By ROGER MOONEY
Is there a Step Up For Students scholar in your school who is outstanding in academics? The arts? Athletics?
Know a teacher whose impact on students deserves praise?
Or a parent whose support of his or her scholar’s education needs to be celebrated?
Step Up For Students provides the platform for schools to recognize these individuals during its annual Rising Stars Award program.
“This event was designed to recognize the amazing students, teachers, and family members who fill the halls of our Step Up For Students partner schools every day,” said Carol Macedonia, Step Up’s vice president, office of student learning. “Last year we recognized over 800 students. We look forward to honoring even more students this year.
“It is our privilege to celebrate the accomplishments of Step Up scholars, as well as some of the most supportive parents, families and educators. Each year we look forward to this event in more than 12 regional celebrations where the schools come together to share the special talents and accomplishments of students in kindergarten through 12th grade.”
Applications are being accepted now. Deadline for nominations is Jan. 4. Those selected will be celebrated in February at one of 15 locations around the state.
Nominate someone here.
Schools can nominate up to six individuals across the following categories:
High Achieving Student Award. Do you have a Step Up student who is excelling in a specific area (academics, arts, athletics)?
Turnaround Student Award. Do you have a Step Up student who has struggled when they first came to your school and has made a dramatic improvement?
Exceptional Teacher Award. Do you have a teacher who pushes his or her students to succeed? Do you have a teacher who truly represents the power of parent partnerships and focuses on building a relationship for success? Do you have a teacher who embraces the importance of continuous improvement and professional development?
Outstanding Student Character Award. Do you have a Step Up student who shows outstanding compassion, perseverance, courage, initiative, respect, fairness, integrity, responsibility, honesty or optimism?
Phenomenal Family Member Award. Do you have a parent or guardian of a Step Up student who you can always count on to support your school and the education of his or her child?
Step Up, a nonprofit scholarship funding organization serving Florida schoolchildren, is expected to help 125,000 children during the 2018-19 school year with four scholarships – the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for children in lower-income families, the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs, the Hope Scholarship for children who are bullied in public school, the Reading Scholarship Accounts program, to assist struggling readers in third through fifth grades three. The Hope and Reading scholarships are new for this school year.
Marketing Communications Manager Roger Mooney can be reached at email@example.com.
Editor’s note: To mark National Adoption Awareness Month, we highlight the tax credit scholarship that serves children who are or were in Florida’s foster care system.
By JEFF BARLIS
INVERNESS, Fla. – There is no hiding from the nightmarish stories of his early childhood, but Diego Cornelius is grateful to have forgotten most of the details.
Some things he can’t forget, like the time he smelled smoke in their mobile home and woke everyone, saving them, before all of their possessions burned. Or the time he fell from a boat without a life vest, and nearly drowned before his mom jumped in.
Most of the time, he and his sisters were left alone. Their father was gone, their mother addicted to a variety of drugs. Her extended family and boyfriend had lengthy criminal records.
“He always had a struggle to survive,” his adoptive mother said.
These days, 13-year-old Diego is grateful for a lot of things: his younger sisters, Alyssa and Bianca, who look to him as a role model; his former foster parents, who adopted them; and the school choice scholarship that’s allowed them to attend the Catholic school that has embraced them all as family.
X X X
As a foster mom to more than 100 children over the last 22 years, Patricia Sobel knows something about the importance of a caring, structured environment.
That’s why she lit up when she learned about the Step Up For Students scholarship that empowers low-income families to send their kids to the private school of their choice. The scholarship also serves foster children and adopted children who were in Florida’s foster care system.
“I was in shock,” she recalled. “Shock, for two days. I couldn’t believe they were actually eligible for this free education. What a gift!”
When Diego, Alyssa, and Bianca entered Patricia’s life, she realized they were special. Six years ago, they were rescued from a life of severe neglect.
“They were living in a drug house,” Patricia said, her low, soft voice punctuated with warm emotion. “They were in a garage with no running water or electricity. Their teeth were blackened. Their heads were filled with lice. They were so filthy, they had to be bathed at the police station.”
Diego remembers the lice crawling under the tight waves of his reddish-blond hair.
“We had to put mayonnaise in our hair and wear caps over it,” he said. “I still think about that. It means someone is there to care for you and make sure you’re healthy.”
That was just the start. Diego needed a surgical procedure on his eye, and all three children needed counseling and dental work.
For kids who had so little growing up, even small gestures made a big impression.
“If I’m hungry, I just go ask and they ask me what I want,” Diego said. “They make sure we don’t starve. They make sure to protect us. My mom likes to lock the doors each night and make sure the windows are closed.”
