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Adelante! Why a former Step Up scholar completed his UF degree during rookie season in NFL

BY ROGER MOONEY

Where to begin with CJ Henderson?

That the former Step Up For Students scholar used his time wisely at Christopher Columbus High in Miami and earned a football scholarship to the University of Florida?

That he turned three seasons with the Florida Gators into an NFL career, and in 2020 was drafted ninth overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars?

CJ Henderson (23) makes a tackle against Houston during the Jaguars first game of the season. (Photo courtesy of the Jacksonville Jaguars)

That he continued his coursework during his rookie season and graduated last May from Florida with his class?

That in May he donated $250,000 to the new training facility at Columbus?

CJ Henderson’s senior picture at Christopher Columbus High in Miami.

Each of those are noteworthy on their own. Added together, they help tell the story of a student/athlete who lives by the motto used by those associated with Columbus: Adelante! It is Spanish for “forward” or “onward.”

CJ moves forward with his goals. That’s why he received a scholarship to play cornerback at a major university and why he was a top-10 pick by an NFL team. He made that goal when he was young.

“CJ had the ambition to go to the NFL since kindergarten, first grade,” his dad, Chris, said. “He used to write that in his journal.”

It’s also why CJ has a degree in education science and why he chose to give back to his alma mater.

It’s called C-Pride, said Xzavier Henderson, CJ’s younger brother who is a sophomore wide receiver at Florida.

“We hold ourselves to a standard,” Xzavier said. “C-Pride is having pride in the alumni base, athletics, academics, having pride in everything you do in high school.”

Columbus High, CJ said during a video announcing his donation to the school, taught him the discipline needed to succeed at a university like Florida. That’s the reason Chris wanted his son to attend a private high school and why CJ chose Columbus, a Catholic school. The campus has a college-like vibe, the athletic program is among the best in the state and the academics are demanding.

Xzavier Henderson’s senior picture at Christopher Columbus High in Miami.

“They have rules to keep you in line, and those same rules you have to apply to yourself in college,” Chris said.

Chris had the same NFL dreams as CJ. After a standout football career at his neighborhood high school in Miami, Chris attended the University of Cincinnati on a football scholarship. Looking back, Chris said he wasn’t prepared for the academic side of being a college football player. He left Cincinnati, attended two more colleges, and never graduated.

Chris and his wife, Prudence, wanted their sons to have the best chance at succeeding in college. They began researching the private high schools in the Miami area when CJ was in the eighth grade. That’s when they learned about the private school scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.

“That really helped,” Chris said, “because without that, it’s hard to say if we would have made it through all those years.”

Xzavier received the same scholarship and followed CJ to Columbus.

“They represent Step Up and what it’s all about,” Columbus Principal David Pugh said. “I think they got the most out of what Step Up is meant to do, provide students like CJ and Xzavier with another option, and they made the most of it.”

The jump from high school classwork to college is demanding, but the four years at Columbus left CJ and Xzavier better prepared for what awaited them at Florida.

“That was the preparation I was looking for,” Chris said. “To thrive in college, you really need to be disciplined (in class) to give you a push. Going to play football sounds fun and easy, but going to Florida, that’s tough. CJ took advantage of his resources and made it happen.”

And he graduated with his class despite spending what would have been his senior year in the NFL. CJ managed to mix in virtual classes to finish his degree while navigating life as an NFL rookie.

“That was an accomplishment I wanted to achieve,” Henderson told floridagators.com. “I just wanted to get it out of the way rather than wait until later and come back and do it.”

Tony Meacham, assistant director for academic services at Florida’s University Athletic Association, told floridagators.com that he could not remember a football player who continued to work toward his degree during his first year in the NFL. Most wait until at least the end of their rookie season before resuming their education.

“To his credit, he was willing to put in the work besides the work he was putting in on the field,” Meachum said. “You think someone in his position would be glued to football, but he was doing both. It was very impressive for someone to do that in his position.”

Said Pugh, “I wouldn’t expect anything less. It just shows you the level of commitment that a guy like CJ makes. He made that commitment to Christopher Columbus High School, and he made that commitment to the University of Florida.”

Xzavier Henderson warming up before Florida’s game against USF on Sept. 11 in Tampa. (Photo courtesy of University Athletic Association)

The Hendersons wanted all their children to graduate from college. CJ’s sister, Daija, graduated last spring from Florida A&M and is pursuing a master’s degree while working as a dental assistant. Xzavier was named to the Southeastern Conference First-Year Honor Role as a freshman.

“We take our academics seriously,” Xzavier said. “We want to be champions in everything we do.”

Like CJ, Xzavier occasionally returns to Columbus to work out and spend time with students. He can now work out in the facility that bears his family’s name – the Henderson Family Athletic Training Center. The 2,000 square foot building provides the school’s athletes with better evaluation, treatment and rehabilitation of injuries.

“CJ and Xzavier are role models,” Pugh said. “Other students would want to emulate what they do, because they do it the right way.”

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

Tips on transitioning your child to a new school or learning environment

By ROGER MOONEY

The Buddy Bench found on the playground at Christ the King Catholic School in Jacksonville is a yellow beacon that helps new students find playmates, make friends, and ease the transition to their new school.

Amanda McCook

The Lunch Bunch provides the same opportunities, but in a private setting.

These are two examples offered by Amanda McCook, the school’s assistant principal/guidance counselor, when asked for tips on transitioning a child to a new school or learning environment.

Another school year is underway, which means there is no shortage of students who are walking the halls of unfamiliar buildings populated by many unfamiliar faces.

