MIAMI GARDENS, Florida – Like nearly every football-playing high school senior in the country, Khairi Muhammad dreams of an All-American college career that leads to his selection near the top of the NFL Draft.
The desire fuels him, sometimes waking him in the middle of the night with a burst of adrenalin so strong he hops out of bed to do pushups.
Unlike nearly every football-playing high school senior in the country, though, Khairi, 18, is a newcomer to the sport. A wide receiver/cornerback, he didn’t begin playing until TRU Prep Academy started a football program when he was 16. Khairi attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.
“Football wasn’t my thing,” he said. “We weren’t a football family.”
“We didn’t even own a football,” added his mom, Andrea.
Originally, Khairi wanted to work out with the team – join them in the weightroom and on the field during the conditioning portion of practice. At the time, he was into mixed martial arts, rap music, hip hop dancing, and architecture. He studied buildings in Miami, went to architecture camp at the University of Miami and was a member of Black Architects in the Making. He planned on becoming an interior designer.
An honor student who finished the 2021-22 school year with a 4.6 GPA and 31 college credits through dual enrollment at Miami Dade College, Khairi figured he would earn an academic scholarship to college.
But the more time he spent with the football team, the more intrigued he became with the sport. After one practice, Khairi told his mom, “I think I want to play.”
“You serious?” Andrea asked.
He was, and he threw himself into the sport just as he threw himself into everything that interested him. Architecture? He carried a sketchbook and designed his own buildings. Hip hop dancing? He choreographed his own moves.
“I was one of those children who if I liked something, I jumped right into it,” he said. “I’d do 30 different things, because I liked those things. Football wasn’t one of those things for me. It became one of those things.”
That he and his siblings were homeschooled was a reason Khairi didn’t play football while growing up in Miramar, deep in football-crazy South Florida. Khairi wasn’t surrounded by classmates who played or teachers who coached the school team and could recruit him.
That would change when Andrea and her husband, Garthion, join the administration at TRU Prep, a K-12 private school in Miami Gardens with an enrollment of 100 students. Garthion is the dean of students and Andrea is the dean of academics and a high school instructor. The Muhammad’s met Mario Smith, TRU Prep’s founder and executive director in 2018.
A former football player at Monsignor Pace High School in Miami and at Kansas State University, Smith wanted to open a school that would stress athletics as a means to get to college, yet add areas of study like sports management, sports journalism, and sports medicine. Smith, who played in the Canadian Football League, knows how hard it is to continue playing football after high school. Offering those courses would allow students to have a sports-based career.
Andrea said Smith’s academic philosophy aligned with those of her and her husband, both of whom have extensive backgrounds in education. They accepted his job offers and enrolled their children.
Andrea is thankful Step Up For Students enables her to use education choice.
“I went to private school, so I understand the value of education, period, but definitely of private education,” he said. “I think if a parent wants to send their child to a smaller learning environment so they can have a model that works best for them, they should have that opportunity.”
Khairi said he quickly adjusted to life with classmates in a brick-and-mortar school.
“For me, it opened the opportunity to skyrocket academically,” he said. “Coming here, I was able to expand socially and academically.”
Khairi, who is 6-feet and 150 pounds, has drawn interest from a few NCAA Division III college programs. His goal this season is to play well enough to receive an offer from a Division I program, one that would offer better exposure to NFL scouts. He knows his lack of experience could hurt him since he’s being recruited from a talent pool that includes high school seniors who have been playing football since they were 5.
“You heard that saying, ‘Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.’ I have to be that ‘hard work,’ ” he said.
Because of that, Khairi isn’t pinning his future on football. He is just as interested in a career in sports journalism and sports medicine.
“You still have to go to school. You still have to get an education,” he said. “You still need that experience, still need to network, make connections. I can’t put all my eggs in one basket. I have to put a few here and a few here. This road that I’m on, if there is construction on it and it’s a dead-end, I have to be able to make that left or that right to keep going.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@SUFS.org.
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.
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 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.
