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Adults on the autism spectrum are asking employers for one thing: A chance

Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series exploring career challenges and successes for those individuals on the autism spectrum.

By Roger Mooney

Six years ago, Joseph Show stood in front of then Florida Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature and talked about his life on the autism spectrum. He was not nervous.

Quite the opposite, he said.

Joseph Show before his 2014 speech at the Florida Capitol with lawmakers.

It was March 2014, a little more than a week before the April 1 start of Autism Awareness Month, and Show was eager to create awareness for some of the state’s most influential people.

“Hey,” he told the lawmakers,” we exist.”

That was a great way for Show to begin.

More than 3.5 million people in the United States are on the autism spectrum, and the advocacy organization Autism Speaks estimates 707,000 to 1.1 million teens will age out of school-related services each year during this decade.

The Gardiner Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, enables parents to personalize the education for children with certain special needs from age 3 through the 12th grade or age 22, which ever happens first.

During the 2019-20 school year, 13,035 schoolchildren received a Gardiner Scholarship. Of that total, 8,097 (62%) are on the autism spectrum.

What happens to those students after they age out of a school-based service? That’s what Show wanted to discuss at the Capitol with lawmakers.

Wearing a blue suit he bought the week before at Dillard’s for the occasion, Show explained that people with autism can accomplish many wonderful things. Sure, some may need more time or use methods that are different than those in the neurotypical population, but is that so bad?

Show finished with this plea, one made by far too many adults on the spectrum.

“Please,” he said, “don’t be afraid to hire us.”

Exact figures are hard to pin down, but the estimate of adults with autism who are unemployed nationwide is believed to be between 80% and 85%. Certainly, those numbers are even higher with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Show, 29, a web app developer for a software company in Tallahassee, Florida, finds those numbers difficult to digest even prior to the pandemic. He turned his degree in information technology from Florida State University into a career. He knows of others on the spectrum who experienced similar success.

“I have trouble reconciling that with these unemployment rates,” he said. “There are clearly people like me who did get jobs and are doing fairly well at them, so shouldn’t this rate be going down?”

Under-tapped talent pool

A 2018 story in the University of Washington Magazine said studies have found the biggest roadblock to employment among adults with autism who do not have intellectual disabilities is not a lack of ability but a lack of understanding social skills.

Few things derail a job interview quicker than an inability to make eye contact, too much information in answers or an increased anxiety from communicating with strangers in an unfamiliar setting – all traits common among those with autism.

Generally speaking, the traditional interview process is challenging for those on the spectrum.

Then there is the perception that employees with autism are difficult to manage, are prone to angry outbursts and take more sick days than their neurotypical co-workers.

Allison Leatzow, a consultant at the FSU Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD), said the exact opposite is true.

“A lot of them are so into wanting to follow the directions, their work is their social life, that they’re actually more inclined to want to be there and do their best,” she said.

Those adults on the spectrum who are employed are generally found in two areas: the service industry and high-tech companies.

Some possess an extraordinary attention to detail that makes them ideal employees in jobs that require repetitive tasks. For others, their ability to detect patterns and knowledge of computers serves them well at software companies.

SAP, a German software maker, and Microsoft were among the pioneers in the high-tech world in targeting adults on the spectrum. Both created a hiring process to better evaluate autistic talent. The standard interview process was scrapped and replaced with team-building settings, where applicants worked together to accomplish a task. This is a better way to demonstrate an applicant’s talents and thought process.

SAP began this process in 2013. Within five years, it had hired 128 adults on the spectrum to fill roles in graphic design, software testing, data analysis, IT program management, quality assurance, human resources and finance administration.

“We don’t pigeonhole our candidates on the spectrum. We aren’t going to say, ‘Well, you’re only going to be good at certain things,’ because everyone has different interests and unique talents,” Jose Velasco, who oversees the Autism at Works Program at SAP, told CIO.com.

