Category Archives for Student Spotlights

Young readers learn value of collaboration as friends help a skunk find his stink

By ROGER MOONEY

It’s a sad day for a skunk who loses his stink, especially when the skunk is the sheriff, and his stink is his way of keeping the locals in line.

Ah, but that is the plight of Señor Olor.

The coauthors hope this is the first in a series of books that teach social emotional learning lessons to children pre-K to second grade.

When Bandido the raccoon is seen robbing the grocery store, the sheriff arrives to save the day.

“Put your paws up, or I’ll spray,” shouts the sheriff.

Bring it on, says Bandido.

The sheriff spins, raises his tail and …

¡Nada!

“What’s wrong, Señor? Cat got your stink?” shouts Bandido, as he makes off with his ill-gotten booty.

So begins the tale of Señor Olor, the hero of “The Skunk Who Lost His Stink.”

Published in late-December of 2018, the children’s book aimed at readers pre-K-to-second grade, was coauthored by Jessica Sergiacomi and Jacquelyn Covert, both 32.

Sergiacomi taught first grade at Miami Shores Presbyterian Church School, a K-5 school that accepts Step Up For Students scholarships. (Beginning in August, Sergiacomi will teach third grade at Miami Country Day School in Miami Shores.) She received the Exceptional Teacher Award in February at the Rising Stars Event, hosted by Step Up.

“She’s so creative,” said Emily Ashworth, whose son Wesley is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum and attends Miami Shores Presbyterian on a Gardiner Scholarship, administered by Step Up.

So is Covert, who attended The Benjamin School in Palm Beach and is now a Realtor living with her family in Charleston, S.C.

The two became friends in 2005 during move-in day of their freshman year at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.

They began writing books together during their junior year and have written close to 15. All are children’s books with a strong message.

“The Skunk Who Lost His Stink” is the first to be self-published.

The idea, Sergiacomi said, came from her dad.

“It was a few years ago, and my dad said, ‘Baby skunks don’t spray.’ I thought, ‘Oh, that would be a cool title, ‘The Skunk Who Lost His Stink,’ and it went from there,” Sergiacomi said.

It took them an hour to write the first draft.

“We cracked up the whole time,” Covert said.

That’s because they mix humor with a storyline of collaboration.

“Having friends who help. Having friends by your side,” Sergiacomi said.

Ivanna the Iguana, Aramis Dillo the armadillo, and Quill the porcupine join Señor Olor as he journeys to meet the wise grey wolf.

They believe wise grey wolf will help the sheriff find his stink.

Spoiler alert: She does.

She suddenly howls and scares the, um, stink out of the sheriff.

The coauthors: Jackie Covert and Jessica Sergiacomi

That part causes quite the stir when Sergiacomi and Covert read their book to children at schools and libraries.

“We do get a lot of giggles,” Covert said.

The children howl along with the wise grey wolf, and Sergiacomi, dressed in a skunk costume she bought on Amazon, pretends to find her stink.

“This is why (Sergiacomi is) so great,” Ashworth said. “She really gets into the minds of these kids and figures them out. It’s the perfect lower-elementary school level humor, and they think it’s hilarious.”

But there is more to “The Skunk Who Lost His Stink” than some potty humor.

Sergiacomi wants to learn Spanish, so she and Covert sprinkled Spanish words throughout the book.

Señor Olor translates to Mr. Stink.

The Bandido (bandit) robs La Basura (the trash), which is the local grocery store. The characters live in El Pueblo de Animales (The Village of the Animals).

To give their young female readers a strong female character, the coauthors made the wise grey wolf a female.

There is also a social emotional learning (SEL) theme to the book. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning defines social emotional learning as the process where students learn how to manage and understand emotions, act responsibly, maintain positive relationships, achieve goals and display empathy.

Patricia Handly, the former curriculum director at Miami Shores Presbyterian, taught Sergiacomi how to teach social emotional learning.

“It’s really the key,” Sergiacomi said. “It’s a big part of my motivation for teaching. I feel very passionate about SEL, and I incorporate it in my daily lessons. I am the teacher I am today because of (Handly).”

Sergiacomi dresses like the hero of her book when visiting schools and libraries for readings.

While it took Sergiacomi and Covert an hour to write the story, it took them nearly four years to get it published. The biggest piece was finding an illustrator. They used Richard Kenyon, Sergiacomi’s friend from elementary school.

The two authors are already working on a sequel with an anti-violence theme.

“We’ll find out the raccoon is not so bad at all,” Sergiacomi said. “He’s stealing food to feed his cousins. Everyone has a little good in them. He’s trying to help his friends.”

There is talk of a prequel, a story of how Señor Olor became sheriff. If you pay close attention to the illustrations on the first page of the text, you’ll notice photos hanging on the wall of Señor Olor’s home of the sheriffs in his family. One is a female.

Señora Olor?

“These are just ideas floating around,” Sergiacomi said.

The coauthors want to continue this series before moving on to some of their other unpublished works.

“It’s a start,” Sergiacomi said. “The goal is to have a whole bunch of these books with social emotional learning themes.”

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

A science project and a hit movie has this scholar reaching for the stars

By ROGER MOONEY

PENSACOLA, Fla. – Zanaya Chase wants to be a fashion designer. Or a scientist.

Or, a fashion designer and scientist.

“I want to make products that can better this world,” she said.

For as long as she can remember, Zanaya wanted to design outfits that are mall-hip or red carpet-chic. Lately, she’s thought of another avenue for her creativity: spacesuits. Functional and stylish.

“If a lady wants to go into space and she wants to look good, I got something for her,” said Zanaya, 12, a sixth-grader at the Dixon School of Arts & Sciences in Pensacola.

“Why not?” asked her mother, Zoila Davis, who is thrilled to hear her daughter talk confidently about her future.

The science project at nearby Carpenter Creek has opened a new world for Dixon students Zanaya Chase, Ty’Shawn Jenkins and Jayla Brown

“I always tell her, ‘You do what makes you happy. Do what you like and what interests you and not somebody else,’” Davis said. “Just do something productive. That’s all I ask.”

Getting Zanaya to this point was not easy. It took three schools, one hit motion picture, her inclusion in a school science project and a chance encounter with an African-American female scientist at NASA.

“It’s turned out wonderful, just as we hoped it would,” said Margo Long, Zanaya’s aunt and the parent liaison at the Dixon School.

Expanding minds

It was former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, “The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of bigger ideas, never returns to its original size.

Dixon School principal Donna Curry embraces that concept.

Curry believes there is a switch inside each student that once flipped, unleashes unlimited potential.

She sees the Dixon School as a launching pad of possibilities for her students, nearly all of whom come from lower-income households and attend the K-8 private school with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students.

Dixon principal Donna Curry

“Many of our children have lost hope (because of their economic situation),” Curry said. “They don’t see themselves going anywhere or doing anything other than what they see (on the streets). So to turn that light on and for them to say, ‘I want to be an engineer,’ or ‘I want to be a scientist,’ or ‘I want to be a fashion designer,’ or ‘I want to be a chef,’ and know that the light is on, we found the switch.”

For Zanaya, who has a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, flipping that switch came in steps, the first of which was when Davis enrolled her daughter in the Dixon School.

Finding the switch

Zanaya attended her neighborhood school for two years and passed her classes, but said she didn’t feel as if she was learning anything. She attended a private school in third grade but didn’t think it was a good fit.

Life away from school during that time wasn’t easy. Her parents had starts and stops trying to make it as a family, and Zanaya spent time with her father in Miami and her mother in Pensacola.

Long noticed her niece never seemed happy.

“You could tell she had a lot of heaviness on her,” Long said. “She was in a dark place.”

Zanaya, who lives with her mom just north of Pensacola, was going into the fourth grade when her aunt joined the Dixon staff. Zanaya, enticed by the school that emphasis art and science and is heavy on project-based learning, quickly followed.

The art side of Dixon appealed to Zanaya. Davis said her daughter would spend hours cutting construction paper and, using her imagination, made things she wanted, like a laptop or a cell phone.

“She is very, very creative,” Davis said.

The move “Hidden Figures,” with its strong African-American female characters, had an impact on Zanaya.

Step Two occurred when Long took Zanaya to see the movie, “Hidden Figures,” a film about a trio of African-American female mathematicians and engineers who worked at NASA and played a pivotal role during the early 1960s when John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth.

