All Posts by Lisa Davis

Step Up For Students hits milestone of reimbursing $1.2 million in a week for Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts program

By Lisa A. Davis

plsa-princess-header_faith_barWithin the past week, Step Up For Students has sent three payment files to the bank to reimburse Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA) parents and guardians, providers and schools for expenses.

There were more than 1,000 reimbursement requests in these files totaling $1.2 million.

“Since the implementation of PLSA, this is the most that we have paid in a week,” said Jasmine Johnson, PLSA claims manager for Step Up For Students

Several factors led to the milestone for the program that serves children, ages 3 up to 22,  with certain special needs in Florida.

“The new IT systems that Step Up For Students built from scratch, the policies and procedures that we have enhanced, our reflections on lessons learned, and the dedication from each employee on every team got us to this point,” said Gina Lynch, Step Up’s senior director of Operations and Organizational Improvement. “We can and should be proud of what we are doing for our PLSA families.”

It seems the milestone led to an outpouring of praise on Step Up’s Facebook page with more than a dozen parents writing 5-star reviews in recent days, as well as expressing their appreciation for the PLSA program and recent funding.

“The ability to get what is needed to teach my child with special needs feels like giving her a future,” wrote PLSA parent Lisa Cali on Step Up’s Facebook page. “Learning what she needs, when, where and with the tools she needs to accurately absorb the information – it’s changed our life.”

The Florida Legislature created the state-funded PLSA program in 2014, and it’s the second year Step Up has helped administer the program for students with certain special needs. Once the program was signed into law, Step Up had only weeks to create and set up a system to run the program and staff members have been working hard to make improvements ever since.

“Our PLSA families have played a big role in our successes by alerting us when things aren’t working and letting us know what works, too,” said Lynch. “We thank them for their help and their patience. It is our greatest goal to serve our families the best we can.”

Step Up For Students’ work with both the PLSA and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, a scholarship program for K-12 low-income children, has made the nonprofit organization a national model for the programs it runs.

“This is a significant honor,” Lynch said.

For more information about Step Up’s scholarship programs, visit www.


Green goblins, teal pumpkins and safety tips: It must be Halloween

By Lisa A. Davis

today's lesson snipGoblins, witches and ghosts OH MY! Yes, it’s that time of year again when adults and kids alike can be someone or something different and make a grand show of it without getting any sideways looks. Halloween is surely fun, but we all know we have to think about safety first when it comes to trick-or-treating.

Most families still go door-to-door in their neighborhoods in search of the best candy feast of the year. But there are safer alternatives to be on the lookout for such as church events, businesses that offer in-store trick-or-treating, and even some malls. Trunk-or-treat events have become more popular in recent years, too.

With food allergies on the rise, the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) launched a national campaign last year that is gaining popularity: The Teal Pumpkin Project. The idea is to raise awareness of food allergies, which can be life-threatening, and allow children affected by them to still participate and enjoy Halloween. The campaign encourages families to offer non-food treats for trick-or-treaters and to paint a pumpkin teal so trick-or-treaters know the house they are approaching is participating. For more information check out: Teal Pumpkin Project

The Food Allergy, Research & Education (FARE) launched the Teal Pumpkin Project in 2014. Photo credit: FARE

The Food Allergy, Research & Education (FARE) launched the Teal Pumpkin Project in 2014. Photo credit: FARE

No matter what you do, keep safety in mind. We offer these tips from Tampa Police to help guide you:

Safety Tips for Trick-or-Treaters: 

  • Be part of a group and do not stray from the group. There is safety in numbers.
  • Do not enter the home of a stranger.
  • Never accept rides from strangers.
  • Look both ways before crossing the street and cross when the pedestrian crosswalk light signals you to walk.
  • Carry flashlights or glow sticks so you can be easily seen.
  • Do not take shortcuts through back yards, parks or alleys.
  • Be alert, have fun but do not let your guard down.

Safety Tips for the House:

  • Keep a porch light on so trick-or-treaters will know to visit and can see where they are walking.
  • Remove yard clutter that trick-or-treaters may trip over.
  • Secure your pets to protect them and your visitors.
  • Use battery-powered Jack-O-Lanterns instead of ones with candles.  If you do use candles, make sure they are far enough out of the way so that kids’ costumes won’t accidentally catch fire.
  • Avoid giving homemade treats.  Responsible parents do not allow their children to eat treats unless they know who made them.