They can be children in kindergarten or pre-teens entering high school. Or they can be students who made the switch from a neighborhood school to a private one. A number of these students receive scholarships managed by Step Up For Students to attend private K-12 schools in Florida.

The transitioning can be daunting.

Part of McCook’s duties at the private pre-K through eighth school is to ease that transition. Having two daughters who made the move from their neighborhood school to a private one, McCook has seen this process from both sides.

The advice she gave her daughters was to join clubs and activity groups and sit with different groups of students during lunch. It’s the same advice she gives to parents of students new to Christ the King.

“The more involved you are, the more people you meet,” she said.

McCook has a list of tips that she developed during her 19 years as an educator, both in public and private schools. Some, like the Buddy Bench and the Lunch Bunch (more on those later), are unique to Christ the King.

If your child is having an uneasy time during the first few weeks at a new school, McCook said you can:

  • See if the school has a student- or parent-led board that can provide insight and advice. At Christ the King, McCook said, “We try to match families with new families to give them those tips and tricks. There’s always going to be families in the school system who are there for that kind of support. I definitely think you should reach out to some families in the school to get those tips.”
  • Read the parent/student handbook. “That has all those details that you might miss as far as the structure of the school and uniform policies,” McCook said. “That’s totally different when you come from a public school.”
  • Get to know your administration. “That’s what I’m here for as an assistant principal, to help new families transition, if they have any questions,” McCook said.
  • Also, open a line of communication with your child’s teachers. Get their email address. Don’t hesitate to ask questions or voice concerns.
  • Volunteer. Christ the King, like most faith-based schools, requires parents to volunteer. “That’s such a great opportunity to meet other families and to learn more about the school,” she said. “We realize how important that is to the vitality of the school to have parents involved. Definitely the more involved you are, the more you feel vested in your school. I feel like that is definitely a plus to get involved.”

For those parents with children in Catholic schools, McCook suggested they attend the midweek Mass for the students.

“We always encourage our parents to come to Mass to get a feel for our school and our pastor,” McCook said.

Even when parents follow these tips, their child might still feel uneasy during the first weeks at a new school. Fortunately for those at Christ the King, McCook has a few more tricks.

The Buddy Bench at Christ the King Catholic School in Jacksonville.

During the first few days of school, McCook visits each classroom and tells the story of the Buddy Bench.

The yellow bench sits in the middle of the playground. It is a signal that someone can use a friend.

“If you’re playing and you’re all by yourself and are lonely, you can go sit on the bench.,” McCook said. “And everyone knows if you ever see someone sitting on the Buddy Bench, you have to go up to them and say, ‘Hey, do you want to play?’ And you have to say, ‘Yes.’

“We teach our kids that way and they do it successfully. That really helps everybody feel included and not go home and say, ‘Nobody played with me,’ because that hurts a parent’s heart. We praise kids who come over and ask kids to join them, so they want to be the one who asks.”

Finally, there is the Lunch Bunch.

“If I see there’s someone new that’s struggling to make friends, I call in three friends from their class and they eat lunch with me in my office,” McCook said.

McCook breaks the ice with conversation-starters.

“Who’s been to Disney World?”

“Who likes Harry Potter?”

“Who likes Marvel comics?”

“I find that really helps, especially with my more-shy students, make connections they couldn’t make on their own,” McCook said.

McCook said it shouldn’t take more than a month for the unfamiliar to become familiar for new students. Stephanie Engelhardt, Christ the King’s principal, contacts the parents of all the new students within the first three weeks of the school year.

“Just to make sure they’re feeling comfortable,” McCook said. “Do they know the process? How is their student liking school? We always check up within the first month.”

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

From jumping rope to riding bikes, education savings accounts help those with autism expand their world

BY ROGER MOONEY

SARASOTA – Sophia Slaughter, who is 15, recently learned to jump rope.

Maybe that is not a big deal to someone who was skipping Double Dutch at 5, but it is to Sophia, who is on the autism spectrum and has dyspraxia. Known as developmental co-ordination disorder, dyspraxia hinders her coordination. Some activities that neurotypical teenagers consider routine are nearly impossible for her.

Or were.

While working with trainer Dani Williams at NXT Generation Wellness in Sarasota for the past two years, Sophia gradually gained command of her muscles and their movements. She can hold a yoga pose and coordinate her footwork to move through a series of squares taped on the floor at NXT Generation.

Sophia Slaughter jumps rope during a recent training sessions at NXT Generation Wellness.

And she can complete in proper order the mini skills that allow her to jump rope.

“It’s life-changing,” said Sophia’s mom, Jennifer Slaughter.

Sophia, who lives in Sarasota and is home schooled, receives the Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with unique abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship). It is managed by Step Up For Students. Sophia uses her education savings account that comes with the scholarship to pay for the sessions at NXT Generation, as well as for yoga classes and ballroom dancing.

These activities added health and fitness to Sophia’s life, helped her become more socially interactive, and gain a circle of friends.

“That’s the ultimate goal,” Williams said. “Elevate and enhance their current life, or what they view as their current life, and open doors and continue on this path.”

In early August, 20-year-old Riley Joyce for the first time in his life rode a two-wheel bicycle without any assistance. His mom, Judi, who watched from the driveway of their Sarasota-home cried.

“It was the best thing ever to see,” Judi said.

Like Sophia, Riley is on the autism spectrum. He lives in Sarasota and is home schooled. Riley also receives the Family Empowerment Scholarship (formerly Gardiner) and uses his education savings account for yoga, ballroom dancing and sessions with Williams.

Riley was introduced to Williams three years ago during her Saturday group classes, which are sponsored by Face Autism. For the past two years, Riley has taken weekly one-on-one classes with Williams.