“That actually inspired me,” Zanaya said.

Step Three happened in 2017 when Curry allowed Zanaya to join Jayla Brown and Ty’Shawn Jenkins, Dixon students who are a grade ahead of Zanaya, in a science project that required them to test water samples at Carpenter Creek, measure the width and depth of the creek and interview fisherman to determine which fish swim there.

Their findings earned them the status of “citizen scientist” and landed them a spot on the exhibition floor at the American Geophysical Union, held that December in New Orleans.

According to the organization’s website, the conference is “the largest worldwide conference in the geophysical sciences, attracting more than 22,000 Earth and space scientists, educators, students, and other leaders.”

For Zanaya, the switch was fully flipped at the convention when she met a NASA scientist.

“When I saw her, I said, ‘Oh my gosh. She’s a lady, and she’s African-American,’” Zanaya said. “I do want to learn about science and outer space. I always wonder if there is more than this universe.”

Hope for the future

Working alongside Jayla and Ty’Shawn in the mud at the creek served as motivation for Zanaya.

Dixon science teacher Michaela Norman, Jayla, Elizabeth Eubanks (who coordinates the science project), Ty’Shawn, Zanaya and Margo Long at Step Up’s Rising Star event in February.

Phase II of their Carpenter Creek project required them to identify the insects that are part of the food chain. Once again, they were invited to the American Geophysical Union conference, held December 2018 in Washington D.C.

The trio have begun work on Phase III, which requires them to develop their own questions about life at the creek and research the answers. A trip to the America Geophysical Union conference this December in San Francisco rides on this phase.

Both Ty’Shawn and Jayla, who attend Dixon on Florida Tax Credit scholarships, are excellent students, and both are excited about their future.

Everyone who knows Jayla, 12, tells her she would be a perfect fit as a criminal profiler at the CIA. She agrees. She enjoys watching crime shows, and she describes herself as the quiet observer in class.

“I like to get in people’s head and figure out why they do the things they do,” she said.

So, a future with the CIA?

“One day,” she said.

For Ty’Shawn, also 12, it might be a life studying living things.

“I really want to start learning what insects and other animals do to our world, our lives,” he said.

Great Expectations

Long, who came to Dixon after a career in law enforcement that included stints as a police officer and a prison guard working death row, is excited to work with students who have high expectations for their futures.

“It is amazing that for all of the negative that is on TV that these children still have the hope and the dream,” she said. “As far as they’re concerned, it is possible. No one has taken that innocence away from them or dulled that possibility that it can happen, so go for it.”A

Zanaya returns home from school each afternoon eager to tell her mom about what she learned that day. Davis said her daughter never talked like that before she began attending Dixon.

“Her mind has really opened,” Davis said. “It’s been a complete turnaround. She’s very independent. I don’t have to check on her with her schoolwork. She’s on top of her assignments. She communicated with her teachers. She gets good grades.

“They really did find that switch.”

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

About the Dixon School of Arts & Sciences

Founded in 2008, the private K-8 school offers a fine arts, science, technology, engineering, arts and math. The school blends core academics with field trips and the arts. Tuition is $4,600 plus an additional $2,400 in registration, fees, books and supplied, transportation and field trips. More than 90 percent of the students are on Step Up scholarships.

Latin, Julius Cesar and a second chance at senior year

By ROGER MOONEY

DAVIE, Fla. – Josh Carlson pulled up a chair inside the office of the school guidance counselor one February morning and greeted a visitor.

“Salve,” he said.

It was the summer after his senior year, the summer he should have spent preparing for his freshman year of college.

Josh, a senior at American Preparatory Academy, a private K-12 school in Davie, Florida, taught himself Latin last summer.

That’s Latin for “hello.”

Instead, it was a summer spent reflecting on what went wrong during that senior year, and why he was required to repeat it.
“Just a lack of motivation on my part,” said Josh, 17.

Josh Carlson’s senior photo at American Preparatory Academy

This lack of motivation was a never-ending source of frustration for Josh’s mother, Kadirah Abdel, his guidance counselor, Norman Levitan, and American Prep principal, Soraya Matos.

They each sensed a serious student inside Josh yearning for an opportunity to be set free. He could be engaging with his teachers, capable of leading the class in a deep discussion on the topic for that day. He could also be disruptive and unmotivated, unwilling to complete his assignments on time.

Matos said she would have allowed Josh to participate last May in the graduation ceremony and make up the work during summer school, but he failed too many classes to make that possible. She hoped having Josh repeat his senior year would be a wake-up call.

“I wanted to give him another chance,” Matos said. “I believed it was a maturity issue and eventually he would understand that this was his last chance.”

He did.

“I pondered the way I was doing things over the summer,” Josh said. “I thought, ‘Man, I got really step up, because I’m repeating.’ It was sort of the cataclysmic moment for me. I knew I had to do something to improve my study ethic.”

That he taught himself to speak Latin by using the Duolingo app proved what Levitan always believed about Josh.

“He’s very bright,” Levitan said.

“A different kid”

Josh never fit in at his neighborhood schools.

“He was very to himself, very shy,” Abdel said. “The other kids were into stuff he wasn’t interested in.”

Josh is fascinated with Julius Cesar.

The other kids were into pop culture. Josh was into Julius Cesar.

The other kids read Facebook posts. Josh read the dictionary.

“He was bullied and picked on,” Abdel said. “That was my main concern. That’s when I knew I had to take action here, do something. I heard about alternative schools. I did my research, looked up different kinds of schools. There are alternative schools for kids who have had issues in public schools, because they didn’t fit in.”

Plus, Abdel said, administrators at Josh’s neighborhood school wanted to place him in classes for emotionally challenged students.

“He didn’t have a disability,” Abdel said. “They’re quick to label kids in public school. They couldn’t put him in special ed, so he was put in this class called ‘EH,’ emotionally handicapped children, basically kids who acted up.”

Abdel said her son did act up in class, and it was because he was bored.

She learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. This allowed her to move Josh to the Sunset Sadbury School, a K-12 private school in Fort Lauderdale, when Josh was in the seventh grade.

He moved to AEF (Alternative Education Foundation) School, a nonprofit private school in Fort Lauderdale, the following year and stayed through his sophomore year in high school.

“Once he got to private school, he did a lot better,” Abdel said.

But there were still issues.

“I didn’t behave so well at (AEF),” Josh said. “I didn’t get along with the students and the teachers.”

Abdel finally turned to American Prep, a private school with 150 students with no more than 12 to a class. Matos said her school is designed for students who don’t fit in at neighborhood schools. Kids, she said, who “fall through the cracks.”

Josh fit right in.

“He’s a different kid,” Matos said. “He likes history. He likes to read, and that is not very common.”

Josh passed his classes as a junior. Senior year was a struggle with most of the struggles self-inflicted.

“Just a lack of motivation on my part,” Josh said.

Josh loves to learn … just on his terms.

“He enjoys reading and studying on his own,” Abdel said. “Not necessarily being told, ‘OK, you have to study for his test.’ He enjoys studying, but when he wants.”

The proof is found in Josh’s interests.

He speaks Spanish, Latin and Italian. He writes poetry and enjoys the works of Emily Dickinson, E.E. Cummings, Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman. He is well-versed in Greek and Roman history and is fascinated with Julius Cesar.

“Interesting man,” Josh said. “All the conquests. His abilities as a leader was unrivaled.”

He wants to be a linguist. He would like to have a career that allows him to write and speak Latin and Italian.

“I’d like to write books about this stuff,” he said. “Phonology. Nerdy things.”

But, first Josh had to graduate high school.

The wake-up call

The book that began Josh’s path to teaching himself Latin.

At one point last year, Matos said she thought her school wasn’t the right fit for Josh. But where would he go? What school would make room for a senior who couldn’t graduate?

Matos believes her role as an educator is to keep her students in school. Plus, she knew Josh could complete the work. He just needed motivation. Because he was still eligible to receive a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Matos and Abdel felt it best for Josh to repeat his senior year.

“I think it was the kick he needed, the wake-up call,” Abdel said. “When he saw his friends graduate but he didn’t, that’s when he stepped up his game.”

Josh’s grades this year were the highest they’ve been during his high school career.

“I’ve just been studying more, focusing on studying, reviewing,” he said. “I wasn’t studying last year, and that’s why I was failing tests.”

