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South Florida Auto Dealers Association contributes $21 million to fund Hope Scholarships for state’s most vulnerable students

Miami Beach, FL Step Up For Students, the non-profit organization that manages Florida’s Hope Scholarship Program, recently recognized the South Florida Automobile Dealers Association (SFADA) and its dealer members with the Partners For Hope Award for supporting the program since its inception.

Collectively, SFADA’s dealer members have contributed $21,887,000 to fund Hope Scholarships for victims of school violence or bullying.

In 2018, the Florida Legislature created the Hope Scholarship Program. This program was established to provide the parent of a public-school student who was subjected to violence, harassment, and or bullying the opportunity to transfer the student to another public school or request a scholarship for the student to enroll in and attend an eligible private school.

The K-12 Hope Scholarships are funded through a $105 tax election option the state offers to customers who purchase or register a vehicle in Florida. Tax elections are at no cost to customers because the $105 is collected out of the state sales tax customers already owe from purchasing or registering a vehicle in Florida.

“We are honored to have the South Florida Automobile Dealers Association as a partner in our mission to provide our state’s most vulnerable students with the opportunity to refocus on their education in a new learning environment,” said Bill Ussery, Hope’s Development Officer at Step Up For Students. “It is because of the support of South Florida dealerships that more than 208,000 customers agreed to make a Hope tax election.

“Because of the support of SFADA’s dealer members, more than 2,100 Florida public school students are attending another school with a new outlook on life and learning.”

Debra Koebel, chief financial officer of the South Florida Automobile Dealers Association, accepts the “Partners for Hope Award” from Bill Ussery, Florida’s Hope Scholarship Development Officer at Step Up For Students, during the Miami International Auto Show.

 “Our dealer members have supported the worthwhile efforts of many organizations throughout the years,” said Ari Wildstein, Chairman of the South Florida Automobile Dealers Association. “By supporting the Hope Scholarship, we are truly making a positive difference in the lives of children in our communities. Many of our customers said it was a ‘feel good’ decision for them to sign the Hope form.”

“On behalf of the state of Florida and the Hope Scholarship Program, I’m pleased to present the Partner for Hope Award. Critical to this program’s success is the support from the SFADA and its nearly 200 new car dealer members throughout Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties,” Ussery added. “These dealerships along with their finance and business managers have demonstrated a strong commitment to support Florida’s students by actively informing customers about the Hope Scholarship and the tax election option. We also recognize each dealership’s accounting staff for their work in collecting and reporting each customer tax election to the Department of Revenue and submitting the funds to Step Up For Students every month.” 

Tips on picking the right school for your child

By ROGER MOONEY

Because of the expanded eligibility requirements that went into effect July 1, more families in Florida are eligible for private school scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.

Andrew Campanella, National School Choice Week president.

The Family Empowerment Scholarship is now available to families with higher incomes, up to nearly $100,000 per year for a family of four. Also, dependents of active-duty members of the armed forces, children in foster care and out-of-home care, and those who have been adopted are now eligible for the scholarship.

The FES scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship) includes more eligible diagnoses.

This means more families have more options when it comes to school choice.

For those new to the Step Up program, here is some advice on picking a school from Andrew Campanella, National School Choice Week president and author of the School Choice Road Map: 7 Steps for Finding the Right School for Your Child.

Focus on what is the right education environment for your child: “What I encourage parents to do is think about what your goals are for your child,” Campanella said. “Think about how your child learns, in what environments your child is most likely to succeed and what your child’s interest are and keep those things at the front of your mind as you look at schools, because you want to find an environment that will meet your own criteria. One family might have a whole different set of criteria than another, and that’s completely fine.”

The biggest misconception when it comes to school choice: “People think there are good schools and bad schools, and they need to get their child into a good school,” Campanella said. “It goes beyond that. You need to get your child into a school that is good for him or her. That’s the most important thing.”

Keep an open mind: “You really do need to take stock of your own biases and your own experiences as a parent, because you went to a certain type of school,” Campanella said. “You might have liked it. You might have not liked it. You might have had a good or bad experience.

“Unless you live in the same area where you are going to send your child to school, you can’t write off one entire type of school because you might have had a bad experience. You need to recognize you had experiences that may have been unique to you and that your child is an individual and they may respond differently to that type of environment.”

