By JEFF BARLIS
Last fall, as she started her senior year in high school, IvonD’liz Chernoff was full of love and gratitude. She was excelling in school. She had overcome years of ridicule. She was headed for college.
Tracking a monster hurricane was the last thing on her mind.
But there it was. Maria. Tearing through her beloved Puerto Rico.
“I couldn’t look away,” IvonD’liz recounted. “Houses with roofs coming off, water coming in from the ocean. It was terrifying … heartbreaking. The worst part was the aftermath, seeing people suffering, kids crying because they don’t have a home or food or because their dolls are gone with the storm.”
I have to do something, she thought.
So she did. The girl who failed third grade was now student body president. The girl rescued by a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students now found the strength to rescue others.
I can move mountains, she thought.
IvonD’liz, also known as Ivon or Ivy, was born in Orlando. But in her heart, she’s Puerto Rican. She moved to the U.S. territory when she was three months old, and didn’t return to central Florida, to live with her grandparents, until she was 5. “I’m a pure Latina,” she said with an accent, a broad smile and a little shimmy that sent her tight, black curls into a dance. “My whole family shares that Puerto Rican spice.”
Florida turned out to be turbulent. When Ivon began attending her neighborhood kindergarten, she didn’t know English. She soon became comfortable speaking it. But reading?
“Reading was really difficult,” she said, “especially when you had to stand up. I would stutter. The kids who knew English would laugh.”
Ivon felt the sting of classmates calling her dumb. She cried a lot.
When her mom got married a few years later, she took Ivon and her two sisters from their grandparents’ home and moved south to Poinciana. In school, Ivon continued to struggle. She was bullied by a boy who picked on her incessantly. She got mostly F’s and D’s. She didn’t have many friends.
“I didn’t feel accepted,” she said.
After a falling out with her mother, Ivon and her two sisters moved back to Orlando to live with their grandparents. Despite financial hardships, it was peaceful and stable. Ivon’s grades rebounded.
As a freshman at her neighborhood high school, Ivon did well and was happy. But she told her grandmother, Luz Ruiz, she wanted to leave because the classes were so large.
“I didn’t like the fact that when I didn’t understand anything, they couldn’t slow it down for me,” she said. “I wanted to go somewhere where I could have a one-on-one conversation with a teacher.”
Enter Raising Knowledge Academy. Ivon and her grandmother toured the school and met the principal, a strong, warm-hearted woman named Ariam Cotto. It was too late to get a Step Up scholarship, Ms. Cotto explained. But when she saw Ivon’s enthusiasm for the school, she worked out an affordable payment plan with Ivon’s grandmother, who worked in housekeeping at Disney.
“She saw something in me,” Ivon said. “I was so happy I was crying when we left.”
It took time for Ivon to find her groove. But with a Step Up scholarship in place for her 11th grade year, the self-admitted goofy kid started taking school more seriously. In her senior year, she was elected student body president.
Then Maria happened.
The destruction devastated Ivon. But it also spurred her to action.
She immediately went to Cotto, and they came up with a plan.
It was simple at first. Ivon and some students stood at the busy intersection near the school with signs for hurricane relief, waving a Puerto Rican flag and selling water bottles. The early donations were encouraging. The first time someone handed Ivon $40 was stunning. But she was thinking bigger.
While Cotto called local officials, Ivon galvanized the entire school community – students, parents, their churches. It took weeks to plan and even longer to coordinate with a church in Puerto Rico, but the refocused efforts paid off.
Donations streamed in – food, supplies, aid kits and money ($1,000 in one day gave everyone shivers of empowered delight). Students filled bags and boxes with supplies for women, men, children and babies.
“She raised more than $7,000 and another $5,000 in food and clothing,” Mrs. Cotto said, crediting Ivon as the driving force. “She’s a wonderful leader.”
Ivon accumulated 120 volunteer hours in two months. At graduation, the school gave her its Citizenship Award.
She finished with a 3.5 GPA. She was also accepted to Adventist University of Health Sciences, where she plans to become a pediatric cancer nurse.
Ivon’s nursing aspirations began five years ago, when she learned from post-operation hospital nurses how to care for her grandparents at home. She cries happily at the thought of how much they’ve done for her.
Grandma couldn’t be prouder to see how Ivon has grown. She credits Raising Knowledge Academy. “There were moments when Ivon fell down,” she said, “and they helped her get back up.”
She’s well on her way to paying it forward.
