By ROGER MOONEY
TAMPA – Trace Nuss was in the library at Jesuit High School a few weeks before Christmas when he received the email that he called, “absolutely life-changing.” He had been accepted to Princeton University on a QuestBridge Scholarship.
“To know that I will be able to go to one of the top universities, not only in the nation but in the entire world and be supported all the way through financially, means the world to me,” Trace, 18, said. “It’s amazing.”
That same day, fellow senior Miguel Coste Jr., received a similar email from QuestBridge. He had been accepted to the University of Notre Dame.
“I’m grateful,” Miguel, 18, said, “Eternally grateful.”
Miguel and Trace each scored high enough as eighth graders on Jesuit’s entrance exam to qualify for the school’s financial assistance package, which covered roughly half of the tuition. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarships covered the rest.
“We’re so thankful for Step Up and the opportunity they gave him,” said Lisa Nuss, Trace’s mother. “We wanted him to have every opportunity available to him, and we didn’t want any of our circumstances to get in his way.”
Based in California, QuestBridge is a nonprofit organization that runs the QuestBridge Scholarship. It was designed to help head-of-the-class students from low-income backgrounds attend some of the country’s best colleges and universities.
For Trace, the scholarship means he can major in history and political science at an Ivy League school while setting the foundation for a career as a civil rights attorney. His goal is to protect the rights of those with mental and physical disabilities to ensure they are not abused, a pursuit forged during his years of working with Special Olympic athletes.
For Miguel, it means he will be first in his family to attend college as he begins his journey toward a career as a doctor who brings quality healthcare to lower-income families and neighborhoods. That quest stems from his economic background and the fact both of his parents suffer from debilitating health issues.
“This,” said Miguel’s mom, Nordis Del Toro, “is absolutely fabulous.”
More than 16,000 high school seniors nationwide applied in 2018 for a QuestBridge Scholarship. Only 1,044 were awarded.
Trace and Miguel join Tommy Pham, also a former Step Up recipient and 2018 graduate, as Jesuit’s only QuestBridge scholars since the program began in 2004. Pham recently completed his freshman year at Notre Dame.
The path to Princeton
Trace is the only child of Lisa and Richard Nuss Jr. Richard suffers from Brown-Séquard syndrome, a neurological condition caused by a lesion in the spinal cord, and is unable to work. Whatever financial hardship that presented certainly didn’t hold Trace back inside or outside the classroom.
He is one of 161 high school seniors nationwide to be named a Presidential Scholar, an honor that came with a trip in June to Washington D.C. and a meet-and-greet with President Donald Trump.
“It’s just amazing to be recognized for all the hard work and dedication I’ve put into my studies,” he said.
Trace scored a 1550 on his SAT, graduated high school with an unweighted 4.0 GPA and was a National Merit semifinalist. He was a member of Jesuit’s Key Club, the Tampa Mayor’s Youth Corps and received the H. Norman Schwarzkopf Leadership Award from the West Point Society.
“Once I was there, some of the athletes were like, ‘Oh Trace, can you come to our football practice? Can you come to our volleyball practice? And I slowly and slowly got more involved with all the different sports that Special Olympics offers and got to see how life-changing these activities are for people,” he said.
The Lightning awards $50,000 to a community hero every home game. Half goes to the student’s education; the other half goes to a charity of his choice. Trace chose the Special Olympics of Florida and Superstars of Hillsborough.
The Lightning provide a suite for the Community Hero honoree. Trace filled it with Special Olympic athletes.
A captain of Jesuit’s bowling team as a senior, Trace received a scholarship from the U.S. Bowling Congress, was named to the Dexter High School All-American Bowling Team and received the 2019 Chuck Hall Stars of Tomorrow Award by the International Bowling Campus Youth Committee.
He recently competed in his second Teen Masters, the top tournament for teenage bowlers.
Trace, who carries a 209 average and once bowled a 300 game as a freshman, coaches and supervises the Superstars Bowling League in Tampa for bowlers with physical and cognitive disabilities.
“He’s an inherently good person who’s kind and compassionate,” Lisa Nuss said. “He’s wanted to change the world for as long as I can remember.”
One of the more impactful moments of his high school career came last summer during a Jesuit-sponsored mission trip to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. There, Trace and several of his classmates encountered children living in extreme poverty.
“Their life was such hardship and difficulty that it’s something that I’ll never experience,” Trace said. “It was kind of a life-changing moment to see how the poverty in some places in the country and how much it needs to be changed and aided.”
When he returned home, Trace wrote a note to his mom, thanking her for letting him attend the mission. Then he filled a few boxes with toys and supplies and mailed them to the reservation.
“I’m truly thankful for the Step Up scholarship,” Trace said. “I feel that’s what drives me to service, because someone is doing the service for me, so I want to give back to the community, give back to other people. I want to pay it forward.”
The path to Notre Dame
Miguel will major in premed and minor in poverty studies.
Why poverty studies?
“I enjoy helping people in that state of living,” he said.
Since his freshman year, Miguel has volunteered at Tampa Bay Harvest, an organization that collects and distributes food to the hungry and homeless in the bay area.
“I think that helped him set his goal when he realized how many people in this world are needy,” Nordis said.
Like Trace, Miguel has an unweighted 4.0 GPA and was a member of Jesuit’s Key Club. He scored a 1510 on the SAT, is an AP Scholar with Distinction and was a tri-valedictorian of his graduation class.
He also served as a peer minister and an alter server during his four years in high school.
Last winter, Miguel won a district championship as a member of Jesuit’s wrestling team.
His parents, Miguel Coste Sr., and Nordis, endured their own hardship when they emigrated from their native countries – Miguel Sr. from the Dominican Republic when he was 30; Nordis from Cuba when she was 8.
Miguel Sr. was born without the use of his left arm. He managed to find work as a truck driver until he was injured 10 years ago and forced to retire. He does not speak English well, but managed to volunteer his time at Jesuit as often as possible during the last four years.
Nordis worked at a printing company before having to quit because of diabetes and arthritis.
The couple is also raising two granddaughters because their mother is in prison.
Miguel works at a restaurant to help his parents pay some bills. He also volunteers this summer in the interventional radiology department at St. Joe’s Hospital in Tampa.
Those who apply for a QuestBridge Scholarship are required to write a series of essays – some general, others aimed at a specific school.
One essay asked applicants to write about themselves.
“I wrote about what drives me, my parents and the sacrifices they made, and my siblings, they didn’t meet their potential and how that motivated me,” Miguel said. “I see everything kind of as a competition, because that’s what it is. You’re competing when you go to school. You’re competing to get a better education to be more successful. I used my socioeconomic status and everyone around me as a competition. I didn’t deliberately think about it. It was a subconscious one.”
Nordis first heard her son talk of being a doctor when he was a sophomore.
