By ANDREA THOERMER
Hello from the newest department at Step Up For Students: The Organizational and Professional Development Department.
Our job is to strengthen the culture of the organization by enhancing employees’ decision-making through professional, emotional, cognitive and social learning opportunities, and by improving organizational processes and structure. I know, that’s a mouthful. Basically, we support and invest in our employees’ professional development so they experience greater success, joy and satisfaction at work. We believe that by keeping our employees happy, we can better serve our families and schools.
That’s why our team of four employees really push at promoting our company’s two core values: Every employee is an asset. Every event is an improvement opportunity. We know that our organization can best serve our community if we hold true to these two values.
One aspect of professional development we give a lot of attention to is focused on improving employee’s cognitive and emotional management skills. These skills include self-awareness, self-management, empathy and relationship management. When employees are aware of how they are “being” in a certain situation, then they can better manage those thoughts and emotions so their behavior benefits everyone in that situation. We also know it’s important to be empathetic toward others, which helps us better manage our work relationships. We have done a lot research in this area and have found that these traits are essential and contribute to a happy and productive workplace.
Over the past 11 months, our employees have received feedback from their peers and are now creating Personal Development Plans so each employee can grow professionally. For example, if you are a Service Center representative and you aspire to be a manager, then you would take manager and leadership courses preparing you for a manager role. Or, if you process Gardiner Scholarships, but have a lot of interest in improving the processes in the organization, then you would take courses focused on process improvement.
Our department works as a team to create internal classes to address these plans. We also reach out to our colleagues who have certain skills and knowledge to help us provide even more courses to meet the diverse and unique needs of our colleagues. We are so thankful for the amount of talent we have in the organization. Some of the classes we provide include: Microsoft Outlook training, Project Management tips, a Step-In Program focused on improving cognitive and emotional management skills, Mentoring and Shadowing opportunities, Toastmasters (to improve presentation skills) and a variety of other communication and leadership classes.
Some of the OPD department’s other initiatives include Genius Hour, Interdepartmental Working Lunches and President Office and Asset Hours. Genius Hour allows our employees to innovate and collaborate with others to come up with ideas or projects that could benefit the organization. Out of these genius ideas, we now have a walking treadmill desk to allow employees opportunities to stretch their legs and get some exercise while working. We also have implemented a chat service in the Service Center to field more questions from our families. Interdepartmental Working Lunches happen once a month and provide us with a platform to share information company-wide and work together on a variety of projects.
For the President’s Office and Asset Hours, Doug Tuthill, our leader, either allots time for employees to speak with him about any issues or ideas, or he goes to their work place location (cubicle, office, etc.) and inquires into what they do on a daily basis in order to more fully understand the inner workings of the organization and further carry out our two core values: Everyone is an asset. Every event is an improvement opportunity.
We consider it a privilege to support our employees professionally as we strive to increase workplace satisfaction and productivity so we can ultimately better serve you.
Hear what Step Up team members are saying about OPD’s courses:
“In pursuit of achieving some of my PDP objectives, I participated in various OPD offerings including the Step-In Program and communicating from a place of nothingness.
Both of these offerings were time well spent. I believe that I have acquired certain skills that allow me to be more aware and in control of my emotions, and I have recently, really enjoyed the art of communicating. It always feels great when you can grow and learn, and I am looking forward to future offerings.”
–Mickey Strope, Director of Information and Knowledge Management
“I was very appreciative of the Microsoft Outlook class. It has been very helpful – now I have Meeting Rooms in my Outlook calendar.”
–Ella Beaver, Site Administrator
“As part of my professional development plan, I decided I needed to beef up my public speaking skills, so in March I became a member of a local Toastmasters speech club. It’s too soon to proclaim any miracles, but I’ve been having fun. My fellow Toastmasters, including Lauren Barlis and Meredith McKay from Step Up, are the best! They’re warm, encouraging, non-judgmental. In that kind of atmosphere, it’s impossible not to overcome hang-ups and get better.
Ultimately, I hope, it’s the scholarship students and parents who benefit, because if I can become a better communicator, then I will be a better advocate. Frankly, it’s the students and parents who inspired me to give it a shot. At Step Up, we are always hearing stories about parents and students who scale mountains to reach their dreams. The least I can do, for them, is go attack a little hill.”
