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:
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
By JEFF BARLIS
GROVELAND, Fla. – The sign at their church trumpeted the opening of a new private school:
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.”
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 email@example.com.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
I don’t remember how it started, but I recall vividly how it ended. The mean girl in middle school who had been making fun of me for some time took it to the next level and tossed my gym uniform into the toilet. Of course, it was humiliating, and although I tried not to, I let her get to me and dissolved into tears right in front of her.
Bullying comes in many forms – by teasing, ignoring, spreading rumors, hurting someone emotionally or physically — but the result is often the same. The bully’s target may be afraid to go to school (or wherever it occurred), is embarrassed and their self-confidence shattered. In many cases, the child even becomes depressed.
While I don’t remember all that happened after that incident with me all those years ago, I know it was the last time that girl ever bullied me. And I also know that moment made me realize how much another person’s actions – bad or good – can significantly affect you for years to come. I would like to think my situation made me a more compassionate person as the years went on.
At Step Up For Students, we have shared stories about students being bullied and parents seeking school alternatives for their children. Here are a couple from over the years: https://stepupforstudents.org/about-us/our-cause/student-spotlight-details/2015/07/31/layla-and-jeremiah-cirino and https://blog.stepupforstudents.org/jacob-rogers/
Bullying can happen anywhere, even online, at any time, and at any age. It’s something that has become such a major social issue, that October of each year is set aside for National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month. Nearly a decade old, Bullying Prevention Awareness month was started by PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center.
To get an idea of what bullying is, here’s the definition stopbullying.gov, a website managed through the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services gives:
Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious lingering problems.
The troubling thing is, many of us have experience bullying in some form.
Here are some stats compiled by STOMP Out Bullying, a leading national bullying and cyberbullying prevention organization for kids and teens:
How do you stop bullying? Experts agree that awareness, like for most things, is the key to prevention.
“When you see someone being bullied, be brave and STAND UP for them,” states STOMP Out Bullying’s website. “Bullies have been known to back off when others stand up for victims. If you don’t feel safe get the help of an adult immediately. Be part of the solution — not the problem!”
And finally, the last week of October, students can participate by spreading anti-bullying messages in various ways, including handing out positive messages on Post-it notes, creating anti-bullying videos, sharing inspirational stories and more.
While the month of October is set aside to bring awareness, of course, it is the hope that the efforts continue year-round.