— for the education choice movement.

Catherine Durkin Robinson

“While parents and their children are at the core of what we do, our advocates include grandparents, foster parents, educators, alumni, faith leaders and more,” said Catherine Durkin Robinson, executive director of Florida Voices For Choices. “It was time we make our name more encompassing of all of our supporters.”

But the name is all that’s changed.

“New name. Same mission,” Robinson said.

Florida Voices For Choices, the advocacy arm of Step Up For Students, organizes and mobilizes its members. Step Up For Students, a Florida-based nonprofit scholarship funding organization and the largest of its kind in the nation, served more than 110,000 children in Florida for the 2018-19 school year through four scholarship programs.

With Robinson and her team at the helm in Florida, they are among the hundreds of thousands of advocates fighting for children to be educated based on how they learn, rather than where they live.

“Instead of forming different networks, we’re more powerful together. We’re proud of this name change to Florida Voices For Choices,” Robinson said. “We still organize advocates for scholarship programs, charter schools, magnets, virtual schools, homeschools and vouchers. “

The group, which also partners with the Florida Charter School Alliance, works with supporters year-round to mobilize advocates in support of legislation that will get more children off waiting lists and into great schools. They also register voters and keep advocates aware of lawmakers who support, and oppose, their rights to choose the best school or learning environment for their kids. One of its most successful events was back in January 2016, when it organized more than 10,000 Florida Tax Credit Scholarship supporters from throughout Florida to march in Tallahassee when a lawsuit threatened to close down the program.

“That was an amazing day,” Robinson recalled. “But every day brings a new challenge and we need these programs for schoolchildren to continue to gain strength. We still fight for educational equity for all.”

Follow Florida Voices For Choices on social media and text FVFC to 52886 for timely updates.

GEICO funds 1,041 scholarships for Florida’s underprivileged schoolchildren

By ASHLEY ZARLE

TAMPA, Fla.GEICO recently recommitted to supporting underprivileged K-12 schoolchildren in Florida by providing education options through Step Up For Students.

Step Up For Students administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Through GEICO’s generosity, 1,041 financially disadvantaged schoolchildren will be provided the opportunity to choose between a K-12 scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public school.

GEICO has been a partner of Step Up For Students since 2010 and has contributed $33 million toward the scholarship program.

GEICO announced a $7 million contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are Cristo Rey Tampa High School Principal Matthew J. Torano,  Step Up For Students Vice President of Development Jillian Metz, Step Up For Students Founder and Board Chair John Kirtley, Cristo Rey Tampa High School President & CEO Charles D. Imbergamo, GEICO Senior Vice President Pionne Corbin, and GEICO Associate Vice President Heather McIntyre. They are joined by Step Up scholars from Cristo Rey Tampa High School.

GEICO announced a $7 million contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are Cristo Rey Tampa High School Principal Matthew J. Torano,  Step Up For Students Vice President of Development Jillian Metz, Step Up For Students Founder and Board Chair John Kirtley, Cristo Rey Tampa High School President & CEO Charles D. Imbergamo, GEICO Senior Vice President Pionne Corbin, and GEICO Associate Vice President Heather McIntyre. They are joined by Step Up scholars from Cristo Rey Tampa High School.

“GEICO is committed to giving back and making our communities stronger,” said Pionne Corbin, senior vice president of GEICO. “We recognize that each child is unique and as strong corporate stewards, we are confident that our investment in Step Up For Students will provide options to those who need it the most.”

“Companies like GEICO are transforming the lives of Florida’s lower-income students, and through their partnership, the program is producing measurable results,” said John Kirtley, founder, and chairman of Step Up For Students.  “Last year, the Urban Institute evaluated graduates of our program and found that students who are on scholarship for at least four years are more than 40 percent more likely to attend public Florida college. GEICO is a large part of this success.”

The celebration was hosted at Cristo Rey Tampa High School where several students benefit from a Step Up scholarship, and the curriculum boasts a work-study component to give students a competitive edge.  Representatives from GEICO and Step Up For Students gathered with a panel of scholarship students to hear how the program has impacted their visions for the future.

“Through the Step Up scholarship, I have been given the opportunity to attend Cristo Rey where I have access to the tools, I need to be successful,” said Armando Diaz, junior at Cristo Rey.  “I know colleges will look at my resume and see I’ve had four years of internships and experience and I’ll stand out from my friends.  I am dreaming for the future and hope to make GEICO and other donors to Step Up very proud.”

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that administers the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporate tax credits and allows parents and students to choose between a K-12 scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

For the 2018-19 school year, Step Up For Students is serving nearly 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,519 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,815 for sixth through eighth grade, and $7,111 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Ashley Zarle can be reached at azarle@sufs.org.

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