About Raising Knowledge Academy
Opened in 2015, the non-denominational non-profit had 92 K-12 students last year, including 46 on Step Up scholarships. The school uses Alpha and Omega Publications’ Horizons and Ignitia curriculums, which allow students to customize elective learning in addition to five core subjects. It offers advanced classes and dual enrollment through Valencia College. Its teachers are state certified, class sizes are between 8-10 students, and the school administers NWEA’s Measures of Academic Performance (MAP) test. Tuition is $6,100.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By PAUL SOOST
MIAMI – Continental National Bank recently celebrated its $100,000 contribution to Step Up For Students, funding 15 K-12 scholarships during the 2017-18 school year. The scholarships allowed lower-income children the opportunity to attend the school that best met their learning needs.
It was the second consecutive year that Continental National Bank, a full-service community bank established in Miami in 1974, has partnered with Step Up For Students, contributing a total of $250,000 and providing 40 scholarships.
“Our community needs investments that lift our children up. We are constantly working to make our community better, stronger and fairer and we focus on many of our efforts in our children,” said Sonia Canessa-Gonzalez, Chief Financial Officer of Continental National Bank. “We are proud of our relationship with Step Up For Students and look forward to making a difference in our South Florida community.”
Step Up For Students helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which allows recipients to choose between a scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools. The program is funded by corporations through dollar-for-dollar tax-credited donations.
“Thanks to corporate partners like Continental National Bank, more Florida schoolchildren are able to attend schools that best meet their learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “We are grateful for Continental National Bank’s generous contribution that is helping Florida students, as well as their community outreach efforts.”
For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students served more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for K through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participated in the scholarship program statewide.
Reach Paul Soost at email@example.com.
By DAVID HUDSON TUTHILL
Her name means “Brave Warrior” in Spanish.
That might not conjure up the image of a 6-year-old girl with blonde hair, glasses and a smile so bright she became the first person with Down syndrome to become a main model for a major fashion brand.
But, Valentina Guerrero always defies expectations.
The oldest child of Cecilia Elizalde and Juan Fernando Guerrero, Valentina was born Sept. 16, 2011. Her parents didn’t learn Valentina had Down syndrome until after her birth. Each year, roughly 6,000 children in the U.S. are born with the genetic condition according to the Centers for Disease Control.
A Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs has helped Valentina shatter incorrect assumptions many people make about people with Down syndrome. Step Up For Students helps manage the scholarship.
“I realized how incredible individuals with Down syndrome are,” Elizalde said. “They’re so evolved on a spiritual level, and we have so much to learn from them. But we don’t hear enough of that. We hear outdated comments about their potential. I wanted to help change that perception.”
The family, including younger brother Oliver, 3, lives in Miami. Other family members remain in their native Ecuador.
Valentina was a few months old when her parents realized some of the challenges she could face. They soon had her working with occupational, physical and speech therapists.
Adriana Tilley, an occupational therapist with 33 years of experience, has been working with Valentina since she was a baby. Tilley says Elizalde and Guerrero are deeply involved with their daughter’s care, which has had a huge influence on her development. The Gardiner Scholarship helps pay for the care.
“The parents have been incredible and a huge member of the team,” Tilley says. “Valentina is like any other kid, with some limitations. But, we all have limitations.”
Tilley’s six years of work with Valentina have helped the child make tremendous strides in her personality. She constantly is asking how other people are feeling. Tilley marvels at the young woman she’s helped nurture over the past six years.
“She’s met all her milestones and is doing great,” Tilley says. “Now she is learning how to do everything by herself. I’ve loved working with her and learning from her family.”
Even as a baby, Valentina began shattering stereotypes.
She was 9 months old when she began taking the modeling world by storm. Family connections led her to European fashion designer Dolores Cortés. By 2013, she was the main model for the company’s children collection DC Kids USA 2013. In the ensuing years, Valentina has been featured in a plethora of media outlets, including People Magazine, Down Syndrome World and MTV Tres. She also has modeled for brands such as Walmart, GAP, Toys R Us and Carter’s, the children’s clothing company.
Her accomplishments resonated as far away as her family’s native Ecuador – to the extent that the country’s former vice president, Lenin Moreno, wrote Valentina a letter, calling her an inspiration. Moreno is now Ecuador’s President.
“We didn’t take the fame too seriously,” says Elizalde, a former television producer, consultant and music show host on the Spanish-language PBS station V-me. “I saw it as a platform for us to communicate an important message. It was a little hectic having to go from therapies to having cameras all over. It was kind of surreal.”
Social media has played a major role in Valentina’s fame. Thanks to her mother, there are countless photos and videos across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, documenting her life and various activities.
Elizalde also recently began a Spanish language parenting channel on YouTube. She hopes to pass on to other families some of the techniques and therapies that have most helped her family.
She is a firm believer in the adage that it takes a village to raise a child such as Valentina, which is why the family feels so fortunate to be able to choose the right educational path for her.
Valentina enrolled in a three-year pre-K class at Morningside K-8 Academy in Miami. By her third year, she was in class with over 20 kids, one teacher, and an aid. Despite the class size, and with Valentina the only child in class with Down syndrome, the school was largely successful in meeting her needs. When Kindergarten rolled around however, the family toured different school options.
