If Ashley Elliott’s story continued to unwind the way it began, it was sure to be labeled as a tragedy. She was born drug addicted to a single mom whose love of escaping reality in the most unnatural of ways was greater than her maternal instincts.
“Statistically speaking, I should be on drugs, be dropped out and be pregnant or even have a baby right now,” Elliott said. “But I don’t.”
Fortunately for Elliott, she had the help – and as it turns out, the strength – to spin her story in a different direction. “I grew up in the epitome of American poverty. But I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up anyplace else because it taught me to be humble; it taught me to get out of tough situations; it taught me to help others to get out of these situations,” said Elliott, now 19 and a 2016 high school graduate freshman in college. “That’s why I want to be a teacher.”
At a young age, Elliott was adopted by her grandmother, who also lived in poverty and struggled with health issues. She did the best she could and showered Elliott with love. But as the saying goes, sometimes love just isn’t enough.
By the time Elliott was a teenager, she didn’t feel like she belonged at her neighborhood school and was being bullied. As a result, her grades plummeted. It was at a “last-resort” alternative public school in Polk County where she met teacher Jen Perez, who saw the hurt in Elliott’s eyes and the daily struggle she faced. Mark Thomas, an administrator at the school, noticed it, too.
After Elliott had a fistfight with a boy in ninth grade, Perez reached out to her. “I told her everything that was going on,” Elliott said. “That’s when I knew I could trust her.” The trust quickly became mutual, as Elliott began babysitting Perez’s children. Thomas earned that trust by showing that he cared for Elliott’s well-being. When her family’s power was shut off, for instance, he stopped by with a chicken meal. So, when Thomas accepted an opportunity to lead Victory Christian Academy in Lakeland, it shook Elliott.
“I ran and said, ‘You can’t leave; you can’t leave!’” she said. “I knew the next administrator wouldn’t be someone I could lean on. “Two days later, Ms. Perez called me and said, ‘I think I’m leaving.’” As Elliott’s world froze, Thomas and Perez talked about their special student. “What are we going to do with Ashley?” they asked each other. The answer hit them. “We take her with us,” Perez said.
When Perez first suggested it, Elliott, armed with misconceptions about the private school, resisted. She worried about rich kids and snobbery and, once again, not fitting in. She also thought it was infeasible, until she learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program through Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer the program funded by corporate donations. Suddenly, she was a private school student with Perez and Thomas by her side.
“These two people have been in my life and led me in the right direction before I even knew it,” Elliott said. Things started to change. Elliott began to change. “In my first year, as a junior, I got A’s, B’s and C’s,” she said proudly. “I had my grandma come to school for an open house. She was like, ‘Oh Ashley, A’s, B’s and C’s! You haven’t done this well in a long time!’”
She also ran track and started to tell her story. She made friends and earned the respect, and perhaps admiration, of the so-called “rich kids.” Her confidence grew. And she learned the biggest life lesson one could ever learn: “Your situation does not define you,” she said. “You define your situation.”
When Elliott arrived at Victory, her GPA was 2.16. When she walked across the stage and turned her mortarboard’s tassel from right to left, she had a 3.3 GPA, an acceptance to Valencia College and a plan to continue and complete her teaching degree at the University of Central Florida.
She eventually wants to earn a master’s degree.
“At Victory with the Step Up program, it gave me a chance to succeed because they told me I was worth it,” Elliott said. “Step Up and Victory have changed my life.”
Lisa A. Davis can be reached at email@example.com.
By GEOFF FOX
Dawn Baker, principal of Temple Christian School in North Fort Myers, Florida, struggled to remain stoic as she gave a tour of her school, which was badly damaged when Hurricane Irma ripped through the area in September.
She had already shown us what was once the library, where there were no shelves or books, just an exposed concrete floor and lots of missing drywall.
The scene, three months after Category 2 winds plowed through the area, was similar in all six classrooms, some of which were used to store the facility’s damaged toilets, sinks and other plumbing items. In some rooms at the private, pre-K-3 through 12 school, smoke alarms hung by wires from ceilings.
