By ROGER MOONEY
On a Friday morning in March 2020, a judge granted Sharon Strickland temporary custody of her great-granddaughter, Savannah.
The little girl, 8 at the time, had been living in unsanitary conditions, Strickland said, with an elderly relative who was in failing health. Savannah often went hungry.
According to Sharon, the family dynamic has been complicated and the children’s mother lost parental rights to all four of her daughters.
The youngest great-grandchild, Karlee, was already living with Strickland, having been placed there by the state four months earlier. Karlee arrived at Strickland’s doorstep at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday in early November 2019, carrying all her possessions in a backpack and a trash bag. She was 3.
Savannah came with even less. Just the clothes she wore that day to school – a shirt that was missing a few buttons and tattered pants. No socks.
For years, Strickland tried to gain custody of her great-granddaughters.
“Nobody was standing up for these girls and these girls needed a voice,” Sharon said. “I said, ‘I’m the voice.’”
And Judge John D. Galluzzo of the 18th Judicial Court in Seminole County, Florida listened. He ordered Savannah to live with Sharon for one week and scheduled another hearing for the following Friday.
Savannah moved into her “Gram’s” clean house in South Daytona Beach, where she ate three meals a day, wore new clothes, slept in a real bed, and played with her little sister.
At the end of that week, Savannah found herself in front of the judge again for a custody hearing. He asked Savannah if she wanted to return to her old home or remain with her sister and great-grandmother.
“I want to live with my great-grandma,” Savannah answered without hesitation.
For nearly a year, Savannah has lived with her Gram. When recently asked why she picked her great-grandmother, Savannah said, “I have my own room. My Gram is nice to me.”
Strickland was thrilled. Now 65, she finds herself again in the role of mother after empty nesting for more than 20 years.
“God has a plan for all of us,” she said. “He placed me in this position for a reason.”
Strickland’s goal is to adopt Savannah and Karlee as well as a third great-granddaughter.
A fourth sister lives with her biological father and is doing well, Strickland said.
Strickland sees a better life for Savannah and Karlee, ones that include clean clothes, nutritious meals and a quality education.
“I’m going to make it happen,” Strickland said.
‘A good fit’
Once the girls moved in, Strickland learned about the income-based scholarships managed by Step Up For Students from the Child Protective Home Study Specialist in Volusia county. She applied and received the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for Savannah. With the opportunity to give her great- granddaughters a faith-based education, she decided on Warner Christian Academy, a Pre-K through 12 private school in South Daytona. The school is five minutes from home, eight minutes from where she works and came highly recommended.
The girls enrolled before this school year. Savannah, now 9, is in second grade. Karlee, 4, is in VPK and isn’t yet old enough to use the scholarship program.
Nealy Walton is the elementary school principal at Warner Christian. She listened intently as Strickland told Savannah’s story when they first met last spring. Education was not a point of emphasis in Savannah’s prior home, and she struggled in a neighborhood school, especially with reading. Stickland wanted Savannah to repeat the second grade.
But there was more. She had trust issues when it came to adults. She used to check each day to make sure no one took her clothes and toys. She hid food around the house.
Strickland once found a piece of paper on which Savannah wrote, “I hate you!” Strickland asked her about it and was shocked by Savannah’s answer.
“She was talking about herself. At 8 years old, that’s concerning. That’s very concerning,” Strickland said.
Both girls receive counseling.
“It might take years for them to feel good,” Strickland said.
As Strickland talked, one name came to Walton’s mind: Debbie Adams. She has taught second grade at Warner Christian for 43 years. During that time, Adams has developed the ability to read a student, to learn his or her interests, habits, and hang-ups. What makes them happy. What makes them mad. What frightens them. She knows some students are dealing with far greater problems then the lessons being taught in class.
“I can’t help them if I don’t know where they have been and what they need,” Adams said. “Once you get that, the education will come.”
Savannah and Adams, Walton said, “are a good fit.”
And given the spiritual foundation of the school and the unstable lives Savannah and Karlee led before living with their great-grandmother, Walton said, “It’s no accident they are here. The Lord definitely created an opportunity for them to be here. It’s not by luck.”
‘A brave little girl’
Adams said Savannah gives the best bear hugs.
“Yes, I do,” Savannah said.
She loves her new school, because Adams is “super nice,” and she has a lot of friends.
The smaller class sizes at Warner Christian allow for more one-on-one time between Savannah and Adams. Her grades have improved, especially in reading.
“If that scholarship wasn’t there, I don’t know, she would be struggling,” Strickland said.
The biggest part of Savannah’s success was learning to trust adults. She had been let down by so many during her first eight years. The young girl doesn’t know who her father is.
“We live in a tough world, and she has had to deal with an even tougher world,” Adams said. “For me, I think these kids just want to know you love them. They want to know you understand.”
Once Savannah accepted the love from Adams, Walton and the rest of the Warner Christian staff, she began to emerge from the protective shell she was forced to build around herself.
“She’s more content,” Adams said. “She’s happier with herself, because she is settled in. She works hard. She’s proud of what she does, so her inner dialogue that she has with herself has improved tremendously. When she first came in, it was more of a negative thing and life was just tough, and she’s a very sensitive girl. She was hard on herself, but she’s had a lot of baggage to overcome.
“Her and I working together, we have a good bond at this point, a lot of respect for each other. She’s a brave little girl, I’ll tell ya. She’s a very loving girl.”