Elizalde was worried about finding the right setting to meet Valentina’s needs. A friend recommended the family check out Von Wedel Montessori School in Miami. As soon as the family walked in, they knew they had found the perfect place for Valentina and her brother, Oliver.
At Von Wedel, the family creates an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, in conjunction with the principal, teachers and with input from Tilley. Valentina thrives in that setting, and Elizalde loves the philosophy of Montessori – to allow children to develop at their own unique pace, to work independently, and embrace the joy of self-discovery.
“None of her peers notice her disability,” Elizalde says. “They acknowledge that we are all different. It’s a really beautiful environment for her.”
A typical week for Valentina is full of activities. On Monday, there’s swimming lessons after school lets out at 3 p.m. She has occupational and speech therapies on Tuesday. On Wednesday, it’s ballet class. By Thursday, she’s back in the pool. Friday is usually a day to relax and spend time with some of her friends or fit in a modeling gig. Valentina loves going to the playground and to different museums. There is also a standing weekly Friday night dinner with family.
Valentina says she wants to be a chef when she grows up. She likes to play with her kitchen set. Her mother sees a different path, however. She thinks Valentina is a natural teacher.
Nearly every day at home, Valentina lines up her stuffed animals and reads to them and leads them in a class. The process goes on for a couple hours. Her younger brother Oliver is the only non-stuffed attendee, and she has helped him learn to speak English.
Six years old and with a life so fast paced, it’s hard to imagine the higher levels Valentina Guerrero will reach. With the help of her school, the boundless energy of her mother, and their family’s mission to spread positivity about individuals with Down syndrome, her capacity is endless.
“She’s a warrior,” Elizalde says. “When she has a goal, she fights for it and achieves it.”
Visit Cecilia Elizalde’s YouTube Channel.
David Hudson Tuthill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By JEFF BARLIS
The lean, angular kid arrived at his new school three years ago, whip-smart and rage-filled. TJ Butler didn’t want to make eye contact, didn’t want to make friends, didn’t want to follow the rules. Instead, he screamed, slammed doors and threw things, including, one time, a desk.
For a boy diagnosed with bipolar disorder, whose father was in prison, who grew up with police lights flashing in his front yard, maybe that’s no surprise. But the teachers and administrators at Hillsborough Baptist School weren’t going to give in.
Nearly every day for the first year, the principal, Jessica Brockett, talked with TJ – and listened. For a boy who never thought anyone would listen, this was therapy.
“I wanted him to have a fresh start,” Brockett said. “I said, ‘Look, we’re not kicking you out of here, so let’s just get past all that.’ That developed a trust and a connection that he could come down here and say what he needed to say.”
Three years later, a visible calm has settled over TJ. Now 18, he walks the halls with the confident, purposeful stride of a young man who’s on the verge of graduating from high school and going to college.
“This school really changed me,” he said. It “broke down the walls surrounding my heart.”
TJ’s story turns on the school that wouldn’t give up on him – and the school choice scholarships that gave him the opportunity to attend.
He grew up in Tampa. His father is in prison for life for drug trafficking and shooting a police officer. Home life with mom was a swirl of chaos and conflict with boyfriends and then a stepfather. The violence and threats that rattled the walls traumatized TJ and his two younger brothers.
“There was a lot of burning tension,” TJ recalled. “There was so much anger you could feel it.”
The anger became part of TJ’s wiring. The littlest thing could set him off. He was expelled from his neighborhood elementary school for fighting. He continued to find trouble with teachers and students at a second elementary school before moving to a charter school.
TJ doesn’t remember much of his childhood before age 10. It’s a dark haze that’s painful to probe. His mother, Ngozi Morris, now a single mom who works as a tax preparer, said he was always a good student.
“He’s very intelligent and capable,” she said, “but it was frustrating to see him struggle with his emotions. When he got to middle school, wooo, he just escalated out of control.”
By then, TJ had deep depressions. He thought about suicide all the time.
At his neighborhood middle school, TJ was constantly in trouble, constantly suspended in school and out. He fought with students, shouted at teachers, took out his anger on anything that wasn’t nailed down. It culminated in an episode late in his eighth-grade year in which he climbed onto the roof and threw anything he could find down at the principal’s window.
“It solidified everything for me,” she said. “His father had the same thing.”
With the diagnosis, Ngozi got TJ a McKay Scholarship for students with special needs and found a private school for her son to start ninth grade. A couple months later, he was expelled for an altercation he didn’t start under a zero-tolerance policy. He made it the rest of that year without incident at a second private school, but the academics weren’t challenging.
