Category Archives for Student Spotlights

Football? Academics? Scholarship student chooses both at Dartmouth

By JEFF BARLIS

Robert Crockett III is engaged in hand-to-hand combat with his uncooperative red-and-white striped necktie as a photographer sets him up for the next shot.

On a bright, breezy spring day at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, teachers and fellow students say hi as they walk past without an ounce of surprise to see the affable senior representing the school. With his close-cropped hair and perfect smile, Robert is a star on campus.

Getting accepted to Dartmouth College has only added to the mystique.

“We need to buy him a lifetime supply of school sweatshirts to have him be the face of a Columbus alumnus,” said English teacher Bob Linfors. “He’s a success. I don’t know how much credit we should get for molding him, but he’s somebody to put on our posters.”

Robert Crockett III is headed to Dartmouth College to play football and study pre-med.

Robert Crockett III is headed to Dartmouth College to play football and study pre-med.

When Robert came to Columbus for ninth grade, it was his third school in three years. He excelled at a K-8 magnet school through seventh grade, but mom Stacy Preston, who also grew up in Miami, wanted Robert to get the big neighborhood school experience for eighth grade. It turned out to be too easy.

She knew about Columbus, where a nephew had gone years prior, but it came with a daunting price tag. Then a friend whose son went to Columbus told her about the Step Up For Students scholarship, which helps lower-income families with tuition.

Stacy has worked in HR at the University of Miami for 11 years. She’s separated from husband Robert Crockett Jr., who works for a moving company. Neither went to college after high school, but Stacy is now just four credits shy of getting her bachelor’s degree.

She raised Robert with an expectation of college but said “it hasn’t been common in our family. That’s what got me back to school. I couldn’t push my kids and not be an example.”

Stacy didn’t know how Robert would do in an elite private school, but she didn’t need to worry. According to Columbus principal David Pugh, Robert excelled at the school from day one and is taking five Honors and two Advanced Placement courses as a senior.

“Sometimes it can be a difficult transition to a competitive college preparatory school, and he’s met all of our expectations,” Pugh said. “For four years, Robert has worn his uniform impeccably.”

Robert wears another uniform as captain of the football team.

Growing up in this football-crazed city, Robert fell in love with the sport at age four. He put on his 11-year-old brother’s helmet and pads and ran around his house and yard yelling, “Hut! Hut!”

“The helmet was about to take him over, the pads were way too big,” Stacy recalled. “It was super cute. But that’s him. He’s been at this a long time.”

Dad was the football parent who coached pee wee leagues. Mom was the school parent who demanded that academics come first. She’d seen other parents put sports first and wasn’t having it.

Today, Stacy simultaneously beams and deflects credit when she talks about Dartmouth. From an early age, she guided Robert, the second of her three boys. But he didn’t need much pushing.

“He saw how I was with his older brother,” she said. “You came in, sat down, got a snack and did your homework. As a little kid, Robert would want to do homework, too, and he wasn’t even in school. We would have to sit him at the table with his older brother and give him pencil and paper, and he couldn’t even spell his name yet. That’s just been him from the very beginning. He was a different kid.”

The kind who could learn from others’ mistakes.

Early on, it was no TV or going outside when older brother De’vante Davis didn’t bring home good grades.

Later, it was the threat of losing football privileges.

“I just looked at someone doing bad and said, ‘I don’t want to be like that,’ ” he said. “I think about my parents and football. If I mess up that’s all over with. Colleges wouldn’t be interested. I don’t want to be that kid that messes up and gets everything taken away because I did something stupid.”

Before his senior year, Robert’s inner circle was mostly football friends, some of whom he’s known since pee wee ball. Some are big-time college football recruits, All-Americans who chose football-factory colleges like Alabama, Florida and Miami. Others went down the wrong road, but he’s lost touch with them.

Robert dreams his road will lead to a shot at the NFL. But he has another dream – becoming a surgeon – and he knows pre-med classes at Dartmouth will be more important than any game.

“It really hasn’t hit me yet that I’m going to an Ivy League school,” he said with an arched eyebrow and amused smile. “I don’t puff out my chest. I’m just staying focused, because me getting there and me graduating from there are two different things. I have to do everything I need to do first.”

About Christopher Columbus High School

Established by the Archdiocese of Miami in 1958, Columbus is one of 14 Catholic schools in the U.S. ministered by the Marist Brothers and the only one in the southeast. Within the Marist tradition, the school emphasizes personal development and community service in addition to a college prep curriculum that includes extensive AP and dual-enrollment classes. More than half of the staff hold advanced degrees. Accredited by AdvancEd and a member of the National Catholic Educational Association, the school annually administers the SAT and ACT. There are 1,688 students, including 250 on Step Up scholarships. Tuition is $10,700 a year. Financial assistance is available for qualified families, but each family must contribute something toward their tuition.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org

Student Spotlight: Scholarship student enjoying the calm after the storm

 

By JEFF BARLIS

The lean, angular kid arrived at his new school three years ago, whip-smart and rage-filled. TJ Butler didn’t want to make eye contact, didn’t want to make friends, didn’t want to follow the rules. Instead, he screamed, slammed doors and threw things, including, one time, a desk.

For a boy diagnosed with bipolar disorder, whose father was in prison, who grew up with police lights flashing in his front yard, maybe that’s no surprise. But the teachers and administrators at Hillsborough Baptist School weren’t going to give in.

Nearly every day for the first year, the principal, Jessica Brockett, talked with TJ – and listened. For a boy who never thought anyone would listen, this was therapy.

“I wanted him to have a fresh start,” Brockett said. “I said, ‘Look, we’re not kicking you out of here, so let’s just get past all that.’ That developed a trust and a connection that he could come down here and say what he needed to say.”

 “This school really changed me,” says Step Up For Students scholar TJ Butler. "It “broke down the walls surrounding my heart.”

“This school really changed me,” says Step Up For Students scholar TJ Butler, who attend Hillsborough Baptist School. “It “broke down the walls surrounding my heart.”

