Tag Archives forGardiner Scholarship

No limits: Gardiner Scholarships fuel big dreams for the Alexander family


Abby Alexander is a 9-year-old entrepreneur who has developed – and hit the local market with – her own line of skin-care products. She recently sold her Gifts by Abby Lane merchandise during an event at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa.

Her brother, Christopher, 13, loves acting and wants to eventually write and direct movies. In his spare time, he reads Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allen Poe.

A young entrepreneur, Abby Alexander recently displayed her own skin-care products, Gifts by Abby Lane, during an expo at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

Abby and Christopher are biological siblings who were adopted at a young age by Kelli Alexander and Nicholas Alexander of Spring Hill, Florida, about 50 miles north of Tampa.

Christopher was 4 when the Alexanders adopted him, and he soon began attending a neighborhood school. Around third grade, he started having some difficulties.

“In school, the teachers started to notice that he was getting distracted by little things, like the temperature of the classroom or his friend was wearing new shoes,” Kelli Alexander said. “He couldn’t focus on what the teacher was teaching and his (learning style) is very one-step-at-a-time. He couldn’t focus. He’d get instructions and would get lost in multiple-step instructions.”

He often struggled with reading and math, and would come home frustrated and discouraged.

The Alexanders had adopted Abby when she was 19 months old. When Abby started school, she had different challenges.

“Abby struggled with not being in control of things,” Kelli said. “Anytime the teacher would deviate from a schedule, she couldn’t focus. If they were five minutes late for art class, it would throw off the rest of her day. She was done.”

It didn’t help that Abby also had attachment and anxiety issues, as did her brother.

Now in seventh grade, Christopher was diagnosed on the autism spectrum around age 9. Abby, a fourth-grader, was 7 when she was diagnosed on the autism spectrum; the Alexanders also were told she is gifted.

Christopher Alexander is a voracious reader who wants to someday become a professional actor.

Through her own research, Kelli Alexander learned about the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs. Step Up For Students helps manage the scholarship.

Thanks to the scholarship, Kelli has been able to afford to home school Christopher for the past four years, while husband Nicholas works at a Walmart distribution center. Abby started home schooling this year. Kelli Alexander said she is pleased with her children’s progress, and both kids said they are


happier learning at home, where they are also close to their 3-year-old brother William.

“Our family is always on a tight budget,” Kelli said. “The scholarship has allowed us to choose high-quality curricula, quality technology and supplies to cater to their special needs. The scholarship allows us to decide what, where and how we teach our children. We can design a curriculum that plays off of their strengths and passions. Since being home-schooled, both have shown remarkable improvements not just academically, but emotionally as well.”

Kelli, Abby and Christopher Alexander recently acted in a production of “Annie” at the Live Oak Theatre in Brooksville, Florida.

The family, including Kelli, regularly participates in community theater productions at Live Oak Theatre in Brooksville, which has Christopher dreaming of a career on the stage or in a director’s chair – or both. He said his overall outlook on life has changed since he started home schooling.

“Home-school is so much better,” he said. “My other school was so stressful and fake. The kids and students were crazy and stressful – naïve.”

He has acted in community productions of “Around the World In 80 Days,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Secret Garden,” “Annie” and “Peter Pan.” He is currently auditioning for the part of Quee, a dwarf in the medieval comedy, “ReUnKnighted.”

“I really want to be an actor,” he said. “That’s my dream. I look to do any roles that sound good.”

It helps that he is a voracious reader.

“Right now, I’m on ‘Wonder’ by R.J. Palacio,” he said.

In the fall, Abby decided she wanted to earn her own money. Her strong interest in science and math led to the idea of starting her own line of skin-care products.

“With the scholarship, we were able to find resources to help her learn about small businesses and in a very short time she created a business plan,” Kelli Alexander said. “Gifts by Abby Lane was born at our kitchen table. She makes specialty items that don’t have any added perfumes or dyes. In the past few months, she has expanded from selling to friends and family to setting up booths at large markets and she has many more planned for the coming months.  This business venture has been the greatest hands-on lesson for her in business, economics and customer service.”

