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Category Archives for School Choice

Education choice brought liberty, opportunity for immigrant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast: Young, energetic and eager to enlighten a new audience about Education Choice

Nate Cunneen and Walter Blanks Jr. take a selfie with students who attended their talk on education choice at the Iowa State Capitol.

On this podcast, Walter Blanks Jr. and Nathan Cunneen talk about their new endeavor, the School Choice Boyz podcast with Roger Mooney, manager, communications, at Step Up For Students.

Both Walter and Nate are products of school choice. Nate attended Bradenton Christian School in Florida on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Walter attended private schools in Ohio.

They work for the American Federation of Children, where Walter is the press secretary and Nate is a communications associate. They have teamed up for the School Choice Boyz podcast to bring the value of education choice to a new audience.

EPISODE DETAILS:

  • Meet Walter and Nate.
  • Education is the core of everything.
  • The podcast’s aim is to engage a younger audience.
  • Searching for new ways to share the education choice message.

Two families, football and education choice helps Junior realize his dreams of a college scholarship

BY ROGER MOONEY

TAMPA, Florida – Jessie “Junior” Vandeross considers himself “blessed” because:

  • His father died when he was 3.
  • He has a heart murmur that was detected when he was in the seventh grade and threatened to end his athletic career.
  • The grim memories of the day his father passed away surfaced when Junior was in the 10th grade and caused anxiety attacks.

Blessed?

“Going through tough times and getting through it and being successful, you have to be blessed,” he said.

Mary Lou Lopez, Junior Vandeross and Nina Vandeross. (Photo courtesy of Jesuit High School.)

Junior, 18, is a senior at Jesuit High School in Tampa. He has a football scholarship to the University of Toledo. As the leading receiver on Jesuit’s football team last fall, he helped lead the Tigers to an undefeated season and a state championship.

After the season, Junior received the Bill Minahan Award, presented annually to a football player in Hillsborough County who best demonstrated “extraordinary perseverance as well as leadership, selflessness, passion, loyalty, excellence on the field and service to others.”

“He keeps pushing,” said Nina Vandeross, Junior’s mom. “He never gives up. That’s what I love about him.”

Junior attends the private Catholic high school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, funded by corporate contributions to Step Up For Students.

“The Step Up scholarship helped him tremendously. I really appreciate that they have that for children,” Nina said. “Everybody is not fortunate, but the Step Up program makes it possible for people to have a better education and a better future.

“I love it. It makes your kid better. It makes them feel like they can do what they want to do. I am so grateful for it.”

Nina is also grateful for Denis Lopez and his family, who entered Junior’s life at a time when he needed a strong male role model.

“They are angels on earth,” she said.

Lopez is an officer with the Tampa Police Department. He was serving as the athletic director and football coach at the Police Athletic League when he met Junior, who was 7 at the time. Lopez was impressed not only with Junior’s talent on the field but his demeanor away from it. He volunteered to drive Junior home from practice because Nina didn’t have a car. Lopez took more of an interest in Junior when he learned his father had died and that Nina often worked nights at her job as an IHOP waitress.

Lopez asked Nina if Junior could spend some nights at his house with his wife, Mary Lou, and their sons, Xavier, who is a year older than Junior, and Xander, who is a year younger. Nina willingly agreed.

“Nina is the star of the show,” Lopez said, “because she made the biggest sacrifice of everyone, giving up time with her son.”

Junior has his own bedroom at the Lopez house and a closet filled with clothes. He also has his own set of chores.

“We’re all one family now,” Nina said.

A routine physical when Junior was 12 uncovered a heart murmur, placing his football future in jeopardy. After a battery of tests, Junior was cleared to play, and the murmur has never been an issue.

With the help of a tax credit scholarship, Junior followed Xavier to Jesuit.

Junior struggled in class as a sophomore, the result of a series of anxiety attacks. It seems he could no longer suppress the memories of his father’s death.

