By CATHERINE DURKIN ROBINSON
Florida Voices For Choices
The goal was to get over 10,000 scholarship supporters to Tallahassee and show the teachers union, the state and the country the face of our program. In order to do that, we’d need a year of planning – and lots of coffee.
School choice rallies are a great way to increase visibility for this important issue, generate media coverage and raise awareness all at the same time, whether we want to promote a general idea, like a parent’s right to choose the best school for his or her children, or a more specific theme like Save Our Scholarships.
That, and #DropTheSuit, were the themes of this rally. In 2014, the Florida Education Association sued the state seeking to shut down the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, calling it unconstitutional. In short, the teachers union wants to end the program that today sends more than 78,000 students to the schools of their parents’ choice. We’ve been fighting to save the program ever since.
I’m Catherine Durkin Robinson, executive director of Florida Voices for Choices, a nonprofit 501(c)(4) advocacy organization. Our goal is to help parents advocate for themselves. My organization was asked by the Save Our Scholarships Coalition to spearhead this effort and plan a rally for January 2016.
THE FIRST THING I ASKED: Has anyone ever planned a similar rally?
We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel if it wasn’t necessary. I talked to a few people who’ve planned successful school choice rallies in our area and around the country. We wanted a large showing, at least 10,000 people. No one had really done something quite on the same scale, but the experience of those I leaned on was helpful and guided many of our decisions.
We thought about the team needed to make this dream a reality. We found a trusted group of professionals with the time, commitment and knowledge to help accomplish our goals. We knew 10,000 people was a lofty goal, but we also knew we could get it done. I don’t take no for an answer.
A YEAR TO GO: How do we want our participants to get to and from our event? If we provided transportation, more low-income families could attend this important demonstration. We wanted as many people as possible and for some families, since our rally was at the state capital, this would be their first time outside their town or city. What a wonderful gift! Some could even add in time to visit with lawmakers.
We sent out “Save The Date” fliers, emails, texts and hard copies to all potential participants. We came up with a strategy to recruit needed schools. And funds were donated to the cause.
We didn’t hesitate to alarm our folks – forces align every day to destroy options for parents. Moms, dads, guardians and other family members are the backbone of this movement. We must allow them the opportunity to defend themselves. We let them know this was serious. We let them know if the union wins the lawsuit, the tax-credit scholarship in Florida would vanish. Then what?
We picked Chaires Security, a firm from the Tallahassee area to help oversee the march and rally. This was especially important, since most of the planners lived outside the capital. Chaires has connections and established relationships with local police and municipalities as well as experience with large rallies, parades, events and marches. We empowered this security firm to be a part of planning process and to hire necessary off-duty police officers for the day of the rally.
Our event was to be a safe one.
SIX MONTHS TO GO: We made it halfway through the planning process and were still breathing. That felt good.
We created deadlines for schools to be involved and set aside a few hours every day to answer questions, ease worried minds and trouble shoot. We planned for when things go wrong, because they always do.
All the way through this process, we engaged staff, participants, and partner organizations. Meetings and phone conferences were a constant. We kept everyone updated and excited about the event.
We took a lot of deep breaths.
During the last month, we sacrificed sleeping. Instead, we spent our days dealing with last-minute emergencies, missed deadlines, interesting requests, last-minute ideas, and daily meltdowns.
I tried meditating. It didn’t work.
Toward the end, we set aside entire workdays (every single one) to solve problems as they came up. Because they constantly came up.
Oh, who am I kidding? We set aside our evenings, too.
On the day of the rally, we scheduled a meeting for all staff and volunteers about three hours before everyone was expected to arrive. If I could tell anyone in the same position one bit of hard-earned knowledge, it’s this: Get more coffee than you need. There is never enough.
We had our cell phones handy, fully charged, and tried to answer questions and solve problems – like the bus driver who insisted on finding a place to plug in her coffee pot – as they came up.
That was better than letting them build and escalate.
We achieved our goals. We planned and executed a successful rally with a lot more than 10,000 people. Our voices were heard. Loudly. We showed the wonderful, diverse face of this program – and made history.
Note: Those who want to see what the day looked like can watch a television spot being run by the Black Alliance For Educational Options at www.saveourscholarships.com
Catherine Durkin Robinson is a former teacher and columnist for The Tampa Tribune and Creative Loafing. She’s been a Democratic activist for more than 25 years and most recently helped to start grassroots movements in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, and Maine for Students First. She is the executive director of Florida Voices for Choices.
