FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.– Step Up For Students announced April 28 a $5 million contribution to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program fromUniversal Property & Casualty Insurance Company (UPCIC), helping more than 655 Florida schoolchildren attend the K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.
Since 2017, UPCIC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Universal Insurance Holdings, Inc. has generously funded more than 2,620 scholarships through contributions totaling $18.5 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 and allows parents and students to choose between a scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to a different public school.
“Universal is committed to giving back to our community,” said Steve Donaghy, Chief Executive Officer of Universal Insurance Holdings, Inc. (UIH). “We are proud to support hundreds of schoolchildren through our partnership with Step Up For Students.”
UPCIC celebrated this incredible donation at Parkridge Christian Academy in Coral Springs, where nearly 30% of the students use a scholarship through Step Up For Students. Dan Marino, UPCIC spokesperson, National Football League hall of famer and former Miami Dolphins quarterback, made a special appearance and met with students benefitting from the scholarship.
“We are honored to have UPCIC as a partner in our mission to help Florida families access schools that best fit their children’s 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 helping to transform the lives of deserving schoolchildren in our community.”
In February 2019, the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, released results of a study on the effectiveness of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, the nation’s largest private K-12
scholarship program. The study found that students on scholarship for four or more years were up to 99% more likely to attend a four-year college than their peers in public school, and up to 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.
Since 2002, Step Up For Students has awarded more than 1 million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships.
Both Walter and Nate are products of school choice. Nate attended Bradenton Christian School in Florida on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Walter attended private schools in Ohio.
They work for the American Federation of Children, where Walter is the press secretary and Nate is a communications associate. They have teamed up for the School Choice Boyz podcast to bring the value of education choice to a new audience.
BY LISA BUIE
A parochial school program intent on extending education choice to children of migrant workers has received a national award for its efforts.
The National Catholic Education Association announced that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School in Palm Coast, Florida, will receive the Catherine T. McNamee CSJ Award. The award is given to an individual or institution that offers exceptional leadership in promoting a vision of Catholic education that welcomes and serves cultural and economic diversity or serves students with diverse needs.
The award is one of five presidents’ awards that will be bestowed April 18 at the association’s annual convention in New Orleans. Given in honor of past NCEA presidents, the 2022 awards honor those who demonstrate change and inspiration to further the mission of Catholic education.
“Catholic school communities nationwide are blessed to have individuals and organizations such as our honorees as devoted and faithful servants to the gospel values we hold dear and a deep commitment to Catholic school education,” association president Lincoln Snyder said in a news release announcing the winners.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton received the national recognition for its participation in a rural education program. Founded in 1997, the school, known as SEAS, has an enrollment of 189 students in 3-year-old pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
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BY ROGER MOONEY
TAMPA, Florida – Jessie “Junior” Vandeross considers himself “blessed” because:
“Going through tough times and getting through it and being successful, you have to be blessed,” he said.
Junior, 18, is a senior at Jesuit High School in Tampa. He has a football scholarship to the University of Toledo. As the leading receiver on Jesuit’s football team last fall, he helped lead the Tigers to an undefeated season and a state championship.
After the season, Junior received the Bill Minahan Award, presented annually to a football player in Hillsborough County who best demonstrated “extraordinary perseverance as well as leadership, selflessness, passion, loyalty, excellence on the field and service to others.”
“He keeps pushing,” said Nina Vandeross, Junior’s mom. “He never gives up. That’s what I love about him.”
“The Step Up scholarship helped him tremendously. I really appreciate that they have that for children,” Nina said. “Everybody is not fortunate, but the Step Up program makes it possible for people to have a better education and a better future.
“I love it. It makes your kid better. It makes them feel like they can do what they want to do. I am so grateful for it.”
Nina is also grateful for Denis Lopez and his family, who entered Junior’s life at a time when he needed a strong male role model.
“They are angels on earth,” she said.
Lopez is an officer with the Tampa Police Department. He was serving as the athletic director and football coach at the Police Athletic League when he met Junior, who was 7 at the time. Lopez was impressed not only with Junior’s talent on the field but his demeanor away from it. He volunteered to drive Junior home from practice because Nina didn’t have a car. Lopez took more of an interest in Junior when he learned his father had died and that Nina often worked nights at her job as an IHOP waitress.
Lopez asked Nina if Junior could spend some nights at his house with his wife, Mary Lou, and their sons, Xavier, who is a year older than Junior, and Xander, who is a year younger. Nina willingly agreed.
“Nina is the star of the show,” Lopez said, “because she made the biggest sacrifice of everyone, giving up time with her son.”
