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How 9 Gardiner students and their teacher opened the world to Audible

By ROGER MOONEY

Nine Gardiner Scholarship students on the autism spectrum wrote an essay and gave the world a gift in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic: free downloadable children’s books and literary classics from Audible.

“It’s definitely the coolest thing I have ever done, honestly,” said Sheryl Bo, who runs Brain Lab Tutoring in Palm Bay, Florida and worked with her students on the essay.

The students, grades three through six, and includes Bo’s son Ethan, a fourth grader, all use the Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students.

Sheryl and Ethan Bo

The students’ essay (read it here) was emailed on March 13 to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asking that Audible books be made available to everyone while schools are closed during the pandemic. It was forwarded to Don Katz, founder of Audible.

After a few emails between Katz’s assistant and Bo, Audible created stories.audible.com, where hundreds of books in six languages are available for streaming worldwide.

“They really stepped up. This was definitely way more than I asked for,” said Bo, who originally asked for credits for those who couldn’t afford the service.

With schools and libraries closed indefinitely, Bo knows many schoolchildren are without access to free books.

“What are these kids going to do? Where are they going to get books? How are they going to keep their reading skills up?” she asked.

She had an idea.

“I’m teaching (my students) the persuasive essay with the punch at the end,” she said. “We have to challenge them. We need a call to action at the end. Will you step up? Will you be a positive influence to other corporations in this crises?”

Her students brainstormed and wrote the essay on Friday, March 13, the first day schools were closed.

The essay began: “Did you know that students with disabilities, like us, need audiobooks for most subjects? It’s true. We are a group of high-functioning autistic students in Florida. We have a private tutor that helps us learn. A lot of us learn best when we can hear the book read aloud because some of us have dyslexia as well.”

It concluded with, “Students like us need Audible to help us learn. … Students who miss reading for weeks at a time will lose out on learning.”

They attached the essay to this email to Bezos:

“Dear Mr. Bezos,

We are practicing writing an essay today with our teacher. We hope that you will read it, because we think that you could really help teachers and kids during this crisis. It’s five paragraphs, so please don’t skip anything. We hope you like our essay!”

On the subject line, Bo wrote, “Will you help kids and schools during this pandemic?”

“I honestly didn’t think I would get a reply,” Bo said. “We were just doing it as a cool assignment.”

But on Monday, Bo got a reply:  an email from Maureen Muenster, Katz’s assistant.

“Happy to help!” she wrote.

Bo was thrilled.

Bo wrote back saying the request was for students who are now home, teachers who are planning assignments and curriculum, and parents who need a break during this trying time.

A day later, a new email from Muenster came with a link to Audible’s new free streaming website.

 “I hope this helps,” Muenster wrote.

“With all the chaos, we felt we made a difference,” Bo said.

“Our intent,” Katz explained in the companywide email, “is that Stories will offer parents, educators, and caregivers – anyone helping kids as daily routines are disrupted – a screen-free experience to look forward to each day, while keeping young minds engaged.”

Bo taught at both private and district schools for eight years before beginning Brain Lab Tutoring in 2017 to help Ethan become acclimated to being around other students. The class usually meets at Bo’s house. Right now, she reaches her students through Zoom, a virtual meeting service.

The students used the new Audible site they helped spur to download Jack London’s “White Fang.”

At first, Bo said, her students weren’t thrilled with the essay writing assignments. Now, they want to know who they will write to next.

“You have to know how to write, and you have to know how to compose something so that people will listen to you and have reasons and have details to back up what you’re saying,” Bo said. “Have that call to action. Ask something. Ask for something to change. Ask them to provide something. I think it was a good lesson for them.”

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

Supporters to rally in Tallahassee for Gardiner Scholarship

Step Up For Students scholarship supporters and recipients have rallied several times before in Tallahassee. Back in 2010 the rally was in support of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for low-income children. Today, we rally for the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs.

By LISA A. DAVIS

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – This morning, the buses will roll into the same parking lot at Florida State University – some after driving more than seven hours from Miami. It will not be an easy journey for some who traveled on the motor coaches from all over Florida. They will come from other bus stops, too, in Jacksonville, Tampa, Orlando and Pensacola. Some will drive up in their personal vehicles.

The destination is the same: Waller Park at the Florida State Capitol for the Gardiner Celebration Rally organized by Step Up For Students and its advocacy arm, Florida Voices For Choices.

The mission: to thank Florida legislators and Gov. Ron DeSantis for supporting the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs. Additionally, we are asking for $42 million more in funding for the 2020-21 school year so 4,000 more children with unique abilities can receive the same help as the other children who use the scholarship now.

