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Busy 48 hours includes trip to State Capitol, trophies for Piney Grove Boys Academy

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.

Piney Grove is a private K-12 school with 75 of its 98 students attending on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.

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.

From bottom left: Nathan Smith, Alex Day, Julian Day and Shaun Scott-Richards with the HP Chromebooks they won for finishing first in the 13th Annual City of Lauderhill MLK Taskforce Hall & Rosenberg Brain Bowl.

“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.

Rosa Parks.

Muhammad Ali.

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.

Young violinists bring joy to audiences and teachers

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.

Caden Wehrli

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.

The students have also played at the Disney Performing Arts at Walt Disney World and at the Catholic Foundation Gala in Tampa.

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.”

All-around students

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

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.”

Life-long violinists

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 Perez

“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.”

Why?

“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 rmooney@sufs.org.

The fire still burns for Rev. H.K. Matthews as he fights for education choice

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.”

H.K. Matthews reads the essays about his life written by the students at Duval Charter School at Westside in Jacksonville.

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.”

H.K. Matthews described himself as “young and angry” when this photo was taken back in the 1960s.

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?”

Matthews laughed.

“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 rmooney@sufs.org.

Breakthru Beverage Florida donates $35 million to Step Up’s scholarship program

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.”

Breakthru Beverage Florida  celebrated their ninth consecutive year of support of Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are, Breakthru Beverage Florida Chief Financial Officer Eric Roth, Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students Vice President of Development Anne Francis, Breakthru Beverage Florida Executive Vice President Eric Pfeil, and Abundant Life Christian Academy Principal Stacy Angier. They are joined by Abundant Life Christian Academy students who are benefiting from the scholarship.

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.

Students at Abundant Life Christian Academy shared their science projects that will be up for judging soon.

“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.”

Reflections on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship’s 15th birthday

Editor’s note: This is the first post in a series celebrating 15 years of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Join us in the coming months as we take a look back on the program’s beginning and look ahead to serving more students in the future.

By JOHN KIRTLEY

john-kirtleyI’m not a baseball fan, but I love the movie “Bull Durham.” In the film, baseball groupie Susan Sarandon compliments Kevin Costner for approaching the minor league home run record. Costner remarks that it’s a dubious honor – it means he’s spent an awful long time trying to get to the majors. That’s how I feel sometimes when I realize I have been working for the cause of parental choice in education for 20 years. If I were any good at this, shouldn’t the job be done by now?

Nothing like the parental choice movement to make you appreciate incremental progress. But on the 15th anniversary of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC), I look around and see so much to be thankful for. When the Legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush created the FTC in 2001, school choice in Florida was in its infancy. The definition of “public education” was pretty simple: raise taxpayer dollars to educate kids, give all the money to the districts – which run all the schools in a fairly uniform manner – and assign kids by their ZIP codes.

How far we have come since then. Today, more than 30 percent of K-12 children funded by the taxpayers don’t attend their zoned public school. They attend magnets, charters and virtual schools. They take classes under dual enrollment programs at colleges and community colleges. They now even combine providers and delivery methods at the same time. And yes, some children even attend private schools, including faith-based ones.

The FTC is a small but critical part of this new definition of public education. This year the program is serving 92,000 children, who are attending more than 1,600 private schools chosen by their parents. This sounds like a lot—and it’s more than I ever thought we would serve – but it’s still a pretty small number in context. There are 2.8 million students in Florida’s public schools (including magnets and charters). So the FTC still represents only 3 percent of that total. But to each scholarship family, it’s the most important thing in the world. Research shows the FTC kids are the poorest, and poorest performers, in their public schools when they leave. The scholarship empowers poor parents to find an environment that better suits their children’s unique needs.

The FTC – along with the McKay and Gardiner scholarships for special needs children – makes available an option that would otherwise be off the table: private and faith-based schools. My 20-year experience has taught me that these schools must be available to poor and special-needs kids. They aren’t for everyone, certainly – but for some of these kids, they are the only place they will thrive. I can’t tell you how many students over the years have told me, “I was going the wrong direction, but the environment at my school set me straight,” or words to that effect. These schools must be a part of our new definition of public education.

Back to the Bull Durham analogy: I would have thought that by now, after 20 years, everyone would have accepted and embraced the FTC. Especially with more than 30 percent of all publicly funded students choosing! But no. After all this time, and after all its proven success, there is a lawsuit to shut down the program and evict more than 92,000 poor children. Why would opponents to choice focus on the program with only 3 percent of the kids, and the poorest and poorest performers at that? Maybe because it’s the fullest expression of parental empowerment.

The silver lining to this lawsuit is that it has galvanized the scholarship parents and their community leaders to fight to maintain this precious power. More than 10,000 people came to Tallahassee this year the day after the MLK holiday to hear his son, MLK III, denounce the suit. Coalitions of over 200 African-American and Latino ministers around the state have formally demanded the suit be dropped. I am proud to be a foot soldier in this most important battle.

One of the many rewards of being in this movement is fighting with these choice warriors. Parents. Students. Teachers and Principals. Ministers. Names you will never know. Names you know, like MLK III and Jeb Bush. Names you should know, like the Rev. H.K. Matthews – one of Florida’s most revered civil rights leaders. All of them fighting for parental empowerment.

I am so grateful to all of them, just like I am grateful to all the legislators of both parties who have supported the program. I’m grateful to the donors who have embraced the program.  I am also so grateful to all the employees of Step Up For Students, who run the program with such transparency and accountability that has consistently earned a four-star rating – and this year a perfect score – from Charity Navigator, the largest independent evaluator of nonprofits in the country.  And I’m so grateful that a former president of the Pinellas teachers’ union decided to call me up in 2006 to discuss common ground. Doug Tuthill is now president of Step Up and ably running it as I never would be able to.

My dream when the program debuted was that it would survive (which was not certain in the beginning). Then my dream was that we would someday reach 100,000 children. Now my dream is more ambitious: that someday every low-income parent in Florida – and the country – will be able to choose the best school for their children, regardless of who runs it.

Happy 15th birthday, Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Congratulations, Step Up  For Students!

John Kirtley is founder and chairman of Step Up For Students.