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Willette’s story: Vibing to her own frequency and helping everyone she meets along the way

BY ROGER MOONEY

JACKSONVILLE, Florida – Willette Treadway wants to help.

She wants to help her classmates, teachers and administrators at North Florida School of Special Education, where she is in the Secondary 3 classroom. She wants to help her family and friends.

She wants to help the homeless population in Jacksonville.

“One thing about me,” Willette said, “I like to help everybody.”

“She has a big heart,” said her mom, Lisa Diana.

Willette, 14, was diagnosed at 7 with an intellectual difference and language impairment, which are neurodevelopmental conditions that appear in early childhood. She is a high performer socially but a low performer cognitively, where according to her mom, Willette is in the second to fourth grade level range with math, reading and vocabulary.

She attended her district school from kindergarten through the sixth grade. And while Lisa said Willette did well with her Individual Education Plan (IEP), she felt Willette “wasn’t grasping the material.” Searching for a school that better fit her daughter’s unique abilities, Lisa enrolled Willette in North Florida School of Special Education (NFSSE) in Jacksonville for the 2021-22 school year. She attends the school assisted by the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA), managed by Step Up For Students.

There were hugs all around for Willette on the first day of school.

“What I love about North Florida is they use different teaching styles and are a little bit more patient, especially with the smaller classes, to work with her and the material,” Lisa said. “I wanted her to be in a space where she would learn and retain and work with professionals who are hopefully going to get through to her maybe in a way that I can’t, or other teachers haven’t been able to.”

NFSSE provides an innovative academic and therapeutic setting for students, ages 6-22, who have intellectual and developmental differences. The secondary program is for students ages 14 to 17. They take academic classes and also emphasize vocational training, where they learn pre-employment skills.

The school’s transition program is for students ages 18-22. There, they learn how to budget money, pay bills, read bus schedules, and put together a resume. The students also work at jobs off campus with the goal of landing internships and fulltime positions.

“She would be devastated if she ever had to leave that school,” Lisa said. “She’s loving it. It’s everything I hoped it would be for her. This is the first time in her academic life that I don’t have to worry about her going to school.”

That some members of the school’s staff have children who attend or attended the school is a plus for Lisa, who is a nurse.

“As a teacher, an educator, someone who’s been where we are as parents,” Lisa said, “you have no idea the amount of relief it is to be able to talk to somebody who gets it.”

Willette arrived for her first day at her new school like a ball of sunshine, with a smile that lit up the campus. She made friends with everyone.

“I really like this school because it’s very nice,” Willette said. “All the teachers and staff are very nice here. All my friends are nice to me all the time.”

It wasn’t always that way at her previous school, where she was often the target of bullies.

Willette was one of the students picked to speak last January at a school pep rally last for Education Choice Week. She spoke of how well her classmates and teachers treat her, how she loved reading to “the little ones” on Thursday, how calm and peaceful she feels at the school and how the staff “lets me be the best Willette I can be.”

Lauren Perry, a Secondary 2 teacher at NFSSE, said that’s easy with a student like Willette.

“She loves to be around people,” Perry said. “She loves to talk and connect, and it’s a really beautiful thing for someone so young.”

While addressing the school, Willette also mentioned her job during dismissal.

She took it upon herself last year to help with the car line. She recruited two classmates to assist her when she fractured her right ankle falling off her scooter near the end of the year. The three held staff meetings every morning. Willette carried a clipboard.

“Yeah, that’s Willette,” Lisa said.

Willette’s cast was black and gold, matching the colors of her favorite football team – the Pittsburgh Steelers. Lisa’s mom wrapped a yellow Terrible Towel – a Steelers’ talisman – around Willette shortly after she was born. If you want to hear passion in Willette’s voice, ask her about who should be the Steelers quarterback.

Willette shows off her Pittsburgh Steelers’ themed cast after she fractured her right ankle last spring.

