For two weeks in February Step Up For Students shined the spotlight on scholars, parents and educators who this school year have gone above and beyond while participating in at least one of two scholarship programs for schoolchildren in Florida.
The Rising Stars Awards ceremony was held at nine different locations across the state, recognizing those outstanding individuals involved with either Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income students, or the state-funded Gardiner Program for children with certain special needs. This year, Step Up received more than 650 nominations for the Rising Stars Awards.
Teachers, students, and scholars’ family members were nominated by teachers and school administrators for exceptional work throughout the school year at their respective Step Up partner schools.
This year, 98,000 K-12 students are using the tax-credit scholarship statewide for tuition assistance at the private school of their choice, or on a transportation scholarship to offset the cost to an out-of-district public school. Another nearly 8,000 more scholars, ages 3 to 22, use the Gardiner Scholarship to customize their education by attending participating schools or by using approved, therapists, specialists, curriculum, technology – even a college savings account.
“We are so proud of our scholars and those who help them realize their dreams and academic success,” Step Up President Doug Tuthill said before the event. “It’s important to recognize all of those who make this program a success, and that includes the teachers who educate these kids, the parents who wanted more for their children, the kids who work hard toward their futures, and of course, our generous donors, which without them we would not exist.”
Corporate donors who help fund the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program attended each of the Rising Star Awards events and were also recognized for their support, and had a chance to meet the families they help through their donations. In 2016, the corporate community contributed a total $559 million for these scholarships.
BY JEFF BARLIS
When Deondre Pride transferred to Victory Christian Academy as a junior in high school, it took him all of three days to come to a conclusion.
He told his mom, “This is not the school for me.”
Mom wasn’t having it.
“There was no conversation,” Deanna Joyner recalled. “When he spoke, I ended it.”
Deanna, a single mom, had transferred four of her five children from their neighborhood school in Polk County to Victory Christian in large part because Deondre, her oldest son, was struggling.
The move was only possible because of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, a program that gives low-income parents the ability to access private schools that may be a better fit for their children. In Deondre’s case, the scholarship through Step Up For Students changed the course of his life.
Before the scholarship and the new school, Deanna said, “Deondre kind of got lost in the cracks.”
At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Deondre was a rising star at defensive end for his local public high school – the only sophomore starter on defense. But in that same year his GPA fell to a 2.1.
In his mother’s words, Deondre had “flopped” and was no longer able to balance school with sports.
“He wasn’t mature,” Deanna said. “Big boy, big size, big voice, but he wasn’t mature. He’s always had his hand held to a certain degree.”
Sometimes he didn’t bother to show up for class at his old school. Other times he didn’t take notes, follow instructions or stay awake.
“As long as I’m good in football I don’t have to worry about doing this work,” Deondre recalled thinking.
At his old school, Deondre would serve an in-school suspension if he got in trouble. No classes. Just sit there all day.
Not at VCA.
“Instead of trying to get you out of here,” Deondre said, “they try to get you in here.”
The headmaster at VCA, Karla Collins, had known Deondre’s father, Eugene Pride, and Deanna since they were teenagers. Both were students who struggled in high school.
Deanna called herself a “late-bloomer” who once juggled four jobs in order to get a master’s degree, become a teacher, and give her children a better life. She watched Deondre carefully in high school and feared he was headed down the same road.But with Collins’ hands-on approach, there was no chance of Deondre falling through the cracks.
“He’s in a fishbowl here,” Collins said. “He can’t hide.”
Deondre sensed all of this in his first three days and came up with a plan to go back to his former school.
“I would always come in the morning (to VCA) with the attitude like I don’t want to be here at all,” he said. “I decided to do whatever I’ve got to do to get kicked out of this school for failing.”
Collins recognized a familiar pattern.
“It’s easier to start over than to deal with your issues,” she said, “and we just make them deal with their issues.”
That kind of attention is one of the biggest differences between schools with enrollments of 460 versus 1,500.
Deondre was never taken out of classes at VCA. If he got in trouble, football coach Tommy Lewis would cut his playing time.
