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Step Up For Students ranked 13th in Forbes list of 100 top American charities

Step Up For Students continues to rise among the top nonprofits in the country, breaking into the top-15 of Forbes’ list of America’s Top 100 Charities 2021.

Step Up is ranked 13th, the highest ranking for among education charities.

Ashley Elliot

“Step Up For Students is proudly celebrating its 20th anniversary of providing scholarships to underprivileged children, and the Forbes ranking underscores just how far we have come in those two decades,” said Anne Francis, Step Up’s vice president, development.

“We are grateful for the support of our donors, whose support is integral to receiving this honor. With over one million scholarships distributed by Step Up, deserving students are being positively impacted each day, thanks to our generous donors.”

During the past fiscal year, Step Up received $976 million in private donations. The bulk of those donations are contributed from corporations participating in the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) Scholarship Program.

Passed into law in 2001, the FTC Scholarship Program allows companies to receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits against certain tax liabilities. The funds provide K-12 scholarships to children, eligible through their household income.

Ashley Elliott says the FTC scholarship made all the difference. Raised by her grandmother in Lakeland, Fla., Ashley was struggling in high school. She used an FTC scholarship to attend Victory Christian Academy. She went from failing to graduating high school with honors, then earning her associate degree from Valencia College, and is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Central Florida.

“Your education determines your future,” she said. “When I received school choice, it changed my future. I want that opportunity for everyone, not just me.”

20 years of Educational Opportunity: Once a beneficiary of education choice, Ashley is now an advocate

BY ROGER MOONEY

The first time Ashley Elliott realized her story could make a difference was when she found herself in Washington, D.C., moving from the office of Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Orlando) to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) to talk about the importance of education choice.

It works, Ashley said. You’re looking at proof.

It was a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship that changed the trajectory of her life for the better. She went from being a bullied student with failing grades at her district high school to one who aced her classes and made friends after enrolling in a private school as a junior. She was a college freshman when she was invited to Washington to share her story, and she didn’t hold back.

“If I could change the hearts of legislatures then it meant that things could change for kids in Florida, as well,” Ashley said.

Once a beneficiary of education choice, Ashley is now an advocate for education choice.

“I think where I see myself (in the future) is just always trying to make educational opportunity a continuing option, at least within Florida and hopefully in the U.S.,” she said.

Step Up For Students celebrates its 20th anniversary this school year. Last year, it funded its millionth scholarship. Many have used the FTC scholarship, provided by corporate tax contributions to Step Up, to combat economic hardship and graduate from high school.  And many of those high school graduates have pursued a college education.

Once a beneficiary of education choice, Ashley Elliott now advocates for education choice.

Indeed, research shows Ashley is hardly alone. A 2017 report by the Urban Institute found that FTC students were up to 43 percent more likely than similarly disadvantaged students in public schools to attend a four-year college, and those who were on the scholarship for at least four years were 99 percent more likely to attend college. They also were more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.

 Ashley counts herself among that group of FTC alumni. She already has an associate degree from Valencia College and is on pace to graduate this spring from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor’s degree in history. She would like to pursue a master’s degree in history or education policy, and possibly continue on for a Ph.D. She currently works part-time as a writer for the American Federation for Children and would love to continue working for the nonprofit after she graduates UCF.

Ashley said that “ninth-grade Ashley” never thought any of this was possible.

“She wouldn’t know how I got here. She would be confused,” she said. “But ninth-grade Ashley would be happy for me.”

Growing up in Lakeland, Florida, Ashley described her life as the “epitome of American poverty.” She and her younger brother were adopted by their grandmother. They both call Juanita McKinnon “Mom.”

 Despite the love at home and the sacrifices made by Juanita, who gave up her retirement years to raise her grandchildren, Ashley didn’t see much of a future for herself. She didn’t think she would graduate high school. She was resigned to being what she called “a statistic.”

