Category Archives for Student Spotlights

School choice scholarship ‘saved’ bullying victim


Middle school is tough for a lot of kids. For Valentin Mendez, it was hell.

At night, he would try to sleep on the floor of the downtown Miami gas station where his mother worked the graveyard shift.

In the mornings, he’d think about who was going to beat him up that day.

After school, he’d clutch his mom and cry.

“It was chaos,” he said.

Non-stop bullying left Valentin so hopeless, he dropped out of his neighborhood school in sixth grade and moved to Nicaragua to be with his father. That could have been the end of a heartbreaking story.

Valentin Mendez still visits La Progresiva Presbyterian School and principal Melissa Rego regularly.

Valentin Mendez still visits La Progresiva Presbyterian School and principal Melissa Rego regularly.

But thanks to a scholarship, Valentin got a chance to start over at a different school – and to turn everything around.

“The scholarship,” said Valentin’s mother, Jeannethe Ruiz, “saved my son.”

Valentin was born in Miami but lived in Nicaragua with his father, Roberto Mendez, from age 3 to 9. The tall, chubby kid with glasses was an easy target for bullies. That he didn’t speak much English made it worse.

Money was tight, so Valentin and his mom lived in her sister’s apartment in a rough neighborhood near downtown. While Jeannethe worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., Valentin could hear the sound of gunfire and drug raids. She decided to have him sleep on a thin comforter inside the gas station’s plate-glass booth.

“The floor was very cold,” Valentin said, “but at least I knew I was secure.”

That wasn’t the case at school. He lasted a month before mom transferred him to another district middle school. He made it six weeks there.

“Bullies were everywhere,” he said. “I saw people doing drugs. … They were smoking. I saw cocaine as well. It was heavy stuff.”

One rainy morning, a boy spiked a football into a puddle, drenching Valentin with water and dirt. Other kids laughed. Valentin was crushed.

His mom had enough when Valentin told her about boys who terrorized students from beneath a staircase. Valentin spoke out and got punched in the back of his head.

“They grabbed him and beat him up,” Jeannethe said, “and no one from the school said anything to me.”

Valentin begged his mother to send him back to Nicaragua.

“I wasn’t thinking about returning. I just needed to get away, the farther the better,” he said. “The moment the plane touched ground I felt secure.”

Just being with his grandparents and father was a comfort. So was grandma’s red beans and rice.

Valentin figured he’d go to school there, maybe become a construction worker. He had given up on any American dreams.

But back in Miami, his mother was making plans. A neighbor told her about a private school – La Progresiva Presbyterian School in Little Havana. Jeannethe walked by the cluster of vanilla-colored buildings one day and saw a banner for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which helps parents of lower-income students pay tuition. She applied that day.

The family flew Valentin back to Miami to visit the new school and take an assessment test. Between the lost months in his neighborhood schools and the brief time in Nicaragua, he had missed most of the first half of the school year. He still wasn’t speaking much English.

The principal, Melissa Rego, broke the news that Valentin would start in fifth grade. His spirits sank. His mother cried. But Rego had a goal to make Valentin a reader by year’s end, and she determined that having one teacher in fifth grade instead of several teachers in sixth would give him the attention he needed.

There was also the issue of rehabilitating Valentin’s traumatized psyche.

“His self-esteem was shot,” Rego recalled. “The first two weeks were rough. He refused to speak. Val was angry. Val was aggressive. He would lash out at anything.”

It took him a year to get over the flashbacks of being bullied. The intensity of his memories faded as he felt the embrace of his new teacher and classmates.

“I was always the big, chubby kid, but now it broke the ice,” he said. “They looked up to me. They would ask how tall I was. They were always interested in me. They wanted to be my friend, and it felt weird.”

By the end of the first year at La Progresiva, things were better. Valentin’s father rejoined the family that December. Safety and stability became normal again.

“I felt complete,” Valentin said.

At the end of sixth grade, his SAT 10 scores showed he was on grade level for the first time. Rego called him and his mother in to her office separately. Both cried, fearing he was being kicked out. Instead, he was promoted to eighth grade.

“I was speechless,” Valentin said.

Rego’s plan had worked. The school had unlocked his ability to learn. The next year he earned nearly straight A’s.

Valentin made deep, lasting friendships with his new classmates, who inspired him with their work ethic and grades. He graduated with honors and a 3.78 weighted GPA. He also won a science honor and was recognized for completing 300 hours of community service.

“I always knew I was a good student. I just felt I was in the wrong place,” Valentin said. “Getting a scholarship from Step Up For Students gave me a new beginning, a new opportunity in life, to become someone I knew I could become.”

Today, Valentin is a 19-year-old freshman at Miami Dade College, majoring in accounting. He’s no longer chubby and stands 6-foot-5. His dreams are growing bigger than ever. He’s trying to get straight A’s and join an honor society by the end of his first semester. He aims to go to Vanderbilt University.

Valentin’s primary motivation remains his family. His parents never went to college. Dad works in his brother’s tire shop. Mom still works the night shift at the gas station.

“I need to get her out of there,” Valentin said. “I need to get them to retire. I tell them that all the time. They know why I go to school. They support me and I’ll support them. We’re all we have.”

Valentin said he doesn’t regret anything that happened to him. It taught him to believe in himself. It also serves as a lesson to others.

“If I can get away from that, many other kids can as well,” he said. “I just say one thing about my story: Anything is possible.”