Not a function issue

Rising Tide Car Wash sits on a busy thoroughfare in Parkland, Florida. Purchased in 2013 by the D’Eri family, it is among the growing number of small business designed to employ a family member who is on the spectrum.

Andrew D’Eri vacuums the interior of an SUV at Rising Tide Car Wash in Parkland, Florida.

In this case, it is Andrew, 29. His father, John, looked for a business that he and his son, Tom, could run that would not only employ Andrew but other adults with autism. Tom said they wanted a business that was well-structed, detail-oriented and offered entry-level type work. After a year of research, they settled on a car wash.

“We wanted a business that could employ enough people to create a community and hopefully something that could really have an impact on the perception of adults with autism in the workforce,” Tom D’Eri said. “After preliminary research, it was pretty clear that a lot of people with autism have wonderful skills that are perfect for the workforce, but we, as a society, look at autism as a disability that requires sympathy instead of a really valuable diversity, and that perception issue is really why there is (a high) unemployment among adults with autism.”

Today, Rising Tide has two locations and employs 78 adults with autism, which makes up 80% of the workforce.

Tom D’Eri said the Parkland location averaged 3,000 vehicles a month in the year before his family bought the business. It now averages close to 17,000 a month.

The D’Eris also started Rising Tide U, a program to promote the benefits of hiring autistic workers and provide guidance to those who want to start similar businesses to help cut into that high unemployment rate.

“What is so amazing, sad, interesting – whatever word you want to use – is that this is almost completely a perception issue and not a function issue,” Tom D’Eri said.

Overcoming obstacles

Haley Moss was 3 when she was diagnosed with autism. Her parents were told she might never be able to hold a job or live on her own. A frightening forecast, for sure, but one her parents never believed.

Society placed obstacles in front of Moss, her parents helped her knock them down.

“When everyone else said no, they were the ones who said yes to at least give me the opportunity to try or keep pushing forward when other people didn’t have that faith,” Moss said.

Haley Moss on graduation day from the
University of Miami School of Law.

Moss, 25, is an autism advocate with psychology and criminology degrees from the University of Florida, and a law degree from the University of Miami. She is believed to be the first openly autistic person to pass the Florida bar exam.

Moss has her own apartment. She wrote two books about growing up on the spectrum and has contributed to a number of publications and websites, including the Huffington Post and Teen vogue. She is an artist.

She has not, however, overcome autism.

“That’s something I feel very strongly about, because I haven’t and that’s not something that’s going to exist,” she said. “I’m very proud to be on the spectrum.

“I have overcome the obstacles that society has in my way, the bias, the discrimination. People who don’t believe in you or think that you’re not capable of things, all that I’ve really overcome.”

Moss founded her own company to advocate for neurodiversity in the workplace and consult with companies on the benefits of an inclusive workforce. Her message is adults on the spectrum have strengths and weaknesses just like neurotypical adults. And, like neurotypical adults, those on the spectrum want the same thing: to be treated with respect.

“It’s being treated as a whole person is what we keep fighting for,” Moss said.

While it is encouraging to see companies reach into the autistic population, Moss would like to see more opportunities than those in the retail and STEM fields.

“I like to explain it like a grocery store,” she said. “We all see young adults working as cashiers or the deli counter. You know they probably are people with disabilities, and it makes you feel good. You love it. But are those same companies hiring people like me to work in their general counsel’s office?”

Working through the diagnosis

Mark Fleming believes that if he walked into a gym and applied for a job as a trainer he would not be hired because he is on the spectrum. That is interesting because Fleming has a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a master’s in human performance from the University of Alabama.

So, Fleming, 31, opened his own gym, Equally Fit, in Tampa that serves clients on the spectrum.

Mark Fleming stretches at Equally Fit, the gym he owns in Tampa that serves clients on the spectrum.

He said some parents first view an autism diagnosis as a death knell for their child’s future. Fleming believes it should be the opposite.

