Florida’s largest nonprofit scholarship administrator is celebrating its 20th anniversary of providing families more options in their children’s education.
Step Up For Students, a 501c3 nonprofit based in Jacksonville and St. Petersburg, has awarded more than 1 million scholarships since it was founded in 2002. Today, Step Up administers five of the state’s K-12 scholarship programs: the donor-supported Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) and the taxpayer-funded Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options (FES-EO), for low- and middle-income students; the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA, formerly Gardiner); the Reading Scholarship for public school students in grades 3-5 with low reading test scores; and the Hope Scholarship for bullied students.
Step Up currently serves more than 170,000 students, most of them lower-income or with special needs. The scholarships empower their families to access the learning options that work best for their children so they can maximize their potential.
“As I reflect upon the last 20 years, I want to thank all the legislators, educators and donors who made this program and this movement possible,” said John Kirtley, chairman and founder of Step Up for Students. “As important, I want to thank the families who were empowered by the scholarships to give their students the chance to find an educational environment that best suited their individual needs.”
Florida has witnessed a sea change in education over the last 20 years. Once languishing at the bottom, Florida has skyrocketed to No. 3 in the nation in K-12 achievement, according to Education Week. With a focus on matching the child to the right education environment, Florida created a variety of educational options, including Step Up’s scholarships, to meet the needs of students. Today, almost half of the state’s 3.6 million students attend schools other than their assigned neighborhood school.
Scholarship students, and the private schools serving them, have played a role in the state’s educational success.
An Urban Institute analysis of the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship found recipients were shown to be up to 99% more likely to attend four-year colleges, and 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees, than like students in public schools.
“Parents are increasingly insisting on a public education system that is able to provide each child with an effective and efficient customized education,” Step Up President Doug Tuthill said. “Helping parents achieve this vision for the last 20 years has been an honor and a privilege. The next 20 years are really going to be amazing.”
Denisha Merriweather is a testament to the power of education choice.
The daughter of a teenaged mom and high school dropout, raised in poverty, Denisha thought she was destined for a similar path. Receiving a scholarship from Step Up For Students changed her life.
Denisha had been a troubled student who was held back twice at her assigned public schools. But when she went to live with her godmother in sixth grade, her guardian applied for and received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. That allowed Denisha to afford tuition at the private school of her choice, Esprit de Corps Center of Learning in Jacksonville, where she blossomed.
Denisha went on to graduate with honors, earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of West Florida and a master’s degree in social work from the University of South Florida. From there she served as School Choice and Youth Liaison to the Secretary of Education at the U.S. Department of Education. In 2020 she founded Black Minds Matter, an organization devoted to promoting the development of high-quality school options for Black students. Recently she became the first scholarship student alumnus to serve as a member of Step Up’s Board of Directors.
“I’m just so grateful,” Denisha said. “This never would have been possible without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.”
For more information about the scholarship programs, or for help arranging an interview with a scholarship family, contact Scott Kent, assistant director of strategic communications, at 727-451-9832 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.StepUpForStudents.org.
Step Up For Students, the nation’s largest education choice scholarship funding organization, is proud to announce that Denisha Merriweather has been appointed to its Board of Directors. The Jacksonville native becomes the first scholarship program alumnus to serve on the non-profit’s board.
Denisha previously served as School Choice and Youth Liaison to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at the U.S. Department of Education. She currently is Director of Public Relations and Content Marketing at the American Federation for Children and founder of Black Minds Matter, an organization devoted to promoting the development of high-quality school options for Black students. Denisha was recently awarded the 2021 Maverick PAC Future 40 award for her work in education advocacy. Denisha has shared her voice on education freedom across the country and her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, PragerU, the Washington Examiner, EducationWeek, Real Clear, Fox News , among other outlets.
Raised in poverty, Merriweather had been a troubled student who was held back twice at her assigned public schools. In the sixth grade she received the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship which allowed her family to afford tuition at a private school in Jacksonville, where she blossomed. She has been a passionate advocate for education freedom since.
Merriweather earned a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary social science from the University of West Florida, and a master’s degree in social work from the University of South Florida.
“Denisha embodies the power of educational choice,” said John Kirtley, chairman and founder of Step Up For Students. “I first knew she was special when she led a rally of over 5,000 people in Tallahassee as a high school senior to support a choice bill. It is a great honor to have her on our board.”