This year, more than 13,000 students have been funded for the Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students.

Still, it’s not enough.

“Every student with special needs in Florida who would be better served academically through education options deserves this scholarship,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up’s president. “We are so grateful for the support we have had from lawmakers. We applaud them and the work we have done together, but we want to help more children.”

The scholarship is for Florida students 3 years old through 12th grade or age 22, whichever comes first, who have the following diagnoses: autism spectrum disorder, muscular dystrophy, Cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Phelan McDermid syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, spina bifida, Williams syndrome, intellectual disability (severe cognitive impairment), rare diseases as defined by the National Organization for Rare Disorders, anaphylaxis, deaf, visually impaired, dual sensory impaired, traumatic brain injured, hospital or homebound, or three, four or five year-olds who are deemed high-risk due to developmental delays.

It’s children with these challenges– and their parents, educators and other advocates– who made the trek to Tallahassee today. So, yes, it wasn’t easy for many of them. But it was important. That’s why they are here and will let their voices be heard during the rally.

If you’re in the area, join us. It begins at noon. If not, follow us on social media using the hashtag #GardinerCelebrationRally. Also be sure to check out other rally coverage on our sister blog www.redefinedonline.org.

During the rally, parents like Katie Swingle, whose son Gregory is on the autism spectrum and has thrived using the Gardiner Scholarship, will talk about how she is #GratefulForGardiner.

Other parents will share their stories as well. Their stories are so moving that Step Up For Students is kicking off an ongoing social media campaign so families can regularly share their stories. We will tell these stories on our social media channels beginning today, using the hashtag #GratefulForGardiner.

This scholarship is changing lives. Learn how by following us on social media Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. You may also share your story with us by sending your story and contact information to social@sufs.org. Please use #GratefulForGardiner in the subject line.

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

Time to nominate students, teachers, parents for Step Up’s Rising Stars Awards

By ROGER MOONEY

It is time to recognize outstanding members of the Step Up For Students family – students, teachers and parents – for their efforts this school year during our annual Rising Stars Awards program.

Each school can nominate up to six individuals, and the first person nominated must be a student.

Those selected will be honored in March and April during ceremonies held in one of 16 locations around the state.

School principals can nominate students for one of the following:

  • High Achieving Student Award. Students who excel in academics, arts or athletics.
  • Turnaround Student Award. A student who struggled when they first attended your school and has since made dramatic improvements.
  • Outstanding Student Character Award. A student who demonstrates outstanding compassion, perseverance, courage, initiative, respect, fairness, integrity, responsibility, honesty or optimism.

Teachers who push students to succeed, who truly represent the power of parent partnerships and focus on building relationships for success or who embrace the importance of continuous improvement and professional development can be nominated for the Exceptional Teacher Award.

Parents or guardians who actively support your school and the education of his or her child are eligible for the Phenomenal Family Member Award.

Deadline for nominations is Jan. 31, 2020 and can be made here.

Before making nominations, please have all necessary information available, including school name, school Florida Department of Education (DOE) number, each nominee’s contact information (name, phone number, email address). Please include a short description of why each person is being nominated.

The Rising Star Award ceremonies are scheduled for the following cities.

  • Miami-Dade North: Monday, March 16
  • Miami-Dade South: Tuesday, March 17
  • Palm Beach: Thursday, March 19
  • Broward: Monday, March 23
  • Leon: Tuesday, March 24
  • Lee: Tuesday, March 24
  • Brevard: Wednesday, March 25
  • Hillsborough: Wednesday, March 25
  • Duval East: Thursday, March 26
  • Pinellas: Thursday, March 26
  • Duval Central: Monday, March 30
  • Volusia: Tuesday, March 31
  • Marion: Tuesday, March 31
  • Escambia: Wednesday, April 1
  • Orange East: Thursday, April 2
  • Orange West: Thursday, April 2

Event locations will be announced at a later date.

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

A different way of learning gives Gardiner scholar the academic LIFT he needs

By ROGER MOONEY

MIAMI LAKES, Fla. – Joshua Sandoval sat at a table inside the LIFT Educational Academy and, with a laser-like focus, wrote in his journal. The topic: What was special about the classroom?

He was on his third sentence.

His mother, Nilsa Roberts, sat two rooms away, watching Joshua on one of four monitors hanging from a wall in the office of Dr. Fabian Redler, the school’s director and founder.

Roberts was, in a word, amazed.

She did not see a child with behavioral issues, as one school labeled her son. She did not see a child who struggled to complete assignments, as some of Joshua’s former teachers complained. Instead, she saw a student quietly going about his task.