If you want that passion to go up a notch, ask Willette about the homeless in Jacksonville – a segment of the population that is dear to her heart. She has visited homeless shelters and soup kitchens in the city with her grandmother on her father’s side. Lisa and Willette once made 150 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to distributed to the homeless shortly before the start of the pandemic. Last school year, Willette helped classmates make care packages for the homeless.

“Let’s say you need to make 150 bags of food for the homeless. Would you do it?” she asked. “Yes, I would do it.”

Willette wants to be a teacher.

“I like to help kids. I like to help teachers,” she said. “I like to help everybody.”

Lisa said her daughter is a natural caregiver, especially when it comes to her classmates. Lisa called her a “kid whisperer” because she makes those around her feel welcomed and appreciated.

Lisa could see Willette working in some capacity at a school like NFSSE. Most of all, Lisa said, “I hope that she’s an independent adult. She has her own strong personality. She’s not one to go with the crowd. She vibes to her own frequency and I love it, and I hope that never goes away.”

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

Of courage, basketball and conquering the obstacles in his way: The Justin Williams story

BY ROGER MOONEY

OCOEE, Florida – Justin Williams was 8 when he underwent surgery to allow more room for his brain to grow. For two months he wore a halo brace and a plate on the roof of his mouth to push the bones in his face forward one agonizing millimeter at a time.

At one point, Justin told his dad, John, that he’d rather die than live through that again.

“At the time, I was probably exaggerating,” Justin said, “but it was the worst eight weeks of my life.”

Justin, 18, was born with Apert syndrome, a rare condition where the joints in a baby’s head, face, feet, and hands close while in the womb. He’s undergone surgeries on his feet, hands, face and head – 15 in all. The first was when he was 9 months old. He learned to walk with both feet and hands in casts.

While Justin has endured some difficult moments in his life, he will be the last to say he’s had a difficult life.

“I’ve gone through a lot,” he said, “and it hasn’t affected me.”

Stacy, Justin and John Williams.

Justin grew up on Ocoee, just a short walk from his family’s blueberry farm, where he helps direct the parking during picking season.

He graduated in the spring from Foundation Academy in nearby Winter Garden. He attended the private Christian school since pre-K on a McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities (now the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities, administered by Step Up For Students). He begins classes at Valencia College in August.

Justin was one of the most popular students on campus and certainly the most popular player on the basketball team. His classmates would fill the stands and chant his name until Coach Nathaniel Hughes sent Justin into the game. Then Justin would reward his fans by hitting long-range 3-point shots.

“It’s so much fun to watch him play,” Justin’s mom, Stacy, said. “It blows me away, the support of all the people.”

Justin’s efforts on the court led to his receiving the Jersey Mike’s Naismith High School Basketball Courage Award. The honor is given annually to a male and female high school basketball player who has “gone above and beyond throughout the basketball season and has demonstrated courage in their approach to their team, school, and community.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard him complain, say something was too hard or he couldn’t do it,” Hughes said. “I never heard that, and he has way more reason to complain than I do.”

HE CAN DO IT!

“What is a normal life?” John Williams asked on a recent afternoon at the blueberry farm.

While pregnant with Justin, Stacy said she wondered what type of life he would lead. Would he excel in sports? In school? What would his interests be? His talents? What would he choose for a career?

Justin was born in September 2003 with a craniofacial disorder so rare it is found in 1 in 65,000 to 88,000 babies. Now Stacy and John had entirely different questions: What would Justin’s quality of life be? Could he even go to school?

“When you have a child with special needs, your whole outlook is different because everything changes,” Stacy said, “so you have to find your new normal.”

The new normal included flights to the Craniofacial Center at Medical City Children’s Hospital in Dallas for those surgeries, and what John said seemed like endless months in hotels, as well as nights where he and Stacy tried to sleep on the couch in Justin’s hospital room.

It also included Little League baseball and youth basketball, soccer and golf, and plenty of roughhousing with his cousins around the blueberry farm.

Stacy and John were determined to meet Apert syndrome head on.