Abby described the products as a “sugar scrub.”

“At first, we gave them as presents to some of our friends, then I thought it would be cool to make products that almost everybody can use,” she said.

Her interests are not bound to beauty products. The family has two kittens – Genie and Bobby – which has sparked her enthusiasm for the veterinary field.

Abby, described by her mother as “very analytical and practical,” has such a keen interest in national security that she has also considered a career as a border patrol agent.

Kelli Alexander marveled at the progress her children have made.

“The Gardiner Scholarship has given us the opportunity to help them pursue their dreams,” she said.

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




Josh Clay’s boulevard of unbroken dreams


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was worth it.

The show, he said, “was legendary.”

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

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

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

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


Wesley Hamilton: Another Bill Gates?



Wesley Hamilton, a curious, curly-haired six-year-old was blessed with a high IQ.

Wesley Hamilton, 6, is thriving at Miami Shores Presbyterian Church School, a private school he attends through help from the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs.

When he was 3, a preschool teacher asked his class to say words that started with “a.” While many of his classmates answered “apple” or “ant,” Wesley said, “actually.”

He started having some uncommon struggles at a young age, said his mother, Emily Ashworth Hamilton, chief technology officer with ABB Optical Group in Coral Springs.

He didn’t like having his fingernails clipped.

He wouldn’t touch things with his hands, including food.

He stopped making eye contact with other people.

He had trouble sleeping, and when he did sleep, he often had nightmares.

He also would overreact to “the simplest things,” said Ashworth Hamilton, who lives in Miami with Wesley, her 2-year-old daughter Holly and husband Bill Hamilton, a mobile software architect with AT&T.

Wesley is a devoted brother to younger sister Holly. Here, they are pictured on a recent trip to Lookout Mountain in North Carolina.

“He would have kind of the classic 2-year-old temper tantrum, but they never ended,” she said. “Not only in the moment, but they’d just never stop. His language was sort of odd, too, but he was incredibly verbal. His sentences were very deliberate, but the words he used were huge.”

In April 2015, Wesley was diagnosed as being on the “high-functioning” end of the autism spectrum.

Ashworth Hamilton eventually applied for and received a Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students. The state-funded scholarship is for students between 3 and 22 and who have disabilities including: autism spectrum disorder, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Spina bifida and other impairments.

The scholarship allows parents to personalize their child’s education by directing money toward schools, therapists, specialists, curriculum and technology, as well as a college savings account.

Last year, Wesley’s family used the scholarship to help pay for Applied Behavior Analysis therapy through Optimum Behavioral Services in Sunrise. Ashworth Hamilton said the therapy is not covered by her insurance.

Much of Wesley’s first year of therapy was not spent in a school or social setting, but “in a clinical environment,” she said.

“It could pertain to playing with others appropriately, or in a classroom, or following the instructions of a parent or adult in charge – how to react appropriately in certain situations,” Ashworth Hamilton said.

“(Children on the autism spectrum) have to be explicitly taught. They can’t simply observe or follow other people’s leads.”

Blanca Onetto, clinical director at Optimum Behavioral Services, where Wesley is a patient, said therapists quickly realized Wesley was very bright, with an enthusiasm for learning and a healthy sense of humor.

She said he enjoys music – particularly Queen’s classic rock hit, “We Will Rock You” – using his iPad, building with blocks, and playing with toy airplanes, cars and construction materials.

However, Onetto said, Wesley had difficulty communicating “across multiple contexts,” such as “social-emotional reciprocity,” non-verbal communication used in social interaction, and developing, maintaining and understanding relationships.

Sometimes, Onetto said, he threw the tantrums his mother described, displayed physical aggression and had anxiety issues.

Wesley has added fishing to his long list of interests, which also include using his iPad, building with blocks, and playing with toy airplanes, cars and construction materials.

Peer training, positive reinforcement and “naturalistic-incidental teaching” at the center has helped improve his conversational skills, while therapies to assist with shyness and impatience have included participation in a social skills group that features role playing.

