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Private school, public district collaborate to benefit teachers, students

school choice
St. Andrew assistant principal Bambi Giles, left, and principal Judi Hughes worked together for more than four years in Lee and Collier county district schools

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.

St. Andrew educators, from left, Sharon Zebley, Crystal Melton, Lisa Olson, Susie Loughren, Cathy Calcaterra and Bambi Giles, come together as a family to nurture students and each other.

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 jbarlis@sufs.org.

Patience, understanding bring scholarship student back from brink

Glad Tidings Academy teacher Andrene Donaldson, left, makes it a point to respond with patience and understanding when working with students like Darryl Dutervil, center, and communicating with parents like Darryl’s mother, Rose Theagene, right.

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 jbarlis@sufs.org.

Recession crushed family business but not the dream of quality education for their boys

With the help of Florida Tax Credit Scholarships from Step Up For Students, Jonas, left, and Jack Figueredo are thriving at Westwood Christian School in Miami.

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.”

Their world

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.

Jonas, who volunteers for Bugles Across America, plays taps at funerals and memorials for veterans.

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.”

Jack works on the engine of the Mustang he plans to race next year in the National Auto Sports Association.

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 rmooney@sufs.org.

Skyler Goeb didn’t let a rough start to life prevent her from soaring

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.

Skylar Goeb wears some of the 60 medals she has earned for gymnastics.

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:

  • Strives for academic excellence.
  • Leadership qualities in the classroom.
  • Participation in their community.
  • Having an attitude in harmony with the goals and spirit of our school.

“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.

Skylar Goeb competing at a 2018 meet.

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 rmooney@sufs.org.

Once bullied, now safe, happy, and thriving

Armani Powe, 12, stands tall and proud, happy to be a student at Glades Day School.

By JEFF BARLIS

BELLE GLADE, Fla. – When she’s in class, the look on Armani Powe’s face is solemn, focused. She doesn’t harden her gaze intentionally. It happens naturally.

“When it comes to my grades,” she says, “I get really serious.”

Armani, 12, turns quiet and a little withdrawn when asked about the bullying she endured in second grade at her neighborhood school.

“It makes me all sad just to remember it,” she explains with the distance of several years.

She doesn’t mind telling the story, though, because she’s happy, safe, and thriving now at a private school. A Florida Tax Credit Scholarship from Step Up For Students was the vehicle.

Armani had one bully with a band of two or three other boys who delighted in embarrassing her daily. They mocked her crooked teeth, her clothes, hair, backpack. Anything and everything and nothing.

She admits she was an inviting target.

“Looking back at my little self, I was quiet and nice and always doing my work, studying all the time, reading a book in class, and not talking,” she said. “That’s probably why they picked on me.”

The taunting chipped away at her self-image. The worst was how she felt about her teeth. She kept asking her mom when she could get braces, but they were too expensive.

One day, Armani was crying when her mother, Roline Powe, was called early to pick her up. Armani said she didn’t want to go to school anymore. She showed her mom a red hand print on her face where her bully had just slapped her.

That was it.

Roline had requested meetings before, but school officials never filed reports. They always promised they would handle it.

“They just downplayed everything,” she said. “I went in at least five times.”

She felt a nauseating mix of anger and guilt in her stomach. She couldn’t stop thinking about the braces she couldn’t afford.

“It was the most horrible thing to not be able to give your child the care they need,” she said. “But not only was she teased, she was hit! All because of her appearance.”

Determined to fix the situation herself, Roline went to nearby Glades Day School to see if private school could be an option. Everyone in this small town knows about Glades Day and its reputation for preparing children for college, trades, and agriculture careers.

She was nervous when she went in for a meeting. A friend who sent her daughter to GDS had told Roline the price of one year’s tuition, and she nearly buckled.

“I could only dream,” she said.

But it came true when an administrator told her about the scholarship from Step Up For Students. It gives lower-income families the power to choose the school that best suits their children’s needs.

This school year, the state instituted the HOPE Scholarship to give victims of bullying the option to transfer to another public school or to an approved private school as soon as their scholarship is approved.