Faith is a big part of the teacher-student relationship at Warner Christian. That’s what Strickland was looking for when she chose the school. She loves helping Savannah with her homework, especially when it comes to learning bible verses. She loves that Karlee sits next to Savannah and learns the verses, too.
“This (Florida Tax Credit Scholarship) has just been a blessing to me, because there is no way I could have afforded to send either one of them there to get the education they are going to receive on what I make,” said Strickland, an administrative assistant at The House Next Door, a family counseling center in Daytona Beach.
Conversations and laughs
One night while saying prayers at bedtime, Savannah turned to her Gram and asked, “Am I ever going to leave here?
“No,” Strickland said.
“Good,” Savannah said. “I don’t ever want to go back.”
Strickland, who has been divorced since 1982 and lived alone for 23 years before she gained custody of Karlee, is adjusting to the sights and sounds of having young children in the house.
“Here we go again,” she said. “It’s the whole aspect of learning each one of them. I’ve had a year with Karlee. She’s still tricking me, because she’ll eat green beans sometimes and sometimes, she won’t.”
Karlee loves Cheerios. Savannah won’t eat lunch meat. Both girls love to dance. Strickland said she thinks Savannah will someday be some type of leader.
Strickland welcomes the noise and the mess of a house filled with clothes and toys. The worst part about living alone all those years, she said, was eating dinner by herself.
“Now I have conversations and laughs and goofiness while we’re eating,” she said. “That’s something to be thankful for.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ROGER MOONEY
Linzi Morris said she didn’t have a framework for her children’s education when she applied for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship in 2005. She just wanted to move two of her sons from their district school to Academy Prep Center in Tampa, a private middle school with high academic standards.
“When they’re little, you’re thinking about them getting a good education so they can do well in life. I didn’t have an exact roadmap of how we were going to get there,” Linzi said. “These schools which are funded by the (Step Up For Students) scholarships helped show us what was available so we could get that roadmap and it would be an attainable thing and not just a dream.”
William is also 25. He has a degree in biology and is currently serving in the United States Army and stationed in Georgia. His plan is to attend medical school. An income-based scholarship from Step Up figured prominently in his life.
Next in the family is Nanya. He is 23 and will graduate this December from Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida with a degree in chemical engineering. In January, he is scheduled to begin a job at General Electric in its environmental, health and safety division. Like his brothers, Nanya benefited from an income-based scholarship from Step Up.
Notice a trend here?
From a private middle school to private high schools to college to careers. That is the roadmap followed by each of Linzi’s children. Because after Nanya came Linzi’s daughter Hera, 21, who will graduate Florida A&M in Tallahassee in the spring with a degree in food science, and daughter Saliyha, 17, a senior at Tampa Catholic, and son Qinniun, 15, a sophomore at Tampa Catholic.
Six children. Six bright futures.
“Without Step Up I don’t know if I would be able to reach the goals I’m about to reach,” Nanya said.
Dwight (a University of South Florida graduate), William (University of Central Florida) and Nanya attended Jesuit High, an all-male school in Tampa. Hera, like her younger siblings, attended coed Tampa Catholic.
Hera, who is on a softball scholarship at FAMU, remembered how her friends used to question her academic path, wondering why Hera’s mom would send her to Academy Prep, which has 11-hour school days, 11 months of the year.
Her response? “How horrible of her for wanting me to get a great education and have a great future.”
Traversing the educational landscape
Education is important for Linzi, a single mother. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York and attended Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, but left after two years. She eventually attended a trade school and became certified as a medical assistant.
Dwight and William were sixth graders when Linzi learned of Academy Prep. The boys were good students, Linzi said, but she felt they weren’t being challenged academically at their district school.
She heard about Academy Prep from a friend and applied. That’s when she learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up. At the time, the scholarship was just a few years old. This fall, it funded its one millionth scholarship.
“That’s one million opportunities,” Linzi said. “Everybody doesn’t use their opportunities. My kids will use their opportunities. I’ll make sure of it.”
It is a 40-minute drive from the family home in Tampa to Academy Prep. That meant a 5 a.m. wakeup call and a mad scramble to get the kids ready for the day. But Linzi said it was worth it, because her children were exposed to so much during their years there. They took sewing, etiquette and culinary classes. They studied law and film making; built rockets that flew and volcanoes that erupted.
“It kind of showed us what you want to be when you grow up,” Hera said. “You meet people. You have all these experiences.”
In sixth grade, she met a neurosurgeon and decided she wanted to be a brain surgeon. In eighth grade, a food scientist visited the school.
“I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, I want to do that.’ It was either neurosurgery or food science. I picked food science,” she said.
Hera is currently applying for internships in that field while hoping COVID-19 doesn’t wreak too much havoc with the spring softball season. She has been the Rattlers’ starting third baseman since she first stepped foot on campus as a freshman.
In addition to being an academically successful family, they are, as Linzi said, “a trash-talking family.” The kids brag about their test scores and grade point averages. Hera said she is motivated to land a job before graduation because Nanya already has one.
Yet, they are also a network of tutors. Those who excel in math and science are quick to lend their knowledge. Need help writing a paper? There are those in the family they can turn to.
Also, success leads to success. Dwight and William forged a path that none of the younger siblings want to stray from.
“I’m grateful for my family. They always pushed me,” Saliyha said. “Even if I don’t want to hear it, because, you know, teenager, they experienced it.”
Saliyha is deciding between attending Florida State and St. Leo University in St. Leo, Florida. She wants to study restaurant management/hospitality.