“Once you get a diagnosis, you can understand more about yourself,” he said. “I may not be good at this, but it doesn’t limit me from owning a business or doing whatever I want to do. You might have some limitations, but it should never be, ‘My kid can never do this,’ or, ‘I won’t be able to do this because of this.’ It should be, ‘I’m able to do this because of this. I’m able to do other things, because I know myself more, I know that I might need help and that’s OK.’”

Joseph Show, Tom D’Eri, Haley Moss and Mark Fleming each used some variation of the word “frustrated” when asked about the 80% to 85% unemployment rate among adults on the spectrum.

Each feels that number can and will be lowered with education for the employees, the employers and even neurotypical co-workers.

Stereotypes must be erased.

In some instances, accommodations need to be made for an autistic employee. Yet, D’Eri said, that has a positive ripple effect.

“When we design systems that work for them, they work for everyone,” he said. “So not only do you get access to this wonderful talent pool, they help you build a better organization.”

How low can the unemployment rate go is, ultimately, up to employers.

“It’s good for everybody to have a neurodiverse workforce,” Moss said. “You have innovation. You have people that have different experiences working together. It’s about understanding, accommodating, and being accepted.”

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

Step Up For Students launches alumni network  

 

By LISA A. DAVIS

Step Up For Students is excited to announce the creation of the Step Up For Students Alumni Network, bringing former scholars who have graduated from high school together to advocate for the advancement of all Florida schoolchildren.

Natasha Infante, now a University of South Florida Student, is one of the first members of the Network.

The network’s mission is to strengthen the relationship between schoolchildren in underserved communities and the educational-choice community. Alumni members will work toward educating and informing their community members at large, including lawmakers and donors, about school choice and its benefits. Step Up is a nonprofit organization in Florida that manages two scholarship programs for the state’s most underprivileged children,: The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students and the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs.

“Our scholars’ stories – past and present – are the best way to understand the impact school choice has on the children we serve,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “Their backgrounds and challenges are compelling and tug at your heartstrings. We can tell you these stories ourselves, but they are the best narrators for educational options.”

Natasha Infante, a 2014 Tampa Catholic High School graduate said she joined the network because the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students opened a world of possibilities for her.

“Step Up For Students allowed me to go to the high school I wanted to go to,” said Infante, who is now pre-veterinary major at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “I feel like it’s a pay-it-forward thing. If Step Up helped me, then I feel like I should help them.  It’s been such a positive thing in my life, I feel like I need to share my experience so others can benefit from it in the future.”

Infante was one of the first alumni to sign on to the Alumni Network and has been involved since it was only an idea, advising Step Up staff how to proceed. She has already written letters to lawmakers in support of Step Up and school choice in general.

“I’m open to more advocating for school choice because it’s so important,” she said, noting a recent lawsuit that sought to shut down the tax credit scholarship program. “We almost lost Step Up once and we can’t ever let that happen because it helps so many students like me have a better future.“

The membership roster already has 160 registered members, but Step Up For Students is seeking many more alumni to make it successful.

“Obviously, the more graduates we have, the more ground we can cover in advocating for Florida’s youth,” Tuthill said. “And the members will certainly reap the benefits of being involved too. For one, they will have an impact on the educational landscape of Florida for future generations. That’s rewarding for sure, but they will also have personal benefits as well with networking opportunities and more.”

Membership benefits include access to online professional development courses, exclusive discounts to retail stores, vacation packages, movie tickets, and the opportunity to network with decision-makers, donors, potential employers and other alumni through various events and social media.

Membership to the Step Up alumni network is free.

To join the Step Up For Students Alumni Network or to learn more, click here.

Lisa A. Davis can be reached at ldavis@StepUpForStudents.org

 

Congratulations on your master’s degree, Denisha!

By LISA A. DAVIS

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.

Through the years, she has taken the stage as a Step Up For Students scholar and graduate, advocating for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, the program that changed her life.