But the principal and a teacher at the alternative high school she attended took an interest in Ashley. When they moved to a private school, they asked Ashley to move, too. With the help of the FTC scholarship, Ashley entered Victory Christian Academy as a junior and went from a student with failing grades and discipline issues to one who earned A’s and B’s and graduated with honors.

“Your education determines your future,” she said. “When I received school choice, it changed my future. I want that opportunity for everyone, not just me.”

Ashley and her mom, Juanita McKinnon.

Ashley forged tight bonds with her teachers at Victory Christian. She remains in touch with many of them. She’ll ask some to proofread a paper before she turns it into one of her college professors.

“They’re always there when I need them,” she said. “I know I can go back and get the help I need at any point in my life.”

Ashley is quick to recount a parent/teacher conference during eight grade where she and Juanita met with seven of her teachers. Two thought Ashley could salvage her grades and graduate. Ashley felt the other five had given up on her.

It was only recently when sharing that story with a couple of her college friends when one asked, “Did you ever think you weren’t receiving the proper help?” that Ashley fully grasped what it meant.

“And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re right,’” she said. “Because when I went to Victory there were the proper teachers to help me. A lot of it was about finding the right environment that worked for me.”

That’s what Ashley advocates for: The proper learning environment for every student. It can be achieved, she said, if families have a say, a chance to choose the education environment for their children.

In February, Ashley spoke to lawmakers in New Mexico. She told them that according to social statistics she should be a high school dropout, not someone who is a few credits shy of a college degree.

“It makes me really frustrated and upset that while our kids are going through the system and suffering, (lawmakers) are saying, ‘Wait. Wait. Just wait for it to be fixed. We’re working on it. Give it some time,’” she said.

“While legislators are saying that, school choice will be there to give an option for students who don’t have that time to wait. There’s no time to wait for a kid who’s trying to get through school. You have to be educated. I want to make sure that educational opportunities are always an option.”

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

Step Up For Students celebrates 20 years of providing Families Choices

Florida’s largest nonprofit scholarship administrator is celebrating its 20th anniversary of providing families more options in their children’s education.

Step Up For Students, a 501c3 nonprofit based in Jacksonville and St. Petersburg, has awarded more than 1 million scholarships since it was founded in 2002. Today, Step Up administers five of the state’s K-12 scholarship programs: the donor-supported Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) and the taxpayer-funded Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options (FES-EO), for low- and middle-income students; the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA, formerly Gardiner); the Reading Scholarship for public school students in grades 3-5 with low reading test scores; and the Hope Scholarship for bullied students.

Denisha Merriweather, who used a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship to attend a private school, is a testament to the power of education choice.

Step Up currently serves more than 170,000 students, most of them lower-income or with special needs. The scholarships empower their families to access the learning options that work best for their children so they can maximize their potential.

“As I reflect upon the last 20 years, I want to thank all the legislators, educators and donors who made this program and this movement possible,” said John Kirtley, chairman and founder of Step Up for Students. “As important, I want to thank the families who were empowered by the scholarships to give their students the chance to find an educational environment that best suited their individual needs.”

Florida has witnessed a sea change in education over the last 20 years. Once languishing at the bottom, Florida has skyrocketed to No. 3 in the nation in K-12 achievement, according to Education Week. With a focus on matching the child to the right education environment, Florida created a variety of educational options, including Step Up’s scholarships, to meet the needs of students. Today, almost half of the state’s 3.6 million students attend schools other than their assigned neighborhood school.

Scholarship students, and the private schools serving them, have played a role in the state’s educational success.

An Urban Institute analysis of the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship found recipients were shown to be up to 99% more likely to attend four-year colleges, and 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees, than like students in public schools.

“Parents are increasingly insisting on a public education system that is able to provide each child with an effective and efficient customized education,” Step Up President Doug Tuthill said. “Helping parents achieve this vision for the last 20 years has been an honor and a privilege. The next 20 years are really going to be amazing.”

