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How a toy spider led a young girl who was bullied to a new school and a rooster to his calling

By ROGER MOONEY

Natalie Ryan had been punched and kicked by classmates in her district school in previous years, but it was the taunting in second grade that really cut deep.

That year, Natalie was teased relentlessly by some boys in her class. All, her mother said, because she played differently than the other children.

It began innocently enough when a classmate had a birthday around Halloween. To celebrate, each student in the class received a cupcake with a plastic spider on the icing. Natalie kept her spider and often played with it as if it were a pet. She made a house for the spider with her pencil box.

This is how Natalie plays with her toys. She brings them to life with backstories.

“She’s very creative, so when she makes up a story, she kind of goes all out,” said Natalie’s mom, Grace Diaz.

From top to bottom, Grace, Natalie and Thomas and the book, “Rudy Howls at the Moon.”

Some of the boys who sat near Natalie didn’t think that was so creative. They saw her playing with her pet spider one day and called her stupid and said she was dumb. The words stung.

“She came home and said I don’t want to be different. I don’t want to play like the way I play. I want to be just like the other kids. I want to be quote unquote normal,” Grace said. “That was the word she used.”

Normal.

Grace began to search for other choices for her daughter’s education. In addition to the bullying, Natalie was struggling in math. Natalie’s teacher would not allow Natalie to use her fingers to count, and her grades in that class suffered.  

Fed up with what was happening to her daughter at the district school near their home in Clermont, Florida, Grace, a single mother of two, applied for and received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship before the 2018-19 school year. The income-based scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.


The Hope Scholarship provides relief for K-12 public school children from bullying and violence. The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district. Managed by Step Up, the Hope Scholarship is not income-based. Click here to learn more.


Grace moved Natalie to Citrus Heights Academy, a Christian faith-based K-12 in Clermont.

Natalie entered as a third grader and loves her new school.

“It’s awesome,” said Natalie, now a fifth grader.

“I think that shows why school choice is important,” Grace said. “And it was the main reason why I transferred her.”

But this story doesn’t end here. The spider, the mean boys and Natalie’s wish to be normal form the backstory for another story. A children’s book, actually.

“Rudy Howls at the Moon,” about a rooster who is mocked because he can’t crow at the sun, was written by Grace. She published it in July 2019. It’s available on Amazon both in hardcover and for Kindle.

The idea for the book was born during the conversation Grace had with her daughter after that January day in 2018 when Natalie came home from school feeling utterly defeated.

“I told her none of us are normal,” Grace said. “All of us are pretty much unique. We have certain talents and abilities, and whatever your talent or ability is, it’s used for a purpose. You may not know what that purpose is until a certain thing happens, or you grow up and then you discover this is the way I am, because of this. That was how I was trying to encourage her, and it kind of turned into a rooster who can’t crow.”

Grace, who holds a degree in accounting, always wanted to be a writer.

“I’ve been writing books in my head for what, 10, 20 years?” she said.

Most of those potential books, Grace said, are motivational. She never dreamed of writing a children’s book, but then she never dreamed her child would be ostracized for being imaginative.

 “Whenever she plays, it’s amazing the stories that she develops,” Grace said. “It’s pretty cool.”

Grace reads her book during Story Time with Step Up

That Natalie is not a morning person led to Grace imagining a rooster who can’t crow at sunrise. No spoiler alerts here, but it turns out Rudy has another talent.

And those roosters that made fun of Rudy? Well, let’s just say they came around to appreciate Rudy’s unique gift.

Natalie loves the story.

“It’s awesome, because I’m a part of Mommy’s book,” she said.

“She wants to be a writer,” Grace said. “She wants to do a bunch of things, but writing stories is one of them.”

Grace has another children’s book in the works. It was inspired by her son, Thomas, 4. It is about a dinosaur who catches a cold. No spoiler alert here, either, but Grace said the theme is, “Don’t assume anything. Don’t prejudge people. And of course, blow your nose, wash your hands.”

Of course.

And what happened to that plastic spider that set so many things in motion? They still have it. Thomas plays with it. Natalie never named it, though. She just called it, “The Spider.”

“It doesn’t actually have a name,” Grace said. “We call it ‘The Spider who inspired Rudy.’”

