By Shelby Hobbs, Special to Step Up For Students
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Florida’s insurance industry has stepped up to support the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program at a record level, committing $61.2 million this year to fund scholarships for more than 9,380 students. Leading the pack is UnitedHealthcare, which has contributed more than $83 million to Step Up For Students over the past decade.
UnitedHealthcare CEO Greg Reidy on Oct. 4 visited Arlington Community Academy in Jacksonville, where students are among the beneficiaries of the scholarships, to promote the program’s impact and encourage other insurance companies to participate.
“By helping struggling students get into an educational environment where they can succeed, we know we are helping to make our state stronger,” said Reidy. “It’s gratifying to meet the students who are benefiting from these scholarships and see them on a track to reach their full potential.”
Step Up For Students, the nonprofit organization that helps administer the needs-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, praised the insurance company’s historic support for the program. Step Up provides scholarships for lower-income students to attend the schools that best meet their individual needs. A recent study found that students who receive these scholarships for at least four years are 40 percent more likely to attend college than their public school counterparts, and 29 percent more likely to earn an associate degree.
Since 2009, UnitedHealthcare’s contributions have enabled more than 18,000 Florida students to attend schools that offer them a chance at a brighter future. The company’s recent contribution will help serve the 7,483 students who receive the scholarships in Duval County alone.
“Support from Florida’s insurance industry is critical for the work our team does to support children across the state,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “This contribution is an investment in students, and it enables the positive impacts of this program to continue and expand to change more lives for the better.”
Families and students who have benefited from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program added their voices in support of the insurance industry’s efforts, urging other companies to consider participation.
“This program directly helps children in our local area, and I am grateful that my own children can now attend the school that’s right for them,” said Tamara Herring, whose daughter Tori is a second-grader are Arlington Community Academy. “I am so grateful for the many donors who support this program, individuals and companies that are helping children like mine have a better future. Every child deserves that chance.”
Step Up For Students has been selected by the Jacksonville Business Journal as one of the best places to work in Jacksonville for a company between 100 and 245 employees, the newspaper announced Tuesday.
Step Up is in good company in that size category with companies such as the Jacksonville Jaguars, Florida Capital Bang and Omni Hotels Jacksonville, among others.
“All of the work that each of you has done to strengthen our culture and enhance our workplace has led us to this recognition this year,” Step Up COO Anne White told staff during the announcement of the recognition. “… I am very proud to work among such a fantastic group of professionals. Next step – St. Pete!”
Step Up For Students is a nonprofit that helps run the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income K-12 students, funded by corporate donors, and the state-funded Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs. Combined, the programs are serving more than 100,000 students for the 2016-17 school year. Step Up For Students employs 194 full-time employees in its Jacksonville, St. Petersburg and remote locations. The Journal’s recognition applies only to the Jacksonville location where 127 employees are based.
The Journal has been partnering with Quantum Workplace, an employee engagement research firm, collecting data from surveys taken by each company that submitted an application. Finalists are chosen by analyzing the results of the employee satisfaction data.
In the application survey, it asks why a company should make the list of the Best Place to Work and what programs have been implemented to make the company a great place to work.
“Valuing the employee is of utmost importance to us, and hopefully when reading the other responses, it is evident that we take this to heart based on the support and opportunities employees are provided,” states one of Step Up’s responses.
Another response also points out that Step Up leaders have also committed to working on relationship management, as well as investing in employee happiness by creating a new department called Organization and Professional Development, which focuses on overall wellness of Step Up employees.
“Our goal is to promote our two core company values through these areas: Every employee is an asset. Every event is an improvement opportunity. It has become ‘the way in which we do things,'” according to information sent to the Journal.
“Step Up For Students devotes a lot of time, money and resources to improving employees’ cognitive and emotional management,” a survey response points out. “We believe that the root cause of many business-related challenges can be overcome by ensuring employees are self-aware, empathetic and are able to manage themselves and their relationships within the organization.”
Company rankings will be announced during an awards ceremony on June 22 at the Omni Jacksonville Hotel.
Judith grew up in Germany and first came to live in the U.S. in January 2004 as an au pair – a nanny – for a family in New Jersey. Shortly after, she moved to Jacksonville, Florida, with her au pair family. She fell in love with Florida and her future husband, Josh. After her au pair year, she went back home to Germany for college. She majored in American Studies and Rhetoric at the Eberhard Karls University, one of the oldest universities in Europe located in the picturesque town of Tuebingen.
During her time in Tuebingen, she worked as an education advisor and public relations assistant for the German-American Institute starting her career in social media and marketing.
After graduating, Judith moved to the U.S. in May 2012, and first worked for a local gym in Jacksonville to develop and grow their social media presence. The last four years she has worked in the communications department of an association management company in Jacksonville where she developed strategies for social media, communications and marketing for multiple nonprofit healthcare associations.
In her free time, Judith loves to travel – no matter if that means exploring local destinations or other cities, states or countries. When she is traveling, her husband and her Nikon D3200 camera are her steady companions. She inherited her passion for photography from her dad, who probably has about a million pictures of her and her two sisters growing up for which Judith is very grateful.
She also loves reading, yoga, the beach, camping, baking (German goodies), good food, and spending time with her family and friends.
Judith joined Step Up For Students in April 2017 as the first full-time social media manager. She is excited about the opportunity to develop strategies for social media and increase awareness of Step Up For Students through social media.
Reach her at email@example.com.