“They love us.”
It took time for Diego and his sisters to go from “Pat” and “Chuck” to “Mom” and “Dad,” but now the love is mutual.
X X X
The children have gotten used to the same love and care at Saint John Paul II Catholic School in nearby Lecanto.
“I like the teachers, all of them,” said Alyssa, 11. “They’re kind and they help us.”
Bianca, 10, enjoys learning about religion, something else that was missing in their early years.
None of the siblings attended preschool, and Diego still feels the effects of being behind academically. His biological mother took him to kindergarten for the first week but never brought him back. He doesn’t know why.
When Pat and Chuck sent him to their neighborhood school, Diego was a 6-year-old in kindergarten alongside 5-year-old Alyssa. They remain classmates today.
After a couple of years living in the Sobels’ four-bedroom foster home in Tampa, everything fell into place for adoption. The children’s biological parents no longer had rights to custody. Despite their troubled past, the siblings were vibrant, compassionate, and healthy.
A few months later, Patricia and Charles moved everyone north from bustling Tampa to the rural rolling hills of Inverness to start Don Bosco’s Children’s Home, named after John Bosco, a Catholic saint who dedicated his life to helping disadvantaged youth. The nonprofit had purchased three houses and the lush, tranquil land they sat on. It needed a lot of work – a new roof here, a new air conditioning system there, paint and landscaping everywhere.
The Sobels know how to rehabilitate.
Their organization is still getting off the ground. Their goal is to find foster parents to live in the other two houses, to use their home as a blueprint. The need is large and growing.
“I get calls every day to place kids in foster care,” Patricia said.
The number of children entering Florida’s foster care system has risen sharply, and a recent study by the University of South Florida showed a tie to the opioid crisis.
“I’m going to continue taking more children,” Patricia said. “One thing I try to do is get them all in the Step Up For Students program.”
In the three years they’ve lived in Inverness, they’ve sent all 13 of their children to Saint John Paul II. Patricia has fond memories of her biological daughter, Adrienne, attending Catholic schools. More importantly, she feels a small school with a more individually tailored environment is best for her foster and adopted children.
X X X
Earlier this year as a sixth-grader at SJP2, Diego got in trouble for plagiarizing a paper. His teacher was ready to give him an F. The principal intervened.
“He wasn’t trying to do it on purpose, he just had never been taught the proper way,” said Lee Sayago, himself an energetic newcomer at the school.
Diego was upset. Getting all A’s and making the Principal’s List was a borderline obsession from the time he first attended an assembly and saw his high-achieving classmates receive special recognition.
He got a second chance and beamed with confidence when he pulled Sayago aside to show him his new grade – 97, the highest score of anyone in Grades 6-8.
“It could have been a negative experience,” Sayago said, the corners of his eyes creased with pride. “But the way he handled it was amazing.”
Diego is in the midst of a growth spurt. He loves sports that involve running and lifts weights regularly in hopes of getting “six-pack” abs. After a couple of years of falling just short, he’s made all A’s.
“It’s amazing what a little nourishment and love can do,” Patricia said. “It comes from the home and the school, and then they just grow and blossom.”
About Saint John Paul II Catholic School
Opened in 1985 as part of the Archdiocese of St. Petersburg, St. John Paul II is the only Catholic school in rural Citrus County. The school serves 205 K-8 students, including 81 on Step Up For Students scholarships. SJP2 is a candidate school for the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme and is pursuing authorization as an IB World School. The school administers the MAP Growth test three times a year as well as the Terra Nova Spring test. Annual tuition is $6,645 for K-5 and $6,945 for 6-8.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By JEFF BARLIS
MIAMI – It’s hard to miss Nicole Meneses at Pneuma Christian Academy. If she’s not front and center in every photo on every social media post, she’s stealing the show with her exuberance.
Her smile, so wide it almost looks painful, is full of braces. But she doesn’t have the slightest hint of self-consciousness.
“I’ve come a long way,” she said. “I’m thankful every day to be here.”
The happiest student at the school says you wouldn’t recognize her before Pneuma. She was bullied, depressed, and hated going to her neighborhood school.
Then her mother found out about a scholarship that would change their lives, and that led them to Pneuma.
What started as teases and taunts in first grade, turned into a campaign of insults and exclusion in second grade. Nicole’s school was a half-mile walk from the villa where she lived with her parents and older sister. It was a large, newly built K-8 with more than 1,500 students. She felt lost.
“They said I was ugly, fat, dumb,” she said, recalling the boys and girls who tormented her daily.
She hid in bathrooms or found an empty classroom to cry in. It was a sprawling checkerboard of a campus with green squares between each building. There were lots of places to hide.
