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‘Who’s going to be the next villain?’ The story of one survivor of bullying

By ROGER MOONEY

Brendan Thompson remembers the day in the fourth grade when he was jumped by a pack of bullies in a school bathroom. He remembers how he fought back, and he remembers how futile it was, because he was outnumbered. He remembers how classmates watched and laughed as he absorbed the blows to his face that left him with a bloody cut near his eye and a split lip.

There are some days you never forget, even when more than a decade has passed.

Brendan Thompson graduated in May from Seminole State College with a degree in general studies.
He will continue his education at the University of Central Florida.

Thompson vividly remembers the reaction later that day by school administrators when confronted by his mother, who, you can imagine, was angry.

Her son, she was told, was big enough to defend himself.

Yes, Thompson was among the taller and heavier kids in his school. But Nikki Thompson didn’t raise her son to fight, and Brendan was the mellow type who made friends easily and was nicknamed the “Gentle Giant” by his mother.

Despite his size –and maybe because of it – Thomspon was a target. He was picked on in the lower grades for being pigeon-toed and later for the hump behind his neck, something, he said, that developed from years of walking with his head bowed in an attempt to blend in.

Thompson recently spoke freely of his experiences at the hands of bullies one morning while taking a break from teaching bible and math at Master’s Training Academy, a K-12 private Christian school in Apopka, Florida, which his mother opened five years ago. In the end, it would be a Step Up For Students scholarship that allowed him to attend a private high school where bullying from classmates was no longer an issue.

The bulling started in the first grade and continued through the eighth. Thompson attended four schools during that span, twice changing schools because was bullied.

“It was like a TV show,” he said. “Who’s going to be the next villain? That’s what it was like every single year.”

He is 23 and a recent graduate from Seminole State College with a degree in general studies. He will continue his education in the fall at the University of Central Florida, where he intends to study creative writing.

His plan is to produce movies and documentaries. He also wants to write books, including one on bullying. It will be about his experiences and his thoughts on how bullying is portrayed in movies and on TV.

“It needs to stop being normalized,” Thompson said. “Bullying has become normal, and it shouldn’t be normal, because the kids who are being bullied, they don’t feel normal. They feel alone. They feel suicidal. They feel empty inside, numb inside.”

Though he lived with his mother and two sisters while growing up and had other family members he could turn to, Thompson felt alone, as so many victims do. He would refuse to talk at home and stayed in his bedroom, where he listened to what his mom described as “violent music.”

Thompson said he often thought about running away from home. He had darker thoughts, too.

“I don’t really tell people this, but there were times when I did think to myself, ‘What if I just ended everything? What if I did end my life?’” he said. “Thank God I didn’t, but I did think about that. Those thoughts popped up a lot during middle school.”

What stopped him?

“I would be selfish, because it wouldn’t be me who was in pain now, it would be my family and those who loved me,” he said. “It would be selfish and the coward way out. I would hate for anyone to think I was a coward.”

For Thompson, Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students made all the difference. He used it to attend high school at Apopka Christian Academy, where he graduated in the spring of 2016. The bullying by students didn’t follow him there but he remained wary, alert for the next villain.

“Getting bullied, it was miserable,” he said. “There were nights that I would go home and feel terrible about myself. Prayer got me through a lot of stuff. Reading my bible got me through a lot of stuff.”

His renewed faith began to impact his family. Bible study became a regular part of the family’s week. His mother, Nikki Thompson, who had worked two jobs to support her family, felt the call to start her own faith-based private school.

“I wanted to help those who were in need,” she said.

So, she quit her jobs and opened Master’s Academy in 2016. It has become a haven for children who were bullied at previous schools. That’s by design, Nikki Thompson said. Watching her son suffer the abuse of classmates and listening to school administrators who didn’t seem interested in stopping it leaves a scar on a mother.

“It was hard knowing I had to leave my child (in a school) where he was being bullied,” she said. “He was being hurt. He wasn’t comfortable. He didn’t feel right.”

Today, Florida schoolchildren have more options when they become a victim of bullying. Students in public school who are bullied can benefit from the Hope Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students. Hope was created in 2018 by the Florida Legislature to address the staggering number of schoolchildren who are bullied each year. It provides families with financial assistance to send a child who suffers from a qualifying incident at a public school to an eligible private school or help pay for transportation to a public school in another district.

Back when Brendan Thompson was a student, his only option to escape his bullies was financially qualifying for the tax-credit scholarship.  For the 2020-21 school year, 468 students are using Hope.

Given her son’s experiences, it’s no surprise that Nikki Thompson is a fan of the Hope Scholarship which opens up a way for K-12 students in Florida to find a learning environment away from their tormentors and feel safer.

“I think it’s awesome,” she said. “There’s bullying and you have parents who can’t afford a private school education and those scholarships, they do a lot. They help a lot of families out.

“Our No. 1 priority is taking care of our students. The moment they walk through the door they become my child and I will protect them by any means necessary.”

The pain Brendan endured from school bullies and his commitment to his faith motivated his mother, Nikki, to open a private school.