Three years later, a visible calm has settled over TJ. Now 18, he walks the halls with the confident, purposeful stride of a young man who’s on the verge of graduating from high school and going to college.

“This school really changed me,” he said. It “broke down the walls surrounding my heart.”

TJ’s story turns on the school that wouldn’t give up on him – and the school choice scholarships that gave him the opportunity to attend.

He grew up in Tampa. His father is in prison for life for drug trafficking and shooting a police officer. Home life with mom was a swirl of chaos and conflict with boyfriends and then a stepfather. The violence and threats that rattled the walls traumatized TJ and his two younger brothers.

“There was a lot of burning tension,” TJ recalled. “There was so much anger you could feel it.”

The anger became part of TJ’s wiring. The littlest thing could set him off. He was expelled from his neighborhood elementary school for fighting. He continued to find trouble with teachers and students at a second elementary school before moving to a charter school.

TJ doesn’t remember much of his childhood before age 10. It’s a dark haze that’s painful to probe. His mother, Ngozi Morris, now a single mom who works as a tax preparer, said he was always a good student.

“He’s very intelligent and capable,” she said, “but it was frustrating to see him struggle with his emotions. When he got to middle school, wooo, he just escalated out of control.”

By then, TJ had deep depressions. He thought about suicide all the time.

At his neighborhood middle school, TJ was constantly in trouble, constantly suspended in school and out. He fought with students, shouted at teachers, took out his anger on anything that wasn’t nailed down. It culminated in an episode late in his eighth-grade year in which he climbed onto the roof and threw anything he could find down at the principal’s window.

The school had TJ Baker Acted, which meant he was taken for a psychological evaluation. The diagnosis: bipolar disorder. Ngozi felt relieved to know what was going on.

“It solidified everything for me,” she said. “His father had the same thing.”

With the diagnosis, Ngozi got TJ a McKay Scholarship for students with special needs and found a private school for her son to start ninth grade. A couple months later, he was expelled for an altercation he didn’t start under a zero-tolerance policy. He made it the rest of that year without incident at a second private school, but the academics weren’t challenging.

Ngozi worried TJ would never graduate, that he would end up in jail like his father. Then another mom told her about Hillsborough Baptist School, about how well they handled kids with behavior problems. Ngozi enrolled him. She eventually switched from the McKay Scholarship to the Step Up scholarship, because she was on an extremely tight budget and it reduced her monthly tuition supplements.

Hillsborough Baptist was TJ’s seventh school. As usual, he was mad when he arrived. As usual, he was trouble.

But bit by bit, trust grew and anger subsided.

Brockett, an unassuming young administrator with a shy smile and twinkling eyes, learned to read TJ’s face in the hallways. She would proactively call him into her office to talk. She could disarm an explosion before he even got to a classroom.

“A lot of times when he releases that anger, he cries,” she said.

Another breakthrough occurred at the start of TJ’s senior year. With his mom’s blessing, he moved in with the family of his best friend, Mathew Evatt. The calm and stability there resulted in further improvement in TJ’s behavior at school.

With all A’s and B’s, TJ is planning to go to college in the fall – either Hillsborough Community College or University of South Florida – aiming to become a veterinarian.

In the meantime, he serves as a teacher’s assistant, practicing the approach his school used with him.

One recent day, he stood at the whiteboard in front of first-graders, as one bouncy student attacked a math problem. The little brown-haired boy figured it out so quickly, celebration morphed from amusing to disruptive.

TJ let it go. His patience paid off. In short order, the boy settled down and correctly explained how he got the answer to his classmates.

Said TJ with a smile, “I saw myself in him.”

About Hillsborough Baptist School

Founded in 1992 and affiliated with Landmark Baptist Church, the school serves 147 K-12 students, including 85 on Step Up For Students scholarships and 36 on McKay Scholarships. The school uses the Abeka curriculum with lots of supplemental materials, like Bob Jones for upper elementary reading. It administers the NWEA’s Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP) as its standardized test. Tuition is $4,947 for K-6 and $5,432 for 7-12.

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

 

 

Brothers making great strides at Jacksonville School for Autism

By GEOFF FOX

Ethan Alexander was decompressing in a multi-purpose room at Jacksonville School for Autism.

The lights were out in the room, as the blinking and hum of fluorescent lighting can be bothersome to some students. But the sun was shining through a large glass window, and Ethan, 9, was burning off energy by bouncing on a large blue exercise ball.

Clinical therapist Jasmine Stevens watched Ethan with a warm smile. After a few moments, she had him take deep breaths and whatever anxiety he previously felt seemed to evaporate.

Caitlin Alexander says because her sons are able to attend Jacksonville School for Autism with help from Gardiner Scholarships, they are both making great academic and social strides. From left to right Ethan, Caitlin, Ashton and Van Alexander.

Thanks to the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs, Ethan and his older brother Ashton, 11, have attended Jacksonville School for Autism (JSA) for two years. Step Up For Students helps manage the scholarship.

Before attending the school, Ethan struggled with reading and math, and didn’t socialize easily.

“His academics have improved greatly and he’s much more engaged with his peers,” Stevens said.

Jill Thomas, the school’s marketing and development director, entered the multi-purpose room as Ethan was counting backwards from five in the voice of his favorite character in “Monsters, Inc.” She asked how he was doing.

“Good!” Ethan said, adding that he hoped to soon see the movie “Black Panther.”

Noticing that Ethan’s earlier anxieties had subsided, Thomas fired a couple questions at him.

“Hey Ethan, what’s five plus five?” she asked.

“Ten!” he said quickly.

“What’s six plus six?”

After a moment, and a couple of bounces, he answered correctly: “Twelve!”

He was clearly pleased with himself.

As Ethan spoke with Thomas, his older brother Ashton was roaming on an elaborate outdoor playground. Keeping to himself, he walked, tightrope-style, along narrow planks that lined the area. The day was warm and a slight breeze blew through his short blond hair.

He was the picture of contentment.

Caitlin Alexander, Ethan and Ashton’s mother, said she worried greatly about her oldest son before they attended JSA. She and husband Van, a regional sales manager for a medical-device company, live in Jacksonville.