“Junior year, he was insisting he was going to be a doctor,” he said. “I was so proud of him. Not many kids his age have their goals set up on being a doctor.”
The right situation
Miguel and Trace set themselves up for college during their time at Jesuit. Trace figured he was heading to the University of Florida.
“I had always been a Gator fan,” Trace said. “I always loved the University of Florida. I never thought these schools outside of Florida were a possibility.”
Miguel was interested in Florida, Florida State and Boston College.
Then, during their junior year, Fernando Rodriguez, Jesuit’s director of college counseling, told them both about QuestBridge.
As they moved through the application process, they were matched with some of the top colleges in the country. So, Miguel added Vanderbilt and Notre Dame to his list of colleges. Trace added Notre Dame and Princeton.
Now, Miguel is headed Notre Dame.
“I was fortunate enough to be placed in the right situation to succeed,” Miguel said, “and (QuestBridge) recognize that.”
And Trace is headed to Princeton.
“The Ivy League wasn’t even … that’s like a dream,” Trace said. “I didn’t think that was even possible. It’s been some road.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
About Jesuit High School
Established in 1899, Jesuit High has 800 students enrolled in grades 9 through 12. Jesuit provides a college prep curriculum to prepare students for higher education. Tuition is $16,765 plus fees. Need-based financial aid and merit scholarships are available to those who qualify.
By ROGER MOONEY
PENSACOLA, Fla. – Zanaya Chase wants to be a fashion designer. Or a scientist.
Or, a fashion designer and scientist.
“I want to make products that can better this world,” she said.
For as long as she can remember, Zanaya wanted to design outfits that are mall-hip or red carpet-chic. Lately, she’s thought of another avenue for her creativity: spacesuits. Functional and stylish.
“If a lady wants to go into space and she wants to look good, I got something for her,” said Zanaya, 12, a sixth-grader at the Dixon School of Arts & Sciences in Pensacola.
“Why not?” asked her mother, Zoila Davis, who is thrilled to hear her daughter talk confidently about her future.
“I always tell her, ‘You do what makes you happy. Do what you like and what interests you and not somebody else,’” Davis said. “Just do something productive. That’s all I ask.”
Getting Zanaya to this point was not easy. It took three schools, one hit motion picture, her inclusion in a school science project and a chance encounter with an African-American female scientist at NASA.
“It’s turned out wonderful, just as we hoped it would,” said Margo Long, Zanaya’s aunt and the parent liaison at the Dixon School.
It was former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, “The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of bigger ideas, never returns to its original size.
Dixon School principal Donna Curry embraces that concept.
Curry believes there is a switch inside each student that once flipped, unleashes unlimited potential.
She sees the Dixon School as a launching pad of possibilities for her students, nearly all of whom come from lower-income households and attend the K-8 private school with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students.
“Many of our children have lost hope (because of their economic situation),” Curry said. “They don’t see themselves going anywhere or doing anything other than what they see (on the streets). So to turn that light on and for them to say, ‘I want to be an engineer,’ or ‘I want to be a scientist,’ or ‘I want to be a fashion designer,’ or ‘I want to be a chef,’ and know that the light is on, we found the switch.”
For Zanaya, who has a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, flipping that switch came in steps, the first of which was when Davis enrolled her daughter in the Dixon School.
Finding the switch
Zanaya attended her neighborhood school for two years and passed her classes, but said she didn’t feel as if she was learning anything. She attended a private school in third grade but didn’t think it was a good fit.
Life away from school during that time wasn’t easy. Her parents had starts and stops trying to make it as a family, and Zanaya spent time with her father in Miami and her mother in Pensacola.
Long noticed her niece never seemed happy.
“You could tell she had a lot of heaviness on her,” Long said. “She was in a dark place.”
Zanaya, who lives with her mom just north of Pensacola, was going into the fourth grade when her aunt joined the Dixon staff. Zanaya, enticed by the school that emphasis art and science and is heavy on project-based learning, quickly followed.
The art side of Dixon appealed to Zanaya. Davis said her daughter would spend hours cutting construction paper and, using her imagination, made things she wanted, like a laptop or a cell phone.
“She is very, very creative,” Davis said.
Step Two occurred when Long took Zanaya to see the movie, “Hidden Figures,” a film about a trio of African-American female mathematicians and engineers who worked at NASA and played a pivotal role during the early 1960s when John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth.
“That actually inspired me,” Zanaya said.
Step Three happened in 2017 when Curry allowed Zanaya to join Jayla Brown and Ty’Shawn Jenkins, Dixon students who are a grade ahead of Zanaya, in a science project that required them to test water samples at Carpenter Creek, measure the width and depth of the creek and interview fisherman to determine which fish swim there.
Their findings earned them the status of “citizen scientist” and landed them a spot on the exhibition floor at the American Geophysical Union, held that December in New Orleans.
According to the organization’s website, the conference is “the largest worldwide conference in the geophysical sciences, attracting more than 22,000 Earth and space scientists, educators, students, and other leaders.”
For Zanaya, the switch was fully flipped at the convention when she met a NASA scientist.
“When I saw her, I said, ‘Oh my gosh. She’s a lady, and she’s African-American,’” Zanaya said. “I do want to learn about science and outer space. I always wonder if there is more than this universe.”
Hope for the future
Working alongside Jayla and Ty’Shawn in the mud at the creek served as motivation for Zanaya.
Phase II of their Carpenter Creek project required them to identify the insects that are part of the food chain. Once again, they were invited to the American Geophysical Union conference, held December 2018 in Washington D.C.
The trio have begun work on Phase III, which requires them to develop their own questions about life at the creek and research the answers. A trip to the America Geophysical Union conference this December in San Francisco rides on this phase.
Both Ty’Shawn and Jayla, who attend Dixon on Florida Tax Credit scholarships, are excellent students, and both are excited about their future.
Everyone who knows Jayla, 12, tells her she would be a perfect fit as a criminal profiler at the CIA. She agrees. She enjoys watching crime shows, and she describes herself as the quiet observer in class.
“I like to get in people’s head and figure out why they do the things they do,” she said.
So, a future with the CIA?
“One day,” she said.
For Ty’Shawn, also 12, it might be a life studying living things.
“I really want to start learning what insects and other animals do to our world, our lives,” he said.
Long, who came to Dixon after a career in law enforcement that included stints as a police officer and a prison guard working death row, is excited to work with students who have high expectations for their futures.
“It is amazing that for all of the negative that is on TV that these children still have the hope and the dream,” she said. “As far as they’re concerned, it is possible. No one has taken that innocence away from them or dulled that possibility that it can happen, so go for it.”A
Zanaya returns home from school each afternoon eager to tell her mom about what she learned that day. Davis said her daughter never talked like that before she began attending Dixon.