“It makes you learn,” Deondre said.
The importance of academics was reinforced when high-profile college football programs started recruiting Deondre. One week he would beam to his friends about a call from a coach at a powerhouse school. The next week the same coach would call back to say Deondre was no longer being recruited because of grades.
“It was heartbreaking,” Deondre said.
By the end of his junior year, a motivated Deondre had a 3.0 GPA and was a force at outside linebacker on Victory Christian’s state champion football team.
Late in the school year, he met with a football coach from Coffeyville, a community college in Kansas. Deondre was offered a scholarship on the spot.
“It was just like, ‘Whew!’ Joy and everything, just so uplifting,” he said. “It felt amazing.”
Fast forward nearly a year and Deondre has a 3.85 GPA in a senior year that has been a model of focus.
In a few weeks he will become the first in his family to graduate from high school and attend college.
Sometimes Deondre thinks about all the ways in which his graduation could have been derailed. He thinks about his father, uncle and cousins. Why weren’t they able to get to college?
“I know for a fact if I had stayed at (his former school) I would not be talking about going to college,” Deondre said. “It probably would have been like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to go to school or go hang out on the corner.’ All my family and friends are in Lake Wales, and they’re the same exact way.”
With feelings of luck, gratitude and accomplishment, there’s no getting the smile off of Deondre’s face these days. His dreams of playing college football and studying agriculture will soon be reality.
He likes to tell his story to younger student athletes at Victory Christian. He likes to impart the biggest lesson he learned — academics come before athletics.
“It’s been a journey,” he said. “Just being here turned me into a man.”
It was all part of Deanna’s plan. Her son, who used to be obsessed with getting football scholarship offers from Division-1 schools, is now a serious student.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s D-1, D-2, or D-3,” she said. “What matters is de-gree.”
Reach Jeff Barlis at email@example.com.
For the fifth consecutive year, Step Up For Students, the nonprofit organization that helps administer Florida’s Tax Credit and Gardiner Scholarship programs, has achieved the coveted four-star rating for sound fiscal management and commitment to accountability and transparency from Charity Navigator, the nation’s largest independent evaluator of charities.
“Only 6 percent of the charities we rate have received at least five consecutive four-star evaluations, indicating that Step Up For Students outperforms most other charities in America,” wrote Charity Navigator President and CEO Michael Thatcher in a congratulatory letter dated April 1. “This ‘exceptional’ designation from Charity Navigator differentiates Step Up For Students from its peers and demonstrates to the public it is worthy of their trust.”
After a comprehensive review by Charity Navigator, Step Up earned 99.92 points out of 100 overall; 99.90 for financial management and 100 out of 100 for accountability and transparency for Fiscal Year 2015. This is the first time Charity Navigator has included the Gardiner Scholarship, formerly the Personal Learning Scholarship Program, in its annual review of Step Up. Step Up’s revenue for the year was $457.8 million.
“We do important work which we take very seriously,” said Step Up President Doug Tuthill. “Our mission is to provide more educational opportunities to those Florida schoolchildren who need them the most. We can’t do that without the trust of our donors, families, legislators and the public. This superior ranking shows we deserve their trust. This year’s rating is especially significant because it includes the state-funded Gardiner Scholarship, a new program for special needs children we are extremely proud to help administer.”
Step Up’s 99.92 score ranked it fifth nationally on Charity Navigator’s Top-Notch Charities list.
“We are proud of our mission and how we operate,” Tuthill said. “We are committed to being effective, efficient and fiscally responsible. We owe that to the public, our funders and the more than 80,000 students we serve with both scholarship programs.”
Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization in Florida that has been awarding scholarships to low-income families since the program’s creation in 2001, providing nearly 480,000 scholarships to K-12 schoolchildren. For the 2015-16 school year, Step Up is serving about 78,000 low-income students and several thousand more children with special needs through the Gardiner Scholarship. The income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, funded by tax-credited corporate donations, is worth up to $5,677 toward private school tuition and fees; the state-funded Gardiner Scholarship, formerly known as the Personal Learning Scholarship Account program, averages $10,000 per student annually. To learn more visit, www.StepUpForStudents.org
Since 2002, Charity Navigator, a nonprofit organization, has awarded only the most fiscally responsible 501(c)(3) organizations its top ranking using financial information provided by the organizations’ informational tax returns or IRS Form 990s to determine rankings. The national company then analyzes a charity’s fiscal performance in seven key areas, including program, administrative and fundraising expenses; fundraising efficiency; and revenue growth. Charity Navigator’s mission is to provide donors with essential information so they can be confident in which charities they support.
Step Up is a state-approved nonprofit scholarship funding organization that helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC), which provides K-12 scholarships legislatively and related support to give disadvantaged families the freedom to choose the best learning options for their children. For the 2015-16 school year, Step Up is serving nearly 78,000 in more than 1,500 private schools throughout the state.
“The most impactful way to improve a child’s life and future is through education. IBERIABANK Corporation first partnered with Step Up For Students in 2015 with a $1.5 million contribution,” said Daryl G. Byrd, president and CEO of IBERIABANK Corporation. “We are proud to share that over the last two years, our donation has helped provide 583 scholarships for low-income Florida students.”
“We are grateful for the generosity of our donors, and for their commitment to help provide Florida families the opportunity to choose the educational environment that best suits their children’s needs,” said Doug Tuthill, president for Step Up For Students. “IBERIABANK is a wonderful partner and we are thankful for their continued support in making dreams come true for families across the state.”
IBERIABANK Corporation is a financial holding company with 298 combined offices, including 198 bank branch offices and three loan production offices in Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, Florida, and Georgia, 22 title insurance offices in Arkansas and Louisiana, and mortgage representatives in 65 locations in 10 states. The Company has eight locations with representatives of IBERIA Wealth Advisors in four states, and one IBERIA Capital Partners, L.L.C. office in New Orleans. Iberia Financial Services, LLC is a wholly owned subsidiary of IBERIABANK and has 22 registered offices with representatives in seven states. Follow IBERIABANK on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.
About Step Up For Students
Step Up For Students is a 501(c) 3 that helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Students who qualify for free-or reduced-price lunch, or those who are homeless or in foster or out-of-home care may qualify. Since 2001, Step Up has awarded more than 479,000 scholarships.
Step Up also helps administer the state-funded Gardiner Scholarship (formerly called Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts) for Florida students with certain special needs. With the Gardiner Scholarship, recipients may use the funds for a variety of approved services including private tutoring, occupational therapy, instructional materials and other services.
For more information, visit: http://www.StepUpForStudents.org
Couche-Tard is the leader in the Canadian convenience store industry. In the United States, it is the largest independent convenience store operator in terms of number of company-operated stores with over 8,000 convenience stores throughout North America and covering 41 states in the U.S. In addition, about 4,700 stores are operated by independent operators under the Circle K banner in 14 other countries.
“Circle K Florida always looks for those organizations that are able to make a difference in the communities where we operate,” said David Morgan, vice president of Circle K’s Florida division. “We want our contributions to have a positive impact directly in our local neighborhoods. Supporting causes that impact our youth through education is a very worthy ways for Circle K to give back.”
Circle K’s donation will fund about 350 K-12 income-based scholarships, so financially disadvantaged children can attend the school that best meets their learning needs. Corporations that donate to the scholarship program receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for their contributions. About 78,000 students are using the scholarship to attend the school of their choice this year.
“Circle K is thrilled to help hundreds of Florida students through our participation in this program, and we are proud of that,” Morgan said. “Through our support, more Florida children will find success in their educational experience.”
“We are so grateful to bring on Circle K as a partner,” said Step Up President Doug Tuthill. “Each year our fundraising cap grows and, thankfully, with the help of our longtime donors and new partners like Circle K, we can continue serving more students across Florida.”
Known for its red K emblazoned in a white circle logo, good service, great product variety and the popular Polar Pop cups, Circle K is no stranger to philanthropy.