“I really, really want to be a culinary artist,” she said. “I want to be a restaurant owner and a culinary artist. I want to go to college and get a degree in a field I want to do and then pursue a degree in culinary arts.”
Saliyha said she likes to be challenged in the kitchen. She likes to put her own twist on what she is making, even if it is a popular dish. She feels the same about her education.
“I’m really, really grateful for Step Up,” she said, “because they’ve allowed me to go to private schools, schools that are going to help me further my education and push me harder than I’ve ever been pushed so I can understand the world and that it’s not going to be easy and I have to work for everything.”
Saliyha followed the family roadmap. Academy Prep helped her get to Tampa Catholic. Tampa Catholic prepared her for college. College will prepare Saliyha for what? Owning her own restaurant?
“That’s the goal of the scholarship, to give you that push,” Linzi said. “I tell people the scholarship is one part, the school is another part, the parents are another part, but the biggest part is the kid. That child has to want it.
“I tell them because this is an opportunity where there are people who are basically paying for you to have this opportunity, you owe it to the people behind you not to mess it up.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
WellCare of Florida contributed $15 million to Step Up For Students, investing in the future of 2,235 deserving schoolchildren through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.
A longtime partner of Step Up For Students, WellCare has generously funded nearly 6,114 scholarships through contributions totaling more than $34.5 million. The income-based scholarship program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and gives lower-income students in Florida the opportunity to attend a private or out-of-district school that best meets their learning needs.
WellCare of Florida is affiliated with Sunshine Health, a wholly owned subsidiary of Centene Corporation, a leading multi-national healthcare enterprise committed to helping people live healthier lives.
The scholarships help students like recent Jesuit High School graduate Tommy Pham, who benefited from the tax-credit scholarship and is now in the pre-med track at the University of Notre Dame.
“With Step Up, I am just like any other kid at Jesuit,” he said. “It feels like the playing field is more balanced. For those being supported by Step Up, we pretty much have the same resources right now like the other students. We don’t have to worry so much about being at a disadvantage. Instead, we can focus on being grateful and thankful for the opportunity that we have as a result of Step Up.
“The opportunity doesn’t come out of nowhere. People are donating to the scholarship so that we can further our own education, and we should be appreciative of that. But what I become is on me. What we have as resources can only push us so far in our lives. But what we do with those resources can really change the outcome of our own lives.”
Just like Tommy, thousands of Florida schoolchildren are benefiting from the scholarship they receive through Step Up, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.
“Our mission is to transform the health of our communities, one person at a time,” said Liz Miller, CEO of Centene’s Florida health plans, which include WellCare. “Education is a critical part of our community’s health, and we are proud to partner with Step Up For Students to help provide thousands of Florida schoolchildren with the educational opportunities they deserve.”
Step Up served more than 100,400 students for the 2019-20 school year. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
“Because of companies like WellCare, Florida’s lower-income students are provided the educational options they need to succeed,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up president. “We are grateful for their partnership, generosity and commitment to helping students in their community.”
By ROGER MOONEY
Elisabeth Edwards came home from school one afternoon and told her mom that she wanted to die.
She was 6.
Elisabeth was stupid, she told her mom. That’s how they made her feel at school. She questioned why God made her that way. She questioned why God made her at all.
She told her mom that she wanted to kill herself. She asked if she could kill herself right then.
Her daughter’s words were nearly too much for Consuelo to process. But she clung to the hope that Elisabeth was having a rough time adjusting to the first grade and to her new school, and this was her way of acting out.
But then Elisabeth began banging her head against the walls at home when she was angry. Then she started banging her head against the walls at school.
“That’s when I knew she was serious,” Consuelo said.
Elisabeth, now 9, has a sensory disorder that can prevent her from processing at lot of information at once. It became an issue soon after Elisabeth began attending the first grade. She would get confused in class and grew angry over her confusion. What Elisabeth perceived as a less-than-empathetic reaction from those around her – classmates and teachers – made the situation worse.
That’s when Elisabeth developed suicidal thoughts. Consuelo found a therapist and another school for her daughter. Elisabeth lasted a week. Administrators at the new school asked Consuelo to withdraw Elisabeth because they weren’t equipped to handle students with behavioral issues.
If you or a loved one is feeling distressed, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Trained counselors provide free and confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Consuelo and her husband, Maxwell, a plumber, qualified for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two income-based scholarships managed by Step Up For Students. She found herself scrolling through the school directory on Step Up’s website, searching for one near their Apopka, Florida home that accepts students with a sensory disorder.
Consuelo came across Master’s Training Academy in Apopka, a K-12 private Christian school about 20 miles outside of Orlando. The school focuses on students with behavioral health and learning disabilities. She called Helenikki Thompson, the school principal. Consuelo was upfront about Elisabeth’s condition and expected to be turned away. Thompson invited Elisabeth to spend a day at the school.
It was a perfect match. Elisabeth is now in the fourth grade at Master’s. She has a legion of friends. She leaves “Thank You” notes and homemade muffins for her teachers. She said she can’t remember the last time she was angry at school.
“I felt like I was at home, because I just saw everybody was happy,” Elisabeth said of that first visit. “All the kids were funny, happy, everything that you would want in a friend. So was the teacher.”
Consuelo no longer receives phone calls from exasperated teachers and is no longer worried about her daughter’s mental health. She said she owes Elisabeth’s life to Master’s Training Academy and to Step Up.