To address tantrums and aggression, the center has used therapies that “decrease Wesley’s inappropriate behaviors by replacing them with appropriate ones,” Onetto said.

“Our goal is to teach Wesley appropriate social interactions, which at the same time would help to develop many other skills, including listening, attention, reading body language and social references,” she said. “He has shown considerable progress on all his treatment goals, but we will continue working on achieving higher standards.”

Onetto’s team of therapists have accompanied Wesley to school, thanks to Gardiner. This has helped Wesley transition into an academic environment and a mainstream classroom successfully with the support he needs.

Ashworth Hamilton said she did not want Wesley to go to his neighborhood elementary school, where, thanks to his high IQ, he would likely have been mainstreamed into a large class with a teacher who may not have experience handling students with special needs.

Through the Gardiner Scholarship, Wesley attends Miami Shores Presbyterian Church School, a kindergarten- through fifth-grade private school with a preschool program. He is now in first grade.

Ashworth Hamilton said she’s now optimistic Wesley will be better able to manage his anxieties, focus on tasks and increase his “functional capabilities.” His successful integration into a mainstream classroom is due to the partnership at school between parents, teachers and therapists and is building a strong foundation for Wesley.

“The goal is to build him up so the support needed will decrease over time,” his mother said. “I think he will continue to need a learning environment that is very much able to have some flexibility with his learning style; he’s very visual and has lots of sensory stimuli to contend with.”

Onetto is also impressed.

Because Wesley is high-functioning, Onetto said she doesn’t see any reason why he won’t be able to someday live independently and lead a fulfilling life.

“Each individual with autism is unique,” she said. “Many of those on the autism spectrum have exceptional abilities in visual skills, music, and academic skills. About 40 percent have average to above-average intellectual abilities. Indeed, many persons on the spectrum take deserved pride in their distinctive abilities and atypical ways of viewing the world. Others with autism have significant disability and are unable to live independently.

“With the appropriate support, (Wesley) will be a productive and successful citizen – maybe another Bill Gates!”

Reach Geoff Fox at Gfox@sufs.org.


Against all odds, the Famianos persevere


When others looked at Danielle and Nicholas as young children, they only saw their special challenges. But Dorothy Famiano was blinded by love.

Nicholas was born with spina bifida and must use a wheelchair. Danielle was diagnosed at age 2 with autism and cerebral palsy. Few people believed in the pair who were in foster care at the time. But Famiano, a former foster care volunteer, saw something special.

Nicholas competes in the Special Olympics and is an avid power lifter, bowler and swimmer, recently winning an assisted-swimming competition in Crystal River. He dreams of one day becoming a police officer.

Nicholas competes in the Special Olympics and is an avid power lifter, bowler and swimmer, recently winning an assisted-swimming competition in Crystal River. He dreams of one day becoming a police officer.

“Everyone told me I was wearing rose-colored glasses with these kids,” says Famiano, 56. “They talked about giving me my own psych examination, because no one else could even begin to see what I saw and feel what I felt for these kids.”

Faminano, a freelance photojournalist who lives in Spring Hill, tuned out the noise and followed her heart. She adopted Nicholas and Danielle, now 16 and 14, respectively, as toddlers. A single mother of two grown biological children, she now spends her days homeschooling Nicholas and Danielle, as well as a third adopted son with severe dyslexia.

Their journey has been marked by difficulty, patience, love and triumph. Nicholas and Danielle both spent years in public school, which was not ideal for them.

“Public school did not work for my children. There was no place to put them,” said Famiano, also a grandmother of five.

Nicholas was placed in secured classrooms full of students with severe behavioral issues. It was not a practical solution.

“Nicholas never met a person he didn’t like. He gets along with everyone,” Famiano says. “They put him in these environments for kids with behavioral issues when he didn’t have any. What he needs is one-on-one instruction at all times. He wasn’t getting that in public school.”

Blessed with an inquisitive nature, Danielle is known to rattle off one question after another – but not always in a predictable direction. The fast-paced rhythm and chaos of a traditional classroom wreaked havoc on her mental health.