Jordan Soriano and NXT Generation Wellness owner Dani Williams.

Started by Colleen Buccieri, whose godson Jordan Soriano is on the spectrum, Face Autism is a nonprofit that organizes autism-appropriate activities such as bowling, horseback riding, and golf. It also sponsors a ballroom dancing class at Dynasty Dance Club in Sarasota.

Judi enrolled Riley in the fitness class, hoping he would get healthier and make friends. Check and check.

Riley has lost 33 pounds since he began working with Williams. At first, he could barely manage five minutes on the treadmill. Now he can walk and run for 30 minutes, increasing the pace as he goes along.

“His endurance has gone off the charts,” Judi said.

As for socializing, Riley chats with everyone he encounters, making friends wherever he goes.

“He doesn’t stop talking, which is great,” Judi said. “I love it.”

In July, Riley spent a week in the Adirondack Mountains of New York with a small group of friends who are on the spectrum. They hiked, went fly fishing, ziplining, and kayaking.

The outing was the idea of Williams’ boyfriend, Chase Pettey, who runs Adventure For All, a nonprofit that creates interactive adventures for those with intellectual and/or developmental exceptionalities.

Riley tried to ride a two-wheel bike during the trip and came close. He finally conquered that feat not long after returning home.

Williams helped Riley master the bicycle (which Riley purchased with his education saving account) with a series of exercises over a six-month period that improved his balance and stability.

“The confidence in Riley has just skyrocketed,” Williams said. “He’s much more willing to try new things, so that’s been a wonderful thing to witness.”

As Jordan’s godmother, Colleen was keenly aware of how children on the spectrum grow up without friends. They aren’t invited to birthday parties or asked to go to the movies. She created Face Autism in 2009 to change that.

“I just look for different opportunities for kids to be involved in, things that typical kids would be involved in,” she said. “And I’m a big proponent of getting them off the video games and the computers. A lot of the kids don’t have fitness in their life. I think it’s very important – have a healthy heart, a strong body. Most of them don’t have upper body strength.”

Jordan, 21, lacked upper body strength when he began training with Williams four years ago. He couldn’t jump rope. He could ride a two-wheel bike, but he couldn’t peddle with much power.

A recipient of the Family Empowerment (formerly Gardiner) Scholarship, Jordan, who is homeschooled, used his education savings account to pay for his training sessions with Williams.

Jordan can jump rope. He can vertically jump 36 inches. He has learned to stand when he rides his bike so he can generate more power when he peddles. He runs 35 minutes around his home in Ellenton, Florida every other day. He is making plans to bring his bicycle to Riley’s house, so they can ride their bikes together.

Jordan, who excels at ballroom dancing, was part of the group that made the trip to the Adirondacks.

“This has given him confidence to try new things and to challenge himself,” Colleen said.

And to keep trying. During the Adirondack trip, Jordan tried to complete an obstacle course on his bike. He was unsuccessful the first time, and he was unsuccessful the second time. He didn’t quit, though, and eventually he completed the course.

“He has really shown determination,” Colleen said, “something he never had.”

That’s all part of the plan Williams has for each of her clients. Knowing no two have the same challenges, she devises individual programs for each. “Outside the box” training, she called it. Williams developed a book where they can chart their progress during workouts and encourages them to write in a journal. She teaches them about proper nutrition and the importance of staying hydrated.

Williams, who graduated from Saint Francis University (Loretto, Pennsylvania) in 2011 with a dual degree in Elementary and Special Education, works as a learning support teacher at Community Day School in Sarasota.

In 2012, Williams began Kids in Motion, which morphed into the wellness program that is now NXT Generation.

“Watching the underdogs take on things we’ve preconceived them unable to do or limited what they could actually do and see them be able to do it with the correct support and guidance is one of my greatest joys in life, hands down,” Williams said.

Her goal is to push clients with special needs through the glass ceiling society has placed above them, to show the impossible is possible.

Like jumping rope for Sophia Slaughter.

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

From Ethiopia to No. 1 in his high school class to UF with the help of a private school scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

For Yonas Worku, obstacles are opportunities.

When he was 5, Yonas and his mother emigrated from Ethiopia to join his father in Las Vegas. They immediately had to overcome numerous hurdles.

“It was really rough,” he said. “The language barrier, the culture barrier, you can just imagine how difficult it was to assimilate into this culture. It was rough learning the language at first. Getting to know people, finding friends, that was a little tough for me, but it all worked out in the end.”

Thanks in large part to a quality education made possible by a private school scholarship for K-12 schoolchildren in Florida, managed by Step Up For Students.

As if Yonas wasn’t already facing enough challenges adapting to a new country, when he was in fourth grade his father left the family.

Bewildered and angry at first, Yonas said he grew to accept his father’s actions.

“I’m kind of glad that he did (leave) in the sense that I wouldn’t be here now,” said Yonas, 17. “It kind of motivated me to become the person I am today. Having that burden, it motivates you to be better. If I had everything handed to me, I don’t think this would be my life.”

Yonas with his mom, Zinash, after Yonas graduated No. 1 in his class from Bishop John Snyder High School in Jacksonville.

Suddenly, Zinash Tekleweld found herself a single mom trying to raise her son Yonas in a still unfamiliar country nearly 8,000 miles from her homeland. A year later, she and Yonas moved to Jacksonville, where she worked a minimum-wage job at a cotton candy factory.

Tekleweld learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up. She applied and was accepted. The scholarship enabled her to afford tuition to private schools that helped make him the person he is today.