Denisha Merriweather is a testament to the power of education choice.

The daughter of a teenaged mom and high school dropout, raised in poverty, Denisha thought she was destined for a similar path. Receiving a scholarship from Step Up For Students changed her life.

Denisha had been a troubled student who was held back twice at her assigned public schools. But when she went to live with her godmother in sixth grade, her guardian applied for and received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. That allowed Denisha to afford tuition at the private school of her choice, Esprit de Corps Center of Learning in Jacksonville, where she blossomed.

Denisha went on to graduate with honors, earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of West Florida and a master’s degree in social work from the University of South Florida. From there she served as School Choice and Youth Liaison to the Secretary of Education at the U.S. Department of Education. In 2020 she founded Black Minds Matter, an organization devoted to promoting the development of high-quality school options for Black students. Recently she became the first scholarship student alumnus to serve as a member of Step Up’s Board of Directors.

“I’m just so grateful,” Denisha said. “This never would have been possible without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.”

For more information about the scholarship programs, or for help arranging an interview with a scholarship family, contact Scott Kent, assistant director of strategic communications, at 727-451-9832 or skent@sufs.org, or visit www.StepUpForStudents.org.

Step Up’s Rising Stars Award programs returns this year with in-person and virtual events

BY ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students’ Rising Stars Award program returns this year with in-person events, a virtual event and a new category – the Super Senior Award.

“Step Up For Students celebrates our outstanding scholarship students every year through our Rising Stars Award ceremonies across the state,” said Jamila Wiltshire, Student Learning & Partner Success manager at Step Up.

“We are excited to return to in-person events this school year. Here at Step Up for Students, we know the importance of celebrating a year of everyday victories and growth which is pivotal to our students.”

Because of the challenges presented by COVID-19, the 2020-21 event was held virtually. Five in-person events are planned for this spring:

  • April 26 – Monsignor Pace High School in Miami and Impact Christian Academy in Jacksonville.
  • April 27 – Abundant Life Christian Academy in Fort Lauderdale.
  • April 28 – Saint Andrew Catholic School in Orlando and Cristo Rey Tampa Salesian High School in Tampa.

In addition, all Rising Stars Award scholars will be honored May 3 during a virtual event.

Principals can nominate students from Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC), Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options (FES-EO), Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique abilities (formerly Gardiner Scholarship) and Hope Scholarship in one of four categories:

  • High Achieving Student Award. Students who excel in academics, arts or athletics.
  • Turnaround Student Award. A student who struggled when they first attended your school and has since made dramatic improvements.
  • Outstanding Student Character Award. A student who demonstrates outstanding compassion, perseverance, courage, initiative, respect, fairness, integrity, responsibility, honesty or optimism.
  • Super Senior Award. A senior who demonstrates academic achievement, leadership, community service and/or extra-curricular achievement.

Click here to nominate your students. Deadline for nominations is Feb. 11.

Principals can nominate up to three students. McKay Scholarship students are not eligible.

Before you begin making your nominations, please have all necessary information available, including: school name, school DOE number, each nominee’s contact information (name, phone number, email address), and a short description of why each student is being nominated.

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

The Foundation Academy students march for unity, education choice at MLK Jr. Day parade

BY ROGER MOONEY

For Daarina Cue, an 11th grader at The Foundation Academy in Jacksonville, marching in the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade is a “great experience.”

The people who line the parade route cheer the students as they pass by while carrying large photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and other luminary figures of Black history.

Elementary grade students at The Foundation Academy in Jacksonville ride on the school’s float during the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade.

It is not lost on Daarina that some of those people received a much different reaction when they marched during the civil rights movement

The parade, Daarina said, “is very meaningful, since it’s our history. It also means a lot since we see what they accomplished in life. We can keep doing what they did.”

