Donate

Tag Archives forEducation choice

‘Better options’ for their daughter included a move to America and an education choice scholarship

BY ROGER MOONEY

Roberto Porras was at his job as a pharmaceutical rep in his native Venezuela when his wife, Ony, called with the news that she was pregnant.

It was the spring of 2003, and Roberto, overjoyed at the thought of becoming a dad, was concerned about the baby’s future in a country rife with political unrest.

“I started thinking what I can offer to my child, better options,” Roberto said. “At that moment I decided I had to move from there.”

So, he and Ony left their home in Maracaibo and followed family members who had immigrated to Miami.

Diana with all the honors she earned during her four years at Pace High.

On Dec. 24 of that year, Ony gave birth to a girl they named Diana. On May 26 of this year, Diana graduated near the top of her class from Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Miami, having compiled a 5.29 weighted GPA and 33 dual enrollment credits to college.

Diana, 18, will attend Florida International University (FIU), where she plans to double major in computer science and Spanish. Having earned an Ambassador Scholarship from FIU and a Florida Medallion Scholarship plus a Federal Pell Grant, Diana’s college tuition is fully covered.

“We are blessed with her,” Roberto said. “She is very smart.”

The “better options” Roberto hoped to offer his daughter came to fruition in their new home with the help of an education choice scholarship.

Diana received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship to attend Catholic school from kindergarten through 12th grade. The same with her sister, Mariana, who will be an eighth-grader during the 2022-23 school year at Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic School in Miami Lakes.

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship is funded by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.

“Without Step Up, I wouldn’t be here today with all these accolades,” Diana said. “Without Step Up, I wouldn’t have realized what a privilege it is to be in the position that I am, receiving all these opportunities. I have to take advantage of them.

“It’s a privilege to be educated. There are so many people who can’t or don’t want to.”

To say Diana loves to learn is an understatement.

She loves taking notes in class, studying, and getting perfect scores on tests and assignments.

“It’s about focusing on school and not having a life, I guess,” she joked before adding, “Applying the stuff I learn to the real world is the most fun part of it for me.”

During her senior year at Pace, Diana took advance placement (AP) classes in government, literature, computer science and calculus, plus a physics honors course.

She took the AP Spanish exam in May without taking AP Spanish. Diana spent the two days prior to the test studying Spanish literature, then aced the exam.

“She’s that kind of student,” said Hedda Falcon, who teaches computer science and technology at Pace. “She’s so bright. She can do anything.”

For Shadow Day during her senior year, when students follow a teacher around to see what the job entails, Diana chose to shadow Falcon. They each wore the same dress, the same shoes and the same nail polish. It was Diana’s way of paying tribute to the teacher who had the most impact on her education.

“I don’t even know how to say it,” Falcon said. “It was an honor.”

Diana was involved in 10 clubs during her four years at Pace, including STEM Academy, Women in STEM Club, engineering and computer technology. She was also a member of the Spartan Ambassador Society. She was president of several of those clubs. Those roles, Diana said, helped her build leadership skills. It also helped her develop what she called her “public voice.”

“How to talk to classmates. How to talk to teachers,” she said.

Diana took a class in Microsoft as a freshman. Students are required to receive certification in Word, Excel and PowerPoint to pass. Diana went two steps further and received certification in Outlook and Word Expert Level.

It was during a robotics class as a sophomore when Diana realized she loved computers. She helped build a robot that could throw a ball, move around a room and play music, including “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” The computer is named “Bubbles,” and they call the remote used to control it the “Soap Bar.”

“That’s when I realized I just don’t like computers,” she said, “I also want to learn how they are made.”

Diana and her father, Roberto, during Step Up For Students’ Rising Stars Awards event at Monsignor Pace High. Diana received an award for being a Super Senior.

Diana was the valedictorian of her eighth-grade class at Mother of Our Redeemer Catholic School in Miami. As part of her graduation speech, she reflected on how far she came during her nine years at the school. She remembered not being able to speak English when she entered kindergarten and how she could at the end of that school year.

By the eighth grade she knew why her parents moved to the United States.

“I’m very grateful for everything they have done,” she said. “They did not have to go through that, but they did for me and my sister and our futures.”

Once in Miami, Roberto entered nursing school, juggling a full-time job and his family with his studies. He is now a nurse at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood.

Earning top grades was Diana’s way of saying, “Thank you” for the opportunity of an education.

“That’s a maturity level you don’t see a lot of in high school,” Falcon said. “She appreciates what her parents have done for her.”

Roger Mooney, communications, manager, can be reached at rmooney@SUFS.org.

How do you turn students into readers? At Alpha Learning Academy, by turning a classroom into a library

BY ROGER MOONEY

ORLANDO, Florida – Shakelia Henderson sat behind the desk inside a classroom that was recently converted into a library and nodded at the shelves full of books that lined the walls.

“This,” she said, “is the beginning of a literacy journey that’s going to make our kids stronger. I really do believe that.”

Henderson just completed her fourth year as principal at Alpha Learning Academy in Orlando, a K-5 private school. The majority of the 139 students attend with the help of education choice scholarships administered by Step Up For Students.

Henderson, who has been in education for nearly 25 years, is keenly aware of the role reading plays in a child’s learning. A student who struggles to read is more likely to struggle in other subjects.

