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All Posts by Roger Mooney

A different way of learning gives Gardiner scholar the academic LIFT he needs

By ROGER MOONEY

MIAMI LAKES, Fla. – Joshua Sandoval sat at a table inside the LIFT Educational Academy and, with a laser-like focus, wrote in his journal. The topic: What was special about the classroom?

He was on his third sentence.

His mother, Nilsa Roberts, sat two rooms away, watching Joshua on one of four monitors hanging from a wall in the office of Dr. Fabian Redler, the school’s director and founder.

Roberts was, in a word, amazed.

She did not see a child with behavioral issues, as one school labeled her son. She did not see a child who struggled to complete assignments, as some of Joshua’s former teachers complained. Instead, she saw a student quietly going about his task.

“This is amazing,” Roberts said as she stared at her son’s image on the screen. “I’ve never seen him like this. He’s so focused.”

Yes, Joshua, 12, comes with learning challenges.

Joshua and his mom, Nilsa Roberts.

At three months, he was diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis complex, a genetic disorder where the body produces benign tumors. It is a rare disease as defined by the National Organization of Rare Diseases and qualifies Joshua for a Gardiner Scholarship, which is run by Step Up For Students.

Joshua’s tumors are in his brain. They cause daily seizures. The medication he takes makes him fidgety. Staying focused can be a struggle.

But, Roberts said, her son does not have behavioral issues, and he is not, as one teacher told her, unteachable.

Joshua speaks two languages – English and Spanish. He is an avid reader and uses an extensive vocabulary for his age. He knows all the words to all his favorite songs. He interacts well with other children.

He plays right field on his Little League team.

“What I know with Joshua is he’s very smart, and he learns different from other kids,” Roberts said.

She knew if she could find the right school, the right setting, Joshua would thrive. She spent a lot of time looking.

Joshua is in the sixth grade. LIFT is his seventh school.

“Finally,” Roberts said, “we found the place.”

No holding back
The LIFT Educational Academy is part of What’s On Your Mind, a psychology, tutoring and brain fitness center that has three south Florida locations, including one in Miami Lakes, Florida, the same town where Roberts and her family live.

Established by Redler, 20 years ago as a psychology and brain fitness center for children, What’s On Your Mind is well-known for aiding children in developing the brain skills essential for learning and surpassing their abilities through their trademarked programs.

The two decades of consistent progress has resulted in the establishment of LIFT Educational Academy four years ago, after parents urged Redler to start a much-needed unconventional school.

LIFT has 12 students ranging from first to 12th grade. Redler said the school could expand to 24 students.

New students obtain a psychoeducational evaluation to determine cognitive deficiencies in the skills involved in learning – attention, memory, visual processing and processing speed. They receive brain-based exercises to strengthen those areas.

The exercises are tailored to each student and integrated in their English Language Arts and Mathematics curriculum.

“The school itself is a perfect scenario for a child that is really behind and can use every single day to catch up both academically and deal with the issues that have been holding him back, which are all those cognitive areas,” Redler said.

Maritza Perera, school counselor, Joshua, Nilsa and Dr. Fabian Redler, director and founder of LIFT Educational Academy in Miami Lakes, Florida.

Roberts found What’s On Your Mind two years ago while researching education options for Joshua. She brought him in for an evaluation, signed him up for the summer program then enrolled him in LIFT.

“But what was unique with Joshua was the seizures. We didn’t know what to expect in terms of whether the brain training would stick, because of all his seizures,” Redler said. “We had to work as much as we could to just develop his ability. Whatever stays, stays. Whatever doesn’t, doesn’t. At the end of the day, it’s given him the best interventions that he can have. So far, it’s been awesome.”

‘Kind of like a miracle’

Joshua has had three brain surgeries, the first when he was 3. He still has tumors in his brain, including one in his right eye.

While Joshua can have as many as three seizures a day, he senses when one is coming on and he can usually go to a quiet place.

His body stiffens and his breathing increases. He feels a pounding inside his head. His eyes open wide and his right hand goes straight up. He can hear people talk, and it helps if someone is telling him he will be OK. The seizures last between 90 seconds and 3 minutes and occur mostly in the morning or when he’s going to bed.

“He’s embarrassed by it, but he does a good job of hiding it,” Roberts said.

Except when he can’t, which happened often at his prior schools. Some classmates made fun of him, which made him angry. The fact that he was behind his classmates in learning – reading at a grade level or two below them – also made him angry. He felt like an outsider and started acting up, so it became a behavioral thing,” Roberts said.

In the fourth grade, Joshua was placed in a class for students with behavioral issues. Roberts said it was a lost year in terms of academic growth.

“He learned literally nothing that year,” Roberts said, “because in the first week of school, they gave up on my child.”

She said finding Redler and his program has been “kind of like a miracle.”

“Before it was, ‘He’s on medicine so he can’t focus. He’s had seizures and he can’t focus,’” Roberts said. “He’s able to do it now, and I think those exercises have helped a lot. I think it’s meant for his way of learning.”

