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From class clown to class leader with the help of an education choice scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

TAMPA – One of Margene Avery’s first moves as principal at Tampa Bay Christian Academy was to install a student government. For junior class president, she chose Joshua Brutus, an immensely popular yet irresponsible student who was content to coast through high school.

Joshua summed up his reaction in one word: “Me?”

“My freshman, sophomore year, I don’t want to say I was the class clown, but I was the class clown,” Joshua said. “I never got any big responsibilities. But to step into those shoes, I was surprised.”

The teachers and administrators at the pre-K through 12 private school saw Joshua’s potential. Avery felt that putting him in charge of his class would turn Joshua into a serious student.

“When he applies himself, he really does well,” Avery said. “He has a great common sense as well as intellectual capacity.”

Joshua, 17, now a senior, attends TBCA on a scholarship for private schools managed by Step Up For Students.

While surprised at his appointment, Joshua was also energized by the confidence shown in him by Avery and TBCA Head of School Matthew Peavyhouse. He went from being the class clown to being class leader, from being a lethargic student to one who earns A’s and B’s.

Joshua Brutus began the school year with a bang at Tampa Bay Christian Academy, earning student of the month honors for August.

“He’s become a man that I am proud is graduating from this school,” Peavyhouse said. “He’s grown a great deal, more than anything, character wise. He’s become a strong young man.”

Joshua has big plans for his future: a college education, possibly a career as an electrical engineer. He wants to start a nonprofit to help Black boys in economically struggling communities around Tampa transition from middle school to high school. He wants to show the same belief in them as the TBCA teachers and administrators have shown in him.

“Because not everyone has what I have, and I’m very fortunate that I get to go here and get the support from them,” Joshua said.

Celene Flerine, Joshua’s mother, wanted her son to attend TBCA for the benefits that come with attending a private school with a student population of 200: small class sizes, more one-on-one attention from the teachers, and the support offered by the administration.

“I felt the people at this school, the principal and teachers, are happy to help you with your children,” she said. “If there is any problem, if your child doesn’t do homework, they call you and say this is not working, this is not good.

“That’s what I want, because I don’t want for them to wait for six months or one year to find out my child isn’t doing good at your school. Then it’s too late. At this school, they make sure they work together (with parents). You go talk to them. They open the door for you. This is a good school for me.”

Celene knew what Joshua was capable of achieving and reminded him of that every time he brought home a disappointing report card.

“When I was a younger, I was like, ‘Why do they expect so much of me? I’m just a regular kid. I don’t want to do all this stuff,’” Joshua said. “And now that I’m here, I feel like I should have listened from the beginning, because if I had listened from the beginning, I could be way smarter, have more opportunities.”

Joshua kicked off his senior year by earning student of the month honors for August. He is working hard during his final year at TBCA to bring his GPA from a 2.8 to a 3.0, which he hopes will make him eligible for financial assistance to college.

He was proud of what he accomplished in class once he began to apply himself and he was proud that he made his mother, well, proud.

“My mom is really happy for me,” he said. “She just wants the best for me. And now all her efforts weren’t in vain. I’m actually trying, and she sees that I’m trying and she’s proud of me, which makes me proud of myself.”

Joshua loves reading the classics, like Beowulf.

Joshua, who wants to be an electrical engineer, said he wants to be a person who makes a difference in his community. That’s why he’s interested in starting his nonprofit.

The idea came to life during a class discussion with Peavyhouse, who posed this question: What makes high school freshmen so annoying? Peavyhouse was looking for serious answers, and Joshua provided one: “They don’t know what they don’t know.”

Joshua’s solution was to offer a mentorship program to those who lack male role models. Those young men get lost, Joshua said, because they have no one to show them the importance of an education, that a 3.0 GPA is better than a 2.0 and a 3.5 is better than a 3.0. It’s hard to believe in yourself, Joshua said, when no one believes in you.

Speaking from his own experiences, Joshua said, “I just saw a lot of people with potential that they never really could do anything about it because of their situation. They need help.

“They can be the smartest person in the world living in poverty and not having the means or the support to actually be someone in life, and they could be. But instead, it gets thrown out the window. It’s just a waste of potential.”

Being named junior class president ignited the serious student that for so long, lay dormant inside Joshua.

“They make me feel like I’m worth something,” he said, “that I can actually do something with my life. Junior year I said, ‘Enough is enough, because I want to have a future.’”

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

From Ethiopia to No. 1 in his high school class to UF with the help of a private school scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

For Yonas Worku, obstacles are opportunities.

When he was 5, Yonas and his mother emigrated from Ethiopia to join his father in Las Vegas. They immediately had to overcome numerous hurdles.

“It was really rough,” he said. “The language barrier, the culture barrier, you can just imagine how difficult it was to assimilate into this culture. It was rough learning the language at first. Getting to know people, finding friends, that was a little tough for me, but it all worked out in the end.”