About La Progresiva Presbyterian School

Originally founded in Cuba in 1900, the school was taken over by the communist regime in 1961. Ten years later it opened in Little Havana in Miami. Today, the school is accredited by AdvancEd and Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS). There are 660 K-12 students, including 620 on Step Up scholarships. Grades K-8 use the BJU Press curriculum, while 9-12 uses Harcourt/Houghton Mifflin. The school provides iPads for all high school students. The school administers the MAP test three times a year. Tuition for grades K-5 is $540 a month, while 6-12 is $571 a month.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at

Siblings from Argentina adjust and thrive thanks to Step Up For Students’ scholarships

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the redefinED blog on Aug. 7, 2017. The blog is hosted by Step Up For Students and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.By NIA NUÑEZ-BRADY 

In a three-year span, Mariel Ubfal’s world fell apart. Her husband died. She moved her family to the United States. Then she watched as her children struggled in school.

The move from Argentina to America came in 2008, three years after Mariel’s husband died from cancer. At the time, all four of her children were under the age of 10. “Leaving was not easy,” Mariel said. “But I knew this was the right decision for my kids.”

Starting over wasn’t easy, either.

Being unemployed and underemployed for the first few years, Mariel struggled to pay bills and, at times, even to feed her kids. As if that wasn’t enough, her children began having behavioral and academic issues in their neighborhood schools – something that never happened in Argentina.

After moving to Miami from Argentina, the Mohadeb kids — Agustin, Barbara, Matias, and Sebastian — attended the Rabbi Alexander S. Gross Hebrew Academy in Miami on Florida Tax Credit scholarships through Step Up For Students.

From left, Matias, Agustin, Sebastian, Mariel and Barbara.

Troubles first hit her three eldest – Matias, Agustin, and Barbara Mohadeb.

Matias hated school because he struggled learning a new language. In eighth grade, he earned D’s and F’s and routinely got into fights. Agustin was held back in sixth grade for poor academics. Barbara failed fifth grade because she did not speak the language.

Mariel felt desperate. She called the school and tried setting up meetings with her sons’ teachers, but that proved difficult.

“Maybe it was the language barrier, I’m not sure, but I wasn’t able to help my kids succeed at their local school,” she said.

Mariel searched for a better option and found a school that felt like home, but couldn’t afford the tuition. Then a friend told her about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarships.

It was “the answer to my prayers,” she said.

In 2010, Matias, then 15, and Agustin, then 13, began ninth and seventh grade respectively at Hebrew Academy.

The school is smaller and more family-oriented than their previous schools, Mariel said, and its teachers are more accessible to parents. The curriculum is rigorous and the school has high expectation for student academics and parental involvement, she said.

Progress didn’t happen immediately. Matias’s behavior was terrible in the beginning. At one point, he refused to go to his new school, and Mariel couldn’t get him out of bed.

Matias laughs about the incident now, but at the time he was upset about the change and still feeling combative after his experience in his neighborhood school.

“Basically, I pitched a fit,” he said.

“He is over six feet tall, and I am a small woman,” Mariel recalled. “So, I called the principal and told him what was happening.”

The next thing she knew, Matias not only got up, but apologized.

“I can’t explain how happy I was at that moment,” she said. “All my decisions up to that point were worth it.”

After moving to Miami from Argentina, the Mohadeb kids — Agustin, Barbara, Matias, and Sebastian — attended Hebrew Academy in Miami on Florida tax credit scholarships.

Staff at Hebrew Academy embraced Matias, and he embraced his new school back.

“There were only like 100 students in the high school, so everyone knew you,” he said. “It was a big change. It was smaller and quieter. It was safe. I felt like I could relax.”

Mariel decided to leave Barbara and her youngest, Sebastian, in their local public schools, thinking their experience would be different. But they continued to struggle.

Barbara said although she didn’t speak English well, she was never enrolled in English as a Second Language class. That made learning difficult. Then when she began sixth grade, her attitude changed. She started talking back to her mom and hanging with the wrong crowd.

“I was definitely influenced by my peers,” she said. “Many of my classmates were already doing drugs in middle school. I did not want that for my future.”

Sebastian, meanwhile, was left behind by his teacher during a field trip because he fell asleep on the bus. Mariel filed a complaint that she said resulted in no additional field trips the rest of the year – and other students taking out their frustration on her son.

“The bullying was constant,” she said. “All the students picked on him and harassed him for being Jewish, and (for) being the reason they could no longer attend field trips. It was an awful experience.”

In 2012, Mariel secured two more scholarships, so Sebastian and Barbara could attend Hebrew Academy with their brothers.

Again, everything changed.

Sebastian struggled academically the first two years, but then won the school’s “most improved” award. Barbara also made a turnaround. As with her siblings, her English proficiency benefited from time and one-on-one attention. She described Hebrew Academy as “a family” – united, and with expectations of success.

“That made all the difference,” she said.

After years of her own struggles, Mariel secured a real estate license and now makes a modest living selling homes. She beams with happiness because she sees all her children succeeding.

Matias, now 21, is studying marketing at Florida International University.

Agustin, now 20, is studying sciences at Miami-Dade College and aims to be a chemist.

Barbara, now 19, graduated in June. She is spending a year in Israel, thanks to a community service scholarship, before enrolling in Miami-Dade College to study criminology.

Sebastian, now 17, will begin his senior year in the fall, and hopes to study biomedical sciences in college.

Family members credit the school – and the scholarships that allowed them to attend.

