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Of courage, basketball and conquering the obstacles in his way: The Justin Williams story

BY ROGER MOONEY

OCOEE, Florida – Justin Williams was 8 when he underwent surgery to allow more room for his brain to grow. For two months he wore a halo brace and a plate on the roof of his mouth to push the bones in his face forward one agonizing millimeter at a time.

At one point, Justin told his dad, John, that he’d rather die than live through that again.

“At the time, I was probably exaggerating,” Justin said, “but it was the worst eight weeks of my life.”

Justin, 18, was born with Apert syndrome, a rare condition where the joints in a baby’s head, face, feet, and hands close while in the womb. He’s undergone surgeries on his feet, hands, face and head – 15 in all. The first was when he was 9 months old. He learned to walk with both feet and hands in casts.

While Justin has endured some difficult moments in his life, he will be the last to say he’s had a difficult life.

“I’ve gone through a lot,” he said, “and it hasn’t affected me.”

Stacy, Justin and John Williams.

Justin grew up on Ocoee, just a short walk from his family’s blueberry farm, where he helps direct the parking during picking season.

He graduated in the spring from Foundation Academy in nearby Winter Garden. He attended the private Christian school since pre-K on a McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities (now the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities, administered by Step Up For Students). He begins classes at Valencia College in August.

Justin was one of the most popular students on campus and certainly the most popular player on the basketball team. His classmates would fill the stands and chant his name until Coach Nathaniel Hughes sent Justin into the game. Then Justin would reward his fans by hitting long-range 3-point shots.

“It’s so much fun to watch him play,” Justin’s mom, Stacy, said. “It blows me away, the support of all the people.”

Justin’s efforts on the court led to his receiving the Jersey Mike’s Naismith High School Basketball Courage Award. The honor is given annually to a male and female high school basketball player who has “gone above and beyond throughout the basketball season and has demonstrated courage in their approach to their team, school, and community.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard him complain, say something was too hard or he couldn’t do it,” Hughes said. “I never heard that, and he has way more reason to complain than I do.”

HE CAN DO IT!

“What is a normal life?” John Williams asked on a recent afternoon at the blueberry farm.

While pregnant with Justin, Stacy said she wondered what type of life he would lead. Would he excel in sports? In school? What would his interests be? His talents? What would he choose for a career?

Justin was born in September 2003 with a craniofacial disorder so rare it is found in 1 in 65,000 to 88,000 babies. Now Stacy and John had entirely different questions: What would Justin’s quality of life be? Could he even go to school?

“When you have a child with special needs, your whole outlook is different because everything changes,” Stacy said, “so you have to find your new normal.”

The new normal included flights to the Craniofacial Center at Medical City Children’s Hospital in Dallas for those surgeries, and what John said seemed like endless months in hotels, as well as nights where he and Stacy tried to sleep on the couch in Justin’s hospital room.

It also included Little League baseball and youth basketball, soccer and golf, and plenty of roughhousing with his cousins around the blueberry farm.

Stacy and John were determined to meet Apert syndrome head on.

Justin would do everything every other kid his age did. They signed him up for baseball when he was 4 even though he had trouble holding a bat because he doesn’t have knuckles in his fingers.

So what if he couldn’t hit the ball? Neither could the other 4-year-olds, John said.

It was the same way in school.

“Do not help him,” Stacy sternly told Justin’s teacher on her son’s first day of kindergarten. “He can do it.”

“I think I scared her,” Stacy said. “I just wanted to give him a chance. You have to give people a chance to be who they can be.”

Maybe people outside of school stared at Justin and made rude comments to Stacy, but at Foundation Academy, Justin was just one of the kids. His popularity grew as he moved up through the grades.

“There is something about Justin that makes everyone love him,” Foundation Principal Sarah Reynolds said. “He is so friendly, so kind. No one sees his disability. No one. It’s just a non-issue.”

With the education choice option that came with the McKay Scholarship, Stacy and John settled on Foundation Academy because they wanted a smaller scholastic setting for Justin, one where his teachers would know and understand his needs and where he could spend the years with the same classmates.

Having the scholarship pay his tuition was huge when Justin was undergoing his surgeries and treatments.

“We, honestly, would not have been able to keep him at the same school had we not had the scholarship,” Stacy said.

J-MONEY

John put up a basketball hoop in the family’s driveway because he thought it was a game Justin could play. He was right. Justin was hooked at an early age.

Justin’s ability score on long-range jump shots earned him the nickname “J-Money” from his teammates because, as Hughes said, “He makes his money on the 3-point line.”

(Watch Justin Williams make his “money from the 3-point line.”)

Justin was not the most talented player on the team, but Hughes said he made the most of his skills. He also understands the game, the way the offense and defense work. Hughes often asked Justin what he thought of something that occurred during a game, and Justin would offer an honest and accurate assessment.

He was also the teammate who kept everyone loose and focused.

“A glue guy you can’t live without as a team,” Hughes said.

As he walked out of the gym after every practice and game, Justin would always find Hughes and say, “Thanks, Coach. See you tomorrow.”

It was Hughes who nominated Justin for the Naismith award, and the school celebrated the announcement of Justin winning with a pep rally in front of the entire student body. They chanted his name and Justin took a shot, though opting for a high-percentage layup. The crowd went wild as the ball dropped through the net.

There were TV crews from Orlando-area news stations and one shooting a video for the award.