Roline is glad to see the new scholarship in place. It might have helped prevent some of the trauma Armani endured in the weeks after she was slapped.

“It was the hardest thing getting through that year,” said Roline, who was then a substitute teacher at the neighborhood middle school and now works as an assistant teacher. “There were times I had to take a day off of work, go there, and monitor without her seeing me. I’d watch the playground from the parking lot. Sometimes I picked her up 10 minutes early.”

“It was a journey. She made it through, but if she had remained there, she probably would have needed some therapy.”

As it turned out, Glades Day School was all Armani needed.

Head of School Amie Pitts, herself a graduate of Glades Day, has carefully crafted a safe space for learning. Character isn’t just emphasized, it’s talked about by the student body on a weekly basis.

“Environment is a very big deal, and this is a different environment,” she said. “Our mission is a safe family environment, and I think we do a very good job. We pride ourselves on family. We see it as a partnership between the home and the school to raise great kids who are successful in life.”

There’s a friendly feeling that swirls through the school buildings along with the strong breeze that pushes from massive Lake Okeechobee to the north. The 30-acre campus is buttressed by cane fields to the south and east, and a sugar mill looms large across the street with smokestacks constantly churning. It’s a reminder of a life in the fields that Roline so badly wants her children to avoid.

It didn’t take long for Armani to adjust. She quickly went from tentative to curious about her new school. Soon, she was talking to others without feeling scared. They were small steps.

Every Wednesday, students wear orange shirts that say “Bullying” or “Cyberbullying” in a circle with a slash through it. Every Friday, the student body gathers to talk and lift each other up.

“We talk about kindness first,” Armani said. “People talk about what we do and should do in the world. We get it right.”

By the time Armani started her second year, she was joined by older brother Lorenzo and younger brother Shemar.

“It was the best decision I could have made for my family,” Roline said. “And for Armani, it was a game-changer.”

Roline said Glades Day has made her a better, more attentive parent. She doesn’t just help with homework anymore, she has a presence at the school. Everyone knows her as “Momma Powe.”

“She is extremely engaged,” Pitts said. “She’s here every day. She’s at every single sporting event, comes to all the meetings, reads to her son in the media center. She wants better for her kids, and they’re doing very well.”

Armani is a solid B-student striving for more. She asks for help whenever she struggles with a subject. She wants to be a veterinarian someday.

She feels safe now, settled. She has learned how to be brave and confident.

When she looks back at her little self from second grade, she feels a profound difference that goes beyond her long limbs and strong shoulders. She’s comfortable in her own skin and doesn’t worry about her appearance.

Braces fixed her teeth a couple of years ago, and she must be one of the only pre-teens around who’s excited to get them put on for a second time.

“I have a big, cheesy smile,” she said. “My friends love when I smile.”

She does it all the time. Just not when she’s focused in class.

About Glades Day School

Now in its 53rd year, GDS moved from Pahokee to Belle Glade in 1973. The school is accredited by the Florida Council of Independent Schools. Teachers have an average of 20 years of experience. Nineteen GDS employees are graduates. There are 257 K-12 students, including 94 on Step Up For Students Scholarships. The school has a thriving Agri-science program that’s tied to the Future Farmers of America and features welding, gardening, even a hog pen to train students in Grades 7-12. There are also four computer labs and smartboards in several classrooms. Dual enrollment, Advanced Placement and virtual school courses are offered. The Stanford 10 test is administered every March. Annual tuition is $7,800 for K-5; $8,800 for 6-8; and $9,800 for 9-12 with financial aid available. Transportation is available as far east as Royal Palm Beach and as far west as Clewiston.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

Dairyland increases contribution to $600,000 to Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By ASHLEY ZARLE

Dairyland, a member of the Sentry Insurance Group of companies,  recently announced a $600,000 contribution to Step Up For Students, helping Florida schoolchildren attend the K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.

Dairyland Regional Agency Sales Manager, Nick Marsh, and Agency Sales Manager, Amber Driggers, presented Step Up For Students development officer David Bryant with a $600,000 check. The donation will fund nearly 90 K-12 scholarships for the 2018-19 school year through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which serves lower-income children in Florida.