“Her mind has really opened,” Davis said. “It’s been a complete turnaround. She’s very independent. I don’t have to check on her with her schoolwork. She’s on top of her assignments. She communicated with her teachers. She gets good grades.
“They really did find that switch.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Dixon School of Arts & Sciences
Founded in 2008, the private K-8 school offers a fine arts, science, technology, engineering, arts and math. The school blends core academics with field trips and the arts. Tuition is $4,600 plus an additional $2,400 in registration, fees, books and supplied, transportation and field trips. More than 90 percent of the students are on Step Up scholarships.
BY ROGER MOONEY
The honors continue to roll in for Step Up For Students.
The nonprofit’s Jacksonville office was ranked among the top places to work in that city by the Jacksonville Business Journal, placing third in the category for Large Companies (100-249 employees).
“It is such an honor that our employees are being recognized for the work they do each day to create an organizational culture that enables us to fulfill our mission to the best of our abilities,” said Anne White, Step Up’s chief administrative officer.
The Jacksonville Business Journal partnered with Quantum Workplace, an employee engagement research firm, to compile the rankings. Quantum Research surveys employees and analyzes the results to determine employee satisfaction.
Employees are evaluated in the areas of team effectiveness, retention risk, alignment with goals, trust with co-workers, individual contribution, manager effectiveness, trust in senior leaders, feeling valued, work engagement and people practices.
The results were announced May 23 at an event held at the Baseball Grounds at Jacksonville.
Step Up’s Clearwater office was recently ranked eighth among large companies in the Tampa Bay area by the Tampa Bay Business Journal.
Nationally, Step Up was ranked 19th on Forbes’ list of America’s Top Charities 2018. It was also recognized in 2018 for its financial accountability and transparency from two nonprofit watchdog groups: Charity Navigator and GuideStar. Charity Navigator awarded Step Up a four-star rating for the seventh consecutive year, a credit that only 4 percent of charities have earned by the nation’s top charity evaluator. Step Up has earned the Platinum Seal of Transparency with GuideStar, a public database that evaluates the mission and effectiveness of nonprofits.
Step Up helps more than 115,000 pre-K-12 children annually in Florida gain access to education options by helping manage five scholarship programs: The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and recently created Family Empowerment Scholarship for lower-income families; the Gardiner Scholarship for children with special needs or unique abilities; the Hope Scholarship for students who have been bullied at a public school; and the Reading Scholarship Accounts for children in grades 3-5 who struggle with reading.
RogerMooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
By ROGER MOONEY
DAVIE, Fla. – Josh Carlson pulled up a chair inside the office of the school guidance counselor one February morning and greeted a visitor.
“Salve,” he said.
It was the summer after his senior year, the summer he should have spent preparing for his freshman year of college.
Josh, a senior at American Preparatory Academy, a private K-12 school in Davie, Florida, taught himself Latin last summer.
That’s Latin for “hello.”
was a summer spent reflecting on what went wrong during that senior year, and
why he was required to repeat it.
“Just a lack of motivation on my part,” said Josh, 17.
This lack of motivation was a never-ending source of frustration for Josh’s mother, Kadirah Abdel, his guidance counselor, Norman Levitan, and American Prep principal, Soraya Matos.
They each sensed a serious student inside Josh yearning for an opportunity to be set free. He could be engaging with his teachers, capable of leading the class in a deep discussion on the topic for that day. He could also be disruptive and unmotivated, unwilling to complete his assignments on time.
Matos said she would have allowed Josh to participate last May in the graduation ceremony and make up the work during summer school, but he failed too many classes to make that possible. She hoped having Josh repeat his senior year would be a wake-up call.
“I wanted to give him another chance,” Matos said. “I believed it was a maturity issue and eventually he would understand that this was his last chance.”
“I pondered the way I was doing things over the summer,” Josh said. “I thought, ‘Man, I got really step up, because I’m repeating.’ It was sort of the cataclysmic moment for me. I knew I had to do something to improve my study ethic.”
That he taught himself to speak Latin by using the Duolingo app proved what Levitan always believed about Josh.
“He’s very bright,” Levitan said.
“A different kid”
Josh never fit in at his neighborhood schools.
“He was very to himself, very shy,” Abdel said. “The other kids were into stuff he wasn’t interested in.”
The other kids were into pop culture. Josh was into Julius Cesar.
The other kids read Facebook posts. Josh read the dictionary.
“He was bullied and picked on,” Abdel said. “That was my main concern. That’s when I knew I had to take action here, do something. I heard about alternative schools. I did my research, looked up different kinds of schools. There are alternative schools for kids who have had issues in public schools, because they didn’t fit in.”
Plus, Abdel said, administrators at Josh’s neighborhood school wanted to place him in classes for emotionally challenged students.
“He didn’t have a disability,” Abdel said. “They’re quick to label kids in public school. They couldn’t put him in special ed, so he was put in this class called ‘EH,’ emotionally handicapped children, basically kids who acted up.”
Abdel said her son did act up in class, and it was because he was bored.
She learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. This allowed her to move Josh to the Sunset Sadbury School, a K-12 private school in Fort Lauderdale, when Josh was in the seventh grade.
He moved to AEF (Alternative Education Foundation) School, a nonprofit private school in Fort Lauderdale, the following year and stayed through his sophomore year in high school.
“Once he got to private school, he did a lot better,” Abdel said.
But there were still issues.
“I didn’t behave so well at (AEF),” Josh said. “I didn’t get along with the students and the teachers.”
Abdel finally turned to American Prep, a private school with 150 students with no more than 12 to a class. Matos said her school is designed for students who don’t fit in at neighborhood schools. Kids, she said, who “fall through the cracks.”
Josh fit right in.
“He’s a different kid,” Matos said. “He likes history. He likes to read, and that is not very common.”
Josh passed his classes as a junior. Senior year was a struggle with most of the struggles self-inflicted.
“Just a lack of motivation on my part,” Josh said.
Josh loves to learn … just on his terms.
“He enjoys reading and studying on his own,” Abdel said. “Not necessarily being told, ‘OK, you have to study for his test.’ He enjoys studying, but when he wants.”
The proof is found in Josh’s interests.
He speaks Spanish, Latin and Italian. He writes poetry and enjoys the works of Emily Dickinson, E.E. Cummings, Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman. He is well-versed in Greek and Roman history and is fascinated with Julius Cesar.
“Interesting man,” Josh said. “All the conquests. His abilities as a leader was unrivaled.”
He wants to be a linguist. He would like to have a career that allows him to write and speak Latin and Italian.
“I’d like to write books about this stuff,” he said. “Phonology. Nerdy things.”
But, first Josh had to graduate high school.
The wake-up call
At one point last year, Matos said she thought her school wasn’t the right fit for Josh. But where would he go? What school would make room for a senior who couldn’t graduate?