“Joshua is going to do amazing’

Maritza Perera, the school counselor at LIFT, interrupted Joshua while he was writing in his journal. His presence was requested in Redler’s office, so he could talk about his school for this story.

Joshua was not happy. He was only two sentences into his journal assignment.

He was shy, unusually so, according to his mom.

Do you like going to school here, he was asked.

Joshua in his Little League uniform.

He nodded.

Why?

“It’s fun.”

What makes it fun?

“I’m learning.”

Do you want to share what you were writing in your journal?

Joshua shook his head no.

Do you like brain training?

A nod.

What exercise do you like best?

“Mental Treasure Box.”

Redler found the answer interesting.

“Mental Treasure Box is for when thoughts come in that have nothing to do with what your focused on,” Redler explained. “You’re trained to take those thoughts and put them in your mental treasure box and go back to them later.”

After a few questions about baseball – Joshua likes the Miami Marlins and bats right-handed even though he’s a natural lefty – he returned to his classroom and his journal.

Roberts watched her son on the wall monitor. School has been a struggle for Joshua, but she’s confident he is finally in the right setting.

Now that he is no longer a lost student, Roberts sees a brighter picture when she thinks about Joshua’s future.

“I’m very positive about Joshua. Joshua is going to do amazing,” she said. “I see him continuing to grow in education. I can see Joshua going to college. I can see him having a job, a very good job somewhere and being independent. I can see him doing that.”

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

Making the most of the opportunity, resources, investment that come with Step Up scholarship

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in a three-part series for Giving Tuesday on how the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, provided a bright future for a student from a lower-income family.

By ROGER MOONEY

Tommy Pham spent seven weeks during the summer of 2019 working at a medical clinic in a small town in Guatemala. He traveled to the Central American country on his own, lived with a host family and used the Spanish he learned in high school to communicate.

He worked with the nurses, taking the blood pressure and recording heights and weights of patients. He would give health clinics, teaching the residents how to clean their food and even how to clean their hands before eating.

“I didn’t want to leave,” he said. “You would think that after being away from home in a foreign country for seven weeks that you would be excited to come back home. But for me, I wanted to stay and continue to work. To me, that work felt meaningful.” 

The opportunity arose because of the work Tommy did during his freshman year at the University of Notre Dame, where he is now a sophomore pre-med major with a full scholarship.

He earned the opportunity to go to Notre Dame because of the work he did at Jesuit High School in his hometown of Tampa, Florida. There, Tommy was a top student, active in the school’s clubs and a participant in summer mission trips.

The opportunity to attend Jesuit came about with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Managed by Step Up For Students, the scholarship enables K-12 students from lower-income families receive a private school education.

If Tommy, 19, were to talk to students who received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for the first time, he would use words like “opportunity” and “resources” and “investment,” as in those who donate to the scholarship are investing in your future, so use the resources now available to you and make the most of this opportunity.

(Read Part I and Part II of the three-part series about Tommy)

“It’s really up to them on how much they want to change what they have right now, their own circumstances,” Tommy said. “My own circumstances pushed me to work a little harder, work a little extra so that I could go beyond ‘average.'”

“I’ll have to admit, it’s easier said than done, for sure.”

But it can be done.

Tommy is a good example.

His parents, who emigrated from Vietnam in the mid-1990s, are employed in the service industry, sometimes balancing two jobs as a waiter or waitresses to provide for Tommy and his younger sister, Jennifer, who attends the Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

They pushed their children academically so Tommy and Jennifer would never have to run from job to job in an effort to make ends meet.

Tommy is aware of the sacrifices made by his parents. The best way he can thank them, he said, is to max out on his academic opportunities.

He did that at Jesuit, earning a coveted QuestBridge scholarship.

Tommy at a birthday party last summer with his host family
during his seven-week stay in Guatemala.

Students who receive a QuestBridge Scholarship call them life-changing. Started in the mid-2000s at Stanford University, the scholarship provides a full four-year scholarship for top academic students from lower-income families at some of the country’s top colleges and universities.

Tommy, now a sophomore at Notre Dame, is majoring in neuroscience and behavior. He is thinking of becoming a neurosurgeon.

His course load this semester includes organic chemistry II, physics, neuroscience, psychology and theology. He is also conducting research for a way to analyze certain molecules that might inhibit cancer immunotherapy.

He spent the fall break with classmates in West Virginia, helping to build wheelchair accessible paths and picnic areas at the New River Gorge in the southern part of the state.

Tommy was always a top student, but he admits he might not have made it this far without the opportunity provided by Step Up. It allowed him to attend a top academic high school and not be intimidated by classmates who came from wealthier backgrounds.

“With Step Up, I am just like any other kid at Jesuit,” he said. “It feels like the playing field is more balanced. For those being supported by Step Up, we pretty much have the same resources right now like the other students. We don’t have to worry so much about being at a disadvantage. Instead, we can focus on being grateful and thankful for the opportunity that we have as a result of Step Up. The opportunity doesn’t come out of nowhere. People are donating to the scholarship so that we can further our own education, and we should be appreciative of that.

