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Jailine Garcia has a wish: ‘I kind of want to do something in our world’

By ROGER MOONEY

CLEARWATER, Fla. – One day last summer during a school-sponsored trip to Spain and Italy, Jailine Garcia found herself at the Trevi Fountain in Rome. She held three coins; the exact change needed to make three wishes.

Custom at the famous tourist spot dictates your first wish must be to return to the ancient city. Jailine complied.

Her second wish was for good health.

As her final coin splashed into the crystal-clear water, she made a wish that, to those who know her, captured her spirit: Jailine Garcia wished to help others.

“I kind of want to do something in our world,” Jailine said. “I could do something with my family. That would be my start. Then do something bigger in the community.”

Jailine wants a career in pediatrics so she can help provide a better life for disadvantaged children and children with special needs.

Jailine’s aspires to be the first in her family to graduate from college and break the family cycle of living paycheck-to-paycheck.

A senior honors student at Clearwater Central Catholic High School, where she attends on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students, Jailine, 17, wants to major in pediatrics, psychology or neurology. She wants to help provide a better life for disadvantaged children and those with special needs.

She wants to help her parents care for Bella, her 11-year-old sister, who has developmental delays from a rare genetic disorder.

She wants to contribute to the family’s finances and help her parents enjoy their golden years, maybe take them to the Trevi Fountain when that first wish comes true.

Most of all, Jailine wants to reward her parents, Alexandria and Nicolas, for the sacrifices they have made enabling her to have a brighter future than they realized.

“I couldn’t be prouder of her,” Alexandria said. “She puts everything ahead of herself.”

She appreciates everything

During a pizza party last year for students hosted by Step Up For Students, Jailine was asked to write a short essay on what it means to attend a private school on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

She began by detailing a childhood that some would consider less-than-ideal. She did not see her parents often because they were always working. The family bounced between living with Jailine’s grandmother and an uncle because her parents couldn’t afford a place of their own. She wrote of nights when there was barely enough food to feed her and her younger brother, Nicolas, now 14 and a freshman at a district school.

Then Jailine wrote this: “I never got many opportunities to repay my parents for all their sacrifices.”

The Garcias went without a lot of things so their children could have more.

“Jailine is so proud of her parents,” said Patty Ceraola, who teaches Spanish at Clearwater Central Catholic. “She just appreciates everything. Everything.”

Alexandria didn’t have it easy when she was Jailine’s age. She moved from New Jersey to Clearwater when she was 13. Her mom worked two jobs, so Alexandria had to care for her younger siblings. She made sure they got home from school and did their homework. Then she cooked dinner. By 8 p.m. she was exhausted.

She tried college but couldn’t afford it.

She married Nicolas when she was 18. Jailine came along one year later. Two years after that they had Nicolas.

Then came Bella, who has Potocki-Lupski syndrome, a condition that includes developmental delays and speech, eating and neurological issues. It also includes surgeries and hospital stays and doctor appointments. It is so time-consuming her father quit his job as a laminator to become Bella’s full-time caregiver.

Alexandria had a job with mandatory overtime, working 12 to 14 hours a day. They only time she would see Jailine was in the morning before school.

“I know it was hard for her,” Alexandria said.

The Garcias (from left): Bella, Nicolas, Nicolas, Jailine and Alexandria.

Given the instability in her life, you could understand if Jailine rebelled. Instead, she threw herself into her schoolwork.

“She studied harder. She made sure she was making the grades,” Alexandria said. “She was working hard to show me what I’m doing was worth it.”

How do you say thank you?

While living in New Jersey, Alexandria attended Our Lady of Perpetual Hope, a small Catholic grammar school. She liked the small classes and the way the faculty and staff looked after the students. She liked the structure that comes with a religious education.

Alexandria wanted the same for her oldest daughter, so, with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Jailine attended St. Cecelia Interparochial Catholic School from sixth to eighth grade.

After that, Jailine moved on to Clearwater Central Catholic, where she thrived as a freshman. She found the coursework motivating and the teachers eager to stay after class or after school to provide extra help.

But, Jailine longed to attend a Pinellas County magnet school for its medical program, and when a spot opened, she left Clearwater Central Catholic after her freshman year, intent on getting a jump on her career in pediatrics.

The move proved to be a mistake.

She found the teachers unavailable for extra help, the classes too big for her needs. In one, Jailine sat at the teacher’s desk, because it was the only available seat.

“It was an awkward transition,” Jailine said.

Her grades fell, and she worried if she was ruining her chance of attending a top university.

“It wasn’t long, but I knew it just wasn’t right,” Jailine said. “I was not doing well there at all. It was like, ‘OK, you might need to come back to CCC.’”

By the start of the second semester, Jailine was back at Clearwater Central Catholic. Back to its nurturing environment. Back to the honor rolls.

“Honestly,” Jailine said, “it was probably the best thing I have ever done.”

Alexandria, sitting next to Jailine in a spacious conference room on the high school campus, pumped her right fist, smiled and quietly said, “Yes.”

What mother doesn’t want to hear that confirmation from their teenage daughter?

“It makes us feel good, because we’re sending her on the right path,” Alexandria said. “And when she graduates, hopefully that path will take her to a better tomorrow, where she wants to go, where she favors to go.”

Jailine, who is in the International Baccalaureate program and is a member of the National and Spanish honor societies. She wants to attend the University of Florida, the next step toward realizing her dreams.

Jailine in Spain last summer during the high school trip.

That school trip to Europe cost almost $6,000. Alexandria squeezed $157 out of her paycheck every two weeks, and Jailine took jobs babysitting children in the neighborhood. Her grandmother also contributed to the fund, so Jailine could visit places like the Basílica de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Spain, the Vatican, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and that legendary fountain in Rome.

How do you thank your parents for their sacrifices? In Jailine’s case, you work hard in school, tutor classmates in Spanish, help take care of your younger brother and sister – put everyone else first.

