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South Florida Auto Dealers Association contributes $21 million to fund Hope Scholarships for state’s most vulnerable students

Miami Beach, FL Step Up For Students, the non-profit organization that manages Florida’s Hope Scholarship Program, recently recognized the South Florida Automobile Dealers Association (SFADA) and its dealer members with the Partners For Hope Award for supporting the program since its inception.

Collectively, SFADA’s dealer members have contributed $21,887,000 to fund Hope Scholarships for victims of school violence or bullying.

In 2018, the Florida Legislature created the Hope Scholarship Program. This program was established to provide the parent of a public-school student who was subjected to violence, harassment, and or bullying the opportunity to transfer the student to another public school or request a scholarship for the student to enroll in and attend an eligible private school.

The K-12 Hope Scholarships are funded through a $105 tax election option the state offers to customers who purchase or register a vehicle in Florida. Tax elections are at no cost to customers because the $105 is collected out of the state sales tax customers already owe from purchasing or registering a vehicle in Florida.

“We are honored to have the South Florida Automobile Dealers Association as a partner in our mission to provide our state’s most vulnerable students with the opportunity to refocus on their education in a new learning environment,” said Bill Ussery, Hope’s Development Officer at Step Up For Students. “It is because of the support of South Florida dealerships that more than 208,000 customers agreed to make a Hope tax election.

“Because of the support of SFADA’s dealer members, more than 2,100 Florida public school students are attending another school with a new outlook on life and learning.”

Debra Koebel, chief financial officer of the South Florida Automobile Dealers Association, accepts the “Partners for Hope Award” from Bill Ussery, Florida’s Hope Scholarship Development Officer at Step Up For Students, during the Miami International Auto Show.

 “Our dealer members have supported the worthwhile efforts of many organizations throughout the years,” said Ari Wildstein, Chairman of the South Florida Automobile Dealers Association. “By supporting the Hope Scholarship, we are truly making a positive difference in the lives of children in our communities. Many of our customers said it was a ‘feel good’ decision for them to sign the Hope form.”

“On behalf of the state of Florida and the Hope Scholarship Program, I’m pleased to present the Partner for Hope Award. Critical to this program’s success is the support from the SFADA and its nearly 200 new car dealer members throughout Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties,” Ussery added. “These dealerships along with their finance and business managers have demonstrated a strong commitment to support Florida’s students by actively informing customers about the Hope Scholarship and the tax election option. We also recognize each dealership’s accounting staff for their work in collecting and reporting each customer tax election to the Department of Revenue and submitting the funds to Step Up For Students every month.” 

Prenda microschools provide education choice opportunities for educators as well as students

BY ROGER MOONEY

After 13 years of teaching at district schools in Shreveport, Louisiana, Pam Lee was searching for something that would give the students what she called a “better opportunity” to succeed.

Disappointed in Louisiana’s education system, which annually ranks near the bottom in the nation, Lee’s passion for her job was slowly eroding. She wanted to continue teaching, but she desperately needed a change.

“I felt that there was something bigger,” Lee said, “and I was praying every day I would find it.”

The answer came in the form of a Facebook ad for Prenda, a network of K-8 microschools headquartered in Arizona. “Open your own microschool,” it read. Lee was intrigued. She clicked on the ad, and within 24 hours had talked to a Prenda representative and was making plans to open her own microschool.

Lee loved Prenda’s model: small classes of five to 10 students that can meet in the teacher’s (called “guides”) home or at a facility that meets state safety requirements; the ability for guides to set the curriculum and for students to learn at their own pace; and the flexibility for guides to set their own class hours, which run no more than 25 hours a week.

Students at a Prenda Microschool in Glendale, Arizona.

Lee opened a Prenda Microschool Den of Shreveport in September, which meets at a local daycare center. After more than a dozen years of teaching within the guidelines set by district schools, Lee said she hasn’t once looked back.

“I think Prenda is heaven-sent, actually, for us here in Louisiana,” Lee said. “My students are kind of the ones that get looked over in class. I have a fifth-grader who can’t read at all. Just having Prenda come here and me having the opportunity to reach those kids has been amazing.”

Lee’s is a case of education choice saving the student as well as the educator.

“This is what I was praying for, for years and years,” Lee said. “I say divine intervention is what brought Prenda to me.”

***

Prenda Microschools was founded in 2018 by Kelly Smith, who holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from Brigham Young University and a master’s degree in plasmas and fusion from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was intrigued with the way the students in the computer programming class he taught at a Mesa, Arizona library showed up each week and worked hard at Code Club. Smith realized kids learn better if they are interested in what they are learning.

It began with one microschool made up of seven kids from Smith’s neighborhood. Its mission: to “empower learners.”

“That’s what this is,” said Rachelle Gibson, Prenda’s New Markets Team Leader. “Let them be who they are and become who they are meant to be. It isn’t just education. ‘Empower Learners’ at its core means children understand that they can do anything once they learn how to learn and appreciate who they are as a person.”

Today, there are more than 2,500 students in 300 Prenda Microschools stretched across 5 states. Gibson is overseeing the organization’s expansion into a 6th state – Florida.

With Florida being a leader in education choice, and with the scholarships to K-12 private schools administered by Step Up For Students, the Sunshine State has always been at the top of Prenda’s expansion list. Gibson said there is support for microschools in Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville.