“Ashton had horrible behaviors that are now gone,” she said. “He would self-injure himself. His escape from a situation would be to smash his head against something hard. It could have been because of something someone said or something he heard, which made daily life a huge struggle.”

Ethan and Ashton previously attended a different school in the area. When their favorite teacher, Breiyona Baltierra, moved to JSA, she encouraged the Alexanders to visit.

“We fell in love with the school, too,” Caitlin Alexander said.

Tour JSA’s campus and it’s not hard to understand why. The school opened in 2005 and has been in the building formally occupied by an architectural firm since 2013. The school began with only two students, but there are now 60 – who range in age from 2 to 31 – and a waiting list. Ten of the school’s current students are on the Gardiner Scholarship program.

The school is housed in a spacious, two-story building with elaborate skylights in several classrooms.

Still, Thomas said, “There’s no more physical space. We get multiple calls a day from people wanting to get on the waiting list.”

On the first floor are several classrooms and a clinical wing where most students spend half of each day working one-on-one with a therapist.

Students who need individual therapy have their own cubicles where they can work without interruption.

Upstairs is a library that includes a Wii set-up, additional clinical spaces and more classrooms.

Inside a music room, piano teacher Twila Miller, known as “Mrs. Ty,” was teaching student Srinidhi “Sri” Aravind notes on a piano.

“Tap, tap, tap, tap,” Miller said, as Sri, a Step Up scholar, struck the correct keys in the proper rhythm.

“We’re learning how to hold the note,” Miller said. “The piano is a wonderful tool to learn to make your hands do what you want them to do.”

Sri kept playing, deliberately at first, but gaining confidence as she went.

“Isn’t that beautiful?” Miller said. “It sounds like the piano is talking to me.”

An occupational therapy classroom features resources and equipment that help students work on speech, writing and other fine motor skills, such as gripping objects properly.

Gym mats line the floor. There is also a large swing and a “ball pit,” where students can burn energy playing with plastic balls in a safe area.

“A lot of our students struggle with communication, so everything they learn academically is in a social setting,” Thomas said. “It may look like they’re playing games, but they’re learning how to interact and respond appropriately to one another.

“Some of them are constantly fighting their bodies to sit down and be calm.”

The school also has an adult vocational program in which participants help prepare lunches for students, as well as cleaning up and dishwashing.

“We want to teach them anything that can translate into a job,” Thomas said.

A dozen local businesses – including restaurants, grocery stores, thrift shops and a food pantry – routinely hire JSA students for part-time work. Spectrum Shredding even has a shredding machine at JSA, so some students can work without leaving the campus.

School officials hope to eventually open a separate center focused on residential and educational services for adults on the autism spectrum.

“We don’t want them to graduate high school or turn 22 and then have nothing to do,” Thomas said. Students are eligible to receive the Gardiner Scholarship until age 22.

The school needs 20 to 30 acres of land to build what is tentatively called the Autism Center for Residential and Educational Services. The trick is finding land close enough to the existing school – as well as raising money for the project, which would include housing, an auditorium, wings for elementary, middle and high school, a gymnasium and cafeteria.

“We want to offer Applied Behavior Analysis therapy and really expand our vocational programs and employment placement,” Thomas said. “There’s also a residential living component – supportive living. A lot of our students will not be able to live totally independently, but we want them to have all the resources they need to thrive and live in a supportive community.”

It is that attention to students’ overall well-being that attracted the Alexanders and the dozens of other families JSA has served.

Caitlin Alexander marveled at the progress her sons have made there in a relatively short time.

Ethan has been transformed from a student who didn’t like interacting with others into one of the school’s most outgoing students.

And Ashton’s behavioral issues have improved as dramatically as his interest in numbers has grown. He also has become proficient with Microsoft PowerPoint, which he uses to make slide shows, charts and graphs for various projects.

“He’s also really getting into coding,” his mother said. “You never know. He could be the next Steve Jobs.”

 

Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@sus.org.

 

 

A private school off the beaten path was the key to a major turnaround

By JEFF BARLIS

Kelly Perkins was in a full-blown panic when she woke up at 5:15 a.m. and her son Ross wasn’t there. For three days he wasn’t at school, which was nothing new, but he wasn’t answering his phone. She drove the streets of Cape Coral looking for him day and night.

“I come home on the third day and he was sitting on the porch,” Kelly said. “He was hiding with his friends in a golf country club bathroom.”

Kelly Perkins and her son Ross are all smiles these days now that he’s using a Step Up For Students scholarship at Gator Wilderness Camp School.

Kelly was at the end of her rope. Ross, 15, had gone off the rails, and his therapist suggested an out-of-home placement – Gator Wilderness Camp School, an hour north in rural Punta Gorda. That’s what spurred Ross to run away.

Kelly didn’t want to send Ross away, but now Ross needed help.

Problem was, even if Ross agreed to camp, Kelly had to figure out how to pay for it.

Luckily, she learned, about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students that made tuition manageable.

“Without it, I don’t know where we’d be,” she said. “Probably in much more trouble.”

Ross was a good student when he was younger. Kelly spoiled him. He had every game system he ever wanted, always had name-brand clothes and shoes.

His hair was a playground. Kelly, a cosmetology teacher with short blond hair and kind eyes, loved to help Ross change his look – hair spikes in preschool, a mohawk in kindergarten. He got his ear pierced on his 10th birthday.

“I went with the mohawk forever,” Ross said with the same Chicago accent as his mother. “I’d wear it up or down in my eyes. I’d dye it crazy colors and shave the sides and wear skinny jeans. I had really great grades, A’s and B’s. So I could do whatever I wanted.”

Things changed dramatically, though, after Ross finished eighth grade. His zoned high school had such a bad rep, Kelly decided to move to Florida, thinking she was giving Ross a better life.

But the move upset Ross deeply. Friends meant a lot to him, and he left them all behind. He wasn’t too discerning about the new ones he made at his neighborhood school in Cape Coral.

