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Willette’s story: Vibing to her own frequency and helping everyone she meets along the way

BY ROGER MOONEY

JACKSONVILLE, Florida – Willette Treadway wants to help.

She wants to help her classmates, teachers and administrators at North Florida School of Special Education, where she is in the Secondary 3 classroom. She wants to help her family and friends.

She wants to help the homeless population in Jacksonville.

“One thing about me,” Willette said, “I like to help everybody.”

“She has a big heart,” said her mom, Lisa Diana.

Willette, 14, was diagnosed at 7 with an intellectual difference and language impairment, which are neurodevelopmental conditions that appear in early childhood. She is a high performer socially but a low performer cognitively, where according to her mom, Willette is in the second to fourth grade level range with math, reading and vocabulary.

She attended her district school from kindergarten through the sixth grade. And while Lisa said Willette did well with her Individual Education Plan (IEP), she felt Willette “wasn’t grasping the material.” Searching for a school that better fit her daughter’s unique abilities, Lisa enrolled Willette in North Florida School of Special Education (NFSSE) in Jacksonville for the 2021-22 school year. She attends the school assisted by the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA), managed by Step Up For Students.

There were hugs all around for Willette on the first day of school.

“What I love about North Florida is they use different teaching styles and are a little bit more patient, especially with the smaller classes, to work with her and the material,” Lisa said. “I wanted her to be in a space where she would learn and retain and work with professionals who are hopefully going to get through to her maybe in a way that I can’t, or other teachers haven’t been able to.”

NFSSE provides an innovative academic and therapeutic setting for students, ages 6-22, who have intellectual and developmental differences. The secondary program is for students ages 14 to 17. They take academic classes and also emphasize vocational training, where they learn pre-employment skills.

The school’s transition program is for students ages 18-22. There, they learn how to budget money, pay bills, read bus schedules, and put together a resume. The students also work at jobs off campus with the goal of landing internships and fulltime positions.

“She would be devastated if she ever had to leave that school,” Lisa said. “She’s loving it. It’s everything I hoped it would be for her. This is the first time in her academic life that I don’t have to worry about her going to school.”

That some members of the school’s staff have children who attend or attended the school is a plus for Lisa, who is a nurse.

“As a teacher, an educator, someone who’s been where we are as parents,” Lisa said, “you have no idea the amount of relief it is to be able to talk to somebody who gets it.”

Willette arrived for her first day at her new school like a ball of sunshine, with a smile that lit up the campus. She made friends with everyone.

“I really like this school because it’s very nice,” Willette said. “All the teachers and staff are very nice here. All my friends are nice to me all the time.”

It wasn’t always that way at her previous school, where she was often the target of bullies.

Willette was one of the students picked to speak last January at a school pep rally last for Education Choice Week. She spoke of how well her classmates and teachers treat her, how she loved reading to “the little ones” on Thursday, how calm and peaceful she feels at the school and how the staff “lets me be the best Willette I can be.”

Lauren Perry, a Secondary 2 teacher at NFSSE, said that’s easy with a student like Willette.

“She loves to be around people,” Perry said. “She loves to talk and connect, and it’s a really beautiful thing for someone so young.”

While addressing the school, Willette also mentioned her job during dismissal.

She took it upon herself last year to help with the car line. She recruited two classmates to assist her when she fractured her right ankle falling off her scooter near the end of the year. The three held staff meetings every morning. Willette carried a clipboard.

“Yeah, that’s Willette,” Lisa said.

Willette’s cast was black and gold, matching the colors of her favorite football team – the Pittsburgh Steelers. Lisa’s mom wrapped a yellow Terrible Towel – a Steelers’ talisman – around Willette shortly after she was born. If you want to hear passion in Willette’s voice, ask her about who should be the Steelers quarterback.

Willette shows off her Pittsburgh Steelers’ themed cast after she fractured her right ankle last spring.

