For two weeks in February Step Up For Students shined the spotlight on scholars, parents and educators who this school year have gone above and beyond while participating in at least one of two scholarship programs for schoolchildren in Florida.
The Rising Stars Awards ceremony was held at nine different locations across the state, recognizing those outstanding individuals involved with either Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income students, or the state-funded Gardiner Program for children with certain special needs. This year, Step Up received more than 650 nominations for the Rising Stars Awards.
Teachers, students, and scholars’ family members were nominated by teachers and school administrators for exceptional work throughout the school year at their respective Step Up partner schools.
This year, nearly 98,000 K-12 students are using the tax-credit scholarship statewide for tuition assistance at the private school of their choice, or on a transportation scholarship to offset the cost to an out-of-district public school. Another nearly 8,000 more scholars, ages 3 to 22, use the Gardiner Scholarship to customize their education by attending participating schools or by using approved, therapists, specialists, curriculum, technology – even a college savings account.
“We are so proud of our scholars and those who help them realize their dreams and academic success,” Step Up President Doug Tuthill said before the event. “It’s important to recognize all of those who make this program a success, and that includes the teachers who educate these kids, the parents who wanted more for their children, the kids who work hard toward their futures, and of course, our generous donors, which without them we would not exist.”
Corporate donors who help fund the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program attended each of the Rising Star Awards events and were also recognized for their support, and had a chance to meet the families they help through their donations. In 2016, the corporate community contributed a total $552 million to Step Up for these scholarships.
By GEOFF FOX
Ampy Suarez laughed heartily, while her husband Jose raised his eyebrows with a sigh.
The couple, who run Hope Ranch Learning Academy in Hudson, Florida, have been married 34 years. The children of Cuban immigrants who came to Miami in the mid-1960s were asked about their first date, which involved an unfortunate rollercoaster ride at a fair in Miami. Rollercoasters did not agree with Jose, but he didn’t want to disappoint the girl who would become his bride.
So, he got on. He was woozy when the ride ended. So woozy, that, well … Somehow, the poise Jose showed in the aftermath forever warmed Ampy’s heart.
Nowadays, the Suarezes love their work as much as they love each other. The couple, who has three adult daughters and five grandchildren, serve 120 special needs students at Hope Ranch campuses in Hudson and Zephyrhills. About half of the students are on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs; a scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.
One aspect of the academy’s curriculum includes equine interactions, which uses activities with horses to promote physical, occupational and emotional growth. Annually, the ranch
hosts a Horse Jamboree, and parents often get teary-eyed as they watch their child lead a 1,000-pound animal around the arena.
“ We just want to give them opportunities they never would have had otherwise,” Ampy Suarez said with a loving smile. And Jose beamed, too.
Reach Geoff Fox at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY GEOFF FOX
Nine years ago, Kamelia Martin was born perfectly healthy in Bulgaria. Yet, her adoptive mother, Christen Martin, said for years she was given a regimen of anti-seizure medication, tranquilizers and sedatives.
The circumstances made for a tough, turbulent adjustment after Martin and her husband, Mason Martin, adopted Kamelia two years ago.
“When an infant comes into the orphanage, they’re put in an isolation room where they learn their cries won’t get any attention,” Christen Martin said. “After they don’t cry, they get to come in the room with other children.
“They are treated like animals. They never experience the love of a father or mother. They’re put into a (drug-induced) stupor so they’ll be quiet and compliant.”
For Kamelia, the results were horrific.
By the time Martin and her husband, Mason Martin, adopted her from the orphange, she was diagnosed with institutional autism and her IQ was measured at 35, the low threshold for moderate intellectual disability.
Because she had been malnourished for so long, Kamelia’s head was too small for her body and her ankles were weak and misshapen; she could not walk until she was 3. When the Martins brought her home to Louisiana, where Mason Martin was stationed with the U.S. Air Force, she could hardly communicate or speak, even in Bulgarian.
None of that deterred the Martins, who had three young children of their own when they decided to adopt Kamelia, who they often call “Kami.” Christen Martin said the couple knew since they got married that “God was calling us to adopt.”
“It was a divine sequence of events,” Christen Martin said. “The Lord just weighed Bulgaria on my heart.”
When the Martins first saw a photo of Kamelia, they saw a small, scared, lonely-looking girl. The photo weighed on them. They knew they wanted to help.