Justin would do everything every other kid his age did. They signed him up for baseball when he was 4 even though he had trouble holding a bat because he doesn’t have knuckles in his fingers.

So what if he couldn’t hit the ball? Neither could the other 4-year-olds, John said.

It was the same way in school.

“Do not help him,” Stacy sternly told Justin’s teacher on her son’s first day of kindergarten. “He can do it.”

“I think I scared her,” Stacy said. “I just wanted to give him a chance. You have to give people a chance to be who they can be.”

Maybe people outside of school stared at Justin and made rude comments to Stacy, but at Foundation Academy, Justin was just one of the kids. His popularity grew as he moved up through the grades.

“There is something about Justin that makes everyone love him,” Foundation Principal Sarah Reynolds said. “He is so friendly, so kind. No one sees his disability. No one. It’s just a non-issue.”

With the education choice option that came with the McKay Scholarship, Stacy and John settled on Foundation Academy because they wanted a smaller scholastic setting for Justin, one where his teachers would know and understand his needs and where he could spend the years with the same classmates.

Having the scholarship pay his tuition was huge when Justin was undergoing his surgeries and treatments.

“We, honestly, would not have been able to keep him at the same school had we not had the scholarship,” Stacy said.

J-MONEY

John put up a basketball hoop in the family’s driveway because he thought it was a game Justin could play. He was right. Justin was hooked at an early age.

Justin’s ability score on long-range jump shots earned him the nickname “J-Money” from his teammates because, as Hughes said, “He makes his money on the 3-point line.”

(Watch Justin Williams make his “money from the 3-point line.”)

Justin was not the most talented player on the team, but Hughes said he made the most of his skills. He also understands the game, the way the offense and defense work. Hughes often asked Justin what he thought of something that occurred during a game, and Justin would offer an honest and accurate assessment.

He was also the teammate who kept everyone loose and focused.

“A glue guy you can’t live without as a team,” Hughes said.

As he walked out of the gym after every practice and game, Justin would always find Hughes and say, “Thanks, Coach. See you tomorrow.”

It was Hughes who nominated Justin for the Naismith award, and the school celebrated the announcement of Justin winning with a pep rally in front of the entire student body. They chanted his name and Justin took a shot, though opting for a high-percentage layup. The crowd went wild as the ball dropped through the net.

There were TV crews from Orlando-area news stations and one shooting a video for the award.

“I like sharing my story and having an impact,” Justin said.

His message?

“You need to lean on your family and friends because they are always there for you, no matter what you’re going through,” he said. “If you’re having a rough day or a hard time, always trust in God. He will make your path straight. I think people get down on themselves because they think they are not normal or not as good as someone else, but I think if they pray and follow God, they will be fine.”

College classes begin soon for Justin. He’s thinking of studying business. He will help Hughes coach this season and wants to someday coach high school basketball.

“He has totally superseded anything I envisioned for him,” Stacy said. “I never thought he would be as awesome as he is. He surprises you all the time. He has the best sense of humor. He never complains about anything. He’s always a try-hard kid, which blows me away.”

As for what she now envisions for Justin’s future, Stacy said, “I think it’s up to him. The sky is the limit. I can’t wait to see in five years where he’s at.”

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

New autism center in Florida Keys offers education, therapy, resources – and hope

For 23 years, the Carrie Brazer Center for Autism in Miami has served students on the autism spectrum and others with neurodiverse conditions. During that time, Brazer, a Florida-certified special education teacher with a master’s degree in special education, noticed that families from the Florida Keys were driving as much as three hours to come to the area for therapies and other services.

To better serve those families, Brazer opened a small office in Tavernier, an unincorporated area in Key Largo with a population of 2,530. When a charter school campus across the street became available, Brazer seized the opportunity to open the school’s second campus on the half-acre lot.

The new campus opened last year with six large classrooms in a 5,000-square-foot building. The school has a large indoor play area with lots of swings. The weather usually is pleasant enough for the students to eat lunch outdoors.

