Category Archives for Student Spotlights

Choice scholarship saved life of bullying victim


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was an outcast,” Hannah said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In her first two weeks, the unthinkable happened.

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

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

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

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

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

She’s also thinking about college and an apartment.

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

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

Her secret? She uses it as motivation now.

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

About First Assembly Christian Academy

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

Jeff Barlis can be reached at

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It helps that he is a voracious reader.

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

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

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

Abby described the products as a “sugar scrub.”

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

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

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

Kelli Alexander marveled at the progress her children have made.

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

Geoff Fox can be reached at




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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She eventually wants to earn a master’s degree.

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

Lisa A. Davis can be reached at


School choice scholarship was her ticket out of extreme poverty


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

Maloni Lewis knows it. She’s lived it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maloni would be different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My secret angel,” Renée said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much of her success is owed to Seven Rivers.

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

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

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

Maloni knows. She’s lived it.

About Seven Rivers Christian School

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

Reach Jeff Barlis at 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Masters Preparatory Christian Academy

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

Jeff Barlis can be reached at

From bullying victim to valedictorian

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angela knew where Jasmine was headed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reach Jeff Barlis at


School choice scholarship ‘saved’ bullying victim


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

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

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

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

“It was chaos,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valentin begged his mother to send him back to Nicaragua.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I felt complete,” Valentin said.

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

“I was speechless,” Valentin said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About La Progresiva Presbyterian School

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

Jeff Barlis can be reached at

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

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

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

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

Starting over wasn’t easy, either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, everything changed.

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

“That made all the difference,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Rabbi Alexander S. Gross Hebrew Academy

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

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

Nia Nunez-Brady can be reached at


Scholarship fosters better relationship between school and adoptive brothers

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


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

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

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

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

New mom Melissa Merritt cried when she saw the invitation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was extremely stressful,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Solid Rock Christian Academy

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

Jeff Barlis can be reached at

Scholarship gives strength to bullied student


Jacob Monastra came home from school in tears every day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortunately for Jacob, help came from a familiar source.

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

The results were immediate and stunning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reach David Hudson Tuthill at



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