The students at Master’s Academy are drawn to Brendan Thompson, who at 6-foot, 290 pounds, remains a gentle giant. Especially to those who were bullied at a previous school. He knows their pain. He understands.

“He’s a role model for kids who have been bullied,” his mom said.

While the incidents took him to dark and painful places, Thompson is an example of a bullying victim who has healed. He knows that many victims still suffer from the experience into adulthood. Not him, he said.

“No,” he said. “I try not to focus on what others say about me, but just focus on the positive things about myself.”

Thompson said being a victim of bullying helped him develop a thick skin against taunts and taught him to stick up for himself.

He recalled an incident before physical education class in the eighth grade when he noticed three bullies were closing in on him. Thompson said he made the first move, asking if they “wanted to go?” They backed down. A classmate who witnessed the incident called Thompson a superhero.

Thomspon didn’t think he was. He just knew if he didn’t act then, he would remain a victim, and he was tired of being a victim. He also knows not every victim can stand up for themselves.

That’s why he wants to write a book about his experiences. While in college, he wrote research papers and spoke about it during speech class, using statistics of the many victims who chose suicide to make his point.

While Thompson has spoken to victims, he also spoke with aggressors. Several of his former classmates who bullied him have reached out on Facebook or by email to express their sorrow for how they acted and to explain why they did. Some talked about being abused at home and turned to bullying as an outlet for their pain.

Thompson listened.

“Did it change the way I feel? No,” he said. “But it’s better than no apology, I guess.”

If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or are in emotional distress, please speak to someone today. Help is available. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. It is available 24/7.

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

The benefits of private schools

By ROGER MOONEY

Most mornings, history teacher Quintarries Upshaw stands in the hallway and greets the arriving students at the Dixon School of Arts & Sciences with a song he plays on his clarinet.

The melodies are soothing, welcoming. Meant to create a mood.

“What he’s doing is setting a temperature that says, ‘When you come in, this is your safe place,’” Dixon principal Donna Curry said.

The Dixon School of Arts & Sciences in Pensacola, Florida creates a welcoming environment for students who have dealt with trauma at home.

The private K-8 school in Pensacola, Florida sits in a high-crime neighborhood. Curry said it’s hard for her students not to be affected by their surroundings, which is why the staff and faculty are trained in trauma sensitivity.

“We cannot control what happens outside the school,” Curry said. “But when the students come through the doors, it has to be the calmest, inviting place that they have been in. We created that on purpose.”

When someone interested in education choice approaches Curry and asks about the benefits of sending their child to a private school, her response is about the protective shield her school creates not only for the students but for their parents, as well.

“What I normally tell parents, the beauty of Dixon being a private school is that we understand our parents,” Curry said. “We are a true community school.”

Dixon is one of 2,625 private schools in Florida, according to the Private School Review. They range from pre-K to high school with an average enrollment of 172 in elementary schools and 200 in high schools.

There are some that cater to the arts and sciences, like Dixon. Others offer an International Baccalaureate program or a Waldorf education, developing children’s intellectual, artistic, and practical skills in an integrated and holistic manner. Many private schools are faith-based, and there are schools that accommodate children with special needs.

For decades, parents have realized the benefits of sending their children to private schools, including:

  • Smaller class sizes and more favorable teacher-student ratio.
  • A faith-based education.
  • A challenging curriculum.
  • The opportunity for a parent to exercise school choice.
  • A safer education environment.
  • A shared educational philosophy between the parent and the school.
  • The school as a community environment found at smaller schools.
  • Athletic programs.

But many parents can’t easily afford private schools. The cost of yearly tuition for a private school in Florida is lower than the national average. The average for an elementary school is $7,785 (the national average is $10,066). For a high school it is $9,899 ($14,978 nationally).

In Florida, however, parents can apply for scholarships managed by Step Up For Students that can help with tuition, fees and more.

Financial Assistance to private schools for Florida schoolchildren include:

  • The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship are two scholarships for private school (or transportation help to a district school).
  • The Gardiner Scholarship is an education savings account, known better as ESA, that serves children with certain special needs.
  • The Hope Scholarship is for schoolchildren who reported being bullied or were a victim of violence in their district school.

More than 1,800 Florida private schools accept Step Up For Students scholarships for one or more of its programs. That’s a lot of choices for Step Up scholars.

Faith and safety

Raising children a second time, Sharon Strickland looked for an academic environment where she would feel comfortable sending her granddaughters, and where they would feel safe.

After more than 20 years of living on her own, Strickland gained custody of her two great-granddaughters during the 2019-20 school year. The girls, 9 and 4, respectively, needed a school. Strickland remembered the overcrowded classrooms from 20 years ago when she used to take one of her granddaughters to the district middle school. She could only imagine the situation now.

Feeling her oldest granddaughter would benefit from a smaller teacher/student ratio and wanting a faith-based education for the two, Strickland enrolled them in a private Christian school five minutes from their home.