–Ron Matus, Director of Policy and Public Affairs
“I had the opportunity to take a class to learn about SCRUM, it’s a methodology for managing projects. Since taking the course, I have been using it with my team so we can work together more efficiently as possible to better serve our parents. Below is a description of SCRUM:
Safe: A way to express your ideas, generate insight, share concern in an environment that is judgment free and without blame.
Collaboration: Teams are self-organizing. The team holds each other accountable for achieving daily commitments and are allowed to go beyond boundaries to showcase their talents.
Retrospective: Allows time for reflection. We identify what went well and what could be improved. Everything is measured and decisions are based on data and variations, and not opinions.
Uniformity: We own the plan! We determine our capacity and focus on one improvement at a time. If we succeed, we succeed together. If we fail, we fail together.
Mentality: The idea is not to look for solutions to solve all your problems or to look for reasons why something is impossible. Failure and learning from failure is encouraged because experimenting and failing is the fuel for innovation.”
–Martina Ady, Assistant Operations Manager, Contact Center
Andrea Thoermer is director of Professional Development, Organizational & Professional Development. She has been with Step Up For Students for three years after teaching for seven years in the public school system and graduating from the University of Florida with her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction. What she likes most about working for Step Up is that she is given the opportunity to help employees grow professionally and personally by creating meaningful learning opportunities focused on their specific needs. She enjoys the challenge of helping others see in themselves what she sees in them. When Andrea is coming up with ways to support Step Up staff, she dotes on her 9–month-old daughter and husband of six years. She also enjoys spending time with her close friends and other family members, cooking, trying new restaurants, indulging in decadent desserts and exercising to burn off all the calories she consumes.
Charity of the Year will never be a category at the Grammy Awards, but Step Up For Students feels like a winner this year. An advertisement showcasing the Florida-based nonprofit will grace the pages of the official Grammy Program Guide for 2016.
“Given how few nonprofits are highlighted in the program, we’re thrilled to get our name in front of millions of people, including many celebrities, with this publication,” said Step Up For Students CMO and Vice President of Advancement Alissa Randall. “The more people who learn how Step Up empowers students and their families, the more who will want to support our mission to give educational options to those children who need them most.”
Step Up For Students is the nation’s largest provider of tax-credit scholarships, which has so far provided more than 401,000 K-12 scholarships since the program was created in 2001. With those scholarships most families choose to send their children to private schools, but they can also select a transportation scholarship to attend an out-of-district public school, if that works best for their child. Step Up also helps children with certain special needs through a state-funded program allowing parents and guardians to customize their child’s education, empowering families to choose from a variety of approved programs and providers.
This year alone, Step Up is supporting more than 80,000 scholars in the two programs. In addition, Step Up provides added benefits to the scholarships such as teaching methods to participating schools that increase parent involvement which research shows increases student success.
“We are always looking for ways to add value to the scholarships the children receive,” Randall said. “At times, these added benefits cannot be covered by the scholarship funding or administrative costs so the organization must find alternative sources to make a good educational opportunity even better.”
When the 12,000 attendees of the 58th Grammy Awards on Feb. 15 receive the 200-plus page Grammy Program Guide, they may flip to the page (Page 197 of the online version) featuring a photo of a young Step Up For Students scholar with a headline reading “Every child deserves a chance to succeed.”
“Indeed they do,” Randall said about children deserving an opportunity to succeed. “Through our tax-credit scholarships, we serve the poorest of the poor and those who, without their scholarship, wouldn’t have any educational options. Our scholarships level the playing field and they have given our students amazing success. It is literally changing lives.”
Donations from corporations, foundations and individuals make it all possible.
“Without our donors, Step Up couldn’t put the tens of thousands of children on the road to success,” Randall said. “And donors can be rest assured that their money is being well spent.”
Step Up For Students has been consistently given the highest ratings from Charity Navigator, the charity watchdog organization, for years, including this year when the nonprofit was ranked No. 4 in Charity Navigator’s list of Top-Notch Charities.
