BY ROGER MOONEY
Denim Edwards slid to his knees as he caught the ball in the end zone, scoring a touchdown on what would be his last play of his high school football career.
It came late in Christopher Columbus High’s loss at Venice High during the state semifinals earlier this month. Moments later, Denim, a senior, stood alone on the field as his teammates trudged toward the locker room.
He stared into the distance.
“Manhood,” said Denim’s dad, Terence Edwards.
The next time Denim, a 5-foot-7, 190-pound running back with breakaway speed, touches a football will be for the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, Rhode Island. He will attend the school next year as he prepares for life at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Denim is about to enter a world of 5:30 a.m. alarms, endless salutes, “Yes, Sir,” and “No, Sir,” demanding academic workloads and “Beat Army!”
It’s a world not suited for everyone.
Denim can’t wait.
“It’s a brotherhood,” he said, “like the school I attend now.”
Denim entered Columbus in Miami as a sophomore during the 2019-20 school year. He attends the all-male Catholic high school on a Family Empowerment Scholarship. Managed by Step Up For Students, the FES funds K-12 education choice for students from low- and middle-income families.
“I think it’s an excellent scholarship program,” said Denim’s mother, Michelle Witherspoon. “What I really like about it is, most scholarships you apply for are low-income based. The middle class, you tend to have to pay for everything. The Step Up scholarships provides opportunities for middle income families who need help.”
Michelle has a Ph.D. in leadership in education and is an assistant professor of communications at Miami Dade College. Terence drove a fuel truck for a construction company when he suffered a near-fatal heart attack one morning in 2016. As a result, he has a permanent defibrillator inserted in his chest and cannot work.
Denim’s parents were looking for a high school with high academic standards that would prepare their son for college when they settled on Columbus. That the school excels in athletics – especially football – was a plus.
“If we didn’t have (the scholarship),” Terence said, “we wouldn’t have been here. Denim was able to accomplish what he needed to accomplish as far as his education.”
Columbus Principal David Pugh said from the moment he first stepped on campus, Denim exhibited the qualities the school looks to instill in every student.
“In the classroom, in the hallways, on the field, he leads by example,” Pugh said. “He’s a respectful young man. He does everything right.”
Columbus used “We Lead” as the marketing slogan for this school year. Denim, who has been a captain on the football team during his two seasons, was chosen as one of the campaign’s student ambassadors.
“There couldn’t be anyone better than Denim to lead us in our advertising,” Pugh said.
The term leader is used often when people talk about Denim. He’s proud of that label. He shares his insights into the position with the younger running backs in the program, coaching them on how to run with the ball. How to use their vision. When to cut. When to stiff-arm a tackler.
“I feel I was born to lead because I am very vocal,” he said. “I love all my teammates. I want to be there for all of them.”
That trait carries to his life off the field. Denim is part of a group that is forming a club for the Black students at Columbus, the first of its kind at the school. He is an honor roll student who arrived on campus each day at 5:30 a.m. during football season so he would be on time for practice, which began at 6 a.m. He plans to serve as an assistant track coach this spring.
All students at Columbus are required to volunteer in the community. Denim’s volunteer work goes a step further. He is a member of the Kudos Youth Group, sponsored by the National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa, his mom’s sorority.
For that, Denim volunteers at a food pantry, works with a domestic violence awareness campaign, and helps collect trash after youth football games. He wrote letters to grandparents in the neighborhood for Grandparents Day and wrote letters to military veterans for Veterans Day.
His message to the veterans was simple: “Thank you for fighting for our country. I appreciate that so much. You didn’t have to. You put your life on the line for the country.”
Denim could add that he’s a future Midshipman since he officially committed to Navy on Dec. 15, which was the first day high school seniors could sign a letter of intent to attend a college and play a sport.
His interest in Navy began last year when the Navy coaches showed an interest in him. Last July, Denim and his parents visited the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, Navy and Wake Forest University. He decided on Navy during that visit. It helped that he has an idea of what to expect from two former teammates who are on the football team.
Also, Navy reminded him of Columbus.
“They say when you’re an alumni of Columbus, you’re always going to be a part of that scene. You’re always going to go back there. You get relationships out of it, relationships you don’t get at any other school,” he said.