“This is amazing,” Roberts said as she stared at her son’s image on the screen. “I’ve never seen him like this. He’s so focused.”

Yes, Joshua, 12, comes with learning challenges.

Joshua and his mom, Nilsa Roberts.

At three months, he was diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis complex, a genetic disorder where the body produces benign tumors. It is a rare disease as defined by the National Organization of Rare Diseases and qualifies Joshua for a Gardiner Scholarship, which is run by Step Up For Students.

Joshua’s tumors are in his brain. They cause daily seizures. The medication he takes makes him fidgety. Staying focused can be a struggle.

But, Roberts said, her son does not have behavioral issues, and he is not, as one teacher told her, unteachable.

Joshua speaks two languages – English and Spanish. He is an avid reader and uses an extensive vocabulary for his age. He knows all the words to all his favorite songs. He interacts well with other children.

He plays right field on his Little League team.

“What I know with Joshua is he’s very smart, and he learns different from other kids,” Roberts said.

She knew if she could find the right school, the right setting, Joshua would thrive. She spent a lot of time looking.

Joshua is in the sixth grade. LIFT is his seventh school.

“Finally,” Roberts said, “we found the place.”

No holding back
The LIFT Educational Academy is part of What’s On Your Mind, a psychology, tutoring and brain fitness center that has three south Florida locations, including one in Miami Lakes, Florida, the same town where Roberts and her family live.

Established by Redler, 20 years ago as a psychology and brain fitness center for children, What’s On Your Mind is well-known for aiding children in developing the brain skills essential for learning and surpassing their abilities through their trademarked programs.

The two decades of consistent progress has resulted in the establishment of LIFT Educational Academy four years ago, after parents urged Redler to start a much-needed unconventional school.

LIFT has 12 students ranging from first to 12th grade. Redler said the school could expand to 24 students.

New students obtain a psychoeducational evaluation to determine cognitive deficiencies in the skills involved in learning – attention, memory, visual processing and processing speed. They receive brain-based exercises to strengthen those areas.

The exercises are tailored to each student and integrated in their English Language Arts and Mathematics curriculum.

“The school itself is a perfect scenario for a child that is really behind and can use every single day to catch up both academically and deal with the issues that have been holding him back, which are all those cognitive areas,” Redler said.

Maritza Perera, school counselor, Joshua, Nilsa and Dr. Fabian Redler, director and founder of LIFT Educational Academy in Miami Lakes, Florida.

Roberts found What’s On Your Mind two years ago while researching education options for Joshua. She brought him in for an evaluation, signed him up for the summer program then enrolled him in LIFT.

“But what was unique with Joshua was the seizures. We didn’t know what to expect in terms of whether the brain training would stick, because of all his seizures,” Redler said. “We had to work as much as we could to just develop his ability. Whatever stays, stays. Whatever doesn’t, doesn’t. At the end of the day, it’s given him the best interventions that he can have. So far, it’s been awesome.”

‘Kind of like a miracle’

Joshua has had three brain surgeries, the first when he was 3. He still has tumors in his brain, including one in his right eye.

While Joshua can have as many as three seizures a day, he senses when one is coming on and he can usually go to a quiet place.

His body stiffens and his breathing increases. He feels a pounding inside his head. His eyes open wide and his right hand goes straight up. He can hear people talk, and it helps if someone is telling him he will be OK. The seizures last between 90 seconds and 3 minutes and occur mostly in the morning or when he’s going to bed.

“He’s embarrassed by it, but he does a good job of hiding it,” Roberts said.

Except when he can’t, which happened often at his prior schools. Some classmates made fun of him, which made him angry. The fact that he was behind his classmates in learning – reading at a grade level or two below them – also made him angry. He felt like an outsider and started acting up, so it became a behavioral thing,” Roberts said.

In the fourth grade, Joshua was placed in a class for students with behavioral issues. Roberts said it was a lost year in terms of academic growth.

“He learned literally nothing that year,” Roberts said, “because in the first week of school, they gave up on my child.”

She said finding Redler and his program has been “kind of like a miracle.”

“Before it was, ‘He’s on medicine so he can’t focus. He’s had seizures and he can’t focus,’” Roberts said. “He’s able to do it now, and I think those exercises have helped a lot. I think it’s meant for his way of learning.”

“Joshua is going to do amazing’

Maritza Perera, the school counselor at LIFT, interrupted Joshua while he was writing in his journal. His presence was requested in Redler’s office, so he could talk about his school for this story.

Joshua was not happy. He was only two sentences into his journal assignment.

He was shy, unusually so, according to his mom.

Do you like going to school here, he was asked.

Joshua in his Little League uniform.