The key is finding guides.

“People who are educationally minded with the entrepreneurial spirit, here is an opportunity in Florida to serve kids who really need it in a really incredible way,” she said.

Gibson said 30% of Prenda guides are certified teachers, but it is not a requirement. Guides can be moms looking to get back into the workforce, or who homeschool their own children and want to take on a few more students. Guides can be teachers looking for another way of teaching, or seniors who are retired but want to work with children for 25 hours a week.

“It’s an opportunity for all of those people to find a really great way to impact kids and make a difference,” Gibson said.

Ideally, Prenda Microschools are divided into three age groups: K-second grade, third through fifth, and sixth through eighth, though that can change based on the availability of microschools and the ages of the children in that area. The microschools can be held at locations such as community centers, churches, tutoring venues, gymnastics centers or dance studios.

Prenda Microschools meet all the state requirements for a school, and the students learn the core subjects, Gibson said. What separates them from other schools is the microschools are limited to five to 10 students, and the guides have the autonomy to tailor their lessons to topics and subjects that interest the students.

“We feel like there is an opportunity to change the world because a different educational environment will unlock things that kids aren’t getting right now,” Gibson said.

***

With October coming to an end, Beth Garcia expects the students in her microschool to be interested in Halloween.

“If they want to learn about pumpkins this month, we’ll learn about pumpkins,” she said. “They wanted to learn about bats, so we added bats. They wanted to learn about flowers, so we did that.”

Students learning about gardening at a Prenda Microschool in Glendale, Arizona.

Garcia is in her second year as a guide in Sahuarita, Arizona. A teacher with five years’ experience in district schools, Garcia was teaching preschool out of her home when she learned about Prenda’s microschools. With her son ready for kindergarten, she thought it was a great way to homeschool him. Some of the other parents thought so, too, and asked Garcia if their child could continue under her tutelage. So Little Fox Preschool became Little Fox 2 Prenda Microschool, with eight students in grades K-2.

“I definitely love Prenda,” Garcia said. “I love the fact that kids can work at their own pace. It’s very tailored to a child. If a child is in first grade and still working at a kinder level, that’s OK. There are no standards that need to be met as far as (district) school system. We can tailor it to them.”

A Guide and her student at a Prenda Microschool in
Buckeye, Arizona.

Garcia said she knows where all eight students are academically, which allows her the freedom to adjust the lessons accordingly. She also loves the smaller class size and the fact she can teach from her home, which allows her to spend time with her youngest son, who is a year away from beginning kindergarten.

“I like the freedom as a guide to be able to tailor our curriculum around student interest,” Garcia said. “That’s the fun part of teaching, I think.”

 The oldest of Garcia’s three children is her daughter Alanah, 10. Alanah struggled in her district school. She found the lessons moving too fast, which caused anxiety and behavioral problems. She had to repeat the third grade.

Alanah now attends a Prenda Microschool, where she is doing well academically and making friends.

“She’s like a whole different child,” Garcia said. “I really think for her, Prenda has saved her soul. I really believe that.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

From class clown to class leader with the help of an education choice scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

TAMPA – One of Margene Avery’s first moves as principal at Tampa Bay Christian Academy was to install a student government. For junior class president, she chose Joshua Brutus, an immensely popular yet irresponsible student who was content to coast through high school.

Joshua summed up his reaction in one word: “Me?”

“My freshman, sophomore year, I don’t want to say I was the class clown, but I was the class clown,” Joshua said. “I never got any big responsibilities. But to step into those shoes, I was surprised.”

The teachers and administrators at the pre-K through 12 private school saw Joshua’s potential. Avery felt that putting him in charge of his class would turn Joshua into a serious student.

“When he applies himself, he really does well,” Avery said. “He has a great common sense as well as intellectual capacity.”

Joshua, 17, now a senior, attends TBCA on a scholarship for private schools managed by Step Up For Students.

While surprised at his appointment, Joshua was also energized by the confidence shown in him by Avery and TBCA Head of School Matthew Peavyhouse. He went from being the class clown to being class leader, from being a lethargic student to one who earns A’s and B’s.

Joshua Brutus began the school year with a bang at Tampa Bay Christian Academy, earning student of the month honors for August.

“He’s become a man that I am proud is graduating from this school,” Peavyhouse said. “He’s grown a great deal, more than anything, character wise. He’s become a strong young man.”

Joshua has big plans for his future: a college education, possibly a career as an electrical engineer. He wants to start a nonprofit to help Black boys in economically struggling communities around Tampa transition from middle school to high school. He wants to show the same belief in them as the TBCA teachers and administrators have shown in him.

“Because not everyone has what I have, and I’m very fortunate that I get to go here and get the support from them,” Joshua said.

Celene Flerine, Joshua’s mother, wanted her son to attend TBCA for the benefits that come with attending a private school with a student population of 200: small class sizes, more one-on-one attention from the teachers, and the support offered by the administration.

“I felt the people at this school, the principal and teachers, are happy to help you with your children,” she said. “If there is any problem, if your child doesn’t do homework, they call you and say this is not working, this is not good.

