All Posts by Lisa Davis

Step Up For Students graduate Denisha Merriweather shares her success story

Editor’s note: Around here at the Step Up For Students office, Denisha Merriweather is a household name, so to speak. Since she became a scholar in sixth grade, we have cheered for her, watched her grow, celebrated her achievements, and best of all, gotten to really know her. Now we’re thrilled to call her a colleague as she recently joined us as an intern and as the  first Step Up scholar to join our staff. We’re proud to have her here. And we hope this is the first of many scholars to become part of our team.

By Denisha Merriweather, Step Up For Students Intern

CaptureBehindthescenesHi! I am Denisha Merriweather, recipient of the Step Up For Students scholarship, high school graduate, master’s student at the University of South Florida in Tampa and the newest member of the Step Up team as intern!

I was a Florida Tax Credit scholar  from the sixth through 12th grade. Before receiving the scholarship, I attended neighborhood schools, which changed often because my family moved around my hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. constantly. Due to that lack of stability, support and attention, my performance in school was below average. As a result, I ended up failing the third grade. Twice. Being two years older than everyone in my class was discouraging. I felt like a failure, and no matter how hard I tried to do better in school nothing seemed to help. Having no hope for the future, I could really see myself headed down a dark path, dropping out of high school and living my life full of constant struggle. Denisha choice

Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

Upon my entry in the sixth grade, my godmother found out from a family friend about the Step Up For Students scholarship, and applied. This allowed me to choose to attend Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, a private school on the north side of Jacksonville. The school was such a great fit for me. The classroom size was small and the teachers were extremely engaging. Esprit became my home away from home. Thanks to the scholarship, my confidence soared at Esprit de Corps. I knew I could do anything I put my mind to. I was exposed to many different opportunities, which changed my attitude about school completely – and life. I now knew I could go to college and maybe one day even receive a Ph.D.

Due to my life experiences, I have dedicated much of my free time to support the tax-credit scholarship program. I have shared my story with donors, legislators and people of affluence, but most importantly, I’ve opened up to other students. This has allowed more and more opportunities for these groups of people to gain an understanding about the Step Up For Students program and hopefully for them to get involved, so that Step Up can continue to make a difference in children’s lives across the state of Florida.

I also share my story to give hope to those students who may be like me, but still struggling to find their paths to success. The children like me who have the potential to be more than they are, but just need someone to help lift them up, and show them they can change their life’s course for the better. For all of the kids who are like this, I urge you to realize that nothing is too hard for you to achieve. Things may look challenging and you may not see a way out, but know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You have a purpose and your struggle is pushing you closer and closer to it. Seize it.

Now that I am a part of the Step Up team, I am excited to learn more about the scholarship program. Being a scholarship recipient, I had had some knowledge about the duties of the scholarship program staff. However, upon my first days in the office, I became quickly aware that Step Up is so much more, and a lot of work goes into making scholarships, and other school choice programs, possible for families in Florida. It has been surreal meeting all of the individuals who labor tirelessly for parents and children to have opportunities they never knew they could have. I have a new appreciation for the commitment of the Step Up team. Thanks guys!

I am now ready to be a part of this great team and assist in making this program even better. Someone recently imparted great words of wisdom to me, saying that “People rarely succeed by themselves.” Understanding this, I zealously accept the role as an advocate for parents and children, standing in the gap, working for them, as someone once did for me.

When Denisha isn’t hitting the books or standing up for school choice, she enjoys spending time with friends and attending bible study at her church. However, like most college students she loves to watch television and sleep. Denisha says she dreams to speak fluent Spanish and to one day learn how to play the Chinese violin.


Proudly alternative and pro school choice

Editor’s note: This story originally ran Sept. 29, 2015 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 is part of redefinED’s Voucher Left servies redefinED  exploring he diverse roots of school choice

By Ron Matus

today's lesson snipIf the Suncoast Waldorf School in Palm Harbor, Fla. is part of a right-wing plot, it’s good at hiding it. Its students cultivate a “food forest.” Its teachers encourage them to stomp in puddles. Its parents sign a consent form that says, I give permission for my child, named above, to climb trees on the school grounds …

And yet, the unassuming, apolitical little school is solidly school choice. Sixteen of its 60 students in grades K-8 last year used tax credit scholarships to help defray the $10,000 annual tuition. And to those familiar with the century-old vision that spawned the Waldorf model – a vision whose first beneficiaries were the children of cigarette factory workers – there’s nothing unusual about it.