He nodded.

Why?

“It’s fun.”

What makes it fun?

“I’m learning.”

Do you want to share what you were writing in your journal?

Joshua shook his head no.

Do you like brain training?

A nod.

What exercise do you like best?

“Mental Treasure Box.”

Redler found the answer interesting.

“Mental Treasure Box is for when thoughts come in that have nothing to do with what your focused on,” Redler explained. “You’re trained to take those thoughts and put them in your mental treasure box and go back to them later.”

After a few questions about baseball – Joshua likes the Miami Marlins and bats right-handed even though he’s a natural lefty – he returned to his classroom and his journal.

Roberts watched her son on the wall monitor. School has been a struggle for Joshua, but she’s confident he is finally in the right setting.

Now that he is no longer a lost student, Roberts sees a brighter picture when she thinks about Joshua’s future.

“I’m very positive about Joshua. Joshua is going to do amazing,” she said. “I see him continuing to grow in education. I can see Joshua going to college. I can see him having a job, a very good job somewhere and being independent. I can see him doing that.”

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

Step Up For Students ranked 18th among America’s Top 100 favorite charities

By ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students continues to provide education choice to Florida schoolchildren from disadvantaged backgrounds and its efforts continue to garner national acclaim.

Step Up cracked the Top 20 in America’s Favorite Charities, the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual list of the Top 100 nonprofits. Step Up was ranked 18th, up from 31st last year and 42nd in 2017.

“It is an honor to be placed in this prestigious ranking by the Chronicle of Philanthropy,” said Anne Francis, Step Up’s vice president of development. “Being ranked 18th in the nation, and first in Florida, is a monumental achievement that has been made possible by our generous donors.

“In the last couple years, Step Up has grown from two scholarship offerings to five. Our largest program, the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, serves families with an average household income that is merely 8 % above poverty. Donors who invest in our scholarships and programs know their contributions change the lives of vulnerable children in Florida who seek a brighter future.”

Step Up’s total revenues in the 2018 fiscal year was $705.6 million, an increase over its $548.5 million in total revenue in 2017. This allowed Step Up to serve more than 125,000 pre-K through12 students across the five scholarships programs it manages:

In addition to the Chronicle of Philanthropy honor, Step Up was ranked 19th on Forbes’ list of America’s Top Charities 2018.

Charity Navigator and GuideStar, a pair of nonprofit watchdog groups, recognized Step Up in 2018 for its accountability and transparency.

Charity Navigator awarded Step Up a four-star rating for the eighth consecutive year, a credit that only 4 percent of charities have earned by the nation’s top charity evaluator. Step Up has earned the Platinum Seal of Transparency with GuideStar, a public database that evaluates the mission and effectiveness of nonprofits.

Also, Step Up’s Jacksonville office was ranked third among best places to work in that city for businesses with 100-249 employees by the Jacksonville Business Journal. Its Clearwater office was ranked eighth among large companies in the Tampa Bay area by the Tampa Bay Business Journal.

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

With 2 mouse clicks and a login, telepractice brings speech therapy to Gardiner student’s rural home

By ROGER MOONEY

Beth Flowers logs onto the computer set up in the dining area of the family’s home, and within seconds, Allison Geller, the speech language pathologist who will spend the next hour working with Beth’s daughter, appears on the screen.

Welcome to the world of telepractice.

The Flowers live in Perry, Florida, a rural community in the state’s Big Bend where, Beth said, the nearest speech pathologist is 50 miles away in Tallahassee.

Beth could make the 100-mile round trip three times a week with Bralyn, 12, who is on the autism spectrum and is developmentally delayed. But that’s an inconvenience she wants to avoid, especially since her son Drayden, 8, would be included.

“That’s a lot, to load two small kids (in the car),” Beth said. “(And) it’s not that easy for a child with the daily struggle Bralyn deals with.”

Instead, Bralyn, with the help of a Gardiner Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students for children with certain special needs, works with a speech language pathologist who could not be any closer to her home even though the practice is located nearly 200 miles south in Tampa.

Geller is just two mouse clicks and a login away.

How simple is that?

“No kidding,” Beth said. “It’s amazing.”

Heaven-Sent

Bralyn was born 16 weeks premature. She weighed 1 pound, 11 ounces. As an infant, she needed physical therapy so she could hold her head up. She then needed more physical therapy to learn to sit and walk.

Bralyn shows off some of the medals she earned during a Special Olympics competition.

Bralyn lacked hand-eye coordination and muscle tone, but that didn’t stop her from becoming a Special Olympian, who participates in swimming, gymnastics and soccer skills.

She loves tubbing down the nearby Suwanee River, camping and singing.

