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Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company makes $4 million contribution to Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By ASHLEY ZARLE

Step Up For Students announced recently a $4 million contribution to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program from Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company (UPCIC), a wholly owned subsidiary of Universal Insurance Holdings, Inc.

The $4 million donation will fund 565 K-12 scholarships for the 2018-19 school year, so lower-income children can attend the school that best meets their learning needs. This is the second year that UPCIC has partnered with Step Up For Students and has contributed a total of $6 million to the scholarship program.

“We are grateful for corporate donors like Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company who are helping to provide educational opportunities for Florida schoolchildren,” said Joe Pfountz, chief financial officer of Step Up For Students. “The company’s generosity is crucial to the work our team does and shows just how much they really care about Florida’s kids and its future.”

On Dec. 4 Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company announced a $4 million contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are UPCIC’s Regional VP of Marketing-Northeast/Midwest David Ahern, UPCIC’s Spokesperson and NFL Hall of Famer Dan Marino, UPCIC’s COO Steve Donaghy, UPCIC’s Vice President of Marketing Stacey Tomko, UPCIC’s Regional VP of Marketing-Southeast Derek Heard, UPCIC’s VP of Corporate Development & Strategy Rob Luther, and St. Joan of Arc School Principal Caroline Roberts. They are joined by several students from St. Joan of Arc School who are benefiting from the scholarship.

On Dec. 4 Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company announced a $4 million contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are UPCIC’s Regional VP of Marketing-Northeast/Midwest David Ahern, UPCIC’s Spokesperson and NFL Hall of Famer Dan Marino, Step Up For Students CFO Joe Pfountz, UPCIC’s COO Steve Donaghy, UPCIC’s Vice President of Marketing Stacey Tomko, UPCIC’s Regional VP of Marketing-Southeast Derek Heard, UPCIC’s VP of Corporate Development & Strategy Rob Luther, and St. Joan of Arc School Principal Caroline Roberts. They are joined by several students from St. Joan of Arc School who are benefiting from the scholarship.

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and allows parents and students to choose between a K-12 scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

“Universal is committed to giving back and empowering the communities that it serves to accelerate community opportunities and build the foundation for the next generation of business leaders,” said Sean Downes, chairman and chief executive officer for Universal. Dan Marino, UPCIC spokesperson, National Football League hall of famer and former Miami Dolphins quarterback made a special appearance and spoke to the schoolchildren at an event on Dec. 4 hosted by St. Joan of Arc School in Boca Raton, Florida.

“Having options and choice in where you go to school is important and I’m excited to see so many students here today who have access to the learning environment that best suits their individual needs,” said Marino. “We know that the education you receive will help propel you to do great things.”

For the 2018-19 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 98,500 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,519 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,815 for sixth through eighth grade, and $7,111 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Ashley Zarle can be reached at azarle@sufs.org.

Caldwell Trust Company celebrates 25th anniversary and continued support of Step Up For Students

By ASHLEY ZARLE

Caldwell Trust Company, an independent trust company with more than 25 years of investment experience and one billion dollars in assets under management recently announced a $30,000 contribution to Step Up For Students Scholarship Program for the 2018-19 school year.

Caldwell Trust has been a partner of Step Up For Students since 2011 and has contributed a total of $220,000 towards the scholarship program. The company’s contribution over the years has funded 40  K-12 scholarships so lower-income children can attend the school that best meets their learning needs.

“At Caldwell Trust, we consider it our civic duty and privilege to contribute to our community both as a company and as individuals,” said R.G. “Kelly” Caldwell, Jr., president and CEO of Caldwell Trust Company.  “We are proud to partner with Step Up For Students and support the unique learning needs of Florida schoolchildren.”

Caldwell Trust is also celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year and Step Up scholars and parents from Epiphany Cathedral School in Venice, which serves more than 250 Step Up students, wanted to thank the company for its support.

On Nov. 29, they visited the company headquarters and presented 25 handwritten thank you cards to Caldwell Trust associates in recognition of the milestone anniversary. Students, parents, and Epiphany Cathedral administrators had the opportunity to share their personal experience about the importance and impact of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.