Matos believes her role as an educator is to keep her students in school. Plus, she knew Josh could complete the work. He just needed motivation. Because he was still eligible to receive a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Matos and Abdel felt it best for Josh to repeat his senior year.
“I think it was the kick he needed, the wake-up call,” Abdel said. “When he saw his friends graduate but he didn’t, that’s when he stepped up his game.”
Josh’s grades this year were the highest they’ve been during his high school career.
“I’ve just been studying more, focusing on studying, reviewing,” he said. “I wasn’t studying last year, and that’s why I was failing tests.”
While his friends made plans for their freshman years at college, Josh wrapped his mind around another senior year of high school. He didn’t have a job, so he had plenty of time on his hands.
What to do?
He reached for a copy of Wheelock’s Latin, which he received a few years ago, and started teaching himself Latin.
“One day I was looking at it, staring at it, and I thought, ‘I’ve had this for so long I should just learn it already,’” he said. “I wasn’t doing anything during the summer. I was using the internet and stuff. I said let me do something productive. I just opened up the book.”
The productivity not only carried into the classroom this year, but to other parts of the school.
Josh spent time this past year mentoring younger students at American Prep, sharing his experience as a cautionary tale.
In February, he received the Turnaround Student Award during Step Up’s annual Rising Stars Award event. He was nominated by Matos.
“I’m very proud of him,” she said.
Early this month, he graduated.
Josh plans to attend Broward College this fall. He is formulating plans for his future. He wants work with words, foreign words. He wants to visit Italy and Greece. Walk where Julius Cesar walked.
He wants to converse with the locals in their native tongue. He can get by with his Latin and Italian and Spanish.
But Greek? He doesn’t speak Greek.
“No,” he said. “Not yet.”
About American Preparatory Academy
The K-12 private school has 150 students. More than half are on scholarships from Step Up For Students with the majority on the Gardiner Scholarship. Tuition ranges from $10,500 to $16,000 based on the student’s needs. The school has a comprehensive Exceptional Student Education program focused on the individual needs of each student. It also offers dual enrollment, summer classes, summer camps, athletics and extracurricular activities.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY ASHLEY ZARLE
MIAMI, Fla.– Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, the world’s preeminent distributor of beverage alcohol, announced it has once again committed $150 million to the Step Up For Students’ scholarship program for the 2019-20 school year.
Southern Glazer’s announced the incredible pledge during a celebration honoring the company’s 2018-19 contribution of $150 million, which funds 22,319 scholarships. The scholarships gives lower-income children the opportunity to attend the school that best meets their learning needs.
The celebration was held at Kingdom Academy in Miami where more than half of the students benefit from a Step Up scholarship. Representatives from Southern Glazer’s and Step Up For Students gathered with a few scholarship students to hear how the program helped them move toward their goals for the future.
Since 2010, Southern Glazer’s has generously funded 101,508 scholarships through contributions totaling $615 million to 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.
“At Southern Glazer’s we believe it’s not just about serving world-class wine and spirits; it’s about serving people, said Wayne E. Chaplin, CEO, Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits. “We are proud to partner with Step Up For Students and provide scholarships to thousands of Florida schoolchildren, so they have access to the educational opportunities they deserve.”
Step Up helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, allowing recipients to choose between a scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.
“Southern Glazer’s extraordinary commitment to Florida’s disadvantaged school children through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program is producing exceptional results,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “Recently, the Urban Institute evaluated graduates of our program and found students who use the scholarship for at least four years are 99% more likely to attend a four-year college and up to 45% more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree. Southern Glazer’s is a critical part of this success and we are grateful for their immense generosity to the students in our community.”
For the 2018-19 school year, Step Up is serving more than 98,500 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,519 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,815 for sixth through eighth grade, and $7,111 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
By JEFF BARLIS
LAKE CITY, Fla. – Sitting in the principal’s office of her twin sons’ school, Kim Glover pushed aside a couple of strands of wavy, auburn hair and took a breath to compose herself as she recounted the boys’ stunning transformation.
“I’ll try not to cry,” she said with her mellifluous Southern drawl.
After the family endured a drawn-out, painful divorce, Torey and Trinidy went from failing classroom distractions to model students, from being retained in seventh grade to posting high GPAs.
Her boys did the heavy lifting, but Kim says it wouldn’t have been possible without the stable, nurturing environment of Lake City Christian Academy and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship from Step Up For Students that enabled a divorced mom with three jobs to afford tuition.
“You can see how much this environment makes a difference,” Kim said with a sweep of her arm as if to highlight the abundance of open, green space, and the peaceful sounds of farm animals and children that waft through the 20-acre campus.
“It’s smaller classrooms. It’s teachers giving more one on one. They give you their phone numbers. It’s a family environment.”
Kim heard about the scholarship from a staffer at the neighborhood elementary school, where her oldest son, Trey, had been held back in first grade and was struggling with dyslexia. He got on track at LCCA. The twins followed after trying the neighborhood school for one week and not liking it.
Torey and Trinidy are fraternal twins, but hard to tell apart. They have the same angular faces with side-swept, light brown hair that falls in their eyes. They prefer to wear muted colors. They’re best friends who idolize their older brother, love baseball and being outdoors. Kim sometimes thinks they’re telepathic.
Seeing their parents’ marriage fall apart and being caught literally in the middle of mental and physical abuse took an awful toll.
“It got very bad,” Kim said. “When we split, it got violent. I went into a shelter for three months with all three boys. It took four years to get a divorce.”
The twins shut down at school. They were chronically tardy, disregarded classwork and talked incessantly.
“We were focused on socializing, mainly hanging out with friends, becoming teenagers,” Trinidy said. “Our priorities were screwed up.”
Torey and Trinidy had been behind after arriving at LCCA in second grade unable to read. It helped that principal Tana Norris and pastor/administrator Pete Beaulieu had known the family since the boys were little.
“We could have pushed them forward and hoped they would catch on at some point,” said Beaulieu, who had been the children’s pastor. “Holding somebody back is never an easy decision. But they were going through stress at home, and they were in the middle of searching for themselves.”
Too many D’s and F’s in seventh grade gave Torey and Trinidy no choice but to repeat. Friends asked what happened but were supportive. Teachers rallied. Everyone lifted them up with care, sensitivity, and good advice.
The twins took it to heart.
“I just got tired of failing,” Torey said.
Their teacher told Kim how Torey decided he wanted to get good grades because he saw how hard his mom worked, and he wanted to take care of her.
“That was heartbreaking in a good way,” she said.
The changes came suddenly. Kim remembers coming home one evening to Torey and Trinidy doing homework. She felt their foreheads.
Are you my child?
What’s going on?
“That light just clicked on,” Norris said.
