By ROGER MOONEY
“We are proud of this recognition,” said Step Up president Doug Tuthill. “We strive for a work culture that is nurturing and joyful and allows our employees to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities.”
Sixty Tampa Bay area companies were nominated for recognition across four categories: Small (10-24 employees); Medium (25-49 employees), Large (50-99 employees); and Extra-Large (100-plus employees).
Quantum Workplace surveyed employees at the nominated companies and evaluated each in the areas of team effectiveness, retention risk, alignment with goals, trust with co-workers, individual contribution, manager effectiveness, trust in senior leaders, feeling valued, work engagement and people practices.
It described Step Up’s company culture with the hashtag #caringpassionateandimpactful.
“That really sums us up,” Tuthill said. “Our employees are passionate about what they do. This passionate caring is why they have such a positive impact on the families we serve.”
Step Up helps more than 115,000 pre-K-12 children in Florida gain access to a better education by managing four scholarships: The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families; the Gardiner Scholarship for children with special needs or unique abilities; the Hope Scholarship for students who have been bullied at a public school; and the Reading Scholarship Accounts for children in grades 3-5 who struggle with reading.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ROGER MOONEY
MIAMI – The conversations eventually moved from the house to the garage, far away from the boys, who were too young to understand the words used by their parents but could certainly sense the worry in their voices.
Real estate bubble? Recession? Bankruptcy?
What did the boys know about those things? Why should they?
Jonas Figueredo was 6 at the time. His brother, Jack, was 4.
“We didn’t want the boys to know what was going on,” their mom, Helen, said.
It was 2008 and the real estate company owned by Helen and her husband, Frank, was crumbling.
“We were heavy into real estate when the bubble burst,” Helen Figueredo said, “and we were left holding the bag.”
The recession cost them everything: Their business. Their savings. Their house. They filed for bankruptcy twice and ended up in foreclosure.
Frank Figueredo took a job working for the state of Florida as a claims adjuster. It paid $38,000 a year. They were clearing 10-times as much with their real estate business.
“Thirty-eight grand in Miami with a family of four and two kids in private school,” he said.
Yes, private school.
The boys were attending Westwood Christian School, a pre-K through 12 private school in Miami. During those talks in the garage away from curious ears, the No. 1 topic was how to keep the boys at Westwood. Besides a roof over their head, this was their priority.
The Figueredos met with school officials and told them of their rapidly diminishing finances. That’s when they learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarship covered half the tuition.
Bill Thomson, Westwood’s head administrator and secondary school principal, recalled that 2008 meeting.
“They definitely were at a crossroads of having to possibly uproot their boys from our school and our church and our philosophy and into a different environment that they just weren’t comfortable with,” he said. “They were introduced to Step Up, and it has been very beneficial to them over the years as it has with many families. It definitely is kind of a success story for that family.”
Today, Jonas, 16, is a junior at Westwood. Jack, 14, is a freshman. What the two have accomplished scholastically with the help of Step Up is impressive. What they have accomplished away from school with the support of their parents is equally as notable.
Jonas is vice president of the junior class, president of the high school band, a second chair trumpeter on the all-district band and has qualified for the all-state band. He is ranked in the top-5 of his class with a GPA above 4.0, is a member of the National Honor Society and a member of the debate team.
“I just love to argue,” he said.
Jonas is a worship leader at Westwood and finished first last year in a preaching competition at the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. He is a student ambassador and a former varsity soccer player.
In his spare time, Jonas is a second-degree black belt in taekwondo who competes nationally and teaches anti-bullying, anti-abduction and self-defense classes to younger children, including those at Westwood. He has plans to teach the same at a women’s shelter. He volunteers for Bugles Across America and plays taps at funerals for veterans.
He can play the piano, guitar, ukulele and harmonica. He helped put together a musical production at Villa Lyan Academy, a school in Miami for children and young adults with special needs.
His brother, Jack, is a freshman. His GPA is above 4.0, he is a third chair trumpeter in the all-district band and has qualified for the all-state band, was president of the middle school band as an eighth-grader and was instrumental in bringing back the high school debate team. He is a student ambassador and was the goalie on the varsity soccer team from the sixth to eighth grades.
