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Cigar City Brewing gives back by donating $30,000 to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By PAUL SOOST

 TAMPA, FL – Cigar City Brewing, a Tampa-area brewery, announced on Feb. 2 a $30,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program for the 2017-18 school year.

This is the first time that Cigar City Brewing has partnered with Step Up For Students. The company’s contribution will fund four K-12 scholarships so financially disadvantaged Florida children can attend the school that best meets their learning needs.

Cigar City Brewing Chief Operating Officer Justin Clark , right, presents Step Up For Students development officer David Bryant ,left, with a check for $30,000. The donation will provide K-12 scholarships for lower-income Florida families to attend the school that best meets their child’s learning needs through the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.

“Cigar City Brewing is proud to support our community, and even more proud to make a difference in the life of a child through providing educational opportunities that might not otherwise be available,” said Justin Clark, Cigar City Brewing’s chief operating officer. “We admire the work of Step Up For Students and are pleased to join in this partnership.”

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income children throughout the state. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and allows parents and students to choose between a K-12 scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

“We are honored to welcome Cigar City Brewing as a partner in our mission to help lower-income Florida families access schools that best fit their children’s unique learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful for their generosity and their commitment to giving back to their community.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up $6,343 per student for kinergarten through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Paul Soost can be reached at psoost@sufs.org.

 

Republic National Distributing Company takes center stage and donates $65 million to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By PAUL SOOST

Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC), the nation’s second largest wine and spirits wholesaler, announced on Feb. 6 a contribution of $65 million to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program, which serves lower-income children in Florida.

Republic National Distributing Company Executive Vice President Ron Barcena presents Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill with a $65 million contribution as Step Up scholarship graduate Orlando Rivera looks on. RNDC’s contribution will fund more than 9,940 scholarships for lower-income students to attend a school that best meets their learning needs. Rivera is a freshman at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with plans to become a commercial airline pilot.

The donation was announced during RNDC’s state sales meeting, held on a soundstage at Universal Studios Orlando.

RNDC’s donation will allow more than 9,940 K-12 students to attend the school of their choice through Florida Tax Credit scholarships for the 2017-18 school year.

“Making a difference in the life of a student, their family and our community makes us very proud. For many students, having the opportunity to choose a school that best meets their learning needs can propel them on a path toward a better future,” said RNDC Executive Vice President Ron Barcena. “We’re proud to support Florida schoolchildren through the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.”

This is the sixth consecutive year RNDC has contributed to the nonprofit organization that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged schoolchildren. The program is funded with tax-credited donations and allows parents and schoolchildren to choose between a K-12 scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

“Step Up For Students allows lower-income families the opportunity to attend schools they might not otherwise be able to afford. But we couldn’t do this without the support and generosity of our donors,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “Since 2012, RNDC has contributed $180 million, providing more than 30,665 scholarships. On behalf of Step Up and the families we serve, we thank you for your continued commitment and generosity.”

Step Up scholarship graduate Orlando Rivera and his mother Deborah DeJesus attended the event to share their story with the RNDC associates. During his junior year of high school, Orlando’s grades had dropped to nearly failing. With help from a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Orlando was able to change schools and attend Heritage Christian School in Kissimmee.

“Going to Heritage turned my life around,” said Orlando. “Today, I’m a freshman at Embry-Riddle, studying aeronautical science on the airline pilot specialty track. I’d like to thank Step Up For Students and donors like RNDC for making this possible.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade, and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Paul Soost can be reached at psoost@sufs.org

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

By JEFF BARLIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Masters Preparatory Christian Academy

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

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

Scholarship gives strength to bullied student

By DAVID TUTHILL

Jacob Monastra came home from school in tears every day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortunately for Jacob, help came from a familiar source.

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

The results were immediate and stunning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reach David Hudson Tuthill at dhudson@sufs.org.

 

 

Scholarship, Kingdom Academy spurred turnaround for Miami student

Eleven-year-old Henezy Berrios’ sparkling brown eyes crinkle in the corners when she smiles, which is just about all the time. She has boundless, contagious enthusiasm. She loves to dance and crack jokes.