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

A pair of Step Up scholarships are a ‘godsend’ for the Hopstetters

By ROGER MOONEY

An email arrived in Michele Hopstetter’s inbox on July 16 that made her cry.

“Happy tears,” she said.

The notification came from Step Up For Students and informed Michele and her husband, Dan, that despite the recent increase in their annual income because Michele landed a full-time job, their daughter, Evelyn, will remain eligible for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship until she graduates high school.

The “once in, always in” rule was part of HB7067, signed into law in late June by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The bill expands the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Family Empowerment Scholarship, two income-based programs managed by Step Up. (Parents will need to complete an online application each year to indicate that their children will continue using the scholarship.)

Evelyn used the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship to attend Keswick Christian School in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she excelled last year as a first grader.

Evelyn Hopstetter

“Now she can stay (at Keswick) and continue to do well,” Michele said. “I was ecstatic. I really was. I cried because I was so excited.”

Michele and Dan live in St. Petersburg and have two children. Both attend school with the help of scholarships managed by Step Up.

Their son, Triston, a sixth grader at the LIFT Academy in Seminole, is on the autism spectrum and receives the Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs.

Michele called the scholarships a “godsend.”

“It has helped us tremendously, because both our children are extremely bright,” Michele said, “I’m not just saying that because I’m their mom. I’m saying that because I’ve seen what they’ve done.”

Triston, who turns 12 this month, was 8 when diagnosed with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), severe anxiety and depression.

“It’s been a very challenging time with him,” Michele said. “He’s very high-functioning. Very intelligent. But emotionally and socially he is so far behind.”

Prone to angry outburst, Triston struggled at his neighborhood school. Michele said it was because he had yet to receive his diagnoses and the school’s staff really didn’t know what they were dealing with. She learned of the Gardiner Scholarship from a neighbor and after researching schools, settled on LIFT, a private K-12 school that accepts all students but specializes in those with neurodiversity. Triston began attending the school in the second grade.

“I love everything about LIFT,” Michele said. “I would not take him anywhere else. He is thriving there.”

Triston Hopstetter

The Hopstetters learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship as Evelyn was getting ready to enter first grade.

Dan works in the deli department at Publix. Michele said it was a struggle to make ends meet, but they were living in her dad’s house, and he was helping with some of the bills.

Michele was not working at the time. She was finishing her bachelor’s degrees in business management and human resources from the University of Phoenix with a full-time course load from the online university.

She began work on her college degrees in 2009 when the family lived in Chauncey, Ohio.

They moved to St. Petersburg in 2015, and Michele home-schooled Triston until he was diagnosed, and they learned of the Gardiner Scholarship and LIFT.

Having qualified for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Michele began researching private schools in the St. Petersburg area. She settled on Keswick, because she liked the faith-based education and felt Evelyn would be challenged academically.

Turns out it was a perfect fit. Evelyn made the honor roll all four quarters as a first grader.

“That’s why she’s going to a school that’s way beyond our (financial) reach,” Michele said. “I know she’ll excel there.”

Diana Dumais, Keswick’s lower school principal, described Evelyn as an enthusiastic student who loves school and arrives each day with a smile on her face.

“She’s a real blessing in the classroom,” Diana said. “The teachers enjoy her little sense of humor. She’s just a great kid all around. She really works hard and wants to do better. She’s just precious.”

The Hopstetters, Thanksgiving 2019.

While Evelyn was enjoying her first year at Keswick, Michele received her degrees from the University of Phoenix and started working full-time in the human resource department at the Children’s Home Network in Tampa. Her salary raised the family’s income above the income ceiling for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. So, when she applied earlier this year for renewal, her application was denied.

“We were worried about what we were going to do,” Michele said. “We were going to have to move her, because we couldn’t afford (Keswick).”

The tuition for second through fourth grade at Keswick is $11,150 a year. Without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Michele and Dan would have to pay more than $900 a month. That meant they were looking for another school. But that email on July 16 from Step Up changed everything.

Plus, Keswick informed Michele that Evelyn was eligible for some financial aid. That plus the scholarship reduced the tuition to $280 a month plus expenses.

“We would do what we could to help them, to keep Evelyn here,” Diana said.

Life, Michele said, has often gotten in the way for the Hopstetters. But Michele has her degree and a career that she expects to build upon, and Dan is up for a promotion at work. And, because of education choice, their children are thriving in their scholastic settings.

