Category Archives for Step Up For Students

Gardiner scholar’s high school experience the stuff of his mom’s dreams

By ROGER MOONEY

Nicolas Ratliff-Batista is a senior at Monsignor Pace High School in Miami Gardens with a 4.5 GPA and an armful of academic awards. He’s a member of the National Honor Society and is headed to Broward College to study environmental science.

He recently played Sigmund Freud in the school’s production of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.”  He has participated in other plays and also dressed as a cheerleader for the Girls Powder Puff football game during Homecoming week. You will find him at all the school dances.

“I (am) part of all sorts of things,” Nicolas said. “It’s a great high school experience.”

Nicolas Ratliff-Batista, a senior, has won more academic awards than he can carry during his four years at Monsignor Edward Pace High School

A parent’s dream, right?

“Exactly,” said Phyllis Ratliff, Nicolas’ mom. “The same as every parent would want for their child whether they have learning differences or not, and we are blessed to have found it at Pace and to be a recipient of the Gardiner Scholarship.”

***

Four years ago, thoughts of Nicolas attending high school was a nightmare for Phyllis.

Diagnosed as high-functioning autism at age 3, Nicolas was able to navigate his way from kindergarten through eighth grade in a familiar setting. Same school. Same classmates. Same teachers. Same administrators.

Because the school near their Miami Lakes home was only K-8, Phyllis had to find a high school for her son.

“I stressed more that year than I ever had,” Phyllis said. “Trying to find a high school for him that we could afford and offered academic options. A high school that would tell a child with learning differences that we can work with you.”

There are two public schools near their home, but Phyllis did not view either as viable options for her son.

She thought he would be overwhelmed by the large class sizes and an easy target for bullies.

Phyllis, a single mother, looked into several private schools. They were either too expensive or she did not see them as a good fit for Nicolas.

Several of her friends mentioned Monsignor Edward Pace High School (Pace) which is located less than 10 miles away in Miami Gardens.  At first, Phyllis was not interested, because she and Nicolas are not Catholic. She was told that would not be an issue.

So, Phyllis met with Pace administrators and that is where she learned about the Gardiner Scholarship provided by Step Up For Students for children with certain special needs.

She liked everything about the school and it’s a 1-to-14 teacher-student ratio. Nicolas would be placed in mainstream classes and the teachers would work with him as needed to ensure he would not fall behind.

Nicolas qualified for the Gardiner Scholarship and was accepted to Pace.

“That was phenomenal,” Phyllis said. “We were so excited there was something out there for him.”

***

Phyllis, like most parents, was a little apprehensive about her only child beginning high school.

Nicolas? He strode right in.

“The first time I felt so excited, but also a tiny bit nervous,” Nicolas said. “But after a few days I got used to it.”

It helped, Nicolas said, that he had Dr. Enrique Dominguez for freshman science.

Known as “Poppa D” to his students, Dominguez has a special skill for connecting with students. He and Nicolas connected instantly.

“I saw that beauty inside of him of being absolutely lovable, absolutely showing you that in the face of adversity he was going to do what he needed to do without any complaints,” Dominguez said.

Nicolas aced the class, and Poppa D nominated him for Student of the Year in Science.

“Dr. Dominguez always tells Nicolas how great he can be, and Nicolas comes home every day saying how great he feels,” Phyllis said. “As a mother, you’re grasping at straws to find the right school and then you find one, and we truly are blessed.”

***

There was never a question Nicolas would excel in the classroom. His grades were always above average. He has an insatiable thirst for knowledge with interests ranging from animals to cars to music and composers to anything to do with history.

His favorite composers are Mozart and Tchaikovsky. His favorite ballet is “The Nutcracker.”

He can play guitar and the keyboard, the banjo and the bongos. He loves to play Elvis Presley songs on the ukulele with “Hound Dog” and “Blue Suede Shoes” among his favorites.

Nicolas Ratliff-Batista and Kiwi relaxing at home.