“If it wasn’t for Master’s, I’d probably be going to grave site grieving for her,” Consuelo said. “It was that bad.”
‘We want her back’
Consuelo describes her daughter as an outgoing young lady with a beautiful smile and a warm heart.
“To me she is a typical person who is trying to find her way in a world that is full of craziness,” Consuelo said. “Sometimes, when she was young, she didn’t know how to internalize that.”
A person’s tone of voice can provoke Elisabeth. Stern language from the teachers and staff at the first two schools Elisabeth attended only made her outbursts worse.
“I had broken out in hives when she was going through all that,”
Consuelo said. “That’s how bad it was. It was because of nerves. When your kid goes through something, you go through something.”
Elisabeth did have an outburst during her initial visit to Master’s Training Academy. It happened when a teacher asked her to read out loud. Elisabeth received speech therapy to help her properly enunciate words. She had some bad experiences when asked in school to read in front of the class. She thought this new teacher was setting her up for more embarrassment.
The reaction from Thompson, who was in the room, was not what Consuelo or her daughter expected.
Thompson remembers telling Elisabeth, “I’m sorry for your past hurt. I don’t know who hurt you. We’re not here to hurt you. We’re here to help you.”
She said she gave Elisabeth a hug and told her she would see her the next day.
“I don’t know what type of experiences she had, but I know she was hurt,” Thompson said. “She was damaged really bad.”
Thompson’s son, Brendan, was bullied in his district school. He received therapy and attended Apopka Christian Academy for high school, where he attended on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. He graduated in 2016 and is currently enrolled in Seminole State College of Florida.
Dealing with what her son went through gives Thompson a unique perspective on why children can feel threatened at school. Thompson and her staff do not raise their voices when a student is acting out. They try to dilute the situation with kind words and hugs. The school has a quiet room, where a student go to calm down. The room has soft lighting and comfortable chairs. The student can read, listen to soft music or pray if they choose.
Teachers at Master’s have been known to diffuse a situation by taking the student or the entire class outside for some fresh air. Thompson said there is at least one activity a week that allows the students to put away the books and have some fun. An example: a spa day for the elementary school girls, where they do each other’s hair and nails. Pre-pandemic, of course.
Consuelo said it took Elisabeth months before she realized she could trust the staff at her new school. And when she did, she took off academically.
“I can tell you, when someone breaks down a kid, they can really break a kid down, and it takes a long time to build a kid back up,” Consuelo said. “What they did for her in the beginning, when she had her blowouts and cried, the teacher would look at her and say, ‘You know what? We still love you here. You can be mad at us and you can cry, but we’ll see you again tomorrow.’”
Thompson remembers a day not long after Elisabeth enrolled when Consuelo came after school to pick up her daughter. Consuelo asked Thompson how the day went. Thompson said Elisabeth had a moment.
“She said, ‘I’m sorry. I know you don’t want her back,’” Thompson recalled. “I said, ‘Why would you say that? We want her back. I just want you to know as a parent that she was having a bad day.’”
Master’s tailored the curriculum for Elisabeth, giving her extra time in subjects where she struggled and letting her advance at her own pace in those where she excelled.
Elisabeth has stopped telling her mom that she feels stupid.
“I feel like I’m the smartest kid in the world,” she said.
Consuelo volunteers at the school. She’ll help out in the main office, chaperon field trips and watch a class if a teacher needs to step away. She has nothing but praise for Master’s Training Academy, the empathy toward Elisabeth shown by Thompson and her staff, and for Step Up, for managing the scholarship that enabled Elisabeth to attend the school.
“(Master’s) represent the scholarship very well,” Consuelo said. “If it wasn’t for Step Up, I wouldn’t be able to afford the tuition. I owe (Step Up) my daughter’s life, and that means the world to me.”
ABOUT MASTER’S TRAINING ACADEMY
Located in Apopka, Florida, Master’s a K-12, Christian-based school that focuses on mental and behavioral health and learning disabilities. Students can attend the school in-person or virtually during the pandemic. Tuition is $5,800 for the 2020-21 school year. Book materials for K-3 is $350; 4-8 is $390 and 9-12 is $410. There is a $50 testing fee of the ACT Aspire and $25 for Map growth.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ROGER MOONEY
Natalie Ryan had been punched and kicked by classmates in her district school in previous years, but it was the taunting in second grade that really cut deep.
That year, Natalie was teased relentlessly by some boys in her class. All, her mother said, because she played differently than the other children.
It began innocently enough when a classmate had a birthday around Halloween. To celebrate, each student in the class received a cupcake with a plastic spider on the icing. Natalie kept her spider and often played with it as if it were a pet. She made a house for the spider with her pencil box.
This is how Natalie plays with her toys. She brings them to life with backstories.
“She’s very creative, so when she makes up a story, she kind of goes all out,” said Natalie’s mom, Grace Diaz.
Some of the boys who sat near Natalie didn’t think that was so creative. They saw her playing with her pet spider one day and called her stupid and said she was dumb. The words stung.
“She came home and said I don’t want to be different. I don’t want to play like the way I play. I want to be just like the other kids. I want to be quote unquote normal,” Grace said. “That was the word she used.”
Grace began to search for other choices for her daughter’s education. In addition to the bullying, Natalie was struggling in math. Natalie’s teacher would not allow Natalie to use her fingers to count, and her grades in that class suffered.
Fed up with what was happening to her daughter at the district school near their home in Clermont, Florida, Grace, a single mother of two, applied for and received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship before the 2018-19 school year. The income-based scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.