BY ROGER MOONEY
FORT MYERS, Florida – Zechariah Edwards sat inside the principal’s office at Sonshine Christian Academy one morning during the final days of his senior year and talked about his future.
“I want to be a missionary,” he said.
“That’s a pretty good question.”
After a few moments of thought, he said, “As a Christian, I feel I have to spread the word to people who don’t know.”
That’s a pretty good answer.
Zech, 17, has a vision for his future that is evolving. He’s not unlike a lot of recent high school graduates in that way. Not too long ago he thought of becoming a doctor. Then a math teacher. Now, a missionary.
“Now I’m set on that,” he said.
Zech was the valedictorian of his graduating class at Sonshine Christian, a K-12 private school in Fort Myers where he attended on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.
He received the Super Senior Award at this year’s Rising Stars Awards event. Hosted by Step Up, Rising Stars recognizes students in four categories: Outstanding Character, High Achievement, Turnaround Student and Super Senior. A Super Senior demonstrates academic achievement, leadership, community service and extra-curricular activities.
Zech is headed to Florida Gulf Coast University and plans to major in civil engineering. Thanks to the credits accumulated through dual enrollment at Baptist College of Florida and Southeastern University, he’ll begin his first year with three semesters worth of college credits.
“I think Zech has received a good education (at Sonshine Christian), a strong one” said his mom, Rebecca. “He’s well-rounded in his academics.”
Rebecca is also the principal of Sonshine Christian, so she views the school’s education value from two sides – parent and employee. She wouldn’t work there if she didn’t believe in the school. Nor would she send her children there.
Zech is the third of Eric’s and Rebecca’s children to attend Sonshine Christian. Renae and Timothy have graduated. Matthew is a rising sophomore.
After homeschooling their three oldest for several years, the Edwardses looked for a Christian school. With the help of the tax credit scholarships, they were able to afford Sonshine Christian, which is not far from their home in Alva.
“With Step Up, I’m so thankful we didn’t have to choose public school. We could choose something else,” Rebecca said.
“If I had to put all four of my kids in private school, you’re talking a lot of money. The Step Up programs allows families to have that option that didn’t have that option before. It gives you an option to have a school choice, and there are so many parents here who are able to make a choice where without Step Up they wouldn’t have that ability.”
Zech was president of the student council and captain of both the basketball and flag football teams. He’s a preschool leader and involved in several ministries at his church. An avid chess player, Zech won regional championships during the past two years at the Accelerated Christian Education student convention. He beat his older brother Timothy in 2021 and his younger brother Matthew this past April during the finals.
He works at Bellacino’s Pizza & Grinders in Fort Myers, doing everything from washing dishes to busing tables to answering phones to making pizza and grinders.
Not surprisingly, the valedictorian tutors his classmates in a variety of classes, including math. Especially math.
He loves math, namely precalculus.
“That was fun,” he said. “It was a struggle, but it was fun.”
That was his thought process in becoming a doctor. It would be hard but also fun. But the more he thought about it, the less enamored he became with the idea.
So, he turned to math, his favorite subject. He could become a math teacher, maybe even return to Sonshine Christian. But the excitement surrounding that quickly faded.
It was early in the 2021-22 school year when an evangelist visited the school. Zech was drawn to his stories of work as a missionary. He listened to more accounts of missionary work during a four-day Christian retreat in February. The more he heard, the more he was sold.
“I felt like God was telling me to pursue that,” he said.
A civil engineering degree will give him a background in designing, building and maintaining both physical and natural environments. Just what one needs to work as a missionary in underdeveloped or financially strapped regions of the world.
Zech will receive an early introduction into that life in June when he attends Puerto Rico on a mission trip. He knows the work won’t be easy.
“That makes it fun,” he said. “That makes it interesting.”
His sister Renae, now a preschool teacher, went on several mission trips to the Dominican Republic during high school, so serving their faith in that way runs in the Edwards family.
“I think it’s a good opportunity if Zechariah feels that missionary work is what he wants to do,” Rebecca said. “He needs to step out there and see, get the experience.