Ngozi worried TJ would never graduate, that he would end up in jail like his father. Then another mom told her about Hillsborough Baptist School, about how well they handled kids with behavior problems. Ngozi enrolled him. She eventually switched from the McKay Scholarship to the Step Up scholarship, because she was on an extremely tight budget and it reduced her monthly tuition supplements.
Hillsborough Baptist was TJ’s seventh school. As usual, he was mad when he arrived. As usual, he was trouble.
But bit by bit, trust grew and anger subsided.
Brockett, an unassuming young administrator with a shy smile and twinkling eyes, learned to read TJ’s face in the hallways. She would proactively call him into her office to talk. She could disarm an explosion before he even got to a classroom.
“A lot of times when he releases that anger, he cries,” she said.
Another breakthrough occurred at the start of TJ’s senior year. With his mom’s blessing, he moved in with the family of his best friend, Mathew Evatt. The calm and stability there resulted in further improvement in TJ’s behavior at school.
In the meantime, he serves as a teacher’s assistant, practicing the approach his school used with him.
One recent day, he stood at the whiteboard in front of first-graders, as one bouncy student attacked a math problem. The little brown-haired boy figured it out so quickly, celebration morphed from amusing to disruptive.
TJ let it go. His patience paid off. In short order, the boy settled down and correctly explained how he got the answer to his classmates.
Said TJ with a smile, “I saw myself in him.”
About Hillsborough Baptist School
Founded in 1992 and affiliated with Landmark Baptist Church, the school serves 147 K-12 students, including 85 on Step Up For Students scholarships and 36 on McKay Scholarships. The school uses the Abeka curriculum with lots of supplemental materials, like Bob Jones for upper elementary reading. It administers the NWEA’s Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP) as its standardized test. Tuition is $4,947 for K-6 and $5,432 for 7-12.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at email@example.com.
By GEOFF FOX
Ethan Alexander was decompressing in a multi-purpose room at Jacksonville School for Autism.
The lights were out in the room, as the blinking and hum of fluorescent lighting can be bothersome to some students. But the sun was shining through a large glass window, and Ethan, 9, was burning off energy by bouncing on a large blue exercise ball.
Clinical therapist Jasmine Stevens watched Ethan with a warm smile. After a few moments, she had him take deep breaths and whatever anxiety he previously felt seemed to evaporate.
Thanks to the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs, Ethan and his older brother Ashton, 11, have attended Jacksonville School for Autism (JSA) for two years. Step Up For Students helps manage the scholarship.
Before attending the school, Ethan struggled with reading and math, and didn’t socialize easily.
“His academics have improved greatly and he’s much more engaged with his peers,” Stevens said.
Jill Thomas, the school’s marketing and development director, entered the multi-purpose room as Ethan was counting backwards from five in the voice of his favorite character in “Monsters, Inc.” She asked how he was doing.
“Good!” Ethan said, adding that he hoped to soon see the movie “Black Panther.”
Noticing that Ethan’s earlier anxieties had subsided, Thomas fired a couple questions at him.
“Hey Ethan, what’s five plus five?” she asked.
“Ten!” he said quickly.
“What’s six plus six?”
After a moment, and a couple of bounces, he answered correctly: “Twelve!”
He was clearly pleased with himself.
As Ethan spoke with Thomas, his older brother Ashton was roaming on an elaborate outdoor playground. Keeping to himself, he walked, tightrope-style, along narrow planks that lined the area. The day was warm and a slight breeze blew through his short blond hair.
He was the picture of contentment.
Caitlin Alexander, Ethan and Ashton’s mother, said she worried greatly about her oldest son before they attended JSA. She and husband Van, a regional sales manager for a medical-device company, live in Jacksonville.
“Ashton had horrible behaviors that are now gone,” she said. “He would self-injure himself. His escape from a situation would be to smash his head against something hard. It could have been because of something someone said or something he heard, which made daily life a huge struggle.”
Ethan and Ashton previously attended a different school in the area. When their favorite teacher, Breiyona Baltierra, moved to JSA, she encouraged the Alexanders to visit.
“We fell in love with the school, too,” Caitlin Alexander said.
Tour JSA’s campus and it’s not hard to understand why. The school opened in 2005 and has been in the building formally occupied by an architectural firm since 2013. The school began with only two students, but there are now 60 – who range in age from 2 to 31 – and a waiting list. Ten of the school’s current students are on the Gardiner Scholarship program.
The school is housed in a spacious, two-story building with elaborate skylights in several classrooms.
Still, Thomas said, “There’s no more physical space. We get multiple calls a day from people wanting to get on the waiting list.”
On the first floor are several classrooms and a clinical wing where most students spend half of each day working one-on-one with a therapist.
Students who need individual therapy have their own cubicles where they can work without interruption.
Upstairs is a library that includes a Wii set-up, additional clinical spaces and more classrooms.