Junior had gone to the store with Nina that day. When they returned, Junior ran into his parents’ bedroom and began climbing on his dad, who had been napping. Nina was surprised her husband didn’t wake up. Jessie Vandeross Jr. (Junior is actually Jessie Vandeross III) had died of a heart attack. He was 29.

“When you’re that age, you can see it, but you can’t understand it,” Junior said. “But when I got older, I can remember everything, how the whole entire day went. Seeing him in bed. Seeing him being taken away in an ambulance.”

Junior sometimes wonders what life would be like with his father.

“Everything I do is for him, because he would want me to do the same thing if he were here,” he said.

As they did with their sons, Denis and Mary Lou Lopez hammered the importance of education into Junior.

“Education, it changes everything for you,” Lopez said. “That’s what breaks cycles.”

Junior found Jesuit’s academic rigors to be challenging at times, but he applies to the classroom the same focus and drive that carries him on the football field.

“It doesn’t come easy for him, but he works hard, and I think that will benefit him at the next level,” said Steve Matesich, Jesuit’s director of admissions. “He doesn’t realize it yet how prepared he’s going to be once he gets to Toledo.”

Like a lot of high school football players, especially those who were top players on state championship teams in Florida, Junior dreams of playing in the NFL. But he wants to major in business at Toledo, because he’s also eying a career in real estate.

With her son nearing high school graduation with a college scholarship in hand, Nina says she can finally breathe.

“Life is so much better when you see your children are living their dreams,” Nina said. “I’m glad he’s doing what he wants to do, because some kids don’t get the opportunity to do what they want to do.”

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

Sisters make education choice scholarships a family affair

BY ROGER MOONEY

It has been nearly a decade since Jasmine and Emily Rojas graduated Abundant Life Christian Academy as eighth graders, yet in a sense, they never left.

The sisters still email or visit their former teachers and volunteer for school activities. When Jasmine needed a letter of recommendation for dental school, she turned to Abundant Life Principal Stacy Angier. When Angier needed volunteers to judge the recent science fair, she turned to Emily.

When they struggled with a science assignment during high school and college, they both turned to Loretta Camacho, their former middle school science teacher.

“That,” Angier said, “is what a school is supposed to be, right?”

It is for the Rojas sisters, who credit the academic disciplined learned there as a big key to their success at an academically competitive public high school, Florida Atlantic University, and their postgraduate studies. Jasmine is scheduled to attend dental school at Case Western Reserve University in August, and Emily is working virtually toward her master’s in music at Liberty University.

“(Abundant Life) was a big part of my foundation going into high school and going into college, facing those worldly situations and having the discernment to make the right choices,” Jasmine said.

Jasmine (Class of ’13) and Emily (Class of ’14) attended Abundant Life, a private school in Margate, Florida, with the help of Florida Tax Credit Scholarships, which are provided by corporate tax contributions to Step Up For Students.

Step Up celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. That’s 20 years of empowering parents to find an educational environment that best suits the needs of their children. During that time Step Up has awarded more than 1 million scholarships across the five programs it manages.

Claudia and Wilman Rojas are proponents of school choice. They sent their two oldest children – Bryan and Kelley – to Abundant Life because they wanted them to have a faith-based education.

“They wanted us to have that foundation, even when we’re not at home,” Emily said.

The plan was the same for Jasmine and Emily. But when the nation’s economy plunged into a deep recession in 2008, the school was no longer affordable. Or it wasn’t until the family learned of the FTC Scholarship.

“Absolutely a blessing,” Jasmine said. “We wouldn’t have been able to continue to go to that school without the scholarship.”

Said Emily: “Abundant Life is such a good school. It helped us grow with our relationship with God and keep firm with that, and with our studies as well. There wasn’t another school that would have been like that. I’m extremely grateful.”

Jasmine and Emily Rojas in 2005 while attending Abundant Life Christian Academy

In addition to being “top-notch students,” as Angier described them, Jasmine and Emily were mainstays on the girls basketball, softball and volleyball teams.

