By ROGER MOONEY
Linzi Morris said she didn’t have a framework for her children’s education when she applied for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship in 2005. She just wanted to move two of her sons from their district school to Academy Prep Center in Tampa, a private middle school with high academic standards.
“When they’re little, you’re thinking about them getting a good education so they can do well in life. I didn’t have an exact roadmap of how we were going to get there,” Linzi said. “These schools which are funded by the (Step Up For Students) scholarships helped show us what was available so we could get that roadmap and it would be an attainable thing and not just a dream.”
William is also 25. He has a degree in biology and is currently serving in the United States Army and stationed in Georgia. His plan is to attend medical school. An income-based scholarship from Step Up figured prominently in his life.
Next in the family is Nanya. He is 23 and will graduate this December from Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida with a degree in chemical engineering. In January, he is scheduled to begin a job at General Electric in its environmental, health and safety division. Like his brothers, Nanya benefited from an income-based scholarship from Step Up.
Notice a trend here?
From a private middle school to private high schools to college to careers. That is the roadmap followed by each of Linzi’s children. Because after Nanya came Linzi’s daughter Hera, 21, who will graduate Florida A&M in Tallahassee in the spring with a degree in food science, and daughter Saliyha, 17, a senior at Tampa Catholic, and son Qinniun, 15, a sophomore at Tampa Catholic.
Six children. Six bright futures.
“Without Step Up I don’t know if I would be able to reach the goals I’m about to reach,” Nanya said.
Dwight (a University of South Florida graduate), William (University of Central Florida) and Nanya attended Jesuit High, an all-male school in Tampa. Hera, like her younger siblings, attended coed Tampa Catholic.
Hera, who is on a softball scholarship at FAMU, remembered how her friends used to question her academic path, wondering why Hera’s mom would send her to Academy Prep, which has 11-hour school days, 11 months of the year.
Her response? “How horrible of her for wanting me to get a great education and have a great future.”
Traversing the educational landscape
Education is important for Linzi, a single mother. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York and attended Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, but left after two years. She eventually attended a trade school and became certified as a medical assistant.
Dwight and William were sixth graders when Linzi learned of Academy Prep. The boys were good students, Linzi said, but she felt they weren’t being challenged academically at their district school.
She heard about Academy Prep from a friend and applied. That’s when she learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up. At the time, the scholarship was just a few years old. This fall, it funded its one millionth scholarship.
“That’s one million opportunities,” Linzi said. “Everybody doesn’t use their opportunities. My kids will use their opportunities. I’ll make sure of it.”
It is a 40-minute drive from the family home in Tampa to Academy Prep. That meant a 5 a.m. wakeup call and a mad scramble to get the kids ready for the day. But Linzi said it was worth it, because her children were exposed to so much during their years there. They took sewing, etiquette and culinary classes. They studied law and film making; built rockets that flew and volcanoes that erupted.
“It kind of showed us what you want to be when you grow up,” Hera said. “You meet people. You have all these experiences.”
In sixth grade, she met a neurosurgeon and decided she wanted to be a brain surgeon. In eighth grade, a food scientist visited the school.
“I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, I want to do that.’ It was either neurosurgery or food science. I picked food science,” she said.
Hera is currently applying for internships in that field while hoping COVID-19 doesn’t wreak too much havoc with the spring softball season. She has been the Rattlers’ starting third baseman since she first stepped foot on campus as a freshman.
In addition to being an academically successful family, they are, as Linzi said, “a trash-talking family.” The kids brag about their test scores and grade point averages. Hera said she is motivated to land a job before graduation because Nanya already has one.
Yet, they are also a network of tutors. Those who excel in math and science are quick to lend their knowledge. Need help writing a paper? There are those in the family they can turn to.
Also, success leads to success. Dwight and William forged a path that none of the younger siblings want to stray from.
“I’m grateful for my family. They always pushed me,” Saliyha said. “Even if I don’t want to hear it, because, you know, teenager, they experienced it.”