Henezy Berrios

She’s the girl that everyone in school likes.

But you would have hardly recognized her in first grade at her neighborhood school in Miami. She was quiet and withdrawn, afraid to ask for help, made fun of because she couldn’t read.

The D’s and F’s and diagnoses of ADHD and dyslexia set off alarms for her mother, Liliana Arguello. She resolved to find a better fit for Henezy’s education, and thanks to a Step Up For Students scholarship was able to access a private school called Kingdom Academy.

There, her daughter’s fears faded as her reading skills blossomed. A different Henezy emerged.

“Her self esteem and attitude has completely changed,” Liliana said. “I was going crazy. You need reading for everything, and I was already seeing her frustration. I said this is not going to happen.”

Liliana was 15 when she got pregnant with Henezy. Now in her mid-20s, she’s a single mother of two who works two or three housekeeping jobs every day. The remaining tuition after the scholarship and other school expenses take much of her paycheck, sometimes leaving little money for food.

Stress is a persistent companion, and Liliana rarely has the time, energy or resources to be as engaged a parent as she would like. That made it all the more important to find the right school.

When Henezy stumbled in her neighborhood school, Liliana found a tutor she could barely afford who told her about the Step Up For Students scholarship. It empowers low-income families to choose from more than 1,700 private schools statewide.

Liliana applied and received a list of 10 schools near her home. In between jobs and on breaks she visited all 10, took tours and asked lots of questions before picking Kingdom Academy.

Sitting on a little lot ringed by oaks and palms, the academy building is small and filled to capacity. It’s also clean and well-lit, full of Smartboards, laptops and dedicated teachers. Including before- and after-care, Henezy is at school from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and can eat three meals a day there.

“It’s a blessing,” Liliana said.

Henezy repeated first grade at Kingdom Academy and was still below grade level in reading throughout her first year. She needed help with unfamiliar words and lacked confidence when reading aloud. But she never got down or gave up.

“We saw her effort,” said principal Elena Navarro. “She’s a very determined girl. It’s wonderful. You could see that maybe she just wasn’t being worked with before.”

By the end of her first year, Henezy was a B student overall with a C in reading. She was improving all around and letting her personality bubble forth. She worked well in small groups and connected with teachers who helped her stay focused with interactive, non-traditional lessons. They let her set a fast pace and move around instead of sitting all day.

“(My teacher) helps a lot,” said Henezy, now in fourth grade. “Sometimes she gives me extra time to do stuff. … Sometimes she puts on a song about it. Sometimes she teaches it to us in a funny way.”

Today Henezy Berrios is a bright fourth-grader with a growing aptitude and appreciation for reading.

Eventually, the new school’s approach clicked. Henezy began to love the books that were once a chore.

“I used to feel like I couldn’t do it,” she said. “I couldn’t read the words, so I was like, ‘Oh my god, what is it?!’ Now I feel like these books are amazing and I always should have read them.”

Henezy’s gains this year are stunning.

Kingdom Academy tracks student scores on the standardized Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test. Step Up For Students’ Office of Student Learning is supporting Kingdom Academy and a number of participating private schools to analyze MAP data to improve instruction. (Step Up For Students also publishes this blog.)

At the beginning of the year, Henezy was just below the nationwide average in reading. In December, her mid-year results showed gains that were greater than 99 percent of fourth-graders who took the test nationwide.

“I was freaking out,” said Henezy’s fourth-grade teacher, Jessica Gonzalez. “I was trying to figure out if I wrote it down wrong the first time. I had to double check everything. I even went to her teacher last year and showed her the jump. It was a huge deal for me. For her, too, obviously. Her smile just blew up when I showed her.”

Liliana cried, but that’s not uncommon these days with all of Henezy’s growth. Henezy talks often about her goals in life – a huge house, a farm, a car. She wants to buy her mom a house and a car, too.

“She’s amazing,” Liliana said. “She’s the one who motivates me and keeps me going.”

