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Scholarship fosters better relationship between school and adoptive brothers

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.

Adoptive brothers, Cameron, left, and Rylan Merritt, right, thrive at Solid Rock Christian Academy with Step Up For Students income-based scholarships .

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.

In recent years, the number of children in foster and our-of-home care participating in the nation's largest private school choice program has grown substantially. Source: Step Up For Students

In recent years, the number of children in foster and our-of-home care participating in the nation’s largest private school choice program has grown substantially. Source: Step Up For Students

“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 jbarlis@sufs.org.

Scholarship gives strength to bullied student

By DAVID TUTHILL

Jacob Monastra came home from school in tears every day.

He struggled in class and was often bullied, practically from the day he started first grade.

“Our hearts were heavy watching our bright little boy’s self-esteem erode before my eyes,” said Lynn Lambo, Jacob’s grandmother and guardian. “He called himself the worst kid in school and thought he was so dumb.”

He had always seemed to toil developmentally and barely spoke until he was 3.

Jacob, a student at New Generation School in Live Oak, is especially fond of teacher Charlene Redish, who has helped him overcome shyness, issues with self-confidence and academic concerns.

During his third grading period of first grade at his neighborhood school in St. Petersburg, Florida, Jacob was a candidate to be held back for a year. Lambo dealt with that as she and husband Daniel began the process of moving with Jacob to Live Oak, a more rural area east of Tallahassee.

Prior to the move, Lambo briefly enrolled Jacob at a learning center in St. Petersburg for additional help. The one on one attention he received enabled him to enter second grade at Suwannee Elementary School in Live Oak, where his teacher was Charlene Redish.

“Jacob came into my classroom very shy and withdrawn,” Redish said. “He was in desperate need of confidence, because of his academic struggles and because of bullying. He would cry easily and didn’t trust anything around him. We had to fight for him so hard.”

While Jacob’s academic struggles continued, he made strides socially. When a disruptive student was new to Redish’s classroom, Jacob befriended him, even teaching him how to share, Redish said. As a form of reciprocation, the other boy helped protect Jacob from bullies.

But Jacob’s academic issues could not be ignored. He passed second grade – with great effort – but continued to struggle in third grade with a new teacher. In November 2016, Redish, a teacher Jacob had grown to admire and trust and still saw every morning before school, left Suwannee Elementary for a job at a private school.

That left Jacob with a new teacher – and more of the same issues.

By January 2017, Lambo was again told her grandson might be held back.

“I was shocked,” she said. “The school year wasn’t even half over, and I didn’t understand how they could tell me that.”

Fortunately for Jacob, help came from a familiar source.

Charlene Redish always kept tabs on Jacob and his family, and the bond between he and Redish proved too deep to break. Redish advised Lambo to send Jacob to her new school, New Generation School, also in Live Oak, for a one-week trial to see how he fit in.

The results were immediate and stunning.

“When I picked him up that (first) day, he said to me ‘This is my new school now,’” Lambo said with pride.

His grandparents quickly applied for and received the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families through Step Up For Students, and enrolled Jacob into New Generation.

With Redish as his new third-grade teacher, Jacob’s transition to the new school was practically flawless.

“It was like night and day at New Generation,” Redish says. “He picked up quickly and became a leader in my classroom.”

Almost overnight, Lambo also saw a change. The smaller class sizes and flexibility of the curriculum was just what Jacob needed.

Jacob Monastra likes digging for rocks, riding four-wheelers with his grandfather and fishing.

Once the quietest kid in a classroom, he is now well known for helping others, raising his hand frequently and almost always answering questions correctly. Every Friday, students at New Generation are released from classes early and have the option to leave at noon or stay in an after-school program until 2 p.m. But Lambo said he’s never once wanted to leave early.

“I used to have to peel him off me,” she said. “Now he’s smiling from ear to ear.”

Jacob breezed through third grade at New Generation and is now working through fourth grade, again under the tutelage of Redish. Now 9, he recently earned the New Generation Spirit Award, awarded to the student who most symbolizes integrity, kindness and the school’s purpose.