“It’s a good first step. Still a big step, and I think it will be good for his leadership. He’s shown a lot of leadership skills this year. I think it will be good experience for him to see what the next step is going to be.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at email@example.com.
BY ROGER MOONEY
MARGATE, Florida – Sophonie Jean Baptiste was in the family’s second-floor apartment the day in 2010 when an earthquake rocked her native Haiti. She grabbed her daughter, Gema, who was not quite 3, and tried to run for safety while the three-story building they lived in crumbled.
They didn’t make it.
Nearly five hours later, family members heard Gema’s cries from under the rubble. She was the only one of the nine who were in the apartment to survive the 7.0 magnitude earthquake.
“My mom died trying to save me,” Gema said.
Debris lodged in Gema’s right eye cost her the vision in that eye.
Gema does not remember the earthquake that claimed an estimated 100,000 to 160,000 lives, nor any of the estimated 52 aftershocks that occurred during the following 12 days. She does not remember her father, Emmanuel, taking her to a hospital in the Dominican Republic for treatment on her eye.
Gema said she cannot remember anything that happened in her life before the age of 5, which was when she and her dad immigrated to the United States.
“I don’t remember my mother,” she said.
Gema, now 14, answered questions about the earthquake while sitting in an office inside Abundant Life Christian Academy in Margate, where she is finishing her freshman year. She has attended the private K-12 school since third grade on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.
She spoke in the quiet, confident voice of someone who knows where she is going in life.
To Broward College next year, where she will be dual enrolled.
To an Ivy League college.
To medical school.
To a life helping those who need help.
She wants to someday open her own hospital in Haiti.
“I always wanted to do something big with my life,” she said.
Gema received the High Achieving Student Award during this year’s Rising Stars Awards program, hosted by Step Up. Abundant Life Principal Stacy Angier nominated her for the award, which is for students who excel in academics, arts or athletics.
Gema excels in academics, where she is one of the top students in her school. She is a member of the National Junior Honor Society, tutors classmates in math and science, and volunteers for Abundant Life outreach programs, including a 2019 mission trip to Havana, Cuba. She can also be heard playing Beethoven on the school’s piano.
“Gema’s always been good at math and she’s a really hard worker and that’s a huge part of it,” Angier said. “The ability you bring to the table is important, but what’s really important is what you put into it, and she puts her heart and soul into it.”
Education is of the utmost importance to Gema and her father. That’s how she found her way to Abundant Life.
Emmanuel wanted a more-demanding education for his daughter than the one she was receiving at her district school.
“Anything that’s easy for Gema, she gets bored,” Emmanuel said. “She doesn’t want problems like one plus one equal two. She wants problems that are hard, that make you think.”
A coworker told him about Abundant Life. Emmanuel’s concerns about the school’s tuition were put to rest when he learned of the scholarships to K-12 private schools administered by Step Up.
He knew his daughter was in the right education environment when she came home after her first day in the third grade with 12 books in her backpack.
“They’re going to teach you a lot,” he told Gema.
Emmanuel, now a civil engineer for the City of Margate, calls the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program “the best thing ever.”
“This is amazing,” he said. “I tell Gema, ‘When you get to the Ivy League school and get your degrees and are making big bucks, I want you to put money into that program.’ This is the best program ever. I love it.
“Because of this program, she can be in one of the best schools in the district. I can’t say ‘thank you’ enough to those who contribute to the program.”
Emmanuel and his second wife, Sherline, have two sons – Emmanuel II, 7, and Stephen, 5. Both will begin attending Abundant Life in the 2022-23 school year.
“It’s a quality education,” Emmanuel said.
Gema’s mom, Sophonie, thought of becoming a doctor before deciding on a career as a nurse. Emmanuel said Sophonie’s dream was to guide their daughter to a career in medicine.
Gema was unaware of that plan when, at the age of 5, she told her dad that she wanted to be a doctor.
“As soon as she said that to me, I was like, ‘Wow! This was something your mom was dreaming about, you becoming a doctor,’ ” Emmanuel said.