The scholarship “really lifted the burden for our family and made life much easier,” Tekleweld said.

“Step Up was a big help,” Yonas said. “A very big help. We didn’t have any money. It was paycheck-to-paycheck.”

Yonas said he wanted to help his mother, but when he talked of getting a job, she told him to work on school.

“I realized that education was the most important thing in this country and that through it, Yonas can become a better individual,” said Tekleweld, who now works as a school janitor. “Education is the key to getting anything that he wants. I realized that it can open many doors for him in the future.”

Yonas finished middle school at Sacred Heart Catholic School, then attended Bishop John Snyder High School, where he graduated in June as the valedictorian. He took summer classes at the University of Florida. This August, he will begin working on his major – computer science. He is interested in a career in software development or cybersecurity.

Yonas was accepted to six colleges, including Georgia Tech and Boston College. He chose Florida because his college tuition would be covered with all the academic scholarships he has earned, including the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship.

Yonas had a decorated academic career at Bishop Snyder. In addition to graduating first in his class with a 4.44 grade-point average, he was president of the National Honor Society his senior year, as well as a member of the French, science, math, social studies and English honor societies. He received the school’s Christian Service Award for exemplary service to the community, the Senior Cardinal Award, and the Math Department Award.

“He’s the whole package,” said Kelly Brown, Bishop Snyder’s dean of academics and the school’s sponsor of the National Honor Society.

Brown also teaches AP Calculus. She said the other students wanted to be partners with Yonas on class projects because, well, they knew working with him would ensure a top grade, but also because he could break down the complicated material in a way they could understand.

“He’s a rare find,” Brown said. “He’s a very driven young man with high aspirations and goals. That often comes with a personality that is pretty intense, but not in his case.”

While Yonas earns all A’s, his personality is far from Type A. He is a hard worker who was challenged by Bishop Snyder’s demanding academics. Presented with the opportunity to talk about the struggles he and his mom encountered during their first few years in the United States or brag a little on his academic achievements during his valedictorian address, Yonas chose to talk about what he and his fellow graduates accomplished.

“This means the world to us,” he said of their diplomas.

“I was really happy to hear that Yonas graduated first from his class,” Tekleweld said. “I was really proud of him because I’ve seen how hard he has worked to reach this point. I remember crying about it because I was so happy.”

The emotional toll of his dad leaving, and the financial hardship left in its wake motivated Yonas to excel in school so he could receive the grades needed for the academic scholarships that will pay for his college education.

“That’s what got me here,” he said of his spot in the University of Florida’s incoming freshman class. “In the end it works out. Everything does work out.”

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

Private school scholarship ‘molded me into a better person’

By ROGER MOONEY

Lucas Kirschner came for the basketball. He stayed for the education.

The recent graduate of Miami Christian School enrolled there as an eighth grader with the help of a private school scholarship managed by Step Up for Students. The draw for him was Miami Christian’s highly regarded boys basketball program. The draw for his mom was the school’s academics.

At the time, Lucas had dreams of playing professional basketball. But after two seasons his playing time was scarce. Several of his friends on the team were leaving for a neighborhood high school, and Lucas seriously considered joining them.

His mom, Ocilia Diaz, told Lucas his friends had their reasons for leaving and he had plenty of reasons to stay, namely the education.

Woody Gentry, Miami Christian principal, told Lucas that just because basketball wasn’t working out as he hoped, he could work harder to earn more playing time.

Lucas Kirschner

“Grow through the experience, whether you’re playing or not,” Gentry recalled saying.

Eventually, Lucas decided to stay.

“I ended up staying because Miami Christian has a very good basketball team but also has a great educational system,” he said.

The teachers, Lucas said, care about the students. They provide support and hold them accountable.

“I didn’t want to leave that, because I felt if I left that I would have gone off the track,” he said.

Lucas, 17, is set to begin his freshman year at Miami Dade College, where he will study automotive engineering. The goal of playing in the NBA has been replaced by one of working as an engineer for a Formula One racing team.

“I love engineering,” he said. “I love working with cars.”

Lucas attended Miami Christian, because his mom felt he was going off the track at his neighborhood middle school. She wasn’t pleased with the students he was hanging out with or his conduct in class.

“It was just behavior,” Diaz said. “Clicking the pencil on the desk. Talking. Over talking. Getting up to sharpen the pencil. It got to the point in junior high where he was starting to make comments and laughing and becoming disruptive in class. Becoming the silly boy. Ha. Ha. Ha. It’s so funny, but it’s not funny anymore. The teachers get annoyed.”

Diaz was worried where this was heading. She and Lucas’ father, Holger Kirschner (they divorced when Lucas was 4), decided to send their son to a private school. Diaz learned of Miami Christian, located 20 minutes from their Miami home. The basketball program was certainly attractive. And so was the school’s faith-based education, academic reputation and small class sizes. The tuition was a concern – currently $10,000 per year for middle school and $10,500 for high school.

Diaz was told about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which allows parents to send their child to a school of their choice. She applied.

“When we were accepted, it was the best thing ever,” she said.

Lucas knew it was the right move.

“I was hanging out with the wrong people, skipping school a lot, not doing homework, not doing classwork. Just slacking off. Not caring. I had nobody to push me,” he said about his neighborhood school.

That changed at his new private school.

“I felt the environment around me change completely,” he said. “The environment changed me. The teachers changed me. It helped me get out of that state I was in in middle school.”

Lucas also found Principal Gentry.

Gentry realized quickly that this new student liked to feel needed, liked to be given tasks.

