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All Posts by Lisa Davis

Bloomin’ Brands continues to support lower income students in Florida

By ASHLEY ZARLE

TAMPA, Fla. – Bloomin’ Brands, one of the world’s largest casual dining companies including Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba’s Italian Grill, and Bonefish Grill, announced June 7 a $600,000 contribution to Step Up For Students, helping 85 lower-income Florida schoolchildren attend a K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.

Since partnering with Step Up For Students in 2019, Bloomin’ Brands has generously funded 114 Florida Tax Credit scholarships through contributions totaling $800,000 and has pledged an additional $850,000 for the upcoming 2021-22 school year. This income-based scholarship program is funded by tax-credited donations from corporations and allows parents and students to choose between a scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

Students like Saliyha and Qinniun Varmah were able to attend Tampa Catholic High School with the help of a Step Up scholarship. Saliyha, who graduated from Tampa Catholic and hopes to study restaurant management and hospitality, understands the importance of her scholarship and education.

“I’m really, really grateful for Step Up,” she said, “because they’ve allowed me to go to private schools, schools that are going to help me further my education and push me harder than I’ve ever been pushed so I can understand the world and that it’s not going to be easy, and I have to work for everything.”

Just like Saliyha and Qinniun, schoolchildren throughout Florida are benefiting from the scholarship they receive through Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

“Our partnership with Step Up allows us to continue to invest in the well-being of our communities and support our neighbors – an important part of our company culture and core values” said Elizabeth Daly, director of media and community relations for Bloomin’ Brands, Inc. “We are proud to support their efforts in helping provide Florida schoolchildren access the education that best fits their needs.”

During the 2020-21 school year, nearly 100,000 K-12 students throughout Florida are using a Florida Tax Credit scholarship through Step Up for Students. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the program.

“We know Bloomin’ Brands is committed to helping their community and we are grateful for their continued partnership,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “Because of their support, we are able to provide educational options for more lower-income families in Florida.”

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

Longtime educator turned social media guru shares eight lessons for Florida private school educators

By LISA A. DAVIS

When Gerry Brooks appeared on computer screens streaming live the afternoon of May 21 to address an audience primarily of Florida private school educators, the first thing he did was pat his hair to fix a poof of gray strands that stood above his crown.

“Oooh,” he said, catching a glimpse of his misbehaving hair on the screen. “Look at my hair sitting this way. I should have done something beforehand.”

Brooks immediately brings a smile to your face and makes you feel as though you are old friends, even through a computer monitor. His accent is thick with a twang, perhaps a mix of his native Florida and Lexington, Kentucky, where he has built a successful 20-year-plus career as an educator.

Brooks has a lot of experience in front of a camera addressing a large audience.

Gerry Brooks, a longtime educator turned social media star, shared with a live online audience of teachers and administrators around the state, eight important “object lessons.” Nearly 1,000 people on May 20 attended the virtual Step Up For Students 2021 Choice in Education Celebration: Boosting Learning Through Laughter.

Five years ago, his world changed when he posted a video on social media that went viral, and ever since he continues to post comical videos about his real-life educational experiences like this. Today, he has amassed more than 2 million followers on social media channels, including 1.7 million on Facebook. He has taken that fame to the national speaking circuit to encourage educators in their career to becoming the best they can.

On this day, he was speaking to a live audience of nearly 1,000 strong during Step Up For Students 2021 Choice in Education Celebration: Boosting Learning Through Laughter.

Despite his viral fame, one thing was immediately clear to the audience of mostly educators: he was one of them.

He’s smart. He’s funny. He’s down-to-earth. He knows what he’s talking about. His goal is to share that knowledge and empower other educators.

During Thursday’s event, Brooks taught educators about eight “object lessons.” Well, those and his love affair with the Dollar Tree, where he frequents.

“So, what I’ve done is I’ve gathered some of my favorite things at Dollar Tree and I want to share them with you to hopefully be able to encourage you, in the position that you are in, to be better in whatever it is,” he told the audience.

Lesson One: Reading glasses.

“I collect these for my teachers,” he said holding up a pair. “When we go back to school in August every one of my teachers gets pair of reading glasses.”

Why?

“You will never be as good as you are supposed to be or fulfill your calling until you can look through the lens of other people. Because when you are only looking through your lens, then you’re only looking at how a situation affects you as a teacher, as a PE teacher, as a music teacher as a classroom teacher because you are only focusing on how it affects you.”

Brooks said you have to consider the perspective of those around you: the student, the parents, and others. If you don’t stop to think about where they may be coming from when a child is late for school, (it could be because of a divorce, a job loss, an illness, not enough money to pay the electric bill), you might not interact with them in a way you should. When you look through other people’s lenses, he noted, you gain “sympathy, empathy and understanding.”