“But what I become is on me. What we have as resources can only push us so far in our lives. But what we do with those resources can really change the outcome of our own lives.”

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

Volunteering at MDA camp in high school helped former Step Up scholar find his life’s calling

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a three-part series for Giving Tuesday on how the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, provided a bright future for a student from a lower-income family.

By ROGER MOONEY

Tommy Pham decided he wanted to become a doctor during a week at a Muscular Dystrophy Association summer camp, helping children who have been affected by the disease that weakens the muscles.

There was swimming and horseback riding, dancing and zip-lining. Fun activities, for sure.

But Tommy and the other volunteers were on-call 24 hours a day to help the children eat and shower, brush their teeth and use the bathroom – simple tasks for most, but, monumental obstacles for these young campers.

“It was probably the first time in my life where I had to actually take care of somebody else besides myself,” Tommy said. “It helped me grow as an individual, for sure.”

That growth led Tommy to the University of Notre Dame, where he is a sophomore in the pre-med program.

“It was definitely an experience that called me into the medical field,” Tommy said. “Definitely.”

Tommy, 19, attended the camp the summer before his senior year at Jesuit High, a private Catholic school in his hometown of Tampa, Florida. The life-altering week was one of several of what Tommy called “resources” available at Jesuit that helped shape who he is today.

(Read the first installment of the three-part series about Tommy here.)

There were the academic resources that allowed Tommy to become an honor student and earn a QuestBridge Scholarship that pays for his entire college education.

There were other resources, the clubs and summer volunteer programs, that added to his personal growth.

They were available to Tommy because of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarship enables students from lower-income families to attend private schools that best fit their learning needs.

Tommy’s parents are from Vietnam. They emigrated to Florida 25 years ago and both work in the service industry. They often work two jobs each to help care for Tommy and his younger sister Jennifer, a senior at the Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa. Jennifer attends the private high school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

Tommy understands the sacrifices his parents made with the hope he could attain the American dream. He was eager to use every resource available at Jesuit to move him in that direction.

A neuroscience and behavior major at Notre Dame, Tommy wants to become a doctor that helps those in financial need. That desire to work among the underprivileged was born the summer before his junior year. He spent a week on a mission trip to northern Georgia. While Tommy’s family struggled to make ends meet, this was the first time he experienced extreme poverty.


Tommy spent his fall break at Notre Dame with classmates in West Virginia, helping to build wheelchair accessible paths and picnic areas at the New River Gorge.

“I realized we can do much more than just work in our local community,” Tommy said. “It broadened my idea of community service. It also expanded my comfort zone.”

The courses, clubs and volunteer programs at Jesuit are designed to move the students along to higher education. That was always Tommy’s goal.

“But I didn’t completely understand the whole application process until junior year,” he said. “Realizing, ‘Oh wait, money is a big factor, too.’ I thought maybe if I work hard on my academics that I could eventually get into a top college.”  

And that’s what happened.

The QuestBridge Scholarship was founded by Stanford University in the mid-2000s to give top academic high school seniors from lower-income families the opportunity to attend a top college or university.

Tommy was one of 918 students nationwide from the class of 2018 to earn a QuestBridge scholarship. He was the first from Jesuit to receive one.

He attends school in Indiana, more than 1,100 miles from his hometown. He was introduced during his freshman year to northern winters. For the first time in his life, he saw snow and experienced subfreezing temperatures.

The educational setting is different, but Tommy feels comfortable in his new surroundings. While challenged by the workload associated with pre-med courses, Tommy is prepared.

“I’m much more confident in myself, much more confident in my own abilities,” he said, “just knowing that there is a supportive community (at Notre Dame) that is always willing to help you grow, not only academically but also emotionally and spiritually. Jesuit definitely introduced me to that aspect of learning. For that, I’m very thankful.”

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

Step Up scholarship leads to top grades in high school and pre-med classes at Notre Dame

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a three-part series for Giving Tuesday on how the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, provided a bright future for a student from a lower-income family.

By ROGER MOONEY

More than 80,000 fans squeezed their way into Notre Dame Stadium on the first Saturday of November 2019 to see the football team pull off a thrilling last-minute comeback victory.

Normally, Tommy Pham would have been in the student section, screaming himself silly with his schoolmates as the Fighting Irish rallied for the win. But on that Saturday, the sophomore from Tampa, Florida who majors in neuroscience and behavior, found himself in another part of campus, getting a jump on some schoolwork.

Would Tommy loved to have been across campus at the football game? You bet.

But he is in the pre-med track with his sights set squarely on medical school and a career as a doctor, perhaps a neurosurgeon, though Tommy has a few years before he has to pick a specialty.

It’s that ability to ignore distractions and immerse himself in the resources available at his schools that served Tommy well during his four years at Jesuit High in Tampa and now at the University of Notre Dame outside of South Bend, Indiana, which he attends on a full academic scholarship.

If you’re looking for someone who took full advantage of the opportunities provided by a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students, Tommy is your man.