Terence gave his son a long, emotional embrace after that final football game. He talked about what Denim accomplished at Columbus and what he endured.
And there is this: Denim almost lost his father when Terence had the heart attack. He almost lost him again when Terence was hospitalized late in 2019 with an aorta dissection. No one knew at the time that Terence had contracted the virus that would become known as COVID-19.
“He stood tall. He made it through. I’m proud of him,” Terence said.
It’s that toughness, plus his academic prowess, plus his desire to be a leader, that should serve Denim well at Navy. Or, as his dad said, manhood.
“This isn’t the end,” Terence said after the final game. “This is a beginning. He has another life to start.”
A life made possible with the help of an education choice scholarship.
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at email@example.com.
By Scott Kent
Outside the second-story window of Addison Sinclair’s pink bedroom in Windermere, Florida, across an asphalt bike path, amidst a copse of oak trees draped in Spanish moss, is a green space that will become a memorial to the little girl who is no longer there to view it.
“Addi,” as she was called by her family and friends, passed away Dec. 29, 2020, after a five-year battle with cancer. She was 8.
“Resilient” is how Kara Sinclair described her daughter, who was diagnosed with Stage IV Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer, when she was 3 years old in 2015. Addi initially endured a year-and-a-half of treatments that included chemotherapy, radiation, and multiple surgeries. Over the next five years, Addi’s cancer recurred nine times.
“She faced things that would knock any adult down. She didn’t let it knock her down,” Kara said. “She always had spunk and charisma. Always looked forward to the next day.”
Kara and her husband, Mark, tried to keep their daughter’s childhood as normal as possible during those difficult times. That included ensuring Addi received an education. She initially tried attending a public school, but she missed so much classroom time because of her treatments that she was forced to stay home. Her kindergarten teacher would come to the house to work with her, but it proved not to be a long-term solution. Addi’s compromised immune system also eventually negated the possibility of class instruction.
Then in 2019 a hospital social worker told Kara about the Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs (now called the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities), administered by Step Up For Students. The program provides families with up to $10,000 annually in an education savings account, which gives them the flexibility to spend the funds in a variety of ways to customize their children’s education – on private school tuition, materials, therapies, etc.
The Sinclairs used theirs to hire an at-home tutor for Addi, and to purchase an online curriculum as well as a laptop computer, books, and educational games. That allowed them to work around her treatment schedules. Addi blossomed as a student.
“She loved her tutor,” Kara said. “She was a hard worker, and once she had consistency in her schoolwork she picked up reading. She always looked forward to her tutor coming in, she enjoyed having someone there to provide hands-on instruction.”
Without the scholarship, Kara said, the tutor and curriculum would’ve been an additional out-of-pocket expense competing with “insane” medical bills.
“We would’ve had to prioritize med over ed,” she said.
It also would’ve hamstrung the family’s ability to provide Addi many of the activities children her age – and beyond – enjoy. Indeed, they packed decades of experiences into Addi’s short lifetime. The family went on several cruises and beach vacations (Addi loved the sand). Addi had more than 10 Disney staycations, visited several theme parks, and traveled to California, New York, South Carolina, Georgia, and Ohio.
She became a Daisy Girl Scout, and was thrilled to earn badges and win the top Cookie Sales award. Addi also had an artistic side. She made jewelry. She put on puppet shows. She loved all musicals. She enjoyed singing, and she took a dance class. She learned to swim, and her parents built a swimming pool in the back yard, where she spent hours with her friends and “became a little fish.”
Kara said her daughter “never took a nap” and “rarely sat down,” bouncing through the house with the energy of a typical 8-year-old.
The last two months of her life, Addi finally began to slow down. But even when she wasn’t feeling well in her final days, her mother said, she was polite and always used her manners.
Addi passed away at home four days after Christmas, surrounded by her parents, her older brother William, her puppies, and her beloved doll baby.
Addi provided many lasting memories in her short time on earth, but her parents wanted something more. Something physical that others could experience, connecting it to the little girl who brought so much joy to those who knew her. A place where you can hear children’s laughter and families can go as a distraction from what life throws at us. As the Sinclairs said, childhood is short, and none of us know what tomorrow will bring.
That’s when they got the idea to turn that green space outside Addi’s bedroom window into a memorial park for other children and families to play in.