Famiano’s voice trembles as she reminisces about her daughter’s intense struggles.

Danielle shows off some of her creative mixed media artwork.

Danielle shows off some of her creative mixed media artwork.

“The structure of the classroom drove Danielle crazy – charts, colors, people talking all over the place,” she said. “The lunchroom would really drive her nuts. She would hold it in all day and as soon as she got in the car she would explode. Screaming, crying, ripping at her clothes.”

Children on the autism spectrum often can have sensory issues and act out when overstimulated.

A few years ago, a public school teacher told Famiano about the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs. She applied through Step Up For Students and Nicholas and Danielle were accepted. The scholarships have given new hope to a mother who saw great potential in her children.

The ability to teach her children at a speed they were comfortable with has resulted in great academic progress.

“They have gifts that aren’t necessarily discovered in a classroom setting. I saw that potential in them from the first time I met them,” Famiano says. “The success my children are enjoying is due to the fact the Gardiner Scholarship is geared towards each child’s strength. It’s the personalized learning experience that has made it so successful. A lot of people don’t understand this.”

Christina Cancel, a teacher and home-school evaluator with Central Florida Home Education Services, currently works with Nicholas and Danielle. She has been impressed with the children’s progress in the three years she has known them.

“Both their worlds have blown wide open through the resources and opportunities now available to them,” Cancel says. “They’ve really come out of their shells.”

Those resources include working with blocks for Nicholas, which has led to a boost in his confidence and a blossoming of his social ability. For Danielle, greater access to technology, such as cameras, has helped improve her studies as well.

“Both will always struggle, but (Gardiner) has been life-changing for them,” Cancel says.

Stories like theirs emphasize the importance of dynamic and flexible educational plans for children based on their individual needs.

As Famiano likes to tell it, some of the days Nicholas and Danielle learn best are when she “tricks” them into thinking they aren’t having school that day.

“You can’t believe what these kids can do,” Famiano says. “They just do it differently.”

Nicholas has discovered an ability to build things. He puts together gear systems with Lego sets, and is learning to calculate numbers in his head from using computers.

Danielle has made a leap in her reading through her work with video production and photography. The Famianos continue their journey on the Gardiner Scholarship, armed with a level of parental empowerment that helps maximize the children’s abilities.

That empowerment extends to Danielle and Nicholas.

With an eye to their futures, the siblings written off by so many are filled with wide-eyed optimism.

Nicholas competes in the Special Olympics. He is an avid power lifter, bowler and swimmer, recently winning an assisted-swimming competition in Crystal River. He dreams of one day becoming a police officer.

Danielle wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a photographer. Famiano says her mastery of their Cannon Mark 3 camera is a sight to behold.

One thing is certain:  The progress Nicholas and Danielle have made since their adoption has been staggering. Famiano is grateful.

“The biggest thing for me is they have a goal,” she says. “I was always told they wouldn’t have them, that they wouldn’t be able to form them. That’s the most exciting thing for me.”


Step Up For Students launches alumni network  



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Membership to the Step Up alumni network is free.

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

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


School Spotlight: The Broach School Tampa Campus


Classes were changing at The Broach School Tampa Campus and veteran teacher Susan Gettys was busy steering students to their proper classrooms.

With only a few weeks before the end of the school year, the notorious “spring fever” had set in for some students who lingered in the hallway.

“Come on, let’s go gentlemen and ladies!” Gettys called.

She looked into a classroom.

“OK, who else is in there?” she said. “Let’s go.”

Seventeen-year-old Enmanuel Gonzalez moved to Tampa from Cuba several years ago and struggled to fit in at a large neighborhood school. He has attended Broach School Tampa Campus since 2012.

Within moments the students were in the right classrooms and Gettys relaxed with a grin.

Of the 90 or so students at Broach Tampa this year, 18 were on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income families and four were on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs; Step Up For Students helps manage both scholarships.

The K-12 school has been in Tampa since 2000 and at its current location on Linebaugh Avenue since 2013, according to Principal Sonia Anderson. She said word-of-mouth advertising has been responsible for the school’s growth. This year’s enrollment was more than double its 2015-16 numbers.