“That’s what I want, because I don’t want for them to wait for six months or one year to find out my child isn’t doing good at your school. Then it’s too late. At this school, they make sure they work together (with parents). You go talk to them. They open the door for you. This is a good school for me.”

Celene knew what Joshua was capable of achieving and reminded him of that every time he brought home a disappointing report card.

“When I was a younger, I was like, ‘Why do they expect so much of me? I’m just a regular kid. I don’t want to do all this stuff,’” Joshua said. “And now that I’m here, I feel like I should have listened from the beginning, because if I had listened from the beginning, I could be way smarter, have more opportunities.”

Joshua kicked off his senior year by earning student of the month honors for August. He is working hard during his final year at TBCA to bring his GPA from a 2.8 to a 3.0, which he hopes will make him eligible for financial assistance to college.

He was proud of what he accomplished in class once he began to apply himself and he was proud that he made his mother, well, proud.

“My mom is really happy for me,” he said. “She just wants the best for me. And now all her efforts weren’t in vain. I’m actually trying, and she sees that I’m trying and she’s proud of me, which makes me proud of myself.”

Joshua loves reading the classics, like Beowulf.

Joshua, who wants to be an electrical engineer, said he wants to be a person who makes a difference in his community. That’s why he’s interested in starting his nonprofit.

The idea came to life during a class discussion with Peavyhouse, who posed this question: What makes high school freshmen so annoying? Peavyhouse was looking for serious answers, and Joshua provided one: “They don’t know what they don’t know.”

Joshua’s solution was to offer a mentorship program to those who lack male role models. Those young men get lost, Joshua said, because they have no one to show them the importance of an education, that a 3.0 GPA is better than a 2.0 and a 3.5 is better than a 3.0. It’s hard to believe in yourself, Joshua said, when no one believes in you.

Speaking from his own experiences, Joshua said, “I just saw a lot of people with potential that they never really could do anything about it because of their situation. They need help.

“They can be the smartest person in the world living in poverty and not having the means or the support to actually be someone in life, and they could be. But instead, it gets thrown out the window. It’s just a waste of potential.”

Being named junior class president ignited the serious student that for so long, lay dormant inside Joshua.

“They make me feel like I’m worth something,” he said, “that I can actually do something with my life. Junior year I said, ‘Enough is enough, because I want to have a future.’”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

State, Step Up working to fund students

Several families with students on the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA, formerly Gardiner) and the income-based Family Empowerment Scholarship-Educational Options (FES-EO) recently have expressed frustration with delays in the first quarterly payment to their scholarships.

Today, Step Up For Students and the Florida Department of Education sent this joint email to affected families:

Dear Parent/Guardian,

Thank you very much for reaching out, and we understand the concerns regarding funding for your child’s school of choice. Thankfully, this is an isolated data entry error in approximately 15 school districts. We are confident all payments will be successfully processed and verified by mid-October, or earlier.

In fact, 80% of these data entry errors, which made it appear some scholarship students were “double-enrolled,” have already been corrected. About 15 school districts reported students as still being enrolled in a district-run school, even though the students had actually enrolled in non-public schools through a scholarship program.

The Florida Department of Education (FDOE) has been working with Step Up For Students and these 15 districts to ensure errors are corrected as quickly as possible, in order that funds can subsequently follow students to the school of their choice. Once corrected, Step Up For Students will notify families when their student’s funding is deposited. In the meantime, families will continue to receive updates from Step Up for Students.

Contact us by visiting our website at www.StepUpForStudents.org and using the Online Chat option or by calling our Service Center at 877-735-7837. Our Scholarship Service Center is open Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. ET. We are here to help you.

Step Up For Students and the Florida Department of Education

Adelante! Why a former Step Up scholar completed his UF degree during rookie season in NFL

BY ROGER MOONEY

Where to begin with CJ Henderson?

That the former Step Up For Students scholar used his time wisely at Christopher Columbus High in Miami and earned a football scholarship to the University of Florida?

That he turned three seasons with the Florida Gators into an NFL career, and in 2020 was drafted ninth overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars?

CJ Henderson (23) makes a tackle against Houston during the Jaguars first game of the season. (Photo courtesy of the Jacksonville Jaguars)

That he continued his coursework during his rookie season and graduated last May from Florida with his class?

That in May he donated $250,000 to the new training facility at Columbus?

CJ Henderson’s senior picture at Christopher Columbus High in Miami.

Each of those are noteworthy on their own. Added together, they help tell the story of a student/athlete who lives by the motto used by those associated with Columbus: Adelante! It is Spanish for “forward” or “onward.”

CJ moves forward with his goals. That’s why he received a scholarship to play cornerback at a major university and why he was a top-10 pick by an NFL team. He made that goal when he was young.

“CJ had the ambition to go to the NFL since kindergarten, first grade,” his dad, Chris, said. “He used to write that in his journal.”

It’s also why CJ, who was traded Sept. 27 to the Carolina Panthers, has a degree in education science and why he chose to give back to his alma mater.

It’s called C-Pride, said Xzavier Henderson, CJ’s younger brother who is a sophomore wide receiver at Florida.

“We hold ourselves to a standard,” Xzavier said. “C-Pride is having pride in the alumni base, athletics, academics, having pride in everything you do in high school.”