“It’s important for students to engage with books to become strong readers, because reading is the foundation of all the subject areas,” said Henderson, an English major in college who taught language arts before moving into the administrative side of education.

She was aware ALA did not have a library when she became the principal and made it her mission to correct that. It took three years to get the project rolling and almost another year to convert a classroom into a library, obtain books and add labels to each so they can be filed probably and monitored through the checkout system.

The library opened May 1 with six ribbon-cutting ceremonies – one for each grade.

Naasir Laird, who enters the second grade in August, said he was “so excited” when he found out his school was getting a library.

“I like that we can read books, and we can all have fun reading them,” he said. “It’s really fun when I come here.”

Naasir’s mom, Toccara West, is equally thrilled.

“He loves going to the library,” she said, adding her son’s reading improved during the first month the library was open.

West was among the army of ALA parents who volunteered to turn what was once a classroom used for art and Spanish into one filled with 10 bookcases. Chairs dot the room, spaced far enough apart so students can have a little privacy when they sit and read. The room is decorated with a superhero theme as voted on by the students.

Nearly all the books are used and donated, and each had to be labeled so they could be scanned into Booksource, a computerized management tool. It was a time-consuming labor of love for the parents who lugged home boxes of books to be labeled.

Booksource allows Henderson and Ashlei James, ALA’s administrative assistant and assistant librarian, to check the books in and out and monitor what the children are reading. “The Wild Robot” quickly emerged as a favorite, so Henderson and James recognized the need to obtain more books on robots.

Historically, ALA students have underperformed in reading. The school addresses that with Wilson Language Training. But Henderson feels the need to go beyond that, to make reading a force of habit for as many students as possible. She hopes having a room filled with books of all topics accessible to all the students will be the first bricks of a foundation needed for academic success.

“In addition to what students are assigned to read by their teachers, I also want the students to fall in love with the aesthetic feel of reading and read what they want for their pleasure,” Henderson said. “And I also want them to build their home libraries. We know the more a child reads, the better reader they become.”

The ALA library contains books on Martin Luther King Jr. and Black history. Books on science and technology. Books on superheroes and sports. Bookcases are labeled by grade, but there is one designated for advanced readers. That’s where DeMarko Avant found “Star Wars: The Legends of Luke Skywalker.”

DeMarko, who is headed to the fifth grade, said he visits the library often, sometimes as much as three times a week. He reads at home, he said, usually before bedtime and usually about Star Wars or the Ninja Mutant Turtles or The Flash.

“I like superhero books,” he said.

Ashlei Jameses’ daughter Nhyla, who starts the third grade in August, said she loves reading about Black history, especially Ruby Bridges, a pillar of the civil rights movement who famously integrated an elementary school in New Orleans when she was 6.

“It is really important for me for her to have this (library) experience in a school that she goes to,” Ashlei James said.

James remembered visiting a bookstore for the first time when she was in middle school. She couldn’t believe there was a store dedicated solely to books. She feels children today are missing out on the experience of reading books and visiting bookstores and libraries.

Ashlei James, Alpha Learning Academy’s administrative assistant and assistant librarian, and school principal Shakelia Henderson.

“I feel like in this day and age, kids know how to do everything on phones, on computers. They know all that. To me, bringing them back to actually sitting down and reading a book, that’s good stock,” she said. “You can’t get away from that.”

Henderson agreed.

“There’s nothing like a book,” she said. “I think our children are very used to using their devices, their phones, iPads and tablets. They work wonders, but the old fashioned, having a book in your hand, nothing replaces that, in my opinion.

“This (library) has a ton of potential. I am very proud. In my career, this is in top-three. This is monumental and it has impacted the lives of our children immediately.

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

After taking charge of his education, Step Up alumni achieves goal of attending University of Florida

BY ROGER MOONEY

On a Wednesday morning in early January, a day after he turned 20, Josep Amiguet walked into a classroom inside Matherly Hall on the edge of campus for his intermediate microeconomics class, his first as a student at the University of Florida.

“OK,” he remembers thinking, “I’m here.”

It took three years of laser-like focus on his studies at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami and three semesters of work at Santa Fe College in Gainesville before Josep reached his goal of enrolling at Florida and studying economics.

“It really was a good feeling,” he said.

Josep’s path to Florida wasn’t as straight as he would have liked. A poor year academically as a freshman at Columbus, which he attended on an education choice scholarship, forced the South Miami native to play catchup during his final three years at the private Catholic high school. He was not accepted to Florida after graduating Columbus in the spring of 2020. So, he attended Santa Fe to work on an associate degree, graduating in December 2021.

He reapplied to Florida and was accepted, receiving the confirmation email last November while studying for a psychology exam.

“It was a cool moment,” he said.

What wasn’t cool, Josep will tell you, was what he called the “below staller” grades on his report card as a Columbus freshman and the weeks he spent in summer school.

“Why am I here?” he remembered asking himself.

Especially when the reason he attended Columbus was because of the school’s demanding academic course load. Josep wanted to be challenged academically, the better to prepare him for college loans-cash.net .

“I want to go to a good college and pursue a degree that can allow me to make enough money to take care of my family, because that’s all I care about,” he said. “I want to take care of my mom and take care of my dad. They’ve been through a lot, and I want to take care of them.”

