Category Archives for Student Spotlights

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.

Adopted siblings thrive in private school after severe neglect in early childhood

Sobel family.

Editor’s note: To mark National Adoption Awareness Month, we highlight the tax credit scholarship that serves children who are or were in Florida’s foster care system.

By JEFF BARLIS

INVERNESS, Fla. – There is no hiding from the nightmarish stories of his early childhood, but Diego Cornelius is grateful to have forgotten most of the details.

Some things he can’t forget, like the time he smelled smoke in their mobile home and woke everyone, saving them, before all of their possessions burned. Or the time he fell from a boat without a life vest, and nearly drowned before his mom jumped in.

Most of the time, he and his sisters were left alone. Their father was gone, their mother addicted to a variety of drugs. Her extended family and boyfriend had lengthy criminal records.

“He always had a struggle to survive,” his adoptive mother said.

These days, 13-year-old Diego is grateful for a lot of things: his younger sisters, Alyssa and Bianca, who look to him as a role model; his former foster parents, who adopted them; and the school choice scholarship that’s allowed them to attend the Catholic school that has embraced them all as family.

X X X

As a foster mom to more than 100 children over the last 22 years, Patricia Sobel knows something about the importance of a caring, structured environment.

That’s why she lit up when she learned about the Step Up For Students scholarship that empowers low-income families to send their kids to the private school of their choice. The scholarship also serves foster children and adopted children who were in Florida’s foster care system.

“I was in shock,” she recalled. “Shock, for two days. I couldn’t believe they were actually eligible for this free education. What a gift!”

When Diego, Alyssa, and Bianca entered Patricia’s life, she realized they were special. Six years ago, they were rescued from a life of severe neglect.

“They were living in a drug house,” Patricia said, her low, soft voice punctuated with warm emotion. “They were in a garage with no running water or electricity. Their teeth were blackened. Their heads were filled with lice. They were so filthy, they had to be bathed at the police station.”

Diego remembers the lice crawling under the tight waves of his reddish-blond hair.

“We had to put mayonnaise in our hair and wear caps over it,” he said. “I still think about that. It means someone is there to care for you and make sure you’re healthy.”

That was just the start. Diego needed a surgical procedure on his eye, and all three children needed counseling and dental work.

For kids who had so little growing up, even small gestures made a big impression.

“If I’m hungry, I just go ask and they ask me what I want,” Diego said. “They make sure we don’t starve. They make sure to protect us. My mom likes to lock the doors each night and make sure the windows are closed.”

“They love us.”

It took time for Diego and his sisters to go from “Pat” and “Chuck” to “Mom” and “Dad,” but now the love is mutual.

X X X

The children have gotten used to the same love and care at Saint John Paul II Catholic School in nearby Lecanto.

“I like the teachers, all of them,” said Alyssa, 11. “They’re kind and they help us.”

Bianca, 10, enjoys learning about religion, something else that was missing in their early years.

None of the siblings attended preschool, and Diego still feels the effects of being behind academically. His biological mother took him to kindergarten for the first week but never brought him back. He doesn’t know why.

When Pat and Chuck sent him to their neighborhood school, Diego was a 6-year-old in kindergarten alongside 5-year-old Alyssa. They remain classmates today.

After a couple of years living in the Sobels’ four-bedroom foster home in Tampa, everything fell into place for adoption. The children’s biological parents no longer had rights to custody. Despite their troubled past, the siblings were vibrant, compassionate, and healthy.

A few months later, Patricia and Charles moved everyone north from bustling Tampa to the rural rolling hills of Inverness to start Don Bosco’s Children’s Home, named after John Bosco, a Catholic saint who dedicated his life to helping disadvantaged youth. The nonprofit had purchased three houses and the lush, tranquil land they sat on. It needed a lot of work – a new roof here, a new air conditioning system there, paint and landscaping everywhere.

Patricia Sobel is executive director of Don Bosco’s Children’s Home in Inverness, Fla.

The Sobels know how to rehabilitate.

Their organization is still getting off the ground. Their goal is to find foster parents to live in the other two houses, to use their home as a blueprint. The need is large and growing.

“I get calls every day to place kids in foster care,” Patricia said.

The number of children entering Florida’s foster care system has risen sharply, and a recent study by the University of South Florida showed a tie to the opioid crisis.

“I’m going to continue taking more children,” Patricia said. “One thing I try to do is get them all in the Step Up For Students program.”

In the three years they’ve lived in Inverness, they’ve sent all 13 of their children to Saint John Paul II. Patricia has fond memories of her biological daughter, Adrienne, attending Catholic schools. More importantly, she feels a small school with a more individually tailored environment is best for her foster and adopted children.

X X X

Earlier this year as a sixth-grader at SJP2, Diego got in trouble for plagiarizing a paper. His teacher was ready to give him an F. The principal intervened.

“He wasn’t trying to do it on purpose, he just had never been taught the proper way,” said Lee Sayago, himself an energetic newcomer at the school.

Diego was upset. Getting all A’s and making the Principal’s List was a borderline obsession from the time he first attended an assembly and saw his high-achieving classmates receive special recognition.

Bianca, Alyssa, and Diego Cornelius are all smiles at Saint John Paul II Catholic School in Lecanto, Fla.

He got a second chance and beamed with confidence when he pulled Sayago aside to show him his new grade – 97, the highest score of anyone in Grades 6-8.

“It could have been a negative experience,” Sayago said, the corners of his eyes creased with pride. “But the way he handled it was amazing.”

Diego is in the midst of a growth spurt. He loves sports that involve running and lifts weights regularly in hopes of getting “six-pack” abs. After a couple of years of falling just short, he’s made all A’s.

