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Moving education beyond the residential ZIP Code in Florida: Step Up provides choices

By ROGER MOONEY

School days meant a 5 a.m. wakeup call for Linzi Morris and her children so they could make the 40-minute ride across Tampa, Florida to their respective middle schools and high schools, passing more conveniently located options along the way.

Why?

Because Linzi wanted the best education opportunity for her six children.

“I looked at it as an investment, an investment in their future,” she said. “I can take the easier route, but I’m looking at it as I want them to get the best opportunity to do the best they can do.”

That’s the power behind the income-based and  special-needs scholarships managed by Step Up For Students. In Florida, parents are not tethered to their neighborhood schools even when personal funds won’t stretch that far. They have the flexibility to customize their child’s education and the freedom to send their child to a school outside their zone.

Saliyha and Qinniun are the youngest of Linzi’s six children to attend private schools with the help of income-based scholarships managed by Step Up.

Step Up offers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship for those who meet the eligibility requirements found here, and the Gardiner Scholarship for those children with certain special needs who meet the criteria here.

Click here to apply for an income-based scholarship.

Click here to apply for a scholarship for children with certain special needs.

The scholarships are portable, too, meaning if the family moves to another part of the state, the scholarship moves with them to a participating school or approved providers and resources, as does their ability to choose the best education fit for their child.

Click here to find the list of schools that accept Step Up scholarships.

During the 2020-21 school year, nearly 100,000 economically disadvantaged schoolchildren attended one of the more than 1,800 private schools in Florida that accept Step Up’s income-based scholarships.

Since its inception in 2001, Step Up has funded 1 million scholarships.

Those scholarships were used at faith-based and non-denominational schools; schools that emphasized arts and science and schools designed for children with certain special needs.

Some parents favored small schools with smaller class sizes, so their child could have more one-on-one time with the teacher. Others sent their children to larger private schools, like St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, a Catholic school with a student population of more than 1,800.

Some parents found schools located close to home. Others, like Linzi Morris, set the alarm clock for 5 a.m.

Linzi sent all six of her children to Academy Prep Center, a private middle school in Tampa, because of its high academic standards. Her two oldest sons attended Jesuit High in Tampa, while her daughters and youngest son attended Tampa Catholic High.

Her three oldest children have graduated college. Another will graduate college in the spring. Her two youngest are still in high school.

The morning commute is long and slowed by rush-hour traffic. But to Linzi, it was worth the investment that comes with the freedom given to parents who uses the opportunity to choose the educational path for their child.

Roger Mooney can be reached at rmooney@StepUpForStudents.org.

Step Up For Students partners with NLP Logix to build next generation ESA platform

Step Up For Students was founded to empower families to pursue and engage in the most appropriate learning options for their children, with an emphasis on families who lack the information and financial resources to access these options. Over the years, Step Up has developed internal systems and procedures to administer these scholarships, which disproportionally benefit minority children and families, but now they are expecting exponential growth in demand.

“Even before COVID,” said Doug Tuthill, President, Step Up, “we were expecting to grow from administering $700 million in scholarships to over $1 billion. But now, families are having to supplement their children’s education at home and/or through neighborhood pods, which has increased the need for parents to have access to more scholarship funds, and more flexibility in how these funds are spent.”

To support their mission and growth, Step Up has turned to NLP Logix, a Jacksonville, Florida-based machine learning and artificial intelligence company, to integrate and build the platform the parents can use to manage their children’s education. The platform is incorporating high levels of artificial intelligence to provide such things as course recommendations, educational product purchase recommendations, charter school options and other applications to help users interface with their scholarship benefits.

“We are very proud to have been selected by Step Up For Students to partner in this endeavor,” said Ted Willich, CEO, NLP Logix. “Having an opportunity to support transforming the K-12 education system in America is something we could have only dreamed of when we started NLP Logix ten years ago.”

Step Up For Students and NLP Logix expect to launch the platform in December of 2021 with an extensive roadmap of enhancements to come in the following years.