It’s an ambitious dream for anyone, let alone a 5-year-old
After emerging from the rubble, Gema is building the foundation of a bright future. Emmanuel said his daughter has benefited by coming to America at a young age, learning to speak English well, getting a good education – all things he missed out on.
“The stuff I didn’t do, I can see it through her,” he said. “She’s going to make it.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY ROGER MOONEY
Step Up For Students’ Rising Stars Award program returns this year with in-person events, a virtual event and a new category – the Super Senior Award.
“Step Up For Students celebrates our outstanding scholarship students every year through our Rising Stars Award ceremonies across the state,” said Jamila Wiltshire, Student Learning & Partner Success manager at Step Up.
“We are excited to return to in-person events this school year. Here at Step Up for Students, we know the importance of celebrating a year of everyday victories and growth which is pivotal to our students.”
Because of the challenges presented by COVID-19, the 2020-21 event was held virtually. Five in-person events are planned for this spring:
In addition, all Rising Stars Award scholars will be honored May 3 during a virtual event.
Principals can nominate students from Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC), Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options (FES-EO), Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique abilities (formerly Gardiner Scholarship) and Hope Scholarship in one of four categories:
Click here to nominate your students. Deadline for nominations is Feb. 11.
Principals can nominate up to three students. McKay Scholarship students are not eligible.
Before you begin making your nominations, please have all necessary information available, including: school name, school DOE number, each nominee’s contact information (name, phone number, email address), and a short description of why each student is being nominated.
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at email@example.com.
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.
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ROGER MOONEY
Do you have a Step Up For Students scholar who made significant improvements academically since attending your school?
How about a Step Up student who consistently displays outstanding compassion, perseverance and courage?
Or one who excels in academics, the arts or athletically?
Now is the time for school leaders to honor those students for Step Up’s annual Rising Stars Awards program, scheduled for Feb. 25, 2021. This year’s event will be held virtually from 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Another change this year due to COVID-19 is we are limiting the categories to student only. Next year we hope to honor parents and teachers again in person.
“Step Up For Students celebrates our outstanding scholarship students every year through our Rising Stars Award ceremonies across the state. We had to cancel the 2020 celebration due to COVID-19, so we are excited to announce that we will be back in 2021 with a virtual celebration!
“While we wish we could be together in person, we promise that this live virtual event will be an exciting and special way to honor our amazing scholarship students and the great work they are able to do in their chosen schools,” said Lauren Barlis, Step Up’s senior director of Student Learning & Partner Success.
School leaders can nominate up to three total students in the following categories:
Click here to nominate your students.
The deadline for nominations is Dec. 4.
Before making nominations, please have all necessary information available, including school name, school DOE number, each nominee’s contact information (name, phone number, email address, Step Up Award number). Please include a short description of why each person is being nominated.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
By ROGER MOONEY
It is time to recognize outstanding members of the Step Up For Students family – students, teachers and parents – for their efforts this school year during our annual Rising Stars Awards program.
Each school can nominate up to six individuals, and the first person nominated must be a student.
Those selected will be honored in March and April during ceremonies held in one of 16 locations around the state.
School principals can nominate students for one of the following:
Teachers who push students to succeed, who truly represent the power of parent partnerships and focus on building relationships for success or who embrace the importance of continuous improvement and professional development can be nominated for the Exceptional Teacher Award.
Parents or guardians who actively support your school and the education of his or her child are eligible for the Phenomenal Family Member Award.
Deadline for nominations is Jan. 31, 2020 and can be made here.
Before making nominations, please have all necessary information available, including school name, school Florida Department of Education (DOE) number, each nominee’s contact information (name, phone number, email address). Please include a short description of why each person is being nominated.
The Rising Star Award ceremonies are scheduled for the following cities.
Event locations will be announced at a later date.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ROGER MOONEY
NORTH FORT MYERS, Fla. – The Baker family name was synonymous with Temple Christian School for nearly two decades, and it was a name that automatically spread warmth.
Dawn Baker was the principal at the private school and played the piano at church. Her husband, Chet, taught third through sixth grade and was the choir’s song director. Their son, Jamison was in VPK.
