Category Archives for Student Spotlights

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Armani, 12, turns quiet and a little withdrawn when asked about the bullying she endured in second grade at her neighborhood school.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

Adopted siblings thrive in private school after severe neglect in early childhood

Sobel family.

Editor’s note: To mark National Adoption Awareness Month, we highlight the tax credit scholarship that serves children who are or were in Florida’s foster care system.

By JEFF BARLIS

INVERNESS, Fla. – There is no hiding from the nightmarish stories of his early childhood, but Diego Cornelius is grateful to have forgotten most of the details.

Some things he can’t forget, like the time he smelled smoke in their mobile home and woke everyone, saving them, before all of their possessions burned. Or the time he fell from a boat without a life vest, and nearly drowned before his mom jumped in.

Most of the time, he and his sisters were left alone. Their father was gone, their mother addicted to a variety of drugs. Her extended family and boyfriend had lengthy criminal records.

“He always had a struggle to survive,” his adoptive mother said.

These days, 13-year-old Diego is grateful for a lot of things: his younger sisters, Alyssa and Bianca, who look to him as a role model; his former foster parents, who adopted them; and the school choice scholarship that’s allowed them to attend the Catholic school that has embraced them all as family.

X X X

As a foster mom to more than 100 children over the last 22 years, Patricia Sobel knows something about the importance of a caring, structured environment.

That’s why she lit up when she learned about the Step Up For Students scholarship that empowers low-income families to send their kids to the private school of their choice. The scholarship also serves foster children and adopted children who were in Florida’s foster care system.

“I was in shock,” she recalled. “Shock, for two days. I couldn’t believe they were actually eligible for this free education. What a gift!”

When Diego, Alyssa, and Bianca entered Patricia’s life, she realized they were special. Six years ago, they were rescued from a life of severe neglect.

“They were living in a drug house,” Patricia said, her low, soft voice punctuated with warm emotion. “They were in a garage with no running water or electricity. Their teeth were blackened. Their heads were filled with lice. They were so filthy, they had to be bathed at the police station.”

Diego remembers the lice crawling under the tight waves of his reddish-blond hair.

“We had to put mayonnaise in our hair and wear caps over it,” he said. “I still think about that. It means someone is there to care for you and make sure you’re healthy.”

That was just the start. Diego needed a surgical procedure on his eye, and all three children needed counseling and dental work.

For kids who had so little growing up, even small gestures made a big impression.

“If I’m hungry, I just go ask and they ask me what I want,” Diego said. “They make sure we don’t starve. They make sure to protect us. My mom likes to lock the doors each night and make sure the windows are closed.”

“They love us.”

It took time for Diego and his sisters to go from “Pat” and “Chuck” to “Mom” and “Dad,” but now the love is mutual.

X X X

The children have gotten used to the same love and care at Saint John Paul II Catholic School in nearby Lecanto.

“I like the teachers, all of them,” said Alyssa, 11. “They’re kind and they help us.”

Bianca, 10, enjoys learning about religion, something else that was missing in their early years.

None of the siblings attended preschool, and Diego still feels the effects of being behind academically. His biological mother took him to kindergarten for the first week but never brought him back. He doesn’t know why.

When Pat and Chuck sent him to their neighborhood school, Diego was a 6-year-old in kindergarten alongside 5-year-old Alyssa. They remain classmates today.

After a couple of years living in the Sobels’ four-bedroom foster home in Tampa, everything fell into place for adoption. The children’s biological parents no longer had rights to custody. Despite their troubled past, the siblings were vibrant, compassionate, and healthy.

A few months later, Patricia and Charles moved everyone north from bustling Tampa to the rural rolling hills of Inverness to start Don Bosco’s Children’s Home, named after John Bosco, a Catholic saint who dedicated his life to helping disadvantaged youth. The nonprofit had purchased three houses and the lush, tranquil land they sat on. It needed a lot of work – a new roof here, a new air conditioning system there, paint and landscaping everywhere.

Patricia Sobel is executive director of Don Bosco’s Children’s Home in Inverness, Fla.

The Sobels know how to rehabilitate.

Their organization is still getting off the ground. Their goal is to find foster parents to live in the other two houses, to use their home as a blueprint. The need is large and growing.

“I get calls every day to place kids in foster care,” Patricia said.

The number of children entering Florida’s foster care system has risen sharply, and a recent study by the University of South Florida showed a tie to the opioid crisis.

