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Grandparents raising grandkids: A look at one grandfamily

By ROGER MOONEY

Charles Sears recalled a conversation he had last winter with Stephanie Engelhardt, principal of Christ the King Catholic School. It occurred outside the school while Sears was waiting to pick up his 9-year-old granddaughter, Luna.

Sears is 69. His wife, Colleen, is 49. They have full-time custody of Luna, which thrills them to no end. But sometimes Sears fixates on the age difference between he and Luna, and this was one of those times.

Charles Sears and his granddaughter, Luna.

He remembered telling Engelhardt that he felt bad for Luna because someone so old picks her up after school. Engelhardt told Sears to look around. He’s not the only senior citizen in the pickup line, and that some of the others aren’t babysitters waiting to pick up the grandkids. Like Sears, they are grandparents raising their grandchildren.

“There are a lot of grandparents doing the parenting duty,” Engelhardt said. “That’s the truth.”

They are called grandfamilies, and they are on the rise.

According to grandfamilies.org, there are 139,542 grandparents in Florida raising their grandchildren. The number of children in the United States living in grandfamilies has doubled since 1970, according to a 2018 story in The Atlantic. The Centers for Disease Control estimates there are 2.6 million grandfamilies nationwide.

“The number seems to be growing every year,” said Karen Boebinger, Grandparents as Parents Program coordinator at the Tallahassee Senior Center & Foundation.

Living with the grandparents can provide a stable homelife for the children, perhaps for the first time in their young lives. But it can place a hardship on the grandparents, especially if they are elderly. There is a financial burden for those living on fixed incomes. There can be a health component involved for those grandparents dealing with a physical issue or illness and are now tasked with raising young children. And the idea of giving up their retirement years and a leisurely way of life to return to parenting can be frustrating.

Yet, many do it.

“In general, these grandparents are amazing people,” Boebinger said. “They will do anything to keep the family together, including working past retirement (and) depleting their savings in order to take care of the kids.”


This is what Sears wanted when he and Colleen gained custody of Luna seven years ago. He wanted a steady home for his granddaughter, something, he said, Luna never had during the brief time when she lived with her parents. Luna’s father is Sears’ son, a musician who played in a band and was constantly on the road. The couple never married and eventually split when Luna was 1. Sears said Luna’s mother left Luna with he and Colleen so often it seemed like she lived with them.

“I want to do what’s best for Luna,” Sears said.

After raising his four children in his home in Jacksonville, Florida, Sears is glad to be a parent again and “back on the carrousel.”

Sears worked as a certified public accountant until 2010 when he had a heart attack. He reduced his workload considerably until 2016, which was when he received custody of Luna. So, Sears returned to working part-time because he wants Luna to enjoy an active childhood filled with as many activities and sports as she wants. Sears sent his children to Christ the King, a pre-K through eight private school, and wanted the same education for his granddaughter.

“It was a great education and a great experience,” Sears said.

Luna attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two scholarship available to Florida residents and managed by Step Up For Students that give students the option to find the best schools to meet their K-12 learning needs. The other is the Florida Empowerment Scholarship.

The scholarships can add a degree of comfort for those raising their grandchildren.

“It’s certainly been a financial relief for us,” Sears said. “I have heart problems and was basically out of the business. I went back working part-time, because regardless of the generosity of Step Up For Students, we want Luna to have a good life.”

Boebinger, of the Tallahassee Senior Center & Foundation, said the financial aspect of raising grandkids is one of the main concerns of grandparents. Paying for a private education might not be doable for those on a fixed income. But for those grandparents who live in Florida, school choice remains an option because of Step Up For Students.

Consider Sharon Strickland, who was nearing her mid-60s when, after being an empty nester for more than 20 years, she gave up her retirement years to raise two of her great-granddaughters. Strickland has cared for the girls for more than a year after their mother lost parental rights.

“Never underestimate the love of a grandmother,” Strickland, 65, said.

Strickland wanted a faith-based education for the girls, Savannah, 9, and Karlee, 4. After qualifying for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Strickland enrolled Savannah at Warner Christian Academy, a pre-K through 12 private school located near their south Daytona Beach home. Savannah is in the second grade. Strickland said Karlee will follow her sister to Warner Christian once she is old enough.

Savannah struggled in the school she attended before moving in with her great-grandmother. Warner Christian administrators and Strickland thought it was best for Savannah to repeat the second grade. Placed in an environment with smaller class sizes and more one-on-one time with her teacher, Savannah has improved her grades.

