By JEFF BARLIS
Last fall, as she started her senior year in high school, IvonD’liz Chernoff was full of love and gratitude. She was excelling in school. She had overcome years of ridicule. She was headed for college.
Tracking a monster hurricane was the last thing on her mind.
But there it was. Maria. Tearing through her beloved Puerto Rico.
“I couldn’t look away,” IvonD’liz recounted. “Houses with roofs coming off, water coming in from the ocean. It was terrifying … heartbreaking. The worst part was the aftermath, seeing people suffering, kids crying because they don’t have a home or food or because their dolls are gone with the storm.”
I have to do something, she thought.
So she did. The girl who failed third grade was now student body president. The girl rescued by a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students now found the strength to rescue others.
I can move mountains, she thought.
IvonD’liz, also known as Ivon or Ivy, was born in Orlando. But in her heart, she’s Puerto Rican. She moved to the U.S. territory when she was three months old, and didn’t return to central Florida, to live with her grandparents, until she was 5. “I’m a pure Latina,” she said with an accent, a broad smile and a little shimmy that sent her tight, black curls into a dance. “My whole family shares that Puerto Rican spice.”
Florida turned out to be turbulent. When Ivon began attending her neighborhood kindergarten, she didn’t know English. She soon became comfortable speaking it. But reading?
“Reading was really difficult,” she said, “especially when you had to stand up. I would stutter. The kids who knew English would laugh.”
Ivon felt the sting of classmates calling her dumb. She cried a lot.
When her mom got married a few years later, she took Ivon and her two sisters from their grandparents’ home and moved south to Poinciana. In school, Ivon continued to struggle. She was bullied by a boy who picked on her incessantly. She got mostly F’s and D’s. She didn’t have many friends.
“I didn’t feel accepted,” she said.
After a falling out with her mother, Ivon and her two sisters moved back to Orlando to live with their grandparents. Despite financial hardships, it was peaceful and stable. Ivon’s grades rebounded.
As a freshman at her neighborhood high school, Ivon did well and was happy. But she told her grandmother, Luz Ruiz, she wanted to leave because the classes were so large.
“I didn’t like the fact that when I didn’t understand anything, they couldn’t slow it down for me,” she said. “I wanted to go somewhere where I could have a one-on-one conversation with a teacher.”
Enter Raising Knowledge Academy. Ivon and her grandmother toured the school and met the principal, a strong, warm-hearted woman named Ariam Cotto. It was too late to get a Step Up scholarship, Ms. Cotto explained. But when she saw Ivon’s enthusiasm for the school, she worked out an affordable payment plan with Ivon’s grandmother, who worked in housekeeping at Disney.
“She saw something in me,” Ivon said. “I was so happy I was crying when we left.”
It took time for Ivon to find her groove. But with a Step Up scholarship in place for her 11th grade year, the self-admitted goofy kid started taking school more seriously. In her senior year, she was elected student body president.
Then Maria happened.
The destruction devastated Ivon. But it also spurred her to action.
She immediately went to Cotto, and they came up with a plan.
It was simple at first. Ivon and some students stood at the busy intersection near the school with signs for hurricane relief, waving a Puerto Rican flag and selling water bottles. The early donations were encouraging. The first time someone handed Ivon $40 was stunning. But she was thinking bigger.
While Cotto called local officials, Ivon galvanized the entire school community – students, parents, their churches. It took weeks to plan and even longer to coordinate with a church in Puerto Rico, but the refocused efforts paid off.
Donations streamed in – food, supplies, aid kits and money ($1,000 in one day gave everyone shivers of empowered delight). Students filled bags and boxes with supplies for women, men, children and babies.
“She raised more than $7,000 and another $5,000 in food and clothing,” Mrs. Cotto said, crediting Ivon as the driving force. “She’s a wonderful leader.”
Ivon accumulated 120 volunteer hours in two months. At graduation, the school gave her its Citizenship Award.
She finished with a 3.5 GPA. She was also accepted to Adventist University of Health Sciences, where she plans to become a pediatric cancer nurse.
Ivon’s nursing aspirations began five years ago, when she learned from post-operation hospital nurses how to care for her grandparents at home. She cries happily at the thought of how much they’ve done for her.
Grandma couldn’t be prouder to see how Ivon has grown. She credits Raising Knowledge Academy. “There were moments when Ivon fell down,” she said, “and they helped her get back up.”
She’s well on her way to paying it forward.
About Raising Knowledge Academy
Opened in 2015, the non-denominational non-profit had 92 K-12 students last year, including 46 on Step Up scholarships. The school uses Alpha and Omega Publications’ Horizons and Ignitia curriculums, which allow students to customize elective learning in addition to five core subjects. It offers advanced classes and dual enrollment through Valencia College. Its teachers are state certified, class sizes are between 8-10 students, and the school administers NWEA’s Measures of Academic Performance (MAP) test. Tuition is $6,100.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at email@example.com.
By JEFF BARLIS
The day after Maria Corrales’ tear-soaked graduation ceremony from St. Brendan High School, her mother, Carmen Urquijo, still searched for perspective.