“If it was during class, I would ask to get water and then go walk,” she said. “I would call my mom to leave early, and I’d go home and cry to her.”
“I hated it. It was so stressful, I couldn’t concentrate. I almost failed second grade.”
Every day, Nicole tried to find an excuse to not go. Her mom, Rosalaris Perez, started sweetly singing a song of sarcastic encouragement in Spanish:
My foot hurts
My stomach hurts
My head hurts
I don’t want to go to school
I don’t want to go to school
Nicole’s response was always the same: “OK, Mom, it’s a beautiful school, but only for skinny girls.”
Her self-esteem was in shambles.
“I didn’t hate myself,” she said, “but I felt different. I was just living with a lot of sadness in my life.”
With every tearful afternoon, Rosalaris, an affectionate and fiery Cuban immigrant, grew more frustrated. She saw Nicole’s report cards littered with F’s, D’s and C’s and went in to complain about the bullying. There was always a language barrier. Once, her temper flared, and she was escorted off campus.
She knew what had to be done.
A year earlier, Nicole’s older sister also needed a way out of her neighborhood high school. She struggled so badly and got so depressed, she attempted suicide.
Rosalaris felt trapped. She worked part-time as a receptionist and clerk at a physical therapy clinic. Her boyfriend – Nicole’s father Carlos Meneses – was a swimming teacher. They couldn’t afford private school. Then an acquaintance told them about the Step Up For Students scholarship that helps low-income families afford tuition.
After applying, Rosalaris got a list of nearby schools and went through it alphabetically until she found Pneuma. It’s a small school surrounded by two large green fields and filled with bright colors and warm, caring teachers inside.
While she was in second grade struggling, Nicole saw how much happier her sister was and how quickly she turned herself around. Nicole was overjoyed when her scholarship was awarded. In third grade at Pneuma, a sense of relief washed over her. She achieved honor roll throughout the year.
Making friends wasn’t as easy, because she was nervous at first. But soon she let her guard down, made friends, and found a home. There were no more excuses in the morning – Nicole was in love with going to school.
Sometimes, on mornings she feels tired, she sings her mom’s song to herself. It’s something she laughs about now.
“I’m thankful every day,” she said. “Here, they always talk about how important it is to love yourself. I accept myself now, and I love myself just the way I am.”
It shows up every day. It’s the way she helps other students. It’s pushing herself to new heights, like singing in front of the school.
“She’s a star here,” principal Yohanna Ramirez said. “She’s so happy. She’s not the same student. She’s a leader. She’s confident now, and we can see it.”
What Rosalaris sees is Nicole comes home happy every day. It’s a profound change, one that’s more welcome than the academic honors that continue to roll in.
“I prefer my daughter’s happiness over straight A’s,” she said, trying to hold back tears. “I get emotional, because if there is no Step Up for me, there is no Pneuma for Nicole.”
About Pneuma Christian Academy
Opened in 2009 and affiliated with non-denominational Pneuma Church, the school expanded from its roots as an online and homeschool hub to serve pre-K through 12. There are 92 students enrolled, including 75 with Step Up For Students scholarships. Curriculum includes Bob Jones University Press and Ignitia for elementary school. The elementary school is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Pneuma administers the MAP Growth test three times a year. Tuition is $7,031.75 for Kindergarten and 1st grade; $7,119.75 for 2nd-5th; $7,265.50 for middle school; and $7,414 for high school.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at email@example.com.
By JEFF BARLIS
GROVELAND, Fla. – The sign at their church trumpeted the opening of a new private school:
For Adaijah Jackson and her mother, Sheila James, the word Hope was all they saw.
“It was an answer to prayer,” Sheila said, smiling and shaking her head at the memory. “The timing was just perfect.”
Adaijah (pronounced Ahd-asia) was desperate to leave the neighborhood school where she had nearly failed 10th grade.
Sheila was a single mom with two children and a job working the overnight shift at a convenience store. She never thought she could afford Hope. But the school told her about the Florida Tax Credit scholarship from Step Up For Students that covered tuition.
“It changed our lives,” she said. “I wish I would have known about the scholarship earlier.”
As a child, Adaijah was very bright and happy. You couldn’t miss her gleaming eyes and deep dimples, because she smiled all the time. She was a sensitive soul at 10, and her life was thrown into turmoil when her great grandmother died, and her parents split a few months later.
That’s when Sheila and her kids moved to Miami to live with her parents. Adaijah had been a strong student in a small PK-5 charter school in Orlando, but suddenly she was finishing fifth grade in a new neighborhood and a much larger school.