Inside a music room, piano teacher Twila Miller, known as “Mrs. Ty,” was teaching student Srinidhi “Sri” Aravind notes on a piano.
“Tap, tap, tap, tap,” Miller said, as Sri, a Step Up scholar, struck the correct keys in the proper rhythm.
“We’re learning how to hold the note,” Miller said. “The piano is a wonderful tool to learn to make your hands do what you want them to do.”
Sri kept playing, deliberately at first, but gaining confidence as she went.
“Isn’t that beautiful?” Miller said. “It sounds like the piano is talking to me.”
An occupational therapy classroom features resources and equipment that help students work on speech, writing and other fine motor skills, such as gripping objects properly.
Gym mats line the floor. There is also a large swing and a “ball pit,” where students can burn energy playing with plastic balls in a safe area.
“A lot of our students struggle with communication, so everything they learn academically is in a social setting,” Thomas said. “It may look like they’re playing games, but they’re learning how to interact and respond appropriately to one another.
“Some of them are constantly fighting their bodies to sit down and be calm.”
The school also has an adult vocational program in which participants help prepare lunches for students, as well as cleaning up and dishwashing.
“We want to teach them anything that can translate into a job,” Thomas said.
A dozen local businesses – including restaurants, grocery stores, thrift shops and a food pantry – routinely hire JSA students for part-time work. Spectrum Shredding even has a shredding machine at JSA, so some students can work without leaving the campus.
School officials hope to eventually open a separate center focused on residential and educational services for adults on the autism spectrum.
“We don’t want them to graduate high school or turn 22 and then have nothing to do,” Thomas said. Students are eligible to receive the Gardiner Scholarship until age 22.
The school needs 20 to 30 acres of land to build what is tentatively called the Autism Center for Residential and Educational Services. The trick is finding land close enough to the existing school – as well as raising money for the project, which would include housing, an auditorium, wings for elementary, middle and high school, a gymnasium and cafeteria.
“We want to offer Applied Behavior Analysis therapy and really expand our vocational programs and employment placement,” Thomas said. “There’s also a residential living component – supportive living. A lot of our students will not be able to live totally independently, but we want them to have all the resources they need to thrive and live in a supportive community.”
It is that attention to students’ overall well-being that attracted the Alexanders and the dozens of other families JSA has served.
Caitlin Alexander marveled at the progress her sons have made there in a relatively short time.
Ethan has been transformed from a student who didn’t like interacting with others into one of the school’s most outgoing students.
And Ashton’s behavioral issues have improved as dramatically as his interest in numbers has grown. He also has become proficient with Microsoft PowerPoint, which he uses to make slide shows, charts and graphs for various projects.
“He’s also really getting into coding,” his mother said. “You never know. He could be the next Steve Jobs.”
Geoff Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By PAUL SOOST
BAKER, FL – Seaside Engineering and Surveying, LLC., a provider of professional surveying and civil engineering services, on Feb. 5 announced a $20,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program for the 2017-18 school year, bringing the company’s total to $35,000 since 2016.
This marks the second year Seaside Engineering and Surveying has supported the scholarship program.
“Seaside Engineering and Surveying is proud to partner with Step Up For Students, and know that our contributions are helping local families send their children to schools that best fit their children’s learning needs,” said Seaside President John Gustin. “We’re excited to welcome Denise Bowers, Crestview Campus Principal from Rocky Bayou Christian School today. Rocky Bayou is a local private school that participates in the Step Up scholarship program.”
Rocky Bayou Christian School is one of more than 1,700 private schools participating in the scholarship program statewide. Rocky Bayou has been listed as the fourth best private elementary school in the U.S. by TheBestSchools.org.
“At Rocky Bayou, we encourage our students to conduct every aspect of their life with integrity, honesty, humility and love, traits consistent with the team members of Seaside,” said Bowers. “On behalf of Rocky Bayou Christian School, we’d like to thank Seaside Engineering and Surveying, as well as Step Up For Students, for their commitment to creating educational opportunities and for helping families in our community.”
Step Up For Students is a nonprofit that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged Florida schoolchildren. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and allows parents and students to choose between a K-12 scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.
“Thanks to the generosity of companies like Seaside Engineering and Surveying, more Florida families have the opportunity to choose schools befitting of their child’s learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful to Seaside for their contribution, and to its employees’ efforts to improve the lives of people living in their communities.”
For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up $6,343 per student for K through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade.
Paul Soost can be reached at email@example.com.
By JEFF BARLIS
At Seven Rivers Christian School in Lecanto, there’s a list of core values for students. Among them: Do hard things.
Maloni Lewis knows it. She’s lived it.
With two disabled parents and three older brothers in and out of jail, Maloni grew up in extreme poverty. Their community in nearby Crystal River, with its run-down homes and overgrown yards, was full of hopeless people.