“I can’t imagine what would have happened if I hadn’t gone there,” Matias said. “I don’t want to think about it.”

About Rabbi Alexander S. Gross Hebrew Academy

Founded in 1947 by Rabbi Gross, Hebrew Academy was the first Orthodox Jewish day school south of Baltimore. It’s grown from a few classrooms to a state-of-the-art campus. Last year, the K-12 enrollment of 470 students included 123 on Step Up scholarships. The school offers blended and personalized Learning, STEAM education, Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), and Halacha and Gemara studies. Hebrew Academy embeds technology across all learning environments with iConnect to personalize education for each student. Every year students take the SAT, ACT Aspire, PSAT, and ACT depending on grade level. Tuition ranges from $14,060 to $22,525. In addition to Step Up scholarships, the school raises more than $2 million in private donations a year for tuition assistance.

Step Up For Students’ Jeff Barlis contributed to this story.

Nia Nunez-Brady can be reached at


Scholarship fosters better relationship between school and adoptive brothers

Editor’s note: November is National Adoption Month, which allows us to spotlight that the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, the nation’s largest private school choice program, also extends eligibility year-round to children in foster care. This year, more than 1,200 children in foster care like Camron and Rylan Merritt, who are profiled below, are using the scholarship.


When Camron Merritt came home from first grade with a card inviting him to a birthday party, he didn’t know what it was.

Recently adopted after two turbulent years in foster care, the 6-year-old had never been invited to a birthday party before.

He was the difficult kid with storm clouds behind his dark brown eyes. The one that other children and their parents couldn’t understand.

All of that started to change when Camron’s adoptive parents took him out of his neighborhood school in Bushnell and enrolled him in a private school with a school choice scholarship.

New mom Melissa Merritt cried when she saw the invitation.

“Seeing your kid go from being the outcast, the kid that nobody talks to, to getting invited to a birthday party is such a big deal,” she said.

When they got Camron at age 5, Melissa and husband Brandon put him in the neighborhood school that was closest to her job as a victim’s advocate for the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office. It did not go well.

Adoptive brothers, Cameron, left, and Rylan Merritt, right, thrive at Solid Rock Christian Academy with Step Up For Students income-based scholarships .

Camron’s early childhood was plagued by neglect and exposure to domestic violence and drugs. The emotional damage was made worse by more than 20 foster homes and several schools before he was adopted. He was too much for most people to handle.

“He didn’t trust anybody. He didn’t like loud noises. If there was somebody yelling on TV, he used to run and hide in the bathtub,” Melissa said. “If you said no to him, his little face would scrunch up. He’d cross his arms and stomp his foot.”

At school, Camron wrestled with learning disabilities, severe ADHD and difficulty adjusting.

“Every day I was getting calls to come get him,” Melissa said. “He was hiding under his desk, screaming and throwing things, not paying attention, smacking other kids.”

Because Brandon does pest control work throughout the region, it was Melissa who had to leave her work frequently.

“It was extremely stressful,” she said.

Frustrated with a lack of support and communication from the school, Melissa resolved to find a better option and learned about Step Up For Students scholarships from another adoptive mother. Children in foster care or out-of-home care automatically qualify for the Step Up scholarship and can keep it if they are adopted.

Melissa said Camron’s first private school, a Catholic school in Lecanto, was amazing – welcoming, tight-knit, communicative. But by the end of his first year, he was still having major difficulty with reading.

Melissa and Brandon agonized over the decision to switch schools again. Camron had been through so much change. But Melissa trusted her gut feeling that a better fit was available.

They found Solid Rock Christian Academy in Inverness, a mile and a half from their home. It offered a phonics-based reading curriculum that specializes in helping struggling readers. But the school turned out to be so much more.

Sitting on 12 acres of mostly open land, it has an old-fashioned feel, like the schools Melissa attended. There are chalkboards, beanbag chairs, and teachers who dress up for holidays.

The principal, Sheila Chau, grew up with foster children in her home. Melissa did not know that at the time, but couldn’t be more grateful.

“She gets it, literally gets it,” Melissa said. “She’s aware of all the issues and challenges. When she talks to Camron, she’s firm but she also shows him respect. She knows what he’s going through.”

Chau estimates at least 10 percent of her students are adopted.

In recent years, the number of children in foster and our-of-home care participating in the nation's largest private school choice program has grown substantially. Source: Step Up For Students

In recent years, the number of children in foster and our-of-home care participating in the nation’s largest private school choice program has grown substantially. Source: Step Up For Students

“I guess word of mouth has spread,” she said. “We nurture the child first. Academics are definitely important, but the first thing we do is look at the child and the circumstances where they’re coming from, and we meet the child where they are. There’s always a root to every child’s difficulties, and I keep that at the forefront with my teachers.”

Camron eased into his new school with summer tutoring and was placed in a special class that combined first and second grade material. It was a challenging time, as Melissa and Brandon adopted another boy, Rylan, who was 5 and came from a background as troubled as his new brother’s.

Like Camron, Rylan struggled in his neighborhood kindergarten while he was in foster care. So when he was adopted, Melissa applied for a Step Up scholarship on a Thursday, got approved on a Friday and had him at Solid Rock the following Monday.

“The process was phenomenal,” said Merritt, who has become a foster care advocate.

Now in their second year at Solid Rock, 8-year-old Camron and 6-year-old Rylan are in a safe, stable environment. Teachers talk to them without raising their voices, and know how to defuse a meltdown.