The platform will first be used by parents and students within the State of Florida who are enrolled in the five scholarship programs administered by Step Up: Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) and the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) for lower-income families, The Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs, the Hope Scholarship for public school students who are bullied or victims of violence and the Reading Scholarship Accounts for public school students in third through fifth grade who struggle with reading.

Step Up ranked 21st in Forbes annual list of top 100 charities

By ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students continues to rank among the top 25 nonprofits in the country, coming in at 21st in Forbes’ list of America’s Top 100 Charities 2020.

Step Up, a Florida-based scholarship funding organization serving more than 120,000 students annually, was No. 1 among education charities.

This is the fourth year that Step Up has been included in the Top 25 of Forbes’ 22nd annual list of America’s top charities.

“This honor is bestowed on our organization because of the amazing generosity of our donors who believe in our mission of delivering educational opportunities to Florida’s most vulnerable students,” said Anne Francis, Step Up’s vice president of development. “This ranking is particularly special this year because we just celebrated the delivery of our 1 millionth scholarship. The children whose lives are changed by these scholarships are the heart and soul of Step Up.”

The nonprofits that comprise the Top 100 received $49.5 billion in donations during the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2020. That is 11% of the estimated $450 billion raised by the more than 100 charities in America.

Step Up received $618 million in donations during the 2019-20 fiscal year.

In addition to the recognition from Forbes, Step Up received a coveted four-star ranking from Charity Navigator, the nation’s top charity evaluator. It is the 14th time Step Up received Charity Navigator’s highest ranking.

In a letter to Step Up, Charity Navigator President Michael Thatcher wrote, “Attaining a 4-star rating verifies that Step Up For Students exceeds industry standards and outperforms most charities in your work area.”

Step Up ranked 18th in the Chronicle of Philanthropy most recent list of Top 100 nonprofits and has received GuideStar’s Platinum Seal of Transparency.

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

His cleats, our cause

By ROGER MOONEY

Former University of Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel is creating some buzz for Step Up For Students this month during the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats campaign.

Driskel, a member of the Denver Broncos, had Step Up’s logo emblazoned on a pair of his cleats in support of the nonprofit scholarship funding organization based in Florida.

Driskel, who grew up in Oviedo, Florida, partnered with Step Up over the summer in an effort to combat racial inequity.

“That’s why I support education choice,” Driskel wrote in an op-ed piece that ran in The Gainesville Sun in August. “Education can be one of the great equalizers in society, and equalizing opportunities is fundamental to finding the learning environment that works best for each child.”

My Cause My Cleats was started by the NFL players in 2016. They showcase foundations or nonprofit organizations they support by having logos and slogans on their cleats during this annual event. The cleats are auctioned off with the proceeds to benefit the players’ selected charities.

All proceeds from the auction of Driskel’s cleats will go directly to Step Up. They are available at Denver Broncos Charities. The auction began Dec. 1 and ends Dec. 18.

“We are honored that Jeff chose to support Step Up in our mission of creating equal education opportunity for children,” said Lesley Searcy, Step Up’s Chief External Relations Officer.”With 150,000 Step Up scholars, I think the Broncos just got a lot more fans!”

The Broncos players will wear their personalized cleats during Sunday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Driskel will support Step Up on his social media platforms and other partnership initiatives.

“I’m a quarterback, so I naturally believe in being aggressive and going on the offensive,” Driskel wrote. “On the field, you need as many options as possible to succeed in any situation. Similarly, education choice attacks inequality by providing parents with multiple ways to find the setting that best meets their children’s needs.”

Step Up manages five scholarships for pre-K-through-12 schoolchildren. Two are income-based: the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship. The Gardiner Scholarship serves children with certain special needs. The Hope Scholarship is for schoolchildren who are bullied in public schools. The Reading Scholarship Account is for public schoolchildren grades three through five who have trouble reading.

Driskel played four seasons at the University of Florida before finishing his career as a graduate transfer at Louisiana Tech. A sixth-round draft pick in 2016 by the San Francisco 49ers, he has played for the Cincinnati Bengals and the Detroit Lions before joining the Broncos last March.