More than 70 students, staffers and parents of The Foundation Academy participated Jan. 17 in Jacksonville’s 41st MLK Holiday Grand Parade. It was the seventh consecutive year the private K-12 school has marched in the parade.

“Our diverse school wanted to show that we honor our African-American brothers and sisters,” Principal Nadia Hionides said.

Daarina and Nasiyah both said their participation in the parade was a “great experience.”

This year’s theme was “Strength In Unity.” The float, pulled by one of the school’s vans, was lined with cutout figures depicting children of every race and nationality holding hands. Those who walked alongside wore sandwich boards with photos of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Mae Jemison (first black female astronaut to travel into space), Fredrick Jones (inventor, entrepreneur), George Washington Carver, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and other notable people in Black history.

“The first time I learned about the history of myself, I really got to see how my ancestors used to be, and I am honestly proud to be Black,” said Nasiyah Halls, a seventh grader.

Nasiyah echoed Daarina’s sentiment when he said participating in the parade was “a great experience.”

“Loved the people. Loved the energy,” he said.

Like Daarina, Nasiyah attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The Foundation Academy has a student body of 375, with 231 attending on a Step Up scholarship. That total includes 179 on FTC Scholarships.

In a head start to National School Choice Week, which begins Jan. 23, the school incorporated education choice into its celebration. Students wore yellow National School Choice Week scarves. Those in the elementary grades who rode on the float wore orange T-shirts from Step Up that included the words “Parent Power.”

Many of those who walked wore blue T-shirts with the words “I AM ESSENTIAL” printed on the front. Tia Unthink, the school’s admissions director, said that message is shared among the student body every day.

“When you come to our school, you don’t see one color, you see all colors represented,” she said. “You see multiple nationalities represented, and that’s the only way we will ever present ourselves, because we are all children of God. We are all capable and are excellent in what we do. We want the students who attend TFA to see themselves in leadership.”

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

Conn’s HomePlus Supports Florida Students Through Scholarship Program

Conn’s HomePlus has contributed $174,000 to Step Up For Students, helping 23 deserving Florida schoolchildren access the right education to help them succeed.

This is the first year Conn’s HomePlus has partnered with Step Up For Students to contribute to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, an income-based scholarship program funded by tax-credited contributions from corporations. The K-12 scholarships allow Florida students to pursue and engage in the best learning environments for their individual needs by attending a private school or public school different than their zoned district school.

Conn’s HomePlus is one of the top consumer goods retailers in the country whose mission is to make it possible for everyone to purchase quality, long-lasting products for their home. Through their partnership with Step Up, they also support the mission of giving students access to the educational options they need. Step Up scholarships help provide those options to students like Joshua Brutus, a senior at Tampa Bay Christian Academy (TBCA).

Joshua Brutus, who benefits from a Step Up For Students scholarship, is a senior at
Tampa Bay Christian Academy who plans to attend college and start his own nonprofit.

Joshua was once considered the class clown until he was appointed junior class president by the principal of TBCA — a decision intended to draw out Joshua’s full potential. Joshua rose to the challenge, becoming a class leader and earning A’s and B’s.

Now, he has big plans for his future: a college education and possibly a career as an electrical engineer. Joshua is also committed to giving back. He wants to start a nonprofit to help young Black men in economically-struggling communities around Tampa transition from middle school to high school. He wants to show the same belief in them as the TBCA teachers and administrators have shown in him.

Joshua also understands the importance of the support he is getting from the Step Up scholarship because it gives him the ability to attend Tampa Bay Christian Academy.

“I’m very fortunate that I get to go here and get the support from them,” Joshua said.

Just like Joshua, tens of thousands of Florida schoolchildren are able to access the learning environment that works best for them with the help of a Step Up scholarship, which are possible because of the support of companies like Conn’s HomePlus.  

“At Conn’s HomePlus, we are committed to supporting students and families in the communities where we live and work,” said Chandra Holt, Conn’s HomePlus President and CEO. “We believe in the mission of Step Up For Students and are excited to partner with them to help provide Florida students the educational options they need to succeed.”  