Columbus High, CJ said during a video announcing his donation to the school, taught him the discipline needed to succeed at a university like Florida. That’s the reason Chris wanted his son to attend a private high school and why CJ chose Columbus, a Catholic school. The campus has a college-like vibe, the athletic program is among the best in the state and the academics are demanding.

Xzavier Henderson’s senior picture at Christopher Columbus High in Miami.

“They have rules to keep you in line, and those same rules you have to apply to yourself in college,” Chris said.

Chris had the same NFL dreams as CJ. After a standout football career at his neighborhood high school in Miami, Chris attended the University of Cincinnati on a football scholarship. Looking back, Chris said he wasn’t prepared for the academic side of being a college football player. He left Cincinnati, attended two more colleges, and never graduated.

Chris and his wife, Prudence, wanted their sons to have the best chance at succeeding in college. They began researching the private high schools in the Miami area when CJ was in the eighth grade. That’s when they learned about the private school scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.

“That really helped,” Chris said, “because without that, it’s hard to say if we would have made it through all those years.”

Xzavier received the same scholarship and followed CJ to Columbus.

“They represent Step Up and what it’s all about,” Columbus Principal David Pugh said. “I think they got the most out of what Step Up is meant to do, provide students like CJ and Xzavier with another option, and they made the most of it.”

The jump from high school classwork to college is demanding, but the four years at Columbus left CJ and Xzavier better prepared for what awaited them at Florida.

“That was the preparation I was looking for,” Chris said. “To thrive in college, you really need to be disciplined (in class) to give you a push. Going to play football sounds fun and easy, but going to Florida, that’s tough. CJ took advantage of his resources and made it happen.”

And he graduated with his class despite spending what would have been his senior year in the NFL. CJ managed to mix in virtual classes to finish his degree while navigating life as an NFL rookie.

“That was an accomplishment I wanted to achieve,” Henderson told floridagators.com. “I just wanted to get it out of the way rather than wait until later and come back and do it.”

Tony Meacham, assistant director for academic services at Florida’s University Athletic Association, told floridagators.com that he could not remember a football player who continued to work toward his degree during his first year in the NFL. Most wait until at least the end of their rookie season before resuming their education.

“To his credit, he was willing to put in the work besides the work he was putting in on the field,” Meachum said. “You think someone in his position would be glued to football, but he was doing both. It was very impressive for someone to do that in his position.”

Said Pugh, “I wouldn’t expect anything less. It just shows you the level of commitment that a guy like CJ makes. He made that commitment to Christopher Columbus High School, and he made that commitment to the University of Florida.”

Xzavier Henderson warming up before Florida’s game against USF on Sept. 11 in Tampa. (Photo courtesy of University Athletic Association)

The Hendersons wanted all their children to graduate from college. CJ’s sister, Daija, graduated last spring from Florida A&M and is pursuing a master’s degree while working as a dental assistant. Xzavier was named to the Southeastern Conference First-Year Honor Role as a freshman.

“We take our academics seriously,” Xzavier said. “We want to be champions in everything we do.”

Like CJ, Xzavier occasionally returns to Columbus to work out and spend time with students. He can now work out in the facility that bears his family’s name – the Henderson Family Athletic Training Center. The 2,000 square foot building provides the school’s athletes with better evaluation, treatment and rehabilitation of injuries.

“CJ and Xzavier are role models,” Pugh said. “Other students would want to emulate what they do, because they do it the right way.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Tips on transitioning your child to a new school or learning environment

By ROGER MOONEY

The Buddy Bench found on the playground at Christ the King Catholic School in Jacksonville is a yellow beacon that helps new students find playmates, make friends, and ease the transition to their new school.

Amanda McCook

The Lunch Bunch provides the same opportunities, but in a private setting.

These are two examples offered by Amanda McCook, the school’s assistant principal/guidance counselor, when asked for tips on transitioning a child to a new school or learning environment.

Another school year is underway, which means there is no shortage of students who are walking the halls of unfamiliar buildings populated by many unfamiliar faces.

They can be children in kindergarten or pre-teens entering high school. Or they can be students who made the switch from a neighborhood school to a private one. A number of these students receive scholarships managed by Step Up For Students to attend private K-12 schools in Florida.

The transitioning can be daunting.

Part of McCook’s duties at the private pre-K through eighth school is to ease that transition. Having two daughters who made the move from their neighborhood school to a private one, McCook has seen this process from both sides.

The advice she gave her daughters was to join clubs and activity groups and sit with different groups of students during lunch. It’s the same advice she gives to parents of students new to Christ the King.

“The more involved you are, the more people you meet,” she said.

McCook has a list of tips that she developed during her 19 years as an educator, both in public and private schools. Some, like the Buddy Bench and the Lunch Bunch (more on those later), are unique to Christ the King.