Advice from family and friends can be helpful and important, but …: “What I encourage parents to do is don’t ask questions that lead to generalities,” Campanella said. “Ask specific questions. For example, don’t say, ‘Did you like it? Did you not like it?’ Ask how the teachers were with the students. Ask what type of homework was assigned. Asked what type of classes the child found most interesting. Don’t ask for a parent to be either a cheerleader or a reviewer of the school, because your own view is going to be reinforced somehow.”

Do your homework: Don’t let someone steer you in one direction before you’ve done your own research,” Campanella said. “Bring a list of criteria with you when touring the school. Form your own impression, then ask questions.

“Parents feel judged for making choices, but you have to remember: People can give their advice, but at the end of the day, you know your child better than anyone out there.”

Involve your child in the process: Campanella said don’t present it as a choice, but ask your child for input. See what they like and don’t like. See how they react to the environment during the school visit. If they hate the school, it’s not likely going to be a good fit.

“I encourage families to make it a family discussion,” Campanella said. “But remember, even though it is a family discussion, the ultimate decision is yours as a parent.”

Campanella’s seven steps for finding the right school are:

  1. Think back on your own time in school.
  2. Identify goals for your child. What do you see for their future? What are your hopes and dreams for them? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
  3. Decide what you need or want from a school or learning experience.
  4. Make a list and research the schools.
  5. Visit schools. Can you see your child succeed in that learning environment?
  6. Evaluate the schools.
  7. Choose a school.

Choosing a school for a child is one of the most important decisions a parent will make. Campanella said a recent poll conducted by National School Choice Week revealed making the wrong choice is the biggest fear among parents.

“There is great anxiety about this process, because education for too long has been filled with lots of buzz words and jargon and bureaucracy that have been understandably difficult for many parents to navigate,” Campanella said. “School choice is designed to make education more user friendly, more parent friendly, more kid friendly. So the goal needs to be to empower parents, just like Step Up is doing, with not only the resources to choose learning environments for their kids that work, but also the information to go about that process and feel confident in the choices they’re making.”

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

New Florida law expands K-12 Scholarships by $200 million

More students eligible for private school and more

STAFF REPORT

Since Gov. Ron DeSantis put pen to paper on May 11 signing into law  the landmark education choice bill, much work has been underway at Step Up For Students preparing for the 2021-22 school year.

In case you missed it, the law is a $200 million expansion of the state’s K-12 scholarship programs. It opens up education choice to more families in Florida than ever before. Read more here.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the landmark education choice bill.

Billed as the largest expansion of education choice in Florida history, the new law merges the state’s two scholarship programs for students with unique abilities, McKay and Gardiner, in 2022, and combines them with the Family Empowerment Scholarship program.

One category of the Family Empowerment Scholarship will serve students with unique abilities and special needs while the other will continue to serve lower-income families.

The law leaves intact the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which some mistakenly call school vouchers and is funded by corporate tax donations, and the Hope Scholarship program for students who have experienced bullying at their district schools. More than 160,000 students across Florida participate in K-12 scholarship programs. The law is expected to add as many as 61,000 new students and cost about $200 million, according to a legislative analysis.

The law simplifies eligibility requirements by aligning qualifying income levels of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship with the Family Empowerment Scholarship. The two programs previously had different income requirements.

The legislation also provides greater convenience for families by placing management of the Family Empowerment program under nonprofit scholarship organizations, including Step Up For Students.

The new law allows more families than ever to be eligible for a scholarship. Read about it here.

Florida Legislature is normalizing, expanding access to education choice, according to Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. Read more about it here.

Listen to Tuthill’s podcast with State Senator Manny Diaz Jr., on the future of education choice in Florida. Listen here.

‘Who’s going to be the next villain?’ The story of one survivor of bullying

By ROGER MOONEY

Brendan Thompson remembers the day in the fourth grade when he was jumped by a pack of bullies in a school bathroom. He remembers how he fought back, and he remembers how futile it was, because he was outnumbered. He remembers how classmates watched and laughed as he absorbed the blows to his face that left him with a bloody cut near his eye and a split lip.

There are some days you never forget, even when more than a decade has passed.

Brendan Thompson graduated in May from Seminole State College with a degree in general studies.
He will continue his education at the University of Central Florida.