“I think it’s the love and commitment we have with our families,” Anderson said. “We do more than just teach. We feed them if they’re hungry, clothe them if they need it. My staff does it from the heart, not just for a paycheck. Some of our current students have cousins and other family members that went here 15 years ago.”

Besides having an inclusive environment with small class sizes that offer students more individual attention, Broach Tampa has graduated many students who go on to college.

“We have children with autism who have gone onto college,” said Gettys, who taught in Tampa public schools before coming to Broach Tampa 12 years ago. “We have (former students in college) all over the place. One young man couldn’t read a lick when he got here; he was in ninth grade and could not read. But we have an American history book in graphic novel form and that’s when he got it. He’s in college now.

“Stories like that are why I love this school so much. Once a kid finds reading, there’s no stopping them.”

Many students at Broach Tampa have previously attended public schools, where they either got lost in a sea of other students, didn’t perform well or sometimes got bullied.

Seventeen-year-old Enmanuel Gonzalez moved to Tampa from Cuba several years ago with his mother. Naturally quiet, he struggled to fit in at a large neighborhood school.

His mother learned about and applied for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, and Enmanuel was accepted. He has attended Broach Tampa since 2012.

“The people around me (at school) are much better to be around,” Enmanuel said. “I like that the classes are smaller and if you ask the teacher a question, they try and work with you.”

Enmanuel said he most enjoys English, history and American government but is considering a career in computer programming.

Amani Santana, a 17-year-old 10th-grader, has attended the school for about a year. She previously attended an overcrowded public high school in Tampa, where she struggled academically and socially.

Amani Santana, who hopes to someday open a bakery in New York, has thrived since she started attending The Broach School Tampa Campus in 2016.

Amani said she is relieved that her primary guardian Jenny Fillmore learned about the tax-credit scholarship.

“A lot of the teachers here are more hands-on and they really take the time to help you,” Amani said, adding that she most enjoys cooking, sewing and science classes.

“I want to go to go into a culinary school that also teaches business so I can open a bakery in New York,” she said. “When I went to New York, I didn’t see a whole lot of bakeries and a lot of people like pastries.”

Gettys has confidence the school can help turn Enmanuel’s and Amani’s aspirations into realities. She and the school’s other teachers understand their students well enough to know when they need to be pushed academically and when to ease up – but always in a positive manner.

Once a straight-F student in middle school, Gettys said she remembers the commitment shown her by teachers at a small school in rural Florida. Broach Tampa reminds her of that school.

“We have a family atmosphere here,” she said. “All of our parents know first-hand what’s going on and we do several events each year for the families.”

Fillmore, Amani’s guardian, is thankful for the opportunities Amani has enjoyed at Broach Tampa.

“She’s having no struggles now, none,” she said. “They’ve both been doing great. It’s the best school they’ve ever been in. I could go on and on about it. That school has been a Godsend.”

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




Step Up For Students named education nonprofit of 2017 by Tampa Bay Business Journal


Step Up For Students Director of Advancement Amanda Lopez, center, accepted Nonprofit of the Year in the education category from the Tampa Bay Business Journal on June 8 during a ceremony held at the Bryan Glazer Family JCC in Tampa.

CLEARWATER The Tampa Bay Business Journal on June 8 named Step Up For Students Nonprofit of the Year in the education category.

Step Up For Students helps manage both the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for students from lower-income families and the Gardiner Scholarship Program for students with certain special needs. The statewide organization has offices in Clearwater and Jacksonville.

Other organizations considered for the honor include Early Learning Coalition of Manatee County; Frameworks of Tampa Bay Inc; Girl Scouts of West Central Florida; and R’Club Child Care Inc.

“This is further validation of the great work our staff, board and donors are doing to serve our families,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students.

Step Up is allotted a 3 percent operating allowance, far less than most other nonprofits. Based on its record of fiscal responsibility, accountability and transparency, Step Up For Students has earned Charity Navigator’s four-star rating –the highest possible – for six consecutive years.

