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Student Spotlight: Lacey Nowling, Faith Christian Academy, Jay, Fla.


Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedAs early as sixth grade, Lacey Nowling knew her love for children was calling her to become a pediatrician.

Living in the tiny town of Jay, Fla., in the far northwestern reaches of the panhandle, she had a clear vision of her future.

But certainty turned to doubt as her school work got harder and harder in ninth grade.

“She had bad grades,” Lacey’s mom, Elizabeth Nowling, recalled. “She was running D’s and F’s most of the school year. She was just barely making it by the skin of her teeth.” LaceyNowling_spotlight

At the same time, Lacey was feeling more and more out of place at her neighborhood school. Because of the bad influences there, she was becoming distracted from her schoolwork. Then, the only thing that was keeping her at that school – band – fell apart as well.

“Band was my safe place,” she said. “Band was what kept me going.”

The last straw was at band camp when Lacey, a piccolo player, unwittingly broke a rule by drinking Gatorade on the field. The director chided her in front of the band and made her stay in a push-up position for the rest of practice.

“After practice we went back to the band room, and I went into the bathroom and cried,” Lacey said, still emotional as she recounted the event years later. “It was a few weeks later when I quit.”

For months, Lacey’s mother had been pushing her to transfer to Faith Christian Academy, a private school at their church. Lacey was now open to the change.

Her younger brother, Zack, was already attending FCA with the help of the Step Up For Students scholarship, which gives parents the ability to choose from more than 1,600 participating private schools statewide.

The Nowlings, with dad Obie in construction and mom Elizabeth a homemaker, were among the first families at Faith Christian Academy to receive the scholarship. They would not have been able to afford the tuition otherwise.

“I’m so grateful we have that opportunity, that choice,” Elizabeth said.

Lacey transferred to FCA for 10th grade and slowly started improving the 2.30 GPA she had in her neighborhood school. Along that road to recovery was a lot of catching up on the school work she couldn’t master before.

Somewhere in her first year at Faith Christian, Lacey revived her dream. And to keep it alive, she made a remarkably mature decision to repeat 11th grade.

“She had such a desire to go to college and to do more with her life that she came to us and said, ‘I’m just going to stay another year,’ ” said principal Sandra Lassiter. “She knew it was going to be very hard to just try to cram in everything. What she had left to do she could have easily thought it was too much and just quit, but she didn’t.”

“Her grades were good. She was really wanting to get those harder classes in, instead of just getting a general diploma, to strive for a college prep diploma. She knew that would really help her in going to college.”

That it did. Lacey graduated FCA in 2015 with a 3.37 GPA. and became the first in her family to attend college. She began studying nursing last year at Jefferson Davis Community College, just across the state line in Brewton, Ala. She had a B average in her first year.

“I did have some reservations with her going out into the big world,” Elizabeth said. “I didn’t know how it was going to be. Her goal is to get her nursing degree and then as she’s working, continue on with her education to be a pediatrician. She truly loves children and they love her.”

Thanks to Lacey’s perseverance and help from a Step Up scholarship, her dream of becoming Dr. Nowling is on its way to becoming reality.

About Faith Christian Academy

Originally called Cobbtown Christian Academy, the school opened on Aug. 25, 2010 with six students. In the 2015-16 school year, Faith Christian Academy had 33 students enrolled in grades K-12, 13 of whom were on the Step Up For Students scholarship. FCA, located at 13050 Highway 89 in Jay, Fla., is expecting to grow to 53 students this fall for the 2016-17 school year. The school employs two curriculums – A.C.E. (or Accelerated Christian Education) and A Beka – and is switching from the Stanford 10 standardized test to the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Annual tuition is $3,000 a year.

A Catholic school turnaround in Florida’s rural heartland

Editor’s note: This story originally ran Sept. 28, 2015 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students, and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.

By Travis Pillow

Three years ago, when Donna Gilbert learned her husband’s job would be transferred to rural community in Florida’s agricultural heartland, she considered staying behind with her son, Christopher. She worried that if her family left St. Cloud, just south of Orlando, he would not be able to continue his Catholic education.

A visit changed her mind. She went to Sebring (Highlands County’s largest city, with a population just over 10,000) and met with Anna Adam, who was then in her second year as principal of St. Catherine Catholic School.Gilbert learned a string of small towns near the headwaters of the Everglades, where nearly one in three residents is older than 65, is home to the kind of turnaround story Catholic school supporters all over the country are hoping for.


Fifth-grade students learn about lines and perspectives during an art lesson at St. Catherine Catholic School in Sebring, Fla.

In five years, St. Catherine has doubled its enrollment. Its academics are getting stronger, too. It’s picking up buzz among parents, and proving the Catholic school renaissance is not just an urban phenomenon.

Since enrolling three years ago, Christopher is learning “all his skills and all his sacraments,” Gilbert said. This year, he started fourth grade reading at a fifth-grade level. Now, her main concern is what will happen when her son is ready for sixth grade. St. Catherine is the only Catholic school in Highlands County, and it only serves preschool and elementary-school students.

“Thank God we’re here,” Gilbert said. “I’m pushing them to add more grades.”

While enrollment numbers and test scores point to a transformation, visitors can find other signs in the school’s front office. Volunteers come streaming in to teach art classes and tutor struggling readers. Teachers and parents rave about how far the school has come, and how quickly.

“She just brought this school to life,” kindergarten teacher Adele Moye said. “She makes us happy, and we make the kids happy, and that makes the parents happy.”

Anna-Adam-300x225Adam started teaching nearly 40 years ago. After stints in Manhattan  and the Bronx, she has worked in Florida Catholic schools since 1989.When she took over at St. Catherine, enrollment languished at 53 students, and the school had cycled through four principals in four years. In the 2011-12 school year, she rallied teachers and started accepting tax credit scholarships, which help most of what are now 118 students afford tuition. (Step Up For Students, which employs the author of this post, helps administer the scholarship program.)Volunteers drawn from surrounding parishes provide the kind of support that has sustained successful Catholic schools for centuries.

Reading tutors like Marsha Durrua (who exclaimed “I love it!” after striding through the office door one Wednesday afternoon) help students get one-on-one or small-group attention.Mary Lou Herald teaches older elementary students to notice shapes, lines and perspectives in the world around them, in a series of beginning art lessons she calls “Let’s Take a Line for a Walk.”Adam said volunteers allow the school to offer richer, more effective instruction than its size would normally allow.“We work with each child at their level, and then work with them to bring them up to their capacity,” she said.

Fourth-graders take questions from a classroom visitor.

Fourth-graders take questions from a classroom visitor.

Now, the school is struggling with capacity of a different kind. Its main building is full. A handful of converted houses that dot its campus are also full — including a porch that was walled in this summer to create a new third-grade classroom.

Adam said she could picture a new, L-shaped building lining the edges of the adjacent church parking lot. Churches in neighboring towns might offer space for the middle school parents now want.

A sign out front reminds passers-by the school is open to people of all faiths, and Adam said she’s noticed the school has attracted families from a variety of religious backgrounds, many of them from various Protestant denominations that are common in the area.

“The fact that we’re a Catholic school evokes a sense of morality and stability for them,” she said.

Families, she added later, are drawn to the school for a simple reason: “We’re giving them the best­ education in town.”