At school, Jacob and a few of his close friends often embark on playground archaeological digs, looking for rocks and pretending they are minerals.

Outside the classroom, Jacob enjoys fishing and recently caught a 13-inch crappie. He also enjoys riding a four-wheeler with his grandfather.

Jacob’s future is the brightest it has ever been.

“I am so happy they were able to get a scholarship for Jacob,” Redish said. “It was truly a blessing.”

Reach David Hudson Tuthill at dhudson@sufs.org.

 

 

Josh Clay’s boulevard of unbroken dreams

By DAVID TUTHILL

Josh Clay sometimes speaks at such a frantic speed he needs to slow himself down.

But he speaks with authority on so many topics – from theater, to the band Green Day, to the world of comedy – that you would never believe the challenges he’s overcome.

The 15-year-old was born with Asperger’s syndrome. Considered to be at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, those with Asperger’s often have difficulty with social interactions, and may exhibit compulsive behaviors and repetitive movements. They also tend to show an intense, all-absorbing interest in topics they enjoy.

Josh Clay, an eighth-grader at De LaSalle Academy in Fort Myers, played Long John Silver in the school’s rendition of “Treasure Island.”

In preschool, Josh often hit milestones later than his classmates, and he exhibited behavioral tics associated with Asperger’s.

In elementary school, he was placed on an Individualized Education Plan to help him navigate the special education he needed, which seemed to work. He was on an adequate academic pace and he made good acquaintance with fellow students. Thanks to a strict school policy, bullies were virtually nonexistent.

When it was time to start middle school, other potential issues came into focus. Josh was an “out of zone” Title I student for elementary school, but a lack of room in the preferred middle schools meant Josh would have to attend the school near his address, where he knew no one, and no one knew him.

His parents, Edward and Julie Clay didn’t feel confident their neighborhood school in Naples, Florida, could accommodate him academically.

So, Edward and Julie decided to home-school Josh in sixth and seventh grade.

“Josh was academically fine in elementary school,” Julie Clay said. “He was just a little fidgety. We decided home schooling for middle school was probably for the best as he got older.”

Josh’s sixth- and seventh-grade years were successful. His mother had no plans of putting Josh back in school, but things were about to change.

Knowing his diagnosis meant he would always need extra attention and therapy, Julie Clay took Josh to a behavioral therapist before he started eighth grade this year.

The therapist told her about two things that would change the direction of Josh’s education: the Gardiner Scholarship for families with children with certain medical diagnoses, such as Asperger’s, and De LaSalle Academy, a private school for students with special needs in nearby Fort Myers, Florida.

“When I heard about (De LaSalle) I thought, ‘Wow, this would be really great for him. Let’s walk down this path and see if it’s the right fit,’” Julie Clay said.

On his first visit to De LaSalle, Josh noticed how different the school was from his previous ones.

“I saw they all had classes with kids who reminded me of me,” he said. “I got along well with the teachers, and I liked that the only homework was classwork that we didn’t finish.”

While Josh was eager to attend and blend into the De LaSalle culture, there were some growing pains. He applied for and received the Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students.

His situation was nothing new to De LaSalle Principal Lori Riti. Under her direction, the school’s speech language pathologist, social communication , occupational therapist and counselor all work in tandem for students like Josh.

“Josh came here with some social issues, mainly with getting along and connecting in a way with other kids that was healthy,” Riti said.

Some of the issues Josh mastered at De LaSalle Academy were interpreting nonverbal communication and perception, as well as conflict resolution. The school’s specialists made tremendous strides with him. One of his closest friends at school was once a child with whom he argued and fought with regularly.

“Josh had some onboard skills, but he had to take where he was and develop much further,” Riti said. “He wasn’t successful until he had direct intensive work. I give a lot of credit to our teachers and advisors for his success.”

His achievements aren’t limited to the classroom. Josh has become one of De LaSalle’s star theater performers. He recently starred as Long John Silver in the school’s rendition of “Treasure Island.”