“If that scholarship wasn’t there, I don’t know, she would be struggling,” Strickland said.


Whether the creation of the grandfamily is sudden or expected, it can be overwhelming for a grandparent.

“They don’t know what to do,” Boebinger said. “They don’t know what to do first.”

In Leon County, Boebinger estimates there are more than 2,000 grandparents raising their grandkids. Only 150 of those grandparents are in her program.

“So, there’s a lot more out there that we are trying to reach,” she said.

Boebinger said she encourages them to join the virtual meetings at the Tallahassee Senior Center & Foundation, Grandparents as Parents Program.

“They can get a lot out of talking to people who are in the same situation. They don’t feel so alone,” Boebinger said. “This is not what they were planning on doing, so it helps to talk to somebody who’s been through it.”

Hopefully, Boebinger said, the grandparents will refocus and turn the initial stress into the energy needed to raise the grandkids. Also, they can benefit from what can be a closer relationship with those grandchildren than with the grandchildren they have who are living somewhere else.

Luna keeps her grandparents busy with an active life that includes dance and music classes, volleyball, basketball, student council, robotics and sewing clubs.

Sears said his relationship with Luna is different than it is with his other grandchildren.

“With Luna, I can’t be a grandparent. I have to say no sometimes, which can be very unpleasant,” he said.

Grandfamiles can deal with anger issues, especially those that came together because of the parents’ drug use or incarceration. The anger, Boebinger said, is usually directed at the parents.

“The grandparents are frustrated with the parents for having the wrong priorities. The kids feel that as well. ‘Why did mom or dad do whatever?’” she said. “So, some of the acting out is their anger at the parents and not so much that they are with the grandparents. A lot of time that’s the first stability they have had in their lives.”

Sears said he’s never heard Luna express any resentment over her situation. It’s the only arrangement she has ever known.

“It’s just a very good thing for her, I think,” he said. “She’s a child who’s very happy, but she never tells you about her emotions. She’s only 10, but you’d never know if anything is bothering her about it.”


Engelhardt has been associated with Christ the King for 20 years, the first five as a teacher and the last 15 as the principal. She has seen the amount of grandfamilies steadily increase during her tenure.

“It’s definitely a trend, a noticeable trend,” she said.

And while Engelhardt understands why Sears can be concerned about the 60-year age difference between he and Luna, she sees that as a positive trait, the same trait she sees in all the grandparents committed to raising their grandkids.

“All these people,” Engelhardt said, “are either still working to afford the grandkid or are in carpool, going to dance practice or basketball practice or doing homework, homework, homework or going to meetings, sacrificing or giving up all the stuff that was supposed to be for them and redoing everything again. It’s humbling to see what they do.”

Luna and Colleen.

That Colleen is 20 years younger than her husband gives her more energy to attend to Luna’s needs, Sears said.

“Statistically speaking,” he added, “she’ll be there for Luna’s college graduation. I hope I am.”

Sears said he’s more prepared for parenthood this time since he has the experience of raising four children. He said Luna keeps them busy with all her activities – dance and music classes, volleyball, basketball, student council, robotics and sewing clubs.

“But” he said, “the downside about it has been our lifestyle. I’m 69. I would be retired. I would be one heck of a golfer right now.

“We’re doing all the things that we shouldn’t be doing. I get up every day at 5 a.m. to make her breakfast and her lunch. As you can imagine our day is tied around Luna. Somebody has to pick her up after school and we have all her weekend activities.”

Still, Sears can’t picture his life any other way.

“She keeps us young, because we have to be active,” he said.

Although, Sears admitted, that sometimes comes at a price.

“It’s been tough practicing volleyball, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “I tore my calf muscle.”

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

#99ReasonsToGive to Step Up For Students this GivingTuesday

By JUDITH THOMAS

On Tuesday, Dec. 3, Step Up For Students is participating in Giving Tuesday and would like your support to ensure a bright future for disadvantaged Florida schoolchildren.

To assist Florida children who can use a helping hand, please donate to Step Up here, or, better yet, get your friends and family involved with a Facebook Fundraiser.

“We encourage Step Up supporters and friends to create a Facebook Fundraiser for $99 this Giving Tuesday season,” says Karis Tuner, Step Up’s director, development. “We chose that amount because a major study by the Urban Institute showed that Florida Tax Credit students who were on the scholarship for at least four years were 99% more likely to attend college than their peers. That’s an amazing number and we believe it should be celebrated!”