“I like sharing my story and having an impact,” Justin said.

His message?

“You need to lean on your family and friends because they are always there for you, no matter what you’re going through,” he said. “If you’re having a rough day or a hard time, always trust in God. He will make your path straight. I think people get down on themselves because they think they are not normal or not as good as someone else, but I think if they pray and follow God, they will be fine.”

College classes begin soon for Justin. He’s thinking of studying business. He will help Hughes coach this season and wants to someday coach high school basketball.

“He has totally superseded anything I envisioned for him,” Stacy said. “I never thought he would be as awesome as he is. He surprises you all the time. He has the best sense of humor. He never complains about anything. He’s always a try-hard kid, which blows me away.”

As for what she now envisions for Justin’s future, Stacy said, “I think it’s up to him. The sky is the limit. I can’t wait to see in five years where he’s at.”

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

‘Better options’ for their daughter included a move to America and an education choice scholarship

BY ROGER MOONEY

Roberto Porras was at his job as a pharmaceutical rep in his native Venezuela when his wife, Ony, called with the news that she was pregnant.

It was the spring of 2003, and Roberto, overjoyed at the thought of becoming a dad, was concerned about the baby’s future in a country rife with political unrest.

“I started thinking what I can offer to my child, better options,” Roberto said. “At that moment I decided I had to move from there.”

So, he and Ony left their home in Maracaibo and followed family members who had immigrated to Miami.

Diana with all the honors she earned during her four years at Pace High.

On Dec. 24 of that year, Ony gave birth to a girl they named Diana. On May 26 of this year, Diana graduated near the top of her class from Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Miami, having compiled a 5.29 weighted GPA and 33 dual enrollment credits to college.

Diana, 18, will attend Florida International University (FIU), where she plans to double major in computer science and Spanish. Having earned an Ambassador Scholarship from FIU and a Florida Medallion Scholarship plus a Federal Pell Grant, Diana’s college tuition is fully covered.

“We are blessed with her,” Roberto said. “She is very smart.”

The “better options” Roberto hoped to offer his daughter came to fruition in their new home with the help of an education choice scholarship.

Diana received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship to attend Catholic school from kindergarten through 12th grade. The same with her sister, Mariana, who will be an eighth-grader during the 2022-23 school year at Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic School in Miami Lakes.

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship is funded by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.

“Without Step Up, I wouldn’t be here today with all these accolades,” Diana said. “Without Step Up, I wouldn’t have realized what a privilege it is to be in the position that I am, receiving all these opportunities. I have to take advantage of them.

“It’s a privilege to be educated. There are so many people who can’t or don’t want to.”

To say Diana loves to learn is an understatement.

She loves taking notes in class, studying, and getting perfect scores on tests and assignments.

“It’s about focusing on school and not having a life, I guess,” she joked before adding, “Applying the stuff I learn to the real world is the most fun part of it for me.”

During her senior year at Pace, Diana took advance placement (AP) classes in government, literature, computer science and calculus, plus a physics honors course.

She took the AP Spanish exam in May without taking AP Spanish. Diana spent the two days prior to the test studying Spanish literature, then aced the exam.

“She’s that kind of student,” said Hedda Falcon, who teaches computer science and technology at Pace. “She’s so bright. She can do anything.”

For Shadow Day during her senior year, when students follow a teacher around to see what the job entails, Diana chose to shadow Falcon. They each wore the same dress, the same shoes and the same nail polish. It was Diana’s way of paying tribute to the teacher who had the most impact on her education.

“I don’t even know how to say it,” Falcon said. “It was an honor.”

Diana was involved in 10 clubs during her four years at Pace, including STEM Academy, Women in STEM Club, engineering and computer technology. She was also a member of the Spartan Ambassador Society. She was president of several of those clubs. Those roles, Diana said, helped her build leadership skills. It also helped her develop what she called her “public voice.”

“How to talk to classmates. How to talk to teachers,” she said.

Diana took a class in Microsoft as a freshman. Students are required to receive certification in Word, Excel and PowerPoint to pass. Diana went two steps further and received certification in Outlook and Word Expert Level.

It was during a robotics class as a sophomore when Diana realized she loved computers. She helped build a robot that could throw a ball, move around a room and play music, including “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” The computer is named “Bubbles,” and they call the remote used to control it the “Soap Bar.”

“That’s when I realized I just don’t like computers,” she said, “I also want to learn how they are made.”

Diana and her father, Roberto, during Step Up For Students’ Rising Stars Awards event at Monsignor Pace High. Diana received an award for being a Super Senior.

Diana was the valedictorian of her eighth-grade class at Mother of Our Redeemer Catholic School in Miami. As part of her graduation speech, she reflected on how far she came during her nine years at the school. She remembered not being able to speak English when she entered kindergarten and how she could at the end of that school year.

By the eighth grade she knew why her parents moved to the United States.

“I’m very grateful for everything they have done,” she said. “They did not have to go through that, but they did for me and my sister and our futures.”

Once in Miami, Roberto entered nursing school, juggling a full-time job and his family with his studies. He is now a nurse at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood.

Earning top grades was Diana’s way of saying, “Thank you” for the opportunity of an education.

“That’s a maturity level you don’t see a lot of in high school,” Falcon said. “She appreciates what her parents have done for her.”