“It’s just gorgeous,” Brazer said. “It’s very beachy and homey and airy and spacious.”

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Education savings account allows Dylan to gain independence one step at a time

BY ROGER MOONEY

SEMINOLE, Florida – Dylan Quessenberry was 15 when he walked up a flight of stairs for the first time.

It was 20 steps, linking two floors at his school. But for Dylan, who has cerebral palsy, that staircase was more than just a route to the cafeteria at Learning Independence For Tomorrow (LiFT) Academy, a private K-12 school that serves neurodiverse students.

Those 20 steps were part of his journey to what he called “independence,” something he sought when he joined the school in the fifth grade on a Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship).

“It was a defining moment in his life,” LiFT Principal Holly Andrade said. “A massive milestone.”

Dylan has “gained a lot of independence” during his seven years at LiFT Academy.

Dylan, now 18 and a senior at LiFT, recently recalled that day as if he were still standing at the summit, sweaty and spent and filled with a sense of accomplishment that few can understand.

Like a marathoner on race day, Dylan woke that morning knowing the years of work he put in with his physical therapist, Valerie, were about to pay off.

“Those stairs,” he thought, “are mine!”

And they were, one arduous step at a time.

Leaving his walker at the bottom and cheered on by students who were involved in afterschool programs, the school staff still on campus and Valerie, Dylan made the ascent. He pumped his fists in the air when he finished.

It took nearly half an hour.

“It was amazing,” he said. “I was like, glorified.”

Andrade arrived on the scene in time to see Dylan reach the second-floor landing.

“I cried like a baby,” she said. “Oh my gosh! I’ll never forget his face.”

It’s hard to imagine a bigger smile.


LiFT is not far from Dylan’s home in Seminole, where he lives with his mother, Marlena, and his twin brother, Ryan. The school includes LiFT University Transition Program, a four-year, post-high school program that Dylan will attend after he graduates this spring.

The program is for neurodiverse young adults who won’t follow the typical path for secondary education. It teaches employability skills, independent living skills and social skills. Community partners offer internships, which often lead to fulltime jobs.

Dylan said his mom’s blunt honestly about his physical limitations has allowed him to overcome a number of obstacles.

“This school has been amazing for him,” Marlena said. “I don’t know where we would be if we didn’t have LiFT Academy.

“He’s so fortunate to have this school. I’m so fortunate to have this school, because I can send him here and not have to worry about a thing.”

The Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities, managed by Step Up For Students, is an education savings account (ESA). ESAs allow parents to spend their children’s education dollars on a variety of educational purposes. Marlena uses it to cover Dylan’s tuition.

“If he didn’t have Step Up, he wouldn’t have accomplished what he has today,” Marlena said.

When Dylan arrived in the fifth grade, he couldn’t button his shirt or zip his jacket. He couldn’t open a bag of snacks or put a straw in his drink. He couldn’t open a door. Or walk up a flight of stairs.

In seven years, he changed those can’ts into cans.

“I gained a lot of independence,” Dylan said.

A lot of those gains were accomplished because of hours spent in physical and occupational therapy. Some were the product of surgeries.

“We’ve been through some surgeries,” Marlena said.

How many? Dylan and his mom both answer the question with a groan.

“About seven,” he said.

Dylan was born with scoliosis, reactive airway disease, a Grade IV brain bleed, Hydrocephalus and a congenital heart defect. He’s had surgeries to lengthen his hamstrings, heel cords and hip adductors.

On three occasions, Dylan spent six weeks in a cast that began at his chest and ran to the bottom of both feet.

What is remarkable about Dylan, Andrade said, is that in the seven years she has known him, she has never heard him complain about his surgeries or the obstacles placed in his life.

“Not once,” she said. “It’s that kind of positive attitude that has gotten him to where he is.”

Could you blame Dylan if he did? Especially when his twin brother does not have cerebral palsy.

“It was hard, at first,” Dylan admitted, “but I overcame the hardships of life and moved on. It’s still in the back of my mind.”