Safety Tips for Parents:

  • Young children should be accompanied by an adult.
  • Kids always want to help with pumpkin carving.  Small children should not be allowed to use a sharp knife to cut the top or the face.  There are many kits available that come with tiny saws that work better than knives and they are also safer, although you can be cut by these small saws as well.  It is best to let the kids clean out the pumpkin and draw a face on the front, which you can carve for them.
  • Check your child’s candy before they consume it.  Anything suspicious should be discarded!
  • Feed your children before they set out.  This should help discourage them from trying their treats before you are able to check them.
  • Know where your child is and whom they are with.
  • Buy flame-retardant costumes and consider using makeup rather than masks.  A mask may obscure your child’s vision.
  • Costumes should be light in color or have reflective tape put on them.
  • Costumes should be made from light materials to avoid dehydration and other heat-related issues.

Neighborhood check:

Law enforcement agencies also recommend parents check the Florida Sexual Offenders and Predator database before heading out with your children for treats. To check out your neighborhood and more, go to: Sexual Offender/Predator Search

On the site, you can enter an address and check the area around it. Know before you go!

Student spotlight: Ryan Tetoff, graduate of Chaminade-Madonna College Preparatory in Hollywood, Fla.

By Sherri Ackerman

Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedJune Welcome looked forward to sending her son, Ryan Tetoff, to his neighborhood school. By first grade, though, she worried he wasn’t being challenged academically.

“Sometimes I would go to school and have lunch with him,’’ Welcome recalled. “I would find him upset. He was getting in trouble for not being able to sit still after he had completed his work.’’

Welcome met with administrators and they agreed Ryan was bright, even testing him for the gifted program. When they told her he didn’t qualify, Welcome enrolled Ryan in a new local charter school. But it wasn’t run well, she said, so she returned Ryan to his old neighborhood school.

“Third grade starts with the same issues,’’ Welcome said. “Again, I ask for him to be tested for gifted and again they tell me he shows no signs.’’

It took her awhile, but the hair salon receptionist set aside the $400 it cost to have her son tested privately. This time, he qualified. His mother wanted to look at private schools for sixth grade, but Ryan begged to stay with his friends.

“Against my better judgment, I gave in,’’ she said.

Within the first month of middle school, Ryan was being harassed by other students and got into a fight. It went downhill from there, Welcome said, prompting her to transfer him to another charter school where he finished eighth grade.

“Academically, they weren’t as challenging,’’ she said, “but it was a better environment.’’

With Ryan heading to high school, Welcome wanted a different learning experience for him. A school where kids wanted to get their education. She set her sights on Chaminade-Madonna College Preparatory, a 550-student Catholic high school in Hollywood devoted to academics and spiritual growth.

Tuition seemed out of reach until she discovered she could afford it with help from Step Up For Students. The nonprofit helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which provides low-income families with financial assistance toward tuition at participating private schools. Ryan received the scholarship starting in ninth grade.

Chaminade-Madonna graduate Ryan Tethoff said teachers like Patrick Heffernan, right, and Jason Johnson, left, motivated him and other students to do their best to succeed. Ryan is now a freshman at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.

Chaminade-Madonna graduate Ryan Tetoff said teachers like Patrick Heffernan, right, and Jason Johnson, left, motivated him and other students to do their best to succeed. Ryan is now a freshman at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.

“What a blessing that was,’’ Welcome said. “What an unbelievable gift. As a single mom, to be able to put my son in a positive environment … To let him learn and focus on learning seemed too good to be true. But it happened.’’

Ryan didn’t get into trouble or get bored anymore like he did at his old schools. And Chaminade-Madonna administrators were skilled at motivating him and nurturing his love for learning.

“They definitely cared more about your grades,’’ said Ryan, who graduated in May with an overall GPA of 3.51. “It was a huge change.’’

His coursework, which included Advanced Placement and honors classes, was tough, he said. But teachers like Patrick Heffernan, who taught Ryan honors English, inspired him to go above and beyond.

“We’re more of a village than a city,’’ Heffernan said. “Everybody here is more than just a name. It’s a community.’’

Heffernan credits the school’s Catholic influence and its close-knit learning environment. He grew up attending big Broward County district schools – and some kids do fine at such schools, he said. Others can get swallowed up. They need a more supportive atmosphere where they can be recognized as individuals.