Since eighth grade, C’s are rare. Kim has stopped worrying and no longer has to nag about school.
“They tell me what’s going on,” she said. “I hear them talking about school, classes, tests, and homework. It makes me proud.”
Torey and Trinidy give much of the credit to LCCA and their teachers.
“We have really close interactions with the teachers,” Trinidy said. “It’s nice. In the small classrooms you get a bond with all of your friends and even with the teachers. It feels like they’re one of your best friends or even a family member.”
The twins are in 10th grade now. Torey has a 3.75 GPA; Trinidy has a 3.41. They talk about starting careers after high school, although their ideas seem to change daily. They have a firm belief in themselves that Norris says wasn’t there before.
“They’re totally different,” she said. “They have goals and they have things they want to do, and they know they can accomplish them because they’re successful.”
About Lake City Christian Academy
Norris opened the school on a 1-acre lot with a 3,000-square-foot building in 1994 with 25 students. In 2000, LCCA moved to a vast campus with a 21-stall horse barn, a lighted equestrian arena, farming areas, a dance studio, a chapel, softball and baseball fields, a covered basketball court, 15 classrooms and a cafeteria. LCCA employs an experiential learning approach with farming, equestrian and video game design programs. Every student has an individual learning plan. BJU Press and Abeka are among the classroom materials. The independent, non-denominational school is accredited by Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS), and has 242 K-12 students, including 132 on Step Up For Students Florida Tax Credit scholarships. The Stanford 10 test is administered in April and STAR reading and math assessments are given three times a year. K-12 tuition is $6,000.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at email@example.com.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By JEFF BARLIS
CAPE CORAL, Fla. – Judi Hughes is a serial retirer.
Nowhere is her quick wit more evident than when she explains why she came out of retirement a third time – after more than 40 years in the School District of Lee County – to be principal at St. Andrew Catholic School in this sprawling, sun-soaked suburban city.
“Irish Catholic guilt,” she says with a rhythmic chuckle, adding that she only had intended to help with the hiring process when the school drafted her.
Five years later, she’s still brimming with infectious energy that flashes from her baby blue eyes, and she’s found a way to marry her knack for building relationships with a natural instinct for being a private school administrator.
Some folks just aren’t meant to retire.
“I know!” she beams. “I’ve tried it a few times. I think I’m getting the hang of it now.”
Hughes did it all in Lee County public schools. A teacher in the county’s first middle school program, a principal, district director for elementary and secondary education. She opened a few schools, won blue ribbons and other awards, worked as a curriculum director in jails, retention centers, and drug rehabilitation centers before twice being coaxed out of retirement to start ninth-grade programs.
Now she’s the leader and beating heart of a thriving Catholic school – 315 K-8 students, up from 295 last year and 275 the year before – and she couldn’t be happier. Seventy-nine students use a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families. Step Up For Students administers the scholarships.
“This place is just different, and it’s a pleasure,” she said during a recent tour. “These folks have known each other for years, but they welcome new people in. The understanding is that you join the culture of caring and building faith. Hearts and minds, it’s not just words in a mission statement. They pondered it. These teachers do more. They know every child by name.”
It’s no coincidence that Hughes and assistant principal Bambi Giles, who spent more than four years in Lee and Collier county schools, have hired educators with a similar public school background. Ten of the school’s 23 teachers, in fact.
It’s also no surprise that Hughes and those teachers have maintained their ties. For years, teachers at St. Andrews have participated in professional development with the Lee County district, learning about classroom management, teaching strategies and exceptional student education.
“Once you’re a member of the school district of Lee County, you’re part of our family,” said Lynn Harrell, executive director of leadership, professional development and recruitment for Lee County schools. “Judi was for lots and lots of years. That makes it just a little bit easier, just like in any family, to keep and maintain that relationship so that we’re working together. Because in the end, we’re all working for children.”
Hughes was a mentor to Harrell earlier in her career when Harrell was a school administrator. It’s just one of myriad relationships forged through years of work and trust and common goals.
“Our relationship with Lee County is really wonderful,” said Giles, noting the weight that Hughes’ name carries. “They are very professional. They’ll answer any questions. They’ll contact us. It’s never a problem.”
James Herzog, associate director for education with the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, is encouraged by this example of public-private school partnership.
“It shows that education is not an us-against-them proposition,” he said. “Instead it’s all about collaboration to benefit all of Florida’s school children. Hopefully we can encourage other schools and districts to work together.”
Every Wednesday at St. Andrew there is early dismissal for teachers to collaborate and do professional development.
“I just think that’s what runs everything,” Hughes said.
Some of those former public school educators at St. Andrew, like first-grade teacher Crystal Melton, get two emails every Monday morning about professional development offerings – one from Giles and one from a former public school mentor.
This group-within-a-group of teachers has helped the members transition from public to private. They’re all grateful for the extensive training they received in the public school system, but they’re also quick to state their reasons for choosing to teach at a private school.
Music teacher Julius Davis simply feels more at home in a spiritual environment. Davis, in his first year at St. Andrew, said he feels “set free” to be himself and exude his principles. Christmastime was particularly satisfying after nearly 20 years in public schools.
“I grew up in a black Baptist church, and I’ve played (music) for Methodist churches,” he said. “Coming here, the emphasis on the spiritual, this is the first time I’ve been able to teach stuff I grew up with. I wasn’t allowed to do that in the public school.”
Others, like Melton, kindergarten teacher Susie Loughren, and fifth-grade teacher Lisa Olson, have children at St. Andrew. But while the family atmosphere contributes greatly to their happiness, their choice to teach in private school was more complex.
Loughren, in her second year at St. Andrew after seven years teaching in public schools, feels she can be more creative, has more freedom and less test anxiety.
“The administration trusts us that we’re going to do what’s best in the interests of those children,” she said. “So if something goes on in your classroom and you need to focus on a social, emotional skill, you take that liberty to do it. It’s not just about getting in the academic rigor. We do it on a daily basis, but we have the opportunity to stop and do those teachable moments.”
Hughes recognized that stress, saw the anxious teachers who were afraid to break from the mold, “afraid of their own shadow,” as she saw it. There was more and more emphasis on tests and fewer field trips.
At St. Andrew, she works to pump confidence and empowerment into her staff.
“I’m happy I made the choice to come here, because I didn’t end my teaching career at a time when things weren’t going as positively,” she said. “I felt the stress of the teachers and couldn’t do anything to help them. They were losing their identity, feeling like they don’t have any choice or any power.
“Here they are free to make sound educational choices. And they have to be sound, because they have to show how it’s going to help with the standards. We give them as much freedom as we can. And they really own part of this school.”
Jeff Barlis can be reached at email@example.com.
By JEFF BARLIS
OCOEE, Fla. – The young teacher called, tears choking her words. She wanted to quit.