Dylan’s legs are not strong enough to support him on their own, so he uses a walker. He is working toward walking with canes.

The walker doesn’t slow him down. With it, Dylan is one of the fastest students in LiFT’s running club. Assistant Principal Darrin Karuzas never fails to offer this warning when he sees Dylan zip down a hallway:

“Slow down or you’ll get a ticket!”


Marlena has taught Dylan to embrace being neurodiverse. She was adopted by her parents and vividly recalled the day in the first grade when she mentioned that in class. Her teacher scolded her for talking about it.

“I was proud of being adopted,” Marlena said. “My parents taught me to be proud of it, and that’s what I tell Dylan, ‘Be proud of who you are.’ We don’t refer to it as a disability.”

Marlena has always been up front with her son about his physical limitations. There are some things Dylan can do and some he can’t, and Marlena has helped him deal with both sides. It’s that honesty that has allowed Dylan to overcome so much.

“One hundred percent,” he said.

Dylan shows off his muscles.

Dylan endured the surgeries because he knew each would help bring him closer to the independence he craved.

“I hated it,” he said, “but I had to do it. It helped me walk. It helped me get up in the car and everything I needed to do.”

Dylan wants to get his driver’s license. He wants to get married someday and start a family.

“That’s my ultimate dream,” he said.

He’s hoping to land a job at a local Winn-Dixie, beginning first as a bagger then, hopefully, as a stock clerk.

“I can easily stock shelves,” he said.

A lover of all things cars and trucks, Dylan would ultimately like to work in an auto shop, fixing cars. Maybe own a garage.

He also wants a Chevy Silverado.

“There is a lot he wants to do in life,” Marlena said. “That’s one thing about him, he is driven.”

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

Podcast: Florida mom looks forward to additional benefits of education savings account

Karen and David Prewitt with their son, Caleb.

reimaginED Senior Writer Lisa Buie talks with Karen Prewitt, whose son, Caleb, 15, is benefitting from a change in Florida law that is merging the McKay Scholarship program into the state’s Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities.


Click here to listen to the podcast.


Born with Down Syndrome, Caleb attends North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville, his parents’ school of choice for him since kindergarten.

While the McKay Scholarship made it possible for Caleb to have the best possible educational environment, it covered tuition only, leaving the family with out-of-pocket costs for physical, occupational and speech therapies that help children with Down Syndrome learn to be as independent as possible.

The new scholarship program is an education savings account, which allows parents the flexibility to spend their money not only on tuition and fees but also on necessities such as private tutoring, devices and therapies not covered by insurance.

Catholic high school returns to Key West. Scholarships help make it possible

For the first time in nearly 40 years, Catholic high school education will return to Key West.

The Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea, which currently educates students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, this week announced plans to add grades 9 and 10 in August 2023. The Basilica High School will be the only Catholic high school in Monroe County, and plans to offer enrollment to students in Key West and the Lower Keys, Principal Robert Wright told the Keys Weekly.

The last Catholic high school in Key West, Mary Immaculate, closed in 1986 due to declining enrollment.

However, demand has since been rising. According to Wright, the Basilica School’s enrollment increased 100 percent between 2013-2019, and currently is at capacity with a waiting list. Many of those families want to extend their children’s Catholic education beyond middle school.

In a 2019 column for Keys Weekly, Wright credited Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship for helping fuel that growth. “In 2013,” he wrote, “we began accepting Florida Tax Credit Scholarship students. That made a private school education affordable to scores of families seeking alternatives to the public schools that, for whatever reasons, weren’t working out for them. Since then, our enrollment has nearly doubled, from 170 students to 320. We have 100 on a waiting list, simply because we lack the capacity to accommodate them. If we fail to provide a right and just education, these families would seek to go elsewhere.”

The Basilica School currently serves 154 students who attend on the income-based tax credit scholarship or Family Empowerment Scholarship (created by the Legislature in 2019), and 20 who attend on the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities.