Thompson vividly remembers the reaction later that day by school administrators when confronted by his mother, who, you can imagine, was angry.

Her son, she was told, was big enough to defend himself.

Yes, Thompson was among the taller and heavier kids in his school. But Nikki Thompson didn’t raise her son to fight, and Brendan was the mellow type who made friends easily and was nicknamed the “Gentle Giant” by his mother.

Despite his size –and maybe because of it – Thomspon was a target. He was picked on in the lower grades for being pigeon-toed and later for the hump behind his neck, something, he said, that developed from years of walking with his head bowed in an attempt to blend in.

Thompson recently spoke freely of his experiences at the hands of bullies one morning while taking a break from teaching bible and math at Master’s Training Academy, a K-12 private Christian school in Apopka, Florida, which his mother opened five years ago. In the end, it would be a Step Up For Students scholarship that allowed him to attend a private high school where bullying from classmates was no longer an issue.

The bulling started in the first grade and continued through the eighth. Thompson attended four schools during that span, twice changing schools because was bullied.

“It was like a TV show,” he said. “Who’s going to be the next villain? That’s what it was like every single year.”

He is 23 and a recent graduate from Seminole State College with a degree in general studies. He will continue his education in the fall at the University of Central Florida, where he intends to study creative writing.

His plan is to produce movies and documentaries. He also wants to write books, including one on bullying. It will be about his experiences and his thoughts on how bullying is portrayed in movies and on TV.

“It needs to stop being normalized,” Thompson said. “Bullying has become normal, and it shouldn’t be normal, because the kids who are being bullied, they don’t feel normal. They feel alone. They feel suicidal. They feel empty inside, numb inside.”

Though he lived with his mother and two sisters while growing up and had other family members he could turn to, Thompson felt alone, as so many victims do. He would refuse to talk at home and stayed in his bedroom, where he listened to what his mom described as “violent music.”

Thompson said he often thought about running away from home. He had darker thoughts, too.

“I don’t really tell people this, but there were times when I did think to myself, ‘What if I just ended everything? What if I did end my life?’” he said. “Thank God I didn’t, but I did think about that. Those thoughts popped up a lot during middle school.”

What stopped him?

“I would be selfish, because it wouldn’t be me who was in pain now, it would be my family and those who loved me,” he said. “It would be selfish and the coward way out. I would hate for anyone to think I was a coward.”

For Thompson, Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students made all the difference. He used it to attend high school at Apopka Christian Academy, where he graduated in the spring of 2016. The bullying by students didn’t follow him there but he remained wary, alert for the next villain.

“Getting bullied, it was miserable,” he said. “There were nights that I would go home and feel terrible about myself. Prayer got me through a lot of stuff. Reading my bible got me through a lot of stuff.”

His renewed faith began to impact his family. Bible study became a regular part of the family’s week. His mother, Nikki Thompson, who had worked two jobs to support her family, felt the call to start her own faith-based private school.

“I wanted to help those who were in need,” she said.

So, she quit her jobs and opened Master’s Academy in 2016. It has become a haven for children who were bullied at previous schools. That’s by design, Nikki Thompson said. Watching her son suffer the abuse of classmates and listening to school administrators who didn’t seem interested in stopping it leaves a scar on a mother.

“It was hard knowing I had to leave my child (in a school) where he was being bullied,” she said. “He was being hurt. He wasn’t comfortable. He didn’t feel right.”

Today, Florida schoolchildren have more options when they become a victim of bullying. Students in public school who are bullied can benefit from the Hope Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students. Hope was created in 2018 by the Florida Legislature to address the staggering number of schoolchildren who are bullied each year. It provides families with financial assistance to send a child who suffers from a qualifying incident at a public school to an eligible private school or help pay for transportation to a public school in another district.

Back when Brendan Thompson was a student, his only option to escape his bullies was financially qualifying for the tax-credit scholarship.  For the 2020-21 school year, 468 students are using Hope.

Given her son’s experiences, it’s no surprise that Nikki Thompson is a fan of the Hope Scholarship which opens up a way for K-12 students in Florida to find a learning environment away from their tormentors and feel safer.

“I think it’s awesome,” she said. “There’s bullying and you have parents who can’t afford a private school education and those scholarships, they do a lot. They help a lot of families out.