Devastated by the path her sons had taken, mom Renée had an unyielding determination to chart a different course for Maloni. A tall, broad-shouldered woman, she made a school-choice scholarship the ticket to a better life.
“We went through a lot of trauma,” Renée said after a pause, her eyes welled up with tears. “But I told Maloni, it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s where you’re at.”
Like her brothers, Maloni struggled in third grade at her neighborhood school. Her reading, writing and math grades were poor. Other than her trademark mane of meticulous braids, she wasn’t herself. The playful smile, the one mom said “has diamonds in it,” was missing.
Renée had seen this before. Her boys were bright and talented, but they came home from school explaining how it wasn’t cool to be smart. They were made fun of for speaking proper English. Bad friends led to bad choices. Going to jail, Renée said, was a virus that tore through the family.
Maloni would be different.
Through a local nonprofit organization, Renée found out about Seven Rivers and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program that would make paying the tuition possible. She applied through Step Up For Students.
Formerly a certified nursing assistant who worked late hours and double shifts to make ends meet, Renée went on disability after she was injured in a fall. She also has kidney and heart problems that cause frequent hospitalizations.
After her injury, husband Donald went on partial disability due to worsening asthma. Money became a problem. Power and water were hard to keep on.
It was all a blur to Maloni. Until Seven Rivers.
Her first memory of the school is from age 9, when teachers, staff and parents came to help her family move. The Lewis home had been deemed uninhabitable, and they needed help moving to Maloni’s grandparents’ house.
“They’ve always been family to us,” Maloni said of the school.
Nestled along a rolling hillside dotted with oaks and pines, the school’s rusticated concrete-block buildings are modern and clean. For Maloni, the people inside made all the difference.
Chief among them was resource coordinator Donna Nelson, a wiry, fiery, caring woman who is now the school’s director of admissions. She became a mentor to Maloni and a close friend of the family.
“My secret angel,” Renée said.
Nelson’s job was to work with struggling kids, and she spoke frequently with Renée about Maloni’s strengths, weaknesses and direction. They plotted a course to help Maloni catch up in an academic environment that was far more rigorous than her previous school.
“At first I thought she was mean,” Maloni said. “But she wasn’t. She’s just passionate. She wants people to learn. She wants to help you.”
Maloni turned to Nelson in and out of school. If she needed tutoring or was hungry, Nelson was there. Sometimes when Renée was in the hospital, it was Nelson who broke the news to Maloni and offered rides and a place to stay.
“She loves her,” Renée said. “And I just wish for other families to have that. It’s so huge.”
Even with Nelson and Renée pushing, it took years to get Maloni on track in the classroom. Math was a stubborn nemesis, and she was plagued by doubts. I shouldn’t be here. Maybe college isn’t for me.
But her teachers never gave up. Maloni’s support structures grew to include year-round sports – volleyball, basketball and track.
After being a student who put forth a minimal effort, Maloni found a passion for learning and hit her stride in high school. Her GPA went from 2.4 as a freshman to 3.8 as a senior. She even conquered math.
With graduation looming in the spring of 2017, Maloni applied and got accepted to a small college in Pennsylvania.
“She wanted to go as far away from her community as possible,” Nelson said.
The school offered some scholarship money. But it wasn’t enough, so Maloni decided to go to the College of Central Florida in Ocala.
She recently finished her first semester with mostly A’s. Her plan is to get an associate’s degree, then transfer to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. The dream is to become a nurse like her mom and travel the world.
So much of her success is owed to Seven Rivers.
“I’m overly prepared,” she said. “Freshman year is supposed to be hard, but it’s really easy. It makes me realize I’ve been educated properly.”
From the moment her daughter graduated high school, Renée was “on a cloud.” She felt a sense of peace, perspective, and gratitude for the scholarship that made Seven Rivers possible.
“Step Up For Students is a lifeline,” she said. “It allows kids and families to dream. What they thought was so far out of reach is possible.”
Maloni knows. She’s lived it.
About Seven Rivers Christian School
Founded in 1988, the school is affiliated with Seven Rivers Presbyterian Church. It is accredited by Christian Schools of Florida, the National Council for Private School Accreditation, and AdvancEd. The school serves 502 K-12 students, including 126 on Step Up For Students scholarships. The curriculum has an emphasis on college prep and includes honors, Advanced Placement, and dual enrollment courses in high school. The school administers the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test three times a year. Tuition rang
Reach Jeff Barlis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By PAUL SOOST
EverBank, a division of TIAA, FSB, today announced a $1.5 million contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program. The donation will fund about 229 scholarships for the 2017-18 school year.
This marks the 14th year EverBank has supported the scholarship program. Since teaming with Step Up in 2004, the company has contributed more than $14.5 million, the equivalent of 3,050 scholarships.
