All Posts by Lisa Davis

American Income Life donates $25,000 to Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By PAUL SOOST

American Income Life, a provider of life, accident and supplemental health insurance, announced on June 25 a $25,000 contribution to Step Up For Students, helping lower-income children attend the K-12 school that best fits their learning needs. The contribution will fund three  scholarships for the 2018-19 school year.

This is the first time that American Income has partnered with 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.

American Income Life presents Step Up For Students with a contribution of $25,000 which will fund three scholarships for lower-income Florida schoolchildren to attend the school of their choice through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Pictured are (left to right) Steve Greer, chief executive officer, AIL/NILICO Agency Division, David Bryant, Step Up For Students development officer, and David Zolphin, president, AIL/NILICO Agency Division

American Income Life presents Step Up For Students with a contribution of $25,000 which will fund three scholarships for lower-income Florida schoolchildren to attend the school of their choice through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Pictured are (left to right) Steve Greer, chief executive officer, AIL/NILICO Agency Division, David Bryant, Step Up For Students development officer, and David Zolphin, president, AIL/NILICO Agency Division

“American Income Life takes an active role in giving back to the community, in places we live, work and visit. We’re proud to partner with Step Up For Students and to help shape the lives of children through educational opportunities,” said Chief Executive Officer, AIL Agency Division Steve Greer. “Supporting Step Up’s mission will help develop future leaders in our communities and we’re excited to be involved.”

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged schoolchildren allows parents and schoolchildren 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 schools.

“We are thrilled that American Income Life has joined us in our efforts to provide educational options for lower-income families in Florida,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “We are grateful for their generosity, and to its employees’ efforts to improve the lives of people living in their communities.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students served more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade, and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Paul Soost can be reached at psoost@sufs.org.

Scholarship student soars after hurdling language barrier

By JEFF BARLIS

The day after Maria Corrales’ tear-soaked graduation ceremony from St. Brendan High School, her mother, Carmen Urquijo, still searched for perspective.

“I have no words,” said Urquijo of her oldest daughter’s path from Cuba to Miami, a four-year journey that saw a girl who didn’t speak any English transform into a college-bound honors student.

A moment later the words spilled forth.

“Proud, grateful, full of joy that she was able to achieve so much,” Carmen said in Spanish. As Maria translated, a slight blush came over her golden skin.

A scholarship helped Maria Corrales soar academically and overcome a language barrier after leaving Cuba, leading to graduation.

A scholarship helped Maria Corrales soar academically and overcome a language barrier after leaving Cuba, leading to graduation.

Maria’s journey is a testament to perseverance and opportunity. St. Brendan became a second home, a refuge and a springboard to the American dream. But Maria’s family wouldn’t have been able to afford tuition had it not been for the Step Up For Students scholarship that helps lower-income families.

The journey began in the hilly town of Santa Clara, Cuba. Maria was one of the top students in her middle school, but knew from her parents that studies were no guarantee of success in Cuba. Her mom was a doctor, but the profession paid very little. Her father, Fabio Corrales, studied to be an electrician but ended up a businessman who worked with artisans.

The family was comfortable, but a future in Florida looked far brighter.

Maria, then 15, said it was difficult leaving friends, relatives, the family home and her boyfriend. But once she and her sister, Mariangel, then 11, got settled into school, they realized English and assimilating were ever harder. There were a lot of tears.

“I thought I was coming to Disney,” Maria said. “But it was tough.”

While Mariangel went to the neighborhood middle school, the family’s Catholic faith led Maria to St. Brendan (Mariangel now attends St. Brendan and is happy and thriving). Even with the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up, and financial aid from the school, money was tight. Carmen and Fabio had to make do with low-paying jobs and couldn’t afford a car.

The city bus Maria took every morning was cold and depressing. No one talked. Everyone looked tired. She was typically among the first to arrive to a quiet, lonely campus.

“Mornings were very hard,” she said, “because I knew I had a whole day of not understanding anything. I had to pay attention because I had to get something out of the class. It felt like I wasn’t in the right place.”

Normally a chatterbox, Maria hardly spoke her freshman year. She was embarrassed. She doubted herself and the decision to move. The girl who got all A’s in Cuba received a D in English in the first quarter.

But she had an angel at St. Brendan.

Tayra Ichino ran the English lab after school three days a week. Maria attended every one, feeling relief as she entered the room. There, Ms. Ichino would translate, explain assignments, and absorb any doubts and fears with relentless encouragement.

Tayra Ichino celebrates the graduation of her student, Maria Corrales.

Maria was such a positive, hard-working student, Ichino said, it felt good to help her. By third quarter of freshman year, she was making all A’s. By year’s end, she was accepted into the school’s STEM academy.

“That shows how much studying and reviewing she was doing, because it’s not just sitting with me,” Ichino said. “She had to go home and study twice as hard as any student who already had the language.”

That summer, Maria’s progress with English accelerated even more. She spent seven weeks as a camp counselor for 8-year-old girls where there was no getting around the language barrier. The girls bluntly asked her why she spoke so strangely. The ones who spoke Spanish helped her.