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Amerisure donates $350,000; helps lower-income students in Florida have access to education choice

By ASHLEY ZARLE

Amerisure, one of the nation’s leading providers of commercial insurance, has announced a $350,000 contribution to Step Up For Students, helping more than 49 Florida schoolchildren attend a K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.

Since partnering with Step Up, Amerisure has generously funded 323 Florida Tax Credit Scholarships through contributions totaling more than $2.2 million. This income-based scholarship program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and gives lower-income students in Florida the opportunity to attend a private school or assists with transportation costs to an out-of-district school that best meets the scholar’s learning needs.

Tax credit scholars like Gabriella Bueno, a 2020 graduate of Boca Raton Christian School, is now studying at Florida Atlantic University and pursuing a pharmaceutical career.

“When my parents made the decision to enroll me in a private Christian school they soon realized they could not afford the tuition, but they believed this was the best fit for me. Then they were blessed with the knowledge that they could pursue their choice of education for their children – all three of us – through the financial assistance and support of Step Up,” she said shortly before graduating.

“I truly believe that Step Up helped in motivating myself to be the best student I could be. I was the Student Council Secretary, the girls’ varsity basketball captain, and the National Honor Society President, and I was also involved in various other clubs at my school. I have much to be grateful for and I would personally like to thank Step Up For Students, the lawmakers who believe in education choice and the donor who support it. You have all allowed me to attend what I believe has been the best school for me and has helped shaped me into the person I am today.”

Just like Gabriella, schoolchildren throughout Florida are benefiting from the scholarship they receive through Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

“Enhancing our communities and participating in outreach programs is a large part of the Amerisure service culture,” said Greg Crabb, Amerisure President and CEO. “We are committed to supporting nonprofit organizations that enhance the lives of people in communities touched by Amerisure, our agents and our policyholders and believe our partnership with Step Up for Students does just that.”

During the 2020-21 school year, nearly 100,000 K-12 Florida students are benefiting from an FTC scholarship managed by Step Up.  About 57% of these scholars are from single-parent households and nearly 68% are Black or Hispanic. The average household income of families accepted to receive scholarships is $25,755 – a mere 9% above poverty. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

“We are excited that Amerisure has partnered with us to provide educational options for lower-income families in Florida,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “Because of their support, deserving students can access the school that best fit their learning needs.”

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

All in the family: How Step Up scholarships shaped the lives of Linzi’s 6 children

By ROGER MOONEY

Linzi Morris said she didn’t have a framework for her children’s education when she applied for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship in 2005. She just wanted to move two of her sons from their district school to Academy Prep Center in Tampa, a private middle school with high academic standards.

“When they’re little, you’re thinking about them getting a good education so they can do well in life. I didn’t have an exact roadmap of how we were going to get there,” Linzi said. “These schools which are funded by the (Step Up For Students) scholarships helped show us what was available so we could get that roadmap and it would be an attainable thing and not just a dream.”

Dwight, a graduate of the University of South Florida, is a mechanical engineer.

Dwight is now 25. He is a college graduate who lives in Tampa. He is a mechanical engineer. He found that career with the help of an income-based scholarship from Step Up For Students.

William is also 25. He has a degree in biology and is currently serving in the United States Army and stationed in Georgia. His plan is to attend medical school. An income-based scholarship from Step Up figured prominently in his life.

Next in the family is Nanya. He is 23 and will graduate this December from Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida with a degree in chemical engineering. In January, he is scheduled to begin a job at General Electric in its environmental, health and safety division. Like his brothers, Nanya benefited from an income-based scholarship from Step Up.

Notice a trend here?

From a private middle school to private high schools to college to careers. That is the roadmap followed by each of Linzi’s children. Because after Nanya came Linzi’s daughter Hera, 21, who will graduate Florida A&M in Tallahassee in the spring with a degree in food science, and daughter Saliyha, 17, a senior at Tampa Catholic, and son Qinniun, 15, a sophomore at Tampa Catholic.

William, a graduate of the University of Central Florida, is serving in the Army.

Six children. Six bright futures.

“Without Step Up I don’t know if I would be able to reach the goals I’m about to reach,” Nanya said.