Savannah and Karlee Strickland celebrate Christmas at Daytona Beach.

Savannah, the oldest who is in the second grade, attends Warner Christian Academy, a pre-K through 12th grade private school in South Daytona, Florida, on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Her sister, Karlee, will receive the scholarship when she enters kindergarten.

Savannah, who repeated the second grade during her first year at the school, has improved her grades over those she earned while attending a district school.

“She doesn’t have a learning disability, but she’s not on the level the other kids are,” Strickland said. “She has 12 kids in her class. That’s great. She’ll get all the instruction she needs.”

The faith-based education, the school’s anti-bullying policy and the fact tutors are available for all students is what sold Strickland on Warner Christian.

“To sum it up, I can go to work and feel good about leaving them there,” she said.

Hybrid learning

Wellmont Academy, a faith-based K-12 private school in St. Petersburg, Florida is an example of education choice at work.

Defined as a hybrid school, Wellmont offers students the option of attending school five days a week, three days (upper grades) or two (lower grades).

Wellmont Academy in St. Petersburg offers a unique hybrid education program.

Those students who opt for hybrid learning spend the days when they are not in the classroom learning at home or participating in the school’s Assisted Learning Program.

“The hybrid model allows parents to be involved more in their education,” Danielle Marolf, Wellmont’s founder and principal, said. “Parents can enroll their kids the way they need to enroll them. It’s really popular.”

Marolf said parents have two main concerns when they discuss moving their child from a district to a private school: class sizes and a safe environment.

At Wellmont, classes are capped at 15 students and include a teacher and an aid.

“That teacher knows those kids so well,” Marolf said. “She knows exactly what their needs are, and she can work with them.”

As for bullying, Marolf said, “We have zero tolerance for bullying, and we mean it. Our kids know that we’re serious, and when we tell them this is a safe place and we will listen to you and our door is open, they know it. They can come into my office and talk to me.”

A sense of community

The sense of community is as much of a selling point for private schools as the value of the education they provide. The two often go hand-in-hand. And when the school loops in the parent’s right to exercise education choice, it presents an attractive alternative to a district school.

Back at the Dixon School of Arts & Science, safety from the neighborhood is only one benefit. It also offers an arts program that has produced students whose works are featured in local galleries and magazines, and student scientists, who have traveled to Washington D.C. to present their projects at a convention for real scientists.

Like every principal, Curry said it is the job of her faculty to find that switch that will turn the students into scholars. That can be difficult for a student who is dealing with trauma at home, so couches are placed in the hallways for students who need some quiet time to relax or a place to talk to a teacher or staff member about their troubles.

Parents are allowed to use those couches, too.

“You cannot love children without loving the parents. So, what we invite our parents to is a school that not only cares about the children, but cares about them,” Curry said.

“It makes them feel less traumatized. And if I have a less traumatized parent, I have a less traumatized child, and that makes it easier for me to teach A,B,C’s and 1,2, 3’s.”

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

A sigh of relief: How the Hope Scholarship helped change one student’s life

By ROGER MOONEY

ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, Fla. – There was a reason for Nick Guiley’s tears and his utter refusal to get out of his father’s car at school one morning during the sixth grade.

“I felt like something was going to happen when I stepped into school,” Nick said. “That someone was going to come up and hurt me or something.”

Nick was being physically bullied by two boys at his neighborhood school near their home in Altamonte Springs, Florida. They made entering that building a nightmare for Nick.

“It’s a suspenseful feeling and you’re scared because you don’t know when it’s going to happen,” Nick said. “Where are they going to be? What class? So, I was kind of on the edge, nervous.”

He would spend entire days in the office of a guidance counselor, hiding from his tormentors.

Nick’s parents, Lisa and Todd, were unaware of this. They sensed something was troubling their youngest child. His anxiety level was high, and his heartbeat would at times reach 140 beats per minute. They took Nick to a cardiologist, who said it wasn’t physical. They took Nick to a therapist, who thought the anxiety was related to Nick having Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary, repetitive movements and vocalizations.

Nick and his father, Todd, enjoy a laugh while doing homework.

The root of the problem remained undiscovered.

“We asked him all the questions,” Lisa said. “Everything you could think of as a parent.”

Nick hid the truth with evasive answers. He was, he admitted, scared to tell his parents.

“It was kind of an embarrassing topic to bring up,” he said.

Nick didn’t know how his parents would react. He didn’t know if they would believe him. And, he didn’t have proof.

But the bullying came to light the morning he refused to leave the car. Finally, Nick talked.

“There were two boys who, literally, every chance they got, they would hurt him,” Lisa said. “He was so afraid. He wouldn’t even tell us. In his mind, all he would think was, ‘I can’t go to school.’”

A sigh of relief

Nick stood outside Lake Forrest Preparatory School in Maitland, Florida on a sunny February afternoon and talked about his experiences. Now an eighth grader, he began attending the infants-through-eight private school in January of 2020. It’s a small school with only eight children in this year’s graduating class. It was the perfect landing – small and secure – for someone like Nick.