“Our goal is for every child to find the best learning environment for them” Randall said. “The more donors we have, the more children we can serve, and the better we can serve our scholars.
“Placing an ad in the Grammy book made good sense. It gave us an opportunity to reach beyond our typical audience to spread the word about our program and the good work we’ve been doing for students.”
In addition to the 12,000 Grammy attendees, the book will be shared with the 6,000 others who are invited to the Producers & Engineers wing party that kicks off Grammy Week. It’s also sent to the 22,000 members of the Recording Academy and distributed nationally for a couple of weeks around the show and sold on the Grammy Awards website.
“The possibilities are exciting,” Randall said. “The idea of our organization crossing the paths of artists like Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran and even Bob Dylan gives it that extra wow factor. That’s music to our ears.”
Editor’s note: Around here at the Step Up For Students office, Denisha Merriweather is a household name, so to speak. Since she became a scholar in sixth grade, we have cheered for her, watched her grow, celebrated her achievements, and best of all, gotten to really know her. Now we’re thrilled to call her a colleague as she recently joined us as an intern and as the first Step Up scholar to join our staff. We’re proud to have her here. And we hope this is the first of many scholars to become part of our team.
By Denisha Merriweather, Step Up For Students Intern
Hi! I am Denisha Merriweather, recipient of the Step Up For Students scholarship, high school graduate, master’s student at the University of South Florida in Tampa and the newest member of the Step Up team as intern!
I was a Florida Tax Credit scholar from the sixth through 12th grade. Before receiving the scholarship, I attended neighborhood schools, which changed often because my family moved around my hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. constantly. Due to that lack of stability, support and attention, my performance in school was below average. As a result, I ended up failing the third grade. Twice. Being two years older than everyone in my class was discouraging. I felt like a failure, and no matter how hard I tried to do better in school nothing seemed to help. Having no hope for the future, I could really see myself headed down a dark path, dropping out of high school and living my life full of constant struggle.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
Upon my entry in the sixth grade, my godmother found out from a family friend about the Step Up For Students scholarship, and applied. This allowed me to choose to attend Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, a private school on the north side of Jacksonville. The school was such a great fit for me. The classroom size was small and the teachers were extremely engaging. Esprit became my home away from home. Thanks to the scholarship, my confidence soared at Esprit de Corps. I knew I could do anything I put my mind to. I was exposed to many different opportunities, which changed my attitude about school completely – and life. I now knew I could go to college and maybe one day even receive a Ph.D.
Due to my life experiences, I have dedicated much of my free time to support the tax-credit scholarship program. I have shared my story with donors, legislators and people of affluence, but most importantly, I’ve opened up to other students. This has allowed more and more opportunities for these groups of people to gain an understanding about the Step Up For Students program and hopefully for them to get involved, so that Step Up can continue to make a difference in children’s lives across the state of Florida.
I also share my story to give hope to those students who may be like me, but still struggling to find their paths to success. The children like me who have the potential to be more than they are, but just need someone to help lift them up, and show them they can change their life’s course for the better. For all of the kids who are like this, I urge you to realize that nothing is too hard for you to achieve. Things may look challenging and you may not see a way out, but know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You have a purpose and your struggle is pushing you closer and closer to it. Seize it.
Now that I am a part of the Step Up team, I am excited to learn more about the scholarship program. Being a scholarship recipient, I had had some knowledge about the duties of the scholarship program staff. However, upon my first days in the office, I became quickly aware that Step Up is so much more, and a lot of work goes into making scholarships, and other school choice programs, possible for families in Florida. It has been surreal meeting all of the individuals who labor tirelessly for parents and children to have opportunities they never knew they could have. I have a new appreciation for the commitment of the Step Up team. Thanks guys!
I am now ready to be a part of this great team and assist in making this program even better. Someone recently imparted great words of wisdom to me, saying that “People rarely succeed by themselves.” Understanding this, I zealously accept the role as an advocate for parents and children, standing in the gap, working for them, as someone once did for me.