This winter, the school’s Performing Arts Club will perform the Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” De LaSalle’s stage will be designed to look like an old-time radio station, and Josh will play several roles, including the “warped and frustrated” Mr. Potter, Mr. Gower, the druggist, and Ernie, the cab driver.

A natural performer, his penchant for inspiring laughter at school is legendary.

On a recent weekday, he told one of his favorite jokes about ordering steak at a restaurant: “When they asked how I wanted it cooked, I said, ‘On a stove.’”

While Josh’s favorite band is Green Day, he strongly warns against their occasionally profane language. The family saw the band perform live in September. Since the tickets were purchased in January, Josh had to wait nine months.

It was worth it.

The show, he said, “was legendary.”

Josh said he hopes to someday attend Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, where he wants to continue improving his acting chops and hone his comedic talent.

As for his experiences at De LaSalle, he couldn’t be happier.

“For parents who want to send their kids to this school, well, it’s the greatest school in the universe,” Josh said. “It will be the greatest move you ever do.”

David Tuthill can be reached at dtuthill@stepupforstudents.org.

 

Step Up For Students honors insurance industry, Tower Hill for generous contributions

By SHELBY HOBBS, Special to Step Up For Student

ORMOND BEACH, Fla. – Florida insurance companies have been protecting more than just Floridians’ homes this hurricane season, as they have made generous contributions to Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer the needs-based Florida Tax Credit (FTC) Scholarship Program.

Don Matz, president of Tower Hill Insurance, center, receives a thank you from the fourth grade class at Calvary Christian Academy. Several of the students are recipients of the Step Up For Students scholarship. They are joined by CCA Headmaster Dr. Aaron Gonzalez.

Tower Hill Insurance, a significant contributor from the insurance industry, and Step Up For Students hosted an event Oct. 25 at Calvary Christian Academy in Ormond Beach to celebrate the insurance company’s contributions and the work Step Up continues to do for Florida’s lower-income families. Since 2011, Tower Hill has contributed over $3 million to Step Up For Students, providing scholarships to more than 600 of Florida’s most underprivileged students who are given access to a private school or financial assistance for transportation to attend an out-of-district public school. 

“By investing in the future of our students, we are investing in the future of Florida,” said Don Matz, president of Tower Hill. “One of our top priorities at Tower Hill is to give back to our community as much as we can, and we choose to start with these deserving students.”

Calvary Christian Academy fourth grader Mia Rauseo shares her story with her classmates at an event honoring Tower Hill Insurance. Tower Hill has contributed over $3 million since 2011 to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program, providing more than 600 scholarships to Florida’s most underprivileged students. Mia is able to attend Calvary Christian Academy with the help of a Step Up scholarship.

Calvary Christian Academy fourth grader Mia Rauseo shares her story with her classmates at an event honoring Tower Hill Insurance. Mia is able to attend Calvary Christian Academy with the help of a Step Up scholarship.

Step Up For Students provides opportunities to nearly 105,000 lower-income students across Florida this school year with 3,213 scholars in Volusia County.  

“We are so grateful for Tower Hill’s investment in our program and the children who depend on it,”  said Joe Pfountz, CFO of Step Up For Students. “The company’s generosity is crucial to the work our team does and shows just how much they really care about Florida’s kids and its future.”

The typical scholarship student comes from a single-parent household where the average income is $25,353. A recent study found that students who receive these scholarships for at least four years are 40 percent more likely to attend college than their public school counterparts, and 29 percent more likely to earn an associate degree.

During the event, Step Up For Students fourth-grade scholar Mia Rauseo shared her experience.

“I am so happy to be given the chance to come here,” said Rauseo. “And I know it would not have been possible without the help of Step Up For Students and companies like Tower Hill Insurance. I am doing well in my classes and I truly enjoy coming to school.”

 

 

Tower Hill Honors Hispanic Heritage month with record-setting contribution to Step Up For Students

By SHELBY HOBBS, Special to Step Up For Students

TAMPA, Fla. – Step Up For Students and Tower Hill Insurance Group joined together Oct. 10 at Florida College Academy to celebrate the insurance company’s record-setting contribution to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program  (FTC) during National Hispanic Heritage month.