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

After taking charge of his education, Step Up alumni achieves goal of attending University of Florida

BY ROGER MOONEY

On a Wednesday morning in early January, a day after he turned 20, Josep Amiguet walked into a classroom inside Matherly Hall on the edge of campus for his intermediate microeconomics class, his first as a student at the University of Florida.

“OK,” he remembers thinking, “I’m here.”

It took three years of laser-like focus on his studies at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami and three semesters of work at Santa Fe College in Gainesville before Josep reached his goal of enrolling at Florida and studying economics.

“It really was a good feeling,” he said.

Josep’s path to Florida wasn’t as straight as he would have liked. A poor year academically as a freshman at Columbus, which he attended on an education choice scholarship, forced the South Miami native to play catchup during his final three years at the private Catholic high school. He was not accepted to Florida after graduating Columbus in the spring of 2020. So, he attended Santa Fe to work on an associate degree, graduating in December 2021.

He reapplied to Florida and was accepted, receiving the confirmation email last November while studying for a psychology exam.

“It was a cool moment,” he said.

What wasn’t cool, Josep will tell you, was what he called the “below staller” grades on his report card as a Columbus freshman and the weeks he spent in summer school.

“Why am I here?” he remembered asking himself.

Especially when the reason he attended Columbus was because of the school’s demanding academic course load. Josep wanted to be challenged academically, the better to prepare him for college loans-cash.net .

“I want to go to a good college and pursue a degree that can allow me to make enough money to take care of my family, because that’s all I care about,” he said. “I want to take care of my mom and take care of my dad. They’ve been through a lot, and I want to take care of them.”

He scored high enough on his entrance exams to take honors courses as a freshman. And that’s when Josep’s life took some unexpected turns.

Josep and his mom, Kathy.

His father, Jose, was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia, which forced his mother, Kathy to quit her job as a medical sales rep so she could care for her husband. That forced the family to sell their house and move in with Josep’s grandfather, who is wheelchair-bound, and grandmother, who suffered from dementia. But that house was too small, so Josep lived with an aunt until a room could be converted into a bedroom. When Josep was able to reunite with his family, his grandmother passed away.

“A lot of things in my personal life kept changing,” Josep said.

The one constant was his new school, which Josep was able to attend with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students.

“(The scholarship) was one of the driving forces that made me into the person I am today,” he said. “My parents couldn’t have afforded Columbus without the help of the scholarship, a thousand percent.

“I was very appreciative to my parents and Step Up, of course, and everyone at Columbus. Step Up has afforded me a lot of opportunities, I have taken advantage of them.”

Kathy had attended Catholic schools and wanted the same education for her son. With all that was going on at home, she was sure she didn’t have to worry about Josep keeping up his grades. He was a straight-A student while attending Catholic grammar school.

But Josep struggled academically at his new school and finished freshman year with a GPA below 2.0.

People tell Josep he was a victim of his circumstances. He doesn’t agree. He spent so many hours each night texting friends and watching YouTube that he neglected his schoolwork.

“I would actually get to school and not have any homework done,” he said. “I hadn’t studied for anything. I just did not perform at all.”

School guidance counselors would later ask Josep why he didn’t tell them about his problems at home.

“He’s a private person,” Kathy said. “We’re private people.”

And Kathy was so busy caring for Jose and his ailing parents that Josep was able to hide his failing grades.

“He’s a smart kid. He’s always did well in school. I never had to supervise him,” she said. “(When he moved in with his aunt) I said, ‘OK, I’m going to give him that liberty.’ But I never realized how difficult it would be for him.”

Summer school was a wake-up call for Josep. So was his sophomore schedule.

“I got bumped down to the classes below honors, and I wasn’t happy about that at all,” he said.

He took the initiative to meet with a guidance counselor and developed an academic plan that would help him overcome his poor start to high school.  He attacked his education, taking a total of 13 honors courses over his last three years. As a sophomore, Josep interned at MasTec, a Fortune 500 infrastructure engineering and construction company based in Coral Gables. He interned at two Miami law firms during the summer before his senior year.

He graduated with honors, lifting that 1.75 GPA from his freshman year to a 3.75 weighted GPA for his high school career.

“I just tried to make the most out of my situation after I got my head in the game,” he said.

Jose, who worked as a compliance auditor before he became sick, is doing better after undergoing a stem cell transplant. But he’s unable to return to work.

“It’s been a process,” Kathy said. “But we didn’t have to worry about Josep’s education.”

Josep is spending this summer interning at the Insigneo Financial Group in Miami. He’s putting in long hours, occasionally working nights and weekends. He loves it. This is what he was aiming for as a sophomore when he turned around his academic direction.

“I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t continue the path I was on.”

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

Former Step Up For Students scholar chasing major league dream

BY ROGER MOONEY

On a sun-dappled Sunday afternoon in mid-April, Jay Allen gave his mother a gift she will treasure forever.

With Deanna Singletary among the family members sitting in the front row behind the third base dugout at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida, Jay hit his first home run of the season for the Daytona Tortugas, the Class A minor-league team in the Cincinnati Reds organization.

It was the first time Deanna saw her son hit a home run since he began playing professional baseball last summer. The two-run shot to left-center field provided the winning runs in a 4-3 victory against the Palm Beach Cardinals.

To say she was excited is a gross understatement.

“He hits it out and I jump up and down screaming,” Deanna said. “I’m known for that. I’m the loud one.

 “It is still unbelievable.”

Jay and his mom, Deanna.