This is the third year that Dairyland has partnered with Step Up For Students and has contributed a total of $1.2 million towards the scholarship program.

“We are proud of the impact we’ve had on Florida schoolchildren through our contributions to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program,” said Pete Anhalt, president of Dairyland.  “Dairyland takes pride in helping our communities become better places to live and work and we know this partnership is doing just that.”

Dairyland Regional Agency Sales Manager, Nick Marsh, and Agency Sales Manager, Amber Driggers, presented Step Up For Students development officer David Bryant with a $600,000 check

Dairyland Regional Agency Sales Manager, Nick Marsh, and Agency Sales Manager, Amber Driggers, presented Step Up For Students development officer David Bryant with a $600,000 check

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and allows parents and students to choose between a K-12 scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

 “We are honored to have Dairyland as a partner in our mission to help lower-income Florida families access schools that best fit their children’s unique learning needs,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill about the Nov. 24 donation. “We are grateful for their generosity and their commitment to giving back to their community.”

For the 2018-19 school year, Step Up For Students 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.

Ashley Zarle can be reached at azarle@sufs.org.

Globe Life makes $25,000 contribution to Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By ASHLEY ZARLE

Globe Life, the top volume issuer of ordinary individual life insurance policies in the United States, announced Dec. 17 a $25,000 contribution to Step Up For Students Scholarship Program for the 2018-19 school year.

This is the first time that Globe Life has supported Step Up For Students. The company’s contribution will fund three K-12 scholarships so lower-income children can attend the school that best meets their learning needs.

“Since 1951, Globe Life has believed in giving back to the communities in which we live and work,” said Corey Jones, Senior Vice President of Digital Marketing and Branding for Globe Life. “We strive to create opportunities to be a source of good to those around us and we are proud to support Step Up For Students to provide education opportunities for children in our community.”

Corey Jones, Globe Life Senior Vice President of Digital Marketing and Branding, right, presents David Bryant, Step Up For Students development officer, with a check for $25,000 which will fund three scholarships for lower-income Florida schoolchildren to attend the school of their choice through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. .

Corey Jones, Globe Life Senior Vice President of Digital Marketing and Branding, right, presents David Bryant, Step Up For Students development officer, with a check for $25,000 which will fund three scholarships for lower-income Florida schoolchildren to attend the school of their choice through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program
.

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and allows parents and students to choose between a K-12 scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

 “We are honored to welcome Globe Life as a supporter of our mission to help lower-income Florida families access schools that best fit their children’s unique learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful for their generosity and their commitment to giving back to their community.”

For the 2018-19 school year, Step Up For Students 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.

Ashley Zarle can be reached at azarle@sufs.org.

Choice scholarship provided brothers an extended family

Preston, Linda, and Tyler McDonald.

By JEFF BARLIS

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Tyler McDonald, 19, and his brother Preston, 18, stand out in a crowd. Tall and athletic, their breezy, no-worries attitudes are as evident as the sparkle in their hazel-brown eyes.

They are All-American, boy-next-door types, the highest of achievers who say they wouldn’t be where they are now – Princeton and Duke, respectively – had it not been for Clearwater Central Catholic High School and the education choice scholarship that made it possible to attend.

Going to CCC was about much more than great academics.

They initially were raised in a comfortable middle-class home, never wanting. Everything changed seven years ago when their father left. The divorce was bitter and protracted. Their mother, Linda, would cry in her closet.

“She may think she hid it, but we could tell,” Tyler recounted with a twinge of sadness. “The toughest thing was there was nothing we could do about it.”

A couple of years before the divorce, Linda had stopped working as a nurse to take care of her mother, who was left paralyzed after an operation. During and after the divorce, she felt the sting of an extended unemployment she never planned. She needed a job with more flexibility and became a substitute teacher at the neighborhood middle school to be closer to her sons.

But it wasn’t enough. The three moved to smaller and smaller homes. The power and water were turned off on more than one occasion. Food shopping was for necessities only. Clothes shopping was once a year when the sales were on. Sports shoes and equipment had to last two years instead of one.