Dwight (a University of South Florida graduate), William (University of Central Florida) and Nanya attended Jesuit High, an all-male school in Tampa. Hera, like her younger siblings, attended coed Tampa Catholic.

Hera, who is on a softball scholarship at FAMU, remembered how her friends used to question her academic path, wondering why Hera’s mom would send her to Academy Prep, which has 11-hour school days, 11 months of the year.

Her response? “How horrible of her for wanting me to get a great education and have a great future.”

Traversing the educational landscape

Education is important for Linzi, a single mother. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York and attended Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, but left after two years. She eventually attended a trade school and became certified as a medical assistant.

Dwight and William were sixth graders when Linzi learned of Academy Prep. The boys were good students, Linzi said, but she felt they weren’t being challenged academically at their district school.

She heard about Academy Prep from a friend and applied. That’s when she learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up. At the time, the scholarship was just a few years old. This fall, it funded its one millionth scholarship.

Nanya, who graduates Florida State University in December, and his mother, Linzi.

“That’s one million opportunities,” Linzi said. “Everybody doesn’t use their opportunities. My kids will use their opportunities. I’ll make sure of it.”

It is a 40-minute drive from the family home in Tampa to Academy Prep. That meant a 5 a.m. wakeup call and a mad scramble to get the kids ready for the day. But Linzi said it was worth it, because her children were exposed to so much during their years there. They took sewing, etiquette and culinary classes. They studied law and film making; built rockets that flew and volcanoes that erupted.

“It kind of showed us what you want to be when you grow up,” Hera said. “You meet people. You have all these experiences.”

In sixth grade, she met a neurosurgeon and decided she wanted to be a brain surgeon. In eighth grade, a food scientist visited the school.

“I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, I want to do that.’ It was either neurosurgery or food science. I picked food science,” she said.

Hera is currently applying for internships in that field while hoping COVID-19 doesn’t wreak too much havoc with the spring softball season. She has been the Rattlers’ starting third baseman since she first stepped foot on campus as a freshman.

Bragging rights

In addition to being an academically successful family, they are, as Linzi said, “a trash-talking family.” The kids brag about their test scores and grade point averages. Hera said she is motivated to land a job before graduation because Nanya already has one.

Yet, they are also a network of tutors. Those who excel in math and science are quick to lend their knowledge. Need help writing a paper? There are those in the family they can turn to.

Also, success leads to success. Dwight and William forged a path that none of the younger siblings want to stray from.

“I’m grateful for my family. They always pushed me,” Saliyha said. “Even if I don’t want to hear it, because, you know, teenager, they experienced it.”

Qinniun, Hera and Saliyha, the youngest of the six, are products of Tampa Catholic
High. Hera, who attends Florida A&M on a softball scholarship, will graduate this spring.

Saliyha is deciding between attending Florida State and St. Leo University in St. Leo, Florida. She wants to study restaurant management/hospitality.

“I really, really want to be a culinary artist,” she said. “I want to be a restaurant owner and a culinary artist. I want to go to college and get a degree in a field I want to do and then pursue a degree in culinary arts.”

Saliyha said she likes to be challenged in the kitchen. She likes to put her own twist on what she is making, even if it is a popular dish. She feels the same about her education.

“I’m really, really grateful for Step Up,” she said, “because they’ve allowed me to go to private schools, schools that are going to help me further my education and push me harder than I’ve ever been pushed so I can understand the world and that it’s not going to be easy and I have to work for everything.”

Saliyha followed the family roadmap. Academy Prep helped her get to Tampa Catholic. Tampa Catholic prepared her for college. College will prepare Saliyha for what? Owning her own restaurant?

“That’s the goal of the scholarship, to give you that push,” Linzi said. “I tell people the scholarship is one part, the school is another part, the parents are another part, but the biggest part is the kid. That child has to want it.

“I tell them because this is an opportunity where there are people who are basically paying for you to have this opportunity, you owe it to the people behind you not to mess it up.”

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Assurant donates $8 million to support Step Up’s income-based scholarship program

Step Up For Students announced that Assurant, a leading global provider of lifestyle and housing solutions that support, protect and connect major consumer purchases, has donated $8 million through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program to Step Up, helping Florida schoolchildren attend the K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.