“It seemed like a perfect fit,” Kara said. “She would meet up with neighborhood friends there, and she always said it should have picnic table and swing. It makes sense. She was a kid. She played.”
Addi’s Memorial Park is planned to have that picnic table and swing, as well as benches and playground equipment, such as slides, climbing areas, and a crawl tunnel. The neighborhood homeowner’s association approved the proposal and has agreed to maintain the park.
The Sinclairs are seeking assistance in funding the project. They plan to hold fundraisers (COVID-19 permitting), and they have an online page that accepts donations.
When completed next year – hopefully, Kara said, by Addi’s birthdate of April 4 – they expect the memorial park that bears her name to reflect the qualities that defined their daughter: playful, caring, positive, always with a smile on her face.
Scott Kent, assistant director, strategic communications, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY ROGER MOONEY
SARASOTA – Sophia Slaughter, who is 15, recently learned to jump rope.
Maybe that is not a big deal to someone who was skipping Double Dutch at 5, but it is to Sophia, who is on the autism spectrum and has dyspraxia. Known as developmental co-ordination disorder, dyspraxia hinders her coordination. Some activities that neurotypical teenagers consider routine are nearly impossible for her.
While working with trainer Dani Williams at NXT Generation Wellness in Sarasota for the past two years, Sophia gradually gained command of her muscles and their movements. She can hold a yoga pose and coordinate her footwork to move through a series of squares taped on the floor at NXT Generation.
And she can complete in proper order the mini skills that allow her to jump rope.
“It’s life-changing,” said Sophia’s mom, Jennifer Slaughter.
Sophia, who lives in Sarasota and is home schooled, receives the Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with unique abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship). It is managed by Step Up For Students. Sophia uses her education savings account that comes with the scholarship to pay for the sessions at NXT Generation, as well as for yoga classes and ballroom dancing.
These activities added health and fitness to Sophia’s life, helped her become more socially interactive, and gain a circle of friends.
“That’s the ultimate goal,” Williams said. “Elevate and enhance their current life, or what they view as their current life, and open doors and continue on this path.”
In early August, 20-year-old Riley Joyce for the first time in his life rode a two-wheel bicycle without any assistance. His mom, Judi, who watched from the driveway of their Sarasota-home cried.
“It was the best thing ever to see,” Judi said.
Like Sophia, Riley is on the autism spectrum. He lives in Sarasota and is home schooled. Riley also receives the Family Empowerment Scholarship (formerly Gardiner) and uses his education savings account for yoga, ballroom dancing and sessions with Williams.
Riley was introduced to Williams three years ago during her Saturday group classes, which are sponsored by Face Autism. For the past two years, Riley has taken weekly one-on-one classes with Williams.
Started by Colleen Buccieri, whose godson Jordan Soriano is on the spectrum, Face Autism is a nonprofit that organizes autism-appropriate activities such as bowling, horseback riding, and golf. It also sponsors a ballroom dancing class at Dynasty Dance Club in Sarasota.
Judi enrolled Riley in the fitness class, hoping he would get healthier and make friends. Check and check.
Riley has lost 33 pounds since he began working with Williams. At first, he could barely manage five minutes on the treadmill. Now he can walk and run for 30 minutes, increasing the pace as he goes along.
“His endurance has gone off the charts,” Judi said.
As for socializing, Riley chats with everyone he encounters, making friends wherever he goes.
“He doesn’t stop talking, which is great,” Judi said. “I love it.”
In July, Riley spent a week in the Adirondack Mountains of New York with a small group of friends who are on the spectrum. They hiked, went fly fishing, ziplining, and kayaking.
The outing was the idea of Williams’ boyfriend, Chase Pettey, who runs Adventure For All, a nonprofit that creates interactive adventures for those with intellectual and/or developmental exceptionalities.
Riley tried to ride a two-wheel bike during the trip and came close. He finally conquered that feat not long after returning home.
Williams helped Riley master the bicycle (which Riley purchased with his education saving account) with a series of exercises over a six-month period that improved his balance and stability.
“The confidence in Riley has just skyrocketed,” Williams said. “He’s much more willing to try new things, so that’s been a wonderful thing to witness.”
As Jordan’s godmother, Colleen was keenly aware of how children on the spectrum grow up without friends. They aren’t invited to birthday parties or asked to go to the movies. She created Face Autism in 2009 to change that.