Thanks in large part to a quality education made possible by a private school scholarship for K-12 schoolchildren in Florida, managed by Step Up For Students.

As if Yonas wasn’t already facing enough challenges adapting to a new country, when he was in fourth grade his father left the family.

Bewildered and angry at first, Yonas said he grew to accept his father’s actions.

“I’m kind of glad that he did (leave) in the sense that I wouldn’t be here now,” said Yonas, 17. “It kind of motivated me to become the person I am today. Having that burden, it motivates you to be better. If I had everything handed to me, I don’t think this would be my life.”

Yonas with his mom, Zinash, after Yonas graduated No. 1 in his class from Bishop John Snyder High School in Jacksonville.

Suddenly, Zinash Tekleweld found herself a single mom trying to raise her son Yonas in a still unfamiliar country nearly 8,000 miles from her homeland. A year later, she and Yonas moved to Jacksonville, where she worked a minimum-wage job at a cotton candy factory.

Tekleweld learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up. She applied and was accepted. The scholarship enabled her to afford tuition to private schools that helped make him the person he is today.

The scholarship “really lifted the burden for our family and made life much easier,” Tekleweld said.

“Step Up was a big help,” Yonas said. “A very big help. We didn’t have any money. It was paycheck-to-paycheck.”

Yonas said he wanted to help his mother, but when he talked of getting a job, she told him to work on school.

“I realized that education was the most important thing in this country and that through it, Yonas can become a better individual,” said Tekleweld, who now works as a school janitor. “Education is the key to getting anything that he wants. I realized that it can open many doors for him in the future.”

Yonas finished middle school at Sacred Heart Catholic School, then attended Bishop John Snyder High School, where he graduated in June as the valedictorian. He took summer classes at the University of Florida. This August, he will begin working on his major – computer science. He is interested in a career in software development or cybersecurity.

Yonas was accepted to six colleges, including Georgia Tech and Boston College. He chose Florida because his college tuition would be covered with all the academic scholarships he has earned, including the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship.

Yonas had a decorated academic career at Bishop Snyder. In addition to graduating first in his class with a 4.44 grade-point average, he was president of the National Honor Society his senior year, as well as a member of the French, science, math, social studies and English honor societies. He received the school’s Christian Service Award for exemplary service to the community, the Senior Cardinal Award, and the Math Department Award.

“He’s the whole package,” said Kelly Brown, Bishop Snyder’s dean of academics and the school’s sponsor of the National Honor Society.

Brown also teaches AP Calculus. She said the other students wanted to be partners with Yonas on class projects because, well, they knew working with him would ensure a top grade, but also because he could break down the complicated material in a way they could understand.

“He’s a rare find,” Brown said. “He’s a very driven young man with high aspirations and goals. That often comes with a personality that is pretty intense, but not in his case.”

While Yonas earns all A’s, his personality is far from Type A. He is a hard worker who was challenged by Bishop Snyder’s demanding academics. Presented with the opportunity to talk about the struggles he and his mom encountered during their first few years in the United States or brag a little on his academic achievements during his valedictorian address, Yonas chose to talk about what he and his fellow graduates accomplished.

“This means the world to us,” he said of their diplomas.

“I was really happy to hear that Yonas graduated first from his class,” Tekleweld said. “I was really proud of him because I’ve seen how hard he has worked to reach this point. I remember crying about it because I was so happy.”

The emotional toll of his dad leaving, and the financial hardship left in its wake motivated Yonas to excel in school so he could receive the grades needed for the academic scholarships that will pay for his college education.

“That’s what got me here,” he said of his spot in the University of Florida’s incoming freshman class. “In the end it works out. Everything does work out.”

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

Private school scholarship ‘molded me into a better person’

By ROGER MOONEY

Lucas Kirschner came for the basketball. He stayed for the education.

The recent graduate of Miami Christian School enrolled there as an eighth grader with the help of a private school scholarship managed by Step Up for Students. The draw for him was Miami Christian’s highly regarded boys basketball program. The draw for his mom was the school’s academics.

At the time, Lucas had dreams of playing professional basketball. But after two seasons his playing time was scarce. Several of his friends on the team were leaving for a neighborhood high school, and Lucas seriously considered joining them.

His mom, Ocilia Diaz, told Lucas his friends had their reasons for leaving and he had plenty of reasons to stay, namely the education.

Woody Gentry, Miami Christian principal, told Lucas that just because basketball wasn’t working out as he hoped, he could work harder to earn more playing time.

Lucas Kirschner

“Grow through the experience, whether you’re playing or not,” Gentry recalled saying.

Eventually, Lucas decided to stay.

“I ended up staying because Miami Christian has a very good basketball team but also has a great educational system,” he said.

The teachers, Lucas said, care about the students. They provide support and hold them accountable.

“I didn’t want to leave that, because I felt if I left that I would have gone off the track,” he said.

Lucas, 17, is set to begin his freshman year at Miami Dade College, where he will study automotive engineering. The goal of playing in the NBA has been replaced by one of working as an engineer for a Formula One racing team.