In his spare time, Jack plans to race a Mustang next season in the National Auto Sports Association, where you can drive when you’re 14. He is in the process of starting his own nonprofit to feed and clothe the homeless, called “Socks and Sandwiches.”
Helen and Frank Figueredo started the nonprofit “Kids United Foundation” several years ago to send clothes and food to homeless children in Columbia.
When the boys were young, Helen Figueredo took them to Miami’s Little Havana when she brought food to the homeless.
“I remember that,” Jack said. “It was a great experience. It broke my heart to see a lot of people like this. I wanted to do something on my own to help them.”
Jack also plays the piano and violin.
While in middle school, both brothers worked as pages for Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, when she was a state representative in South Florida.
“We’re very thankful for them to be a part of our school,” Bill Thomson, Westwood’s head administrator and secondary school principal, said.
‘You’re going to law school’
Jonas has thought about becoming a criminal profiler for the FBI. Jack would love to race cars professionally. Both plan on attending law school.
Actually, getting a law degree is mandatory for the Figueredo boys.
“I always told them, ‘You don’t need to worry about what you’re going to do. You can worry about that when you graduate law school,’” Helen Figueredo said. “I do believe that a law degree is a license to do whatever you want to do.”
“Honestly, I agree with her,” Jonas said. “With a law degree you have more options. Maybe I do become a lawyer. Maybe a I don’t. But I do have the law degree with me.”
The options for the future of the Figueredo boys appear limitless. That’s why their parents felt compelled to keep their sons at Westwood.
The couple made the sacrifices for their boys to continue there. They sold their luxury cars and Frank picked up an older car at a police auction for $89. They rented a house owned by the school for $550 a month and began to slowly rebuild their finances.
“The school teaches wisdom,” Frank Figueredo said, “and with wisdom, you learn to learn.”
He currently works as a bodily injury adjuster for an insurance company. Helen, who has a degree in business administration and a master’s in educational leadership, works part time as a health care risk management consultant.
“We turned our lifestyle upside down to teach them what is important, what really matters,” Helen Figueredo said. “A car? Or knowledge and wisdom? It’s taught them not to be materialistic. It’s taught them that people are more important.”
Jonas and Jack are aware of the changes made by their parents. They know the role Step Up played in their education. They are thankful for both.
“I’ve been (at Westwood) since I was 2 years old,” Jonas said. “It shaped me to who I am today.”
“It’s a great education,” Jack added. “The staff, all the teachers, they’re all very supportive, very friendly. They’re always willing to help.”
The boys are eager to see what they can accomplish in the future.
“After they go to law school,” Helen Figueredo said.
About Westwood Christian School
Established in 1959 by the First Baptist Church of Westwood Lake, the school provides Biblical and academic education for 550 students from pre-K-12, including more than 230 who are on Step Up For Students’ scholarships. Students must pass an entrance exam to gain enrollment. The school has state recognized band, choir, drama and art programs. All teachers are fully accredited with the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools and the National Council for Private School Accreditation.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
By ROGER MOONEY
ZEPHYRHILLS – Sitting opposite where his 8-year-old granddaughter stood near their dining room table, George Hill, nodded at the second-grader and said, “We’ve been blessed, really, just (because of) the kind of person that she is. She’s dedicated. She’s smart. She’s a hard worker.”
He used another word to describe Skylar Goeb: Perseverant.
You wouldn’t know it by looking at her as she stood alongside her grandmother, quiet, though filling the room with her mega-watt smile, but Skylar had a rough start to life.
She was born addicted to the opioids her mother took while pregnant. She doesn’t know her mother, and her mother wants nothing to do with her.
“She doesn’t write her. She doesn’t try to get a hold of her. Nothing,” George Hill said.
But Skylar, a Florida Tax Credit scholar, is flourishing with the love and guidance of her grandparents who have raised her since she was an infant.
Skylar loves school, too. She is a straight-A student at Heritage Academy in Zephyrhills, a K2 through eighth grade Christian school founded in 1998,
Last fall, she was one of 10 students honored as the Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce Citizens of the Month. Students are nominated by their teachers. One student from every school in Zephyrhills is honored each month. From that pool, one is selected in June as the chamber’s citizen of the year.