Don Matz, CEO of Tower Hill Insurance, told students at Florida College Academy in Temple Terrace that he is proud to support Step Up scholars.

Since 2011, Tower Hill has contributed more than $3 million to Step Up For Students, providing scholarships to more than 600 of Florida’s underprivileged students who are given access to a private school or financial assistance to attend an out-of-district public school.

“During a time when we recognize the prominent role the Hispanic community has played in building this great nation, I am proud that Tower Hill is working to fund hundreds of scholarships in order to help serve more students,” said Don Matz, CEO of Tower Hill. “It has been a pleasure meeting with so many brilliant, caring students this morning.”

Step Up For Students, the nonprofit organization that helps administer the income-based FTC scholarship program, provides opportunities to nearly 105,000 students across Florida this school year. Roughly 38 percent of students statewide are Hispanic, and the typical scholarship student comes from a single-parent household where the average income is $25,353.

In Hillsborough County, 40 percent of the 4,850 students benefiting from the program are Hispanic. Step Up For Students praised Tower Hill’s generosity, which has been crucial to fueling the growth of the program.

Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill told the crowd at Florida College Academy that Step Up couldn’t help children without the assistance of companies like Tower Hill Insurance.

“The impressive level of support from Florida’s insurance industry is critical to advancing our mission of providing educational options to underprivileged children across the state,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “Tower Hill’s contribution is an investment in students and allows them to access the education that best meets their individual learning needs.”

Families and students that have benefited from the FTC scholarship program spoke out in support, urging other leading companies to consider participation. Florida College Academy, located in Temple Terrace, has 258 students in pre-K through eighth grade, approximately 50 percent of whom are Step Up scholars.

Students from Florida College Academy (FCA) from center left to right pose with Step Up President Doug Tuthill, Tower Hill CEO Don Matz and FCA principal Lynn Wade.

“As both a teacher at Florida College Academy and a parent of two scholarship students, I have witnessed first-hand the overwhelming transformation this program has made in the lives of its recipients,” said Stephanie Meier, mother to third- and fourth-grade scholarship students. “I hope that all interested families who qualify for this program are granted the same opportunity that my family has been privileged to experience.”

A recent study of the program found that FTC scholarship students are significantly more likely to attend college and receive a degree. The study compared FTC students to a comparable set of Florida public school students, assessing college enrollment, persistence, and attainment rates. The widely reported study found that students who are on the FTC scholarship program for four or more years are 40 percent more likely than their public school counterparts to attend college and 29 percent more likely to earn an associate degree.

 

 

Eduardo Rivero’s amazing turnaround

By GEOFF FOX

Eduardo Rivero was a sixth-grader reading at a fourth-grade level when school started last year. He was also behind in math and had trouble concentrating.

As he begins seventh grade at Kingdom Academy, a pre-K through 8 private school in Miami, the 12-year-old is reading at an eighth-grade level and thriving in math.

Jovanna Rivero with her sons Julian and Eduardo, each of whom attend Kingdom Academy in Miami.

Jovanna Rivero with her sons Julian and Eduardo, each of whom attend Kingdom Academy in Miami.

The amazing turnaround has left his mother, Jovanna Rivero, pleasantly surprised.

“I sat down with his teacher at the end of the year, and they showed me the (reading) score and, oh, my God, I was so emotional and happy,” Jovanna Rivero said. “It was like opening up a box with a surprise in it. I didn’t think it would be so good. Even the teachers and staff thought it was amazing by how much progress he made in that time.”

Besides Eduardo’s hard work, she said teacher Xiomara Carrera was instrumental in his success.

“She saw that he was falling behind in his studies and understood that he was missing the previous year’s foundational understanding of math and English,” Rivero said. “Not addressing it would cause him to spiral into a failing year. The pressure of not understanding each day’s advancing subject matter was hurting  him not only academically, but socially as well.