“It’s amazing what a little nourishment and love can do,” Patricia said. “It comes from the home and the school, and then they just grow and blossom.”

About Saint John Paul II Catholic School

Opened in 1985 as part of the Archdiocese of St. Petersburg, St. John Paul II is the only Catholic school in rural Citrus County. The school serves 205 K-8 students, including 81 on Step Up For Students scholarships. SJP2 is a candidate school for the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme and is pursuing authorization as an IB World School. The school administers the MAP Growth test three times a year as well as the Terra Nova Spring test. Annual tuition is $6,645 for K-5 and $6,945 for 6-8.

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

Military family on mission to raise awareness for Gardiner scholarships

The Gardiner Scholarship has been a lifeline for the Laurie Guzman and her son Ezra, diagnosed with autism.

By JEFF BARLIS

TAMPA, Fla. – Two months after her son was diagnosed with autism, Laurie Guzman felt broken and defeated, exhausted from searching for the right school.

A scholarship made her whole, if only for a short time.

Ezra was a tall, slender 4-year-old when he and his mom took a tour of LiFT Academy, a private school in Seminole that serves children with special needs.

Meeting the school’s executive director, Ezra furrowed his brow and narrowed his deep brown eyes.

“I’m a bad boy,” he stated as a matter of fact, “so I know you won’t let me come here.”

Kim Kuruzovich, equal parts caring mother and wizened educator, was stunned.

“There are no bad children,” she said, her voice raising an octave. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh, no,” Ezra said, “my teacher told me that. I’m a bad boy. That’s why I got kicked out of school.”

Kuruzovich knelt down to meet Ezra’s gaze and put her hands on his shoulders.

“You are not a bad boy,” she said. “You’re a great boy.”

She turned to Laurie and insisted Ezra enroll, if for no other reason than to learn he’s not bad.

Instantly, Laurie felt a great dam of tension burst with relief. She knew LiFT was where Ezra needed to be.

“I cried on the way home,” Laurie said. “It was heartbreaking. That was the first time I had heard him say he was a bad boy. We don’t use that in our house, so I knew where it was coming from.”

Ezra was 2 when his father, Air Force Sgt. Luis Guzman-Castillo, got orders to move to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Two years later, Ezra’s explosive meltdowns had left whole classrooms trembling in his wake. Laurie was told to find a new preschool.

The diagnosis followed, but it didn’t bring clarity or relief. Instead, raw fear galloped through every synapse of Laurie’s mind as she drove home from the doctor’s office in a daze.

“I knew nothing about anything with autism,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do, where to go, nothing.”

She knew that Ezra was bright and verbal at an early age. She and Luis taught him with flash cards when he was 6 months old.

Ezra was so sweet and charming. Laurie could get lost in his eyes in one moment and then watch storm clouds gather in another.

The meltdowns were devastating. Kicking, screaming, crying, and sometimes running.

“They’re about 45 minutes,” Laurie explained, “and I’d be melting down with him by the end.”

She quit her job as a bank branch manager to stay home with Ezra and his little brother, Elijah. Laurie’s sister, who had two sons with autism back in their home state of Alabama was helpful. But there was so much to learn, it was easy to feel overwhelmed and lonely.

LiFT Academy broke the spell.

One of the tenets of the school is that parents are the experts on their children, so engagement is high. Kuruzovich, who has a daughter with autism, has an inviting way of sharing 20-plus years of experience with parents who are just learning how to navigate this world.

She told Laurie about the Gardiner Scholarship, a state program that allows families with children who have special needs to pay for therapy, tuition and other education-related services of their choice.

“The Gardiner Scholarship literally changed our lives,” Laurie said. “It made it so we are actually able to breathe. It gave me hope that my son can get help and learn like every other kid. I didn’t know that was going to be possible.”

Ezra felt more comfortable right away. He made friends. One teacher wondered if he really had autism.

Just wait, Kuruzovich said.

“When we saw it, it was pretty big,” she said of the inevitable first meltdown. “But it’s not a negative.”

That was the biggest relief to Laurie, who used to lose sleep worrying Ezra would get kicked out the next time he knocked over a desk. But at LiFT, the teachers, administrators and his therapists all know how to avoid and defuse meltdowns.

One year later, Ezra is in first grade, studying at a second-grade level. He even represented the school recently when some business people came to visit, telling them: “I love this school because I’m really safe. I can be who I am. People like me here.”

With structures in place at school and a home, everything was going well. Laurie had a plan to go back to work.

Then Luis’ new orders came. They’re moving to Alabama in January.

“Ezra is about to experience the biggest transition of his life,” Laurie said. “And he doesn’t do well with transition anyway. His school is going to change. His friends are going to change. His support is going to change. All of that keeps me up at night.”

Laurie has family in Alabama, but there is no special needs scholarship. The school she found charges $8,000 for tuition – paid up front. It’s a price tag that would make any working-class family swoon.

A proposal in the U.S. House of Representatives to create education spending accounts for some military families would have helped the Guzmans, but the House Rules Committee did not include it for a vote in May.

Rather than panicking, Laurie feels herself rising to the challenge of helping to create a scholarship.

Now, she’s the one with marching orders.

“We were meant to come to Tampa,” she said. “We were meant to get the diagnosis. We were meant to come to LiFT. And I am meant to go to Alabama and make the difference I can make.”

“That’s my mission, to talk to people eye to eye and say what we need, what would help. I’ll say, ‘Look at a mother and a father who got a diagnosis that was completely devastating, thinking our lives were over. And they’re not.’ ”

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

Scholarship, private school led a tormented girl to happiness

By JEFF BARLIS

MIAMI – It’s hard to miss Nicole Meneses at Pneuma Christian Academy. If she’s not front and center in every photo on every social media post, she’s stealing the show with her exuberance.