They were a beautiful family who led with their faith.
“Their spiritual walk, it goes with the talk,” said Wanda Chirila, who has taught at Temple Christian for 29 years and called Dawn her closest friend.
Dawn and Chet worked at Temple Christian for 18 years. To many, they were Temple Christian.
“This was their home away from home,” said John Edwards, the pastor of the adjourning Temple Baptist Church.
On the night of Oct. 18, 2018, the tightknit school and church community came to a tearful standstill as word spread that the Bakers were involved in a horrific two-car accident.
Chet, 51, died at the scene. Jamison, 4, died later that night at a Lee County hospital. Dawn, 47, passed the next day.
“Everyone is still grieving,” said Krystal Bruce, the school’s office manager.
To honor the memory and the spirit of the Bakers, Step Up For Students will present The Baker Perseverance Award this month at several Rising Star events around the state, honoring Step Up scholars, their family members and educators who have gone above and beyond. This new award goes to school leaders who emulate the Baker’s spirit of perseverance and dedication. The awards begin Tuesday night.
“I am very happy for it,” Krystal said. “It’s really great how (people) don’t want to just forget. They led lives like we should all strive to live. They were willing and able to give at any moment for anything, and they were huge supporters in the school and the church, and if I could be half of that, I would be so blessed.”
Tears rolled down Krystal’s cheeks as she spoke. Krystal cried often on a recent morning as she talked for half an hour about the Bakers.
“Love,” Krystal said. “They had such a love for their students, and they genuinely cared about everyone. They took the time. They’d go visit the kids at their houses. They’d get to know the parents.”
Tougher than Hurricane Irma
Why is Step Up honoring the Bakers with what will be a yearly award?
“Our staff has worked with the Bakers for several years,” said Carol Macedonia, Step Up’s vice president, Office of Student Learning. “The couple was always the most positive, ‘can do,’ child focused administrators we had the pleasure of working with. They always wanted to do what was needed for their students.
“My team came up with the award as a way to memorialize the Bakers and what they stood for. We have many leaders and teachers that are very much like the Bakers in many of our schools across the state, and we want to honor them with this award.”
Dawn spearheaded the reconstruction of the building in the fall and winter of 2017 after Hurricane Irma did her best to smash it, raising funds to repair the $240,000 in damages caused by the storm. Chet grabbed his tools and repaired what he could.
It was Dawn who rallied the school community, telling parents, “This is the plan. This is what we’re going to do. Don’t worry, it’s going to work.”
“And she made it work,” Krystal said. “It was wild and crazy, but if it wasn’t for her, I don’t think the school would have held together.”
Dawn begin her nearly 20-year career at Temple Christian as a teacher. She eventually became the assistant principal and then principal. The Bakers’ older children, Kara and Chet Jr. both graduated from the school. Kara works as a missionary in France. Chet Jr. is in the U.S Air Force.
Hundreds turned out the night after the accident for a candlelight vigil. The tiny flames illuminated the darkness at the small school and church located on a remote stretch of State Road 31, out near a C & C Feed Store and a Shell gas station.
“It was amazing,” Krystal said. “There was just so many people coming, offering condolences. They were giving testimonies. We had people who graduated here 10 years ago talking about how they touched their lives, set them on a certain track and just how they cared for them, so that was really special.”
In her 1996 poem, “The Dash,” Linda Ellis talked about life.
“I read of a man who stood to speak
At the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on her tombstone
From the beginning to the end.
He noted that first came the date of her birth
And spoke of the following date with tears,
But he said what mattered most of all
Was the dash between those years”
“They did a lot with that dash,” Edwards said. “It was a nice dash. It was God honoring.”
Dawn hummed or whistled Christian songs and Disney tunes as she walked the halls of the school. She was full of compassion and yet could be stern. She once expelled one of Chirila’s foster children.
Chet could be found on weekends pulling weeds around the school or the church. He was handy with tools, could fix anything. And if you were moving on the weekend and needed an extra hand, Chet was available. Always.
Jamison was all boy, said those who knew him. He was full of laughter and so much life.