“I’m very blessed knowing I can use these resources to grow emotionally, academically,” Tommy, 19, said, “so that later on in life I can be at the place in my life that my parents have always wanted to be in but couldn’t due to their limited resources.”

Tommy’s parents emigrated from Vietnam to the United States 25 years ago. They are both employed in the service industry, sometimes working two jobs each to make ends meet.

This left Tommy to look after his younger sister, Jennifer, who is nearly two years younger and is a senior at the Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa. Like her brother, Jennifer attends a private high school with the help of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

“I was almost like a third parent, in a way,” Tommy said. “I matured much quicker as a child than other kids.”

Tommy’s parents always stressed education. Using the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Tommy left his district school for Incarnation Catholic School as a sixthgrader. From there, he scored high enough on the entrance exam to earn a spot at Jesuit.

An honor student who graduated near the top of his class, Tommy turned that Jesuit education into a QuestBridge Scholarship, which covers 100 percent of the cost of his college education.

QuestBridge, is a California-based nonprofit designed to help academically gifted students from low-income families attend some of the top colleges and universities in the country.

Tommy said he has thanked his parents “many, many times” for pushing him academically and pursuing a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

“There were times I wouldn’t see them at home,” he said. “Seeing that cycle for a long time made me realize they definitely made a lot of sacrifices. It takes a lot of energy to do that every single day for 18 years of my life. It definitely pushed me harder to work and minimize the excuses I make for myself.”

Tommy earned a coveted QuestBridge Scholarship because of his academic success at Jesuit High in Tampa.

He has often wondered what his life would look like now had he not received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Given his work ethic and his desire to learn, Tommy knows he would be in college. But where? Would he be in a pre-med program? Would he even want to be a doctor?

He thinks the resources at his neighborhood school would have been limited compared to Jesuit’s.

It was while volunteering at a camp for children with Muscular Dystrophy before his senior year when Tommy realized he wanted to be a doctor. Having seen extreme poverty during a mission trip the previous summer to the Appalachia area of Georgia, Tommy decided he wanted to work with low-income and disadvantaged patients.

“My life could be really different, and I’m not sure if that difference would be a good thing or a bad thing,” Tommy said. “But I know for sure the values I have today were because of the opportunities Jesuit offered. I value education, but I also value personal development, as well, and I’m not sure if that personal development would have been as great like it was for me at Jesuit had I gone to a different school. I definitely value that part of my high school experience, for sure.”

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

#99ReasonsToGive to Step Up For Students this GivingTuesday

By JUDITH THOMAS

On Tuesday, Dec. 3, Step Up For Students is participating in Giving Tuesday and would like your support to ensure a bright future for disadvantaged Florida schoolchildren.

To assist Florida children who can use a helping hand, please donate to Step Up here, or, better yet, get your friends and family involved with a Facebook Fundraiser.

“We encourage Step Up supporters and friends to create a Facebook Fundraiser for $99 this Giving Tuesday season,” says Karis Tuner, Step Up’s director, development. “We chose that amount because a major study by the Urban Institute showed that Florida Tax Credit students who were on the scholarship for at least four years were 99% more likely to attend college than their peers. That’s an amazing number and we believe it should be celebrated!”


Step Up’s goal is to have at least 99 Facebook Fundraisers created, raising an amount of $99 each. Click here for instructions on how to create a Facebook Fundraiser or watch this short video. Fundraisers can be created now through Dec. 3 for the Giving Tuesday campaign.


Kayla Fudge, a Step Up graduate who is featured in the video, is one of the 99% of students that is now attending college. She was on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for more than four years and graduated high school magna cum laude with a 3.89 grade point average. Thanks to Step Up supporters like you, she has a very bright future ahead of her. She is only one of #99ReasonsToGive this Giving Tuesday. Learn more about her story here.

Giving Tuesday was started in 2012 by the 92nd Street Y in New York to generate online donations to charities on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. It falls after Black Friday and Cyber Monday and was created as a day to give back before the end of the year.

In 2018, over $400 million where raised online, and overall, the Giving Tuesday movement has raised more than $1 billion online in the U.S. alone in the past seven years, according to the Giving Tuesday organization.

A gift made to Step Up today means disadvantaged children like Kayla can access numerous educational resources that best suits their needs.

Step Up provides scholarships to more than 136,000 schoolchildren in Florida through five scholarships that help lower-income families, students with special needs, students who are victims of bullying and struggling readers.

Social Media Manager Judith Thomas can be reached at jthomas@sufs.org.

Jailine Garcia has a wish: ‘I kind of want to do something in our world’

By ROGER MOONEY

CLEARWATER, Fla. – One day last summer during a school-sponsored trip to Spain and Italy, Jailine Garcia found herself at the Trevi Fountain in Rome. She held three coins; the exact change needed to make three wishes.

Custom at the famous tourist spot dictates your first wish must be to return to the ancient city. Jailine complied.

Her second wish was for good health.

As her final coin splashed into the crystal-clear water, she made a wish that, to those who know her, captured her spirit: Jailine Garcia wished to help others.