“I’m going to continue taking more children,” Patricia said. “One thing I try to do is get them all in the Step Up For Students program.”

In the three years they’ve lived in Inverness, they’ve sent all 13 of their children to Saint John Paul II. Patricia has fond memories of her biological daughter, Adrienne, attending Catholic schools. More importantly, she feels a small school with a more individually tailored environment is best for her foster and adopted children.

X X X

Earlier this year as a sixth-grader at SJP2, Diego got in trouble for plagiarizing a paper. His teacher was ready to give him an F. The principal intervened.

“He wasn’t trying to do it on purpose, he just had never been taught the proper way,” said Lee Sayago, himself an energetic newcomer at the school.

Diego was upset. Getting all A’s and making the Principal’s List was a borderline obsession from the time he first attended an assembly and saw his high-achieving classmates receive special recognition.

Bianca, Alyssa, and Diego Cornelius are all smiles at Saint John Paul II Catholic School in Lecanto, Fla.

He got a second chance and beamed with confidence when he pulled Sayago aside to show him his new grade – 97, the highest score of anyone in Grades 6-8.

“It could have been a negative experience,” Sayago said, the corners of his eyes creased with pride. “But the way he handled it was amazing.”

Diego is in the midst of a growth spurt. He loves sports that involve running and lifts weights regularly in hopes of getting “six-pack” abs. After a couple of years of falling just short, he’s made all A’s.

“It’s amazing what a little nourishment and love can do,” Patricia said. “It comes from the home and the school, and then they just grow and blossom.”

About Saint John Paul II Catholic School

Opened in 1985 as part of the Archdiocese of St. Petersburg, St. John Paul II is the only Catholic school in rural Citrus County. The school serves 205 K-8 students, including 81 on Step Up For Students scholarships. SJP2 is a candidate school for the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme and is pursuing authorization as an IB World School. The school administers the MAP Growth test three times a year as well as the Terra Nova Spring test. Annual tuition is $6,645 for K-5 and $6,945 for 6-8.

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

Military family on mission to raise awareness for Gardiner scholarships

The Gardiner Scholarship has been a lifeline for the Laurie Guzman and her son Ezra, diagnosed with autism.

By JEFF BARLIS

TAMPA, Fla. – Two months after her son was diagnosed with autism, Laurie Guzman felt broken and defeated, exhausted from searching for the right school.

A scholarship made her whole, if only for a short time.

Ezra was a tall, slender 4-year-old when he and his mom took a tour of LiFT Academy, a private school in Seminole that serves children with special needs.

Meeting the school’s executive director, Ezra furrowed his brow and narrowed his deep brown eyes.

“I’m a bad boy,” he stated as a matter of fact, “so I know you won’t let me come here.”

Kim Kuruzovich, equal parts caring mother and wizened educator, was stunned.

“There are no bad children,” she said, her voice raising an octave. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh, no,” Ezra said, “my teacher told me that. I’m a bad boy. That’s why I got kicked out of school.”

Kuruzovich knelt down to meet Ezra’s gaze and put her hands on his shoulders.

“You are not a bad boy,” she said. “You’re a great boy.”

She turned to Laurie and insisted Ezra enroll, if for no other reason than to learn he’s not bad.

Instantly, Laurie felt a great dam of tension burst with relief. She knew LiFT was where Ezra needed to be.

“I cried on the way home,” Laurie said. “It was heartbreaking. That was the first time I had heard him say he was a bad boy. We don’t use that in our house, so I knew where it was coming from.”

Ezra was 2 when his father, Air Force Sgt. Luis Guzman-Castillo, got orders to move to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Two years later, Ezra’s explosive meltdowns had left whole classrooms trembling in his wake. Laurie was told to find a new preschool.

The diagnosis followed, but it didn’t bring clarity or relief. Instead, raw fear galloped through every synapse of Laurie’s mind as she drove home from the doctor’s office in a daze.

“I knew nothing about anything with autism,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do, where to go, nothing.”

She knew that Ezra was bright and verbal at an early age. She and Luis taught him with flash cards when he was 6 months old.

Ezra was so sweet and charming. Laurie could get lost in his eyes in one moment and then watch storm clouds gather in another.

The meltdowns were devastating. Kicking, screaming, crying, and sometimes running.

“They’re about 45 minutes,” Laurie explained, “and I’d be melting down with him by the end.”