Her smile, so wide it almost looks painful, is full of braces. But she doesn’t have the slightest hint of self-consciousness.

“I’ve come a long way,” she said. “I’m thankful every day to be here.”

The happiest student at the school says you wouldn’t recognize her before Pneuma. She was bullied, depressed, and hated going to her neighborhood school.

Then her mother found out about a scholarship that would change their lives, and that led them to Pneuma.

What started as teases and taunts in first grade, turned into a campaign of insults and exclusion in second grade. Nicole’s school was a half-mile walk from the villa where she lived with her parents and older sister. It was a large, newly built K-8 with more than 1,500 students. She felt lost.

“They said I was ugly, fat, dumb,” she said, recalling the boys and girls who tormented her daily.

She hid in bathrooms or found an empty classroom to cry in. It was a sprawling checkerboard of a campus with green squares between each building. There were lots of places to hide.

“If it was during class, I would ask to get water and then go walk,” she said. “I would call my mom to leave early, and I’d go home and cry to her.”

“I hated it. It was so stressful, I couldn’t concentrate. I almost failed second grade.”

Every day, Nicole tried to find an excuse to not go. Her mom, Rosalaris Perez, started sweetly singing a song of sarcastic encouragement in Spanish:

I’m tired
I’m sleepy
My foot hurts
My stomach hurts
My head hurts
I don’t want to go to school
I don’t want to go to school

Nicole’s response was always the same: “OK, Mom, it’s a beautiful school, but only for skinny girls.”

Her self-esteem was in shambles.

“I didn’t hate myself,” she said, “but I felt different. I was just living with a lot of sadness in my life.”

With every tearful afternoon, Rosalaris, an affectionate and fiery Cuban immigrant, grew more frustrated. She saw Nicole’s report cards littered with F’s, D’s and C’s and went in to complain about the bullying. There was always a language barrier. Once, her temper flared, and she was escorted off campus.

She knew what had to be done.

A year earlier, Nicole’s older sister also needed a way out of her neighborhood high school. She struggled so badly and got so depressed, she attempted suicide.

Rosalaris felt trapped. She worked part-time as a receptionist and clerk at a physical therapy clinic. Her boyfriend – Nicole’s father Carlos Meneses – was a swimming teacher. They couldn’t afford private school. Then an acquaintance told them about the Step Up For Students scholarship that helps low-income families afford tuition.

After applying, Rosalaris got a list of nearby schools and went through it alphabetically until she found Pneuma. It’s a small school surrounded by two large green fields and filled with bright colors and warm, caring teachers inside.

Nicole Meneses, center, is a mainstay on Pneuma Academy’s Facebook page.

While she was in second grade struggling, Nicole saw how much happier her sister was and how quickly she turned herself around. Nicole was overjoyed when her scholarship was awarded. In third grade at Pneuma, a sense of relief washed over her. She achieved honor roll throughout the year.

Making friends wasn’t as easy, because she was nervous at first. But soon she let her guard down, made friends, and found a home. There were no more excuses in the morning – Nicole was in love with going to school.

Sometimes, on mornings she feels tired, she sings her mom’s song to herself. It’s something she laughs about now.

“I’m thankful every day,” she said. “Here, they always talk about how important it is to love yourself. I accept myself now, and I love myself just the way I am.”

It shows up every day. It’s the way she helps other students. It’s pushing herself to new heights, like singing in front of the school.

“She’s a star here,” principal Yohanna Ramirez said. “She’s so happy. She’s not the same student. She’s a leader. She’s confident now, and we can see it.”

What Rosalaris sees is Nicole comes home happy every day. It’s a profound change, one that’s more welcome than the academic honors that continue to roll in.

“I prefer my daughter’s happiness over straight A’s,” she said, trying to hold back tears. “I get emotional, because if there is no Step Up for me, there is no Pneuma for Nicole.”

About Pneuma Christian Academy

Opened in 2009 and affiliated with non-denominational Pneuma Church, the school expanded from its roots as an online and homeschool hub to serve pre-K through 12. There are 92 students enrolled, including 75 with Step Up For Students scholarships. Curriculum includes Bob Jones University Press and Ignitia for elementary school. The elementary school is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Pneuma administers the MAP Growth test three times a year. Tuition is $7,031.75 for Kindergarten and 1st grade; $7,119.75 for 2nd-5th; $7,265.50 for middle school; and $7,414 for high school.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org

Scholarship helps smiles return for student and her parents

Editor’s note: This story was originally posted on redefinED on February 10, 2017.

By JEFF BARLIS

Maria and Marcos Verciano will never forget the anguish over their daughter’s struggles in third and fourth grade. That’s why they’re so grateful for the scholarship that changed their lives.

At first it was the D’s and F’s on Hadassa’s report cards that raised their concern. Then the poor progress reports, all of the meetings at their neighborhood school in Destin, Florida, being told Hadassa wasn’t on track to make the next grade level – it all added up to a serious strain on the family.

Hadassa’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis didn’t do much to change her path, either.

Hadassa Verciano, 12, has improved her academics at Rocky Bayou Christian School in Niceville, Fla. “It’s way easier to learn,” she said. “If you don’t understand something the teachers explain it really well.”

Hadassa Verciano, 12, has improved her academics at Rocky Bayou Christian School in Destin, Fla. “It’s way easier to learn,” she said. “If you don’t understand something the teachers explain it really well.”

“They just set her apart and gave her more time to do the tests, but nothing more than that,” Maria said. “It was so sad for me, for her dad and for her, because she felt different from the other students. She felt like she was not accepted.”