On the other end of the line was Rose Theagene, horrified but not surprised. She knew her youngest son, Darryl Dutervil, was on the verge of expulsion due to escalating behavior problems in first grade at his neighborhood school.
“He threw a chair at the teacher, and it almost hit another student,” she recalled. “He was pushing and hitting kids. Parents were complaining. It was very bad. At the meeting, I just said I would take Darryl out of the school to save everyone the trouble.”
Rose had her theories about what was behind Darryl’s problems. He had been diagnosed with ADHD and the medicine was making him feel sick. At home, she said, his behavior was fine but only because she spoiled him.
After years of working in customer care for a health care company and attending school as a single mother of two, Rose became a licensed practical nurse two years ago, around the time she withdrew Darryl. A fellow nurse told her about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which helps lower-income families with private school tuition.
It took almost two years and an ill-fated move to Daytona Beach for work reasons, but in January 2017, Rose finally found a school – Glad Tidings Academy – where Darryl and older brother Stacey Singleton were at home.
The teacher who went beyond
Parents and students alike love Andrene Donaldson. She’s fair and compassionate, but she can be tough and blunt, too. A former public school teacher in Jamaica, her thick accent floats through the classroom like music. But all it takes is one look, and the students know she’s serious.
“She has so much fun with them that they instantly know when she’s not happy,” said Glad Tidings principal Amanda Bleggi.
Donaldson was Stacey’s sixth-grade teacher last year. He was a breeze. Good student. Shy, honest, and respectful.
This year, Donaldson teaches Darryl in third grade. Within two days, she, too, thought she might give up.
Darryl was angry and aggressive all the time. He screamed. He cursed. He never had anything nice to say to his classmates. He would snap and toss chairs. Once, he pushed Donaldson.
“Last year,” he said meekly, “was challenging.”
Donaldson made it a point to always respond with patience, understanding, and soft tones.
“He expected me to be mad at him, but I just never treated him the way he expected,” she said. “When he was negative, I was positive.”
One Saturday, Donaldson’s husband bought her a success board for Darryl to track his achievements. They started small. Two hours a day of good behavior slowly turned into one full day a week. She rewarded him with certificates, snacks, pencils, erasers, and sometimes something sweet.
“I couldn’t believe the amount of work and effort she put into just one child,” Bleggi said. “But he started to see he could succeed. It was that board.”
It was a matter of trust, too.
“When I’m angry, she calms me down,” Darryl said. “She’ll take me outside to take deep breaths, and then she lets me come back in and try again, over and over again. If I make her mad, she still loves me.”
The principal who understood
It was Bleggi, a Long Islander who became a customer relations expert in her previous career with Disney, who recognized that academics were quietly fueling Darryl’s loud outbursts.
“When he came to us, he was failing everything,” she said. “He had no confidence in himself. He didn’t believe he could do his work. There were little things he couldn’t understand, so he would get frustrated and embarrassed.”
There were countless incidents, several worthy of dismissal. But Bleggi dug in her heels.
“He should have been expelled, but I knew that wouldn’t do anything,” she said. “He would just be shoved along.”
She called Rose in for a talk and assured her that Darryl wasn’t going anywhere. Rose was taken aback. She had expected the opposite.
“When she said that, it gave me a chance to breathe,” Rose said. “They are fighting for him.”
The mom who pushed
In her new job, Rose was adjusting to working 12-hour shifts – at night. She got off at 7 a.m. and still made sure the kids got to school on time.
But every morning by 10, she expected a call from the school about Darryl. Desperately tired, she tried bribing him with ice cream and pizza.
“Just let Mommy sleep until 3 o’clock,” she pleaded.
Last fall, the calls stopped coming. Donaldson was using an app to communicate with parents. It made a ping on Rose’s phone whenever she got a message. That noise used to wake her up at 10 a.m. as well, but it was gradually replaced with photos of Darryl at work and at play, updates to his success board, and other encouraging notes.
It wasn’t an overnight transformation, but the extra communication helped. Rose got more involved during the day. She was getting fewer calls and pings, but she insisted on coming in to talk to Darryl every time.
It felt like she, Donaldson, and Bleggi were on the same page. Their patience became her patience. Their positive message hers.
She marveled at Darryl’s improvements this year and shined proudly when she saw A’s, B’s and one C on his report card.
“Darryl would wake up early, ready to go to school,” she said. “He would say, ‘Mommy, I’m going to have a good day today. You can sleep. You don’t have to worry.’ That’s when I knew the changes were real.”
The brother who led
At Glad Tidings, big brother Stacey was worried and afraid Darryl would get expelled and end up in a bad school. But at their neighborhood school, Stacey felt the sting of being lumped in and labeled.
“I heard teachers say, ‘There goes Darryl’s brother,’ ” Stacey said. “That’s why I didn’t want him to be bad, because it also reflects on me and my family.”
Darryl idolizes his brother. He wears his hair in the same kind of flat top with shaved sides as Stacey. They’re both stocky. They have the same cheeky grin. Stacey knew he could get through to Darryl. At Glad Tidings, he checked on his brother regularly.
“He looks after me,” Darryl said. “Even more than my mom.”
Stacey made a ritual of guiding his brother, made him his responsibility.
“Every morning, I gave him a pep talk of what not to do and what to do,” he said. “If there’s a person bothering you, just ignore him or tell the teacher.”
Stacey could see how those long, confidential talks really helped. Rose also felt it was a turning point when Darryl realized he was embarrassing his brother.
“I’m proud of him,” Stacey said. “I tell him ‘Good job’ a lot now, and I let him play with my video games more often.”
It’s always been about attention for Darryl, but now he feels the difference between positive and negative.
The more marks he got on his success board, the more often he went to Bleggi’s office to show her.
“By December,” she said, “I was looking at a new kid.”
Donaldson asked Bleggi to give Darryl a part in the Christmas play.
“It was a big deal for him,” Donaldson said. “Being in the play showed him and everybody that he wasn’t an outcast.”
It meant a lot more than positive reinforcement to Darryl.
“There were a lot of people, like a thousand,” he recounted. “I tried to act cool, but my heart was beating. When it was over, I felt happy. My family was proud of me.”
Darryl is happier, having more fun, getting in trouble less often and getting much better grades. Donaldson says his reading level is way up. He helps in the classroom, cleaning up and handing out folders and papers to his fellow students. He fits in at Glad Tidings in a way that he never had in school before.
“The whole school loves him,” Bleggi said. “We’re able to see his little personality now, instead of him being angry and disrespectful all the time.”
“I used to cringe every time I would hear his name, but now he comes up and gives me the biggest hugs. I can’t wait to see him in the morning. I can’t wait to hear what grade he got on his test, and he always comes up to show me now. It’s probably one of my favorite stories since working here. It’s been the most impressive turnaround I’ve seen any student make.”