And, maybe someday, Jailine might reach into her pocket for a coin so her mother can make a wish at the Trevi Fountain.

“I think that would be a dream come true, the both of us,” Alexandria said. “Knowing that she went back, and I could be there with her, that would be awesome.”

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

UPCIC contributes $2.5 million to Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program

By ASHLEY ZARLE

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.Step Up For Students announced Nov. 5 a $2.5 million contribution to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program from Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company (UPCIC), a wholly owned subsidiary of Universal Insurance Holdings, Inc.

UPCIC’s contribution funds 359 scholarships for deserving K-through-12 Florida schoolchildren for the 2019-20 school year. The scholarships give lower-income children the opportunity to attend a private or out-of-district school that best meets their learning needs.

“Universal is committed to giving back and empowering the communities that it serves to accelerate community opportunities and build the foundation for the next generation of business leaders,” said Steve Donaghy, chief executive officer for Universal.


UPCIC announced a $2.5 million contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are UPCIC Chief Executive Officer Steve Donaghy, UPCIC Vice President of Marketing Stacey Tomko, UPCIC Spokesperson and NFL Hall of Famer Dan Marino, Saint Helen Catholic School Principal Farah Barrat, Step Up For Students Development Officer David Bryant. They are joined by Saint Helen Catholic School students who are benefiting from the scholarship.

UPCIC celebrated this incredible donation at Saint Helen Catholic School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where nearly 75% of the students use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students. Dan Marino, UPCIC spokesperson, National Football League hall of famer and former Miami Dolphins quarterback, made a special appearance and spoke to the schoolchildren about the importance of education.

“We are honored to have UPCIC as a partner in 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. “Through their support of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which is producing measurable results, companies like UPCIC are transforming the lives of deserving schoolchildren in our community.”

Since 2017, UPCIC has generously funded 1,260 scholarships through contributions totaling $8.5 million to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations. Step Up is serving more than 100,400 students for the 2019-20 school year. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Step Up For Students ranked 18th among America’s Top 100 favorite charities

By ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students continues to provide education choice to Florida schoolchildren from disadvantaged backgrounds and its efforts continue to garner national acclaim.

Step Up cracked the Top 20 in America’s Favorite Charities, the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual list of the Top 100 nonprofits. Step Up was ranked 18th, up from 31st last year and 42nd in 2017.

“It is an honor to be placed in this prestigious ranking by the Chronicle of Philanthropy,” said Anne Francis, Step Up’s vice president of development. “Being ranked 18th in the nation, and first in Florida, is a monumental achievement that has been made possible by our generous donors.

“In the last couple years, Step Up has grown from two scholarship offerings to five. Our largest program, the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, serves families with an average household income that is merely 8 % above poverty. Donors who invest in our scholarships and programs know their contributions change the lives of vulnerable children in Florida who seek a brighter future.”

Step Up’s total revenues in the 2018 fiscal year was $705.6 million, an increase over its $548.5 million in total revenue in 2017. This allowed Step Up to serve more than 125,000 pre-K through12 students across the five scholarships programs it manages:

In addition to the Chronicle of Philanthropy honor, Step Up was ranked 19th on Forbes’ list of America’s Top Charities 2018.

Charity Navigator and GuideStar, a pair of nonprofit watchdog groups, recognized Step Up in 2018 for its accountability and transparency.

Charity Navigator awarded Step Up a four-star rating for the eighth consecutive year, a credit that only 4 percent of charities have earned by the nation’s top charity evaluator. Step Up has earned the Platinum Seal of Transparency with GuideStar, a public database that evaluates the mission and effectiveness of nonprofits.

Also, Step Up’s Jacksonville office was ranked third among best places to work in that city for businesses with 100-249 employees by the Jacksonville Business Journal. Its Clearwater office was ranked eighth among large companies in the Tampa Bay area by the Tampa Bay Business Journal.

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

Trip to Microsoft Store combines coding with cool for Bible Truth Ministries Academy students

By ROGER MOONEY

TAMPA, Fla. – The Microsoft Store at International Plaza was filled with students from Bible Truth Ministries Academy, each seated in front of a Surface Pro laptop while completing coding tasks associated with the hugely popular video game Minecraft.

Students from Bible Truth Ministries Academy work on coding the Microsoft Store at International Plaza in Tampa.

As far as field trips go, this one was like entering the Nether – that’s Minecraft speak for an alternative dimension.

“One of the best,” said Elijah Jenkins, a sophomore at Bible Truth.

Jenkins was one of 50 students from the private pre-K-12 school in Tampa, Florida who spent a recent Thursday morning at the Microsoft Store.

“That’s awesome to hear,” said Ryan Candler, community development specialist at the Microsoft Store.

The workshop meshed with Bible Truth’s STEM education program – science, technology, engineering and math. The students received an introduction to coding using Minecraft and received free backpacks filled with school supplies.

“It’s a great experience to learn about computer software, where things come from and how they operate their business,” Jenkins said.

The Minecraft coding workshop was arranged by Step Up For Students, which has a partnership with Microsoft.

Bible Truth has 105 students this year with 50, including Jenkins, attending the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students, which is managed by Step Up.

“This was an amazing learning experience for the students at Bible Truth and a great opportunity for each student to experience power of technology,” said Carol Macedonia, Step Up’s, Office of Student Learning vice president. “Our team at OSL was very pleased to have our partnership with Microsoft unite with one of our most supportive schools.”

Suzette Dean, Bible Truth principal, wants to improve her school’s technology capabilities, both for teachers and students.

“I want the students to have more exposure to good information on the internet, educational directed information versus Facebook and Instagram and all the other information they normally go on their cell phones for or their computers for,” Dean said.

She met representatives from Microsoft’s education and training department last spring during a Step Up meeting about MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) skills, an online academic assessment for students.

Microsoft later visited Bible Truth to see the technology the school had and determine how it could be improved. Teachers attended workshops and the students were invited to the store for a two-hour, hands-on field trip.