“EverBank is proud to support the dedicated work of Step Up For Students through our contributions to the scholarship program. Providing opportunities for lower-income Florida families to find the right learning environment for their children will lead to avenues to a brighter tomorrow,” said TIAA, FSB, Vice President and CRA Officer, Joseph Hernandez “We believe this relationship will continue our efforts to inspire hope and empower change in the communities in which we work and live.”
The announcement was made at St. Matthew’s Catholic School in Jacksonville, which serves prekindergarten through eighth grade students. Nearly 40 percent of its 225 students use Step Up For Student scholarships.
Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged Florida schoolchildren. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and allows parents and students to choose between a K-12 scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.
“EverBank has been a longtime supporter of Step Up For Students in providing options for lower-income Florida families to find the environment that best meets their child’s learning needs. We appreciate and applaud their commitment and contributions,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “On behalf of Step Up and the students participating in our program, we thank EverBank for their generosity.”
For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up $6,343 per student for K through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
Reach Paul Soost at email@example.com.
By JEFF BARLIS
Demetria Hutley-Johnson can laugh about it now, but not long ago her daughter, De’Asia Waters, was having such a hard time in school she tried to hide her grades.
“I used to have to search her backpack,” Demetria said. “She’s sneaky. Their tests and quizzes have to be signed by parents. She knew about it. She just wouldn’t give them to me. Now she does.”
De’Asia, 16, laughs about it, too. She’s proud of her grades now. There’s no more hiding, because her troubles are behind her.
The struggles began in third grade at her neighborhood school in Quincy, about a half-hour northwest of Tallahassee.
“I just felt like she was being left behind,” said Demetria, a licensed practical nurse since 2013. “She had a substitute teacher all the way through December. She didn’t get her real teacher until they came back from their winter break in January.”
De’Asia’s grades fell from A’s to F’s, as mom grew increasingly frustrated.
After frequent visits to the school and many conversations with school officials, Demetria decided she needed to explore other options. She started calling private schools and found out about the Step Up For Students scholarship, which helps parents of lower-income K-12 students pay tuition.
Thanks to the scholarship, Demetria was able to steer her daughter’s academic journey back towards a happy ending.
It didn’t happen immediately. De’Asia’s poor grades required her to repeat fourth grade at the first private school she and her mom chose. The retention was supposed to help, but her troubles continued. After De’Asia spent fifth grade working at her own pace in a computer-based curriculum, her mom decided for a second time to seek a better fit.
A teacher suggested Masters Preparatory Christian Academy in nearby Havana. There, De’Asia’s grades began to stabilize in the sixth grade, thanks to small classes, one-on-one attention, and support from her teachers.
“After she was retained, she wasn’t motivated about school,” Demetria said. “She was sheltered, quiet, not enthusiastic. After (Masters Prep) did their magic, she’s like a totally different person.”
Said De’Asia: “It was different right away. It was the teachers. My teacher, Ms. Lovett, never gave up on me. They will actually keep me in the room until I finish my work, until I get it.”
Rhonda Lovett worked with De’Asia both in class and after class. De’Asia worked at home, too.
The girl who once hid her school work was starting to thrive.
“She was behind a little bit, but she worked hard,” Lovett said. “The most important thing was her mom. All I was was just her mom at school. Whatever her mom did at home, I was doing the same thing at school.”
De’Asia’s grades jumped from C’s and D’s in sixth grade to A’s and B’s in seventh grade. Her GPA rose from 2.19 to 4.08.
“Her whole attitude toward school changed,” Demetria said. “She finally started talking about college. I had never heard her talk about college before.”
Now a ninth-grader, De’Asia is excited about the future.
“It’s kind of a new thing,” she said. “I’d never thought about going to college, but now I do.”
About Masters Preparatory Christian Academy
The non-denominational Christian school serves a wide range of students, from developmentally delayed to gifted. Thirty-six students – including 18 on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students – attend kindergarten through eighth grade. Parents are required to sign an enrollment contract and commit to be involved in the education process. After a pre-enrollment interview, new students in grades 3-8 take an entrance assessment that tests reading, language arts, and math on the last grade level completed. The school uses the TerraNova Test. It uses the A Beka Book curriculum for reading and language arts in grades 3-5, the Saxon program for all math instruction, and Alpha-Omega programs for all other course work. Tuition is $6,920 a year.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: November is National Adoption Month, which allows us to spotlight that the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, the nation’s largest private school choice program, also extends eligibility year-round to children in foster care. This year, more than 1,200 children in foster care like Camron and Rylan Merritt, who are profiled below, are using the scholarship.
By JEFF BARLIS
When Camron Merritt came home from first grade with a card inviting him to a birthday party, he didn’t know what it was.