“I just look for different opportunities for kids to be involved in, things that typical kids would be involved in,” she said. “And I’m a big proponent of getting them off the video games and the computers. A lot of the kids don’t have fitness in their life. I think it’s very important – have a healthy heart, a strong body. Most of them don’t have upper body strength.”
Jordan, 21, lacked upper body strength when he began training with Williams four years ago. He couldn’t jump rope. He could ride a two-wheel bike, but he couldn’t peddle with much power.
A recipient of the Family Empowerment (formerly Gardiner) Scholarship, Jordan, who is homeschooled, used his education savings account to pay for his training sessions with Williams.
Jordan can jump rope. He can vertically jump 36 inches. He has learned to stand when he rides his bike so he can generate more power when he peddles. He runs 35 minutes around his home in Ellenton, Florida every other day. He is making plans to bring his bicycle to Riley’s house, so they can ride their bikes together.
Jordan, who excels at ballroom dancing, was part of the group that made the trip to the Adirondacks.
“This has given him confidence to try new things and to challenge himself,” Colleen said.
And to keep trying. During the Adirondack trip, Jordan tried to complete an obstacle course on his bike. He was unsuccessful the first time, and he was unsuccessful the second time. He didn’t quit, though, and eventually he completed the course.
“He has really shown determination,” Colleen said, “something he never had.”
That’s all part of the plan Williams has for each of her clients. Knowing no two have the same challenges, she devises individual programs for each. “Outside the box” training, she called it. Williams developed a book where they can chart their progress during workouts and encourages them to write in a journal. She teaches them about proper nutrition and the importance of staying hydrated.
Williams, who graduated from Saint Francis University (Loretto, Pennsylvania) in 2011 with a dual degree in Elementary and Special Education, works as a learning support teacher at Community Day School in Sarasota.
In 2012, Williams began Kids in Motion, which morphed into the wellness program that is now NXT Generation.
“Watching the underdogs take on things we’ve preconceived them unable to do or limited what they could actually do and see them be able to do it with the correct support and guidance is one of my greatest joys in life, hands down,” Williams said.
Her goal is to push clients with special needs through the glass ceiling society has placed above them, to show the impossible is possible.
Like jumping rope for Sophia Slaughter.
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at email@example.com.
Since Gov. Ron DeSantis put pen to paper on May 11 signing into law
In case you missed it, the law is a $200 million expansion of the state’s K-12 scholarship programs. It opens up education choice to more families in Florida than ever before. Read more here.
Billed as the largest expansion of education choice in Florida history, the new law merges the state’s two scholarship programs for students with unique abilities, McKay and Gardiner, in 2022, and combines them with the Family Empowerment Scholarship program.
One category of the Family Empowerment Scholarship will serve students with unique abilities and special needs while the other will continue to serve lower-income families.
The law leaves intact the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which some mistakenly call school vouchers and is funded by corporate tax donations, and the Hope Scholarship program for students who have experienced bullying at their district schools. More than 160,000 students across Florida participate in K-12 scholarship programs. The law is expected to add as many as 61,000 new students and cost about $200 million, according to a legislative analysis.
The law simplifies eligibility requirements by aligning qualifying income levels of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship with the Family Empowerment Scholarship. The two programs previously had different income requirements.
The legislation also provides greater convenience for families by placing management of the Family Empowerment program under nonprofit scholarship organizations, including Step Up For Students.
The new law allows more families than ever to be eligible for a scholarship. Read about it here.
Florida Legislature is normalizing, expanding access to education choice, according to Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. Read more about it here.
Listen to Tuthill’s podcast with State Senator Manny Diaz Jr., on the future of education choice in Florida. Listen here.
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.
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.
By ROGER MOONEY
School days meant a 5 a.m. wakeup call for Linzi Morris and her children so they could make the 40-minute ride across Tampa, Florida to their respective middle schools and high schools, passing more conveniently located options along the way.
Because Linzi wanted the best education opportunity for her six children.
“I looked at it as an investment, an investment in their future,” she said. “I can take the easier route, but I’m looking at it as I want them to get the best opportunity to do the best they can do.”