“I am so relieved to know that my child is going to have a successful life, go to college and do big things, whatever she wants to do. She’s not going to have to struggle.”

About Kingdom Academy

Founded in Miami in 1990, the non-denominational Christian school offers an emphasis on business and financial literacy. It holds family workshops to help parents understand the curriculum and improve their own financial literacy skills, and offers Rosetta Stone to those trying to learn English. The school is accredited by AdvancED and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) among others. It serves 250 students from grades K-8, including 175 on the Step Up scholarship. Elementary grades use Pearson Scott Foresman curriculum materials for core subjects, while middle school classes are aligned to local, state and national standards with an eye on career or post-secondary options. The school administers the Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP) as its standardized test three times a yearTuition is $7,560 for K-8.

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

Eduardo Rivero’s amazing turnaround

By GEOFF FOX

Eduardo Rivero was a sixth-grader reading at a fourth-grade level when school started last year. He was also behind in math and had trouble concentrating.

As he begins seventh grade at Kingdom Academy, a pre-K through 8 private school in Miami, the 12-year-old is reading at an eighth-grade level and thriving in math.

Jovanna Rivero with her sons Julian and Eduardo, each of whom attend Kingdom Academy in Miami.

Jovanna Rivero with her sons Julian and Eduardo, each of whom attend Kingdom Academy in Miami.

The amazing turnaround has left his mother, Jovanna Rivero, pleasantly surprised.

“I sat down with his teacher at the end of the year, and they showed me the (reading) score and, oh, my God, I was so emotional and happy,” Jovanna Rivero said. “It was like opening up a box with a surprise in it. I didn’t think it would be so good. Even the teachers and staff thought it was amazing by how much progress he made in that time.”

Besides Eduardo’s hard work, she said teacher Xiomara Carrera was instrumental in his success.

“She saw that he was falling behind in his studies and understood that he was missing the previous year’s foundational understanding of math and English,” Rivero said. “Not addressing it would cause him to spiral into a failing year. The pressure of not understanding each day’s advancing subject matter was hurting  him not only academically, but socially as well.

“When I approached the school about this, they offered to add him in Mrs. Carrera’s after-school tutoring program. Unfortunately, by the second quarter of the school year the program was already full. Mrs. Carrera took the initiative to open her schedule and some personal time to work with Eduardo. It makes me so happy to see that teachers like Mrs. Carrera are willing to work with parents and truly care for our children’s success.”

Eduardo recently entered his third year at Kingdom Academy. His mother said he previously attended a local elementary school, but while he made mostly A’s and B’s, he was not happy there.

Jovanna Rivero learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program through a friend whose child went to Kingdom Academy. A single mother of two who works as a medical assistant, she applied for the program for lower-income families through Step Up For Students and Eduardo was accepted.

Eduardo Rivero, a seventh-grader at Kingdom Academy in Miami, was reading on a fourth-grade level last year, but made a stunning turnaround. He is now reading at an eighth-grade level and excelling in math.

Eduardo Rivero, a seventh-grader at Kingdom Academy in Miami, was reading on a fourth-grade level last year, but made a stunning turnaround. He is now reading at an eighth-grade level and excelling in math.

While many students in the program realize academic improvements after receiving a scholarship, Eduardo was different.

“During his fifth-grade year, we noticed an odd behavior when it came to focusing on a task,” Rivero said. “Through counseling it was determined he had a mild learning disability. He was also diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.”

She doubts Eduardo would have gotten as much individualized attention at their neighborhood school. Her younger son Julian is now doing well as a first-grader at Kingdom Academy; he is also on the scholarship program through Step Up.

When he isn’t astounding his family and teachers with academic progress, Eduardo enjoys computer coding, video games, Minecraft and art.

“So far, I want to be animator,” he said.

“He draws characters from his imagination,” his mother said. “Whatever goes into his brain, he draws.”

She said Eduardo’s confidence has soared since his remarkable academic turnaround.

“We’re very grateful to everyone at Step Up and Kingdom Academy,” she said.

Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@StepUpForStudents.org.

In light of her oldest son’s stunning academic turnaround, Jovanna Rivero says thank you:

 


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Thank you, donors, for helping the Crum family exercise educational options

By STEP UP FOR STUDENTS STAFF

Our scholarship families come from all backgrounds, and have different reasons for seeking out educational options for their children. Corey Crum, of the U.S. Coast Guard, and his wife, Cristina, recently talked with us about their experience with the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Without Step Up For Students‘ supporters, the couple could not afford to send their daughter, first-grader Corin, to Holy Family Catholic School in St. Petersburg, where she is comfortable and thriving.

Hear what they have to say by watching here:

 

 

Against all odds, the Famianos persevere

By DAVID TUTHILL

When others looked at Danielle and Nicholas as young children, they only saw their special challenges. But Dorothy Famiano was blinded by love.

Nicholas was born with spina bifida and must use a wheelchair. Danielle was diagnosed at age 2 with autism and cerebral palsy. Few people believed in the pair who were in foster care at the time. But Famiano, a former foster care volunteer, saw something special.

Nicholas competes in the Special Olympics and is an avid power lifter, bowler and swimmer, recently winning an assisted-swimming competition in Crystal River. He dreams of one day becoming a police officer.

Nicholas competes in the Special Olympics and is an avid power lifter, bowler and swimmer, recently winning an assisted-swimming competition in Crystal River. He dreams of one day becoming a police officer.

“Everyone told me I was wearing rose-colored glasses with these kids,” says Famiano, 56. “They talked about giving me my own psych examination, because no one else could even begin to see what I saw and feel what I felt for these kids.”

Faminano, a freelance photojournalist who lives in Spring Hill, tuned out the noise and followed her heart. She adopted Nicholas and Danielle, now 16 and 14, respectively, as toddlers. A single mother of two grown biological children, she now spends her days homeschooling Nicholas and Danielle, as well as a third adopted son with severe dyslexia.

Their journey has been marked by difficulty, patience, love and triumph. Nicholas and Danielle both spent years in public school, which was not ideal for them.

“Public school did not work for my children. There was no place to put them,” said Famiano, also a grandmother of five.

Nicholas was placed in secured classrooms full of students with severe behavioral issues. It was not a practical solution.

“Nicholas never met a person he didn’t like. He gets along with everyone,” Famiano says. “They put him in these environments for kids with behavioral issues when he didn’t have any. What he needs is one-on-one instruction at all times. He wasn’t getting that in public school.”

Blessed with an inquisitive nature, Danielle is known to rattle off one question after another – but not always in a predictable direction. The fast-paced rhythm and chaos of a traditional classroom wreaked havoc on her mental health.

Famiano’s voice trembles as she reminisces about her daughter’s intense struggles.

Danielle shows off some of her creative mixed media artwork.

Danielle shows off some of her creative mixed media artwork.

“The structure of the classroom drove Danielle crazy – charts, colors, people talking all over the place,” she said. “The lunchroom would really drive her nuts. She would hold it in all day and as soon as she got in the car she would explode. Screaming, crying, ripping at her clothes.”

Children on the autism spectrum often can have sensory issues and act out when overstimulated.

A few years ago, a public school teacher told Famiano about the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs. She applied through Step Up For Students and Nicholas and Danielle were accepted. The scholarships have given new hope to a mother who saw great potential in her children.

The ability to teach her children at a speed they were comfortable with has resulted in great academic progress.

“They have gifts that aren’t necessarily discovered in a classroom setting. I saw that potential in them from the first time I met them,” Famiano says. “The success my children are enjoying is due to the fact the Gardiner Scholarship is geared towards each child’s strength. It’s the personalized learning experience that has made it so successful. A lot of people don’t understand this.”

Christina Cancel, a teacher and home-school evaluator with Central Florida Home Education Services, currently works with Nicholas and Danielle. She has been impressed with the children’s progress in the three years she has known them.

“Both their worlds have blown wide open through the resources and opportunities now available to them,” Cancel says. “They’ve really come out of their shells.”