The Hope Scholarship provides relief for K-12 public school children from bullying and violence. The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district. Managed by Step Up, the Hope Scholarship is not income-based. Click here to learn more.
Grace moved Natalie to Citrus Heights Academy, a Christian faith-based K-12 in Clermont.
Natalie entered as a third grader and loves her new school.
“It’s awesome,” said Natalie, now a fifth grader.
“I think that shows why school choice is important,” Grace said. “And it was the main reason why I transferred her.”
But this story doesn’t end here. The spider, the mean boys and Natalie’s wish to be normal form the backstory for another story. A children’s book, actually.
“Rudy Howls at the Moon,” about a rooster who is mocked because he can’t crow at the sun, was written by Grace. She published it in July 2019. It’s available on Amazon both in hardcover and for Kindle.
The idea for the book was born during the conversation Grace had with her daughter after that January day in 2018 when Natalie came home from school feeling utterly defeated.
“I told her none of us are normal,” Grace said. “All of us are pretty much unique. We have certain talents and abilities, and whatever your talent or ability is, it’s used for a purpose. You may not know what that purpose is until a certain thing happens, or you grow up and then you discover this is the way I am, because of this. That was how I was trying to encourage her, and it kind of turned into a rooster who can’t crow.”
Grace, who holds a degree in accounting, always wanted to be a writer.
“I’ve been writing books in my head for what, 10, 20 years?” she said.
Most of those potential books, Grace said, are motivational. She never dreamed of writing a children’s book, but then she never dreamed her child would be ostracized for being imaginative.
“Whenever she plays, it’s amazing the stories that she develops,” Grace said. “It’s pretty cool.”
That Natalie is not a morning person led to Grace imagining a rooster who can’t crow at sunrise. No spoiler alerts here, but it turns out Rudy has another talent.
And those roosters that made fun of Rudy? Well, let’s just say they came around to appreciate Rudy’s unique gift.
Natalie loves the story.
“It’s awesome, because I’m a part of Mommy’s book,” she said.
“She wants to be a writer,” Grace said. “She wants to do a bunch of things, but writing stories is one of them.”
Grace has another children’s book in the works. It was inspired by her son, Thomas, 4. It is about a dinosaur who catches a cold. No spoiler alert here, either, but Grace said the theme is, “Don’t assume anything. Don’t prejudge people. And of course, blow your nose, wash your hands.”
And what happened to that plastic spider that set so many things in motion? They still have it. Thomas plays with it. Natalie never named it, though. She just called it, “The Spider.”
“It doesn’t actually have a name,” Grace said. “We call it ‘The Spider who inspired Rudy.’”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
By LISA A. DAVIS
Hundreds of parents, guardians, students, and teachers joined Step Up For Students online May 21 to recognize the resilient senior Class of 2020 in a time when COVID-19 has added the new term social distancing to everyday vocabulary and canceled in-person milestone events.
The recorded virtual senior celebration can be viewed online here.
In their final two months of their high school careers, students nationwide had to finish their education virtually as stay-at-home orders shuttered school buildings, on March 16 in Florida. High school seniors perhaps felt the impact most, with senior events like prom and graduation being canceled or moved to drive-by parades and virtual celebrations. Soon after typical everyday life came to a halt, Step Up staff began planning the special online event for scholarship seniors.
“High school graduation is a time to celebrate the achievement of Florida’s young men and women and the current pandemic won’t stop us from recognizing the achievements of these special students,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up.
Step Up For Students, a Florida-based nonprofit scholarship funding organization, manages the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Family Empower Scholarship for lower-income families, the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs, the Hope Scholarship for children who are bullied in public schools and the Reading Scholarship Accounts. For the 2019-20 school year, Step Up served more than 130,000 students, including 4,445 seniors.
Tuthill, Step Up Founder and Chairman John Kirtley, and corporate donor representatives addressed the Class of 2020 during the event. The Rev. Robert Ward of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg gave the invocation.
State lawmakers congratulated the class of 2020 as well.
“Even though you’ve gone through strange times and faced many obstacles,” Sen. Manny Diaz, who serves as the Senate Committee on Education chair, said to the graduating seniors, “We are here today to give you a graduation message, and that is congratulations for your hard work.”
Added Rep. Susan Valdes, “Best of luck to you and go get them, Class of 2020. I know that our future is much brighter because of you.”
Paul Shoukry, a Step Up advisory board member and CFO for Raymond James Financial, a founding donor of Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, was one of several donor representatives who spoke during the 30-minute event.
“Continue investing in yourself, as this is an important step in a long and successful journey. Congratulations,” he said.
Step Up selected two scholarship students to address their peers.
Florida Tax Credit scholar Gabriella Bueno, of Boca Christian School, credited her scholarship with helping her get the education she needed to set her on a path to become a pharmacist.
“I have much to be grateful for and I would personally like to thank Step Up, the lawmakers who believe in education choice and the donor who support it. You have all allowed me to attend what I believe has been the best school for me and has helped shaped me into the person I am today.”
Gardiner scholar Ryan Sleboda, also shared his journey with autism, not being able to speak until the age of 7, and with the help of a scholarship graduating as the class valedictorian in unprecedented times.
“Who would have imagined this is the way our senior year would end,” said, Ryan Sleboda, a Gardiner Scholarship student and valedictorian from the Pace Brantley School in Longwood, Fla. “Class of 2020, let’s go forth and resume this incredible journey!”