In announcing plans for the high school, Wright noted that “scholarship programs, available through Step Up for Students, will keep costs affordable for all families.”

Overall, Catholic school enrollment in Florida increased this academic year following a nearly 7% decline at the start of the COVID pandemic. According to data from the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, enrollment grew by 4,610 students, or nearly 6%, during the 2021-22 school year. Again, Florida’s choice scholarships helped make that possible: Scholarship students made up just 24% of Catholic school enrollment in 2015 but make up 47% of enrollment today.

LiFT Academy receives boost from Tampa Bay Lightning as it prepares to move to new campus

BY ROGER MOONEY

High above the ice at Amalie Arena during a recent Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game stood Keli Mondello and Kim Kuruzovich, the founders of Learning Independence for Tomorrow (LiFT), and Holly Andrade, a founding teacher. They were bathed in the spotlight while the fans cheered, and the players on the ice below paid tribute with a time-honored hockey salute – tapping the blades of their sticks on the ice.

The three clutched an oversized check made out to LiFT Academy for $50,000. The Lightning Foundation donates that amount during each home game to a Tampa Bay area nonprofit as part of the Lightning Community Hero program presented by Jabil.  LiFT was honored by the Lightning on Jan. 27 during a game against the New Jersey Devils.

Learning Independence for Tomorrow (LiFT) includes LiFT Academy, a K-12 private school, LiFT University Transition Program, a four-year post-high school program, and LiFT Day Program in Seminole, Florida that serves neurodiverse students. Neurodiversity is the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, that falls outside societal standards of typical.

“We’re so excited about it. It’s really good timing,” said Andrade, now the school’s principal.

After nine years, LiFT Academy, LiFT University Transition Program and the LiFT Day Program have outgrown their current locations of rented space from two churches. It’s time for a bigger building that can accommodate the school’s expanding programs and growing enrollment.

With a total enrollment of 147 learners across all its programs and a lengthy waiting list, LiFT simply needs more space. Andrade said the new site will initially double the capacity and could ultimately serve 386 learners.

In December, LiFT purchased a former YMCA building in nearby Clearwater with plans to convert it into a new campus. The LiFTING OUR FUTURE capital campaign has begun to help finance the move, remodel and expansion. The $50,000 grant from the Lightning is a great start.

“We are moving to more centralized location in Pinellas County where we can be a resource and partner for the whole community,” Andrade said. We’re going to be more visible and make a larger impact by enhancing the neurodiverse student experience with a safe and inclusive space to learn, thrive, and succeed.”

LiFT Academy’s enrollment include 65 students who receive the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship) and 47 students who receive the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities. The two scholarship programs will merge on July 1, 2022, and will be managed by Step Up For Students.

LiFT Academy opened its doors Jan. 9, 2013, to 17 K-12 students. At the time, Mondello, Kuruzovich and Andrade each had neurodiverse children who were sophomores at the same high school. Their goal was to create an educational program that focused on independent living for their children and others living with neurodiversity.

LiFT University Transition Program, a four-year program for neurodiverse young adults who won’t follow the typical path for secondary education, opened the following year. LiFT University Transition Program teaches employability skills, independent living skills and social skills. The program has approximately 30 community partners who offer internships, and those internships often lead to paid employment.

The LiFT University Transition Program also runs three microbusinesses. These businesses allow students the opportunity to gain social, vocational, and critical thinking skills that will add greatly to their value as an employee. As entrepreneurs, students learn to take risks, manage time, put customers first, seek opportunities to lead and interpersonal skills, all of which are highly transferable skills sought by employers. LiFT Your Fork is a catering service that prepares its neurodiverse students for work in the hospitality industry. LiFT Your Heart makes and sells handmade items such as canvas bags, towels, soaps and scrubs and candles. There is also the LiFT University Cleaning Crew, which has contracts with area churches and movie theaters.

Andrade said, “LiFT’s growth always outpaced our funding. We relied on donations from community partners like Jabil and Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. When Eckerd refurbished its science wing, the college donated furniture and equipment.”