“I kind of want to do something in our world,” Jailine said. “I could do something with my family. That would be my start. Then do something bigger in the community.”

Jailine wants a career in pediatrics so she can help provide a better life for disadvantaged children and children with special needs.

Jailine’s aspires to be the first in her family to graduate from college and break the family cycle of living paycheck-to-paycheck.

A senior honors student at Clearwater Central Catholic High School, where she attends on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students, Jailine, 17, wants to major in pediatrics, psychology or neurology. She wants to help provide a better life for disadvantaged children and those with special needs.

She wants to help her parents care for Bella, her 11-year-old sister, who has developmental delays from a rare genetic disorder.

She wants to contribute to the family’s finances and help her parents enjoy their golden years, maybe take them to the Trevi Fountain when that first wish comes true.

Most of all, Jailine wants to reward her parents, Alexandria and Nicolas, for the sacrifices they have made enabling her to have a brighter future than they realized.

“I couldn’t be prouder of her,” Alexandria said. “She puts everything ahead of herself.”

She appreciates everything

During a pizza party last year for students hosted by Step Up For Students, Jailine was asked to write a short essay on what it means to attend a private school on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

She began by detailing a childhood that some would consider less-than-ideal. She did not see her parents often because they were always working. The family bounced between living with Jailine’s grandmother and an uncle because her parents couldn’t afford a place of their own. She wrote of nights when there was barely enough food to feed her and her younger brother, Nicolas, now 14 and a freshman at a district school.

Then Jailine wrote this: “I never got many opportunities to repay my parents for all their sacrifices.”

The Garcias went without a lot of things so their children could have more.

“Jailine is so proud of her parents,” said Patty Ceraola, who teaches Spanish at Clearwater Central Catholic. “She just appreciates everything. Everything.”

Alexandria didn’t have it easy when she was Jailine’s age. She moved from New Jersey to Clearwater when she was 13. Her mom worked two jobs, so Alexandria had to care for her younger siblings. She made sure they got home from school and did their homework. Then she cooked dinner. By 8 p.m. she was exhausted.

She tried college but couldn’t afford it.

She married Nicolas when she was 18. Jailine came along one year later. Two years after that they had Nicolas.

Then came Bella, who has Potocki-Lupski syndrome, a condition that includes developmental delays and speech, eating and neurological issues. It also includes surgeries and hospital stays and doctor appointments. It is so time-consuming her father quit his job as a laminator to become Bella’s full-time caregiver.

Alexandria had a job with mandatory overtime, working 12 to 14 hours a day. They only time she would see Jailine was in the morning before school.

“I know it was hard for her,” Alexandria said.

The Garcias (from left): Bella, Nicolas, Nicolas, Jailine and Alexandria.

Given the instability in her life, you could understand if Jailine rebelled. Instead, she threw herself into her schoolwork.

“She studied harder. She made sure she was making the grades,” Alexandria said. “She was working hard to show me what I’m doing was worth it.”

How do you say thank you?

While living in New Jersey, Alexandria attended Our Lady of Perpetual Hope, a small Catholic grammar school. She liked the small classes and the way the faculty and staff looked after the students. She liked the structure that comes with a religious education.

Alexandria wanted the same for her oldest daughter, so, with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Jailine attended St. Cecelia Interparochial Catholic School from sixth to eighth grade.

After that, Jailine moved on to Clearwater Central Catholic, where she thrived as a freshman. She found the coursework motivating and the teachers eager to stay after class or after school to provide extra help.

But, Jailine longed to attend a Pinellas County magnet school for its medical program, and when a spot opened, she left Clearwater Central Catholic after her freshman year, intent on getting a jump on her career in pediatrics.

The move proved to be a mistake.

She found the teachers unavailable for extra help, the classes too big for her needs. In one, Jailine sat at the teacher’s desk, because it was the only available seat.

“It was an awkward transition,” Jailine said.

Her grades fell, and she worried if she was ruining her chance of attending a top university.

“It wasn’t long, but I knew it just wasn’t right,” Jailine said. “I was not doing well there at all. It was like, ‘OK, you might need to come back to CCC.’”

By the start of the second semester, Jailine was back at Clearwater Central Catholic. Back to its nurturing environment. Back to the honor rolls.

“Honestly,” Jailine said, “it was probably the best thing I have ever done.”

Alexandria, sitting next to Jailine in a spacious conference room on the high school campus, pumped her right fist, smiled and quietly said, “Yes.”

What mother doesn’t want to hear that confirmation from their teenage daughter?

“It makes us feel good, because we’re sending her on the right path,” Alexandria said. “And when she graduates, hopefully that path will take her to a better tomorrow, where she wants to go, where she favors to go.”

Jailine, who is in the International Baccalaureate program and is a member of the National and Spanish honor societies. She wants to attend the University of Florida, the next step toward realizing her dreams.

Jailine in Spain last summer during the high school trip.