She quit her job as a bank branch manager to stay home with Ezra and his little brother, Elijah. Laurie’s sister, who had two sons with autism back in their home state of Alabama was helpful. But there was so much to learn, it was easy to feel overwhelmed and lonely.

LiFT Academy broke the spell.

One of the tenets of the school is that parents are the experts on their children, so engagement is high. Kuruzovich, who has a daughter with autism, has an inviting way of sharing 20-plus years of experience with parents who are just learning how to navigate this world.

She told Laurie about the Gardiner Scholarship, a state program that allows families with children who have special needs to pay for therapy, tuition and other education-related services of their choice.

“The Gardiner Scholarship literally changed our lives,” Laurie said. “It made it so we are actually able to breathe. It gave me hope that my son can get help and learn like every other kid. I didn’t know that was going to be possible.”

Ezra felt more comfortable right away. He made friends. One teacher wondered if he really had autism.

Just wait, Kuruzovich said.

“When we saw it, it was pretty big,” she said of the inevitable first meltdown. “But it’s not a negative.”

That was the biggest relief to Laurie, who used to lose sleep worrying Ezra would get kicked out the next time he knocked over a desk. But at LiFT, the teachers, administrators and his therapists all know how to avoid and defuse meltdowns.

One year later, Ezra is in first grade, studying at a second-grade level. He even represented the school recently when some business people came to visit, telling them: “I love this school because I’m really safe. I can be who I am. People like me here.”

With structures in place at school and a home, everything was going well. Laurie had a plan to go back to work.

Then Luis’ new orders came. They’re moving to Alabama in January.

“Ezra is about to experience the biggest transition of his life,” Laurie said. “And he doesn’t do well with transition anyway. His school is going to change. His friends are going to change. His support is going to change. All of that keeps me up at night.”

Laurie has family in Alabama, but there is no special needs scholarship. The school she found charges $8,000 for tuition – paid up front. It’s a price tag that would make any working-class family swoon.

A proposal in the U.S. House of Representatives to create education spending accounts for some military families would have helped the Guzmans, but the House Rules Committee did not include it for a vote in May.

Rather than panicking, Laurie feels herself rising to the challenge of helping to create a scholarship.

Now, she’s the one with marching orders.

“We were meant to come to Tampa,” she said. “We were meant to get the diagnosis. We were meant to come to LiFT. And I am meant to go to Alabama and make the difference I can make.”

“That’s my mission, to talk to people eye to eye and say what we need, what would help. I’ll say, ‘Look at a mother and a father who got a diagnosis that was completely devastating, thinking our lives were over. And they’re not.’ ”

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

Scholarship, private school led a tormented girl to happiness

By JEFF BARLIS

MIAMI – It’s hard to miss Nicole Meneses at Pneuma Christian Academy. If she’s not front and center in every photo on every social media post, she’s stealing the show with her exuberance.

Her smile, so wide it almost looks painful, is full of braces. But she doesn’t have the slightest hint of self-consciousness.

“I’ve come a long way,” she said. “I’m thankful every day to be here.”

The happiest student at the school says you wouldn’t recognize her before Pneuma. She was bullied, depressed, and hated going to her neighborhood school.

Then her mother found out about a scholarship that would change their lives, and that led them to Pneuma.

What started as teases and taunts in first grade, turned into a campaign of insults and exclusion in second grade. Nicole’s school was a half-mile walk from the villa where she lived with her parents and older sister. It was a large, newly built K-8 with more than 1,500 students. She felt lost.

“They said I was ugly, fat, dumb,” she said, recalling the boys and girls who tormented her daily.

She hid in bathrooms or found an empty classroom to cry in. It was a sprawling checkerboard of a campus with green squares between each building. There were lots of places to hide.

“If it was during class, I would ask to get water and then go walk,” she said. “I would call my mom to leave early, and I’d go home and cry to her.”

“I hated it. It was so stressful, I couldn’t concentrate. I almost failed second grade.”

Every day, Nicole tried to find an excuse to not go. Her mom, Rosalaris Perez, started sweetly singing a song of sarcastic encouragement in Spanish:

I’m tired
I’m sleepy
My foot hurts
My stomach hurts
My head hurts
I don’t want to go to school
I don’t want to go to school

Nicole’s response was always the same: “OK, Mom, it’s a beautiful school, but only for skinny girls.”