“Our school wouldn’t be what it is today without Step Up For Students,” said M.C. Heffner, principal of Epiphany Cathedral. “We are so thankful that these deserving students can attend our school, who without the scholarship wouldn’t be able to.”

On Nov. 29 Caldwell Trust Company celebrated its’ cumulative contribution of $220,000 to Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are Epiphany Cathedral School Principal M.C. Heffner, Caldwell Trust’s President and CEO R.G. “Kelly” Caldwell, Jr., and Step Up For Student’s Development Officer Cheryl Audus. They are joined by several students from Epiphany Cathedral who are benefiting from the scholarship.

On Nov. 29 Caldwell Trust Company celebrated its cumulative contribution of $220,000 to Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are Epiphany Cathedral School Principal M.C. Heffner, Caldwell Trust’s President and CEO R.G. “Kelly” Caldwell, Jr., and
Step Up For Student’s Development Officer Cheryl Audus. They are joined by several students from Epiphany Cathedral who are benefiting from the scholarship.

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and allows parents and students to choose between a K-12 scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

 “We are thrilled that Caldwell Trust has once again committed to helping us provide educational choices for students who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful for our partnership and for all they are doing to give back to their community.”

For the 2018-19 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 98,500 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,519 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,815 for sixth through eighth grade, and $7,111 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Ashley Zarle can be reached at azarle@sufs.org.

Globe Life makes $25,000 contribution to Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By ASHLEY ZARLE

Globe Life, the top volume issuer of ordinary individual life insurance policies in the United States, announced Dec. 17 a $25,000 contribution to Step Up For Students Scholarship Program for the 2018-19 school year.

This is the first time that Globe Life has supported Step Up For Students. The company’s contribution will fund three K-12 scholarships so lower-income children can attend the school that best meets their learning needs.

“Since 1951, Globe Life has believed in giving back to the communities in which we live and work,” said Corey Jones, Senior Vice President of Digital Marketing and Branding for Globe Life. “We strive to create opportunities to be a source of good to those around us and we are proud to support Step Up For Students to provide education opportunities for children in our community.”

Corey Jones, Globe Life Senior Vice President of Digital Marketing and Branding, right, presents David Bryant, Step Up For Students development officer, with a check for $25,000 which will fund three scholarships for lower-income Florida schoolchildren to attend the school of their choice through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. .

Corey Jones, Globe Life Senior Vice President of Digital Marketing and Branding, right, presents David Bryant, Step Up For Students development officer, with a check for $25,000 which will fund three scholarships for lower-income Florida schoolchildren to attend the school of their choice through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program
.

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and allows parents and students to choose between a K-12 scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

 “We are honored to welcome Globe Life as a supporter of our mission to help lower-income Florida families access schools that best fit their children’s unique learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful for their generosity and their commitment to giving back to their community.”

For the 2018-19 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 98,500 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,519 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,815 for sixth through eighth grade, and $7,111 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Ashley Zarle can be reached at azarle@sufs.org.

Calling all Florida Tax Credit Scholarship renewal families: Applications now open

By JUDITH THOMAS

Florida Tax Credit (income-based) Scholarship parents, we have great news for you. 

 You can now apply for a scholarship for the 2019-20 school year. You are a renewal family if your child is using a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for the 2018-19 school year.  

 Renewal families will have processing priority until Jan. 31, 2019. If you apply on or after Feb. 1, 2019, you lose your priority status over new applications. 

Apply here.

 Don’t delay. Applications are processed on a first-come, first-served basis in the order all required documents are received. Funds are limited, so the sooner you apply and submit all supporting documents, the faster and more likely you are to secure your child’s scholarship for the upcoming school year. 

 Processing times vary depending on the volume of applications received and can take up to eight weeks in some cases. Check your email for more information or use the chat on our website to contact us. Watch this helpful application checklist video today:


 

If you’re currently waitlisted for the Florida Tax Credit (income-based) Scholarship, make sure you’re on the interest list to be notified when we’re opening applications for new families for the 2019-20 school year here.