Jay, 19, has been hitting home runs since he began playing baseball when he was 9: In Little League, travel ball and at John Carroll High School, the private Catholic school near his Fort Pierce home that he attended with the help of an education choice scholarship.

A center fielder, Jay was picked in the first round (30th overall) of the 2021 Major League Baseball draft by the Reds after a stellar athletic career at John Carroll that saw him star in football, basketball, and baseball.

“It’s a dream come true, for sure,” Jay said. “Everybody always pictures when they start playing sports to be a professional and when that happens, it’s a surreal moment.”

Jay was carving up the competition on the athletic fields in the Fort Pierce area as a middle schooler when Deanna decided she wanted a better education environment for her son. The mother of one of Jay’s teammates told her about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is supported by corporate donations to Step Up For Students. She applied and was accepted.

Jay attended Saint Anastasia Catholic School as an eighth-grader before moving on to John Carroll for high school.

“It was the best decision that I have made, honestly,” Deanna said. “Jay excelled in school. It was a smaller school, so the teachers are more hands-on. Financially, if I didn’t have Step Up, there was no way Jay would have been able to go to Saint Anastasia and John Carroll.”

Deanna’s two daughters – Ayonna Mitchell and Da’Nasia Davis – also receive the scholarships. Ayonna is going into her junior year at John Carroll; Da’Nasia begins her freshman year there in August.

“The (FTC) scholarship gave us a better opportunity,” Jay said. “It got us in a better school, and we rolled from there.”

John Carroll Principal Corey Heroux said Jay received mostly A’s and B’s in a course load that included honors classes.

“We’re very big on you’re a student/athlete,” she said. “You’re a student first and you can only be an athlete if you are taking care of your business in the classroom.

“We’re proud of having vigorous coursework, and he put the time in and took care of his business.”

Jay said he appreciated how the faculty at John Carroll pushed him academically.

Jay heading toward home plate. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Dowd.)

“It wasn’t easy,” he said, “but they made it their priority to make sure you were going to go to the next level and be a college student.”

Jay had several scholarship offers even after committing to play baseball at the University of Florida as a sophomore. Some college coaches continued to recruit Jay, trying to woo him to their campus with the promise of playing both football and baseball. But a fractured ankle suffered during football as an eighth-grader nudged Jay in the direction of baseball. He still has two screws in his ankle.

Ultimately, none of those coaches would have landed Jay. He opted for pro ball after the being drafted by the Reds.

“I felt the odds of me being a better baseball player than a better football player was in my favor,” he said. “You never know how it’s going to turn out and I did get hurt playing football and that took a little toll.”

Jay, who is 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, is rated the fifth-best prospect in the Reds minor league system by MLB.com. He began his pro career last summer in the Arizona Complex League before moving this season to the Reds’ Class A team in Daytona Beach. Playing in front of a host of family members, friends, staff and faculty from John Carroll and Saint Anastasia, and former teammates and coaches during most games played on Florida’s East Coast, Allen is among the team leaders in every offensive category.

Eric Davis, a two-time All-Star center fielder with the Reds during his 17-year Major League career, has worked with Jay since last summer. He is eager to see how Jay develops now that he can focus solely on baseball for the first time in his life.

“He has a lot of talent, and the more games he plays, the more he’ll understand,” Davis said after a watching Jay play recently in Clearwater. “He’s a tremendous upside for our organization and we’re proud to have him.”

Before each at-bat, Jay writes the letters “GS” in the dirt with the nob of his bat to honor his grandmother Gwendolyn Singletary, who recently passed away. Jay also has her name embroidered on his glove. His grandfather, Willie Singletary, taught Jay how to play center field by hitting buckets filled with baseballs to him whenever he could.

Willie, Deanna and her fiancé Eddie Davis attend as many of Jay’s games as they can. Deanna said she enjoys watching her son sign autographs for young fans before and after the games as much as she enjoys watching him play.

“Honestly, the enjoyable thing is Jay is doing things that he loves,” Deanna said. “I’m so happy for him.”

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

Education choice brought liberty, opportunity for immigrant

For Leidiana Candelario, moving from the Dominican Republic to Miami at age 8 was a major lifestyle transition.

It didn’t go very well at first — until an education choice scholarship from Step Up For Students changed everything.

Leidiana was miserable in her assigned elementary school, describing herself as an “outcast.” Her unfamiliarity with English made her a target of bullying.

“Every weekday I anxiously waited to go home from school, as home became my shelter,” she says.

Home for the family of five was a small room behind her father’s shop. Those cramped quarters were preferable to the misery she was enduring in school.  But her future was grim.

“I was unable to see a light at the end of the tunnel,” she says.

A ray of hope appeared in the form of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students, administered by Step Up For Students. After her parents applied and were awarded the scholarship, they now had options:  They could afford to send Lediana and her two sisters to the school they chose because it was the best fit for their needs – La Progresiva Presbyterian School.

“The moment my father, with excitement in his eyes, told me ‘Mi hija, nos dieron la beca!’ (“My daughter, they gave us the scholarship!”), I knew the best of changes would come,” Leidiana said.

At La Progresiva, Leidiana blossomed. No longer an outcast, she was warmly received, and thrived. The school’s principal, Melissa Rego, is a former public school teacher who also is the daughter of Cuban exiles. The student body includes many descendants of Cubans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, and Dominicans. More than two-thirds don’t have parents who attended college.