This is the first year that Assurant has partnered with Step Up and the donation will fund more than 1,132 K-12 scholarships for lower-income children in Florida.

“At Assurant, our core values of common sense, common decency, uncommon thinking, and uncommon results inspire our commitment to be a responsible corporate citizen,” said Alan Colberg, Assurant President and CEO. “We are proud to partner with Step Up For Students and help lower-income Florida families access the education options they deserve.”

Step Up 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.

Assurant announced an $8 million contribution to Step Up For Students for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Pictured are students at St. Joseph Catholic School in Tampa, Florida who are among those benefiting from the scholarship.

“We all know a great education is key to helping our kids find success and dream for the future,” said Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls. “That is why programs like the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program are crucial for our state, and I applaud Assurant for their investment in educational choice options for our state’s underprivileged schoolchildren.”

During the 2020-21 schoolyear, nearly 100,000 K-12 students throughout Florida are benefiting from a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. 

“I am happy to see Assurant participate in assuring all students can get a great education regardless of zip code,” said Senator Manny Diaz. “I am proud to see this Miami-Dade employer become a partner in this program for the future of the community.”

About 57% of scholarship children are from single-parent households and nearly 68% are black or Hispanic. The average household income of families accepted to receive scholarships is $25,755 – a mere 9% above poverty. More than 1,800 schools currently participate in the program.

“We are honored to have Assurant as a partner in our mission to help deserving Florida families access schools that best fit their children’s unique learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “Through their support of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which is producing measurable results, companies like Assurant are transforming the lives of schoolchildren in our community.”

WellCare of Florida donates $15 million to Step Up’s scholarship program

WellCare of Florida contributed $15 million to Step Up For Students, investing in the future of 2,235 deserving schoolchildren through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

A longtime partner of Step Up For Students, WellCare has generously funded nearly 6,114 scholarships through contributions totaling more than $34.5 million. The income-based scholarship program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and gives lower-income students in Florida the opportunity to attend a private or out-of-district school that best meets their learning needs.

WellCare of Florida is affiliated with Sunshine Health, a wholly owned subsidiary of Centene Corporation, a leading multi-national healthcare enterprise committed to helping people live healthier lives.

The scholarships help students like recent Jesuit High School graduate Tommy Pham, who benefited from the tax-credit scholarship and is now in the pre-med track at the University of Notre Dame.


Jesuit High School graduate Tommy Pham, who benefited from a Step Up For Students income-based scholarship, is now in the pre-med track at the University of Notre Dame.

“With Step Up, I am just like any other kid at Jesuit,” he said. “It feels like the playing field is more balanced. For those being supported by Step Up, we pretty much have the same resources right now like the other students. We don’t have to worry so much about being at a disadvantage. Instead, we can focus on being grateful and thankful for the opportunity that we have as a result of Step Up.

“The opportunity doesn’t come out of nowhere. People are donating to the scholarship so that we can further our own education, and we should be appreciative of that. But what I become is on me. What we have as resources can only push us so far in our lives. But what we do with those resources can really change the outcome of our own lives.”

Just like Tommy, thousands of Florida schoolchildren are benefiting from the scholarship they receive through Step Up, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

“Our mission is to transform the health of our communities, one person at a time,” said Liz Miller, CEO of Centene’s Florida health plans, which include WellCare. “Education is a critical part of our community’s health, and we are proud to partner with Step Up For Students to help provide thousands of Florida schoolchildren with the educational opportunities they deserve.”

Step Up served more than 100,400 students for the 2019-20 school year. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

“Because of companies like WellCare, Florida’s lower-income students are provided the educational options they need to succeed,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up president. “We are grateful for their partnership, generosity and commitment to helping students in their community.”

Time to nominate your students for Rising Stars Awards

By ROGER MOONEY

Do you have a Step Up For Students scholar who made significant improvements academically since attending your school?

How about a Step Up student who consistently displays outstanding compassion, perseverance and courage?

Or one who excels in academics, the arts or athletically?