“They came to school early. They stayed late,” Angier said. “Anything we needed, they helped with. They always did their work. Polite. Respectful. There was never any discipline. Not even, ‘Hey, don’t talk in class.’ They learned in their home that you respect authority, that you work hard, that you always do your best. That permeated their time here.”

Abundant Life was K-8 when the Rojas children attended. (It has since added a high school.) That meant Jasmine and Emily needed to find a new school after eighth grade. After using education choice in the form of a tax credit scholarship to attend Abundant

Life, the Rojas family exercised another form when Jasmine and Emily both chose to attend Florida Atlantic University High School.

FAUHS is a competitive school that requires an admissions test, letters of recommendation and an interview. Students graduate with three years of college credits. While the school is not part of the local public school system, it is recognized as a public school by the State University System. Angier sent them there with recommendation letters and her blessings.

“And they were rock stars there, too,” she said.

Angier and her staff try to build a relationship with all their families, though not all are as close as the one with the Rojases. When Jasmine expressed an interest in studying nonprofit management at FAU, Angier offered to set up an internship for her at her old school. Writing letters of recommendation for any of the Rojas children was an easy task for Angier.

Claudia calls her children’s time at Abundant Life a “blessing.”

“I’m very grateful for this school,” Claudia said. “They helped my kids in so many ways, growing spiritually and growing into the persons they are right now. The experience there, I think I was more happy than they were.”

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

Sen. Rubio praises Step Up scholarships for providing life-changing opportunities

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) recently joined the Brookings Institute to discuss his role in the Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys, which exists within the U.S Commission on Civil Rights’ Office of the Staff Director.

The bipartisan, 19-member Commission, comprised of congressional lawmakers, executive branch appointees, issue experts, activists, and other stakeholders, examines social disparities affecting Black men and boys in America and recommends policies to improve upon or augment current government programs.

Included in Rubio’s conversation with the Institute on why the Commission’s work matters, he spoke passionately about the importance and value of education choice. Here is an excerpt:

It’s one of the reasons why one of the things I’ve been supportive of is school choice. Not because I’m anti-public schools. I went to public schools. Some of the best public schools in America are public schools in South Florida. But I also have seen firsthand — not because I read about it — someone be taken through an opportunity scholarship, which is funded through corporate donations to Step Up For [Students] in Florida, be able to go to a private school or a school of their parents’ choice, where they are exposed to all kinds of things that expand their horizons.

Suddenly, they realize there’s this whole other world out there — job and career opportunities that they may never have been aware of if their life had been isolated to just the 15, 20 square blocks of their neighborhood and their local community. That is a life-changing opportunity that suddenly sparks all sorts of interest. I’ve seen it happen over and over again.

People who never thought about becoming an engineer or a pilot, or going into the service academies, or going into law or science, whatever it may be, because they didn’t even know that those jobs existed, because they don’t know anyone who has jobs like that. To me, that’s extraordinarily important, and it’s one of those things that I think are underappreciated.

How much value that has in young people’s lives, to be exposed to those opportunities and to expand horizons early on. You can read more of Rubio’s comments here.

Cadence Bank provides education opportunities for more than 100 students with donation to Step Up

BY ASHLEY ZARLE

Cadence Bank (NYSE: CADE), formerly BancorpSouth Bank, today announced a $800,000 contribution to Step Up For Students to support disadvantaged youth in Florida.  

The contribution will be used to provide educational opportunities to more than 100 students through K-12 scholarships and underscores Cadence’s commitment to supporting programs and initiatives that help its communities thrive. Since 2019, the bank has funded 160 scholarships through contributions, totaling $1.2 million.

“We’re pleased to support Step Up For Students’ efforts to provide educational options for students who have financial needs,” said Frank Hall, president – Northwest Florida division for BancorpSouth, a division of Cadence Bank. “These scholarships are providing our future leaders with access to resources and opportunities that will help them tap into their full potential.” 