“You can’t be great until you start looking through the lens of other people,” he said.

Lesson 2: Light switch (not from Dollar Tree)

Brooks said a teacher he met would buy light switches for each of her students and have them paint them as an art project. Then they would keep them on their desks. If the children were having a hard time transitioning from recess to math, for example, she would have the students flip their light switch.

“She used this to remind students the importance of moving our minds from one activity to another” he said. “…Everybody turn off your recess light. Ok, guys we’ve got to get in our math minds. Turn on your math light.”

While it’s great for students, it’s equally as great for educators to remind them you have to turn off work on a regular basis so you can enjoy your personal life and don’t burn out on your professional life.

“You in education have to be able to turn off your professional mind on a daily basis because – here’s why – if you can’t turn off your professional mind, then you’re no good to no one,” Brooks said.

Lesson 3: Pacifier

“This represents someone’s baby,” he said. “Here’s the reason I give this to all the teachers because they are dealing with someone’s baby.”

Brooks said it’s important that educators remember they are helping raise someone else’s baby. When talking with their students’ parents, even if it’s a difficult student, you have to look at it from the parent’s perspective and think about that when you have a conversation with them about their child.

Lesson 4: M&M’s

His local Dollar Tree has a dozen varieties of M&M candies. He urges administrators to know which kind each staff members likes so they can buy them their favorites. This is an example of relationship building, he said.

“The number one thing to job place happiness and staff retention is relationships,” Brooks said.

In Gerry Brooks’ Lesson No. 5, Butterfingers are the memory spark and “BF” is key.

Lesson 5: Butterfinger candy bar

This is a two-for lesson, he told the educators, and “BF” is key.

“Bye Felicia,” he said, referring to a pop culture reference from the 1995 film “Friday,” which is a dismissal of a person. In this case, Brooks said, it’s moving away from negative people. These are the constant complainers, he said, who talk negatively about the administration, policies, children and their parents.

“We need to get negative people out of our lives,” he said. “If you hang out with people you become negative.”

The second meaning of BF is for best friend.

“You need a professional best friend who you can go to,” Brooks said.

Because everyone has times they have to vent, this is the person you can go to who will give you “sympathy, empathy and understanding.” They will help you get through the bad days and not spread the negativity to the rest of the school.

Lesson 6: Magic 8 ball

Brooks remembers being a kid and using a Magic 8 ball to ask it all of life’s questions and receive all the answers. Unfortunately, he said, that doesn’t work in his professional world.

“Guess what? There’s no Magic 8 ball in education,” he said.

He said people need to realize that what works for one school, or one classroom, won’t necessarily work for the next. It’s the same with students. Education is not one size fits all. Beware of those who think there is a Magic 8 ball in education.

“When you try to push a Magic 8 ball on someone it’s going to backfire on you,” Brook said, reminding educators to consider what works for their students and their environment.

Lesson 7: Peanut butter and jelly

This P&J in this case is professional jealousy, Brooks said.

“If you allow P and J into your life as a professional, you can’t grow,” he said. “We need to guard ourselves from professional jealousy.”

Lesson 8: Peeps

Brooks said he enjoy the seasonal sugary treat all year round, so he has to plan ahead and purchase them around Easter and freeze them to have the rest of the year.  The lessons here, he said, is “seasons come to an end” and “this, too, will pass.”

The pandemic is a season, he told the educators. And it’s been a rough one.

“I know some of you need to hear this,” he said. “We are in a season. And this season will pass. Hang in there.”

For more lessons and comical stories about being an educator, check out Brooks’ YouTube channel here.

Educators, have any friends, family or children who may meet our new guidelines for our private school scholarships or any of our Florida scholarship programs? Please send them to our website to apply for scholarships at www.StepUpForStudents.org.

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


 

Universal Property & Casualty Insurance donates $5 million to Step Up

By ASHLEY ZARLE

March 10, 2021 | FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.– Step Up For Students announced March 10 a $5 million contribution to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program from Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company (UPCIC), helping 708 lower-income Florida schoolchildren attend the K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.

Since 2017, UPCIC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Universal Insurance Holdings, Inc. has generously funded 1,968 scholarships through contributions totaling $13.5 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 and allows parents and students to choose between a scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

UPCIC announced a $5 million contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (from left to right) are
American Platinum Vice President of Marketing David Ahern, UPCIC Vice President of Marketing Stacey Tomko, UPCIC Spokesperson and NFL Hall of Famer Dan Marino, and Step Up For Students Development Officer David Bryant.