Her self-esteem was in shambles.

“I didn’t hate myself,” she said, “but I felt different. I was just living with a lot of sadness in my life.”

With every tearful afternoon, Rosalaris, an affectionate and fiery Cuban immigrant, grew more frustrated. She saw Nicole’s report cards littered with F’s, D’s and C’s and went in to complain about the bullying. There was always a language barrier. Once, her temper flared, and she was escorted off campus.

She knew what had to be done.

A year earlier, Nicole’s older sister also needed a way out of her neighborhood high school. She struggled so badly and got so depressed, she attempted suicide.

Rosalaris felt trapped. She worked part-time as a receptionist and clerk at a physical therapy clinic. Her boyfriend – Nicole’s father Carlos Meneses – was a swimming teacher. They couldn’t afford private school. Then an acquaintance told them about the Step Up For Students scholarship that helps low-income families afford tuition.

After applying, Rosalaris got a list of nearby schools and went through it alphabetically until she found Pneuma. It’s a small school surrounded by two large green fields and filled with bright colors and warm, caring teachers inside.

Nicole Meneses, center, is a mainstay on Pneuma Academy’s Facebook page.

While she was in second grade struggling, Nicole saw how much happier her sister was and how quickly she turned herself around. Nicole was overjoyed when her scholarship was awarded. In third grade at Pneuma, a sense of relief washed over her. She achieved honor roll throughout the year.

Making friends wasn’t as easy, because she was nervous at first. But soon she let her guard down, made friends, and found a home. There were no more excuses in the morning – Nicole was in love with going to school.

Sometimes, on mornings she feels tired, she sings her mom’s song to herself. It’s something she laughs about now.

“I’m thankful every day,” she said. “Here, they always talk about how important it is to love yourself. I accept myself now, and I love myself just the way I am.”

It shows up every day. It’s the way she helps other students. It’s pushing herself to new heights, like singing in front of the school.

“She’s a star here,” principal Yohanna Ramirez said. “She’s so happy. She’s not the same student. She’s a leader. She’s confident now, and we can see it.”

What Rosalaris sees is Nicole comes home happy every day. It’s a profound change, one that’s more welcome than the academic honors that continue to roll in.

“I prefer my daughter’s happiness over straight A’s,” she said, trying to hold back tears. “I get emotional, because if there is no Step Up for me, there is no Pneuma for Nicole.”

About Pneuma Christian Academy

Opened in 2009 and affiliated with non-denominational Pneuma Church, the school expanded from its roots as an online and homeschool hub to serve pre-K through 12. There are 92 students enrolled, including 75 with Step Up For Students scholarships. Curriculum includes Bob Jones University Press and Ignitia for elementary school. The elementary school is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Pneuma administers the MAP Growth test three times a year. Tuition is $7,031.75 for Kindergarten and 1st grade; $7,119.75 for 2nd-5th; $7,265.50 for middle school; and $7,414 for high school.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org

Scholarship helps smiles return for student and her parents

Editor’s note: This story was originally posted on redefinED on February 10, 2017.

By JEFF BARLIS

Maria and Marcos Verciano will never forget the anguish over their daughter’s struggles in third and fourth grade. That’s why they’re so grateful for the scholarship that changed their lives.

At first it was the D’s and F’s on Hadassa’s report cards that raised their concern. Then the poor progress reports, all of the meetings at their neighborhood school in Destin, Florida, being told Hadassa wasn’t on track to make the next grade level – it all added up to a serious strain on the family.

Hadassa’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis didn’t do much to change her path, either.

Hadassa Verciano, 12, has improved her academics at Rocky Bayou Christian School in Niceville, Fla. “It’s way easier to learn,” she said. “If you don’t understand something the teachers explain it really well.”

Hadassa Verciano, 12, has improved her academics at Rocky Bayou Christian School in Destin, Fla. “It’s way easier to learn,” she said. “If you don’t understand something the teachers explain it really well.”

“They just set her apart and gave her more time to do the tests, but nothing more than that,” Maria said. “It was so sad for me, for her dad and for her, because she felt different from the other students. She felt like she was not accepted.”

“It was kind of overwhelming to think that she wouldn’t make it to fourth and fifth grade, that this was going to be her life forever. It was a very bad feeling that she was always behind.”

When Hadassa’s normally bright spirit and enthusiasm for school turned to dejection, her parents knew they had to make a change.