Step Up For Students helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides lower-income families with financial assistance toward private school tuition and fees, or with transportation costs to attend an out-of-district public school. Through partnering with Step Up For Students, companies can fund scholarships and receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits for their contributions.

On March 8, Cadence Bank, formerly BancorpSouth Bank, announced a $800,000 contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are Jeff Dibenedictis, Market President – Panama City Market for BancorpSouth, a division of Cadence Bank; Frank A. Hall, President – Northwest Florida Division for BancorpSouth, a division of Cadence Bank; Rev. Kevin McQuone, Head of School for St. John Catholic Academy; and Cheryl Audas, Senior Development Officer for Step Up For Students. They are joined by several students from St. John Catholic Academy who are benefiting from the scholarship.

“We are grateful for the continued support of Cadence Bank,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “Because of its generosity, we are able to continue to provide Florida’s students with the educational opportunities they deserve.”

In February 2019, the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, released results of a study on the effectiveness of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, the nation’s largest private K-12 scholarship program. The study found that students on scholarship for four or more years were up to 99% more likely to attend a four-year college than their peers in public school, and up to 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.

Since 2002, Step Up For Students has awarded more than one million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Ashley Zarle, senior manager, community relations donor events, can be reached at azarle@sufs.org.

Education choice scholarship helps Ny’Reon create blueprint for his future

By ROGER MOONEY

Ny’Reon Shuman has a blueprint for his future.

The 17-year-old has designs on being an architect. He wants to own an architectural firm, one with offices around the world.

He wants to design a big house for his grandmother, Katherine Shuman, who adopted him when he was an infant. He calls her “Mom.”

“She’s made sacrifices after sacrifices to get me to be here,” Ny’Reon said. “She’s literally the person I do everything for. I know once I make it, there is nothing in the world she can’t have, because that’s my mom.”

Once I make it.

To the teachers and staff at Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville, Ny’Reon is making it now.

“To me, he’s outside of the mold,” said Jackie Hardin, who has been Ny’Reon’s guidance counselor for the past four years.

Ny’Reon, a senior at Bishop Kenny, attends the Catholic school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is provided by corporate tax contributions to Step Up For Students. Ny’Reon has used the FTC Scholarship to attend a private school every year beginning with kindergarten.

“It’s been amazing,” Katherine said. “Can you see me drawing social security, trying to work and take care of him without a scholarship? Would have been no way I could have done it. It’s been a blessing to us because it paved the way for him.”

Ny’Reon and Katherine.

Katherine, 68, is a home health care aide. She has had seven back surgeries since 2010. In late December, she suffered a torn ACL and a broken bone in her right leg after a fall. Through all her medical maladies, Ny’Reon has served as her caregiver. He did his schoolwork virtually during the first two weeks of January so he could take care of his mom.

“He puts her needs before his own,” said Dawn Huskey, who teaches practical and performing arts. “What 17-year-old young man would do that? He left school. He went on virtual learning so he can protect her. He has a heart of service.”

Katherine’s son is Ny’Reon’s biological father. Shortly after Ny’Reon was born, he asked Katherine if she could take care of the baby.

“They were not in the right head space to raise a child,” Ny’Reon said of his parents. “My grandmother adopted me when she was 52 and I was two months old. For me to come from a past like that to the man I am today, nothing but God did that.”



Faith takes center stage in the lives of the Shumans, which is why Katherine wanted a faith-based education for Ny’Reon. They belong to Trinity Deliverance Christian Church in Jacksonville. When he was 11, Ny’Reon was asked to preach in front of the congregation. He’s been a guest preacher ever since.

“He sounds like one of the old preachers from way back when,” Katherine said.

Ny’Reon has not seen his biological mother since he was 3. He would like to meet her someday and show her all he has accomplished.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to form a more stable relationship as mother and son,” he said. “My heart is in the right place. I’m praying to God that we can. I hope that it plays out well.”