Saliyha is deciding between attending Florida State and St. Leo University in St. Leo, Florida. She wants to study restaurant management/hospitality.
“I really, really want to be a culinary artist,” she said. “I want to be a restaurant owner and a culinary artist. I want to go to college and get a degree in a field I want to do and then pursue a degree in culinary arts.”
Saliyha said she likes to be challenged in the kitchen. She likes to put her own twist on what she is making, even if it is a popular dish. She feels the same about her education.
“I’m really, really grateful for Step Up,” she said, “because they’ve allowed me to go to private schools, schools that are going to help me further my education and push me harder than I’ve ever been pushed so I can understand the world and that it’s not going to be easy and I have to work for everything.”
Saliyha followed the family roadmap. Academy Prep helped her get to Tampa Catholic. Tampa Catholic prepared her for college. College will prepare Saliyha for what? Owning her own restaurant?
“That’s the goal of the scholarship, to give you that push,” Linzi said. “I tell people the scholarship is one part, the school is another part, the parents are another part, but the biggest part is the kid. That child has to want it.
“I tell them because this is an opportunity where there are people who are basically paying for you to have this opportunity, you owe it to the people behind you not to mess it up.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By LAUREN BARLIS
Many Step Up For Students scholars are making dramatic learning gains at their schools of choice, according to a report from the Florida State University Learning Systems Institute released evaluating the standardized test scores of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship students.
In a sampling of the results, more than a dozen Success Partners schools showed positive learning gains from 2011 to 2014 with an average learning gain in reading and math combined of almost two points higher than the national average.
But two schools that participate in Step Up’s Success Partners, a free two-year comprehensive professional development program with the goal of increased student academic success through parental engagement, stood out significantly with their students’ overall performance.
Step Up students at Leaders Preparatory School in Orlando made significant learning gains from 2011 to 2014 in reading and math scores combined. Likewise, the Step Up students at St. Andrew Catholic School, also in Orlando, boosted their reading scores from 2011 to 2014.
In the report released in the fall, a statistically positive average gain means that most Step Up scholars in that school improved their position relative to the national average.
Step Up scholars at St. Andrew are making gains in reading of about two points higher than the national average, and the students at Leaders Prep are making gains in reading and math of about four points higher than the national average.
In the 2013-14 school year alone, Step Up students at Leaders Prep made gains in reading and math above the previous year’s scores that were 11 points higher than the national average.
The administrators at both schools are dedicated to the goal of maximizing parental engagement and student achievement, and their partnership with the Step Up For Students Office of Student Learning has supported them in achieving these goals.
“We definitely adhere to the belief that parents are the primary educators of their children, and the Office of Student Learning’s programs have helped us to ensure that everyone on the St. Andrew’s staff is focused on the goals of student success and parental engagement,” said Andy Sojourner, assistant principal of St. Andrew Catholic School.
Both schools are currently in their third year of Success Partners during which partner schools study and implement the structures necessary to sustain powerful parent-school partnerships. St. Andrew and Leaders Prep also participated in Parent Partners for Success, a program that connects their parents with a Step Up educational advisor with the goal of assisting them in navigating the educational system and becoming strong advocates for their child’s education.
“The research on student success clearly shows that when parents are engaged, students succeed. The learning gains of the Step Up students at these schools are proof of that, and we know that participating in the Success Partners program has helped these schools to improve their parental engagement,” said Dr. Carol Thomas, vice president of Step Up’s Office of Student Learning at and founder of the Success Partners program.
Schools that are interested in joining either one of these programs can contact the Office of Student Learning at OfficeofStudentLearning@stepupforstudents.org.
Dr. Lauren Barlis is the Director of Research and Development in Step Up’s Office of Student Learning and has been with Step Up for almost three years. She holds a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction, and spent three years teaching high school English and theatre classes. When she’s not educating educators, she enjoys spending time with her husband, Jeff, who also works for Step Up, and their 1-year-old daughter, Josie.