Andrade said she and Kuruzovich carted everything from the college campus to the academy in their “mom vans.”

“We made five trips back and forth, carting science tables, dissection equipment and rolling desk chairs for our teachers,” she said. “That’s how we made it work in the earlier years.”

Kim Kuruzovich, Holly Andrade and Keli Mondello were honored recently as Lightning Community Heros by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Thanks to the Lightning, Andrade said they can now purchase flexible seating options, new furniture, light dimmers for students with visual sensitivities, and additional equipment and fidgets that will serve as therapeutic purposes. These improvements will empower students to focus on their learning, without distractions and discomfort due to their sensory sensitivities. 

“I did it for my son Daniel, and for all the other children like him,” Andrade said. “Neurodiverse children have so much to offer the world. The only thing that holds them back is how the world limits them. But we can change how the world sees them and I want to be a part of that. There’s absolutely nothing like providing an opportunity to help children become what they were destined to be. It was always something that we hoped for and worked for.”

LiFT Academy is the 473rd nonprofit to be named a Lightning Community Hero. Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and his wife, Penny, started the program during the 2011-12 season with a $10 million, five-year commitment to the area. Since then, they have awarded nearly $25 million to more than 600 nonprofits in the greater Tampa Bay area. Last summer, the Viniks announced the program will award another $10 million to nonprofits during the next five seasons.

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

Step Up For Students celebrates 20 years of providing Families Choices

Florida’s largest nonprofit scholarship administrator is celebrating its 20th anniversary of providing families more options in their children’s education.

Step Up For Students, a 501c3 nonprofit based in Jacksonville and St. Petersburg, has awarded more than 1 million scholarships since it was founded in 2002. Today, Step Up administers five of the state’s K-12 scholarship programs: the donor-supported Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) and the taxpayer-funded Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options (FES-EO), for low- and middle-income students; the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA, formerly Gardiner); the Reading Scholarship for public school students in grades 3-5 with low reading test scores; and the Hope Scholarship for bullied students.

Denisha Merriweather, who used a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship to attend a private school, is a testament to the power of education choice.

Step Up currently serves more than 170,000 students, most of them lower-income or with special needs. The scholarships empower their families to access the learning options that work best for their children so they can maximize their potential.

“As I reflect upon the last 20 years, I want to thank all the legislators, educators and donors who made this program and this movement possible,” said John Kirtley, chairman and founder of Step Up for Students. “As important, I want to thank the families who were empowered by the scholarships to give their students the chance to find an educational environment that best suited their individual needs.”

Florida has witnessed a sea change in education over the last 20 years. Once languishing at the bottom, Florida has skyrocketed to No. 3 in the nation in K-12 achievement, according to Education Week. With a focus on matching the child to the right education environment, Florida created a variety of educational options, including Step Up’s scholarships, to meet the needs of students. Today, almost half of the state’s 3.6 million students attend schools other than their assigned neighborhood school.

Scholarship students, and the private schools serving them, have played a role in the state’s educational success.

An Urban Institute analysis of the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship found recipients were shown to be up to 99% more likely to attend four-year colleges, and 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees, than like students in public schools.

“Parents are increasingly insisting on a public education system that is able to provide each child with an effective and efficient customized education,” Step Up President Doug Tuthill said. “Helping parents achieve this vision for the last 20 years has been an honor and a privilege. The next 20 years are really going to be amazing.”

Denisha Merriweather is a testament to the power of education choice.

The daughter of a teenaged mom and high school dropout, raised in poverty, Denisha thought she was destined for a similar path. Receiving a scholarship from Step Up For Students changed her life.

Denisha had been a troubled student who was held back twice at her assigned public schools. But when she went to live with her godmother in sixth grade, her guardian applied for and received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. That allowed Denisha to afford tuition at the private school of her choice, Esprit de Corps Center of Learning in Jacksonville, where she blossomed.