School choice scholarships make Waldorf “more accessible to a diverse group of families,” said Barbara Bedingfield, the school’s co-founder. “This is what we want.”

“Alternative schools” like those in the 1,000-strong Waldorf network help upend myths about choice being hard right. This small but thriving corner of the education universe is especially resistant to labels, but there is a nexus between many of these schools and ‘60s-era, counter-culture reformers like John Holt (think “unschooling”) and Paul Goodman (think “compulsory miseducation”).

“Thirty-plus years ago, school choice was almost entirely a cause of the left,” is how writer Peter Schrag described it in 2001, writing for The American Prospect. “In the heady days of the 1960s, radical reformers looked toward the open, child-centered schools that critics like Herb Kohl, Jules Henry, Edgar Friedenberg, Paul Goodman, and John Holt dreamed about. Implicitly, their argument had the advantage of celebrating American diversity and thus obviating our chronic doctrinal disputes about what schools should or shouldn’t teach.”

Then and now, the contrarian outlooks of this species of ed reformer are often libertarian and left, both embracing of “progressive” goals and distrustful of government’s ability to deliver. Generally speaking, they aren’t fond of government-dictated standards, testing, grading, grade-level configurations or anything else subject to imposed uniformity. But they are willing to consider the potential of tools like vouchers to give parents the power to choose schools that synch with their values.

Suncoast Waldorf sits on two acres of live oaks, a leafy oasis off a busy road in Florida’s most urbanized county. It blossomed 17 years ago, just as the Sunshine State began blazing trails on the school choice frontier.

To help children grow into independent, compassionate adults, Suncoast Waldorf and other Waldorf schools emphasize art, a reverence for the natural world, a do-it-yourself resourcefulness. They like to have fun too. (Photo courtesy of Suncoast Waldorf.)

To help children grow into independent, compassionate adults, Suncoast Waldorf and other Waldorf schools emphasize art, a reverence for the natural world, a do-it-yourself resourcefulness. They like to have fun too. (Photo courtesy of Suncoast Waldorf.)

To help children grow into independent, compassionate adults, it emphasizes art, a reverence for the natural world, a do-it-yourself resourcefulness. Standardized testing is out (except for what’s required by state law for the scholarship program). So are letter grades and iPads. So is Common Core.

On the flip side, here’s what’s in: Classical mythology and religious studies. Musical instruments and foreign languages. And recess, twice a day. Teachers “loop” with the same students from first to fifth grade. Subjects are taught in 4-to-6 week blocks. Class sizes average 10.

“When we say we want to educate the whole child, we mean it,” Bedingfield said.

Like her school, Bedingfield is tough to label. She taught in public schools and in the Peace Corps, but left teaching to sell transistors and integrated circuits. She didn’t stumble on Waldorf until later in life, but was so smitten she underwent specialized Waldorf training at the age of 53.

Plenty of parents fall for Waldorf, too, with diverse backgrounds and myriad motivations. e parent who uses tax credit scholarships to send her two children to the school said they were previously enrolled in public schools, including one with a highly regarded IB program. She liked the rigor, but hated the pacing, fearing her kids would “burn out.” Another parent of a scholarship student said her neighborhood public school put her daughter, then struggling with reading in kindergarten, into a class for students with behavioral problems. She didn’t think Waldorf was possible until a Catholic school told her about the tax credit scholarship. “I don’t see any political agenda to it,” she said about choice. “You just want the best for your kid.”

Government-supported choice carries tensions for many private schools, and alternative schools are no exception. In a 2009 report, the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America said the growing number of voucher and tax credit scholarship programs could “inaugurate a new era of educational freedom”— unless they came with too many regulatory strings.

“Such school choice legislation would then be an instrument to create an oppressive uniform national education system controlled by the state and federal governments,” the report said, “which in turn are heavily influenced by major corporate interests.”

For now, in Waldorf’s view, the pros outweigh the cons. And in states like Florida, with thriving school choice programs, parents are grateful.

Melissa Manning, whose 8-year-old daughter Kiraskye uses a tax credit scholarship at Suncoast Waldorf, described her politics as “extremely left.” She’s vegan, works at a grocery called the Nature’s Food Patch and has never owned a TV. She said she appreciated that Suncoast Waldorf is “nurturing” and “one big family” and that Kiraskye is learning practical skills like growing and cooking her own food.