If you want that passion to go up a notch, ask Willette about the homeless in Jacksonville – a segment of the population that is dear to her heart. She has visited homeless shelters and soup kitchens in the city with her grandmother on her father’s side. Lisa and Willette once made 150 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to distributed to the homeless shortly before the start of the pandemic. Last school year, Willette helped classmates make care packages for the homeless.

“Let’s say you need to make 150 bags of food for the homeless. Would you do it?” she asked. “Yes, I would do it.”

Willette wants to be a teacher.

“I like to help kids. I like to help teachers,” she said. “I like to help everybody.”

Lisa said her daughter is a natural caregiver, especially when it comes to her classmates. Lisa called her a “kid whisperer” because she makes those around her feel welcomed and appreciated.

Lisa could see Willette working in some capacity at a school like NFSSE. Most of all, Lisa said, “I hope that she’s an independent adult. She has her own strong personality. She’s not one to go with the crowd. She vibes to her own frequency and I love it, and I hope that never goes away.”

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

Republic National Distributing Company donates $82 million to help provide scholarships for Florida schoolchildren

Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC), one of the nation’s leading wholesale alcohol beverage distributors, has contributed $82 million to Step Up For Students, providing more than 10,300 Florida schoolchildren with access to the right education to help them succeed.

Since 2012, Republic National Distributing Company has generously funded more than 81,170 scholarships through contributions totaling more than $547 million to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program, which is funded by tax-credited contributions from corporations, allows families to choose between a scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to a public school different than the one they are assigned.

“At Republic National Distributing Company, we are committed to making a positive difference that enriches the spirit and well-being of our associates, communities, and business partners,” said Ron Barcena, executive vice president of RNDC. “We are proud to continue our partnership with Step Up For Students to help provide thousands of Florida schoolchildren with the educational opportunities they deserve.”

RNDC contributed $82 million to Step Up For Students to help Florida schoolchildren. Pictured (left to right) are Step Up For Students Vice President of Development Anne Francis, RNDC Executive Vice President Ron Barcena, and
Step Up For Students Chairman and Founder John Kirtley.

Republic National Distributing Company celebrated this impactful donation during a company meeting in Tampa. Company representatives had the opportunity to hear about the impact of their investment and the importance of the scholarship from Step Up For Students Chairman and Founder John Kirtley.

“Once again, RNDC has shown their incredible commitment to helping Florida students access the education that best fits their learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “The support RNDC provides is critical to this program and we are very grateful for their continued partnership.”

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, 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 1 million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. Nearly 2,000 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Gas South donates $500,000 to support Florida schoolchildren

Gas South, one of the leading natural gas marketers in the Southeast, has contributed $500,000 to Step Up For Students, helping more than 65 Florida schoolchildren attend a K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.

This is the first year that Gas South has partnered with Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program, which is funded by tax-credited contributions from corporations, allows families to choose between a scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to a public school different than the one they are assigned.

“Our core purpose is to ‘Be A Fuel For Good,’ and one of the most important ways we achieve that is by impacting children in the communities we serve,” said Kevin Greiner, president and CEO of Gas South. “Education is a critical tool for our children to reach their full potential, and we are confident our partnership with Step Up For Students will provide life-changing opportunities for Florida schoolchildren.”

Gas South contributed $500,000 to Step Up For Students to help Florida schoolchildren. Pictured (left to right) are Step Up For Student Senior Development Officer Diana Allan and Gas South Senior Manager of Commercial Sales Topher Jensen.

“We are grateful to have Gas South as a partner in our mission to help Florida students access the right education,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “With their support, even more schoolchildren will be able to access an education that fits their learning needs.”

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 1 million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. Nearly 2,000 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Of courage, basketball and conquering the obstacles in his way: The Justin Williams story

BY ROGER MOONEY

OCOEE, Florida – Justin Williams was 8 when he underwent surgery to allow more room for his brain to grow. For two months he wore a halo brace and a plate on the roof of his mouth to push the bones in his face forward one agonizing millimeter at a time.