About Glad Tidings Academy
Opened as a preschool in 2005, Glad Tidings expanded to kindergarten in 2014 and opened a second campus for K-8 in 2016. The school plans to have ninth grade next year and to add grades 10-12 each year thereafter. Glad Tidings is accredited and certified by Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS). There are 108 K-8 students, including 75 on Step Up For Students FTC scholarship. Glad Tidings emphasizes a child’s emotional, physical, relational, and cognitive development. The school uses Bob Jones University Press and Abeka curricula. The MAP Growth test is administered three times a year. Annual tuition is $5,940 for K-5 and $6,370 for 6-8.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ROGER MOONEY
MIAMI – The conversations eventually moved from the house to the garage, far away from the boys, who were too young to understand the words used by their parents but could certainly sense the worry in their voices.
Real estate bubble? Recession? Bankruptcy?
What did the boys know about those things? Why should they?
Jonas Figueredo was 6 at the time. His brother, Jack, was 4.
“We didn’t want the boys to know what was going on,” their mom, Helen, said.
It was 2008 and the real estate company owned by Helen and her husband, Frank, was crumbling.
“We were heavy into real estate when the bubble burst,” Helen Figueredo said, “and we were left holding the bag.”
The recession cost them everything: Their business. Their savings. Their house. They filed for bankruptcy twice and ended up in foreclosure.
Frank Figueredo took a job working for the state of Florida as a claims adjuster. It paid $38,000 a year. They were clearing 10-times as much with their real estate business.
“Thirty-eight grand in Miami with a family of four and two kids in private school,” he said.
Yes, private school.
The boys were attending Westwood Christian School, a pre-K through 12 private school in Miami. During those talks in the garage away from curious ears, the No. 1 topic was how to keep the boys at Westwood. Besides a roof over their head, this was their priority.
The Figueredos met with school officials and told them of their rapidly diminishing finances. That’s when they learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarship covered half the tuition.
Bill Thomson, Westwood’s head administrator and secondary school principal, recalled that 2008 meeting.
“They definitely were at a crossroads of having to possibly uproot their boys from our school and our church and our philosophy and into a different environment that they just weren’t comfortable with,” he said. “They were introduced to Step Up, and it has been very beneficial to them over the years as it has with many families. It definitely is kind of a success story for that family.”
Today, Jonas, 16, is a junior at Westwood. Jack, 14, is a freshman. What the two have accomplished scholastically with the help of Step Up is impressive. What they have accomplished away from school with the support of their parents is equally as notable.
Jonas is vice president of the junior class, president of the high school band, a second chair trumpeter on the all-district band and has qualified for the all-state band. He is ranked in the top-5 of his class with a GPA above 4.0, is a member of the National Honor Society and a member of the debate team.
“I just love to argue,” he said.
Jonas is a worship leader at Westwood and finished first last year in a preaching competition at the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. He is a student ambassador and a former varsity soccer player.
In his spare time, Jonas is a second-degree black belt in taekwondo who competes nationally and teaches anti-bullying, anti-abduction and self-defense classes to younger children, including those at Westwood. He has plans to teach the same at a women’s shelter. He volunteers for Bugles Across America and plays taps at funerals for veterans.
He can play the piano, guitar, ukulele and harmonica. He helped put together a musical production at Villa Lyan Academy, a school in Miami for children and young adults with special needs.
His brother, Jack, is a freshman. His GPA is above 4.0, he is a third chair trumpeter in the all-district band and has qualified for the all-state band, was president of the middle school band as an eighth-grader and was instrumental in bringing back the high school debate team. He is a student ambassador and was the goalie on the varsity soccer team from the sixth to eighth grades.
In his spare time, Jack plans to race a Mustang next season in the National Auto Sports Association, where you can drive when you’re 14. He is in the process of starting his own nonprofit to feed and clothe the homeless, called “Socks and Sandwiches.”
Helen and Frank Figueredo started the nonprofit “Kids United Foundation” several years ago to send clothes and food to homeless children in Columbia.
When the boys were young, Helen Figueredo took them to Miami’s Little Havana when she brought food to the homeless.
“I remember that,” Jack said. “It was a great experience. It broke my heart to see a lot of people like this. I wanted to do something on my own to help them.”
Jack also plays the piano and violin.
While in middle school, both brothers worked as pages for Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, when she was a state representative in South Florida.
“We’re very thankful for them to be a part of our school,” Bill Thomson, Westwood’s head administrator and secondary school principal, said.
‘You’re going to law school’
Jonas has thought about becoming a criminal profiler for the FBI. Jack would love to race cars professionally. Both plan on attending law school.
Actually, getting a law degree is mandatory for the Figueredo boys.
“I always told them, ‘You don’t need to worry about what you’re going to do. You can worry about that when you graduate law school,’” Helen Figueredo said. “I do believe that a law degree is a license to do whatever you want to do.”
“Honestly, I agree with her,” Jonas said. “With a law degree you have more options. Maybe I do become a lawyer. Maybe a I don’t. But I do have the law degree with me.”
The options for the future of the Figueredo boys appear limitless. That’s why their parents felt compelled to keep their sons at Westwood.
The couple made the sacrifices for their boys to continue there. They sold their luxury cars and Frank picked up an older car at a police auction for $89. They rented a house owned by the school for $550 a month and began to slowly rebuild their finances.
“The school teaches wisdom,” Frank Figueredo said, “and with wisdom, you learn to learn.”
He currently works as a bodily injury adjuster for an insurance company. Helen, who has a degree in business administration and a master’s in educational leadership, works part time as a health care risk management consultant.
“We turned our lifestyle upside down to teach them what is important, what really matters,” Helen Figueredo said. “A car? Or knowledge and wisdom? It’s taught them not to be materialistic. It’s taught them that people are more important.”
Jonas and Jack are aware of the changes made by their parents. They know the role Step Up played in their education. They are thankful for both.
“I’ve been (at Westwood) since I was 2 years old,” Jonas said. “It shaped me to who I am today.”
“It’s a great education,” Jack added. “The staff, all the teachers, they’re all very supportive, very friendly. They’re always willing to help.”
The boys are eager to see what they can accomplish in the future.
“After they go to law school,” Helen Figueredo said.
About Westwood Christian School
Established in 1959 by the First Baptist Church of Westwood Lake, the school provides Biblical and academic education for 550 students from pre-K-12, including more than 230 who are on Step Up For Students’ scholarships. Students must pass an entrance exam to gain enrollment. The school has state recognized band, choir, drama and art programs. All teachers are fully accredited with the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools and the National Council for Private School Accreditation.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
By ROGER MOONEY
ZEPHYRHILLS – Sitting opposite where his 8-year-old granddaughter stood near their dining room table, George Hill, nodded at the second-grader and said, “We’ve been blessed, really, just (because of) the kind of person that she is. She’s dedicated. She’s smart. She’s a hard worker.”
