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.
By JEFF BARLIS
Kelly Perkins was in a full-blown panic when she woke up at 5:15 a.m. and her son Ross wasn’t there. For three days he wasn’t at school, which was nothing new, but he wasn’t answering his phone. She drove the streets of Cape Coral looking for him day and night.
“I come home on the third day and he was sitting on the porch,” Kelly said. “He was hiding with his friends in a golf country club bathroom.”
Kelly was at the end of her rope. Ross, 15, had gone off the rails, and his therapist suggested an out-of-home placement – Gator Wilderness Camp School, an hour north in rural Punta Gorda. That’s what spurred Ross to run away.
Kelly didn’t want to send Ross away, but now Ross needed help.
Problem was, even if Ross agreed to camp, Kelly had to figure out how to pay for it.
Luckily, she learned, about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students that made tuition manageable.
“Without it, I don’t know where we’d be,” she said. “Probably in much more trouble.”
Ross was a good student when he was younger. Kelly spoiled him. He had every game system he ever wanted, always had name-brand clothes and shoes.
His hair was a playground. Kelly, a cosmetology teacher with short blond hair and kind eyes, loved to help Ross change his look – hair spikes in preschool, a mohawk in kindergarten. He got his ear pierced on his 10th birthday.
“I went with the mohawk forever,” Ross said with the same Chicago accent as his mother. “I’d wear it up or down in my eyes. I’d dye it crazy colors and shave the sides and wear skinny jeans. I had really great grades, A’s and B’s. So I could do whatever I wanted.”
Things changed dramatically, though, after Ross finished eighth grade. His zoned high school had such a bad rep, Kelly decided to move to Florida, thinking she was giving Ross a better life.
But the move upset Ross deeply. Friends meant a lot to him, and he left them all behind. He wasn’t too discerning about the new ones he made at his neighborhood school in Cape Coral.
“They were just the bad kids,” he said. “I always liked being the leader, and I’m kind of an entertainer, so I would do whatever I could to up the game.”
The game was skipping school, hanging out, stealing. One day, Kelly’s brother-in-law found thousands of dollars’ worth of stolen clothes, shoes and electronics in Ross’ closet.
In the spring, he was caught stealing at the mall, kicked out of school and sent to a youth shelter he described as more of a detention center. They shaved his head. He ran away. He was placed in a public alternative school, but he didn’t show.
When confronted, Ross wouldn’t make eye contact. “I dunno” was his answer for everything.
At the end of his freshman year, he had a grand total of a half credit.
That’s when Gator Camp emerged as the answer. Ross eventually agreed to go. They shaved his head when he arrived.
The camp sits on 250 wooded acres surrounded by citrus farms and ranches. There are horses, cows, a lake – and an overwhelming feeling of tranquility. There are no cell phones or video games.
The camp serves boys ages 10-15. They typically come from troubled backgrounds, most with special needs or disabilities, and agree to attend 15 to 18 months. They live, work and learn outdoors, 24-7.
Camp director Greg Kanagy, a short, powerfully built man with sky blue eyes, remembers Ross was loud and obnoxious early on. He made friends easily, but they were disruptive. He was a leader, but sometimes led his group literally in the wrong direction.
“He didn’t take responsibility very seriously,” Kanagy said. “And he was pretty distrustful in relationships.”
At first, Ross didn’t see the point of being there. He didn’t like the chores and structure, didn’t participate in his group’s daily talks and plans. When a conflict arose, the group would talk it out until it was handled. But Ross made everything into a joke.
“I just had no hope,” he said.
In time, though, with help from his counselors and peers, something happened. He participated. He opened up to his group. He stopped thinking he was better than them.
After the fourth month, he could feel his life turning around. Kelly saw the difference. He talked more, made eye contact. Even his posture changed.
At camp, Ross became a positive force. The trust that formed allowed the campers to share their worst experiences. Their bonds become impenetrable.
“Once you get that out, you just feel so much more secure,” he said. “It’s a big focus to talk about how you’re feeling instead of acting things out.”
After he graduated camp, Ross went home and to a non-traditional public high school where he set his own pace doing courses on a computer. A school official asked if he’d like to do afternoon or evening sessions. He asked if he could do both. No one had ever done that.