He scored high enough on his entrance exams to take honors courses as a freshman. And that’s when Josep’s life took some unexpected turns.

Josep and his mom, Kathy.

His father, Jose, was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia, which forced his mother, Kathy to quit her job as a medical sales rep so she could care for her husband. That forced the family to sell their house and move in with Josep’s grandfather, who is wheelchair-bound, and grandmother, who suffered from dementia. But that house was too small, so Josep lived with an aunt until a room could be converted into a bedroom. When Josep was able to reunite with his family, his grandmother passed away.

“A lot of things in my personal life kept changing,” Josep said.

The one constant was his new school, which Josep was able to attend with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students.

“(The scholarship) was one of the driving forces that made me into the person I am today,” he said. “My parents couldn’t have afforded Columbus without the help of the scholarship, a thousand percent.

“I was very appreciative to my parents and Step Up, of course, and everyone at Columbus. Step Up has afforded me a lot of opportunities, I have taken advantage of them.”

Kathy had attended Catholic schools and wanted the same education for her son. With all that was going on at home, she was sure she didn’t have to worry about Josep keeping up his grades. He was a straight-A student while attending Catholic grammar school.

But Josep struggled academically at his new school and finished freshman year with a GPA below 2.0.

People tell Josep he was a victim of his circumstances. He doesn’t agree. He spent so many hours each night texting friends and watching YouTube that he neglected his schoolwork.

“I would actually get to school and not have any homework done,” he said. “I hadn’t studied for anything. I just did not perform at all.”

School guidance counselors would later ask Josep why he didn’t tell them about his problems at home.

“He’s a private person,” Kathy said. “We’re private people.”

And Kathy was so busy caring for Jose and his ailing parents that Josep was able to hide his failing grades.

“He’s a smart kid. He’s always did well in school. I never had to supervise him,” she said. “(When he moved in with his aunt) I said, ‘OK, I’m going to give him that liberty.’ But I never realized how difficult it would be for him.”

Summer school was a wake-up call for Josep. So was his sophomore schedule.

“I got bumped down to the classes below honors, and I wasn’t happy about that at all,” he said.

He took the initiative to meet with a guidance counselor and developed an academic plan that would help him overcome his poor start to high school.  He attacked his education, taking a total of 13 honors courses over his last three years. As a sophomore, Josep interned at MasTec, a Fortune 500 infrastructure engineering and construction company based in Coral Gables. He interned at two Miami law firms during the summer before his senior year.

He graduated with honors, lifting that 1.75 GPA from his freshman year to a 3.75 weighted GPA for his high school career.

“I just tried to make the most out of my situation after I got my head in the game,” he said.

Jose, who worked as a compliance auditor before he became sick, is doing better after undergoing a stem cell transplant. But he’s unable to return to work.

“It’s been a process,” Kathy said. “But we didn’t have to worry about Josep’s education.”

Josep is spending this summer interning at the Insigneo Financial Group in Miami. He’s putting in long hours, occasionally working nights and weekends. He loves it. This is what he was aiming for as a sophomore when he turned around his academic direction.

“I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t continue the path I was on.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Former Step Up For Students scholar chasing major league dream

BY ROGER MOONEY

On a sun-dappled Sunday afternoon in mid-April, Jay Allen gave his mother a gift she will treasure forever.

With Deanna Singletary among the family members sitting in the front row behind the third base dugout at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida, Jay hit his first home run of the season for the Daytona Tortugas, the Class A minor-league team in the Cincinnati Reds organization.

It was the first time Deanna saw her son hit a home run since he began playing professional baseball last summer. The two-run shot to left-center field provided the winning runs in a 4-3 victory against the Palm Beach Cardinals.

To say she was excited is a gross understatement.

“He hits it out and I jump up and down screaming,” Deanna said. “I’m known for that. I’m the loud one.

 “It is still unbelievable.”

Jay and his mom, Deanna.

Jay, 19, has been hitting home runs since he began playing baseball when he was 9: In Little League, travel ball and at John Carroll High School, the private Catholic school near his Fort Pierce home that he attended with the help of an education choice scholarship.

A center fielder, Jay was picked in the first round (30th overall) of the 2021 Major League Baseball draft by the Reds after a stellar athletic career at John Carroll that saw him star in football, basketball, and baseball.

“It’s a dream come true, for sure,” Jay said. “Everybody always pictures when they start playing sports to be a professional and when that happens, it’s a surreal moment.”

Jay was carving up the competition on the athletic fields in the Fort Pierce area as a middle schooler when Deanna decided she wanted a better education environment for her son. The mother of one of Jay’s teammates told her about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is supported by corporate donations to Step Up For Students. She applied and was accepted.

Jay attended Saint Anastasia Catholic School as an eighth-grader before moving on to John Carroll for high school.

“It was the best decision that I have made, honestly,” Deanna said. “Jay excelled in school. It was a smaller school, so the teachers are more hands-on. Financially, if I didn’t have Step Up, there was no way Jay would have been able to go to Saint Anastasia and John Carroll.”

Deanna’s two daughters – Ayonna Mitchell and Da’Nasia Davis – also receive the scholarships. Ayonna is going into her junior year at John Carroll; Da’Nasia begins her freshman year there in August.

“The (FTC) scholarship gave us a better opportunity,” Jay said. “It got us in a better school, and we rolled from there.”