So, Gentry asked Lucas to help set up for school functions around campus. Lucas helped grill and serve hotdogs during school cookouts. He made Lucas the “cell phone captain,” meaning Lucas was charged with collecting his classmates’ cellphones before class and distributing them after class.

In that role, Gentry said, “He was phenomenal.”

Lucas was a mainstay on Project Plus, an afterschool program created by Gentry for campus projects. One was to make bulletin boards with plexiglass covers that can withstand the elements at the school’s open-air campus.

“He thrived with doing those kinds of things,” Gentry said. “When he had an assignment, a project, hands-on, felt a sense of ownership with it, that helped him a lot.”

His dream of playing in the NBA didn’t work out, but Lucas has his sights set on another competitive sport: Formula One racing.

When Lucas was a junior, his maternal grandfather passed away and he had a hard time dealing with his grief. Gentry noticed and invited Lucas to spend the day in his office. Gentry told Lucas to not worry about his schoolwork that day, just work through his feelings and that he was there if Lucas felt like talking.

“He made everything comfortable, comforting,” Gentry said.

On the day Lucas graduated from high school, Gentry gave him a hug and said, “You’re going to be something out there.”

Diaz, standing nearby, was filled with pride. The decision to send her son to Miami Christian and her son’s decision to stay accomplished everything she had ever hoped.

“They molded him,” Diaz said. “He has the thought of continuing to study and wanting something bigger for himself.”

As the years went by, Lucas, a 6-foot-3 guard/forward, learned there was more to high school than playing time on the basketball team. He has grown through the experience.

“I’m actually very glad I went there,” Lucas said. “It changed my life for the better. It molded me into something I actually wanted to become. It molded me into a better person. I can see my future better.”

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

‘This is the year my daughter learned to read’

Kaelani is overcoming dyslexia with the help of the Orton-Gillingham Approach and a Step Up scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

Kaelani Dix can read. You can’t imagine what that means to her mother unless you have a child with dyslexia.

“Oh my gosh,” Kaelani’s mom, Kimberly Caleb, said. “I’m so grateful.”

Kaelani, 10, just finished the third grade at Pace Brantley School in Longwood, Florida, a private school, with grades 1 through 12, that specializes in teaching children who need specialized attention. Kaelani attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two private school scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.

Caleb, who lives 40 minutes away in Orlando, found Pace Brantley when searching the internet for resources for kids with dyslexia in Central Florida. She learned while researching reading programs or services for students with special needs that Kaelani would benefit from a school that taught the Orton-Gillingham Approach. The Approach was developed in the 1930s to teach students with dyslexia how to read. It has been used at Pace Brantley for nearly 20 years.

Kaelani, who entered Pace Brantley as a first grader, began the Orton-Gillingham Approach when school began last August. By November, she was able to read “Put Me in the Zoo” by Robert Lopshire, as well as a few pages from her children’s bible.

“I remember people saying this year is a wash (for students) with everything in the pandemic,” Caleb said, “but this is the year my daughter learned to read.”

‘A significant commitment’

According to ortonacademy.org, the Orton-Gillingham Approach is “a direct, explicit, multisensory, structured, sequential, diagnostic, and prescriptive way to teach literacy when reading, writing, and spelling does not come easily to individuals, such as those with dyslexia.”

Kaelanie reading one of her favorite books.

Orton-Gillingham focuses on the connection between letters and sounds then builds on those connections. Some schools use the Wilson Language or the Barton Reading and Spelling System to teach reading to special needs students. Both programs are offshoots of the Orton-Gillingham Approach.

At Pace Brantley, students usually are in the third grade to enter the Orton-Gillingham Approach after spending the first and second grades prepping for it.

“There’s music involved,” Pace Brantley Principal Jennifer Foor said of the prep work. “There is a lot of imagery involved that are building that working memory that they may be struggling with to get them to move into Orton, because when you move into the Orton program, it requires a lot of memory and working memory. You have to be able to learn information and hold on to it and still be able to pull previously learned information.”

The Approach is a three-year program for the students. They meet in small groups (no more than four students) three or four times a week, 40 minutes at a time. If they haven’t mastered reading in those three years, they can take a fourth year.

“It’s a pretty significant commitment as far as time goes,” Foor said. “Obviously, if we dedicate that much time for our students, we’re saying it works.”

When talking about the Orton-Gillingham Approach, Pam Tapley, Pace Brantley’s head of school, offered Kaelani is the success story for the 2020-21 school year.

“She came to us with no foundation,” Tapley said. “The teacher started with all of the early reading skills, the phonemic awareness, letter and sound recognition, and this is a little girl who is now reading and as importantly, because we’ve seen the two correlations, she’s writing.”

‘You’re giving them life’

Kaelani was speech-delayed, but Caleb was unaware her daughter was dyslexic.

“When she got into school she struggled tremendously. Nothing was clicking. It was difficult,” she said.

Kaelani repeated pre-K. Testing revealed she had specific learning disabilities and, while not officially diagnosed, Caleb said her daughter displayed all the symptoms and criteria of dyslexia.

That’s what sent Caleb searching for the proper school, a search that led her to Pace Brantley.

Caleb spent 15 years as an elementary and middle school teacher at district schools. She understands the importance of reading. Plus, everyone in the family is an avid reader. Books abound in their home.

Kaelani always wanted to read. She would even take a book and pretend she was reading it. And, if it was a page that had been read to her enough times, Kaelani could act as if she was reading by reciting what she had heard over and over.

Caleb bought “Put Me in the Zoo” and wanted Kaelani to read it before school. And one morning she did.

“This wasn’t a passage she was practicing. These were brand new words she hadn’t read. She sat there and started reading it,” Caleb said.

