Category Archives for Step Up For Students

Latin, Julius Cesar and a second chance at senior year

By ROGER MOONEY

DAVIE, Fla. – Josh Carlson pulled up a chair inside the office of the school guidance counselor one February morning and greeted a visitor.

“Salve,” he said.

It was the summer after his senior year, the summer he should have spent preparing for his freshman year of college.

Josh, a senior at American Preparatory Academy, a private K-12 school in Davie, Florida, taught himself Latin last summer.

That’s Latin for “hello.”

Instead, it was a summer spent reflecting on what went wrong during that senior year, and why he was required to repeat it.
“Just a lack of motivation on my part,” said Josh, 17.

Josh Carlson’s senior photo at American Preparatory Academy

This lack of motivation was a never-ending source of frustration for Josh’s mother, Kadirah Abdel, his guidance counselor, Norman Levitan, and American Prep principal, Soraya Matos.

They each sensed a serious student inside Josh yearning for an opportunity to be set free. He could be engaging with his teachers, capable of leading the class in a deep discussion on the topic for that day. He could also be disruptive and unmotivated, unwilling to complete his assignments on time.

Matos said she would have allowed Josh to participate last May in the graduation ceremony and make up the work during summer school, but he failed too many classes to make that possible. She hoped having Josh repeat his senior year would be a wake-up call.

“I wanted to give him another chance,” Matos said. “I believed it was a maturity issue and eventually he would understand that this was his last chance.”

He did.

“I pondered the way I was doing things over the summer,” Josh said. “I thought, ‘Man, I got really step up, because I’m repeating.’ It was sort of the cataclysmic moment for me. I knew I had to do something to improve my study ethic.”

That he taught himself to speak Latin by using the Duolingo app proved what Levitan always believed about Josh.

“He’s very bright,” Levitan said.

“A different kid”

Josh never fit in at his neighborhood schools.

“He was very to himself, very shy,” Abdel said. “The other kids were into stuff he wasn’t interested in.”

Josh is fascinated with Julius Cesar.

The other kids were into pop culture. Josh was into Julius Cesar.

The other kids read Facebook posts. Josh read the dictionary.

“He was bullied and picked on,” Abdel said. “That was my main concern. That’s when I knew I had to take action here, do something. I heard about alternative schools. I did my research, looked up different kinds of schools. There are alternative schools for kids who have had issues in public schools, because they didn’t fit in.”

Plus, Abdel said, administrators at Josh’s neighborhood school wanted to place him in classes for emotionally challenged students.

“He didn’t have a disability,” Abdel said. “They’re quick to label kids in public school. They couldn’t put him in special ed, so he was put in this class called ‘EH,’ emotionally handicapped children, basically kids who acted up.”

Abdel said her son did act up in class, and it was because he was bored.

She learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. This allowed her to move Josh to the Sunset Sadbury School, a K-12 private school in Fort Lauderdale, when Josh was in the seventh grade.

He moved to AEF (Alternative Education Foundation) School, a nonprofit private school in Fort Lauderdale, the following year and stayed through his sophomore year in high school.

“Once he got to private school, he did a lot better,” Abdel said.

But there were still issues.

“I didn’t behave so well at (AEF),” Josh said. “I didn’t get along with the students and the teachers.”

Abdel finally turned to American Prep, a private school with 150 students with no more than 12 to a class. Matos said her school is designed for students who don’t fit in at neighborhood schools. Kids, she said, who “fall through the cracks.”

Josh fit right in.

“He’s a different kid,” Matos said. “He likes history. He likes to read, and that is not very common.”

Josh passed his classes as a junior. Senior year was a struggle with most of the struggles self-inflicted.

“Just a lack of motivation on my part,” Josh said.

Josh loves to learn … just on his terms.

“He enjoys reading and studying on his own,” Abdel said. “Not necessarily being told, ‘OK, you have to study for his test.’ He enjoys studying, but when he wants.”

The proof is found in Josh’s interests.