The nine-member Board of Directors is the governing and fiduciary body for Step Up. It sets policy, develops and approves strategic plans and the related allocation of resources, and is responsible for the organization’s performance.
From middle school on, we’ve watched Denisha Merriweather grow from an uncertain and failing young student into a confident, strong and already successful young woman.
She has spoken in front of, and been introduced by, governors and other high-ranking politicians, including the President of the United States. In a big way, she has become the face of school choice not only in Florida, but in the nation.
Once destined to drop out of school after failing third grade not once, but twice, Denisha today receives her master’s degree in social work from the University of South Florida College of Behavioral and Community Studies.
Denisha is not only a friend to the staff of Step Up For Students, she is now a coworker advocating for families all over the state. To say the staff is proud of her is a bit of an understatement. But, yes, Denisha, your Step Up family is so, so proud of you and can’t wait to applaud you as you continue your life’s journey.
Congratulations on this amazing accomplishment!
From John Kirtley, founder and chairman of Step Up For Students:
“Denisha embodies the power of choice. Her life story shows the wonderful things that can happen if a student can find the right learning environment. Congratulations Denisha!”
Said Jen Canning, Step Up process manager for the office of the president:
“It’s an honor to celebrate Denisha’s accomplishments with her today. Denisha isn’t just a model student, she’s a model citizen. Her commitment to using her life experiences to make the world a better place is truly remarkable. I’m proud of Denisha’s academic success, but I’m even more proud to call her my friend. ”
From Step Up Vice President of Advancement and CMO Alissa Randall:
“From failing third grade twice to working toward her master’s degree and earning it, that’ s quite an accomplishment. With the opportunity of a scholarship, she excelled and has made us all so very proud. She is a strong young woman who has an amazing future ahead of her. I’m so incredibly proud of her and all she has accomplished and what she will in the future.”
From “Nia” Estefania Nunez-Brady, Step Up manager of faith-based initiatives:
“I am so proud of the woman, sister and friend she has become to me. Everything she has accomplished, she worked hard for. Denisha, now it’s time to make all your dreams come true. I love you, friend.”
To learn about Denisha’s journey, click here.
Lisa Davis can be reached at email@example.com.
By PAUL SOOST
FORT LAUDERDALE – Breakthru Beverage Florida, one of the largest distributors of wines, spirits and non-alcoholic beverages in the state, Tuesday celebrated its $65 million contribution to Step Up For Students at its Florida headquarters in Ft. Lauderdale.
Breakthru’s donation will provide K-12 scholarships to more than 11,100 low-income Florida schoolchildren for the 2015-16 school year.
This is the fifth year Breakthru Beverage Florida, formerly known as Premier Beverage, has contributed to the nonprofit organization that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations that receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits for their contributions.
“A quality education can open the doors to endless possibilities. Breakthru is proud to play a role in providing opportunities for financially-disadvantaged children in Florida through our support of Step Up For Students,” said Bob Drinon, Breakthru Beverage Group South Region president. “We hope that more children will have the opportunity to learn in an environment that best meets their academic needs.”
Nearly 78,000 low-income students are using income-based Step Up scholarships for the 2015-16 school year, with tuition scholarships valued up to $5,677 per student. More than 1,600 private schools participate in the scholarship program, known as the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, statewide.
“This program is about empowering people to have choices. It’s about empowering low-income families to be able to match their child with the learning environment that best meets their needs,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up president. “We are so grateful to have Breakthru Beverage partnering with our mission to provide equal opportunity for all people. We couldn’t do this without their support and generosity.”
Denisha Merriweather, a Step Up scholarship alumna, was a featured speaker at the event. Step Up helped Merriweather attend the school of her choice. “Without the scholarship, I probably would have dropped out of school,” said Merriweather. “Today, I am proud to say, after all the challenges I faced, I am the first person in my family, my whole family, to graduate from college.” Today, she is a college graduate and is continuing her education to earn her master’s degree.
During the event, Drinon and Tuthill also spoke about the scholarships changing the lives of children throughout Florida. Since the scholarship program began in 2001, nearly 480,000 scholarships have been awarded to low-income students like Denisha.