It worked for Ryan. The former varsity high school basketball player earned a Bright Futures Scholarship and the President’s Silver Scholarship from Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, where he’s a college freshman today pledging for a fraternity and planning to study architecture.

“He is very bright,’’ Heffernan said. “Very gifted creatively and socially. Ryan is definitely a success.’’

Have you seen the scholarship in action, or do you have an idea for a story?  Please contact Sherri Ackerman, public relations manager, at


About Chaminade-Madonna College Preparatory:

At Chaminade-Madonna College Preparatory, students in grades nine through 12 participate in a learning environment geared toward producing college graduates.

Founded in 1960 in the Marianist tradition, the Catholic school in Hollywood strives to develop the “whole student’’ with spiritual, emotional and educational instruction, said Patrick Heffernan, who has taught at Chaminade-Madonna for 19 years.

Academically, Catholic schools do a good job with average students, he said. But Chaminade-Madonna seeks to meet student needs across the continuum with programs that serve learners from the highest-achieving to those struggling.

The majority of graduates continue their education at a variety of colleges and universities, from Broward Community College in South Florida to Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Others go on to enlist in the military or enroll in vocational schools or service academies.

Chaminade-Madonna provides a student-teacher ratio of 10 to 1. Instruction focuses on a challenging curriculum with 18 Advanced Placement courses and another 14 through dual enrollment with the private St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens.

Other programs include Chaminade Scholars, which offers demanding coursework to keep the top-performing students engaged. The Learning Center accommodates students diagnosed with learning exceptionalities by providing extra help such as preferential seating or more time for assignments and testing.

In addition, students also can participate in spiritual retreats and help mentor classmates. There are honor societies for different subjects, such as art, French and science. Athletics play a significant role in the lives of students at Chaminade-Madonna, with teams for football, soccer, dance, volleyball, golf and cross-country among others.

Of the 550 students enrolled in the 2015-16 school year, 76 receive the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students, said Kristi Tucker, director of guidance and the Learning Center. Tuition ranges from $9,645 to $11,295. Academic achievement is measured by the PSAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT).

Sixty-four percent of the school’s 44-member faculty have advanced degrees. Chaminade-Madonna is accredited by AdvancED (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools on Accreditation).



Introducing Step Up For Students new website

Step Up For Students is excited to present a new and improved website at the same Step Up address: We’ve made the site more visual, simpler and friendlier to use in general, so you can quickly find the information you need.
Let’s take a quick tour.
This is what you will see when you visit the Step Up For Students website:
You’ll notice on the top, an easy-to-find parent login, and to the far right of it, you’ll find links to our social media channels — Facebook,  Twitter — and  this blog (if you haven’t liked or followed us already, please do).
Of course, we still have drop-down menus, but have organized them by audience and specific topics:  “About Us”, “For Parents”, “For Schools & Providers”, “For Donors”, “Our Stories”, “Newsroom” and “Contact Us.”
On the “For Parents” page, you can select from either scholarship option to learn more.
On the homepage, whether you’re a parent, a potential donor, or an educator, you can quickly find what you need with our bigger icons and larger headers:
To find news and information on each of our scholarship programs, it’s just as easy.
And no matter which page you land on, you will always see this to guide you toward other resources and help:
And of course, the site is in Spanish, too. With a simple click on the far right of the top of the homepage, you can switch from English to Spanish:
Please stop by our new site at and take a look around. And please let us know what you think at




Education savings accounts and trusting parents

Editor’s Note: This post originally ran Oct. 23 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students, and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.  Travis Pillow attended the  Foundation for Excellence in Education’s annual policy summit in Denver earlier this week. 


DENVER – There were more than a few wet eyes in a room full of education reform advocates when Katie Swingle told her story of finding the right school for her son.

After learning a traditional public-school setting wouldn’t work, she found a specialized private school that could help her son overcome autism, dyslexia, and speech apraxia. She now has hope he’ll return to public school one day.

On Thursday, Swingle, who has also wowed Florida legislators with her story, said that as states expand educational choice for students with special needs, other parents’ stories might be different from hers.