“Universal is committed to giving back to the communities we serve,” said Steve Donaghy, Chief Executive Officer for Universal Insurance Holdings, Inc. (UIH). “We are proud to support hundreds of Florida schoolchildren through our partnership with Step Up For Students.”

UPCIC celebrated this donation with a check presentation at their corporate office in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Dan Marino, UPCIC spokesperson, National Football League hall of famer and former Miami Dolphins quarterback joined the celebration in support of UPCIC’s commitment to Florida schoolchildren.

“Because of the support of companies like UPCIC, deserving students throughout Florida can access the school that best fits their learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “UPCIC’s commitment to their community is incredible and because of their continued partnership we are able to provide educational options for lower-income families in Florida.”

During the 2020-21 school year, nearly 100,000 K-12 students throughout Florida are benefiting from a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up for Students. About 57% of scholarship children are from single-parent households and nearly 68% are Black or Hispanic. The average household income of families accepted to receive scholarships is $25,755 – a mere 9% above poverty. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the program.

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

Cal-Maine Foods donates $100,000 to help lower-income Florida students

By Ashley Zarle

DADE CITY, Fla.– Cal-Maine Foods, Inc., the largest producer and marketer of eggs in the United States, has contributed $100,000 to Step Up For Students, helping more than 14 Florida lower-income schoolchildren attend a K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.

This is the second year that Cal-Maine Foods has partnered with Step Up for Students and has generously funded nearly 30 Florida Tax Credit scholarships through contributions totaling $200,000.

Chris Myers, Cal-Maine Foods VP of Operations for NC,SC,GA,FL, and Ela Wysokinska, Cal-Maine Foods Regional Accounting Manager, present a $100,000 donation in support of the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program to Step Up For Students Development Officer Diana Allen.

“At Cal-Maine Foods, it is a priority for us to give back to our community,” said Dolph Baker, CEO of Cal-Maine Foods. “We are proud to invest in the future of Florida schoolchildren and we know our partnership with Step Up For Students is doing just that.”

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. This income-based scholarship program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and gives lower-income students  in Florida the opportunity to attend a private or assists with transportation costs to an out-of-district school that best meets the scholar’s learning needs.

“We are excited to have Cal-Maine Foods as a partner again this year,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “It is because of donors like Cal-Maine foods that we are able to fulfil our mission of helping disadvantaged schoolchildren access a school that fits their learning needs.”

During the 2020-21 school year, nearly 100,000 K-12 Florida students are benefiting from a Florida Tax Credit scholarship administered by Step Up for Students. About 57% of these scholars are from single-parent households and nearly 68% are Black or Hispanic. The average household income of families accepted to receive scholarships is $25,755 – a mere 9% above poverty. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

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

Love of learning returns for this student with Down syndrome

By LISA A. DAVIS

On most Friday mornings 14-year-old Matthew Mezzei springs awake in the 5 o’clock hour, excited to start his school day. It’s the earliest he rises. His inner alarm clock alerts him to a special day in his family’s home in rural Pasco County:

“Fun Friday!” his mother, Lisa Mezzei, said. “It’s a reward at the end of a busy week.”

On this particular Friday, it’s 10 a.m., and Matthew, a bespectacled boy with a bright smile and a love for baseball, excitedly greets a visitor to his home in Zephyrhills. His house is also his classroom. The day’s schedule is laid out on the kitchen counter. It includes several educational centers such as science, math, reading and even an obstacle course for agility exercises. They use much of their home’s shared living space as a classroom, and Fun Friday consists of educational game centers rather than straight curriculum.

“Centers help me to remember,” Matthew said.

Matthew was born with Down syndrome. His education began at his neighborhood school where he had an Individualized Education Program, known as an IEP, which is essentially a guide for children with certain special needs to reach their educational goals more easily. Matthew was in a general classroom and had great support, but by first grade something changed.

“When he was 7, he started not understanding what was being asked of him on tests,” his mother recalled. “He kept saying he felt tricked, and he started withdrawing at school.”

That’s when Mezzei knew she had to do something, because her happy-go-lucky boy was now often sad. She began researching her options and realized private and charter schools were not a good fit for Matthew either. Then she discovered the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarship program was new at that time. Home school seemed like the best option, and at an average of $10,000 per student annually to pay for curriculum and other approved learning tools, she added full-time teacher to her role. She decided it was best for her son to repeat first grade.

“Because of the Gardiner Scholarship, it wasn’t as daunting (to try home schooling),” she said. “The timing was so fortuitous. We had been wanting to withdraw him from the school, but we had no other options. At least the financial part wasn’t so scary.”