Shaneka Paul struggled with a 2.0 grade point average her freshman year at Tampa Bay Christian Academy, but the 2015 graduate worked diligently with teachers to raise it to 3.1 her senior year – all while working two part-time jobs to help her family.
Now a freshman at Hillsborough Community College, she hopes to be a social worker one day.
Sheneka is one of the many success stories shared by Tampa Bay Christian Academy Headmaster Natasha Sherwood, who credits the school’s dedicated staff, nurturing environment and personalized curriculum with helping students with a wide range of learning skills and backgrounds succeed.
“We’ll work with any family who really wants to be here,’’ Sherwood said.
Of the academy’s 206 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, about 100 receive the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students this school year. The program assists with tuition at more than 1,500 participating private schools across the state.
For many of Sherwood’s students, like Shaneka, a former scholarship recipient, it’s the only way they can attend a private school. The academy is home to a large number of Hispanic and immigrant families, with some students using educational Visas from Vietnam, South Korea and Venezuela.
“We have a wonderful international environment,’’ Sherwood said.
Founded in 1957, Tampa Bay Christian Academy is accredited by the Christian Schools of Florida and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Tuition ranges from $6,200 to $6,800 plus fees. The upper school curriculum focuses on a rigorous college preparatory, with honors classes and a dual enrollment program through HCC and the University of South Florida.
Students take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills among other national exams to measure learning. Test scores help administrators adjust curriculum based on needs. For instance, when 2013 science scores showed students were performing on average with or slightly behind their national counterparts, administrators analyzed results.
That led to reassigned teachers, new textbooks and new courses. Then the school brought in two science professionals with lab experience and more than 30 years of teaching experience, tasking them with reinventing the upper school science curriculum.
Students started visiting Lowry Park Zoo to work with staff and see science in action. And science started emerging in other courses like English, which included using the chemistry of crime scene investigations while studying Macbeth.
It paid off, Sherwood said. When ACT scores for 2015 came in August, students’ science scores had jumped from 16 percent in 2013 to 22.5 percent – 3 percent above the state average. Now her staff is looking at making similar changes to the lower school as well.
The school is drawing upon skills honed by participating in Success Partners, a free program developed by a team of longtime educators at Step Up For Students. Participating schools receive professional development and software to help them better assess data and cultivate parental engagement with a goal to continually improve achievement.
“It’s a great program,’’ Sherwood said.
In addition to academics, students can participate in various honors clubs, including the National Honor Society and Mu Alpha Theta for mathematics. There’s also yearbook, student government and sports teams including girls’ and boys’ basketball, coed flag football, girls’ volleyball and cheerleading.
The nondenominational school also provides students with a spiritual focus, offering Bible classes, devotionals, retreats and community services. The school continues to grow, with 40 new students enrolling since May, Sherwood said. But it’s still a close-knit environment, where 15 seniors make up the Class of 2016.
“We are proud of a lot of things here at Tampa Bay Christian Academy,’’ Sherwood said. “But the thing that I am most proud of is that we are a family.’’
To learn more about Tampa Bay Christian Academy, go to www.tbcarams.org
By JILL METZ, Step Up For Students
Did you know that during the 2015 fundraising season (Jan. 2-July 7) for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, the corporate community pledged $2.4 million per day in support of Step Up For Students? Step Up For Students is honored to have the support from hundreds of generous corporations that are located anywhere from Florida to California and many points in between.
In fact, 38 corporations elected to partner with Step Up For Students for the first time in 2015 and the total pledge commitments from all companies ranged from $2,000 to $100 million. These corporations often find themselves divided by industry competition, however, they are uniting for the profound cause of providing educational opportunities to Florida’s youth.
As an 11-member strong fundraising and development team, we know our gratitude is echoed by the 77,079 students who are currently benefiting from a scholarship, and we look forward to collaborating with the corporate community in 2016 as we seek to expand the program by 25 percent in an effort to meet the growing demand from interested families.
We wanted to take this opportunity to highlight four individuals who have personally witnessed the transformations afforded through a Step Up scholarship:
“What an unbelievable gift. As a single mom, to be able to put my son in a positive environment … To let him learn and focus on learning seemed too good to be true. But it happened.”
– June Welcome, mother to Ryan Tetoff, Step Up For Students graduate.
“I’m very blessed that Step Up has brought the love of school back to my kids… They’re getting an education and I can see the light shining in them. They love to learn. They started going and they just excelled.”
– Adrienne Cirino, mother to Layla and Jeremiah, both Step Up scholars at PHA Preparatory School.
“I don’t think my mom and I could afford my private school on our own.” Miguel also wants all the Step Up For Students partners to know that “they are extremely nice’’ for helping him and other children find schools that work for them.