While his friends made plans for their freshman years at college, Josh wrapped his mind around another senior year of high school. He didn’t have a job, so he had plenty of time on his hands.

What to do?

He reached for a copy of Wheelock’s Latin, which he received a few years ago, and started teaching himself Latin.

“One day I was looking at it, staring at it, and I thought, ‘I’ve had this for so long I should just learn it already,’” he said. “I wasn’t doing anything during the summer. I was using the internet and stuff. I said let me do something productive. I just opened up the book.”

The productivity not only carried into the classroom this year, but to other parts of the school.

Josh spent time this past year mentoring younger students at American Prep, sharing his experience as a cautionary tale.

In February, he received the Turnaround Student Award during Step Up’s annual Rising Stars Award event. He was nominated by Matos.

“I’m very proud of him,” she said.

Early this month, he graduated.

Josh plans to attend Broward College this fall. He is formulating plans for his future. He wants work with words, foreign words. He wants to visit Italy and Greece. Walk where Julius Cesar walked.

He wants to converse with the locals in their native tongue. He can get by with his Latin and Italian and Spanish.

But Greek? He doesn’t speak Greek.

“No,” he said. “Not yet.”

About American Preparatory Academy

The K-12 private school has 150 students. More than half are on scholarships from Step Up For Students with the majority on the Gardiner Scholarship. Tuition ranges from $10,500 to $16,000 based on the student’s needs. The school has a comprehensive Exceptional Student Education program focused on the individual needs of each student. It also offers dual enrollment, summer classes, summer camps, athletics and extracurricular activities.

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

Patience, understanding bring scholarship student back from brink

Glad Tidings Academy teacher Andrene Donaldson, left, makes it a point to respond with patience and understanding when working with students like Darryl Dutervil, center, and communicating with parents like Darryl’s mother, Rose Theagene, right.

By JEFF BARLIS

OCOEE, Fla. – The young teacher called, tears choking her words. She wanted to quit.

On the other end of the line was Rose Theagene, horrified but not surprised. She knew her youngest son, Darryl Dutervil, was on the verge of expulsion due to escalating behavior problems in first grade at his neighborhood school.

“He threw a chair at the teacher, and it almost hit another student,” she recalled. “He was pushing and hitting kids. Parents were complaining. It was very bad. At the meeting, I just said I would take Darryl out of the school to save everyone the trouble.”

Rose had her theories about what was behind Darryl’s problems. He had been diagnosed with ADHD and the medicine was making him feel sick. At home, she said, his behavior was fine but only because she spoiled him.

After years of working in customer care for a health care company and attending school as a single mother of two, Rose became a licensed practical nurse two years ago, around the time she withdrew Darryl. A fellow nurse told her about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which helps lower-income families with private school tuition.

It took almost two years and an ill-fated move to Daytona Beach for work reasons, but in January 2017, Rose finally found a school – Glad Tidings Academy – where Darryl and older brother Stacey Singleton were at home.

The teacher who went beyond

Parents and students alike love Andrene Donaldson. She’s fair and compassionate, but she can be tough and blunt, too. A former public school teacher in Jamaica, her thick accent floats through the classroom like music. But all it takes is one look, and the students know she’s serious.

“She has so much fun with them that they instantly know when she’s not happy,” said Glad Tidings principal Amanda Bleggi.

Donaldson was Stacey’s sixth-grade teacher last year. He was a breeze. Good student. Shy, honest, and respectful.

This year, Donaldson teaches Darryl in third grade. Within two days, she, too, thought she might give up.

Darryl was angry and aggressive all the time. He screamed. He cursed. He never had anything nice to say to his classmates. He would snap and toss chairs. Once, he pushed Donaldson.

“Last year,” he said meekly, “was challenging.”

Donaldson made it a point to always respond with patience, understanding, and soft tones.

“He expected me to be mad at him, but I just never treated him the way he expected,” she said. “When he was negative, I was positive.”

One Saturday, Donaldson’s husband bought her a success board for Darryl to track his achievements. They started small. Two hours a day of good behavior slowly turned into one full day a week. She rewarded him with certificates, snacks, pencils, erasers, and sometimes something sweet.

“I couldn’t believe the amount of work and effort she put into just one child,” Bleggi said. “But he started to see he could succeed. It was that board.”

It was a matter of trust, too.

“When I’m angry, she calms me down,” Darryl said. “She’ll take me outside to take deep breaths, and then she lets me come back in and try again, over and over again. If I make her mad, she still loves me.”

The principal who understood

It was Bleggi, a Long Islander who became a customer relations expert in her previous career with Disney, who recognized that academics were quietly fueling Darryl’s loud outbursts.

“When he came to us, he was failing everything,” she said. “He had no confidence in himself. He didn’t believe he could do his work. There were little things he couldn’t understand, so he would get frustrated and embarrassed.”

There were countless incidents, several worthy of dismissal. But Bleggi dug in her heels.

“He should have been expelled, but I knew that wouldn’t do anything,” she said. “He would just be shoved along.”

She called Rose in for a talk and assured her that Darryl wasn’t going anywhere. Rose was taken aback. She had expected the opposite.

“When she said that, it gave me a chance to breathe,” Rose said. “They are fighting for him.”

The mom who pushed

In her new job, Rose was adjusting to working 12-hour shifts – at night. She got off at 7 a.m. and still made sure the kids got to school on time.

But every morning by 10, she expected a call from the school about Darryl. Desperately tired, she tried bribing him with ice cream and pizza.

“Just let Mommy sleep until 3 o’clock,” she pleaded.

Last fall, the calls stopped coming. Donaldson was using an app to communicate with parents. It made a ping on Rose’s phone whenever she got a message. That noise used to wake her up at 10 a.m. as well, but it was gradually replaced with photos of Darryl at work and at play, updates to his success board, and other encouraging notes.

It wasn’t an overnight transformation, but the extra communication helped. Rose got more involved during the day. She was getting fewer calls and pings, but she insisted on coming in to talk to Darryl every time.

It felt like she, Donaldson, and Bleggi were on the same page. Their patience became her patience. Their positive message hers.

She marveled at Darryl’s improvements this year and shined proudly when she saw A’s, B’s and one C on his report card.

“Darryl would wake up early, ready to go to school,” she said. “He would say, ‘Mommy, I’m going to have a good day today. You can sleep. You don’t have to worry.’ That’s when I knew the changes were real.”

The brother who led

At Glad Tidings, big brother Stacey was worried and afraid Darryl would get expelled and end up in a bad school. But at their neighborhood school, Stacey felt the sting of being lumped in and labeled.

“I heard teachers say, ‘There goes Darryl’s brother,’ ” Stacey said. “That’s why I didn’t want him to be bad, because it also reflects on me and my family.”

Darryl idolizes his brother. He wears his hair in the same kind of flat top with shaved sides as Stacey. They’re both stocky. They have the same cheeky grin. Stacey knew he could get through to Darryl. At Glad Tidings, he checked on his brother regularly.

“He looks after me,” Darryl said. “Even more than my mom.”

Stacey made a ritual of guiding his brother, made him his responsibility.

“Every morning, I gave him a pep talk of what not to do and what to do,” he said. “If there’s a person bothering you, just ignore him or tell the teacher.”

Stacey could see how those long, confidential talks really helped. Rose also felt it was a turning point when Darryl realized he was embarrassing his brother.

“I’m proud of him,” Stacey said. “I tell him ‘Good job’ a lot now, and I let him play with my video games more often.”

It’s always been about attention for Darryl, but now he feels the difference between positive and negative.

The more marks he got on his success board, the more often he went to Bleggi’s office to show her.

“By December,” she said, “I was looking at a new kid.”

Donaldson asked Bleggi to give Darryl a part in the Christmas play.

“It was a big deal for him,” Donaldson said. “Being in the play showed him and everybody that he wasn’t an outcast.”

It meant a lot more than positive reinforcement to Darryl.

“There were a lot of people, like a thousand,” he recounted. “I tried to act cool, but my heart was beating. When it was over, I felt happy. My family was proud of me.”

Darryl is happier, having more fun, getting in trouble less often and getting much better grades. Donaldson says his reading level is way up. He helps in the classroom, cleaning up and handing out folders and papers to his fellow students. He fits in at Glad Tidings in a way that he never had in school before.