According to Michelle Walls, director of operations and finance at Heritage Academy, Skylar was nominated because she met the following criteria:
“We’re very proud,” her grandmother, Robin Hill, said.
When asked one January afternoon at the family’s Zephyrhills home how she felt about the academic honor, Skylar turned toward her grandmother and whispered, “Good.”
Skylar is also shy.
“She doesn’t say a whole lot. She’s kind of reserved,” said Rene Campbell, Skylar’s teacher at Heritage Academy. “When I talk to her, I have to pull things out.”
Math, and learning, seem to boost her confidence, however.
When Campbell asks for a volunteer to come to the front of the class and solve a math problem, Skylar’s shyness evaporates.
“If I ask if someone can help me, she’ll raise her hand,” Campbell said. “She has a willing spirit to learn.”
Balance beams and parallel bars
Skylar also is certainly not shy when she’s competing in gymnastics – she placed fifth last year at the state championships.
On the walls of her bedroom are several hooks that strain to hold the 60 medals she has won competing in gymnastics, including that state award. Across the hall you’ll find Skylar’s favorite room.
With walls painted light blue, the room is empty but for a horizontal bar that sits on supports four feet above the beige carpet, a balance beam raised a few inches off the floor, a pink mat and two plastic bins for the white chalk Skylar rubs on her hands to increase her grip as she swings around the bar.
It is here that Skylar spends hours practicing gymnastics.
Skylar is a blonde-haired pixie, who loves all things pink, adores unicorns and especially loves sailing over bars and flipping across beams.
The Hills enrolled Skylar in gymnastics when she was 3, because they wanted her involved in an activity that would allow her to exercise. By the time Skylar was 5, her grandparents knew gymnastics was more than an after-school activity.
“She loves competition,” George Hill said. “Some girls get nervous. She’s like, ‘Let’s go!’”
Her idol is American gymnast Simone Biles, the four-time world all-around champion who won four gold medals and a bronze at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
“She’s great,” Skylar said.
Like every girl her age enrolled in gymnastics, Skylar would love to compete in the Olympics.
In early January, Skylar began training in Fast Track, a program designed for kids with natural gymnastic ability, strength and flexibility. It is an advanced program, especially for girls her age.
Skylar is also a part of the Tops Program, where gymnasts travel around the state and are tested on different physical abilities as they relate to gymnastics.
“Skylar is very dedicated,” said her coach, Jacqueline Vogel. “I actually don’t know if she’s ever missed a practice intentionally unless it was for something for school.”
As Skylar ran through her gymnastics scheduled – 13 hours a week over four nights at Premier Gymnastics in Wesley Chapel – her grandmother asked, “What comes first?”
“School,” Skylar said.
“We’re always on the run,” added George Hill, “but she keeps her grades top-notch.”
Skylar has been writing in cursive since kindergarten, and her penmanship is text-book sound.
She enjoys history, science, spelling, reading and math. Especially math.
“When we get in the car, she brings her book and makes up math problems,” her grandmother, Robin Hill, said. “She has a mind for numbers.”
“She has a great memory, too,” added her grandfather. “That helps.”
George Hill said Skylar is getting everything she can out of her Step Up scholarship.
“It’s been a blessing,” he said. “It’s placed her in the best learning environment she can be in. It also got her in a Christian school, which is important to us.”
The rough start
George Hill, 64, is an engineer with Frontier Communications. He has worked for the company for 31 years, starting in the late 1970s when it was known as GTE. Robin Hill, 63, retired after working more than 20 years at the Pizza Hut in Brandon, Fla.
The Hills raised four children. Raising a grandchild is certainly not something they planned, but life has a funny way of grabbing you by surprise.
Skylar’s father, Steven Hill, is finishing a seven-year prison sentence for a series of crimes he committed with Skylar’s mom. He is scheduled to be released in October. Skylar visits him in a transitional housing facility in Tarpon Springs.
“We take (Skylar) to see him. She knows who he is. We don’t try to hide anything,” George Hill said. “They get along super great. They play together when she’s there. They’re good together.”
Skylar’s mom tried to put her up for adoption before giving birth. The Hills hired a lawyer and successfully prevented it. They received court-ordered legal custody of their granddaughter when she was 8 weeks old. Skylar calls her grandparents “Mom” and “Dad.”