John Carroll Principal Corey Heroux said Jay received mostly A’s and B’s in a course load that included honors classes.

“We’re very big on you’re a student/athlete,” she said. “You’re a student first and you can only be an athlete if you are taking care of your business in the classroom.

“We’re proud of having vigorous coursework, and he put the time in and took care of his business.”

Jay said he appreciated how the faculty at John Carroll pushed him academically.

Jay heading toward home plate. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Dowd.)

“It wasn’t easy,” he said, “but they made it their priority to make sure you were going to go to the next level and be a college student.”

Jay had several scholarship offers even after committing to play baseball at the University of Florida as a sophomore. Some college coaches continued to recruit Jay, trying to woo him to their campus with the promise of playing both football and baseball. But a fractured ankle suffered during football as an eighth-grader nudged Jay in the direction of baseball. He still has two screws in his ankle.

Ultimately, none of those coaches would have landed Jay. He opted for pro ball after the being drafted by the Reds.

“I felt the odds of me being a better baseball player than a better football player was in my favor,” he said. “You never know how it’s going to turn out and I did get hurt playing football and that took a little toll.”

Jay, who is 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, is rated the fifth-best prospect in the Reds minor league system by MLB.com. He began his pro career last summer in the Arizona Complex League before moving this season to the Reds’ Class A team in Daytona Beach. Playing in front of a host of family members, friends, staff and faculty from John Carroll and Saint Anastasia, and former teammates and coaches during most games played on Florida’s East Coast, Allen is among the team leaders in every offensive category.

Eric Davis, a two-time All-Star center fielder with the Reds during his 17-year Major League career, has worked with Jay since last summer. He is eager to see how Jay develops now that he can focus solely on baseball for the first time in his life.

“He has a lot of talent, and the more games he plays, the more he’ll understand,” Davis said after a watching Jay play recently in Clearwater. “He’s a tremendous upside for our organization and we’re proud to have him.”

Before each at-bat, Jay writes the letters “GS” in the dirt with the nob of his bat to honor his grandmother Gwendolyn Singletary, who recently passed away. Jay also has her name embroidered on his glove. His grandfather, Willie Singletary, taught Jay how to play center field by hitting buckets filled with baseballs to him whenever he could.

Willie, Deanna and her fiancé Eddie Davis attend as many of Jay’s games as they can. Deanna said she enjoys watching her son sign autographs for young fans before and after the games as much as she enjoys watching him play.

“Honestly, the enjoyable thing is Jay is doing things that he loves,” Deanna said. “I’m so happy for him.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Education choice alumni has clear vision for his future: ‘I want to be a missionary’

BY ROGER MOONEY

FORT MYERS, Florida – Zechariah Edwards sat inside the principal’s office at Sonshine Christian Academy one morning during the final days of his senior year and talked about his future.

“I want to be a missionary,” he said.

Interesting. Why?

“That’s a pretty good question.”

After a few moments of thought, he said, “As a Christian, I feel I have to spread the word to people who don’t know.”

That’s a pretty good answer.

Zech, 17, has a vision for his future that is evolving. He’s not unlike a lot of recent high school graduates in that way. Not too long ago he thought of becoming a doctor. Then a math teacher. Now, a missionary.

“Now I’m set on that,” he said.

Rebecca and Zechariah Edwards.

Zech was the valedictorian of his graduating class at Sonshine Christian, a K-12 private school in Fort Myers where he attended on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.

He received the Super Senior Award at this year’s Rising Stars Awards event. Hosted by Step Up, Rising Stars recognizes students in four categories: Outstanding Character, High Achievement, Turnaround Student and Super Senior. A Super Senior demonstrates academic achievement, leadership, community service and extra-curricular activities.

Zech is headed to Florida Gulf Coast University and plans to major in civil engineering. Thanks to the credits accumulated through dual enrollment at Baptist College of Florida and Southeastern University, he’ll begin his first year with three semesters worth of college credits.

“I think Zech has received a good education (at Sonshine Christian), a strong one” said his mom, Rebecca. “He’s well-rounded in his academics.”

Rebecca is also the principal of Sonshine Christian, so she views the school’s education value from two sides – parent and employee. She wouldn’t work there if she didn’t believe in the school. Nor would she send her children there.

Zech is the third of Eric’s and Rebecca’s children to attend Sonshine Christian. Renae and Timothy have graduated. Matthew is a rising sophomore.

After homeschooling their three oldest for several years, the Edwardses looked for a Christian school. With the help of the tax credit scholarships, they were able to afford Sonshine Christian, which is not far from their home in Alva.

“With Step Up, I’m so thankful we didn’t have to choose public school. We could choose something else,” Rebecca said.

“If I had to put all four of my kids in private school, you’re talking a lot of money. The Step Up programs allows families to have that option that didn’t have that option before. It gives you an option to have a school choice, and there are so many parents here who are able to make a choice where without Step Up they wouldn’t have that ability.”

Zech was president of the student council and captain of both the basketball and flag football teams. He’s a preschool leader and involved in several ministries at his church. An avid chess player, Zech won regional championships during the past two years at the Accelerated Christian Education student convention. He beat his older brother Timothy in 2021 and his younger brother Matthew this past April during the finals.

Zech will pursue a degree in civil engineering at Florida Gulf Coast University.