That school trip to Europe cost almost $6,000. Alexandria squeezed $157 out of her paycheck every two weeks, and Jailine took jobs babysitting children in the neighborhood. Her grandmother also contributed to the fund, so Jailine could visit places like the Basílica de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Spain, the Vatican, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and that legendary fountain in Rome.

How do you thank your parents for their sacrifices? In Jailine’s case, you work hard in school, tutor classmates in Spanish, help take care of your younger brother and sister – put everyone else first.

And, maybe someday, Jailine might reach into her pocket for a coin so her mother can make a wish at the Trevi Fountain.

“I think that would be a dream come true, the both of us,” Alexandria said. “Knowing that she went back, and I could be there with her, that would be awesome.”

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

UPCIC contributes $2.5 million to Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program

By ASHLEY ZARLE

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.Step Up For Students announced Nov. 5 a $2.5 million contribution to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program from Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company (UPCIC), a wholly owned subsidiary of Universal Insurance Holdings, Inc.

UPCIC’s contribution funds 359 scholarships for deserving K-through-12 Florida schoolchildren for the 2019-20 school year. The scholarships give lower-income children the opportunity to attend a private or out-of-district school that best meets their learning needs.

“Universal is committed to giving back and empowering the communities that it serves to accelerate community opportunities and build the foundation for the next generation of business leaders,” said Steve Donaghy, chief executive officer for Universal.


UPCIC announced a $2.5 million contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are UPCIC Chief Executive Officer Steve Donaghy, UPCIC Vice President of Marketing Stacey Tomko, UPCIC Spokesperson and NFL Hall of Famer Dan Marino, Saint Helen Catholic School Principal Farah Barrat, Step Up For Students Development Officer David Bryant. They are joined by Saint Helen Catholic School students who are benefiting from the scholarship.

UPCIC celebrated this incredible donation at Saint Helen Catholic School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where nearly 75% of the students use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students. Dan Marino, UPCIC spokesperson, National Football League hall of famer and former Miami Dolphins quarterback, made a special appearance and spoke to the schoolchildren about the importance of education.

“We are honored to have UPCIC as a partner in our mission to help lower-income Florida families access schools that best fit their children’s unique learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “Through their support of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which is producing measurable results, companies like UPCIC are transforming the lives of deserving schoolchildren in our community.”

Since 2017, UPCIC has generously funded 1,260 scholarships through contributions totaling $8.5 million to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations. Step Up is serving more than 100,400 students for the 2019-20 school year. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Step Up For Students ranked 18th among America’s Top 100 favorite charities

By ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students continues to provide education choice to Florida schoolchildren from disadvantaged backgrounds and its efforts continue to garner national acclaim.

Step Up cracked the Top 20 in America’s Favorite Charities, the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual list of the Top 100 nonprofits. Step Up was ranked 18th, up from 31st last year and 42nd in 2017.

“It is an honor to be placed in this prestigious ranking by the Chronicle of Philanthropy,” said Anne Francis, Step Up’s vice president of development. “Being ranked 18th in the nation, and first in Florida, is a monumental achievement that has been made possible by our generous donors.

“In the last couple years, Step Up has grown from two scholarship offerings to five. Our largest program, the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, serves families with an average household income that is merely 8 % above poverty. Donors who invest in our scholarships and programs know their contributions change the lives of vulnerable children in Florida who seek a brighter future.”

Step Up’s total revenues in the 2018 fiscal year was $705.6 million, an increase over its $548.5 million in total revenue in 2017. This allowed Step Up to serve more than 125,000 pre-K through12 students across the five scholarships programs it manages:

In addition to the Chronicle of Philanthropy honor, Step Up was ranked 19th on Forbes’ list of America’s Top Charities 2018.

Charity Navigator and GuideStar, a pair of nonprofit watchdog groups, recognized Step Up in 2018 for its accountability and transparency.

Charity Navigator awarded Step Up a four-star rating for the eighth consecutive year, a credit that only 4 percent of charities have earned by the nation’s top charity evaluator. Step Up has earned the Platinum Seal of Transparency with GuideStar, a public database that evaluates the mission and effectiveness of nonprofits.

Also, Step Up’s Jacksonville office was ranked third among best places to work in that city for businesses with 100-249 employees by the Jacksonville Business Journal. Its Clearwater office was ranked eighth among large companies in the Tampa Bay area by the Tampa Bay Business Journal.

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

Trip to Microsoft Store combines coding with cool for Bible Truth Ministries Academy students

By ROGER MOONEY

TAMPA, Fla. – The Microsoft Store at International Plaza was filled with students from Bible Truth Ministries Academy, each seated in front of a Surface Pro laptop while completing coding tasks associated with the hugely popular video game Minecraft.

Students from Bible Truth Ministries Academy work on coding the Microsoft Store at International Plaza in Tampa.

As far as field trips go, this one was like entering the Nether – that’s Minecraft speak for an alternative dimension.

“One of the best,” said Elijah Jenkins, a sophomore at Bible Truth.

Jenkins was one of 50 students from the private pre-K-12 school in Tampa, Florida who spent a recent Thursday morning at the Microsoft Store.