Kelly felt like she was looking at a different person, but just in case, she moved while Ross was away to make sure he didn’t fall back in with his old friends. He never did.
He missed camp and planned trips with his camp friends.
During a canoe trip in the Everglades, a former counselor offered him a job at camp – assistant maintenance and grounds crew. He jumped at it and decided to finish school even faster. He earned his diploma in less than a year and a half.
“I just binged high school,” he said.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By PAUL SOOST
KAR Auction Services, Inc. (NYSE: KAR), a global vehicle remarketing and technology solutions provider, on Feb. 26 made a $1 million contribution to Step Up For Students, a Florida-based nonprofit, which administers scholarships for lower-income schoolchildren.
KAR’s financial commitment will fund scholarships for 153 Florida children — giving them more educational options and opportunities.
“We believe in second chances for cars, people and communities — that includes partnering to provide students with quality educational options,” said Jim Hallett, chairman and CEO of KAR. “The state of Florida is home to more than 650 KAR employees as well as countless valued business partners and customers. And we are committed to supporting the communities in which we work and live.”
This is KAR’s first time partnering with Step Up For Students, which helps run the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged Florida children. The corporate-funded program gives children assistance with private school tuition or transportation costs for out-of-county public schools. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the program serving nearly 102,000 students during the 2017-18 school year.
“We are excited KAR Auction Services has joined us in our mission to empower Florida families by helping them find the best learning environment for their children,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “Your contribution to the Step Up scholarship program will make a lasting difference in the communities you serve. On behalf of our Step Up families, we thank KAR.”
KAR owns and operates 15 whole-car and salvage auctions in Florida, and provides wholesale automotive services to auto dealers throughout the state.
By JEFF BARLIS
At Seven Rivers Christian School in Lecanto, there’s a list of core values for students. Among them: Do hard things.
Maloni Lewis knows it. She’s lived it.
With two disabled parents and three older brothers in and out of jail, Maloni grew up in extreme poverty. Their community in nearby Crystal River, with its run-down homes and overgrown yards, was full of hopeless people.
Devastated by the path her sons had taken, mom Renée had an unyielding determination to chart a different course for Maloni. A tall, broad-shouldered woman, she made a school-choice scholarship the ticket to a better life.
“We went through a lot of trauma,” Renée said after a pause, her eyes welled up with tears. “But I told Maloni, it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s where you’re at.”
Like her brothers, Maloni struggled in third grade at her neighborhood school. Her reading, writing and math grades were poor. Other than her trademark mane of meticulous braids, she wasn’t herself. The playful smile, the one mom said “has diamonds in it,” was missing.
Renée had seen this before. Her boys were bright and talented, but they came home from school explaining how it wasn’t cool to be smart. They were made fun of for speaking proper English. Bad friends led to bad choices. Going to jail, Renée said, was a virus that tore through the family.
Maloni would be different.
Through a local nonprofit organization, Renée found out about Seven Rivers and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program that would make paying the tuition possible. She applied through Step Up For Students.
Formerly a certified nursing assistant who worked late hours and double shifts to make ends meet, Renée went on disability after she was injured in a fall. She also has kidney and heart problems that cause frequent hospitalizations.
After her injury, husband Donald went on partial disability due to worsening asthma. Money became a problem. Power and water were hard to keep on.
It was all a blur to Maloni. Until Seven Rivers.
Her first memory of the school is from age 9, when teachers, staff and parents came to help her family move. The Lewis home had been deemed uninhabitable, and they needed help moving to Maloni’s grandparents’ house.
“They’ve always been family to us,” Maloni said of the school.
Nestled along a rolling hillside dotted with oaks and pines, the school’s rusticated concrete-block buildings are modern and clean. For Maloni, the people inside made all the difference.
Chief among them was resource coordinator Donna Nelson, a wiry, fiery, caring woman who is now the school’s director of admissions. She became a mentor to Maloni and a close friend of the family.
“My secret angel,” Renée said.