That’s the power behind the income-based and special-needs scholarships managed by Step Up For Students. In Florida, parents are not tethered to their neighborhood schools even when personal funds won’t stretch that far. They have the flexibility to customize their child’s education and the freedom to send their child to a school outside their zone.
Step Up offers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship for those who meet the eligibility requirements found here, and the Gardiner Scholarship for those children with certain special needs who meet the criteria here.
The scholarships are portable, too, meaning if the family moves to another part of the state, the scholarship moves with them to a participating school or approved providers and resources, as does their ability to choose the best education fit for their child.
During the 2020-21 school year, nearly 100,000 economically disadvantaged schoolchildren attended one of the more than 1,800 private schools in Florida that accept Step Up’s income-based scholarships.
Since its inception in 2001, Step Up has funded 1 million scholarships.
Those scholarships were used at faith-based and non-denominational schools; schools that emphasized arts and science and schools designed for children with certain special needs.
Some parents favored small schools with smaller class sizes, so their child could have more one-on-one time with the teacher. Others sent their children to larger private schools, like St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, a Catholic school with a student population of more than 1,800.
Some parents found schools located close to home. Others, like Linzi Morris, set the alarm clock for 5 a.m.
Linzi sent all six of her children to Academy Prep Center, a private middle school in Tampa, because of its high academic standards. Her two oldest sons attended Jesuit High in Tampa, while her daughters and youngest son attended Tampa Catholic High.
Her three oldest children have graduated college. Another will graduate college in the spring. Her two youngest are still in high school.
The morning commute is long and slowed by rush-hour traffic. But to Linzi, it was worth the investment that comes with the freedom given to parents who uses the opportunity to choose the educational path for their child.
Roger Mooney can be reached at rmooney@StepUpForStudents.org.
By ROGER MOONEY
Step Up, a Florida-based scholarship funding organization serving more than 120,000 students annually, was No. 1 among education charities.
This is the fourth year that Step Up has been included in the Top 25 of Forbes’ 22nd annual list of America’s top charities.
“This honor is bestowed on our organization because of the amazing generosity of our donors who believe in our mission of delivering educational opportunities to Florida’s most vulnerable students,” said Anne Francis, Step Up’s vice president of development. “This ranking is particularly special this year because we just celebrated the delivery of our 1 millionth scholarship. The children whose lives are changed by these scholarships are the heart and soul of Step Up.”
The nonprofits that comprise the Top 100 received $49.5 billion in donations during the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2020. That is 11% of the estimated $450 billion raised by the more than 100 charities in America.
Step Up received $618 million in donations during the 2019-20 fiscal year.
In addition to the recognition from Forbes, Step Up received a coveted four-star ranking from Charity Navigator, the nation’s top charity evaluator. It is the 14th time Step Up received Charity Navigator’s highest ranking.
In a letter to Step Up, Charity Navigator President Michael Thatcher wrote, “Attaining a 4-star rating verifies that Step Up For Students exceeds industry standards and outperforms most charities in your work area.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ROGER MOONEY
Do you have a Step Up For Students scholar who made significant improvements academically since attending your school?
How about a Step Up student who consistently displays outstanding compassion, perseverance and courage?
Or one who excels in academics, the arts or athletically?
Now is the time for school leaders to honor those students for Step Up’s annual Rising Stars Awards program, scheduled for Feb. 25, 2021. This year’s event will be held virtually from 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Another change this year due to COVID-19 is we are limiting the categories to student only. Next year we hope to honor parents and teachers again in person.
“Step Up For Students celebrates our outstanding scholarship students every year through our Rising Stars Award ceremonies across the state. We had to cancel the 2020 celebration due to COVID-19, so we are excited to announce that we will be back in 2021 with a virtual celebration!
“While we wish we could be together in person, we promise that this live virtual event will be an exciting and special way to honor our amazing scholarship students and the great work they are able to do in their chosen schools,” said Lauren Barlis, Step Up’s senior director of Student Learning & Partner Success.
School leaders can nominate up to three total students in the following categories:
Click here to nominate your students.
The deadline for nominations is Dec. 4.
Before making nominations, please have all necessary information available, including school name, school DOE number, each nominee’s contact information (name, phone number, email address, Step Up Award number). Please include a short description of why each person is being nominated.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
By Roger Mooney
The collapse of the real estate market in 2008 signaled the crumbling of the luxurious lifestyle for Helen and Frank Figueredo, who owned a real estate firm in Miami.
