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.
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 email@example.com, or visit www.StepUpForStudents.org.
BY ROGER MOONEY
Where to begin with CJ Henderson?
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?
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.
“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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.”
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 email@example.com.
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.
“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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
“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 email@example.com.