When Denisha isn’t hitting the books or standing up for school choice, she enjoys spending time with friends and attending bible study at her church. However, like most college students she loves to watch television and sleep. Denisha says she dreams to speak fluent Spanish and to one day learn how to play the Chinese violin.
By Jen Canning, Step Up For Students Executive Assistant
Howdy y’all! I’m Jen, one of the newest members of the Step Up For Students team. My background is in horses and cattle, and I grew up working on my family’s ranch in Lipan, Texas. I studied animal science at Oklahoma State University, and it was there I developed a special place in my heart for children.
While attending OSU, I began volunteering for a nonprofit therapeutic horseback riding facility for children with special needs. This organization helped children with all kinds of unique needs, from Down syndrome to cerebral palsy and fetal alcohol syndrome. I dedicated much of my college life to working with these kids and discovered there is no one-size-fits-all education for these students. This belief led me to join Step Up for Students after completing my Masters of Business Administration from University of South Florida in St Petersburg.
I did a little research before starting with the organization, so I came to work with a broad knowledge of what we did. I knew Step Up managed two different scholarships: the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students and the Personal Learning Scholarships Accounts Scholarship (PLSA) for children with certain special needs. The tax-credit scholarship allows parents to choose between funding private school tuition and fees up to $5,677 and a $500 transportation scholarship to help families get their child to school in a different district. Yep, I did my homework. I am the executive assistant to Step Up President Doug Tuthill after all.
I knew that tens of thousands of young Floridians were currently on a scholarship from the organization, and I knew that first and foremost, Step Up promotes a parent’s right to choose the best form of education for their child, regardless of their income.
Even though I’ve only been with the organization for a brief couple of weeks, I’ve learned so much more about what it is we do here at Step Up. For example, I now know that we are a four out of four stars charity, with a Charity Navigator score of 99.92%. It’s a good feeling to know that I work for a charity that is properly allocating its funds and operating in the best interest of the students!
I’ve also learned that there are many private schools that are as dependent on the Step Up scholarship as their students. Scholars have chosen to attend more than 1,500 partner schools across the state, and on average, Step Up scholars constitute about a quarter of the total enrollment of those schools. Some of these schools cannot afford to operate without our scholarship.
Since joining the Step Up team, I’ve been most excited to learn about the work the Office of Student Learning is doing with our partner schools. Providing scholarships is only the first step to helping children from low-income families succeed. Carol Thomas’ team is working with the schools to develop programs that bridge the gap between families and their children’s educators. This includes an online portal that empowers parents to become more engaged in their child’s education. We’re also fundraising to provide even more wraparound services.
Step Up wasted no time in throwing me into the mix of being a part of this amazing organization. On my second day of work, I sat in on a meeting with a neuroscientist and learned about how the psychology of a child who grew up in poverty is vastly different than that of a child from an affluent family. This fundamental difference could lead to a need of a different type of learning environment for these students. The better we understand this psychology, the better able we are to empower our scholars, their parents, and the schools we work with.
During my second week on the job, I attended a Pastors’ Round Table. This was a gathering of prominent Hispanic church leaders in the Tampa area to discuss our organization, threats against our scholarship, and how it impacts their congregations. We brought along former Step Up scholar Denisha Merriweather to tell her story of how the scholarship provided for her success. We’re excited she’s now an intern at Step Up. We were able to garner tremendous support from the pastors, many of which have church members on our scholarship.
Needless to say, I’m more than excited about my future with Step Up for Students. I have the opportunity of working closely with our marketing team soon and I’m happy to be putting that part of my education to good use. In the future, I hope to work more with the PLSA team because my heart will always be with children with unique needs and ensuring their families that their child has a right to the best possible education.
Jen is the executive assistant at Step Up For Students. She lives on Pass-A-Grille Beach in St Petersburg, and when she’s not working at and learning about Step Up, Jen enjoys open water swimming in the Gulf and cooking homemade meals from scratch.
By David Bryant, Step Up For Students
I recently had the great pleasure to go back to my business school alma mater to give an informal lunch talk to undergraduate business students. The lunch was hosted by University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business in Gainesville. I graduated from UF’s MBA program in 2001, and except for attending some college football games at the Swamp, I had not been very active with the business school’s alumni association.