At least some drywall in every room was removed with up to five feet of it gone in some areas.
A musty smell permeated the premises.
Because of damage, the school’s front office was moved to a hallway and the staff nursery was moved into a pastor’s office; the school is part of Temple Baptist Church.
Third through 12th graders were being taught at six large tables in the cafeteria.
Outside, two portable toilets used by older students stood near the front entrance, a fence was damaged and a scoreboard across the athletic field lay twisted and crumpled.
“We never dreamed there would be this much damage,” said Baker, who is in her second year as the school’s principal. “We figured we’d be back in business after a few days. We weren’t prepared for the ramifications. It’s been very stressful for everybody.”
Damages to the building were estimated at around $240,000; the school’s deductible is $35,000, and Dawn Baker said she doesn’t know how the school will raise that amount.
Unfortunately, she said, a former church official had removed contents from its insurance policy just before the hurricane hit.
School officials have been working with an insurance company, but it is still not clear how much money the school will have to raise or when the work might be completed.
Despite the number of lower-income families at the school, Baker said some of them have contributed money to the rebuilding efforts.
She paused as she relayed that information and her eyes welled with tears.
“It’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what we need,” she said. ““Right now, we just survive and keep going and keep the students’ needs met.”
The church was built in 1975 and repair work must adhere to stricter, costlier codes.
But the school’s most urgent needs relate to student seating. Thanks to Irma, the school lost all of its cubicle-like work stations where students could work individually and with less disruption.
Baker has found sources that can provide three-paneled desks for $300 each or computer carrels for $100 apiece, but money would remain an issue. Fifty desks at $300 is $15,000, while the carrels would cost $5,000.
Teacher Chet Baker, Dawn Baker’s husband, said he knew there would be big problems when they visited the school after the storm passed.
“The water was up in the back of the building, just gushing through the doors and going everywhere,” he said.
After Irma, school was out for two weeks.
As the Bakers worried about when the school will be renovated and how it will be paid for, teachers and students went about the business of learning.
In a first- and second-grade classroom, teacher Evelyn Kennedy was in the midst of a reading lesson. She pointed to the word knot.
“Do you hear the K? What do we hear instead?” Kennedy asked.
“The N,” several students said in unison.
She then went over the “onk” sound in the word honk, the “unk” in trunk and the Y sound in baby.
When Dawn Baker opened a door to the cafeteria, the din of dozens of third through 12th graders spilled into the hallway.
“This is the struggle, but what do you expect?” she said. “I’m surprised at how much progress I’m still seeing. It’s miraculous to me, because it gets pretty noisy. If I can’t concentrate in here sometimes, how can the kids?”
Amid the noise, high school teacher Jason Yeargin was teaching pre-geometry to eight-graders and Algebra I and II to high school students. Yeargin said his students have adapted well under the unforeseen circumstances.
“We do physical science in the hallway, but there are always a whole bunch of interruptions,” he said. “Students go outside for free time, and you can’t get outside without going through the hallway.”
Despite its challenges, the school is still participating in an annual Toys for Tots Christmas toy drive and working on a small Christmas production to be performed near the holiday. The program will include five carols, ending with “Silent Night.”
Baker was determined to forge on.
There wasn’t much choice.
“We’re trying to keep it simple,” she said, “but even now I’m feeling super overwhelmed.”
Geoff Fox can be reached at GFox@sufs.org.
By SHELBY HOBBS, Special to Step Up For Students
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Florida’s insurance industry has stepped up to support the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program at a record level, committing $61.2 million this year to fund scholarships for more than 9,380 students. Leading the pack is UnitedHealthcare, which has contributed more than $83 million to Step Up For Students over the past decade.
UnitedHealthcare CEO Greg Reidy on Oct. 4 visited Arlington Community Academy in Jacksonville, where students are among the beneficiaries of the scholarships, to promote the program’s impact and encourage other insurance companies to participate.
“By helping struggling students get into an educational environment where they can succeed, we know we are helping to make our state stronger,” said Reidy. “It’s gratifying to meet the students who are benefiting from these scholarships and see them on a track to reach their full potential.”