Adopted siblings thrive in private school after severe neglect in early childhood

Sobel family.

Editor’s note: To mark National Adoption Awareness Month, we highlight the tax credit scholarship that serves children who are or were in Florida’s foster care system.

By JEFF BARLIS

INVERNESS, Fla. – There is no hiding from the nightmarish stories of his early childhood, but Diego Cornelius is grateful to have forgotten most of the details.

Some things he can’t forget, like the time he smelled smoke in their mobile home and woke everyone, saving them, before all of their possessions burned. Or the time he fell from a boat without a life vest, and nearly drowned before his mom jumped in.

Most of the time, he and his sisters were left alone. Their father was gone, their mother addicted to a variety of drugs. Her extended family and boyfriend had lengthy criminal records.

“He always had a struggle to survive,” his adoptive mother said.

These days, 13-year-old Diego is grateful for a lot of things: his younger sisters, Alyssa and Bianca, who look to him as a role model; his former foster parents, who adopted them; and the school choice scholarship that’s allowed them to attend the Catholic school that has embraced them all as family.

X X X

As a foster mom to more than 100 children over the last 22 years, Patricia Sobel knows something about the importance of a caring, structured environment.

That’s why she lit up when she learned about the Step Up For Students scholarship that empowers low-income families to send their kids to the private school of their choice. The scholarship also serves foster children and adopted children who were in Florida’s foster care system.

“I was in shock,” she recalled. “Shock, for two days. I couldn’t believe they were actually eligible for this free education. What a gift!”

When Diego, Alyssa, and Bianca entered Patricia’s life, she realized they were special. Six years ago, they were rescued from a life of severe neglect.

“They were living in a drug house,” Patricia said, her low, soft voice punctuated with warm emotion. “They were in a garage with no running water or electricity. Their teeth were blackened. Their heads were filled with lice. They were so filthy, they had to be bathed at the police station.”

Diego remembers the lice crawling under the tight waves of his reddish-blond hair.

“We had to put mayonnaise in our hair and wear caps over it,” he said. “I still think about that. It means someone is there to care for you and make sure you’re healthy.”

That was just the start. Diego needed a surgical procedure on his eye, and all three children needed counseling and dental work.

For kids who had so little growing up, even small gestures made a big impression.

“If I’m hungry, I just go ask and they ask me what I want,” Diego said. “They make sure we don’t starve. They make sure to protect us. My mom likes to lock the doors each night and make sure the windows are closed.”

“They love us.”

It took time for Diego and his sisters to go from “Pat” and “Chuck” to “Mom” and “Dad,” but now the love is mutual.

X X X

The children have gotten used to the same love and care at Saint John Paul II Catholic School in nearby Lecanto.

“I like the teachers, all of them,” said Alyssa, 11. “They’re kind and they help us.”

Bianca, 10, enjoys learning about religion, something else that was missing in their early years.

None of the siblings attended preschool, and Diego still feels the effects of being behind academically. His biological mother took him to kindergarten for the first week but never brought him back. He doesn’t know why.

When Pat and Chuck sent him to their neighborhood school, Diego was a 6-year-old in kindergarten alongside 5-year-old Alyssa. They remain classmates today.

After a couple of years living in the Sobels’ four-bedroom foster home in Tampa, everything fell into place for adoption. The children’s biological parents no longer had rights to custody. Despite their troubled past, the siblings were vibrant, compassionate, and healthy.

A few months later, Patricia and Charles moved everyone north from bustling Tampa to the rural rolling hills of Inverness to start Don Bosco’s Children’s Home, named after John Bosco, a Catholic saint who dedicated his life to helping disadvantaged youth. The nonprofit had purchased three houses and the lush, tranquil land they sat on. It needed a lot of work – a new roof here, a new air conditioning system there, paint and landscaping everywhere.

Patricia Sobel is executive director of Don Bosco’s Children’s Home in Inverness, Fla.

The Sobels know how to rehabilitate.

Their organization is still getting off the ground. Their goal is to find foster parents to live in the other two houses, to use their home as a blueprint. The need is large and growing.