Lediana no longer looked at her home as a safe shelter from school. Now, school felt like a second home. It was family, too.

In 2018, after nine years on the tax credit scholarship, Lediana graduated high school. Two years later, she graduated Miami-Dade College with a degree in English. She’s now back where her success story began as a scared fourth-grader – teaching at La Progresiva, where 635 students are attending on income-based scholarship this year.

“School choice meant opportunities and inevitable growth,” Leidiana says. “Thanks to school choice, I learned to love education. I learned to reach for my wildest dreams.

“Choice brings liberty. Choice brings opportunity. Choice brings life.”

Step Up For Students celebrates 20 years of providing Families Choices

Florida’s largest nonprofit scholarship administrator is celebrating its 20th anniversary of providing families more options in their children’s education.

Step Up For Students, a 501c3 nonprofit based in Jacksonville and St. Petersburg, has awarded more than 1 million scholarships since it was founded in 2002. Today, Step Up administers five of the state’s K-12 scholarship programs: the donor-supported Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) and the taxpayer-funded Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options (FES-EO), for low- and middle-income students; the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA, formerly Gardiner); the Reading Scholarship for public school students in grades 3-5 with low reading test scores; and the Hope Scholarship for bullied students.

Denisha Merriweather, who used a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship to attend a private school, is a testament to the power of education choice.

Step Up currently serves more than 170,000 students, most of them lower-income or with special needs. The scholarships empower their families to access the learning options that work best for their children so they can maximize their potential.

“As I reflect upon the last 20 years, I want to thank all the legislators, educators and donors who made this program and this movement possible,” said John Kirtley, chairman and founder of Step Up for Students. “As important, I want to thank the families who were empowered by the scholarships to give their students the chance to find an educational environment that best suited their individual needs.”

Florida has witnessed a sea change in education over the last 20 years. Once languishing at the bottom, Florida has skyrocketed to No. 3 in the nation in K-12 achievement, according to Education Week. With a focus on matching the child to the right education environment, Florida created a variety of educational options, including Step Up’s scholarships, to meet the needs of students. Today, almost half of the state’s 3.6 million students attend schools other than their assigned neighborhood school.

Scholarship students, and the private schools serving them, have played a role in the state’s educational success.

An Urban Institute analysis of the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship found recipients were shown to be up to 99% more likely to attend four-year colleges, and 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees, than like students in public schools.

“Parents are increasingly insisting on a public education system that is able to provide each child with an effective and efficient customized education,” Step Up President Doug Tuthill said. “Helping parents achieve this vision for the last 20 years has been an honor and a privilege. The next 20 years are really going to be amazing.”

Denisha Merriweather is a testament to the power of education choice.

The daughter of a teenaged mom and high school dropout, raised in poverty, Denisha thought she was destined for a similar path. Receiving a scholarship from Step Up For Students changed her life.

Denisha had been a troubled student who was held back twice at her assigned public schools. But when she went to live with her godmother in sixth grade, her guardian applied for and received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. That allowed Denisha to afford tuition at the private school of her choice, Esprit de Corps Center of Learning in Jacksonville, where she blossomed.

Denisha went on to graduate with honors, earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of West Florida and a master’s degree in social work from the University of South Florida. From there she served as School Choice and Youth Liaison to the Secretary of Education at the U.S. Department of Education. In 2020 she founded Black Minds Matter, an organization devoted to promoting the development of high-quality school options for Black students. Recently she became the first scholarship student alumnus to serve as a member of Step Up’s Board of Directors.

“I’m just so grateful,” Denisha said. “This never would have been possible without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.”

For more information about the scholarship programs, or for help arranging an interview with a scholarship family, contact Scott Kent, assistant director of strategic communications, at 727-451-9832 or skent@sufs.org, or visit www.StepUpForStudents.org.

Adelante! Why a former Step Up scholar completed his UF degree during rookie season in NFL

BY ROGER MOONEY

Where to begin with CJ Henderson?

That the former Step Up For Students scholar used his time wisely at Christopher Columbus High in Miami and earned a football scholarship to the University of Florida?

That he turned three seasons with the Florida Gators into an NFL career, and in 2020 was drafted ninth overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars?

CJ Henderson (23) makes a tackle against Houston during the Jaguars first game of the season. (Photo courtesy of the Jacksonville Jaguars)

That he continued his coursework during his rookie season and graduated last May from Florida with his class?

That in May he donated $250,000 to the new training facility at Columbus?

CJ Henderson’s senior picture at Christopher Columbus High in Miami.

Each of those are noteworthy on their own. Added together, they help tell the story of a student/athlete who lives by the motto used by those associated with Columbus: Adelante! It is Spanish for “forward” or “onward.”

CJ moves forward with his goals. That’s why he received a scholarship to play cornerback at a major university and why he was a top-10 pick by an NFL team. He made that goal when he was young.

“CJ had the ambition to go to the NFL since kindergarten, first grade,” his dad, Chris, said. “He used to write that in his journal.”

It’s also why CJ, who was traded Sept. 27 to the Carolina Panthers, has a degree in education science and why he chose to give back to his alma mater.

It’s called C-Pride, said Xzavier Henderson, CJ’s younger brother who is a sophomore wide receiver at Florida.

“We hold ourselves to a standard,” Xzavier said. “C-Pride is having pride in the alumni base, athletics, academics, having pride in everything you do in high school.”