Especially singing.

Bralyn can cover any song from classic rock to today’s hits.

“She’s been our radio in the woods,” her mom said. “She’s right on key. There’ll be no other music. It’s straight a cappella, and before you know it, you’re snapping your fingers.”

Beth and her husband Marti decided to home-school Bralyn when she was 8. That left their daughter without access to the speech therapist provided by their district school. Bralyn’s parents could help her with physical and occupational therapy, but for speech therapy, Bralyn needed a professional, and those are hard to find if you live in Perry. Because of that, Bralyn went two years without speech therapy.

Beth was almost resigned to load her children in the car and make the long commute to Tallahassee when she had an idea.

One night in the summer of 2018, she Googled, “online speech therapy.”

Up popped Connected Speech Pathology, Geller’s practice.

“I was at my wits’ end. I had no idea it even existed,” Beth said. “I was taking a shot in the dark. It was heaven-sent.”

The daily routine

Geller has been a speech language therapist for 18 years. She began her telepractice in the spring of 2018 to reach clients who have transportation issues or cannot leave the house.

Allison Geller has been a speech language pathologist for 18 years.

Telepractice is convenient for stroke victims or Parkinson Disease patients or someone with a weakened immune system and must be in a controlled environment, though those disabilities are not covered with the Gardiner Scholarship.

Melissa Jakubowitz, the coordinator for the telepractice special interest group for the American Speech Language and Hearing Association, said telepractice began in the late 1990s and really took off this decade.

“All the research that is available to date shows that it is as effective (as in-person visits with a speech pathologist),” she said. “There is some newer research with kids on the spectrum showing that it might be more effective for kids on the spectrum than in-person therapy, which is really fascinating to me.

“I am eagerly awaiting for more research to come out in that area because I think it might make a big difference for kids on the spectrum down the road and it may be a more preferred way to treat them if the research holds up.”

Geller, who is licensed to practice in Florida, New York and Kansas, uses Zoom, a video conferencing program that allows Bralyn to access the screen and, with the use of her mouse, click on images and boxes and write answers.

“It’s interactive, so it keeps them engaged,” Geller said. “And kids love the remote control.”

They work together for an hour each week, and Geller leaves Beth with instructions and activities for Bralyn to work on before the next session.

Geller’s work with Bralyn is more than just improving her speech. They work on communication and cognitive skills.

Bralyn is learning the different denominations of money and how to use them, how to interpret traffic and safety signs, recognize the changes in the weather and how to dress accordingly, how to prepare herself to go out in public, how to communicate with an adult as opposed to someone her own age, how to write and mail a letter.

One of the first things Geller did with Bralyn was compose a song about her daily routine so she can perform simple tasks many take for granted without being prompted by her mother. Knowing Bralyn’s love of singing, Geller put the song to the tune of “Happy,” by Pharrell Williams.

“Wake up in the morning it’s a great day …”

That’s followed by wash your face, eat breakfast, make your bed, get dressed and so on.

“Bralyn learned that song in two days,” Beth said. “My child can now sing her daily routine and remember.”

‘Sunshine in my life’

Beth is pleased with the strides her daughter has made in the year she has worked with Geller. Her vocabulary has not only improved, but so has her ability to use words correctly.

The Flowers family.

“Bralyn sometimes says things way out of context, but I can tell when certain subjects have clicked because of how she said it,” Beth said. “If you’re talking about money, she might have said, ‘I have monies to buy things.’ Instead she will say, ‘I have money. I can buy things’ or ‘to buy things with.’”

Geller, who has not met Bralyn or Beth in person (but hopes to the next time the Special Olympics is held in Central Florida), has noticed improvements in Bralyn’s communication skills from watching the videos Beth sends from the Special Olympic competitions.

Geller sees a 12-year-old girl laughing and dancing with the other competitors.

“Her face is lit up. She’s so happy and engaged with her friends,” Geller said. “I think she uses a lot of these social skills and communication skills when she’s out there in the real world communicating with other people.”

Beth said her daughter believes in the Little Mermaid, believes in Prince Charming and cannot wait to become a teenager.

“She wants whatever’s good in the world,” Beth said.

Beth calls Bralyn, “the sunshine in my life. It’s impossible to have a bad day with that much happiness.”

But Beth knows Bralyn will never be able to live unsupervised. Still, she wants her daughter to have as much independence as possible. Improving her communications skills is a huge step in that direction. “I want Bralyn to blossom to her fullest potential and do for herself as much as she can,” Beth said. “Obviously, and she wants that for herself, as well. Without (Geller’s) services, that will hinder her even more.”