While free back-to-school workshops in the Microsoft Store is the norm, Candler said the Bible Truth turnout was the largest. As a result, he needed a half-dozen employees to teach the students, answer questions and keep the throng moving from station to station.

The employees made it work, and Candler said it was worth the effort.

“Microsoft is big on diversity and inclusion, so being able to support a school that is coming from a startup phase and trying to get more attention to their school is pretty awesome,” Candler said. “A lot of what we do is not only supporting the students but also the teacher development. When they leave the environment like today having fun, they can also have that same STEM engagement in the classroom.”

Teacher development is key. The idea is to have the students continue to learn the technology they were introduced to during the workshop throughout the school year.

Bible Truth has a 3-D printer and offers classes in programming and robotics. It formed a team last year to compete in the FIRST Lego League.

“They didn’t do too well,” Dean said, “but they had the exposure to competition. This year they’re really fired up about doing that.”

Dean feels the earlier she can expose her students to computers the better.

“It’s the way the world is going,” she said.

While Dean would like all of her students to graduate and attend college, she knows that is not everyone will choose that option.

“College is not for everyone,” she said. “So at least we would have given them some basic exposure, so when they leave us, they can go get a job.”

About Bible Truth Ministries Academy

The private school located in the Belmont Heights section of Tampa has enrollment from pre-K to 12. It also provides day care. The main academic focus is on math, English and reading comprehension. Students also receive training in life skills – cooking, budgeting, home organization and management, construction, electrical and mechanics. Students also participate in community cleanups and assist elderly and disabled residents with home beautifying projects. Tuition is $8,375 per year.

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

Republic National Distributing Company donates $65 million to help fund scholarship program for lower-income students

By Ashley Zarle

TAMPA, Fla.– Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC), one of the nation’s leading wholesale alcohol beverage distributors, has once again contributed $65 million to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.

RNDC celebrated on Oct. 22 the substantial donation while visiting Tampa Catholic High School students who use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students. RNDC’s contribution funds 9,339 scholarships for deserving K-12 Florida schoolchildren. The scholarships give lower-income children the opportunity to attend a private or out-of-district school that best meets their learning needs.

“At Republic National Distributing Company, we are committed to making a positive difference that enriches the spirit and well-being of our associates, communities, and business partners”, said Ron Barcena, executive vice president of RNDC. “We know that our partnership with Step Up For Students is doing just that and we are proud to help provide thousands of Florida schoolchildren with the educational opportunities they deserve.”


Republic National Distributing Company announced a $65 million contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are Step Up For Students Founder & Chairman John Kirtley, Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill, and RNDC Florida Executive Vice President Ron Barcena. They are joined by Tampa Catholic High School students who are benefiting from the scholarship.

While visiting Tampa Catholic High School, RNDC representatives had a chance to experience the zSpace Lab. zSpace is a virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) system that uses a unique stylus and eyewear to create an interactive experience covering subjects like animal dissection and anatomy, but also others like geography and history. Users can access a frog dissection model, as well as other 3D programs like simulated archaeological digs or interactive geometry. Students enjoyed showing the representatives how to use the program and the different courses that are available.


Tampa Catholic High School students, who use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students, had fun showing
Republic National Distributing Company key account manager Perry Thomas how to use the zSpace program.

Since 2012, Republic National Distributing Company has generously funded 49,675 scholarships through contributions totaling $310 million to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations. Step Up is serving more than 100,400 students for the 2019-20 school year. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

“RNDC has once again shown their incredible commitment to Florida’s disadvantaged schoolchildren through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program which is producing exceptional results,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “Recently, the Urban Institute evaluated graduates of our program and found students who use the scholarship for at least four years are 99% more likely to attend a four-year college and up to 45% more likely than their public school peers to earn a bachelor’s degree. RNDC is a critical part of this success and we are grateful for their support of deserving students in our community.”

Ashley Zarle can be reached at AZarle@StepUpForStudents.org.

If you can sing it, you can learn it: How music is helping schoolchildren improve their reading

By ROGER MOONEY   

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. –During the weeks leading up to the start of fifth grade, when Cee J Knause was home doing not much of anything, she found herself singing the Short Vowel Song.

“A … a … a …a … apple

E … e … e … e … egg.”

Or the Long Vowel Song.

“I got an a for apron

An e for eagle.”

Sometimes, Cee J sang “The Ballad of the Silent E.”

“She sings those songs all day,” her mom, Kellie Mendheim said. “Sometimes she lets me sing them.”

Cee J, now in the fifth grade at Mount Zion, improved her reading last spring through Winning Reading Boost

Cee J is a student at the Mount Zion Christian Academy in St. Petersburg. Like nearly all of her 90 schoolmates, she attends the K-5 private school using a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families. The program is managed by Step Up For Students.

Cee J learned those songs last spring when she participated in the Winning Reading Boost program for second-graders and above who struggled to read.

They are catchy tunes, and that is the point.

Sue Dickson, a former first-grade teacher and Safety Harbor, Florida, resident, wrote them years ago. The songs were the foundation of Dickson’s Sing, Spell, Read and Write, a widely successful phonics-based program published in 1972 that taught children to read. A decade later, when Dickson saw the need to reach older non-readers, she wrote Winning, a 90-hour intervention program with age appropriate stories and songs that had tremendous success in jails and teen detention centers.

“If you can sing it, you can learn it,” Dickson said.

Mount Zion was used as a pilot program last spring with 10 students participating. Cee J, then in fourth grade, was one of those students.

“The program went very well,” Mount Zion principal Franca Sheehy said. “We saw results.”

Students who misread more than five fluency words out of 60 on a K-1 phonics test were included in the program. Combined, the 10 students averaged nearly 27 missed words. Only one, a third-grader, missed fewer than 10, and that student missed nine.