“The whole school loves him,” Bleggi said. “We’re able to see his little personality now, instead of him being angry and disrespectful all the time.”

“I used to cringe every time I would hear his name, but now he comes up and gives me the biggest hugs. I can’t wait to see him in the morning. I can’t wait to hear what grade he got on his test, and he always comes up to show me now. It’s probably one of my favorite stories since working here. It’s been the most impressive turnaround I’ve seen any student make.”

About Glad Tidings Academy

Opened as a preschool in 2005, Glad Tidings expanded to kindergarten in 2014 and opened a second campus for K-8 in 2016. The school plans to have ninth grade next year and to add grades 10-12 each year thereafter. Glad Tidings is accredited and certified by Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS). There are 108 K-8 students, including 75 on Step Up For Students FTC scholarship. Glad Tidings emphasizes a child’s emotional, physical, relational, and cognitive development. The school uses Bob Jones University Press and Abeka curricula. The MAP Growth test is administered three times a year. Annual tuition is $5,940 for K-5 and $6,370 for 6-8.

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

Recession crushed family business but not the dream of quality education for their boys

With the help of Florida Tax Credit Scholarships from Step Up For Students, Jonas, left, and Jack Figueredo are thriving at Westwood Christian School in Miami.

By ROGER MOONEY

MIAMI – The conversations eventually moved from the house to the garage, far away from the boys, who were too young to understand the words used by their parents but could certainly sense the worry in their voices.

Real estate bubble? Recession? Bankruptcy?

What did the boys know about those things? Why should they?

Jonas Figueredo was 6 at the time. His brother, Jack, was 4.

 “We didn’t want the boys to know what was going on,” their mom, Helen, said.

It was 2008 and the real estate company owned by Helen and her husband, Frank, was crumbling.

“We were heavy into real estate when the bubble burst,” Helen Figueredo said, “and we were left holding the bag.”

The recession cost them everything: Their business. Their savings. Their house. They filed for bankruptcy twice and ended up in foreclosure.

Frank Figueredo took a job working for the state of Florida as a claims adjuster. It paid $38,000 a year. They were clearing 10-times as much with their real estate business.

“Thirty-eight grand in Miami with a family of four and two kids in private school,” he said.

Yes, private school.

The boys were attending Westwood Christian School, a pre-K through 12 private school in Miami. During those talks in the garage away from curious ears, the No. 1 topic was how to keep the boys at Westwood. Besides a roof over their head, this was their priority.

The Figueredos met with school officials and told them of their rapidly diminishing finances. That’s when they learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarship covered half the tuition.

Bill Thomson, Westwood’s head administrator and secondary school principal, recalled that 2008 meeting.

“They definitely were at a crossroads of having to possibly uproot their boys from our school and our church and our philosophy and into a different environment that they just weren’t comfortable with,” he said. “They were introduced to Step Up, and it has been very beneficial to them over the years as it has with many families. It definitely is kind of a success story for that family.”

Their world

Today, Jonas, 16, is a junior at Westwood. Jack, 14, is a freshman. What the two have accomplished scholastically with the help of Step Up is impressive. What they have accomplished away from school with the support of their parents is equally as notable.

Jonas is vice president of the junior class, president of the high school band, a second chair trumpeter on the all-district band and has qualified for the all-state band. He is ranked in the top-5 of his class with a GPA above 4.0, is a member of the National Honor Society and a member of the debate team.

“I just love to argue,” he said.

Jonas is a worship leader at Westwood and finished first last year in a preaching competition at the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. He is a student ambassador and a former varsity soccer player.

Jonas, who volunteers for Bugles Across America, plays taps at funerals and memorials for veterans.

In his spare time, Jonas is a second-degree black belt in taekwondo who competes nationally and teaches anti-bullying, anti-abduction and self-defense classes to younger children, including those at Westwood. He has plans to teach the same at a women’s shelter. He volunteers for Bugles Across America and plays taps at funerals for veterans.

He can play the piano, guitar, ukulele and harmonica. He helped put together a musical production at Villa Lyan Academy, a school in Miami for children and young adults with special needs.

His brother, Jack, is a freshman. His GPA is above 4.0, he is a third chair trumpeter in the all-district band and has qualified for the all-state band, was president of the middle school band as an eighth-grader and was instrumental in bringing back the high school debate team. He is a student ambassador and was the goalie on the varsity soccer team from the sixth to eighth grades.

In his spare time, Jack plans to race a Mustang next season in the National Auto Sports Association, where you can drive when you’re 14. He is in the process of starting his own nonprofit to feed and clothe the homeless, called “Socks and Sandwiches.”

Helen and Frank Figueredo started the nonprofit “Kids United Foundation” several years ago to send clothes and food to homeless children in Columbia.

When the boys were young, Helen Figueredo took them to Miami’s Little Havana when she brought food to the homeless.

“I remember that,” Jack said. “It was a great experience. It broke my heart to see a lot of people like this. I wanted to do something on my own to help them.”

Jack also plays the piano and violin.

While in middle school, both brothers worked as pages for Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, when she was a state representative in South Florida.

“We’re very thankful for them to be a part of our school,” Bill Thomson, Westwood’s head administrator and secondary school principal, said.

‘You’re going to law school’

Jonas has thought about becoming a criminal profiler for the FBI. Jack would love to race cars professionally. Both plan on attending law school.

Actually, getting a law degree is mandatory for the Figueredo boys.

“I always told them, ‘You don’t need to worry about what you’re going to do. You can worry about that when you graduate law school,’” Helen Figueredo said. “I do believe that a law degree is a license to do whatever you want to do.”

“Honestly, I agree with her,” Jonas said. “With a law degree you have more options. Maybe I do become a lawyer. Maybe a I don’t. But I do have the law degree with me.”

Jack works on the engine of the Mustang he plans to race next year in the National Auto Sports Association.

The options for the future of the Figueredo boys appear limitless. That’s why their parents felt compelled to keep their sons at Westwood.

The couple made the sacrifices for their boys to continue there. They sold their luxury cars and Frank picked up an older car at a police auction for $89. They rented a house owned by the school for $550 a month and began to slowly rebuild their finances.

“The school teaches wisdom,” Frank Figueredo said, “and with wisdom, you learn to learn.”

He currently works as a bodily injury adjuster for an insurance company. Helen, who has a degree in business administration and a master’s in educational leadership, works part time as a health care risk management consultant.

“We turned our lifestyle upside down to teach them what is important, what really matters,” Helen Figueredo said. “A car? Or knowledge and wisdom? It’s taught them not to be materialistic. It’s taught them that people are more important.”

Jonas and Jack are aware of the changes made by their parents. They know the role Step Up played in their education. They are thankful for both.

“I’ve been (at Westwood) since I was 2 years old,” Jonas said. “It shaped me to who I am today.”

 “It’s a great education,” Jack added. “The staff, all the teachers, they’re all very supportive, very friendly. They’re always willing to help.”

The boys are eager to see what they can accomplish in the future.

“After they go to law school,” Helen Figueredo said.

About Westwood Christian School

Established in 1959 by the First Baptist Church of Westwood Lake, the school provides Biblical and academic education for 550 students from pre-K-12, including more than 230 who are on Step Up For Students’ scholarships. Students must pass an entrance exam to gain enrollment. The school has state recognized band, choir, drama and art programs. All teachers are fully accredited with the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools and the National Council for Private School Accreditation.

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

Skyler Goeb didn’t let a rough start to life prevent her from soaring

By ROGER MOONEY

ZEPHYRHILLS – Sitting opposite where his 8-year-old granddaughter stood near their dining room table, George Hill, nodded at the second-grader and said, “We’ve been blessed, really, just (because of) the kind of person that she is. She’s dedicated. She’s smart. She’s a hard worker.”

He used another word to describe Skylar Goeb: Perseverant.

Skylar Goeb wears some of the 60 medals she has earned for gymnastics.

You wouldn’t know it by looking at her as she stood alongside her grandmother, quiet, though filling the room with her mega-watt smile, but Skylar had a rough start to life.

She was born addicted to the opioids her mother took while pregnant. She doesn’t know her mother, and her mother wants nothing to do with her.

“She doesn’t write her. She doesn’t try to get a hold of her. Nothing,” George Hill said.

But Skylar, a Florida Tax Credit scholar, is flourishing with the love and guidance of her grandparents who have raised her since she was an infant.