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

Step Up’s Jacksonville office ranked among best places to work in that city

BY ROGER MOONEY

The honors continue to roll in for Step Up For Students.

The nonprofit’s Jacksonville office was ranked among the top places to work in that city by the Jacksonville Business Journal, placing third in the category for Large Companies (100-249 employees).

“It is such an honor that our employees are being recognized for the work they do each day to create an organizational culture that enables us to fulfill our mission to the best of our abilities,” said Anne White, Step Up’s chief administrative officer.

Representing Step Up’s Jacksonville office at the event were
(top row from left) Jessica Detmer, Diana Beane, Anne White, Renae Sweeney, Kym Beelman (bottom row from left) Judith Thomas, Andrea Thoermer and Kaitlyn Laudenslager

The Jacksonville Business Journal partnered with Quantum Workplace, an employee engagement research firm, to compile the rankings. Quantum Research surveys employees and analyzes the results to determine employee satisfaction.

Employees are evaluated in the areas of team effectiveness, retention risk, alignment with goals, trust with co-workers, individual contribution, manager effectiveness, trust in senior leaders, feeling valued, work engagement and people practices.

The results were announced May 23 at an event held at the Baseball Grounds at Jacksonville.

Step Up’s Clearwater office was recently ranked eighth among large companies in the Tampa Bay area by the Tampa Bay Business Journal.

Nationally, Step Up was ranked 19th on Forbes’ list of America’s Top Charities 2018. It was also recognized in 2018 for its financial accountability and transparency from two nonprofit watchdog groups: Charity Navigator and GuideStar. Charity Navigator awarded Step Up a four-star rating for the seventh consecutive year, a credit that only 4 percent of charities have earned by the nation’s top charity evaluator. Step Up has earned the Platinum Seal of Transparency with GuideStar, a public database that evaluates the mission and effectiveness of nonprofits.

Step Up helps more than 115,000 pre-K-12 children annually in Florida gain access to education options by helping manage five scholarship programs: The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and recently created Family Empowerment Scholarship for lower-income families; the Gardiner Scholarship for children with special needs or unique abilities; the Hope Scholarship for students who have been bullied at a public school; and the Reading Scholarship Accounts for children in grades 3-5 who struggle with reading.

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

Latin, Julius Cesar and a second chance at senior year

By ROGER MOONEY

DAVIE, Fla. – Josh Carlson pulled up a chair inside the office of the school guidance counselor one February morning and greeted a visitor.

“Salve,” he said.

It was the summer after his senior year, the summer he should have spent preparing for his freshman year of college.

Josh, a senior at American Preparatory Academy, a private K-12 school in Davie, Florida, taught himself Latin last summer.

That’s Latin for “hello.”

Instead, it was a summer spent reflecting on what went wrong during that senior year, and why he was required to repeat it.
“Just a lack of motivation on my part,” said Josh, 17.

Josh Carlson’s senior photo at American Preparatory Academy

This lack of motivation was a never-ending source of frustration for Josh’s mother, Kadirah Abdel, his guidance counselor, Norman Levitan, and American Prep principal, Soraya Matos.

They each sensed a serious student inside Josh yearning for an opportunity to be set free. He could be engaging with his teachers, capable of leading the class in a deep discussion on the topic for that day. He could also be disruptive and unmotivated, unwilling to complete his assignments on time.

Matos said she would have allowed Josh to participate last May in the graduation ceremony and make up the work during summer school, but he failed too many classes to make that possible. She hoped having Josh repeat his senior year would be a wake-up call.

“I wanted to give him another chance,” Matos said. “I believed it was a maturity issue and eventually he would understand that this was his last chance.”

He did.

“I pondered the way I was doing things over the summer,” Josh said. “I thought, ‘Man, I got really step up, because I’m repeating.’ It was sort of the cataclysmic moment for me. I knew I had to do something to improve my study ethic.”

That he taught himself to speak Latin by using the Duolingo app proved what Levitan always believed about Josh.

“He’s very bright,” Levitan said.

“A different kid”

Josh never fit in at his neighborhood schools.

“He was very to himself, very shy,” Abdel said. “The other kids were into stuff he wasn’t interested in.”

Josh is fascinated with Julius Cesar.

The other kids were into pop culture. Josh was into Julius Cesar.

The other kids read Facebook posts. Josh read the dictionary.

“He was bullied and picked on,” Abdel said. “That was my main concern. That’s when I knew I had to take action here, do something. I heard about alternative schools. I did my research, looked up different kinds of schools. There are alternative schools for kids who have had issues in public schools, because they didn’t fit in.”