“When we pulled her file to find out more about her, we discovered she was born on Mason’s birthday the year of our marriage,” Christen Martin said. “Many little details like this worked together to encourage us each step of the way that our family was right for Kami.”
After an adoption process that took the Martins several months and a couple of trips to Bulgaria, Kami came to live with them in 2014. The transition from living in a cold, unloving Bulgarian orphanage to life in an American home with parents and siblings was turbulent for both Kami and her new family, including brothers Ezekiel, 7, and Isaiah, 3, and sister Eden, 5.
At the time, Kami was 7. She didn’t know how to play and could barely communicate. And, after years of being administered unneeded medication, she endured withdrawal from the drugs when she came to live with the Martins.
“The Bulgarian orphanage staff gave us prescriptions for medications they truly believed she needed,” Christen Martin said. “We consulted with a Bulgarian psychiatrist and she encouraged us to get her off them gradually. The withdrawal was definitely intense. There was so much outrageous behavior already that we didn’t know what were withdrawal symptoms.
“There was a lot of screaming, thrashing, rolling, clawing and biting. She wasn’t given any tools for healthy or normal communication. If she was disappointed, she’d drop to the ground and roll, scream and writhe. She was definitely just driven by instincts every moment and ruled by them without self-control. What happens to a person when they’re never given any love is tragic.”
The Martins tried to brace their biological children for the ordeal.
“They responded amazingly. We prayed for her together,” Christen Martin said. “When the other kids witnessed the screaming and scary behavior, they were nervous and afraid and it was hard, but the other children learned from an early age about loving others and how truly ugly child abandonment is; it’s one of the worst things in the world. They realize this is why you have a family. We all need it. I think they’ve taught Kami more than Mason and I could. They taught her how to play and be a child.”
In 2015, the Martins moved to Orlando. By then, Mason Martin was out of the Air Force and working for Wycliffe Bible Translators, which focuses on translating the Bible into hundreds of languages.
Christen Martin homeschools her children, but she needed help with Kami. In Orlando, the family learned about the Gardiner Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.
The Martins applied for the scholarship and Kami was accepted, due to her intellectual disability. They used the scholarship to hire Kathy Wood, an occupational therapist who has worked with Kami twice a week for about a year.
It was slow going, at first.
“I do in-home therapy and I met her with her family around her,” Wood said. “It’s nice to have that advantage because sometimes a clinic can add a whole level of distance. That said, Kami was very difficult to engage. I hate to say she was a feral child, but that’s a clear view of what it felt like. She had not had a lot of human contact.
“When she first arrived, there was still a lot of no eye contact and she would not tolerate being touched at all. She would not engage me in any way. She would turn her back on me and would not include me in her space – like an animal might do to protect itself or home.”
But Wood showed up consistently and slowly earned Kami’s trust. After a few weeks, Kami allowed Wood to perform reflex techniques that help train her body to adjust to life outside of a crib.
“We do basic exercises,” Wood said. “On her feet, I stimulate the tendons to increase walking ability, coordination and balance, even her emotions. I do cross-body reflexes, where you stimulate the bottom left foot and raise the right leg, cross it over the body and back down. Then, we do the other leg. You work both halves of the brain that way. It increases coordination and motor control.”
Kami has been speaking more lately, but there is much progress yet to be made. The family uses most of the scholarship money for occupational therapy, but it has also covered a trip to a pediatric eye doctor.
“She’s probably not very clear if you don’t know what she’s trying to say. Her thoughts are jumbled and she’s trying to figure out how to say things,” Wood said. “I’ve learned her language a little bit. The other day, she was telling me about a trip to the playground. She said, ‘Miss Kathy, swing at the playground, tic-tack, tic-tack, tic-tack.’ She was telling me about the trip to the playground and how she heard the swing going up and down.
“She’s wired differently than you and I; she is very in tune to sounds. She learned in that crib what was safe and not safe by sound. Her senses of sound, hearing and touch are all heightened because she didn’t get proper development.”
Simply being around the Martins has been crucial to Kami’s development, Wood said.
“Four or five months ago, I saw her imitating and playing pretend for the first time. She put a baby doll to bed with a blanket – it was appropriate play,” Wood said. “She had been playing with her sister and her sister taught her that. She wasn’t hitting the baby against the wall, it was very appropriate. She could mimic a loving gesture. She has the ability to understand sequence. That shows me she has tremendous ability to grow and thrive in many ways.