“It was kind of overwhelming to think that she wouldn’t make it to fourth and fifth grade, that this was going to be her life forever. It was a very bad feeling that she was always behind.”

When Hadassa’s normally bright spirit and enthusiasm for school turned to dejection, her parents knew they had to make a change.

A Step Up For Students scholarship empowered them to do it.

The couple had always dreamed of sending Hadassa to a private school, but with Marcos’ work installing pavers and Maria’s job managing a beach house, they could never afford it. At their small Brazilian church, they found out about Rocky Bayou Christian School, a place that caters to all manner of students with different educational needs.

At Rocky Bayou’s Destin campus, principal Joe Quilit told Maria about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which helps lower-income families afford tuition. She applied, but it was too late in the school year. All of the scholarships had been awarded. Continue reading

From bullied and failing to Hope, honors and college

By JEFF BARLIS

Sheila James and daughter Adaijah Jackson are all smiles at Hope Academy.

GROVELAND, Fla. – The sign at their church trumpeted the opening of a new private school:

HOPE ACADEMY
NOW ENROLLING

For Adaijah Jackson and her mother, Sheila James, the word Hope was all they saw.

“It was an answer to prayer,” Sheila said, smiling and shaking her head at the memory. “The timing was just perfect.”

Adaijah (pronounced Ahd-asia) was desperate to leave the neighborhood school where she had nearly failed 10th grade.

Sheila was a single mom with two children and a job working the overnight shift at a convenience store. She never thought she could afford Hope. But the school told her about the Florida Tax Credit scholarship from Step Up For Students that covered tuition.

“It changed our lives,” she said. “I wish I would have known about the scholarship earlier.”

As a child, Adaijah was very bright and happy. You couldn’t miss her gleaming eyes and deep dimples, because she smiled all the time. She was a sensitive soul at 10, and her life was thrown into turmoil when her great grandmother died, and her parents split a few months later.

That’s when Sheila and her kids moved to Miami to live with her parents. Adaijah had been a strong student in a small PK-5 charter school in Orlando, but suddenly she was finishing fifth grade in a new neighborhood and a much larger school.

“It was the worst thing ever,” she said, recalling the confusion she felt walking into classrooms with two or three times the number of students she was accustomed to.

They lived in Miami for just eight months before moving back north to Minneola, about 30 miles west of Orlando. But the switch to large neighborhood schools had just begun, and Adaijah continued to feel like an outsider, even with a clean slate at the start of middle school.

“I didn’t know anyone,” she said. “It was hard to fit in with a large group of people.”

That’s when the bullying began.

“They used to call me bad names – fat, chubby, short,” she said. “They made fun of my natural hair. I have curly, kinky hair sitting up on my head, and it’s really poofy. I grew up loving my hair.”

She switched to extensions, wigs and weaves. Anything to try to fit in.

She found no friends among the girls, and the boys were merciless. They catcalled when she ate lunch and when she tried to exercise in PE class.

“It was torture,” she said. “They wrecked my self-esteem.”

Adaijah went from A’s and B’s in sixth grade to B’s and C’s in eighth. High school, with more than 2,000 students, was worse. She kept to herself for most of her freshman year, but her desire for acceptance took on more urgency, and she settled for any friends she could get.

They skipped class constantly and hardly studied. At home, Adaijah was angry all the time, talking back and getting in petty fights with younger brother Adrian.

She wasn’t herself. Her GPA bottomed out at 1.3. It was time for a change.

“I could not go back for my junior year,” she said. “I knew I was either going to be arrested or get pregnant. I was not going to make it to college.”

Hope Preparatory Academy in Groveland, Fla., opened in 2016.

Then she found Hope.

Adaijah and her brother were among the first of 25 students to enroll. Everyone was smiling again.

Though she was quiet and guarded at first, Adaijah knew she belonged. She felt safe and comfortable. With only a handful of classmates, she got to know her teachers personally, just how it was at her charter elementary school.

She bought in to everything – even the dress code and no-cellphone policy. She recovered some lost credits, turned her grades completely around, and became a role model to the younger students.

Principal Eucretiae Waite and her staff had a hard time connecting this Adaijah to her past.

“We couldn’t believe that she was really struggling, but of course we saw the transcript,” Waite said. “She came here and was just phenomenal. We figured it was just because we’re a small school and she got more attention.”

“She was willing to help in the classroom and outside the classroom. She would stay after school. We would have to literally take her home sometimes. Like, ‘Adaijah are you going home today?’ ”

In two years at Hope Academy, Adaijah got all A’s and one B and graduated last spring with honors. Teachers and administrators had promised to get her ready for college, and together, that promise was fulfilled.

Adaijah was accepted to South Florida, Florida International, Florida Atlantic and Southeastern among others. But she decided to attend Tallahassee Community College. She started in August and is loving the confidence that has come with her newfound independence.

She plans to stay at TCC for two years before going to Florida State to study physical therapy.

Why not go straight to one of those universities?

“I wasn’t ready for a four-year school,” she said. “I like the smaller setting.”

Adaijah didn’t just survive her rocky roads, she learned from the bumps. She’s planning to build a business in Houston or Atlanta someday, and she knows just the steps to get there.

“I’ve always thrived in small situations,” she said. “So for me to even think about big cities … it’s like, ‘Whoa, you are really growing.’ ”

Thanks, in part, to finding Hope.

About Hope Preparatory Academy

Opened in 2016, the school is affiliated with non-denominational Hope International Church in Groveland. It has 76 students in grades 6-12, 63 of whom use Step Up For Students scholarships. The school uses the Edgenuity curriculum with an emphasis on college prep courses. The Terranova 3 test is administered annually, and high school students also take the SAT and ACT. Tuition is $6,300 for grades 6-8 and $6,700 for grades 9-12.