She used the scholarship to purchase learning aids for Matthew from places like Lakeshore Learning and Rainbow Resource. She bought science experiment kits, agility equipment, math games, chapter books, Handwriting Without Tears curriculum and more. They have used the funds for speech and occupational therapy.

Home schooling made all the difference, Mezzei said.

“Within six months, not only was his personality back, his confidence was back, and his love of learning was back,” she said.

Matthew loves learning about geography and the world around him. He has been making great strides since becoming a Gardiner scholar through Step Up For Students.

He made great strides, and his reading comprehension increased substantially.

His occupational and speech therapists agree that Matthew, now a seventh grader has made great progress since being home-schooled.

“The Mezzei family is a therapist’s dream family,” said Kelly Partain, Matthew’s occupational therapist. “They truly take all recommendations to heart and actually implement them, which makes for excellent outcomes. Matthew continues to exceed his goals as he has an excellent attitude and works hard every day at home while being home-schooled, at therapy, or on the ball field.”

Added his speech therapist, Lindsey Leeson, who works at the same clinic as Partain, “He has a big heart and is always looking to help other kids in our clinic and tells us how much he loves and appreciates us every session. “He’s a gem.”

Like most things, his therapy sessions moved online in March, but he continues to make strides.

Matthew’s speech is often hard to understand for those who first meet him, but his glowing personality and love of learning come shining through.

“This scholarship is life-changing and allows us to educate Matthew to the fullest extent of his abilities,” Mezzei said. “Our biggest hope is for him to be happy and successful in life, and as you know, we believe unequivocally this is his best path. … Matthew is so proud of what he learns and knows.”

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

Saltchuk companies contribute $160,000 to help Florida schoolchildren

By ASHLEY ZARLE

Saltchuk and its Florida-based companies TOTE, Tropical Shipping, Shoreside Logistics and StratAir, have announced a $160,000 contribution to Step Up For Students, helping Florida schoolchildren attend the K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.

This is the first year that Saltchuk companies partnered with Step Up For Students and the contribution will fund more than 22 K-12 scholarships through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which serves lower-income children in Florida.

Saltchuk announced a $160,000 contribution to Step Up For Students for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Pictured are students at Saint Helen Catholic School in Miami, Florida who are benefiting from the scholarship.

“Giving back is at the heart of what it means to be a Saltchuk company,” said Rick Murrell, President & CEO of Saltchuk Logistics. “We believe in supporting the communities in which we work and where our employees live, and we are proud to partner with Step Up For Students and its mission to help Florida schoolchildren find the learning environment that works best for them.”

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and gives lower-income children the opportunity to attend a private or out-of-district school that best meets their learning needs.

Step Up For Students served more than 100,400 students for the 2019-20 school year. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

“We are grateful for companies like Saltchuk and their generosity and commitment to giving back to their community,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are proud to have Saltchuk companies as partners in our mission to help lower-income Florida families access schools that best fit their children’s needs.”

About Saltchuk
Saltchuk is a privately owned family of diversified transportation and distribution companies. The Saltchuk family of companies is proud to include some of the country’s most respected names in cargo transportation and distribution. Together, our companies provide essential services by land, sea, and air. With 29 ports of call in The Bahamas and Caribbean, twice weekly sailings from Jacksonville to Puerto Rico, as well as scheduled and on-demand air cargo throughout the islands, Saltchuk companies deliver everything from fresh food to construction supplies needed for life and business in the islands.
We are proud of our family of companies’ economic impact in the region where our companies employ more than 1,900.

Saltchuk companies in Florida include Shoreside Logistics, StratAir, TOTE Maritime, and Tropical Shipping

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

First Hope Scholarship brings peace to fifth grader

Editor’s note. This story was originally posted on Jan. 14, 2019 on redefinED, another blog sponsored by Step Up For Students. We’re taking a look back at some of our scholars in recent years. Today, Jordyn Simmons-Outland continues to feel safe because of the Hope Scholarship. To sign up for our philanthropic newsletter, please click here.

By Scott Kent 

Jordyn Simmons-Outland is first recipient of the Hope Scholarship for bullied students.
Jordyn Simmons-Outland is first recipient of the Hope Scholarship for bullied students.

LAKE PLACID, Florida — Jordyn Simmons-Outland is a fifth grader who was in need of a lifeline. The 10-year-old has a sweet demeanor and a love for the online video game Fortnite. However, his lack of self-confidence made him a target for bullying in his public school since the second grade. Teased about his weight. Tripped and hit. Complaints to teachers and administrators failed to bring relief.