Through the close of the 2016-17 school year, Step Up For Students has awarded nearly 580,000 tax credit scholarships to disadvantaged Florida students since its inception in 2001. And another nearly 13,500 Gardiner Scholarships have been awarded since that program began in 2014.

Also, on May 23, Step Up’s Jacksonville office was selected by the Jacksonville Business Journal as one of the best places to work in Jacksonville for a company between 100 and 245 employees.

Step Up is in good company in that size category with companies such as the Jacksonville Jaguars, Florida Capital Bang and Omni Hotels Jacksonville, among others.

“All of the work that each of you has done to strengthen our culture and enhance our workplace has led us to this recognition this year,” Step Up COO Anne White told staff during the announcement of the recognition. “I am very proud to work among such a fantastic group of professionals.”



Former lawmaker joins Step Up For Students board

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the redefinED blog on April 26, 2017.  The blog is hosted by Step Up For Students and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.

Sen. John Legg

A former state lawmaker who helped shape Florida education in policy for more than a decade will join the board of Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer two major school choice programs.

State Sen. John Legg served in the Florida House from 2004 to 2012. He was elected to the state Senate in 2012, and served as chairman of the Education Committee for four years before leaving the Legislature in 2016.

Before he supported the school choice movement as a legislator, Legg supported it as an educator. In 2000, he helped found Dayspring Academy, a high-performing Pasco County charter school where he serves as an administrator.

Step Up’s board unanimously elected Legg to the unpaid position this week. He will join another former state lawmaker, Democratic Congressman Al Lawson.

“John Legg is an innovative and successful educator, as well as a gifted legislator and a great person,” said Step Up President Doug Tuthill. “John is committed to serving disadvantaged youth, and will be a wonderful addition to our organization.”

“It’s humbling to be a part of such an amazing team that has made such a dramatic impact in the lives of young people and families,” Legg wrote in an email.

Step Up helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which helps more than 98,000 low-income and working class students afford private school tuition. It also helps administer the Gardiner Scholarships, which provide education savings accounts to more than 7,000 students with cetain special needs.

Travis Pillow can be reached at tpillow@sufs.org.

School Spotlight: Hope Ranch Learning Academy


Nataleigh Monterio put on her pink riding helmet and light-up cowboy boots.

Smiling wide, she stepped onto a mounting block, threw her leg over a 1,000-pound Appendix Quarter Horse named Georgie and began riding her around an outdoor arena at HOPE Ranch Learning Academy.

“I’ve been riding horses my entire life,” said Nataleigh, 9. “Sometimes they answer questions. Miss Patty will ask them yes or no questions and they shake their head yes.”

Nataleigh Monterio

Nataleigh Monterio, who is on the autism spectrum, enjoys equine therapy at HOPE Ranch Learning Academy in Pasco County.

Nearby, her classmate, Xavier Cebollero, 8, watched with envy. With a cast covering his left forearm after a tumbling accident, he was unable to ride that day.

“Some of the horses are a pain, because they don’t listen to me,” he said. “They speak horse.”

Nataleigh and Xavier, both third-graders, are two of HOPE Ranch’s 125 students. About 60 percent of the students are on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs; Natalie and Xavier have diagnoses on the autism spectrum. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.

Equine therapy is one aspect of a typical school week at HOPE Ranch, which operates three campuses – two in rural Hudson in northeast Pasco County and one in Zephyrhills on the county’s east side.

“Some of these kids have been bullied and abused,” said Jose Suarez, who has run the school since 2005 with Ampy, his wife of 34 years. “They don’t trust people and adults.”

The school’s horsemanship classes are taught by Patty Anderton – known to the students as “Miss Patty.” Anderton used to run a business in Odessa, Florida, where she taught clients the finer points of horse riding. About six years ago, Jose Suarez asked her to help out at the school temporarily. It turned into a full-time job and Anderton hasn’t looked back.

“I love it here,” she said. “It’s much different. My clients before were usually adults and I wanted something different.”

As Anderton spoke, Nataleigh navigated Georgie around a figure eight pattern and had her trot at different speeds.