Maybe that isn’t what some parents want for their child, Manning said. But it’s what she wants for hers.

“We have to honor the fact,” she said, “that people are different.”

The Suncoast Waldorf was also featured Step Up For Students’  2012-13 annual report. Click on the link and go to pages 26 and 27.





Funding now available for first round of approved Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts students


By Lisa A. Davis

About 2,400 Step Up for Students’ Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts families should have noticed something in their accounts this week: their funding for the 2015-16 school year.

The Florida Department of Education (DOE) has completed the review of first batch of approved accounts, and the remaining eligible student accounts are expected to be completed and funded in the near future.plsa-princess-header_faith_bar

“We appreciate everyone’s patience as the DOE has been working through its process to ensure those who have been approved are not enrolled in any other state-funded programs,” said Elizabeth Watson, Step Up’s director of client services.

The Florida Legislature created the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts program, a state-funded scholarship for children with certain special needs in 2014. With the PLSA, families may personalize educational plans for their children by directing scholarship funds toward a combination of approved programs and providers including private schools, therapists, technology and even a college savings account. Each approved student receives an average of $10,000 annually.

This year, lawmakers increased the budget from about $18.5 million to $55 million to fund about 4,000 from the PLSA program this year.

Those accounts that are funded, parents and guardians may now access their child’s PLSA ID card containing the student’s PLSA number, by accessing your Parent login.

“The payment process can now begin for the 2015-16 school year, and with our new payment system in place, we expect that the submission to payment timeline to move much faster and be run more smoothly,” Watson said.

Step Up has sent out emails to each account holder, as well as to providers.

Parents are reminded that if there are providers that plan to submit reimbursement requests on behalf of their student, please share a copy of the PLSA ID card with that provider. The PLSA ID listed on that card is necessary to their reimbursement request process.

“Please be aware that reimbursement requests that come from a provider have to be approved by you prior to processing for payment. This approval process takes place within your parent login,” Watson said.

Providers may now submit reimbursement requests for funded students.

Additional questions regarding submitting reimbursement requests can be answered by reading our Provider Handbook.

PLSA applications are still open for the 2015-16 school year. To apply, got to (link).

Many parent questions about the PLSA program can be answered in the Parent handbook.

Anyone who needs additional help with questions or concerns about this, can contact Step Up at or 877-735-7837.

A Catholic school turnaround in Florida’s rural heartland

Editor’s note: This story originally ran Sept. 28, 2015 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.

By Travis Pillow

Three years ago, when Donna Gilbert learned her husband’s job would be transferred to rural community in Florida’s agricultural heartland, she considered staying behind with her son, Christopher. She worried that if her family left St. Cloud, just south of Orlando, he would not be able to continue his Catholic education.

A visit changed her mind. She went to Sebring (Highlands County’s largest city, with a population just over 10,000) and met with Anna Adam, who was then in her second year as principal of St. Catherine Catholic School.Gilbert learned a string of small towns near the headwaters of the Everglades, where nearly one in three residents is older than 65, is home to the kind of turnaround story Catholic school supporters all over the country are hoping for.


Fifth-grade students learn about lines and perspectives during an art lesson at St. Catherine Catholic School in Sebring, Fla.

In five years, St. Catherine has doubled its enrollment. Its academics are getting stronger, too. It’s picking up buzz among parents, and proving the Catholic school renaissance is not just an urban phenomenon.

Since enrolling three years ago, Christopher is learning “all his skills and all his sacraments,” Gilbert said. This year, he started fourth grade reading at a fifth-grade level. Now, her main concern is what will happen when her son is ready for sixth grade. St. Catherine is the only Catholic school in Highlands County, and it only serves preschool and elementary-school students.

“Thank God we’re here,” Gilbert said. “I’m pushing them to add more grades.”

While enrollment numbers and test scores point to a transformation, visitors can find other signs in the school’s front office. Volunteers come streaming in to teach art classes and tutor struggling readers. Teachers and parents rave about how far the school has come, and how quickly.

“She just brought this school to life,” kindergarten teacher Adele Moye said. “She makes us happy, and we make the kids happy, and that makes the parents happy.”