Step Up For Students, the nonprofit organization that helps administer the needs-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, praised the insurance company’s historic support for the program. Step Up provides scholarships for lower-income students to attend the schools that best meet their individual needs. A recent study found that students who receive these scholarships for at least four years are 40 percent more likely to attend college than their public school counterparts, and 29 percent more likely to earn an associate degree.
Since 2009, UnitedHealthcare’s contributions have enabled more than 18,000 Florida students to attend schools that offer them a chance at a brighter future. The company’s recent contribution will help serve the 7,483 students who receive the scholarships in Duval County alone.
“Support from Florida’s insurance industry is critical for the work our team does to support children across the state,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “This contribution is an investment in students, and it enables the positive impacts of this program to continue and expand to change more lives for the better.”
Families and students who have benefited from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program added their voices in support of the insurance industry’s efforts, urging other companies to consider participation.
“This program directly helps children in our local area, and I am grateful that my own children can now attend the school that’s right for them,” said Tamara Herring, whose daughter Tori is a second-grader are Arlington Community Academy. “I am so grateful for the many donors who support this program, individuals and companies that are helping children like mine have a better future. Every child deserves that chance.”
By STEP UP FOR STUDENTS STAFF
Our scholarship families come from all backgrounds, and have different reasons for seeking out educational options for their children. Corey Crum, of the U.S. Coast Guard, and his wife, Cristina, recently talked with us about their experience with the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Without Step Up For Students‘ supporters, the couple could not afford to send their daughter, first-grader Corin, to Holy Family Catholic School in St. Petersburg, where she is comfortable and thriving.
Hear what they have to say by watching here:
By GEOFF FOX
Classes were changing at The Broach School Tampa Campus and veteran teacher Susan Gettys was busy steering students to their proper classrooms.
With only a few weeks before the end of the school year, the notorious “spring fever” had set in for some students who lingered in the hallway.
“Come on, let’s go gentlemen and ladies!” Gettys called.
She looked into a classroom.
“OK, who else is in there?” she said. “Let’s go.”
Within moments the students were in the right classrooms and Gettys relaxed with a grin.
Of the 90 or so students at Broach Tampa this year, 18 were on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income families and four were on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs; Step Up For Students helps manage both scholarships.
The K-12 school has been in Tampa since 2000 and at its current location on Linebaugh Avenue since 2013, according to Principal Sonia Anderson. She said word-of-mouth advertising has been responsible for the school’s growth. This year’s enrollment was more than double its 2015-16 numbers.
“I think it’s the love and commitment we have with our families,” Anderson said. “We do more than just teach. We feed them if they’re hungry, clothe them if they need it. My staff does it from the heart, not just for a paycheck. Some of our current students have cousins and other family members that went here 15 years ago.”
Besides having an inclusive environment with small class sizes that offer students more individual attention, Broach Tampa has graduated many students who go on to college.
“We have children with autism who have gone onto college,” said Gettys, who taught in Tampa public schools before coming to Broach Tampa 12 years ago. “We have (former students in college) all over the place. One young man couldn’t read a lick when he got here; he was in ninth grade and could not read. But we have an American history book in graphic novel form and that’s when he got it. He’s in college now.
“Stories like that are why I love this school so much. Once a kid finds reading, there’s no stopping them.”
Many students at Broach Tampa have previously attended public schools, where they either got lost in a sea of other students, didn’t perform well or sometimes got bullied.
Seventeen-year-old Enmanuel Gonzalez moved to Tampa from Cuba several years ago with his mother. Naturally quiet, he struggled to fit in at a large neighborhood school.
His mother learned about and applied for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, and Enmanuel was accepted. He has attended Broach Tampa since 2012.
“The people around me (at school) are much better to be around,” Enmanuel said. “I like that the classes are smaller and if you ask the teacher a question, they try and work with you.”
Enmanuel said he most enjoys English, history and American government but is considering a career in computer programming.
Amani Santana, a 17-year-old 10th-grader, has attended the school for about a year. She previously attended an overcrowded public high school in Tampa, where she struggled academically and socially.