At one point, Justin told his dad, John, that he’d rather die than live through that again.

“At the time, I was probably exaggerating,” Justin said, “but it was the worst eight weeks of my life.”

Justin, 18, was born with Apert syndrome, a rare condition where the joints in a baby’s head, face, feet, and hands close while in the womb. He’s undergone surgeries on his feet, hands, face and head – 15 in all. The first was when he was 9 months old. He learned to walk with both feet and hands in casts.

While Justin has endured some difficult moments in his life, he will be the last to say he’s had a difficult life.

“I’ve gone through a lot,” he said, “and it hasn’t affected me.”

Stacy, Justin and John Williams.

Justin grew up on Ocoee, just a short walk from his family’s blueberry farm, where he helps direct the parking during picking season.

He graduated in the spring from Foundation Academy in nearby Winter Garden. He attended the private Christian school since pre-K on a McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities (now the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities, administered by Step Up For Students). He begins classes at Valencia College in August.

Justin was one of the most popular students on campus and certainly the most popular player on the basketball team. His classmates would fill the stands and chant his name until Coach Nathaniel Hughes sent Justin into the game. Then Justin would reward his fans by hitting long-range 3-point shots.

“It’s so much fun to watch him play,” Justin’s mom, Stacy, said. “It blows me away, the support of all the people.”

Justin’s efforts on the court led to his receiving the Jersey Mike’s Naismith High School Basketball Courage Award. The honor is given annually to a male and female high school basketball player who has “gone above and beyond throughout the basketball season and has demonstrated courage in their approach to their team, school, and community.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard him complain, say something was too hard or he couldn’t do it,” Hughes said. “I never heard that, and he has way more reason to complain than I do.”

HE CAN DO IT!

“What is a normal life?” John Williams asked on a recent afternoon at the blueberry farm.

While pregnant with Justin, Stacy said she wondered what type of life he would lead. Would he excel in sports? In school? What would his interests be? His talents? What would he choose for a career?

Justin was born in September 2003 with a craniofacial disorder so rare it is found in 1 in 65,000 to 88,000 babies. Now Stacy and John had entirely different questions: What would Justin’s quality of life be? Could he even go to school?

“When you have a child with special needs, your whole outlook is different because everything changes,” Stacy said, “so you have to find your new normal.”

The new normal included flights to the Craniofacial Center at Medical City Children’s Hospital in Dallas for those surgeries, and what John said seemed like endless months in hotels, as well as nights where he and Stacy tried to sleep on the couch in Justin’s hospital room.

It also included Little League baseball and youth basketball, soccer and golf, and plenty of roughhousing with his cousins around the blueberry farm.

Stacy and John were determined to meet Apert syndrome head on.

Justin would do everything every other kid his age did. They signed him up for baseball when he was 4 even though he had trouble holding a bat because he doesn’t have knuckles in his fingers.

So what if he couldn’t hit the ball? Neither could the other 4-year-olds, John said.

It was the same way in school.

“Do not help him,” Stacy sternly told Justin’s teacher on her son’s first day of kindergarten. “He can do it.”

“I think I scared her,” Stacy said. “I just wanted to give him a chance. You have to give people a chance to be who they can be.”

Maybe people outside of school stared at Justin and made rude comments to Stacy, but at Foundation Academy, Justin was just one of the kids. His popularity grew as he moved up through the grades.

“There is something about Justin that makes everyone love him,” Foundation Principal Sarah Reynolds said. “He is so friendly, so kind. No one sees his disability. No one. It’s just a non-issue.”

With the education choice option that came with the McKay Scholarship, Stacy and John settled on Foundation Academy because they wanted a smaller scholastic setting for Justin, one where his teachers would know and understand his needs and where he could spend the years with the same classmates.