“I get calls every day to place kids in foster care,” Patricia said.

The number of children entering Florida’s foster care system has risen sharply, and a recent study by the University of South Florida showed a tie to the opioid crisis.

“I’m going to continue taking more children,” Patricia said. “One thing I try to do is get them all in the Step Up For Students program.”

In the three years they’ve lived in Inverness, they’ve sent all 13 of their children to Saint John Paul II. Patricia has fond memories of her biological daughter, Adrienne, attending Catholic schools. More importantly, she feels a small school with a more individually tailored environment is best for her foster and adopted children.

X X X

Earlier this year as a sixth-grader at SJP2, Diego got in trouble for plagiarizing a paper. His teacher was ready to give him an F. The principal intervened.

“He wasn’t trying to do it on purpose, he just had never been taught the proper way,” said Lee Sayago, himself an energetic newcomer at the school.

Diego was upset. Getting all A’s and making the Principal’s List was a borderline obsession from the time he first attended an assembly and saw his high-achieving classmates receive special recognition.

Bianca, Alyssa, and Diego Cornelius are all smiles at Saint John Paul II Catholic School in Lecanto, Fla.

He got a second chance and beamed with confidence when he pulled Sayago aside to show him his new grade – 97, the highest score of anyone in Grades 6-8.

“It could have been a negative experience,” Sayago said, the corners of his eyes creased with pride. “But the way he handled it was amazing.”

Diego is in the midst of a growth spurt. He loves sports that involve running and lifts weights regularly in hopes of getting “six-pack” abs. After a couple of years of falling just short, he’s made all A’s.

“It’s amazing what a little nourishment and love can do,” Patricia said. “It comes from the home and the school, and then they just grow and blossom.”

About Saint John Paul II Catholic School

Opened in 1985 as part of the Archdiocese of St. Petersburg, St. John Paul II is the only Catholic school in rural Citrus County. The school serves 205 K-8 students, including 81 on Step Up For Students scholarships. SJP2 is a candidate school for the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme and is pursuing authorization as an IB World School. The school administers the MAP Growth test three times a year as well as the Terra Nova Spring test. Annual tuition is $6,645 for K-5 and $6,945 for 6-8.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

Here’s your chance to thank a donor with your own video

By ROGER MOONEY

Mayra Gallardo can sing solo in front of as many as 2,000 worshipers at her church and not break a sweat, but when she sat recently to make a video, thanking donors and supporters for the opportunity her Step Up For Students scholarship has given her, well, different story.

It was an important message Mayra wanted to deliver, and she needed a few minutes to prepare. She rehearsed what she was going to say, making sure to hit all the notes, so to speak.

And she did.

She nailed it.

Mayra, a high school student, tells viewers she loves her school, is doing great in her classes and plans on attending college.

It took her 14 seconds to say thank you to some of the most important people in her life – the donors who help make her scholarship possible.

Mayra’s video is coming soon to all of Step Up For Students’ social media platforms. This Thanksgiving season, Step Up is asking scholarship students or their parents or both to thank the donors for their educational opportunity.

These do not have to be long – 15 to 20 seconds tops.

Hold your phone horizontally while recording and send them to us at social@sufs.org. We will select some to share with our donors and on social media.

If you need help, here are some ideas to get you started creating your own message:

Start your video by introducing yourself with your first name and the grade that you’re in. Share something special about your experience on scholarship or the school you attend. It can be your favorite subject, your career path, or the unique experience your school provides. Donors to Step Up For Students not only fund scholarships, but also programs and services that serve your family and school. All of these help our scholarship students be successful, so our donors are some of your biggest fans. Give a quick word of thanks to the donors and supporters, smile, and have fun!

Parents can get their 15 seconds of fame, too. Parents, share your story about how having a scholarship for your child has made a difference.

Step Up routinely thanks the donors and supporters who enabled us to become the top school choice nonprofit in the country. But a “thank you” from someone whose life has improved because of these donations is the most powerful message of all.

That really nails it.