Plus, Abdel said, administrators at Josh’s neighborhood school wanted to place him in classes for emotionally challenged students.

“He didn’t have a disability,” Abdel said. “They’re quick to label kids in public school. They couldn’t put him in special ed, so he was put in this class called ‘EH,’ emotionally handicapped children, basically kids who acted up.”

Abdel said her son did act up in class, and it was because he was bored.

She learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. This allowed her to move Josh to the Sunset Sadbury School, a K-12 private school in Fort Lauderdale, when Josh was in the seventh grade.

He moved to AEF (Alternative Education Foundation) School, a nonprofit private school in Fort Lauderdale, the following year and stayed through his sophomore year in high school.

“Once he got to private school, he did a lot better,” Abdel said.

But there were still issues.

“I didn’t behave so well at (AEF),” Josh said. “I didn’t get along with the students and the teachers.”

Abdel finally turned to American Prep, a private school with 150 students with no more than 12 to a class. Matos said her school is designed for students who don’t fit in at neighborhood schools. Kids, she said, who “fall through the cracks.”

Josh fit right in.

“He’s a different kid,” Matos said. “He likes history. He likes to read, and that is not very common.”

Josh passed his classes as a junior. Senior year was a struggle with most of the struggles self-inflicted.

“Just a lack of motivation on my part,” Josh said.

Josh loves to learn … just on his terms.

“He enjoys reading and studying on his own,” Abdel said. “Not necessarily being told, ‘OK, you have to study for his test.’ He enjoys studying, but when he wants.”

The proof is found in Josh’s interests.

He speaks Spanish, Latin and Italian. He writes poetry and enjoys the works of Emily Dickinson, E.E. Cummings, Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman. He is well-versed in Greek and Roman history and is fascinated with Julius Cesar.

“Interesting man,” Josh said. “All the conquests. His abilities as a leader was unrivaled.”

He wants to be a linguist. He would like to have a career that allows him to write and speak Latin and Italian.

“I’d like to write books about this stuff,” he said. “Phonology. Nerdy things.”

But, first Josh had to graduate high school.

The wake-up call

The book that began Josh’s path to teaching himself Latin.

At one point last year, Matos said she thought her school wasn’t the right fit for Josh. But where would he go? What school would make room for a senior who couldn’t graduate?

Matos believes her role as an educator is to keep her students in school. Plus, she knew Josh could complete the work. He just needed motivation. Because he was still eligible to receive a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Matos and Abdel felt it best for Josh to repeat his senior year.

“I think it was the kick he needed, the wake-up call,” Abdel said. “When he saw his friends graduate but he didn’t, that’s when he stepped up his game.”

Josh’s grades this year were the highest they’ve been during his high school career.

“I’ve just been studying more, focusing on studying, reviewing,” he said. “I wasn’t studying last year, and that’s why I was failing tests.”

While his friends made plans for their freshman years at college, Josh wrapped his mind around another senior year of high school. He didn’t have a job, so he had plenty of time on his hands.

What to do?

He reached for a copy of Wheelock’s Latin, which he received a few years ago, and started teaching himself Latin.

“One day I was looking at it, staring at it, and I thought, ‘I’ve had this for so long I should just learn it already,’” he said. “I wasn’t doing anything during the summer. I was using the internet and stuff. I said let me do something productive. I just opened up the book.”

The productivity not only carried into the classroom this year, but to other parts of the school.

Josh spent time this past year mentoring younger students at American Prep, sharing his experience as a cautionary tale.

In February, he received the Turnaround Student Award during Step Up’s annual Rising Stars Award event. He was nominated by Matos.

“I’m very proud of him,” she said.

Early this month, he graduated.

Josh plans to attend Broward College this fall. He is formulating plans for his future. He wants work with words, foreign words. He wants to visit Italy and Greece. Walk where Julius Cesar walked.

He wants to converse with the locals in their native tongue. He can get by with his Latin and Italian and Spanish.

But Greek? He doesn’t speak Greek.

“No,” he said. “Not yet.”

About American Preparatory Academy

The K-12 private school has 150 students. More than half are on scholarships from Step Up For Students with the majority on the Gardiner Scholarship. Tuition ranges from $10,500 to $16,000 based on the student’s needs. The school has a comprehensive Exceptional Student Education program focused on the individual needs of each student. It also offers dual enrollment, summer classes, summer camps, athletics and extracurricular activities.

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

Time to nominate VIPs for Rising Stars Awards

By ROGER MOONEY

Is there a Step Up For Students scholar in your school who is outstanding in academics? The arts? Athletics?

Know a teacher whose impact on students deserves praise?

Or a parent whose support of his or her scholar’s education needs to be celebrated?