While she used a Personal Learning Scholarship Account through Step Up For Students to send her son to a school that gave him the support he needed, she said other parents might send their children to a more traditional school, but use their education savings accounts to pay for therapies like applied behavior analysis, or other educational expenses.

“Every kid needs something different,” she said during a discussion of education savings accounts at the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s annual policy summit in Denver. “We needed Woodland Hall [Academy].”

As more parents start using educational choice accounts to pay for things beyond school tuition, it raises other questions — and possibilities. It’s hard enough to provide a clear, agreed-upon measure of school quality. But it might be even harder to attribute test scores, learning gains or graduation rates to therapeutic programs, tutors, or groups of parents who purchase curriculum and help their children learn at home.

Adam Peshek, school choice policy director for the Foundation of Excellence in Education, said test scores might help parents track the progress of their children, but to judge the quality of various education providers, states might need to try something different.

“Have parents be required to rate their experience with vendors,” he said. “Let’s use what they know to create real accountability.”

Swingle said many parents, especially those with special needs children, are making active decisions about their children’s education already.

“We have to put more faith in parents,” she said. Not every parent might have the expertise to comparison-shop among curriculum providers or drive across town to check out schools. “But that’s where we have each other. The poorest, least-educated autism mom is on Facebook.”

The challenge, then, is giving these parents the tools to make the most informed decisions possible.


Teachers unions, school choice & the Democratic Party’s retreat 

Editor’s note: This post originally ran Oct. 20 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students, and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.  This post was part of  its series on the center-left roots of  school choice

By Doug Tuthill

Pres-Desk_Final resizeMuch of the opposition to private school choice seems to emanate from the Democratic Party, but this wasn’t always the case. Just look at the party platforms.
From the 1964 to 1984, the Democrat Party formally supported the public funding of students in private schools.The 1964 platform stated, “New methods of financial aid must be explored, including the channeling of federally collected revenues to all levels of education, and, to the extent permitted by the Constitution, to all schools.” The 1972 platform supported allocating “financial aid by a Constitutional formula to children in non-public schools.” The 1976 platform endorsed “parental freedom in choosing the best education for their children,” and “the equitable participation in federal programs of all low- and moderate-income pupils attending all the nation’s schools.”

On Sept. 17, 1976, the NEA endorsed Jimmy Carter for president – the first presidential endorsement in the organization’s history. With this endorsement, it joined with the other major teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, to become a dominant force in the Democratic Party. Image from the Schell Collection.

On Sept. 17, 1976, the NEA endorsed Jimmy Carter for president – the first presidential endorsement in the organization’s history. With this endorsement, it joined with the other major teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, to become a dominant force in the Democratic Party. Image from the Schell Collection.

Thanks to the influence of U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat and devout Catholic, the party’s 1980 platform stated “private schools, particularly parochial schools,” are an important part of our country’s educational system. It committed the party to supporting “a constitutionally acceptable method of providing tax aid for the education of all pupils.” In 1984, the platform again endorsed public funding for “private schools, particularly parochial schools.”

Then the shift began. The 1988 platform was silent on the issue, and by 1992 the Democrats had formally reversed position, stating, “We oppose the Bush Administration’s efforts to bankrupt the public school system — the bedrock of democracy — through private school vouchers.”

The party’s current position on school choice was formalized in 1996. That year’s platform endorsed the expansion of public school choice, including charter schools. But it also reiterated “we should not take American tax dollars from public schools and give them to private schools.”

The Democratic Party’s shift from supporting to opposing public funding for low-income and working-class students in private schools can be traced back to an event that also helped spur the growth of modern teachers unions: The 1968 teachers strike in New York City.

This strike pitted the low-income black community of Ocean Hill-Brownsville in Brooklyn against the primarily white New York City teachers union. The issue was whether local public schools would be controlled by the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community or by a city-wide bureaucracy.  The union vehemently opposed decentralization since its business model was built around a one-size-fits-all collective bargaining agreement with centralized management.

The strike lasted from May to November 1968. Given school districts are usually the largest employer in most communities, union power quickly grew.

Since its founding in 1857, the National Education Association had long seen itself as a professional association and not a union. But the spread of industrial unionism in school districts across the country forced the NEA in the 1970s to begin transforming itself into an industrial-style union.