In an instance, they were gone. What remains?
“The impact they had on many lives in this community,” Edwards said. “A profound impact.”
Life does go on, though. Teachers adjusted their schedule to cover Chet’s classes. And there is a new principal, Brittany Lohmeier, who possesses many of the same traits as Dawn.
Lohmeier visited the area over Christmas, saw Temple Christian’s ad for a new principal and applied. Chirila doesn’t believe that is a coincidence.
“She just fits right in,” Chirila said.
The Bakers’ deaths are looked upon as a divine appointment in the Baptist community. Edwards recalled the speech Dawn made the day before the accident during a staff meeting.
“She said, ‘Let’s stop dinking around with Christianity,’ and then she made a confession and prayer to the Lord. She said, ‘Lord, whatever it takes to use me for your glory and honor, to further the Kingdom, I’m in,’ and that next day she died. That was a real shaking moment to reflect upon,” Edwards said. “People think, ‘Man, was that her farewell speech.’”
Edwards noted a number of people who attend Temple Baptist recommitted to their faith after the Baker’s accident.
Sitting in the school’s library, Chirila recalled Dawn’s speech.
“It hit my heart,” she said.
Chirila and her husband have seven foster children at home, ages 4 to 14.
“It’s chaos,” Chirila said. “Dawn always said, ‘I’ll take one. I’ll take them all. I will help you. I will go through that ringer with you.’ She truly meant it. You know how people say, ‘If you need me call me,’ and they’re nowhere to be found? She was always to be found.”
Reminders of the Bakers dot the school and church. Notes written to the Bakers by the student after the accident still hang from the walls of classrooms. Chet’s tools still sit where he left them.
The church sanctuary was recently renamed The Baker Auditorium.
And then there is the school and church building. It remains standing because of the dedication and perseverance, the love and faith of the Bakers.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
By ROGER MOONEY
Is there a Step Up For Students scholar in your school who is outstanding in academics? The arts? Athletics?
Know a teacher whose impact on students deserves praise?
Or a parent whose support of his or her scholar’s education needs to be celebrated?
Step Up For Students provides the platform for schools to recognize these individuals during its annual Rising Stars Award program.
“This event was designed to recognize the amazing students, teachers, and family members who fill the halls of our Step Up For Students partner schools every day,” said Carol Macedonia, Step Up’s vice president, office of student learning. “Last year we recognized over 800 students. We look forward to honoring even more students this year.
“It is our privilege to celebrate the accomplishments of Step Up scholars, as well as some of the most supportive parents, families and educators. Each year we look forward to this event in more than 12 regional celebrations where the schools come together to share the special talents and accomplishments of students in kindergarten through 12th grade.”
Applications are being accepted now. Deadline for nominations is Jan. 4. Those selected will be celebrated in February at one of 15 locations around the state.
Nominate someone here.
Schools can nominate up to six individuals across the following categories:
High Achieving Student Award. Do you have a Step Up student who is excelling in a specific area (academics, arts, athletics)?
Turnaround Student Award. Do you have a Step Up student who has struggled when they first came to your school and has made a dramatic improvement?
Exceptional Teacher Award. Do you have a teacher who pushes his or her students to succeed? Do you have a teacher who truly represents the power of parent partnerships and focuses on building a relationship for success? Do you have a teacher who embraces the importance of continuous improvement and professional development?
Outstanding Student Character Award. Do you have a Step Up student who shows outstanding compassion, perseverance, courage, initiative, respect, fairness, integrity, responsibility, honesty or optimism?
Phenomenal Family Member Award. Do you have a parent or guardian of a Step Up student who you can always count on to support your school and the education of his or her child?
Step Up, a nonprofit scholarship funding organization serving Florida schoolchildren, is expected to help 125,000 children during the 2018-19 school year with four scholarships – the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for children in lower-income families, the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs, the Hope Scholarship for children who are bullied in public school, the Reading Scholarship Accounts program, to assist struggling readers in third through fifth grades three. The Hope and Reading scholarships are new for this school year.
Marketing Communications Manager Roger Mooney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.