“It helped me come out of my shell,” Maria said. “After camp, I said, ‘OK, I can speak.’ ”

The embarrassment gone, Maria set about conquering St. Brendan. The student body seemed larger as she made more English-speaking friends. She took harder classes and thrived.

“She just completely turned it on,” said guidance counselor Carlos Nuñez.

Now a graduate, Maria’s accomplishments are staggering: English Honor Society (“which is amazing,” Nuñez said, “because she couldn’t even put a sentence together when she first started”), National Honor Society, Math Honor Society, Science Honor Society, Social Sciences Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society, varsity swimming, president of the STEM Academy, and unanimous winner of the Archbishop’s Catholic Leadership award.

“This girl is remarkable,” said St. Brendan principal Jose Rodelgo-Bueno. “We were worried when we gave her admission, but she has better grades than people who were born here.”

Maria was accepted into the honors program at Florida International University, where she will study civil engineering. She wants to own a firm someday and build bridges, buildings and expressways.

“The sky’s the limit and I can accomplish anything,” she said. “I learned that at St. Brendan.”

About Saint Brendan High School

Originally a seminary high school in 1959, St. Brendan went co-ed after an enrollment decline and re-opened with its present name in 1975. Today’s student body is about 70 percent female and 98 percent Hispanic. Part of the Archdiocese of Miami, the school sits on 33 acres that are shared with the seminary. There are 1,187 9-12th graders, including 284 on Step Up scholarships. The school has an academies program similar to college majors, in which freshmen apply to one of four academies – law/business, medical, engineering, and fine arts. More than half of the teachers hold advanced degrees. The school administers the SAT and ACT annually. Tuition is $10,250 a year with financial aid available to qualified families.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

Brave warrior, inspiring model flourishes with scholarship

By DAVID HUDSON TUTHILL

Her name means “Brave Warrior” in Spanish.

That might not conjure up the image of a 6-year-old girl with blonde hair, glasses and a smile so bright she became the first person with Down syndrome to become a main model for a major fashion brand.

Born with Down syndrome, Valentina Guerrero, started modeling at 9 months old.

But, Valentina Guerrero always defies expectations.

The oldest child of Cecilia Elizalde and Juan Fernando Guerrero, Valentina was born Sept. 16, 2011. Her parents didn’t learn Valentina had Down syndrome until after her birth.  Each year, roughly 6,000 children in the U.S. are born with the genetic condition according to the Centers for Disease Control.

A Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs has helped Valentina shatter incorrect assumptions many people make about people with Down syndrome. Step Up For Students helps manage the scholarship.

“I realized how incredible individuals with Down syndrome are,” Elizalde said. “They’re so evolved on a spiritual level, and we have so much to learn from them. But we don’t hear enough of that. We hear outdated comments about their potential. I wanted to help change that perception.”

The family, including younger brother Oliver, 3, lives in Miami. Other family members remain in their native Ecuador.

Valentina was a few months old when her parents realized some of the challenges she could face. They soon had her working with occupational, physical and speech therapists.

Adriana Tilley, an occupational therapist with 33 years of experience, has been working with Valentina since she was a baby.  Tilley says Elizalde and Guerrero are deeply involved with their daughter’s care, which has had a huge influence on her development. The Gardiner Scholarship helps pay for the care.

“The parents have been incredible and a huge member of the team,” Tilley says. “Valentina is like any other kid, with some limitations. But, we all have limitations.”

Tilley’s six years of work with Valentina have helped the child make tremendous strides in her personality. She constantly is asking how other people are feeling. Tilley marvels at the young woman she’s helped nurture over the past six years.

“She’s met all her milestones and is doing great,” Tilley says. “Now she is learning how to do everything by herself. I’ve loved working with her and learning from her family.”

Even as a baby, Valentina began shattering stereotypes.

She was 9 months old when she began taking the modeling world by storm. Family connections led her to European fashion designer Dolores Cortés. By 2013, she was the main model for the company’s children collection DC Kids USA 2013.  In the ensuing years, Valentina has been featured in a plethora of media outlets, including People Magazine, Down Syndrome World and MTV Tres. She also has modeled for brands such as Walmart, GAP, Toys R Us and Carter’s, the children’s clothing company.

A Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs has helped Valentina Guerreno shatter incorrect assumptions many people make about people with Down syndrome.

Her accomplishments resonated as far away as her family’s native Ecuador – to the extent that the country’s former vice president, Lenin Moreno, wrote Valentina a letter, calling her an inspiration. Moreno is now Ecuador’s President.

“We didn’t take the fame too seriously,” says Elizalde, a former television producer, consultant and music show host on the Spanish-language PBS station V-me. “I saw it as a platform for us to communicate an important message. It was a little hectic having to go from therapies to having cameras all over. It was kind of surreal.”

Social media has played a major role in Valentina’s fame. Thanks to her mother, there are countless photos and videos across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, documenting her life and various activities.

Elizalde also recently began a Spanish language parenting channel on YouTube. She hopes to pass on to other families some of the techniques and therapies that have most helped her family.

She is a firm believer in the adage that it takes a village to raise a child such as Valentina, which is why the family feels so fortunate to be able to choose the right educational path for her.