“I love engineering,” he said. “I love working with cars.”

Lucas attended Miami Christian, because his mom felt he was going off the track at his neighborhood middle school. She wasn’t pleased with the students he was hanging out with or his conduct in class.

“It was just behavior,” Diaz said. “Clicking the pencil on the desk. Talking. Over talking. Getting up to sharpen the pencil. It got to the point in junior high where he was starting to make comments and laughing and becoming disruptive in class. Becoming the silly boy. Ha. Ha. Ha. It’s so funny, but it’s not funny anymore. The teachers get annoyed.”

Diaz was worried where this was heading. She and Lucas’ father, Holger Kirschner (they divorced when Lucas was 4), decided to send their son to a private school. Diaz learned of Miami Christian, located 20 minutes from their Miami home. The basketball program was certainly attractive. And so was the school’s faith-based education, academic reputation and small class sizes. The tuition was a concern – currently $10,000 per year for middle school and $10,500 for high school.

Diaz was told about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which allows parents to send their child to a school of their choice. She applied.

“When we were accepted, it was the best thing ever,” she said.

Lucas knew it was the right move.

“I was hanging out with the wrong people, skipping school a lot, not doing homework, not doing classwork. Just slacking off. Not caring. I had nobody to push me,” he said about his neighborhood school.

That changed at his new private school.

“I felt the environment around me change completely,” he said. “The environment changed me. The teachers changed me. It helped me get out of that state I was in in middle school.”

Lucas also found Principal Gentry.

Gentry realized quickly that this new student liked to feel needed, liked to be given tasks.

So, Gentry asked Lucas to help set up for school functions around campus. Lucas helped grill and serve hotdogs during school cookouts. He made Lucas the “cell phone captain,” meaning Lucas was charged with collecting his classmates’ cellphones before class and distributing them after class.

In that role, Gentry said, “He was phenomenal.”

Lucas was a mainstay on Project Plus, an afterschool program created by Gentry for campus projects. One was to make bulletin boards with plexiglass covers that can withstand the elements at the school’s open-air campus.

“He thrived with doing those kinds of things,” Gentry said. “When he had an assignment, a project, hands-on, felt a sense of ownership with it, that helped him a lot.”

His dream of playing in the NBA didn’t work out, but Lucas has his sights set on another competitive sport: Formula One racing.

When Lucas was a junior, his maternal grandfather passed away and he had a hard time dealing with his grief. Gentry noticed and invited Lucas to spend the day in his office. Gentry told Lucas to not worry about his schoolwork that day, just work through his feelings and that he was there if Lucas felt like talking.

“He made everything comfortable, comforting,” Gentry said.

On the day Lucas graduated from high school, Gentry gave him a hug and said, “You’re going to be something out there.”

Diaz, standing nearby, was filled with pride. The decision to send her son to Miami Christian and her son’s decision to stay accomplished everything she had ever hoped.

“They molded him,” Diaz said. “He has the thought of continuing to study and wanting something bigger for himself.”

As the years went by, Lucas, a 6-foot-3 guard/forward, learned there was more to high school than playing time on the basketball team. He has grown through the experience.

“I’m actually very glad I went there,” Lucas said. “It changed my life for the better. It molded me into something I actually wanted to become. It molded me into a better person. I can see my future better.”

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

My perspective: What to look for in a child care center and how to make it affordable

Editor’s note: My Perspective is an occasional series asking subject matter experts their thoughts on different educational topics. In this edition, Annette Cacicedo, director of Kids Learning Center of South Dade, talks about what to look for in child care centers and ways to make it affordable for lower-income families.

Annette Cacicedo has been working at Kids Learning Center of South Dade in Miami for 17 years. Now the program’s director, she’s dealt with so many parents who asked so many questions that she is certain about this:

“Ninety-five percent of parents, I would say, have no idea what they would qualify for (financially) and don’t have any idea of what (financial assistance) really is out there,” she said. “They might see signs, advertisements, but are not really sure what is being advertised.”

Childcare is not cheap. According to the Center for American Progress, a Washington D.C. based think tank for economic and social issues, it can cost nearly 10% of a family’s income. For low-income families, the cost can climb to nearly 30% to 35%. For some families, that’s virtually unaffordable. Yet, families in Florida have access to it, thanks to a number of financial assistance programs.

While Step Up For Students does not service preschool-age children, except in some cases with the Gardiner Scholarship Program for children with certain special needs or unique abilities, we know that many families learn about our programs through these facilities or come from those and use a scholarship at our partner schools and more.

So, we thought we’d ask an expert on how anyone can afford preschool and what to look for when searching for one for your child. That’s where Cacicedo comes in.

When researching childcare centers (more on that later), make sure to inquire about financial options.

Many parents arrive at Kids Learning Center of South Dade with some idea of what to expect, Cacicedo said, thanks to word-of-mouth referrals and the information available on social media. After giving parents a tour of the facility, Cacicedo asks the most important question: How will you pay for this? If the parents don’t know, she directs them to outlets that provide financial assistance.