He works at Bellacino’s Pizza & Grinders in Fort Myers, doing everything from washing dishes to busing tables to answering phones to making pizza and grinders.

Not surprisingly, the valedictorian tutors his classmates in a variety of classes, including math. Especially math.

He loves math, namely precalculus.

“That was fun,” he said. “It was a struggle, but it was fun.”

That was his thought process in becoming a doctor. It would be hard but also fun. But the more he thought about it, the less enamored he became with the idea.

So, he turned to math, his favorite subject. He could become a math teacher, maybe even return to Sonshine Christian. But the excitement surrounding that quickly faded.

It was early in the 2021-22 school year when an evangelist visited the school. Zech was drawn to his stories of work as a missionary. He listened to more accounts of missionary work during a four-day Christian retreat in February. The more he heard, the more he was sold.

“I felt like God was telling me to pursue that,” he said.

A civil engineering degree will give him a background in designing, building and maintaining both physical and natural environments. Just what one needs to work as a missionary in underdeveloped or financially strapped regions of the world.

Zech will receive an early introduction into that life in June when he attends Puerto Rico on a mission trip. He knows the work won’t be easy.

“That makes it fun,” he said. “That makes it interesting.”

His sister Renae, now a preschool teacher, went on several mission trips to the Dominican Republic during high school, so serving their faith in that way runs in the Edwards family.

“I think it’s a good opportunity if Zechariah feels that missionary work is what he wants to do,” Rebecca said. “He needs to step out there and see, get the experience.

“It’s a good first step. Still a big step, and I think it will be good for his leadership. He’s shown a lot of leadership skills this year. I think it will be good experience for him to see what the next step is going to be.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Earthquake survivor uses education choice scholarship to become a ‘Rising Star’

BY ROGER MOONEY

MARGATE, Florida – Sophonie Jean Baptiste was in the family’s second-floor apartment the day in 2010 when an earthquake rocked her native Haiti. She grabbed her daughter, Gema, who was not quite 3, and tried to run for safety while the three-story building they lived in crumbled.

They didn’t make it.

Nearly five hours later, family members heard Gema’s cries from under the rubble. She was the only one of the nine who were in the apartment to survive the 7.0 magnitude earthquake.

“My mom died trying to save me,” Gema said.

Debris lodged in Gema’s right eye cost her the vision in that eye.

Gema does not remember the earthquake that claimed an estimated 100,000 to 160,000 lives, nor any of the estimated 52 aftershocks that occurred during the following 12 days. She does not remember her father, Emmanuel, taking her to a hospital in the Dominican Republic for treatment on her eye.

Emmanuel and Gema before the Rising Stars Award ceremony April 27 at Abundant Life Christian Academy in Margate.

Gema said she cannot remember anything that happened in her life before the age of 5, which was when she and her dad immigrated to the United States.

“I don’t remember my mother,” she said.

Gema, now 14, answered questions about the earthquake while sitting in an office inside Abundant Life Christian Academy in Margate, where she is finishing her freshman year. She has attended the private K-12 school since third grade on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.

She spoke in the quiet, confident voice of someone who knows where she is going in life.

To Broward College next year, where she will be dual enrolled.

To an Ivy League college.

To medical school.

To a life helping those who need help.

She wants to someday open her own hospital in Haiti.

“I always wanted to do something big with my life,” she said.

Gema received the High Achieving Student Award during this year’s Rising Stars Awards program, hosted by Step Up. Abundant Life Principal Stacy Angier nominated her for the award, which is for students who excel in academics, arts or athletics.

Gema excels in academics, where she is one of the top students in her school. She is a member of the National Junior Honor Society, tutors classmates in math and science, and volunteers for Abundant Life outreach programs, including a 2019 mission trip to Havana, Cuba. She can also be heard playing Beethoven on the school’s piano.

“Gema’s always been good at math and she’s a really hard worker and that’s a huge part of it,” Angier said. “The ability you bring to the table is important, but what’s really important is what you put into it, and she puts her heart and soul into it.”

Education is of the utmost importance to Gema and her father. That’s how she found her way to Abundant Life.

Gema introduces herself at the Rising Stars Award event.

Emmanuel wanted a more-demanding education for his daughter than the one she was receiving at her district school.

“Anything that’s easy for Gema, she gets bored,” Emmanuel said. “She doesn’t want problems like one plus one equal two. She wants problems that are hard, that make you think.”

A coworker told him about Abundant Life. Emmanuel’s concerns about the school’s tuition were put to rest when he learned of the scholarships to K-12 private schools administered by Step Up.

He knew his daughter was in the right education environment when she came home after her first day in the third grade with 12 books in her backpack.

“They’re going to teach you a lot,” he told Gema.

Emmanuel, now a civil engineer for the City of Margate, calls the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program “the best thing ever.”

“This is amazing,” he said. “I tell Gema, ‘When you get to the Ivy League school and get your degrees and are making big bucks, I want you to put money into that program.’ This is the best program ever. I love it.

“Because of this program, she can be in one of the best schools in the district. I can’t say ‘thank you’ enough to those who contribute to the program.”

Emmanuel and his second wife, Sherline, have two sons – Emmanuel II, 7, and Stephen, 5. Both will begin attending Abundant Life in the 2022-23 school year.

“It’s a quality education,” Emmanuel said.