Valentina enrolled in a three-year pre-K class at Morningside K-8 Academy in Miami. By her third year, she was in class with over 20 kids, one teacher, and an aid. Despite the class size, and with Valentina the only child in class with Down syndrome, the school was largely successful in meeting her needs. When Kindergarten rolled around however, the family toured different school options.

Elizalde was worried about finding the right setting to meet Valentina’s needs. A friend recommended the family check out Von Wedel Montessori School in Miami. As soon as the family walked in, they knew they had found the perfect place for Valentina and her brother, Oliver.

At Von Wedel, the family creates an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, in conjunction with the principal, teachers and with input from Tilley. Valentina thrives in that setting, and Elizalde loves the philosophy of Montessori – to allow children to develop at their own unique pace, to work independently, and embrace the joy of self-discovery.

“None of her peers notice her disability,” Elizalde says. “They acknowledge that we are all different. It’s a really beautiful environment for her.”

A typical week for Valentina is full of activities. On Monday, there’s swimming lessons after school lets out at 3 p.m. She has occupational and speech therapies on Tuesday. On Wednesday, it’s ballet class. By Thursday, she’s back in the pool. Friday is usually a day to relax and spend time with some of her friends or fit in a modeling gig. Valentina loves going to the playground and to different museums. There is also a standing weekly Friday night dinner with family.

Valentina says she wants to be a chef when she grows up. She likes to play with her kitchen set. Her mother sees a different path, however.  She thinks Valentina is a natural teacher.

Nearly every day at home, Valentina lines up her stuffed animals and reads to them and leads them in a class. The process goes on for a couple hours. Her younger brother Oliver is the only non-stuffed attendee, and she has helped him learn to speak English.

Six years old and with a life so fast paced, it’s hard to imagine the higher levels Valentina Guerrero will reach. With the help of her school, the boundless energy of her mother, and their family’s mission to spread positivity about individuals with Down syndrome, her capacity is endless.

“She’s a warrior,” Elizalde says. “When she has a goal, she fights for it and achieves it.”

Visit Cecilia Elizalde’s YouTube Channel.

David Hudson Tuthill can be reached at dhudson@sufs.org.

Football? Academics? Scholarship student chooses both at Dartmouth

By JEFF BARLIS

Robert Crockett III is engaged in hand-to-hand combat with his uncooperative red-and-white striped necktie as a photographer sets him up for the next shot.

On a bright, breezy spring day at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, teachers and fellow students say hi as they walk past without an ounce of surprise to see the affable senior representing the school. With his close-cropped hair and perfect smile, Robert is a star on campus.

Getting accepted to Dartmouth College has only added to the mystique.

“We need to buy him a lifetime supply of school sweatshirts to have him be the face of a Columbus alumnus,” said English teacher Bob Linfors. “He’s a success. I don’t know how much credit we should get for molding him, but he’s somebody to put on our posters.”

Robert Crockett III is headed to Dartmouth College to play football and study pre-med.

Robert Crockett III is headed to Dartmouth College to play football and study pre-med.

When Robert came to Columbus for ninth grade, it was his third school in three years. He excelled at a K-8 magnet school through seventh grade, but mom Stacy Preston, who also grew up in Miami, wanted Robert to get the big neighborhood school experience for eighth grade. It turned out to be too easy.

She knew about Columbus, where a nephew had gone years prior, but it came with a daunting price tag. Then a friend whose son went to Columbus told her about the Step Up For Students scholarship, which helps lower-income families with tuition.

Stacy has worked in HR at the University of Miami for 11 years. She’s separated from husband Robert Crockett Jr., who works for a moving company. Neither went to college after high school, but Stacy is now just four credits shy of getting her bachelor’s degree.

She raised Robert with an expectation of college but said “it hasn’t been common in our family. That’s what got me back to school. I couldn’t push my kids and not be an example.”

Stacy didn’t know how Robert would do in an elite private school, but she didn’t need to worry. According to Columbus principal David Pugh, Robert excelled at the school from day one and is taking five Honors and two Advanced Placement courses as a senior.

“Sometimes it can be a difficult transition to a competitive college preparatory school, and he’s met all of our expectations,” Pugh said. “For four years, Robert has worn his uniform impeccably.”

Robert wears another uniform as captain of the football team.

Growing up in this football-crazed city, Robert fell in love with the sport at age four. He put on his 11-year-old brother’s helmet and pads and ran around his house and yard yelling, “Hut! Hut!”

“The helmet was about to take him over, the pads were way too big,” Stacy recalled. “It was super cute. But that’s him. He’s been at this a long time.”

Dad was the football parent who coached pee wee leagues. Mom was the school parent who demanded that academics come first. She’d seen other parents put sports first and wasn’t having it.

Today, Stacy simultaneously beams and deflects credit when she talks about Dartmouth. From an early age, she guided Robert, the second of her three boys. But he didn’t need much pushing.