He used another word to describe Skylar Goeb: Perseverant.
You wouldn’t know it by looking at her as she stood alongside her grandmother, quiet, though filling the room with her mega-watt smile, but Skylar had a rough start to life.
She was born addicted to the opioids her mother took while pregnant. She doesn’t know her mother, and her mother wants nothing to do with her.
“She doesn’t write her. She doesn’t try to get a hold of her. Nothing,” George Hill said.
But Skylar, a Florida Tax Credit scholar, is flourishing with the love and guidance of her grandparents who have raised her since she was an infant.
Skylar loves school, too. She is a straight-A student at Heritage Academy in Zephyrhills, a K2 through eighth grade Christian school founded in 1998,
Last fall, she was one of 10 students honored as the Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce Citizens of the Month. Students are nominated by their teachers. One student from every school in Zephyrhills is honored each month. From that pool, one is selected in June as the chamber’s citizen of the year.
According to Michelle Walls, director of operations and finance at Heritage Academy, Skylar was nominated because she met the following criteria:
“We’re very proud,” her grandmother, Robin Hill, said.
When asked one January afternoon at the family’s Zephyrhills home how she felt about the academic honor, Skylar turned toward her grandmother and whispered, “Good.”
Skylar is also shy.
“She doesn’t say a whole lot. She’s kind of reserved,” said Rene Campbell, Skylar’s teacher at Heritage Academy. “When I talk to her, I have to pull things out.”
Math, and learning, seem to boost her confidence, however.
When Campbell asks for a volunteer to come to the front of the class and solve a math problem, Skylar’s shyness evaporates.
“If I ask if someone can help me, she’ll raise her hand,” Campbell said. “She has a willing spirit to learn.”
Balance beams and parallel bars
Skylar also is certainly not shy when she’s competing in gymnastics – she placed fifth last year at the state championships.
On the walls of her bedroom are several hooks that strain to hold the 60 medals she has won competing in gymnastics, including that state award. Across the hall you’ll find Skylar’s favorite room.
With walls painted light blue, the room is empty but for a horizontal bar that sits on supports four feet above the beige carpet, a balance beam raised a few inches off the floor, a pink mat and two plastic bins for the white chalk Skylar rubs on her hands to increase her grip as she swings around the bar.
It is here that Skylar spends hours practicing gymnastics.
Skylar is a blonde-haired pixie, who loves all things pink, adores unicorns and especially loves sailing over bars and flipping across beams.
The Hills enrolled Skylar in gymnastics when she was 3, because they wanted her involved in an activity that would allow her to exercise. By the time Skylar was 5, her grandparents knew gymnastics was more than an after-school activity.
“She loves competition,” George Hill said. “Some girls get nervous. She’s like, ‘Let’s go!’”
Her idol is American gymnast Simone Biles, the four-time world all-around champion who won four gold medals and a bronze at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
“She’s great,” Skylar said.
Like every girl her age enrolled in gymnastics, Skylar would love to compete in the Olympics.
In early January, Skylar began training in Fast Track, a program designed for kids with natural gymnastic ability, strength and flexibility. It is an advanced program, especially for girls her age.
Skylar is also a part of the Tops Program, where gymnasts travel around the state and are tested on different physical abilities as they relate to gymnastics.
“Skylar is very dedicated,” said her coach, Jacqueline Vogel. “I actually don’t know if she’s ever missed a practice intentionally unless it was for something for school.”
As Skylar ran through her gymnastics scheduled – 13 hours a week over four nights at Premier Gymnastics in Wesley Chapel – her grandmother asked, “What comes first?”
“School,” Skylar said.
“We’re always on the run,” added George Hill, “but she keeps her grades top-notch.”
Skylar has been writing in cursive since kindergarten, and her penmanship is text-book sound.
She enjoys history, science, spelling, reading and math. Especially math.
“When we get in the car, she brings her book and makes up math problems,” her grandmother, Robin Hill, said. “She has a mind for numbers.”
“She has a great memory, too,” added her grandfather. “That helps.”
George Hill said Skylar is getting everything she can out of her Step Up scholarship.
“It’s been a blessing,” he said. “It’s placed her in the best learning environment she can be in. It also got her in a Christian school, which is important to us.”
The rough start
George Hill, 64, is an engineer with Frontier Communications. He has worked for the company for 31 years, starting in the late 1970s when it was known as GTE. Robin Hill, 63, retired after working more than 20 years at the Pizza Hut in Brandon, Fla.
The Hills raised four children. Raising a grandchild is certainly not something they planned, but life has a funny way of grabbing you by surprise.
Skylar’s father, Steven Hill, is finishing a seven-year prison sentence for a series of crimes he committed with Skylar’s mom. He is scheduled to be released in October. Skylar visits him in a transitional housing facility in Tarpon Springs.
“We take (Skylar) to see him. She knows who he is. We don’t try to hide anything,” George Hill said. “They get along super great. They play together when she’s there. They’re good together.”
Skylar’s mom tried to put her up for adoption before giving birth. The Hills hired a lawyer and successfully prevented it. They received court-ordered legal custody of their granddaughter when she was 8 weeks old. Skylar calls her grandparents “Mom” and “Dad.”
“If that went through, we would have never known where she went,” George Hill said. “We weren’t going to let her go. Who knows what kind of household she would have went to? You just never know. It’s been a blessing for her and for us.”
Skylar’s mom did not list a father on the birth certificate, which is why Skylar has her mother’s last name.
Her parents went to prison in 2012 on a litany of charges that included burglary, dealing in stolen property, possession of a controlled substance and petit theft, according to court records.
Skylar’s mother, who served an 18-month prison term, now lives in Ohio and is out of her life. Her father can soon enter it on a more regular basis.
“We’ll see how that goes,” George Hill said.
What the Hills do know is they never could have imagined how raising Skylar could so profoundly change their lives.
When it comes to Skylar, the Hills, wouldn’t want it any other way, especially when you consider what might have been had the adoption gone through.
“I think it’s a blessing. Really, I do,” George Hill said. “For sure, she keeps you young.”
About Heritage Academy
Founded in 1998 under the ministry of Oasis World Outreach, Heritage Academy is a pre-K-8 school that serves 160 students, including 54on Step Up scholarships. The school uses the Abeka curriculum, and the education is based on Biblical truth. The curriculum consists of reading, writing, comprehension, study skills, critical thinking, problem solving, and number skills. Spanish, art, music and physical education are also offered. Annual tuition is $6,080 for K2-K3; $3,610 for K4-VPK; $6,500 for K5-fifth grade; $6,800 for sixth-eighth grade. Before and after school care and tutoring are available for a fee.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.