“I’m really excited for her potential. Last week, she looked at me, smiled warmly and said ‘Miss Kathy.’ We were playing a silly little game, but she connected with me in a genuine way.”
Mason Martin said he is encouraged by the progress Kami has made since she joined the family two years ago, but he understands there is still a lot of work to do. Like most parents, he wants his children to become happy, productive, self-sufficient adults.
“It’s been a lot of work for her and she’s never really been made to do that work before,” he said. “She needs somebody to spend time with her. It’s been exciting and a lot of difficult challenges on the way – some days more than others. The best way to describe it is she’s very resilient. As long as we don’t give up on her, she won’t give up. … She really needed somebody who wouldn’t give up on her. It’s been amazing to see.”
Christen Martin said Kami is on about the same social level as a preschooler, but is learning how to act appropriately around people. Academically, she has progressed a bit further.
“She longs for connection, but it takes time to understand how to relate to others in proper ways,” Christen Martin said. “She is in the pre-writing stage; she knows her colors, shapes, some animals and everyday objects. She’s working on forming letters and learning their sounds, and we do believe she will learn to read and write. We just don’t know what the timetable will look like.”
By GEOFF FOX
ABB OPTICAL GROUP, a leading distributor of optical products in the U.S., announced today it’s kicking off a partnership with Step Up For Students by matching an anonymous $10,000 donation, and contributing through its employee giving program.
Step Up is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income families, and the state-funded Gardiner Scholarship for Florida students with certain special needs.
The combined donation of $20,000 will help Step Up maximize the impact of the scholarships by creating wraparound services which further promote students’ academic success. One such service is the Teaching and Learning Exchange, a learning management system that provides ongoing educational support services including personal learning plans for each student. Its goal is to strengthen partnerships between home and school, fostering student success.
“We are delighted to partner with Step Up to help enhance their scholars’ learning experience,” said Paul Sherman, Chief Financial Officer at ABB OPTICAL GROUP. “Our organization believes that every child deserves a chance to succeed, and we are extremely proud to support the mission of Step Up For Students.”
In addition to the match donation, ABB OPTICAL has incorporated Step Up into its employee giving program, making it an option for employees to contribute with a 100 percent match from the company.
“We are honored to be included in ABB OPTICAL GROUP’s employee giving program,” said Alissa Randall, Step Up For Students CMO “This partnership will allow us to offer additional services to the children we serve.”
For children like DeMarco McClain, an eighth-grader at Morning Star School in Tampa, Step Up’s programs have been life-changing. Due to an intellectual disability and dyslexia, DeMarco was reading on a third-grade level when his family moved to Tampa from the Bronx, New York last year.
Thanks to the compassionate, dedicated teachers at Morning Star, DeMarco, a Gardiner scholar, is now reading at his appropriate grade level and his soaring confidence has fueled a newfound ambition – to someday become a U.S. Navy SEAL.
“We are extremely pleased to have ABB OPTICAL GROUP as a partner in our quest to provide greater opportunities for Florida students like DeMarco and others who most need it,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “We are humbled by the generosity of ABB OPTICAL’s employees and proud that they share our vision.”
About ABB OPTICAL GROUP
ABB OPTICAL GROUP is a leading distributor of optical products in the United States. The company supplies nearly two-thirds of eye care professionals across the country with brand name contact lenses, fully customizable gas permeable and custom specialty soft contact lenses, ophthalmic lenses and more. The company’s Digital Eye Lab is a fully automated optical lab dedicated to freeform digital lens fabrication. ABB OPTICAL GROUP also offers practice building services such as pricing strategy tools, business reviews, annual supply staff training and e-commerce solutions. For additional information, visit ABBOptical.com.
By ANDREA THOERMER
Hello from the newest department at Step Up For Students: The Organizational and Professional Development Department.
Our job is to strengthen the culture of the organization by enhancing employees’ decision-making through professional, emotional, cognitive and social learning opportunities, and by improving organizational processes and structure. I know, that’s a mouthful. Basically, we support and invest in our employees’ professional development so they experience greater success, joy and satisfaction at work. We believe that by keeping our employees happy, we can better serve our families and schools.
That’s why our team of four employees really push at promoting our company’s two core values: Every employee is an asset. Every event is an improvement opportunity. We know that our organization can best serve our community if we hold true to these two values.