On Sept. 17, 1976, the NEA endorsed Jimmy Carter for president – the first presidential endorsement in the organization’s history. With this endorsement, it joined with the other major teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, to become a dominant force in the Democratic Party. In exchange, former NEA president Richard Batchelder told me the NEA asked Carter to create a federal Department of Education, and to reverse the Democratic Party’s support of public funding for low-income and working-class students in private schools, among other things.

Changing this policy was complicated by the strong support of Sen. Moynihan and the Catholic Church.  But in the 1970s the power of the rapidly growing teachers unions was beginning to eclipse the influence of Catholics within the Democratic Party.

In 1977, Moynihan proposed a tuition tax credit for families with children in private and parochial schools, and he recruited 26 Republicans and 24 Democrats to co-sponsor the bill. But the Carter Administration worked with the teachers unions to successfully kill it.

A more recent version of this Catholics-versus-teachers-unions battle has been playing out in New York.  Gov. Andrew Cuomo has formed an alliance with the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, to advocate for a tax credit scholarship program to help low-income and working-class families. But the teachers union has had enough clout with Democrats in the State Assembly to twice defeat it.

Now, communities of color are becoming an increasingly important part of the Democratic Party coalition.  How long teachers unions can set the party’s education agenda in the face of growing influence from blacks and Hispanics who tend to favor educational choice is an intriguing question. Publicly-supported private school choice programs are expanding across the country, as are charter schools, which teachers unions also see as a threat to their business model. Eventually, wiser heads within the Democratic Party will want to address this rift.

In Florida, where more than 100,000 disadvantaged students are participating in private school choice programs, Democrats who oppose these programs have struggled to win statewide elections.

In the 1980s, I saw the NEA reverse its opposition to magnet schools and other forms of within-district school choice once a critical mass of teachers in these programs joined the union. I suspect the same thing will happen with private school choice once teachers unions expand their business models to include private-school employees.

Until that happens, their opposition to equal educational opportunity will remain at odds with the Democratic Party’s other core constituencies.

Acknowledging Bullying Prevention Awareness Month in October and beyond

By Lisa A. Davis

today's lesson snipI don’t remember how it started, but I recall vividly how it ended. The mean girl in middle school who had been making fun of me for some time took it to the next level and tossed my gym uniform into the toilet. Of course, it was humiliating, and although I tried not to, I let her get to me and dissolved into tears right in front of her.

Bullying comes in many forms – by teasing, ignoring, spreading rumors, hurting someone emotionally or physically — but the result is often the same. The bully’s target may be afraid to go to school (or wherever it occurred), is embarrassed and their self-confidence shattered. In many cases, the child even becomes depressed.

While I don’t remember all that happened after that incident with me all those years ago, I know it was the last time that girl ever bullied me. And I also know that moment made me realize how much another person’s actions – bad or good – can significantly affect you for years to come. I would like to think my situation made me a more compassionate person as the years went on.

At Step Up For Students, we have shared stories about students being bullied and parents seeking school alternatives for their children. Here are a couple from over the years: and

Bullying can happen anywhere, even online, at any time, and at any age. It’s something that has become such a major social issue, that October of each year is set aside for National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month. Nearly a decade old, Bullying Prevention Awareness month was started by PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center.

To get an idea of what bullying is, here’s the definition, a website managed through the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services gives:

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious lingering problems.Anti_Bullying

The troubling thing is, many of us have experience bullying in some form.

Here are some stats compiled by STOMP Out Bullying, a leading national bullying and cyberbullying prevention organization for kids and teens:

  • 1 out of 4 kids are bullied
  • 43 percent of kids have been bullied while online
  • 282,000 students are physically attacked in secondary schools each month
  • 1 out of 5 kids admit to being bullied or doing some “bullying.”

How do you stop bullying? Experts agree that awareness, like for most things, is the key to prevention.

“When you see someone being bullied, be brave and STAND UP for them,” states STOMP Out Bullying’s website. “Bullies have been known to back off when others stand up for victims. If you don’t feel safe get the help of an adult immediately. Be part of the solution — not the problem!”

And finally, the last week of October, students can participate by spreading anti-bullying messages in various ways, including handing out positive messages on Post-it notes, creating anti-bullying videos, sharing inspirational stories and more.

While the month of October is set aside to bring awareness, of course, it is the hope that the efforts continue year-round.