If your child is having an uneasy time during the first few weeks at a new school, McCook said you can:

  • See if the school has a student- or parent-led board that can provide insight and advice. At Christ the King, McCook said, “We try to match families with new families to give them those tips and tricks. There’s always going to be families in the school system who are there for that kind of support. I definitely think you should reach out to some families in the school to get those tips.”
  • Read the parent/student handbook. “That has all those details that you might miss as far as the structure of the school and uniform policies,” McCook said. “That’s totally different when you come from a public school.”
  • Get to know your administration. “That’s what I’m here for as an assistant principal, to help new families transition, if they have any questions,” McCook said.
  • Also, open a line of communication with your child’s teachers. Get their email address. Don’t hesitate to ask questions or voice concerns.
  • Volunteer. Christ the King, like most faith-based schools, requires parents to volunteer. “That’s such a great opportunity to meet other families and to learn more about the school,” she said. “We realize how important that is to the vitality of the school to have parents involved. Definitely the more involved you are, the more you feel vested in your school. I feel like that is definitely a plus to get involved.”

For those parents with children in Catholic schools, McCook suggested they attend the midweek Mass for the students.

“We always encourage our parents to come to Mass to get a feel for our school and our pastor,” McCook said.

Even when parents follow these tips, their child might still feel uneasy during the first weeks at a new school. Fortunately for those at Christ the King, McCook has a few more tricks.

The Buddy Bench at Christ the King Catholic School in Jacksonville.

During the first few days of school, McCook visits each classroom and tells the story of the Buddy Bench.

The yellow bench sits in the middle of the playground. It is a signal that someone can use a friend.

“If you’re playing and you’re all by yourself and are lonely, you can go sit on the bench.,” McCook said. “And everyone knows if you ever see someone sitting on the Buddy Bench, you have to go up to them and say, ‘Hey, do you want to play?’ And you have to say, ‘Yes.’

“We teach our kids that way and they do it successfully. That really helps everybody feel included and not go home and say, ‘Nobody played with me,’ because that hurts a parent’s heart. We praise kids who come over and ask kids to join them, so they want to be the one who asks.”

Finally, there is the Lunch Bunch.

“If I see there’s someone new that’s struggling to make friends, I call in three friends from their class and they eat lunch with me in my office,” McCook said.

McCook breaks the ice with conversation-starters.

“Who’s been to Disney World?”

“Who likes Harry Potter?”

“Who likes Marvel comics?”

“I find that really helps, especially with my more-shy students, make connections they couldn’t make on their own,” McCook said.

McCook said it shouldn’t take more than a month for the unfamiliar to become familiar for new students. Stephanie Engelhardt, Christ the King’s principal, contacts the parents of all the new students within the first three weeks of the school year.

“Just to make sure they’re feeling comfortable,” McCook said. “Do they know the process? How is their student liking school? We always check up within the first month.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

From jumping rope to riding bikes, education savings accounts help those with autism expand their world

BY ROGER MOONEY

SARASOTA – Sophia Slaughter, who is 15, recently learned to jump rope.

Maybe that is not a big deal to someone who was skipping Double Dutch at 5, but it is to Sophia, who is on the autism spectrum and has dyspraxia. Known as developmental co-ordination disorder, dyspraxia hinders her coordination. Some activities that neurotypical teenagers consider routine are nearly impossible for her.

Or were.

While working with trainer Dani Williams at NXT Generation Wellness in Sarasota for the past two years, Sophia gradually gained command of her muscles and their movements. She can hold a yoga pose and coordinate her footwork to move through a series of squares taped on the floor at NXT Generation.

Sophia Slaughter jumps rope during a recent training sessions at NXT Generation Wellness.

And she can complete in proper order the mini skills that allow her to jump rope.

“It’s life-changing,” said Sophia’s mom, Jennifer Slaughter.

Sophia, who lives in Sarasota and is home schooled, receives the Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with unique abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship). It is managed by Step Up For Students. Sophia uses her education savings account that comes with the scholarship to pay for the sessions at NXT Generation, as well as for yoga classes and ballroom dancing.

These activities added health and fitness to Sophia’s life, helped her become more socially interactive, and gain a circle of friends.

“That’s the ultimate goal,” Williams said. “Elevate and enhance their current life, or what they view as their current life, and open doors and continue on this path.”

In early August, 20-year-old Riley Joyce for the first time in his life rode a two-wheel bicycle without any assistance. His mom, Judi, who watched from the driveway of their Sarasota-home cried.

“It was the best thing ever to see,” Judi said.

Like Sophia, Riley is on the autism spectrum. He lives in Sarasota and is home schooled. Riley also receives the Family Empowerment Scholarship (formerly Gardiner) and uses his education savings account for yoga, ballroom dancing and sessions with Williams.

Riley was introduced to Williams three years ago during her Saturday group classes, which are sponsored by Face Autism. For the past two years, Riley has taken weekly one-on-one classes with Williams.

Jordan Soriano and NXT Generation Wellness owner Dani Williams.

Started by Colleen Buccieri, whose godson Jordan Soriano is on the spectrum, Face Autism is a nonprofit that organizes autism-appropriate activities such as bowling, horseback riding, and golf. It also sponsors a ballroom dancing class at Dynasty Dance Club in Sarasota.

Judi enrolled Riley in the fitness class, hoping he would get healthier and make friends. Check and check.

Riley has lost 33 pounds since he began working with Williams. At first, he could barely manage five minutes on the treadmill. Now he can walk and run for 30 minutes, increasing the pace as he goes along.

“His endurance has gone off the charts,” Judi said.

As for socializing, Riley chats with everyone he encounters, making friends wherever he goes.

“He doesn’t stop talking, which is great,” Judi said. “I love it.”