He has a pet parrotlet named Kiwi that likes to sit on his shoulder.

He attends operas with his mom.

On most Saturdays, you can find Nicolas at the local library, where he feeds his curiosities by reading books for as long as six hours.

Whenever English teacher Jorge Rodriguez-Miralles sees Nicolas walking down the hall, he says, “Here comes literature’s greatest fan.”

“Nicolas,” Rodriguez-Miralles said, “is the only student I think I’ve ever had in a class who taught me something about literature, and I have an advanced degree in literature.”

It happened in freshman year when Rodriguez was teaching Greek and Roman mythology. Nicolas knew the backstory to the battle between Poseidon and Athena. Rodriguez-Miralles had not delved that far into the story. Nicolas had.

During Black History Month that same year, Rodriguez-Miralles was showing the movie “Selma” to the class. Music was playing in the background of one scene. Rodriguez-Miralles said it was hardly audible.

Nicolas heard it and said, “Beethoven, 5th Symphony, 3rd movement.”

Rodriguez-Miralles picked up his iPad and searched for Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, 3rd movement. What do you know?

“How many freshmen do you know that can spot correctly the third movement of the fifth symphony of Beethoven? Nic can,” Rodriguez-Miralles said.

The teacher went home, flipped through his music collection and found box set of Beethoven’s symphonies. He gave it to Nicolas the next day.

“Apparently, you’re Beethoven’s greatest fan, so now you can enjoy the symphonies complete,” Rodriguez-Miralles said.

***

It is easy for someone like Nicolas to remain inside his comfort zone, to save his bold moments for the classroom where learning is what he has mastered.

But to the surprise and delight of his mom and teachers, Nicolas slowly began to dip his toes in Pace’s social scene.

Nicolas Ratliff-Batista played a police officer in The Great Gatsby, one of several school plays in which he appeared.

He joined the drama club and has appeared in a number of productions, including a few musicals that required him to sing in front of an auditorium filled with strangers. Not an easy task for most high school students.

His recent role of Sigmund Freud required him to speak with an Austrian accent, which, he nailed.

Homecoming is a big event at Pace with students coming to school dressed as that year’s theme. One year the theme was board games. Nicolas went to school dressed as the Monopoly Man, a picture of which appeared in the yearbook.

“Popular kids get to do that,” Phyllis said. “(At Pace) you are popular because you are a student.”

Nicolas saved his biggest breakout moment for this year’s Powder Puff game when he joined the fellas on the sidelined dressed as a cheerleader while the girls played football.

“He’s doing things that make him a little uncomfortable,” Principal Ana Garcia said, “but he’s not afraid to try, which is a wonderful thing.”

Nicolas had been asked in past years if he wanted to be a cheerleader. He did not.

“Before I thought I would feel all embarrassed inside,” Nicolas said.

Why this year?

“So, I realized I got to take action,” he said. “It’s now or never. I feel like inside I have to do it.”

And now …?

“It was pretty good, like great,” he said.

***

Phyllis believes her son’s growth scholastically and socially stems directly from Mrs. Garcia’s leadership.

“It has to be from her,” Phyllis said. “She has to say to her faculty, ‘This is something we believe in. We believe in our students.’ They really do.”

Mrs. Garcia, who said she is “humbled” to hear that, adding, “Here at the school the general population is very acceptant of kids with differences, and so it’s a great environment for kids who are a little bit different. Somehow, they all find a place where they are accepted, where they can excel, where they can grow and develop.”

Each day, after finishing his lunch, Nicolas walks over to the table where the teachers sit and says hello to each.

“Sometimes I feel like it makes them happy,” Nicolas said.

And he writes Christmas cards to his teachers.

Each year, Phyllis writes a letter to Mrs. Garcia thanking her for the work she and her staff do with Nicolas. Mrs. Garcia shares the letters with her staff and faculty at the beginning of each year.

“It’s very inspiring and very inspirational to start the year that way, because you start on a high,” Mrs. Garcia said.