“He saw how I was with his older brother,” she said. “You came in, sat down, got a snack and did your homework. As a little kid, Robert would want to do homework, too, and he wasn’t even in school. We would have to sit him at the table with his older brother and give him pencil and paper, and he couldn’t even spell his name yet. That’s just been him from the very beginning. He was a different kid.”

The kind who could learn from others’ mistakes.

Early on, it was no TV or going outside when older brother De’vante Davis didn’t bring home good grades.

Later, it was the threat of losing football privileges.

“I just looked at someone doing bad and said, ‘I don’t want to be like that,’ ” he said. “I think about my parents and football. If I mess up that’s all over with. Colleges wouldn’t be interested. I don’t want to be that kid that messes up and gets everything taken away because I did something stupid.”

Before his senior year, Robert’s inner circle was mostly football friends, some of whom he’s known since pee wee ball. Some are big-time college football recruits, All-Americans who chose football-factory colleges like Alabama, Florida and Miami. Others went down the wrong road, but he’s lost touch with them.

Robert dreams his road will lead to a shot at the NFL. But he has another dream – becoming a surgeon – and he knows pre-med classes at Dartmouth will be more important than any game.

“It really hasn’t hit me yet that I’m going to an Ivy League school,” he said with an arched eyebrow and amused smile. “I don’t puff out my chest. I’m just staying focused, because me getting there and me graduating from there are two different things. I have to do everything I need to do first.”

About Christopher Columbus High School

Established by the Archdiocese of Miami in 1958, Columbus is one of 14 Catholic schools in the U.S. ministered by the Marist Brothers and the only one in the southeast. Within the Marist tradition, the school emphasizes personal development and community service in addition to a college prep curriculum that includes extensive AP and dual-enrollment classes. More than half of the staff hold advanced degrees. Accredited by AdvancEd and a member of the National Catholic Educational Association, the school annually administers the SAT and ACT. There are 1,688 students, including 250 on Step Up scholarships. Tuition is $10,700 a year. Financial assistance is available for qualified families, but each family must contribute something toward their tuition.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org

Frontline Insurance helps Florida schoolchildren with a $1.1 million contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By PAUL SOOST

 Frontline Insurance, a provider of property and casualty insurance for coastal homeowners, announced on May 10 a $1.1 million donation to Step Up For Students, helping lower-income children attend the K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.

The contribution was celebrated at Holy Cross Lutheran Academy in Sanford with an activity helping students get prepared for the upcoming hurricane season.

Holy Cross fifth-graders learned about hurricanes and how they can help make sure their families are prepared, should a hurricane threaten Florida. Students assembled safety kits to take home for their families.

Frontline Insurance Vice President of Business Development Brian Smith (behind check left) presents Step Up For Students CFO Joe Pfountz (behind check right) with a $1.1 million donation. The donation will provide 163 scholarships for Florida schoolchildren through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. They are joined by several students from Holy Cross Lutheran Academy in Sanford who are benefiting from the scholarship.

During the event, Frontline Insurance Vice President of Business Development Brian Smith presented the $1.1 million check to Step Up For Students. The donation will fund 163 K-12 scholarships for the 2017-18 school year through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which serves lower-income children in Florida so they can attend the school of their choice. About 90 students at Holy Cross use the tax-credit scholarship.

“Frontline Insurance is proud to be active in our Florida communities, educating children and families on the importance of being prepared for hurricane season,” said Smith. “We’re even more excited to help Florida children and families prepare for a successful future through our support of educational choice and the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program. Finding the right learning environment for every child will help put them on the path to future success.”

During its four-year partnership with Step Up, Frontline Insurance has donated $3.56 million dollars to Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged schoolchildren. The program is funded with tax-credited donations and allows parents and schoolchildren 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 schools.

“Since 2014, more than 570 Florida schoolchildren have been able to attend the school of their choice thanks to the generosity of Frontline Insurance. We are truly grateful that Frontline Insurance joins us in our mission to provide educational options for deserving families,” said Step Up CFO Joe Pfountz. “On behalf of Step Up and the families we serve, we thank Frontline Insurance for its continued commitment and support.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade, and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Paul Soost can be reached at psoost@sufs.org.

 

 

 

Student Spotlight: Scholarship student enjoying the calm after the storm

 

By JEFF BARLIS

The lean, angular kid arrived at his new school three years ago, whip-smart and rage-filled. TJ Butler didn’t want to make eye contact, didn’t want to make friends, didn’t want to follow the rules. Instead, he screamed, slammed doors and threw things, including, one time, a desk.

For a boy diagnosed with bipolar disorder, whose father was in prison, who grew up with police lights flashing in his front yard, maybe that’s no surprise. But the teachers and administrators at Hillsborough Baptist School weren’t going to give in.

Nearly every day for the first year, the principal, Jessica Brockett, talked with TJ – and listened. For a boy who never thought anyone would listen, this was therapy.

“I wanted him to have a fresh start,” Brockett said. “I said, ‘Look, we’re not kicking you out of here, so let’s just get past all that.’ That developed a trust and a connection that he could come down here and say what he needed to say.”

 “This school really changed me,” says Step Up For Students scholar TJ Butler. "It “broke down the walls surrounding my heart.”