Breakthru Beverage Florida, formerly known as Premier Beverage, is one of the largest distributors of wines, spirits and other beverages in Florida. A member of the Breakthru Beverage Group, Breakthru Florida services a variety of accounts including hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, grocery and retail stores from offices and distribution facilities throughout the state. Breakthru Beverage Group was formed by joining substantial holdings of The Charmer Sunbelt Group and Wirtz Beverage Group. The company employs more than 7,000 associates and with its affiliates have operations in 19 markets across the country and Canada.
Editor’s note: Around here at the Step Up For Students office, Denisha Merriweather is a household name, so to speak. Since she became a scholar in sixth grade, we have cheered for her, watched her grow, celebrated her achievements, and best of all, gotten to really know her. Now we’re thrilled to call her a colleague as she recently joined us as an intern and as the first Step Up scholar to join our staff. We’re proud to have her here. And we hope this is the first of many scholars to become part of our team.
By Denisha Merriweather, Step Up For Students Intern
Hi! I am Denisha Merriweather, recipient of the Step Up For Students scholarship, high school graduate, master’s student at the University of South Florida in Tampa and the newest member of the Step Up team as intern!
I was a Florida Tax Credit scholar from the sixth through 12th grade. Before receiving the scholarship, I attended neighborhood schools, which changed often because my family moved around my hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. constantly. Due to that lack of stability, support and attention, my performance in school was below average. As a result, I ended up failing the third grade. Twice. Being two years older than everyone in my class was discouraging. I felt like a failure, and no matter how hard I tried to do better in school nothing seemed to help. Having no hope for the future, I could really see myself headed down a dark path, dropping out of high school and living my life full of constant struggle.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
Upon my entry in the sixth grade, my godmother found out from a family friend about the Step Up For Students scholarship, and applied. This allowed me to choose to attend Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, a private school on the north side of Jacksonville. The school was such a great fit for me. The classroom size was small and the teachers were extremely engaging. Esprit became my home away from home. Thanks to the scholarship, my confidence soared at Esprit de Corps. I knew I could do anything I put my mind to. I was exposed to many different opportunities, which changed my attitude about school completely – and life. I now knew I could go to college and maybe one day even receive a Ph.D.
Due to my life experiences, I have dedicated much of my free time to support the tax-credit scholarship program. I have shared my story with donors, legislators and people of affluence, but most importantly, I’ve opened up to other students. This has allowed more and more opportunities for these groups of people to gain an understanding about the Step Up For Students program and hopefully for them to get involved, so that Step Up can continue to make a difference in children’s lives across the state of Florida.
I also share my story to give hope to those students who may be like me, but still struggling to find their paths to success. The children like me who have the potential to be more than they are, but just need someone to help lift them up, and show them they can change their life’s course for the better. For all of the kids who are like this, I urge you to realize that nothing is too hard for you to achieve. Things may look challenging and you may not see a way out, but know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You have a purpose and your struggle is pushing you closer and closer to it. Seize it.
Now that I am a part of the Step Up team, I am excited to learn more about the scholarship program. Being a scholarship recipient, I had had some knowledge about the duties of the scholarship program staff. However, upon my first days in the office, I became quickly aware that Step Up is so much more, and a lot of work goes into making scholarships, and other school choice programs, possible for families in Florida. It has been surreal meeting all of the individuals who labor tirelessly for parents and children to have opportunities they never knew they could have. I have a new appreciation for the commitment of the Step Up team. Thanks guys!
I am now ready to be a part of this great team and assist in making this program even better. Someone recently imparted great words of wisdom to me, saying that “People rarely succeed by themselves.” Understanding this, I zealously accept the role as an advocate for parents and children, standing in the gap, working for them, as someone once did for me.
When Denisha isn’t hitting the books or standing up for school choice, she enjoys spending time with friends and attending bible study at her church. However, like most college students she loves to watch television and sleep. Denisha says she dreams to speak fluent Spanish and to one day learn how to play the Chinese violin.
The daughter of a teenaged mom and high school dropout, Denisha Merriweather thought she was destined for a similar path. Receiving a scholarship from Step Up For Students changed her life. Today, the 24-year-old college graduate is working toward her master’s degree.
“I’m just so grateful,’’ Denisha said. “This never would have been possible without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.’’
She’s on a mission now educating others about Step Up and seeking support so the nonprofit can continue to help disadvantaged students like herself realize their dreams.
“So many doors of opportunity have been opened for me that I feel the best way to say thanks is to make sure other children are given the same chance,’’ Denisha said.
Read more and watch videos about Denisha’s path to success through Step Up For Students here.