A Step Up For Students scholarship empowered them to do it.

The couple had always dreamed of sending Hadassa to a private school, but with Marcos’ work installing pavers and Maria’s job managing a beach house, they could never afford it. At their small Brazilian church, they found out about Rocky Bayou Christian School, a place that caters to all manner of students with different educational needs.

At Rocky Bayou’s Destin campus, principal Joe Quilit told Maria about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which helps lower-income families afford tuition. She applied, but it was too late in the school year. All of the scholarships had been awarded. Continue reading

From bullied and failing to Hope, honors and college

By JEFF BARLIS

Sheila James and daughter Adaijah Jackson are all smiles at Hope Academy.

GROVELAND, Fla. – The sign at their church trumpeted the opening of a new private school:

HOPE ACADEMY
NOW ENROLLING

For Adaijah Jackson and her mother, Sheila James, the word Hope was all they saw.

“It was an answer to prayer,” Sheila said, smiling and shaking her head at the memory. “The timing was just perfect.”

Adaijah (pronounced Ahd-asia) was desperate to leave the neighborhood school where she had nearly failed 10th grade.

Sheila was a single mom with two children and a job working the overnight shift at a convenience store. She never thought she could afford Hope. But the school told her about the Florida Tax Credit scholarship from Step Up For Students that covered tuition.

“It changed our lives,” she said. “I wish I would have known about the scholarship earlier.”

As a child, Adaijah was very bright and happy. You couldn’t miss her gleaming eyes and deep dimples, because she smiled all the time. She was a sensitive soul at 10, and her life was thrown into turmoil when her great grandmother died, and her parents split a few months later.

That’s when Sheila and her kids moved to Miami to live with her parents. Adaijah had been a strong student in a small PK-5 charter school in Orlando, but suddenly she was finishing fifth grade in a new neighborhood and a much larger school.

“It was the worst thing ever,” she said, recalling the confusion she felt walking into classrooms with two or three times the number of students she was accustomed to.

They lived in Miami for just eight months before moving back north to Minneola, about 30 miles west of Orlando. But the switch to large neighborhood schools had just begun, and Adaijah continued to feel like an outsider, even with a clean slate at the start of middle school.

“I didn’t know anyone,” she said. “It was hard to fit in with a large group of people.”

That’s when the bullying began.

“They used to call me bad names – fat, chubby, short,” she said. “They made fun of my natural hair. I have curly, kinky hair sitting up on my head, and it’s really poofy. I grew up loving my hair.”

She switched to extensions, wigs and weaves. Anything to try to fit in.

She found no friends among the girls, and the boys were merciless. They catcalled when she ate lunch and when she tried to exercise in PE class.

“It was torture,” she said. “They wrecked my self-esteem.”

Adaijah went from A’s and B’s in sixth grade to B’s and C’s in eighth. High school, with more than 2,000 students, was worse. She kept to herself for most of her freshman year, but her desire for acceptance took on more urgency, and she settled for any friends she could get.

They skipped class constantly and hardly studied. At home, Adaijah was angry all the time, talking back and getting in petty fights with younger brother Adrian.

She wasn’t herself. Her GPA bottomed out at 1.3. It was time for a change.

“I could not go back for my junior year,” she said. “I knew I was either going to be arrested or get pregnant. I was not going to make it to college.”

Hope Preparatory Academy in Groveland, Fla., opened in 2016.

Then she found Hope.

Adaijah and her brother were among the first of 25 students to enroll. Everyone was smiling again.

Though she was quiet and guarded at first, Adaijah knew she belonged. She felt safe and comfortable. With only a handful of classmates, she got to know her teachers personally, just how it was at her charter elementary school.

She bought in to everything – even the dress code and no-cellphone policy. She recovered some lost credits, turned her grades completely around, and became a role model to the younger students.

Principal Eucretiae Waite and her staff had a hard time connecting this Adaijah to her past.

“We couldn’t believe that she was really struggling, but of course we saw the transcript,” Waite said. “She came here and was just phenomenal. We figured it was just because we’re a small school and she got more attention.”

“She was willing to help in the classroom and outside the classroom. She would stay after school. We would have to literally take her home sometimes. Like, ‘Adaijah are you going home today?’ ”

In two years at Hope Academy, Adaijah got all A’s and one B and graduated last spring with honors. Teachers and administrators had promised to get her ready for college, and together, that promise was fulfilled.