Each serves children from birth to age 5 so the child can receive an early learning system.

The Florida Department of Children and Families website has a section for choosing a child care provider with a link to help parents find one in their area. The Early Learning Coalition shares the same link on its website.

Some childcare centers, like Kids Learning Center of South Dade, located in a low-income area in Miami, also have elementary and middle school programs. Cacicedo said her program has the capacity of serving 213 children from birth to eighth grade (in its Eureka location), with 80 children currently enrolled in the preschool program.

For those parents seeking financial aid to attend her elementary or middle school, Cacicedo tells them about the two scholarships for private schools, managed by Step Up For Students.


Related:


While paying for childcare is critical, it is equally as important to find a center or program that you can trust. To accomplish that, you have to do your homework.

Research should include recommendations from parents. Social media is a good place to start, since parents and guardians share information about childcare services on platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

You should interview the center and ask plenty of questions, like these. Next, set up a visit to the center and look to see if the children and staff seem happy, are they interacting, what measures are taken to ensure the safety of the children and is it a clean and healthy environment.

Then, stop by unannounced to see if everything is the same as when they knew you were coming for a visit.

You can turn to the Florida Department of Children and Families for more guidance.

‘This is the year my daughter learned to read’

Kaelani is overcoming dyslexia with the help of the Orton-Gillingham Approach and a Step Up scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

Kaelani Dix can read. You can’t imagine what that means to her mother unless you have a child with dyslexia.

“Oh my gosh,” Kaelani’s mom, Kimberly Caleb, said. “I’m so grateful.”

Kaelani, 10, just finished the third grade at Pace Brantley School in Longwood, Florida, a private school, with grades 1 through 12, that specializes in teaching children who need specialized attention. Kaelani attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two private school scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.

Caleb, who lives 40 minutes away in Orlando, found Pace Brantley when searching the internet for resources for kids with dyslexia in Central Florida. She learned while researching reading programs or services for students with special needs that Kaelani would benefit from a school that taught the Orton-Gillingham Approach. The Approach was developed in the 1930s to teach students with dyslexia how to read. It has been used at Pace Brantley for nearly 20 years.

Kaelani, who entered Pace Brantley as a first grader, began the Orton-Gillingham Approach when school began last August. By November, she was able to read “Put Me in the Zoo” by Robert Lopshire, as well as a few pages from her children’s bible.

“I remember people saying this year is a wash (for students) with everything in the pandemic,” Caleb said, “but this is the year my daughter learned to read.”

‘A significant commitment’

According to ortonacademy.org, the Orton-Gillingham Approach is “a direct, explicit, multisensory, structured, sequential, diagnostic, and prescriptive way to teach literacy when reading, writing, and spelling does not come easily to individuals, such as those with dyslexia.”

Kaelanie reading one of her favorite books.

Orton-Gillingham focuses on the connection between letters and sounds then builds on those connections. Some schools use the Wilson Language or the Barton Reading and Spelling System to teach reading to special needs students. Both programs are offshoots of the Orton-Gillingham Approach.

At Pace Brantley, students usually are in the third grade to enter the Orton-Gillingham Approach after spending the first and second grades prepping for it.

“There’s music involved,” Pace Brantley Principal Jennifer Foor said of the prep work. “There is a lot of imagery involved that are building that working memory that they may be struggling with to get them to move into Orton, because when you move into the Orton program, it requires a lot of memory and working memory. You have to be able to learn information and hold on to it and still be able to pull previously learned information.”

The Approach is a three-year program for the students. They meet in small groups (no more than four students) three or four times a week, 40 minutes at a time. If they haven’t mastered reading in those three years, they can take a fourth year.

“It’s a pretty significant commitment as far as time goes,” Foor said. “Obviously, if we dedicate that much time for our students, we’re saying it works.”

When talking about the Orton-Gillingham Approach, Pam Tapley, Pace Brantley’s head of school, offered Kaelani is the success story for the 2020-21 school year.

“She came to us with no foundation,” Tapley said. “The teacher started with all of the early reading skills, the phonemic awareness, letter and sound recognition, and this is a little girl who is now reading and as importantly, because we’ve seen the two correlations, she’s writing.”

‘You’re giving them life’

Kaelani was speech-delayed, but Caleb was unaware her daughter was dyslexic.

“When she got into school she struggled tremendously. Nothing was clicking. It was difficult,” she said.

Kaelani repeated pre-K. Testing revealed she had specific learning disabilities and, while not officially diagnosed, Caleb said her daughter displayed all the symptoms and criteria of dyslexia.

That’s what sent Caleb searching for the proper school, a search that led her to Pace Brantley.

Caleb spent 15 years as an elementary and middle school teacher at district schools. She understands the importance of reading. Plus, everyone in the family is an avid reader. Books abound in their home.