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

Choosing the right school helped turn tragedy into triumph

By JEFF BARLIS

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – In the damp, rising heat of a late-morning graduation ceremony in May, with historic Farragut Hall as a backdrop, a hush crept through the crowd of students, relatives, friends, and faculty as they anticipated the next name.

Marquis Lambert

The roar was pent-up and prolonged, louder than one family could possibly deliver. This was the sound of the entire Admiral Farragut Academy family cheering and tearing up for the senior who 10 months prior had been a celebrated football player one day and was fighting for his life in intensive care the next.

As Marquis walked slowly across the stage to receive his diploma with a shy, child-like smile, parents LaTaura Blount and Mark Lambert swelled with joy, gratitude, pride, and even some disbelief.

Marquis at Admiral Farragut Academy graduation with parents Mark Lambert and LaTaura Blount.

“This almost didn’t happen for us,” LaTaura said.

Memories washed over them in waves.

Four years ago, a Florida tax credit scholarship made it possible to join the Farragut family. It was the perfect fit. Marquis dreamed of a future in football. His parents dreamed of an academic turnaround after their oldest son was just getting by in his neighborhood school with a C average.

“The standards, the rules, and the curriculum … I knew it would be a fresh start,” said LaTaura, who had heard about the Step Up For Students scholarship from a friend.

She was 16 when she had Marquis. She and Mark were kids trying to grow up. She worked jobs as a nursing home caregiver, a teacher and a pharmacy technician. Mark delivered phone books and traveled frequently.

Their home was as warm as their smiles, with three boys, plenty of noise and laughter. But money was always tight.

That’s why Mark and LaTaura always instilled the importance of academics. They didn’t go to college, but their children would.

“Sports can be taken away, but nobody can take away what you’ve learned and what you’ve earned,” LaTaura preached.

For football-crazy Marquis, the message only landed when it was echoed by coaches, peers and college recruiters. As he added muscle to his lean 5-foot-10 frame, he soared to a 3.7 GPA in his junior year. His dream (and his parents’) was coming into focus.

“He’d been playing football since he was little, and he had this expectation his entire life,” said Angie Koebel, who is Academic Services Director at Farragut and a doting school mom to Marquis. “That was his ticket out. He started thinking about his grades and doing better and changing, growing up.”

His coaches saw it, too.

There were only a handful of seniors on Farragut’s 2018 football team, and they were as close as brothers. Early in the spring, Marquis was the only one without a scholarship offer.

“We sat down and made a plan,” head coach Rick Kravitz said. “He worked his butt off to make himself a very good player, a recruitable player. He went from having no offers to 12 offers in a three-week period. It was just beginning to pick up even more when he had the accident.”

Marquis was driving to football practice on July 17, 2017 when a gold SUV cut in front of him. He swerved on the wet pavement, skipped over a curb and wrapped his car around a tree.

The fire department had to use the Jaws of Life to free Marquis from the wreckage.

The scene was horrific. Marquis was pronounced dead after paramedics arrived. But a nurse who was driving by and heard the crash from afar, stopped and noticed his fingers moving. Without her intervention – oxygen and the fire department’s Jaws of Life – Marquis would not have lived.

He had a traumatic brain hemorrhage, a broken neck, a torn meniscus in his knee, nerve damage in his arm, and was in a coma for two weeks. He spent 41 days in the hospital.

He wasn’t alone for a minute. Mark and LaTaura stopped working to be by his side every day. Marquis’ closest friends – the senior football players – and his position coach visited daily. Coach Kravitz and three teachers visited regularly.

The Farragut family rallied.

“They made sure we had food, donations came in (through a GoFundMe page),” LaTaura said, “and being there mentally for us was the biggest thing, because I wasn’t there at all. I was in pieces.”

When Marquis started to wake up, he wasn’t himself. Intense pain made him angry. He lashed out verbally and physically. It was hard for everyone to watch. LaTaura cried every night. But her boy was alive.

“I don’t remember anything,” Marquis said. “They had me on a lot of medicine. I remember my parents telling me I was acting funny. I was cussing a lot, being loud. Nurses were aggravated.”

Therapy – physical, speech and occupational – was grueling. But in August, just as he was getting out of a wheelchair and starting to walk, a birthday party in the hospital cafeteria lifted Marquis’ spirits. The entire football team came as a surprise.

“That’s how much he was loved,” Kravitz said.

The party inspired Marquis. He worked harder in therapy. He wanted out of that hospital, and there was a bigger goal – the first football game of the season.

Administrators at Farragut said not to rush, but everyone had their hopes up. On the day of the game, Marquis got out, had his hair cut and went to the stadium. In the locker room, he saw they had retired his jersey, put his No. 3 on helmet stickers, and didn’t allow anyone to use his locker.

“It meant a lot,” he said.

He put on his jersey, prayed with his team and led them out.

“They announced one of the captains would be Marquis,” LaTaura said, recalling her surprise at the reaction. “It was kind of a sad moment. Everybody started crying. The parents knew what was going on, but they hadn’t seen him. They were expecting him to be in a wheelchair.”

Marquis came out in a golf cart, smiling. He walked to the middle of the field to gasps and did the coin toss. In the Disney version of this story, Farragut would play its most inspired game and win big. But that didn’t happen. Real life is more complex, and Marquis had a hard time not being on the field for his senior season. Coach Kravitz explained why recruiters stopped calling.

“There was a lot of sadness watching everybody play,” Marquis said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get back out there.”

Despite a rigorous schedule of therapy, Marquis was determined to get back to school and graduate with his class.