It is Mrs. Garcia’s way of telling everyone that they do make a difference in the lives of each student.

“And we need to continue to do this,” Mrs. Garcia said, “because if we impact one or two kids like this, for heaven sakes, this is what we need to be doing.”

***

Nicolas had a recent homework assignment where he had to list some of the struggles in his life. He told his mom he could not think of any.

Phyllis reminded him that he falls under the Autism spectrum, that he has trouble making friends, that he was a late talker and that he had difficulty learning to write because he had difficulty learning to hold a pencil.

“He doesn’t see it as a negative or a struggle,” Phyllis said. “He struggled trying to find out what his challenges were.”

Dominguez said he often sees what he called “the courage of a lion” in his students who have Autism.

“He knows what he’s got, but to him, he’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m carrying this cross.’ No, no. he works through it,” Dominguez said. “He’s not oblivious to it, but to him it’s not a reason to stumble and to cry.

“He lives in such a beautiful world. I talk about Nic and I start getting a lump in my throat because I’m going to miss him a lot. He’s that special of a child.”

About Monsignor Edward Pace High

Opened in 1961, Monsignor Pace High or “Pace” is part of the Archdiocese of Miami. It serves 885 students, including more than 500 on Step Up For Student Scholarships. Pace is recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education. It was selected by the Catholic High School Honor Roll as one of the top 50 Catholic Schools in the nation. Pace students take the PSAT/ASPIRE in ninth and 10th grade, the PSAT/ACT in 11th and the AP test all four years. Annual tuition and fees for grades nine to 11 is $12,050 and $12,300 for grade 12.

Marketing Communications Manager Roger Mooney can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Become an Imagination Day superhero Sunday at Westfield Citrus Park mall

By ROGER MOONEY

Tampa Bay area families, join us for Imagination Day this Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. at Westfield Citrus Park mall in Tampa and learn what Step Up For Students has to offer Florida school children.

The first 100 kids receive superhero capes and masks. There will be hands-on activities, interactive arts and crafts booths and more.

Admission is free.

While kids are putting on their capes and masks and pretending to be a caped crusader, parents can learn about Step Up For Students and the four types of scholarships.

They are:

Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Based on financial need, this scholarship provides families with the choice of financial assistance toward a private school or help with transportation costs to attend a public school in another county.

Gardiner Scholarship. This scholarship enables parents to personalize the education of a child with certain special needs by directing money toward a combination of approved programs and providers.

Hope Scholarship. This allows parents of children in public school to find a new learning environment for their child who is being bullied or a victim of violence.

Reading Scholarship Accounts. This program allows parents with children in public school to access services for their children in grades 3 through 5 who are having trouble reading.

Step Up is a nonprofit scholarship funding organization serving Florida schoolchildren that is expected to help 125,000 children during the 2018-19 school year with the four scholarships.

For more information, click on Step Up For Students or visit our table Sunday and meet Stephanie Love, Step Up’s community outreach manager, or Roger Mooney, Step Up’s marketing communications manager.

Marketing Communications Manager Roger Mooney can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Tampa Catholic grad going from one scholarship to another

 

When she walked across the stage as a freshly minted graduate of Tampa Catholic High School in May 2017, Cheyenne Daphney looked out at the audience cheering in the downtown theater and thought about all the help she got along the way.

Cheyenne Daphney and mom DJ Ruhland celebrate after the graduation ceremony in downtown Tampa.

Her mom, DJ Ruhland; her basketball coach, Matt Rocha; her teammates; and the rest of her Tampa Catholic family – they were all there giving a standing ovation.

Cheyenne also thought about the tax credit scholarship that made private school possible, and how she will soon start a new scholarship this summer at St. Petersburg College.

“I’ve got butterflies,” she said after the ceremony. “I’m so grateful. Tampa Catholic turned me around. I really don’t feel I would have made it to college without Tampa Catholic or Step Up.”

In ninth grade at her neighborhood school, Cheyenne’s grades slipped so badly her mom told the basketball coach to bench her despite being the best player on the team.