“I have no words,” said Urquijo of her oldest daughter’s path from Cuba to Miami, a four-year journey that saw a girl who didn’t speak any English transform into a college-bound honors student.
A moment later the words spilled forth.
“Proud, grateful, full of joy that she was able to achieve so much,” Carmen said in Spanish. As Maria translated, a slight blush came over her golden skin.
Maria’s journey is a testament to perseverance and opportunity. St. Brendan became a second home, a refuge and a springboard to the American dream. But Maria’s family wouldn’t have been able to afford tuition had it not been for the Step Up For Students scholarship that helps lower-income families.
The journey began in the hilly town of Santa Clara, Cuba. Maria was one of the top students in her middle school, but knew from her parents that studies were no guarantee of success in Cuba. Her mom was a doctor, but the profession paid very little. Her father, Fabio Corrales, studied to be an electrician but ended up a businessman who worked with artisans.
The family was comfortable, but a future in Florida looked far brighter.
Maria, then 15, said it was difficult leaving friends, relatives, the family home and her boyfriend. But once she and her sister, Mariangel, then 11, got settled into school, they realized English and assimilating were ever harder. There were a lot of tears.
“I thought I was coming to Disney,” Maria said. “But it was tough.”
While Mariangel went to the neighborhood middle school, the family’s Catholic faith led Maria to St. Brendan (Mariangel now attends St. Brendan and is happy and thriving). Even with the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up, and financial aid from the school, money was tight. Carmen and Fabio had to make do with low-paying jobs and couldn’t afford a car.
The city bus Maria took every morning was cold and depressing. No one talked. Everyone looked tired. She was typically among the first to arrive to a quiet, lonely campus.
“Mornings were very hard,” she said, “because I knew I had a whole day of not understanding anything. I had to pay attention because I had to get something out of the class. It felt like I wasn’t in the right place.”
Normally a chatterbox, Maria hardly spoke her freshman year. She was embarrassed. She doubted herself and the decision to move. The girl who got all A’s in Cuba received a D in English in the first quarter.
But she had an angel at St. Brendan.
Tayra Ichino ran the English lab after school three days a week. Maria attended every one, feeling relief as she entered the room. There, Ms. Ichino would translate, explain assignments, and absorb any doubts and fears with relentless encouragement.
Maria was such a positive, hard-working student, Ichino said, it felt good to help her. By third quarter of freshman year, she was making all A’s. By year’s end, she was accepted into the school’s STEM academy.
“That shows how much studying and reviewing she was doing, because it’s not just sitting with me,” Ichino said. “She had to go home and study twice as hard as any student who already had the language.”
That summer, Maria’s progress with English accelerated even more. She spent seven weeks as a camp counselor for 8-year-old girls where there was no getting around the language barrier. The girls bluntly asked her why she spoke so strangely. The ones who spoke Spanish helped her.
“It helped me come out of my shell,” Maria said. “After camp, I said, ‘OK, I can speak.’ ”
The embarrassment gone, Maria set about conquering St. Brendan. The student body seemed larger as she made more English-speaking friends. She took harder classes and thrived.
“She just completely turned it on,” said guidance counselor Carlos Nuñez.
Now a graduate, Maria’s accomplishments are staggering: English Honor Society (“which is amazing,” Nuñez said, “because she couldn’t even put a sentence together when she first started”), National Honor Society, Math Honor Society, Science Honor Society, Social Sciences Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society, varsity swimming, president of the STEM Academy, and unanimous winner of the Archbishop’s Catholic Leadership award.
“This girl is remarkable,” said St. Brendan principal Jose Rodelgo-Bueno. “We were worried when we gave her admission, but she has better grades than people who were born here.”
Maria was accepted into the honors program at Florida International University, where she will study civil engineering. She wants to own a firm someday and build bridges, buildings and expressways.
“The sky’s the limit and I can accomplish anything,” she said. “I learned that at St. Brendan.”
About Saint Brendan High School
Originally a seminary high school in 1959, St. Brendan went co-ed after an enrollment decline and re-opened with its present name in 1975. Today’s student body is about 70 percent female and 98 percent Hispanic. Part of the Archdiocese of Miami, the school sits on 33 acres that are shared with the seminary. There are 1,187 9-12th graders, including 284 on Step Up scholarships. The school has an academies program similar to college majors, in which freshmen apply to one of four academies – law/business, medical, engineering, and fine arts. More than half of the teachers hold advanced degrees. The school administers the SAT and ACT annually. Tuition is $10,250 a year with financial aid available to qualified families.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By DAVID HUDSON TUTHILL
Her name means “Brave Warrior” in Spanish.
That might not conjure up the image of a 6-year-old girl with blonde hair, glasses and a smile so bright she became the first person with Down syndrome to become a main model for a major fashion brand.
But, Valentina Guerrero always defies expectations.
The oldest child of Cecilia Elizalde and Juan Fernando Guerrero, Valentina was born Sept. 16, 2011. Her parents didn’t learn Valentina had Down syndrome until after her birth. Each year, roughly 6,000 children in the U.S. are born with the genetic condition according to the Centers for Disease Control.
A Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs has helped Valentina shatter incorrect assumptions many people make about people with Down syndrome. Step Up For Students helps manage the scholarship.
“I realized how incredible individuals with Down syndrome are,” Elizalde said. “They’re so evolved on a spiritual level, and we have so much to learn from them. But we don’t hear enough of that. We hear outdated comments about their potential. I wanted to help change that perception.”
The family, including younger brother Oliver, 3, lives in Miami. Other family members remain in their native Ecuador.
Valentina was a few months old when her parents realized some of the challenges she could face. They soon had her working with occupational, physical and speech therapists.
Adriana Tilley, an occupational therapist with 33 years of experience, has been working with Valentina since she was a baby. Tilley says Elizalde and Guerrero are deeply involved with their daughter’s care, which has had a huge influence on her development. The Gardiner Scholarship helps pay for the care.
“The parents have been incredible and a huge member of the team,” Tilley says. “Valentina is like any other kid, with some limitations. But, we all have limitations.”
Tilley’s six years of work with Valentina have helped the child make tremendous strides in her personality. She constantly is asking how other people are feeling. Tilley marvels at the young woman she’s helped nurture over the past six years.
“She’s met all her milestones and is doing great,” Tilley says. “Now she is learning how to do everything by herself. I’ve loved working with her and learning from her family.”
Even as a baby, Valentina began shattering stereotypes.
She was 9 months old when she began taking the modeling world by storm. Family connections led her to European fashion designer Dolores Cortés. By 2013, she was the main model for the company’s children collection DC Kids USA 2013. In the ensuing years, Valentina has been featured in a plethora of media outlets, including People Magazine, Down Syndrome World and MTV Tres. She also has modeled for brands such as Walmart, GAP, Toys R Us and Carter’s, the children’s clothing company.
Her accomplishments resonated as far away as her family’s native Ecuador – to the extent that the country’s former vice president, Lenin Moreno, wrote Valentina a letter, calling her an inspiration. Moreno is now Ecuador’s President.
“We didn’t take the fame too seriously,” says Elizalde, a former television producer, consultant and music show host on the Spanish-language PBS station V-me. “I saw it as a platform for us to communicate an important message. It was a little hectic having to go from therapies to having cameras all over. It was kind of surreal.”
Social media has played a major role in Valentina’s fame. Thanks to her mother, there are countless photos and videos across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, documenting her life and various activities.
Elizalde also recently began a Spanish language parenting channel on YouTube. She hopes to pass on to other families some of the techniques and therapies that have most helped her family.
She is a firm believer in the adage that it takes a village to raise a child such as Valentina, which is why the family feels so fortunate to be able to choose the right educational path for her.
Valentina enrolled in a three-year pre-K class at Morningside K-8 Academy in Miami. By her third year, she was in class with over 20 kids, one teacher, and an aid. Despite the class size, and with Valentina the only child in class with Down syndrome, the school was largely successful in meeting her needs. When Kindergarten rolled around however, the family toured different school options.
Elizalde was worried about finding the right setting to meet Valentina’s needs. A friend recommended the family check out Von Wedel Montessori School in Miami. As soon as the family walked in, they knew they had found the perfect place for Valentina and her brother, Oliver.
At Von Wedel, the family creates an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, in conjunction with the principal, teachers and with input from Tilley. Valentina thrives in that setting, and Elizalde loves the philosophy of Montessori – to allow children to develop at their own unique pace, to work independently, and embrace the joy of self-discovery.
“None of her peers notice her disability,” Elizalde says. “They acknowledge that we are all different. It’s a really beautiful environment for her.”
A typical week for Valentina is full of activities. On Monday, there’s swimming lessons after school lets out at 3 p.m. She has occupational and speech therapies on Tuesday. On Wednesday, it’s ballet class. By Thursday, she’s back in the pool. Friday is usually a day to relax and spend time with some of her friends or fit in a modeling gig. Valentina loves going to the playground and to different museums. There is also a standing weekly Friday night dinner with family.
Valentina says she wants to be a chef when she grows up. She likes to play with her kitchen set. Her mother sees a different path, however. She thinks Valentina is a natural teacher.
Nearly every day at home, Valentina lines up her stuffed animals and reads to them and leads them in a class. The process goes on for a couple hours. Her younger brother Oliver is the only non-stuffed attendee, and she has helped him learn to speak English.
Six years old and with a life so fast paced, it’s hard to imagine the higher levels Valentina Guerrero will reach. With the help of her school, the boundless energy of her mother, and their family’s mission to spread positivity about individuals with Down syndrome, her capacity is endless.
“She’s a warrior,” Elizalde says. “When she has a goal, she fights for it and achieves it.”
Visit Cecilia Elizalde’s YouTube Channel.
David Hudson Tuthill can be reached at email@example.com.
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.”
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.
“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.
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 email@example.com.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 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.
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 email@example.com.
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.
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.
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
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.”
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 email@example.com.
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.