“If that went through, we would have never known where she went,” George Hill said. “We weren’t going to let her go. Who knows what kind of household she would have went to? You just never know. It’s been a blessing for her and for us.”
Skylar’s mom did not list a father on the birth certificate, which is why Skylar has her mother’s last name.
Her parents went to prison in 2012 on a litany of charges that included burglary, dealing in stolen property, possession of a controlled substance and petit theft, according to court records.
Skylar’s mother, who served an 18-month prison term, now lives in Ohio and is out of her life. Her father can soon enter it on a more regular basis.
“We’ll see how that goes,” George Hill said.
What the Hills do know is they never could have imagined how raising Skylar could so profoundly change their lives.
When it comes to Skylar, the Hills, wouldn’t want it any other way, especially when you consider what might have been had the adoption gone through.
“I think it’s a blessing. Really, I do,” George Hill said. “For sure, she keeps you young.”
About Heritage Academy
Founded in 1998 under the ministry of Oasis World Outreach, Heritage Academy is a pre-K-8 school that serves 160 students, including 54on Step Up scholarships. The school uses the Abeka curriculum, and the education is based on Biblical truth. The curriculum consists of reading, writing, comprehension, study skills, critical thinking, problem solving, and number skills. Spanish, art, music and physical education are also offered. Annual tuition is $6,080 for K2-K3; $3,610 for K4-VPK; $6,500 for K5-fifth grade; $6,800 for sixth-eighth grade. Before and after school care and tutoring are available for a fee.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the redefinED blog on Sept. 27, 2017. The blog is hosted by Step Up For Students and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.
Meanwhile, scholarship students are 8 percent more likely to obtain associate degrees. That number rises to 29 percent for those who secured scholarships in earlier grades and used them at least four years.
Annual evaluations of standardized test results in the scholarship program have consistently found the average student who uses the program to attend a private school makes roughly one year’s academic progress in one year’s time.
They’ve also found students who use the scholarships tend to be more disadvantaged than other lower-income students who don’t use them.
Urban Institute authors Matthew M. Chingos and Daniel Kuehn describe scholarship students this way: “They have low family incomes, they are enrolled at low-performing public schools (as measured by test scores), and they have poorer initial test performance compared with their peers.”
Studies have looked at long-term outcomes for other programs that help disadvantaged students pay private school tuition.
But researchers haven’t looked as much at college enrollment among students who received scholarships from big, statewide programs. The Urban Institute report is unprecedented in its scale. It looks at more than 10,000 students across the nation’s third-largest state. It uses data from the Florida Department of Education, as well as Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer the scholarships.
Unpacking the findings
The study finds students who use tax credit scholarships are significantly more likely than peers with similar disadvantages to enroll in college within two years of finishing high school.
Students who continued using a scholarship for four years or more saw, by far, the largest college-enrollment boost. Those who only used a scholarship for one year saw essentially no benefit.
The researchers note one potential factor. Students who leave the scholarship program after a short time tend to struggle more academically. Those who remain on scholarships for several years tend to perform better, perhaps because they’ve found schools that work for them.
Most of the enrollment boost for scholarship alumni happened at Florida’s community colleges. The state’s 28 community colleges are intended to be accessible and affordable. Tuition and fees for full-time Florida College System students working toward associate degrees cost roughly half what students pay at the state’s four-year public universities. The researchers noted the two-year schools are “more financially accessible to the low-income students participating in FTC.”
The researchers didn’t look at private or out-of-state institutions, where data wasn’t as readily available. As a result, they cautioned that: “National data indicate that low-income students from private high schools are more likely to enroll in private and out-of-state colleges than low-income students from public high schools. Because of this, our results may understate the true impact of FTC participation on college enrollment and degree attainment.”
The enrollment boost was larger for a few notable groups. Scholarships students born outside the U.S. and those who spoke a language other than English at home saw some of the largest jumps in college enrollment.
Scholarship students weren’t just more likely to attend two-year colleges. They were also 8 percent more likely to earn associate degrees. But the researchers note there was some drop-off between the jump in college attendance and the jump in completion.