Nelson’s job was to work with struggling kids, and she spoke frequently with Renée about Maloni’s strengths, weaknesses and direction. They plotted a course to help Maloni catch up in an academic environment that was far more rigorous than her previous school.
“At first I thought she was mean,” Maloni said. “But she wasn’t. She’s just passionate. She wants people to learn. She wants to help you.”
Maloni turned to Nelson in and out of school. If she needed tutoring or was hungry, Nelson was there. Sometimes when Renée was in the hospital, it was Nelson who broke the news to Maloni and offered rides and a place to stay.
“She loves her,” Renée said. “And I just wish for other families to have that. It’s so huge.”
Even with Nelson and Renée pushing, it took years to get Maloni on track in the classroom. Math was a stubborn nemesis, and she was plagued by doubts. I shouldn’t be here. Maybe college isn’t for me.
But her teachers never gave up. Maloni’s support structures grew to include year-round sports – volleyball, basketball and track.
After being a student who put forth a minimal effort, Maloni found a passion for learning and hit her stride in high school. Her GPA went from 2.4 as a freshman to 3.8 as a senior. She even conquered math.
With graduation looming in the spring of 2017, Maloni applied and got accepted to a small college in Pennsylvania.
“She wanted to go as far away from her community as possible,” Nelson said.
The school offered some scholarship money. But it wasn’t enough, so Maloni decided to go to the College of Central Florida in Ocala.
She recently finished her first semester with mostly A’s. Her plan is to get an associate’s degree, then transfer to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. The dream is to become a nurse like her mom and travel the world.
So much of her success is owed to Seven Rivers.
“I’m overly prepared,” she said. “Freshman year is supposed to be hard, but it’s really easy. It makes me realize I’ve been educated properly.”
From the moment her daughter graduated high school, Renée was “on a cloud.” She felt a sense of peace, perspective, and gratitude for the scholarship that made Seven Rivers possible.
“Step Up For Students is a lifeline,” she said. “It allows kids and families to dream. What they thought was so far out of reach is possible.”
Maloni knows. She’s lived it.
About Seven Rivers Christian School
Founded in 1988, the school is affiliated with Seven Rivers Presbyterian Church. It is accredited by Christian Schools of Florida, the National Council for Private School Accreditation, and AdvancEd. The school serves 502 K-12 students, including 126 on Step Up For Students scholarships. The curriculum has an emphasis on college prep and includes honors, Advanced Placement, and dual enrollment courses in high school. The school administers the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test three times a year. Tuition rang
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By PAUL SOOST
EverBank, a division of TIAA, FSB, today announced a $1.5 million contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program. The donation will fund about 229 scholarships for the 2017-18 school year.
This marks the 14th year EverBank has supported the scholarship program. Since teaming with Step Up in 2004, the company has contributed more than $14.5 million, the equivalent of 3,050 scholarships.
“EverBank is proud to support the dedicated work of Step Up For Students through our contributions to the scholarship program. Providing opportunities for lower-income Florida families to find the right learning environment for their children will lead to avenues to a brighter tomorrow,” said TIAA, FSB, Vice President and CRA Officer, Joseph Hernandez “We believe this relationship will continue our efforts to inspire hope and empower change in the communities in which we work and live.”
The announcement was made at St. Matthew’s Catholic School in Jacksonville, which serves prekindergarten through eighth grade students. Nearly 40 percent of its 225 students use Step Up For Student scholarships.
Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged Florida schoolchildren. 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.
“EverBank has been a longtime supporter of Step Up For Students in providing options for lower-income Florida families to find the environment that best meets their child’s learning needs. We appreciate and applaud their commitment and contributions,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “On behalf of Step Up and the students participating in our program, we thank EverBank for their generosity.”
For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up $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 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
Reach Paul Soost at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By JEFF BARLIS
Demetria Hutley-Johnson can laugh about it now, but not long ago her daughter, De’Asia Waters, was having such a hard time in school she tried to hide her grades.
“I used to have to search her backpack,” Demetria said. “She’s sneaky. Their tests and quizzes have to be signed by parents. She knew about it. She just wouldn’t give them to me. Now she does.”