Oh, and if you have not done so already, be sure to “like” us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Marketing Communications Manager Roger Mooney can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Step Up For Students ranked 31st out of 100 charities in the nation

By ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students added another recognition to its growing list of honors as it serves some of Florida’s most disadvantaged children.

Step Up For Students is now ranked 31st out of 100 on the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of America’s Favorite Charities, the magazine announced Tuesday. Last year, Step Up was ranked No. 42.

“We are honored by this ranking,” said Step Up President Doug Tuthill, “and we are grateful to our donors who share our vision to enable children in the state of Florida to receive the best education possible.”

Step Up, a nonprofit scholarship funding organization serving Florida schoolchildren, is expected to help 125,000 children during the 2018-19 school year with four scholarships – the Florida Tax Credit scholarship for children in lower-income families, the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs, the Hope Scholarship for children who are bullied in public school, the Reading Scholarship Accounts program, to assist struggling readers in third through fifth grades three. The Hope and Reading scholarships are new for this school year.

With the support of about 250 corporate donors, Step Up raised more than $500 million in 2017.

The Chronicle’s ranking is based on an organization’s cash support, focusing exclusively on “the fundraising of cause-driven nonprofits,” according to the Chronicle’s story published Oct. 30.

It is designed to offer a better understanding of trends that influence donations from individuals as well as the increasing value of foundation gifts to charities. The idea is to deliver a clear financial representation of the top fundraising organizations.

“The recognition of being in the Chronicle’s top 100 charities places Step Up For Students in an esteemed group of nonprofits,” said Anne Francis, Step Up’s vice president of development. “Our ranking is a measure of our donors’ commitment to our mission of providing educational opportunities for under-served children. It is a ranking that I recognize as both earned and humbling.

“The importance of the ranking is both in the reflection of what our donors have contributed to place us among the Top 100 and what the future can hold for Step Up with the increased awareness of our organization and mission that the ranking brings.”

Step Up continues to rank among the top nonprofits nationwide with this latest ranking.

The organization recently received a four-star rating for the seventh consecutive year from Charity Navigator, the nation’s top charity evaluator. That ranking was based on financial performance, accountability and transparency. Only 4 percent of charities have earned a four-star rating for seven consecutive years.

Step Up is recognized as a Platinum Charity by GuideStar. The scholarship funding organization is also ranked 26th of the 100 largest charities by Forbes for the last fiscal year.

Step Up was also voted the top nonprofit in Florida in 2017 in the education category by the Tampa Bay Business Journal and one of the best places to work in Jacksonville by the Jacksonville Business Journal.

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

 

 

Scholarship helps smiles return for student and her parents

Editor’s note: This story was originally posted on redefinED on February 10, 2017.

By JEFF BARLIS

Maria and Marcos Verciano will never forget the anguish over their daughter’s struggles in third and fourth grade. That’s why they’re so grateful for the scholarship that changed their lives.

At first it was the D’s and F’s on Hadassa’s report cards that raised their concern. Then the poor progress reports, all of the meetings at their neighborhood school in Destin, Florida, being told Hadassa wasn’t on track to make the next grade level – it all added up to a serious strain on the family.

Hadassa’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis didn’t do much to change her path, either.

Hadassa Verciano, 12, has improved her academics at Rocky Bayou Christian School in Niceville, Fla. “It’s way easier to learn,” she said. “If you don’t understand something the teachers explain it really well.”

Hadassa Verciano, 12, has improved her academics at Rocky Bayou Christian School in Destin, Fla. “It’s way easier to learn,” she said. “If you don’t understand something the teachers explain it really well.”

“They just set her apart and gave her more time to do the tests, but nothing more than that,” Maria said. “It was so sad for me, for her dad and for her, because she felt different from the other students. She felt like she was not accepted.”

“It was kind of overwhelming to think that she wouldn’t make it to fourth and fifth grade, that this was going to be her life forever. It was a very bad feeling that she was always behind.”

When Hadassa’s normally bright spirit and enthusiasm for school turned to dejection, her parents knew they had to make a change.

A Step Up For Students scholarship empowered them to do it.