“When I approached the school about this, they offered to add him in Mrs. Carrera’s after-school tutoring program. Unfortunately, by the second quarter of the school year the program was already full. Mrs. Carrera took the initiative to open her schedule and some personal time to work with Eduardo. It makes me so happy to see that teachers like Mrs. Carrera are willing to work with parents and truly care for our children’s success.”

Eduardo recently entered his third year at Kingdom Academy. His mother said he previously attended a local elementary school, but while he made mostly A’s and B’s, he was not happy there.

Jovanna Rivero learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program through a friend whose child went to Kingdom Academy. A single mother of two who works as a medical assistant, she applied for the program for lower-income families through Step Up For Students and Eduardo was accepted.

Eduardo Rivero, a seventh-grader at Kingdom Academy in Miami, was reading on a fourth-grade level last year, but made a stunning turnaround. He is now reading at an eighth-grade level and excelling in math.

Eduardo Rivero, a seventh-grader at Kingdom Academy in Miami, was reading on a fourth-grade level last year, but made a stunning turnaround. He is now reading at an eighth-grade level and excelling in math.

While many students in the program realize academic improvements after receiving a scholarship, Eduardo was different.

“During his fifth-grade year, we noticed an odd behavior when it came to focusing on a task,” Rivero said. “Through counseling it was determined he had a mild learning disability. He was also diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.”

She doubts Eduardo would have gotten as much individualized attention at their neighborhood school. Her younger son Julian is now doing well as a first-grader at Kingdom Academy; he is also on the scholarship program through Step Up.

When he isn’t astounding his family and teachers with academic progress, Eduardo enjoys computer coding, video games, Minecraft and art.

“So far, I want to be animator,” he said.

“He draws characters from his imagination,” his mother said. “Whatever goes into his brain, he draws.”

She said Eduardo’s confidence has soared since his remarkable academic turnaround.

“We’re very grateful to everyone at Step Up and Kingdom Academy,” she said.

Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@StepUpForStudents.org.

In light of her oldest son’s stunning academic turnaround, Jovanna Rivero says thank you:

 


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Step Up’s Wall is an old soul – and total geek

By DAVID TUTHILL

Keaton Wall is the youngest worker in Step Up For Students’ Clearwater office, but he may also be the most indispensable.

As a IT Support Specialist and the essential one-stop-shop for any co-worker with a technical issue, Wall, 21, is the man who keeps the wires plugged in at Step Up.

And he seems to possess an old soul to complement his technological gifts.

“I am a big geek when it comes to hardware and understanding how a system is running,” Wall says in his unique, fast-paced cadence. “With network administration, I can still deal with hardware-type stuff but on a larger scale. And it allows me to help people, which I enjoy, but once again, on a larger scale than just say a computer technician.”

Wall is the son of Bryan Wall, of Nottingham, England, a former Hollywood set designer, and mother, Cheryl Wall, of Long Island, New York. He has half-siblings over 15 years older than he and his younger sister.

His father’s work put him in touch with technology and computers from a young age – and even inspired his name. He is named in honor of movie star Michael Keaton, who became friends with Bryan Wall when they worked on the original “Batman” film. They bonded over a shared interest in ancient British history.

“I got into artwork on computers and wanted to know how they worked,” Bryan Wall says in a friendly British accent, speaking on a layover between flights at his current job as a corporate trainer for AutoNation. “Keaton and I built computers together. He really got into the technical side of things when friends and neighbors had repair issues. He dove in deep, learned how to build them from scratch, and took it to the next level when he went to school, with programming and such.”

That next level began when Keaton Wall applied for the Career Academy of Information at Northeast High School in St. Petersburg. He attended there for two years until he decided that waking up at 4 a.m. to catch a 5 a.m. bus to attend 7 a.m. classes was too much of a burden.

He switched schools, and graduated from Clearwater High School while dual enrolled at St. Petersburg College. He earned his diploma with a semester and a half of college already completed.