Step Up For Students provides the platform for schools to recognize these individuals during its annual Rising Stars Award program.

“This event was designed to recognize the amazing students, teachers, and family members who fill the halls of our Step Up For Students partner schools every day,” said Carol Macedonia, Step Up’s vice president, office of student learning. “Last year we recognized over 800 students. We look forward to honoring even more students this year.

“It is our privilege to celebrate the accomplishments of Step Up scholars, as well as some of the most supportive parents, families and educators. Each year we look forward to this event in more than 12 regional celebrations where the schools come together to share the special talents and accomplishments of students in kindergarten through 12th grade.”

Rising Stars honors students who receive Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit and Gardiner scholarships during the 2018-19 school year.

Applications are being accepted now. Deadline for nominations is Jan. 4. Those selected will be celebrated in February at one of 15 locations around the state.

Nominate someone here.

Schools can nominate up to six individuals across the following categories:

High Achieving Student Award. Do you have a Step Up student who is excelling in a specific area (academics, arts, athletics)?

Turnaround Student Award. Do you have a Step Up student who has struggled when they first came to your school and has made a dramatic improvement?

Exceptional Teacher Award. Do you have a teacher who pushes his or her students to succeed? Do you have a teacher who truly represents the power of parent partnerships and focuses on building a relationship for success? Do you have a teacher who embraces the importance of continuous improvement and professional development?

Outstanding Student Character Award. Do you have a Step Up student who shows outstanding compassion, perseverance, courage, initiative, respect, fairness, integrity, responsibility, honesty or optimism?

Phenomenal Family Member Award. Do you have a parent or guardian of a Step Up student who you can always count on to support your school and the education of his or her child?

Step Up, a nonprofit scholarship funding organization serving Florida schoolchildren, is expected to help 125,000 children during the 2018-19 school year with four  scholarships – the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for children in lower-income families,  the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs, the Hope Scholarship for children who are bullied in public school, the Reading Scholarship Accounts program, to assist struggling readers in third through fifth grades three. The Hope and Reading scholarships are new for this school year.

Marketing Communications Manager Roger Mooney can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Step Up For Students ranked 31st out of 100 charities in the nation

By ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students added another recognition to its growing list of honors as it serves some of Florida’s most disadvantaged children.

Step Up For Students is now ranked 31st out of 100 on the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of America’s Favorite Charities, the magazine announced Tuesday. Last year, Step Up was ranked No. 42.

“We are honored by this ranking,” said Step Up President Doug Tuthill, “and we are grateful to our donors who share our vision to enable children in the state of Florida to receive the best education possible.”

Step Up, a nonprofit scholarship funding organization serving Florida schoolchildren, is expected to help 125,000 children during the 2018-19 school year with four scholarships – the Florida Tax Credit scholarship for children in lower-income families, the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs, the Hope Scholarship for children who are bullied in public school, the Reading Scholarship Accounts program, to assist struggling readers in third through fifth grades three. The Hope and Reading scholarships are new for this school year.

With the support of about 250 corporate donors, Step Up raised more than $500 million in 2017.

The Chronicle’s ranking is based on an organization’s cash support, focusing exclusively on “the fundraising of cause-driven nonprofits,” according to the Chronicle’s story published Oct. 30.

It is designed to offer a better understanding of trends that influence donations from individuals as well as the increasing value of foundation gifts to charities. The idea is to deliver a clear financial representation of the top fundraising organizations.

“The recognition of being in the Chronicle’s top 100 charities places Step Up For Students in an esteemed group of nonprofits,” said Anne Francis, Step Up’s vice president of development. “Our ranking is a measure of our donors’ commitment to our mission of providing educational opportunities for under-served children. It is a ranking that I recognize as both earned and humbling.

“The importance of the ranking is both in the reflection of what our donors have contributed to place us among the Top 100 and what the future can hold for Step Up with the increased awareness of our organization and mission that the ranking brings.”

Step Up continues to rank among the top nonprofits nationwide with this latest ranking.

The organization recently received a four-star rating for the seventh consecutive year from Charity Navigator, the nation’s top charity evaluator. That ranking was based on financial performance, accountability and transparency. Only 4 percent of charities have earned a four-star rating for seven consecutive years.

Step Up is recognized as a Platinum Charity by GuideStar. The scholarship funding organization is also ranked 26th of the 100 largest charities by Forbes for the last fiscal year.

Step Up was also voted the top nonprofit in Florida in 2017 in the education category by the Tampa Bay Business Journal and one of the best places to work in Jacksonville by the Jacksonville Business Journal.

Roger Mooney can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

 

 

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