In a third-grade class with eight other children, Camron still struggles with reading but gets extra attention three times a week. He’s on grade level and has a mix of B’s and C’s. “That’s great for Camron,” Melissa said. “He’s doing very, very well.”

Rylan is on target with his first-grade academics and is doing better emotionally after having trust and behavior issues when he repeated kindergarten last year.

It’s not a utopia, but the school feels like an extended family. The boys have friends. The parents all know each other. It’s a happy place, an extension of the home Melissa and Brandon have made for their boys.

“It was such a relief to have one full day where I actually didn’t get a call from a teacher or a note from a teacher with an angry, frowny face because their behavior was totally crazy,” Melissa said. “They still have bad days like all kids, but they’re few and farther between now.”

About Solid Rock Christian Academy

Established in 1998 and affiliated with Inverness Church of God, the school has 180 K-12 students, including 140 on the Step Up scholarship. It is accredited by the Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS) and nationally through the Association of Christian Teachers and Schools (ACTS). The school uses the A Beka Book curriculum and administers the Stanford 10 test annually. Tuition is $6,500 annually.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at

Scholarship gives strength to bullied student


Jacob Monastra came home from school in tears every day.

He struggled in class and was often bullied, practically from the day he started first grade.

“Our hearts were heavy watching our bright little boy’s self-esteem erode before my eyes,” said Lynn Lambo, Jacob’s grandmother and guardian. “He called himself the worst kid in school and thought he was so dumb.”

He had always seemed to toil developmentally and barely spoke until he was 3.

Jacob, a student at New Generation School in Live Oak, is especially fond of teacher Charlene Redish, who has helped him overcome shyness, issues with self-confidence and academic concerns.

During his third grading period of first grade at his neighborhood school in St. Petersburg, Florida, Jacob was a candidate to be held back for a year. Lambo dealt with that as she and husband Daniel began the process of moving with Jacob to Live Oak, a more rural area east of Tallahassee.

Prior to the move, Lambo briefly enrolled Jacob at a learning center in St. Petersburg for additional help. The one on one attention he received enabled him to enter second grade at Suwannee Elementary School in Live Oak, where his teacher was Charlene Redish.

“Jacob came into my classroom very shy and withdrawn,” Redish said. “He was in desperate need of confidence, because of his academic struggles and because of bullying. He would cry easily and didn’t trust anything around him. We had to fight for him so hard.”

While Jacob’s academic struggles continued, he made strides socially. When a disruptive student was new to Redish’s classroom, Jacob befriended him, even teaching him how to share, Redish said. As a form of reciprocation, the other boy helped protect Jacob from bullies.

But Jacob’s academic issues could not be ignored. He passed second grade – with great effort – but continued to struggle in third grade with a new teacher. In November 2016, Redish, a teacher Jacob had grown to admire and trust and still saw every morning before school, left Suwannee Elementary for a job at a private school.

That left Jacob with a new teacher – and more of the same issues.

By January 2017, Lambo was again told her grandson might be held back.

“I was shocked,” she said. “The school year wasn’t even half over, and I didn’t understand how they could tell me that.”

Fortunately for Jacob, help came from a familiar source.

Charlene Redish always kept tabs on Jacob and his family, and the bond between he and Redish proved too deep to break. Redish advised Lambo to send Jacob to her new school, New Generation School, also in Live Oak, for a one-week trial to see how he fit in.

The results were immediate and stunning.

“When I picked him up that (first) day, he said to me ‘This is my new school now,’” Lambo said with pride.

His grandparents quickly applied for and received the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families through Step Up For Students, and enrolled Jacob into New Generation.

With Redish as his new third-grade teacher, Jacob’s transition to the new school was practically flawless.

“It was like night and day at New Generation,” Redish says. “He picked up quickly and became a leader in my classroom.”

Almost overnight, Lambo also saw a change. The smaller class sizes and flexibility of the curriculum was just what Jacob needed.

Jacob Monastra likes digging for rocks, riding four-wheelers with his grandfather and fishing.

Once the quietest kid in a classroom, he is now well known for helping others, raising his hand frequently and almost always answering questions correctly. Every Friday, students at New Generation are released from classes early and have the option to leave at noon or stay in an after-school program until 2 p.m. But Lambo said he’s never once wanted to leave early.

“I used to have to peel him off me,” she said. “Now he’s smiling from ear to ear.”

Jacob breezed through third grade at New Generation and is now working through fourth grade, again under the tutelage of Redish. Now 9, he recently earned the New Generation Spirit Award, awarded to the student who most symbolizes integrity, kindness and the school’s purpose.

At school, Jacob and a few of his close friends often embark on playground archaeological digs, looking for rocks and pretending they are minerals.

Outside the classroom, Jacob enjoys fishing and recently caught a 13-inch crappie. He also enjoys riding a four-wheeler with his grandfather.

Jacob’s future is the brightest it has ever been.

“I am so happy they were able to get a scholarship for Jacob,” Redish said. “It was truly a blessing.”

Reach David Hudson Tuthill at



Jacksonville private school, scholarship fueled student’s emotional turnaround

Lost.That’s where Pamela Howard feared her son, Malik Ferrell, would end up after years of struggles at different schools in Jacksonville.She couldn’t afford to let that happen. Malik needed a caring environment, especially after he and his family were rocked by the murder of his older brother, Derrell Baker.

