St. PETERSBURG – One by one their names were called, and nearly two dozen Step Up For Students scholars from St. Petersburg to Bradenton grinned from ear to ear as they walked in front of a packed house to accept their Scholars of Excellence Award medals.
Like Zharia Stephens, a sixth-grade tax-credit scholar at Mt. Moriah Christian Fundamental Academy in St. Petersburg. She has been on honor roll all year, participates in many activities and wants to become a lawyer.
“These students are working so hard and many have come such a long way since using one of our scholarships. We are so proud of all of them and need to applaud them publicly,” Carol Thomas, vice president of Step Up’s Office for Student Learning, said after the event.
The awards ceremony Feb. 1 at the Cathedral of St. Jude honored students who made significant academic strides since receiving their scholarships and was the kickoff to this year’s series of regional meeting tours held by Step Up For Students. The annual event helps provide participants and supporters with timely updates on the nearly 15-year-old Tax Credit Scholarship Program for low-income families and the Gardiner Scholarship, formerly known as the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, for children with certain special needs.
New to this year’s program are special awards given to teachers and parents. At some locations, such as St. Jude, corporate donors were invited to join the awards ceremony and share the moment with the children they help.
Hugh Culbreath, a social studies teacher from Academy Prep, was among the first educators honored by Step Up at the regional meetings. He has taught at the school for about five years and puts his students first in all that he does, eating lunch with them, playing games and leading class trips.
“We are so excited to recognize outstanding teachers and parents and even grandparents this year,” Thomas said. “As we teach in our Success Partners program, it takes all of these people contributing for the success of a child. They deserve to be recognized, too.”
Step Up started the regional tours in 2014 as a way to give educators from partner schools a chance to learn more about the program and get questions answered directly from Step Up staff. This year, Step Up is holding about a dozen meetings, concluding Feb. 25 in Fort Myers.
“We found that it was extremely valuable in our partnership with our schools,” Thomas said. “We’re working for Florida’s students together, so it’s important we communicate regularly to foster the success of the program, and, of course, the success of the scholars”
As the students’ awards were presented at the St. Jude event, donors created a reception line to personally congratulate each of the scholars, and afterwards many families circulated to meet the donors to thank them directly.
“What a terrific event,” said Dick Kelecy, Chief Operating Officer of UretekHoldings, Inc., a geotechnical construction company. “It was really rewarding to see all the children and educators who benefit so much from Step Up For Students’ efforts. Having many of the parents come up on their own afterwards to personally thank the sponsors, one of which came to tears as she spoke about the benefits her children had received, was particularly rewarding.”
Highlighting these students’ achievements spotlighted the positive impact receiving a Step Up scholarship brings to each child.
“I continue to be awed by the results being achieved by Step Up,” said Shaun Williams, CFO of Sagicor Life Insurance.