When asked what it feels like to be dropped off at Lake Forrest in the morning, Nick said, “It’s one of the biggest sighs of relief that I ever had.”

He likes his schoolmates and his teachers. He no longer feels threatened by anyone.

“People knew my name and said ‘hi’ to me after the first couple of days, and that’s when I knew this school would be a good fit for me,” he said.

Nick attends Lake Forrest on a Hope Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The Hope Scholarship allows parents of children who are bullied in neighborhood schools to find new learning environments at another district school or at a participating private school – away from the bully.

“There’s no words to describe it,” Todd Guiley said. “It’s awesome. He complains when he can’t go to school.”

Lisa, Nick and Todd.

Todd and Lisa reacted quickly when Nick finally told them he was being bullied. They meet with the guidance counselor and school administrators. Nick was so traumatized that he didn’t finish the school year.

The Guileys enrolled Nick in a private school near their home for the seventh grade. Things began well, but the bullying returned in a different form. At this time, Nick had developed coprolalia, a Tourette syndrome tic which causes involuntary swearing and inappropriate language.

“Come to find out, he was hanging out with a group of kids who were pretty much emotionally bullying him,” Lisa said. “They encouraged him to cuss, and they would tell on him for doing it. They were pretending to be his friends.”

The Guileys learned of the Hope Scholarship from administrators at this school. While researching where to send Nick with the help of the scholarship, Nick struck up a friendship with a boy his age that he met at the dentist’s office. His new friend attended Lake Forrest, and his mom encouraged Lisa and Todd to visit the school, which is located 20 minutes from their home.

After meeting with Assistant Principal Ann Mallamas, Lisa and Todd decided to enroll Nick.

“My only regret is that we didn’t find this school sooner,” Todd said. “It’s been a positive experience for him all around. The teachers are great. The kids are great. He loves it.”

‘My heart is full’

In February, Step Up recently held its annual Rising Stars Award program, which recognizes scholarship students in several categories – High-Achieving, Outstanding Student character and Turnaround Student. Mallamas nominated Nick for the Turnaround Student award, and Nick was featured in the virtual Rising Stars Award video.

“I’ve seen a huge transformation from the first day that I met Nick until today,” Mallamas said. “He has developed into a wonderful young man with a past that should have never happened to him and was not called for. He’s one the sweetest, most loveable students we have at the school.”

Lisa said her son treats everyone with respect, is genuine and sincere and makes friends easy. Todd said his son is very loving. Nick described himself as kind and caring.

So why was he bullied?

“It did make me wonder why,” Nick said. “I didn’t understand it, because if I was nice to everybody, they don’t really have a reason to bully me.”

Lisa had guesses. Nick was small for his age at the time. He wore glasses. His Tourette syndrome produces tics.

Nick said he often thought of fighting back at his neighborhood school but knew that would get him into trouble. His course of action was to hope the bullying would stop, but it didn’t. It only became worse.

“It’s kind of hard to let go of the past sometimes, because it’s kind of a hard thing to not remember,” he said. “It does lessen as time goes on, but it still sticks with me to this day.”

Nick said he did wonder if the bullying would follow him to Lake Forrest.

“I had a feeling that this is what school is all about, that they would bully me, and the teachers wouldn’t care, because I had been to other schools and the process just kept repeating,” he said. “But when I got to this school there was this good atmosphere that nobody was going to be mean to me, and all the teachers were nice and caring.”

Both Lisa and Todd were devastated when they learned their son was being bullied. They wished he came to them sooner.

“The only thing that I would instill upon kids these days is don’t be afraid to come forward and stick up for yourself,” Todd said. “Go to your teacher, go to your parents, go to your counselors and let them know what’s going on. Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself.”

Lisa stood off camera while her son was being videoed for the Rising Stars show. She listened as Nick talked about how much he loves Lake Forrest, his classmates, his teaches. He talked enthusiastically about wanting to be a marine biologist and explore the uncharted depths of the oceans.

Nick is not the only one who breathes a sigh of relief every morning when he bounces out of the house and heads to school.

“It makes me feel beyond happy,” Lisa said. “My heart is full when I know that my child is happy, and he has no anxiety. He has fun. He does his work. His grades are improving. It’s an awesome feeling as a parent.”

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

Does your child struggle at school? Step Up For Students can help

By ROGER MOONEY

Reading was a struggle for Maloni Lewis as a third grader. So was writing and math.

Her whole life was a struggle. Both parents were disabled. Her three older brothers had been to jail. They told their mom that going to school and being smart were not cool among the group they associated with.

Maloni’s mom was determined to end that cycle with her daughter.

Maloni Lewis turned her academic path around after receiving a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up.

Renée Lewis found Seven Rivers Christian School in Lecanto, Florida, near their home. With the help of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families, she was able to afford the tuition at the pre-K through 12 private school. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.

It took a few years, but Maloni eventually became passionate about her education. She played sports, and by her senior year of high school, her grade point average was 3.8. She left for college with the goal of becoming a nurse like her mom.