The couple had always dreamed of sending Hadassa to a private school, but with Marcos’ work installing pavers and Maria’s job managing a beach house, they could never afford it. At their small Brazilian church, they found out about Rocky Bayou Christian School, a place that caters to all manner of students with different educational needs.

At Rocky Bayou’s Destin campus, principal Joe Quilit told Maria about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which helps lower-income families afford tuition. She applied, but it was too late in the school year. All of the scholarships had been awarded. Continue reading

From bullied and failing to Hope, honors and college

By JEFF BARLIS

Sheila James and daughter Adaijah Jackson are all smiles at Hope Academy.

GROVELAND, Fla. – The sign at their church trumpeted the opening of a new private school:

HOPE ACADEMY
NOW ENROLLING

For Adaijah Jackson and her mother, Sheila James, the word Hope was all they saw.

“It was an answer to prayer,” Sheila said, smiling and shaking her head at the memory. “The timing was just perfect.”

Adaijah (pronounced Ahd-asia) was desperate to leave the neighborhood school where she had nearly failed 10th grade.

Sheila was a single mom with two children and a job working the overnight shift at a convenience store. She never thought she could afford Hope. But the school told her about the Florida Tax Credit scholarship from Step Up For Students that covered tuition.

“It changed our lives,” she said. “I wish I would have known about the scholarship earlier.”

As a child, Adaijah was very bright and happy. You couldn’t miss her gleaming eyes and deep dimples, because she smiled all the time. She was a sensitive soul at 10, and her life was thrown into turmoil when her great grandmother died, and her parents split a few months later.

That’s when Sheila and her kids moved to Miami to live with her parents. Adaijah had been a strong student in a small PK-5 charter school in Orlando, but suddenly she was finishing fifth grade in a new neighborhood and a much larger school.

“It was the worst thing ever,” she said, recalling the confusion she felt walking into classrooms with two or three times the number of students she was accustomed to.

They lived in Miami for just eight months before moving back north to Minneola, about 30 miles west of Orlando. But the switch to large neighborhood schools had just begun, and Adaijah continued to feel like an outsider, even with a clean slate at the start of middle school.

“I didn’t know anyone,” she said. “It was hard to fit in with a large group of people.”

That’s when the bullying began.

“They used to call me bad names – fat, chubby, short,” she said. “They made fun of my natural hair. I have curly, kinky hair sitting up on my head, and it’s really poofy. I grew up loving my hair.”

She switched to extensions, wigs and weaves. Anything to try to fit in.

She found no friends among the girls, and the boys were merciless. They catcalled when she ate lunch and when she tried to exercise in PE class.

“It was torture,” she said. “They wrecked my self-esteem.”

Adaijah went from A’s and B’s in sixth grade to B’s and C’s in eighth. High school, with more than 2,000 students, was worse. She kept to herself for most of her freshman year, but her desire for acceptance took on more urgency, and she settled for any friends she could get.

They skipped class constantly and hardly studied. At home, Adaijah was angry all the time, talking back and getting in petty fights with younger brother Adrian.

She wasn’t herself. Her GPA bottomed out at 1.3. It was time for a change.

“I could not go back for my junior year,” she said. “I knew I was either going to be arrested or get pregnant. I was not going to make it to college.”

Hope Preparatory Academy in Groveland, Fla., opened in 2016.

Then she found Hope.

Adaijah and her brother were among the first of 25 students to enroll. Everyone was smiling again.

Though she was quiet and guarded at first, Adaijah knew she belonged. She felt safe and comfortable. With only a handful of classmates, she got to know her teachers personally, just how it was at her charter elementary school.

She bought in to everything – even the dress code and no-cellphone policy. She recovered some lost credits, turned her grades completely around, and became a role model to the younger students.

Principal Eucretiae Waite and her staff had a hard time connecting this Adaijah to her past.

“We couldn’t believe that she was really struggling, but of course we saw the transcript,” Waite said. “She came here and was just phenomenal. We figured it was just because we’re a small school and she got more attention.”