Also, scholarship students were not significantly more likely to earn four-year degrees. The researchers note their sample sizes were small for this group, so it was hard to make statistical comparisons. They also noted that only 4 percent of the disadvantaged public-school students they compared to scholarship recipients earn bachelor’s degrees.
What the findings mean
Low-income students from high-poverty schools face greater barriers getting to college than their middle-income peers. To earn a four-year degree, the barriers are larger still. They’re more likely to struggle with tuition payments, student loans and jobs that take time away from their studies.
These barriers deserve a closer look, the Urban Institute researchers write.
This study finds that the nation’s largest private school choice program helps students into college, but too many still fail to earn degrees. A fuller understanding of what this means for these students will require continuing to track their outcomes, including bachelor’s degree attainment rates and incomes. But this study shows that policymakers considering the design, expansion, or reform of private school choice programs should carefully consider not just their likely impact on short-term metrics such as test scores, but also how they might shape long-term outcomes, including college enrollment and graduation.
Other programs dedicated to expanding educational opportunity for lower-income students have seen similar results. In 2011, the Knowledge Is Power Program learned roughly 33 percent of students who completed middle school with the nation’s largest charter school network managed to graduate college.
Those results didn’t satisfy KIPP. So the charter organization created a new program to help its alumni not only reach college, but finish it.
Still, for school choice programs facing a flurry of headlines, the Urban Institute report suggests the anecdotes about school choice scholarship recipients awakening to the possibility of college aren’t mere anomalies.
Travis Pillow can be reached at Tpillow@sufs.org.
Editor’s note: This is the first post in a series celebrating 15 years of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Join us in the coming months as we take a look back on the program’s beginning and look ahead to serving more students in the future.
By JOHN KIRTLEY
I’m not a baseball fan, but I love the movie “Bull Durham.” In the film, baseball groupie Susan Sarandon compliments Kevin Costner for approaching the minor league home run record. Costner remarks that it’s a dubious honor – it means he’s spent an awful long time trying to get to the majors. That’s how I feel sometimes when I realize I have been working for the cause of parental choice in education for 20 years. If I were any good at this, shouldn’t the job be done by now?
Nothing like the parental choice movement to make you appreciate incremental progress. But on the 15th anniversary of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC), I look around and see so much to be thankful for. When the Legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush created the FTC in 2001, school choice in Florida was in its infancy. The definition of “public education” was pretty simple: raise taxpayer dollars to educate kids, give all the money to the districts – which run all the schools in a fairly uniform manner – and assign kids by their ZIP codes.
How far we have come since then. Today, more than 30 percent of K-12 children funded by the taxpayers don’t attend their zoned public school. They attend magnets, charters and virtual schools. They take classes under dual enrollment programs at colleges and community colleges. They now even combine providers and delivery methods at the same time. And yes, some children even attend private schools, including faith-based ones.
The FTC is a small but critical part of this new definition of public education. This year the program is serving 92,000 children, who are attending more than 1,600 private schools chosen by their parents. This sounds like a lot—and it’s more than I ever thought we would serve – but it’s still a pretty small number in context. There are 2.8 million students in Florida’s public schools (including magnets and charters). So the FTC still represents only 3 percent of that total. But to each scholarship family, it’s the most important thing in the world. Research shows the FTC kids are the poorest, and poorest performers, in their public schools when they leave. The scholarship empowers poor parents to find an environment that better suits their children’s unique needs.
The FTC – along with the McKay and Gardiner scholarships for special needs children – makes available an option that would otherwise be off the table: private and faith-based schools. My 20-year experience has taught me that these schools must be available to poor and special-needs kids. They aren’t for everyone, certainly – but for some of these kids, they are the only place they will thrive. I can’t tell you how many students over the years have told me, “I was going the wrong direction, but the environment at my school set me straight,” or words to that effect. These schools must be a part of our new definition of public education.
Back to the Bull Durham analogy: I would have thought that by now, after 20 years, everyone would have accepted and embraced the FTC. Especially with more than 30 percent of all publicly funded students choosing! But no. After all this time, and after all its proven success, there is a lawsuit to shut down the program and evict more than 92,000 poor children. Why would opponents to choice focus on the program with only 3 percent of the kids, and the poorest and poorest performers at that? Maybe because it’s the fullest expression of parental empowerment.