De’Asia, 16, laughs about it, too. She’s proud of her grades now. There’s no more hiding, because her troubles are behind her.
The struggles began in third grade at her neighborhood school in Quincy, about a half-hour northwest of Tallahassee.
“I just felt like she was being left behind,” said Demetria, a licensed practical nurse since 2013. “She had a substitute teacher all the way through December. She didn’t get her real teacher until they came back from their winter break in January.”
De’Asia’s grades fell from A’s to F’s, as mom grew increasingly frustrated.
After frequent visits to the school and many conversations with school officials, Demetria decided she needed to explore other options. She started calling private schools and found out about the Step Up For Students scholarship, which helps parents of lower-income K-12 students pay tuition.
Thanks to the scholarship, Demetria was able to steer her daughter’s academic journey back towards a happy ending.
It didn’t happen immediately. De’Asia’s poor grades required her to repeat fourth grade at the first private school she and her mom chose. The retention was supposed to help, but her troubles continued. After De’Asia spent fifth grade working at her own pace in a computer-based curriculum, her mom decided for a second time to seek a better fit.
A teacher suggested Masters Preparatory Christian Academy in nearby Havana. There, De’Asia’s grades began to stabilize in the sixth grade, thanks to small classes, one-on-one attention, and support from her teachers.
“After she was retained, she wasn’t motivated about school,” Demetria said. “She was sheltered, quiet, not enthusiastic. After (Masters Prep) did their magic, she’s like a totally different person.”
Said De’Asia: “It was different right away. It was the teachers. My teacher, Ms. Lovett, never gave up on me. They will actually keep me in the room until I finish my work, until I get it.”
Rhonda Lovett worked with De’Asia both in class and after class. De’Asia worked at home, too.
The girl who once hid her school work was starting to thrive.
“She was behind a little bit, but she worked hard,” Lovett said. “The most important thing was her mom. All I was was just her mom at school. Whatever her mom did at home, I was doing the same thing at school.”
De’Asia’s grades jumped from C’s and D’s in sixth grade to A’s and B’s in seventh grade. Her GPA rose from 2.19 to 4.08.
“Her whole attitude toward school changed,” Demetria said. “She finally started talking about college. I had never heard her talk about college before.”
Now a ninth-grader, De’Asia is excited about the future.
“It’s kind of a new thing,” she said. “I’d never thought about going to college, but now I do.”
About Masters Preparatory Christian Academy
The non-denominational Christian school serves a wide range of students, from developmentally delayed to gifted. Thirty-six students – including 18 on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students – attend kindergarten through eighth grade. Parents are required to sign an enrollment contract and commit to be involved in the education process. After a pre-enrollment interview, new students in grades 3-8 take an entrance assessment that tests reading, language arts, and math on the last grade level completed. The school uses the TerraNova Test. It uses the A Beka Book curriculum for reading and language arts in grades 3-5, the Saxon program for all math instruction, and Alpha-Omega programs for all other course work. Tuition is $6,920 a year.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at email@example.com.
By PAUL SOOST
MIAMI – Breakthru Beverage Florida, one of the largest distributors of wines, spirits and non-alcoholic beverages in the state, announced Jan. 19 it is donating $45 million to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.
Breakthru’s donation will fund more than 6,880 K-12 scholarships for lower-income Florida schoolchildren for the 2017-18 school year.
Since 2011, Breakthru Beverage has contributed more than $254 million, providing more than 45,600 scholarships.
“Communities thrive when we all do our part and work together. Breakthru Beverage is proud to support Step Up For Students and give Florida students an opportunity to reach their highest potential,” said Eric Pfeil, executive vice president of Breakthru Beverage Florida. “We’re confident these students will aim high and will be future leaders in our community. We look forward to a long relationship with Step Up For Students.”
This is the seventh consecutive year Breakthru Beverage Florida has contributed to the nonprofit organization that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged schoolchildren. The program is funded with tax-credited donations and 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.
“Thanks to the support and generosity of our donors, Step Up For Students is helping parents find the best learning environment for their children that they otherwise couldn’t afford,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “On behalf of our Step Up families, we thank Breakthru Beverage for its continued commitment and generosity.”