Ny’Reon carries a 3.0 GPA with a course load heavy on college prep work. He began his own photography business after developing a love for photography in the fifth grade. He has his own LinkedIn page.

As a fifth-grader he began attending the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation (MWYF) summer camps, where he learned to play tennis. He now teaches tennis there and is president of the Foundation’s Teen Board of Directors for Club 904, which prepares high school students for college. The MWYF provides various scholarships to be used for college. Ny’Reon has earned three.

He also received a $27,000 college scholarship from the Stanley G. Tate Florida Prepaid College Foundation and Guardian Catholic Schools.

Ny’Reon plans to use these scholarships at either Florida International University or the University of Miami.

His goal is to earn a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a master’s degree in computer science.

His love of architecture began in the ninth grade when he took Digital Information Technology. For one assignment, he had to create a three-story house.

“I became so fascinated by the design, by the process,” he said. “I always told my mom I want to build her a house, and then I thought I could do this for a living and start my own architectural firm and branch off around the world.”

Huskey met Ny’Reon during a Summer Learning Strategies course she taught to in-coming freshman.

“I don’t mean to say that I could tell the future, but from the time I met him as a graduating eighth-grader, I knew there was something special about this kid,” she said.

Huskey’s husband, Mike, works for an architectural, engineering and construction firm that has offices around the world. He met Ny’Reon through a Zoom call, and Ny’Reon peppered Mike with questions about how to break into the field and start his own business.

“I’m in awe of this kid,” Dawn Huskey said. “I didn’t have my stuff together at 17 like he does.”

Said Hardin, “He’s wise, just so mature for a high school student. It’s always exciting to see that.”

Thanks to a sturdy foundation made possible by a tax credit scholarship, Ny’Reon seems capable of reaching unlimited heights.

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

Dreams of owning a home, quality schools for the boys come true thanks to education choice scholarship

BY ROGER MOONEY

ORLANDO, Florida – Juliette Harrell was 17 when she told her mom she was pregnant. She was promptly kicked out of her house.

A single mother herself, Juliette’s mom painted a bitter picture of Juliette’s new world.

“My mom told me my life was over. You got to take care of your kids. You can’t do anything,” she said.

Juliette agreed with only one part: She would take care of her baby. But she felt her life was not over, and she was determined to realize her dreams of completing her education, starting a business, owning a home, and raising a family in a nuclear household.

Now, 10 years after Aiden was born, Juliette has realized all but one of those goals. Her childcare business is still in the planning stages. But it will operate out of the home Juliette and her husband, Allen, own at the end of a cul de sac in Orlando, where they live with Aiden and his brothers Amar’e, 6, and Asht’n, 2.

The path to the present wasn’t easy for the Harrells, who found themselves homeless at one point. They remained on course through an unwavering belief in themselves and a Step Up For Students scholarship. The scholarship relieved some of the financial burden and allowed the Harrells to exercise their right to school choice and send Aiden and Amar’e to a private schools located within walking distance of their home.

“The scholarship really has helped us tremendously. I don’t know where I’d be without it,” Juliette said. “The school that we’re zoned for hasn’t been performing well – well, not up to my liking, anyways.”

The Harrell family: Asht’n, Juliette, Aiden, Amar’e and Allen (standing).

Allen was working as a groundskeeper at an Orlando apartment complex when he learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is provided by corporate tax contributions to Step Up For Students. The scholarship allowed Juliette and Allen to enroll Aiden in Orlando Day Nursery, a private pre-K and kindergarten school near their apartment at the time.

Aiden now attends Alpha Learning Academy, a K-5 private school, where he is in the fifth grade. Amar’e attended Orlando Day Nursery for pre-K and kindergarten and is now in the first grade at Alpha Learning Academy.

Juliette said receiving the FTC Scholarship eased the anxiety she had about Aiden’s education.

“For me, it was really important that we not only get the best education, but the education environment that best fit our family,” she said. “At the time, the public school we were zoned for wasn’t the best. I wanted options for (Aiden), and we were looking for the best opportunities for him.”