The recession cost them everything: Their business. Their savings. Their house. They filed for bankruptcy twice and ended up in foreclosure. They sold nearly all their possessions to make ends meet.
One thing that was nonnegotiable for the Figueredos was a private education for their two sons: Jonas and Jack.
They needed financial help to make that work, and that’s where Step Up For Students came into play.
Step Up manages five scholarships that provide K through 12 education choices to students from lower-income families, those with certain special needs, students who have been bullied at a public school and struggling readers in public school in grades three through five.
A parent or guardian might ask: What scholarship do I qualify for?
Well, let’s take a look using these examples.
Scholarships for children from lower-income families
The Figueredos were eligible for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two income-based scholarships managed by Step Up. The other is the Family Empowerment Scholarships. Both scholarships are based on a family’s financial need, and both give families a choice to find a new learning environment for their child.
Parents use a single application for the scholarships and Step Up determines eligibility for either the tax-credit scholarship or the newer Family Empowerment Scholarship.
In the case of the Figueredos, it was the Westwood Christian School, a private pre-K through 12 school near their Miami home. Both boys entered when they were eligible for pre-K. Jonas recently graduated from the private school near the top of his class with a scholarship to the University of Miami. Jack just completed his sophomore year and is following in his brother’s academic footsteps.
Scholarships for children with certain special needs
Phyllis Ratliff worried about her son Nicolas.
Diagnosed with high-functioning autism at age three, Nicholas was nearing the end of the eighth grade. It was time for Phyllis to search for a high school that could accommodate her son’s needs.
She feared that the large neighborhood high school would present a threatening environment, that Nicholas would be an easy target for bullies. She worried that Nicholas would be intimidated by the large class sizes.
A friend told her about Monsignor Pace High School, located in Miami Lakes, 10 miles from their home. Upon visiting the school, Phyliss learned of the Gardiner Scholarship, which allows parents to personalize the education of their pre-K through 12 children with certain special needs by directing money toward a combination of approved programs and providers. (A list of special needs covered by the Gardiner Scholarship is found here under “eligibility requirements.”)
The Gardiner Scholarship helped cover the tuition at Pace.
Phyllis was relieved.
“That was phenomenal,” Phyllis said. “We were so excited there was something out there for him.”
Nicolas graduated with honors and recently finished his first year at Broward College, where he is studying environmental science.
Scholarship for students who have been bullied
Jordyn Simmons-Outland had been a target of bullies in his public school since the second grade. The physical and emotional toll over the next two years was so intense that Jordyn told his grandparents that he wished he were dead. He began to see a therapist.
In 2018, the Florida Legislature created the Hope Scholarship to give relief for K-12 public school children from bullying and violence. The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district.
Jordyn was the first-ever recipient of the Hope Scholarship. He began attending Lakeview Christian School in Lake Placid, Florida as a fifth grader in the fall of 2018.
“Hope is the best description (for the scholarship). I keep thinking ‘There is hope, there is hope, there is hope,’” said Cathy Simmons, Jordyn’s grandmother. “I can’t wait to tell everyone what a blessing the Hope Scholarship has been. Now there’s peace.”
Scholarship for students struggling to read
In third grade, Kiersten Covic’s reading score on the Florida Standards Assessments (FSA) was high enough where it signaled that she would likely excel in English Language Arts the following school year.
Instead, her grade plummeted to “below satisfactory.”
It wasn’t the only thing that plunged. So did her confidence.
Fortunately, her mother, Kelly Covic, learned about the Reading Scholarship Accounts managed by Step Up For Students that could help pay for a reading program called ENCORE! Reading at Kiersten’s school, Dayspring Academy.
In 2018, Florida lawmakers created the reading scholarship to help public school students in third through fifth grade who struggle with reading. The program offers parents access to Education Savings Accounts, worth $500 each, to pay for tuition and fees for approved part-time tutoring, summer and after-school literacy programs, instructional materials and curriculum related to reading or literacy.
Third through fifth grade public school students who scored a 1 or 2 on the third or fourth grade English Language Arts (ELA) section of the Florida Standards Assessments in the prior year are eligible. (Due to COVID-19, the reading portion of the test was canceled. The Florida Department of Education is assessing eligibility requirements for the 2020-21 school year.)