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.

“With the support of Conn’s HomePlus, even more students in Florida will be given access to the educational environment that works best for them,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful for their generosity and commitment to helping students throughout Florida.”

Step Up scholarship to a private school ‘changed our whole entire lives’

BY ROGER MOONEY

BROOKSVILLE, Florida – Vadin Mankotya played second base for EXP Realty this season, proudly wearing the jersey sponsored by his mom. And Jennifer Mankotya, a sales associate, was equally proud to have sponsored a team in the Hernando Youth League in Brooksville.

“It was,” she said, “a pretty big accomplishment.”

Not long ago, Jennifer scraped by on her salary plus tips while working as a waitress. Life wasn’t easy for the single mother. But Jennifer wanted the best education opportunity for Vadin, and she was determined to send him to a private school.

What changed? A scholarship to a private school, managed by Step Up For Students.

“It’s helped both of us,” Jennifer said. “It’s changed our whole entire lives.

“If I didn’t have this scholarship, I don’t know what I’d do. I would make it happen, but it would be extremely hard for me. Financially, it helped me a lot, and it’s also given Vadin the opportunity to have the best education he can possibly have. I’m so grateful it is there.”

Vadin Mankotya poses in front of a mural at his school, Entirety K-12 in Brooksville.

Vadin, now a seventh-grader at Entirety K-12 private school in Brooksville, began receiving the Step Up scholarship during the 2016-17 school year. With a large portion of her salary no longer going toward Vadin’s education, Jennifer was able to afford the 63-hour class necessary to pursue her real estate license and the yearly fees required of all real estate agents.

Working in real estate was always her passion, Jennifer said. She went to real estate school after high school, but injuries sustained in a car accident prevented her from getting her license during the mandated time frame from when she completed her course.

Then, she said, life came at her fast. A marriage, a baby, a divorce. To carve out a living for herself and Vadin, Jennifer worked various jobs – in a bank, in medical billing, as a waitress.

“It was kind of me getting my life back together after that,” she said. “So that kind of stopped me from pursuing my dreams initially.”

Jennifer worked the late morning/afternoon weekday shift at a restaurant. She didn’t work nights or weekends (shifts that earn better tips) because she didn’t have anyone who could watch Vadin. She would take a break to pick him up from school, and he would sit at an empty table and do his homework until her shift ended.

“My mom was busting her butt every day,” Vadin said.

Jennifer sent Vadin to a private school even before she learned of the Step Up scholarship.

“I am a single mom, and education for Vadin is really important to me,” she said. “I’ve always taught him you can never take away education, and nobody is going to be able to take away your manners. Those are the things I really focus on.”

It was the Step Up scholarship that allowed Jennifer to pursue both the dream of a quality education for her son and for her to, as she said, “reach for what I love.” And because she reached, Jennifer now owns a home. She no longer drives a car that routinely broke down and didn’t have air conditioning. She can afford presents for Vadin at Christmas. The scholarship, Jennifer said, allowed her to pursue a dream that has given her both confidence in herself and independence.

“The scholarship helped my mom get back on her feet,” Vadin said. “She has a career in real estate. That’s always been what she wanted to do. I’m proud to say that my mom is a real estate agent.”

The scholarship also allows Jennifer to pursue another goal: a quality education for her son. Vadin recently received a report card where his lowest grades were a pair of B’s. He apologized to his mother for those low scores.

“I said, ‘You did great.’ He said, ‘I could have done better,’” Jennifer said. “It was a proud mom moment.”

Entirety K-12’s motto is “Learning fueled by imagination.” Students attend school for four weeks, then have a week off. They take core classes Monday through Thursday. Fridays are reserved for a full day of an elective class, which include architecture and engineering, culinary, dance, video production, art, forensics, and acts of service.