“Circle K Florida will continue its relationship with the American Red Cross, another of our cause marketing partners,” Morgan said. “The American Red Cross is an organization that proudly supports families and local communities within our markets.”
It’s that same value that makes Step Up such a good fit for Circle K.
“Opening up learning opportunities through the scholarship program and allowing disadvantaged families the freedom to choose the best learning options for their children is certainly a great way to ensure the future success of our youth,” Morgan said. “Circle K Florida would hope that these opportunities provide the scholars the foundation to becoming our future business and civic leaders.” In 1999, a franchise program was introduced to support operators looking to build a business with a leading convenience store brand. Now there are more than 7,000 Circle K sites operating in the US and thirteen other countries.
When Katie Cutford attended her neighborhood district school in Lake City, classmates sometimes made fun of her thick glasses and fainting spells. Katie has juvenile glaucoma and POTS (Postural Tachycardia Syndrome), a heart condition that causes her to occasionally lose consciousness.
Her younger brother, Caleb Cutford, diagnosed with cerebral palsy and autism, also struggled at the school. That prompted their parents to look for other options.
Caleb was eligible for the McKay Scholarship, a state program that serves children with special needs. The financial assistance allowed the family to enroll him in Lake City Christian Academy, a private school that could provide the extra attention and services he needed.
Katie didn’t qualify for the McKay, though, said her mom, Amanda Dudley. But she and her husband transferred Katie to the academy anyway and paid tuition on their own for three years. Then the couple divorced and money became tight. Caleb remained at the academy on his scholarship, but Katie had to return to her neighborhood school in the eighth grade. Once again, she was bullied and her grades dropped.
“I was miserable,’’ recalled the teen, who went on to try homeschooling.
Katie’s grandmother oversaw lessons, but Katie fell behind academically, especially in math, and became withdrawn. Dudley, a single mom who works as a medical assistant and receptionist at a local doctor’s office, turned to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.
Katie received the scholarship that helps low-income K-12 students with private-school tuition, and returned to Lake City Christian Academy her junior year. Today, she’s a senior making mostly A’s and getting the tutoring she needs in math.
She recently passed her college entrance exam and has signed up for two dual-enrollment courses at Florida Gateway College with plans to study education. Her dream is to complete her teaching degree at Vanderbilt University near where her aunt lives in Tennessee.
Caleb is a sophomore making progress in one of the academy’s three exceptional student education (ESE) classes.
“They have been able to help us a lot,’’ said Dudley, whose 5-year-old son, Harley Dudley, is a kindergartener on scholarship at the academy.
Lake City Christian Academy is a nondenominational private school serving about 194 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade. Of those, about 81 receive the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students. Another 24 participate in the Gardiner Scholarships, formerly the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts program Step Up also helps oversee.
The rest receive the McKay Scholarship or pay full tuition, which ranges from $5,700 to $8,000, depending on students’ needs, plus additional fees for exceptional therapies and transportation.
The school is accredited by the Florida League of Christian Schools and uses the Bob Jones University curriculum. Student learning gains are measured annually by the Stanford 10 assessment test and others like STAR for reading and math.
Principal Tana Norris, a former public school teacher, founded the academy in 1994 to cater to students with special needs or those who don’t fit in at other schools. The idea was to give teachers the freedom to teach and students the freedom to learn in a way that meets their needs.
“I wanted my teachers to be able to think outside the box, and my students to be able to use as many of their senses as they can,’’ Norris said. “I like cooperative, hands-on learning.’’
In addition to core classes and electives like Spanish, drama, stage band, chorus and dance, the academy also offers gifted and college prep programs, mentoring, horse therapy and tutoring. Class sizes are kept small, with about 11 to 15 students per teacher.
That’s a big plus for Katie.
“I can get one-on-one help from my teachers whenever I need it,’’ she said. “I can go talk to the administrator and the pastor, and I know they can help.’’