Having the scholarship pay his tuition was huge when Justin was undergoing his surgeries and treatments.

“We, honestly, would not have been able to keep him at the same school had we not had the scholarship,” Stacy said.

J-MONEY

John put up a basketball hoop in the family’s driveway because he thought it was a game Justin could play. He was right. Justin was hooked at an early age.

Justin’s ability score on long-range jump shots earned him the nickname “J-Money” from his teammates because, as Hughes said, “He makes his money on the 3-point line.”

(Watch Justin Williams make his “money from the 3-point line.”)

Justin was not the most talented player on the team, but Hughes said he made the most of his skills. He also understands the game, the way the offense and defense work. Hughes often asked Justin what he thought of something that occurred during a game, and Justin would offer an honest and accurate assessment.

He was also the teammate who kept everyone loose and focused.

“A glue guy you can’t live without as a team,” Hughes said.

As he walked out of the gym after every practice and game, Justin would always find Hughes and say, “Thanks, Coach. See you tomorrow.”

It was Hughes who nominated Justin for the Naismith award, and the school celebrated the announcement of Justin winning with a pep rally in front of the entire student body. They chanted his name and Justin took a shot, though opting for a high-percentage layup. The crowd went wild as the ball dropped through the net.

There were TV crews from Orlando-area news stations and one shooting a video for the award.

“I like sharing my story and having an impact,” Justin said.

His message?

“You need to lean on your family and friends because they are always there for you, no matter what you’re going through,” he said. “If you’re having a rough day or a hard time, always trust in God. He will make your path straight. I think people get down on themselves because they think they are not normal or not as good as someone else, but I think if they pray and follow God, they will be fine.”

College classes begin soon for Justin. He’s thinking of studying business. He will help Hughes coach this season and wants to someday coach high school basketball.

“He has totally superseded anything I envisioned for him,” Stacy said. “I never thought he would be as awesome as he is. He surprises you all the time. He has the best sense of humor. He never complains about anything. He’s always a try-hard kid, which blows me away.”

As for what she now envisions for Justin’s future, Stacy said, “I think it’s up to him. The sky is the limit. I can’t wait to see in five years where he’s at.”

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

School is not out for summer at TRU Prep Academy, which has adopted a year-round schedule

BY ROGER MOONEY

MIAMI GARDENS, Florida – The calendar said it was July 6, but parents pulled their cars to a stop outside TRU Prep Academy and students stepped out wearing their standard school attire – black slacks, white shirts, and red ties.

School is out for summer in most parts of the country, but at TRU Prep it was very much in session, with students returning $500 cash loan online from summer vacation only the day before.

Welcome to a year-round school.

Students at TRU Prep Academy in Miami Gardens returned for the 2022-23 school year on July 5.

The private K-12 school in Miami Gardens, where nearly all the 100 students receive an education choice scholarship administered by Step Up For Students, moved to the alternative format during the 2021-22 school year. Classes begin during the first full week of July and run for six weeks, followed by a week off. The six-weeks-on, one-week-off block continues until the Memorial Day weekend in May, with a two-week break for Thanksgiving, a two-week break for Christmas, and other holidays off mixed in.

The summer break is basically the month of June.

The idea is to reduce the “summer slide” in knowledge gained the previous school year by giving students and teachers breaks throughout the year to recoup the time off missed with the shorter summer — and to recharge.

“When I first heard about it, I was actually happy,” said seventh-grader Justin Haynes. “The week off helps me relax, and when we come back, I feel refreshed.”

According to the website Resilient Educator, a number of school districts throughout the country have moved from the traditional school calendar to year-round classes. A study by Duke University showed students who attend year-round schools have a “slight advantage” over their counterparts who enjoy the traditional 10- to 12-week summer vacation.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) reported that students, particularly those from economically disadvantaged areas, struggle to retain the material they learned from the previous year when they return from the long summer break.