The discipline didn’t work and Cheyenne’s grades continued to slide. She even earned an F in one class and had to take an online summer course to make up for it.

DJ decided to make a change.

She secured a Step Up scholarship, which helps low-income and working-class students pay for private school tuition. Then she enrolled Cheyenne at Tampa Catholic, something she had always dreamed of but never thought she could afford.

Results were immediate.

“Within the first month, it was a whole different child,” DJ said. “She was calling me and telling me, ‘Mom, my homework is done,’ instead of me practically standing over her at 9 o’clock at night screaming about getting her homework done.”

There were higher expectations at TC, a warm atmosphere and smaller classes with more one-on-one attention.

It took time for Cheyenne to fully adjust, as girls basketball coach and theology teacher Matthew Rocha could clearly see.

“I could definitely tell that she felt like, ‘Oh, I’m in a school with a bunch of rich kids,’ ” he said. “She didn’t know necessarily where she fit.”

Thanks to her basketball family, though, Cheyenne started to open up. She told friends and teammates about the financial struggles that led her mom to move them into an extended stay hotel.

“I was kind of nervous for them to find out where I live,” she said, describing carpools that started off picking her up a couple of blocks from the hotel. “After a while, once I started to know the people here, I was more open to letting people know where I live.”

New challenges arose. A few months after arriving at TC, Cheyenne suffered a major knee injury, had surgery, and spent a week in the hospital with a life-threatening infection. A few months after that, DJ suffered a major stroke.

“It was a lot to go through,” DJ said, “but we got through it.”

Medical bills and time away from work, however, caused a financial strain.

Cheyenne “basically didn’t have things that we consider to be necessities,” Rocha said. “She didn’t have rides to go places. There were several nights where she wasn’t sure she would have dinner. One of our coaches would stop and get her something to eat to make sure that she had food.”

The team helped in other ways. Older teammates gave Cheyenne their uniforms and textbooks when they graduated. Carpools from a friend’s parent meant less time on the bus, and more time for DJ and Cheyenne to spend together on weekday mornings.

“Everybody treated me as a family,” Cheyenne said. “It was embarrassing to me (to be homeless), but my mom was so strong. It was a struggle, but we overcame it together as one. So now, I own it. It doesn’t make me sad or embarrassed anymore.”

Now Cheyenne is a graduate coming off a 3.1 GPA in her final year. It took two seasons to recover on the basketball court, but she hit her stride during her senior season and earned a scholarship to play for St. Pete College. She starts on July 1.

“The weight just lifted off my back,” Cheyenne said of her new scholarship. “I felt so free knowing I can continue school.”

That was always been the plan.

“I am so proud of her,” said DJ. “She’s turned out to be an amazing young woman who has a lot of amazing things ahead. Without moving her to Tampa Catholic, which was only possible because of Step Up For Students, I don’t think we’d be saying those same things today.”

“Even with Step Up For Students there was still tuition to be paid, and there were times when making that tuition payment was not easy. It was an investment – a do-able investment. Without Step Up For Students it wouldn’t have been do-able.”

About Tampa Catholic High School

Established in 1962, Tampa Catholic serves 754 students in grades 9-12, including 100 on the Step Up For Students scholarship. The average class has 24 students and a student/teacher ratio of 14:1. TC’s campus is at 4630 N. Rome Ave. in Tampa. Accredited by AdvancED, TC offers a wide-ranging curriculum with three programs tailored to each student’s performance – honors, college prep, and academic assistance – as well as 15 Advanced Placement courses and seven dual-enrollment courses. Depending on grade level, Tampa Catholic uses either the PSAT or PACT test. Tuition is $12,950 a year with discounts for parish members. The school annually gives $500,000 in need-based tuition assistance.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

Step Up’s Wall is an old soul – and total geek

By DAVID TUTHILL

Keaton Wall is the youngest worker in Step Up For Students’ Clearwater office, but he may also be the most indispensable.