“Our No. 1 priority is taking care of our students. The moment they walk through the door they become my child and I will protect them by any means necessary.”

The pain Brendan endured from school bullies and his commitment to his faith motivated his mother, Nikki, to open a private school.

The students at Master’s Academy are drawn to Brendan Thompson, who at 6-foot, 290 pounds, remains a gentle giant. Especially to those who were bullied at a previous school. He knows their pain. He understands.

“He’s a role model for kids who have been bullied,” his mom said.

While the incidents took him to dark and painful places, Thompson is an example of a bullying victim who has healed. He knows that many victims still suffer from the experience into adulthood. Not him, he said.

“No,” he said. “I try not to focus on what others say about me, but just focus on the positive things about myself.”

Thompson said being a victim of bullying helped him develop a thick skin against taunts and taught him to stick up for himself.

He recalled an incident before physical education class in the eighth grade when he noticed three bullies were closing in on him. Thompson said he made the first move, asking if they “wanted to go?” They backed down. A classmate who witnessed the incident called Thompson a superhero.

Thomspon didn’t think he was. He just knew if he didn’t act then, he would remain a victim, and he was tired of being a victim. He also knows not every victim can stand up for themselves.

That’s why he wants to write a book about his experiences. While in college, he wrote research papers and spoke about it during speech class, using statistics of the many victims who chose suicide to make his point.

While Thompson has spoken to victims, he also spoke with aggressors. Several of his former classmates who bullied him have reached out on Facebook or by email to express their sorrow for how they acted and to explain why they did. Some talked about being abused at home and turned to bullying as an outlet for their pain.

Thompson listened.

“Did it change the way I feel? No,” he said. “But it’s better than no apology, I guess.”

If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or are in emotional distress, please speak to someone today. Help is available. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. It is available 24/7.

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

A sigh of relief: How the Hope Scholarship helped change one student’s life

By ROGER MOONEY

ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, Fla. – There was a reason for Nick Guiley’s tears and his utter refusal to get out of his father’s car at school one morning during the sixth grade.

“I felt like something was going to happen when I stepped into school,” Nick said. “That someone was going to come up and hurt me or something.”

Nick was being physically bullied by two boys at his neighborhood school near their home in Altamonte Springs, Florida. They made entering that building a nightmare for Nick.

“It’s a suspenseful feeling and you’re scared because you don’t know when it’s going to happen,” Nick said. “Where are they going to be? What class? So, I was kind of on the edge, nervous.”

He would spend entire days in the office of a guidance counselor, hiding from his tormentors.

Nick’s parents, Lisa and Todd, were unaware of this. They sensed something was troubling their youngest child. His anxiety level was high, and his heartbeat would at times reach 140 beats per minute. They took Nick to a cardiologist, who said it wasn’t physical. They took Nick to a therapist, who thought the anxiety was related to Nick having Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary, repetitive movements and vocalizations.

Nick and his father, Todd, enjoy a laugh while doing homework.

The root of the problem remained undiscovered.

“We asked him all the questions,” Lisa said. “Everything you could think of as a parent.”

Nick hid the truth with evasive answers. He was, he admitted, scared to tell his parents.

“It was kind of an embarrassing topic to bring up,” he said.

Nick didn’t know how his parents would react. He didn’t know if they would believe him. And, he didn’t have proof.

But the bullying came to light the morning he refused to leave the car. Finally, Nick talked.

“There were two boys who, literally, every chance they got, they would hurt him,” Lisa said. “He was so afraid. He wouldn’t even tell us. In his mind, all he would think was, ‘I can’t go to school.’”

A sigh of relief

Nick stood outside Lake Forrest Preparatory School in Maitland, Florida on a sunny February afternoon and talked about his experiences. Now an eighth grader, he began attending the infants-through-eight private school in January of 2020. It’s a small school with only eight children in this year’s graduating class. It was the perfect landing – small and secure – for someone like Nick.

When asked what it feels like to be dropped off at Lake Forrest in the morning, Nick said, “It’s one of the biggest sighs of relief that I ever had.”

He likes his schoolmates and his teachers. He no longer feels threatened by anyone.

“People knew my name and said ‘hi’ to me after the first couple of days, and that’s when I knew this school would be a good fit for me,” he said.