Junior has his own bedroom at the Lopez house and a closet filled with clothes. He also has his own set of chores.
“We’re all one family now,” Nina said.
A routine physical when Junior was 12 uncovered a heart murmur, placing his football future in jeopardy. After a battery of tests, Junior was cleared to play, and the murmur has never been an issue.
With the help of a tax credit scholarship, Junior followed Xavier to Jesuit.
Junior struggled in class as a sophomore, the result of a series of anxiety attacks. It seems he could no longer suppress the memories of his father’s death.
Junior had gone to the store with Nina that day. When they returned, Junior ran into his parents’ bedroom and began climbing on his dad, who had been napping. Nina was surprised her husband didn’t wake up. Jessie Vandeross Jr. (Junior is actually Jessie Vandeross III) had died of a heart attack. He was 29.
“When you’re that age, you can see it, but you can’t understand it,” Junior said. “But when I got older, I can remember everything, how the whole entire day went. Seeing him in bed. Seeing him being taken away in an ambulance.”
Junior sometimes wonders what life would be like with his father.
“Everything I do is for him, because he would want me to do the same thing if he were here,” he said.
As they did with their sons, Denis and Mary Lou Lopez hammered the importance of education into Junior.
“Education, it changes everything for you,” Lopez said. “That’s what breaks cycles.”
Junior found Jesuit’s academic rigors to be challenging at times, but he applies to the classroom the same focus and drive that carries him on the football field.
“It doesn’t come easy for him, but he works hard, and I think that will benefit him at the next level,” said Steve Matesich, Jesuit’s director of admissions. “He doesn’t realize it yet how prepared he’s going to be once he gets to Toledo.”
Like a lot of high school football players, especially those who were top players on state championship teams in Florida, Junior dreams of playing in the NFL. But he wants to major in business at Toledo, because he’s also eying a career in real estate.
With her son nearing high school graduation with a college scholarship in hand, Nina says she can finally breathe.
“Life is so much better when you see your children are living their dreams,” Nina said. “I’m glad he’s doing what he wants to do, because some kids don’t get the opportunity to do what they want to do.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the first time in nearly 40 years, Catholic high school education will return to Key West.
The Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea, which currently educates students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, this week announced plans to add grades 9 and 10 in August 2023. The Basilica High School will be the only Catholic high school in Monroe County, and plans to offer enrollment to students in Key West and the Lower Keys, Principal Robert Wright told the Keys Weekly.
The last Catholic high school in Key West, Mary Immaculate, closed in 1986 due to declining enrollment.
However, demand has since been rising. According to Wright, the Basilica School’s enrollment increased 100 percent between 2013-2019, and currently is at capacity with a waiting list. Many of those families want to extend their children’s Catholic education beyond middle school.
In a 2019 column for Keys Weekly, Wright credited Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship for helping fuel that growth. “In 2013,” he wrote, “we began accepting Florida Tax Credit Scholarship students. That made a private school education affordable to scores of families seeking alternatives to the public schools that, for whatever reasons, weren’t working out for them. Since then, our enrollment has nearly doubled, from 170 students to 320. We have 100 on a waiting list, simply because we lack the capacity to accommodate them. If we fail to provide a right and just education, these families would seek to go elsewhere.”
The Basilica School currently serves 154 students who attend on the income-based tax credit scholarship or Family Empowerment Scholarship (created by the Legislature in 2019), and 20 who attend on the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities.
In announcing plans for the high school, Wright noted that “scholarship programs, available through Step Up for Students, will keep costs affordable for all families.”
Overall, Catholic school enrollment in Florida increased this academic year following a nearly 7% decline at the start of the COVID pandemic. According to data from the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, enrollment grew by 4,610 students, or nearly 6%, during the 2021-22 school year. Again, Florida’s choice scholarships helped make that possible: Scholarship students made up just 24% of Catholic school enrollment in 2015 but make up 47% of enrollment today.
BY ROGER MOONEY
It has been nearly a decade since Jasmine and Emily Rojas graduated Abundant Life Christian Academy as eighth graders, yet in a sense, they never left.
The sisters still email or visit their former teachers and volunteer for school activities. When Jasmine needed a letter of recommendation for dental school, she turned to Abundant Life Principal Stacy Angier. When Angier needed volunteers to judge the recent science fair, she turned to Emily.
When they struggled with a science assignment during high school and college, they both turned to Loretta Camacho, their former middle school science teacher.
“That,” Angier said, “is what a school is supposed to be, right?”
It is for the Rojas sisters, who credit the academic disciplined learned there as a big key to their success at an academically competitive public high school, Florida Atlantic University, and their postgraduate studies. Jasmine is scheduled to attend dental school at Case Western Reserve University in August, and Emily is working virtually toward her master’s in music at Liberty University.