Education has always been at the forefront of Juliette’s plans. She graduated from high school despite being a teen mom who found herself bouncing between hotels and the homes of family and friends after her mother kicked her out.

“That was really important to me, getting my high school diploma so I didn’t become another statistic,” Juliette said.

Then she received an associate degree from Valencia College in Orlando and a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from the University of Central Florida. Allan has an associate degree from Valencia. He now works in merchandising for City Beverage of Orlando.

The two met in a computer graphics class in high school. Allen was a senior and Juliette a freshman. Juliette saw Allen from across the classroom, walked up and told him they would someday be married. And they are.


Click here to listen to more of Juliette’s story on the reimaginED podcast with Lisa Buie.


Poor money management led to the couple being homeless for six months in 2015. Juliette took Aiden and Amar’e and moved into a woman’s coalition. Allen moved back home with his mom. The separation, Juliette said, made the family bond stronger. It also provided her with the motivation to finish her degree at UCF.

“I felt really hopeless at times,” she said. “I felt like, ‘Why is this happening? What did I do wrong? Why did I go the route that I did?’”

Juliette knew an education was the way out. She wants the same for her boys. She wants to raise them in a stable, two-parent household where they never go hungry and always feel loved.

She wants to open the daycare to help the teen moms and the single parents in the neighborhood. She and Allen have cleared space in their backyard for a community garden, so they can provide fresh vegetables for their neighbors.

Juliette said she feels as if her family is no longer in “survival mode.” Because of that, she said it’s time they help those in their community who can use a hand.

“I want to let other families know that there is a way out of your struggle,” she said. “We did it, and we went to help other people get out of their struggle, also.”

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

20 years of Educational Opportunity: Once a beneficiary of education choice, Ashley is now an advocate

BY ROGER MOONEY

The first time Ashley Elliott realized her story could make a difference was when she found herself in Washington, D.C., moving from the office of Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Orlando) to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) to talk about the importance of education choice.

It works, Ashley said. You’re looking at proof.

It was a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship that changed the trajectory of her life for the better. She went from being a bullied student with failing grades at her district high school to one who aced her classes and made friends after enrolling in a private school as a junior. She was a college freshman when she was invited to Washington to share her story, and she didn’t hold back.

“If I could change the hearts of legislatures then it meant that things could change for kids in Florida, as well,” Ashley said.

Once a beneficiary of education choice, Ashley is now an advocate for education choice.

“I think where I see myself (in the future) is just always trying to make educational opportunity a continuing option, at least within Florida and hopefully in the U.S.,” she said.

Step Up For Students celebrates its 20th anniversary this school year. Last year, it funded its millionth scholarship. Many have used the FTC scholarship, provided by corporate tax contributions to Step Up, to combat economic hardship and graduate from high school.  And many of those high school graduates have pursued a college education.

Once a beneficiary of education choice, Ashley Elliott now advocates for education choice.

Indeed, research shows Ashley is hardly alone. A 2017 report by the Urban Institute found that FTC students were up to 43 percent more likely than similarly disadvantaged students in public schools to attend a four-year college, and those who were on the scholarship for at least four years were 99 percent more likely to attend college. They also were more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.

 Ashley counts herself among that group of FTC alumni. She already has an associate degree from Valencia College and is on pace to graduate this spring from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor’s degree in history. She would like to pursue a master’s degree in history or education policy, and possibly continue on for a Ph.D. She currently works part-time as a writer for the American Federation for Children and would love to continue working for the nonprofit after she graduates UCF.

Ashley said that “ninth-grade Ashley” never thought any of this was possible.

“She wouldn’t know how I got here. She would be confused,” she said. “But ninth-grade Ashley would be happy for me.”

Growing up in Lakeland, Florida, Ashley described her life as the “epitome of American poverty.” She and her younger brother were adopted by their grandmother. They both call Juanita McKinnon “Mom.”