“I love it,” said Cee J, who missed 29 of the 60 words. “When I didn’t do Winning Reading Boost, I used to struggle at reading. As soon as I started this, it started helping me, and I love how the songs made it fun.”

Cee J’s struggles stemmed from reading too fast, causing her to miss words. Winning Reading taught her to read at a slower pace, which increased her fluency learning.

Shakeila Bogle-Duke, who teaches Winning Reading Boost at Mount Zion, said Cee J showed the most improvement of the 10 students.

“Everyone showed some growth,” Bogle-Duke said. “It was significant in others and a little less in one or two.”

Students gained confidence in their ability to read. Using phonics, they learned to decode words, rather than guess at them. Those who entered as choppy readers learned to read at a smoother pace.

Sheehy was so impressed with Winning Reading Boost that it was added to the 2019-20 budget. It will be used throughout the school year after they identify which students need the intervention program.

Why Johnny can’t read

An October 2018 story in the New York Times referenced a study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress that found only four of 10 fourth graders were competent readers. A big reason, the story stated, is students are not taught to read phonically, meaning they do not learn to decode words.

This is not a new development. Dickson began teaching first grade in the 1950s in Arlington, Virginia, when it was forbidden to teach phonics, learning by decoding the relationship between sounds and spelling.

“The schools of education ridiculed the teaching of phonics,” she said. “It was just awful.”

Sue Dickson began writing songs for her reading programs in the 1960s.

Because she was fresh out of college and just beginning her career, Dickson complied with the school district’s stance during her first two years as a teacher. Yet, she knew she failed those students who didn’t pass reading.

In 1955, Rudolf Flesch wrote, “Why Johnny Can’t Read: And what you can do about it.” The book advocated phonics over the standard reading by sight, often referred to as “Look-say.”

Reading the book reinforced Dickson’s belief that the school district’s stance was wrong. Not only could she see that from the reading scores of her students, but also with her younger brother, David, who struggled with reading. Dickson saw first-hand the impact that had on David’s education.

 “I was tuned-in to the problems that come along when a kid can’t read. He was ruined,” Dickson said. “I was looking for a way to fix it, and I found what was wrong.”

She began teaching phonics to her students, and their reading scores improved. Eventually, Dickson was asked to teach reading her way during summer school.

She realized some students struggled because they were tripped up by what she called, “hidden bloopers,” like the difference in the graphic forms of the letters “a” and “g” in written text, and addressed them in her programs.

Throughout the 1960s, Dickson combined her love of music with her love of teaching, sat at her piano and composed the songs for Sing, Spell, Read and Write.

The program went nationwide in the 1970s, and school districts reported improved reading scores by students who participated.

“It’s earth-shaking,” Dickson said of the program’s success.

‘It’s the music’

In 2015, The Tampa Bay Times ran a series on how the Pinellas County School Board in Tampa Bay turned five once average public schools in low-income areas into what it termed, “Failure Factories.”

Searching for help, a grass roots St. Petersburg community reached out to Don Pemberton at University of Florida’s Lastinger Center, an innovative hub that brings together the latest developments in academic research and practice to improve education. Lisa Langley, Lastinger’s chief of staff, along with the UF team, Sue Dickson and her daughter Dianne Dickson-Fix (a retired elementary school teacher in Pinellas County) updated Winning and created Winning Reading Boost for students in grades 2 and up.

The new program involves 36 sequenced steps to independent reading through songs and games and four books.

“Anything we want the kids to memorize is in the songs, because the songs provide the repetition to make the learning fast and easy,” Dickson-Fix said.

The lessons are put to music – rock, rap, country and calypso.


Shakeila Bogle-Duke, who teaches Winning Reading Boost at Mount Zion, said all the students in last spring’s program improved their reading.

“It’s a hands-on approach and it gets them excited to do the stories,” said Bogle-Duke, the Mount Zion teacher. “The stories are not very long, so they get through each part. They’re using the skills and they are reminded about what they just learned to use as a tool for what they’re reading.”

To prevent students from stumbling over words they don’t know, there is not one word in the story that hasn’t already been covered.

“Sue thought it out,” Langley said. “It’s like a shaky foundation for a house. She had to knock that house down and rebuild that foundation.”

Why does it work?

“It’s the music,” Bogle-Duke said.

Sheehy agreed. She said her students don’t have a problem learning Bible verses and pledges when they sing them.

“They are able to memorize this information, and music helps them memorize the sounds,” Sheehy said. “You hear them singing that song later. Eventually, the more they sing it, they start putting the dots together and realize what they are singing. The lightbulb goes on.”

Mendheim, Cee J’s mom, said she was glad when her daughter was asked last spring to join the program.

“I was teaching Cee J to read, but I wanted someone to take it a step forward,” she said. “She was reading, but not how I wanted her to read.”

When told she was in the program, Cee J said her response was, “OK, I’m struggling. I need to practice.”

Cee J continued to read her Winning Reading Boost books over the summer. She even erased her answers so she could take the quizzes over.

Cee J’s reward for improving? A bookshelf in her bedroom and books to put on the shelf.

“It’s really important to read,” Cee J said, “because when you grow up, you have to pay bills and stuff, and you have to know what it says that you have to pay.”

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

Lofty grades, lofty goals lead to QuestBridge Scholarships for Jesuit High graduates

By ROGER MOONEY

TAMPA – Trace Nuss was in the library at Jesuit High School a few weeks before Christmas when he received the email that he called, “absolutely life-changing.” He had been accepted to Princeton University on a QuestBridge Scholarship.

“To know that I will be able to go to one of the top universities, not only in the nation but in the entire world and be supported all the way through financially, means the world to me,” Trace, 18, said. “It’s amazing.”

That same day, fellow senior Miguel Coste Jr., received a similar email from QuestBridge. He had been accepted to the University of Notre Dame.

“I’m grateful,” Miguel, 18, said, “Eternally grateful.”