Step Up’s goal is to have at least 99 Facebook Fundraisers created, raising an amount of $99 each. Click here for instructions on how to create a Facebook Fundraiser or watch this short video. Fundraisers can be created now through Dec. 3 for the Giving Tuesday campaign.


Kayla Fudge, a Step Up graduate who is featured in the video, is one of the 99% of students that is now attending college. She was on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for more than four years and graduated high school magna cum laude with a 3.89 grade point average. Thanks to Step Up supporters like you, she has a very bright future ahead of her. She is only one of #99ReasonsToGive this Giving Tuesday. Learn more about her story here.

Giving Tuesday was started in 2012 by the 92nd Street Y in New York to generate online donations to charities on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. It falls after Black Friday and Cyber Monday and was created as a day to give back before the end of the year.

In 2018, over $400 million where raised online, and overall, the Giving Tuesday movement has raised more than $1 billion online in the U.S. alone in the past seven years, according to the Giving Tuesday organization.

A gift made to Step Up today means disadvantaged children like Kayla can access numerous educational resources that best suits their needs.

Step Up provides scholarships to more than 136,000 schoolchildren in Florida through five scholarships that help lower-income families, students with special needs, students who are victims of bullying and struggling readers.

Social Media Manager Judith Thomas can be reached at jthomas@sufs.org.

Summit Bank supports educational success through $100,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By PAUL SOOST

PANAMA CITY, FL – Summit Bank, N.A., a regional provider of personalized, concierge-style financial services, announced Oct. 26 a $100,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program, funding 15 scholarships for the 2017-18 school year in Bay County, Escambia County and Okaloosa County.

Summit Bank executives visited Saint John Catholic School in Panama City to present Step Up For Students with a contribution to the Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Summit Bank is contributing a total of $100,000 to provide scholarships for the 2017-18 school year in Bay, Escambia and Okaloosa counties. Pictured are (kneeling) Andy Stein, Summit Bank President & CEO, (standing left to right) Jeff Dibenedictis, Summit Bank Senior Vice President, Commercial Relationship Manager, Barbara Haag, Summit Bank Executive Vice President/Chief Financial Officer, Jim Looker, Summit Bank Executive Vice President/Chief Lending Officer, Dr. Vicki Parks, Saint John Catholic School Principal, Renae Sweeney, Step Up For Students Development Director, and Frank Hall, Summit Bank Executive Vice President/Chief Operating Officer. They are joined by a few students benefiting from the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.

This marks the fourth year Summit Bank has supported the scholarship program. Since joining Step Up as a corporate partner in 2014, the company has contributed a total of $450,000, the equivalent of 77 scholarships.

“Summit Bank is committed to making a difference in our local communities and is excited to provide the opportunity for 15 families to find the right learning environment for their child through the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program,” said President and CEO Andy Stein. “We hope this support helps propel these students towards educational success and bright futures.”

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged Florida schoolchildren. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and allows parents and students to choose between a K-12 scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

“We are grateful that Summit Bank joins us in our mission to impact the poverty cycle by providing educational options for lower-income Florida families,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “On behalf of Step Up and the students participating in our program, we thank Summit Bank for their generosity.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up $6,343 per student for K-5th grade, $6,631 for 6th-8th grade and $6,920 for 9th-12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide. In Bay, Escambia and Okaloosa counties this school year, 43 schools are participating in the program which will benefit more than 2,475 students.

Reach Paul Soost at psoost@sufs.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SKECHERS steps in to help disadvantaged Florida schoolchildren with Step Up For Students scholarships

By PAUL SOOST

CLEARWATER, Fla. – SKECHERS USA, Inc., a global leader in the performance and lifestyle footwear industry, today announced a $210,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students scholarship program.

This is the second year that SKECHERS, headquartered in Manhatten Beach, California, has supported the program and their contribution will fund scholarships for 32 Florida students in the 2017-18 school year.

“SKECHERS is proud to participate in Florida’s Step Up For Students program for the second consecutive year,” said Michael Greenberg, president of SKECHERS. “This essential state program complements ongoing efforts at SKECHERS to help kids around the globe, including our charitable BOBS footwear collection and the annual SKECHERS Pier-to-Pier Friendship Walk in Manhattan Beach, CA that supports kids with special needs, and education.”

Through the BOBS from Skechers program, SKECHERS has donated new shoes to more than 14 million kids affected by poverty, homelessness and disasters in the United States and more than 30 countries worldwide.