“It was the worst thing ever,” she said, recalling the confusion she felt walking into classrooms with two or three times the number of students she was accustomed to.
They lived in Miami for just eight months before moving back north to Minneola, about 30 miles west of Orlando. But the switch to large neighborhood schools had just begun, and Adaijah continued to feel like an outsider, even with a clean slate at the start of middle school.
“I didn’t know anyone,” she said. “It was hard to fit in with a large group of people.”
That’s when the bullying began.
“They used to call me bad names – fat, chubby, short,” she said. “They made fun of my natural hair. I have curly, kinky hair sitting up on my head, and it’s really poofy. I grew up loving my hair.”
She switched to extensions, wigs and weaves. Anything to try to fit in.
She found no friends among the girls, and the boys were merciless. They catcalled when she ate lunch and when she tried to exercise in PE class.
“It was torture,” she said. “They wrecked my self-esteem.”
Adaijah went from A’s and B’s in sixth grade to B’s and C’s in eighth. High school, with more than 2,000 students, was worse. She kept to herself for most of her freshman year, but her desire for acceptance took on more urgency, and she settled for any friends she could get.
They skipped class constantly and hardly studied. At home, Adaijah was angry all the time, talking back and getting in petty fights with younger brother Adrian.
She wasn’t herself. Her GPA bottomed out at 1.3. It was time for a change.
“I could not go back for my junior year,” she said. “I knew I was either going to be arrested or get pregnant. I was not going to make it to college.”
Then she found Hope.
Adaijah and her brother were among the first of 25 students to enroll. Everyone was smiling again.
Though she was quiet and guarded at first, Adaijah knew she belonged. She felt safe and comfortable. With only a handful of classmates, she got to know her teachers personally, just how it was at her charter elementary school.
She bought in to everything – even the dress code and no-cellphone policy. She recovered some lost credits, turned her grades completely around, and became a role model to the younger students.
Principal Eucretiae Waite and her staff had a hard time connecting this Adaijah to her past.
“We couldn’t believe that she was really struggling, but of course we saw the transcript,” Waite said. “She came here and was just phenomenal. We figured it was just because we’re a small school and she got more attention.”
“She was willing to help in the classroom and outside the classroom. She would stay after school. We would have to literally take her home sometimes. Like, ‘Adaijah are you going home today?’ ”
In two years at Hope Academy, Adaijah got all A’s and one B and graduated last spring with honors. Teachers and administrators had promised to get her ready for college, and together, that promise was fulfilled.
Adaijah was accepted to South Florida, Florida International, Florida Atlantic and Southeastern among others. But she decided to attend Tallahassee Community College. She started in August and is loving the confidence that has come with her newfound independence.
She plans to stay at TCC for two years before going to Florida State to study physical therapy.
Why not go straight to one of those universities?
“I wasn’t ready for a four-year school,” she said. “I like the smaller setting.”
Adaijah didn’t just survive her rocky roads, she learned from the bumps. She’s planning to build a business in Houston or Atlanta someday, and she knows just the steps to get there.
“I’ve always thrived in small situations,” she said. “So for me to even think about big cities … it’s like, ‘Whoa, you are really growing.’ ”
Thanks, in part, to finding Hope.
About Hope Preparatory Academy
Opened in 2016, the school is affiliated with non-denominational Hope International Church in Groveland. It has 76 students in grades 6-12, 63 of whom use Step Up For Students scholarships. The school uses the Edgenuity curriculum with an emphasis on college prep courses. The Terranova 3 test is administered annually, and high school students also take the SAT and ACT. Tuition is $6,300 for grades 6-8 and $6,700 for grades 9-12.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By JEFF BARLIS
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – In the damp, rising heat of a late-morning graduation ceremony in May, with historic Farragut Hall as a backdrop, a hush crept through the crowd of students, relatives, friends, and faculty as they anticipated the next name.
The roar was pent-up and prolonged, louder than one family could possibly deliver. This was the sound of the entire Admiral Farragut Academy family cheering and tearing up for the senior who 10 months prior had been a celebrated football player one day and was fighting for his life in intensive care the next.
As Marquis walked slowly across the stage to receive his diploma with a shy, child-like smile, parents LaTaura Blount and Mark Lambert swelled with joy, gratitude, pride, and even some disbelief.
“This almost didn’t happen for us,” LaTaura said.
Memories washed over them in waves.
Four years ago, a Florida tax credit scholarship made it possible to join the Farragut family. It was the perfect fit. Marquis dreamed of a future in football. His parents dreamed of an academic turnaround after their oldest son was just getting by in his neighborhood school with a C average.