“Having the Step Up For Students’ scholarships has improved (our lives) to where my children are going to make it,” Michele said. “Especially my son.”

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

Cristo Rey’s first graduating class took the path less taken

By ROGER MOONEY

A pamphlet for a new private Catholic high school arrived in the mail one day when Abi’ya Wright was in the eighth grade. Four words jumped off the pages: “Corporate Work Study Program.”

Abi’ya noticed that Cristo Rey Tampa Salesian High School in Tampa, which would accept its first students the following August, was the only high school in the Tampa area that offered such a program.

“I was like, ‘Oh that’s a high school I can go to,’” she said.

And so, she did.

Abi’ya Wright

In August 2016, Abi’ya joined the students who comprised the first-ever freshman class at Cristo Rey. They took their first awkward steps as high schoolers together in a setting foreign to nearly every high school student. Cristo Rey’s first school year included only ninth graders.

Some, like Nicole Singletary, were also drawn to the school by the Corporate Work Study Program, where every student spends one day a week doing office work as entry-level employees at one of 50 Tampa Bay area business, including Step Up For Students.

Others, like Aydin Montero and Jose Calixto, were attracted by the school’s commitment to prepare each student for a college education.

“It was kind of weird at first, because we were the only class there, and nobody really knew what to expect,” Nicole said. “We were learning as we were going.”

Cristo Rey added a freshman class each year after its inaugural year, making the 2019-20 school year the first with freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. It also makes the Class of 2020 its first graduating class.

So, naturally, Abi’ya, Nicole, Aydin and Jose and the other 40 seniors are part of the school’s historic milestone. The Cristo Rey seniors are proud of that unique honor.

“It feels like an accomplishment because were the first ones to test it out. Yes, it was hard work. We didn’t have all the teachers to cover all the classes, some of the elective classes. Some of us had to do online classes, but we still made it work,” Jose said. “At the end, it’s a great honor.”

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the senior prom was canceled, and the school’s first traditional graduation ceremony was rescheduled from June 6 to Aug. 8. Until that time, the school honored the graduating class with social media posts and a walk-through block party, where the students received swag bags, senior T-shirts and photos.

The pandemic made for a bumpy end to the high school experience for the seniors.

“Still lots to celebrate, though,” said school principal Matt Torano.

The path less taken

Torano said he doesn’t know if he could do what the seniors did – commit to a high school as eighth graders when, at the time, the high school was in name only.

“They chose the path less taken. They forged ahead not really knowing what it meant, not really knowing what was going to happen,” he said. “That alone is impressive to me, because I don’t know if I would have had, as a 14- or 15-year-old, the guts to do that.”

Cristo Rey is located in a lower-income section of Tampa. It is designed for students from lower-income families, many of whom will be the first in their family to either graduate from high school or attend college or both.

Nicole Singletary

Every student attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, an income-based scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.

“Their parents are hardworking folks but never had the opportunities to consider college as a pathway,” Torano said. “They want better for their children, and they want their children to be the first to go to college and be the first to experience the benefits of that four-year degree.”

Nearly everyone in the senior class – 98% – are headed to a college or university.

They are led by Jeremy Hurtado, the valedictorian who earned a QuestBridge Scholarship to Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Based in California, QuestBridge is a nonprofit organization that helps top academic students from low-income backgrounds attend some of the country’s best colleges and universities.

Nicole begins her nursing studies this summer at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

“It’s just something that’s been calling to me,” she said. “I enjoy the medical field and just being in the medical environment.”

Abi’ya is headed to Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., where she will study criminology in advance of a career as an FBI profiler.

“I mostly chose that one because, one, it’s not in Florida. I didn’t want to go to any school in Florida, because I want to branch out,” she said. “And two, it’s a small, private school. I want to have the same school environment as high school, because it’s easier for me to learn that way.”

Jose is taking a gap year with some online courses mixed in. If the COVID-19 travel restrictions are relaxed, he plans to travel to Mexico and visit family. After that, Jose said he will enroll at Hillsborough Community College for two years then head to St. Leo University. He’s thinking of majoring in business.

Aydin will study software engineering at Florida Institute of Technology across the state in Melbourne. He is the first one in his family to graduate high school and he will be the first to attend college.