“She was willing to help in the classroom and outside the classroom. She would stay after school. We would have to literally take her home sometimes. Like, ‘Adaijah are you going home today?’ ”

In two years at Hope Academy, Adaijah got all A’s and one B and graduated last spring with honors. Teachers and administrators had promised to get her ready for college, and together, that promise was fulfilled.

Adaijah was accepted to South Florida, Florida International, Florida Atlantic and Southeastern among others. But she decided to attend Tallahassee Community College. She started in August and is loving the confidence that has come with her newfound independence.

She plans to stay at TCC for two years before going to Florida State to study physical therapy.

Why not go straight to one of those universities?

“I wasn’t ready for a four-year school,” she said. “I like the smaller setting.”

Adaijah didn’t just survive her rocky roads, she learned from the bumps. She’s planning to build a business in Houston or Atlanta someday, and she knows just the steps to get there.

“I’ve always thrived in small situations,” she said. “So for me to even think about big cities … it’s like, ‘Whoa, you are really growing.’ ”

Thanks, in part, to finding Hope.

About Hope Preparatory Academy

Opened in 2016, the school is affiliated with non-denominational Hope International Church in Groveland. It has 76 students in grades 6-12, 63 of whom use Step Up For Students scholarships. The school uses the Edgenuity curriculum with an emphasis on college prep courses. The Terranova 3 test is administered annually, and high school students also take the SAT and ACT. Tuition is $6,300 for grades 6-8 and $6,700 for grades 9-12.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

Choosing the right school helped turn tragedy into triumph

By JEFF BARLIS

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – In the damp, rising heat of a late-morning graduation ceremony in May, with historic Farragut Hall as a backdrop, a hush crept through the crowd of students, relatives, friends, and faculty as they anticipated the next name.

Marquis Lambert

The roar was pent-up and prolonged, louder than one family could possibly deliver. This was the sound of the entire Admiral Farragut Academy family cheering and tearing up for the senior who 10 months prior had been a celebrated football player one day and was fighting for his life in intensive care the next.

As Marquis walked slowly across the stage to receive his diploma with a shy, child-like smile, parents LaTaura Blount and Mark Lambert swelled with joy, gratitude, pride, and even some disbelief.

Marquis at Admiral Farragut Academy graduation with parents Mark Lambert and LaTaura Blount.

“This almost didn’t happen for us,” LaTaura said.

Memories washed over them in waves.

Four years ago, a Florida tax credit scholarship made it possible to join the Farragut family. It was the perfect fit. Marquis dreamed of a future in football. His parents dreamed of an academic turnaround after their oldest son was just getting by in his neighborhood school with a C average.

“The standards, the rules, and the curriculum … I knew it would be a fresh start,” said LaTaura, who had heard about the Step Up For Students scholarship from a friend.

She was 16 when she had Marquis. She and Mark were kids trying to grow up. She worked jobs as a nursing home caregiver, a teacher and a pharmacy technician. Mark delivered phone books and traveled frequently.

Their home was as warm as their smiles, with three boys, plenty of noise and laughter. But money was always tight.

That’s why Mark and LaTaura always instilled the importance of academics. They didn’t go to college, but their children would.

“Sports can be taken away, but nobody can take away what you’ve learned and what you’ve earned,” LaTaura preached.

For football-crazy Marquis, the message only landed when it was echoed by coaches, peers and college recruiters. As he added muscle to his lean 5-foot-10 frame, he soared to a 3.7 GPA in his junior year. His dream (and his parents’) was coming into focus.

“He’d been playing football since he was little, and he had this expectation his entire life,” said Angie Koebel, who is Academic Services Director at Farragut and a doting school mom to Marquis. “That was his ticket out. He started thinking about his grades and doing better and changing, growing up.”

His coaches saw it, too.

There were only a handful of seniors on Farragut’s 2018 football team, and they were as close as brothers. Early in the spring, Marquis was the only one without a scholarship offer.

“We sat down and made a plan,” head coach Rick Kravitz said. “He worked his butt off to make himself a very good player, a recruitable player. He went from having no offers to 12 offers in a three-week period. It was just beginning to pick up even more when he had the accident.”