Now is the time for school leaders to honor those students for Step Up’s annual Rising Stars Awards program, scheduled for Feb. 25, 2021. This year’s event will be held virtually from 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Another change this year due to COVID-19 is we are limiting the categories to student only. Next year we hope to honor parents and teachers again in person.

“Step Up For Students celebrates our outstanding scholarship students every year through our Rising Stars Award ceremonies across the state. We had to cancel the 2020 celebration due to COVID-19, so we are excited to announce that we will be back in 2021 with a virtual celebration!

“While we wish we could be together in person, we promise that this live virtual event will be an exciting and special way to honor our amazing scholarship students and the great work they are able to do in their chosen schools,” said Lauren Barlis, Step Up’s senior director of Student Learning & Partner Success.

School leaders can nominate up to three total students in the following categories:

  • High Achieving Student Award. Students who excel in academics, arts or athletics.
  • Turnaround Student Award. A student who struggled when they first attended your school and has since made dramatic improvements.
  • Outstanding Student Character Award. A student who demonstrates outstanding compassion, perseverance, courage, initiative, respect, fairness, integrity, responsibility, honesty or optimism.

Click here to nominate your students.

The deadline for nominations is Dec. 4.

Before making nominations, please have all necessary information available, including school name, school DOE number, each nominee’s contact information (name, phone number, email address, Step Up Award number). Please include a short description of why each person is being nominated.

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Elisabeth’s story: From a mom’s worst nightmare to a mom’s best dream

By ROGER MOONEY

Elisabeth Edwards came home from school one afternoon and told her mom that she wanted to die.

She was 6.

Elisabeth was stupid, she told her mom. That’s how they made her feel at school. She questioned why God made her that way. She questioned why God made her at all.

She told her mom that she wanted to kill herself. She asked if she could kill herself right then.

Her daughter’s words were nearly too much for Consuelo to process. But she clung to the hope that Elisabeth was having a rough time adjusting to the first grade and to her new school, and this was her way of acting out.

But then Elisabeth began banging her head against the walls at home when she was angry. Then she started banging her head against the walls at school.

“That’s when I knew she was serious,” Consuelo said.

Elisabeth posing for a school photo during the 2019-2020 school year
at Master’s Training Academy.

Elisabeth, now 9, has a sensory disorder that can prevent her from processing at lot of information at once. It became an issue soon after Elisabeth began attending the first grade. She would get confused in class and grew angry over her confusion. What Elisabeth perceived as a less-than-empathetic reaction from those around her – classmates and teachers – made the situation worse.

That’s when Elisabeth developed suicidal thoughts. Consuelo found a therapist and another school for her daughter. Elisabeth lasted a week. Administrators at the new school asked Consuelo to withdraw Elisabeth because they weren’t equipped to handle students with behavioral issues.


If you or a loved one is feeling distressed, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Trained counselors provide free and confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.


Consuelo and her husband, Maxwell, a plumber, qualified for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two income-based scholarships managed by Step Up For Students. She found herself scrolling through the school directory on Step Up’s website, searching for one near their Apopka, Florida home that accepts students with a sensory disorder.

Consuelo came across Master’s Training Academy in Apopka, a K-12 private Christian school about 20 miles outside of Orlando. The school focuses on students with behavioral health and learning disabilities. She called Helenikki Thompson, the school principal. Consuelo was upfront about Elisabeth’s condition and expected to be turned away. Thompson invited Elisabeth to spend a day at the school.

It was a perfect match. Elisabeth is now in the fourth grade at Master’s. She has a legion of friends. She leaves “Thank You” notes and homemade muffins for her teachers. She said she can’t remember the last time she was angry at school.

“I felt like I was at home, because I just saw everybody was happy,” Elisabeth said of that first visit. “All the kids were funny, happy, everything that you would want in a friend. So was the teacher.”

Consuelo no longer receives phone calls from exasperated teachers and is no longer worried about her daughter’s mental health. She said she owes Elisabeth’s life to Master’s Training Academy and to Step Up.

“If it wasn’t for Master’s, I’d probably be going to grave site grieving for her,” Consuelo said. “It was that bad.”