Last year, the entire student body went camping for four days in Ocala. The middle school students read the book, “Tarzan of the Apes,” and Principal Penny Bryson wanted the students to experience what it might be like to live in a jungle. This year, the school trip is to Busch Gardens, where they will spend four days embedded with the zoologists.

“This is really different from other schools,” Vadin said. “We do a lot of things different here. My goal is to go to college and have a career, and I don’t think that would be possible without Miss Penny. She supports me in everything I do.”

Jennifer said it costs $250 to sponsor a team in the Hernando Youth League. That’s something she would have never been able to afford working as a waitress.

“It made me feel proud that I was able to do it,” she said. “You know when you have a check list in your head of what you want to do? I checked that box, and I hope to check that box every single season.”

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

DTCC continues its support of scholarship program for Florida schoolchildren

The Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation (DTCC), the premier post-trade market infrastructure for the global financial services industry, has contributed over $711,000 to Step Up For Students in the last year, helping nearly 100 Florida schoolchildren attend a K-12 school that best fits their learning needs and making a difference in their local community.

Zoe was one student who benefited from DTCC’s contribution. Zoe, who was determined to succeed in school, sought to create a different path for herself than the one her mother and brother followed, where both dropped out of school. Zoe “always felt education was No. 1 over everything,” and through the Step Up For Students Florida Tax Credit (FTC) Scholarship, she was able to attend Carrollwood Day School in Tampa, where she graduated with a 4.0 GPA and went on to attend Louisiana State University (LSU) to study sports medicine.

This is exactly what Zoe’s mom, Pamala, wanted for her daughter, adding, “I’m so thankful and so grateful. She would not be where she is today if she did not have the Step Up Scholarship and go to that school.”

Just like Zoe, more than 100,000 schoolchildren throughout Florida have benefitted from the scholarship they received during the 2020-21 school year.

Zoe, who benefited from the Step Up For Students scholarship, graduated with a 4.0 GPA from Carrollwood Day School and is now attending the Louisiana State University.

“At DTCC, it is our mission to drive positive change” said Susan Cosgrove, CFO at DTCC. “We believe Step Up For Students is doing just that and we are proud to support their efforts in helping students throughout Florida access the education they deserve.”

Since partnering with Step Up For Students in 2019, DTCC has generously funded 239 Florida Tax Credit (FTC) Scholarships through contributions totaling $1.6 million. The income-based scholarship program is funded by tax-credited donations from corporations 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 out-of-district public schools.

“DTCC is committed to investing in their community and this donation is proof of just that,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “With the support of companies like DTCC, we are able to continue to provide educational options for deserving students in Florida.”

Since 2002, Step Up has awarded more than 1 million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the program.

“We remain deeply committed to making a difference in communities where we live and work, and we’ve seen, firsthand, the life-changing benefits of the Step Up For Students program, in Tampa – where we are based – and across the state of Florida. We look forward to our continued partnership with this important organization,” stated Marie Chinnici-Everitt, CMO and Head of DTCC Tampa.

Sunshine Health donates $20 million to support Florida schoolchildren

Sunshine Health will fund scholarships for 2,625 deserving students with a $20 million contribution to Step Up For Students, the nonprofit organization that manages the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

A longtime partner of Step Up For Students, Sunshine Health has generously funded 8,738 scholarships since 2004 through contributions totaling more than $59.5 million, including its most recent contribution of $20 million. The income-based scholarship program is funded by tax-credited contributions from corporations. The K-12 scholarships allow Florida students to pursue and engage in the best learning environments for their individual needs by attending private or out-of-district public schools.

Sunshine Health, a wholly owned subsidiary of Centene Corporation, is one of the largest healthcare plans in Florida and is committed to transforming the health of the community one person at a time.

A healthy body starts with a healthy mind, and Step Up scholarships help students like Yonas Worku.  Yonas emigrated from Ethiopia when he was 5 and, with the help of a Step Up scholarship, attended Sacred Heart Catholic School before going to Bishop John Snyder High School in Jacksonville.