“I feel like I’m representing myself and my family,” he said of graduating from Cristo Rey. “My mom was really focused on me getting through high school and to college. I think that’s one of the reasons she chose (Cristo Rey), because she knew I would have a better chance going on to college.”

Real life experience

With every student in every grade participating, the Corporate Work Study Program is, naturally, a huge part of the Cristo Rey experience. Participating businesses include those in health care, finance, law, engineering, food and beverage, law enforcement and education.

Abi’ya and Jose worked at Step Up. Nicole worked at a law firm. Aydin worked at three different companies, including a commercial real estate firm.

Aydin Montero

The students are paid a salary for each job experience, but the salary goes toward their tuition.

Yearly tuition for Cristo Rey is approximately $18,000. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship covers 40% of that, as does the Corporate Work Study Program. Philanthropic contributions cover 14%, leaving the families to pay 6%. Torano said that comes out to $65 per month for the parents.

“So, to get a Catholic college preparatory experience for 65 bucks a month, that’s a heck of a deal,” he said.

Spending time in a work-setting helps the students build people skills and gain confidence. They also create a network of contacts who can be relied upon to write recommendations for college and, maybe in a few years, for jobs.

“For me, it was kind of scary at first,” said Abi’ya, who initially was intimidated working among adults. “I was not a very sociable person, and it made me extremely nervous to talk to people or have the potential of talking to someone.

“I’m much, much better now.”

A legacy

It may have been an unusual start, but once that first freshman class settled in, they encountered a high school experience similar to their peers around the country.

Nicole played on the basketball, volleyball and soccer teams. She joined the youth ministry, worked on the yearbook staff and helped start the audio-visual club.

Abi’ya helped start the anime club as a junior. Aydin was captain of the basketball team as a senior.

All the seniors played four square volleyball outside the school building as often as possible.

Jose Calixto

When asked for his favorite highlight of high school, Jose said, “My friends, because the school is not really big and we knew each other for four years, we started becoming a family. We were comfortable with each other.”

It’s all over now for the seniors, except for the traditional graduation. All that remains of the class of 2020 is their legacy.

“A lot of freshmen and sophomores came up to me and said, ‘You guys are amazing. Thank you for starting the path,’” Nicole said. “It’s kind of reassuring that we were doing a good job, and the school is going to be remembered for generations to come.”

That is the hope of Principal Torano.

A Tampa native, Torano looks around at the other private high schools in Tampa, including Jesuit High that dates back to 1899, and sees the contributions their alumni have made to the city of Tampa. It will take time, he admits, but he expects Cristo Rey graduates to have the same impact.

“Hopefully in 50 years they talk about Cristo Rey in kind of the same breath as these institutions that have been so instrumental in moving Tampa forward into each next step of the evolution that we have experienced as a city,” he said. “And it all started here. It started with this class. There had to be a first one and hats off to these men and women for taking a chance and making it happen.”

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

Step Up manages 5 education choice scholarships: Which one do you qualify for?

By Roger Mooney

The collapse of the real estate market in 2008 signaled the crumbling of the luxurious lifestyle for Helen and Frank Figueredo, who owned a real estate firm in Miami.

The recession cost them everything: Their business. Their savings. Their house. They filed for bankruptcy twice and ended up in foreclosure. They sold nearly all their possessions to make ends meet.

Jonas and Jack Figueredo

One thing that was nonnegotiable for the Figueredos was a  private education for their two sons: Jonas and Jack.

They needed financial help to make that work, and that’s where Step Up For Students came into play.

Step Up manages five scholarships that provide K through 12 education choices to students from lower-income families, those with certain special needs, students who have been bullied at a public school and struggling readers in public school in grades three through five.

A parent or guardian might ask: What scholarship do I qualify for?

Well, let’s take a look using these examples.

Scholarships for children from lower-income families

The Figueredos were eligible for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two income-based scholarships managed by Step Up. The other is the Family Empowerment Scholarships. Both scholarships are based on a family’s financial need, and both give families a choice to find a new learning environment for their child.

Parents use a single application for the scholarships and Step Up determines eligibility for either the tax-credit scholarship or the newer Family Empowerment Scholarship.