Those resources include working with blocks for Nicholas, which has led to a boost in his confidence and a blossoming of his social ability. For Danielle, greater access to technology, such as cameras, has helped improve her studies as well.

“Both will always struggle, but (Gardiner) has been life-changing for them,” Cancel says.

Stories like theirs emphasize the importance of dynamic and flexible educational plans for children based on their individual needs.

As Famiano likes to tell it, some of the days Nicholas and Danielle learn best are when she “tricks” them into thinking they aren’t having school that day.

“You can’t believe what these kids can do,” Famiano says. “They just do it differently.”

Nicholas has discovered an ability to build things. He puts together gear systems with Lego sets, and is learning to calculate numbers in his head from using computers.

Danielle has made a leap in her reading through her work with video production and photography. The Famianos continue their journey on the Gardiner Scholarship, armed with a level of parental empowerment that helps maximize the children’s abilities.

That empowerment extends to Danielle and Nicholas.

With an eye to their futures, the siblings written off by so many are filled with wide-eyed optimism.

Nicholas competes in the Special Olympics. He is an avid power lifter, bowler and swimmer, recently winning an assisted-swimming competition in Crystal River. He dreams of one day becoming a police officer.

Danielle wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a photographer. Famiano says her mastery of their Cannon Mark 3 camera is a sight to behold.

One thing is certain:  The progress Nicholas and Danielle have made since their adoption has been staggering. Famiano is grateful.

“The biggest thing for me is they have a goal,” she says. “I was always told they wouldn’t have them, that they wouldn’t be able to form them. That’s the most exciting thing for me.”

 

Meet Ben Zanca, Gardiner scholar

By GEOFF FOX

Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedDoctors didn’t expect Ben Zanca to live very long. Even before his birth, fluid was drained from his lungs every week for eight weeks until he was delivered.

Ben’s parents, Ann and Tony Zanca, were told Ben may need a chest tube after his birth and possibly surgery.

“But, when they put the (chest) tube in all the blood vessels shut down,” Ann Zanca said. “It’s called persistent pulmonary hypertension, which not many people survive at that age. He was transferred to Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children (in Orlando) where there is a heart-lung bypass machine.” Ben Z

Things looked bleak.

“They told us he was going to die,” Tony Zanca said. “They called in a priest and everything.”

Fortunately, a nitric oxide treatment worked and Ben did not have to go on the lung-heart bypass machine.

“They said they’d never seen a baby as sick as Ben pull through,” Ann Zanca said.

Unfortunately, Ben’s medical struggles and the family’s worries were only beginning. Problems with his blood vessels went misdiagnosed for more than 12 years.

About 18 months ago, Ben, now an outgoing 14-year-old who loves camping, was finally diagnosed with CLOVES syndrome, an extremely rare disorder characterized by tissue overgrowth and complex vascular malformations. Worldwide, less than 200 cases of CLOVES syndrome have ever been identified, according to information from Boston Children’s Hospital.

Because of CLOVES, Ben is at risk for developing blood clots and has regular doctor visits to monitor his vascular health.

That’s not his only issue. Shortly after he was born, Ben was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He also has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum and deals with epilepsy and asthma.

Until the current school year, he attended public school in Altamonte Springs, Florida, where he lives with his family, including 9-year-old sister Megan. Tony Zanca works in the parts department of a local auto dealer and Ann works part-time jobs as a computer programmer analyst and as an advocate for parents with children who have an Individualized Educational Plan.

Ben was not thriving at the public school.

“It’s not that they didn’t care, but he wasn’t going anywhere; he was going backward,” Tony Zanca said. “Teachers have their hands tied with all the new testing and all they did was quizzing for the test. There was no hands-on learning, which is what Ben thrives on.”

For years, Ann Zanca wanted to enroll Ben in the nearby Pace Brantley School in Longwood, but the family couldn’t afford it. Established in 1971, the school has always been geared toward students with learning issues. It is situated on nine wooded acres that offer a serene setting.

