From middle school on, we’ve watched Denisha Merriweather grow from an uncertain and failing young student into a confident, strong and already successful young woman.
She has spoken in front of, and been introduced by, governors and other high-ranking politicians, including the President of the United States. In a big way, she has become the face of school choice not only in Florida, but in the nation.
Once destined to drop out of school after failing third grade not once, but twice, Denisha today receives her master’s degree in social work from the University of South Florida College of Behavioral and Community Studies.
Denisha is not only a friend to the staff of Step Up For Students, she is now a coworker advocating for families all over the state. To say the staff is proud of her is a bit of an understatement. But, yes, Denisha, your Step Up family is so, so proud of you and can’t wait to applaud you as you continue your life’s journey.
Congratulations on this amazing accomplishment!
From John Kirtley, founder and chairman of Step Up For Students:
“Denisha embodies the power of choice. Her life story shows the wonderful things that can happen if a student can find the right learning environment. Congratulations Denisha!”
Said Jen Canning, Step Up process manager for the office of the president:
“It’s an honor to celebrate Denisha’s accomplishments with her today. Denisha isn’t just a model student, she’s a model citizen. Her commitment to using her life experiences to make the world a better place is truly remarkable. I’m proud of Denisha’s academic success, but I’m even more proud to call her my friend. ”
From Step Up Vice President of Advancement and CMO Alissa Randall:
“From failing third grade twice to working toward her master’s degree and earning it, that’ s quite an accomplishment. With the opportunity of a scholarship, she excelled and has made us all so very proud. She is a strong young woman who has an amazing future ahead of her. I’m so incredibly proud of her and all she has accomplished and what she will in the future.”
From “Nia” Estefania Nunez-Brady, Step Up manager of faith-based initiatives:
“I am so proud of the woman, sister and friend she has become to me. Everything she has accomplished, she worked hard for. Denisha, now it’s time to make all your dreams come true. I love you, friend.”
To learn about Denisha’s journey, click here.
Lisa Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By LAUREN MAY, Guest Blogger
At St. Pius V Catholic School in Jacksonville we’re excited to have a new extracurricular offering: Girls on the Run, a nonprofit after-school activity for girls in grades three through eight. The mission: “We inspire girls to be joyful, healthy and confident using a fun, experience-based curriculum which creatively integrates running.”
St. Pius second-grade teacher Esther Franqui coached at a previous school and thought it would be a great addition to the activities available to students at St. Pius.
Coach Franqui and myself, Principal “Coach” Lauren May, created a team of 13 female students. The girls are engaged twice weekly in the Girls on the Run curriculum which helps girls learn valuable core lessons such as:
It’s already having a positive impact on our students.
“I like Girls on the Run because it helps me make friends, be a kind person and get in shape,” said Mikela Jones, fourth-grader at St. Pius.
Step Up For Students has several coaches or running buddies in the Jacksonville area. The season ends today (Dec. 3) with a 5K at the University of North Florida, and each girl is assigned a running buddy who runs the 5K with her.
This is a great way for the community to have an impact a girl in a positive way. The girls feel empowered and they are excited about the support.
“I have never been more proud of myself!” said fifth-grader Alethea Butler, after 5K practice at St. Pius on Nov. 10.
At the Girls on the Run coaches training I met with Conchita Moody, Step Up’s Human Resources manager.
We began talking about the history of St. Pius and the 120 Step Up scholars at the school.
“Coach” Conchita agreed to send Step Up hats to all girls on the team.
The community at large is being positively impacted by the work of St. Pius faculty and staff at Step Up partner schools and in the Step Up offices.
Thank you for your participation and for helping our girls learn to activate their limitless potential and learn to accomplish her dreams. Thank you also to Girls on the Run for their support of the program in several schools across the state!
Prior to becoming principal of St. Pius in the 2015-16 school year, Lauren May taught kindergarten at the Jacksonville school for four years. She holds a bachelor’s and Master of Education, specializing in Early Childhood and Special Education from the University of Florida and is currently studying for a Master of Educational Leadership at St. Leo University. Lauren is an avid Gator fan. While in college, she worked with the Gator football team recruiting department and gave tours to prospective students. She has served on the Gator Club of Jacksonville board of directors for four years, most recently as vice president.