One aspect of professional development we give a lot of attention to is focused on improving employee’s cognitive and emotional management skills. These skills include self-awareness, self-management, empathy and relationship management. When employees are aware of how they are “being” in a certain situation, then they can better manage those thoughts and emotions so their behavior benefits everyone in that situation. We also know it’s important to be empathetic toward others, which helps us better manage our work relationships. We have done a lot research in this area and have found that these traits are essential and contribute to a happy and productive workplace.
Over the past 11 months, our employees have received feedback from their peers and are now creating Personal Development Plans so each employee can grow professionally. For example, if you are a Service Center representative and you aspire to be a manager, then you would take manager and leadership courses preparing you for a manager role. Or, if you process Gardiner Scholarships, but have a lot of interest in improving the processes in the organization, then you would take courses focused on process improvement.
Our department works as a team to create internal classes to address these plans. We also reach out to our colleagues who have certain skills and knowledge to help us provide even more courses to meet the diverse and unique needs of our colleagues. We are so thankful for the amount of talent we have in the organization. Some of the classes we provide include: Microsoft Outlook training, Project Management tips, a Step-In Program focused on improving cognitive and emotional management skills, Mentoring and Shadowing opportunities, Toastmasters (to improve presentation skills) and a variety of other communication and leadership classes.
Some of the OPD department’s other initiatives include Genius Hour, Interdepartmental Working Lunches and President Office and Asset Hours. Genius Hour allows our employees to innovate and collaborate with others to come up with ideas or projects that could benefit the organization. Out of these genius ideas, we now have a walking treadmill desk to allow employees opportunities to stretch their legs and get some exercise while working. We also have implemented a chat service in the Service Center to field more questions from our families. Interdepartmental Working Lunches happen once a month and provide us with a platform to share information company-wide and work together on a variety of projects.
For the President’s Office and Asset Hours, Doug Tuthill, our leader, either allots time for employees to speak with him about any issues or ideas, or he goes to their work place location (cubicle, office, etc.) and inquires into what they do on a daily basis in order to more fully understand the inner workings of the organization and further carry out our two core values: Everyone is an asset. Every event is an improvement opportunity.
We consider it a privilege to support our employees professionally as we strive to increase workplace satisfaction and productivity so we can ultimately better serve you.
Hear what Step Up team members are saying about OPD’s courses:
“In pursuit of achieving some of my PDP objectives, I participated in various OPD offerings including the Step-In Program and communicating from a place of nothingness.
Both of these offerings were time well spent. I believe that I have acquired certain skills that allow me to be more aware and in control of my emotions, and I have recently, really enjoyed the art of communicating. It always feels great when you can grow and learn, and I am looking forward to future offerings.”
–Mickey Strope, Director of Information and Knowledge Management
“I was very appreciative of the Microsoft Outlook class. It has been very helpful – now I have Meeting Rooms in my Outlook calendar.”
–Ella Beaver, Site Administrator
“As part of my professional development plan, I decided I needed to beef up my public speaking skills, so in March I became a member of a local Toastmasters speech club. It’s too soon to proclaim any miracles, but I’ve been having fun. My fellow Toastmasters, including Lauren Barlis and Meredith McKay from Step Up, are the best! They’re warm, encouraging, non-judgmental. In that kind of atmosphere, it’s impossible not to overcome hang-ups and get better.
Ultimately, I hope, it’s the scholarship students and parents who benefit, because if I can become a better communicator, then I will be a better advocate. Frankly, it’s the students and parents who inspired me to give it a shot. At Step Up, we are always hearing stories about parents and students who scale mountains to reach their dreams. The least I can do, for them, is go attack a little hill.”
–Ron Matus, Director of Policy and Public Affairs
“I had the opportunity to take a class to learn about SCRUM, it’s a methodology for managing projects. Since taking the course, I have been using it with my team so we can work together more efficiently as possible to better serve our parents. Below is a description of SCRUM:
Safe: A way to express your ideas, generate insight, share concern in an environment that is judgment free and without blame.
Collaboration: Teams are self-organizing. The team holds each other accountable for achieving daily commitments and are allowed to go beyond boundaries to showcase their talents.
Retrospective: Allows time for reflection. We identify what went well and what could be improved. Everything is measured and decisions are based on data and variations, and not opinions.
Uniformity: We own the plan! We determine our capacity and focus on one improvement at a time. If we succeed, we succeed together. If we fail, we fail together.