‘We want her back’

Consuelo describes her daughter as an outgoing young lady with a beautiful smile and a warm heart.

“To me she is a typical person who is trying to find her way in a world that is full of craziness,” Consuelo said. “Sometimes, when she was young, she didn’t know how to internalize that.”

A person’s tone of voice can provoke Elisabeth. Stern language from the teachers and staff at the first two schools Elisabeth attended only made her outbursts worse.

“I had broken out in hives when she was going through all that,”
 Consuelo said. “That’s how bad it was. It was because of nerves. When your kid goes through something, you go through something.”

Elisabeth did have an outburst during her initial visit to Master’s Training Academy. It happened when a teacher asked her to read out loud. Elisabeth received speech therapy to help her properly enunciate words. She had some bad experiences when asked in school to read in front of the class. She thought this new teacher was setting her up for more embarrassment.

The reaction from Thompson, who was in the room, was not what Consuelo or her daughter expected.

Thompson remembers telling Elisabeth, “I’m sorry for your past hurt. I don’t know who hurt you. We’re not here to hurt you. We’re here to help you.”

She said she gave Elisabeth a hug and told her she would see her the next day.

“I don’t know what type of experiences she had, but I know she was hurt,” Thompson said. “She was damaged really bad.”

Thompson’s son, Brendan, was bullied in his district school. He received therapy and attended Apopka Christian Academy for high school, where he attended on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. He graduated in 2016 and is currently enrolled in Seminole State College of Florida.

Dealing with what her son went through gives Thompson a unique perspective on why children can feel threatened at school. Thompson and her staff do not raise their voices when a student is acting out. They try to dilute the situation with kind words and hugs. The school has a quiet room, where a student go to calm down. The room has soft lighting and comfortable chairs. The student can read, listen to soft music or pray if they choose.

Teachers at Master’s have been known to diffuse a situation by taking the student or the entire class outside for some fresh air. Thompson said there is at least one activity a week that allows the students to put away the books and have some fun. An example: a spa day for the elementary school girls, where they do each other’s hair and nails. Pre-pandemic, of course.

Consuelo and Elisabeth.

Consuelo said it took Elisabeth months before she realized she could trust the staff at her new school. And when she did, she took off academically.

“I can tell you, when someone breaks down a kid, they can really break a kid down, and it takes a long time to build a kid back up,” Consuelo said. “What they did for her in the beginning, when she had her blowouts and cried, the teacher would look at her and say, ‘You know what? We still love you here. You can be mad at us and you can cry, but we’ll see you again tomorrow.’”

Thompson remembers a day not long after Elisabeth enrolled when Consuelo came after school to pick up her daughter. Consuelo asked Thompson how the day went. Thompson said Elisabeth had a moment.

“She said, ‘I’m sorry. I know you don’t want her back,’” Thompson recalled. “I said, ‘Why would you say that? We want her back. I just want you to know as a parent that she was having a bad day.’”

Master’s tailored the curriculum for Elisabeth, giving her extra time in subjects where she struggled and letting her advance at her own pace in those where she excelled.

Elisabeth has stopped telling her mom that she feels stupid.

“I feel like I’m the smartest kid in the world,” she said.

Consuelo volunteers at the school. She’ll help out in the main office, chaperon field trips and watch a class if a teacher needs to step away. She has nothing but praise for Master’s Training Academy, the empathy toward Elisabeth shown by Thompson and her staff, and for Step Up, for managing the scholarship that enabled Elisabeth to attend the school.

“(Master’s) represent the scholarship very well,” Consuelo said. “If it wasn’t for Step Up, I wouldn’t be able to afford the tuition. I owe (Step Up) my daughter’s life, and that means the world to me.”

ABOUT MASTER’S TRAINING ACADEMY

Located in Apopka, Florida, Master’s a K-12, Christian-based school that focuses on mental and behavioral health and learning disabilities. Students can attend the school in-person or virtually during the pandemic. Tuition is $5,800 for the 2020-21 school year. Book materials for K-3 is $350; 4-8 is $390 and 9-12 is $410. There is a $50 testing fee of the ACT Aspire and $25 for Map growth.

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

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