Adaijah was accepted to South Florida, Florida International, Florida Atlantic and Southeastern among others. But she decided to attend Tallahassee Community College. She started in August and is loving the confidence that has come with her newfound independence.

She plans to stay at TCC for two years before going to Florida State to study physical therapy.

Why not go straight to one of those universities?

“I wasn’t ready for a four-year school,” she said. “I like the smaller setting.”

Adaijah didn’t just survive her rocky roads, she learned from the bumps. She’s planning to build a business in Houston or Atlanta someday, and she knows just the steps to get there.

“I’ve always thrived in small situations,” she said. “So for me to even think about big cities … it’s like, ‘Whoa, you are really growing.’ ”

Thanks, in part, to finding Hope.

About Hope Preparatory Academy

Opened in 2016, the school is affiliated with non-denominational Hope International Church in Groveland. It has 76 students in grades 6-12, 63 of whom use Step Up For Students scholarships. The school uses the Edgenuity curriculum with an emphasis on college prep courses. The Terranova 3 test is administered annually, and high school students also take the SAT and ACT. Tuition is $6,300 for grades 6-8 and $6,700 for grades 9-12.

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

Choosing the right school helped turn tragedy into triumph

By JEFF BARLIS

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – In the damp, rising heat of a late-morning graduation ceremony in May, with historic Farragut Hall as a backdrop, a hush crept through the crowd of students, relatives, friends, and faculty as they anticipated the next name.

Marquis Lambert

The roar was pent-up and prolonged, louder than one family could possibly deliver. This was the sound of the entire Admiral Farragut Academy family cheering and tearing up for the senior who 10 months prior had been a celebrated football player one day and was fighting for his life in intensive care the next.

As Marquis walked slowly across the stage to receive his diploma with a shy, child-like smile, parents LaTaura Blount and Mark Lambert swelled with joy, gratitude, pride, and even some disbelief.

Marquis at Admiral Farragut Academy graduation with parents Mark Lambert and LaTaura Blount.

“This almost didn’t happen for us,” LaTaura said.

Memories washed over them in waves.

Four years ago, a Florida tax credit scholarship made it possible to join the Farragut family. It was the perfect fit. Marquis dreamed of a future in football. His parents dreamed of an academic turnaround after their oldest son was just getting by in his neighborhood school with a C average.

“The standards, the rules, and the curriculum … I knew it would be a fresh start,” said LaTaura, who had heard about the Step Up For Students scholarship from a friend.

She was 16 when she had Marquis. She and Mark were kids trying to grow up. She worked jobs as a nursing home caregiver, a teacher and a pharmacy technician. Mark delivered phone books and traveled frequently.

Their home was as warm as their smiles, with three boys, plenty of noise and laughter. But money was always tight.

That’s why Mark and LaTaura always instilled the importance of academics. They didn’t go to college, but their children would.

“Sports can be taken away, but nobody can take away what you’ve learned and what you’ve earned,” LaTaura preached.

For football-crazy Marquis, the message only landed when it was echoed by coaches, peers and college recruiters. As he added muscle to his lean 5-foot-10 frame, he soared to a 3.7 GPA in his junior year. His dream (and his parents’) was coming into focus.

“He’d been playing football since he was little, and he had this expectation his entire life,” said Angie Koebel, who is Academic Services Director at Farragut and a doting school mom to Marquis. “That was his ticket out. He started thinking about his grades and doing better and changing, growing up.”

His coaches saw it, too.

There were only a handful of seniors on Farragut’s 2018 football team, and they were as close as brothers. Early in the spring, Marquis was the only one without a scholarship offer.

“We sat down and made a plan,” head coach Rick Kravitz said. “He worked his butt off to make himself a very good player, a recruitable player. He went from having no offers to 12 offers in a three-week period. It was just beginning to pick up even more when he had the accident.”

Marquis was driving to football practice on July 17, 2017 when a gold SUV cut in front of him. He swerved on the wet pavement, skipped over a curb and wrapped his car around a tree.

The fire department had to use the Jaws of Life to free Marquis from the wreckage.

The scene was horrific. Marquis was pronounced dead after paramedics arrived. But a nurse who was driving by and heard the crash from afar, stopped and noticed his fingers moving. Without her intervention – oxygen and the fire department’s Jaws of Life – Marquis would not have lived.