“That’s awesome to hear,” said Ryan Candler, community development specialist at the Microsoft Store.

The workshop meshed with Bible Truth’s STEM education program – science, technology, engineering and math. The students received an introduction to coding using Minecraft and received free backpacks filled with school supplies.

“It’s a great experience to learn about computer software, where things come from and how they operate their business,” Jenkins said.

The Minecraft coding workshop was arranged by Step Up For Students, which has a partnership with Microsoft.

Bible Truth has 105 students this year with 50, including Jenkins, attending the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students, which is managed by Step Up.

“This was an amazing learning experience for the students at Bible Truth and a great opportunity for each student to experience power of technology,” said Carol Macedonia, Step Up’s, Office of Student Learning vice president. “Our team at OSL was very pleased to have our partnership with Microsoft unite with one of our most supportive schools.”

Suzette Dean, Bible Truth principal, wants to improve her school’s technology capabilities, both for teachers and students.

“I want the students to have more exposure to good information on the internet, educational directed information versus Facebook and Instagram and all the other information they normally go on their cell phones for or their computers for,” Dean said.

She met representatives from Microsoft’s education and training department last spring during a Step Up meeting about MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) skills, an online academic assessment for students.

Microsoft later visited Bible Truth to see the technology the school had and determine how it could be improved. Teachers attended workshops and the students were invited to the store for a two-hour, hands-on field trip.

While free back-to-school workshops in the Microsoft Store is the norm, Candler said the Bible Truth turnout was the largest. As a result, he needed a half-dozen employees to teach the students, answer questions and keep the throng moving from station to station.

The employees made it work, and Candler said it was worth the effort.

“Microsoft is big on diversity and inclusion, so being able to support a school that is coming from a startup phase and trying to get more attention to their school is pretty awesome,” Candler said. “A lot of what we do is not only supporting the students but also the teacher development. When they leave the environment like today having fun, they can also have that same STEM engagement in the classroom.”

Teacher development is key. The idea is to have the students continue to learn the technology they were introduced to during the workshop throughout the school year.

Bible Truth has a 3-D printer and offers classes in programming and robotics. It formed a team last year to compete in the FIRST Lego League.

“They didn’t do too well,” Dean said, “but they had the exposure to competition. This year they’re really fired up about doing that.”

Dean feels the earlier she can expose her students to computers the better.

“It’s the way the world is going,” she said.

While Dean would like all of her students to graduate and attend college, she knows that is not everyone will choose that option.

“College is not for everyone,” she said. “So at least we would have given them some basic exposure, so when they leave us, they can go get a job.”

About Bible Truth Ministries Academy

The private school located in the Belmont Heights section of Tampa has enrollment from pre-K to 12. It also provides day care. The main academic focus is on math, English and reading comprehension. Students also receive training in life skills – cooking, budgeting, home organization and management, construction, electrical and mechanics. Students also participate in community cleanups and assist elderly and disabled residents with home beautifying projects. Tuition is $8,375 per year.

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

If you can sing it, you can learn it: How music is helping schoolchildren improve their reading

By ROGER MOONEY   

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. –During the weeks leading up to the start of fifth grade, when Cee J Knause was home doing not much of anything, she found herself singing the Short Vowel Song.

“A … a … a …a … apple

E … e … e … e … egg.”

Or the Long Vowel Song.

“I got an a for apron

An e for eagle.”

Sometimes, Cee J sang “The Ballad of the Silent E.”

“She sings those songs all day,” her mom, Kellie Mendheim said. “Sometimes she lets me sing them.”

Cee J, now in the fifth grade at Mount Zion, improved her reading last spring through Winning Reading Boost

Cee J is a student at the Mount Zion Christian Academy in St. Petersburg. Like nearly all of her 90 schoolmates, she attends the K-5 private school using a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families. The program is managed by Step Up For Students.

Cee J learned those songs last spring when she participated in the Winning Reading Boost program for second-graders and above who struggled to read.

They are catchy tunes, and that is the point.

Sue Dickson, a former first-grade teacher and Safety Harbor, Florida, resident, wrote them years ago. The songs were the foundation of Dickson’s Sing, Spell, Read and Write, a widely successful phonics-based program published in 1972 that taught children to read. A decade later, when Dickson saw the need to reach older non-readers, she wrote Winning, a 90-hour intervention program with age appropriate stories and songs that had tremendous success in jails and teen detention centers.

“If you can sing it, you can learn it,” Dickson said.

Mount Zion was used as a pilot program last spring with 10 students participating. Cee J, then in fourth grade, was one of those students.

“The program went very well,” Mount Zion principal Franca Sheehy said. “We saw results.”

Students who misread more than five fluency words out of 60 on a K-1 phonics test were included in the program. Combined, the 10 students averaged nearly 27 missed words. Only one, a third-grader, missed fewer than 10, and that student missed nine.

“I love it,” said Cee J, who missed 29 of the 60 words. “When I didn’t do Winning Reading Boost, I used to struggle at reading. As soon as I started this, it started helping me, and I love how the songs made it fun.”