In the case of the Figueredos, it was the Westwood Christian School, a private pre-K through 12 school near their Miami home. Both boys entered when they were eligible for pre-K. Jonas recently graduated from the private school near the top of his class with a scholarship to the University of Miami. Jack just completed his sophomore year and is following in his brother’s academic footsteps.

Scholarships for children with certain special needs

Phyllis Ratliff worried about her son Nicolas.

Diagnosed with high-functioning autism at age three, Nicholas was nearing the end of the eighth grade. It was time for Phyllis to search for a high school that could accommodate her son’s needs.

Nicolas Ratliff-Batista and Kiwi relaxing at home.

She feared that the large neighborhood high school would present a threatening environment, that Nicholas would be an easy target for bullies. She worried that Nicholas would be intimidated by the large class sizes.

A friend told her about Monsignor Pace High School, located in Miami Lakes, 10 miles from their home. Upon visiting the school, Phyliss learned of the Gardiner Scholarship, which allows parents to personalize the education of their pre-K through 12 children with certain special needs by directing money toward a combination of approved programs and providers. (A list of special needs covered by the Gardiner Scholarship is found here under “eligibility requirements.”)

The Gardiner Scholarship helped cover the tuition at Pace.

Phyllis was relieved.

“That was phenomenal,” Phyllis said. “We were so excited there was something out there for him.”

Nicolas graduated with honors and recently finished his first year at Broward College, where he is studying environmental science.

Scholarship for students who have been bullied

Jordyn Simmons-Outland had been a target of bullies in his public school since the second grade. The physical and emotional toll over the next two years was so intense that Jordyn told his grandparents that he wished he were dead. He began to see a therapist.

Jordyn Simmons-Outland

In 2018, the Florida Legislature created the Hope Scholarship to give relief for K-12 public school children from bullying and violence. The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district.

Jordyn was the first-ever recipient of the Hope Scholarship. He began attending Lakeview Christian School in Lake Placid, Florida as a fifth grader in the fall of 2018.

“Hope is the best description (for the scholarship). I keep thinking ‘There is hope, there is hope, there is hope,’” said Cathy Simmons, Jordyn’s grandmother. “I can’t wait to tell everyone what a blessing the Hope Scholarship has been. Now there’s peace.”

Scholarship for students struggling to read

In third grade, Kiersten Covic’s reading score on the Florida Standards Assessments (FSA) was high enough where it signaled that she would likely excel in English Language Arts the following school year.

Instead, her grade plummeted to “below satisfactory.”

It wasn’t the only thing that plunged. So did her confidence.

Kiersten Covic

Fortunately, her mother, Kelly Covic, learned about the Reading Scholarship Accounts managed by Step Up For Students that could help pay for a reading program called ENCORE! Reading at Kiersten’s school, Dayspring Academy.

In 2018, Florida lawmakers created the reading scholarship to help public school students in third through fifth grade who struggle with reading. The program offers parents access to Education Savings Accounts, worth $500 each, to pay for tuition and fees for approved part-time tutoring, summer and after-school literacy programs, instructional materials and curriculum related to reading or literacy.

Third through fifth grade public school students who scored a 1 or 2 on the third or fourth grade English Language Arts (ELA) section of the Florida Standards Assessments in the prior year are eligible. (Due to COVID-19, the reading portion of the test was canceled. The Florida Department of Education is assessing eligibility requirements for the 2020-21 school year.)

With a score of 2 on the English Language Arts section of the test, Kiersten qualified. Her mother applied for the scholarship, was approved and enrolled Kiersten into the program at the A-rated public charter school in New Port Richey during the 2018-19 school year.

The program was enough to boost her reading grade on the state test to a 3, a perfectly acceptable grade to put her back on track for success.

“We were really, really thrilled and relieved,” said her mom.

Again, to learn more about the Step Up scholarships, click here. To read more stories about how those scholarships impact the lives of the
Step Up scholars, click here.

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

Latin, Julius Cesar and a second chance at senior year

By ROGER MOONEY

DAVIE, Fla. – Josh Carlson pulled up a chair inside the office of the school guidance counselor one February morning and greeted a visitor.

“Salve,” he said.

It was the summer after his senior year, the summer he should have spent preparing for his freshman year of college.

Josh, a senior at American Preparatory Academy, a private K-12 school in Davie, Florida, taught himself Latin last summer.