 Despite the love at home and the sacrifices made by Juanita, who gave up her retirement years to raise her grandchildren, Ashley didn’t see much of a future for herself. She didn’t think she would graduate high school. She was resigned to being what she called “a statistic.”

But the principal and a teacher at the alternative high school she attended took an interest in Ashley. When they moved to a private school, they asked Ashley to move, too. With the help of the FTC scholarship, Ashley entered Victory Christian Academy as a junior and went from a student with failing grades and discipline issues to one who earned A’s and B’s and graduated with honors.

“Your education determines your future,” she said. “When I received school choice, it changed my future. I want that opportunity for everyone, not just me.”

Ashley and her mom, Juanita McKinnon.

Ashley forged tight bonds with her teachers at Victory Christian. She remains in touch with many of them. She’ll ask some to proofread a paper before she turns it into one of her college professors.

“They’re always there when I need them,” she said. “I know I can go back and get the help I need at any point in my life.”

Ashley is quick to recount a parent/teacher conference during eight grade where she and Juanita met with seven of her teachers. Two thought Ashley could salvage her grades and graduate. Ashley felt the other five had given up on her.

It was only recently when sharing that story with a couple of her college friends when one asked, “Did you ever think you weren’t receiving the proper help?” that Ashley fully grasped what it meant.

“And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re right,’” she said. “Because when I went to Victory there were the proper teachers to help me. A lot of it was about finding the right environment that worked for me.”

That’s what Ashley advocates for: The proper learning environment for every student. It can be achieved, she said, if families have a say, a chance to choose the education environment for their children.

In February, Ashley spoke to lawmakers in New Mexico. She told them that according to social statistics she should be a high school dropout, not someone who is a few credits shy of a college degree.

“It makes me really frustrated and upset that while our kids are going through the system and suffering, (lawmakers) are saying, ‘Wait. Wait. Just wait for it to be fixed. We’re working on it. Give it some time,’” she said.

“While legislators are saying that, school choice will be there to give an option for students who don’t have that time to wait. There’s no time to wait for a kid who’s trying to get through school. You have to be educated. I want to make sure that educational opportunities are always an option.”

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

Prenda microschools provide education choice opportunities for educators as well as students

BY ROGER MOONEY

After 13 years of teaching at district schools in Shreveport, Louisiana, Pam Lee was searching for something that would give the students what she called a “better opportunity” to succeed.

Disappointed in Louisiana’s education system, which annually ranks near the bottom in the nation, Lee’s passion for her job was slowly eroding. She wanted to continue teaching, but she desperately needed a change.

“I felt that there was something bigger,” Lee said, “and I was praying every day I would find it.”

The answer came in the form of a Facebook ad for Prenda, a network of K-8 microschools headquartered in Arizona. “Open your own microschool,” it read. Lee was intrigued. She clicked on the ad, and within 24 hours had talked to a Prenda representative and was making plans to open her own microschool.

Lee loved Prenda’s model: small classes of five to 10 students that can meet in the teacher’s (called “guides”) home or at a facility that meets state safety requirements; the ability for guides to set the curriculum and for students to learn at their own pace; and the flexibility for guides to set their own class hours, which run no more than 25 hours a week.

Students at a Prenda Microschool in Glendale, Arizona.

Lee opened a Prenda Microschool Den of Shreveport in September, which meets at a local daycare center. After more than a dozen years of teaching within the guidelines set by district schools, Lee said she hasn’t once looked back.

“I think Prenda is heaven-sent, actually, for us here in Louisiana,” Lee said. “My students are kind of the ones that get looked over in class. I have a fifth-grader who can’t read at all. Just having Prenda come here and me having the opportunity to reach those kids has been amazing.”

Lee’s is a case of education choice saving the student as well as the educator.

“This is what I was praying for, for years and years,” Lee said. “I say divine intervention is what brought Prenda to me.”