He had a traumatic brain hemorrhage, a broken neck, a torn meniscus in his knee, nerve damage in his arm, and was in a coma for two weeks. He spent 41 days in the hospital.

He wasn’t alone for a minute. Mark and LaTaura stopped working to be by his side every day. Marquis’ closest friends – the senior football players – and his position coach visited daily. Coach Kravitz and three teachers visited regularly.

The Farragut family rallied.

“They made sure we had food, donations came in (through a GoFundMe page),” LaTaura said, “and being there mentally for us was the biggest thing, because I wasn’t there at all. I was in pieces.”

When Marquis started to wake up, he wasn’t himself. Intense pain made him angry. He lashed out verbally and physically. It was hard for everyone to watch. LaTaura cried every night. But her boy was alive.

“I don’t remember anything,” Marquis said. “They had me on a lot of medicine. I remember my parents telling me I was acting funny. I was cussing a lot, being loud. Nurses were aggravated.”

Therapy – physical, speech and occupational – was grueling. But in August, just as he was getting out of a wheelchair and starting to walk, a birthday party in the hospital cafeteria lifted Marquis’ spirits. The entire football team came as a surprise.

“That’s how much he was loved,” Kravitz said.

The party inspired Marquis. He worked harder in therapy. He wanted out of that hospital, and there was a bigger goal – the first football game of the season.

Administrators at Farragut said not to rush, but everyone had their hopes up. On the day of the game, Marquis got out, had his hair cut and went to the stadium. In the locker room, he saw they had retired his jersey, put his No. 3 on helmet stickers, and didn’t allow anyone to use his locker.

“It meant a lot,” he said.

He put on his jersey, prayed with his team and led them out.

“They announced one of the captains would be Marquis,” LaTaura said, recalling her surprise at the reaction. “It was kind of a sad moment. Everybody started crying. The parents knew what was going on, but they hadn’t seen him. They were expecting him to be in a wheelchair.”

Marquis came out in a golf cart, smiling. He walked to the middle of the field to gasps and did the coin toss. In the Disney version of this story, Farragut would play its most inspired game and win big. But that didn’t happen. Real life is more complex, and Marquis had a hard time not being on the field for his senior season. Coach Kravitz explained why recruiters stopped calling.

“There was a lot of sadness watching everybody play,” Marquis said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get back out there.”

Despite a rigorous schedule of therapy, Marquis was determined to get back to school and graduate with his class.

Football was over, but he turned his determination to school and graduating with his class. Juggling therapy and school, he improved at both. By the end of the year he was going to physical therapy just once a week and no longer needed help in class. He was accepted to St. Petersburg College, where he starts Aug. 14 with a full class load and a plan to become a pharmacist.

Graduation was an inspiration to so many at Farragut, but Marquis had a different perspective. He calmly soaked it all in, felt the love, and was proud he accomplished his goal. He just wanted to be with his classmates and feel normal.

It was the same thing at prom a few weeks earlier.

“I had a good time,” he said. “Music, dancing, laughing, good talks with friends.

“I’m glad I didn’t miss it.”

So is the Farragut family.

About Admiral Farragut Academy

Opened in 1945 as the second campus of its namesake in New Jersey, is one of only two honor naval schools in the country and is re-accredited annually by the U.S. Department of the Navy. Last year, the school served 457 PreK-12 students, including 38 on Step Up For Students scholarships. The school annually administers the Terra Nova 3 test to students in grades 2-7 and the PSAT to students in grades 8-11. Tuition is $13,000 annually for Kindergarten, $16,300 for Grades 1-5, $18,900 for Grades 6 and 7, and $23,300 for high school. Payment plans and financial aid are available.

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

After school choice helps her, she helps Puerto Rico

By JEFF BARLIS

Last fall, as she started her senior year in high school, IvonD’liz Chernoff was full of love and gratitude. She was excelling in school. She had overcome years of ridicule. She was headed for college.

Tracking a monster hurricane was the last thing on her mind.

But there it was. Maria. Tearing through her beloved Puerto Rico.

After a Step Up For Students scholarship changed her life, IvonD’liz Chernoff set out to help others by raising more than $12,000 for Hurricane Maria relief for Puerto Rico last fall.

“I couldn’t look away,” IvonD’liz recounted. “Houses with roofs coming off, water coming in from the ocean. It was terrifying … heartbreaking. The worst part was the aftermath, seeing people suffering, kids crying because they don’t have a home or food or because their dolls are gone with the storm.”