Yonas Worku, who benefited from the Step Up For Students scholarship, graduated valedictorian from Bishop John Snyder High School and is now attending the University of Florida.

“Step Up was a big help,” Yonas said. “A very big help. We didn’t have any money. It was paycheck-to-paycheck.”

Yonas said he wanted to help his mother, but when he talked of getting a job, she told him to work on school.

“I realized that education was the most important thing in this country and that through it, Yonas can become a better individual,” said his mother, Zinash Tekleweld, who now works as a school janitor. “Education is the key to getting anything that he wants. I realized that it can open many doors for him in the future.”

Yonas recently graduated as valedictorian from Bishop John Snyder High School and is currently taking classes at the University of Florida, where he will major in computer science.

Just like Yonas, thousands of Florida schoolchildren are benefiting from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program managed by Step Up For Students.

“We are committed to improving the health of communities across Florida,” said Nathan Landsbaum, Sunshine Health President and CEO. “Education is an important Social Determinant of Health. We are proud to increase our support of Step Up For Students and provide even more Florida schoolchildren with the educational opportunities they deserve.”

Since 2002, Step Up For Students has awarded more than 1 million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

“Because of this incredible contribution from Sunshine Health, thousands of Florida’s students are provided the educational options they need to succeed,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful for their continued partnership and commitment to transforming the lives of Florida’s schoolchildren.”

The benefits of private schools

By ROGER MOONEY

Most mornings, history teacher Quintarries Upshaw stands in the hallway and greets the arriving students at the Dixon School of Arts & Sciences with a song he plays on his clarinet.

The melodies are soothing, welcoming. Meant to create a mood.

“What he’s doing is setting a temperature that says, ‘When you come in, this is your safe place,’” Dixon principal Donna Curry said.

The Dixon School of Arts & Sciences in Pensacola, Florida creates a welcoming environment for students who have dealt with trauma at home.

The private K-8 school in Pensacola, Florida sits in a high-crime neighborhood. Curry said it’s hard for her students not to be affected by their surroundings, which is why the staff and faculty are trained in trauma sensitivity.

“We cannot control what happens outside the school,” Curry said. “But when the students come through the doors, it has to be the calmest, inviting place that they have been in. We created that on purpose.”

When someone interested in education choice approaches Curry and asks about the benefits of sending their child to a private school, her response is about the protective shield her school creates not only for the students but for their parents, as well.

“What I normally tell parents, the beauty of Dixon being a private school is that we understand our parents,” Curry said. “We are a true community school.”

Dixon is one of 2,625 private schools in Florida, according to the Private School Review. They range from pre-K to high school with an average enrollment of 172 in elementary schools and 200 in high schools.

There are some that cater to the arts and sciences, like Dixon. Others offer an International Baccalaureate program or a Waldorf education, developing children’s intellectual, artistic, and practical skills in an integrated and holistic manner. Many private schools are faith-based, and there are schools that accommodate children with special needs.

For decades, parents have realized the benefits of sending their children to private schools, including:

  • Smaller class sizes and more favorable teacher-student ratio.
  • A faith-based education.
  • A challenging curriculum.
  • The opportunity for a parent to exercise school choice.
  • A safer education environment.
  • A shared educational philosophy between the parent and the school.
  • The school as a community environment found at smaller schools.
  • Athletic programs.

But many parents can’t easily afford private schools. The cost of yearly tuition for a private school in Florida is lower than the national average. The average for an elementary school is $7,785 (the national average is $10,066). For a high school it is $9,899 ($14,978 nationally).

In Florida, however, parents can apply for scholarships managed by Step Up For Students that can help with tuition, fees and more.