“The standards, the rules, and the curriculum … I knew it would be a fresh start,” said LaTaura, who had heard about the Step Up For Students scholarship from a friend.
She was 16 when she had Marquis. She and Mark were kids trying to grow up. She worked jobs as a nursing home caregiver, a teacher and a pharmacy technician. Mark delivered phone books and traveled frequently.
Their home was as warm as their smiles, with three boys, plenty of noise and laughter. But money was always tight.
That’s why Mark and LaTaura always instilled the importance of academics. They didn’t go to college, but their children would.
“Sports can be taken away, but nobody can take away what you’ve learned and what you’ve earned,” LaTaura preached.
For football-crazy Marquis, the message only landed when it was echoed by coaches, peers and college recruiters. As he added muscle to his lean 5-foot-10 frame, he soared to a 3.7 GPA in his junior year. His dream (and his parents’) was coming into focus.
“He’d been playing football since he was little, and he had this expectation his entire life,” said Angie Koebel, who is Academic Services Director at Farragut and a doting school mom to Marquis. “That was his ticket out. He started thinking about his grades and doing better and changing, growing up.”
His coaches saw it, too.
There were only a handful of seniors on Farragut’s 2018 football team, and they were as close as brothers. Early in the spring, Marquis was the only one without a scholarship offer.
“We sat down and made a plan,” head coach Rick Kravitz said. “He worked his butt off to make himself a very good player, a recruitable player. He went from having no offers to 12 offers in a three-week period. It was just beginning to pick up even more when he had the accident.”
Marquis was driving to football practice on July 17, 2017 when a gold SUV cut in front of him. He swerved on the wet pavement, skipped over a curb and wrapped his car around a tree.
The scene was horrific. Marquis was pronounced dead after paramedics arrived. But a nurse who was driving by and heard the crash from afar, stopped and noticed his fingers moving. Without her intervention – oxygen and the fire department’s Jaws of Life – Marquis would not have lived.
He had a traumatic brain hemorrhage, a broken neck, a torn meniscus in his knee, nerve damage in his arm, and was in a coma for two weeks. He spent 41 days in the hospital.
He wasn’t alone for a minute. Mark and LaTaura stopped working to be by his side every day. Marquis’ closest friends – the senior football players – and his position coach visited daily. Coach Kravitz and three teachers visited regularly.
The Farragut family rallied.
“They made sure we had food, donations came in (through a GoFundMe page),” LaTaura said, “and being there mentally for us was the biggest thing, because I wasn’t there at all. I was in pieces.”
When Marquis started to wake up, he wasn’t himself. Intense pain made him angry. He lashed out verbally and physically. It was hard for everyone to watch. LaTaura cried every night. But her boy was alive.
“I don’t remember anything,” Marquis said. “They had me on a lot of medicine. I remember my parents telling me I was acting funny. I was cussing a lot, being loud. Nurses were aggravated.”
Therapy – physical, speech and occupational – was grueling. But in August, just as he was getting out of a wheelchair and starting to walk, a birthday party in the hospital cafeteria lifted Marquis’ spirits. The entire football team came as a surprise.
“That’s how much he was loved,” Kravitz said.
The party inspired Marquis. He worked harder in therapy. He wanted out of that hospital, and there was a bigger goal – the first football game of the season.
Administrators at Farragut said not to rush, but everyone had their hopes up. On the day of the game, Marquis got out, had his hair cut and went to the stadium. In the locker room, he saw they had retired his jersey, put his No. 3 on helmet stickers, and didn’t allow anyone to use his locker.
“It meant a lot,” he said.
He put on his jersey, prayed with his team and led them out.
“They announced one of the captains would be Marquis,” LaTaura said, recalling her surprise at the reaction. “It was kind of a sad moment. Everybody started crying. The parents knew what was going on, but they hadn’t seen him. They were expecting him to be in a wheelchair.”
Marquis came out in a golf cart, smiling. He walked to the middle of the field to gasps and did the coin toss. In the Disney version of this story, Farragut would play its most inspired game and win big. But that didn’t happen. Real life is more complex, and Marquis had a hard time not being on the field for his senior season. Coach Kravitz explained why recruiters stopped calling.
“There was a lot of sadness watching everybody play,” Marquis said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get back out there.”
Football was over, but he turned his determination to school and graduating with his class. Juggling therapy and school, he improved at both. By the end of the year he was going to physical therapy just once a week and no longer needed help in class. He was accepted to St. Petersburg College, where he starts Aug. 14 with a full class load and a plan to become a pharmacist.