Anderton smiled.

“The horses help bring them out of their shell,” she said. “A lot of them haven’t had the greatest life in school. They don’t trust a whole lot and the horses help bring that trust out.”

While horse riding is a popular activity, none of the students automatically get to ride every week.

“Horsemanship is a class, but riding is a privilege,” Jose Suarez said. “They have to have their grades and behavior under control. They have to earn it.”

The Suarezes opened the ranch in 2005, originally for troubled children. By then the couple, who have two adult children, had been caring for foster children for two years. Not long after opening the ranch, the mother of an autistic child approached them about expanding the program.

Ampy Suarez couldn’t say no.

“We want to give them opportunities that they never would have had otherwise,” she said.


Xavier Cebollero, says riding a horse can be a challenge. “Some of the horses are a pain, because they don’t listen to me,” he said. “They speak horse.”

It seems to be working. A discussion Nataleigh and Xavier had in the horse arena demonstrated genuine enthusiasm among the students.

“I just love this school, in general,” Nataleigh said. “When I was five or six, I went to a completely different school. When I was really young, I was really picky, though. They didn’t have a barn; they didn’t have any animals.”

“In Miss Patty’s class, we get to go on field trips. We went to We Rock the Spectrum in Pinellas County,” Xavier said, referring to the Clearwater gym with equipment designed to help children with sensory processing disorders. “We also went to The Brick University (an art school for children). We got to make a plane and a cupcake out of LEGOs.”

Xavier wasn’t done talking, but Natalie’s excitement prevented her from staying quiet.

“One week every year, we have Spirit Week,” she said.

Xavier started to speak again.

“Xavier, calm yourself,” she said. “Then, on a specific day, we have Character Day.”

“That’s when we get to dress up like any character,” he said.

“Yes, thank you, Xavier,” she said. “I went as a HOPE Ranch Learning Academy fairy. I had a little skirt and fairy wings, and it was really cute.”

“I was a mixture of super heroes,” he said. “I had a Captain America mask and a Superman cape.”

“He was Super Ultra Xavier!” she said.

As the school continues to grow, Jose Suarez said it will expand. He expects 200 students next year.

“We’ll need to beef up our infrastructure and maybe open another campus,” he said.

Suarez attributed the school’s growth to word-of-mouth advertising among parents of children with special needs, as well as a Google arrangement that drives Internet browsers to HOPE Ranch’s website.

“I’m starting to get requests from across the nation,” he said. “I recently got a call from Wisconsin. They said, ‘If that’s the right school, we’ll move.’”

Reach Geoff Fox at gfox@sufs.org.


Meet Ben Zanca, Gardiner scholar


Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedDoctors didn’t expect Ben Zanca to live very long. Even before his birth, fluid was drained from his lungs every week for eight weeks until he was delivered.

Ben’s parents, Ann and Tony Zanca, were told Ben may need a chest tube after his birth and possibly surgery.

“But, when they put the (chest) tube in all the blood vessels shut down,” Ann Zanca said. “It’s called persistent pulmonary hypertension, which not many people survive at that age. He was transferred to Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children (in Orlando) where there is a heart-lung bypass machine.” Ben Z

Things looked bleak.

“They told us he was going to die,” Tony Zanca said. “They called in a priest and everything.”

Fortunately, a nitric oxide treatment worked and Ben did not have to go on the lung-heart bypass machine.

“They said they’d never seen a baby as sick as Ben pull through,” Ann Zanca said.

Unfortunately, Ben’s medical struggles and the family’s worries were only beginning. Problems with his blood vessels went misdiagnosed for more than 12 years.

About 18 months ago, Ben, now an outgoing 14-year-old who loves camping, was finally diagnosed with CLOVES syndrome, an extremely rare disorder characterized by tissue overgrowth and complex vascular malformations. Worldwide, less than 200 cases of CLOVES syndrome have ever been identified, according to information from Boston Children’s Hospital.

Because of CLOVES, Ben is at risk for developing blood clots and has regular doctor visits to monitor his vascular health.