“Step Up For Students is a lifeline,” Renée said. “It allows kids and families to dream. What they thought was so far out of reach is possible.”

There are many reasons why children struggle in school. For some, the class size is too big, and they feel lost among the crowd. Others have certain special needs that cannot be fully addressed at neighborhood schools. Some kids are bullied. Some are hindered by language barriers.

And then there are those like Maloni, whose homelife is so challenging that school is not a priority.

Step Up can help.

Lower-income families can apply for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship. Both scholarships are based on a family’s financial need, and both give families a choice to find a new learning environment for their child.

Parents use a single application for the scholarships and Step Up determines eligibility for either the tax-credit scholarship or the Family Empowerment Scholarship.

Click here to apply for an income-based scholarship.

Parents of children with special needs can turn to the Gardiner Scholarship.

This scholarship allows parents to personalize the education of their pre-K through 12 children with certain special needs by directing money toward a combination of approved programs and providers. A list of special needs covered by the Gardiner Scholarship is found here under “eligibility requirements.”

Click here to join the 2021-22 interest list for the Gardiner Scholarship.

Parents whose child is being bullied at a public school can apply for the Hope Scholarship.

In 2018, the Florida Legislature created the Hope Scholars to give relief for K-12 public school children from bullying and violence. The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district.

The Hope Scholarship, which is not based on a family’s income, provides families with financial assistance to send a child who suffered from a qualifying incident to an eligible private school, or to transport him or her to a public school in another district. The scholarship value depends on the grade level and county the family lives in.

Click here to view the 2020-21 Hope Scholarship award chart.

The transportation scholarship is worth up to $750 and can be used to attend any out-of-district public school with available space.

Click here to apply for the Hope Scholarship.

Step Up has managed more than 1 million scholarships in the 20 years since its inception. These scholarships have been life-changers for the students and their families.

“I felt completely blessed to even have the scholarship. I don’t know what I would have done without it,” said Pamela Howard, whose son, Malik Farrell, reaped the awards of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

Malik had been to four schools district schools in four years and repeated third grade after getting a report card filled with F’s.

Pamela learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and moved her son to Potter’s House Christian Academy, a pre-K through 12 private school in Jacksonville, Florida.

Weeks after enrolling, Malik’s older brother was murdered. The teachers and administrators at Potter’s House rallied around Malik. They eventually gained Malik’s trust, and because of that, Malik’s grades turned into C’s. He was a solid B student during his final two years of high school. He graduated and attended college in Tennessee.

Pamela credited Potter’s House and the Step Up scholarship for her son’s scholastic turnaround.

“To see my son just completely turn around, there aren’t even words,” she said. “That he overcame these struggles and turned out to become the young man that he is, there are no words to even explain how proud I am of him.”

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

Your child is being bullied at school? There is Hope

By ROGER MOONEY

The bullying at school began when Jordyn Simmons-Outland was in the second grade. He was punched and tripped by classmates. He was teased for his weight. He once told his grandparents that he wished he were dead. He eventually saw a therapist.

Jordyn Simmons-Outland is first recipient of the Hope Scholarship for bullied students.
Jordyn Simmons-Outland is first recipient of the Hope Scholarship for bullied students.

His grandmother, Cathy Simmons, complained to Jordyn’s teachers and administrators at the neighborhood school, but the violence continued. The last straw for Cathy occurred in 2018 when Jordyn was slapped by a classmate at the start of his fifth-grade year.

What does a parent do when their child is not safe at school?

Where do they turn when their cries of, “Help! My child is being bullied!” go unanswered?

Parents and guardians talk of being frustrated by what they see as inaction by teachers and administrators at their neighborhood school.

If they Google: “Scholarships for children who are bullied,” they find the Hope Scholarship for schoolchildren who have been bullied. It is managed by Step Up For Students.

The Hope Scholarship provides an escape for K through 12 students who reported being bullied or a victim of violence in a public school.

Click here to apply for a Hope Scholarship.

According to the Florida’s School Environmental Safety Incident Reporting System, more than 47,000 students in Florida reported being a victim of bullying during the 2015-16 school year. That’s a huge number, yet it’s only the number of schoolchildren who reported an incident. Many more suffered in silence.

In 2018, the Florida Legislature decided to address the staggering number of schoolchildren who are bullied each year by creating the Hope Scholarship.

“Hope is the best description. I keep thinking ‘There is hope. There is hope. There is hope,’” Cathy Simmons said.

The Hope Scholarship, which is not based on a family’s income, provides families with financial assistance to send a child who suffered from a qualifying incident to an eligible private school, or to transport him or her to a public school in another district. The scholarship value depends on the grade level and county the family lives in.

Click here to view the 2020-21 Hope Scholarship award chart.

The transportation scholarship is worth up to $750 and can be used to attend any out-of-district public school with available space.

The scholarships are funded by consumers who choose to redirect up to $105 of their motor vehicle purchase taxes to the program.

Who is eligible?