That’s Latin for “hello.”

Instead, it was a summer spent reflecting on what went wrong during that senior year, and why he was required to repeat it.
“Just a lack of motivation on my part,” said Josh, 17.

Josh Carlson’s senior photo at American Preparatory Academy

This lack of motivation was a never-ending source of frustration for Josh’s mother, Kadirah Abdel, his guidance counselor, Norman Levitan, and American Prep principal, Soraya Matos.

They each sensed a serious student inside Josh yearning for an opportunity to be set free. He could be engaging with his teachers, capable of leading the class in a deep discussion on the topic for that day. He could also be disruptive and unmotivated, unwilling to complete his assignments on time.

Matos said she would have allowed Josh to participate last May in the graduation ceremony and make up the work during summer school, but he failed too many classes to make that possible. She hoped having Josh repeat his senior year would be a wake-up call.

“I wanted to give him another chance,” Matos said. “I believed it was a maturity issue and eventually he would understand that this was his last chance.”

He did.

“I pondered the way I was doing things over the summer,” Josh said. “I thought, ‘Man, I got really step up, because I’m repeating.’ It was sort of the cataclysmic moment for me. I knew I had to do something to improve my study ethic.”

That he taught himself to speak Latin by using the Duolingo app proved what Levitan always believed about Josh.

“He’s very bright,” Levitan said.

“A different kid”

Josh never fit in at his neighborhood schools.

“He was very to himself, very shy,” Abdel said. “The other kids were into stuff he wasn’t interested in.”

Josh is fascinated with Julius Cesar.

The other kids were into pop culture. Josh was into Julius Cesar.

The other kids read Facebook posts. Josh read the dictionary.

“He was bullied and picked on,” Abdel said. “That was my main concern. That’s when I knew I had to take action here, do something. I heard about alternative schools. I did my research, looked up different kinds of schools. There are alternative schools for kids who have had issues in public schools, because they didn’t fit in.”

Plus, Abdel said, administrators at Josh’s neighborhood school wanted to place him in classes for emotionally challenged students.

“He didn’t have a disability,” Abdel said. “They’re quick to label kids in public school. They couldn’t put him in special ed, so he was put in this class called ‘EH,’ emotionally handicapped children, basically kids who acted up.”

Abdel said her son did act up in class, and it was because he was bored.

She learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. This allowed her to move Josh to the Sunset Sadbury School, a K-12 private school in Fort Lauderdale, when Josh was in the seventh grade.

He moved to AEF (Alternative Education Foundation) School, a nonprofit private school in Fort Lauderdale, the following year and stayed through his sophomore year in high school.

“Once he got to private school, he did a lot better,” Abdel said.

But there were still issues.

“I didn’t behave so well at (AEF),” Josh said. “I didn’t get along with the students and the teachers.”

Abdel finally turned to American Prep, a private school with 150 students with no more than 12 to a class. Matos said her school is designed for students who don’t fit in at neighborhood schools. Kids, she said, who “fall through the cracks.”

Josh fit right in.

“He’s a different kid,” Matos said. “He likes history. He likes to read, and that is not very common.”

Josh passed his classes as a junior. Senior year was a struggle with most of the struggles self-inflicted.

“Just a lack of motivation on my part,” Josh said.

Josh loves to learn … just on his terms.

“He enjoys reading and studying on his own,” Abdel said. “Not necessarily being told, ‘OK, you have to study for his test.’ He enjoys studying, but when he wants.”

The proof is found in Josh’s interests.

He speaks Spanish, Latin and Italian. He writes poetry and enjoys the works of Emily Dickinson, E.E. Cummings, Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman. He is well-versed in Greek and Roman history and is fascinated with Julius Cesar.

“Interesting man,” Josh said. “All the conquests. His abilities as a leader was unrivaled.”

He wants to be a linguist. He would like to have a career that allows him to write and speak Latin and Italian.

“I’d like to write books about this stuff,” he said. “Phonology. Nerdy things.”

But, first Josh had to graduate high school.

The wake-up call

The book that began Josh’s path to teaching himself Latin.

At one point last year, Matos said she thought her school wasn’t the right fit for Josh. But where would he go? What school would make room for a senior who couldn’t graduate?