He speaks Spanish, Latin and Italian. He writes poetry and enjoys the works of Emily Dickinson, E.E. Cummings, Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman. He is well-versed in Greek and Roman history and is fascinated with Julius Cesar.

“Interesting man,” Josh said. “All the conquests. His abilities as a leader was unrivaled.”

He wants to be a linguist. He would like to have a career that allows him to write and speak Latin and Italian.

“I’d like to write books about this stuff,” he said. “Phonology. Nerdy things.”

But, first Josh had to graduate high school.

The wake-up call

The book that began Josh’s path to teaching himself Latin.

At one point last year, Matos said she thought her school wasn’t the right fit for Josh. But where would he go? What school would make room for a senior who couldn’t graduate?

Matos believes her role as an educator is to keep her students in school. Plus, she knew Josh could complete the work. He just needed motivation. Because he was still eligible to receive a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Matos and Abdel felt it best for Josh to repeat his senior year.

“I think it was the kick he needed, the wake-up call,” Abdel said. “When he saw his friends graduate but he didn’t, that’s when he stepped up his game.”

Josh’s grades this year were the highest they’ve been during his high school career.

“I’ve just been studying more, focusing on studying, reviewing,” he said. “I wasn’t studying last year, and that’s why I was failing tests.”

While his friends made plans for their freshman years at college, Josh wrapped his mind around another senior year of high school. He didn’t have a job, so he had plenty of time on his hands.

What to do?

He reached for a copy of Wheelock’s Latin, which he received a few years ago, and started teaching himself Latin.

“One day I was looking at it, staring at it, and I thought, ‘I’ve had this for so long I should just learn it already,’” he said. “I wasn’t doing anything during the summer. I was using the internet and stuff. I said let me do something productive. I just opened up the book.”

The productivity not only carried into the classroom this year, but to other parts of the school.

Josh spent time this past year mentoring younger students at American Prep, sharing his experience as a cautionary tale.

In February, he received the Turnaround Student Award during Step Up’s annual Rising Stars Award event. He was nominated by Matos.

“I’m very proud of him,” she said.

Early this month, he graduated.

Josh plans to attend Broward College this fall. He is formulating plans for his future. He wants work with words, foreign words. He wants to visit Italy and Greece. Walk where Julius Cesar walked.

He wants to converse with the locals in their native tongue. He can get by with his Latin and Italian and Spanish.

But Greek? He doesn’t speak Greek.

“No,” he said. “Not yet.”

About American Preparatory Academy

The K-12 private school has 150 students. More than half are on scholarships from Step Up For Students with the majority on the Gardiner Scholarship. Tuition ranges from $10,500 to $16,000 based on the student’s needs. The school has a comprehensive Exceptional Student Education program focused on the individual needs of each student. It also offers dual enrollment, summer classes, summer camps, athletics and extracurricular activities.

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

Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits commits $150 million to Step Up scholarship program

BY ASHLEY ZARLE

MIAMI, Fla.Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, the world’s preeminent distributor of beverage alcohol, announced it has once again committed $150 million to the Step Up For Students’ scholarship program for the 2019-20 school year.

Southern Glazer’s announced the incredible pledge during a celebration honoring the company’s 2018-19 contribution of $150 million, which funds 22,319 scholarships. The scholarships gives lower-income children the opportunity to attend the school that best meets their learning needs.

The celebration was held at Kingdom Academy in Miami where more than half of the students benefit from a Step Up scholarship. Representatives from Southern Glazer’s and Step Up For Students gathered with a few scholarship students to hear how the program helped them move toward their goals for the future.


Pictured (adults from left to right) are Southern Glazer’s vice president of tax Cheryl Rawson, Step Up For Students founder & chairman John Kirtley, Southern Glazer’s director of charitable giving Terry Jove, and Step Up For Students president Doug Tuthill. They are joined by Kingdom Academy students who are benefiting from the scholarship.

Since 2010, Southern Glazer’s has generously funded 101,508 scholarships through contributions totaling $615 million to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations.