The announcement was made at Pentab Academy in Miami, which serves prekindergarten through eighth grade students. More than half of its 260 students use Step Up For Students scholarships.
“At Pentab Academy, our goal is to educate the whole child – academically, emotionally and spiritually. Many of our families could not afford a private school education for their children without the help of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Step Up For Students,” said Barbara Sharpe, Pentab Academy principal. “We are grateful to Breakthru Beverage Florida for being a leader and giving back to our community.”
For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving 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 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
Paul Soost can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maria Niebuhr, first year principal of St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic School in Naples, Florida, sits behind her desk in an office filled with boxes stacked on boxes, placed on a floor stripped away to bare concrete.
As she holds two pictures showing the $1 million in damages the school sustained from Hurricane Irma, the sound of a screw gun pierces the air as its drilled into a nearby wall.
This is the new normal for St. Elizabeth Seton.
The pre-K3 through eighth-grade school lost power for two weeks during the storm and was forced to remain closed for three and a half weeks, longer than every other school under the Diocese of Venice.
Students young enough to enjoy a daily nap must do so on blankets placed on bare concrete. Black plastic has been placed over areas where the drywall was ruined. In several classrooms, entire walls are covered with it.
Maria Crowley has been teaching at Seton for 28 years. Her kindergarten classroom is lined with the black plastic. Underneath her desk, a large chunk of concrete is missing.
When Irma was bearing down, Crowley was ready. She stored things out of reach of the flooding. When the rain stopped and the wind passed, she showed up to sweep water out of her room.
“I just fear what happens if we have another hurricane,” Crowley says. “But we’ll do what we have to do.”
In Seton’s main building that houses pre-K3 through fifth grade, as well as the media center, everything had to be moved out, boxed up, put into the gymnasium and manually scrubbed down before being brought back inside.
The damage is extensive. Every classroom needs a combination of new ceilings, drywall and lighting fixtures. Outdoor bulletin board glass casings went flying during the storm, never to return. In the school’s courtyard, old bricks that once surrounded a statue of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton were rearranged by Mother Nature, while the statue was moved by work crews. Niebuhr says she still is still dealing with leaks nearly every day.
While insurance will cover the costly damages, the school is trying to recoup its $100,000 deductible to make other repairs that have long plagued it. Years of quick fixes left the 36-year-old school more vulnerable when Irma struck as a Category 2 hurricane on Sept. 10.
The rebuilding plan is to place all the students in portable classrooms so repairs and enhancements can be done simultaneously. It could take several months to complete all the work.
Despite all this, Niebuhr remains impressed by the resilience of her students.
“The children become immune to it, but it’s sad,” she says. “We’ve got to move forward with all of this.”
Annabel Krystaszek is a bright-eyed, 8-year-old in Erin Lanigan’s third-grade class. Her family had no power for a week and lost a big tree in her yard; Annabel loved the tree. To deal with the stifling heat, her family left their doors and windows open.
“It felt weird being out of school,” Annabel says. “I was happy to get math and spelling homework.”
Adaora Obidiegwu , 12, said Irma was the first hurricane she has experienced. The seventh-grader said her family lost power for about three weeks.
“I was scared when the storm came,” she says. “I didn’t like being out of school much. It was a little bit of a break, but I missed it.”
Irma might have battered Seton, but the school’s spirit has not been dampened. Upon returning to school, every child received a yellow #SetonStrong hard hat. A relaxed dress code on Fridays allows students to wear jeans and their #SetonStrong T-shirts.
In the spirit of solidarity, several Catholic schools across the country, including some as far away as Illinois and Connecticut, have “adopted” Seton and have raised money for its cause. An anonymous California benefactor sent a $5,000 check, while St. Joseph Catholic School in Bradenton held a fundraiser for St. Seton while repairing damages of its own.
One of the bulletin boards near Seton’s courtyard that was spared damage is lined with letters of support and drawings sent from a school in Hawaii.
In Irma’s aftermath, Seton students created an art project that involved coloring and branding rocks with the #SetonStrong motto and placing them throughout the community. The project caught the attention of the Naples Daily News, which ran a feature story about the positive vibes the project spread through the city.