In July, Riley spent a week in the Adirondack Mountains of New York with a small group of friends who are on the spectrum. They hiked, went fly fishing, ziplining, and kayaking.

The outing was the idea of Williams’ boyfriend, Chase Pettey, who runs Adventure For All, a nonprofit that creates interactive adventures for those with intellectual and/or developmental exceptionalities.

Riley tried to ride a two-wheel bike during the trip and came close. He finally conquered that feat not long after returning home.

Williams helped Riley master the bicycle (which Riley purchased with his education saving account) with a series of exercises over a six-month period that improved his balance and stability.

“The confidence in Riley has just skyrocketed,” Williams said. “He’s much more willing to try new things, so that’s been a wonderful thing to witness.”

As Jordan’s godmother, Colleen was keenly aware of how children on the spectrum grow up without friends. They aren’t invited to birthday parties or asked to go to the movies. She created Face Autism in 2009 to change that.

“I just look for different opportunities for kids to be involved in, things that typical kids would be involved in,” she said. “And I’m a big proponent of getting them off the video games and the computers. A lot of the kids don’t have fitness in their life. I think it’s very important – have a healthy heart, a strong body. Most of them don’t have upper body strength.”

Jordan, 21, lacked upper body strength when he began training with Williams four years ago. He couldn’t jump rope. He could ride a two-wheel bike, but he couldn’t peddle with much power.

A recipient of the Family Empowerment (formerly Gardiner) Scholarship, Jordan, who is homeschooled, used his education savings account to pay for his training sessions with Williams.

Jordan can jump rope. He can vertically jump 36 inches. He has learned to stand when he rides his bike so he can generate more power when he peddles. He runs 35 minutes around his home in Ellenton, Florida every other day. He is making plans to bring his bicycle to Riley’s house, so they can ride their bikes together.

Jordan, who excels at ballroom dancing, was part of the group that made the trip to the Adirondacks.

“This has given him confidence to try new things and to challenge himself,” Colleen said.

And to keep trying. During the Adirondack trip, Jordan tried to complete an obstacle course on his bike. He was unsuccessful the first time, and he was unsuccessful the second time. He didn’t quit, though, and eventually he completed the course.

“He has really shown determination,” Colleen said, “something he never had.”

That’s all part of the plan Williams has for each of her clients. Knowing no two have the same challenges, she devises individual programs for each. “Outside the box” training, she called it. Williams developed a book where they can chart their progress during workouts and encourages them to write in a journal. She teaches them about proper nutrition and the importance of staying hydrated.

Williams, who graduated from Saint Francis University (Loretto, Pennsylvania) in 2011 with a dual degree in Elementary and Special Education, works as a learning support teacher at Community Day School in Sarasota.

In 2012, Williams began Kids in Motion, which morphed into the wellness program that is now NXT Generation.

“Watching the underdogs take on things we’ve preconceived them unable to do or limited what they could actually do and see them be able to do it with the correct support and guidance is one of my greatest joys in life, hands down,” Williams said.

Her goal is to push clients with special needs through the glass ceiling society has placed above them, to show the impossible is possible.

Like jumping rope for Sophia Slaughter.

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

From Ethiopia to No. 1 in his high school class to UF with the help of a private school scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

For Yonas Worku, obstacles are opportunities.

When he was 5, Yonas and his mother emigrated from Ethiopia to join his father in Las Vegas. They immediately had to overcome numerous hurdles.

“It was really rough,” he said. “The language barrier, the culture barrier, you can just imagine how difficult it was to assimilate into this culture. It was rough learning the language at first. Getting to know people, finding friends, that was a little tough for me, but it all worked out in the end.”

Thanks in large part to a quality education made possible by a private school scholarship for K-12 schoolchildren in Florida, managed by Step Up For Students.

As if Yonas wasn’t already facing enough challenges adapting to a new country, when he was in fourth grade his father left the family.

Bewildered and angry at first, Yonas said he grew to accept his father’s actions.

“I’m kind of glad that he did (leave) in the sense that I wouldn’t be here now,” said Yonas, 17. “It kind of motivated me to become the person I am today. Having that burden, it motivates you to be better. If I had everything handed to me, I don’t think this would be my life.”

Yonas with his mom, Zinash, after Yonas graduated No. 1 in his class from Bishop John Snyder High School in Jacksonville.

Suddenly, Zinash Tekleweld found herself a single mom trying to raise her son Yonas in a still unfamiliar country nearly 8,000 miles from her homeland. A year later, she and Yonas moved to Jacksonville, where she worked a minimum-wage job at a cotton candy factory.

Tekleweld learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up. She applied and was accepted. The scholarship enabled her to afford tuition to private schools that helped make him the person he is today.

The scholarship “really lifted the burden for our family and made life much easier,” Tekleweld said.

“Step Up was a big help,” Yonas said. “A very big help. We didn’t have any money. It was paycheck-to-paycheck.”

Yonas said he wanted to help his mother, but when he talked of getting a job, she told him to work on school.

“I realized that education was the most important thing in this country and that through it, Yonas can become a better individual,” said Tekleweld, who now works as a school janitor. “Education is the key to getting anything that he wants. I realized that it can open many doors for him in the future.”