Skylar loves school, too. She is a straight-A student at Heritage Academy in Zephyrhills, a K2 through eighth grade Christian school founded in 1998,  

Last fall, she was one of 10 students honored as the Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce Citizens of the Month. Students are nominated by their teachers. One student from every school in Zephyrhills is honored each month. From that pool, one is selected in June as the chamber’s citizen of the year.

According to Michelle Walls, director of operations and finance at Heritage Academy, Skylar was nominated because she met the following criteria:

  • Strives for academic excellence.
  • Leadership qualities in the classroom.
  • Participation in their community.
  • Having an attitude in harmony with the goals and spirit of our school.

“We’re very proud,” her grandmother, Robin Hill, said.

When asked one January afternoon at the family’s Zephyrhills home how she felt about the academic honor, Skylar turned toward her grandmother and whispered, “Good.”

Skylar is also shy.

“She doesn’t say a whole lot. She’s kind of reserved,” said Rene Campbell, Skylar’s teacher at Heritage Academy. “When I talk to her, I have to pull things out.”

Math, and learning, seem to boost her confidence, however.

When Campbell asks for a volunteer to come to the front of the class and solve a math problem, Skylar’s shyness evaporates.

“If I ask if someone can help me, she’ll raise her hand,” Campbell said. “She has a willing spirit to learn.”

Balance beams and parallel bars

Skylar also is certainly not shy when she’s competing in gymnastics – she placed fifth last year at the state championships.

On the walls of her bedroom are several hooks that strain to hold the 60 medals she has won competing in gymnastics, including that state award. Across the hall you’ll find Skylar’s favorite room.

With walls painted light blue, the  room is empty but for a horizontal bar that sits on supports four feet above the beige carpet, a balance beam raised a few inches off the floor, a pink mat and two plastic bins for the white chalk Skylar rubs on her hands to increase her grip as she swings around the bar.

It is here that Skylar spends hours practicing gymnastics.

Skylar is a blonde-haired pixie, who loves all things pink, adores unicorns and especially loves sailing over bars and flipping across beams.

The Hills enrolled Skylar in gymnastics when she was 3, because they wanted her involved in an activity that would allow her to exercise. By the time Skylar was 5, her grandparents knew gymnastics was more than an after-school activity.

“She loves competition,” George Hill said. “Some girls get nervous. She’s like, ‘Let’s go!’”

Her idol is American gymnast Simone Biles, the four-time world all-around champion who won four gold medals and a bronze at the 2016 Summer Olympics.

“She’s great,” Skylar said.

Skylar Goeb competing at a 2018 meet.

Like every girl her age enrolled in gymnastics, Skylar would love to compete in the Olympics.

In early January, Skylar began training in Fast Track, a program designed for kids with natural gymnastic ability, strength and flexibility. It is an advanced program, especially for girls her age.

Skylar is also a part of the Tops Program, where gymnasts travel around the state and are tested on different physical abilities as they relate to gymnastics.

“Skylar is very dedicated,” said her coach, Jacqueline Vogel. “I actually don’t know if she’s ever missed a practice intentionally unless it was for something for school.”

As Skylar ran through her gymnastics scheduled – 13 hours a week over four nights at Premier Gymnastics in Wesley Chapel – her grandmother asked, “What comes first?”

“School,” Skylar said.

“We’re always on the run,” added George Hill, “but she keeps her grades top-notch.”

Skylar has been writing in cursive since kindergarten, and her penmanship is text-book sound.

She enjoys history, science, spelling, reading and math. Especially math.

“When we get in the car, she brings her book and makes up math problems,” her grandmother, Robin Hill, said. “She has a mind for numbers.”

“She has a great memory, too,” added her grandfather. “That helps.”

George Hill said Skylar is getting everything she can out of her Step Up scholarship.

“It’s been a blessing,” he said. “It’s placed her in the best learning environment she can be in. It also got her in a Christian school, which is important to us.”

The rough start

George Hill, 64, is an engineer with Frontier Communications. He has worked for the company for 31 years, starting in the late 1970s when it was known as GTE. Robin Hill, 63, retired after working more than 20 years at the Pizza Hut in Brandon, Fla.

The Hills raised four children. Raising a grandchild is certainly not something they planned, but life has a funny way of grabbing you by surprise.

Skylar’s father, Steven Hill, is finishing a seven-year prison sentence for a series of crimes he committed with Skylar’s mom. He is scheduled to be released in October. Skylar visits him in a transitional housing facility in Tarpon Springs.

“We take (Skylar) to see him. She knows who he is. We don’t try to hide anything,” George Hill said. “They get along super great. They play together when she’s there. They’re good together.”

Skylar’s mom tried to put her up for adoption before giving birth. The Hills hired a lawyer and successfully prevented it. They received court-ordered legal custody of their granddaughter when she was 8 weeks old. Skylar calls her grandparents “Mom” and “Dad.”

“If that went through, we would have never known where she went,” George Hill said. “We weren’t going to let her go. Who knows what kind of household she would have went to? You just never know. It’s been a blessing for her and for us.”

Skylar’s mom did not list a father on the birth certificate, which is why Skylar has her mother’s last name.

Her parents went to prison in 2012 on a litany of charges that included burglary, dealing in stolen property, possession of a controlled substance and petit theft, according to court records.

Skylar’s mother, who served an 18-month prison term, now lives in Ohio and is out of her life. Her father can soon enter it on a more regular basis.

“We’ll see how that goes,” George Hill said.

What the Hills do know is they never could have imagined how raising Skylar could so profoundly change their lives.

When it comes to Skylar, the Hills, wouldn’t want it any other way, especially when you consider what might have been had the adoption gone through.

“I think it’s a blessing. Really, I do,” George Hill said. “For sure, she keeps you young.”

About Heritage Academy

Founded in 1998 under the ministry of Oasis World Outreach, Heritage Academy is a pre-K-8 school that serves 160 students, including 54on Step Up scholarships. The school uses the Abeka curriculum, and the education is based on Biblical truth. The curriculum consists of reading, writing, comprehension, study skills, critical thinking, problem solving, and number skills. Spanish, art, music and physical education are also offered. Annual tuition is $6,080 for K2-K3; $3,610 for K4-VPK; $6,500 for K5-fifth grade; $6,800 for sixth-eighth grade. Before and after school care and tutoring are available for a fee.

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

The family no one knew was homeless

Isabella, Ruthanne, and Gabriella Dumas have a home at Saint Ambrose Catholic School in Deerfield Beach, Fla.

By JEFF BARLIS

DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. – Just when Ruthanne Dumas thought her life couldn’t fall apart any further, she got the biggest scare of it.

A steady financial decline had left her and her two youngest daughters, Isabella and Gabriella, homeless. The girls had recently started at a new private school, thanks to education choice scholarships. And then a sudden illness landed Isabella in intensive care.

Doctors thought she might have leukemia.

“It was horrible,” Ruthanne recalled, her voice trembling.

After it turned out to be just a virus and the raw fear and panic had subsided, Isabella’s new principal and teacher arrived. They brought a garbage bag full of stuffed animals and cards from everyone in Isabella’s class. Her face lit up with joy.

“I didn’t know anyone other than my mom could care so much,” Isabella said.

That’s how it’s always been for the Dumas family at Saint Ambrose Catholic School in Deerfield Beach. Isabella wasn’t doing poorly in her neighborhood school, but Ruthanne wanted more – a smaller, safer school with a family environment. Saint Ambrose has been that and more.

She heard about it from a friend, visited and loved the efficiently laid-out campus. The main building is a 10-side polygon for grades K-5 with a social hall in the middle. Grades 6-8 are steps away. It’s hard to get lost. Principal Lisa Dodge, a police officer in the Dade County school system for 20 years, added safety measures like fences and a single point of entry.

Dodge told Ruthanne about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship administered by Step Up For Students. Ruthanne applied immediately and enrolled Isabella in fourth grade and Gabriella in kindergarten.

“It was a no-brainer,” Ruthanne said.

That was six years ago. Ruthanne owned five vacation rentals, but a steady stream of hurricanes starting in 2005 left her business in steep decline. She eventually had to sell the homes at a loss.

Her husband left around that time. Her mother, who helped out financially, got sick and died.