Kirtley, Step Up’s founder, closed out the event, saying success should not be measured by the norm.
“Be conscious of what scoreboard you are using to measure yourself. I know mine has changed. Pursue those things that can be measured for sure — those grades, that college admission, that job, that raise, that promotion. But don’t forget to measure yourself by things that have no numbers or figures,” he said and continued telling a story about a cab that drove by him in New York City advertising the Broadway musical Rent, with the words “Measure your life in love.”
“Well that sign stopped me in my tracks,” he said. “And I realized right then that I needed to worry less about measuring my life in numbers, in figures, and maybe take the advice on that sign. And it took me a few more years to understand that it’s much more important to measure the love that you give, rather than the love that you receive.
“One of the ways that I measure the love that I give is what I do everyday to empower parents to choose the best education for their kids, and knowing that you are today are graduating is all the love I need in return and knowing that you will put that education to work in these interesting times.”
Lisa A. Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ROGER MOONEY
Alton Bolden, principal at Piney Grove Boys Academy in Lauderdale Lakes, Florida, has a new name for Feb. 5.
“Championship Wednesday,” he said.
It began that morning when a quartet of middle schoolers won in dominated fashion the 13th annual City of Lauderhill MLK Taskforce Hall & Rosenberg Brain Bowl. (Click here to watch the competition.) Later that afternoon, students cliched another victory in the elementary school basketball championship game.
“We were winning every which way we looked,” Bolden said.
What made their accomplishments that Wednesday more impressive is the fact about 35 students, including the Brian Bowl winners and several members of the basketball team, spent almost 20 hours the day before traveling to and from the State Capitol in Tallahassee. They were there to support Step Up and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship during a media event for the program at the Capitol Rotunda.
“Although it was a lot of time on the bus, I feel it was worth it,” said eighth grader Alex Day, captain of the Brain Bowl team. “It is amazing when all the people from different backgrounds – high-income, low-income, no matter the differences – can come together and solve one problem.”
The students toured the state senate and met a number of the black and Hispanic pastors from across the state who also traveled to Tallahassee for the event.
“I got to meet new people and knowing that people care about our education and are willing to pay for us to go to school, that’s what I took away from the trip,” said eighth grader Shaun Scott-Richards.
Bolden quizzed the Brian Bowl team and went over plays with the basketball team during the bus rides.
“They were well-prepared,” he said.
It showed during the finals when Alex, Shaun and teammates Julian Day (seventh grade) and Nathan Smith (sixth) rolled to a 300-60 victory against Lauderhill 6-12 STEM MED School. All four students receive Florida Tax Credit Scholarships.
The win was a by-product of preparation. Bolden said the students studied daily for a month.
“I learned more about my history,” Nathan said.
Julian admitted he and his teammates were a little nervous about the competition for several reasons: Lauderhill 6-12 won it last year while it was Piney Grove’s first time in the event, and it was being recorded by the Broward Educational Community Network. There were video cameras, bright lights and BEACON TV host, Lisa Lee.
“But if you get a chance, don’t give up,” Julian said. “Take another chance, another chance. Don’t give it up.”
The boys jumped to an early lead and never looked back. The topic was Black History Month and several times they provided correct answers before the host finished asking the questions.
The Tuskegee Airmen.
The answers flowed and so did some tears.
“I don’t cry easily but they had me in tears because they were answering questions before they were finished asking the questions,” Bolden said. “They were committed.”
Alex, Shaun, Nathan and Julian each received an HP Chromebook for their efforts. Bolden was presented with the trophy.
After the awards ceremony, Bolden had to hustle back to campus, so he could drive the bus carrying the basketball team to its championship game at West Broward Prep. School, Piney Grove took home the second trophy of the day, courtesy of a 38-32 victory.
“They definitely made a statement about the school,” Bolden said. “We don’t have just athletes. People think this is a behavioral-change school, and we tell them it’s not a behavioral-change school. We are a school offering inner-city youth a college preparatory education in the inner city.
“That was a very busy 48 hours, and successful, too. I was very proud of them for that.”
ABOUT PINEY GROVE BOYS ACADEMY
The school’s mission is to provide a “harmonious, educational environment that enhances the physical, mental and spiritual talents” for the K-12 students. The school’s Primary curriculum is A Beka. High School and Middle school students take Advance & AP classes through Florida Virtual School. High school students are also offered duel enrollment at Broward College and Bethune-Cookman University. Tuition including fees: kindergarten $6,669; grades 1-4 $6,619; 5th grade $6,669; grades 6-7 $6,915; 8th grade $6,990; grades 9-11 $7,211 and 12th grade $7,286.
By ROGER MOONEY
DUNEDIN, Fla. – Manny Perez used to stand in the back of the violin ensemble, hoping to shield himself from those in the audience with discerning ears who would know when he missed a note or, in his words, messed up.
“I thought I messed up most of the time,” Manny said.
Funny thing, though. No one ever approached Manny after a performance and told him he had messed up. Instead, those who listened to the group perform said things like, “You were amazing!” and “Great job!” and “I wish I could play the violin.”
They say that to Manny, a fifth grader, and the rest of the members of Strings of Joy, the violin ensemble made up of fourth and fifth graders from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Dunedin.
The blossoming musicians found themselves the object of attention and some envy last spring when they played in the lobby of the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg before a performance by the Florida Orchestra.
They were nervous beforehand.