Both young men attended Jesuit, a catholic high school in Tampa, using Florida Tax Credit Scholarships run by Step Up For Students.

Miguel Coste Jr. (left) and Trace Nuss

Miguel and Trace each scored high enough as eighth graders on Jesuit’s entrance exam to qualify for the school’s financial assistance package, which covered roughly half of the tuition. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarships covered the rest.

“We’re so thankful for Step Up and the opportunity they gave him,” said Lisa Nuss, Trace’s mother. “We wanted him to have every opportunity available to him, and we didn’t want any of our circumstances to get in his way.”

Lofty goals

Based in California, QuestBridge is a nonprofit organization that runs the QuestBridge Scholarship. It was designed to help head-of-the-class students from low-income backgrounds attend some of the country’s best colleges and universities.

For Trace, the scholarship means he can major in history and political science at an Ivy League school while setting the foundation for a career as a civil rights attorney. His goal is to protect the rights of those with mental and physical disabilities to ensure they are not abused, a pursuit forged during his years of working with Special Olympic athletes.

For Miguel, it means he will be first in his family to attend college as he begins his journey toward a career as a doctor who brings quality healthcare to lower-income families and neighborhoods. That quest stems from his economic background and the fact both of his parents suffer from debilitating health issues.

“This,” said Miguel’s mom, Nordis Del Toro, “is absolutely fabulous.”

More than 16,000 high school seniors nationwide applied in 2018 for a QuestBridge Scholarship. Only 1,044 were awarded.

Trace and Miguel join Tommy Pham, also a former Step Up recipient and 2018 graduate, as Jesuit’s only QuestBridge scholars since the program began in 2004. Pham recently completed his freshman year at Notre Dame.

The path to Princeton

Trace is the only child of Lisa and Richard Nuss Jr. Richard suffers from Brown-Séquard syndrome, a neurological condition caused by a lesion in the spinal cord, and is unable to work. Whatever financial hardship that presented certainly didn’t hold Trace back inside or outside the classroom.

He is one of 161 high school seniors nationwide to be named a Presidential Scholar, an honor that came with a trip in June to Washington D.C. and a meet-and-greet with President Donald Trump.

“It’s just amazing to be recognized for all the hard work and dedication I’ve put into my studies,” he said.

Trace scored a 1550 on his SAT, graduated high school with an unweighted 4.0 GPA and was a National Merit semifinalist. He was a member of Jesuit’s Key Club, the Tampa Mayor’s Youth Corps and received the H. Norman Schwarzkopf Leadership Award from the West Point Society.

Trace was honored in March by the Tampa Bay Lightning as a Community Hero of Tomorrow. (Photo provided by the Tampa Bay Lightning)

Trace was honored in March as a Community Hero of Tomorrow by the Tampa Bay Lightning for his work with Special Olympics, something he began doing during his freshman year at Jesuit.

“Once I was there, some of the athletes were like, ‘Oh Trace, can you come to our football practice? Can you come to our volleyball practice? And I slowly and slowly got more involved with all the different sports that Special Olympics offers and got to see how life-changing these activities are for people,” he said.

The Lightning awards $50,000 to a community hero every home game. Half goes to the student’s education; the other half goes to a charity of his choice. Trace chose the Special Olympics of Florida and Superstars of Hillsborough.

The Lightning provide a suite for the Community Hero honoree. Trace filled it with Special Olympic athletes.

A captain of Jesuit’s bowling team as a senior, Trace received a scholarship from the U.S. Bowling Congress, was named to the Dexter High School All-American Bowling Team and received the 2019 Chuck Hall Stars of Tomorrow Award by the International Bowling Campus Youth Committee.

He recently competed in his second Teen Masters, the top tournament for teenage bowlers.

Trace, who carries a 209 average and once bowled a 300 game as a freshman, coaches and supervises the Superstars Bowling League in Tampa for bowlers with physical and cognitive disabilities.

“He’s an inherently good person who’s kind and compassionate,” Lisa Nuss said. “He’s wanted to change the world for as long as I can remember.”

One of the more impactful moments of his high school career came last summer during a Jesuit-sponsored mission trip to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. There, Trace and several of his classmates encountered children living in extreme poverty.

“Their life was such hardship and difficulty that it’s something that I’ll never experience,” Trace said. “It was kind of a life-changing moment to see how the poverty in some places in the country and how much it needs to be changed and aided.”

When he returned home, Trace wrote a note to his mom, thanking her for letting him attend the mission. Then he filled a few boxes with toys and supplies and mailed them to the reservation.

“I’m truly thankful for the Step Up scholarship,” Trace said. “I feel that’s what drives me to service, because someone is doing the service for me, so I want to give back to the community, give back to other people. I want to pay it forward.”

The path to Notre Dame

Miguel will major in premed and minor in poverty studies.

Why poverty studies?

“I enjoy helping people in that state of living,” he said.

Since his freshman year, Miguel has volunteered at Tampa Bay Harvest, an organization that collects and distributes food to the hungry and homeless in the bay area.

“I think that helped him set his goal when he realized how many people in this world are needy,” Nordis said.

Miguel (top) captured a district wrestling title during his senior year.

Like Trace, Miguel has an unweighted 4.0 GPA and was a member of Jesuit’s Key Club. He scored a 1510 on the SAT, is an AP Scholar with Distinction and was a tri-valedictorian of his graduation class.

He also served as a peer minister and an alter server during his four years in high school.

Last winter, Miguel won a district championship as a member of Jesuit’s wrestling team.

His parents, Miguel Coste Sr., and Nordis, endured their own hardship when they emigrated from their native countries – Miguel Sr. from the Dominican Republic when he was 30; Nordis from Cuba when she was 8.

Miguel Sr. was born without the use of his left arm. He managed to find work as a truck driver until he was injured 10 years ago and forced to retire. He does not speak English well, but managed to volunteer his time at Jesuit as often as possible during the last four years.