Columbus High, CJ said during a video announcing his donation to the school, taught him the discipline needed to succeed at a university like Florida. That’s the reason Chris wanted his son to attend a private high school and why CJ chose Columbus, a Catholic school. The campus has a college-like vibe, the athletic program is among the best in the state and the academics are demanding.

Xzavier Henderson’s senior picture at Christopher Columbus High in Miami.

“They have rules to keep you in line, and those same rules you have to apply to yourself in college,” Chris said.

Chris had the same NFL dreams as CJ. After a standout football career at his neighborhood high school in Miami, Chris attended the University of Cincinnati on a football scholarship. Looking back, Chris said he wasn’t prepared for the academic side of being a college football player. He left Cincinnati, attended two more colleges, and never graduated.

Chris and his wife, Prudence, wanted their sons to have the best chance at succeeding in college. They began researching the private high schools in the Miami area when CJ was in the eighth grade. That’s when they learned about the private school scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.

“That really helped,” Chris said, “because without that, it’s hard to say if we would have made it through all those years.”

Xzavier received the same scholarship and followed CJ to Columbus.

“They represent Step Up and what it’s all about,” Columbus Principal David Pugh said. “I think they got the most out of what Step Up is meant to do, provide students like CJ and Xzavier with another option, and they made the most of it.”

The jump from high school classwork to college is demanding, but the four years at Columbus left CJ and Xzavier better prepared for what awaited them at Florida.

“That was the preparation I was looking for,” Chris said. “To thrive in college, you really need to be disciplined (in class) to give you a push. Going to play football sounds fun and easy, but going to Florida, that’s tough. CJ took advantage of his resources and made it happen.”

And he graduated with his class despite spending what would have been his senior year in the NFL. CJ managed to mix in virtual classes to finish his degree while navigating life as an NFL rookie.

“That was an accomplishment I wanted to achieve,” Henderson told floridagators.com. “I just wanted to get it out of the way rather than wait until later and come back and do it.”

Tony Meacham, assistant director for academic services at Florida’s University Athletic Association, told floridagators.com that he could not remember a football player who continued to work toward his degree during his first year in the NFL. Most wait until at least the end of their rookie season before resuming their education.

“To his credit, he was willing to put in the work besides the work he was putting in on the field,” Meachum said. “You think someone in his position would be glued to football, but he was doing both. It was very impressive for someone to do that in his position.”

Said Pugh, “I wouldn’t expect anything less. It just shows you the level of commitment that a guy like CJ makes. He made that commitment to Christopher Columbus High School, and he made that commitment to the University of Florida.”

Xzavier Henderson warming up before Florida’s game against USF on Sept. 11 in Tampa. (Photo courtesy of University Athletic Association)

The Hendersons wanted all their children to graduate from college. CJ’s sister, Daija, graduated last spring from Florida A&M and is pursuing a master’s degree while working as a dental assistant. Xzavier was named to the Southeastern Conference First-Year Honor Role as a freshman.

“We take our academics seriously,” Xzavier said. “We want to be champions in everything we do.”

Like CJ, Xzavier occasionally returns to Columbus to work out and spend time with students. He can now work out in the facility that bears his family’s name – the Henderson Family Athletic Training Center. The 2,000 square foot building provides the school’s athletes with better evaluation, treatment and rehabilitation of injuries.

“CJ and Xzavier are role models,” Pugh said. “Other students would want to emulate what they do, because they do it the right way.”

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

From Ethiopia to No. 1 in his high school class to UF with the help of a private school scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

For Yonas Worku, obstacles are opportunities.

When he was 5, Yonas and his mother emigrated from Ethiopia to join his father in Las Vegas. They immediately had to overcome numerous hurdles.

“It was really rough,” he said. “The language barrier, the culture barrier, you can just imagine how difficult it was to assimilate into this culture. It was rough learning the language at first. Getting to know people, finding friends, that was a little tough for me, but it all worked out in the end.”

Thanks in large part to a quality education made possible by a private school scholarship for K-12 schoolchildren in Florida, managed by Step Up For Students.

As if Yonas wasn’t already facing enough challenges adapting to a new country, when he was in fourth grade his father left the family.

Bewildered and angry at first, Yonas said he grew to accept his father’s actions.

“I’m kind of glad that he did (leave) in the sense that I wouldn’t be here now,” said Yonas, 17. “It kind of motivated me to become the person I am today. Having that burden, it motivates you to be better. If I had everything handed to me, I don’t think this would be my life.”

Yonas with his mom, Zinash, after Yonas graduated No. 1 in his class from Bishop John Snyder High School in Jacksonville.

Suddenly, Zinash Tekleweld found herself a single mom trying to raise her son Yonas in a still unfamiliar country nearly 8,000 miles from her homeland. A year later, she and Yonas moved to Jacksonville, where she worked a minimum-wage job at a cotton candy factory.

Tekleweld learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up. She applied and was accepted. The scholarship enabled her to afford tuition to private schools that helped make him the person he is today.

The scholarship “really lifted the burden for our family and made life much easier,” Tekleweld said.

“Step Up was a big help,” Yonas said. “A very big help. We didn’t have any money. It was paycheck-to-paycheck.”

Yonas said he wanted to help his mother, but when he talked of getting a job, she told him to work on school.

“I realized that education was the most important thing in this country and that through it, Yonas can become a better individual,” said Tekleweld, who now works as a school janitor. “Education is the key to getting anything that he wants. I realized that it can open many doors for him in the future.”