“(Abundant Life) was a big part of my foundation going into high school and going into college, facing those worldly situations and having the discernment to make the right choices,” Jasmine said.
Jasmine (Class of ’13) and Emily (Class of ’14) attended Abundant Life, a private school in Margate, Florida, with the help of Florida Tax Credit Scholarships, which are provided by corporate tax contributions to Step Up For Students.
Step Up celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. That’s 20 years of empowering parents to find an educational environment that best suits the needs of their children. During that time Step Up has awarded more than 1 million scholarships across the five programs it manages.
Claudia and Wilman Rojas are proponents of school choice. They sent their two oldest children – Bryan and Kelley – to Abundant Life because they wanted them to have a faith-based education.
“They wanted us to have that foundation, even when we’re not at home,” Emily said.
The plan was the same for Jasmine and Emily. But when the nation’s economy plunged into a deep recession in 2008, the school was no longer affordable. Or it wasn’t until the family learned of the FTC Scholarship.
“Absolutely a blessing,” Jasmine said. “We wouldn’t have been able to continue to go to that school without the scholarship.”
Said Emily: “Abundant Life is such a good school. It helped us grow with our relationship with God and keep firm with that, and with our studies as well. There wasn’t another school that would have been like that. I’m extremely grateful.”
In addition to being “top-notch students,” as Angier described them, Jasmine and Emily were mainstays on the girls basketball, softball and volleyball teams.
“They came to school early. They stayed late,” Angier said. “Anything we needed, they helped with. They always did their work. Polite. Respectful. There was never any discipline. Not even, ‘Hey, don’t talk in class.’ They learned in their home that you respect authority, that you work hard, that you always do your best. That permeated their time here.”
Abundant Life was K-8 when the Rojas children attended. (It has since added a high school.) That meant Jasmine and Emily needed to find a new school after eighth grade. After using education choice in the form of a tax credit scholarship to attend Abundant
Life, the Rojas family exercised another form when Jasmine and Emily both chose to attend Florida Atlantic University High School.
FAUHS is a competitive school that requires an admissions test, letters of recommendation and an interview. Students graduate with three years of college credits. While the school is not part of the local public school system, it is recognized as a public school by the State University System. Angier sent them there with recommendation letters and her blessings.
“And they were rock stars there, too,” she said.
Angier and her staff try to build a relationship with all their families, though not all are as close as the one with the Rojases. When Jasmine expressed an interest in studying nonprofit management at FAU, Angier offered to set up an internship for her at her old school. Writing letters of recommendation for any of the Rojas children was an easy task for Angier.
Claudia calls her children’s time at Abundant Life a “blessing.”
“I’m very grateful for this school,” Claudia said. “They helped my kids in so many ways, growing spiritually and growing into the persons they are right now. The experience there, I think I was more happy than they were.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at email@example.com.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) recently joined the Brookings Institute to discuss his role in the Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys, which exists within the U.S Commission on Civil Rights’ Office of the Staff Director.
The bipartisan, 19-member Commission, comprised of congressional lawmakers, executive branch appointees, issue experts, activists, and other stakeholders, examines social disparities affecting Black men and boys in America and recommends policies to improve upon or augment current government programs.
Included in Rubio’s conversation with the Institute on why the Commission’s work matters, he spoke passionately about the importance and value of education choice. Here is an excerpt:
It’s one of the reasons why one of the things I’ve been supportive of is school choice. Not because I’m anti-public schools. I went to public schools. Some of the best public schools in America are public schools in South Florida. But I also have seen firsthand — not because I read about it — someone be taken through an opportunity scholarship, which is funded through corporate donations to Step Up For [Students] in Florida, be able to go to a private school or a school of their parents’ choice, where they are exposed to all kinds of things that expand their horizons.
Suddenly, they realize there’s this whole other world out there — job and career opportunities that they may never have been aware of if their life had been isolated to just the 15, 20 square blocks of their neighborhood and their local community. That is a life-changing opportunity that suddenly sparks all sorts of interest. I’ve seen it happen over and over again.
People who never thought about becoming an engineer or a pilot, or going into the service academies, or going into law or science, whatever it may be, because they didn’t even know that those jobs existed, because they don’t know anyone who has jobs like that. To me, that’s extraordinarily important, and it’s one of those things that I think are underappreciated.
How much value that has in young people’s lives, to be exposed to those opportunities and to expand horizons early on. You can read more of Rubio’s comments here.