Since 2012, I have been working for Step Up For Students as a development officer, where I am part of the team responsible for fundraising for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, one of two scholarship programs our company helps administer. (The other is the state-funded Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts program for children with certain special needs.)
So I was excited to share my experience about working for Step Up as part of the college’s Alumni Café series. Here’s a description from the Warrington website:
Alumni Café is a casual lunch-and-learn speaker series that connects a small number of our undergraduate business students per session with a local Warrington alum. The goal is to facilitate our students’ understanding of classroom concepts by offering the experienced and balanced perspectives of our diverse alumni base. The intimate and relaxed setting, with catered lunch, creates an environment that encourages meaningful engagement.
No PowerPoints, flashy handouts or suits are required. We’re simply recruiting great storytellers who appreciate the learning process. This is your chance to give back to Warrington and connect with students in a very unique way.
I was especially intrigued by that second paragraph, and I really liked the informal nature of the presentation. Instead of just talking at the students and treating it like a lecture, the lunch was conducted as a two-way conversation. Thirteen students participated, and I found the small size of the group facilitated an excellent discussion.
My topic was on corporate philanthropy, which fits Step Up For Students very well since the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship initiative of our organization depends on corporate tax-credited donations to fund these scholarships for low-income Florida students in kindergarten through 12th grade. This program provides options for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have any choice but to go to their zoned neighborhood school. The really cool thing about our program is it gives kids a chance to find a school that best meets their learning needs.
The college students were very intrigued by the large amount that we fundraise ($559 million is the goal for 2016), and asked me how the Step Up development team tackles such a large goal. I explained how we first try to find companies that qualify for donating to our program and we tell them about the benefits of participating, and that it’s actually quite simple for companies to donate. These scholarships that wouldn’t be possible without our donors are changing the lives of thousands of children each year. In fact, for this new school year, we already have nearly 77,000 Florida Tax Credit scholars enrolled in school through Step Up. This year’s scholarship helps pay up to $5,677 in tuition and fees. When our donors or prospective donors hear the stories of how these students are affected, and sometimes even meet the children, they know it is a worthwhile cause. The students were very interested in learning about how Step Up helps these low-income kids, and they said that we are providing a great public service by making private school available to our students.
The students asked me great questions about my career path, too, and one student wanted to know what qualities make up a great fundraiser for Step Up. I shared with them that it’s vital to be very persistent with prospective donors, and also to be available at all times for any questions. It is also important to build a good relationship with the donors. We look at our corporate contributors as more than donors, they are partners. They want to see and hear the success stories they helped create, and we love sharing our scholarship stories. Sharing these stories helps us be good stewards to the donors, which is very important. But the most important trait of a good development officer at Step Up is passion, passion for what we do and passion for making a difference in children’s lives. You have to have that to be part of our organization. I enjoy working for Step Up For Students, and I am pleased to be part of such a dedicated team.
Overall, the Alumni Café was a great experience, and I was honored to get a chance to speak with the students about the awesome work we’re doing at Step Up. I was very impressed by how smart and insightful the students were, too. The University of Florida is churning out super smart kids, and I’m proud to be an alumnus. Who knows, maybe some of them will join the Step Up team one day.
David Bryant is a Development Officer for Step Up for Students, and works closely with the development team and donor companies to raise money for scholarships. David has 14 years of experience in fundraising and nonprofit management, and he is excited to take on the $559 million goal for 2016. David has held the CFRE (Certified Fund Raising Executive) credential since 2009.
By Gina Lynch, Step Up For Students
The SUFS Information Technology team is never really seen by anyone except for those who work inside the walls at Step Up for Students. Did you know that Step Up has 25 people dedicated to ensuring that all of the systems are up and running and secure 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year?
Filling out an online application for our scholarships? Using our Teaching and Learning Exchange? Sending in a Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA) Reimbursement Request? All of these systems are built, managed and supported by our dedicated IT staff.
Top on the priority list for IT, is building out a new, custom software solution to be ready for the second year of the PLSA program. The PLSA program started in mid-June of 2014 and has been a huge success for more than 1,500 special needs children in Florida. Here we are in the second year and the program has the potential to nearly triple in size to support more than 5,500 special needs students across the state of Florida. The success and growth of the PLSA program has dictated that our systems be able to handle the additional traffic without failure and with top-notch security.