Anna-Adam-300x225Adam started teaching nearly 40 years ago. After stints in Manhattan  and the Bronx, she has worked in Florida Catholic schools since 1989.When she took over at St. Catherine, enrollment languished at 53 students, and the school had cycled through four principals in four years. In the 2011-12 school year, she rallied teachers and started accepting tax credit scholarships, which help most of what are now 118 students afford tuition. (Step Up For Students, which employs the author of this post, helps administer the scholarship program.)Volunteers drawn from surrounding parishes provide the kind of support that has sustained successful Catholic schools for centuries.

Reading tutors like Marsha Durrua (who exclaimed “I love it!” after striding through the office door one Wednesday afternoon) help students get one-on-one or small-group attention.Mary Lou Herald teaches older elementary students to notice shapes, lines and perspectives in the world around them, in a series of beginning art lessons she calls “Let’s Take a Line for a Walk.”Adam said volunteers allow the school to offer richer, more effective instruction than its size would normally allow.“We work with each child at their level, and then work with them to bring them up to their capacity,” she said.

Fourth-graders take questions from a classroom visitor.

Fourth-graders take questions from a classroom visitor.

Now, the school is struggling with capacity of a different kind. Its main building is full. A handful of converted houses that dot its campus are also full — including a porch that was walled in this summer to create a new third-grade classroom.

Adam said she could picture a new, L-shaped building lining the edges of the adjacent church parking lot. Churches in neighboring towns might offer space for the middle school parents now want.

A sign out front reminds passers-by the school is open to people of all faiths, and Adam said she’s noticed the school has attracted families from a variety of religious backgrounds, many of them from various Protestant denominations that are common in the area.

“The fact that we’re a Catholic school evokes a sense of morality and stability for them,” she said.

Families, she added later, are drawn to the school for a simple reason: “We’re giving them the best­ education in town.”

Look who rode in on her friendly horse: Jen Canning, one of Step Up For Students’ newest team members

By Jen Canning, Step Up For Students Executive Assistant

CaptureBehindthescenesHowdy y’all! I’m Jen, one of the newest members of the Step Up For Students team. My background is in horses and cattle, and I grew up working on my family’s ranch in Lipan, Texas. I studied animal science at Oklahoma State University, and it was there I developed a special place in my heart for children.

While attending OSU, I began volunteering for a nonprofit therapeutic horseback riding facility for children with special needs. This organization helped children with all kinds of unique needs, from Down syndrome to cerebral palsy and fetal alcohol syndrome. I dedicated much of my college life to working with these kids and discovered there is no one-size-fits-all education for these students. This belief led me to join Step Up for Students after completing my Masters of Business Administration from University of South Florida in St Petersburg.

Jen Canning, executive assistant to Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill, fell in love with working with children from special needs from atop a horse.

Jen Canning, executive assistant to Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill, fell in love with working with children from special needs from atop a horse.

I did a little research before starting with the organization, so I came to work with a broad knowledge of what we did. I knew Step Up managed two different scholarships: the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students and the Personal Learning Scholarships Accounts Scholarship (PLSA) for children with certain special needs. The tax-credit scholarship allows parents to choose between funding private school tuition and fees up to $5,677 and a $500 transportation scholarship to help families get their child to school in a different district. Yep, I did my homework. I am the executive assistant to Step Up President Doug Tuthill after all.

I knew that tens of thousands of young Floridians were currently on a scholarship from the organization, and I knew that first and foremost, Step Up promotes a parent’s right to choose the best form of education for their child, regardless of their income.

Even though I’ve only been with the organization for a brief couple of weeks, I’ve learned so much more about what it is we do here at Step Up. For example, I now know that we are a four out of four stars charity, with a Charity Navigator score of 99.92%. It’s a good feeling to know that I work for a charity that is properly allocating its funds and operating in the best interest of the students!

I’ve also learned that there are many private schools that are as dependent on the Step Up scholarship as their students. Scholars have chosen to attend more than  1,500  partner schools across the state, and on average, Step Up scholars constitute about a quarter of the total enrollment of those schools. Some of these schools cannot afford to operate without our scholarship.

Since joining the Step Up team, I’ve been most excited to learn about the work the Office of Student Learning is doing with our partner schools. Providing scholarships is only the first step to helping children from low-income families succeed. Carol Thomas’ team is working with the schools to develop programs that bridge the gap between families and their children’s educators. This includes an online portal that empowers parents to become more engaged in their child’s education. We’re also fundraising to provide even more wraparound services.