“You had to rob Peter to pay Paul,” she said. “Then all of a sudden there was no Peter left, and Paul was gone. It was ridiculous. Every day was something new. I looked up one day and that was it. It was all gone. There was nothing to dip into, no savings, no house, everything was gone.”

Before they started at Saint Ambrose, Ruthanne and her daughters packed everything they had into the trunk of her car. The girls stayed with friends. Ruthanne told them she was doing the same, but she was sleeping in the front seat of that hand-painted blue Toyota Corolla. Soon, they moved into a cheap motel.

“It was so bad,” she said. “There was prostitution next door. I wouldn’t let the girls go outside. We had to get out of there. We found a hotel close to the school with a mini-fridge and a microwave. That was our base.

“Every time we would move out thinking we had someplace to stay, we always went back to the same hotel.”

They’d stay for months at a time. Ruthanne used her tax return to get an apartment, but she couldn’t keep up with the rent. One year they stayed in an old camper on a friend’s property. But they ended up back at the hotel.

Ruthanne worked as a receptionist, making $420 a week. The hotel cost $386. But there was free breakfast and friendly staffers who let the girls take yogurt, bagels, fruit and cereal for lunches and dinners.

Ruthanne thought about moving to Chicago to be with family, but she craved stability for her daughters. And that’s exactly what they got at Saint Ambrose.

Principal Dodge helped out with uniforms and waived fees. She also opened up the school’s food bank to the Dumas family and gave donated Christmas presents to the girls.

“I was kind of hesitant to talk about them, because no one here really knows their story,” Dodge said. “Behind the scenes we saw it, but none of the kids knew anything about what was going on with them. There was no difference. It’s a testament to everything – the girls, their mom, Step Up.”

The goal was normalcy, its success measured in how well the girls did in school.

They’re happy, they bring home good grades – Gabriella is an honors student – and they love to participate in the school’s many family-oriented activities.

They had different groups of friends. They’re both shy around outsiders.

“If we walked past each other, we would just give each other a look and smile, not really acknowledge each other,” Gabriella said. “I think one time I tried to hug her and she pushed me away.”

Today, Ruthanne and her daughters live in an apartment with a roommate. Gabriella is in fifth grade. Isabella is in ninth grade at a public charter school. Classes there are a lot bigger. She misses the small campus, the polygon main building, and all the warm faces at Saint Ambrose.

“The girls are just lovely, full of grace, hard-working,” said Cindy Hagaman, who has taught both. “They’re very gentle, humble people. Both of them are excellent students.”

It’s been everything Ruthanne had hoped for and more. Her daughters have stability. It was something she could feel from the first day she dropped them off at Saint Ambrose.

“This school saved us,” she said. “Sometimes I look back and wonder what we would have done without them. They were there for us so many times and continue to be a part of us.”

Like one big family.

About Saint Ambrose Catholic School

Opened in 1964 as a part of the diocese of Palm Beach, the school started with grades 1-5 and expanded to K-8 by 1967. There are 238 students, including 118 on Step Up For Students tax credit scholarships. The curriculum includes a program of computer technology, robotics, art, music, and two foreign languages. The school administers the TerraNova test annually as well as the MAP Growth test three times a year. Annual tuition is $8,250 for K-5, $8,500 for 6-7, and $8,650 for eighth grade.

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

Once bullied, now safe, happy, and thriving

Armani Powe, 12, stands tall and proud, happy to be a student at Glades Day School.

By JEFF BARLIS

BELLE GLADE, Fla. – When she’s in class, the look on Armani Powe’s face is solemn, focused. She doesn’t harden her gaze intentionally. It happens naturally.

“When it comes to my grades,” she says, “I get really serious.”

Armani, 12, turns quiet and a little withdrawn when asked about the bullying she endured in second grade at her neighborhood school.

“It makes me all sad just to remember it,” she explains with the distance of several years.

She doesn’t mind telling the story, though, because she’s happy, safe, and thriving now at a private school. A Florida Tax Credit Scholarship from Step Up For Students was the vehicle.

Armani had one bully with a band of two or three other boys who delighted in embarrassing her daily. They mocked her crooked teeth, her clothes, hair, backpack. Anything and everything and nothing.

She admits she was an inviting target.

“Looking back at my little self, I was quiet and nice and always doing my work, studying all the time, reading a book in class, and not talking,” she said. “That’s probably why they picked on me.”

The taunting chipped away at her self-image. The worst was how she felt about her teeth. She kept asking her mom when she could get braces, but they were too expensive.

One day, Armani was crying when her mother, Roline Powe, was called early to pick her up. Armani said she didn’t want to go to school anymore. She showed her mom a red hand print on her face where her bully had just slapped her.

That was it.

Roline had requested meetings before, but school officials never filed reports. They always promised they would handle it.

“They just downplayed everything,” she said. “I went in at least five times.”

She felt a nauseating mix of anger and guilt in her stomach. She couldn’t stop thinking about the braces she couldn’t afford.

“It was the most horrible thing to not be able to give your child the care they need,” she said. “But not only was she teased, she was hit! All because of her appearance.”

Determined to fix the situation herself, Roline went to nearby Glades Day School to see if private school could be an option. Everyone in this small town knows about Glades Day and its reputation for preparing children for college, trades, and agriculture careers.

She was nervous when she went in for a meeting. A friend who sent her daughter to GDS had told Roline the price of one year’s tuition, and she nearly buckled.

“I could only dream,” she said.

But it came true when an administrator told her about the scholarship from Step Up For Students. It gives lower-income families the power to choose the school that best suits their children’s needs.

This school year, the state instituted the HOPE Scholarship to give victims of bullying the option to transfer to another public school or to an approved private school as soon as their scholarship is approved.

Roline is glad to see the new scholarship in place. It might have helped prevent some of the trauma Armani endured in the weeks after she was slapped.

“It was the hardest thing getting through that year,” said Roline, who was then a substitute teacher at the neighborhood middle school and now works as an assistant teacher. “There were times I had to take a day off of work, go there, and monitor without her seeing me. I’d watch the playground from the parking lot. Sometimes I picked her up 10 minutes early.”

“It was a journey. She made it through, but if she had remained there, she probably would have needed some therapy.”

As it turned out, Glades Day School was all Armani needed.

Head of School Amie Pitts, herself a graduate of Glades Day, has carefully crafted a safe space for learning. Character isn’t just emphasized, it’s talked about by the student body on a weekly basis.

“Environment is a very big deal, and this is a different environment,” she said. “Our mission is a safe family environment, and I think we do a very good job. We pride ourselves on family. We see it as a partnership between the home and the school to raise great kids who are successful in life.”

There’s a friendly feeling that swirls through the school buildings along with the strong breeze that pushes from massive Lake Okeechobee to the north. The 30-acre campus is buttressed by cane fields to the south and east, and a sugar mill looms large across the street with smokestacks constantly churning. It’s a reminder of a life in the fields that Roline so badly wants her children to avoid.

It didn’t take long for Armani to adjust. She quickly went from tentative to curious about her new school. Soon, she was talking to others without feeling scared. They were small steps.

Every Wednesday, students wear orange shirts that say “Bullying” or “Cyberbullying” in a circle with a slash through it. Every Friday, the student body gathers to talk and lift each other up.

“We talk about kindness first,” Armani said. “People talk about what we do and should do in the world. We get it right.”

By the time Armani started her second year, she was joined by older brother Lorenzo and younger brother Shemar.

“It was the best decision I could have made for my family,” Roline said. “And for Armani, it was a game-changer.”

Roline said Glades Day has made her a better, more attentive parent. She doesn’t just help with homework anymore, she has a presence at the school. Everyone knows her as “Momma Powe.”

“She is extremely engaged,” Pitts said. “She’s here every day. She’s at every single sporting event, comes to all the meetings, reads to her son in the media center. She wants better for her kids, and they’re doing very well.”

Armani is a solid B-student striving for more. She asks for help whenever she struggles with a subject. She wants to be a veterinarian someday.

She feels safe now, settled. She has learned how to be brave and confident.

When she looks back at her little self from second grade, she feels a profound difference that goes beyond her long limbs and strong shoulders. She’s comfortable in her own skin and doesn’t worry about her appearance.

Braces fixed her teeth a couple of years ago, and she must be one of the only pre-teens around who’s excited to get them put on for a second time.