“They were just the bad kids,” he said. “I always liked being the leader, and I’m kind of an entertainer, so I would do whatever I could to up the game.”

The game was skipping school, hanging out, stealing. One day, Kelly’s brother-in-law found thousands of dollars’ worth of stolen clothes, shoes and electronics in Ross’ closet.

In the spring, he was caught stealing at the mall, kicked out of school and sent to a youth shelter he described as more of a detention center. They shaved his head. He ran away. He was placed in a public alternative school, but he didn’t show.

When confronted, Ross wouldn’t make eye contact. “I dunno” was his answer for everything.

At the end of his freshman year, he had a grand total of a half credit.

That’s when Gator Camp emerged as the answer. Ross eventually agreed to go. They shaved his head when he arrived.

Ross feeling right at home at Gator Wilderness Camp School.

The camp sits on 250 wooded acres surrounded by citrus farms and ranches. There are horses, cows, a lake – and an overwhelming feeling of tranquility. There are no cell phones or video games.

The camp serves boys ages 10-15. They typically come from troubled backgrounds, most with special needs or disabilities, and agree to attend 15 to 18 months. They live, work and learn outdoors, 24-7.

Camp director Greg Kanagy, a short, powerfully built man with sky blue eyes, remembers Ross was loud and obnoxious early on. He made friends easily, but they were disruptive. He was a leader, but sometimes led his group literally in the wrong direction.

“He didn’t take responsibility very seriously,” Kanagy said. “And he was pretty distrustful in relationships.”

At first, Ross didn’t see the point of being there. He didn’t like the chores and structure, didn’t participate in his group’s daily talks and plans. When a conflict arose, the group would talk it out until it was handled. But Ross made everything into a joke.

“I just had no hope,” he said.

In time, though, with help from his counselors and peers, something happened. He participated. He opened up to his group. He stopped thinking he was better than them.

After the fourth month, he could feel his life turning around. Kelly saw the difference. He talked more, made eye contact. Even his posture changed.

At camp, Ross became a positive force. The trust that formed allowed the campers to share their worst experiences. Their bonds become impenetrable.

“Once you get that out, you just feel so much more secure,” he said. “It’s a big focus to talk about how you’re feeling instead of acting things out.”

After he graduated camp, Ross went home and to a non-traditional public high school where he set his own pace doing courses on a computer. A school official asked if he’d like to do afternoon or evening sessions. He asked if he could do both. No one had ever done that.

Kelly felt like she was looking at a different person, but just in case, she moved while Ross was away to make sure he didn’t fall back in with his old friends. He never did.

He missed camp and planned trips with his camp friends.

During a canoe trip in the Everglades, a former counselor offered him a job at camp – assistant maintenance and grounds crew. He jumped at it and decided to finish school even faster. He earned his diploma in less than a year and a half.

“I just binged high school,” he said.

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

Choice scholarship saved life of bullying victim

By JEFF BARLIS

The note was written on a torn piece of paper slipped through a slot in Hannah Waibel’s locker. When she opened the door, it fell to the floor.

You should just kill yourself. You’re not wanted here.

Hannah cried as she retreated to the bathroom to call her mom. The bullying at her neighborhood middle school in Arcadia had been relentless, but this crossed a red line and triggered Hannah’s darkest moment.

“Maybe they’re right,” she thought, warm tears staining the crumpled note.

Jennifer Gross and daughter Hannah Waibel are all smiles these days at Faith Community Christian Academy in Arcadia, Florida.

She contemplated suicide for a second and it scared the heck out of her. But the next emotion she felt was anger. Minutes before she found the note, Hannah had left a two-hour meeting with her parents and the school resource officer. He had assured them he would fix the situation.

Hannah’s mom, Jennifer Gross, stormed back to the school to withdraw her daughter. Hannah was already in the office filling out her 25th incident report in the first month of her seventh-grade year.

More than 47,000 public school students in Florida were bullied or assaulted in some way in the 2015-2016 school year, according to the most recent state statistics. Spurred by those numbers, state lawmakers are considering a new type of scholarship, the Hope Scholarship, to give victims a way out.

In Hannah’s case, a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students scholarship saved her.

It allowed her to enroll in Faith Community Christian Academy, one of two private schools in Arcadia, a small town at the heart of Desoto County.

“I couldn’t stay,” said Hannah, chin quivering, voice cracking as she recounted her story. “Suicide is scary. You can never take it back.”

She and her mom share the same dirty blond hair, dark brown eyes and wary smile. They were determined to find safety above all else. Hannah’s grades in elementary school were excellent, but middle school was about survival. She got C’s and D’s.

“She really didn’t care anymore,” Jennifer said. “Didn’t want to be there.”

What started in sixth grade with adolescent dramas between on-and-off friends, turned into excommunication and worse in seventh grade.

Hannah isn’t sure why she became a target of girls she once called friends. She wasn’t born and raised in Arcadia, which made her an outsider. She was also pretty and well dressed, which seemed to explain why they shouted “slut” and “whore” at her.

“I was an outcast,” Hannah said.

Having no friends made things worse. The isolation was devastating.

Harassment came in the form of shouts in the hallway, mutterings in the classroom, text messages from random phone numbers, messages on social media. Hannah was repeatedly threatened for filing incident reports. Usually the gist of it was: “You’re no good” and “Why are you here?”

It didn’t get too physical – a shoulder here, a shove there, a stack of books knocked to the ground – but it still hurt. Yet nothing ever happened to her bullies. The note in the locker was the final straw.

Jennifer, a former chef at a nursing home and later a stay-at-home mom who married a fire sprinkler installer, knew about Faith Community and the Step Up scholarship. She had looked it up years before, when her oldest daughter, Chelsea, suffered through the same kind of bullying at the same school.

Back then, Chelsea was unable to attend because of transportation issues – the family had just one vehicle. This time, when Jennifer called principal Joni Stephens to enroll Hannah, the school was full.

Jennifer detailed Hannah’s ordeal. She begged. Tears fell on both ends of the phone. It was too late in the school year to get a scholarship, but Stephens had never turned anyone away.