As they rallied around each other, help arrived in the form of a private school family that embraced and lifted them.

 

Sunlight cascades through the north-facing windows of the administration building at CCC. When visitors enter, they see the cheery, bespectacled face of front office manager Mary Weber. Her unofficial title is Director of First Impressions, and it only takes a moment to see why – she knows every one of the 500-plus students by name.

A warm, family feeling permeates campus.

That’s how it was for Tyler and Preston, when they each visited as eighth-graders and spent shadow days sitting in on a full slate of classes. CCC students grabbed every chance to talk to Tyler, asking as many questions about him as they answered.

“I shadowed at a nearby district school right before that,” he said. “It felt like I was just watching class. No one talked to me. It was a big difference.”

A year later, Preston got the same vibe at CCC.

“People were telling me the good stuff so that I would come,” he said. “It was really welcoming.”

 

Tyler, Preston, and Linda are a tight unit, a triumphant trio. They joke, tease, and finish each other’s sentences.

Born in the Bahamas and raised in Florida, Linda has a light accent and a modest, girlish giggle. It comes over her like a blush when she talks about her sons’ accomplishments.

After the divorce, anger and hurt were common but never affected Tyler or Preston at school. Linda had always pushed them gently to strive for straight A’s, and when they got the taste for it, they never looked back.

When it was time to choose a high school, there were public school magnets and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs in the mix. But it was the family feeling at CCC that made such an impression on those first visits – for the boys and for Linda.

“I remember going into (Director of Enrollment Tara Shea McLaughlin’s) office, knowing Tyler had really fallen in love with the school,” Linda said. “I was in tears because I didn’t know how I was going to afford this.”

McLaughlin spoke with the finance department. The school offered significant tuition assistance, but it wasn’t enough. They also helped Linda apply for the Step Up For Students scholarship that empowers low-income families to choose a private school.

It still didn’t cover everything.

“It was important to come up with a monthly payment that was not overwhelming, so she wasn’t in a panic every month,” said McLaughlin, herself an alumnus of CCC. “Any of us could be in the same situation. We saw the potential in those boys, so we needed to make it happen.”

McLaughlin also opened the school closet of gently used uniforms to Linda and got CCC’s uniform company to donate shoes to all of the school’s Step Up scholars.

Tyler McDonald’s senior portrait.

Preston McDonald’s senior portrait.

“It’s hard to compute the things they’ve done for my kids,” Linda said, recalling how she sometimes had to send Tyler to the finance office with a late check and an apology. “They were an amazing group of people. They nurtured my kids.”

Wanting to show her gratitude, Linda threw herself into volunteering. Despite working full-time as a public school teacher, she sold tickets and concessions at sporting events and helping with the school’s annual fundraising gala.

“Every CCC parent volunteers 15 hours, but Linda was in the hundreds of hours,” McLaughlin said. “She was everywhere.”

Tyler and Preston were enormously popular. They were sports stars who shined even brighter in the classroom. Tyler was valedictorian with an Ivy League future. Preston graduated at the top of his class with a full IB diploma.

“We’re beyond proud,” McLaughlin said, radiating like a parent. “We’re over the moon that they came here, and they will always be part of the CCC family.”

 

Today, Tyler is a sophomore football player majoring in economics at Princeton (which he chose over Harvard and Yale). He’s pondering careers in investment banking, private equity, corporate real estate, and management consulting.

In his first year at Duke, Preston wants to study computer programming and software engineering while getting a business certificate.

The boys stay in touch with each other mostly via text, at least three times a week. They’ve always been competitive and love to verbally spar over their IQs and now their colleges’ rankings. When they returned for the holiday, they cherished their time at home, together again.

Thanksgiving used to evoke dark memories.

“Right after the divorce, splitting every holiday was weird,” Tyler said. “Thanksgiving is supposed to be about family, but it’ll never be the same.”

This year, Tyler took part in “Friendsgiving,” a potluck set up by 15-20 CCC grads that’s been going on for three years. There was turkey, ham, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole … all the trimmings.