“This school really changed me,” says Step Up For Students scholar TJ Butler, who attend Hillsborough Baptist School. “It “broke down the walls surrounding my heart.”

Three years later, a visible calm has settled over TJ. Now 18, he walks the halls with the confident, purposeful stride of a young man who’s on the verge of graduating from high school and going to college.

“This school really changed me,” he said. It “broke down the walls surrounding my heart.”

TJ’s story turns on the school that wouldn’t give up on him – and the school choice scholarships that gave him the opportunity to attend.

He grew up in Tampa. His father is in prison for life for drug trafficking and shooting a police officer. Home life with mom was a swirl of chaos and conflict with boyfriends and then a stepfather. The violence and threats that rattled the walls traumatized TJ and his two younger brothers.

“There was a lot of burning tension,” TJ recalled. “There was so much anger you could feel it.”

The anger became part of TJ’s wiring. The littlest thing could set him off. He was expelled from his neighborhood elementary school for fighting. He continued to find trouble with teachers and students at a second elementary school before moving to a charter school.

TJ doesn’t remember much of his childhood before age 10. It’s a dark haze that’s painful to probe. His mother, Ngozi Morris, now a single mom who works as a tax preparer, said he was always a good student.

“He’s very intelligent and capable,” she said, “but it was frustrating to see him struggle with his emotions. When he got to middle school, wooo, he just escalated out of control.”

By then, TJ had deep depressions. He thought about suicide all the time.

At his neighborhood middle school, TJ was constantly in trouble, constantly suspended in school and out. He fought with students, shouted at teachers, took out his anger on anything that wasn’t nailed down. It culminated in an episode late in his eighth-grade year in which he climbed onto the roof and threw anything he could find down at the principal’s window.

The school had TJ Baker Acted, which meant he was taken for a psychological evaluation. The diagnosis: bipolar disorder. Ngozi felt relieved to know what was going on.

“It solidified everything for me,” she said. “His father had the same thing.”

With the diagnosis, Ngozi got TJ a McKay Scholarship for students with special needs and found a private school for her son to start ninth grade. A couple months later, he was expelled for an altercation he didn’t start under a zero-tolerance policy. He made it the rest of that year without incident at a second private school, but the academics weren’t challenging.

Ngozi worried TJ would never graduate, that he would end up in jail like his father. Then another mom told her about Hillsborough Baptist School, about how well they handled kids with behavior problems. Ngozi enrolled him. She eventually switched from the McKay Scholarship to the Step Up scholarship, because she was on an extremely tight budget and it reduced her monthly tuition supplements.

Hillsborough Baptist was TJ’s seventh school. As usual, he was mad when he arrived. As usual, he was trouble.

But bit by bit, trust grew and anger subsided.

Brockett, an unassuming young administrator with a shy smile and twinkling eyes, learned to read TJ’s face in the hallways. She would proactively call him into her office to talk. She could disarm an explosion before he even got to a classroom.

“A lot of times when he releases that anger, he cries,” she said.

Another breakthrough occurred at the start of TJ’s senior year. With his mom’s blessing, he moved in with the family of his best friend, Mathew Evatt. The calm and stability there resulted in further improvement in TJ’s behavior at school.

With all A’s and B’s, TJ is planning to go to college in the fall – either Hillsborough Community College or University of South Florida – aiming to become a veterinarian.

In the meantime, he serves as a teacher’s assistant, practicing the approach his school used with him.

One recent day, he stood at the whiteboard in front of first-graders, as one bouncy student attacked a math problem. The little brown-haired boy figured it out so quickly, celebration morphed from amusing to disruptive.

TJ let it go. His patience paid off. In short order, the boy settled down and correctly explained how he got the answer to his classmates.

Said TJ with a smile, “I saw myself in him.”

About Hillsborough Baptist School

Founded in 1992 and affiliated with Landmark Baptist Church, the school serves 147 K-12 students, including 85 on Step Up For Students scholarships and 36 on McKay Scholarships. The school uses the Abeka curriculum with lots of supplemental materials, like Bob Jones for upper elementary reading. It administers the NWEA’s Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP) as its standardized test. Tuition is $4,947 for K-6 and $5,432 for 7-12.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

 

 

Johnson Brothers of Florida helps lower-income children with a $9.6 million contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By PAUL SOOST

 TAMPA Johnson Brothers of Florida, one of the top beverage distributors in the state, announced on April 25 a contribution of $9.6 million to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program through Step Up For Students, serving lower-income children in Florida.

Johnson Brothers’ donation will allow more than 1,468 K-12 students to attend the school of their choice for the 2017-18 school year.

“Finding the right school for your child to attend is important to every family, regardless of their income and the neighborhood they live in. Johnson Brothers is thrilled to support a program that so positively affects the lives of Florida children,” said Frank Galante, president of Johnson Brothers of Florida. “We are proud of the difference we are making in our community and look forward to our continued partnership with Step Up For Students.”

Johnson Brothers of Florida President Frank Galante, right, presents Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill, left, with a contribution of $9.6 million during Johnson Brothers General Sales meeting on April 25. The contribution will fund 1,468 scholarships for lower-income Florida schoolchildren to attend the K-12 school of their choice. Joining them is Brenda Henson Budd, principal of St. Joseph Catholic School, a school in West Tampa that participates in the scholarship program. 