“I knew I was going to make room,” she said. “It’s not about the money. If it was, we wouldn’t be here.”

The school is only a few short blocks from the district school, but it felt like a new universe to Hannah.

“She was very quiet, very shy,” Stephens recalled. “She wouldn’t look at you in the face. You could tell she had been emotionally damaged. She didn’t trust anybody.”

In her first two weeks, the unthinkable happened.

Hannah was sitting on a stage in the cafeteria when a bigger, older girl started punching her and dragged her off the stage by her hair. She tried to defend herself, but school officials quickly intervened.

As she sat shaking in the front office, waiting for her mom to arrive, she also saw how Stephens handled the issue on the spot. Two lunch ladies came in and described what happened, confirming Hannah did nothing to provoke the fight.

It turned out the attack wasn’t random. The older girl was a cousin of one of Hannah’s old bullies. She was suspended for a week and later transferred.

After what she had been through at her previous school, Hannah was amazed by the response. Slowly but surely, her frayed nerves recovered. Her confidence returned.

With a Step Up scholarship starting in eighth grade, Hannah soared to the honor roll. Now 16, she has accelerated her learning to combine 10th and 11th grades in the current school year, and is on track to graduate next year as valedictorian or salutatorian.

She’s also thinking about college and an apartment.

“It makes me feel grown up,” she said. “From everything I went through to graduating early, it makes me proud.”

Hannah still runs into her bullies at Walmart or the restaurant where she works part-time as a hostess. They still lob insults and threats, but now Hannah brushes them off and walks away smiling.

Her secret? She uses it as motivation now.

“I just want to show everyone that did me wrong that I’m better than that,” she said.

About First Assembly Christian Academy

The school opened in 2010 with 12 students. It now has 125, including 73 on Step Up For Students scholarships. The school uses a self-paced curriculum called Accelerated Christian Education (ACE), and all high school graduates earn an accredited diploma through dual-enrollment at Lighthouse Christian Academy. The Iowa Test of Basic Skills is administered annually. Tuition is $7,000 a year.

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

No limits: Gardiner Scholarships fuel big dreams for the Alexander family

By GEOFF FOX

Abby Alexander is a 9-year-old entrepreneur who has developed – and hit the local market with – her own line of skin-care products. She recently sold her Gifts by Abby Lane merchandise during an event at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa.

Her brother, Christopher, 13, loves acting and wants to eventually write and direct movies. In his spare time, he reads Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allen Poe.

A young entrepreneur, Abby Alexander recently displayed her own skin-care products, Gifts by Abby Lane, during an expo at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

Abby and Christopher are biological siblings who were adopted at a young age by Kelli Alexander and Nicholas Alexander of Spring Hill, Florida, about 50 miles north of Tampa.

Christopher was 4 when the Alexanders adopted him, and he soon began attending a neighborhood school. Around third grade, he started having some difficulties.

“In school, the teachers started to notice that he was getting distracted by little things, like the temperature of the classroom or his friend was wearing new shoes,” Kelli Alexander said. “He couldn’t focus on what the teacher was teaching and his (learning style) is very one-step-at-a-time. He couldn’t focus. He’d get instructions and would get lost in multiple-step instructions.”

He often struggled with reading and math, and would come home frustrated and discouraged.

The Alexanders had adopted Abby when she was 19 months old. When Abby started school, she had different challenges.

“Abby struggled with not being in control of things,” Kelli said. “Anytime the teacher would deviate from a schedule, she couldn’t focus. If they were five minutes late for art class, it would throw off the rest of her day. She was done.”

It didn’t help that Abby also had attachment and anxiety issues, as did her brother.

Now in seventh grade, Christopher was diagnosed on the autism spectrum around age 9. Abby, a fourth-grader, was 7 when she was diagnosed on the autism spectrum; the Alexanders also were told she is gifted.

Christopher Alexander is a voracious reader who wants to someday become a professional actor.

Through her own research, Kelli Alexander learned about the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs. Step Up For Students helps manage the scholarship.

Thanks to the scholarship, Kelli has been able to afford to home school Christopher for the past four years, while husband Nicholas works at a Walmart distribution center. Abby started home schooling this year. Kelli Alexander said she is pleased with her children’s progress, and both kids said they are

 

happier learning at home, where they are also close to their 3-year-old brother William.

“Our family is always on a tight budget,” Kelli said. “The scholarship has allowed us to choose high-quality curricula, quality technology and supplies to cater to their special needs. The scholarship allows us to decide what, where and how we teach our children. We can design a curriculum that plays off of their strengths and passions. Since being home-schooled, both have shown remarkable improvements not just academically, but emotionally as well.”

Kelli, Abby and Christopher Alexander recently acted in a production of “Annie” at the Live Oak Theatre in Brooksville, Florida.

The family, including Kelli, regularly participates in community theater productions at Live Oak Theatre in Brooksville, which has Christopher dreaming of a career on the stage or in a director’s chair – or both. He said his overall outlook on life has changed since he started home schooling.

“Home-school is so much better,” he said. “My other school was so stressful and fake. The kids and students were crazy and stressful – naïve.”

He has acted in community productions of “Around the World In 80 Days,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Secret Garden,” “Annie” and “Peter Pan.” He is currently auditioning for the part of Quee, a dwarf in the medieval comedy, “ReUnKnighted.”

“I really want to be an actor,” he said. “That’s my dream. I look to do any roles that sound good.”

It helps that he is a voracious reader.

“Right now, I’m on ‘Wonder’ by R.J. Palacio,” he said.

In the fall, Abby decided she wanted to earn her own money. Her strong interest in science and math led to the idea of starting her own line of skin-care products.

“With the scholarship, we were able to find resources to help her learn about small businesses and in a very short time she created a business plan,” Kelli Alexander said. “Gifts by Abby Lane was born at our kitchen table. She makes specialty items that don’t have any added perfumes or dyes. In the past few months, she has expanded from selling to friends and family to setting up booths at large markets and she has many more planned for the coming months.  This business venture has been the greatest hands-on lesson for her in business, economics and customer service.”