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Prenda Microschools was founded in 2018 by Kelly Smith, who holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from Brigham Young University and a master’s degree in plasmas and fusion from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was intrigued with the way the students in the computer programming class he taught at a Mesa, Arizona library showed up each week and worked hard at Code Club. Smith realized kids learn better if they are interested in what they are learning.

It began with one microschool made up of seven kids from Smith’s neighborhood. Its mission: to “empower learners.”

“That’s what this is,” said Rachelle Gibson, Prenda’s New Markets Team Leader. “Let them be who they are and become who they are meant to be. It isn’t just education. ‘Empower Learners’ at its core means children understand that they can do anything once they learn how to learn and appreciate who they are as a person.”

Today, there are more than 2,500 students in 300 Prenda Microschools stretched across 5 states. Gibson is overseeing the organization’s expansion into a 6th state – Florida.

With Florida being a leader in education choice, and with the scholarships to K-12 private schools administered by Step Up For Students, the Sunshine State has always been at the top of Prenda’s expansion list. Gibson said there is support for microschools in Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville.

The key is finding guides.

“People who are educationally minded with the entrepreneurial spirit, here is an opportunity in Florida to serve kids who really need it in a really incredible way,” she said.

Gibson said 30% of Prenda guides are certified teachers, but it is not a requirement. Guides can be moms looking to get back into the workforce, or who homeschool their own children and want to take on a few more students. Guides can be teachers looking for another way of teaching, or seniors who are retired but want to work with children for 25 hours a week.

“It’s an opportunity for all of those people to find a really great way to impact kids and make a difference,” Gibson said.

Ideally, Prenda Microschools are divided into three age groups: K-second grade, third through fifth, and sixth through eighth, though that can change based on the availability of microschools and the ages of the children in that area. The microschools can be held at locations such as community centers, churches, tutoring venues, gymnastics centers or dance studios.

Prenda Microschools meet all the state requirements for a school, and the students learn the core subjects, Gibson said. What separates them from other schools is the microschools are limited to five to 10 students, and the guides have the autonomy to tailor their lessons to topics and subjects that interest the students.

“We feel like there is an opportunity to change the world because a different educational environment will unlock things that kids aren’t getting right now,” Gibson said.

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With October coming to an end, Beth Garcia expects the students in her microschool to be interested in Halloween.

“If they want to learn about pumpkins this month, we’ll learn about pumpkins,” she said. “They wanted to learn about bats, so we added bats. They wanted to learn about flowers, so we did that.”

Students learning about gardening at a Prenda Microschool in Glendale, Arizona.

Garcia is in her second year as a guide in Sahuarita, Arizona. A teacher with five years’ experience in district schools, Garcia was teaching preschool out of her home when she learned about Prenda’s microschools. With her son ready for kindergarten, she thought it was a great way to homeschool him. Some of the other parents thought so, too, and asked Garcia if their child could continue under her tutelage. So Little Fox Preschool became Little Fox 2 Prenda Microschool, with eight students in grades K-2.

“I definitely love Prenda,” Garcia said. “I love the fact that kids can work at their own pace. It’s very tailored to a child. If a child is in first grade and still working at a kinder level, that’s OK. There are no standards that need to be met as far as (district) school system. We can tailor it to them.”

A Guide and her student at a Prenda Microschool in
Buckeye, Arizona.

Garcia said she knows where all eight students are academically, which allows her the freedom to adjust the lessons accordingly. She also loves the smaller class size and the fact she can teach from her home, which allows her to spend time with her youngest son, who is a year away from beginning kindergarten.

“I like the freedom as a guide to be able to tailor our curriculum around student interest,” Garcia said. “That’s the fun part of teaching, I think.”

 The oldest of Garcia’s three children is her daughter Alanah, 10. Alanah struggled in her district school. She found the lessons moving too fast, which caused anxiety and behavioral problems. She had to repeat the third grade.

Alanah now attends a Prenda Microschool, where she is doing well academically and making friends.

“She’s like a whole different child,” Garcia said. “I really think for her, Prenda has saved her soul. I really believe that.”

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