“I have a big, cheesy smile,” she said. “My friends love when I smile.”

She does it all the time. Just not when she’s focused in class.

About Glades Day School

Now in its 53rd year, GDS moved from Pahokee to Belle Glade in 1973. The school is accredited by the Florida Council of Independent Schools. Teachers have an average of 20 years of experience. Nineteen GDS employees are graduates. There are 257 K-12 students, including 94 on Step Up For Students Scholarships. The school has a thriving Agri-science program that’s tied to the Future Farmers of America and features welding, gardening, even a hog pen to train students in Grades 7-12. There are also four computer labs and smartboards in several classrooms. Dual enrollment, Advanced Placement and virtual school courses are offered. The Stanford 10 test is administered every March. Annual tuition is $7,800 for K-5; $8,800 for 6-8; and $9,800 for 9-12 with financial aid available. Transportation is available as far east as Royal Palm Beach and as far west as Clewiston.

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

Choice scholarship provided brothers an extended family

Preston, Linda, and Tyler McDonald.

By JEFF BARLIS

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Tyler McDonald, 19, and his brother Preston, 18, stand out in a crowd. Tall and athletic, their breezy, no-worries attitudes are as evident as the sparkle in their hazel-brown eyes.

They are All-American, boy-next-door types, the highest of achievers who say they wouldn’t be where they are now – Princeton and Duke, respectively – had it not been for Clearwater Central Catholic High School and the education choice scholarship that made it possible to attend.

Going to CCC was about much more than great academics.

They initially were raised in a comfortable middle-class home, never wanting. Everything changed seven years ago when their father left. The divorce was bitter and protracted. Their mother, Linda, would cry in her closet.

“She may think she hid it, but we could tell,” Tyler recounted with a twinge of sadness. “The toughest thing was there was nothing we could do about it.”

A couple of years before the divorce, Linda had stopped working as a nurse to take care of her mother, who was left paralyzed after an operation. During and after the divorce, she felt the sting of an extended unemployment she never planned. She needed a job with more flexibility and became a substitute teacher at the neighborhood middle school to be closer to her sons.

But it wasn’t enough. The three moved to smaller and smaller homes. The power and water were turned off on more than one occasion. Food shopping was for necessities only. Clothes shopping was once a year when the sales were on. Sports shoes and equipment had to last two years instead of one.

As they rallied around each other, help arrived in the form of a private school family that embraced and lifted them.

 

Sunlight cascades through the north-facing windows of the administration building at CCC. When visitors enter, they see the cheery, bespectacled face of front office manager Mary Weber. Her unofficial title is Director of First Impressions, and it only takes a moment to see why – she knows every one of the 500-plus students by name.

A warm, family feeling permeates campus.

That’s how it was for Tyler and Preston, when they each visited as eighth-graders and spent shadow days sitting in on a full slate of classes. CCC students grabbed every chance to talk to Tyler, asking as many questions about him as they answered.

“I shadowed at a nearby district school right before that,” he said. “It felt like I was just watching class. No one talked to me. It was a big difference.”

A year later, Preston got the same vibe at CCC.

“People were telling me the good stuff so that I would come,” he said. “It was really welcoming.”

 

Tyler, Preston, and Linda are a tight unit, a triumphant trio. They joke, tease, and finish each other’s sentences.

Born in the Bahamas and raised in Florida, Linda has a light accent and a modest, girlish giggle. It comes over her like a blush when she talks about her sons’ accomplishments.

After the divorce, anger and hurt were common but never affected Tyler or Preston at school. Linda had always pushed them gently to strive for straight A’s, and when they got the taste for it, they never looked back.

When it was time to choose a high school, there were public school magnets and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs in the mix. But it was the family feeling at CCC that made such an impression on those first visits – for the boys and for Linda.

“I remember going into (Director of Enrollment Tara Shea McLaughlin’s) office, knowing Tyler had really fallen in love with the school,” Linda said. “I was in tears because I didn’t know how I was going to afford this.”

McLaughlin spoke with the finance department. The school offered significant tuition assistance, but it wasn’t enough. They also helped Linda apply for the Step Up For Students scholarship that empowers low-income families to choose a private school.

It still didn’t cover everything.

“It was important to come up with a monthly payment that was not overwhelming, so she wasn’t in a panic every month,” said McLaughlin, herself an alumnus of CCC. “Any of us could be in the same situation. We saw the potential in those boys, so we needed to make it happen.”

McLaughlin also opened the school closet of gently used uniforms to Linda and got CCC’s uniform company to donate shoes to all of the school’s Step Up scholars.

Tyler McDonald’s senior portrait.

Preston McDonald’s senior portrait.

“It’s hard to compute the things they’ve done for my kids,” Linda said, recalling how she sometimes had to send Tyler to the finance office with a late check and an apology. “They were an amazing group of people. They nurtured my kids.”

Wanting to show her gratitude, Linda threw herself into volunteering. Despite working full-time as a public school teacher, she sold tickets and concessions at sporting events and helping with the school’s annual fundraising gala.

“Every CCC parent volunteers 15 hours, but Linda was in the hundreds of hours,” McLaughlin said. “She was everywhere.”

Tyler and Preston were enormously popular. They were sports stars who shined even brighter in the classroom. Tyler was valedictorian with an Ivy League future. Preston graduated at the top of his class with a full IB diploma.

“We’re beyond proud,” McLaughlin said, radiating like a parent. “We’re over the moon that they came here, and they will always be part of the CCC family.”

 

Today, Tyler is a sophomore football player majoring in economics at Princeton (which he chose over Harvard and Yale). He’s pondering careers in investment banking, private equity, corporate real estate, and management consulting.

In his first year at Duke, Preston wants to study computer programming and software engineering while getting a business certificate.

The boys stay in touch with each other mostly via text, at least three times a week. They’ve always been competitive and love to verbally spar over their IQs and now their colleges’ rankings. When they returned for the holiday, they cherished their time at home, together again.

Thanksgiving used to evoke dark memories.

“Right after the divorce, splitting every holiday was weird,” Tyler said. “Thanksgiving is supposed to be about family, but it’ll never be the same.”

This year, Tyler took part in “Friendsgiving,” a potluck set up by 15-20 CCC grads that’s been going on for three years. There was turkey, ham, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole … all the trimmings.

“It started my senior year, just to hang out,” he said. “But it’s still running two years out of high school.”

“I don’t think we’d have that big a group or that cohesive a group if we had gone to any other high school.”

Indeed, after going to CCC, family will never be the same.

About Clearwater Central Catholic High School

Founded in 1962 with 96 students and seven staff members, the school graduated its first class of 26 seniors two years later. CCC, which is overseen by the Diocese of St. Petersburg, has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a National School of Excellence. The 40-acre campus is a short walk from an inlet of Tampa Bay. The school is accredited by AdvancED and has 541 students, including 75 on Step Up For Students scholarships. CCC is an IB School with a 65 percent award rate in the full IB Diploma Program. The school also offers dual enrollment courses with St. Petersburg College as well as Advanced Placement (AP) Program courses for college credit. The PSAT test is administered to ninth and 10th graders. Tuition is $14,950 annually, and $12,400 for a family affiliated with a local Catholic parish. In 2017-18, CCC provided more than $425,000 in income-based tuition assistance to more than 25 percent of its families.

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

Gardiner scholar’s high school experience the stuff of his mom’s dreams

By ROGER MOONEY

Nicolas Ratliff-Batista is a senior at Monsignor Pace High School in Miami Gardens with a 4.5 GPA and an armful of academic awards. He’s a member of the National Honor Society and is headed to Broward College to study environmental science.

He recently played Sigmund Freud in the school’s production of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.”  He has participated in other plays and also dressed as a cheerleader for the Girls Powder Puff football game during Homecoming week. You will find him at all the school dances.

“I (am) part of all sorts of things,” Nicolas said. “It’s a great high school experience.”

Nicolas Ratliff-Batista, a senior, has won more academic awards than he can carry during his four years at Monsignor Edward Pace High School

A parent’s dream, right?

“Exactly,” said Phyllis Ratliff, Nicolas’ mom. “The same as every parent would want for their child whether they have learning differences or not, and we are blessed to have found it at Pace and to be a recipient of the Gardiner Scholarship.”

***

Four years ago, thoughts of Nicolas attending high school was a nightmare for Phyllis.