“I had goosebumps,” Manny said.
They were thrilled afterward.
“It was my first time (playing) at a real theater, playing for so many people,” fourth grader Caden Wehrli said. “And seeing their faces, it was like, ‘Wow!’”
Strings of Joy is 17 strong with more than half its members, including those interviewed for this story, attending the private K-8 school using a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.
The ensemble consists of those who demonstrate an aptitude for playing the instrument and a love of performing.
In the two years since it was formed, Strings of Joy has grown from playing during services at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and at nearby senior centers and senior homes, to playing the Mahaffey Theater.
They have a gig lined up this spring to play in the lobby of Ruth Eckard Hall in Clearwater before another performance by the Florida Orchestra. They have been invited to play the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee for Gov. Ron DeSantis, a graduate of Our Lady of Lourdes.
“Isn’t that amazing?” asked Mary Rehm, the school’s interim principal. “We’re incredible proud of what we do here.”
There are a number of studies on the link between playing a musical instrument and academic performance. Albert Einstein played the violin. Thomas Jefferson, too.
The motor, visual and auditory parts of the brain are all engaged when Manny or Caden are playing their violin. One study referred to it as the brain receiving a full body workout. And like any workout, this ability becomes stronger over time and is eventually applied to other tasks, such as learning.
Jackson Smudde, a fifth grader in the ensemble, said that is true in his case.
“I didn’t always pay attention in class that well. I was just kind of looking off,” he said. “Now I actually focus on what my teacher is saying.”
Father Gary Dowsey, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, agreed.
“I think we’ve seen potential in children that we’ve never seen before,” he said. “It certainly unleased a lot of their gifts and talents and their potential outside of playing the violin.”
Caden’s mom, Kelly Wehrli, said she wasn’t sure if her son had the discipline needed to learn the violin. Turns out, he was. And that discipline carried over to the classroom.
“He has done so much better academically and musically than I could have ever expected,” she said. “I see a huge change. He gets straight A’s, which I’m really proud of.”
Kristy Bates, whose daughter Alivia is a fourth grader in the ensemble, played the clarinet and bagpipes when she was in middle school. She felt a change in the way she learned after she began playing those instruments.
“I noticed that it just kind of puts your brain in a different way of learning to where you just start thinking outside of the box,” Bates said. “And then reading notes is almost like a second language, so it’s a completely different method of learning, and it does help you in your other areas of schooling, as well.”
Our Lady of Lourdes has, historically, been big on the arts. Music and drama teacher Lisa Suarez estimated at least half of the school’s 210 students are involved in either the choir, the school play or Strings of Joy.
This year’s play will be “Fiddler on the Roof,” a nod to the young violinists.
Suarez said she was curious to see the response from the third-grade class when they began learning the violin.
“To see the kids gravitate towards it, that really surprised me, how much they love it,” she said.
Caden said the violin class was fun.
“I thought it was going to be hard, but actually it wasn’t,” he said. “Each time I heard the song once, I would play it once, and I would get it correct.”
Kate Francis, who oversees the Strings of Joy, said what is unique about the violin program is while some schools offer an instrument as an elective or extracurricular activity, Our Lady of Lourdes includes it among the third-grade courses. So, students who might not have any interest or might be intimidated are uncovering a hidden talent.
“Manny loves the violin, and that’s going to be a part of him for his whole life and he learned it here,” Francis said. “That’s so cool.”
Ana Flores, Manny’s mother, remembered covering her ears when her son first started practicing at home. And now?
“He makes me feel like a proud mom,” she said. “He said he’s going to do it for the rest of his life. I’m going to have a violinist at home.”
Jackson said he wants to play for a long time.
“Probably ’til the end of my life,” he said.
And Caden? “Until I get about 30-something,” he said.
“He has two goals,” said Caden’s mom. “He wants to be a professional musician now, and a professional baseball player, so, I’ll hit the lottery either way.”
Manny, the boy who once tried to remain unnoticed when he played, now plays solos. He was upset last May when the school year ended, and he had to return his violin.
He said he wants to play the violin for “a very long time.”
“Because,” he said, “I can bring joy to people without singing or without talking, just with moving my hand with the bow and making gestures with my hands and the violin strings.”
About Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School
Founded in 1962, Our Lady of Lourdes sits in a 34-acre campus in a residential neighborhood in Dunedin and is accredited by the Florida Catholic Conference. More than 70 of the 210 K-8 students attend the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. The school incorporates the Catholic tradition in its curriculum, though accepts students from all faiths. Tuition for parishioners for the 2019-20 school year begins at $7,435 for the first student and increases by $6835 per additional child. For non-parishioners, tuition is $9,305 for the first students and increases by $8,705 for each additional child.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
By ROGER MOONEY
JACKSONVILLE, FL – Leaning his 92-year-old body on a wooden cane as he walked, the Rev. H.K. Matthews slowly made his way to the lectern Tuesday afternoon inside the assembly room at the Duval Charter School at Westside.
The stick is not a concession to his age, he said. It’s a crutch for the left knee injury suffered nearly 55 years ago on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
“I come as one of those who really came through the fire,” he told the students attending the Black History Month program.
Matthews was a civil rights activist who led sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters in Pensacola, Florida to protest inequality and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Now, he is an activist for education choice, which he sees as an extension of the civil rights movement.
“I am in this for the long haul,” he said.
A longtime supporter of Step Up For Students’ work, Matthews was invited to speak by Terry Fields, the former state representative who was the first Democrat to support what would become the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up. Fields is a teacher at the K-8 Duval Charter School at Westside.