Nick attends Lake Forrest on a Hope Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The Hope Scholarship allows parents of children who are bullied in neighborhood schools to find new learning environments at another district school or at a participating private school – away from the bully.

“There’s no words to describe it,” Todd Guiley said. “It’s awesome. He complains when he can’t go to school.”

Lisa, Nick and Todd.

Todd and Lisa reacted quickly when Nick finally told them he was being bullied. They meet with the guidance counselor and school administrators. Nick was so traumatized that he didn’t finish the school year.

The Guileys enrolled Nick in a private school near their home for the seventh grade. Things began well, but the bullying returned in a different form. At this time, Nick had developed coprolalia, a Tourette syndrome tic which causes involuntary swearing and inappropriate language.

“Come to find out, he was hanging out with a group of kids who were pretty much emotionally bullying him,” Lisa said. “They encouraged him to cuss, and they would tell on him for doing it. They were pretending to be his friends.”

The Guileys learned of the Hope Scholarship from administrators at this school. While researching where to send Nick with the help of the scholarship, Nick struck up a friendship with a boy his age that he met at the dentist’s office. His new friend attended Lake Forrest, and his mom encouraged Lisa and Todd to visit the school, which is located 20 minutes from their home.

After meeting with Assistant Principal Ann Mallamas, Lisa and Todd decided to enroll Nick.

“My only regret is that we didn’t find this school sooner,” Todd said. “It’s been a positive experience for him all around. The teachers are great. The kids are great. He loves it.”

‘My heart is full’

In February, Step Up recently held its annual Rising Stars Award program, which recognizes scholarship students in several categories – High-Achieving, Outstanding Student character and Turnaround Student. Mallamas nominated Nick for the Turnaround Student award, and Nick was featured in the virtual Rising Stars Award video.

“I’ve seen a huge transformation from the first day that I met Nick until today,” Mallamas said. “He has developed into a wonderful young man with a past that should have never happened to him and was not called for. He’s one the sweetest, most loveable students we have at the school.”

Lisa said her son treats everyone with respect, is genuine and sincere and makes friends easy. Todd said his son is very loving. Nick described himself as kind and caring.

So why was he bullied?

“It did make me wonder why,” Nick said. “I didn’t understand it, because if I was nice to everybody, they don’t really have a reason to bully me.”

Lisa had guesses. Nick was small for his age at the time. He wore glasses. His Tourette syndrome produces tics.

Nick said he often thought of fighting back at his neighborhood school but knew that would get him into trouble. His course of action was to hope the bullying would stop, but it didn’t. It only became worse.

“It’s kind of hard to let go of the past sometimes, because it’s kind of a hard thing to not remember,” he said. “It does lessen as time goes on, but it still sticks with me to this day.”

Nick said he did wonder if the bullying would follow him to Lake Forrest.

“I had a feeling that this is what school is all about, that they would bully me, and the teachers wouldn’t care, because I had been to other schools and the process just kept repeating,” he said. “But when I got to this school there was this good atmosphere that nobody was going to be mean to me, and all the teachers were nice and caring.”

Both Lisa and Todd were devastated when they learned their son was being bullied. They wished he came to them sooner.

“The only thing that I would instill upon kids these days is don’t be afraid to come forward and stick up for yourself,” Todd said. “Go to your teacher, go to your parents, go to your counselors and let them know what’s going on. Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself.”

Lisa stood off camera while her son was being videoed for the Rising Stars show. She listened as Nick talked about how much he loves Lake Forrest, his classmates, his teaches. He talked enthusiastically about wanting to be a marine biologist and explore the uncharted depths of the oceans.

Nick is not the only one who breathes a sigh of relief every morning when he bounces out of the house and heads to school.

“It makes me feel beyond happy,” Lisa said. “My heart is full when I know that my child is happy, and he has no anxiety. He has fun. He does his work. His grades are improving. It’s an awesome feeling as a parent.”

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

Does your child struggle at school? Step Up For Students can help

By ROGER MOONEY

Reading was a struggle for Maloni Lewis as a third grader. So was writing and math.

Her whole life was a struggle. Both parents were disabled. Her three older brothers had been to jail. They told their mom that going to school and being smart were not cool among the group they associated with.

Maloni’s mom was determined to end that cycle with her daughter.

Maloni Lewis turned her academic path around after receiving a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up.