 “At Southern Glazer’s we believe it’s not just about serving world-class wine and spirits; it’s about serving people, said Wayne E. Chaplin, CEO, Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits. “We are proud to partner with Step Up For Students and provide scholarships to thousands of Florida schoolchildren, so they have access to the educational opportunities they deserve.”

Step Up helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, allowing recipients to choose between a scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.


Kingdom Academy students, who are benefiting from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, share their favorite subject in school and what they like best about the learning environment.

“Southern Glazer’s extraordinary commitment to Florida’s disadvantaged school children through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program is producing exceptional results,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “Recently, the Urban Institute evaluated graduates of our program and found students who use the scholarship for at least four years are 99% more likely to attend a four-year college and up to 45% more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree. Southern Glazer’s is a critical part of this success and we are grateful for their immense generosity to the students in our community.”

For the 2018-19 school year, Step Up is serving more than 98,500 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,519 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,815 for sixth through eighth grade, and $7,111 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Covanta funds Step Up scholarships, fuels future environmental leaders

SPECIAL TO STEP UP FOR STUDENTS

Tampa middle school students from Tampa Bay Christian Academy are well on their way to be the next generation of environmental leaders as they creatively displayed the importance of recycling in a recent art contest.

In honor of Earth Day, fifth, sixth, and seventh grade students participated in a Recycling and Science Poster Contest organized by Covanta, operator of eight Energy-from-Waste (EfW) facilities in Florida and Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that administers scholarships for Florida schoolchildren.

The contest asked students to visualize their commitment to recycling and science by depicting a theme, such as Energy-from-Waste, composting, recycling, electronic recycling and more. For its participation, the school received a $500 gift card to Staples to be used for school supplies.

Winners were honored for their outstanding design at a ceremony held on Earth Day.


Covanta’s client service manager Tom Murphy (top left), Cheryl Audas (second from right), senior development officer at Step Up For Students, and Steven Abe (right), facility manager at Covanta, with the students from Tampa Bay Christian Academy

Winners:

  • First Place – Aaliyah Lewis, sixth grade
  • Second Place – Natalie Moreland, seventh grade
  • Third Place – Jasmine Morgan, sixth grade
  • Honorable Mention – Spencer Mitchell, fifth grade, Zoelee Lopez, fifth grade, Ester Pauline Martinez Bemal, seventh grade

Through Step Up For Students, Covanta has funded more than 140 scholarships for deserving Florida schoolchildren since 2016. The funds are donated through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which serves lower-income children in Florida and allows them to attend the school of their choice.

“We are proud of the impact we’ve had on Florida schoolchildren through our contributions to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program and were thrilled to see the passion for the environment that each student displayed in their posters,” said Tom Murphy, client services manager for Covanta. “It’s fun activities like this one that teach kids the importance of reduce, reuse and recycle. This also includes educating students about the fourth R, recovery, which ensures that we recover energy from waste that cannot otherwise be recycled.  We thank all of the students who submitted posters and encourage them to bring that same zeal and creativity to make a positive impact in their school and community.”

Covanta’s client service manager Tom Murphy, first place winner Aaliyah Lewis and Cheryl Audas, senior development officer at Step Up For Students

“Because of companies like Covanta, Florida’s lower-income students are provided the educational options they need to succeed,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “We are grateful for their partnership, generosity and commitment to helping students in their community.”

“We are proud of the impact we’ve had on Florida schoolchildren through our contributions to the Step Up For Students Scholarship program and were thrilled to see the passion for the environment that each student displayed in their posters,” Murphy said. “It’s fun activities like this one that teach kids the importance of reduce, reuse and recycle. This also includes educating students about the fourth R, recovery, which ensures that we recover energy from waste that cannot otherwise be recycled.  We thank all of the students who submitted posters and encourage them to bring that same zeal and creativity to future opportunities to make a positive impact in their school and community.”

Covanta’s EfW operations provide sustainable waste management to Florida that generates enough renewable energy to power more than 300,000 area homes and businesses.