Kaelani always wanted to read. She would even take a book and pretend she was reading it. And, if it was a page that had been read to her enough times, Kaelani could act as if she was reading by reciting what she had heard over and over.

Caleb bought “Put Me in the Zoo” and wanted Kaelani to read it before school. And one morning she did.

“This wasn’t a passage she was practicing. These were brand new words she hadn’t read. She sat there and started reading it,” Caleb said.

It was an emotional moment for a mother.

“I was just overwhelmed,” she said. “I compare a teacher who can teach a child how to read like a doctor. You’re giving them life. You’re saving a life. Especially one who struggles.

“My daughter wanted to read so bad. She would pick up books and pretend to read. Now that she can make sense of those words, I can’t describe it. I was so worried. I didn’t know what was wrong. I didn’t know why she couldn’t do what other kids do.”

Now Kaelani can do what the other kids can do. She can read.

“OK,” Caleb said, “she’s ready now and she’s able to excel.”

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

MVP on the court, MVP in the classroom thanks to a private school scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

Praise Temple Christian Academy teacher Anna Langley found herself a little teary-eyed recently, while watching the seniors walk down the aisle during practice for the June 4 graduation ceremony.

Langley, who has taught at the school for three years, will miss all the seniors, including one who Langley admits held a special place in her class and at Praise Temple in general.

That would be Samantha Gulli, the salutatorian of the Class of 2021, who was vice president of the student council, captain and MVP of the volleyball team, a teacher’s aide, an actress in all the school plays and a volunteer in every activity and fundraiser held at the school during the last four years.

“I can’t imagine a classroom without her,” Langley said. “There are seniors who graduate and leave, but when there was one who was so involved in so many aspects of the school, it leaves a little bigger hole.”

Samantha Gulli graduated second in her class at
Praise Temple Christian Academy.

Oh, Samantha is not really leaving Praise Temple. She plans to enter cosmetology school to pursue her lifelong ambition of owning her own beauty salon, but she said she will continue her work as a teacher’s aide next year. She would love to help Langley, who coaches volleyball, as an assistant coach.

“I may be graduating, but I will still be there,” Samantha said.

Samantha, who lives in Clermont, Florida, began attending the K-12 Christian private school in nearby Groveland as a freshman. After graduating from a district middle school, Samantha wanted to attend a Christian high school.

“I wanted to learn more about the Bible,” Samantha said, “and I wasn’t going to learn about it at a (district) school.”

Samantha attended Praise Temple on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two private school scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.

“I wouldn’t be here without this scholarship,” Samantha said. “I really appreciate it. I’m really thankful and grateful for it.”

“The Step Up scholarship has been a blessing,” her mom, Michelle Gulli, said. “It gave her this opportunity.”

Samantha flourished in high school, both academically and socially.

When she arrived at Praise Temple, she was behind in math and English but worked during the school years and over the summers to catch up by her senior year. Her grades were high enough to rank her second in the graduating class.

“That took not only a lot of hard work but a lot of thorough work that had to be done well,” Langley said.

Said Gulli: “Samantha had to hustle, but she’s a hard worker.”

Gulli, who works at the school as a teacher’s aide, described her daughter as a “wallflower” before she entered Praise Temple.

“Always quiet and good,” she said. “But (in high school), she came out of her shell. That’s what I noticed. It really helped her blossom. I never thought she would be captain of a volleyball team or vice president of her high school.”

Samantha credited that to joining the volleyball team and to making friends with peers who share her Christian values.

“The volleyball team really helped me to open up, because it’s a very verbal sport,” she said. “I was forced to open up to be a good player, teammate, and that carried over to my schoolwork and how I interacted with other people.”

As for her high school friends, Samantha said, “The Christian atmosphere around me made it easier to fit in. It made me feel at home.”

Samantha and Sissy, her graduation present.

Samantha speaks freely about her faith. It’s a major part of her makeup. Perhaps that’s no surprise since she has a grandfather and great-grandfather who were involved in ministry.

Samantha’s faith and love for volleyball came together when she received the Christian Character Award after one season. The award was voted on by the opposing coaches.

“I liked that better than the trophy for coming in second in the state,” Gulli said. “I like that better than being named captain.”

It’s also of little surprise that Samantha wants a career as a hairstylist and to own a salon. Her mom is a hairstylist. She has an aunt and a grandfather who both owned salons.

“It’s in the family,” she said.

Samantha’s popularity at school stems from her leadership ability, her devotion to her faith (which she shares with the students in the lower grades) and her disposition, which can best be described as sunny.

“What stands out to me probably more than the academics is I don’t ever recall seeing her come in with an attitude,” Langley said. “She’s always here with a smile, encouraging other students. She’s always happy and it’s infectious to others.”

What Gulli wanted four years ago for her daughter was a faith-based education that would challenge her academically and prepare her for life beyond high school and a career. Samantha received that and more.