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 ldavis@sufs.org

Girls run for the joy and life lessons of it at St. Pius V Catholic School

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.”

Fourth-grader Ta'Niya Bartley and Princial "Coach" Lauren May run during a recent practice.

Fourth-grader Ta’Niya Bartley and Princial “Coach” Lauren May run during a recent practice.

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:

  • Recognizing our power and responsibility to be intentional in our decision making
  • Embracing our differences and find strength in our connectedness
  • Expressing joy, optimism and gratitude through our words, thoughts and actions
  • Nurturing our physical, emotional and spiritual health
  • Leading with an open heart and assume positive intent
  • Standing up for ourselves and others.

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.

Fourth-grader Mikayla Jones, , Gwendolyn Hickson, and daughter Trimya Jackson, also a fourth-grader share a moment during practice.

Fourth-grader Mikayla Jones, , Gwendolyn Hickson, and daughter Trimya Jackson, also a fourth-grader share a moment during practice.

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.

Third grader Caleb Dubois-Brinson runs during practice.

Third-grader Caleb Dubois-Brinson runs during practice.

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.

Pausing to honor a colleague

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.”

A school where ‘realization of possibility’ is routine

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.”

Jorge Perez graduated from Academy Prep Center of Tampa, a private middle school in Florida, as class valedictorian. He earned a full scholarship to the prestigious Phillips Exeter prep school in New Hampshire and, today, is a sophomore at Columbia University in New York City. Photo provided by family.

Jorge Perez graduated from Academy Prep Center of Tampa, a private middle school in Florida, as class valedictorian. He earned a full scholarship to the prestigious Phillips Exeter prep school in New Hampshire and, today, is a sophomore at Columbia University in New York City.
Photo provided by family.

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 Center of Tampa

Academy Prep Center of Tampa

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.

Principal Lincoln Tamayo calls Academy Prep his “dream job.”

Principal Lincoln Tamayo calls Academy Prep his “dream job.”

“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.

Like his big brother, Julian Perez is fielding scholarships from top private high schools.

Like his big brother, Julian Perez is fielding scholarships from top private high schools.

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?”

Students at Academy Prep Center of Tampa line up outside each morning before shaking hands with one of the school’s administrators. The greeting teaches the boys and girls how to look people in the eye when speaking to them and act professionally.

Students at Academy Prep Center of Tampa line up outside each morning before shaking hands with one of the school’s administrators. The greeting teaches the boys and girls how to look people in the eye when speaking to them and act professionally.

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.”

Academy Prep students gather each morning before the start of the school day to talk and pray – just like a family.

Academy Prep students gather each morning before the start of the school day to talk and pray – just like a family.

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.
Sophia Flores

Sophia Flores

Sophia Flores

“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.”

Hope Academy gets a taste of Tallahassee

BY SARA CLEMENTS

Around 11 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 41 students  and nine chaperones from Hope Academy in Homestead boarded a bus and set off for Tallahassee about 515 miles away.

Step Up scholars students from Hope Academy drove all the way from Homestead to be able to visit the Capitol and learn about the legislative process on Feb. 25.

Step Up scholars students from Hope Academy drove all the way from Homestead to be able to visit the Capitol and learn about the legislative process on Feb. 24.

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. Diaz

Rep. Manny Diaz spoke to the students about the importance of school choice.

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.

Sen. Jeff Brandes spokes to scholars about the future of transportation.

Sen. Jeff Brandes spokes to scholars about the future of transportation.

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.

 

Introducing My Story: Your story told by you

By Lisa A. Davis

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 alStep Up and Sharel 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.

 

Step Up For Students prepares to roll out new program to assist low-income students in south Pinellas

Lisa A. Davis

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. VF logo

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.

The extra help will give teachers more time to work on lesson plans, prepare for parent conferences and meet parents  – something they rarely have time to do, Thomas said.americorps logo

“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.