“This is true pretty much in every educational setting: We spent at least half of the first quarter of school reviewing,” said Andrea Muhammad, TRU Prep’s dean of academics and high school instructor. “If you take a child and give them two-and-half, three months off and expect them to remember everything, there’s going to be a ‘What am I supposed to be doing?’ feel.”

Mario Smith, TRU Prep’s founder and executive director, realized a goal nearly two decades in the making when he opened the school in August 2018. A graduate of nearby Monsignor Pace High School and Kansas State University, Smith said he wanted to create a scholastic setting that would “mesh sports and education together.” He resigned from his job as a teacher and football coach at Pace in 2013 to pursue this dream.

Smith, who starred as a football player at Pace and Kansas State and spent three seasons playing in the Canadian Football League, wanted to better prepare students for college life, especially those who could earn an athletic scholarship. In addition to the core classes, TRU Prep offers classes in sports management, sports journalism and sports medicine. To be eligible to play a sport, TRU Prep athletes must maintain a 2.5 grade point average, which is above the 2.3 mandated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the 2.0 mandated by the state of Florida.

Smith said he is grateful for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Education Options because it allows students “an opportunity to be in an environment that best suits their needs. (TRU Prep has) a family feel, and having those scholarships, it allows the students to be in this environment.”

Looking for a way to combat the summer slide, Smith and the administrators began talking about the year-round calendar in 2019 and implemented it for the 2021-22 school year.

Like any ground-shaking change to the norm, the new schedule took a little getting used to. Attending school in July while your friends — and, in some cases brothers or sisters — were off, was a bit of a shock for the students.

“That’s not a big deal anymore,” said eighth-grader Azraa Muhammad.

Having a full week off after only six weeks was another shock to the system, though nearly everyone involved said it was welcomed.

“It helps me think about what I just learned,” Azraa said.

It was during that second six-week block that Andrea Muhammad said everything began to feel normal.

“It’s became the natural flow for us,” said Lakeisha Saunders, who teaches the elementary school. “Before you knew it, it was May.”

Andrea Muhammad teaches a middle school class on July 6, one day after students at TRU Prep returned from summer vacation.

Teachers used those weeks off to prepare lesson plans for the upcoming block

“(The week off) also allows those students who were a little bit behind to get extra help from some of us without the distraction of being in the classroom,” Muhammad said.

Some students missed the first week or two of the new school year because they are attending an academic or enrichment camp. Those students will use the off weeks to make up whatever work they missed.

Schools in the Miami Gardens area were summer silent on July 6. Morning commuters did not slow for the blinking lights of school zones or school buses stopped to pick up passengers.

But it was classes as usual inside TRU Prep. Saunders was teaching elementary students about making a household budget. A morning rainstorm passed outside while her students asked questions about paying utility bills and setting aside money for groceries.

Those students were beginning their second turn at a year-round school calendar. Alani Hunte, a fourth grader, said she didn’t mind, even if it meant getting up a 6 a.m. to go to school in July.

“Because,” she said with a measure of pride, “my dad said I’m going to be smarter than everybody.”

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

After taking charge of his education, Step Up alumni achieves goal of attending University of Florida

BY ROGER MOONEY

On a Wednesday morning in early January, a day after he turned 20, Josep Amiguet walked into a classroom inside Matherly Hall on the edge of campus for his intermediate microeconomics class, his first as a student at the University of Florida.

“OK,” he remembers thinking, “I’m here.”

It took three years of laser-like focus on his studies at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami and three semesters of work at Santa Fe College in Gainesville before Josep reached his goal of enrolling at Florida and studying economics.

“It really was a good feeling,” he said.

Josep’s path to Florida wasn’t as straight as he would have liked. A poor year academically as a freshman at Columbus, which he attended on an education choice scholarship, forced the South Miami native to play catchup during his final three years at the private Catholic high school. He was not accepted to Florida after graduating Columbus in the spring of 2020. So, he attended Santa Fe to work on an associate degree, graduating in December 2021.