Gema’s mom, Sophonie, thought of becoming a doctor before deciding on a career as a nurse. Emmanuel said Sophonie’s dream was to guide their daughter to a career in medicine.

Gema was unaware of that plan when, at the age of 5, she told her dad that she wanted to be a doctor.

“As soon as she said that to me, I was like, ‘Wow! This was something your mom was dreaming about, you becoming a doctor,’ ” Emmanuel said.

It’s an ambitious dream for anyone, let alone a 5-year-old

After emerging from the rubble, Gema is building the foundation of a bright future. Emmanuel said his daughter has benefited by coming to America at a young age, learning to speak English well, getting a good education – all things he missed out on.

“The stuff I didn’t do, I can see it through her,” he said. “She’s going to make it.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

The Foundation Academy students march for unity, education choice at MLK Jr. Day parade

BY ROGER MOONEY

For Daarina Cue, an 11th grader at The Foundation Academy in Jacksonville, marching in the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade is a “great experience.”

The people who line the parade route cheer the students as they pass by while carrying large photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and other luminary figures of Black history.

Elementary grade students at The Foundation Academy in Jacksonville ride on the school’s float during the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade.

It is not lost on Daarina that some of those people received a much different reaction when they marched during the civil rights movement

The parade, Daarina said, “is very meaningful, since it’s our history. It also means a lot since we see what they accomplished in life. We can keep doing what they did.”

More than 70 students, staffers and parents of The Foundation Academy participated Jan. 17 in Jacksonville’s 41st MLK Holiday Grand Parade. It was the seventh consecutive year the private K-12 school has marched in the parade.

“Our diverse school wanted to show that we honor our African-American brothers and sisters,” Principal Nadia Hionides said.

Daarina and Nasiyah both said their participation in the parade was a “great experience.”

This year’s theme was “Strength In Unity.” The float, pulled by one of the school’s vans, was lined with cutout figures depicting children of every race and nationality holding hands. Those who walked alongside wore sandwich boards with photos of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Mae Jemison (first black female astronaut to travel into space), Fredrick Jones (inventor, entrepreneur), George Washington Carver, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and other notable people in Black history.

“The first time I learned about the history of myself, I really got to see how my ancestors used to be, and I am honestly proud to be Black,” said Nasiyah Halls, a seventh grader.

Nasiyah echoed Daarina’s sentiment when he said participating in the parade was “a great experience.”

“Loved the people. Loved the energy,” he said.

Like Daarina, Nasiyah attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The Foundation Academy has a student body of 375, with 231 attending on a Step Up scholarship. That total includes 179 on FTC Scholarships.

In a head start to National School Choice Week, which begins Jan. 23, the school incorporated education choice into its celebration. Students wore yellow National School Choice Week scarves. Those in the elementary grades who rode on the float wore orange T-shirts from Step Up that included the words “Parent Power.”

Many of those who walked wore blue T-shirts with the words “I AM ESSENTIAL” printed on the front. Tia Unthink, the school’s admissions director, said that message is shared among the student body every day.

“When you come to our school, you don’t see one color, you see all colors represented,” she said. “You see multiple nationalities represented, and that’s the only way we will ever present ourselves, because we are all children of God. We are all capable and are excellent in what we do. We want the students who attend TFA to see themselves in leadership.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Step Up scholarship to a private school ‘changed our whole entire lives’

BY ROGER MOONEY

BROOKSVILLE, Florida – Vadin Mankotya played second base for EXP Realty this season, proudly wearing the jersey sponsored by his mom. And Jennifer Mankotya, a sales associate, was equally proud to have sponsored a team in the Hernando Youth League in Brooksville.

“It was,” she said, “a pretty big accomplishment.”

Not long ago, Jennifer scraped by on her salary plus tips while working as a waitress. Life wasn’t easy for the single mother. But Jennifer wanted the best education opportunity for Vadin, and she was determined to send him to a private school.

What changed? A scholarship to a private school, managed by Step Up For Students.

“It’s helped both of us,” Jennifer said. “It’s changed our whole entire lives.

“If I didn’t have this scholarship, I don’t know what I’d do. I would make it happen, but it would be extremely hard for me. Financially, it helped me a lot, and it’s also given Vadin the opportunity to have the best education he can possibly have. I’m so grateful it is there.”

Vadin Mankotya poses in front of a mural at his school, Entirety K-12 in Brooksville.

Vadin, now a seventh-grader at Entirety K-12 private school in Brooksville, began receiving the Step Up scholarship during the 2016-17 school year. With a large portion of her salary no longer going toward Vadin’s education, Jennifer was able to afford the 63-hour class necessary to pursue her real estate license and the yearly fees required of all real estate agents.

Working in real estate was always her passion, Jennifer said. She went to real estate school after high school, but injuries sustained in a car accident prevented her from getting her license during the mandated time frame from when she completed her course.

Then, she said, life came at her fast. A marriage, a baby, a divorce. To carve out a living for herself and Vadin, Jennifer worked various jobs – in a bank, in medical billing, as a waitress.

“It was kind of me getting my life back together after that,” she said. “So that kind of stopped me from pursuing my dreams initially.”

Jennifer worked the late morning/afternoon weekday shift at a restaurant. She didn’t work nights or weekends (shifts that earn better tips) because she didn’t have anyone who could watch Vadin. She would take a break to pick him up from school, and he would sit at an empty table and do his homework until her shift ended.