-Miguel Martinez, fifth-grade scholar at Kingdom Academy.
“I’m just so grateful. This never would have been possible without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.’’
–Denisha Merriweather, Step Up scholar who was first in her immediate family to graduate high school and continued onto the University of West Florida, where she graduated, in 2014 and is a current graduate student at the University of South Florida.
Wishing you and yours a very Happy Thanksgiving!
Jill Metz has worked for Step Up For Students for nine years and is director of development. When she’s not hitting the pavement looking for donors to support Florida’s low-income schoolchildren, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two daughters.
It didn’t take long for Jenna Rogers to realize her son’s neighborhood school wasn’t working for him. A kindergartner at the time, Hayden Hernandez wasn’t grasping basic reading and writing skills. And he didn’t like interacting with classmates.
“He was really struggling there,’’ Rogers said of the Clearwater school, rated a D then by the state.
With Hayden’s little sister, Cambria Rogers, starting kindergarten the following year, Rogers knew she had to act fast. She applied to every Pinellas County fundamental school she could during that district’s school choice lottery.
“We went on all the waiting lists,’’ Rogers said, but the siblings never won seats.
Then Roger’s mother heard about Step Up For Students and one of the programs the nonprofit helps administer: the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income children. Rogers, a single parent who works full time for a communications company, qualified for the scholarship and soon began researching education options.
“I am so grateful for this program,’’ said Rogers, who selected St. Petersburg Christian School, a high-performing K-8 private school and recipient of a National Blue Ribbon Award in 2003. “I don’t even know how I could do this without Step Up For Students.’’
The scholarship covers more than half of the school’s annual $7,920 to $10,095 annual tuition, with Rogers – and a little help from her mother – making up the difference in monthly installments. It’s hard, Rogers said, but worth it. Her children have the opportunity of a lifetime to attend a school that challenges and nurtures them.
“St. Petersburg Christian has received so many positive reviews from other parents,’’ Rogers said. “They also have an excellent reading program. I also love how they give my children a solid Christian foundation. I believe that is very important, especially in today’s society.’’
At St. Petersburg Christian, classes are small, with 18 students per teacher in kindergarten and first; 22 students per teacher in grades two through five; and about 25 students per teacher in grades six through 8.
The setting provides a close-knit atmosphere for children, who feel comfortable and confident among their peers, and for their parents.
“The teachers and staff are all so involved and nurturing in all of the students’ lives that it feels like they are a part of your family,’’ Rogers said.
Instruction is focused on reading, writing, vocabulary and spelling. Technology also is emphasized, with a state-of-the-art computer lab, Smart Boards and access to specialized reading software that helps evaluate students’ reading levels. There are also honors and advanced math programs for gifted students.
Although the school is not affiliated with a church, daily prayer and bible study are part of the curriculum. Students also participate in fine arts classes, P.E. and sports to round out their education.
All students take the Stanford Achievement Test annually to measure academic gains. In most areas, students perform one-and-a-half to two grade levels above the national average, school officials said.
Hayden struggled his first year with the new school’s increased rigor. But he didn’t give up, working diligently with teachers and his mom. Today, the fourth-grader, who relishes mimicking Michael Jackson’s Moon Walk, keeps up with his peers and then some.
“He’s reading well above grade level,’’ said Rogers, who also noticed a surge in Hayden’s circle of friends. “Oh, my gosh! He broke out of his shell.’’
Hayden joined band this year and plays clarinet. His favorite classes?
“I really like lunch because I really like food,’’ said Hayden, who also looks forward to library time. “You can grab a book and read it. They even let you take it home and bring it back!’’
His little sister also had a hard time adjusting, though it was more of a social concern than an academic one, Rogers said. She decided to heed the school’s recommendation to keep Cambria in kindergarten another year. Now in the second grade, Cambria is a cheerleader and making A’s, her mom said.
“I am so glad I chose this school and got approved for Step Up For Students,’’ Rogers said. “I would encourage everyone to spread the word about this wonderful scholarship program to families in need.’’
About St. Petersburg Christian School
St. Petersburg Christian School is a nondenominational private school with about 442 students in kindergarten through eighth. Of those, 96 students are Step Up scholars. The school was named a National Blue Ribbon School in 2003 and is a member of the Association of Christian Schools International (ASCI). It is accredited by the Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS) and Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
Have you seen the scholarship in action, or do you have an idea for a story? Please contact Sherri Ackerman, public relations manager, at sackerman@StepUpForStudents.org.