Step Up wasted no time in throwing me into the mix of being a part of this amazing organization. On my second day of work, I sat in on a meeting with a neuroscientist and learned about how the psychology of a child who grew up in poverty is vastly different than that of a child from an affluent family. This fundamental difference could lead to a need of a different type of learning environment for these students. The better we understand this psychology, the better able we are to empower our scholars, their parents, and the schools we work with.

During my second week on the job, I attended a Pastors’ Round Table. This was a gathering of prominent Hispanic church leaders in the Tampa area to discuss our organization, threats against our scholarship, and how it impacts their congregations. We brought along former Step Up scholar Denisha Merriweather to tell her story of how the scholarship provided for her success. We’re excited she’s now an intern at Step Up. We were able to garner tremendous support from the pastors, many of which have church members on our scholarship.

Needless to say, I’m more than excited about my future with Step Up for Students. I have the opportunity of working closely with our marketing team soon and I’m happy to be putting that part of my education to good use. In the future, I hope to work more with the PLSA team because my heart will always be with children with unique needs and ensuring their families that their child has a right to the best possible education.

Jen is the executive assistant at Step Up For Students. She lives on Pass-A-Grille Beach in St Petersburg, and when she’s not working at and learning about Step Up, Jen enjoys open water swimming in the Gulf and cooking homemade meals from scratch.


Step Up For Students Receives $2 Million Donation to Fund Scholarships for Low-Income Students

By Paul Soost, Step Up For Students Assistant Director  of Marketing

TEMPLE TERRACE — Circle K, part of Alimentation Couche-Tard, and one of North America’s most popular and successful operators of convenience stores, announced this week  it is donating $2 million to Step Up For Students, providing educational options to hundreds of low-income Florida schoolchildren.

CircleK_PMS high resThis is Circle K’s first donation to the nonprofit organization that helps administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which is funded by corporations with tax obligations to the state in exchange for dollar-for-dollar tax credits. Circle K’s donation will fund about 350 K-12 scholarships, so financially disadvantaged children can attend the school that best meets their learning needs.

“Circle K is thrilled to help hundreds of Florida students through our participation in this program,” said David Morgan, Vice President of Circle K’s Florida Division. “Through our support, more Florida children will find success in their educational experience. Our company is committed to being a good corporate citizen by improving the quality of life in the communities we serve through a host of local charities and organizations. It is through these relationships that we can help people, encourage families and children and support the communities in which we do business.”

Step Up For Students has awarded nearly 78,000 scholarships to low-income students for the 2015-16 school year, with tuition scholarships valued up to $5,677 per student. More than 1,600 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide. Scholars may choose a $500 scholarship to offset the cost of transportation to an out-of-county public school.

“Each year, Step Up For Students is able to provide more scholarships for Florida children, which for most of our families, means hope for their children’s future,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “Without help from our partners like Circle K, the growth of the program would not be possible.”

Digital Media Solutions invests in Step Up For Students’ new fundraising initiative for Florida schoolchildren

Digital Media Solutions, a Clearwater-based media company providing results-based technology to help businesses grow, has contributed $2,500 to Step Up For Students, for its new fundraising initiative, Stepping Beyond, Boosting Success, benefiting Florida schoolchildren. Step Up For Students, a state-approved nonprofit helps administer two scholarship programs for boys and girls with financial or certain special needs.

dms-logo-440The generous check makes Digital Media Solutions the first company to donate to Stepping Beyond, Boosting Success, allowing students to maximize the impact of their scholarship so they can reach their full potential. The additional dollars will help provide much-needed support services and access to information for parents, teachers and schools.

One of the many endeavors Step Up For Students is currently exploring is the creation of an information tool to help parents identify the best learning environments for their children. This new platform will allow parents to search school data to better match a student’s needs to a participating school. Another project may be the expansion of an existing program known as Success Partners that provides professional development for teachers to help strengthen partnerships between home and school, fostering student success. These services help ensure learning continues beyond the classroom.

Digital Media Solutions, a leader in online digital advertising, is now a partner in this effort, with the company encouraging others to follow its lead and give to the cause.