Malik Ferrell turned his life around at The Potter’s House Christian Academy in Jacksonville.

Pamela had been searching for the right fit for Malik – four different schools in four years.

Finally a friend told her about the Step Up For Students scholarship, which allowed her to send him to The Potter’s House Christian Academy.

That’s where Malik’s life unraveled – and where he ultimately put it all back together.

“Having the opportunity to go to a private school helped get him on track,” Pamela said. “I cannot even tell you the difference it made in his life.”

At his neighborhood school, Malik made mostly D’s in second grade, then mostly F’s in third grade, which he had to repeat.

Three years and three schools later, at the age of 11, he got a fresh start at The Potter’s House.

Then the unthinkable happened.

Just weeks after Malik enrolled, Derrell, 17, was killed in a drive-by shooting. Police had no suspects. There were no arrests.

Pamela was working full-time at Blue Cross Blue Shield, taking complaints in the executive department. The grief and stress overwhelmed her, and the mother of five went on disability. She now works part-time doing billing at McKesson.

“Seeing my momma cry and my sisters cry, it was … it was just a lot to deal with,” Malik said. “That was my only big brother, so there was nothing for me to look up to.”

Derrell was everything to Malik – best friend, football hero, protector, disciplinarian, role model.

When he was killed “I really didn’t care about anything,” Malik said. “It messed me up in school. I was getting in trouble almost every day. I was getting in fights for no reason.”

“He would keep a lot of stuff in,” said Lela Johnson, now principal at The Potter’s House. “He wouldn’t talk to people, and I think what he was doing was trying to see who he could trust.”

With great patience, teachers and administrators taught Malik life skills and self-awareness in addition to academics. It took time, but Malik came to trust mentors like the dean, the guidance counselor, the assistant principal (Mrs. Johnson) and the football coach.

With his grades stabilizing to a C average, Malik began playing varsity football in eighth grade. He had natural talent, just like his brother.

Small, quick and athletic, they both played defensive back and played it well. Derrell was nicknamed “Hype,” and after his death, people began calling Malik “Lil’ Hype.”

By the end of 10th grade, Malik was starting to draw offers for college scholarships. He met with Mrs. Johnson, who charted a course for improved grades, test scores, and behavior.

For the first time in his life, Malik had purpose.

“That summer after 10th grade he had it all together,” Pamela said. “I didn’t have to say a word. He just grew up. The child was in his room, he was constantly doing homework, online classes, volunteering … I mean, I didn’t know who he was! He made a huge, huge turnaround.”

Malik Ferrell’s graduation was an emotional moment for he and his family.

Football helped heal Malik’s wounded heart, and in his final two years of high school he maintained a solid B-average with no behavior issues. His senior year became an extended celebration. First, he turned 18. Then came football signing day, when he announced in front of teammates, classmates and family that he was going to Tusculum College in Tennessee. Then came graduation.

Derrell wasn’t able to do any of those things, but he was with Malik the whole time. He was the inspiration.

“Malik was graduating for himself and he was graduating for his big brother,” Pamela said. When he walked across the stage, he said, “Ma, I did it. I did it for both of us.”

Malik didn’t play in his first season at Tusculum, but now halfway through his freshman year he is proud of his grades – some A’s, some B’s and one C. He’s looking forward to spring football and pursuing a career in sports broadcasting.

Pamela said her Malik’s accomplishments would not have been possible without The Potter’s House and the Step Up scholarship.

“It was amazing,” she said. “I felt completely blessed to even have the scholarship. I don’t know what I would have done without it. I was just thankful, because I honestly knew that I could not afford to send my children to private school and have the opportunity to have someone invest in them. These people go above and beyond. They pour themselves into these students and give of themselves off the clock.”

“To see my son just completely turn around, there aren’t even words. That he overcame these struggles and turned out to become the young man that he is, there are no words to even explain how proud I am of him.”

About The Potter’s House Christian Academy

The school opened in Jacksonville in 1996 with five teachers under the direction of Lady Narlene McLaughlin, wife of Bishop Vaughn McLaughlin. It now has two locations – an elementary and a high school – with 45 full-time staffers and 436 K-12 students, including 348 on the Step Up For Students scholarship. The non-denominational school uses a combination of curricula, including A Beka and Bob Jones University Press. It uses the Stanford 10 as its annual assessment test and the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test. Tuition is $3,900 for K3 and K4, $4,650 for K5, $4,910 for grades 1-5, and $5,000 for grades 6-12.

Scholarship alum grateful after being selected in the NFL draft


Anthony Walker Jr. sat in his home, ear to cell phone, new coach on the line. Then came the announcement on TV in the spring that had the room full of family and friends explode in celebration.

With the 161st pick in the NFL draft, the Indianapolis Colts select Anthony Walker Jr., linebacker from Northwestern …

Step Up For Students* scholars have gone on to all kinds of impressive accomplishments. Now they can add the NFL to the collective list.

Walker’s parents secured a Florida tax credit scholarship so he could attend a private middle school, wanting a better situation for him academically and socially. Walker went on to Monsignor Edward Pace High School, a private school in Miami Gardens.

“He’s thrived academically, socially and athletically,” said Anthony Walker Sr., his father and one of his football coaches at Monsignor Pace. “We couldn’t be happier and more proud of him.”

Led by his dream of playing in the NFL, Anthony Jr. was always a good student and hard worker. He knows his parents put him in position to succeed. But the scholarship was important, he said, because his parents wouldn’t have been able to afford tuition without it.