Eventually, a friend told Ann Zanca about the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs; the scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students. In 2016, the Zancas applied for the scholarship – which can help families pay for tuition at partner schools,  approved therapists, specialists, curriculum, technology or even a college savings account – and Ben was accepted.

“Ben is very social and I don’t want him to miss out on the experience of school,” Ann Zanca said. “They have a well-rounded curriculum and lots of extra-curricular activities. They even have a prom. I was also concerned if it would be academic enough. Of all the places I knew of or visited, it seemed to be up to standards.

“It seems to challenge him but he doesn’t seem overwhelmed. There are people there to help him. We do have a private tutor for math. His teacher tells me he’s definitely challenged in pre-algebra, but he’s doing well. That makes me happy. The goal is that he’ll be able to get a regular diploma and either go to vocational school or college afterward.”

Now in eighth grade, Ben enjoys going to school. Due to his medical issues, he often has doctor’s appointments during the school day. Before, his mother said, he would sometimes call from school to see if she could pick him up early. Now, he doesn’t want to leave Pace Brantley’s campus.

While he has historically struggled with reading, English is now one of his favorite subjects, along with math.

“We were learning substitution, the three ways of substitution in math,” Ben said after a recent day at school. “That’s in algebra; it’s coming along.”

Of his favorite times of day is FLEX (Focused Learning Experience) Time, when students can choose a subject of their own to explore after lunch. Activities can include arts and crafts, learning a foreign language, tennis, yoga, tai chi or taking virtual field trips on a Smartphone.

On this particular day, Ben chose art.

“We were drawing different types of flags and what they look like,” he said. “I drew the Florida flag.”

Jennifer Portilla, Ben’s reading and language arts teacher, said she has seen him flourish since the school year began.

“He seems really comfortable and he’s willing to take risks. He’s not afraid to not be successful” in class, she said. “Academically, he’s making strides. He’s a pretty good writer for his age. He is able to write an essay and he doesn’t seem to struggle as much as at the beginning of the year.”

One of Ben’s other interests is the Boy Scouts. Despite his son’s many medical obstacles, Tony Zanca said he tries to treat him “like any other boy would be treated.” On a recent Boy Scout camping trip, he allowed Ben to paddle on a canoe with another scout.

“Years ago, I would never let him out in canoes down the river without me,” Tony Zanca said. “But it’s like I told him, ‘I’m going to have to start letting you do things by yourself, make your decisions and not do things wrong’. Someday soon, I’ll let him go on a (Boy Scout) camping trip by himself.”

The Zancas say that while Ben is obviously aware that he has medical issues, he doesn’t dwell on them. Because CLOVES can cause blood clots (Ben has had a few), they constantly monitor how he’s feeling. Now that he’s at Pace Brantley, which has a nurse on campus, his parents are more at ease.

“The scholarship was huge, like the answer to our prayers,” Ann Zanca said. “His self-confidence has increased tremendously. It’s a lot of hands-on learning. He made a car out of a Coke bottle and started telling me about Newton’s Laws of Motion. His self-confidence has increased tremendously.”

Reach Geoff Fox at Gfox@sufs.org

A supportive environment made all the difference for this scholarship student

By JEFF BARLIS

Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedTatianna Mondesir used to pull her hair down over her face in class. She was trying to hide, trying to avoid being called upon to answer questions she knew she would get wrong.

“When I got a wrong answer, people would laugh at me,” said the normally vibrant girl with the long braids. “I didn’t understand as well as them.”

In her zoned neighborhood school, she was earning C’s, D’s and F’s in third grade and was in danger of being retained. She managed to scrape by, but her pediatrician had advice for her mother: Look into the Step Up For Students scholarship for low-income students. Consider a private school that might give Tatianna a better chance to learn and grow. Tatianna

The next year, at Abundant Life Christian Academy in Margate, Tatianna was still struggling and hiding behind her hair. But now no one laughed when she couldn’t produce the answers.

Tatianna Mondesir graduated from eighth grade at Abundant Life Christian Academy in Margate last spring.