Johnson Brothers of Florida President Frank Galante, right, presents Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill, left, with a contribution of $9.6 million during Johnson Brothers General Sales meeting on April 25. The donation will fund 1,468 scholarships for lower-income Florida schoolchildren to attend the K-12 school of their choice. Joining them is Brenda Henson Budd, principal of St. Joseph Catholic School, a school in West Tampa that participates in the scholarship program.

The donation was announced during Johnson Brothers sales meeting held at their corporate office in Tampa. Brenda Budd, principal of St. Joseph Catholic School, attended the event and shared a few stories of families at her school who have benefited from the scholarship program.

“We at St. Joseph Catholic School have benefited greatly from the generosity of Johnson Brothers of Florida. Their commitment to ensure students can attend their school of choice has allowed us to educate children that would not have the opportunity to receive a private Catholic education,” said Principal Brenda Henson Budd. “Johnson Brothers of Florida and Step Up for Students is helping our students to be on the pathway to achieving our school goals of College and Heaven.”

This is the sixth consecutive year Johnson Brothers of Florida has contributed to the nonprofit organization that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged schoolchildren. The program is funded with tax-credited donations and allows parents and schoolchildren 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 schools.

“We are truly grateful to have Johnson Brothers as a long-time partner in our mission to ensure that lower-income children have choices in their education. With their help, more Florida families are able to access an educational environment that best fits their child’s learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “On behalf of Step Up and the families we service, we thank you for your continued commitment and generosity.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade, and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Paul Soost can be reached at psoost@sufs.org.

 

Brothers making great strides at Jacksonville School for Autism

By GEOFF FOX

Ethan Alexander was decompressing in a multi-purpose room at Jacksonville School for Autism.

The lights were out in the room, as the blinking and hum of fluorescent lighting can be bothersome to some students. But the sun was shining through a large glass window, and Ethan, 9, was burning off energy by bouncing on a large blue exercise ball.

Clinical therapist Jasmine Stevens watched Ethan with a warm smile. After a few moments, she had him take deep breaths and whatever anxiety he previously felt seemed to evaporate.

Caitlin Alexander says because her sons are able to attend Jacksonville School for Autism with help from Gardiner Scholarships, they are both making great academic and social strides. From left to right Ethan, Caitlin, Ashton and Van Alexander.

Thanks to the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs, Ethan and his older brother Ashton, 11, have attended Jacksonville School for Autism (JSA) for two years. Step Up For Students helps manage the scholarship.

Before attending the school, Ethan struggled with reading and math, and didn’t socialize easily.

“His academics have improved greatly and he’s much more engaged with his peers,” Stevens said.

Jill Thomas, the school’s marketing and development director, entered the multi-purpose room as Ethan was counting backwards from five in the voice of his favorite character in “Monsters, Inc.” She asked how he was doing.

“Good!” Ethan said, adding that he hoped to soon see the movie “Black Panther.”

Noticing that Ethan’s earlier anxieties had subsided, Thomas fired a couple questions at him.

“Hey Ethan, what’s five plus five?” she asked.

“Ten!” he said quickly.

“What’s six plus six?”

After a moment, and a couple of bounces, he answered correctly: “Twelve!”

He was clearly pleased with himself.

As Ethan spoke with Thomas, his older brother Ashton was roaming on an elaborate outdoor playground. Keeping to himself, he walked, tightrope-style, along narrow planks that lined the area. The day was warm and a slight breeze blew through his short blond hair.

He was the picture of contentment.

Caitlin Alexander, Ethan and Ashton’s mother, said she worried greatly about her oldest son before they attended JSA. She and husband Van, a regional sales manager for a medical-device company, live in Jacksonville.

“Ashton had horrible behaviors that are now gone,” she said. “He would self-injure himself. His escape from a situation would be to smash his head against something hard. It could have been because of something someone said or something he heard, which made daily life a huge struggle.”

Ethan and Ashton previously attended a different school in the area. When their favorite teacher, Breiyona Baltierra, moved to JSA, she encouraged the Alexanders to visit.

“We fell in love with the school, too,” Caitlin Alexander said.

Tour JSA’s campus and it’s not hard to understand why. The school opened in 2005 and has been in the building formally occupied by an architectural firm since 2013. The school began with only two students, but there are now 60 – who range in age from 2 to 31 – and a waiting list. Ten of the school’s current students are on the Gardiner Scholarship program.

The school is housed in a spacious, two-story building with elaborate skylights in several classrooms.

Still, Thomas said, “There’s no more physical space. We get multiple calls a day from people wanting to get on the waiting list.”

On the first floor are several classrooms and a clinical wing where most students spend half of each day working one-on-one with a therapist.

Students who need individual therapy have their own cubicles where they can work without interruption.

Upstairs is a library that includes a Wii set-up, additional clinical spaces and more classrooms.