Mentality: The idea is not to look for solutions to solve all your problems or to look for reasons why something is impossible. Failure and learning from failure is encouraged because experimenting and failing is the fuel for innovation.”
–Martina Ady, Assistant Operations Manager, Contact Center
Andrea Thoermer is director of Professional Development, Organizational & Professional Development. She has been with Step Up For Students for three years after teaching for seven years in the public school system and graduating from the University of Florida with her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction. What she likes most about working for Step Up is that she is given the opportunity to help employees grow professionally and personally by creating meaningful learning opportunities focused on their specific needs. She enjoys the challenge of helping others see in themselves what she sees in them. When Andrea is coming up with ways to support Step Up staff, she dotes on her 9–month-old daughter and husband of six years. She also enjoys spending time with her close friends and other family members, cooking, trying new restaurants, indulging in decadent desserts and exercising to burn off all the calories she consumes.
By SUSAN SLEBODA, GUEST BLOGGER
My son, Ryan is 15 years old. He has autism spectrum disorder. Ryan has been receiving the Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students since the fall of 2015. I would imagine Ryan’s story is a common one if you have a child with autism.
For many years we bounced around the central Florida (Lake Mary and Sanford) area signing up Ryan for just about every sport you could imagine. Basketball, soccer, baseball and swimming. Ryan tried them all, however, he would get easily bored or frustrated, inevitably ending in a full-blown earthquake or meltdown. This led to teasing and taunting by other children. It led to dirty looks from other parents. I would wager that almost every one of you have felt this heart wrenching moment – as you watch your child struggle, falter and fail. My husband, Bill, and I had the eternal hope of finding a “good fit” for Ryan.
After several seasons of tears, anger, anxiety and stress, our family had enough. We finally accepted that sports would not be the right fit for Ryan. The doctors stressed the need for Ryan to be in an activity where he could stay active, work on his social skills and maybe even make a friend. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any luck. Ryan was unhappy and lonely. I have always believed that when one door closes, somewhere God opens a window. That held true for Ryan.
In the fall of 2013, I went on a field trip for one of my older sons and met a mom named Christine Eckstein. I opened up to her and shared Ryan’s story. I told her about Ryan’s educational and medical journey with autism. I relayed our plight in finding a sport for Ryan and our sadness with our lack of success. Imagine my surprise when she shared her story of her sons David and Kenny, who also happen to have autism spectrum disorder. Christine told me about a martial arts program that her daughter, Katarina, created to help families just like ours. It’s called Breaking Barriers Martial Arts. They created a nonprofit program to provide martial arts instruction to students with disabilities to help them grow into independent, self-assured adults. As a family they began their journey to help Kenny and David and turned it miraculously into a way to help strangers in need. I was impressed and in awe of their story. The mom, dad, Katarina, David, Kenny and even little sister Ava all earned their black belts.
Christine insisted I speak with Katarina about the program. Katarina came over the very next day and met Ryan. She believed the Breaking Barriers program would help Ryan and she insisted we give it a try. To be honest, I was nervous and really questioned how it would be possible for Ryan to learn martial arts. How could he focus and have the discipline needed in a sport such as this? I was afraid to hope. I was even more afraid to set up Ryan for another failure. Could Ryan succeed in taekwondo(TKD) with his autism? I didn’t know for certain but desperate times called for desperate measures.
With a glimmer of hope, we took Ryan to D.C. Turnbull’s Martial Arts studio in Sanford, Fla. for his first Breaking Barriers TKD class in January 2014. The students and instructors welcomed Ryan literally with hugs and high fives. We were amazed by the kindness and love we experienced that day by this open and loving group of students. It was incredible to watch these students who happened to have varying disabilities (autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy, hearing impairments, visual impairments and intellectual disabilities) demonstrate their martial arts abilities. They were not just taking part in the class, they were excelling at the sport. As parents we were in awe. Ryan was invited onto the mats and by the time class was over he was hooked! Ryan began his TKD journey. It has now been two years and Ryan is a deputy black belt and will be testing for his BLACK BELT in November of this year.
What we have witnessed is truly an incredible transformation in Ryan. Guess what happened? It was something we had always hoped for in spite of Ryan’s many setbacks over the years. Ryan became a LEADER. In February, he was awarded the rank of a Teaching Assistant in the special needs program, assisting younger students with disabilities to learn TKD. Breaking Barriers taught Ryan self-control, discipline, self-confidence, perseverance and indomitable spirit. When Ryan puts on his uniform and steps onto the mat the transformation is incredible! He repeats the mantra “Yes I can,” whenever he learns something challenging and new. Ryan has competed and earned gold and silver medals in forms and sparring. His favorite competitive event is board breaking. He is really good at it. Seriously, you should see his spinning hook kick!