By LAUREN MAY, Guest Blogger
At St. Pius V Catholic School in Jacksonville we’re excited to have a new extracurricular offering: Girls on the Run, a nonprofit after-school activity for girls in grades three through eight. The mission: “We inspire girls to be joyful, healthy and confident using a fun, experience-based curriculum which creatively integrates running.”
St. Pius second-grade teacher Esther Franqui coached at a previous school and thought it would be a great addition to the activities available to students at St. Pius.
Coach Franqui and myself, Principal “Coach” Lauren May, created a team of 13 female students. The girls are engaged twice weekly in the Girls on the Run curriculum which helps girls learn valuable core lessons such as:
It’s already having a positive impact on our students.
“I like Girls on the Run because it helps me make friends, be a kind person and get in shape,” said Mikela Jones, fourth-grader at St. Pius.
Step Up For Students has several coaches or running buddies in the Jacksonville area. The season ends today (Dec. 3) with a 5K at the University of North Florida, and each girl is assigned a running buddy who runs the 5K with her.
This is a great way for the community to have an impact a girl in a positive way. The girls feel empowered and they are excited about the support.
“I have never been more proud of myself!” said fifth-grader Alethea Butler, after 5K practice at St. Pius on Nov. 10.
At the Girls on the Run coaches training I met with Conchita Moody, Step Up’s Human Resources manager.
We began talking about the history of St. Pius and the 120 Step Up scholars at the school.
“Coach” Conchita agreed to send Step Up hats to all girls on the team.
The community at large is being positively impacted by the work of St. Pius faculty and staff at Step Up partner schools and in the Step Up offices.
Thank you for your participation and for helping our girls learn to activate their limitless potential and learn to accomplish her dreams. Thank you also to Girls on the Run for their support of the program in several schools across the state!
Prior to becoming principal of St. Pius in the 2015-16 school year, Lauren May taught kindergarten at the Jacksonville school for four years. She holds a bachelor’s and Master of Education, specializing in Early Childhood and Special Education from the University of Florida and is currently studying for a Master of Educational Leadership at St. Leo University. Lauren is an avid Gator fan. While in college, she worked with the Gator football team recruiting department and gave tours to prospective students. She has served on the Gator Club of Jacksonville board of directors for four years, most recently as vice president.
Editor’s note: Around here at the Step Up For Students office, Denisha Merriweather is a household name, so to speak. Since she became a scholar in sixth grade, we have cheered for her, watched her grow, celebrated her achievements, and best of all, gotten to really know her. Now we’re thrilled to call her a colleague as she recently joined us as an intern and as the first Step Up scholar to join our staff. We’re proud to have her here. And we hope this is the first of many scholars to become part of our team.
By Denisha Merriweather, Step Up For Students Intern
Hi! I am Denisha Merriweather, recipient of the Step Up For Students scholarship, high school graduate, master’s student at the University of South Florida in Tampa and the newest member of the Step Up team as intern!
I was a Florida Tax Credit scholar from the sixth through 12th grade. Before receiving the scholarship, I attended neighborhood schools, which changed often because my family moved around my hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. constantly. Due to that lack of stability, support and attention, my performance in school was below average. As a result, I ended up failing the third grade. Twice. Being two years older than everyone in my class was discouraging. I felt like a failure, and no matter how hard I tried to do better in school nothing seemed to help. Having no hope for the future, I could really see myself headed down a dark path, dropping out of high school and living my life full of constant struggle.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
Upon my entry in the sixth grade, my godmother found out from a family friend about the Step Up For Students scholarship, and applied. This allowed me to choose to attend Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, a private school on the north side of Jacksonville. The school was such a great fit for me. The classroom size was small and the teachers were extremely engaging. Esprit became my home away from home. Thanks to the scholarship, my confidence soared at Esprit de Corps. I knew I could do anything I put my mind to. I was exposed to many different opportunities, which changed my attitude about school completely – and life. I now knew I could go to college and maybe one day even receive a Ph.D.
Due to my life experiences, I have dedicated much of my free time to support the tax-credit scholarship program. I have shared my story with donors, legislators and people of affluence, but most importantly, I’ve opened up to other students. This has allowed more and more opportunities for these groups of people to gain an understanding about the Step Up For Students program and hopefully for them to get involved, so that Step Up can continue to make a difference in children’s lives across the state of Florida.
I also share my story to give hope to those students who may be like me, but still struggling to find their paths to success. The children like me who have the potential to be more than they are, but just need someone to help lift them up, and show them they can change their life’s course for the better. For all of the kids who are like this, I urge you to realize that nothing is too hard for you to achieve. Things may look challenging and you may not see a way out, but know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You have a purpose and your struggle is pushing you closer and closer to it. Seize it.
Now that I am a part of the Step Up team, I am excited to learn more about the scholarship program. Being a scholarship recipient, I had had some knowledge about the duties of the scholarship program staff. However, upon my first days in the office, I became quickly aware that Step Up is so much more, and a lot of work goes into making scholarships, and other school choice programs, possible for families in Florida. It has been surreal meeting all of the individuals who labor tirelessly for parents and children to have opportunities they never knew they could have. I have a new appreciation for the commitment of the Step Up team. Thanks guys!
I am now ready to be a part of this great team and assist in making this program even better. Someone recently imparted great words of wisdom to me, saying that “People rarely succeed by themselves.” Understanding this, I zealously accept the role as an advocate for parents and children, standing in the gap, working for them, as someone once did for me.
When Denisha isn’t hitting the books or standing up for school choice, she enjoys spending time with friends and attending bible study at her church. However, like most college students she loves to watch television and sleep. Denisha says she dreams to speak fluent Spanish and to one day learn how to play the Chinese violin.