Renée Lewis found Seven Rivers Christian School in Lecanto, Florida, near their home. With the help of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families, she was able to afford the tuition at the pre-K through 12 private school. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.

It took a few years, but Maloni eventually became passionate about her education. She played sports, and by her senior year of high school, her grade point average was 3.8. She left for college with the goal of becoming a nurse like her mom.

“Step Up For Students is a lifeline,” Renée said. “It allows kids and families to dream. What they thought was so far out of reach is possible.”

There are many reasons why children struggle in school. For some, the class size is too big, and they feel lost among the crowd. Others have certain special needs that cannot be fully addressed at neighborhood schools. Some kids are bullied. Some are hindered by language barriers.

And then there are those like Maloni, whose homelife is so challenging that school is not a priority.

Step Up can help.

Lower-income families can apply for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship. 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 Family Empowerment Scholarship.

Click here to apply for an income-based scholarship.

Parents of children with special needs can turn to the Gardiner Scholarship.

This scholarship 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.”

Click here to join the 2021-22 interest list for the Gardiner Scholarship.

Parents whose child is being bullied at a public school can apply for the Hope Scholarship.

In 2018, the Florida Legislature created the Hope Scholars 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.

The Hope Scholarship, which is not based on a family’s income, provides families with financial assistance to send a child who suffered from a qualifying incident to an eligible private school, or to transport him or her to a public school in another district. The scholarship value depends on the grade level and county the family lives in.

Click here to view the 2020-21 Hope Scholarship award chart.

The transportation scholarship is worth up to $750 and can be used to attend any out-of-district public school with available space.

Click here to apply for the Hope Scholarship.

Step Up has managed more than 1 million scholarships in the 20 years since its inception. These scholarships have been life-changers for the students and their families.

“I felt completely blessed to even have the scholarship. I don’t know what I would have done without it,” said Pamela Howard, whose son, Malik Farrell, reaped the awards of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

Malik had been to four schools district schools in four years and repeated third grade after getting a report card filled with F’s.

Pamela learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and moved her son to Potter’s House Christian Academy, a pre-K through 12 private school in Jacksonville, Florida.

Weeks after enrolling, Malik’s older brother was murdered. The teachers and administrators at Potter’s House rallied around Malik. They eventually gained Malik’s trust, and because of that, Malik’s grades turned into C’s. He was a solid B student during his final two years of high school. He graduated and attended college in Tennessee.

Pamela credited Potter’s House and the Step Up scholarship for her son’s scholastic turnaround.

“To see my son just completely turn around, there aren’t even words,” she said. “That he overcame these struggles and turned out to become the young man that he is, there are no words to even explain how proud I am of him.”

Roger Mooney can be reached at rmooney@StepUpForStudents.org.

Your child is being bullied at school? There is Hope

By ROGER MOONEY

The bullying at school began when Jordyn Simmons-Outland was in the second grade. He was punched and tripped by classmates. He was teased for his weight. He once told his grandparents that he wished he were dead. He eventually saw a therapist.

Jordyn Simmons-Outland is first recipient of the Hope Scholarship for bullied students.
Jordyn Simmons-Outland is first recipient of the Hope Scholarship for bullied students.

His grandmother, Cathy Simmons, complained to Jordyn’s teachers and administrators at the neighborhood school, but the violence continued. The last straw for Cathy occurred in 2018 when Jordyn was slapped by a classmate at the start of his fifth-grade year.

What does a parent do when their child is not safe at school?

Where do they turn when their cries of, “Help! My child is being bullied!” go unanswered?

Parents and guardians talk of being frustrated by what they see as inaction by teachers and administrators at their neighborhood school.

If they Google: “Scholarships for children who are bullied,” they find the Hope Scholarship for schoolchildren who have been bullied. It is managed by Step Up For Students.

The Hope Scholarship provides an escape for K through 12 students who reported being bullied or a victim of violence in a public school.

Click here to apply for a Hope Scholarship.

According to the Florida’s School Environmental Safety Incident Reporting System, more than 47,000 students in Florida reported being a victim of bullying during the 2015-16 school year. That’s a huge number, yet it’s only the number of schoolchildren who reported an incident. Many more suffered in silence.

In 2018, the Florida Legislature decided to address the staggering number of schoolchildren who are bullied each year by creating the Hope Scholarship.