He reapplied to Florida and was accepted, receiving the confirmation email last November while studying for a psychology exam.

“It was a cool moment,” he said.

What wasn’t cool, Josep will tell you, was what he called the “below staller” grades on his report card as a Columbus freshman and the weeks he spent in summer school.

“Why am I here?” he remembered asking himself.

Especially when the reason he attended Columbus was because of the school’s demanding academic course load. Josep wanted to be challenged academically, the better to prepare him for college loans-cash.net .

“I want to go to a good college and pursue a degree that can allow me to make enough money to take care of my family, because that’s all I care about,” he said. “I want to take care of my mom and take care of my dad. They’ve been through a lot, and I want to take care of them.”

He scored high enough on his entrance exams to take honors courses as a freshman. And that’s when Josep’s life took some unexpected turns.

Josep and his mom, Kathy.

His father, Jose, was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia, which forced his mother, Kathy to quit her job as a medical sales rep so she could care for her husband. That forced the family to sell their house and move in with Josep’s grandfather, who is wheelchair-bound, and grandmother, who suffered from dementia. But that house was too small, so Josep lived with an aunt until a room could be converted into a bedroom. When Josep was able to reunite with his family, his grandmother passed away.

“A lot of things in my personal life kept changing,” Josep said.

The one constant was his new school, which Josep was able to attend with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students.

“(The scholarship) was one of the driving forces that made me into the person I am today,” he said. “My parents couldn’t have afforded Columbus without the help of the scholarship, a thousand percent.

“I was very appreciative to my parents and Step Up, of course, and everyone at Columbus. Step Up has afforded me a lot of opportunities, I have taken advantage of them.”

Kathy had attended Catholic schools and wanted the same education for her son. With all that was going on at home, she was sure she didn’t have to worry about Josep keeping up his grades. He was a straight-A student while attending Catholic grammar school.

But Josep struggled academically at his new school and finished freshman year with a GPA below 2.0.

People tell Josep he was a victim of his circumstances. He doesn’t agree. He spent so many hours each night texting friends and watching YouTube that he neglected his schoolwork.

“I would actually get to school and not have any homework done,” he said. “I hadn’t studied for anything. I just did not perform at all.”

School guidance counselors would later ask Josep why he didn’t tell them about his problems at home.

“He’s a private person,” Kathy said. “We’re private people.”

And Kathy was so busy caring for Jose and his ailing parents that Josep was able to hide his failing grades.

“He’s a smart kid. He’s always did well in school. I never had to supervise him,” she said. “(When he moved in with his aunt) I said, ‘OK, I’m going to give him that liberty.’ But I never realized how difficult it would be for him.”

Summer school was a wake-up call for Josep. So was his sophomore schedule.

“I got bumped down to the classes below honors, and I wasn’t happy about that at all,” he said.

He took the initiative to meet with a guidance counselor and developed an academic plan that would help him overcome his poor start to high school.  He attacked his education, taking a total of 13 honors courses over his last three years. As a sophomore, Josep interned at MasTec, a Fortune 500 infrastructure engineering and construction company based in Coral Gables. He interned at two Miami law firms during the summer before his senior year.

He graduated with honors, lifting that 1.75 GPA from his freshman year to a 3.75 weighted GPA for his high school career.

“I just tried to make the most out of my situation after I got my head in the game,” he said.

Jose, who worked as a compliance auditor before he became sick, is doing better after undergoing a stem cell transplant. But he’s unable to return to work.

“It’s been a process,” Kathy said. “But we didn’t have to worry about Josep’s education.”

Josep is spending this summer interning at the Insigneo Financial Group in Miami. He’s putting in long hours, occasionally working nights and weekends. He loves it. This is what he was aiming for as a sophomore when he turned around his academic direction.

“I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t continue the path I was on.”

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

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.

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