Football was over, but he turned his determination to school and graduating with his class. Juggling therapy and school, he improved at both. By the end of the year he was going to physical therapy just once a week and no longer needed help in class. He was accepted to St. Petersburg College, where he starts Aug. 14 with a full class load and a plan to become a pharmacist.

Graduation was an inspiration to so many at Farragut, but Marquis had a different perspective. He calmly soaked it all in, felt the love, and was proud he accomplished his goal. He just wanted to be with his classmates and feel normal.

It was the same thing at prom a few weeks earlier.

“I had a good time,” he said. “Music, dancing, laughing, good talks with friends.

“I’m glad I didn’t miss it.”

So is the Farragut family.

About Admiral Farragut Academy

Opened in 1945 as the second campus of its namesake in New Jersey, is one of only two honor naval schools in the country and is re-accredited annually by the U.S. Department of the Navy. Last year, the school served 457 PreK-12 students, including 38 on Step Up For Students scholarships. The school annually administers the Terra Nova 3 test to students in grades 2-7 and the PSAT to students in grades 8-11. Tuition is $13,000 annually for Kindergarten, $16,300 for Grades 1-5, $18,900 for Grades 6 and 7, and $23,300 for high school. Payment plans and financial aid are available.

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

After school choice helps her, she helps Puerto Rico

By JEFF BARLIS

Last fall, as she started her senior year in high school, IvonD’liz Chernoff was full of love and gratitude. She was excelling in school. She had overcome years of ridicule. She was headed for college.

Tracking a monster hurricane was the last thing on her mind.

But there it was. Maria. Tearing through her beloved Puerto Rico.

After a Step Up For Students scholarship changed her life, IvonD’liz Chernoff set out to help others by raising more than $12,000 for Hurricane Maria relief for Puerto Rico last fall.

“I couldn’t look away,” IvonD’liz recounted. “Houses with roofs coming off, water coming in from the ocean. It was terrifying … heartbreaking. The worst part was the aftermath, seeing people suffering, kids crying because they don’t have a home or food or because their dolls are gone with the storm.”

I have to do something, she thought.

So she did. The girl who failed third grade was now student body president. The girl rescued by a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students now found the strength to rescue others.

I can move mountains, she thought.

IvonD’liz, also known as Ivon or Ivy, was born in Orlando. But in her heart, she’s Puerto Rican. She moved to the U.S. territory when she was three months old, and didn’t return to central Florida, to live with her grandparents, until she was 5. “I’m a pure Latina,” she said with an accent, a broad smile and a little shimmy that sent her tight, black curls into a dance. “My whole family shares that Puerto Rican spice.”

Florida turned out to be turbulent. When Ivon began attending her neighborhood kindergarten, she didn’t know English. She soon became comfortable speaking it. But reading?

“Reading was really difficult,” she said, “especially when you had to stand up. I would stutter. The kids who knew English would laugh.”

Ivon felt the sting of classmates calling her dumb. She cried a lot.

When her mom got married a few years later, she took Ivon and her two sisters from their grandparents’ home and moved south to Poinciana. In school, Ivon continued to struggle. She was bullied by a boy who picked on her incessantly. She got mostly F’s and D’s. She didn’t have many friends.

“I didn’t feel accepted,” she said.

After a falling out with her mother, Ivon and her two sisters moved back to Orlando to live with their grandparents. Despite financial hardships, it was peaceful and stable. Ivon’s grades rebounded.

As a freshman at her neighborhood high school, Ivon did well and was happy. But she told her grandmother, Luz Ruiz, she wanted to leave because the classes were so large.

“I didn’t like the fact that when I didn’t understand anything, they couldn’t slow it down for me,” she said. “I wanted to go somewhere where I could have a one-on-one conversation with a teacher.”

Enter Raising Knowledge Academy. Ivon and her grandmother toured the school and met the principal, a strong, warm-hearted woman named Ariam Cotto. It was too late to get a Step Up scholarship, Ms. Cotto explained. But when she saw Ivon’s enthusiasm for the school, she worked out an affordable payment plan with Ivon’s grandmother, who worked in housekeeping at Disney.

“She saw something in me,” Ivon said. “I was so happy I was crying when we left.”

It took time for Ivon to find her groove. But with a Step Up scholarship in place for her 11th grade year, the self-admitted goofy kid started taking school more seriously. In her senior year, she was elected student body president.

Then Maria happened.

The destruction devastated Ivon. But it also spurred her to action.

She immediately went to Cotto, and they came up with a plan.

It was simple at first. Ivon and some students stood at the busy intersection near the school with signs for hurricane relief, waving a Puerto Rican flag and selling water bottles. The early donations were encouraging. The first time someone handed Ivon $40 was stunning. But she was thinking bigger.

While Cotto called local officials, Ivon galvanized the entire school community – students, parents, their churches. It took weeks to plan and even longer to coordinate with a church in Puerto Rico, but the refocused efforts paid off.

Donations streamed in – food, supplies, aid kits and money ($1,000 in one day gave everyone shivers of empowered delight). Students filled bags and boxes with supplies for women, men, children and babies.

“She raised more than $7,000 and another $5,000 in food and clothing,” Mrs. Cotto said, crediting Ivon as the driving force. “She’s a wonderful leader.”

Ivon accumulated 120 volunteer hours in two months. At graduation, the school gave her its Citizenship Award.

She finished with a 3.5 GPA. She was also accepted to Adventist University of Health Sciences, where she plans to become a pediatric cancer nurse.

Ivon’s nursing aspirations began five years ago, when she learned from post-operation hospital nurses how to care for her grandparents at home. She cries happily at the thought of how much they’ve done for her.