In the past year, the physical and emotional abuse had become so bad, he told his grandparents he wished he were dead. He began seeing a therapist.

A new state school choice scholarship, the first of its kind in the nation, provided him with hope – literally.

“I don’t know what I’d do if the scholarship wasn’t available,” said his grandmother, Cathy Simmons, who has been a fierce advocate for her grandson most his life.

Jordyn is the first recipient of Florida’s Hope Scholarship, created by the Legislature in 2018 to give K-12 public school children relief from bullying and violence. The scholarship is run by Step Up For Students. More than 47,000 students in Florida reported being bullied during the 2016-17 school year.

The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district. The scholarship value depends on the grade level: $6,519 for K-5, $6,815 for 6-8, and $7,111 for 9-12. The transportation scholarship is worth up to $750 and can be used to attend any out-of-district public school with available space. The scholarships are funded by consumers who choose to redirect up to $105 of their motor vehicle purchase taxes to the program. 

Applications for the new scholarships opened Nov. 1 2018, which proved timely for Jordyn.

His grandmother went to Lakeview Christian School in Lake Placid to inquire about tuition costs. With Cathy and Danny in the process of selling their furniture business, money has been tight. However, Lakeview’s school administrator, Christena Villarreal, and her assistant told her about the new Hope Scholarship.

The Simmonses immediately enrolled Jordyn into Lakeview Christian, then began the process of applying for the Hope. They became conditionally eligible Nov. 2. Cathy received the acceptance letter Nov. 30.

It was like Independence Day.

“I was sitting (upstairs) in the rocking chair when I got the email,” she said. “I just wanted to scream, ‘Hallelujah! Thank you, God!’”

The scholarship means Jordyn can stay in the school where he now fits in. He feels welcomed and comfortable.

“They knew how he was when he got there,” Simmons said of the Lakeview Christian staff. “Jordyn didn’t just go there from the old school. He took baggage with him, too. He took stuff with him to that school.”

Nevertheless, Jordyn says he wasn’t nervous his first day there. “I knew it was going to be good.”

He doesn’t like to talk about his previous school, but he lights up when the subject turns to his new one.

“The people are nice,” he says.

Since the change, not once has he complained he didn’t want to go to school. In fact, after being laid up in bed with an inner ear infection followed by the stomach flu near the end of Christmas break, Jordyn was excited to return to school Jan. 7, 2019.

Simmons and Villareal both point to Lakeview Christian’s smaller class sizes as making a big difference for students like Jordyn.

“I like to think we’re a safe place for bullied students,” said Villareal, who noted the school has had several students transfer there because they were bullied elsewhere. “In other schools they might get lost in the shuffle.”

Simmons shows pics of a smiling Jordyn in his fifth-grade class, getting hugged by his teacher, interacting with classmates during their holiday party. According to a Nov. 14, 2018 school progress report, Jordyn “is a pleasure to have in class” and “is very polite and courteous.”

A fresh start in a more welcoming environment has boosted Jordyn’s confidence.
Two months ago, he did a mile run at school in 17 minutes. By mid-December, with the help of his new classmates, he completed it in 14 minutes.

“I’m probably the last one to finish, so I’d get really tired and out of breath,” he said. “And they would all get up and try to help me finish it.” They’d cheer him on and run with him.
He says he’s now shooting for finishing in 11 minutes, “maybe 10.”

At Lakeview Christian’s elementary school Christmas concert Dec. 18, 2019 Jordyn was one of six students chosen to sing at the front of stage. He wasn’t forced to do it – he volunteered.

So far, 469 private schools have signed up to participate in the Hope Scholarship, and 67 students have been awarded the scholarship. Jordyn and his grandmother are excited and thankful that he was the first.

“Hope is the best description. I keep thinking ‘There is hope, there is hope, there is hope.’ ” Simmons said. “I can’t wait to tell everyone what a blessing the Hope Scholarship has been. Now there’s peace.”

About Lake View Christian School

Lakeview Christian School opened in 1985 and offers Pre-K (for 3-year-olds) through eighth grade. During the 2018-19 school year, the school had 127 students, 59 of whom received the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, four received the Gardiner Scholarship, and one received the new Hope Scholarship. All of the classroom teachers are four-year college graduates.

Scott Kent can be reached at skent@sufs.org.

Brave warrior, inspiring model flourishes with scholarship

Editor’s note: This story was originally posted on June 28, 2018. We are taking a look back at some of our scholarship stories from the past. Valentina Guerrero continues to thrive using the Gardiner Scholarship. To sign up for our philanthropic newsletter, please click here

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.

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.

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