Any public school student in Florida who was a victim of a qualifying incident at a K through 12 school, a school-related or school-sponsored program or activity or was riding in a school bus or waiting at a school bus stop.

What is a qualifying incident? They include battery, harassment, hazing, bullying, kidnapping, physical attack, robbery, sexual offenses (including harassment, assault or battery), threat or intimidation and fighting.

Cathy Simmons began looking for a private school for Jordyn after he was slapped by that classmate. She came across Lakeview Christian School in Lake Placid, Florida, which is not far from their home. That’s where she learned about the Hope Scholarship, then in its infancy.

They applied, and Jordyn became the first student in Florida to reap the benefits of the scholarship. Upon entering his new school for the first time, Jordyn said, “I new it was going to be good.”

Click here to read Jordyn’s story.

That is the idea behind the Hope Scholarship. It provides an education choice to families so their children can benefit from safer, more inviting learning environments.

Jordyn made friends. He was one of six students picked to sing at the school’s Christmas concert. A teacher wrote on his first progress report that he was “a pleasure to have in class.”

Cathy couldn’t wait to tell others about the Hope Scholarship and how it changed her grandson’s life.

“Now there is peace,” she said.

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

Step Up For Students partners with NLP Logix to build next generation ESA platform

Step Up For Students was founded to empower families to pursue and engage in the most appropriate learning options for their children, with an emphasis on families who lack the information and financial resources to access these options. Over the years, Step Up has developed internal systems and procedures to administer these scholarships, which disproportionally benefit minority children and families, but now they are expecting exponential growth in demand.

“Even before COVID,” said Doug Tuthill, President, Step Up, “we were expecting to grow from administering $700 million in scholarships to over $1 billion. But now, families are having to supplement their children’s education at home and/or through neighborhood pods, which has increased the need for parents to have access to more scholarship funds, and more flexibility in how these funds are spent.”

To support their mission and growth, Step Up has turned to NLP Logix, a Jacksonville, Florida-based machine learning and artificial intelligence company, to integrate and build the platform the parents can use to manage their children’s education. The platform is incorporating high levels of artificial intelligence to provide such things as course recommendations, educational product purchase recommendations, charter school options and other applications to help users interface with their scholarship benefits.

“We are very proud to have been selected by Step Up For Students to partner in this endeavor,” said Ted Willich, CEO, NLP Logix. “Having an opportunity to support transforming the K-12 education system in America is something we could have only dreamed of when we started NLP Logix ten years ago.”

Step Up For Students and NLP Logix expect to launch the platform in December of 2021 with an extensive roadmap of enhancements to come in the following years.

The platform will first be used by parents and students within the State of Florida who are enrolled in the five scholarship programs administered by Step Up: Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) and the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) for lower-income families, The Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs, the Hope Scholarship for public school students who are bullied or victims of violence and the Reading Scholarship Accounts for public school students in third through fifth grade who struggle with reading.

Step Up ranked 21st in Forbes annual list of top 100 charities

By ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students continues to rank among the top 25 nonprofits in the country, coming in at 21st in Forbes’ list of America’s Top 100 Charities 2020.

Step Up, a Florida-based scholarship funding organization serving more than 120,000 students annually, was No. 1 among education charities.

This is the fourth year that Step Up has been included in the Top 25 of Forbes’ 22nd annual list of America’s top charities.

“This honor is bestowed on our organization because of the amazing generosity of our donors who believe in our mission of delivering educational opportunities to Florida’s most vulnerable students,” said Anne Francis, Step Up’s vice president of development. “This ranking is particularly special this year because we just celebrated the delivery of our 1 millionth scholarship. The children whose lives are changed by these scholarships are the heart and soul of Step Up.”

The nonprofits that comprise the Top 100 received $49.5 billion in donations during the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2020. That is 11% of the estimated $450 billion raised by the more than 100 charities in America.

Step Up received $618 million in donations during the 2019-20 fiscal year.

In addition to the recognition from Forbes, Step Up received a coveted four-star ranking from Charity Navigator, the nation’s top charity evaluator. It is the 14th time Step Up received Charity Navigator’s highest ranking.

In a letter to Step Up, Charity Navigator President Michael Thatcher wrote, “Attaining a 4-star rating verifies that Step Up For Students exceeds industry standards and outperforms most charities in your work area.”

Step Up ranked 18th in the Chronicle of Philanthropy most recent list of Top 100 nonprofits and has received GuideStar’s Platinum Seal of Transparency.

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

Time to nominate your students for Rising Stars Awards

By ROGER MOONEY

Do you have a Step Up For Students scholar who made significant improvements academically since attending your school?

How about a Step Up student who consistently displays outstanding compassion, perseverance and courage?

Or one who excels in academics, the arts or athletically?

Now is the time for school leaders to honor those students for Step Up’s annual Rising Stars Awards program, scheduled for Feb. 25, 2021. This year’s event will be held virtually from 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Another change this year due to COVID-19 is we are limiting the categories to student only. Next year we hope to honor parents and teachers again in person.

