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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.
For two weeks in February Step Up For Students shined the spotlight on scholars, parents and educators who this school year have gone above and beyond while participating in at least one of two scholarship programs for schoolchildren in Florida.
The Rising Stars Awards ceremony was held at nine different locations across the state, recognizing those outstanding individuals involved with either Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income students, or the state-funded Gardiner Program for children with certain special needs. This year, Step Up received more than 650 nominations for the Rising Stars Awards.
Teachers, students, and scholars’ family members were nominated by teachers and school administrators for exceptional work throughout the school year at their respective Step Up partner schools.
This year, nearly 98,000 K-12 students are using the tax-credit scholarship statewide for tuition assistance at the private school of their choice, or on a transportation scholarship to offset the cost to an out-of-district public school. Another nearly 8,000 more scholars, ages 3 to 22, use the Gardiner Scholarship to customize their education by attending participating schools or by using approved, therapists, specialists, curriculum, technology – even a college savings account.
“We are so proud of our scholars and those who help them realize their dreams and academic success,” Step Up President Doug Tuthill said before the event. “It’s important to recognize all of those who make this program a success, and that includes the teachers who educate these kids, the parents who wanted more for their children, the kids who work hard toward their futures, and of course, our generous donors, which without them we would not exist.”
Corporate donors who help fund the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program attended each of the Rising Star Awards events and were also recognized for their support, and had a chance to meet the families they help through their donations. In 2016, the corporate community contributed a total $552 million to Step Up for these scholarships.