Editor’s note: This story was originally posted on June 28, 2018. We are taking a look back at some of our scholarship stories from the past. Valentina Guerrero continues to thrive using the Gardiner Scholarship. To sign up for our philanthropic newsletter, please click here.
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 We hear outdated comments about their potential.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 JUDITH THOMAS
Today, Step Up For Students celebrates National Philanthropy Day. We want to thank all those who have donated and supported our efforts throughout the years. You’ve helped us change the face of education in Florida. Because of your valuable support, we’re changing our community every day.
How? The numbers tell the story.
All of this is possible because of our donors and supporters like you. Thank you!
National Philanthropy Day recognizes and pays tribute to the great contributions that philanthropy makes. Step Up especially wants to recognize the people who are active in the philanthropic community and the difference their contribution makes in our lives, our communities and our world – to our scholars and their families.
When National Philanthropy Day was first celebrated in 1986, according to the Association of Fundraising Professionals, President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation officially recognizing Nov. 15, 1986, as the commemorative day.
Here at Step Up, we’re thankful for our supporters every day! Without you, none of this would be possible.
Happy National Philanthropy Day!
Judith Thomas, Step Up For Students social media manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
By ASHLEY ZARLE
TAMPA, Fla.– GEICO recently recommitted to supporting underprivileged K-12 schoolchildren in Florida by providing education options through Step Up For Students.
Step Up For Students administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Through GEICO’s generosity, 1,041 financially disadvantaged schoolchildren will be provided the opportunity to choose between a K-12 scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public school.
GEICO has been a partner of Step Up For Students since 2010 and has contributed $33 million toward the scholarship program.
“GEICO is committed to giving back and making our communities stronger,” said Pionne Corbin, senior vice president of GEICO. “We recognize that each child is unique and as strong corporate stewards, we are confident that our investment in Step Up For Students will provide options to those who need it the most.”
“Companies like GEICO are transforming the lives of Florida’s lower-income students, and through their partnership, the program is producing measurable results,” said John Kirtley, founder, and chairman of Step Up For Students. “Last year, the Urban Institute evaluated graduates of our program and found that students who are on scholarship for at least four years are more than 40 percent more likely to attend public Florida college. GEICO is a large part of this success.”
The celebration was hosted at Cristo Rey Tampa High School where several students benefit from a Step Up scholarship, and the curriculum boasts a work-study component to give students a competitive edge. Representatives from GEICO and Step Up For Students gathered with a panel of scholarship students to hear how the program has impacted their visions for the future.
“Through the Step Up scholarship, I have been given the opportunity to attend Cristo Rey where I have access to the tools, I need to be successful,” said Armando Diaz, junior at Cristo Rey. “I know colleges will look at my resume and see I’ve had four years of internships and experience and I’ll stand out from my friends. I am dreaming for the future and hope to make GEICO and other donors to Step Up very proud.”
Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that administers the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporate tax credits 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.
For the 2018-19 school year, Step Up For Students is serving nearly 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,519 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,815 for sixth through eighth grade, and $7,111 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
Ashley Zarle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ASHLEY ZARLE
Step Up For Students announced recently a $4 million contribution to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program from Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company (UPCIC), a wholly owned subsidiary of Universal Insurance Holdings, Inc.
The $4 million donation will fund 565 K-12 scholarships for the 2018-19 school year, so lower-income children can attend the school that best meets their learning needs. This is the second year that UPCIC has partnered with Step Up For Students and has contributed a total of $6 million to the scholarship program.
“We are grateful for corporate donors like Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company who are helping to provide educational opportunities for Florida schoolchildren,” said Joe Pfountz, chief financial officer 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.”
Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and allows parents and students to choose between a K-12 scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.
“Universal is committed to giving back and empowering the communities that it serves to accelerate community opportunities and build the foundation for the next generation of business leaders,” said Sean Downes, chairman and chief executive officer for Universal. Dan Marino, UPCIC spokesperson, National Football League hall of famer and former Miami Dolphins quarterback made a special appearance and spoke to the schoolchildren at an event on Dec. 4 hosted by St. Joan of Arc School in Boca Raton, Florida.
“Having options and choice in where you go to school is important and I’m excited to see so many students here today who have access to the learning environment that best suits their individual needs,” said Marino. “We know that the education you receive will help propel you to do great things.”
For the 2018-19 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 98,500 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,519 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,815 for sixth through eighth grade, and $7,111 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
Ashley Zarle can be reached at email@example.com.
By LORIE JEWELL
Teachers started telling me in the fourth grade that I had a talent for writing. At 10, though, my dream job was long-distance trucking. The idea of getting away and exploring the country from the high perch of a semi seemed like the adventure of a lifetime.
While a senior at Redford Union High School in Michigan in the early 1980’s, I chose the military as my first career path – one that afforded opportunities to not only develop writing and photography skills as a public affairs specialist, but also drive the U.S. Army’s beast of a truck known as a 5-Ton. In 1985, it was the biggest vehicle in the inventory and I got to drive a few of them during a deployment to South Korea. One or two even had tractor trailers attached, which proved quite the challenge when it came to backing the giant trucks into a makeshift motor pool.
My employment journey has taken many interesting twists and turns since then – a long stint as a Tampa-area newspaper reporter (17 years with The Tampa Tribune), census enumerator, freelance writer, real estate photographer, Uber driver, graduate student and instructor. I’ve seen a lot, done a lot, and thankfully, the voyage continues.
This last gig – graduate school at the University of South Florida – brings me to Step Up For Students’ Marketing Department, where I will be completing an internship for the creative writing master of fine arts program. I’ll be using the skills teachers were so enamored with so long ago to tell the stories of other young people finding their way with the help of similarly inspiring educators – and how Step Up helps bring them together. I also see myself as a walking, talking example of the concept that education does not have to be a one-time, over and done deal. My educational path has been anything but traditional.
As for life outside of grad school – yes, it is possible – I like to say I’m all about the B’s – bowling, bingo, billiards, and babies. I have two adult children; my son is an Army staff sergeant with a wife and two children, while my daughter is a social worker and mother to my Great Dane-mix grand dog, Bailey. I am also an avid knitter and crocheter, which do not start with a B but are nonetheless top free time activity choices.
I believe serendipity has delivered me to Step Up at this point in my life, when education is so firmly ensconced behind the wheel. I’m excited to meet others on similar journeys and I will be honored to tell others all about them. (Insert happy face emoji here.)
Reach Lorie Jewell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.
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 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.