“DMS wants to play an active role in helping low-income and special needs students have access to a quality education. We are very excited to partner with Step Up For Students’ Stepping Beyond, Boosting Success in order to pursue this goal,” said Digital Media Solutions’ CEO, Joe Marinucci.

Step Up For Students is honored to work with Digital Media Solutions to help families receiving the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Personal Learning Scholarship enjoy a holistic approach to education.

“Digital Media Solutions’ commitment strengthens these scholarships by helping families access information and additional support they need to use their scholarships more effectively,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “We are proud of our successes so far, but there is still much work to do. We are grateful for the support of Digital Media Solutions as we work to ensure every child receives a quality education.’’

Future Fla. House speaker: State should ‘fully fund’ school choice

Editor’s Note: This story originally ran Sept. 16, 2015 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.

By Travis Pillow

The incoming speaker of Florida’s House of Representatives laid down a marker  on Wednesday, signaling plans to push for broader school choice.

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Lutz, was officially chosen by his colleagues to lead the chamber after next year’s elections. During his designation ceremony, he said the education system has systematically short-changed poor and minority families.

State Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Lutz, speaks on the House floor during a June special session. Photo via Florida House. -

State Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Lutz, speaks on the House floor during a June special session. Photo via Florida House.

“We need to fully fund the right of every parent to make the decision that they know best — what learning environment is best for their child,” he said. “That’s how we open up the doors to a brilliant future for every student in this state.”

Corcoran didn’t lay out specifically what his proposal would look like. His prepared remarks, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times’ Buzz blog, suggest he supports multiple options, public and private, but his speech was more about laying out principles than delving into details.

Corcoran himself is a home-school father, and his wife helped start a charter school in Pasco County

“A decades-long, one-size-fits-all school system promulgated by bureaucrats has failed to deliver on the promise of opportunity for all,” he said in his speech. “Separate-but-unequal may no longer be the law, but it’s all too often the reality. A world-class education should not be only within the reach of rich people.”

Afterward, reporters pressed Corcoran on the implications of his remarks (see around 6:55 of this video).

In 1999, Florida passed its first school voucher program, which the state Supreme Court found unconstitutional in 2006. In 2001, the state created a tax credit scholarship program, which the statewide teachers union and other groups sued to stop last year.* Courts have also blocked attempts to create a statewide charter school authorizer.

Corcoran told reporters he disagreed with past court rulings that held the state constitution can restrict school choice, and said he would be undeterred by the prospect of a lawsuit.

“Listen, half the stuff that we do nowadays that’s controversial is litigated by some group, entity or whatever, but it doesn’t mean that we should stop moving (toward) something that we know will transform people’s lives in our state,” he said. “We’re going to go down that path with the firm belief that it’s constitutional.”

*The author of this post works for Step Up For Students, which helps administer the tax credit scholarships.


Step Up For Students’ David Bryant talks shop at the University of Florida’s business school’s Alumni Café

By David Bryant, Step Up For Students

CaptureBehindthescenesI recently had the great pleasure to go back to my business school alma mater to give an informal lunch talk to undergraduate business students. The lunch was hosted by University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business in Gainesville. I graduated from UF’s MBA program in 2001, and except for attending some college football games at the Swamp, I had not been very active with the business school’s alumni association.

Since 2012, I have been working for Step Up For Students as a development officer, where I am part of the team responsible for fundraising for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, one of two scholarship programs our company helps administer. (The other is the state-funded Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts program for children with certain special needs.)

So I was excited to share my experience about working for Step Up as part of the college’s Alumni Café series. Here’s a description from the Warrington website:

Alumni Café is a casual lunch-and-learn speaker series that connects a small number of our undergraduate business students per session with a local Warrington alum. The goal is to facilitate our students’ understanding of classroom concepts by offering the experienced and balanced perspectives of our diverse alumni base. The intimate and relaxed setting, with catered lunch, creates an environment that encourages meaningful engagement.

No PowerPoints, flashy handouts or suits are required. We’re simply recruiting great storytellers who appreciate the learning process. This is your chance to give back to Warrington and connect with students in a very unique way.

I was especially intrigued by that second paragraph, and I really liked the informal nature of the presentation. Instead of just talking at the students and treating it like a lecture, the lunch was conducted as a two-way conversation. Thirteen students participated, and I found the small size of the group facilitated an excellent discussion.