“There’s definitely a noticeable difference going to a private school,” he said. “There are a lot less distractions. It’s more than just education. There are outside pressures, teen peer pressure to do anything but succeed in school. So me being in the private school setting limited that and kept me on the right track.”

Success on the field and in the classroom translated to Walker getting recruited by revered academic institutions like Northwestern, Stanford, and Duke. All have excellent football programs.

When Northwestern offered a scholarship, Walker accepted and moved to Evanston, Ill. The structure and time-management skills he learned at Monsignor Pace helped him balance school and football.

Getting drafted is only one of this year’s big milestones. Walker is set to graduate in June with a degree in Learning and Organizational Change. After his playing career, he hopes to work in an NFL front office and one day be a general manager.

“The degree is way more important than the football,” Walker said. “but to be able to get both is awesome.”

About Monsignor Edward Pace High School

Founded in 1961, Monsignor Pace is located on 44 acres in Miami Gardens and part of the Archdiocese of Miami. It’s a member of the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) and accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). The school has a 1-to-14 teacher-to-student ratio with 830 students in grades 9-12, including 377 on the Step Up scholarship. With a focus on college preparation, the school boasts a 100 percent graduation rate and 99 percent college attendance. The school annually administers the PSAT, Aspire and ACT tests for various grades. Tuition is $11,725 for grades 9-11 and $11,975 for grade 12.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at


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

Scholarship, Kingdom Academy spurred turnaround for Miami student

Eleven-year-old Henezy Berrios’ sparkling brown eyes crinkle in the corners when she smiles, which is just about all the time. She has boundless, contagious enthusiasm. She loves to dance and crack jokes.

Henezy Berrios

She’s the girl that everyone in school likes.

But you would have hardly recognized her in first grade at her neighborhood school in Miami. She was quiet and withdrawn, afraid to ask for help, made fun of because she couldn’t read.

The D’s and F’s and diagnoses of ADHD and dyslexia set off alarms for her mother, Liliana Arguello. She resolved to find a better fit for Henezy’s education, and thanks to a Step Up For Students scholarship was able to access a private school called Kingdom Academy.

There, her daughter’s fears faded as her reading skills blossomed. A different Henezy emerged.

“Her self esteem and attitude has completely changed,” Liliana said. “I was going crazy. You need reading for everything, and I was already seeing her frustration. I said this is not going to happen.”

Liliana was 15 when she got pregnant with Henezy. Now in her mid-20s, she’s a single mother of two who works two or three housekeeping jobs every day. The remaining tuition after the scholarship and other school expenses take much of her paycheck, sometimes leaving little money for food.

Stress is a persistent companion, and Liliana rarely has the time, energy or resources to be as engaged a parent as she would like. That made it all the more important to find the right school.

When Henezy stumbled in her neighborhood school, Liliana found a tutor she could barely afford who told her about the Step Up For Students scholarship. It empowers low-income families to choose from more than 1,700 private schools statewide.

Liliana applied and received a list of 10 schools near her home. In between jobs and on breaks she visited all 10, took tours and asked lots of questions before picking Kingdom Academy.

Sitting on a little lot ringed by oaks and palms, the academy building is small and filled to capacity. It’s also clean and well-lit, full of Smartboards, laptops and dedicated teachers. Including before- and after-care, Henezy is at school from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and can eat three meals a day there.

“It’s a blessing,” Liliana said.

Henezy repeated first grade at Kingdom Academy and was still below grade level in reading throughout her first year. She needed help with unfamiliar words and lacked confidence when reading aloud. But she never got down or gave up.

“We saw her effort,” said principal Elena Navarro. “She’s a very determined girl. It’s wonderful. You could see that maybe she just wasn’t being worked with before.”

By the end of her first year, Henezy was a B student overall with a C in reading. She was improving all around and letting her personality bubble forth. She worked well in small groups and connected with teachers who helped her stay focused with interactive, non-traditional lessons. They let her set a fast pace and move around instead of sitting all day.

“(My teacher) helps a lot,” said Henezy, now in fourth grade. “Sometimes she gives me extra time to do stuff. … Sometimes she puts on a song about it. Sometimes she teaches it to us in a funny way.”

Today Henezy Berrios is a bright fourth-grader with a growing aptitude and appreciation for reading.

Eventually, the new school’s approach clicked. Henezy began to love the books that were once a chore.

“I used to feel like I couldn’t do it,” she said. “I couldn’t read the words, so I was like, ‘Oh my god, what is it?!’ Now I feel like these books are amazing and I always should have read them.”

Henezy’s gains this year are stunning.

Kingdom Academy tracks student scores on the standardized Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test. Step Up For Students’ Office of Student Learning is supporting Kingdom Academy and a number of participating private schools to analyze MAP data to improve instruction. (Step Up For Students also publishes this blog.)

At the beginning of the year, Henezy was just below the nationwide average in reading. In December, her mid-year results showed gains that were greater than 99 percent of fourth-graders who took the test nationwide.

“I was freaking out,” said Henezy’s fourth-grade teacher, Jessica Gonzalez. “I was trying to figure out if I wrote it down wrong the first time. I had to double check everything. I even went to her teacher last year and showed her the jump. It was a huge deal for me. For her, too, obviously. Her smile just blew up when I showed her.”

Liliana cried, but that’s not uncommon these days with all of Henezy’s growth. Henezy talks often about her goals in life – a huge house, a farm, a car. She wants to buy her mom a house and a car, too.