Inside a music room, piano teacher Twila Miller, known as “Mrs. Ty,” was teaching student Srinidhi “Sri” Aravind notes on a piano.

“Tap, tap, tap, tap,” Miller said, as Sri, a Step Up scholar, struck the correct keys in the proper rhythm.

“We’re learning how to hold the note,” Miller said. “The piano is a wonderful tool to learn to make your hands do what you want them to do.”

Sri kept playing, deliberately at first, but gaining confidence as she went.

“Isn’t that beautiful?” Miller said. “It sounds like the piano is talking to me.”

An occupational therapy classroom features resources and equipment that help students work on speech, writing and other fine motor skills, such as gripping objects properly.

Gym mats line the floor. There is also a large swing and a “ball pit,” where students can burn energy playing with plastic balls in a safe area.

“A lot of our students struggle with communication, so everything they learn academically is in a social setting,” Thomas said. “It may look like they’re playing games, but they’re learning how to interact and respond appropriately to one another.

“Some of them are constantly fighting their bodies to sit down and be calm.”

The school also has an adult vocational program in which participants help prepare lunches for students, as well as cleaning up and dishwashing.

“We want to teach them anything that can translate into a job,” Thomas said.

A dozen local businesses – including restaurants, grocery stores, thrift shops and a food pantry – routinely hire JSA students for part-time work. Spectrum Shredding even has a shredding machine at JSA, so some students can work without leaving the campus.

School officials hope to eventually open a separate center focused on residential and educational services for adults on the autism spectrum.

“We don’t want them to graduate high school or turn 22 and then have nothing to do,” Thomas said. Students are eligible to receive the Gardiner Scholarship until age 22.

The school needs 20 to 30 acres of land to build what is tentatively called the Autism Center for Residential and Educational Services. The trick is finding land close enough to the existing school – as well as raising money for the project, which would include housing, an auditorium, wings for elementary, middle and high school, a gymnasium and cafeteria.

“We want to offer Applied Behavior Analysis therapy and really expand our vocational programs and employment placement,” Thomas said. “There’s also a residential living component – supportive living. A lot of our students will not be able to live totally independently, but we want them to have all the resources they need to thrive and live in a supportive community.”

It is that attention to students’ overall well-being that attracted the Alexanders and the dozens of other families JSA has served.

Caitlin Alexander marveled at the progress her sons have made there in a relatively short time.

Ethan has been transformed from a student who didn’t like interacting with others into one of the school’s most outgoing students.

And Ashton’s behavioral issues have improved as dramatically as his interest in numbers has grown. He also has become proficient with Microsoft PowerPoint, which he uses to make slide shows, charts and graphs for various projects.

“He’s also really getting into coding,” his mother said. “You never know. He could be the next Steve Jobs.”

 

Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@sus.org.

 

 

Wright Flood donates $1 million to Step Up For Students Scholarship Program to help 153 Florida schoolchildren

 

By PAUL SOOST

Wright Flood, the largest provider of federal flood insurance policies in the U.S., recently announced a $1 million contribution to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The donation will fund 153 K-12 scholarships for the 2017-18 school year, so lower-income children can attend the school that best meets their learning needs.

Wright National Flood presented Step Up For Students with a $1 million check. The contribution will provide scholarships for lower-income Florida schoolchildren to be able to attend the K-12 participating school of their choice. Wright National Flood representatives (back row, from left to right) Lagaysheya Smith, Michael Giovanniello, Patty Templeton-Jones, Dawn Forrest and Eddie Curren are joined by (back row, far right) Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. A few Step Up scholarship recipients from Tampa Bay area schools participated in the presentation.

Since first partnering with Step Up For Students in 2008, Wright Flood has contributed $3,850,000, providing 670 scholarships.

“We are proud of the impact we’ve had on students in our home state of Florida through our contributions to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program,” said Patty Templeton-Jones, president of Wright Flood. “It’s a privilege to have formed this partnership to help Florida youth reach for their dreams.”

Step Up For Students helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which allows recipients to choose between a scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools. The program is funded by corporations through dollar-for-dollar tax credited donations.

“Thanks to Wright Flood, more schoolchildren will have the opportunity to attend the school that fits the way they learn, regardless of where they live or their parents’ income,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “On behalf of Step Up and the families we serve, we thank Wright Flood for their generosity and their commitment to support our mission.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 101,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for K through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Paul Soost can be reached at psoost@sufs.org.

 

For wayward boys, a wild balm of a school

By JEFF BARLIS

Fighting, skipping, smoking pot – Jake Clayton’s freshman year in a public high school was a disaster, with explosive anger issues leading to a school record 44 disciplinary actions. Most days, the skinny kid with the mischievous smile would walk off campus and hang at a friend’s house. He failed nearly every class.

Jake Clayton was a troubled teen, but now is on track to graduate this year thanks to a McKay Scholarship and Gator Wilderness Camp School.

After his expulsion, his older sister discovered an off-beat private school called Gator Wilderness Camp School, where troubled boys live on 250 acres with cows and bee hives and learn to find paths to success. Could this work for Jake?