Step Up For Students helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides K-12 grade scholarships to qualified lower-income families throughout Florida. The tax credit program was created by the Florida Legislature in 2001 and is funded by corporations that receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for their contributions. The program allows recipients to choose between a scholarship to help with private school tuition and fees, or a transportation scholarship to assist with transportation costs to an out-of-district public school.

“We are grateful to SKECHERS for its support of our mission to ensure Florida students have access to learning environments that suit their individual needs through educational choice,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “On behalf of Step Up and the tens of thousands of families we serve, we thank SKECHERS for their commitment to our Florida communities.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for grades K-5, $6,631 for six to eight and $6,920 for grades nine to 12. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Paul Soost can be reached at psoost@sufs.org.

 

 

 

Eduardo Rivero’s amazing turnaround

By GEOFF FOX

Eduardo Rivero was a sixth-grader reading at a fourth-grade level when school started last year. He was also behind in math and had trouble concentrating.

As he begins seventh grade at Kingdom Academy, a pre-K through 8 private school in Miami, the 12-year-old is reading at an eighth-grade level and thriving in math.

Jovanna Rivero with her sons Julian and Eduardo, each of whom attend Kingdom Academy in Miami.

Jovanna Rivero with her sons Julian and Eduardo, each of whom attend Kingdom Academy in Miami.

The amazing turnaround has left his mother, Jovanna Rivero, pleasantly surprised.

“I sat down with his teacher at the end of the year, and they showed me the (reading) score and, oh, my God, I was so emotional and happy,” Jovanna Rivero said. “It was like opening up a box with a surprise in it. I didn’t think it would be so good. Even the teachers and staff thought it was amazing by how much progress he made in that time.”

Besides Eduardo’s hard work, she said teacher Xiomara Carrera was instrumental in his success.

“She saw that he was falling behind in his studies and understood that he was missing the previous year’s foundational understanding of math and English,” Rivero said. “Not addressing it would cause him to spiral into a failing year. The pressure of not understanding each day’s advancing subject matter was hurting  him not only academically, but socially as well.

“When I approached the school about this, they offered to add him in Mrs. Carrera’s after-school tutoring program. Unfortunately, by the second quarter of the school year the program was already full. Mrs. Carrera took the initiative to open her schedule and some personal time to work with Eduardo. It makes me so happy to see that teachers like Mrs. Carrera are willing to work with parents and truly care for our children’s success.”

Eduardo recently entered his third year at Kingdom Academy. His mother said he previously attended a local elementary school, but while he made mostly A’s and B’s, he was not happy there.

Jovanna Rivero learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program through a friend whose child went to Kingdom Academy. A single mother of two who works as a medical assistant, she applied for the program for lower-income families through Step Up For Students and Eduardo was accepted.

Eduardo Rivero, a seventh-grader at Kingdom Academy in Miami, was reading on a fourth-grade level last year, but made a stunning turnaround. He is now reading at an eighth-grade level and excelling in math.

Eduardo Rivero, a seventh-grader at Kingdom Academy in Miami, was reading on a fourth-grade level last year, but made a stunning turnaround. He is now reading at an eighth-grade level and excelling in math.

While many students in the program realize academic improvements after receiving a scholarship, Eduardo was different.

“During his fifth-grade year, we noticed an odd behavior when it came to focusing on a task,” Rivero said. “Through counseling it was determined he had a mild learning disability. He was also diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.”

She doubts Eduardo would have gotten as much individualized attention at their neighborhood school. Her younger son Julian is now doing well as a first-grader at Kingdom Academy; he is also on the scholarship program through Step Up.

When he isn’t astounding his family and teachers with academic progress, Eduardo enjoys computer coding, video games, Minecraft and art.

“So far, I want to be animator,” he said.

“He draws characters from his imagination,” his mother said. “Whatever goes into his brain, he draws.”

She said Eduardo’s confidence has soared since his remarkable academic turnaround.

“We’re very grateful to everyone at Step Up and Kingdom Academy,” she said.

Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@StepUpForStudents.org.

In light of her oldest son’s stunning academic turnaround, Jovanna Rivero says thank you:

 


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Mt. Moriah Christian Fundamental Academy molds industrious young students

 

By  GEOFF FOX

A three-classroom school tucked inside a church in south St. Petersburg, Florida, is proving that a learning institution doesn’t need a sprawling campus to become a beacon for families seeking educational options.

Mt. Moriah Christian Fundamental Academy was founded in 2011 by Pastor Robert Ward of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church.