Amani said she is relieved that her primary guardian Jenny Fillmore learned about the tax-credit scholarship.
“A lot of the teachers here are more hands-on and they really take the time to help you,” Amani said, adding that she most enjoys cooking, sewing and science classes.
“I want to go to go into a culinary school that also teaches business so I can open a bakery in New York,” she said. “When I went to New York, I didn’t see a whole lot of bakeries and a lot of people like pastries.”
Gettys has confidence the school can help turn Enmanuel’s and Amani’s aspirations into realities. She and the school’s other teachers understand their students well enough to know when they need to be pushed academically and when to ease up – but always in a positive manner.
Once a straight-F student in middle school, Gettys said she remembers the commitment shown her by teachers at a small school in rural Florida. Broach Tampa reminds her of that school.
“We have a family atmosphere here,” she said. “All of our parents know first-hand what’s going on and we do several events each year for the families.”
Fillmore, Amani’s guardian, is thankful for the opportunities Amani has enjoyed at Broach Tampa.
“She’s having no struggles now, none,” she said. “They’ve both been doing great. It’s the best school they’ve ever been in. I could go on and on about it. That school has been a Godsend.”
Geoff Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By GEOFF FOX
The joy in Travis Blanks’ voice was obvious.
He had recently returned from scenic Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where he went on a honeymoon with his new wife and college sweetheart, Chandler. The couple married on June 25, 2016.
Back home in Clemson, South Carolina, he spoke as he took a lunch break from his new job as a mortgage loan officer at Oconee Federal Bank, where some customers recognize him instantly.
Less than a year earlier, Blanks was a star linebacker for the University of Clemson Tigers football team that made it to the national championship game, where it lost to Alabama, 45-40, in an instant classic.
Although Blanks had always dreamed of playing in the NFL, the 22-year-old said he is perfectly content.
“It was tough not realizing my dream like I wanted to, but I have a great job; I have a degree and I met my wife,” he said. “I’m not really walking around with any disappointments.”
Blanks’ positive outlook has always been an asset. At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, he was considered too small to be an impact player for Clemson, but he proved critics wrong.
In his senior year, he registered 43 total tackles, made several stops against rival Florida State University and played with fiery determination in the championship contest. He accomplished that after sitting out his junior year with a knee injury.
While Blanks’ personal drive has never been in question, he has had help along the way.
Since the closest neighborhood high school had low graduation rates and a floundering sports program, Hutto, a single mother of four, pursued the scholarship. Her application was accepted and Blanks spent his high school years at North Florida Christian.
The school became something of a haven for Blanks, whose father was in prison during his time there.
“It’s a Christian environment,” Hutto said. “They teach kids about the Bible and religion, and it’s a very tight-knit group of people. They’re very supportive. It’s smaller than a regular public school, so we thought it would be fitting for him.
“He was able to meet some very good people who helped shape his future.”
Pastor Randy Ray, who has been at North Florida Christian for about 25 years, was one of those people.
“Travis is one of the most exemplary students we’ve had; he’s in the Top Five,” Ray said. “First of all, he was a good citizen. You’re not a good student unless you’re a good citizen. He was a great athlete and all kinds of things, but we’ve had a lot of great athletes.
“He was a part of our community. He loved it here, and we loved him. He was serious about what he did, but he didn’t take himself too seriously. He had a gift of doing things well, but he could laugh at himself if things didn’t go perfectly.
“Step Up allowed him to be a part of our community,” Ray said.
When Blanks earned a football scholarship to Clemson, the family – including an older sister and two younger brothers – moved to South Carolina to be near him.
A commercial insurance agent with BB&T, Hutto has since relocated to Fort Myers and is planning to apply again for Florida Tax Credit Scholarships for her 15-year-old twin son and daughter.
While Blanks said he has left the gridiron behind, he is realizing other dreams.
His recent wedding to Chandler, Hutto said, “was beautiful.”
“They’ve been together three strong years, during the most difficult times of their lives – at college,” she said. “It was a gorgeous time for two gorgeous people.”