Yonas finished middle school at Sacred Heart Catholic School, then attended Bishop John Snyder High School, where he graduated in June as the valedictorian. He took summer classes at the University of Florida. This August, he will begin working on his major – computer science. He is interested in a career in software development or cybersecurity.

Yonas was accepted to six colleges, including Georgia Tech and Boston College. He chose Florida because his college tuition would be covered with all the academic scholarships he has earned, including the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship.

Yonas had a decorated academic career at Bishop Snyder. In addition to graduating first in his class with a 4.44 grade-point average, he was president of the National Honor Society his senior year, as well as a member of the French, science, math, social studies and English honor societies. He received the school’s Christian Service Award for exemplary service to the community, the Senior Cardinal Award, and the Math Department Award.

“He’s the whole package,” said Kelly Brown, Bishop Snyder’s dean of academics and the school’s sponsor of the National Honor Society.

Brown also teaches AP Calculus. She said the other students wanted to be partners with Yonas on class projects because, well, they knew working with him would ensure a top grade, but also because he could break down the complicated material in a way they could understand.

“He’s a rare find,” Brown said. “He’s a very driven young man with high aspirations and goals. That often comes with a personality that is pretty intense, but not in his case.”

While Yonas earns all A’s, his personality is far from Type A. He is a hard worker who was challenged by Bishop Snyder’s demanding academics. Presented with the opportunity to talk about the struggles he and his mom encountered during their first few years in the United States or brag a little on his academic achievements during his valedictorian address, Yonas chose to talk about what he and his fellow graduates accomplished.

“This means the world to us,” he said of their diplomas.

“I was really happy to hear that Yonas graduated first from his class,” Tekleweld said. “I was really proud of him because I’ve seen how hard he has worked to reach this point. I remember crying about it because I was so happy.”

The emotional toll of his dad leaving, and the financial hardship left in its wake motivated Yonas to excel in school so he could receive the grades needed for the academic scholarships that will pay for his college education.

“That’s what got me here,” he said of his spot in the University of Florida’s incoming freshman class. “In the end it works out. Everything does work out.”

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

Private school scholarship ‘molded me into a better person’

By ROGER MOONEY

Lucas Kirschner came for the basketball. He stayed for the education.

The recent graduate of Miami Christian School enrolled there as an eighth grader with the help of a private school scholarship managed by Step Up for Students. The draw for him was Miami Christian’s highly regarded boys basketball program. The draw for his mom was the school’s academics.

At the time, Lucas had dreams of playing professional basketball. But after two seasons his playing time was scarce. Several of his friends on the team were leaving for a neighborhood high school, and Lucas seriously considered joining them.

His mom, Ocilia Diaz, told Lucas his friends had their reasons for leaving and he had plenty of reasons to stay, namely the education.

Woody Gentry, Miami Christian principal, told Lucas that just because basketball wasn’t working out as he hoped, he could work harder to earn more playing time.

Lucas Kirschner

“Grow through the experience, whether you’re playing or not,” Gentry recalled saying.

Eventually, Lucas decided to stay.

“I ended up staying because Miami Christian has a very good basketball team but also has a great educational system,” he said.

The teachers, Lucas said, care about the students. They provide support and hold them accountable.

“I didn’t want to leave that, because I felt if I left that I would have gone off the track,” he said.

Lucas, 17, is set to begin his freshman year at Miami Dade College, where he will study automotive engineering. The goal of playing in the NBA has been replaced by one of working as an engineer for a Formula One racing team.

“I love engineering,” he said. “I love working with cars.”

Lucas attended Miami Christian, because his mom felt he was going off the track at his neighborhood middle school. She wasn’t pleased with the students he was hanging out with or his conduct in class.

“It was just behavior,” Diaz said. “Clicking the pencil on the desk. Talking. Over talking. Getting up to sharpen the pencil. It got to the point in junior high where he was starting to make comments and laughing and becoming disruptive in class. Becoming the silly boy. Ha. Ha. Ha. It’s so funny, but it’s not funny anymore. The teachers get annoyed.”

Diaz was worried where this was heading. She and Lucas’ father, Holger Kirschner (they divorced when Lucas was 4), decided to send their son to a private school. Diaz learned of Miami Christian, located 20 minutes from their Miami home. The basketball program was certainly attractive. And so was the school’s faith-based education, academic reputation and small class sizes. The tuition was a concern – currently $10,000 per year for middle school and $10,500 for high school.

Diaz was told about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which allows parents to send their child to a school of their choice. She applied.

“When we were accepted, it was the best thing ever,” she said.

Lucas knew it was the right move.

“I was hanging out with the wrong people, skipping school a lot, not doing homework, not doing classwork. Just slacking off. Not caring. I had nobody to push me,” he said about his neighborhood school.

That changed at his new private school.

“I felt the environment around me change completely,” he said. “The environment changed me. The teachers changed me. It helped me get out of that state I was in in middle school.”

Lucas also found Principal Gentry.

Gentry realized quickly that this new student liked to feel needed, liked to be given tasks.

So, Gentry asked Lucas to help set up for school functions around campus. Lucas helped grill and serve hotdogs during school cookouts. He made Lucas the “cell phone captain,” meaning Lucas was charged with collecting his classmates’ cellphones before class and distributing them after class.