Abby described the products as a “sugar scrub.”

“At first, we gave them as presents to some of our friends, then I thought it would be cool to make products that almost everybody can use,” she said.

Her interests are not bound to beauty products. The family has two kittens – Genie and Bobby – which has sparked her enthusiasm for the veterinary field.

Abby, described by her mother as “very analytical and practical,” has such a keen interest in national security that she has also considered a career as a border patrol agent.

Kelli Alexander marveled at the progress her children have made.

“The Gardiner Scholarship has given us the opportunity to help them pursue their dreams,” she said.

Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@sufs.org.

 

 

 

Born drug-addicted and poor, a Step Up graduate’s story set for a happy ending

By LISA A. DAVIS

If Ashley Elliott’s story continued to unwind the way it began, it was sure to be labeled as a tragedy. She was born drug addicted to a single mom whose love of escaping reality in the most unnatural of ways was greater than her maternal instincts.

“Statistically speaking, I should be on drugs, be dropped out and be pregnant or even have a baby right now,” Elliott said. “But I don’t.”

Ashley Elliott, a freshman at Valencia College, says if it wasn’t for Step Up For Students, she likely wouldn’t be in college now and on a path to become a teacher.

Fortunately for Elliott, she had the help – and as it turns out, the strength – to spin her story in a different direction. “I grew up in the epitome of American poverty. But I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up anyplace else because it taught me to be humble; it taught me to get out of tough situations; it taught me to help others to get out of these situations,” said Elliott, now 19 and a 2016 high school graduate freshman in college. “That’s why I want to be a teacher.”

At a young age, Elliott was adopted by her grandmother, who also lived in poverty and struggled with health issues. She did the best she could and showered Elliott with love. But as the saying goes, sometimes love just isn’t enough.

By the time Elliott was a teenager, she didn’t feel like she belonged at her neighborhood school and was being bullied. As a result, her grades plummeted. It was at a “last-resort” alternative public school in Polk County where she met teacher Jen Perez, who saw the hurt in Elliott’s eyes and the daily struggle she faced. Mark Thomas, an administrator at the school, noticed it, too.

After Elliott had a fistfight with a boy in ninth grade, Perez reached out to her. “I told her everything that was going on,” Elliott said. “That’s when I knew I could trust her.” The trust quickly became mutual, as Elliott began babysitting Perez’s children. Thomas earned that trust by showing that he cared for Elliott’s well-being. When her family’s power was shut off, for instance, he stopped by with a chicken meal. So, when Thomas accepted an opportunity to lead Victory Christian Academy in Lakeland, it shook Elliott.

“I ran and said, ‘You can’t leave; you can’t leave!’” she said. “I knew the next administrator wouldn’t be someone I could lean on. “Two days later, Ms. Perez called me and said, ‘I think I’m leaving.’” As Elliott’s world froze, Thomas and Perez talked about their special student. “What are we going to do with Ashley?” they asked each other. The answer hit them. “We take her with us,” Perez said.

When Perez first suggested it, Elliott, armed with misconceptions about the private school, resisted. She worried about rich kids and snobbery and, once again, not fitting in. She also thought it was infeasible, until she learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program through Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer the program funded by corporate donations. Suddenly, she was a private school student with Perez and Thomas by her side.

“These two people have been in my life and led me in the right direction before I even knew it,” Elliott said. Things started to change. Elliott began to change. “In my first year, as a junior, I got A’s, B’s and C’s,” she said proudly. “I had my grandma come to school for an open house. She was like, ‘Oh Ashley, A’s, B’s and C’s! You haven’t done this well in a long time!’”

She also ran track and started to tell her story. She made friends and earned the respect, and perhaps admiration, of the so-called “rich kids.” Her confidence grew. And she learned the biggest life lesson one could ever learn: “Your situation does not define you,” she said. “You define your situation.”

When Elliott arrived at Victory, her GPA was 2.16. When she walked across the stage and turned her mortarboard’s tassel from right to left, she had a 3.3 GPA, an acceptance to Valencia College and a plan to continue and complete her teaching degree at the University of Central Florida.

She eventually wants to earn a master’s degree.

“At Victory with the Step Up program, it gave me a chance to succeed because they told me I was worth it,” Elliott said. “Step Up and Victory have changed my life.”

Lisa A. Davis can be reached at ldavis@sufs.org.

 

School choice scholarship was her ticket out of extreme poverty

By JEFF BARLIS

At Seven Rivers Christian School in Lecanto, there’s a list of core values for students. Among them: Do hard things.

Maloni Lewis knows it. She’s lived it.

Maloni Lewis, a Step Up For Students graduate, now attends College of Central Florida in Ocala.

With two disabled parents and three older brothers in and out of jail, Maloni grew up in extreme poverty. Their community in nearby Crystal River, with its run-down homes and overgrown yards, was full of hopeless people.

Devastated by the path her sons had taken, mom Renée had an unyielding determination to chart a different course for Maloni. A tall, broad-shouldered woman, she made a school-choice scholarship the ticket to a better life.

“We went through a lot of trauma,” Renée said after a pause, her eyes welled up with tears. “But I told Maloni, it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s where you’re at.”

Like her brothers, Maloni struggled in third grade at her neighborhood school. Her reading, writing and math grades were poor. Other than her trademark mane of meticulous braids, she wasn’t herself. The playful smile, the one mom said “has diamonds in it,” was missing.

Renée had seen this before. Her boys were bright and talented, but they came home from school explaining how it wasn’t cool to be smart. They were made fun of for speaking proper English. Bad friends led to bad choices. Going to jail, Renée said, was a virus that tore through the family.

Maloni would be different.

Through a local nonprofit organization, Renée found out about Seven Rivers and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program that would make paying the tuition possible. She applied through Step Up For Students.

Formerly a certified nursing assistant who worked late hours and double shifts to make ends meet, Renée went on disability after she was injured in a fall. She also has kidney and heart problems that cause frequent hospitalizations.