Nordis worked at a printing company before having to quit because of diabetes and arthritis.

The couple is also raising two granddaughters because their mother is in prison.

Miguel works at a restaurant to help his parents pay some bills. He also volunteers this summer in the interventional radiology department at St. Joe’s Hospital in Tampa.

Those who apply for a QuestBridge Scholarship are required to write a series of essays – some general, others aimed at a specific school.

One essay asked applicants to write about themselves.

“I wrote about what drives me, my parents and the sacrifices they made, and my siblings, they didn’t meet their potential and how that motivated me,” Miguel said. “I see everything kind of as a competition, because that’s what it is. You’re competing when you go to school. You’re competing to get a better education to be more successful. I used my socioeconomic status and everyone around me as a competition. I didn’t deliberately think about it. It was a subconscious one.”

Nordis first heard her son talk of being a doctor when he was a sophomore.

“Junior year, he was insisting he was going to be a doctor,” he said. “I was so proud of him. Not many kids his age have their goals set up on being a doctor.”

The right situation

Miguel and Trace set themselves up for college during their time at Jesuit. Trace figured he was heading to the University of Florida.

“I had always been a Gator fan,” Trace said. “I always loved the University of Florida. I never thought these schools outside of Florida were a possibility.”

Miguel was interested in Florida, Florida State and Boston College.

Then, during their junior year, Fernando Rodriguez, Jesuit’s director of college counseling, told them both about QuestBridge.

As they moved through the application process, they were matched with some of the top colleges in the country. So, Miguel added Vanderbilt and Notre Dame to his list of colleges. Trace added Notre Dame and Princeton.

Now, Miguel is headed Notre Dame.

“I was fortunate enough to be placed in the right situation to succeed,” Miguel said, “and (QuestBridge) recognize that.”

And Trace is headed to Princeton.

“The Ivy League wasn’t even … that’s like a dream,” Trace said. “I didn’t think that was even possible. It’s been some road.”

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

About Jesuit High School

Established in 1899, Jesuit High has 800 students enrolled in grades 9 through 12. Jesuit provides a college prep curriculum to prepare students for higher education. Tuition is $16,765 plus fees. Need-based financial aid and merit scholarships are available to those who qualify.

A science project and a hit movie has this scholar reaching for the stars

By ROGER MOONEY

PENSACOLA, Fla. – Zanaya Chase wants to be a fashion designer. Or a scientist.

Or, a fashion designer and scientist.

“I want to make products that can better this world,” she said.

For as long as she can remember, Zanaya wanted to design outfits that are mall-hip or red carpet-chic. Lately, she’s thought of another avenue for her creativity: spacesuits. Functional and stylish.

“If a lady wants to go into space and she wants to look good, I got something for her,” said Zanaya, 12, a sixth-grader at the Dixon School of Arts & Sciences in Pensacola.

“Why not?” asked her mother, Zoila Davis, who is thrilled to hear her daughter talk confidently about her future.

The science project at nearby Carpenter Creek has opened a new world for Dixon students Zanaya Chase, Ty’Shawn Jenkins and Jayla Brown

“I always tell her, ‘You do what makes you happy. Do what you like and what interests you and not somebody else,’” Davis said. “Just do something productive. That’s all I ask.”

Getting Zanaya to this point was not easy. It took three schools, one hit motion picture, her inclusion in a school science project and a chance encounter with an African-American female scientist at NASA.

“It’s turned out wonderful, just as we hoped it would,” said Margo Long, Zanaya’s aunt and the parent liaison at the Dixon School.

Expanding minds

It was former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, “The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of bigger ideas, never returns to its original size.

Dixon School principal Donna Curry embraces that concept.

Curry believes there is a switch inside each student that once flipped, unleashes unlimited potential.

She sees the Dixon School as a launching pad of possibilities for her students, nearly all of whom come from lower-income households and attend the K-8 private school with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students.

Dixon principal Donna Curry

“Many of our children have lost hope (because of their economic situation),” Curry said. “They don’t see themselves going anywhere or doing anything other than what they see (on the streets). So to turn that light on and for them to say, ‘I want to be an engineer,’ or ‘I want to be a scientist,’ or ‘I want to be a fashion designer,’ or ‘I want to be a chef,’ and know that the light is on, we found the switch.”

For Zanaya, who has a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, flipping that switch came in steps, the first of which was when Davis enrolled her daughter in the Dixon School.

Finding the switch

Zanaya attended her neighborhood school for two years and passed her classes, but said she didn’t feel as if she was learning anything. She attended a private school in third grade but didn’t think it was a good fit.

Life away from school during that time wasn’t easy. Her parents had starts and stops trying to make it as a family, and Zanaya spent time with her father in Miami and her mother in Pensacola.

Long noticed her niece never seemed happy.

“You could tell she had a lot of heaviness on her,” Long said. “She was in a dark place.”

Zanaya, who lives with her mom just north of Pensacola, was going into the fourth grade when her aunt joined the Dixon staff. Zanaya, enticed by the school that emphasis art and science and is heavy on project-based learning, quickly followed.

The art side of Dixon appealed to Zanaya. Davis said her daughter would spend hours cutting construction paper and, using her imagination, made things she wanted, like a laptop or a cell phone.

“She is very, very creative,” Davis said.

The move “Hidden Figures,” with its strong African-American female characters, had an impact on Zanaya.

Step Two occurred when Long took Zanaya to see the movie, “Hidden Figures,” a film about a trio of African-American female mathematicians and engineers who worked at NASA and played a pivotal role during the early 1960s when John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth.

“That actually inspired me,” Zanaya said.

Step Three happened in 2017 when Curry allowed Zanaya to join Jayla Brown and Ty’Shawn Jenkins, Dixon students who are a grade ahead of Zanaya, in a science project that required them to test water samples at Carpenter Creek, measure the width and depth of the creek and interview fisherman to determine which fish swim there.