Yonas finished middle school at Sacred Heart Catholic School, then attended Bishop John Snyder High School, where he graduated in June as the valedictorian. He took summer classes at the University of Florida. This August, he will begin working on his major – computer science. He is interested in a career in software development or cybersecurity.

Yonas was accepted to six colleges, including Georgia Tech and Boston College. He chose Florida because his college tuition would be covered with all the academic scholarships he has earned, including the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship.

Yonas had a decorated academic career at Bishop Snyder. In addition to graduating first in his class with a 4.44 grade-point average, he was president of the National Honor Society his senior year, as well as a member of the French, science, math, social studies and English honor societies. He received the school’s Christian Service Award for exemplary service to the community, the Senior Cardinal Award, and the Math Department Award.

“He’s the whole package,” said Kelly Brown, Bishop Snyder’s dean of academics and the school’s sponsor of the National Honor Society.

Brown also teaches AP Calculus. She said the other students wanted to be partners with Yonas on class projects because, well, they knew working with him would ensure a top grade, but also because he could break down the complicated material in a way they could understand.

“He’s a rare find,” Brown said. “He’s a very driven young man with high aspirations and goals. That often comes with a personality that is pretty intense, but not in his case.”

While Yonas earns all A’s, his personality is far from Type A. He is a hard worker who was challenged by Bishop Snyder’s demanding academics. Presented with the opportunity to talk about the struggles he and his mom encountered during their first few years in the United States or brag a little on his academic achievements during his valedictorian address, Yonas chose to talk about what he and his fellow graduates accomplished.

“This means the world to us,” he said of their diplomas.

“I was really happy to hear that Yonas graduated first from his class,” Tekleweld said. “I was really proud of him because I’ve seen how hard he has worked to reach this point. I remember crying about it because I was so happy.”

The emotional toll of his dad leaving, and the financial hardship left in its wake motivated Yonas to excel in school so he could receive the grades needed for the academic scholarships that will pay for his college education.

“That’s what got me here,” he said of his spot in the University of Florida’s incoming freshman class. “In the end it works out. Everything does work out.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Private school scholarship ‘molded me into a better person’

By ROGER MOONEY

Lucas Kirschner came for the basketball. He stayed for the education.

The recent graduate of Miami Christian School enrolled there as an eighth grader with the help of a private school scholarship managed by Step Up for Students. The draw for him was Miami Christian’s highly regarded boys basketball program. The draw for his mom was the school’s academics.

At the time, Lucas had dreams of playing professional basketball. But after two seasons his playing time was scarce. Several of his friends on the team were leaving for a neighborhood high school, and Lucas seriously considered joining them.

His mom, Ocilia Diaz, told Lucas his friends had their reasons for leaving and he had plenty of reasons to stay, namely the education.

Woody Gentry, Miami Christian principal, told Lucas that just because basketball wasn’t working out as he hoped, he could work harder to earn more playing time.

Lucas Kirschner

“Grow through the experience, whether you’re playing or not,” Gentry recalled saying.

Eventually, Lucas decided to stay.

“I ended up staying because Miami Christian has a very good basketball team but also has a great educational system,” he said.

The teachers, Lucas said, care about the students. They provide support and hold them accountable.

“I didn’t want to leave that, because I felt if I left that I would have gone off the track,” he said.

Lucas, 17, is set to begin his freshman year at Miami Dade College, where he will study automotive engineering. The goal of playing in the NBA has been replaced by one of working as an engineer for a Formula One racing team.

“I love engineering,” he said. “I love working with cars.”

Lucas attended Miami Christian, because his mom felt he was going off the track at his neighborhood middle school. She wasn’t pleased with the students he was hanging out with or his conduct in class.

“It was just behavior,” Diaz said. “Clicking the pencil on the desk. Talking. Over talking. Getting up to sharpen the pencil. It got to the point in junior high where he was starting to make comments and laughing and becoming disruptive in class. Becoming the silly boy. Ha. Ha. Ha. It’s so funny, but it’s not funny anymore. The teachers get annoyed.”

Diaz was worried where this was heading. She and Lucas’ father, Holger Kirschner (they divorced when Lucas was 4), decided to send their son to a private school. Diaz learned of Miami Christian, located 20 minutes from their Miami home. The basketball program was certainly attractive. And so was the school’s faith-based education, academic reputation and small class sizes. The tuition was a concern – currently $10,000 per year for middle school and $10,500 for high school.

Diaz was told about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which allows parents to send their child to a school of their choice. She applied.

“When we were accepted, it was the best thing ever,” she said.

Lucas knew it was the right move.

“I was hanging out with the wrong people, skipping school a lot, not doing homework, not doing classwork. Just slacking off. Not caring. I had nobody to push me,” he said about his neighborhood school.

That changed at his new private school.

“I felt the environment around me change completely,” he said. “The environment changed me. The teachers changed me. It helped me get out of that state I was in in middle school.”

Lucas also found Principal Gentry.

Gentry realized quickly that this new student liked to feel needed, liked to be given tasks.

So, Gentry asked Lucas to help set up for school functions around campus. Lucas helped grill and serve hotdogs during school cookouts. He made Lucas the “cell phone captain,” meaning Lucas was charged with collecting his classmates’ cellphones before class and distributing them after class.