Recently adopted after two turbulent years in foster care, the 6-year-old had never been invited to a birthday party before.
He was the difficult kid with storm clouds behind his dark brown eyes. The one that other children and their parents couldn’t understand.
All of that started to change when Camron’s adoptive parents took him out of his neighborhood school in Bushnell and enrolled him in a private school with a school choice scholarship.
New mom Melissa Merritt cried when she saw the invitation.
“Seeing your kid go from being the outcast, the kid that nobody talks to, to getting invited to a birthday party is such a big deal,” she said.
When they got Camron at age 5, Melissa and husband Brandon put him in the neighborhood school that was closest to her job as a victim’s advocate for the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office. It did not go well.
Camron’s early childhood was plagued by neglect and exposure to domestic violence and drugs. The emotional damage was made worse by more than 20 foster homes and several schools before he was adopted. He was too much for most people to handle.
“He didn’t trust anybody. He didn’t like loud noises. If there was somebody yelling on TV, he used to run and hide in the bathtub,” Melissa said. “If you said no to him, his little face would scrunch up. He’d cross his arms and stomp his foot.”
At school, Camron wrestled with learning disabilities, severe ADHD and difficulty adjusting.
“Every day I was getting calls to come get him,” Melissa said. “He was hiding under his desk, screaming and throwing things, not paying attention, smacking other kids.”
Because Brandon does pest control work throughout the region, it was Melissa who had to leave her work frequently.
“It was extremely stressful,” she said.
Frustrated with a lack of support and communication from the school, Melissa resolved to find a better option and learned about Step Up For Students scholarships from another adoptive mother. Children in foster care or out-of-home care automatically qualify for the Step Up scholarship and can keep it if they are adopted.
Melissa said Camron’s first private school, a Catholic school in Lecanto, was amazing – welcoming, tight-knit, communicative. But by the end of his first year, he was still having major difficulty with reading.
Melissa and Brandon agonized over the decision to switch schools again. Camron had been through so much change. But Melissa trusted her gut feeling that a better fit was available.
They found Solid Rock Christian Academy in Inverness, a mile and a half from their home. It offered a phonics-based reading curriculum that specializes in helping struggling readers. But the school turned out to be so much more.
Sitting on 12 acres of mostly open land, it has an old-fashioned feel, like the schools Melissa attended. There are chalkboards, beanbag chairs, and teachers who dress up for holidays.
The principal, Sheila Chau, grew up with foster children in her home. Melissa did not know that at the time, but couldn’t be more grateful.
“She gets it, literally gets it,” Melissa said. “She’s aware of all the issues and challenges. When she talks to Camron, she’s firm but she also shows him respect. She knows what he’s going through.”
Chau estimates at least 10 percent of her students are adopted.
“I guess word of mouth has spread,” she said. “We nurture the child first. Academics are definitely important, but the first thing we do is look at the child and the circumstances where they’re coming from, and we meet the child where they are. There’s always a root to every child’s difficulties, and I keep that at the forefront with my teachers.”
Camron eased into his new school with summer tutoring and was placed in a special class that combined first and second grade material. It was a challenging time, as Melissa and Brandon adopted another boy, Rylan, who was 5 and came from a background as troubled as his new brother’s.
Like Camron, Rylan struggled in his neighborhood kindergarten while he was in foster care. So when he was adopted, Melissa applied for a Step Up scholarship on a Thursday, got approved on a Friday and had him at Solid Rock the following Monday.
“The process was phenomenal,” said Merritt, who has become a foster care advocate.
Now in their second year at Solid Rock, 8-year-old Camron and 6-year-old Rylan are in a safe, stable environment. Teachers talk to them without raising their voices, and know how to defuse a meltdown.
In a third-grade class with eight other children, Camron still struggles with reading but gets extra attention three times a week. He’s on grade level and has a mix of B’s and C’s. “That’s great for Camron,” Melissa said. “He’s doing very, very well.”
Rylan is on target with his first-grade academics and is doing better emotionally after having trust and behavior issues when he repeated kindergarten last year.
It’s not a utopia, but the school feels like an extended family. The boys have friends. The parents all know each other. It’s a happy place, an extension of the home Melissa and Brandon have made for their boys.
“It was such a relief to have one full day where I actually didn’t get a call from a teacher or a note from a teacher with an angry, frowny face because their behavior was totally crazy,” Melissa said. “They still have bad days like all kids, but they’re few and farther between now.”
About Solid Rock Christian Academy
Established in 1998 and affiliated with Inverness Church of God, the school has 180 K-12 students, including 140 on the Step Up scholarship. It is accredited by the Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS) and nationally through the Association of Christian Teachers and Schools (ACTS). The school uses the A Beka Book curriculum and administers the Stanford 10 test annually. Tuition is $6,500 annually.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at email@example.com.