This was the start of a transformation.

“The teachers and my classmates supported me,” said Tatianna, now a ninth-grader. “In fourth grade and fifth grade I struggled a lot, because I wasn’t on the same level as other kids. But I improved to getting C’s.”

Smaller classes, after-school tutoring, and extra attention from her teachers helped. But nothing made as big an impact, Tatianna said, as the compassion and encouragement she felt all around her.

Finally, she had hope, which began to turn into belief in herself.

“When she came to sixth grade, she was still a year behind,” said history teacher Laura Hennebery. “But she was really working hard.”

And wanting more. Quarter after quarter, Tatianna watched her friends go up on stage for an honor roll ceremony while she sat alone next to their empty chairs. She became obsessed with making honor roll, too.

At the end of the fourth quarter, she thought she was there. But when she and her mom, Karen, met with her math teacher, she learned she was short by a single point.

“I had a 79,” Tatianna recalled. “I was so happy! I thought she was going to round up, but she didn’t. My mom asked her if I could have extra credit so I could make the honor roll, but she wouldn’t let me. She said I should have done the extra credit that was available (during the school year). But I never did that, which was a mistake.”

Tatianna was upset at first. But her teachers continued to be supportive. And the next year, her determination kicked into higher gear.

She wrote down her goals for seventh grade: Work harder. Study more. Participate in class. Read more books. Do all the extra credit. Make honor roll.

Tatianna also changed her hairstyle, wearing a headband to hold her hair back. A beautiful smile emerged with her confidence.

To everyone around her, the change was obvious.

“When she first came to school and even through sixth grade, she was very quiet, kept to herself,” Ms. Hennebery said. “She just didn’t want anyone giving her any kind of attention. … You’d ask her a question and she would just shake her head, ‘No, I can’t do that. I don’t want to do that.’ ”

But now Tatianna was involved with school activities, participating in class – and meeting her goals.

She got all A’s and B’s and made honor roll all four quarters. At the end of the year, she was on stage shaking hands with principal Stacy Angier, who gave her a pin for induction into the National Junior Honor Society.

“When I walked onto the stage it was really cool, an incredible feeling,” she said. “I was really proud of myself.”

After finishing eighth grade at Abundant Life, Tatianna enrolled in her zoned, public high school. Her mom had lost her job in administration at a pest control company. So even with the Step Up scholarship, a private school was no longer financially possible.

Her new school is huge and fast-paced. But Tatianna said her goals are on track. She plans to go to college and become a lawyer – things she didn’t dare dream a few years ago.

Mom is confident, too. Tatianna’s first report card showed her falling just shy of honor roll, with all A’s and B’s and one C (in digital marketing). But it’s not like she hasn’t been here before.

Thanks to the scholarship, Tatianna was able to attend a school where “they really pushed her,” Karen said.

Now, she knows how to push herself.

Said mom, “I know she will be okay now.”

About Abundant Life Christian Academy

Started in 1990, Abundant Life Christian Academy is accredited by AdvancED and serves 445 PreK-8 students, including 237 on tax credit scholarships. The school uses a mix of curriculum – mostly BJU Press, Saxon Math in middle school, and some Abeka materials. This year, the MAP® (Measures of Academic Progress) test replaced the SAT as the school’s annual assessment test. Tuition varies per grade, from $6,600 to $7,300 per year. Abundant Life participates in Step Up For Students’ Success Partners program, a two-year comprehensive professional development program that is free to all schools serving Step Up For Students scholars. Success Partners is grounded in current research that directly correlates student success with parent involvement regardless of economic, racial, ethnic and educational backgrounds.The school also has access to the Teaching and Learning Exchange, a web-based, interactive tool featuring the State Standards, instructional strategies, parent and student interventions, while at the same time addressing social and behavioral issues. Abundant Life is also participating in a MAP® pilot program run by Step Up. MAP® is an adaptive computer assessment that informs educators as to what individual students are ready to learn and guides the teachers to revise their teaching based on student needs.

 

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