“My mom was busting her butt every day,” Vadin said.

Jennifer sent Vadin to a private school even before she learned of the Step Up scholarship.

“I am a single mom, and education for Vadin is really important to me,” she said. “I’ve always taught him you can never take away education, and nobody is going to be able to take away your manners. Those are the things I really focus on.”

It was the Step Up scholarship that allowed Jennifer to pursue both the dream of a quality education for her son and for her to, as she said, “reach for what I love.” And because she reached, Jennifer now owns a home. She no longer drives a car that routinely broke down and didn’t have air conditioning. She can afford presents for Vadin at Christmas. The scholarship, Jennifer said, allowed her to pursue a dream that has given her both confidence in herself and independence.

“The scholarship helped my mom get back on her feet,” Vadin said. “She has a career in real estate. That’s always been what she wanted to do. I’m proud to say that my mom is a real estate agent.”

The scholarship also allows Jennifer to pursue another goal: a quality education for her son. Vadin recently received a report card where his lowest grades were a pair of B’s. He apologized to his mother for those low scores.

“I said, ‘You did great.’ He said, ‘I could have done better,’” Jennifer said. “It was a proud mom moment.”

Entirety K-12’s motto is “Learning fueled by imagination.” Students attend school for four weeks, then have a week off. They take core classes Monday through Thursday. Fridays are reserved for a full day of an elective class, which include architecture and engineering, culinary, dance, video production, art, forensics, and acts of service.

Last year, the entire student body went camping for four days in Ocala. The middle school students read the book, “Tarzan of the Apes,” and Principal Penny Bryson wanted the students to experience what it might be like to live in a jungle. This year, the school trip is to Busch Gardens, where they will spend four days embedded with the zoologists.

“This is really different from other schools,” Vadin said. “We do a lot of things different here. My goal is to go to college and have a career, and I don’t think that would be possible without Miss Penny. She supports me in everything I do.”

Jennifer said it costs $250 to sponsor a team in the Hernando Youth League. That’s something she would have never been able to afford working as a waitress.

“It made me feel proud that I was able to do it,” she said. “You know when you have a check list in your head of what you want to do? I checked that box, and I hope to check that box every single season.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Prenda microschools provide education choice opportunities for educators as well as students

BY ROGER MOONEY

After 13 years of teaching at district schools in Shreveport, Louisiana, Pam Lee was searching for something that would give the students what she called a “better opportunity” to succeed.

Disappointed in Louisiana’s education system, which annually ranks near the bottom in the nation, Lee’s passion for her job was slowly eroding. She wanted to continue teaching, but she desperately needed a change.

“I felt that there was something bigger,” Lee said, “and I was praying every day I would find it.”

The answer came in the form of a Facebook ad for Prenda, a network of K-8 microschools headquartered in Arizona. “Open your own microschool,” it read. Lee was intrigued. She clicked on the ad, and within 24 hours had talked to a Prenda representative and was making plans to open her own microschool.

Lee loved Prenda’s model: small classes of five to 10 students that can meet in the teacher’s (called “guides”) home or at a facility that meets state safety requirements; the ability for guides to set the curriculum and for students to learn at their own pace; and the flexibility for guides to set their own class hours, which run no more than 25 hours a week.

Students at a Prenda Microschool in Glendale, Arizona.

Lee opened a Prenda Microschool Den of Shreveport in September, which meets at a local daycare center. After more than a dozen years of teaching within the guidelines set by district schools, Lee said she hasn’t once looked back.

“I think Prenda is heaven-sent, actually, for us here in Louisiana,” Lee said. “My students are kind of the ones that get looked over in class. I have a fifth-grader who can’t read at all. Just having Prenda come here and me having the opportunity to reach those kids has been amazing.”

Lee’s is a case of education choice saving the student as well as the educator.

“This is what I was praying for, for years and years,” Lee said. “I say divine intervention is what brought Prenda to me.”

***

Prenda Microschools was founded in 2018 by Kelly Smith, who holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from Brigham Young University and a master’s degree in plasmas and fusion from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was intrigued with the way the students in the computer programming class he taught at a Mesa, Arizona library showed up each week and worked hard at Code Club. Smith realized kids learn better if they are interested in what they are learning.

It began with one microschool made up of seven kids from Smith’s neighborhood. Its mission: to “empower learners.”

“That’s what this is,” said Rachelle Gibson, Prenda’s New Markets Team Leader. “Let them be who they are and become who they are meant to be. It isn’t just education. ‘Empower Learners’ at its core means children understand that they can do anything once they learn how to learn and appreciate who they are as a person.”

Today, there are more than 2,500 students in 300 Prenda Microschools stretched across 5 states. Gibson is overseeing the organization’s expansion into a 6th state – Florida.

With Florida being a leader in education choice, and with the scholarships to K-12 private schools administered by Step Up For Students, the Sunshine State has always been at the top of Prenda’s expansion list. Gibson said there is support for microschools in Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville.

The key is finding guides.

“People who are educationally minded with the entrepreneurial spirit, here is an opportunity in Florida to serve kids who really need it in a really incredible way,” she said.