“Hope is the best description. I keep thinking ‘There is hope. There is hope. There is hope,’” Cathy Simmons said.

The Hope Scholarship, which is not based on a family’s income, provides families with financial assistance to send a child who suffered from a qualifying incident to an eligible private school, or to transport him or her to a public school in another district. The scholarship value depends on the grade level and county the family lives in.

Click here to view the 2020-21 Hope Scholarship award chart.

The transportation scholarship is worth up to $750 and can be used to attend any out-of-district public school with available space.

The scholarships are funded by consumers who choose to redirect up to $105 of their motor vehicle purchase taxes to the program.

Who is eligible?

Any public school student in Florida who was a victim of a qualifying incident at a K through 12 school, a school-related or school-sponsored program or activity or was riding in a school bus or waiting at a school bus stop.

What is a qualifying incident? They include battery, harassment, hazing, bullying, kidnapping, physical attack, robbery, sexual offenses (including harassment, assault or battery), threat or intimidation and fighting.

Cathy Simmons began looking for a private school for Jordyn after he was slapped by that classmate. She came across Lakeview Christian School in Lake Placid, Florida, which is not far from their home. That’s where she learned about the Hope Scholarship, then in its infancy.

They applied, and Jordyn became the first student in Florida to reap the benefits of the scholarship. Upon entering his new school for the first time, Jordyn said, “I new it was going to be good.”

Click here to read Jordyn’s story.

That is the idea behind the Hope Scholarship. It provides an education choice to families so their children can benefit from safer, more inviting learning environments.

Jordyn made friends. He was one of six students picked to sing at the school’s Christmas concert. A teacher wrote on his first progress report that he was “a pleasure to have in class.”

Cathy couldn’t wait to tell others about the Hope Scholarship and how it changed her grandson’s life.

“Now there is peace,” she said.

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

Step Up For Students partners with NLP Logix to build next generation ESA platform

Step Up For Students was founded to empower families to pursue and engage in the most appropriate learning options for their children, with an emphasis on families who lack the information and financial resources to access these options. Over the years, Step Up has developed internal systems and procedures to administer these scholarships, which disproportionally benefit minority children and families, but now they are expecting exponential growth in demand.

“Even before COVID,” said Doug Tuthill, President, Step Up, “we were expecting to grow from administering $700 million in scholarships to over $1 billion. But now, families are having to supplement their children’s education at home and/or through neighborhood pods, which has increased the need for parents to have access to more scholarship funds, and more flexibility in how these funds are spent.”

To support their mission and growth, Step Up has turned to NLP Logix, a Jacksonville, Florida-based machine learning and artificial intelligence company, to integrate and build the platform the parents can use to manage their children’s education. The platform is incorporating high levels of artificial intelligence to provide such things as course recommendations, educational product purchase recommendations, charter school options and other applications to help users interface with their scholarship benefits.

“We are very proud to have been selected by Step Up For Students to partner in this endeavor,” said Ted Willich, CEO, NLP Logix. “Having an opportunity to support transforming the K-12 education system in America is something we could have only dreamed of when we started NLP Logix ten years ago.”

Step Up For Students and NLP Logix expect to launch the platform in December of 2021 with an extensive roadmap of enhancements to come in the following years.

The platform will first be used by parents and students within the State of Florida who are enrolled in the five scholarship programs administered by Step Up: Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) and the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) for lower-income families, The Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs, the Hope Scholarship for public school students who are bullied or victims of violence and the Reading Scholarship Accounts for public school students in third through fifth grade who struggle with reading.

First Hope Scholarship brings peace to fifth grader

Editor’s note. This story was originally posted on Jan. 14, 2019 on redefinED, another blog sponsored by Step Up For Students. We’re taking a look back at some of our scholars in recent years. Today, Jordyn Simmons-Outland continues to feel safe because of the Hope Scholarship. To sign up for our philanthropic newsletter, please click here.

By Scott Kent 

Jordyn Simmons-Outland is first recipient of the Hope Scholarship for bullied students.
Jordyn Simmons-Outland is first recipient of the Hope Scholarship for bullied students.