Additional resources:


Stop Bullying 

STOMP Bullying



Introducing My Story: Your story told by you

By Lisa A. Davis

As Step Up For Students continues to grow, so does our community. Our community is made up of our scholars and alumni, parents and guardians, educational and community partners, advocates and supporters, therapy and special needs providers, Step Up team members and more. You get the point. Our scholarship program organization is far reaching.

Our thinking is we are alStep Up and Sharel in this together, so the more we share and get to know each other, the stronger we become in this wonderful state of educational options. With this is mind, we are constantly coming up with ideas on how we can all become more engaged with each other and learn more from each other’s experiences. We want the world to know Step Up For Students changes lives. And, as we always say, who better than to show that educational options work than those right in the middle of it all?

So today, we’re excited to introduce you to one more storytelling tool: My Story.

My Story is a space where members of our community can share their story, or a particular experience with our program and share it in your own words. So essentially, these will be stories about you by you. How cool is that?

It’s a fairly simple process. You go to the site, which is part of this new blog, and go to the “Share Your Story!” tab at the top of “Stepping Beyond the Scholarship” homepage. Click and voila. You’re ready to get started. The site will walk you through all the steps, including a permission form so we can upload your story and photo after a brief approval process.

A few of us at Step Up have already shared ours, so please take a look. But now it’s your turn. Please step up (Like what we did there?) and share YOUR stories. Your stories inspire us. Your successes are our successes. Your story is our story. So, let’s keep writing the chapters together to make up an incredible Step Up For Students book. We can’t wait to read it.


Faith Manuel reflects upon the journey of school choice for all three of her children

Editor’s note: Step Up For Students welcomes Faith Manuel as a guest blogger. Faith has had three children use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program through Step Up For Students, and has spoken throughout Florida about school choice, and has written op-ed pieces for numerous newspapers. We hope this is the first of many blog posts by Faith.

By Faith Manuel, Guest Blogger

Blessed! I can find no other word that adequately describes my family. My oldest son, Davion, is a college junior pursing his passion for education at the University of North Florida. My middle man, Nicholas, is a high school senior who is a starting member of a nationally ranked high school football team. He is also an accomplished singer who has received some national ranking for his vocal ability. My baby girl, Faith De’Yanah, is a budding high school freshman who is a wonderful student and athlete. I am working in a job that I love which seems tailor-suited for my strengths and passion for helping others. We are (so) blessed.

Faith's family journey

From left to right, Davion Manuel-McKenney, Faith Manuel, Faith De’Yanah McKenney and Nicholas McKenney have walked hand-in-hand in their journey of school choice.

Our family proves that the start of a journey doesn’t dictate how far you travel. We have traveled a mighty long way. Geographically, it’s only been about 250 miles; but in growth as a family; we have traveled a mighty long way. My journey started in Hollywood, Fla. I was one of four girls in a very loving and supportive home. Though my parents instilled faith and values into my sisters and myself, I found myself in a peril during my ninth grade year of high school. To the shock of everyone in my family, I was pregnant with my first child. I did finish high school with the help of my supportive family, and the teen parent program in Broward County, which provided childcare on site at the school I attended.

Shortly after graduation, Davion’s dad and I decided to marry and expand our family, and along came Nicholas Jr. and next little Faith De’Yanah. By the time that I was 21, I had three kids and a failed marriage. Those circumstances are not the ideal launching pad of dreams, however, we launched nevertheless.

Desperate for a new beginning, my children and I relocated to Volusia County, Florida. I was a young divorced mother and I was in school. We lived in public housing, the only place we could afford with my part-time employment.

Davion was entering into sixth grade when I was blessed to discover Step Up For Students. The neighborhood we lived in was plagued with drugs and violence. The school Davion was zoned for was plagued with the same. I was working part time and attending school full time and could not afford to move to a better school zone. I decided to inquire about private school for Davion to protect him from going down the wrong road. The school I visited actually informed me of the Step Up program. This program afforded me the opportunity to enroll all three of my children in private school.

When Faith D. entered kindergarten, I was able to place the children at Calvary Christian Academy (CCA) in Ormond Beach. Calvary was perfect for me because it was an extension of my church, also because it was K-12 and at the time, I had a kindergartener, third-grader, and seventh-grader. I loved that I could make one stop for drop off and pick up. I also loved that I could stop by and visit all my children in the same place. I remember many times coming for lunch with Faith and staying for lunch with Nicholas and Davion. Middle-schoolers don’t always think it’s cool to have lunch with mommy, however, mommy thought it was amazing!