“When I graduated high school, I was not completely certain where I wanted to go, since most universities all have generic ‘computer science’ degrees, which all focus mainly on programming, which I hate,” Keaton Wall says.

Armed with an associate’s degree, he is still enrolled at SPC.  He has earned certificates for computer support, Microsoft server administration, and Linux system administration. He is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in technology development and management, with a minor in project management.

He spends his free time like many young men – hanging  out with his friends, playing video games and strumming his guitar. When it comes to music, he is able to sing both the most intense heavy metal songs in an unrecognizable ragged voice, and strum acoustic, improvised melodies often focused on his angst with the opposite sex.

He went into full geek mode during a recent employee luncheon in the Step Up offices, when he brought out a virtual-reality headset and helped a half-dozen of his co-workers explore the future of gaming.

He never fails to leave an impression.

“Keaton is a problem solver, always in good spirits and is well-versed in hardware,” says Rebeca Figueroa, a project manager at Step Up, who shares a cubicle wall with Keaton. “He’s always assisting me with my computer needs and has provided great guidance. He’s an old soul.

“Keaton is a lot more mature than I’ve seen a 21-year-old be. He’s grounded, knows what he wants, has a great profession and is very stable for his age. He writes music, listens with intent and never judges a situation. These qualities show not only a well-rounded individual, but one that has been around enough to have experience in life.”

He may also have a wandering spirit. The way he sees it, it’s only a matter of time before he leaves the sunny shores of Pinellas County for the bright lights of New York.

“New York is just so alive and energetic, and it’s very modern. It’s a massive city filled with everything,” he says. “It draws me to it because I am very energetic. I like how big it is and how it makes me feel so small. I can be anything there that I can put my mind to. There’s also not a palm tree in sight, which makes me happy.”

Until then, he remains a vital cog in the wheel of Step Up’s Clearwater operations. Some may find that remarkable, but it’s no surprise to his family.

“We are all just so proud of him,” Bryan Wall says. “He was never a trouble growing up, always had great friends. We are so proud to see what he’s a part of at such a young age.”

Step Up For Students launches alumni network  

 

By LISA A. DAVIS

Step Up For Students is excited to announce the creation of the Step Up For Students Alumni Network, bringing former scholars who have graduated from high school together to advocate for the advancement of all Florida schoolchildren.

Natasha Infante, now a University of South Florida Student, is one of the first members of the Network.

The network’s mission is to strengthen the relationship between schoolchildren in underserved communities and the educational-choice community. Alumni members will work toward educating and informing their community members at large, including lawmakers and donors, about school choice and its benefits. Step Up is a nonprofit organization in Florida that manages two scholarship programs for the state’s most underprivileged children,: The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students and the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs.

“Our scholars’ stories – past and present – are the best way to understand the impact school choice has on the children we serve,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “Their backgrounds and challenges are compelling and tug at your heartstrings. We can tell you these stories ourselves, but they are the best narrators for educational options.”

Natasha Infante, a 2014 Tampa Catholic High School graduate said she joined the network because the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students opened a world of possibilities for her.

“Step Up For Students allowed me to go to the high school I wanted to go to,” said Infante, who is now pre-veterinary major at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “I feel like it’s a pay-it-forward thing. If Step Up helped me, then I feel like I should help them.  It’s been such a positive thing in my life, I feel like I need to share my experience so others can benefit from it in the future.”

Infante was one of the first alumni to sign on to the Alumni Network and has been involved since it was only an idea, advising Step Up staff how to proceed. She has already written letters to lawmakers in support of Step Up and school choice in general.

“I’m open to more advocating for school choice because it’s so important,” she said, noting a recent lawsuit that sought to shut down the tax credit scholarship program. “We almost lost Step Up once and we can’t ever let that happen because it helps so many students like me have a better future.“

The membership roster already has 160 registered members, but Step Up For Students is seeking many more alumni to make it successful.

“Obviously, the more graduates we have, the more ground we can cover in advocating for Florida’s youth,” Tuthill said. “And the members will certainly reap the benefits of being involved too. For one, they will have an impact on the educational landscape of Florida for future generations. That’s rewarding for sure, but they will also have personal benefits as well with networking opportunities and more.”