Graduation was an inspiration to so many at Farragut, but Marquis had a different perspective. He calmly soaked it all in, felt the love, and was proud he accomplished his goal. He just wanted to be with his classmates and feel normal.
It was the same thing at prom a few weeks earlier.
“I had a good time,” he said. “Music, dancing, laughing, good talks with friends.
“I’m glad I didn’t miss it.”
So is the Farragut family.
About Admiral Farragut Academy
Opened in 1945 as the second campus of its namesake in New Jersey, is one of only two honor naval schools in the country and is re-accredited annually by the U.S. Department of the Navy. Last year, the school served 457 PreK-12 students, including 38 on Step Up For Students scholarships. The school annually administers the Terra Nova 3 test to students in grades 2-7 and the PSAT to students in grades 8-11. Tuition is $13,000 annually for Kindergarten, $16,300 for Grades 1-5, $18,900 for Grades 6 and 7, and $23,300 for high school. Payment plans and financial aid are available.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at email@example.com.
By LESLY CARDEC, Interim HealthCare Inc.
SUNRISE, Florida – Interim HealthCare Inc., a leading national franchisor of home care, hospice, and healthcare staffing, donated $25,000 to Step Up For Students which helps run the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. This program aims to provide lower-income children in Florida with more learning opportunities through scholarships solely based on financial need.
Interim HealthCare Inc.’s donation will help K-12 students attend a private school, based on their specific academic needs.
“As active members of the South Florida community, we want to help ensure that all students statewide have equal access to educational opportunities,” said Larry Kraska, Interim HealthCare Inc. CEO and President. “We are proud to support Step Up’s mission and support our future leaders.”
Step Up For Students empowers families to pursue and engage in the most appropriate learning options for their children. The tax-credit scholarship supports economically disadvantaged families in Florida who lack the financial resources to access education options. Families may choose between financial assistance for private school tuition and fees or transportation costs to attend a public school in another district.
“We are excited about the opportunity to give back to our local community through our donation to Step Up,” said David Waltzer, Interim HealthCare Inc. CFO. “Step Up provides immeasurable benefits to school-aged children in Florida by promoting equal access and educational options, and we’re glad we can help further its cause.”
A study last year by the Urban Institute found that student recipients of the scholarship program who use the scholarship for four or more years are up to 43 percent more likely to attend college and up to 29 percent more likely to earn an associate degree than their peers in public school. During the 2017-18 school year, more than 105,000 students used the scholarship.
By PAUL SOOST
MIAMI – Continental National Bank recently celebrated its $100,000 contribution to Step Up For Students, funding 15 K-12 scholarships during the 2017-18 school year. The scholarships allowed lower-income children the opportunity to attend the school that best met their learning needs.
It was the second consecutive year that Continental National Bank, a full-service community bank established in Miami in 1974, has partnered with Step Up For Students, contributing a total of $250,000 and providing 40 scholarships.
“Our community needs investments that lift our children up. We are constantly working to make our community better, stronger and fairer and we focus on many of our efforts in our children,” said Sonia Canessa-Gonzalez, Chief Financial Officer of Continental National Bank. “We are proud of our relationship with Step Up For Students and look forward to making a difference in our South Florida community.”
Step Up For Students helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which allows 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. The program is funded by corporations through dollar-for-dollar tax-credited donations.
“Thanks to corporate partners like Continental National Bank, more Florida schoolchildren are able to attend schools that best meet their learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “We are grateful for Continental National Bank’s generous contribution that is helping Florida students, as well as their community outreach efforts.”
For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students served more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for K through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participated in the scholarship program statewide.
Reach Paul Soost at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By PAUL SOOST
American Income Life, a provider of life, accident and supplemental health insurance, announced on June 25 a $25,000 contribution to Step Up For Students, helping lower-income children attend the K-12 school that best fits their learning needs. The contribution will fund three scholarships for the 2018-19 school year.
This is the first time that American Income has partnered with 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.
“American Income Life takes an active role in giving back to the community, in places we live, work and visit. We’re proud to partner with Step Up For Students and to help shape the lives of children through educational opportunities,” said Chief Executive Officer, AIL Agency Division Steve Greer. “Supporting Step Up’s mission will help develop future leaders in our communities and we’re excited to be involved.”
The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged schoolchildren allows parents and schoolchildren to choose between a K-12 scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.
“We are thrilled that American Income Life has joined us in our efforts to provide educational options for lower-income families in Florida,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “We are grateful for their generosity, and to its employees’ efforts to improve the lives of people living in their communities.”
For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students served more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade, and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
Paul Soost can be reached at email@example.com.