“She’s amazing,” Liliana said. “She’s the one who motivates me and keeps me going.”

“I am so relieved to know that my child is going to have a successful life, go to college and do big things, whatever she wants to do. She’s not going to have to struggle.”

About Kingdom Academy

Founded in Miami in 1990, the non-denominational Christian school offers an emphasis on business and financial literacy. It holds family workshops to help parents understand the curriculum and improve their own financial literacy skills, and offers Rosetta Stone to those trying to learn English. The school is accredited by AdvancED and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) among others. It serves 250 students from grades K-8, including 175 on the Step Up scholarship. Elementary grades use Pearson Scott Foresman curriculum materials for core subjects, while middle school classes are aligned to local, state and national standards with an eye on career or post-secondary options. The school administers the Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP) as its standardized test three times a yearTuition is $7,560 for K-8.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at

From street life to college life – thanks to a private school scholarship

Deion Washington didn’t plan to speak to lawmakers. But as he sat with classmates in a committee meeting about school choice in the Florida state capitol, the urge overtook him.

Deion Washington still frequents Betton Hills School in Tallahassee, Fla.

The eyes of lawmakers and the lenses of cameras trained on him as he stepped to the podium and told his story.

How he skipped classes almost every day in his neighborhood school. How a private school straightened him out. How a Florida tax credit scholarship made it possible. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the scholarship program.)

“I just felt like I had to do it,” Deion said. “They never got to hear the voice of someone who actually needed the scholarship to go to school.”

Three years later, Deion’s story of hope and opportunity includes moving new chapters. Now 20, he’s working his way through college. He’s also a frequent visitor to Betton Hills School, the tiny Tallahassee school he credits with turning his life around.

“If I didn’t go to Betton Hills,” he said, “I probably wouldn’t have finished school.”

Deion’s early education came on the streets. He was the youngest out there late at night, small and skinny and quiet, hanging around grown men.

To some in his neighborhood, success meant selling dope, and at the age of 8 he occasionally counted the money. He got paid for it a couple of times. Mostly it was just something to do.

With his mom typically working three jobs, including one at night, most days it was up to Deion to get his younger sister and brother ready for school; to and from school; and then fed and put to bed.

Then he went out.

“I knew what I was doing was wrong, but sometimes you’ve just got to make the wrong choices” he said with a twinge of Deep South drawl. “Most of my life that was my life.”

In middle school, Deion sold drugs for a while. He skipped class nearly every day.

“It was a fashion show to him,” said mom, Kedra Lockwood. “He felt school was a place to hide out and basically do what he wanted.”

Somehow, hiding out still resulted in mostly C’s on Deion’s report cards. Kedra wasn’t aware of his rash of truancy until a teacher called late in 8th grade. That’s when she decided to change his school with a Step Up scholarship and, it turns out, the course of his life.

Deion laughs softly at the memory of the transition. He and his mom visited Betton Hills for a tour, and when he saw the green-and-gold uniforms and little classrooms, he said, “I’m not comin’ here!”

A week later, Deion was wearing that uniform – and hating it. He spent the last nine weeks of eighth grade getting in trouble.

“My first day I got like three detentions,” he said. “I used the bathroom without permission. I had my shirt untucked and my pants were sagging. And I cursed at a teacher.”

What surprised Deion the most was he couldn’t hide anymore. If he wasn’t in class, the school called his mom. If he didn’t turn in his work, he heard about it from the teacher.

“It took a little while to get to know him,” said Caroline Accorsini, who was a teacher when Deion arrived in 2011 and is now the school director. “First you’re a teacher, you’re an enemy. Then you start talking to him and letting him have his voice heard, and that helped with some of the growth. Some of it was trust.”

Trust was new territory, but welcome. Street life had become a repetitive dead end that Deion was outgrowing. As he got older, the fights of his youth took a more dangerous turn. He saw shots fired. He saw friends go to jail.

At Betton Hills, no one made a stronger connection with Deion than the new PE teacher, who arrived in his sophomore year. Coach Duane Robinson saw himself in Deion. They came from similar neighborhoods.

“He wanted to prove himself,” said Robinson, now the school vice principal. “He just needed somebody to believe in him and help him.”

Slowly but surely Deion’s magnetic personality and natural leadership ability drew other students into his orbit.

Robinson created a club for the high school boys, and Deion became the leader who organized meetings, fund-raisers, and field trips.

“He became my go-to person,” Robinson said. “Whenever I needed anything, any written work done, computer work done, messages, he made sure the boys toed the line. You could just see a change in him.”

As Deion began to see “Coach” as the father figure he never had, the club’s activities began to inform his outlook on life. Fun trips to the bowling alley and FSU’s outdoor recreation area were balanced by eye-opening visits to the jail and homeless shelter. The club emphasized community service by collecting food for Thanksgiving baskets, and raising money for breast cancer research and children’s Christmas presents.

Betton Hills became Deion’s second home. He stopped going out late with his neighborhood friends, and his grades and behavior became superlative, culminating with all A’s and one B his senior year.

Now he’s at Tallahassee Community College, taking a full load of classes. He studies computer engineering and dreams of opening his own repair store.

But life has never been easy for Deion. He works two fast food jobs to pay for school and help his mother, who no longer works after breaking her neck in a fall last year.

She couldn’t be more proud of the man her son has become.