Grandma couldn’t be prouder to see how Ivon has grown. She credits Raising Knowledge Academy. “There were moments when Ivon fell down,” she said, “and they helped her get back up.”

She’s well on her way to paying it forward.

About Raising Knowledge Academy

Opened in 2015, the non-denominational non-profit had 92 K-12 students last year, including 46 on Step Up scholarships. The school uses Alpha and Omega Publications’ Horizons and Ignitia curriculums, which allow students to customize elective learning in addition to five core subjects. It offers advanced classes and dual enrollment through Valencia College. Its teachers are state certified, class sizes are between 8-10 students, and the school administers NWEA’s Measures of Academic Performance (MAP) test. Tuition is $6,100.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org

Scholarship student soars after hurdling language barrier

By JEFF BARLIS

The day after Maria Corrales’ tear-soaked graduation ceremony from St. Brendan High School, her mother, Carmen Urquijo, still searched for perspective.

“I have no words,” said Urquijo of her oldest daughter’s path from Cuba to Miami, a four-year journey that saw a girl who didn’t speak any English transform into a college-bound honors student.

A moment later the words spilled forth.

“Proud, grateful, full of joy that she was able to achieve so much,” Carmen said in Spanish. As Maria translated, a slight blush came over her golden skin.

A scholarship helped Maria Corrales soar academically and overcome a language barrier after leaving Cuba, leading to graduation.

A scholarship helped Maria Corrales soar academically and overcome a language barrier after leaving Cuba, leading to graduation.

Maria’s journey is a testament to perseverance and opportunity. St. Brendan became a second home, a refuge and a springboard to the American dream. But Maria’s family wouldn’t have been able to afford tuition had it not been for the Step Up For Students scholarship that helps lower-income families.

The journey began in the hilly town of Santa Clara, Cuba. Maria was one of the top students in her middle school, but knew from her parents that studies were no guarantee of success in Cuba. Her mom was a doctor, but the profession paid very little. Her father, Fabio Corrales, studied to be an electrician but ended up a businessman who worked with artisans.

The family was comfortable, but a future in Florida looked far brighter.

Maria, then 15, said it was difficult leaving friends, relatives, the family home and her boyfriend. But once she and her sister, Mariangel, then 11, got settled into school, they realized English and assimilating were ever harder. There were a lot of tears.

“I thought I was coming to Disney,” Maria said. “But it was tough.”

While Mariangel went to the neighborhood middle school, the family’s Catholic faith led Maria to St. Brendan (Mariangel now attends St. Brendan and is happy and thriving). Even with the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up, and financial aid from the school, money was tight. Carmen and Fabio had to make do with low-paying jobs and couldn’t afford a car.

The city bus Maria took every morning was cold and depressing. No one talked. Everyone looked tired. She was typically among the first to arrive to a quiet, lonely campus.

“Mornings were very hard,” she said, “because I knew I had a whole day of not understanding anything. I had to pay attention because I had to get something out of the class. It felt like I wasn’t in the right place.”

Normally a chatterbox, Maria hardly spoke her freshman year. She was embarrassed. She doubted herself and the decision to move. The girl who got all A’s in Cuba received a D in English in the first quarter.

But she had an angel at St. Brendan.

Tayra Ichino ran the English lab after school three days a week. Maria attended every one, feeling relief as she entered the room. There, Ms. Ichino would translate, explain assignments, and absorb any doubts and fears with relentless encouragement.

Tayra Ichino celebrates the graduation of her student, Maria Corrales.

Maria was such a positive, hard-working student, Ichino said, it felt good to help her. By third quarter of freshman year, she was making all A’s. By year’s end, she was accepted into the school’s STEM academy.

“That shows how much studying and reviewing she was doing, because it’s not just sitting with me,” Ichino said. “She had to go home and study twice as hard as any student who already had the language.”

That summer, Maria’s progress with English accelerated even more. She spent seven weeks as a camp counselor for 8-year-old girls where there was no getting around the language barrier. The girls bluntly asked her why she spoke so strangely. The ones who spoke Spanish helped her.

“It helped me come out of my shell,” Maria said. “After camp, I said, ‘OK, I can speak.’ ”

The embarrassment gone, Maria set about conquering St. Brendan. The student body seemed larger as she made more English-speaking friends. She took harder classes and thrived.

“She just completely turned it on,” said guidance counselor Carlos Nuñez.

Now a graduate, Maria’s accomplishments are staggering: English Honor Society (“which is amazing,” Nuñez said, “because she couldn’t even put a sentence together when she first started”), National Honor Society, Math Honor Society, Science Honor Society, Social Sciences Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society, varsity swimming, president of the STEM Academy, and unanimous winner of the Archbishop’s Catholic Leadership award.

“This girl is remarkable,” said St. Brendan principal Jose Rodelgo-Bueno. “We were worried when we gave her admission, but she has better grades than people who were born here.”

Maria was accepted into the honors program at Florida International University, where she will study civil engineering. She wants to own a firm someday and build bridges, buildings and expressways.

“The sky’s the limit and I can accomplish anything,” she said. “I learned that at St. Brendan.”

About Saint Brendan High School

Originally a seminary high school in 1959, St. Brendan went co-ed after an enrollment decline and re-opened with its present name in 1975. Today’s student body is about 70 percent female and 98 percent Hispanic. Part of the Archdiocese of Miami, the school sits on 33 acres that are shared with the seminary. There are 1,187 9-12th graders, including 284 on Step Up scholarships. The school has an academies program similar to college majors, in which freshmen apply to one of four academies – law/business, medical, engineering, and fine arts. More than half of the teachers hold advanced degrees. The school administers the SAT and ACT annually. Tuition is $10,250 a year with financial aid available to qualified families.