In that role, Gentry said, “He was phenomenal.”

Lucas was a mainstay on Project Plus, an afterschool program created by Gentry for campus projects. One was to make bulletin boards with plexiglass covers that can withstand the elements at the school’s open-air campus.

“He thrived with doing those kinds of things,” Gentry said. “When he had an assignment, a project, hands-on, felt a sense of ownership with it, that helped him a lot.”

His dream of playing in the NBA didn’t work out, but Lucas has his sights set on another competitive sport: Formula One racing.

When Lucas was a junior, his maternal grandfather passed away and he had a hard time dealing with his grief. Gentry noticed and invited Lucas to spend the day in his office. Gentry told Lucas to not worry about his schoolwork that day, just work through his feelings and that he was there if Lucas felt like talking.

“He made everything comfortable, comforting,” Gentry said.

On the day Lucas graduated from high school, Gentry gave him a hug and said, “You’re going to be something out there.”

Diaz, standing nearby, was filled with pride. The decision to send her son to Miami Christian and her son’s decision to stay accomplished everything she had ever hoped.

“They molded him,” Diaz said. “He has the thought of continuing to study and wanting something bigger for himself.”

As the years went by, Lucas, a 6-foot-3 guard/forward, learned there was more to high school than playing time on the basketball team. He has grown through the experience.

“I’m actually very glad I went there,” Lucas said. “It changed my life for the better. It molded me into something I actually wanted to become. It molded me into a better person. I can see my future better.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Tips on picking the right school for your child

By ROGER MOONEY

Because of the expanded eligibility requirements that went into effect July 1, more families in Florida are eligible for private school scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.

Andrew Campanella, National School Choice Week president.

The Family Empowerment Scholarship is now available to families with higher incomes, up to nearly $100,000 per year for a family of four. Also, dependents of active-duty members of the armed forces, children in foster care and out-of-home care, and those who have been adopted are now eligible for the scholarship.

The FES scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship) includes more eligible diagnoses.

This means more families have more options when it comes to school choice.

For those new to the Step Up program, here is some advice on picking a school from Andrew Campanella, National School Choice Week president and author of the School Choice Road Map: 7 Steps for Finding the Right School for Your Child.

Focus on what is the right education environment for your child: “What I encourage parents to do is think about what your goals are for your child,” Campanella said. “Think about how your child learns, in what environments your child is most likely to succeed and what your child’s interest are and keep those things at the front of your mind as you look at schools, because you want to find an environment that will meet your own criteria. One family might have a whole different set of criteria than another, and that’s completely fine.”

The biggest misconception when it comes to school choice: “People think there are good schools and bad schools, and they need to get their child into a good school,” Campanella said. “It goes beyond that. You need to get your child into a school that is good for him or her. That’s the most important thing.”

Keep an open mind: “You really do need to take stock of your own biases and your own experiences as a parent, because you went to a certain type of school,” Campanella said. “You might have liked it. You might have not liked it. You might have had a good or bad experience.

“Unless you live in the same area where you are going to send your child to school, you can’t write off one entire type of school because you might have had a bad experience. You need to recognize you had experiences that may have been unique to you and that your child is an individual and they may respond differently to that type of environment.”

Advice from family and friends can be helpful and important, but …: “What I encourage parents to do is don’t ask questions that lead to generalities,” Campanella said. “Ask specific questions. For example, don’t say, ‘Did you like it? Did you not like it?’ Ask how the teachers were with the students. Ask what type of homework was assigned. Asked what type of classes the child found most interesting. Don’t ask for a parent to be either a cheerleader or a reviewer of the school, because your own view is going to be reinforced somehow.”

Do your homework: Don’t let someone steer you in one direction before you’ve done your own research,” Campanella said. “Bring a list of criteria with you when touring the school. Form your own impression, then ask questions.

“Parents feel judged for making choices, but you have to remember: People can give their advice, but at the end of the day, you know your child better than anyone out there.”

Involve your child in the process: Campanella said don’t present it as a choice, but ask your child for input. See what they like and don’t like. See how they react to the environment during the school visit. If they hate the school, it’s not likely going to be a good fit.

“I encourage families to make it a family discussion,” Campanella said. “But remember, even though it is a family discussion, the ultimate decision is yours as a parent.”

Campanella’s seven steps for finding the right school are:

  1. Think back on your own time in school.
  2. Identify goals for your child. What do you see for their future? What are your hopes and dreams for them? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
  3. Decide what you need or want from a school or learning experience.
  4. Make a list and research the schools.
  5. Visit schools. Can you see your child succeed in that learning environment?
  6. Evaluate the schools.
  7. Choose a school.

Choosing a school for a child is one of the most important decisions a parent will make. Campanella said a recent poll conducted by National School Choice Week revealed making the wrong choice is the biggest fear among parents.

“There is great anxiety about this process, because education for too long has been filled with lots of buzz words and jargon and bureaucracy that have been understandably difficult for many parents to navigate,” Campanella said. “School choice is designed to make education more user friendly, more parent friendly, more kid friendly. So the goal needs to be to empower parents, just like Step Up is doing, with not only the resources to choose learning environments for their kids that work, but also the information to go about that process and feel confident in the choices they’re making.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

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