Their findings earned them the status of “citizen scientist” and landed them a spot on the exhibition floor at the American Geophysical Union, held that December in New Orleans.

According to the organization’s website, the conference is “the largest worldwide conference in the geophysical sciences, attracting more than 22,000 Earth and space scientists, educators, students, and other leaders.”

For Zanaya, the switch was fully flipped at the convention when she met a NASA scientist.

“When I saw her, I said, ‘Oh my gosh. She’s a lady, and she’s African-American,’” Zanaya said. “I do want to learn about science and outer space. I always wonder if there is more than this universe.”

Hope for the future

Working alongside Jayla and Ty’Shawn in the mud at the creek served as motivation for Zanaya.

Dixon science teacher Michaela Norman, Jayla, Elizabeth Eubanks (who coordinates the science project), Ty’Shawn, Zanaya and Margo Long at Step Up’s Rising Star event in February.

Phase II of their Carpenter Creek project required them to identify the insects that are part of the food chain. Once again, they were invited to the American Geophysical Union conference, held December 2018 in Washington D.C.

The trio have begun work on Phase III, which requires them to develop their own questions about life at the creek and research the answers. A trip to the America Geophysical Union conference this December in San Francisco rides on this phase.

Both Ty’Shawn and Jayla, who attend Dixon on Florida Tax Credit scholarships, are excellent students, and both are excited about their future.

Everyone who knows Jayla, 12, tells her she would be a perfect fit as a criminal profiler at the CIA. She agrees. She enjoys watching crime shows, and she describes herself as the quiet observer in class.

“I like to get in people’s head and figure out why they do the things they do,” she said.

So, a future with the CIA?

“One day,” she said.

For Ty’Shawn, also 12, it might be a life studying living things.

“I really want to start learning what insects and other animals do to our world, our lives,” he said.

Great Expectations

Long, who came to Dixon after a career in law enforcement that included stints as a police officer and a prison guard working death row, is excited to work with students who have high expectations for their futures.

“It is amazing that for all of the negative that is on TV that these children still have the hope and the dream,” she said. “As far as they’re concerned, it is possible. No one has taken that innocence away from them or dulled that possibility that it can happen, so go for it.”A

Zanaya returns home from school each afternoon eager to tell her mom about what she learned that day. Davis said her daughter never talked like that before she began attending Dixon.

“Her mind has really opened,” Davis said. “It’s been a complete turnaround. She’s very independent. I don’t have to check on her with her schoolwork. She’s on top of her assignments. She communicated with her teachers. She gets good grades.

“They really did find that switch.”

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

About the Dixon School of Arts & Sciences

Founded in 2008, the private K-8 school offers a fine arts, science, technology, engineering, arts and math. The school blends core academics with field trips and the arts. Tuition is $4,600 plus an additional $2,400 in registration, fees, books and supplied, transportation and field trips. More than 90 percent of the students are on Step Up scholarships.

Step Up’s Jacksonville office ranked among best places to work in that city

BY ROGER MOONEY

The honors continue to roll in for Step Up For Students.

The nonprofit’s Jacksonville office was ranked among the top places to work in that city by the Jacksonville Business Journal, placing third in the category for Large Companies (100-249 employees).

“It is such an honor that our employees are being recognized for the work they do each day to create an organizational culture that enables us to fulfill our mission to the best of our abilities,” said Anne White, Step Up’s chief administrative officer.

Representing Step Up’s Jacksonville office at the event were
(top row from left) Jessica Detmer, Diana Beane, Anne White, Renae Sweeney, Kym Beelman (bottom row from left) Judith Thomas, Andrea Thoermer and Kaitlyn Laudenslager

The Jacksonville Business Journal partnered with Quantum Workplace, an employee engagement research firm, to compile the rankings. Quantum Research surveys employees and analyzes the results to determine employee satisfaction.

Employees are evaluated in the areas of team effectiveness, retention risk, alignment with goals, trust with co-workers, individual contribution, manager effectiveness, trust in senior leaders, feeling valued, work engagement and people practices.

The results were announced May 23 at an event held at the Baseball Grounds at Jacksonville.

Step Up’s Clearwater office was recently ranked eighth among large companies in the Tampa Bay area by the Tampa Bay Business Journal.

Nationally, Step Up was ranked 19th on Forbes’ list of America’s Top Charities 2018. It was also recognized in 2018 for its financial accountability and transparency from two nonprofit watchdog groups: Charity Navigator and GuideStar. Charity Navigator awarded Step Up a four-star rating for the seventh consecutive year, a credit that only 4 percent of charities have earned by the nation’s top charity evaluator. Step Up has earned the Platinum Seal of Transparency with GuideStar, a public database that evaluates the mission and effectiveness of nonprofits.

Step Up helps more than 115,000 pre-K-12 children annually in Florida gain access to education options by helping manage five scholarship programs: The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and recently created Family Empowerment Scholarship for lower-income families; the Gardiner Scholarship for children with special needs or unique abilities; the Hope Scholarship for students who have been bullied at a public school; and the Reading Scholarship Accounts for children in grades 3-5 who struggle with reading.

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

Latin, Julius Cesar and a second chance at senior year

By ROGER MOONEY

DAVIE, Fla. – Josh Carlson pulled up a chair inside the office of the school guidance counselor one February morning and greeted a visitor.

“Salve,” he said.

It was the summer after his senior year, the summer he should have spent preparing for his freshman year of college.

Josh, a senior at American Preparatory Academy, a private K-12 school in Davie, Florida, taught himself Latin last summer.

That’s Latin for “hello.”

Instead, it was a summer spent reflecting on what went wrong during that senior year, and why he was required to repeat it.
“Just a lack of motivation on my part,” said Josh, 17.

Josh Carlson’s senior photo at American Preparatory Academy

This lack of motivation was a never-ending source of frustration for Josh’s mother, Kadirah Abdel, his guidance counselor, Norman Levitan, and American Prep principal, Soraya Matos.