“I don’t think there was a day in her high school career that was wasted,” Langley said. “Every day she made the most of it and went above and beyond in whatever it was, whether it was academics or making her fellow peers happier or helping out with the teachers. Whatever it was, she made the most of it.”

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

‘Who’s going to be the next villain?’ The story of one survivor of bullying

By ROGER MOONEY

Brendan Thompson remembers the day in the fourth grade when he was jumped by a pack of bullies in a school bathroom. He remembers how he fought back, and he remembers how futile it was, because he was outnumbered. He remembers how classmates watched and laughed as he absorbed the blows to his face that left him with a bloody cut near his eye and a split lip.

There are some days you never forget, even when more than a decade has passed.

Brendan Thompson graduated in May from Seminole State College with a degree in general studies.
He will continue his education at the University of Central Florida.

Thompson vividly remembers the reaction later that day by school administrators when confronted by his mother, who, you can imagine, was angry.

Her son, she was told, was big enough to defend himself.

Yes, Thompson was among the taller and heavier kids in his school. But Nikki Thompson didn’t raise her son to fight, and Brendan was the mellow type who made friends easily and was nicknamed the “Gentle Giant” by his mother.

Despite his size –and maybe because of it – Thomspon was a target. He was picked on in the lower grades for being pigeon-toed and later for the hump behind his neck, something, he said, that developed from years of walking with his head bowed in an attempt to blend in.

Thompson recently spoke freely of his experiences at the hands of bullies one morning while taking a break from teaching bible and math at Master’s Training Academy, a K-12 private Christian school in Apopka, Florida, which his mother opened five years ago. In the end, it would be a Step Up For Students scholarship that allowed him to attend a private high school where bullying from classmates was no longer an issue.

The bulling started in the first grade and continued through the eighth. Thompson attended four schools during that span, twice changing schools because was bullied.

“It was like a TV show,” he said. “Who’s going to be the next villain? That’s what it was like every single year.”

He is 23 and a recent graduate from Seminole State College with a degree in general studies. He will continue his education in the fall at the University of Central Florida, where he intends to study creative writing.

His plan is to produce movies and documentaries. He also wants to write books, including one on bullying. It will be about his experiences and his thoughts on how bullying is portrayed in movies and on TV.

“It needs to stop being normalized,” Thompson said. “Bullying has become normal, and it shouldn’t be normal, because the kids who are being bullied, they don’t feel normal. They feel alone. They feel suicidal. They feel empty inside, numb inside.”

Though he lived with his mother and two sisters while growing up and had other family members he could turn to, Thompson felt alone, as so many victims do. He would refuse to talk at home and stayed in his bedroom, where he listened to what his mom described as “violent music.”

Thompson said he often thought about running away from home. He had darker thoughts, too.

“I don’t really tell people this, but there were times when I did think to myself, ‘What if I just ended everything? What if I did end my life?’” he said. “Thank God I didn’t, but I did think about that. Those thoughts popped up a lot during middle school.”

What stopped him?

“I would be selfish, because it wouldn’t be me who was in pain now, it would be my family and those who loved me,” he said. “It would be selfish and the coward way out. I would hate for anyone to think I was a coward.”

For Thompson, Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students made all the difference. He used it to attend high school at Apopka Christian Academy, where he graduated in the spring of 2016. The bullying by students didn’t follow him there but he remained wary, alert for the next villain.

“Getting bullied, it was miserable,” he said. “There were nights that I would go home and feel terrible about myself. Prayer got me through a lot of stuff. Reading my bible got me through a lot of stuff.”

His renewed faith began to impact his family. Bible study became a regular part of the family’s week. His mother, Nikki Thompson, who had worked two jobs to support her family, felt the call to start her own faith-based private school.

“I wanted to help those who were in need,” she said.

So, she quit her jobs and opened Master’s Academy in 2016. It has become a haven for children who were bullied at previous schools. That’s by design, Nikki Thompson said. Watching her son suffer the abuse of classmates and listening to school administrators who didn’t seem interested in stopping it leaves a scar on a mother.

“It was hard knowing I had to leave my child (in a school) where he was being bullied,” she said. “He was being hurt. He wasn’t comfortable. He didn’t feel right.”

Today, Florida schoolchildren have more options when they become a victim of bullying. Students in public school who are bullied can benefit from the Hope Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students. Hope was created in 2018 by the Florida Legislature to address the staggering number of schoolchildren who are bullied each year. It provides families with financial assistance to send a child who suffers from a qualifying incident at a public school to an eligible private school or help pay for transportation to a public school in another district.

Back when Brendan Thompson was a student, his only option to escape his bullies was financially qualifying for the tax-credit scholarship.  For the 2020-21 school year, 468 students are using Hope.

Given her son’s experiences, it’s no surprise that Nikki Thompson is a fan of the Hope Scholarship which opens up a way for K-12 students in Florida to find a learning environment away from their tormentors and feel safer.

“I think it’s awesome,” she said. “There’s bullying and you have parents who can’t afford a private school education and those scholarships, they do a lot. They help a lot of families out.