Financial Assistance to private schools for Florida schoolchildren include:

  • The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship are two scholarships for private school (or transportation help to a district school).
  • The Gardiner Scholarship is an education savings account, known better as ESA, that serves children with certain special needs.
  • The Hope Scholarship is for schoolchildren who reported being bullied or were a victim of violence in their district school.

More than 1,800 Florida private schools accept Step Up For Students scholarships for one or more of its programs. That’s a lot of choices for Step Up scholars.

Faith and safety

Raising children a second time, Sharon Strickland looked for an academic environment where she would feel comfortable sending her granddaughters, and where they would feel safe.

After more than 20 years of living on her own, Strickland gained custody of her two great-granddaughters during the 2019-20 school year. The girls, 9 and 4, respectively, needed a school. Strickland remembered the overcrowded classrooms from 20 years ago when she used to take one of her granddaughters to the district middle school. She could only imagine the situation now.

Feeling her oldest granddaughter would benefit from a smaller teacher/student ratio and wanting a faith-based education for the two, Strickland enrolled them in a private Christian school five minutes from their home.

Savannah and Karlee Strickland celebrate Christmas at Daytona Beach.

Savannah, the oldest who is in the second grade, attends Warner Christian Academy, a pre-K through 12th grade private school in South Daytona, Florida, on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Her sister, Karlee, will receive the scholarship when she enters kindergarten.

Savannah, who repeated the second grade during her first year at the school, has improved her grades over those she earned while attending a district school.

“She doesn’t have a learning disability, but she’s not on the level the other kids are,” Strickland said. “She has 12 kids in her class. That’s great. She’ll get all the instruction she needs.”

The faith-based education, the school’s anti-bullying policy and the fact tutors are available for all students is what sold Strickland on Warner Christian.

“To sum it up, I can go to work and feel good about leaving them there,” she said.

Hybrid learning

Wellmont Academy, a faith-based K-12 private school in St. Petersburg, Florida is an example of education choice at work.

Defined as a hybrid school, Wellmont offers students the option of attending school five days a week, three days (upper grades) or two (lower grades).

Wellmont Academy in St. Petersburg offers a unique hybrid education program.

Those students who opt for hybrid learning spend the days when they are not in the classroom learning at home or participating in the school’s Assisted Learning Program.

“The hybrid model allows parents to be involved more in their education,” Danielle Marolf, Wellmont’s founder and principal, said. “Parents can enroll their kids the way they need to enroll them. It’s really popular.”

Marolf said parents have two main concerns when they discuss moving their child from a district to a private school: class sizes and a safe environment.

At Wellmont, classes are capped at 15 students and include a teacher and an aid.

“That teacher knows those kids so well,” Marolf said. “She knows exactly what their needs are, and she can work with them.”

As for bullying, Marolf said, “We have zero tolerance for bullying, and we mean it. Our kids know that we’re serious, and when we tell them this is a safe place and we will listen to you and our door is open, they know it. They can come into my office and talk to me.”

A sense of community

The sense of community is as much of a selling point for private schools as the value of the education they provide. The two often go hand-in-hand. And when the school loops in the parent’s right to exercise education choice, it presents an attractive alternative to a district school.

Back at the Dixon School of Arts & Science, safety from the neighborhood is only one benefit. It also offers an arts program that has produced students whose works are featured in local galleries and magazines, and student scientists, who have traveled to Washington D.C. to present their projects at a convention for real scientists.

Like every principal, Curry said it is the job of her faculty to find that switch that will turn the students into scholars. That can be difficult for a student who is dealing with trauma at home, so couches are placed in the hallways for students who need some quiet time to relax or a place to talk to a teacher or staff member about their troubles.

Parents are allowed to use those couches, too.

“You cannot love children without loving the parents. So, what we invite our parents to is a school that not only cares about the children, but cares about them,” Curry said.

“It makes them feel less traumatized. And if I have a less traumatized parent, I have a less traumatized child, and that makes it easier for me to teach A,B,C’s and 1,2, 3’s.”

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