LAKE PLACID, Florida — Jordyn Simmons-Outland is a fifth grader who was in need of a lifeline. The 10-year-old has a sweet demeanor and a love for the online video game Fortnite. However, his lack of self-confidence made him a target for bullying in his public school since the second grade. Teased about his weight. Tripped and hit. Complaints to teachers and administrators failed to bring relief.

In the past year, the physical and emotional abuse had become so bad, he told his grandparents he wished he were dead. He began seeing a therapist.

A new state school choice scholarship, the first of its kind in the nation, provided him with hope – literally.

“I don’t know what I’d do if the scholarship wasn’t available,” said his grandmother, Cathy Simmons, who has been a fierce advocate for her grandson most his life.

Jordyn is the first recipient of Florida’s Hope Scholarship, created by the Legislature in 2018 to give K-12 public school children relief from bullying and violence. The scholarship is run by Step Up For Students. More than 47,000 students in Florida reported being bullied during the 2016-17 school year.

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. The scholarship value depends on the grade level: $6,519 for K-5, $6,815 for 6-8, and $7,111 for 9-12. The transportation scholarship is worth up to $750 and can be used to attend any out-of-district public school with available space. The scholarships are funded by consumers who choose to redirect up to $105 of their motor vehicle purchase taxes to the program. 

Applications for the new scholarships opened Nov. 1 2018, which proved timely for Jordyn.

His grandmother went to Lakeview Christian School in Lake Placid to inquire about tuition costs. With Cathy and Danny in the process of selling their furniture business, money has been tight. However, Lakeview’s school administrator, Christena Villarreal, and her assistant told her about the new Hope Scholarship.

The Simmonses immediately enrolled Jordyn into Lakeview Christian, then began the process of applying for the Hope. They became conditionally eligible Nov. 2. Cathy received the acceptance letter Nov. 30.

It was like Independence Day.

“I was sitting (upstairs) in the rocking chair when I got the email,” she said. “I just wanted to scream, ‘Hallelujah! Thank you, God!’”

The scholarship means Jordyn can stay in the school where he now fits in. He feels welcomed and comfortable.

“They knew how he was when he got there,” Simmons said of the Lakeview Christian staff. “Jordyn didn’t just go there from the old school. He took baggage with him, too. He took stuff with him to that school.”

Nevertheless, Jordyn says he wasn’t nervous his first day there. “I knew it was going to be good.”

He doesn’t like to talk about his previous school, but he lights up when the subject turns to his new one.

“The people are nice,” he says.

Since the change, not once has he complained he didn’t want to go to school. In fact, after being laid up in bed with an inner ear infection followed by the stomach flu near the end of Christmas break, Jordyn was excited to return to school Jan. 7, 2019.

Simmons and Villareal both point to Lakeview Christian’s smaller class sizes as making a big difference for students like Jordyn.

“I like to think we’re a safe place for bullied students,” said Villareal, who noted the school has had several students transfer there because they were bullied elsewhere. “In other schools they might get lost in the shuffle.”

Simmons shows pics of a smiling Jordyn in his fifth-grade class, getting hugged by his teacher, interacting with classmates during their holiday party. According to a Nov. 14, 2018 school progress report, Jordyn “is a pleasure to have in class” and “is very polite and courteous.”

A fresh start in a more welcoming environment has boosted Jordyn’s confidence.
Two months ago, he did a mile run at school in 17 minutes. By mid-December, with the help of his new classmates, he completed it in 14 minutes.

“I’m probably the last one to finish, so I’d get really tired and out of breath,” he said. “And they would all get up and try to help me finish it.” They’d cheer him on and run with him.
He says he’s now shooting for finishing in 11 minutes, “maybe 10.”

At Lakeview Christian’s elementary school Christmas concert Dec. 18, 2019 Jordyn was one of six students chosen to sing at the front of stage. He wasn’t forced to do it – he volunteered.

So far, 469 private schools have signed up to participate in the Hope Scholarship, and 67 students have been awarded the scholarship. Jordyn and his grandmother are excited and thankful that he was the first.

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

About Lake View Christian School

Lakeview Christian School opened in 1985 and offers Pre-K (for 3-year-olds) through eighth grade. During the 2018-19 school year, the school had 127 students, 59 of whom received the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, four received the Gardiner Scholarship, and one received the new Hope Scholarship. All of the classroom teachers are four-year college graduates.

Scott Kent can be reached at skent@sufs.org.