“Our No. 1 priority is taking care of our students. The moment they walk through the door they become my child and I will protect them by any means necessary.”

The pain Brendan endured from school bullies and his commitment to his faith motivated his mother, Nikki, to open a private school.

The students at Master’s Academy are drawn to Brendan Thompson, who at 6-foot, 290 pounds, remains a gentle giant. Especially to those who were bullied at a previous school. He knows their pain. He understands.

“He’s a role model for kids who have been bullied,” his mom said.

While the incidents took him to dark and painful places, Thompson is an example of a bullying victim who has healed. He knows that many victims still suffer from the experience into adulthood. Not him, he said.

“No,” he said. “I try not to focus on what others say about me, but just focus on the positive things about myself.”

Thompson said being a victim of bullying helped him develop a thick skin against taunts and taught him to stick up for himself.

He recalled an incident before physical education class in the eighth grade when he noticed three bullies were closing in on him. Thompson said he made the first move, asking if they “wanted to go?” They backed down. A classmate who witnessed the incident called Thompson a superhero.

Thomspon didn’t think he was. He just knew if he didn’t act then, he would remain a victim, and he was tired of being a victim. He also knows not every victim can stand up for themselves.

That’s why he wants to write a book about his experiences. While in college, he wrote research papers and spoke about it during speech class, using statistics of the many victims who chose suicide to make his point.

While Thompson has spoken to victims, he also spoke with aggressors. Several of his former classmates who bullied him have reached out on Facebook or by email to express their sorrow for how they acted and to explain why they did. Some talked about being abused at home and turned to bullying as an outlet for their pain.

Thompson listened.

“Did it change the way I feel? No,” he said. “But it’s better than no apology, I guess.”

If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or are in emotional distress, please speak to someone today. Help is available. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. It is available 24/7.

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

Zoe’s future looks bright thanks to private school scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

Zoe Elverillo’s mother dropped out of school in the eighth grade. So did Zoe’s brother. Zoe, however, has blazed a different path.

Zoe will graduate this spring from the demanding International Baccalaureate program at Carrollwood Day School in Tampa with a 4.0 grade point average. Unlike anyone in her family before her, she will head to Louisiana State University in the fall, where she plans to study sports medicine.

After that?

“I definitely see myself owning my own business,” Zoe, 18, said. “I definitely want to be my own boss. I see myself having my own therapy center.”

This is exactly what Zoe’s mom, Pamala Moreau, wanted for her daughter when she decided to send her to a private school – a bright future. A single mother, Moreau was able to do that with a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.

Education Choice Student Zoe Elverillo
Zoe Elverillo graduated from the demanding IB program at Tampa’s Carrollwood Day School
and will begin classes in the fall at LSU.

The scholarship covers about a third of the yearly tuition at the prestigious private school. Carrollwood, a pre-K to 12 private school near the family’s home, has a network of donors who cover the rest. That enables Zoe and her younger sister, Nya, 15, to receive an education their mother could otherwise never afford.

“I’m so thankful and so grateful, and look at where Zoe is today,” Moreau said. “She would not be where she is today if she did not have the Step Up scholarship and go to that school.”

Zoe is a confident and determined student. She approached her classes in the IB program with the same competitive spirit she displays while playing first base for one of the Tampa Bay area’s top softball travel teams.

“It’s definitely a challenging school. They put you next to challenging students,” Zoe said. “It’s pretty competitive here. I adopted well to it.”

Drew Guarino, Carrollwood’s senior associate director of college counseling, said Zoe’s commitment to her education was evident during the first semester of her senior year. That’s a time when seniors tend to slack off a little, Guarino said. But Zoe had her best semester of her high school career, earning five A’s and one B.

“She takes her academics seriously,” Guarino said.

Zoe had little choice when it comes to that. Her mom wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I definitely don’t want them to follow in my shoes, that’s for sure,” Moreau said.

Moreau was 12 when she dropped out of school. She washed dishes. She checked coats at a hotel. By the age of 15, she was living on her own. As an adult, Moreau found work in the hospitality industry while raising her children.

“Not an easy life,” she said, “but I was happy.”

Moreau, who now works as an office manager, did the best she could with an eighth-grade education, but she wanted so much more for her daughters.

“Absolutely,” she said. “I want them to be able to take care of themselves. I don’t want them to have to rely on anybody for anything, ever. I want them to be able to be successful on their own. That’s very important. School, that was a big priority.”

Moreau wanted her daughters to attend Carrollwood because she felt the school’s IB program would prepare them for college.

Education Choice Student
Pamala Moreau and her daughter, Zoe.

“(Zoe) blossomed and got stronger as the curriculum became more challenging to the point where I’m confident she will be successful once she gets off to college because of all the hard work she’s put in over the last few years,” Guarino said.