The IT team took on this challenge early in May after legislation was approved. Since then, the entire team has hunkered down to work on new designs, better infrastructure and more secure policies. We have also listened to parents and providers about their issues and difficulties over the past year and are aiming to correct those pain points within the new system.
Most recently, Operations, IT, Finance and The Office of Student Learning teamed up to host parent and provider focus groups. Two evenings in August were spent with PLSA parents and providers to elicit feedback on our new system prior to going live. We received great insights and valuable feedback that went directly back to the IT team for implementation.
The PLSA program is very unique and robust. We are tasked with ensuring that the funds in the PLSA scholarship accounts are handled with care. The new system will have many new features in order to give our parents and providers the best possible experience.
The IT team’s goal is to build a very lean, intuitive system so parents and providers spend more time learning about educational tools for the specific needs of their child, and less time on burdensome paperwork and administration.
We look forward to its launch in September .
Gina Lynch is the Director of Project Management in the IT Department for Step Up for Students. She manages a team of seven talented, smart and wonderful people that are dedicated to educational choice for all children. Having two daughters of her own, ages 8 and 6, Gina is very busy with school activities, sports and keeping up with homework assignments.
Editor’s Note: This post kicks off our semi-regular feature: Behind the Scenes, where we give you an inside look at Step Up For Students. We hope you enjoy it!
By Ashley Foster, Guest Blogger
Flash back to September 2014.
At Step Up For Students, we are involved in a lot more than processing scholarships. As many of you know, the income-based (or Florida Tax Credit Scholarships) are funded by corporations whose leaders believe in our mission to help families choose the best learning environment for their children. One donor company was so interested in Step Up, their marketing team wanted to interview some families.
Frontline Insurance, a new donor to Step Up and an insurance company based in Lake Mary, arranged to meet families face-to-face and hear their stories in their own words about benefiting from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students. So in September, the Frontline marketing team, accompanied by one of our Step Up employees and two professional photographers, arrived at the Tobar family’s home in Apopka to learn about their experience with the scholarship program.
Before we started the interview, Mario, then a high school senior, showed us his football awards and talked about his favorite players as his mom, standing in the kitchen, smiled with pride. Once we got started, Kiara Sanchez-Mora and Kristin Hunkiar, members of Frontline Insurance’s marketing team, sat on the living room sofa with a laptop and asked Mario, his little sister Gabby and their parents, Kenia Palacios and Victor Tobar, about Step Up and why it was a good fit for the family.
Kenia explained, with tears in her eyes, how thankful she was Mario had the chance to experience such a dramatic turn-around at his Orlando high school, Bishop Moore Catholic High School, and how proud she was of Gabby who attends Saint Charles Borromeo Catholic School, adjacent to Mario’s high school. Both use Step Up’s income-based scholarships to attend the schools of their choice.
Once the interview was over, the Tobar family stood at their kitchen counter while the photographers adjusted the lighting on their flash, checked their computer monitors and snapped away. As we were saying our goodbyes, Kiara and Kristen made friends with the Tobars’ then-puppy, named Tebow, who had been patiently waiting in his crate.
It’s all in a day’s work, and we couldn’t do it without our awesome families who share their inspiring stories, and our donors who make the whole program possible.
In less than a couple of weeks, Mario is on his way to the University of West Florida in Pensacola where he will study engineering and play football. He has been working two jobs on the weekends to save a little bit of money to take with him.
You can read Frontline’s story here, along with the story of another amazing Step Up family in Ormond Beach, whose children have also benefited from Step Up For Students scholarships. Also, reach Step Up’s story about Mario here and about Faith Manuel and her eldest child, Davion Manuel-McKenney of Ormond Beach here.
Ashley Foster is Step Up’s former Marketing Manager, who recently moved with her husband, Gary, to North Carolina for his job. They live in Raleigh with their new puppy Lady Mae. Ashley currently teaches yoga at a local studio and is searching for the next step in her marketing career.