Step Up For Students among best places to work in Tampa Bay

By ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students has been recognized as one of the best places to work by the Tampa Bay Business Journal, placing eighth in the large business category.

“We are proud of this recognition,” said Step Up president Doug Tuthill. “We strive for a work culture that is nurturing and joyful and allows our employees to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities.”

Step Up employees celebrate the TBBJ’s announcement April 12 at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa.

Sixty Tampa Bay area companies were nominated for recognition across four categories: Small (10-24 employees); Medium (25-49 employees), Large (50-99 employees); and Extra-Large (100-plus employees).

Quantum Workplace surveyed employees at the nominated companies and evaluated each in the areas of team effectiveness, retention risk, alignment with goals, trust with co-workers, individual contribution, manager effectiveness, trust in senior leaders, feeling valued, work engagement and people practices.

It described Step Up’s company culture with the hashtag #caringpassionateandimpactful.

“That really sums us up,” Tuthill said. “Our employees are passionate about what they do. This passionate caring is why they have such a positive impact on the families we serve.”

Step Up helps more than 115,000 pre-K-12 children in Florida gain access to a better education by managing four scholarships: The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families; the Gardiner Scholarship for children with special needs or unique abilities; the Hope Scholarship for students who have been bullied at a public school; and the Reading Scholarship Accounts for children in grades 3-5 who struggle with reading.

Step Up’s Jacksonville office is a finalist in the Jacksonville Business Journal’s 2019 Best Places to Work. Those results will be announced later this spring.

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

Recession crushed family business but not the dream of quality education for their boys

With the help of Florida Tax Credit Scholarships from Step Up For Students, Jonas, left, and Jack Figueredo are thriving at Westwood Christian School in Miami.

By ROGER MOONEY

MIAMI – The conversations eventually moved from the house to the garage, far away from the boys, who were too young to understand the words used by their parents but could certainly sense the worry in their voices.

Real estate bubble? Recession? Bankruptcy?

What did the boys know about those things? Why should they?

Jonas Figueredo was 6 at the time. His brother, Jack, was 4.

 “We didn’t want the boys to know what was going on,” their mom, Helen, said.

It was 2008 and the real estate company owned by Helen and her husband, Frank, was crumbling.

“We were heavy into real estate when the bubble burst,” Helen Figueredo said, “and we were left holding the bag.”

The recession cost them everything: Their business. Their savings. Their house. They filed for bankruptcy twice and ended up in foreclosure.

Frank Figueredo took a job working for the state of Florida as a claims adjuster. It paid $38,000 a year. They were clearing 10-times as much with their real estate business.

“Thirty-eight grand in Miami with a family of four and two kids in private school,” he said.

Yes, private school.

The boys were attending Westwood Christian School, a pre-K through 12 private school in Miami. During those talks in the garage away from curious ears, the No. 1 topic was how to keep the boys at Westwood. Besides a roof over their head, this was their priority.

The Figueredos met with school officials and told them of their rapidly diminishing finances. That’s when they learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarship covered half the tuition.

Bill Thomson, Westwood’s head administrator and secondary school principal, recalled that 2008 meeting.

“They definitely were at a crossroads of having to possibly uproot their boys from our school and our church and our philosophy and into a different environment that they just weren’t comfortable with,” he said. “They were introduced to Step Up, and it has been very beneficial to them over the years as it has with many families. It definitely is kind of a success story for that family.”

Their world

Today, Jonas, 16, is a junior at Westwood. Jack, 14, is a freshman. What the two have accomplished scholastically with the help of Step Up is impressive. What they have accomplished away from school with the support of their parents is equally as notable.

Jonas is vice president of the junior class, president of the high school band, a second chair trumpeter on the all-district band and has qualified for the all-state band. He is ranked in the top-5 of his class with a GPA above 4.0, is a member of the National Honor Society and a member of the debate team.

“I just love to argue,” he said.

Jonas is a worship leader at Westwood and finished first last year in a preaching competition at the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. He is a student ambassador and a former varsity soccer player.