As a IT Support Specialist and the essential one-stop-shop for any co-worker with a technical issue, Wall, 21, is the man who keeps the wires plugged in at Step Up.

And he seems to possess an old soul to complement his technological gifts.

“I am a big geek when it comes to hardware and understanding how a system is running,” Wall says in his unique, fast-paced cadence. “With network administration, I can still deal with hardware-type stuff but on a larger scale. And it allows me to help people, which I enjoy, but once again, on a larger scale than just say a computer technician.”

Wall is the son of Bryan Wall, of Nottingham, England, a former Hollywood set designer, and mother, Cheryl Wall, of Long Island, New York. He has half-siblings over 15 years older than he and his younger sister.

His father’s work put him in touch with technology and computers from a young age – and even inspired his name. He is named in honor of movie star Michael Keaton, who became friends with Bryan Wall when they worked on the original “Batman” film. They bonded over a shared interest in ancient British history.

“I got into artwork on computers and wanted to know how they worked,” Bryan Wall says in a friendly British accent, speaking on a layover between flights at his current job as a corporate trainer for AutoNation. “Keaton and I built computers together. He really got into the technical side of things when friends and neighbors had repair issues. He dove in deep, learned how to build them from scratch, and took it to the next level when he went to school, with programming and such.”

That next level began when Keaton Wall applied for the Career Academy of Information at Northeast High School in St. Petersburg. He attended there for two years until he decided that waking up at 4 a.m. to catch a 5 a.m. bus to attend 7 a.m. classes was too much of a burden.

He switched schools, and graduated from Clearwater High School while dual enrolled at St. Petersburg College. He earned his diploma with a semester and a half of college already completed.

“When I graduated high school, I was not completely certain where I wanted to go, since most universities all have generic ‘computer science’ degrees, which all focus mainly on programming, which I hate,” Keaton Wall says.

Armed with an associate’s degree, he is still enrolled at SPC.  He has earned certificates for computer support, Microsoft server administration, and Linux system administration. He is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in technology development and management, with a minor in project management.

He spends his free time like many young men – hanging  out with his friends, playing video games and strumming his guitar. When it comes to music, he is able to sing both the most intense heavy metal songs in an unrecognizable ragged voice, and strum acoustic, improvised melodies often focused on his angst with the opposite sex.

He went into full geek mode during a recent employee luncheon in the Step Up offices, when he brought out a virtual-reality headset and helped a half-dozen of his co-workers explore the future of gaming.

He never fails to leave an impression.

“Keaton is a problem solver, always in good spirits and is well-versed in hardware,” says Rebeca Figueroa, a project manager at Step Up, who shares a cubicle wall with Keaton. “He’s always assisting me with my computer needs and has provided great guidance. He’s an old soul.

“Keaton is a lot more mature than I’ve seen a 21-year-old be. He’s grounded, knows what he wants, has a great profession and is very stable for his age. He writes music, listens with intent and never judges a situation. These qualities show not only a well-rounded individual, but one that has been around enough to have experience in life.”

He may also have a wandering spirit. The way he sees it, it’s only a matter of time before he leaves the sunny shores of Pinellas County for the bright lights of New York.

“New York is just so alive and energetic, and it’s very modern. It’s a massive city filled with everything,” he says. “It draws me to it because I am very energetic. I like how big it is and how it makes me feel so small. I can be anything there that I can put my mind to. There’s also not a palm tree in sight, which makes me happy.”

Until then, he remains a vital cog in the wheel of Step Up’s Clearwater operations. Some may find that remarkable, but it’s no surprise to his family.

“We are all just so proud of him,” Bryan Wall says. “He was never a trouble growing up, always had great friends. We are so proud to see what he’s a part of at such a young age.”

Former lawmaker joins Step Up For Students board

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the redefinED blog on April 26, 2017.  The blog is hosted by Step Up For Students and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.

Sen. John Legg

A former state lawmaker who helped shape Florida education in policy for more than a decade will join the board of Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer two major school choice programs.