St. Elizabeth Seton is battered, but Niebuhr says its spirit cannot be broken.
“Everyone here cares about each other,” she says. “The heart of the school is in each and every one of these teachers and students. We are Seton Strong regardless of what happens here. We have pride in who we are.”
David Hudson Tuthill can be reached at email@example.com.
By JEFF BARLIS
Middle school is tough for a lot of kids. For Valentin Mendez, it was hell.
At night, he would try to sleep on the floor of the downtown Miami gas station where his mother worked the graveyard shift.
In the mornings, he’d think about who was going to beat him up that day.
After school, he’d clutch his mom and cry.
“It was chaos,” he said.
Non-stop bullying left Valentin so hopeless, he dropped out of his neighborhood school in sixth grade and moved to Nicaragua to be with his father. That could have been the end of a heartbreaking story.
But thanks to a scholarship, Valentin got a chance to start over at a different school – and to turn everything around.
“The scholarship,” said Valentin’s mother, Jeannethe Ruiz, “saved my son.”
Valentin was born in Miami but lived in Nicaragua with his father, Roberto Mendez, from age 3 to 9. The tall, chubby kid with glasses was an easy target for bullies. That he didn’t speak much English made it worse.
Money was tight, so Valentin and his mom lived in her sister’s apartment in a rough neighborhood near downtown. While Jeannethe worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., Valentin could hear the sound of gunfire and drug raids. She decided to have him sleep on a thin comforter inside the gas station’s plate-glass booth.
“The floor was very cold,” Valentin said, “but at least I knew I was secure.”
That wasn’t the case at school. He lasted a month before mom transferred him to another district middle school. He made it six weeks there.
“Bullies were everywhere,” he said. “I saw people doing drugs. … They were smoking. I saw cocaine as well. It was heavy stuff.”
One rainy morning, a boy spiked a football into a puddle, drenching Valentin with water and dirt. Other kids laughed. Valentin was crushed.
His mom had enough when Valentin told her about boys who terrorized students from beneath a staircase. Valentin spoke out and got punched in the back of his head.
“They grabbed him and beat him up,” Jeannethe said, “and no one from the school said anything to me.”
Valentin begged his mother to send him back to Nicaragua.
“I wasn’t thinking about returning. I just needed to get away, the farther the better,” he said. “The moment the plane touched ground I felt secure.”
Just being with his grandparents and father was a comfort. So was grandma’s red beans and rice.
Valentin figured he’d go to school there, maybe become a construction worker. He had given up on any American dreams.
But back in Miami, his mother was making plans. A neighbor told her about a private school – La Progresiva Presbyterian School in Little Havana. Jeannethe walked by the cluster of vanilla-colored buildings one day and saw a banner for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which helps parents of lower-income students pay tuition. She applied that day.
The family flew Valentin back to Miami to visit the new school and take an assessment test. Between the lost months in his neighborhood schools and the brief time in Nicaragua, he had missed most of the first half of the school year. He still wasn’t speaking much English.
The principal, Melissa Rego, broke the news that Valentin would start in fifth grade. His spirits sank. His mother cried. But Rego had a goal to make Valentin a reader by year’s end, and she determined that having one teacher in fifth grade instead of several teachers in sixth would give him the attention he needed.
There was also the issue of rehabilitating Valentin’s traumatized psyche.
“His self-esteem was shot,” Rego recalled. “The first two weeks were rough. He refused to speak. Val was angry. Val was aggressive. He would lash out at anything.”
It took him a year to get over the flashbacks of being bullied. The intensity of his memories faded as he felt the embrace of his new teacher and classmates.
“I was always the big, chubby kid, but now it broke the ice,” he said. “They looked up to me. They would ask how tall I was. They were always interested in me. They wanted to be my friend, and it felt weird.”
By the end of the first year at La Progresiva, things were better. Valentin’s father rejoined the family that December. Safety and stability became normal again.
“I felt complete,” Valentin said.
At the end of sixth grade, his SAT 10 scores showed he was on grade level for the first time. Rego called him and his mother in to her office separately. Both cried, fearing he was being kicked out. Instead, he was promoted to eighth grade.