In that role, Gentry said, “He was phenomenal.”

Lucas was a mainstay on Project Plus, an afterschool program created by Gentry for campus projects. One was to make bulletin boards with plexiglass covers that can withstand the elements at the school’s open-air campus.

“He thrived with doing those kinds of things,” Gentry said. “When he had an assignment, a project, hands-on, felt a sense of ownership with it, that helped him a lot.”

His dream of playing in the NBA didn’t work out, but Lucas has his sights set on another competitive sport: Formula One racing.

When Lucas was a junior, his maternal grandfather passed away and he had a hard time dealing with his grief. Gentry noticed and invited Lucas to spend the day in his office. Gentry told Lucas to not worry about his schoolwork that day, just work through his feelings and that he was there if Lucas felt like talking.

“He made everything comfortable, comforting,” Gentry said.

On the day Lucas graduated from high school, Gentry gave him a hug and said, “You’re going to be something out there.”

Diaz, standing nearby, was filled with pride. The decision to send her son to Miami Christian and her son’s decision to stay accomplished everything she had ever hoped.

“They molded him,” Diaz said. “He has the thought of continuing to study and wanting something bigger for himself.”

As the years went by, Lucas, a 6-foot-3 guard/forward, learned there was more to high school than playing time on the basketball team. He has grown through the experience.

“I’m actually very glad I went there,” Lucas said. “It changed my life for the better. It molded me into something I actually wanted to become. It molded me into a better person. I can see my future better.”

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

A Virtual Pomp and Circumstance: Step Up celebrates Class of 2020

By LISA A. DAVIS

Hundreds of parents, guardians, students, and teachers joined Step Up For Students online May 21 to recognize the resilient senior Class of 2020 in a time when COVID-19 has added the new term social distancing to everyday vocabulary and canceled in-person milestone events.

The recorded virtual senior celebration can be viewed online here.

In their final two months of their high school careers, students nationwide had to finish their education virtually as stay-at-home orders shuttered school buildings, on March 16 in Florida. High school seniors perhaps felt the impact most, with senior events like prom and graduation being canceled or moved to drive-by parades and virtual celebrations. Soon after typical everyday life came to a halt, Step Up staff began planning the special online event for scholarship seniors.

“High school graduation is a time to celebrate the achievement of Florida’s young men and women and the current pandemic won’t stop us from recognizing the achievements of these special students,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up.

Step Up For Students, a Florida-based nonprofit scholarship funding organization, manages the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Family Empower Scholarship for lower-income families, the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs, the Hope Scholarship for children who are bullied in public schools and the Reading Scholarship Accounts. For the 2019-20 school year, Step Up served more than 130,000 students, including 4,445 seniors.

Florida Tax Credit scholar Gabriella Bueno
of Boca Christian School.

Tuthill, Step Up Founder and Chairman John Kirtley, and corporate donor representatives addressed the Class of 2020 during the event. The Rev. Robert Ward of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg gave the invocation.

 State lawmakers congratulated the class of 2020 as well.

“Even though you’ve gone through strange times and faced many obstacles,” Sen. Manny Diaz, who serves as the Senate Committee on Education chair, said to the graduating seniors, “We are here today to give you a graduation message, and that is congratulations for your hard work.”

Added Rep. Susan Valdes, “Best of luck to you and go get them, Class of 2020. I know that our future is much brighter because of you.”

Paul Shoukry, a Step Up advisory board member and CFO for Raymond James Financial, a founding donor of Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, was one of several donor representatives who spoke during the 30-minute event.

“Continue investing in yourself, as this is an important step in a long and successful journey. Congratulations,” he said.

Step Up selected two scholarship students to address their peers.

Florida Tax Credit scholar Gabriella Bueno, of Boca Christian School, credited her scholarship with helping her get the education she needed to set her on a path to become a pharmacist.

Gardiner scholar Ryan Sleboda of Pace Brantley School in Longwood.

“I have much to be grateful for and I would personally like to thank Step Up, the lawmakers who believe in education choice and the donor who support it. You have all allowed me to attend what I believe has been the best school for me and has helped shaped me into the person I am today.”

Gardiner scholar Ryan Sleboda, also shared his journey with autism, not being able to speak until the age of 7, and with the help of a scholarship graduating as the class valedictorian in unprecedented times.

“Who would have imagined this is the way our senior year would end,” said, Ryan Sleboda, a Gardiner Scholarship student and valedictorian from the Pace Brantley School in Longwood, Fla. “Class of 2020, let’s go forth and resume this incredible journey!”

Kirtley, Step Up’s founder, closed out the event, saying success should not be measured by the norm.

“Be conscious of what scoreboard you are using to measure yourself. I know mine has changed. Pursue those things that can be measured for sure — those grades, that college admission, that job, that raise, that promotion. But don’t forget to measure yourself by things that have no numbers or figures,” he said and continued telling a story about a cab that drove by him in New York City advertising the Broadway musical Rent, with the words “Measure your life in love.”

“Well that sign stopped me in my tracks,” he said. “And I realized right then that I needed to worry less about measuring my life in numbers, in figures, and maybe take the advice on that sign. And it took me a few more years to understand that it’s much more important to measure the love that you give, rather than the love that you receive.

“One of the ways that I measure the love that I give is what I do everyday to empower parents to choose the best education for their kids, and knowing that you are today are graduating is all the love I need in return and knowing that you will put that education to work in these interesting times.”

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