And you know what? NONE of this would have been possible without the help of Gardiner Scholarship has assisted us in providing an incredible learning experience for Ryan at Pace Brantley School in Longwood, FL. This has freed up other funds in our budget so Ryan can participate in new experiences such as the life changing TKD program at Breaking Barriers Martial Arts.
Ryan and his Breaking Barriers buddies prove time and again that their ABILITIES far outweigh any disability they may have. They are breaking boards while breaking barriers. These participants show improvement in their physical abilities such as coordination and strength, but MORE importantly, the BB students show MARKED success in their social skills, focus, independence, respect and confidence. The best part is that TKD is a lifelong sport. If a student is able to reach the rank of black belt, they can choose to keep going and earn higher degrees of black belt. This is different than most sports where students tend to drop out as they get older. Instead TKD and the BB program encourages its students to challenge themselves to stick with the program and achieve higher black belt ranks.
Do you want to be impressed?
Take a minute to watch this video. It will show you the incredible abilities of our Breaking Barriers students. Added bonus: You get to see my superstar son, Ryan – he is the student holding up the autism sign. Watch for his incredible spinning hook!
Breaking Barriers is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Florida. Its goal is to teach martial arts to children with special needs. Organizers recently held their first fundraiser – the Breaking Barriers Invitational – an AAU Martial Arts tournament. There were special needs competitors from different areas of Florida as well traditional competitors. It was a big success and next year will be even better. All money raised by the Breaking Barriers programs goes to purchase specialty gear, additional instructors, use of the training facility, etc. The program will continue to expand and provide education and opportunities for special needs students as well as assistance to instructors who wish to offer their own special needs programs in other areas.
Susan Sleboda is not only mom to Ryan, she has two other older, sons, and a husband, Bill. By profession, she is a lawyer, but on sabbatical from practicing so she could raise her three boys. When she’s not watching Ryan break boards, she spends time advocating for him and volunteering in their community. The family lives in Lake Mary, Fla.
With the final Florida schools kicking off the 2016-17 school year in the coming days, Step Up For Students team members have been busily working on applications for both the Florida Tax Credit (income-based) scholarship and the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs.
For the income-based scholarship, Step Up expects to have more than 92,000 students enrolled for the new year, and another several thousand more using the Gardiner to customize their learning.
“This is going to be the biggest year yet,” said Step Up President Doug Tuthill. “We’re elated to be able to offer learning options to this many Florida students who need it most. I am proud and humbled by our scholarship operations staff for the incredible work they have been doing, and the long hours they have put in, to get these applications processed and awards into the hands of these deserving families.”
Step Up staff has been working tirelessly completing applications, as well as working on regular year-round duties. More than 106,000 students have been awarded on the tax-credit scholarship with nearly 91,500 enrolling by Aug. 22. Of those, about 61,200 are renewal scholars.
This year’s scholarship is worth up to $5,886 for tuition assistance or $500 for transportation funding to an out-of-district public school.
Lawmakers broadened the income-based scholarship this year to students whose household income level was slightly higher than the 185 percent of the poverty level previously required, similar to the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program. If found eligible, many of these families can receive a partial scholarship to offset tuition costs.
The changes in the law, however, still require that the lowest-income families be awarded first. About 3,200 of these families, however, have already been awarded the tax-credit scholarship, too.
“Even working class families struggle with finding the right school for their children,” Tuthill said. “It’s tough to afford private school at those income levels as well. Now, we can start assisting these families find the best school for their children, too. And that’s very exciting.”
Also through the second week of August, more than 11,800 Gardiner applications had been started with about 5,600 students with certain special needs awarded for the new school year. The average Gardiner Scholarship is worth $10,000.
Both scholarships are still available for the 2016-17 school year. Income-based applicants who have been awarded, but have not yet formally enrolled their children into a private school must do so by Aug. 31 or forfeit the scholarship. After that, Step Up will continue to award scholarships until funding is depleted. This may mean that families receive news of a scholarship during the year.
Income-based scholarships will be accepted until Sept. 30. No new applications will be accepted after this time.