“I was speechless,” Valentin said.
Rego’s plan had worked. The school had unlocked his ability to learn. The next year he earned nearly straight A’s.
Valentin made deep, lasting friendships with his new classmates, who inspired him with their work ethic and grades. He graduated with honors and a 3.78 weighted GPA. He also won a science honor and was recognized for completing 300 hours of community service.
“I always knew I was a good student. I just felt I was in the wrong place,” Valentin said. “Getting a scholarship from Step Up For Students gave me a new beginning, a new opportunity in life, to become someone I knew I could become.”
Today, Valentin is a 19-year-old freshman at Miami Dade College, majoring in accounting. He’s no longer chubby and stands 6-foot-5. His dreams are growing bigger than ever. He’s trying to get straight A’s and join an honor society by the end of his first semester. He aims to go to Vanderbilt University.
Valentin’s primary motivation remains his family. His parents never went to college. Dad works in his brother’s tire shop. Mom still works the night shift at the gas station.
“I need to get her out of there,” Valentin said. “I need to get them to retire. I tell them that all the time. They know why I go to school. They support me and I’ll support them. We’re all we have.”
Valentin said he doesn’t regret anything that happened to him. It taught him to believe in himself. It also serves as a lesson to others.
“If I can get away from that, many other kids can as well,” he said. “I just say one thing about my story: Anything is possible.”
About La Progresiva Presbyterian School
Originally founded in Cuba in 1900, the school was taken over by the communist regime in 1961. Ten years later it opened in Little Havana in Miami. Today, the school is accredited by AdvancEd and Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS). There are 660 K-12 students, including 620 on Step Up scholarships. Grades K-8 use the BJU Press curriculum, while 9-12 uses Harcourt/Houghton Mifflin. The school provides iPads for all high school students. The school administers the MAP test three times a year. Tuition for grades K-5 is $540 a month, while 6-12 is $571 a month.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By SHELBY HOBBS, Special to Step Up For Students
NAPLES, Fla. – In this season of giving, UnitedHealthcare announced Dec. 4 a record-breaking contribution of $15 million to Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer the needs-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.
Step Up For Students celebrated the support and contributions of UnitedHealthcare during an event at Naples Adventist Christian School. Since 2009, UnitedHealthcare has contributed more than $88 million to Step Up For Students, providing scholarships for nearly 17,000 students across Florida to attend either an out-of-district public school or private school that best suits their academic needs.
“UnitedHealthcare is proud to partner with Step Up For Students and support this impressive organization which invests in the future of our children,” said Nicholas Zaffiris, CEO of UnitedHealthcare of South Florida. “Especially during the holiday season, it’s important to support programs in our communities that help others. Step Up provides hope for Florida’s children to access a quality education that best fits their needs, and we are glad to support such a worthy initiative.”
Step Up For Students, the nonprofit organization that helps administer the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, is providing opportunities for nearly 105,000 lower-income students across Florida this school year with 441 residing in Collier County
“None of this would be possible without the support of the community and contributions of organizations like UnitedHealthcare,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “I’m just so pleased to know that together with our partners we are making such an important difference in our state by giving students the educational opportunities they deserve.”
At the event, Audrey Wainwright, principal at Naples Adventist Christian School, shared her support for the Step Up organization and thanked UnitedHealthcare for its ongoing commitment to the program. She encouraged other companies to consider participation.
“I have seen first-hand the benefits of this scholarship program,” Wainwright said. “So many of our students have made tremendous improvements with the help of Step Up For Students, leading to a better future for themselves and our state.”
Scholarship parent Onetia Lansiquot, who spoke at the event, said the scholarship has allowed her to provide her daughter, Leilah, a second-grader at Naples Adventist, with strong academics in a comfortable, secure environment.
“Without Step Up For Students, Leilah would likely be going to a charter or public school,” Lansiquot said before thanking UnitedHealthcare. “I’m sure her progress would be OK, but being in a private school, she gets that extra attention, that extra little push, ensuring that her educational needs are met. You are truly changing lives by investing in the future of our children’s education, and my family is so grateful.”