By JEFF BARLIS
The day after Maria Corrales’ tear-soaked graduation ceremony from St. Brendan High School, her mother, Carmen Urquijo, still searched for perspective.
“I have no words,” said Urquijo of her oldest daughter’s path from Cuba to Miami, a four-year journey that saw a girl who didn’t speak any English transform into a college-bound honors student.
A moment later the words spilled forth.
“Proud, grateful, full of joy that she was able to achieve so much,” Carmen said in Spanish. As Maria translated, a slight blush came over her golden skin.
Maria’s journey is a testament to perseverance and opportunity. St. Brendan became a second home, a refuge and a springboard to the American dream. But Maria’s family wouldn’t have been able to afford tuition had it not been for the Step Up For Students scholarship that helps lower-income families.
The journey began in the hilly town of Santa Clara, Cuba. Maria was one of the top students in her middle school, but knew from her parents that studies were no guarantee of success in Cuba. Her mom was a doctor, but the profession paid very little. Her father, Fabio Corrales, studied to be an electrician but ended up a businessman who worked with artisans.
The family was comfortable, but a future in Florida looked far brighter.
Maria, then 15, said it was difficult leaving friends, relatives, the family home and her boyfriend. But once she and her sister, Mariangel, then 11, got settled into school, they realized English and assimilating were ever harder. There were a lot of tears.
“I thought I was coming to Disney,” Maria said. “But it was tough.”
While Mariangel went to the neighborhood middle school, the family’s Catholic faith led Maria to St. Brendan (Mariangel now attends St. Brendan and is happy and thriving). Even with the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up, and financial aid from the school, money was tight. Carmen and Fabio had to make do with low-paying jobs and couldn’t afford a car.
The city bus Maria took every morning was cold and depressing. No one talked. Everyone looked tired. She was typically among the first to arrive to a quiet, lonely campus.
“Mornings were very hard,” she said, “because I knew I had a whole day of not understanding anything. I had to pay attention because I had to get something out of the class. It felt like I wasn’t in the right place.”
Normally a chatterbox, Maria hardly spoke her freshman year. She was embarrassed. She doubted herself and the decision to move. The girl who got all A’s in Cuba received a D in English in the first quarter.
But she had an angel at St. Brendan.
Tayra Ichino ran the English lab after school three days a week. Maria attended every one, feeling relief as she entered the room. There, Ms. Ichino would translate, explain assignments, and absorb any doubts and fears with relentless encouragement.
Maria was such a positive, hard-working student, Ichino said, it felt good to help her. By third quarter of freshman year, she was making all A’s. By year’s end, she was accepted into the school’s STEM academy.
“That shows how much studying and reviewing she was doing, because it’s not just sitting with me,” Ichino said. “She had to go home and study twice as hard as any student who already had the language.”
That summer, Maria’s progress with English accelerated even more. She spent seven weeks as a camp counselor for 8-year-old girls where there was no getting around the language barrier. The girls bluntly asked her why she spoke so strangely. The ones who spoke Spanish helped her.
“It helped me come out of my shell,” Maria said. “After camp, I said, ‘OK, I can speak.’ ”
The embarrassment gone, Maria set about conquering St. Brendan. The student body seemed larger as she made more English-speaking friends. She took harder classes and thrived.
“She just completely turned it on,” said guidance counselor Carlos Nuñez.
Now a graduate, Maria’s accomplishments are staggering: English Honor Society (“which is amazing,” Nuñez said, “because she couldn’t even put a sentence together when she first started”), National Honor Society, Math Honor Society, Science Honor Society, Social Sciences Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society, varsity swimming, president of the STEM Academy, and unanimous winner of the Archbishop’s Catholic Leadership award.
“This girl is remarkable,” said St. Brendan principal Jose Rodelgo-Bueno. “We were worried when we gave her admission, but she has better grades than people who were born here.”
Maria was accepted into the honors program at Florida International University, where she will study civil engineering. She wants to own a firm someday and build bridges, buildings and expressways.
“The sky’s the limit and I can accomplish anything,” she said. “I learned that at St. Brendan.”
About Saint Brendan High School
Originally a seminary high school in 1959, St. Brendan went co-ed after an enrollment decline and re-opened with its present name in 1975. Today’s student body is about 70 percent female and 98 percent Hispanic. Part of the Archdiocese of Miami, the school sits on 33 acres that are shared with the seminary. There are 1,187 9-12th graders, including 284 on Step Up scholarships. The school has an academies program similar to college majors, in which freshmen apply to one of four academies – law/business, medical, engineering, and fine arts. More than half of the teachers hold advanced degrees. The school administers the SAT and ACT annually. Tuition is $10,250 a year with financial aid available to qualified families.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By JEFF BARLIS
The lean, angular kid arrived at his new school three years ago, whip-smart and rage-filled. TJ Butler didn’t want to make eye contact, didn’t want to make friends, didn’t want to follow the rules. Instead, he screamed, slammed doors and threw things, including, one time, a desk.