Marquis was driving to football practice on July 17, 2017 when a gold SUV cut in front of him. He swerved on the wet pavement, skipped over a curb and wrapped his car around a tree.

The fire department had to use the Jaws of Life to free Marquis from the wreckage.

The scene was horrific. Marquis was pronounced dead after paramedics arrived. But a nurse who was driving by and heard the crash from afar, stopped and noticed his fingers moving. Without her intervention – oxygen and the fire department’s Jaws of Life – Marquis would not have lived.

He had a traumatic brain hemorrhage, a broken neck, a torn meniscus in his knee, nerve damage in his arm, and was in a coma for two weeks. He spent 41 days in the hospital.

He wasn’t alone for a minute. Mark and LaTaura stopped working to be by his side every day. Marquis’ closest friends – the senior football players – and his position coach visited daily. Coach Kravitz and three teachers visited regularly.

The Farragut family rallied.

“They made sure we had food, donations came in (through a GoFundMe page),” LaTaura said, “and being there mentally for us was the biggest thing, because I wasn’t there at all. I was in pieces.”

When Marquis started to wake up, he wasn’t himself. Intense pain made him angry. He lashed out verbally and physically. It was hard for everyone to watch. LaTaura cried every night. But her boy was alive.

“I don’t remember anything,” Marquis said. “They had me on a lot of medicine. I remember my parents telling me I was acting funny. I was cussing a lot, being loud. Nurses were aggravated.”

Therapy – physical, speech and occupational – was grueling. But in August, just as he was getting out of a wheelchair and starting to walk, a birthday party in the hospital cafeteria lifted Marquis’ spirits. The entire football team came as a surprise.

“That’s how much he was loved,” Kravitz said.

The party inspired Marquis. He worked harder in therapy. He wanted out of that hospital, and there was a bigger goal – the first football game of the season.

Administrators at Farragut said not to rush, but everyone had their hopes up. On the day of the game, Marquis got out, had his hair cut and went to the stadium. In the locker room, he saw they had retired his jersey, put his No. 3 on helmet stickers, and didn’t allow anyone to use his locker.

“It meant a lot,” he said.

He put on his jersey, prayed with his team and led them out.

“They announced one of the captains would be Marquis,” LaTaura said, recalling her surprise at the reaction. “It was kind of a sad moment. Everybody started crying. The parents knew what was going on, but they hadn’t seen him. They were expecting him to be in a wheelchair.”

Marquis came out in a golf cart, smiling. He walked to the middle of the field to gasps and did the coin toss. In the Disney version of this story, Farragut would play its most inspired game and win big. But that didn’t happen. Real life is more complex, and Marquis had a hard time not being on the field for his senior season. Coach Kravitz explained why recruiters stopped calling.

“There was a lot of sadness watching everybody play,” Marquis said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get back out there.”

Despite a rigorous schedule of therapy, Marquis was determined to get back to school and graduate with his class.

Football was over, but he turned his determination to school and graduating with his class. Juggling therapy and school, he improved at both. By the end of the year he was going to physical therapy just once a week and no longer needed help in class. He was accepted to St. Petersburg College, where he starts Aug. 14 with a full class load and a plan to become a pharmacist.

Graduation was an inspiration to so many at Farragut, but Marquis had a different perspective. He calmly soaked it all in, felt the love, and was proud he accomplished his goal. He just wanted to be with his classmates and feel normal.

It was the same thing at prom a few weeks earlier.

“I had a good time,” he said. “Music, dancing, laughing, good talks with friends.

“I’m glad I didn’t miss it.”

So is the Farragut family.

About Admiral Farragut Academy

Opened in 1945 as the second campus of its namesake in New Jersey, is one of only two honor naval schools in the country and is re-accredited annually by the U.S. Department of the Navy. Last year, the school served 457 PreK-12 students, including 38 on Step Up For Students scholarships. The school annually administers the Terra Nova 3 test to students in grades 2-7 and the PSAT to students in grades 8-11. Tuition is $13,000 annually for Kindergarten, $16,300 for Grades 1-5, $18,900 for Grades 6 and 7, and $23,300 for high school. Payment plans and financial aid are available.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.