BY REDEFINED STAFF We pause today for a funeral and introspection. Sherri Ackerman, formerly the associate editor of this blog, died suddenly on Friday at age 52. She was a journalist who wrote for two major daily newspapers, the Tampa Tribune and the Tampa Bay Times, before she found a home at the nonprofit, Step Up For Students, that publishes this blog. Sherri believed in the possibilities education holds for every child. Her gift was to tell stories that breathed life into our often-sterile debate. We reflect on Sherri today through a powerful account, written two years ago, about a school in her back yard of Tampa. Academy Prep Center was and remains, to use her words, “electric with opportunity.”
By Sherri Ackerman
Jorge Perez remembers the first time he stepped behind the black iron gates surrounding Academy Prep Center of Tampa, Fla. The private school for students in grades 5-8 is wedged beside a Cuban bakery and the interstate in a faded neighborhood with sagging bungalows. Yet, something made it electric with opportunity.
“It was very different from other middle schools I had seen and the atmosphere was buzzing,” recalls Perez, then a rising sixth-grader. “It felt like a place where I could grow.”
And grow he did. Perez graduated from Academy Prep, earned a full ride to the legendary Phillips Exeter Academy boarding school in New Hampshire, and now attends Columbia University in New York City.
The story is all the more remarkable because, for Academy Prep, it’s not all that surprising. Since 2003, when the school was founded, many of its students – all of them low-income and almost all of them black or Hispanic – have moved on to top public and private high schools, and then to highly regarded public and private colleges.
No one at the school expects anything less.
It’s just after 7 on a Tuesday morning. Cars whiz by Academy Prep’s renovated red brick building, a former grammar school where children of cigar workers once learned to speak English. Students in uniforms haul backpacks and hurry inside even though school doesn’t officially start for another 30 minutes.
It’s breakfast time and everyone here qualifies for a free one. All 112 students also receive a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, awarded to low-income families to help pay a portion of the school’s $16,000-plus annual tuition. (The scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.) The rest of the money comes from private donors and foundations that have come together with one mission: to dramatically change the lives of low-income children through the power of education.
“It is incumbent upon us as a society to give everyone an opportunity,” said Principal Lincoln Tamayo, a Harvard graduate who grew up in Tampa and went to kindergarten a few blocks from the academy.
Academy Prep and its sister school in St. Petersburg, Fla. are modeled after the recently disbanded Nativity Miguel Network of Schools, acclaimed nonprofit schools that catered to economically disadvantaged children. Its tradition of excellence continues at Academy Prep, where the graduation rate stands at 94.4 percent, Tamayo said.
About 80 percent of the school’s graduates go on to private high schools, including Exeter and, closer to home, Tampa Prep. Many of the rest enroll in top, local public schools, including Blake Magnet School and Brooks DeBartolo Charter High School. About 82 percent then go on to college, the vast majority of them four-year schools, including top-tier institutions like the University of Florida, Bard College in New York and, now, Columbia.
None of this is by happenstance.
Students are eligible to enroll in Academy Prep in fifth or sixth grade, but not after. The school needs at least three years to give the students the continuity and structure they need to succeed, Tamayo said. But first, they must apply, a lengthy process that requires a teacher’s recommendation, written essays, and a passing score on a skills test to ensure they’ve mastered basic reading, spelling and math.
“We’re not designed for pre-readers,” Tamayo said. Or for students with behavioral issues: “If you come here with problems, we’ll work with you,” he said. “But accept God’s grace. There are consequences for your actions. If we don’t teach our kids that, we have failed as educators.”
About four to seven students in each cohort end up leaving, he said. Some because their parents moved; others because they didn’t want to do the work or couldn’t maintain at least a C average.
“We are preparing them for success at a college preparatory school,” said Tamayo, who used to help oversee admissions at Boston University. “They’re not going to go if they have a 2.0.”
Academy Prep school days are 11 hours long. The school year lasts 11 months, and includes some Saturdays. It’s not for everyone.
“I do remember wanting to switch schools mid-way through the year because of the rigor of classes, along with the very strict style of learning and discipline,” said Jorge, the graduate now at Columbia. “At times the work was overwhelming and very tough. Over time, however, the challenge begins to mold and shape work ethic and determination.”
For Jorge, who graduated as valedictorian in 2008, that meant pushing himself even harder to earn a full scholarship to Exeter, a pipeline to the Ivy League. Four years later, with Academy Prep mentors at his side, he accepted another scholarship and became the first academy graduate to go to Columbia.
Today, Jorge is a 19-year-old sophomore studying philosophy and economics, and guiding his younger brother, Julian, on a similar path. Julian, an eighth-grader at Academy Prep, is now fielding scholarship offers from Exeter and the elite Saint Andrews Preparatory School in Boca Raton, Fla.