After her injury, husband Donald went on partial disability due to worsening asthma. Money became a problem. Power and water were hard to keep on.

It was all a blur to Maloni. Until Seven Rivers.

Her first memory of the school is from age 9, when teachers, staff and parents came to help her family move. The Lewis home had been deemed uninhabitable, and they needed help moving to Maloni’s grandparents’ house.

“They’ve always been family to us,” Maloni said of the school.

Nestled along a rolling hillside dotted with oaks and pines, the school’s rusticated concrete-block buildings are modern and clean. For Maloni, the people inside made all the difference.

Chief among them was resource coordinator Donna Nelson, a wiry, fiery, caring woman who is now the school’s director of admissions. She became a mentor to Maloni and a close friend of the family.

“My secret angel,” Renée said.

Nelson’s job was to work with struggling kids, and she spoke frequently with Renée about Maloni’s strengths, weaknesses and direction. They plotted a course to help Maloni catch up in an academic environment that was far more rigorous than her previous school.

“At first I thought she was mean,” Maloni said. “But she wasn’t. She’s just passionate. She wants people to learn. She wants to help you.”

Maloni turned to Nelson in and out of school. If she needed tutoring or was hungry, Nelson was there. Sometimes when Renée was in the hospital, it was Nelson who broke the news to Maloni and offered rides and a place to stay.

“She loves her,” Renée said. “And I just wish for other families to have that. It’s so huge.”

Even with Nelson and Renée pushing, it took years to get Maloni on track in the classroom. Math was a stubborn nemesis, and she was plagued by doubts. I shouldn’t be here. Maybe college isn’t for me.

But her teachers never gave up. Maloni’s support structures grew to include year-round sports – volleyball, basketball and track.

Renée Lewis, left, and Donna Nelson forged a strong bond in raising Maloni together.

After being a student who put forth a minimal effort, Maloni found a passion for learning and hit her stride in high school. Her GPA went from 2.4 as a freshman to 3.8 as a senior. She even conquered math.

With graduation looming in the spring of 2017, Maloni applied and got accepted to a small college in Pennsylvania.

“She wanted to go as far away from her community as possible,” Nelson said.

The school offered some scholarship money. But it wasn’t enough, so Maloni decided to go to the College of Central Florida in Ocala.

She recently finished her first semester with mostly A’s. Her plan is to get an associate’s degree, then transfer to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. The dream is to become a nurse like her mom and travel the world.

So much of her success is owed to Seven Rivers.

“I’m overly prepared,” she said. “Freshman year is supposed to be hard, but it’s really easy. It makes me realize I’ve been educated properly.”

From the moment her daughter graduated high school, Renée was “on a cloud.” She felt a sense of peace, perspective, and gratitude for the scholarship that made Seven Rivers possible.

“Step Up For Students is a lifeline,” she said. “It allows kids and families to dream. What they thought was so far out of reach is possible.”

Maloni knows. She’s lived it.

About Seven Rivers Christian School

Founded in 1988, the school is affiliated with Seven Rivers Presbyterian Church. It is accredited by Christian Schools of Florida, the National Council for Private School Accreditation, and AdvancEd. The school serves 502 K-12 students, including 126 on Step Up For Students scholarships. The curriculum has an emphasis on college prep and includes honors, Advanced Placement, and dual enrollment courses in high school. The school administers the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test three times a year. Tuition rang

Reach Jeff Barlis at jbarlis@sufs.org. 

The right school choice made all the difference for De’Asia Waters

By JEFF BARLIS

Demetria Hutley-Johnson can laugh about it now, but not long ago her daughter, De’Asia Waters, was having such a hard time in school she tried to hide her grades.

“I used to have to search her backpack,” Demetria said. “She’s sneaky. Their tests and quizzes have to be signed by parents. She knew about it. She just wouldn’t give them to me. Now she does.”

De’Asia, 16, laughs about it, too. She’s proud of her grades now. There’s no more hiding, because her troubles are behind her.

De’Asia Waters went from repeating fourth grade to excelling at Masters Preparatory Christian Academy in Havana, Fla.

De’Asia Waters went from repeating fourth grade to excelling at Masters Preparatory Christian Academy in Havana, Fla.

The struggles began in third grade at her neighborhood school in Quincy, about a half-hour northwest of Tallahassee.

“I just felt like she was being left behind,” said Demetria, a licensed practical nurse since 2013. “She had a substitute teacher all the way through December. She didn’t get her real teacher until they came back from their winter break in January.”

De’Asia’s grades fell from A’s to F’s, as mom grew increasingly frustrated.

After frequent visits to the school and many conversations with school officials, Demetria decided she needed to explore other options. She started calling private schools and found out about the Step Up For Students scholarship, which helps parents of lower-income K-12 students pay tuition.

Thanks to the scholarship, Demetria was able to steer her daughter’s academic journey back towards a happy ending.

It didn’t happen immediately. De’Asia’s poor grades required her to repeat fourth grade at the first private school she and her mom chose. The retention was supposed to help, but her troubles continued. After De’Asia spent fifth grade working at her own pace in a computer-based curriculum, her mom decided for a second time to seek a better fit.

A teacher suggested Masters Preparatory Christian Academy in nearby Havana. There, De’Asia’s grades began to stabilize in the sixth grade, thanks to small classes, one-on-one attention, and support from her teachers.

“After she was retained, she wasn’t motivated about school,” Demetria said. “She was sheltered, quiet, not enthusiastic. After (Masters Prep) did their magic, she’s like a totally different person.”

Said De’Asia: “It was different right away. It was the teachers. My teacher, Ms. Lovett, never gave up on me. They will actually keep me in the room until I finish my work, until I get it.”

Rhonda Lovett worked with De’Asia both in class and after class. De’Asia worked at home, too.

The girl who once hid her school work was starting to thrive.

“She was behind a little bit, but she worked hard,” Lovett said. “The most important thing was her mom. All I was was just her mom at school. Whatever her mom did at home, I was doing the same thing at school.”