Denisha went on to graduate with honors, earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of West Florida and a master’s degree in social work from the University of South Florida. From there she served as School Choice and Youth Liaison to the Secretary of Education at the U.S. Department of Education. In 2020 she founded Black Minds Matter, an organization devoted to promoting the development of high-quality school options for Black students. Recently she became the first scholarship student alumnus to serve as a member of Step Up’s Board of Directors.

“I’m just so grateful,” Denisha said. “This never would have been possible without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.”

For more information about the scholarship programs, or for help arranging an interview with a scholarship family, contact Scott Kent, assistant director of strategic communications, at 727-451-9832 or skent@sufs.org, or visit www.StepUpForStudents.org.

Step Up’s Rising Stars Award programs returns this year with in-person and virtual events

BY ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students’ Rising Stars Award program returns this year with in-person events, a virtual event and a new category – the Super Senior Award.

“Step Up For Students celebrates our outstanding scholarship students every year through our Rising Stars Award ceremonies across the state,” said Jamila Wiltshire, Student Learning & Partner Success manager at Step Up.

“We are excited to return to in-person events this school year. Here at Step Up for Students, we know the importance of celebrating a year of everyday victories and growth which is pivotal to our students.”

Because of the challenges presented by COVID-19, the 2020-21 event was held virtually. Five in-person events are planned for this spring:

  • April 26 – Monsignor Pace High School in Miami and Impact Christian Academy in Jacksonville.
  • April 27 – Abundant Life Christian Academy in Fort Lauderdale.
  • April 28 – Saint Andrew Catholic School in Orlando and Cristo Rey Tampa Salesian High School in Tampa.

In addition, all Rising Stars Award scholars will be honored May 3 during a virtual event.

Principals can nominate students from Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC), Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options (FES-EO), Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique abilities (formerly Gardiner Scholarship) and Hope Scholarship in one of four categories:

  • 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.
  • Super Senior Award. A senior who demonstrates academic achievement, leadership, community service and/or extra-curricular achievement.

Click here to nominate your students. Deadline for nominations is Feb. 11.

Principals can nominate up to three students. McKay Scholarship students are not eligible.

Before you begin making your nominations, please have all necessary information available, including: school name, school DOE number, each nominee’s contact information (name, phone number, email address), and a short description of why each student is being nominated.

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

Step Up receives 4-star rating from Charity Navigator for 15th year

BY ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students recently received the highest honor from Charity Navigator, the non-profit that evaluates more than a million charitable organizations in the United States.

The four-star rating has been an annual achievement for Step Up in each of the last 15 years, since Step Up was first evaluated by Charity Navigator.

“Earning this rating is vitally important to our cause,” Step Up President Doug Tuthill said. “We are extremely passionate about what we do and work incredibly hard to change the lives of Florida’s most vulnerable children. Our mission continues because of the trust of our donors.”

Charity Navigator President and CEO Michael Thatcher wrote in a letter to Tuthill that the four-star rating was based on Step Up “demonstrating strong financial health and commitment to accountability and transparency.”

“This is our highest possible rating and indicates that your organization adheres to sector best practices and executes its mission in a financially efficient way,” Thatcher wrote. “Attaining a four-star rating verifies that Step Up For Students exceeds industry standards and outperforms most charities in your area of work. This exceptional designation from Charity Navigator sets Step Up For Students apart from its peers and demonstrates to the public its trustworthiness.”

Thatcher wrote that donors are looking for accountability and transparency in nonprofits. That’s why his organization evaluates more than 1.5 million nonprofits in America.

“Charity Navigator aims to accentuate the work of efficient and transparent organizations,” Thatcher wrote. “The intent of our work is to provide donors with essential information to give them greater confidence in both the charitable decisions that they make and the nonprofit sector.”

Step Up received perfect score on several measures that go into the four-star rating, among them Governance, Transparency, Program Expenses, Fundraising Efficiency.

“The Charity Navigator rating underscores that when donors invest in Step Up, they are assured their contributions will be maximized to the fullest potential,” Tuthill said.

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

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