Gibson said 30% of Prenda guides are certified teachers, but it is not a requirement. Guides can be moms looking to get back into the workforce, or who homeschool their own children and want to take on a few more students. Guides can be teachers looking for another way of teaching, or seniors who are retired but want to work with children for 25 hours a week.

“It’s an opportunity for all of those people to find a really great way to impact kids and make a difference,” Gibson said.

Ideally, Prenda Microschools are divided into three age groups: K-second grade, third through fifth, and sixth through eighth, though that can change based on the availability of microschools and the ages of the children in that area. The microschools can be held at locations such as community centers, churches, tutoring venues, gymnastics centers or dance studios.

Prenda Microschools meet all the state requirements for a school, and the students learn the core subjects, Gibson said. What separates them from other schools is the microschools are limited to five to 10 students, and the guides have the autonomy to tailor their lessons to topics and subjects that interest the students.

“We feel like there is an opportunity to change the world because a different educational environment will unlock things that kids aren’t getting right now,” Gibson said.

***

With October coming to an end, Beth Garcia expects the students in her microschool to be interested in Halloween.

“If they want to learn about pumpkins this month, we’ll learn about pumpkins,” she said. “They wanted to learn about bats, so we added bats. They wanted to learn about flowers, so we did that.”

Students learning about gardening at a Prenda Microschool in Glendale, Arizona.

Garcia is in her second year as a guide in Sahuarita, Arizona. A teacher with five years’ experience in district schools, Garcia was teaching preschool out of her home when she learned about Prenda’s microschools. With her son ready for kindergarten, she thought it was a great way to homeschool him. Some of the other parents thought so, too, and asked Garcia if their child could continue under her tutelage. So Little Fox Preschool became Little Fox 2 Prenda Microschool, with eight students in grades K-2.

“I definitely love Prenda,” Garcia said. “I love the fact that kids can work at their own pace. It’s very tailored to a child. If a child is in first grade and still working at a kinder level, that’s OK. There are no standards that need to be met as far as (district) school system. We can tailor it to them.”

A Guide and her student at a Prenda Microschool in
Buckeye, Arizona.

Garcia said she knows where all eight students are academically, which allows her the freedom to adjust the lessons accordingly. She also loves the smaller class size and the fact she can teach from her home, which allows her to spend time with her youngest son, who is a year away from beginning kindergarten.

“I like the freedom as a guide to be able to tailor our curriculum around student interest,” Garcia said. “That’s the fun part of teaching, I think.”

 The oldest of Garcia’s three children is her daughter Alanah, 10. Alanah struggled in her district school. She found the lessons moving too fast, which caused anxiety and behavioral problems. She had to repeat the third grade.

Alanah now attends a Prenda Microschool, where she is doing well academically and making friends.

“She’s like a whole different child,” Garcia said. “I really think for her, Prenda has saved her soul. I really believe that.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Florida Legislature is normalizing, expanding access to education choice

By DOUG TUTHILL

The Florida House and Senate have sent Gov. Ron DeSantis legislation that will continue normalizing and expanding access to choice in public education.

Doug Tuthill

Florida began expanding access to education choice in the late 1970s/early ’80s through the creation of district magnet schools. Next came charter schools and the Florida Virtual School in the 1990s, the McKay vouchers in 1999, tax credit scholarships in 2001, Gardiner education savings accounts (ESAs) in 2014, Hope scholarships in 2018, and the Family Empowerment Scholarship in 2019.

Today, about half of Florida’s PreK-12 students attend schools other than their assigned neighborhood school. This new legislation, House Bill 7045, will make even more students eligible for education choice.

HB 7045 also continues the movement to make all government-regulated education choice programs a normal and permanent part of Florida’s public education system. This normalization effort began in earnest with the 2019 passage of the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES), which created a scholarship program for lower-income students within the state’s public education funding system.  

HB 7045’s integration of the Gardiner Scholarship for students with unique abilities/special needs into the FES furthers this normalization. The Gardiner scholarship was created as a standalone program that the Legislature funded by an annual line-item appropriation. Every year the program had a waiting list, and every year parents had to ask the Legislature to appropriate more money to serve more students.

Now that the Legislature is merging the Gardiner program into the FES and the state’s public education funding system, the program’s enrollment and scholarship amount will grow automatically.

The McKay program, which is a second scholarship for children with unique abilities/special needs, will be merged with the Gardiner Scholarship and also integrated into the FES in the 2022-23 school year. This merger will make it easier for families with unique abilities/special needs children to access the funding and services that best meet each child’s needs, while knowing that their scholarship amounts will automatically go up as the state’s overall funding for public education increases.

Like Gardiner, the McKay program will become an education savings account in the 2022-23 school year. This will give the McKay families the same flexibility the Gardiner families have to better customize education services and products to the unique needs of their children.

The Senate wanted to turn all the lower-income scholarships into ESAs, but the House thought it was too soon. Nonetheless, over the next several years, ESAs, which are an essential tool in our effort to provide every student with an equal opportunity to succeed, will also become a normal and permanent part of public education. 

All aspects of how public education is organized and delivered are controlled by its funding procedures. Education choice will not be sustainable if it does not become an integrated part of the state’s public education funding mechanism, which is why HB 7045 is so important.

This bill accelerates the effort begun with the 2019 creation of the FES to fully integrate all government-regulated choice programs into the state’s education funding system, thereby ensuring their long-term viability and normalization.