BY ASHLEY ZARLE
The contribution will be used to provide educational opportunities to more than 100 students through K-12 scholarships and underscores Cadence’s commitment to supporting programs and initiatives that help its communities thrive. Since 2019, the bank has funded 160 scholarships through contributions, totaling $1.2 million.
“We’re pleased to support Step Up For Students’ efforts to provide educational options for students who have financial needs,” said Frank Hall, president – Northwest Florida division for BancorpSouth, a division of Cadence Bank. “These scholarships are providing our future leaders with access to resources and opportunities that will help them tap into their full potential.”
Step Up For Students helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides lower-income families with financial assistance toward private school tuition and fees, or with transportation costs to attend an out-of-district public school. Through partnering with Step Up For Students, companies can fund scholarships and receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits for their contributions.
“We are grateful for the continued support of Cadence Bank,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “Because of its generosity, we are able to continue to provide Florida’s students with the educational opportunities they deserve.”
In February 2019, the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, released results of a study on the effectiveness of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, the nation’s largest private K-12 scholarship program. The study found that students on scholarship for four or more years were up to 99% more likely to attend a four-year college than their peers in public school, and up to 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.
Since 2002, Step Up For Students has awarded more than one million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
Ashley Zarle, senior manager, community relations donor events, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ROGER MOONEY
Ny’Reon Shuman has a blueprint for his future.
The 17-year-old has designs on being an architect. He wants to own an architectural firm, one with offices around the world.
He wants to design a big house for his grandmother, Katherine Shuman, who adopted him when he was an infant. He calls her “Mom.”
“She’s made sacrifices after sacrifices to get me to be here,” Ny’Reon said. “She’s literally the person I do everything for. I know once I make it, there is nothing in the world she can’t have, because that’s my mom.”
Once I make it.
To the teachers and staff at Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville, Ny’Reon is making it now.
“To me, he’s outside of the mold,” said Jackie Hardin, who has been Ny’Reon’s guidance counselor for the past four years.
Ny’Reon, a senior at Bishop Kenny, attends the Catholic school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is provided by corporate tax contributions to Step Up For Students. Ny’Reon has used the FTC Scholarship to attend a private school every year beginning with kindergarten.
“It’s been amazing,” Katherine said. “Can you see me drawing social security, trying to work and take care of him without a scholarship? Would have been no way I could have done it. It’s been a blessing to us because it paved the way for him.”
Katherine, 68, is a home health care aide. She has had seven back surgeries since 2010. In late December, she suffered a torn ACL and a broken bone in her right leg after a fall. Through all her medical maladies, Ny’Reon has served as her caregiver. He did his schoolwork virtually during the first two weeks of January so he could take care of his mom.
“He puts her needs before his own,” said Dawn Huskey, who teaches practical and performing arts. “What 17-year-old young man would do that? He left school. He went on virtual learning so he can protect her. He has a heart of service.”
Katherine’s son is Ny’Reon’s biological father. Shortly after Ny’Reon was born, he asked Katherine if she could take care of the baby.
“They were not in the right head space to raise a child,” Ny’Reon said of his parents. “My grandmother adopted me when she was 52 and I was two months old. For me to come from a past like that to the man I am today, nothing but God did that.”
Faith takes center stage in the lives of the Shumans, which is why Katherine wanted a faith-based education for Ny’Reon. They belong to Trinity Deliverance Christian Church in Jacksonville. When he was 11, Ny’Reon was asked to preach in front of the congregation. He’s been a guest preacher ever since.
“He sounds like one of the old preachers from way back when,” Katherine said.
Ny’Reon has not seen his biological mother since he was 3. He would like to meet her someday and show her all he has accomplished.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to form a more stable relationship as mother and son,” he said. “My heart is in the right place. I’m praying to God that we can. I hope that it plays out well.”
Ny’Reon carries a 3.0 GPA with a course load heavy on college prep work. He began his own photography business after developing a love for photography in the fifth grade. He has his own LinkedIn page.
As a fifth-grader he began attending the MaliVai Washington Youth Foundation (MWYF) summer camps, where he learned to play tennis. He now teaches tennis there and is president of the Foundation’s Teen Board of Directors for Club 904, which prepares high school students for college. The MWYF provides various scholarships to be used for college. Ny’Reon has earned three.
He also received a $27,000 college scholarship from the Stanley G. Tate Florida Prepaid College Foundation and Guardian Catholic Schools.
Ny’Reon plans to use these scholarships at either Florida International University or the University of Miami.
His goal is to earn a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a master’s degree in computer science.
His love of architecture began in the ninth grade when he took Digital Information Technology. For one assignment, he had to create a three-story house.