It was an emotional moment for a mother.

“I was just overwhelmed,” she said. “I compare a teacher who can teach a child how to read like a doctor. You’re giving them life. You’re saving a life. Especially one who struggles.

“My daughter wanted to read so bad. She would pick up books and pretend to read. Now that she can make sense of those words, I can’t describe it. I was so worried. I didn’t know what was wrong. I didn’t know why she couldn’t do what other kids do.”

Now Kaelani can do what the other kids can do. She can read.

“OK,” Caleb said, “she’s ready now and she’s able to excel.”

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

MVP on the court, MVP in the classroom thanks to a private school scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

Praise Temple Christian Academy teacher Anna Langley found herself a little teary-eyed recently, while watching the seniors walk down the aisle during practice for the June 4 graduation ceremony.

Langley, who has taught at the school for three years, will miss all the seniors, including one who Langley admits held a special place in her class and at Praise Temple in general.

That would be Samantha Gulli, the salutatorian of the Class of 2021, who was vice president of the student council, captain and MVP of the volleyball team, a teacher’s aide, an actress in all the school plays and a volunteer in every activity and fundraiser held at the school during the last four years.

“I can’t imagine a classroom without her,” Langley said. “There are seniors who graduate and leave, but when there was one who was so involved in so many aspects of the school, it leaves a little bigger hole.”

Samantha Gulli graduated second in her class at
Praise Temple Christian Academy.

Oh, Samantha is not really leaving Praise Temple. She plans to enter cosmetology school to pursue her lifelong ambition of owning her own beauty salon, but she said she will continue her work as a teacher’s aide next year. She would love to help Langley, who coaches volleyball, as an assistant coach.

“I may be graduating, but I will still be there,” Samantha said.

Samantha, who lives in Clermont, Florida, began attending the K-12 Christian private school in nearby Groveland as a freshman. After graduating from a district middle school, Samantha wanted to attend a Christian high school.

“I wanted to learn more about the Bible,” Samantha said, “and I wasn’t going to learn about it at a (district) school.”

Samantha attended Praise Temple on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two private school scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.

“I wouldn’t be here without this scholarship,” Samantha said. “I really appreciate it. I’m really thankful and grateful for it.”

“The Step Up scholarship has been a blessing,” her mom, Michelle Gulli, said. “It gave her this opportunity.”

Samantha flourished in high school, both academically and socially.

When she arrived at Praise Temple, she was behind in math and English but worked during the school years and over the summers to catch up by her senior year. Her grades were high enough to rank her second in the graduating class.

“That took not only a lot of hard work but a lot of thorough work that had to be done well,” Langley said.

Said Gulli: “Samantha had to hustle, but she’s a hard worker.”

Gulli, who works at the school as a teacher’s aide, described her daughter as a “wallflower” before she entered Praise Temple.

“Always quiet and good,” she said. “But (in high school), she came out of her shell. That’s what I noticed. It really helped her blossom. I never thought she would be captain of a volleyball team or vice president of her high school.”

Samantha credited that to joining the volleyball team and to making friends with peers who share her Christian values.

“The volleyball team really helped me to open up, because it’s a very verbal sport,” she said. “I was forced to open up to be a good player, teammate, and that carried over to my schoolwork and how I interacted with other people.”

As for her high school friends, Samantha said, “The Christian atmosphere around me made it easier to fit in. It made me feel at home.”

Samantha and Sissy, her graduation present.

Samantha speaks freely about her faith. It’s a major part of her makeup. Perhaps that’s no surprise since she has a grandfather and great-grandfather who were involved in ministry.

Samantha’s faith and love for volleyball came together when she received the Christian Character Award after one season. The award was voted on by the opposing coaches.

“I liked that better than the trophy for coming in second in the state,” Gulli said. “I like that better than being named captain.”

It’s also of little surprise that Samantha wants a career as a hairstylist and to own a salon. Her mom is a hairstylist. She has an aunt and a grandfather who both owned salons.

“It’s in the family,” she said.

Samantha’s popularity at school stems from her leadership ability, her devotion to her faith (which she shares with the students in the lower grades) and her disposition, which can best be described as sunny.

“What stands out to me probably more than the academics is I don’t ever recall seeing her come in with an attitude,” Langley said. “She’s always here with a smile, encouraging other students. She’s always happy and it’s infectious to others.”

What Gulli wanted four years ago for her daughter was a faith-based education that would challenge her academically and prepare her for life beyond high school and a career. Samantha received that and more.

“I don’t think there was a day in her high school career that was wasted,” Langley said. “Every day she made the most of it and went above and beyond in whatever it was, whether it was academics or making her fellow peers happier or helping out with the teachers. Whatever it was, she made the most of it.”

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

New Florida law expands K-12 Scholarships by $200 million

More students eligible for private school and more

STAFF REPORT

Since Gov. Ron DeSantis put pen to paper on May 11 signing into law  the landmark education choice bill, much work has been underway at Step Up For Students preparing for the 2021-22 school year.

In case you missed it, the law is a $200 million expansion of the state’s K-12 scholarship programs. It opens up education choice to more families in Florida than ever before. Read more here.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the landmark education choice bill.

Billed as the largest expansion of education choice in Florida history, the new law merges the state’s two scholarship programs for students with unique abilities, McKay and Gardiner, in 2022, and combines them with the Family Empowerment Scholarship program.

One category of the Family Empowerment Scholarship will serve students with unique abilities and special needs while the other will continue to serve lower-income families.

