In a three-year span, Mariel Ubfal’s world fell apart. Her husband died. She moved her family to the United States. Then she watched as her children struggled in school.
The move from Argentina to America came in 2008, three years after Mariel’s husband died from cancer. At the time, all four of her children were under the age of 10. “Leaving was not easy,” Mariel said. “But I knew this was the right decision for my kids.”
Starting over wasn’t easy, either.
Being unemployed and underemployed for the first few years, Mariel struggled to pay bills and, at times, even to feed her kids. As if that wasn’t enough, her children began having behavioral and academic issues in their neighborhood schools – something that never happened in Argentina.
After moving to Miami from Argentina, the Mohadeb kids — Agustin, Barbara, Matias, and Sebastian — attended the Rabbi Alexander S. Gross Hebrew Academy in Miami on Florida Tax Credit scholarships through Step Up For Students.
Troubles first hit her three eldest – Matias, Agustin, and Barbara Mohadeb.
Matias hated school because he struggled learning a new language. In eighth grade, he earned D’s and F’s and routinely got into fights. Agustin was held back in sixth grade for poor academics. Barbara failed fifth grade because she did not speak the language.
Mariel felt desperate. She called the school and tried setting up meetings with her sons’ teachers, but that proved difficult.
“Maybe it was the language barrier, I’m not sure, but I wasn’t able to help my kids succeed at their local school,” she said.
Mariel searched for a better option and found a school that felt like home, but couldn’t afford the tuition. Then a friend told her about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarships.
It was “the answer to my prayers,” she said.
In 2010, Matias, then 15, and Agustin, then 13, began ninth and seventh grade respectively at Hebrew Academy.
The school is smaller and more family-oriented than their previous schools, Mariel said, and its teachers are more accessible to parents. The curriculum is rigorous and the school has high expectation for student academics and parental involvement, she said.
Progress didn’t happen immediately. Matias’s behavior was terrible in the beginning. At one point, he refused to go to his new school, and Mariel couldn’t get him out of bed.
Matias laughs about the incident now, but at the time he was upset about the change and still feeling combative after his experience in his neighborhood school.
“Basically, I pitched a fit,” he said.
“He is over six feet tall, and I am a small woman,” Mariel recalled. “So, I called the principal and told him what was happening.”
The next thing she knew, Matias not only got up, but apologized.
“I can’t explain how happy I was at that moment,” she said. “All my decisions up to that point were worth it.”
Staff at Hebrew Academy embraced Matias, and he embraced his new school back.
“There were only like 100 students in the high school, so everyone knew you,” he said. “It was a big change. It was smaller and quieter. It was safe. I felt like I could relax.”
Mariel decided to leave Barbara and her youngest, Sebastian, in their local public schools, thinking their experience would be different. But they continued to struggle.
Barbara said although she didn’t speak English well, she was never enrolled in English as a Second Language class. That made learning difficult. Then when she began sixth grade, her attitude changed. She started talking back to her mom and hanging with the wrong crowd.
“I was definitely influenced by my peers,” she said. “Many of my classmates were already doing drugs in middle school. I did not want that for my future.”
Sebastian, meanwhile, was left behind by his teacher during a field trip because he fell asleep on the bus. Mariel filed a complaint that she said resulted in no additional field trips the rest of the year – and other students taking out their frustration on her son.
“The bullying was constant,” she said. “All the students picked on him and harassed him for being Jewish, and (for) being the reason they could no longer attend field trips. It was an awful experience.”
In 2012, Mariel secured two more scholarships, so Sebastian and Barbara could attend Hebrew Academy with their brothers.
Again, everything changed.
Sebastian struggled academically the first two years, but then won the school’s “most improved” award. Barbara also made a turnaround. As with her siblings, her English proficiency benefited from time and one-on-one attention. She described Hebrew Academy as “a family” – united, and with expectations of success.
“That made all the difference,” she said.
After years of her own struggles, Mariel secured a real estate license and now makes a modest living selling homes. She beams with happiness because she sees all her children succeeding.
Matias, now 21, is studying marketing at Florida International University.
Agustin, now 20, is studying sciences at Miami-Dade College and aims to be a chemist.
Barbara, now 19, graduated in June. She is spending a year in Israel, thanks to a community service scholarship, before enrolling in Miami-Dade College to study criminology.
Sebastian, now 17, will begin his senior year in the fall, and hopes to study biomedical sciences in college.
Family members credit the school – and the scholarships that allowed them to attend.
“I can’t imagine what would have happened if I hadn’t gone there,” Matias said. “I don’t want to think about it.”
About Rabbi Alexander S. Gross Hebrew Academy
Founded in 1947 by Rabbi Gross, Hebrew Academy was the first Orthodox Jewish day school south of Baltimore. It’s grown from a few classrooms to a state-of-the-art campus. Last year, the K-12 enrollment of 470 students included 123 on Step Up scholarships. The school offers blended and personalized Learning, STEAM education, Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), and Halacha and Gemara studies. Hebrew Academy embeds technology across all learning environments with iConnect to personalize education for each student. Every year students take the SAT, ACT Aspire, PSAT, and ACT depending on grade level. Tuition ranges from $14,060 to $22,525. In addition to Step Up scholarships, the school raises more than $2 million in private donations a year for tuition assistance.
– Step Up For Students’ Jeff Barlis contributed to this story.
Nia Nunez-Brady can be reached at email@example.com.