Katie was one of those students who almost fell through the cracks, Norris said. Now she’s a confident student participating in peer counseling, where she coaches fellow students, and has discovered her passion for teaching.
Getting a scholarship through Step Up and finding the right kind of school for her made all the difference, Katie said.
“There are many families like mine who can’t afford private school,’’ she said. “This program gives us a chance.’’
Have you seen the scholarship in action, or do you have an idea for a story? Please contact Sherri Ackerman, public relations manager, at sackerman@StepUpForStudents.org
Step Up For Students is excited to announce for the first time it will participate in #GivingTuesday, a global day of giving that kicks off the charitable season on Dec. 1.
In its fourth year, #GivingTuesday was created by 92nd Street Y, a cultural center in New York City that has been bringing people together with the values of service and giving since 1874. #GivingTuesday has become a worldwide event with more than 30,000 partners in 68 countries, according to its website. Since its inception in 2012, #GivingTuesday is credited with increasing online donations by 470 percent on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving.
“We are thrilled to participate this year,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “Since we began this program more than a decade ago, we have awarded nearly half a million scholarships to both low-income students and children with unique needs. We are providing educational options to those who need it most and we know this program changes lives.”
Step Up For Students helps administer two scholarship opportunities to Florida schoolchildren: the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for K-12 children from low-income families and the state-funded Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA) for children ages 3 to 22 with certain special needs. Step Up gives these family choices of where and how their children are educated.
“Please donate to Step Up For Students,” Tuthill said. “We want to continue to not only provide students with scholarships, but add value to those scholarships by providing educators and students with extra support and so much more for children to be successful.”
To donate to Step Up For Students, please visit www.StepUpForStudents.org.
“Every penny counts,” said Tuthill. “And because of our top-notch ratings on Charity Navigator, you know that every penny will be used wisely. We greatly appreciate any support you give to this life-changing program.”
To follow the day of giving on social media, be sure to check events and post using the hashtag #GivingTuesday and #StepUpForStudents or share on Twitter with @StepUp4Students.
Editor’s note: Step Up For Students welcomes Faith Manuel as a guest blogger. Faith has had three children use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program through Step Up For Students, and has spoken throughout Florida about school choice, and has written op-ed pieces for numerous newspapers. We hope this is the first of many blog posts by Faith.
By Faith Manuel, Guest Blogger
Blessed! I can find no other word that adequately describes my family. My oldest son, Davion, is a college junior pursing his passion for education at the University of North Florida. My middle man, Nicholas, is a high school senior who is a starting member of a nationally ranked high school football team. He is also an accomplished singer who has received some national ranking for his vocal ability. My baby girl, Faith De’Yanah, is a budding high school freshman who is a wonderful student and athlete. I am working in a job that I love which seems tailor-suited for my strengths and passion for helping others. We are (so) blessed.
Our family proves that the start of a journey doesn’t dictate how far you travel. We have traveled a mighty long way. Geographically, it’s only been about 250 miles; but in growth as a family; we have traveled a mighty long way. My journey started in Hollywood, Fla. I was one of four girls in a very loving and supportive home. Though my parents instilled faith and values into my sisters and myself, I found myself in a peril during my ninth grade year of high school. To the shock of everyone in my family, I was pregnant with my first child. I did finish high school with the help of my supportive family, and the teen parent program in Broward County, which provided childcare on site at the school I attended.
Shortly after graduation, Davion’s dad and I decided to marry and expand our family, and along came Nicholas Jr. and next little Faith De’Yanah. By the time that I was 21, I had three kids and a failed marriage. Those circumstances are not the ideal launching pad of dreams, however, we launched nevertheless.
Desperate for a new beginning, my children and I relocated to Volusia County, Florida. I was a young divorced mother and I was in school. We lived in public housing, the only place we could afford with my part-time employment.
Davion was entering into sixth grade when I was blessed to discover Step Up For Students. The neighborhood we lived in was plagued with drugs and violence. The school Davion was zoned for was plagued with the same. I was working part time and attending school full time and could not afford to move to a better school zone. I decided to inquire about private school for Davion to protect him from going down the wrong road. The school I visited actually informed me of the Step Up program. This program afforded me the opportunity to enroll all three of my children in private school.