The law leaves intact the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which some mistakenly call school vouchers and is funded by corporate tax donations, and the Hope Scholarship program for students who have experienced bullying at their district schools. More than 160,000 students across Florida participate in K-12 scholarship programs. The law is expected to add as many as 61,000 new students and cost about $200 million, according to a legislative analysis.

The law simplifies eligibility requirements by aligning qualifying income levels of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship with the Family Empowerment Scholarship. The two programs previously had different income requirements.

The legislation also provides greater convenience for families by placing management of the Family Empowerment program under nonprofit scholarship organizations, including Step Up For Students.

The new law allows more families than ever to be eligible for a scholarship. Read about it here.

Florida Legislature is normalizing, expanding access to education choice, according to Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. Read more about it here.

Listen to Tuthill’s podcast with State Senator Manny Diaz Jr., on the future of education choice in Florida. Listen here.

‘Who’s going to be the next villain?’ The story of one survivor of bullying

By ROGER MOONEY

Brendan Thompson remembers the day in the fourth grade when he was jumped by a pack of bullies in a school bathroom. He remembers how he fought back, and he remembers how futile it was, because he was outnumbered. He remembers how classmates watched and laughed as he absorbed the blows to his face that left him with a bloody cut near his eye and a split lip.

There are some days you never forget, even when more than a decade has passed.

Brendan Thompson graduated in May from Seminole State College with a degree in general studies.
He will continue his education at the University of Central Florida.

Thompson vividly remembers the reaction later that day by school administrators when confronted by his mother, who, you can imagine, was angry.

Her son, she was told, was big enough to defend himself.

Yes, Thompson was among the taller and heavier kids in his school. But Nikki Thompson didn’t raise her son to fight, and Brendan was the mellow type who made friends easily and was nicknamed the “Gentle Giant” by his mother.

Despite his size –and maybe because of it – Thomspon was a target. He was picked on in the lower grades for being pigeon-toed and later for the hump behind his neck, something, he said, that developed from years of walking with his head bowed in an attempt to blend in.

Thompson recently spoke freely of his experiences at the hands of bullies one morning while taking a break from teaching bible and math at Master’s Training Academy, a K-12 private Christian school in Apopka, Florida, which his mother opened five years ago. In the end, it would be a Step Up For Students scholarship that allowed him to attend a private high school where bullying from classmates was no longer an issue.

The bulling started in the first grade and continued through the eighth. Thompson attended four schools during that span, twice changing schools because was bullied.

“It was like a TV show,” he said. “Who’s going to be the next villain? That’s what it was like every single year.”

He is 23 and a recent graduate from Seminole State College with a degree in general studies. He will continue his education in the fall at the University of Central Florida, where he intends to study creative writing.

His plan is to produce movies and documentaries. He also wants to write books, including one on bullying. It will be about his experiences and his thoughts on how bullying is portrayed in movies and on TV.

“It needs to stop being normalized,” Thompson said. “Bullying has become normal, and it shouldn’t be normal, because the kids who are being bullied, they don’t feel normal. They feel alone. They feel suicidal. They feel empty inside, numb inside.”

Though he lived with his mother and two sisters while growing up and had other family members he could turn to, Thompson felt alone, as so many victims do. He would refuse to talk at home and stayed in his bedroom, where he listened to what his mom described as “violent music.”

Thompson said he often thought about running away from home. He had darker thoughts, too.

“I don’t really tell people this, but there were times when I did think to myself, ‘What if I just ended everything? What if I did end my life?’” he said. “Thank God I didn’t, but I did think about that. Those thoughts popped up a lot during middle school.”

What stopped him?

“I would be selfish, because it wouldn’t be me who was in pain now, it would be my family and those who loved me,” he said. “It would be selfish and the coward way out. I would hate for anyone to think I was a coward.”

For Thompson, Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students made all the difference. He used it to attend high school at Apopka Christian Academy, where he graduated in the spring of 2016. The bullying by students didn’t follow him there but he remained wary, alert for the next villain.

“Getting bullied, it was miserable,” he said. “There were nights that I would go home and feel terrible about myself. Prayer got me through a lot of stuff. Reading my bible got me through a lot of stuff.”

His renewed faith began to impact his family. Bible study became a regular part of the family’s week. His mother, Nikki Thompson, who had worked two jobs to support her family, felt the call to start her own faith-based private school.

“I wanted to help those who were in need,” she said.

So, she quit her jobs and opened Master’s Academy in 2016. It has become a haven for children who were bullied at previous schools. That’s by design, Nikki Thompson said. Watching her son suffer the abuse of classmates and listening to school administrators who didn’t seem interested in stopping it leaves a scar on a mother.

“It was hard knowing I had to leave my child (in a school) where he was being bullied,” she said. “He was being hurt. He wasn’t comfortable. He didn’t feel right.”

Today, Florida schoolchildren have more options when they become a victim of bullying. Students in public school who are bullied can benefit from the Hope Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students. Hope was created in 2018 by the Florida Legislature to address the staggering number of schoolchildren who are bullied each year. It provides families with financial assistance to send a child who suffers from a qualifying incident at a public school to an eligible private school or help pay for transportation to a public school in another district.

Back when Brendan Thompson was a student, his only option to escape his bullies was financially qualifying for the tax-credit scholarship.  For the 2020-21 school year, 468 students are using Hope.

Given her son’s experiences, it’s no surprise that Nikki Thompson is a fan of the Hope Scholarship which opens up a way for K-12 students in Florida to find a learning environment away from their tormentors and feel safer.

“I think it’s awesome,” she said. “There’s bullying and you have parents who can’t afford a private school education and those scholarships, they do a lot. They help a lot of families out.