Membership benefits include access to online professional development courses, exclusive discounts to retail stores, vacation packages, movie tickets, and the opportunity to network with decision-makers, donors, potential employers and other alumni through various events and social media.

Membership to the Step Up alumni network is free.

To join the Step Up For Students Alumni Network or to learn more, click here.

Lisa A. Davis can be reached at ldavis@StepUpForStudents.org

 

By GEOFF FOX

Ampy Suarez laughed heartily, while her husband Jose raised his eyebrows with a sigh. VDay2017

The couple, who run Hope Ranch Learning Academy in Hudson, Florida, have been married 34 years. The children of Cuban immigrants who came to Miami in the mid-1960s were asked about their first date, which involved an unfortunate rollercoaster ride at a fair in Miami. Rollercoasters did not agree with Jose, but he didn’t want to disappoint the girl who would become his bride.

So, he got on. He was woozy when the ride ended. So woozy, that, well … Somehow, the poise Jose showed in the aftermath forever warmed Ampy’s heart.

Nowadays, the Suarezes love their work as much as they love each other. The couple, who has three adult daughters and five grandchildren, serve 120 special needs students at Hope Ranch campuses in Hudson and Zephyrhills. About half of the students are on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs; a scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.

One aspect of the academy’s curriculum includes equine interactions, which uses activities with horses to promote physical, occupational and emotional growth. Annually, the ranch
hosts a Horse Jamboree, and parents often get teary-eyed as they watch their child lead a 1,000-pound animal around the arena.

“ We just want to give them opportunities they never would have had otherwise,” Ampy Suarez said with a loving smile. And Jose beamed, too.

Reach Geoff Fox at gfox@sufs.org. 

HMSHost partners with Step Up For Students; contributes $400K

By PAUL SOOST

donor cornerBETHESDA, MD — Global restaurateur HMSHost has pledged $400,000 to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income schoolchildren in  Florida.

HMSHost’s contribution will benefit children whose educational options are limited by household income, helping underprivileged children attend a K-12 school of their parents’ choice that better fits their learning needs. Parents can choose between a scholarship toward private school tuition and fees, or one to offset the cost of transportation to an out-of-county public school.hms-logo-footer

“HMSHost values education immensely, and investing in the local communities where we operate is extremely important to our company,” said HMSHost President and CEO Steve Johnson. “The Step Up For Students organization is doing important work in Florida and it is a privilege to have formed this partnership to help set up Florida youth for success.”

The scholarship program’s funding comes from tax-credited donations from corporations like HMSHost that do business in Florida.

“Thanks to HMSHost, 66 Florida schoolchildren will have the opportunity to attend a school that fits the way they learn, regardless of where they live or their parents’ income,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “On behalf of Step Up and our families, we thank HMSHost for its generosity and we are grateful they have chosen to support our mission.”

Florida enacted the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program in 2001 to expand educational opportunities for children of families with limited financial resources. Since its inception, the program has grown exponentially and awarded more than 95,000 scholarships to economically disadvantaged students for the 2016-17 school year.

HMSHost operates restaurants in nine Florida airports and is committed to supporting state and local communities. Visit HMSHost’s location finder to see where HMSHost operates. Further details about HMSHost’s commitment to community relations can be found here:http://www.hmshost.com/community.

The company is a world leader in creating dining for travel venues. HMSHost operates in more than 120 airports around the globe, including 44 of the 50 busiest airports in North America. The Company has annual sales in excess of $2.8 billion and employs more than 37,000 sales associates worldwide. HMSHost is a part of Autogrill Group, the world’s leading provider of food & beverage services for people on the move. With sales of around €4.3 billion in 2015, the Group operates in 31 countries and employs over 57,000 people. It manages approximately 4,200 stores in over 1,000 locations worldwide. Visit www.HMSHost.com for more information. They can also be found on Facebook at fb.com/HMSHost and on Twitter at @HMSHost.