The students received copies of Matthews’ autobiography, “Victory After the Fall.”
Matthews said he was honored to meet the students and “share some of his horror stories” so they could have a better understanding of why their parents now have the choice over their education.
“Your parents chose to send you to this school because they have been given an opportunity to put their best foot forward and not let anybody stop your progress,” he said.
That, Matthews said, was all King wanted.
“That was his focus,” Matthews said. “Black, white, whatever, everybody have equal access to whatever they needed. He was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things.”
For his efforts in the civil rights movement, Matthews was arrested 35 times. The windows of his home were broken with rocks and bullets. He endured death threats and was blackballed from getting jobs.
He learned there were a total of eight hits placed on his life.
“I’m truly blessed,” he told the students, “because I am not supposed to be here.”
Born in Brewton, Alabama, Matthews was living in Pensacola in the early 1960s when the civil rights movement was gaining steam.
He helped organize the sit-ins and watched as some of the black protesters were burned with cigarettes. He saw some police offers take items off the stores’ shelves, shove them in the pockets of protesters then arrest the protesters for shoplifting.
While he shakes his head over those memories, nothing compares to what happened on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965 – a Sunday that became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
“A haunting memory,” he called it.
Hundreds of blacks tried to cross the Alabama River that day on their march to the state Capitol in Montgomery.
It was on that bridge where Matthews and the other marchers encountered police and state troopers, some on horseback. There were tear gas and billy clubs. Many of the unarmed marchers, including Matthews, were beaten.
“We had no idea we were going to encounter what we did,” Matthews said. “Can you imagine one group of human beings beating another group of human beings because they didn’t matter?
“I was in the middle. I got a few blows.”
He held up his cane to the school assembly.
“That’s something that not many people go through, but for him to survive that and try to get our freedom, that’s very good,” said Ashton Long, a sixth grader, spoke at a luncheon held prior to the assembly.
There, Ashton thanked King and Matthews for their sacrifices.
“I am intelligent,” he added.
That made Matthews smile.
“You are on the road to being somebody,” Matthews told those at the luncheon, members of the school’s Gentlemen of DCWS, a group of student leaders picked by Fields.
Matthews told students about his school. It was located 13 miles from his home, and the only way to get there was by foot. Matthews said he walked past three schools for white children. He was all too familiar with the laws of the segregated South, yet Matthews said he never fully understood why he was forced to attend school at a dilapidated building with hand-me-down books and “raggedy desks.”
Lucky for him, the teachers didn’t care what the school looked like from the outside. They only cared about the education inside.
“I wouldn’t change anything from my experiences in there, because had I not had those experiences, I couldn’t appreciate the fact that kids now are able to attend schools of their choice, like this one, where they have people who are interested in their learning.”
Earlier during his visit to the school, Matthews came across a photo of himself taken when he was in his late-30s.
“I was young and angry,” he said while pointing to the photo.
He is older now and slowed by age and an injury, but sharp. Matthews said he tries to be as pleasant as possible but conceded he can still get angry if it’s for a worthy cause.
Education choice is his choice of causes.
He wants the students of the Duval Charter School Westside and all the students he talks to – and the parents he meets – to know he is still fighting for their rights.
“I want them to know why I’m so, I guess, dogmatic about school choice,” he said. “We got too many kids who fall through the cracks. They’re stuck in a school and they can’t do anything about it, because they are made to go there based on their ZIP code. The message is that you ought to have the right, the parents ought to have the right to send their children where they want to.”
After his talk to the students, Matthews opened the floor to questions.
The first came from a sixth-grade boy sitting near the back.
“Can I take a picture with you?”
“You certainly may,” he said.
The student raced to the front of the room and took a selfie with the Rev. H.K. Matthews, one of the many who conquered the fire.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ASHLEY ZARLE
FORT LAUDERDALE – Breakthru Beverage Florida, one of the largest distributors of wines, spirits and non-alcoholic beverages in the state, announced Friday that it is donating $35 million to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.
Breakthru’s donation will fund more than 5,028 scholarships for K-12 lower-income Florida schoolchildren for the 2019-20 school year.
Breakthru Beverage Florida and Step Up For Students celebrated the ninth consecutive year of Breakthru’s support at Abundant Life Christian Academy with students that benefit from a Step Up scholarship. Since 2011, Breakthru Beverage Florida has generously funded 55,882 Florida Tax Credit scholarships through contributions totaling more than $324 million to Step Up For Students.
“One of our core values at Breakthru is to do our part to better the communities we serve,” said Eric Pfeil, executive vice president of Breakthru Beverage Florida. “We are proud to support Step Up For Students and are dedicated to helping give Florida schoolchildren the opportunity to reach their highest potential.”
During the visit at Abundant Life Christian Academy, the students talked about all the unique opportunities they have at the school and their goals for the future. A couple of students also shared their science fair project that will be up for judging soon. One fourth grade student, who uses the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students, presented his science project on rocks and minerals to a very impressed crowd.
Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and gives lower-income children the opportunity to attend a private or out-of-district school that best meets their learning needs. Step Up is serving more than 100,400 students for the 2019-20 school year. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
“Breakthru Beverage Florida continues to show their incredible commitment to deserving schoolchildren through their support of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “Breakthru understands how important this scholarship is to so many students in Florida. They are a critical part of the program’s success and we are grateful for their continued support.”