“Our No. 1 priority is taking care of our students. The moment they walk through the door they become my child and I will protect them by any means necessary.”

The pain Brendan endured from school bullies and his commitment to his faith motivated his mother, Nikki, to open a private school.

The students at Master’s Academy are drawn to Brendan Thompson, who at 6-foot, 290 pounds, remains a gentle giant. Especially to those who were bullied at a previous school. He knows their pain. He understands.

“He’s a role model for kids who have been bullied,” his mom said.

While the incidents took him to dark and painful places, Thompson is an example of a bullying victim who has healed. He knows that many victims still suffer from the experience into adulthood. Not him, he said.

“No,” he said. “I try not to focus on what others say about me, but just focus on the positive things about myself.”

Thompson said being a victim of bullying helped him develop a thick skin against taunts and taught him to stick up for himself.

He recalled an incident before physical education class in the eighth grade when he noticed three bullies were closing in on him. Thompson said he made the first move, asking if they “wanted to go?” They backed down. A classmate who witnessed the incident called Thompson a superhero.

Thomspon didn’t think he was. He just knew if he didn’t act then, he would remain a victim, and he was tired of being a victim. He also knows not every victim can stand up for themselves.

That’s why he wants to write a book about his experiences. While in college, he wrote research papers and spoke about it during speech class, using statistics of the many victims who chose suicide to make his point.

While Thompson has spoken to victims, he also spoke with aggressors. Several of his former classmates who bullied him have reached out on Facebook or by email to express their sorrow for how they acted and to explain why they did. Some talked about being abused at home and turned to bullying as an outlet for their pain.

Thompson listened.

“Did it change the way I feel? No,” he said. “But it’s better than no apology, I guess.”

If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or are in emotional distress, please speak to someone today. Help is available. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. It is available 24/7.

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

Zoe’s future looks bright thanks to private school scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

Zoe Elverillo’s mother dropped out of school in the eighth grade. So did Zoe’s brother. Zoe, however, has blazed a different path.

Zoe will graduate this spring from the demanding International Baccalaureate program at Carrollwood Day School in Tampa with a 4.0 grade point average. Unlike anyone in her family before her, she will head to Louisiana State University in the fall, where she plans to study sports medicine.

After that?

“I definitely see myself owning my own business,” Zoe, 18, said. “I definitely want to be my own boss. I see myself having my own therapy center.”

This is exactly what Zoe’s mom, Pamala Moreau, wanted for her daughter when she decided to send her to a private school – a bright future. A single mother, Moreau was able to do that with a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.

Education Choice Student Zoe Elverillo
Zoe Elverillo graduated from the demanding IB program at Tampa’s Carrollwood Day School
and will begin classes in the fall at LSU.

The scholarship covers about a third of the yearly tuition at the prestigious private school. Carrollwood, a pre-K to 12 private school near the family’s home, has a network of donors who cover the rest. That enables Zoe and her younger sister, Nya, 15, to receive an education their mother could otherwise never afford.

“I’m so thankful and so grateful, and look at where Zoe is today,” Moreau said. “She would not be where she is today if she did not have the Step Up scholarship and go to that school.”

Zoe is a confident and determined student. She approached her classes in the IB program with the same competitive spirit she displays while playing first base for one of the Tampa Bay area’s top softball travel teams.

“It’s definitely a challenging school. They put you next to challenging students,” Zoe said. “It’s pretty competitive here. I adopted well to it.”

Drew Guarino, Carrollwood’s senior associate director of college counseling, said Zoe’s commitment to her education was evident during the first semester of her senior year. That’s a time when seniors tend to slack off a little, Guarino said. But Zoe had her best semester of her high school career, earning five A’s and one B.

“She takes her academics seriously,” Guarino said.

Zoe had little choice when it comes to that. Her mom wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I definitely don’t want them to follow in my shoes, that’s for sure,” Moreau said.

Moreau was 12 when she dropped out of school. She washed dishes. She checked coats at a hotel. By the age of 15, she was living on her own. As an adult, Moreau found work in the hospitality industry while raising her children.

“Not an easy life,” she said, “but I was happy.”

Moreau, who now works as an office manager, did the best she could with an eighth-grade education, but she wanted so much more for her daughters.

“Absolutely,” she said. “I want them to be able to take care of themselves. I don’t want them to have to rely on anybody for anything, ever. I want them to be able to be successful on their own. That’s very important. School, that was a big priority.”

Moreau wanted her daughters to attend Carrollwood because she felt the school’s IB program would prepare them for college.

Education Choice Student
Pamala Moreau and her daughter, Zoe.

“(Zoe) blossomed and got stronger as the curriculum became more challenging to the point where I’m confident she will be successful once she gets off to college because of all the hard work she’s put in over the last few years,” Guarino said.

In addition to LSU, Zoe was accepted at Florida Atlantic University, Pace University, Coastal Carolina University, James Madison University and the University of North Florida. She settled on LSU because she liked the campus culture and school spirit and because of the sports medicine program.

Zoe took Sports and Exercise Health Science as a junior. She shadowed Carrollwood’s athletic trainer during football season and interned at a local chiropractor’s office.

“Sports medicine has always been a big interest for me,” she said. “I never had a passion for anything other than that.”

Moreau regrets not continuing her education. She hears her friends talk about their proms and going to college and attending class reunions. She didn’t want her daughters to miss out on those experiences. But mostly, Moreau didn’t want her daughters to miss out on what they can achieve with a solid education.

“I’ve always felt education was No. 1 over everything,” Zoe said. “I always wanted to prove it to myself. I took it upon myself and this is a big accomplishment to me.”

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

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