Jake’s adoptive mom, Virginia Clayton, was desperate enough to give it a shot. And thanks to a McKay Scholarship, a type of school choice scholarship for Florida students with disabilities, she could afford it.

Today, Jake is 17, months from graduating from his virtual high school, and planning to go to college. “The anger never comes out any more,” he said. “I’d be in a pretty bad spot if I hadn’t gone to camp.”

Since its founding in 2009, Gator Wilderness Camp School has served 139 students – nearly all of them on school choice scholarships – and become another distinctive piece in Florida’s increasingly diverse mosaic of educational options. Most of the roughly 2,000 private schools that participate in the state’s scholarship programs could be described as “mainstream,” but there are plenty of niche schools like Gator Camp. State-supported choice programs allow them to cater to the more specific needs of individual students and parents, and the more specific visions of individual educators.

Greg Kanagy, director of Gator Camp, is one of them. The mild-mannered 50-year-old grew up loving the outdoors in Pennsylvania, and earned degrees in physical education and special ed. He liked the idea of combining the two. “But I didn’t relish the thought of spending 25-30 years inside of four walls,” he said.

The camp says 80 percent of its students graduate; 85 percent of its graduates stay out of legal trouble; and 80 percent stay in school or work. That is “considered very high for the population we’re working with,” said school director Greg Kanagy.

In South Carolina, he worked for a similar school and found a passion for helping at-risk boys. The concept was inspired by a Texan named Campbell Loughmiller, who developed the first camp near Dallas in the 1940s and helped spread the idea around the country. After Kanagy got his master’s in education, the opportunity arose to move his family to the semi-tropical wilds of southwest Florida and start Gator Camp.

There is no sign on State Road 131 in Charlotte County when it’s time to turn off the paved road. That’s intentional. Isolation is key. A couple of miles down a dusty, white-sand road, the “school” sits, surrounded by vast tracts of farm land. The nearest visible neighbor is a sand and shell mine.

“I was a bit afraid of getting my hands dirty,” Jake said, “but I was up for giving it a try.”

The environment helped. It was hot and buggy, but also incredibly peaceful to hear nothing but animals and breezes making their way through the oaks, pines and cypresses.

The camp serves boys in three separate age groups between 10 and 15, with no more than eight campers in each. Most have special needs or disabilities. Many are deeply wounded.

“The families are pretty hopeless when they call us,” said Jackie Brucker, one of the camp’s two full-time family social workers.

A camper’s session lasts 15-18 months. Tuition is $1,000 a month, which sounds prohibitive, but the camp works with families to pay what they can. “We started in September 2009. We had one boy and two counselors,” said Kanagy. “His family said they could pay $200 a month, which (I knew) they couldn’t do. So, it’s got to come from somewhere.”

Gator Camp uses two types of choice scholarships to bridge tuition gaps: McKay Scholarships for students with disabilities, and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students, which Step Up For Students helps manage.. The rest comes from grants and donations from organizations, businesses, and individuals.

Chief Greg – as he and the counselors are called – lists the tenants of how the camp works:

  • Choice: Every boy agrees to attend, no one is forced.
  • Relationships: Those within the group and with the chiefs are paramount and constantly worked on. “The camper-chief relationship is oftentimes the first successful trust relationship these boys have with an adult,” Kanagy said.
  • Planning: Every day and every week, there is a plan, including chores and responsibilities.
  • Structure: The boys wake up at 6:30 a.m. Every day the camp sites are cleaned, pathways raked, gear stored. Bedtime is when all problems of the day have been solved.
  • Problem-solving: When there’s any kind of conflict, even something as seemingly minor as name-calling, the group stops what it’s doing and talks it to a resolution.
  • Evaluation: Everything they do is discussed after completion to analyze and reaffirm lessons learned.

The camp has horses, cows, bees (a dozen kid-sized suits were donated so the boys can help the beekeeper when he visits) and an area known as “Fruit Alley” with rows and rows of fruit trees.

There are no cellphones or video games.

“Come to camp,” Kanagy said, “and you’ll never hear them talk about missing those things.”

The boys are free to focus on themselves and their group, which is always planning something – budgets, meals, upgrading the facilities by hand, and trips to hike, swim and canoe. Every structure at the group’s campsite – including complex tiki huts – is either built or rebuilt by the boys.

“These represent some of the biggest accomplishments of their lives,” Kanagy said.

Jake’s anger issues came up frequently in his early days at camp, but the group and the chiefs talked it out meticulously. There was a lot of arguing, he said, but it was handled pretty quickly.

Jake got into a routine of doing the right things, and after several months began to realize how self-centered he had been. That’s when he started to truly embrace the group and help drive its progress along with his own.

“You had to want to be there and make a difference in your life,” he said. “I try to carry a lot of stuff over from camp. Structure is a big one. I felt lucky to go to a camp like that.”

The camp says 80 percent of its students graduate; 85 percent of its graduates stay out of legal trouble; and 80 percent stay in school or work. That is “considered very high for the population we’re working with,” Kanagy said.

“What this camp does is give the boys purpose,” he continued. “This is about a culture, and we work really hard to develop it and keep it in place. It’s incredible to see our students’ accomplishments.”

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

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