Ten-year-old Sualba Alejandro planted her Size 3 feet on the Faith Christian Academy stage in Orlando and tried to stay calm.
In the audience, dozens of parents, children and school administrators were on hand to recognize Step Up For Students’ Scholars of Excellence. The event united Step Up families from throughout Central Florida and was hosted at a school that is 30 minutes from Sualba’s school of choice in Kissimmee. Sitting near the front row were Sualba’s mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, eager to see their high honor roll student receive her medallion.
“I was kind of nervous to go on stage,” Sualba said later. “But I felt happy.”
So did her mother.
“It was like a fairy tale for me,” said Sualba Guerrero, a supermarket bookkeeper who has an older son with special needs.
She never dreamed she could afford to send her daughter to private school and, thanks to an A-rated district elementary school in Orlando, she never worried about it. But after Sualba completed third grade, the family moved to a neighborhood in Kissimmee where Guerrero believed the school wouldn’t be a good fit for Sualba, described by former teachers as gifted.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m not putting her there,’ ” said Guerrero, who spent her summer searching for other options.
One day at the doctor’s office, Guerrero saw a sign about Step Up For Students and its K-12 scholarship program. She went home and Googled the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, learning it helps pay for private school tuition and other fees. After studying the eligibility rules, she applied. A few weeks later, an acceptance letter arrived.
“I was jumping up and down!” Guerrero said.
But there was more work to do. Guerrero, who has college degrees in technology and communications from her native Ecuador, researched all the schools in her area accepting the Step Up scholarship. Armed with a list of her top 10 picks, she set out to find the one.
Trinity Lutheran School in Kissimmee was No. 11. Guerrero couldn’t locate the school during an earlier trip and had moved it down her list. That day, though, she somehow found it. Trinity’s school leaders and students eagerly welcomed Guerrero, who was impressed with the congenial atmosphere.
Still, she went home and did even more research just to be certain. Trinity Lutheran is a 34-year-old school affiliated with a church that began more than a half-century ago in a sleepy little town near Walt Disney World.
The school has managed to keep its small-town charm, though. There are 150 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, Principal Sheila Miles said. Of those, 70 percent are Step Up scholars.
“This has been our biggest year, yet,” said Miles, who has worked at the school for six years – two years as principal.
School curriculum follows the Sunshine State Standards. Students take the national Stanford 10 assessment annually. They have a technology lab and P.E. twice a week. There’s art, music and Spanish. Middle-schoolers get to participate in the Junior Achievement program.
“It’s a new challenge for them,” Miles said. “We are getting them ready to look at what they can do beyond school.”
Class sizes average about 15 students to one teacher. Sualba, who enrolled in the school as a fourth-grader, has 12 students in her entire fifth-grade class this year.
“We’re one big family, so we work together and we know all of our students,” Miles said.
During the recent Step Up awards ceremony, where students on the scholarship received an award for academic achievement, the principal described Sualba as “small in stature but huge in presence.” She takes advantage of every sport offered at Trinity, including basketball, badminton and soccer – where “she doesn’t take any prisoners,” Miles joked.
Sualba wants to try everything. And there’s a good reason. Sualba’s big brother, Adrian, can’t do a lot of the things he wants because he has cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus and other disabilities stemming from being born premature, his mother said.
“She is like the older sister,” Guerrero said. “She brings him the wheelchair. She brings the medicine. She tries to include him in everything. And she’s always taking care of him.”
It also may be why Sualba wants to be a doctor – perhaps an ophthalmologist, but definitely someone who always is helping others.
She may be tiny, her mother said, but Sualba’s heart is mighty.
About Trinity Lutheran School, Kissimmee, FL
In 1981, Trinity Lutheran Church members expanded their ministry to include a private school. Today, Trinity Lutheran School is a pre-K through 8th grade school accredited by the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod through their National Lutheran Schools Accreditation Program. Of the 150 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, 105 are Step Up scholars. Academic growth is measured annually by the national Stanford Achievement Test 10. K-8 tuition for the 2015-16 school year ranges from $5,485 to $5,750.