With a score of 2 on the English Language Arts section of the test, Kiersten qualified. Her mother applied for the scholarship, was approved and enrolled Kiersten into the program at the A-rated public charter school in New Port Richey during the 2018-19 school year.
The program was enough to boost her reading grade on the state test to a 3, a perfectly acceptable grade to put her back on track for success.
“We were really, really thrilled and relieved,” said her mom.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By LISA A. DAVIS
Hundreds of parents, guardians, students, and teachers joined Step Up For Students online May 21 to recognize the resilient senior Class of 2020 in a time when COVID-19 has added the new term social distancing to everyday vocabulary and canceled in-person milestone events.
The recorded virtual senior celebration can be viewed online here.
In their final two months of their high school careers, students nationwide had to finish their education virtually as stay-at-home orders shuttered school buildings, on March 16 in Florida. High school seniors perhaps felt the impact most, with senior events like prom and graduation being canceled or moved to drive-by parades and virtual celebrations. Soon after typical everyday life came to a halt, Step Up staff began planning the special online event for scholarship seniors.
“High school graduation is a time to celebrate the achievement of Florida’s young men and women and the current pandemic won’t stop us from recognizing the achievements of these special students,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up.
Step Up For Students, a Florida-based nonprofit scholarship funding organization, manages the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Family Empower Scholarship for lower-income families, the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs, the Hope Scholarship for children who are bullied in public schools and the Reading Scholarship Accounts. For the 2019-20 school year, Step Up served more than 130,000 students, including 4,445 seniors.
Tuthill, Step Up Founder and Chairman John Kirtley, and corporate donor representatives addressed the Class of 2020 during the event. The Rev. Robert Ward of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg gave the invocation.
State lawmakers congratulated the class of 2020 as well.
“Even though you’ve gone through strange times and faced many obstacles,” Sen. Manny Diaz, who serves as the Senate Committee on Education chair, said to the graduating seniors, “We are here today to give you a graduation message, and that is congratulations for your hard work.”
Added Rep. Susan Valdes, “Best of luck to you and go get them, Class of 2020. I know that our future is much brighter because of you.”
Paul Shoukry, a Step Up advisory board member and CFO for Raymond James Financial, a founding donor of Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, was one of several donor representatives who spoke during the 30-minute event.
“Continue investing in yourself, as this is an important step in a long and successful journey. Congratulations,” he said.
Step Up selected two scholarship students to address their peers.
Florida Tax Credit scholar Gabriella Bueno, of Boca Christian School, credited her scholarship with helping her get the education she needed to set her on a path to become a pharmacist.
“I have much to be grateful for and I would personally like to thank Step Up, the lawmakers who believe in education choice and the donor who support it. You have all allowed me to attend what I believe has been the best school for me and has helped shaped me into the person I am today.”
Gardiner scholar Ryan Sleboda, also shared his journey with autism, not being able to speak until the age of 7, and with the help of a scholarship graduating as the class valedictorian in unprecedented times.
“Who would have imagined this is the way our senior year would end,” said, Ryan Sleboda, a Gardiner Scholarship student and valedictorian from the Pace Brantley School in Longwood, Fla. “Class of 2020, let’s go forth and resume this incredible journey!”
Kirtley, Step Up’s founder, closed out the event, saying success should not be measured by the norm.
“Be conscious of what scoreboard you are using to measure yourself. I know mine has changed. Pursue those things that can be measured for sure — those grades, that college admission, that job, that raise, that promotion. But don’t forget to measure yourself by things that have no numbers or figures,” he said and continued telling a story about a cab that drove by him in New York City advertising the Broadway musical Rent, with the words “Measure your life in love.”
“Well that sign stopped me in my tracks,” he said. “And I realized right then that I needed to worry less about measuring my life in numbers, in figures, and maybe take the advice on that sign. And it took me a few more years to understand that it’s much more important to measure the love that you give, rather than the love that you receive.
“One of the ways that I measure the love that I give is what I do everyday to empower parents to choose the best education for their kids, and knowing that you are today are graduating is all the love I need in return and knowing that you will put that education to work in these interesting times.”
Lisa A. Davis can be reached at email@example.com.