That’s not his only issue. Shortly after he was born, Ben was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He also has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum and deals with epilepsy and asthma.

Until the current school year, he attended public school in Altamonte Springs, Florida, where he lives with his family, including 9-year-old sister Megan. Tony Zanca works in the parts department of a local auto dealer and Ann works part-time jobs as a computer programmer analyst and as an advocate for parents with children who have an Individualized Educational Plan.

Ben was not thriving at the public school.

“It’s not that they didn’t care, but he wasn’t going anywhere; he was going backward,” Tony Zanca said. “Teachers have their hands tied with all the new testing and all they did was quizzing for the test. There was no hands-on learning, which is what Ben thrives on.”

For years, Ann Zanca wanted to enroll Ben in the nearby Pace Brantley School in Longwood, but the family couldn’t afford it. Established in 1971, the school has always been geared toward students with learning issues. It is situated on nine wooded acres that offer a serene setting.

Eventually, a friend told Ann Zanca about the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs; the scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students. In 2016, the Zancas applied for the scholarship – which can help families pay for tuition at partner schools,  approved therapists, specialists, curriculum, technology or even a college savings account – and Ben was accepted.

“Ben is very social and I don’t want him to miss out on the experience of school,” Ann Zanca said. “They have a well-rounded curriculum and lots of extra-curricular activities. They even have a prom. I was also concerned if it would be academic enough. Of all the places I knew of or visited, it seemed to be up to standards.

“It seems to challenge him but he doesn’t seem overwhelmed. There are people there to help him. We do have a private tutor for math. His teacher tells me he’s definitely challenged in pre-algebra, but he’s doing well. That makes me happy. The goal is that he’ll be able to get a regular diploma and either go to vocational school or college afterward.”

Now in eighth grade, Ben enjoys going to school. Due to his medical issues, he often has doctor’s appointments during the school day. Before, his mother said, he would sometimes call from school to see if she could pick him up early. Now, he doesn’t want to leave Pace Brantley’s campus.

While he has historically struggled with reading, English is now one of his favorite subjects, along with math.

“We were learning substitution, the three ways of substitution in math,” Ben said after a recent day at school. “That’s in algebra; it’s coming along.”

Of his favorite times of day is FLEX (Focused Learning Experience) Time, when students can choose a subject of their own to explore after lunch. Activities can include arts and crafts, learning a foreign language, tennis, yoga, tai chi or taking virtual field trips on a Smartphone.

On this particular day, Ben chose art.

“We were drawing different types of flags and what they look like,” he said. “I drew the Florida flag.”

Jennifer Portilla, Ben’s reading and language arts teacher, said she has seen him flourish since the school year began.

“He seems really comfortable and he’s willing to take risks. He’s not afraid to not be successful” in class, she said. “Academically, he’s making strides. He’s a pretty good writer for his age. He is able to write an essay and he doesn’t seem to struggle as much as at the beginning of the year.”

One of Ben’s other interests is the Boy Scouts. Despite his son’s many medical obstacles, Tony Zanca said he tries to treat him “like any other boy would be treated.” On a recent Boy Scout camping trip, he allowed Ben to paddle on a canoe with another scout.

“Years ago, I would never let him out in canoes down the river without me,” Tony Zanca said. “But it’s like I told him, ‘I’m going to have to start letting you do things by yourself, make your decisions and not do things wrong’. Someday soon, I’ll let him go on a (Boy Scout) camping trip by himself.”

The Zancas say that while Ben is obviously aware that he has medical issues, he doesn’t dwell on them. Because CLOVES can cause blood clots (Ben has had a few), they constantly monitor how he’s feeling. Now that he’s at Pace Brantley, which has a nurse on campus, his parents are more at ease.

“The scholarship was huge, like the answer to our prayers,” Ann Zanca said. “His self-confidence has increased tremendously. It’s a lot of hands-on learning. He made a car out of a Coke bottle and started telling me about Newton’s Laws of Motion. His self-confidence has increased tremendously.”

Reach Geoff Fox at Gfox@sufs.org

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