“It started my senior year, just to hang out,” he said. “But it’s still running two years out of high school.”

“I don’t think we’d have that big a group or that cohesive a group if we had gone to any other high school.”

Indeed, after going to CCC, family will never be the same.

About Clearwater Central Catholic High School

Founded in 1962 with 96 students and seven staff members, the school graduated its first class of 26 seniors two years later. CCC, which is overseen by the Diocese of St. Petersburg, has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a National School of Excellence. The 40-acre campus is a short walk from an inlet of Tampa Bay. The school is accredited by AdvancED and has 541 students, including 75 on Step Up For Students scholarships. CCC is an IB School with a 65 percent award rate in the full IB Diploma Program. The school also offers dual enrollment courses with St. Petersburg College as well as Advanced Placement (AP) Program courses for college credit. The PSAT test is administered to ninth and 10th graders. Tuition is $14,950 annually, and $12,400 for a family affiliated with a local Catholic parish. In 2017-18, CCC provided more than $425,000 in income-based tuition assistance to more than 25 percent of its families.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

Raymond James a partner with Step Up from the start

By ROGER MOONEY

The partnership between Raymond James Financial and Step Up For Students goes back to the earliest days of the Step Up scholarship program.

It was 2001 and Tom James, then CEO of Raymond James, listened as Tampa businessman and Step Up founder John Kirtley laid out his vision for a means to provide low-income students in Florida with educational opportunities through corporate tax credit scholarships.

This struck a chord with James, whose wealth management and investment banking firm had long been an active investor in the communities it served, especially in the area of education.

“Listening to John, his message resonated with me,” said Tom James, who now serves as chairman emeritus at Raymond James Financial. “I knew he was passionate about helping underprivileged children, and this was an opportunity for Raymond James to invest in our community.”

Soon after, Raymond James Financial became a founding donor to Step Up For Students through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and the partnership has grown ever since. To date, Raymond James has funded 7,996 scholarships through contributions totaling more than $38 million.

“I am extremely grateful for the longstanding relationship with Raymond James,” Kirtley said. “Our partnership has allowed thousands of Florida schoolchildren to have access to the school that is most appropriate for their needs, which will allow them to be successful in life.”

Paul Shoukry

In 2018, Raymond James’ partnership with Step Up grew even stronger with the addition of Paul Shoukry, senior vice president of finance, treasurer and head of investor relations, to Step Up’s Advisory Board.

Impacting the direction of a student’s life is what attracted Shoukry to join Step Up’s Advisory Board.

The Advisory Board is comprised of business leaders who strategically advise and assist Step Up, giving their personal time to help ensure the success of Step Up.

“Education has always been an area that I would say is of significant importance to our community, because that is where you can change the trajectory of people’s lives, of children’s lives, as they become adults and make a long-lasting impact to the community,” Shoukry said.

Shoukry has seen this impact firsthand at Step Up events where he’s met scholarship students.

At one event, Shoukry met a high schooler with a familiar story: The young man had struggled in his previous school. His grades were poor. He was ineligible to play sports.

“Step Up enabled him to go to another school where everything turned around for him in his life,” Shoukry said. “He went from what was likely a story of another high school dropout to someone who is in college now.”

The 2001 vision for how the tax credit scholarship program could change lives has been realized. Through the support of Raymond James and other donor companies, Step Up is providing K-12 scholarships to nearly 100,000 lower-income students across Florida this year.

“Our biggest challenge now is to continue the momentum we’ve built through the years so that we can reach more students,” says Kirtley.

That’s what Shoukry is trying to help.

“Tom paved the way in creating this partnership,” said Shoukry. “I’m honored to represent Raymond James on the Advisory Board, and I’d like to help other companies see the value that Step Up is giving to children in Florida.”

Marketing Communications Manager Roger Mooney can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Time to nominate VIPs for Rising Stars Awards

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.”

Rising Stars honors students who receive Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit and Gardiner scholarships during the 2018-19 school year.

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 rmooney@sufs.org.

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