Faith and Davion in the earlier years.

Faith and Davion in the earlier years.

I love that Step Up For Students gives parents the flexibility to choose a school that works best for the child. I’ve taken advantage of the “choice” aspect of school choice. Davion graduated from CCA in 2012 and went on to college where he remains. He has been on the Dean’s list, President’s list, been awarded various scholarships for his academic excellence. He benefited from student employment where he was named Tutor of the Year two years in a row. Today, Davion continues to work in the math lab of Florida State College at Jacksonville while attending the University of North Florida. Nicholas has had a mix of public and private education. He attended CCA from third to seventh grade. He has attended public school from eighth grade and remains in public school today and will graduate from Mainland High School. Nicholas has been very involved in school in sports, and singing. I credit his desire to participate with his foundation at Calvary. At Calvary, it was small enough that he was able to participate in almost everything. When he transitioned to public school, he has kept that model and I believe it has worked very well for him to keep him from any negative influences at school.  Faith D tried public school in sixth grade and it proved too big for her. She was most comfortable in the family learning environment which she enjoyed at CCA. She returned to private school to finish out middle school.

I value the flexibility afforded to me to be able to help my children find a learning environment that worked best for them at the different stages of their journey.

It has been a wonderful journey; full of excitement, love, and (of course) blessings. Step Up For Students has been a humongous blessing to our family. I don’t know how things would have gone had I not been so desperate to protect Davion all those years ago. My desire to help him has allowed me to help my younger two and many other families. I remain a huge advocate for school choice personally. I tell every parent I know about the program and tell them how much school choice has helped my family’s dream come true. My dream for my children was to be well educated, great citizens, and wonderful people and I get to see my dream as a reality every time I see my kids. We are truly blessed.

Faith Manuel is a school-choice advocate, former Step Up For Students mom and a career specialist with Career Source Flagler Volusia. When she’s not cheerleading or gushing about her wonderful children, she enjoys reading, writing, movies and naps. She also leads a support group for single moms in Volusia County called STRONG Single Moms. 


Florida Tax Credit Scholars: It’s your time to renew for the 2016-17 school year

By Lisa A. Davis

logo_su4s-headerWhile the 2015-16 school year is in its third month, it’s already that time of year again. Parents and guardians of Florida Tax Credit scholars through Step Up For Students may now apply for the 2016-17 school year.

Step Up partner schools have also been notified about the application season and have been asked to remind scholars to reapply now.

This year’s applications comes with one major change: no application fee. For several years, Step Up charged an application fee, most recently being $29 ApplyNow

“This is something we have been working toward for several years and we’re excited that this year we can actually do it for our parents,” said Step Up’s Chief Operating Officer Anne White. “As our fundraising cap increases each year, our 3 percent administrative funds do as well, reducing the need for the application service fee. Our original budget had the fee being reduced to $14, but we worked with our various departments to ensure we can eliminate it altogether.”

The rest of the renewal process will look much the same, said Jeff Giese, director of operations.

For those renewal families, please access your parent login to begin the application process.  As you apply, please be mindful of the following:

  1. Your username will be the email address associated with your account. Should you have trouble logging in with your email address, please select the “Forgot Password” link and a new, temporary password will be sent to you via email.
  2. Once you submit your online application, you’ll be asked to submit documents to support your application. These documents can be submitted via document upload or via fax. Instructions for submitting documents can be found by selecting the “Print and Send Documents” tab in the parent login.
  3. Again, there is no application fee for the 2016-17 application season. You will not need to pay any application fee for Step Up For Students to review your scholarship application.

“As always, we urge you to completely finish your applications as soon as you can. This means submitting all of the requested documents. An application isn’t considered complete and can’t be processed until the application is filled out and all documents are in,” said Giese. “Once again, we expect an overwhelming number of applications and we would hate for renewal scholars especially to miss out due to missing paperwork, or an application filing that lingered too long.”

Applicants with any questions or concerns about this process, can all  877-735-7837. The Step Up Contact Center is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Eastern, with an hour closure from 11 a.m. to noon.

New family applications will open in the early spring, but those interested can add their information to our interest list and we will notify those families as we are preparing to open applications then.





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