“I tell him that all the time,” Kedra said. “He could have been in someone’s jail cell. Thank God he’s not. He’s very responsible. He’s very mature.”

Once or twice a week, when he needs guidance or just wants to give his spirits a lift, Deion stops by the school. He helps Coach Robinson with PE class or Mrs. Accorsini in the computer lab. He soaks up the love of the students, who still adore him two years after he graduated.

It gives him perspective.

“People told me I wasn’t going to make it past 16,” he said. “Now I’m a grown man, never been to jail. I’m out here free and I’m living. Man, it’s a blessing.”

About Betton Hills School

Specializing in helping students with learning disabilities and students below grade level, the school had 81 students in grades 1-12 last year, including 49 on McKay Scholarships, 22 on the Step Up scholarship, and five on the Gardiner Scholarship. Inspiration for the curriculum for grades 1-8 comes from the Core Knowledge Foundation, while high school grades use Florida state standards as a guide. With the help of Step Up’s Office of Student Learning, Betton Hills will switch this fall to NWEA’s Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test to track learning growth. Tuition is $8,500 with in-house scholarships awarded by need.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at

With the right school and a portable scholarship, she found her voice and graduated with honor

Eliya McDonald was in ninth grade when everything fell apart.
First her mom was diagnosed with frontal lobe epilepsy, a condition that caused frequent seizures and forced her to quit working. Before long, the family was homeless and car-less, living in a roach-infested hotel with most of their possessions gone. Then Eliya was diagnosed with Graves disease, a thyroid condition that caused symptoms like insomnia, mood swings, weight and hair loss.

Until that point, she had been an excellent student, first at a charter school forthe performing arts, and later – with a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship – at Academy Prep, a highly regarded private middle school in Tampa. But now in a top-tier private high school, and rocked by everything she and her family had to endure, she began to fall behind.

Eliya McDonald graduated in May 2017 from Tampa Bay Christian Academy.

Her GPA fell to 2.33. Worse, the once-boisterous girl with the loud, infectious laugh and Cheshire Cat smile crawled into a shell.

“That year was really rough,” Eliya said. “I was in and out of school, and when I was in school I didn’t really fit in. I wasn’t able to keep up.”

“It was really heartbreaking,” said Eliya’s mom, Ebony Smith. “That was not my daughter. It was totally out of character. Her nerves were horrible.”

Thankfully, the scholarship helped Eliya and her family rise above. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the scholarship program.)

Ebony raised Eliya and two older sisters in West Tampa, a neighborhood she described as “drowning in poverty.” She was determined to lift them out, using school choice as the ladder. She enrolled them in charter schools, where Eliya discovered a talent for singing and acting, then secured Step Up scholarships so they could attend private schools.

“My girls are not going to live the way that I have had to live, and I made that pledge to them,” Ebony said. “Education is the only thing that’s going to save them.”

Things finally stabilized for Eliya when she and her mom began to find the right medications, and a non-profit charity donated money to get the family into an apartment that is still home today.

Eliya transferred to Tampa Bay Christian Academy to get a fresh start and a better fit. But she was still in her shell. She didn’t know if she was in the right school, yet.

“In 10th grade, you hardly knew she was there,” said Natasha Sherwood, head of TBCA. “She was scared to move or talk. Her eyes didn’t look up. You’d see the top of her head more than you could see her face.”

Eliya isn’t sure how, but an English and drama teacher named Selma Grantham found out about her performance background and pushed her to sing in a chapel service.

Slowly the shell began to crack, as Eliya started asking questions in class. But the big breakthroughs were performances as Baloo in “The Jungle Book” and Rafiki in “The Lion King.”

As Eliya stretched her vocal chords, she rediscovered her self-esteem.

She became a leader. Her grades bounced back. She earned two scholarships, one for $10,000, to Southeastern University in Lakeland.

Eliya McDonald as Rafiki in “The Lion King.”

“It’s basically an award for your character,” a beaming Ebony said. “The way the teachers and students voted unanimously, saying she deserves that, meant a lot to me.”In May, Eliya graduated with a 3.33 GPA and several honors – National Society of High School Scholars, National English Honor Society, recognition by the American Student Government Association, and most importantly the TBCA Omega Award.

When the award was announced, Ebony was so excited she wanted to jump up on her chair but instead stood and cheered.

“Eliya has worked so hard,” Ebony said. “She really just thrived at this school.”

Having a choice made all the difference.

“It was so important for me to find a school that fit me,” Eliya said. “I got to find myself, and it’s so important to find out where you truly fit, because you’ll never find your original you if you don’t go to a school that fits you.”

Eliya and her sisters did just that.

Imani, 23, graduated Bard College in New York and is now a financial services specialist at Regions Bank. Esme, 21, is studying accounting at Hillsborough Community college.

Today, at Southeastern, Eliya is studying elementary education.

“I want to open my own school,” she said. “I definitely want to take Step Up kids. I think every kid deserves a quality education no matter if they’re rich or if they’re struggling.”

About Tampa Bay Christian Academy

Founded in 1957, Tampa Bay Christian Academy is accredited by the Christian Schools of Florida and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Of the academy’s 200 students in K-12th grade, 100 receive the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students. The upper school focuses on a rigorous college preparatory curriculum, with honors classes and a dual enrollment program through the University of South Florida and Hillsborough Community College. The school administers the NWEA’s Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP) as its standardized test three times a yearTuition ranges from $6,800 to $7,400.

JBarlis can be reached at

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