Matos believes her role as an educator is to keep her students in school. Plus, she knew Josh could complete the work. He just needed motivation. Because he was still eligible to receive a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Matos and Abdel felt it best for Josh to repeat his senior year.

“I think it was the kick he needed, the wake-up call,” Abdel said. “When he saw his friends graduate but he didn’t, that’s when he stepped up his game.”

Josh’s grades this year were the highest they’ve been during his high school career.

“I’ve just been studying more, focusing on studying, reviewing,” he said. “I wasn’t studying last year, and that’s why I was failing tests.”

While his friends made plans for their freshman years at college, Josh wrapped his mind around another senior year of high school. He didn’t have a job, so he had plenty of time on his hands.

What to do?

He reached for a copy of Wheelock’s Latin, which he received a few years ago, and started teaching himself Latin.

“One day I was looking at it, staring at it, and I thought, ‘I’ve had this for so long I should just learn it already,’” he said. “I wasn’t doing anything during the summer. I was using the internet and stuff. I said let me do something productive. I just opened up the book.”

The productivity not only carried into the classroom this year, but to other parts of the school.

Josh spent time this past year mentoring younger students at American Prep, sharing his experience as a cautionary tale.

In February, he received the Turnaround Student Award during Step Up’s annual Rising Stars Award event. He was nominated by Matos.

“I’m very proud of him,” she said.

Early this month, he graduated.

Josh plans to attend Broward College this fall. He is formulating plans for his future. He wants work with words, foreign words. He wants to visit Italy and Greece. Walk where Julius Cesar walked.

He wants to converse with the locals in their native tongue. He can get by with his Latin and Italian and Spanish.

But Greek? He doesn’t speak Greek.

“No,” he said. “Not yet.”

About American Preparatory Academy

The K-12 private school has 150 students. More than half are on scholarships from Step Up For Students with the majority on the Gardiner Scholarship. Tuition ranges from $10,500 to $16,000 based on the student’s needs. The school has a comprehensive Exceptional Student Education program focused on the individual needs of each student. It also offers dual enrollment, summer classes, summer camps, athletics and extracurricular activities.

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

Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits commits $150 million to Step Up scholarship program

BY ASHLEY ZARLE

MIAMI, Fla.Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, the world’s preeminent distributor of beverage alcohol, announced it has once again committed $150 million to the Step Up For Students’ scholarship program for the 2019-20 school year.

Southern Glazer’s announced the incredible pledge during a celebration honoring the company’s 2018-19 contribution of $150 million, which funds 22,319 scholarships. The scholarships gives lower-income children the opportunity to attend the school that best meets their learning needs.

The celebration was held at Kingdom Academy in Miami where more than half of the students benefit from a Step Up scholarship. Representatives from Southern Glazer’s and Step Up For Students gathered with a few scholarship students to hear how the program helped them move toward their goals for the future.


Pictured (adults from left to right) are Southern Glazer’s vice president of tax Cheryl Rawson, Step Up For Students founder & chairman John Kirtley, Southern Glazer’s director of charitable giving Terry Jove, and Step Up For Students president Doug Tuthill. They are joined by Kingdom Academy students who are benefiting from the scholarship.

Since 2010, Southern Glazer’s has generously funded 101,508 scholarships through contributions totaling $615 million to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations.

 “At Southern Glazer’s we believe it’s not just about serving world-class wine and spirits; it’s about serving people, said Wayne E. Chaplin, CEO, Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits. “We are proud to partner with Step Up For Students and provide scholarships to thousands of Florida schoolchildren, so they have access to the educational opportunities they deserve.”

Step Up helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, allowing recipients to choose between a scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.


Kingdom Academy students, who are benefiting from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, share their favorite subject in school and what they like best about the learning environment.

“Southern Glazer’s extraordinary commitment to Florida’s disadvantaged school children through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program is producing exceptional results,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “Recently, the Urban Institute evaluated graduates of our program and found students who use the scholarship for at least four years are 99% more likely to attend a four-year college and up to 45% more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree. Southern Glazer’s is a critical part of this success and we are grateful for their immense generosity to the students in our community.”