Cee J’s struggles stemmed from reading too fast, causing her to miss words. Winning Reading taught her to read at a slower pace, which increased her fluency learning.

Shakeila Bogle-Duke, who teaches Winning Reading Boost at Mount Zion, said Cee J showed the most improvement of the 10 students.

“Everyone showed some growth,” Bogle-Duke said. “It was significant in others and a little less in one or two.”

Students gained confidence in their ability to read. Using phonics, they learned to decode words, rather than guess at them. Those who entered as choppy readers learned to read at a smoother pace.

Sheehy was so impressed with Winning Reading Boost that it was added to the 2019-20 budget. It will be used throughout the school year after they identify which students need the intervention program.

Why Johnny can’t read

An October 2018 story in the New York Times referenced a study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress that found only four of 10 fourth graders were competent readers. A big reason, the story stated, is students are not taught to read phonically, meaning they do not learn to decode words.

This is not a new development. Dickson began teaching first grade in the 1950s in Arlington, Virginia, when it was forbidden to teach phonics, learning by decoding the relationship between sounds and spelling.

“The schools of education ridiculed the teaching of phonics,” she said. “It was just awful.”

Sue Dickson began writing songs for her reading programs in the 1960s.

Because she was fresh out of college and just beginning her career, Dickson complied with the school district’s stance during her first two years as a teacher. Yet, she knew she failed those students who didn’t pass reading.

In 1955, Rudolf Flesch wrote, “Why Johnny Can’t Read: And what you can do about it.” The book advocated phonics over the standard reading by sight, often referred to as “Look-say.”

Reading the book reinforced Dickson’s belief that the school district’s stance was wrong. Not only could she see that from the reading scores of her students, but also with her younger brother, David, who struggled with reading. Dickson saw first-hand the impact that had on David’s education.

 “I was tuned-in to the problems that come along when a kid can’t read. He was ruined,” Dickson said. “I was looking for a way to fix it, and I found what was wrong.”

She began teaching phonics to her students, and their reading scores improved. Eventually, Dickson was asked to teach reading her way during summer school.

She realized some students struggled because they were tripped up by what she called, “hidden bloopers,” like the difference in the graphic forms of the letters “a” and “g” in written text, and addressed them in her programs.

Throughout the 1960s, Dickson combined her love of music with her love of teaching, sat at her piano and composed the songs for Sing, Spell, Read and Write.

The program went nationwide in the 1970s, and school districts reported improved reading scores by students who participated.

“It’s earth-shaking,” Dickson said of the program’s success.

‘It’s the music’

In 2015, The Tampa Bay Times ran a series on how the Pinellas County School Board in Tampa Bay turned five once average public schools in low-income areas into what it termed, “Failure Factories.”

Searching for help, a grass roots St. Petersburg community reached out to Don Pemberton at University of Florida’s Lastinger Center, an innovative hub that brings together the latest developments in academic research and practice to improve education. Lisa Langley, Lastinger’s chief of staff, along with the UF team, Sue Dickson and her daughter Dianne Dickson-Fix (a retired elementary school teacher in Pinellas County) updated Winning and created Winning Reading Boost for students in grades 2 and up.

The new program involves 36 sequenced steps to independent reading through songs and games and four books.

“Anything we want the kids to memorize is in the songs, because the songs provide the repetition to make the learning fast and easy,” Dickson-Fix said.

The lessons are put to music – rock, rap, country and calypso.


Shakeila Bogle-Duke, who teaches Winning Reading Boost at Mount Zion, said all the students in last spring’s program improved their reading.

“It’s a hands-on approach and it gets them excited to do the stories,” said Bogle-Duke, the Mount Zion teacher. “The stories are not very long, so they get through each part. They’re using the skills and they are reminded about what they just learned to use as a tool for what they’re reading.”

To prevent students from stumbling over words they don’t know, there is not one word in the story that hasn’t already been covered.

“Sue thought it out,” Langley said. “It’s like a shaky foundation for a house. She had to knock that house down and rebuild that foundation.”

Why does it work?

“It’s the music,” Bogle-Duke said.

Sheehy agreed. She said her students don’t have a problem learning Bible verses and pledges when they sing them.

“They are able to memorize this information, and music helps them memorize the sounds,” Sheehy said. “You hear them singing that song later. Eventually, the more they sing it, they start putting the dots together and realize what they are singing. The lightbulb goes on.”

Mendheim, Cee J’s mom, said she was glad when her daughter was asked last spring to join the program.

“I was teaching Cee J to read, but I wanted someone to take it a step forward,” she said. “She was reading, but not how I wanted her to read.”

When told she was in the program, Cee J said her response was, “OK, I’m struggling. I need to practice.”

Cee J continued to read her Winning Reading Boost books over the summer. She even erased her answers so she could take the quizzes over.

Cee J’s reward for improving? A bookshelf in her bedroom and books to put on the shelf.

“It’s really important to read,” Cee J said, “because when you grow up, you have to pay bills and stuff, and you have to know what it says that you have to pay.”

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