That first year, there were only three sixth-grade students and one teacher, but it has grown steadily. It now serves sixth- through eighth-graders, and the staff has grown to three full-time teachers, three teacher’s assistants and Principal Shannon Dolly.

 

Of the school’s 36 students in 2016-17, 24 were on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income families. The program is managed by Step Up For Students.

Because of our supporters, those students now have hope for a brighter future.

Dolly attributed Mt. Moriah’s growth to word-of-mouth testimonials among parents in the area.

“We also put up a sign out front a couple of years ago,” she said. “That alone has helped us a lot.”

Most students are from the south St. Petersburg area, although some travel from nearby Largo and Pinellas Park.

Dolly is happy that enrollment is increasing and ecstatic with how well her students are performing.

During the 2016-17 school year, the school opted into Step Up’s Measures of Academic Progress® (MAP®) assessment. With multiple tests a year, MAP® provides teachers with almost immediate results, allowing them to adjust their instruction to the needs of each student.

Dolly said the program has worked well and that reading scores at Mt.Moriah have significantly increased. Mt. Moriah graduates either attend a public school or transfer to a private high school.

Because of our supporters, students like Zharia Stephens, of Mt. Moriah Christian Fundamental Academy in St. Petersburg, Florida, are thriving in an environment that fits their educational needs. Their support helps children receive a better education.

Without our supporters, crucial innovations like MAP would not be possible.

“I work diligently with the eighth-grade parents to get their kids in the right school,” Dolly said. “We make sure they’re on a rigorous academic program. They don’t know it, but they work a grade ahead. When they go to high school, they already have an Algebra 1 or Spanish 1 credit, as long as they pass it here.”

Students like Tahjai Lassiter, 14, have thrived at Mt. Moriah. A student on the tax-credit scholarship program, Tahjai graduated from the school in June as its valedictorian with a 3.8 grade-point average. In 2017-18, she plans to attend Gibbs High School, a local public school, where she will be enrolled in the Beta program.

The Beta program blends business and technological skills into students’ academic courses. The program includes a “real world simulated business class where students use their critical thinking skills and hands-on curriculum to operate a business within the school,” according to the school’s website.

The program should offer plenty of challenges, but they are ones Tahjai has been well-prepared for at Mt. Moriah. In fact, the program should be an especially good fit for her.

“I want to own a couple of businesses locally,” she said of her future aspirations.

Zharia Stephens, 12, a rising eighth-grader, said she is also happy at Mt. Moriah. She is also a tax-credit scholar and previously attended a private elementary school.

Although she said science is her favorite subject, “because it’s easier,” Zharia aspires to someday become an attorney.

“Sometimes I like to argue,” she said.

Dolly nodded in agreement, saying, “She’s a great debater.”

Zharia added that television shows like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” have helped stoke her passion for issues pertaining to crime and punishment.

Asked what she liked most about Mt. Moriah, Zharia didn’t hesitate to mention the staff.

“Because they love me,” she said with a grin.

Without our supporters, Zharia might have been lost in a sea of other students.

 

How to bring more than 10,000 people together to save the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program

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.

Robinson, center in orange, led the Tally Rally 2016 efforts from start to finish that brought more than 10,000 Florida Tax Credit Scholarship supporters to the state capital on Jan. 19.

Catherine Durkin Robinson, center in orange, led the Tally Rally 2016 efforts from start to finish that brought more than 10,000 Florida Tax Credit Scholarship supporters to the state capital on Jan. 19.

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.

That sea of yellow is Florida Tax Credit Scholarship supporters, more than 10,000 strong, marching in Tallahassee.

That sea of yellow is Florida Tax Credit Scholarship supporters more than 10,000 strong marching in Tallahassee.

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. 

 

 

School Spotlight: Tampa Bay Christian Academy, Tampa

By SHERRI ACKERMAN

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.

Shaneka Paul

Shaneka Paul

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.

TAMPA BAY CHRISTIAN ACADEMYFounded 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.

A spiritual sign hangs at Tampa Bay Christian Academy serves as a reminder of having faith and the good things that will come during the school year.

A spiritual sign hanging at Tampa Bay Christian Academy serves as a reminder of having faith and the good things that will come during the school year.

“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

 

 

Giving thanks to Step Up For Students’ generous donors

By JILL METZ, Step Up For Students

thankfulDid 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.

 

 

 

Student spotlight: Hayden Hernandez and Cambria Rogers

By SHERRI ACKERMAN

Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedIt 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.

Finally, she could choose a school based on her children’s needs – not their ZIP code.Cambria Hayden

“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).