In addition to LSU, Zoe was accepted at Florida Atlantic University, Pace University, Coastal Carolina University, James Madison University and the University of North Florida. She settled on LSU because she liked the campus culture and school spirit and because of the sports medicine program.

Zoe took Sports and Exercise Health Science as a junior. She shadowed Carrollwood’s athletic trainer during football season and interned at a local chiropractor’s office.

“Sports medicine has always been a big interest for me,” she said. “I never had a passion for anything other than that.”

Moreau regrets not continuing her education. She hears her friends talk about their proms and going to college and attending class reunions. She didn’t want her daughters to miss out on those experiences. But mostly, Moreau didn’t want her daughters to miss out on what they can achieve with a solid education.

“I’ve always felt education was No. 1 over everything,” Zoe said. “I always wanted to prove it to myself. I took it upon myself and this is a big accomplishment to me.”

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

Education choice helps in transformation to student council president

BY ROGER MOONEY

The early grades were not easy for Joshua Joseph. Trouble seemed to find him.

“I had anger issues,” Joshua, now 14, said. “People would make fun of me. Since my mom is not the richest, sometimes I would have mismatched socks, or my shoes would be dirty.”

That made Joshua a target at his district school. And, he admitted, he didn’t turn the other cheek when trouble came calling.

His mother, Elide, didn’t care who was the instigator. All she saw was a son who had a habit of making bad choices, whether it was controlling his anger or his choice of friends. The combination was hurting her son academically.

“He was bad,” Elide said with a sigh.

And she had enough.

With the help of a Step Up scholarship, Joshua turned his life around at
Sacred Heart Catholic School in Lake Worth, Florida.

A long-time parishioner at Sacred Heart Church in Lake Worth, Florida, Elide wanted to move Joshua to Sacred Heart Catholic School, a private pre-K-8 school near their home. She hoped a Catholic education and the small-classroom setting would work better for Joshua. Elide, a nursing assistant, was thrilled when she learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, which provides private school opportunities for economically disadvantaged families. Joshua entered Sacred Heart in the fourth grade.

“She was looking for something different for Joshua,” Sacred Heart Principal Tricia Duvall said. “These are the families that the scholarship really, really helps. They want it, and they’re willing to work and partner with the school.”

Joshua wasn’t excited about switching schools. The transformation was gradual. But he is now in the eighth grade, and has experienced a dramatic change in behavior, attitude and grades. And, in what might be a surprise to those who knew Joshua when he was younger, he is the Sacred Heart Student Council president.

“He’s come full circle,” Duvall said. “He works really hard academically. He’s working really hard to make good choices and do the right thing.”

This is everything Elide envisioned for her son when she made the move to change schools.

“We prayed so hard,” she said. “Now he’s different.”

Looking back now, Joshua knew he was on a dangerous path.

“If I stayed at my old school, I … probably would have ended up in juvie (juvenile detention),” he said.

As principal, Duvall said she is trying to change the culture where some students view getting in trouble as being “cool.” It’s not a Herculean task, given there are only 250 students in the school. But she needs help from some students.

And that’s where Joshua comes in.

He’s now a leader in the cause for avoiding trouble.

“Absolutely,” Duvall said. “He embraces that.”

In fact, Duvall thinks the example that Joshua sets for other students played a role in his election as president.

Joshua has big plans for his football career.

“He’s kind to everyone,” Duvall said. “He’s friendly to everyone. He has a good sense of humor. He’s never disrespectful ever. That carries into everything, he treats everybody with respect.”

Said Joshua: “The whole school basically knows me. They are my friends.”

“In my other school, I had anger issues. People would make fun of me. But Sacred Heart changed me and made me understand that sometimes people’s opinions doesn’t really matter.”

Duvall told Joshua that the Student Council president has to be the leader of the school. During school spirit week, Joshua would have to show the most spirit, which he did. He also took the lead during a recent beach cleanup and a December fundraiser to feed the homeless.

“I’m so proud of him,” Elide said. “When he told me he was president, I was so happy.”

Joshua has big plans for his future.

“My goal is to be in the NFL,” he said.

He currently is a defensive lineman on his youth football team, but he hopes to become a running back. That’s why he wants to attend Cardinal Newman High in West Palm Beach. He wants to be part of the Crusaders’ football program.

“He aspires to get there.” Duvall said. “So, he’s always asking, ‘Have you heard anything? Do you know when admission is open? Do they have scholarships available? What kind of GPA do I need?’ He’s asking the questions that if you knew him three or four years ago, you probably wouldn’t have thought he’d be asking them, because he was so unfocused.”

About Sacred Heart School:

Sacred Heart School was founded in 1944 and serves approximately 250 students in PreK 3–8, including 109 on the FTC Scholarship and 55 on the FES Scholarship. It is a Catholic school with a mission to “provide all students, of diverse cultures and abilities, an education of excellence, in a Christ-centered environment.” Sacred Heart is accredited by the Florida Catholic Conference. Tuition is roughly $10,300 and all students take the TerraNova assessment.

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

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.

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