After breakfast, Academy Prep students line up by grade and wait to be greeted by Tamayo or another academy staff member. On this morning, it’s history teacher Henry Ibanez, who extends his right hand to every girl and boy, looks them in the eye and says, “Good morning.”
The pleasantry is repeated at least 200 times with each student expected to emulate the gesture. Then everyone gathers quietly in a large room that doubles as the indoor gym and cafeteria. Dangling from the ceiling are pennants emblazoned with the names of the top-tier high schools they hope to attend.
“Dear Lord, we are human by our very nature very frail,” Tamayo says, reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, like a father praying with his family. Afterward, two students step on stage and take turns practicing public speaking by answering, “How can I be a better me?”
It’s a theme that carries them throughout the day. Girls and boys are separated in core classes, except for some honors courses like algebra. In addition to math, science, history and language arts lessons, they also take art, music, P.E. and other enrichment classes like chess and sewing.
By the time they graduate, Tamayo said, most Academy Prep students are two to four years above grade level in reading and math.
That kind of academic success was what Tynese Randolph and her husband were looking for when they enrolled their twin boys, Levi and Sterling, in the academy’s fifth and sixth grades.
The boys came from a traditional public school where Sterling was promoted to a higher grade, but it was still too easy, Randolph said. “They tried, they really did,” she said. “But public school had nothing to offer my boys.”
The first year at the academy was anything but easy. Some days, the twins went to school when it was dark and came home when it was dark. Randolph and her husband coordinated drop-offs and took turns volunteering on nights and weekends. “It was hard,” she recalled. “But so what? It’s your child.”
The extra effort paid off, said Randolph, who eventually accepted a front office job at the academy and, later, enrolled her daughter in the school. The hope is that she will follow in her brothers’ footsteps.
Levi, now a senior at Tampa Prep, is considering several college choices. Sterling is studying meteorology as a freshman at Florida State University. His first semester, he racked up a 4.0 GPA.
Academy Prep gifted Jorge’s mother, Sophia Flores, with plane tickets so she and her son could visit Exeter before making any big decisions.
“They treated us like millionaires,” Flores said of the New Hampshire school’s administrators. When the family left, Flores asked her son if he knew what he wanted to do. She said his eyes watered as he told her, “Mom, this is where I want to be.”
It was hard to have her first-born so far away, but it also gave her peace of mind.
“I used to wonder, ‘How will my kids go to college?’ ” said Flores, a high school graduate who sometimes worked three jobs to make ends meet. “I don’t know how to express, truly, every day, the blessings of the academy. … They are changing these kids’ lives forever.”
Now halfway through his second year at Columbia, Jorge already is thinking about what’s next – maybe law school and, someday, a career in finance. It’s a vision, he said, that really started at Academy Prep.
“If I had to summarize my experience at Academy Prep with just one sentence,” Jorge said, “I would say that it was a realization of possibility.”
The field trip began with students learning about our state’s historical roots in the Museum of Florida History. I led the tour along with Scott Beck from Step Up’s Office of Student Learning. Students got to sit in the original chamber of the House of Representatives, inside the Old Capitol (now referred to as the Florida Historic Capitol Museum), and even participate in a mock debate. Later, they got to visit the modern Senate Chamber and hear from two current lawmakers on the issues that are important to the legislators.
Rep. Manny Diaz, of Hialeah, talked about education and school choice, and encouraged the students to advocate on behalf of school-choice issues when they graduate, since they have had the benefit of this option.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, of St. Petersburg, talked about the future of transportation, including Uber and driverless cars. The students were enthralled by this concept and asked lots of questions.
It just so happened to be “STEM Day at the Capitol,” a day that focuses on the importance of science, technology, engineering, and math.
Students interacted with a life-size robot, watched marshmallows freeze through the process of chemical reaction, and learned anatomy while playing a giant version of the “Operation” board game.
Hope Academy students and leaders also visited the top of the Capitol Building, on the 22nd floor to get a bird’s-eye view of Tallahassee. Finally, the day ended with a tour of the Florida Supreme Court, where students learned about our judicial branch of government.
The roundtrip ride to Tallahassee took 19 hours, but school leaders said it was all worth it to be able to experience the legislative process, meet lawmakers and learn about government in the state Capital. It was a special day for all involved, and not one these kids will soon forget.
The majority of Hope Academy’s approximately 300 students receive the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up for Students.