Gardiner applications remain open indefinitely.
For the fifth consecutive year, Step Up For Students, the nonprofit organization that helps administer Florida’s Tax Credit and Gardiner Scholarship programs, has achieved the coveted four-star rating for sound fiscal management and commitment to accountability and transparency from Charity Navigator, the nation’s largest independent evaluator of charities.
“Only 6 percent of the charities we rate have received at least five consecutive four-star evaluations, indicating that Step Up For Students outperforms most other charities in America,” wrote Charity Navigator President and CEO Michael Thatcher in a congratulatory letter dated April 1. “This ‘exceptional’ designation from Charity Navigator differentiates Step Up For Students from its peers and demonstrates to the public it is worthy of their trust.”
After a comprehensive review by Charity Navigator, Step Up earned 99.92 points out of 100 overall; 99.90 for financial management and 100 out of 100 for accountability and transparency for Fiscal Year 2015. This is the first time Charity Navigator has included the Gardiner Scholarship, formerly the Personal Learning Scholarship Program, in its annual review of Step Up. Step Up’s revenue for the year was $457.8 million.
“We do important work which we take very seriously,” said Step Up President Doug Tuthill. “Our mission is to provide more educational opportunities to those Florida schoolchildren who need them the most. We can’t do that without the trust of our donors, families, legislators and the public. This superior ranking shows we deserve their trust. This year’s rating is especially significant because it includes the state-funded Gardiner Scholarship, a new program for special needs children we are extremely proud to help administer.”
Step Up’s 99.92 score ranked it fifth nationally on Charity Navigator’s Top-Notch Charities list.
“We are proud of our mission and how we operate,” Tuthill said. “We are committed to being effective, efficient and fiscally responsible. We owe that to the public, our funders and the more than 80,000 students we serve with both scholarship programs.”
Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization in Florida that has been awarding scholarships to low-income families since the program’s creation in 2001, providing nearly 480,000 scholarships to K-12 schoolchildren. For the 2015-16 school year, Step Up is serving about 78,000 low-income students and several thousand more children with special needs through the Gardiner Scholarship. The income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, funded by tax-credited corporate donations, is worth up to $5,677 toward private school tuition and fees; the state-funded Gardiner Scholarship, formerly known as the Personal Learning Scholarship Account program, averages $10,000 per student annually. To learn more visit, www.StepUpForStudents.org
Since 2002, Charity Navigator, a nonprofit organization, has awarded only the most fiscally responsible 501(c)(3) organizations its top ranking using financial information provided by the organizations’ informational tax returns or IRS Form 990s to determine rankings. The national company then analyzes a charity’s fiscal performance in seven key areas, including program, administrative and fundraising expenses; fundraising efficiency; and revenue growth. Charity Navigator’s mission is to provide donors with essential information so they can be confident in which charities they support.
As a first-grader, Kira Murillo developed stomach pains every Sunday night. That’s how much she hated going to her neighborhood school.
When her mother asked what was wrong, “we had to pry it out of her,” recalled, Elsie Murillo, who was crushed to discover Kira was unhappy at school. “A little child like that shouldn’t have to go through all that anxiety.”
School administrators told her Kira couldn’t keep up with her classmates and she eventually had to repeat the grade. It wasn’t the education her parents had envisioned.
Today, Kira is a high school senior, member of the National Christian Student Honor Association among others and a cheerleader with big dreams to become a pediatric physical therapist.
Hard work and family support led to the amazing transformation. But Kira also acknowledges the strong educational foundation she received from a private school her parents could afford only because they qualified for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program through Step Up For Students.
“If it weren’t for this scholarship, I probably wouldn’t be here at Meadowbrook Academy and succeeding,” Kira said. “I don’t even want to imagine where she’d be,” Murillo added. “Not with all the accomplishments she’s had.”
Her mom and dad learned about the scholarship at their church, which is affiliated with the academy. The 20-year-old private school in Ocala has 288 students in kindergarten through 12th grade with about 46 percent receiving the tax credit scholarship through Step Up, a nonprofit that administers the program.
“I never knew this was available,” said Murillo, a former prekindergarten teacher who now works as an assistant kindergarten teacher at Meadowbrook.
The income-based program provides eligible families with tuition assistance at more than 1,500 participating private schools throughout the state, or helps with transportation costs to attend an out-of-county public school. Meadowbrook’s tuition is $5,850 plus fees for books and registration.