De’Asia’s grades jumped from C’s and D’s in sixth grade to A’s and B’s in seventh grade. Her GPA rose from 2.19 to 4.08.

“Her whole attitude toward school changed,” Demetria said. “She finally started talking about college. I had never heard her talk about college before.”

Now a ninth-grader, De’Asia is excited about the future.

“It’s kind of a new thing,” she said. “I’d never thought about going to college, but now I do.”

About Masters Preparatory Christian Academy

The non-denominational Christian school serves a wide range of students, from developmentally delayed to gifted. Thirty-six students – including 18 on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students – attend kindergarten through eighth grade. Parents are required to sign an enrollment contract and commit to be involved in the education process. After a pre-enrollment interview, new students in grades 3-8 take an entrance assessment that tests reading, language arts, and math on the last grade level completed. The school uses the TerraNova Test. It uses the A Beka Book curriculum for reading and language arts in grades 3-5, the Saxon program for all math instruction, and Alpha-Omega programs for all other course work. Tuition is $6,920 a year.

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

From bullying victim to valedictorian

Editor’s note: This story was originally posted on redefinED on July 18, 2016. It’s an interesting look at how bullying affects education. Florida lawmakers are debating a bill that would create a new initiative, called the Hope Scholarship, to aid those students who are bullied in Florida schools. (The School of Immaculata mentioned in this story has since closed.) 

By JEFF BARLIS

It would have been hard to picture Jasmine Harrington as a class valedictorian in 2012. As a ninth-grader at her south Pinellas County neighborhood high school, she was routinely physically and emotionally attacked by her classmates, and her misery was reflected in a GPA of 0.625.

Until eighth grade, she had been a good student who enjoyed school. Then the nightmare began.

Jasmine Harrington, left, and her mother Angela Little will both be enrolled at St. Petersburg College this fall. Harrington graduated valedictorian from School of the Immaculata, while Little is set to graduate college after the fall semester.

Jasmine Harrington, left, and her mother Angela Little will both be enrolled at St. Petersburg College this fall. Harrington graduated valedictorian from School of the Immaculata, while Little was set to graduate college after the fall semester 2016.

“I went through a terrible middle school experience,” Jasmine said. “Then it followed me into my ninth grade year. I figured ‘We’re in high school now, everyone will let it go.’ But I had the wrong people around me at the wrong times.”

Jasmine’s mother, Angela Little, was spending more and more time at the school pleading Jasmine’s case to teachers, administrators and resource officers. She was irate and feeling hopeless.

“[Jasmine] made it the first year,” Angela recalled, “only because every day I had to be there 10-15 minutes before school let out, standing immediately right there as she walks out to make sure five or six of them didn’t pummel her.”

“The cyberbullying was horrible. I had to see all this stuff that was on Facebook and in text messages, and I reported all of that to the school.”

Angela followed the school’s procedures and filed complaints. She even went to the homes of parents whose children were involved. Nothing changed Jasmine’s plight.

“I kept continuously getting in trouble and continuously arguing with the same people,” Jasmine said.
“It was extremely hard (to focus on school). No teacher, not one of them, could control their class.”

“I never learned. I literally would skip class all day and no one would care.”

Angela knew where Jasmine was headed.

“I was a mother at 16 and I always said I wasn’t going to let that cycle continue,” Angela said. “I had to remove her or she was going to be at risk of being a dropout.”

Angela heard about the Step Up For Students scholarship from another mother whose daughter had been down a similar road. It gives low-income parents the power to access private schools.

Jasmine enrolled in Bethel Community Christian School for her 10th grade year. It was just a mile and a half from her neighborhood school, but it felt like a world apart.

Her grades rebounded to A’s, B’s and C’s as teachers and school officials, like administrator Cleopatra Sykes, worked with Jasmine to recover her lost credits.

“She came to us kind of shut down,” Sykes said. “She had a lot of self-esteem issues.”

Jasmine’s time at Bethel was short, however. After just two quarters, Jasmine was on the move again when the school was forced to close its secondary education program because of staffing and financial issues.

Bethel director Rev. Manuel Sykes reached out to John Giotis, headmaster at nearby School of the Immaculata, to place several students. Jasmine knew on her first visit she had found a home.

The campus with its open space and tranquil pond provided the perfect setting to forget about her past troubles. It was safe, quiet. But it was the staff at Immaculata that made all the difference.

“They were very comforting,” she said. “They let me know that I would make it in life.”

It took some time to win Jasmine’s trust, but Giotis and school dean Jennifer Givens believed in her, supported her, and challenged her.

“When she saw that she just wasn’t another number, that she could succeed, she just took off from there,” Givens said. “We began to see a big change in her. She was smiling more, more involved in activities and with other students.”

“At first she kind of stayed to herself. But after she felt that comfort zone, that she could talk to the teachers, once she saw that school was fun and we cared about her, it was just a new Jasmine, just a new child.”

Jasmine became a star student. Her A’s, B’s and C’s turned into mostly A’s. She began to ask for more work – independent studies and college preparation.

The culmination of Jasmine’s turnaround came a few weeks ago. She graduated as her class valedictorian and was accepted into St. Petersburg College, where she plans to study education and become a teacher.

When Givens told Jasmine she had been nominated to be the valedictorian, it was all Jasmine could talk about for weeks.

“I bugged my mom every day to go get that valedictorian sash,” she said. “And I bugged her to go buy me a new cap and gown, because I wanted my own. My mom got two sets of graduation pictures done for me.”

One of the graduation pictures Jasmine took was with her mother, both wearing caps and gowns. That’s because Jasmine won’t be the first in her family to go to college or get a degree.

Angela is also a full-time student at St. Pete College. She’s one semester away from graduating with an associate’s degree in social work after previously working as a seasonal tax preparer for H&R Block.

After getting her GED at age 32, Angela never stopped striving to set an example for her three children.

“She’s very inspiring to me,” Jasmine said of her mother. “I’m glad that she never gave up and that she went back to school.”

“When she graduates, I’ll be there to scream her name just as she did for me.”

Reach Jeff Barlis at jbarlis@sufs.org.

 

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