I have to do something, she thought.

So she did. The girl who failed third grade was now student body president. The girl rescued by a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students now found the strength to rescue others.

I can move mountains, she thought.

IvonD’liz, also known as Ivon or Ivy, was born in Orlando. But in her heart, she’s Puerto Rican. She moved to the U.S. territory when she was three months old, and didn’t return to central Florida, to live with her grandparents, until she was 5. “I’m a pure Latina,” she said with an accent, a broad smile and a little shimmy that sent her tight, black curls into a dance. “My whole family shares that Puerto Rican spice.”

Florida turned out to be turbulent. When Ivon began attending her neighborhood kindergarten, she didn’t know English. She soon became comfortable speaking it. But reading?

“Reading was really difficult,” she said, “especially when you had to stand up. I would stutter. The kids who knew English would laugh.”

Ivon felt the sting of classmates calling her dumb. She cried a lot.

When her mom got married a few years later, she took Ivon and her two sisters from their grandparents’ home and moved south to Poinciana. In school, Ivon continued to struggle. She was bullied by a boy who picked on her incessantly. She got mostly F’s and D’s. She didn’t have many friends.

“I didn’t feel accepted,” she said.

After a falling out with her mother, Ivon and her two sisters moved back to Orlando to live with their grandparents. Despite financial hardships, it was peaceful and stable. Ivon’s grades rebounded.

As a freshman at her neighborhood high school, Ivon did well and was happy. But she told her grandmother, Luz Ruiz, she wanted to leave because the classes were so large.

“I didn’t like the fact that when I didn’t understand anything, they couldn’t slow it down for me,” she said. “I wanted to go somewhere where I could have a one-on-one conversation with a teacher.”

Enter Raising Knowledge Academy. Ivon and her grandmother toured the school and met the principal, a strong, warm-hearted woman named Ariam Cotto. It was too late to get a Step Up scholarship, Ms. Cotto explained. But when she saw Ivon’s enthusiasm for the school, she worked out an affordable payment plan with Ivon’s grandmother, who worked in housekeeping at Disney.

“She saw something in me,” Ivon said. “I was so happy I was crying when we left.”

It took time for Ivon to find her groove. But with a Step Up scholarship in place for her 11th grade year, the self-admitted goofy kid started taking school more seriously. In her senior year, she was elected student body president.

Then Maria happened.

The destruction devastated Ivon. But it also spurred her to action.

She immediately went to Cotto, and they came up with a plan.

It was simple at first. Ivon and some students stood at the busy intersection near the school with signs for hurricane relief, waving a Puerto Rican flag and selling water bottles. The early donations were encouraging. The first time someone handed Ivon $40 was stunning. But she was thinking bigger.

While Cotto called local officials, Ivon galvanized the entire school community – students, parents, their churches. It took weeks to plan and even longer to coordinate with a church in Puerto Rico, but the refocused efforts paid off.

Donations streamed in – food, supplies, aid kits and money ($1,000 in one day gave everyone shivers of empowered delight). Students filled bags and boxes with supplies for women, men, children and babies.

“She raised more than $7,000 and another $5,000 in food and clothing,” Mrs. Cotto said, crediting Ivon as the driving force. “She’s a wonderful leader.”

Ivon accumulated 120 volunteer hours in two months. At graduation, the school gave her its Citizenship Award.

She finished with a 3.5 GPA. She was also accepted to Adventist University of Health Sciences, where she plans to become a pediatric cancer nurse.

Ivon’s nursing aspirations began five years ago, when she learned from post-operation hospital nurses how to care for her grandparents at home. She cries happily at the thought of how much they’ve done for her.

Grandma couldn’t be prouder to see how Ivon has grown. She credits Raising Knowledge Academy. “There were moments when Ivon fell down,” she said, “and they helped her get back up.”

She’s well on her way to paying it forward.

About Raising Knowledge Academy

Opened in 2015, the non-denominational non-profit had 92 K-12 students last year, including 46 on Step Up scholarships. The school uses Alpha and Omega Publications’ Horizons and Ignitia curriculums, which allow students to customize elective learning in addition to five core subjects. It offers advanced classes and dual enrollment through Valencia College. Its teachers are state certified, class sizes are between 8-10 students, and the school administers NWEA’s Measures of Academic Performance (MAP) test. Tuition is $6,100.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org

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