They each sensed a serious student inside Josh yearning for an opportunity to be set free. He could be engaging with his teachers, capable of leading the class in a deep discussion on the topic for that day. He could also be disruptive and unmotivated, unwilling to complete his assignments on time.

Matos said she would have allowed Josh to participate last May in the graduation ceremony and make up the work during summer school, but he failed too many classes to make that possible. She hoped having Josh repeat his senior year would be a wake-up call.

“I wanted to give him another chance,” Matos said. “I believed it was a maturity issue and eventually he would understand that this was his last chance.”

He did.

“I pondered the way I was doing things over the summer,” Josh said. “I thought, ‘Man, I got really step up, because I’m repeating.’ It was sort of the cataclysmic moment for me. I knew I had to do something to improve my study ethic.”

That he taught himself to speak Latin by using the Duolingo app proved what Levitan always believed about Josh.

“He’s very bright,” Levitan said.

“A different kid”

Josh never fit in at his neighborhood schools.

“He was very to himself, very shy,” Abdel said. “The other kids were into stuff he wasn’t interested in.”

Josh is fascinated with Julius Cesar.

The other kids were into pop culture. Josh was into Julius Cesar.

The other kids read Facebook posts. Josh read the dictionary.

“He was bullied and picked on,” Abdel said. “That was my main concern. That’s when I knew I had to take action here, do something. I heard about alternative schools. I did my research, looked up different kinds of schools. There are alternative schools for kids who have had issues in public schools, because they didn’t fit in.”

Plus, Abdel said, administrators at Josh’s neighborhood school wanted to place him in classes for emotionally challenged students.

“He didn’t have a disability,” Abdel said. “They’re quick to label kids in public school. They couldn’t put him in special ed, so he was put in this class called ‘EH,’ emotionally handicapped children, basically kids who acted up.”

Abdel said her son did act up in class, and it was because he was bored.

She learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. This allowed her to move Josh to the Sunset Sadbury School, a K-12 private school in Fort Lauderdale, when Josh was in the seventh grade.

He moved to AEF (Alternative Education Foundation) School, a nonprofit private school in Fort Lauderdale, the following year and stayed through his sophomore year in high school.

“Once he got to private school, he did a lot better,” Abdel said.

But there were still issues.

“I didn’t behave so well at (AEF),” Josh said. “I didn’t get along with the students and the teachers.”

Abdel finally turned to American Prep, a private school with 150 students with no more than 12 to a class. Matos said her school is designed for students who don’t fit in at neighborhood schools. Kids, she said, who “fall through the cracks.”

Josh fit right in.

“He’s a different kid,” Matos said. “He likes history. He likes to read, and that is not very common.”

Josh passed his classes as a junior. Senior year was a struggle with most of the struggles self-inflicted.

“Just a lack of motivation on my part,” Josh said.

Josh loves to learn … just on his terms.

“He enjoys reading and studying on his own,” Abdel said. “Not necessarily being told, ‘OK, you have to study for his test.’ He enjoys studying, but when he wants.”

The proof is found in Josh’s interests.

He speaks Spanish, Latin and Italian. He writes poetry and enjoys the works of Emily Dickinson, E.E. Cummings, Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman. He is well-versed in Greek and Roman history and is fascinated with Julius Cesar.

“Interesting man,” Josh said. “All the conquests. His abilities as a leader was unrivaled.”

He wants to be a linguist. He would like to have a career that allows him to write and speak Latin and Italian.

“I’d like to write books about this stuff,” he said. “Phonology. Nerdy things.”

But, first Josh had to graduate high school.

The wake-up call

The book that began Josh’s path to teaching himself Latin.

At one point last year, Matos said she thought her school wasn’t the right fit for Josh. But where would he go? What school would make room for a senior who couldn’t graduate?

Matos believes her role as an educator is to keep her students in school. Plus, she knew Josh could complete the work. He just needed motivation. Because he was still eligible to receive a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Matos and Abdel felt it best for Josh to repeat his senior year.

“I think it was the kick he needed, the wake-up call,” Abdel said. “When he saw his friends graduate but he didn’t, that’s when he stepped up his game.”

Josh’s grades this year were the highest they’ve been during his high school career.

“I’ve just been studying more, focusing on studying, reviewing,” he said. “I wasn’t studying last year, and that’s why I was failing tests.”

While his friends made plans for their freshman years at college, Josh wrapped his mind around another senior year of high school. He didn’t have a job, so he had plenty of time on his hands.

What to do?

He reached for a copy of Wheelock’s Latin, which he received a few years ago, and started teaching himself Latin.

“One day I was looking at it, staring at it, and I thought, ‘I’ve had this for so long I should just learn it already,’” he said. “I wasn’t doing anything during the summer. I was using the internet and stuff. I said let me do something productive. I just opened up the book.”

The productivity not only carried into the classroom this year, but to other parts of the school.

Josh spent time this past year mentoring younger students at American Prep, sharing his experience as a cautionary tale.

In February, he received the Turnaround Student Award during Step Up’s annual Rising Stars Award event. He was nominated by Matos.

“I’m very proud of him,” she said.

Early this month, he graduated.

Josh plans to attend Broward College this fall. He is formulating plans for his future. He wants work with words, foreign words. He wants to visit Italy and Greece. Walk where Julius Cesar walked.

He wants to converse with the locals in their native tongue. He can get by with his Latin and Italian and Spanish.

But Greek? He doesn’t speak Greek.

“No,” he said. “Not yet.”

About American Preparatory Academy

The K-12 private school has 150 students. More than half are on scholarships from Step Up For Students with the majority on the Gardiner Scholarship. Tuition ranges from $10,500 to $16,000 based on the student’s needs. The school has a comprehensive Exceptional Student Education program focused on the individual needs of each student. It also offers dual enrollment, summer classes, summer camps, athletics and extracurricular activities.

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