Diagnosed as high-functioning autism at age 3, Nicolas was able to navigate his way from kindergarten through eighth grade in a familiar setting. Same school. Same classmates. Same teachers. Same administrators.

Because the school near their Miami Lakes home was only K-8, Phyllis had to find a high school for her son.

“I stressed more that year than I ever had,” Phyllis said. “Trying to find a high school for him that we could afford and offered academic options. A high school that would tell a child with learning differences that we can work with you.”

There are two public schools near their home, but Phyllis did not view either as viable options for her son.

She thought he would be overwhelmed by the large class sizes and an easy target for bullies.

Phyllis, a single mother, looked into several private schools. They were either too expensive or she did not see them as a good fit for Nicolas.

Several of her friends mentioned Monsignor Edward Pace High School (Pace) which is located less than 10 miles away in Miami Gardens.  At first, Phyllis was not interested, because she and Nicolas are not Catholic. She was told that would not be an issue.

So, Phyllis met with Pace administrators and that is where she learned about the Gardiner Scholarship provided by Step Up For Students for children with certain special needs.

She liked everything about the school and it’s a 1-to-14 teacher-student ratio. Nicolas would be placed in mainstream classes and the teachers would work with him as needed to ensure he would not fall behind.

Nicolas qualified for the Gardiner Scholarship and was accepted to Pace.

“That was phenomenal,” Phyllis said. “We were so excited there was something out there for him.”

***

Phyllis, like most parents, was a little apprehensive about her only child beginning high school.

Nicolas? He strode right in.

“The first time I felt so excited, but also a tiny bit nervous,” Nicolas said. “But after a few days I got used to it.”

It helped, Nicolas said, that he had Dr. Enrique Dominguez for freshman science.

Known as “Poppa D” to his students, Dominguez has a special skill for connecting with students. He and Nicolas connected instantly.

“I saw that beauty inside of him of being absolutely lovable, absolutely showing you that in the face of adversity he was going to do what he needed to do without any complaints,” Dominguez said.

Nicolas aced the class, and Poppa D nominated him for Student of the Year in Science.

“Dr. Dominguez always tells Nicolas how great he can be, and Nicolas comes home every day saying how great he feels,” Phyllis said. “As a mother, you’re grasping at straws to find the right school and then you find one, and we truly are blessed.”

***

There was never a question Nicolas would excel in the classroom. His grades were always above average. He has an insatiable thirst for knowledge with interests ranging from animals to cars to music and composers to anything to do with history.

His favorite composers are Mozart and Tchaikovsky. His favorite ballet is “The Nutcracker.”

He can play guitar and the keyboard, the banjo and the bongos. He loves to play Elvis Presley songs on the ukulele with “Hound Dog” and “Blue Suede Shoes” among his favorites.

Nicolas Ratliff-Batista and Kiwi relaxing at home.

He has a pet parrotlet named Kiwi that likes to sit on his shoulder.

He attends operas with his mom.

On most Saturdays, you can find Nicolas at the local library, where he feeds his curiosities by reading books for as long as six hours.

Whenever English teacher Jorge Rodriguez-Miralles sees Nicolas walking down the hall, he says, “Here comes literature’s greatest fan.”

“Nicolas,” Rodriguez-Miralles said, “is the only student I think I’ve ever had in a class who taught me something about literature, and I have an advanced degree in literature.”

It happened in freshman year when Rodriguez was teaching Greek and Roman mythology. Nicolas knew the backstory to the battle between Poseidon and Athena. Rodriguez-Miralles had not delved that far into the story. Nicolas had.

During Black History Month that same year, Rodriguez-Miralles was showing the movie “Selma” to the class. Music was playing in the background of one scene. Rodriguez-Miralles said it was hardly audible.

Nicolas heard it and said, “Beethoven, 5th Symphony, 3rd movement.”

Rodriguez-Miralles picked up his iPad and searched for Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, 3rd movement. What do you know?

“How many freshmen do you know that can spot correctly the third movement of the fifth symphony of Beethoven? Nic can,” Rodriguez-Miralles said.

The teacher went home, flipped through his music collection and found box set of Beethoven’s symphonies. He gave it to Nicolas the next day.

“Apparently, you’re Beethoven’s greatest fan, so now you can enjoy the symphonies complete,” Rodriguez-Miralles said.

***

It is easy for someone like Nicolas to remain inside his comfort zone, to save his bold moments for the classroom where learning is what he has mastered.

But to the surprise and delight of his mom and teachers, Nicolas slowly began to dip his toes in Pace’s social scene.

Nicolas Ratliff-Batista played a police officer in The Great Gatsby, one of several school plays in which he appeared.

He joined the drama club and has appeared in a number of productions, including a few musicals that required him to sing in front of an auditorium filled with strangers. Not an easy task for most high school students.

His recent role of Sigmund Freud required him to speak with an Austrian accent, which, he nailed.

Homecoming is a big event at Pace with students coming to school dressed as that year’s theme. One year the theme was board games. Nicolas went to school dressed as the Monopoly Man, a picture of which appeared in the yearbook.

“Popular kids get to do that,” Phyllis said. “(At Pace) you are popular because you are a student.”

Nicolas saved his biggest breakout moment for this year’s Powder Puff game when he joined the fellas on the sidelined dressed as a cheerleader while the girls played football.

“He’s doing things that make him a little uncomfortable,” Principal Ana Garcia said, “but he’s not afraid to try, which is a wonderful thing.”

Nicolas had been asked in past years if he wanted to be a cheerleader. He did not.

“Before I thought I would feel all embarrassed inside,” Nicolas said.

Why this year?

“So, I realized I got to take action,” he said. “It’s now or never. I feel like inside I have to do it.”

And now …?

“It was pretty good, like great,” he said.

***

Phyllis believes her son’s growth scholastically and socially stems directly from Mrs. Garcia’s leadership.

“It has to be from her,” Phyllis said. “She has to say to her faculty, ‘This is something we believe in. We believe in our students.’ They really do.”

Mrs. Garcia, who said she is “humbled” to hear that, adding, “Here at the school the general population is very acceptant of kids with differences, and so it’s a great environment for kids who are a little bit different. Somehow, they all find a place where they are accepted, where they can excel, where they can grow and develop.”

Each day, after finishing his lunch, Nicolas walks over to the table where the teachers sit and says hello to each.

“Sometimes I feel like it makes them happy,” Nicolas said.

And he writes Christmas cards to his teachers.

Each year, Phyllis writes a letter to Mrs. Garcia thanking her for the work she and her staff do with Nicolas. Mrs. Garcia shares the letters with her staff and faculty at the beginning of each year.

“It’s very inspiring and very inspirational to start the year that way, because you start on a high,” Mrs. Garcia said.

It is Mrs. Garcia’s way of telling everyone that they do make a difference in the lives of each student.

“And we need to continue to do this,” Mrs. Garcia said, “because if we impact one or two kids like this, for heaven sakes, this is what we need to be doing.”

***

Nicolas had a recent homework assignment where he had to list some of the struggles in his life. He told his mom he could not think of any.

Phyllis reminded him that he falls under the Autism spectrum, that he has trouble making friends, that he was a late talker and that he had difficulty learning to write because he had difficulty learning to hold a pencil.

“He doesn’t see it as a negative or a struggle,” Phyllis said. “He struggled trying to find out what his challenges were.”

Dominguez said he often sees what he called “the courage of a lion” in his students who have Autism.

“He knows what he’s got, but to him, he’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m carrying this cross.’ No, no. he works through it,” Dominguez said. “He’s not oblivious to it, but to him it’s not a reason to stumble and to cry.

“He lives in such a beautiful world. I talk about Nic and I start getting a lump in my throat because I’m going to miss him a lot. He’s that special of a child.”

About Monsignor Edward Pace High

Opened in 1961, Monsignor Pace High or “Pace” is part of the Archdiocese of Miami. It serves 885 students, including more than 500 on Step Up For Student Scholarships. Pace is recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education. It was selected by the Catholic High School Honor Roll as one of the top 50 Catholic Schools in the nation. Pace students take the PSAT/ASPIRE in ninth and 10th grade, the PSAT/ACT in 11th and the AP test all four years. Annual tuition and fees for grades nine to 11 is $12,050 and $12,300 for grade 12.

Marketing Communications Manager Roger Mooney can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

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