For the 2018-19 school year, Step Up is serving more than 98,500 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,519 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,815 for sixth through eighth grade, and $7,111 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Covanta funds Step Up scholarships, fuels future environmental leaders

SPECIAL TO STEP UP FOR STUDENTS

Tampa middle school students from Tampa Bay Christian Academy are well on their way to be the next generation of environmental leaders as they creatively displayed the importance of recycling in a recent art contest.

In honor of Earth Day, fifth, sixth, and seventh grade students participated in a Recycling and Science Poster Contest organized by Covanta, operator of eight Energy-from-Waste (EfW) facilities in Florida and Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that administers scholarships for Florida schoolchildren.

The contest asked students to visualize their commitment to recycling and science by depicting a theme, such as Energy-from-Waste, composting, recycling, electronic recycling and more. For its participation, the school received a $500 gift card to Staples to be used for school supplies.

Winners were honored for their outstanding design at a ceremony held on Earth Day.


Covanta’s client service manager Tom Murphy (top left), Cheryl Audas (second from right), senior development officer at Step Up For Students, and Steven Abe (right), facility manager at Covanta, with the students from Tampa Bay Christian Academy

Winners:

  • First Place – Aaliyah Lewis, sixth grade
  • Second Place – Natalie Moreland, seventh grade
  • Third Place – Jasmine Morgan, sixth grade
  • Honorable Mention – Spencer Mitchell, fifth grade, Zoelee Lopez, fifth grade, Ester Pauline Martinez Bemal, seventh grade

Through Step Up For Students, Covanta has funded more than 140 scholarships for deserving Florida schoolchildren since 2016. The funds are donated through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which serves lower-income children in Florida and allows them to attend the school of their choice.

“We are proud of the impact we’ve had on Florida schoolchildren through our contributions to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program and were thrilled to see the passion for the environment that each student displayed in their posters,” said Tom Murphy, client services manager for Covanta. “It’s fun activities like this one that teach kids the importance of reduce, reuse and recycle. This also includes educating students about the fourth R, recovery, which ensures that we recover energy from waste that cannot otherwise be recycled.  We thank all of the students who submitted posters and encourage them to bring that same zeal and creativity to make a positive impact in their school and community.”

Covanta’s client service manager Tom Murphy, first place winner Aaliyah Lewis and Cheryl Audas, senior development officer at Step Up For Students

“Because of companies like Covanta, Florida’s lower-income students are provided the educational options they need to succeed,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “We are grateful for their partnership, generosity and commitment to helping students in their community.”

“We are proud of the impact we’ve had on Florida schoolchildren through our contributions to the Step Up For Students Scholarship program and were thrilled to see the passion for the environment that each student displayed in their posters,” Murphy said. “It’s fun activities like this one that teach kids the importance of reduce, reuse and recycle. This also includes educating students about the fourth R, recovery, which ensures that we recover energy from waste that cannot otherwise be recycled.  We thank all of the students who submitted posters and encourage them to bring that same zeal and creativity to future opportunities to make a positive impact in their school and community.”

Covanta’s EfW operations provide sustainable waste management to Florida that generates enough renewable energy to power more than 300,000 area homes and businesses.

Step Up For Students among best places to work in Tampa Bay

By ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students has been recognized as one of the best places to work by the Tampa Bay Business Journal, placing eighth in the large business category.

“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.”

Step Up employees celebrate the TBBJ’s announcement April 12 at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa.

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.

Step Up’s Jacksonville office is a finalist in the Jacksonville Business Journal’s 2019 Best Places to Work. Those results will be announced later this spring.

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

Recession crushed family business but not the dream of quality education for their boys

With the help of Florida Tax Credit Scholarships from Step Up For Students, Jonas, left, and Jack Figueredo are thriving at Westwood Christian School in Miami.

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.”

Their world

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.

Jonas, who volunteers for Bugles Across America, plays taps at funerals and memorials for veterans.

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.”

Jack works on the engine of the Mustang he plans to race next year in the National Auto Sports Association.

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 rmooney@sufs.org.

Skylar Goeb didn’t let a rough start to life prevent her from soaring

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.

Skylar Goeb wears some of the 60 medals she has earned for gymnastics.

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:

  • Strives for academic excellence.
  • Leadership qualities in the classroom.
  • Participation in their community.
  • Having an attitude in harmony with the goals and spirit of our school.

“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.

Skylar Goeb competing at a 2018 meet.

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 rmooney@sufs.org.