Since 2001, Step Up has provided nearly 480,000 K-12 scholarships. The organization also manages the Gardiner Scholarship, formerly known as Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, for children with certain special needs.
Once Murillo realized her family might qualify for the tax-credit scholarship, she quickly filled out the Step Up application for Kira and prayed.
“When we heard she was accepted, we were so excited,” Murillo said. “We called all of our family.”
Kira spent her first six years in traditional public schools, completing kindergarten in New York and, after her family moved to Florida, and two more years at an Ocala elementary school.
She was so unhappy, said her dad, Luis Murillo, a retired railroad worker.
When the family moved to a different house in Ocala, Kira started third grade at another public school. It was much better, her mom said, but middle school – with larger classes – was looming.
“I knew I wanted a better option for her,” Elsie Murillo said. “Some place where there weren’t so many students and she could be comfortable learning and getting the help she needed.”
Meadowbrook seemed perfect with its small classes with about 25 students to a teacher in K-8 and 18-to-1 in grades 9-12; rigorous curriculum offerings with a Christian perspective through A Beka Book; academic clubs, like the National Christian Honor Society, and social clubs such as the Chik-Fil-A Leader Academy, which teaches young people how to help their community; and sports teams like volleyball, softball, basketball, flag football, track and golf.
The nondenominational school, situated on 80 acres with sprawling athletic fields and natural wooded areas, is accredited by the International Christian Accrediting Association (ICAA) and Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Academic achievement is measured annually by the national Terra Nova standardized test.
“We have the same accreditation as public schools, so we have the same accountability, too,” said Principal Tina Stelogeannis, who started working at the school in 1996 as a kindergarten teacher and now oversees a staff of three administrators and 19 degreed teachers.
Depending on grade level, students also take college placement exams, including the PSAT, SAT and ACT in addition to weekly tests and projects to demonstrate competency of concepts. Students can take test prep classes and receive extra tutoring after school.
There’s also a dual enrollment program through the College of Central Florida in Ocala for students wanting to get a head start on college. Students travel to the college for classes, but soon will have access on Meadowbrook’s campus.
For Kira, the school has been a good fit, but it was rough at first.
“She came in like a little closed-up rosebud,” Stelogeannis said. “But then she blossomed into a beautiful, confident young lady.”
Kira had some catching up to do with her Meadowbrook peers in sixth grade, “but it just went up from there,” she said. “Learning is one on one and teachers ask you to interact, to raise your hand and be involved in the class.”
Her favorite class is economics “because it’s so different from all the other classes,” said the 18-year-old, who has a 3.6 GPA. And because her teacher, David Wallace, makes it fun to learn.
Future plans include attending the College of Central Florida then transferring to the University of South Florida in Tampa for a business degree and a master’s in physical therapy. Meanwhile, Kira is focused on finishing her senior year at the same school where her little sister, Lanina Murillo, is a sixth-grader on scholarship.
“I love what my girls are learning here,” Elsie Murillo said. “Meadowbrook feels like home. It feels like family.”
A licensed speech therapist, Stacey Thomas interned as a University of South Florida graduate student at Morning Star School, a small Catholic school in Pinellas Park serving students with special needs.
“When I was there, I knew that school was special,’’ Thomas said.
Years later, the wife and mother of three returned to Morning Star, but this time as a parent. Thomas’ eldest child, Liam, has Down syndrome. He longed to attend a school where he could do the things other kids did like sit at their own desk and eat lunch in the cafeteria with friends. But Liam needed special services like one-on-one instruction and speech therapy. Thomas, featured recently with Liam in our student spotlight, immediately thought of Morning Star.
She just wasn’t sure her family could afford tuition until Liam qualified for the Gardiner Scholarship, formerly Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, through Step Up For Students. The annual scholarship, on average about $10,000 per student, is awarded to families based on their children’s certain disabilities and can help cover costs for tuition, curriculum, therapies and other education needs.
“It literally has been the hugest blessing,’’ said Thomas, who lives in Tampa with her husband, Trey, Liam, 9, and his two siblings, Sydney, 8, and Laine, 3.
With Liam making huge learning gains during his third-grade year at Morning Star, Thomas agreed to share with us her strategy on finding the school that worked best for him:
Do you have some words of wisdom to share with other parents and caregivers, or do you have an idea for a story? Please contact Sherri Ackerman, public relations manager, at sackerman@StepUpForStudents.org