My topic was on corporate philanthropy, which fits Step Up For Students very well since the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship initiative of our organization depends on corporate tax-credited donations to fund these scholarships for low-income Florida students in kindergarten through 12th grade. This program provides options for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have any choice but to go to their zoned neighborhood school. The really cool thing about our program is it gives kids a chance to find a school that best meets their learning needs.

Step Up development officer David Bryant, front row, fourth from the left, recently spoke at his alma mater, University of Florida's Warrington College of Business in Gainesville.

Step Up development officer David Bryant, front row, fourth from the left, recently spoke at his alma mater, University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business in Gainesville.

The college students were very intrigued by the large amount that we fundraise ($559 million is the goal for 2016), and asked me how the Step Up development team tackles such a large goal. I explained how we first try to find companies that qualify for donating to our program and we tell them about the benefits of participating, and that it’s actually quite simple for companies to donate. These scholarships that wouldn’t be possible without our donors are changing the lives of thousands of children each year. In fact, for this new school year, we already have nearly 77,000 Florida Tax Credit scholars enrolled in school through Step Up. This year’s scholarship helps pay up to $5,677 in tuition and fees. When our donors or prospective donors hear the stories of how these students are affected, and sometimes even meet the children, they know it is a worthwhile cause. The students were very interested in learning about how Step Up helps these low-income kids, and they said that we are providing a great public service by making private school available to our students.

The students asked me great questions about my career path, too, and one student wanted to know what qualities make up a great fundraiser for Step Up. I shared with them that it’s vital to be very persistent with prospective donors, and also to be available at all times for any questions. It is also important to build a good relationship with the donors. We look at our corporate contributors as more than donors, they are partners. They want to see and hear the success stories they helped create, and we love sharing our scholarship stories.  Sharing these stories helps us be good stewards to the donors, which is very important.  But the most important trait of a good development officer at Step Up is passion, passion for what we do and passion for making a difference in children’s lives. You have to have that to be part of our organization. I enjoy working for Step Up For Students, and I am pleased to be part of such a dedicated team.

Overall, the Alumni Café was a great experience, and I was honored to get a chance to speak with the students about the awesome work we’re doing at Step Up. I was very impressed by how smart and insightful the students were, too. The University of Florida is churning out super smart kids, and I’m proud to be an alumnus. Who knows, maybe some of them will join the Step Up team one day.

David Bryant is a Development Officer for Step Up for Students, and works closely with the development team and donor companies to raise money for scholarships. David has 14 years of experience in fundraising and nonprofit management, and he is excited to take on the $559 million goal for 2016. David has held the CFRE (Certified Fund Raising Executive) credential since 2009.



Step Up For Students proudly supports Bright Ideas, a STEM competition for teens

By Sherri Ackerman

Do you know a high school student who wants to change the world? Someone who loves STEM – science, technology, engineering and math? A genius in the making?

Step Up For Students is proud to support Bright Ideas STEM from Today’s Youth, a multi-state competition that lets students dream up the coolest inventions using STEM to help make their life, community or even the world more awesome.

Bright ideasThe competition is open to students, ages 14 to 19, who participate in public, private, homeschool or virtual education options and live within any Bright House Networks service area.

Students may enter as individuals, or as part of a team of two. They will compete head-to-head in front of a television studio audience in Orlando. An expert panel of judges will choose one grand-prize winner. The big winner gets to work with a leading innovation firm to help make the invention or idea a reality.

Who knows? Maybe it really will change the world.

The U.S. will have over 1 million job openings in STEM-related fields by 2018; yet, according to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, only 16 percent of U.S. bachelor’s degrees will specialize in STEM.

Bright Ideas STEM from Today’s Youth is a competition that aims to inspire our youth to pursue STEM studies and careers. High school students can submit their STEM-powered ideas that tackle today’s toughest problems or would make the world a better place

Students younger than 18 need parental consent to participate. The contest requires students to write two essays describing their idea and how it relates to STEM. They also must produce a video or drawing depicting their idea. Bright House will accept submissions until Jan. 4, 2016. Please visit  Bright House Bright Ideas for contest rules and other information.

Regional finalists will be announced at late January or early February. The Grand Prize winner will be announced in March at the Finalist Pitch Event.

This is a great learning opportunity for students and one more way to help give them a chance to succeed.

Check out this year’s promotional video:

And watch the winner of last year’s competition being announced:

For more information about STEM careers, please read  this story on the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics website.