For a boy diagnosed with bipolar disorder, whose father was in prison, who grew up with police lights flashing in his front yard, maybe that’s no surprise. But the teachers and administrators at Hillsborough Baptist School weren’t going to give in.
Nearly every day for the first year, the principal, Jessica Brockett, talked with TJ – and listened. For a boy who never thought anyone would listen, this was therapy.
“I wanted him to have a fresh start,” Brockett said. “I said, ‘Look, we’re not kicking you out of here, so let’s just get past all that.’ That developed a trust and a connection that he could come down here and say what he needed to say.”
Three years later, a visible calm has settled over TJ. Now 18, he walks the halls with the confident, purposeful stride of a young man who’s on the verge of graduating from high school and going to college.
“This school really changed me,” he said. It “broke down the walls surrounding my heart.”
TJ’s story turns on the school that wouldn’t give up on him – and the school choice scholarships that gave him the opportunity to attend.
He grew up in Tampa. His father is in prison for life for drug trafficking and shooting a police officer. Home life with mom was a swirl of chaos and conflict with boyfriends and then a stepfather. The violence and threats that rattled the walls traumatized TJ and his two younger brothers.
“There was a lot of burning tension,” TJ recalled. “There was so much anger you could feel it.”
The anger became part of TJ’s wiring. The littlest thing could set him off. He was expelled from his neighborhood elementary school for fighting. He continued to find trouble with teachers and students at a second elementary school before moving to a charter school.
TJ doesn’t remember much of his childhood before age 10. It’s a dark haze that’s painful to probe. His mother, Ngozi Morris, now a single mom who works as a tax preparer, said he was always a good student.
“He’s very intelligent and capable,” she said, “but it was frustrating to see him struggle with his emotions. When he got to middle school, wooo, he just escalated out of control.”
By then, TJ had deep depressions. He thought about suicide all the time.
At his neighborhood middle school, TJ was constantly in trouble, constantly suspended in school and out. He fought with students, shouted at teachers, took out his anger on anything that wasn’t nailed down. It culminated in an episode late in his eighth-grade year in which he climbed onto the roof and threw anything he could find down at the principal’s window.
“It solidified everything for me,” she said. “His father had the same thing.”
With the diagnosis, Ngozi got TJ a McKay Scholarship for students with special needs and found a private school for her son to start ninth grade. A couple months later, he was expelled for an altercation he didn’t start under a zero-tolerance policy. He made it the rest of that year without incident at a second private school, but the academics weren’t challenging.
Ngozi worried TJ would never graduate, that he would end up in jail like his father. Then another mom told her about Hillsborough Baptist School, about how well they handled kids with behavior problems. Ngozi enrolled him. She eventually switched from the McKay Scholarship to the Step Up scholarship, because she was on an extremely tight budget and it reduced her monthly tuition supplements.
Hillsborough Baptist was TJ’s seventh school. As usual, he was mad when he arrived. As usual, he was trouble.
But bit by bit, trust grew and anger subsided.
Brockett, an unassuming young administrator with a shy smile and twinkling eyes, learned to read TJ’s face in the hallways. She would proactively call him into her office to talk. She could disarm an explosion before he even got to a classroom.
“A lot of times when he releases that anger, he cries,” she said.
Another breakthrough occurred at the start of TJ’s senior year. With his mom’s blessing, he moved in with the family of his best friend, Mathew Evatt. The calm and stability there resulted in further improvement in TJ’s behavior at school.
In the meantime, he serves as a teacher’s assistant, practicing the approach his school used with him.
One recent day, he stood at the whiteboard in front of first-graders, as one bouncy student attacked a math problem. The little brown-haired boy figured it out so quickly, celebration morphed from amusing to disruptive.
TJ let it go. His patience paid off. In short order, the boy settled down and correctly explained how he got the answer to his classmates.
Said TJ with a smile, “I saw myself in him.”
About Hillsborough Baptist School
Founded in 1992 and affiliated with Landmark Baptist Church, the school serves 147 K-12 students, including 85 on Step Up For Students scholarships and 36 on McKay Scholarships. The school uses the Abeka curriculum with lots of supplemental materials, like Bob Jones for upper elementary reading. It administers the NWEA’s Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP) as its standardized test. Tuition is $4,947 for K-6 and $5,432 for 7-12.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at email@example.com.