Blanks also is settling nicely into his new career.
“No matter what kind of job you get, they’re going to have to train you to do what they want you to do – even if I had a finance degree,” he said. “I know how to interact and talk to people, and meet their needs.
“I’m just trying to provide for my wife, but I love my job. We’re a community bank, so I get to have a personal relationship with my customers. I’m dealing with people, not just sitting around in a back office somewhere.”
By GEOFF FOX
Darius Cook wants to someday become an entrepreneur.
He isn’t sure yet what type of business he wants to run, but the outgoing recent graduate of Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando said he feels confident that his communications skills will be used.
Cook, 18, is working as a cashier at Publix, while he waits to start classes at Valencia College in August. After completing two years at Valencia, he plans to transfer to the University of Central Florida in Orlando. The costs will be covered, in part, by a tuition-reimbursement program at Publix.
His mother, Amy Cook, takes pride in her oldest son’s bright prospects. In 2008, as Darius prepared to enter fifth grade, the single mother of four worried he wasn’t getting a quality education at their neighborhood school.
“It was the worst of the worst,” she said. “My daughter went there, so I was kind of involved, but the environment and the other kids there were not nice kids. And there was no personalized attention. There was no art and music, just math and reading, and tutoring to pass the FCAT.”
At the day care center where her youngest children stayed, administrators told Cook about Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. The program helps expand educational opportunities for lower-income children.
Cook was skeptical. She said she applied for the scholarship in 2008, mostly so the day care workers would stop “pushing me to sign up for it.”
She is now thankful for their perseverance.
“It wasn’t difficult; it was too good to be true,” said Cook, who works as a server at a local deli. “I didn’t think it was going to happen.”
Thanks to the scholarship, Darius was enrolled at Saint Andrew Catholic School, a kindergarten through eighth grade school in south Orlando.
“It’s literally in my backyard. I mean, we can literally jump the fence to get there,” Cook said. “And it is a (National) Blue Ribbon school. When Darius started going to Saint Andrew, I noticed how much of a better education he got than my (older) daughter. It’s a huge difference, especially among their peers. There’s no bullying. It’s friendly and a nice environment.”
Darius said the differences between Saint Andrew and the public school were obvious from Day One.
“It’s a more controlled learning environment,” he said. “The classes are smaller and the teachers are a lot more available to help you. Multiple times, I went in earlier in the morning and my math teacher came in early to tutor me, just because I asked her to.
“To this day, I feel close enough to go in and talk with them.”
Besides excelling in the classroom at Saint Andrew, Darius participated in soccer, volleyball, basketball and track.
“Darius was always a gifted communicator and leader in his class,” said Andy Sojourner, assistant principal at Saint Andrew. “I’ve seen him a few times since he graduated and gone onto the public high school. He talks about how much he valued his time here and wants to be involved in alumni (groups) in a leadership capacity.”
While Dr. Phillips High is a public school, Cook said that Saint Andrew helped Darius make a smooth transition.
“They really work on your individual needs,” she said. “The school’s eighth-grade class was small – 30 kids. Some of them went to another private high school. Darius and four other kids went to Dr. Phillips, and (Saint Andrew) did a very good job of preparing them.”
Cook’s youngest sons, A.J., 13, and Nicolas, 8, now attend Saint Andrew, thanks again to Step Up and the scholarship program.
According to Sojourner, A.J. is also a gifted student-athlete.
“He balances (sports and academics) really well,” Sojourner said. “Nicolas is a great young man. Their family is just very involved in the community. They’re always at our fundraisers and volunteering for activities at the school.”
Nowadays, when he isn’t working or studying, Darius said he most enjoys attending a local ping-pong club, where he takes lessons and competes against high-level players.
While his future aspirations are formulating, he has a general idea that his communications talents will come into play.
“At a young age it was cultivated that I had good skills in talking to people and handling situations,” he said. “I’ll find what’s best for me, based on my skill set.”
Geoff Fox is always looking to tell a great story about our scholarship programs. Have Step Up students, partner school, therapist, teacher or other related news you to see a story about? Please reach him at email@example.com.