State Sen. John Legg served in the Florida House from 2004 to 2012. He was elected to the state Senate in 2012, and served as chairman of the Education Committee for four years before leaving the Legislature in 2016.

Before he supported the school choice movement as a legislator, Legg supported it as an educator. In 2000, he helped found Dayspring Academy, a high-performing Pasco County charter school where he serves as an administrator.

Step Up’s board unanimously elected Legg to the unpaid position this week. He will join another former state lawmaker, Democratic Congressman Al Lawson.

“John Legg is an innovative and successful educator, as well as a gifted legislator and a great person,” said Step Up President Doug Tuthill. “John is committed to serving disadvantaged youth, and will be a wonderful addition to our organization.”

“It’s humbling to be a part of such an amazing team that has made such a dramatic impact in the lives of young people and families,” Legg wrote in an email.

Step Up helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which helps more than 98,000 low-income and working class students afford private school tuition. It also helps administer the Gardiner Scholarships, which provide education savings accounts to more than 7,000 students with cetain special needs.

Travis Pillow can be reached at tpillow@sufs.org.

Step Up For Students to participate in #GivingTuesday on Dec. 1

By LISA A. DAVIS

Step Up For Students is excited to announce for the first time it will participate in #GivingTuesday, a global day of giving that kicks off the charitable season on Dec. 1.

In its fourth year, #GivingTuesday was created by 92nd Street Y, a cultural center in New York City that has been bringing people together with the values of service and giving since 1874. #GivingTuesday has become a worldwide event with more than 30,000 partners in 68 countries, according to its website. Since its inception in 2012, #GivingTuesday is credited with increasing online donations by 470 percent on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. 

“We are thrilled to participate this year,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “Since we began this program more than a decade ago, we have awarded nearly half a million scholarships to both low-income students and children with unique needs. We are providing educational options to those who need it most and we know this program changes lives.”

Step Up For Students helps administer two scholarship opportunities to Florida schoolchildren: the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for K-12 children from low-income families and the state-funded Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA) for children ages 3 to 22 with certain special needs. Step Up gives these family choices of where and how their children are educated.

“Please donate to Step Up For Students,” Tuthill said. “We want to continue to not only provide students with scholarships, but add value to those scholarships by providing educators and students with extra support and so much more for children to be successful.”

To donate to Step Up For Students, please visit www.StepUpForStudents.org.

“Every penny counts,” said Tuthill. “And because of our top-notch ratings on Charity Navigator, you know that every penny will be used wisely. We greatly appreciate any support you give to this life-changing program.”

To follow the day of giving on social media, be sure to check events and post using the hashtag #GivingTuesday and #StepUpForStudents or share on Twitter with @StepUp4Students.

Introducing Step Up For Students new website

Step Up For Students is excited to present a new and improved website at the same Step Up address: www.StepUpForStudents.org. We’ve made the site more visual, simpler and friendlier to use in general, so you can quickly find the information you need.
Let’s take a quick tour.
This is what you will see when you visit the Step Up For Students website:
You’ll notice on the top, an easy-to-find parent login, and to the far right of it, you’ll find links to our social media channels — Facebook,  Twitter — and  this blog (if you haven’t liked or followed us already, please do).
Of course, we still have drop-down menus, but have organized them by audience and specific topics:  “About Us”, “For Parents”, “For Schools & Providers”, “For Donors”, “Our Stories”, “Newsroom” and “Contact Us.”
On the “For Parents” page, you can select from either scholarship option to learn more.
On the homepage, whether you’re a parent, a potential donor, or an educator, you can quickly find what you need with our bigger icons and larger headers:
To find news and information on each of our scholarship programs, it’s just as easy.
And no matter which page you land on, you will always see this to guide you toward other resources and help:
And of course, the site is in Spanish, too. With a simple click on the far right of the top of the homepage, you can switch from English to Spanish:
Please stop by our new site at www.StepUpForStudents.org and take a look around. And please let us know what you think at marketing@sufs.org.