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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
By PAUL SOOST
BETHESDA, 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.
“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.
By SUSAN SLEBODA, GUEST BLOGGER
My son, Ryan is 15 years old. He has autism spectrum disorder. Ryan has been receiving the Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students since the fall of 2015. I would imagine Ryan’s story is a common one if you have a child with autism.
For many years we bounced around the central Florida (Lake Mary and Sanford) area signing up Ryan for just about every sport you could imagine. Basketball, soccer, baseball and swimming. Ryan tried them all, however, he would get easily bored or frustrated, inevitably ending in a full-blown earthquake or meltdown. This led to teasing and taunting by other children. It led to dirty looks from other parents. I would wager that almost every one of you have felt this heart wrenching moment – as you watch your child struggle, falter and fail. My husband, Bill, and I had the eternal hope of finding a “good fit” for Ryan.
After several seasons of tears, anger, anxiety and stress, our family had enough. We finally accepted that sports would not be the right fit for Ryan. The doctors stressed the need for Ryan to be in an activity where he could stay active, work on his social skills and maybe even make a friend. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any luck. Ryan was unhappy and lonely. I have always believed that when one door closes, somewhere God opens a window. That held true for Ryan.
In the fall of 2013, I went on a field trip for one of my older sons and met a mom named Christine Eckstein. I opened up to her and shared Ryan’s story. I told her about Ryan’s educational and medical journey with autism. I relayed our plight in finding a sport for Ryan and our sadness with our lack of success. Imagine my surprise when she shared her story of her sons David and Kenny, who also happen to have autism spectrum disorder. Christine told me about a martial arts program that her daughter, Katarina, created to help families just like ours. It’s called Breaking Barriers Martial Arts. They created a nonprofit program to provide martial arts instruction to students with disabilities to help them grow into independent, self-assured adults. As a family they began their journey to help Kenny and David and turned it miraculously into a way to help strangers in need. I was impressed and in awe of their story. The mom, dad, Katarina, David, Kenny and even little sister Ava all earned their black belts.
Christine insisted I speak with Katarina about the program. Katarina came over the very next day and met Ryan. She believed the Breaking Barriers program would help Ryan and she insisted we give it a try. To be honest, I was nervous and really questioned how it would be possible for Ryan to learn martial arts. How could he focus and have the discipline needed in a sport such as this? I was afraid to hope. I was even more afraid to set up Ryan for another failure. Could Ryan succeed in taekwondo(TKD) with his autism? I didn’t know for certain but desperate times called for desperate measures.
With a glimmer of hope, we took Ryan to D.C. Turnbull’s Martial Arts studio in Sanford, Fla. for his first Breaking Barriers TKD class in January 2014. The students and instructors welcomed Ryan literally with hugs and high fives. We were amazed by the kindness and love we experienced that day by this open and loving group of students. It was incredible to watch these students who happened to have varying disabilities (autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy, hearing impairments, visual impairments and intellectual disabilities) demonstrate their martial arts abilities. They were not just taking part in the class, they were excelling at the sport. As parents we were in awe. Ryan was invited onto the mats and by the time class was over he was hooked! Ryan began his TKD journey. It has now been two years and Ryan is a deputy black belt and will be testing for his BLACK BELT in November of this year.
What we have witnessed is truly an incredible transformation in Ryan. Guess what happened? It was something we had always hoped for in spite of Ryan’s many setbacks over the years. Ryan became a LEADER. In February, he was awarded the rank of a Teaching Assistant in the special needs program, assisting younger students with disabilities to learn TKD. Breaking Barriers taught Ryan self-control, discipline, self-confidence, perseverance and indomitable spirit. When Ryan puts on his uniform and steps onto the mat the transformation is incredible! He repeats the mantra “Yes I can,” whenever he learns something challenging and new. Ryan has competed and earned gold and silver medals in forms and sparring. His favorite competitive event is board breaking. He is really good at it. Seriously, you should see his spinning hook kick!
And you know what? NONE of this would have been possible without the help of Gardiner Scholarship has assisted us in providing an incredible learning experience for Ryan at Pace Brantley School in Longwood, FL. This has freed up other funds in our budget so Ryan can participate in new experiences such as the life changing TKD program at Breaking Barriers Martial Arts.
Ryan and his Breaking Barriers buddies prove time and again that their ABILITIES far outweigh any disability they may have. They are breaking boards while breaking barriers. These participants show improvement in their physical abilities such as coordination and strength, but MORE importantly, the BB students show MARKED success in their social skills, focus, independence, respect and confidence. The best part is that TKD is a lifelong sport. If a student is able to reach the rank of black belt, they can choose to keep going and earn higher degrees of black belt. This is different than most sports where students tend to drop out as they get older. Instead TKD and the BB program encourages its students to challenge themselves to stick with the program and achieve higher black belt ranks.
Do you want to be impressed?
Take a minute to watch this video. It will show you the incredible abilities of our Breaking Barriers students. Added bonus: You get to see my superstar son, Ryan – he is the student holding up the autism sign. Watch for his incredible spinning hook!
Breaking Barriers is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Florida. Its goal is to teach martial arts to children with special needs. Organizers recently held their first fundraiser – the Breaking Barriers Invitational – an AAU Martial Arts tournament. There were special needs competitors from different areas of Florida as well traditional competitors. It was a big success and next year will be even better. All money raised by the Breaking Barriers programs goes to purchase specialty gear, additional instructors, use of the training facility, etc. The program will continue to expand and provide education and opportunities for special needs students as well as assistance to instructors who wish to offer their own special needs programs in other areas.
Susan Sleboda is not only mom to Ryan, she has two other older, sons, and a husband, Bill. By profession, she is a lawyer, but on sabbatical from practicing so she could raise her three boys. When she’s not watching Ryan break boards, she spends time advocating for him and volunteering in their community. The family lives in Lake Mary, Fla.
It’s here. #GivingTuesday, the global kickoff to the holiday giving season. Why give to Step Up For Students? We have more than 80,000 reasons (scholars) this year alone, but please watch our video to hear from our President Doug Tuthill and Step Up graduate Denisha Merriweather. It’s super easy to donate, too. Just click here. Thanks for your support! And please feel free to share this around social media using the hashtags #GivingTuesday and #StepUpForStudents.