When Faith D. entered kindergarten, I was able to place the children at Calvary Christian Academy (CCA) in Ormond Beach. Calvary was perfect for me because it was an extension of my church, also because it was K-12 and at the time, I had a kindergartener, third-grader, and seventh-grader. I loved that I could make one stop for drop off and pick up. I also loved that I could stop by and visit all my children in the same place. I remember many times coming for lunch with Faith and staying for lunch with Nicholas and Davion. Middle-schoolers don’t always think it’s cool to have lunch with mommy, however, mommy thought it was amazing!
I love that Step Up For Students gives parents the flexibility to choose a school that works best for the child. I’ve taken advantage of the “choice” aspect of school choice. Davion graduated from CCA in 2012 and went on to college where he remains. He has been on the Dean’s list, President’s list, been awarded various scholarships for his academic excellence. He benefited from student employment where he was named Tutor of the Year two years in a row. Today, Davion continues to work in the math lab of Florida State College at Jacksonville while attending the University of North Florida. Nicholas has had a mix of public and private education. He attended CCA from third to seventh grade. He has attended public school from eighth grade and remains in public school today and will graduate from Mainland High School. Nicholas has been very involved in school in sports, and singing. I credit his desire to participate with his foundation at Calvary. At Calvary, it was small enough that he was able to participate in almost everything. When he transitioned to public school, he has kept that model and I believe it has worked very well for him to keep him from any negative influences at school. Faith D tried public school in sixth grade and it proved too big for her. She was most comfortable in the family learning environment which she enjoyed at CCA. She returned to private school to finish out middle school.
I value the flexibility afforded to me to be able to help my children find a learning environment that worked best for them at the different stages of their journey.
It has been a wonderful journey; full of excitement, love, and (of course) blessings. Step Up For Students has been a humongous blessing to our family. I don’t know how things would have gone had I not been so desperate to protect Davion all those years ago. My desire to help him has allowed me to help my younger two and many other families. I remain a huge advocate for school choice personally. I tell every parent I know about the program and tell them how much school choice has helped my family’s dream come true. My dream for my children was to be well educated, great citizens, and wonderful people and I get to see my dream as a reality every time I see my kids. We are truly blessed.
Faith Manuel is a school-choice advocate, former Step Up For Students mom and a career specialist with Career Source Flagler Volusia. When she’s not cheerleading or gushing about her wonderful children, she enjoys reading, writing, movies and naps. She also leads a support group for single moms in Volusia County called STRONG Single Moms.
While the 2015-16 school year is in its third month, it’s already that time of year again. Parents and guardians of Florida Tax Credit scholars through Step Up For Students may now apply for the 2016-17 school year.
Step Up partner schools have also been notified about the application season and have been asked to remind scholars to reapply now.
“This is something we have been working toward for several years and we’re excited that this year we can actually do it for our parents,” said Step Up’s Chief Operating Officer Anne White. “As our fundraising cap increases each year, our 3 percent administrative funds do as well, reducing the need for the application service fee. Our original budget had the fee being reduced to $14, but we worked with our various departments to ensure we can eliminate it altogether.”
The rest of the renewal process will look much the same, said Jeff Giese, director of operations.
For those renewal families, please access your parent login to begin the application process. As you apply, please be mindful of the following:
“As always, we urge you to completely finish your applications as soon as you can. This means submitting all of the requested documents. An application isn’t considered complete and can’t be processed until the application is filled out and all documents are in,” said Giese. “Once again, we expect an overwhelming number of applications and we would hate for renewal scholars especially to miss out due to missing paperwork, or an application filing that lingered too long.”
Applicants with any questions or concerns about this process, can all 877-735-7837. The Step Up Contact Center is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Eastern, with an hour closure from 11 a.m. to noon.
New family applications will open in the early spring, but those interested can add their information to our interest list and we will notify those families as we are preparing to open applications then.