The silver lining to this lawsuit is that it has galvanized the scholarship parents and their community leaders to fight to maintain this precious power. More than 10,000 people came to Tallahassee this year the day after the MLK holiday to hear his son, MLK III, denounce the suit. Coalitions of over 200 African-American and Latino ministers around the state have formally demanded the suit be dropped. I am proud to be a foot soldier in this most important battle.
One of the many rewards of being in this movement is fighting with these choice warriors. Parents. Students. Teachers and Principals. Ministers. Names you will never know. Names you know, like MLK III and Jeb Bush. Names you should know, like the Rev. H.K. Matthews – one of Florida’s most revered civil rights leaders. All of them fighting for parental empowerment.
I am so grateful to all of them, just like I am grateful to all the legislators of both parties who have supported the program. I’m grateful to the donors who have embraced the program. I am also so grateful to all the employees of Step Up For Students, who run the program with such transparency and accountability that has consistently earned a four-star rating – and this year a perfect score – from Charity Navigator, the largest independent evaluator of nonprofits in the country. And I’m so grateful that a former president of the Pinellas teachers’ union decided to call me up in 2006 to discuss common ground. Doug Tuthill is now president of Step Up and ably running it as I never would be able to.
My dream when the program debuted was that it would survive (which was not certain in the beginning). Then my dream was that we would someday reach 100,000 children. Now my dream is more ambitious: that someday every low-income parent in Florida – and the country – will be able to choose the best school for their children, regardless of who runs it.
Happy 15th birthday, Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Congratulations, Step Up For Students!
John Kirtley is founder and chairman of Step Up For Students.
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the redefinED blog on Aug. 17, 2016. The blog is hosted by Step Up For Students and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.
Florida’s tax credit scholarship program continues to enroll some of the most disadvantaged students from among the state’s lowest-performing public schools, according to the latest evaluation of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program. After they receive scholarships and enroll in private schools, they keep academic pace with all students nationally, based on their standardized test results.
The report is the eighth annual evaluation of the test score progress, and the second conducted by researchers at the Learning Systems Institute at Florida State University. Researchers examined the reading and math scores of 34,469 students in 1,285 private schools during the 2014-15 school year. Scholarship students in grades 3-10 have been required to take a state-approved nationally norm-referenced since 2006.
The tax credit scholarship program is administered primarily by Step Up For Students.
It is the largest private school choice program in the country. Of the 69,950 students who received scholarships during the 2014-15 school year, 67 percent were black or Hispanic , and 53 percent lived in a single-parent household. The average household income was $24,135, or only 5 percent above poverty.
FSU researchers measure academic growth for students by comparing their national percentile ranking for one year to the next. A difference of zero reflects that the student has experienced the same academic growth as all other test-takers. In a finding that aligns with previous evaluations, researchers determined “the typical [scholarship] student tends to maintain his or her relative position in comparison with others nationwide. It is important to note that these national comparisons pertain to all students nationally, and not just students from low-income families.”
New students could receive scholarships if their families had low enough incomes to qualify for federal school lunch programs, but researchers said scholarship students tended to be even more disadvantaged, both economically and academically, than students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch and remained in public schools. Scholarship recipients were more likely to qualify for free (as opposed to reduced-price) lunch than students who qualified but did not participate in the program. About 25 percent of scholarship students came from public schools that were rated D or F, compared to 17 percent of students who were eligible but did not participate.
As in past years, the researchers found that public school students who chose the scholarship were among the lowest academic performers in the public schools, and, similarly, that the scholarship students who returned to public schools also had lower test scores than those who remained on scholarship in private schools.
Researchers also published average learning gains for students in 198 schools, 40 more than in the previous year. Individual schools were included if 30 or more of their students also had test scores from the prior school year. The scores for those individual schools can be found in the report’s appendix.
Editor’s note: Step Up For Students welcomes Faith Manuel as a guest blogger. Faith has had three children use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program through Step Up For Students, and has spoken throughout Florida about school choice, and has written op-ed pieces for numerous newspapers. We hope this is the first of many blog posts by Faith.