“I became so fascinated by the design, by the process,” he said. “I always told my mom I want to build her a house, and then I thought I could do this for a living and start my own architectural firm and branch off around the world.”
Huskey met Ny’Reon during a Summer Learning Strategies course she taught to in-coming freshman.
“I don’t mean to say that I could tell the future, but from the time I met him as a graduating eighth-grader, I knew there was something special about this kid,” she said.
Huskey’s husband, Mike, works for an architectural, engineering and construction firm that has offices around the world. He met Ny’Reon through a Zoom call, and Ny’Reon peppered Mike with questions about how to break into the field and start his own business.
“I’m in awe of this kid,” Dawn Huskey said. “I didn’t have my stuff together at 17 like he does.”
Said Hardin, “He’s wise, just so mature for a high school student. It’s always exciting to see that.”
Thanks to a sturdy foundation made possible by a tax credit scholarship, Ny’Reon seems capable of reaching unlimited heights.
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at email@example.com.
BY ROGER MOONEY
ORLANDO, Florida – Juliette Harrell was 17 when she told her mom she was pregnant. She was promptly kicked out of her house.
A single mother herself, Juliette’s mom painted a bitter picture of Juliette’s new world.
“My mom told me my life was over. You got to take care of your kids. You can’t do anything,” she said.
Juliette agreed with only one part: She would take care of her baby. But she felt her life was not over, and she was determined to realize her dreams of completing her education, starting a business, owning a home, and raising a family in a nuclear household.
Now, 10 years after Aiden was born, Juliette has realized all but one of those goals. Her childcare business is still in the planning stages. But it will operate out of the home Juliette and her husband, Allen, own at the end of a cul de sac in Orlando, where they live with Aiden and his brothers Amar’e, 6, and Asht’n, 2.
The path to the present wasn’t easy for the Harrells, who found themselves homeless at one point. They remained on course through an unwavering belief in themselves and a Step Up For Students scholarship. The scholarship relieved some of the financial burden and allowed the Harrells to exercise their right to school choice and send Aiden and Amar’e to a private schools located within walking distance of their home.
“The scholarship really has helped us tremendously. I don’t know where I’d be without it,” Juliette said. “The school that we’re zoned for hasn’t been performing well – well, not up to my liking, anyways.”
Allen was working as a groundskeeper at an Orlando apartment complex when he learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is provided by corporate tax contributions to Step Up For Students. The scholarship allowed Juliette and Allen to enroll Aiden in Orlando Day Nursery, a private pre-K and kindergarten school near their apartment at the time.
Aiden now attends Alpha Learning Academy, a K-5 private school, where he is in the fifth grade. Amar’e attended Orlando Day Nursery for pre-K and kindergarten and is now in the first grade at Alpha Learning Academy.
Juliette said receiving the FTC Scholarship eased the anxiety she had about Aiden’s education.
“For me, it was really important that we not only get the best education, but the education environment that best fit our family,” she said. “At the time, the public school we were zoned for wasn’t the best. I wanted options for (Aiden), and we were looking for the best opportunities for him.”
Education has always been at the forefront of Juliette’s plans. She graduated from high school despite being a teen mom who found herself bouncing between hotels and the homes of family and friends after her mother kicked her out.
“That was really important to me, getting my high school diploma so I didn’t become another statistic,” Juliette said.
Then she received an associate degree from Valencia College in Orlando and a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from the University of Central Florida. Allan has an associate degree from Valencia. He now works in merchandising for City Beverage of Orlando.
The two met in a computer graphics class in high school. Allen was a senior and Juliette a freshman. Juliette saw Allen from across the classroom, walked up and told him they would someday be married. And they are.
Click here to listen to more of Juliette’s story on the reimaginED podcast with Lisa Buie.
Poor money management led to the couple being homeless for six months in 2015. Juliette took Aiden and Amar’e and moved into a woman’s coalition. Allen moved back home with his mom. The separation, Juliette said, made the family bond stronger. It also provided her with the motivation to finish her degree at UCF.
“I felt really hopeless at times,” she said. “I felt like, ‘Why is this happening? What did I do wrong? Why did I go the route that I did?’”
Juliette knew an education was the way out. She wants the same for her boys. She wants to raise them in a stable, two-parent household where they never go hungry and always feel loved.
She wants to open the daycare to help the teen moms and the single parents in the neighborhood. She and Allen have cleared space in their backyard for a community garden, so they can provide fresh vegetables for their neighbors.
Juliette said she feels as if her family is no longer in “survival mode.” Because of that, she said it’s time they help those in their community who can use a hand.
“I want to let other families know that there is a way out of your struggle,” she said. “We did it, and we went to help other people get out of their struggle, also.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.