Sara Clements is the director of external affairs at Step Up for Students. Her primary job is educating lawmakers and other elected officials on the Florida Tax Credit and Gardiner scholarship (formerly known as the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts) programs and, as part of that work, helping scholarship parents and students share their experience of the program with lawmakers. During her off time, she enjoys reading and volunteering with a local animal rescue organization.
As Step Up For Students continues to grow, so does our community. Our community is made up of our scholars and alumni, parents and guardians, educational and community partners, advocates and supporters, therapy and special needs providers, Step Up team members and more. You get the point. Our scholarship program organization is far reaching.
Our thinking is we are all in this together, so the more we share and get to know each other, the stronger we become in this wonderful state of educational options. With this is mind, we are constantly coming up with ideas on how we can all become more engaged with each other and learn more from each other’s experiences. We want the world to know Step Up For Students changes lives. And, as we always say, who better than to show that educational options work than those right in the middle of it all?
So today, we’re excited to introduce you to one more storytelling tool: My Story.
My Story is a space where members of our community can share their story, or a particular experience with our program and share it in your own words. So essentially, these will be stories about you by you. How cool is that?
It’s a fairly simple process. You go to the site, which is part of this new blog, and go to the “Share Your Story!” tab at the top of “Stepping Beyond the Scholarship” homepage. Click and voila. You’re ready to get started. The site will walk you through all the steps, including a permission form so we can upload your story and photo after a brief approval process.
A few of us at Step Up have already shared ours, so please take a look. But now it’s your turn. Please step up (Like what we did there?) and share YOUR stories. Your stories inspire us. Your successes are our successes. Your story is our story. So, let’s keep writing the chapters together to make up an incredible Step Up For Students book. We can’t wait to read it.
Volunteer Florida, the Governor’s Commission on Community Service, recently awarded Step Up For Students an AmeriCorps Grant to assist low-income students in south Pinellas County with supplemental education services to boost their academic achievement.
Step Up’s AmeriCorps Achieve program will launch in October and provide 20 AmeriCorps volunteers to work as teachers’ aides in seven St. Petersburg schools serving some of the poorest children in the city.
Members will each earn a stipend of $12,530 annually, as well as tuition assistance for college, among other benefits, support the classroom teacher with increasing literacy and math achievement, said Carol Thomas, vice president of Step Up’s Office of Student Learning, which oversees the program.
The AmeriCorps volunteers also will help track students’ academic progress on special software, part of a program created by Step Up For Students called the Teaching and Learning Exchange (TLE). The software allows teachers to produce learning goals, monitor student success and exchange information with parents or guardians.
“We are really giving them that gift of time, that resource of time,” she said. “That resource of time is just as valuable a resource as software.”
Additionally, volunteers will operate an afterschool program to enhance learning and help raise awareness about community and education partnerships. At the end of the year, the AmeriCorps members will be responsible for improving the academic achievement of 80 percent of all students participating in the Achieve program.
“The ultimate goal of the AmeriCorps Achieve program is to raise student achievement in reading and math,” said Judi Duff, who will manage the volunteers. “According to a recent investigation in the Tampa Bay Times, most of the public elementary school students in south St. Petersburg are failing in reading and math. The tax credit scholarships given by Step Up For Students are giving families in this area a choice for a better education. AmeriCorps’ Achieve program will provide manpower and resources to help combat this problem.”
Duff used to work in Title 1 public schools in Hillsborough County and, later, as a media specialist for Florida College Academy in Temple Terrace.
“I look forward to getting into each of these schools and finding ways for the AmeriCorps Achieve program to help raise student achievement. Each of these schools is unique with its own set of challenges,” said Duff. “My job will be to provide them with the right AmeriCorps member who will be the best fit for their students and program.”
Glen Gilzean, Step Up’s vice president of Family and Community Affairs, authored the grant proposal to help create the AmeriCorps Achieve program after collaborating with Rev. Dr. Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. Sykes is a strong supporter of Step Up For Students and the tax credit scholarship program.
“My goal is to ensure low-income students have access to additional educational services to succeed academically,” said Gilzean.
The schools mostly are in south St. Petersburg: Mount Moriah Christian Fundamental Academy, Elim Junior Academy, Mt. Zion Christian Academy, Bethel Community Christian School, Academy Prep of St. Petersburg and Cathedral School of St. Jude. More than 570 Step Up income-based scholars attend these schools.
Many of the schools are already part of Step Up’s Success Partners program.
Since AmeriCorps’ founding 21 years ago, more than 900,000 members have contributed more than 1.2 billion hours volunteering across American working with nonprofits, schools, public agencies and community and faith-based groups.