By Faith Manuel, Guest Blogger
Blessed! I can find no other word that adequately describes my family. My oldest son, Davion, is a college junior pursing his passion for education at the University of North Florida. My middle man, Nicholas, is a high school senior who is a starting member of a nationally ranked high school football team. He is also an accomplished singer who has received some national ranking for his vocal ability. My baby girl, Faith De’Yanah, is a budding high school freshman who is a wonderful student and athlete. I am working in a job that I love which seems tailor-suited for my strengths and passion for helping others. We are (so) blessed.
Our family proves that the start of a journey doesn’t dictate how far you travel. We have traveled a mighty long way. Geographically, it’s only been about 250 miles; but in growth as a family; we have traveled a mighty long way. My journey started in Hollywood, Fla. I was one of four girls in a very loving and supportive home. Though my parents instilled faith and values into my sisters and myself, I found myself in a peril during my ninth grade year of high school. To the shock of everyone in my family, I was pregnant with my first child. I did finish high school with the help of my supportive family, and the teen parent program in Broward County, which provided childcare on site at the school I attended.
Shortly after graduation, Davion’s dad and I decided to marry and expand our family, and along came Nicholas Jr. and next little Faith De’Yanah. By the time that I was 21, I had three kids and a failed marriage. Those circumstances are not the ideal launching pad of dreams, however, we launched nevertheless.
Desperate for a new beginning, my children and I relocated to Volusia County, Florida. I was a young divorced mother and I was in school. We lived in public housing, the only place we could afford with my part-time employment.
Davion was entering into sixth grade when I was blessed to discover Step Up For Students. The neighborhood we lived in was plagued with drugs and violence. The school Davion was zoned for was plagued with the same. I was working part time and attending school full time and could not afford to move to a better school zone. I decided to inquire about private school for Davion to protect him from going down the wrong road. The school I visited actually informed me of the Step Up program. This program afforded me the opportunity to enroll all three of my children in private school.
When Faith D. entered kindergarten, I was able to place the children at Calvary Christian Academy (CCA) in Ormond Beach. Calvary was perfect for me because it was an extension of my church, also because it was K-12 and at the time, I had a kindergartener, third-grader, and seventh-grader. I loved that I could make one stop for drop off and pick up. I also loved that I could stop by and visit all my children in the same place. I remember many times coming for lunch with Faith and staying for lunch with Nicholas and Davion. Middle-schoolers don’t always think it’s cool to have lunch with mommy, however, mommy thought it was amazing!
I love that Step Up For Students gives parents the flexibility to choose a school that works best for the child. I’ve taken advantage of the “choice” aspect of school choice. Davion graduated from CCA in 2012 and went on to college where he remains. He has been on the Dean’s list, President’s list, been awarded various scholarships for his academic excellence. He benefited from student employment where he was named Tutor of the Year two years in a row. Today, Davion continues to work in the math lab of Florida State College at Jacksonville while attending the University of North Florida. Nicholas has had a mix of public and private education. He attended CCA from third to seventh grade. He has attended public school from eighth grade and remains in public school today and will graduate from Mainland High School. Nicholas has been very involved in school in sports, and singing. I credit his desire to participate with his foundation at Calvary. At Calvary, it was small enough that he was able to participate in almost everything. When he transitioned to public school, he has kept that model and I believe it has worked very well for him to keep him from any negative influences at school. Faith D tried public school in sixth grade and it proved too big for her. She was most comfortable in the family learning environment which she enjoyed at CCA. She returned to private school to finish out middle school.
I value the flexibility afforded to me to be able to help my children find a learning environment that worked best for them at the different stages of their journey.
It has been a wonderful journey; full of excitement, love, and (of course) blessings. Step Up For Students has been a humongous blessing to our family. I don’t know how things would have gone had I not been so desperate to protect Davion all those years ago. My desire to help him has allowed me to help my younger two and many other families. I remain a huge advocate for school choice personally. I tell every parent I know about the program and tell them how much school choice has helped my family’s dream come true. My dream for my children was to be well educated, great citizens, and wonderful people and I get to see my dream as a reality every time I see my kids. We are truly blessed.
Faith Manuel is a school-choice advocate, former Step Up For Students mom and a career specialist with Career Source Flagler Volusia. When she’s not cheerleading or gushing about her wonderful children, she enjoys reading, writing, movies and naps. She also leads a support group for single moms in Volusia County called STRONG Single Moms.