“Step Up For Students celebrates our outstanding scholarship students every year through our Rising Stars Award ceremonies across the state. We had to cancel the 2020 celebration due to COVID-19, so we are excited to announce that we will be back in 2021 with a virtual celebration!

“While we wish we could be together in person, we promise that this live virtual event will be an exciting and special way to honor our amazing scholarship students and the great work they are able to do in their chosen schools,” said Lauren Barlis, Step Up’s senior director of Student Learning & Partner Success.

School leaders can nominate up to three total students in the following categories:

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

Click here to nominate your students.

The deadline for nominations is Dec. 4.

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

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

How a toy spider led a young girl who was bullied to a new school and a rooster to his calling

By ROGER MOONEY

Natalie Ryan had been punched and kicked by classmates in her district school in previous years, but it was the taunting in second grade that really cut deep.

That year, Natalie was teased relentlessly by some boys in her class. All, her mother said, because she played differently than the other children.

It began innocently enough when a classmate had a birthday around Halloween. To celebrate, each student in the class received a cupcake with a plastic spider on the icing. Natalie kept her spider and often played with it as if it were a pet. She made a house for the spider with her pencil box.

This is how Natalie plays with her toys. She brings them to life with backstories.

“She’s very creative, so when she makes up a story, she kind of goes all out,” said Natalie’s mom, Grace Diaz.

From top to bottom, Grace, Natalie and Thomas and the book, “Rudy Howls at the Moon.”

Some of the boys who sat near Natalie didn’t think that was so creative. They saw her playing with her pet spider one day and called her stupid and said she was dumb. The words stung.

“She came home and said I don’t want to be different. I don’t want to play like the way I play. I want to be just like the other kids. I want to be quote unquote normal,” Grace said. “That was the word she used.”

Normal.

Grace began to search for other choices for her daughter’s education. In addition to the bullying, Natalie was struggling in math. Natalie’s teacher would not allow Natalie to use her fingers to count, and her grades in that class suffered.  

Fed up with what was happening to her daughter at the district school near their home in Clermont, Florida, Grace, a single mother of two, applied for and received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship before the 2018-19 school year. The income-based scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.


The Hope Scholarship provides relief for K-12 public school children from bullying and violence. The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district. Managed by Step Up, the Hope Scholarship is not income-based. Click here to learn more.


Grace moved Natalie to Citrus Heights Academy, a Christian faith-based K-12 in Clermont.

Natalie entered as a third grader and loves her new school.

“It’s awesome,” said Natalie, now a fifth grader.

“I think that shows why school choice is important,” Grace said. “And it was the main reason why I transferred her.”

But this story doesn’t end here. The spider, the mean boys and Natalie’s wish to be normal form the backstory for another story. A children’s book, actually.

“Rudy Howls at the Moon,” about a rooster who is mocked because he can’t crow at the sun, was written by Grace. She published it in July 2019. It’s available on Amazon both in hardcover and for Kindle.

The idea for the book was born during the conversation Grace had with her daughter after that January day in 2018 when Natalie came home from school feeling utterly defeated.

“I told her none of us are normal,” Grace said. “All of us are pretty much unique. We have certain talents and abilities, and whatever your talent or ability is, it’s used for a purpose. You may not know what that purpose is until a certain thing happens, or you grow up and then you discover this is the way I am, because of this. That was how I was trying to encourage her, and it kind of turned into a rooster who can’t crow.”

Grace, who holds a degree in accounting, always wanted to be a writer.

“I’ve been writing books in my head for what, 10, 20 years?” she said.

Most of those potential books, Grace said, are motivational. She never dreamed of writing a children’s book, but then she never dreamed her child would be ostracized for being imaginative.

 “Whenever she plays, it’s amazing the stories that she develops,” Grace said. “It’s pretty cool.”

Grace reads her book during Story Time with Step Up

That Natalie is not a morning person led to Grace imagining a rooster who can’t crow at sunrise. No spoiler alerts here, but it turns out Rudy has another talent.

And those roosters that made fun of Rudy? Well, let’s just say they came around to appreciate Rudy’s unique gift.

Natalie loves the story.

“It’s awesome, because I’m a part of Mommy’s book,” she said.

“She wants to be a writer,” Grace said. “She wants to do a bunch of things, but writing stories is one of them.”

Grace has another children’s book in the works. It was inspired by her son, Thomas, 4. It is about a dinosaur who catches a cold. No spoiler alert here, either, but Grace said the theme is, “Don’t assume anything. Don’t prejudge people. And of course, blow your nose, wash your hands.”

Of course.

And what happened to that plastic spider that set so many things in motion? They still have it. Thomas plays with it. Natalie never named it, though. She just called it, “The Spider.”

“It doesn’t actually have a name,” Grace said. “We call it ‘The Spider who inspired Rudy.’”

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

First Hope Scholarship brings peace to fifth grader

Editor’s note. This story was originally posted on Jan. 14, 2019 on redefinED, another blog sponsored by Step Up For Students. We’re taking a look back at some of our scholars in recent years. Today, Jordyn Simmons-Outland continues to feel safe because of the Hope Scholarship. To sign up for our philanthropic newsletter, please click here.