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

Brave warrior, inspiring model flourishes with scholarship

By DAVID HUDSON TUTHILL

Her name means “Brave Warrior” in Spanish.

That might not conjure up the image of a 6-year-old girl with blonde hair, glasses and a smile so bright she became the first person with Down syndrome to become a main model for a major fashion brand.

Born with Down syndrome, Valentina Guerrero, started modeling at 9 months old.

But, Valentina Guerrero always defies expectations.

The oldest child of Cecilia Elizalde and Juan Fernando Guerrero, Valentina was born Sept. 16, 2011. Her parents didn’t learn Valentina had Down syndrome until after her birth.  Each year, roughly 6,000 children in the U.S. are born with the genetic condition according to the Centers for Disease Control.

A Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs has helped Valentina shatter incorrect assumptions many people make about people with Down syndrome. Step Up For Students helps manage the scholarship.

“I realized how incredible individuals with Down syndrome are,” Elizalde said. “They’re so evolved on a spiritual level, and we have so much to learn from them. But we don’t hear enough of that. We hear outdated comments about their potential. I wanted to help change that perception.”

The family, including younger brother Oliver, 3, lives in Miami. Other family members remain in their native Ecuador.

Valentina was a few months old when her parents realized some of the challenges she could face. They soon had her working with occupational, physical and speech therapists.

Adriana Tilley, an occupational therapist with 33 years of experience, has been working with Valentina since she was a baby.  Tilley says Elizalde and Guerrero are deeply involved with their daughter’s care, which has had a huge influence on her development. The Gardiner Scholarship helps pay for the care.

“The parents have been incredible and a huge member of the team,” Tilley says. “Valentina is like any other kid, with some limitations. But, we all have limitations.”

Tilley’s six years of work with Valentina have helped the child make tremendous strides in her personality. She constantly is asking how other people are feeling. Tilley marvels at the young woman she’s helped nurture over the past six years.

“She’s met all her milestones and is doing great,” Tilley says. “Now she is learning how to do everything by herself. I’ve loved working with her and learning from her family.”

Even as a baby, Valentina began shattering stereotypes.

She was 9 months old when she began taking the modeling world by storm. Family connections led her to European fashion designer Dolores Cortés. By 2013, she was the main model for the company’s children collection DC Kids USA 2013.  In the ensuing years, Valentina has been featured in a plethora of media outlets, including People Magazine, Down Syndrome World and MTV Tres. She also has modeled for brands such as Walmart, GAP, Toys R Us and Carter’s, the children’s clothing company.

A Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs has helped Valentina Guerreno shatter incorrect assumptions many people make about people with Down syndrome.

Her accomplishments resonated as far away as her family’s native Ecuador – to the extent that the country’s former vice president, Lenin Moreno, wrote Valentina a letter, calling her an inspiration. Moreno is now Ecuador’s President.

“We didn’t take the fame too seriously,” says Elizalde, a former television producer, consultant and music show host on the Spanish-language PBS station V-me. “I saw it as a platform for us to communicate an important message. It was a little hectic having to go from therapies to having cameras all over. It was kind of surreal.”

Social media has played a major role in Valentina’s fame. Thanks to her mother, there are countless photos and videos across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, documenting her life and various activities.

Elizalde also recently began a Spanish language parenting channel on YouTube. She hopes to pass on to other families some of the techniques and therapies that have most helped her family.

She is a firm believer in the adage that it takes a village to raise a child such as Valentina, which is why the family feels so fortunate to be able to choose the right educational path for her.

Valentina enrolled in a three-year pre-K class at Morningside K-8 Academy in Miami. By her third year, she was in class with over 20 kids, one teacher, and an aid. Despite the class size, and with Valentina the only child in class with Down syndrome, the school was largely successful in meeting her needs. When Kindergarten rolled around however, the family toured different school options.

Elizalde was worried about finding the right setting to meet Valentina’s needs. A friend recommended the family check out Von Wedel Montessori School in Miami. As soon as the family walked in, they knew they had found the perfect place for Valentina and her brother, Oliver.

At Von Wedel, the family creates an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, in conjunction with the principal, teachers and with input from Tilley. Valentina thrives in that setting, and Elizalde loves the philosophy of Montessori – to allow children to develop at their own unique pace, to work independently, and embrace the joy of self-discovery.

“None of her peers notice her disability,” Elizalde says. “They acknowledge that we are all different. It’s a really beautiful environment for her.”

A typical week for Valentina is full of activities. On Monday, there’s swimming lessons after school lets out at 3 p.m. She has occupational and speech therapies on Tuesday. On Wednesday, it’s ballet class. By Thursday, she’s back in the pool. Friday is usually a day to relax and spend time with some of her friends or fit in a modeling gig. Valentina loves going to the playground and to different museums. There is also a standing weekly Friday night dinner with family.

Valentina says she wants to be a chef when she grows up. She likes to play with her kitchen set. Her mother sees a different path, however.  She thinks Valentina is a natural teacher.

Nearly every day at home, Valentina lines up her stuffed animals and reads to them and leads them in a class. The process goes on for a couple hours. Her younger brother Oliver is the only non-stuffed attendee, and she has helped him learn to speak English.

Six years old and with a life so fast paced, it’s hard to imagine the higher levels Valentina Guerrero will reach. With the help of her school, the boundless energy of her mother, and their family’s mission to spread positivity about individuals with Down syndrome, her capacity is endless.

“She’s a warrior,” Elizalde says. “When she has a goal, she fights for it and achieves it.”

Visit Cecilia Elizalde’s YouTube Channel.

David Hudson Tuthill can be reached at dhudson@sufs.org.

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