Jonas, who volunteers for Bugles Across America, plays taps at funerals and memorials for veterans.

In his spare time, Jonas is a second-degree black belt in taekwondo who competes nationally and teaches anti-bullying, anti-abduction and self-defense classes to younger children, including those at Westwood. He has plans to teach the same at a women’s shelter. He volunteers for Bugles Across America and plays taps at funerals for veterans.

He can play the piano, guitar, ukulele and harmonica. He helped put together a musical production at Villa Lyan Academy, a school in Miami for children and young adults with special needs.

His brother, Jack, is a freshman. His GPA is above 4.0, he is a third chair trumpeter in the all-district band and has qualified for the all-state band, was president of the middle school band as an eighth-grader and was instrumental in bringing back the high school debate team. He is a student ambassador and was the goalie on the varsity soccer team from the sixth to eighth grades.

In his spare time, Jack plans to race a Mustang next season in the National Auto Sports Association, where you can drive when you’re 14. He is in the process of starting his own nonprofit to feed and clothe the homeless, called “Socks and Sandwiches.”

Helen and Frank Figueredo started the nonprofit “Kids United Foundation” several years ago to send clothes and food to homeless children in Columbia.

When the boys were young, Helen Figueredo took them to Miami’s Little Havana when she brought food to the homeless.

“I remember that,” Jack said. “It was a great experience. It broke my heart to see a lot of people like this. I wanted to do something on my own to help them.”

Jack also plays the piano and violin.

While in middle school, both brothers worked as pages for Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, when she was a state representative in South Florida.

“We’re very thankful for them to be a part of our school,” Bill Thomson, Westwood’s head administrator and secondary school principal, said.

‘You’re going to law school’

Jonas has thought about becoming a criminal profiler for the FBI. Jack would love to race cars professionally. Both plan on attending law school.

Actually, getting a law degree is mandatory for the Figueredo boys.

“I always told them, ‘You don’t need to worry about what you’re going to do. You can worry about that when you graduate law school,’” Helen Figueredo said. “I do believe that a law degree is a license to do whatever you want to do.”

“Honestly, I agree with her,” Jonas said. “With a law degree you have more options. Maybe I do become a lawyer. Maybe a I don’t. But I do have the law degree with me.”

Jack works on the engine of the Mustang he plans to race next year in the National Auto Sports Association.

The options for the future of the Figueredo boys appear limitless. That’s why their parents felt compelled to keep their sons at Westwood.

The couple made the sacrifices for their boys to continue there. They sold their luxury cars and Frank picked up an older car at a police auction for $89. They rented a house owned by the school for $550 a month and began to slowly rebuild their finances.

“The school teaches wisdom,” Frank Figueredo said, “and with wisdom, you learn to learn.”

He currently works as a bodily injury adjuster for an insurance company. Helen, who has a degree in business administration and a master’s in educational leadership, works part time as a health care risk management consultant.

“We turned our lifestyle upside down to teach them what is important, what really matters,” Helen Figueredo said. “A car? Or knowledge and wisdom? It’s taught them not to be materialistic. It’s taught them that people are more important.”

Jonas and Jack are aware of the changes made by their parents. They know the role Step Up played in their education. They are thankful for both.

“I’ve been (at Westwood) since I was 2 years old,” Jonas said. “It shaped me to who I am today.”

 “It’s a great education,” Jack added. “The staff, all the teachers, they’re all very supportive, very friendly. They’re always willing to help.”

The boys are eager to see what they can accomplish in the future.

“After they go to law school,” Helen Figueredo said.

About Westwood Christian School

Established in 1959 by the First Baptist Church of Westwood Lake, the school provides Biblical and academic education for 550 students from pre-K-12, including more than 230 who are on Step Up For Students’ scholarships. Students must pass an entrance exam to gain enrollment. The school has state recognized band, choir, drama and art programs. All teachers are fully accredited with the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools and the National Council for Private School Accreditation.

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

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.