By Scott Kent 

Jordyn Simmons-Outland is first recipient of the Hope Scholarship for bullied students.
Jordyn Simmons-Outland is first recipient of the Hope Scholarship for bullied students.

LAKE PLACID, Florida — Jordyn Simmons-Outland is a fifth grader who was in need of a lifeline. The 10-year-old has a sweet demeanor and a love for the online video game Fortnite. However, his lack of self-confidence made him a target for bullying in his public school since the second grade. Teased about his weight. Tripped and hit. Complaints to teachers and administrators failed to bring relief.

In the past year, the physical and emotional abuse had become so bad, he told his grandparents he wished he were dead. He began seeing a therapist.

A new state school choice scholarship, the first of its kind in the nation, provided him with hope – literally.

“I don’t know what I’d do if the scholarship wasn’t available,” said his grandmother, Cathy Simmons, who has been a fierce advocate for her grandson most his life.

Jordyn is the first recipient of Florida’s Hope Scholarship, created by the Legislature in 2018 to give K-12 public school children relief from bullying and violence. The scholarship is run by Step Up For Students. More than 47,000 students in Florida reported being bullied during the 2016-17 school year.

The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district. The scholarship value depends on the grade level: $6,519 for K-5, $6,815 for 6-8, and $7,111 for 9-12. The transportation scholarship is worth up to $750 and can be used to attend any out-of-district public school with available space. The scholarships are funded by consumers who choose to redirect up to $105 of their motor vehicle purchase taxes to the program. 

Applications for the new scholarships opened Nov. 1 2018, which proved timely for Jordyn.

His grandmother went to Lakeview Christian School in Lake Placid to inquire about tuition costs. With Cathy and Danny in the process of selling their furniture business, money has been tight. However, Lakeview’s school administrator, Christena Villarreal, and her assistant told her about the new Hope Scholarship.

The Simmonses immediately enrolled Jordyn into Lakeview Christian, then began the process of applying for the Hope. They became conditionally eligible Nov. 2. Cathy received the acceptance letter Nov. 30.

It was like Independence Day.

“I was sitting (upstairs) in the rocking chair when I got the email,” she said. “I just wanted to scream, ‘Hallelujah! Thank you, God!’”

The scholarship means Jordyn can stay in the school where he now fits in. He feels welcomed and comfortable.

“They knew how he was when he got there,” Simmons said of the Lakeview Christian staff. “Jordyn didn’t just go there from the old school. He took baggage with him, too. He took stuff with him to that school.”

Nevertheless, Jordyn says he wasn’t nervous his first day there. “I knew it was going to be good.”

He doesn’t like to talk about his previous school, but he lights up when the subject turns to his new one.

“The people are nice,” he says.

Since the change, not once has he complained he didn’t want to go to school. In fact, after being laid up in bed with an inner ear infection followed by the stomach flu near the end of Christmas break, Jordyn was excited to return to school Jan. 7, 2019.

Simmons and Villareal both point to Lakeview Christian’s smaller class sizes as making a big difference for students like Jordyn.

“I like to think we’re a safe place for bullied students,” said Villareal, who noted the school has had several students transfer there because they were bullied elsewhere. “In other schools they might get lost in the shuffle.”

Simmons shows pics of a smiling Jordyn in his fifth-grade class, getting hugged by his teacher, interacting with classmates during their holiday party. According to a Nov. 14, 2018 school progress report, Jordyn “is a pleasure to have in class” and “is very polite and courteous.”

A fresh start in a more welcoming environment has boosted Jordyn’s confidence.
Two months ago, he did a mile run at school in 17 minutes. By mid-December, with the help of his new classmates, he completed it in 14 minutes.

“I’m probably the last one to finish, so I’d get really tired and out of breath,” he said. “And they would all get up and try to help me finish it.” They’d cheer him on and run with him.
He says he’s now shooting for finishing in 11 minutes, “maybe 10.”

At Lakeview Christian’s elementary school Christmas concert Dec. 18, 2019 Jordyn was one of six students chosen to sing at the front of stage. He wasn’t forced to do it – he volunteered.

So far, 469 private schools have signed up to participate in the Hope Scholarship, and 67 students have been awarded the scholarship. Jordyn and his grandmother are excited and thankful that he was the first.

“Hope is the best description. I keep thinking ‘There is hope, there is hope, there is hope.’ ” Simmons said. “I can’t wait to tell everyone what a blessing the Hope Scholarship has been. Now there’s peace.”

About Lake View Christian School

Lakeview Christian School opened in 1985 and offers Pre-K (for 3-year-olds) through eighth grade. During the 2018-19 school year, the school had 127 students, 59 of whom received the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, four received the Gardiner Scholarship, and one received the new Hope Scholarship. All of the classroom teachers are four-year college graduates.

Scott Kent can be reached at skent@sufs.org.