Editor’s note: November is National Adoption Month, which allows us to spotlight that the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, the nation’s largest private school choice program, also extends eligibility year-round to children in foster care. This year, more than 1,200 children in foster care like Camron and Rylan Merritt, who are profiled below, are using the scholarship.
By JEFF BARLIS
When Camron Merritt came home from first grade with a card inviting him to a birthday party, he didn’t know what it was.
Recently adopted after two turbulent years in foster care, the 6-year-old had never been invited to a birthday party before.
He was the difficult kid with storm clouds behind his dark brown eyes. The one that other children and their parents couldn’t understand.
All of that started to change when Camron’s adoptive parents took him out of his neighborhood school in Bushnell and enrolled him in a private school with a school choice scholarship.
New mom Melissa Merritt cried when she saw the invitation.
“Seeing your kid go from being the outcast, the kid that nobody talks to, to getting invited to a birthday party is such a big deal,” she said.
When they got Camron at age 5, Melissa and husband Brandon put him in the neighborhood school that was closest to her job as a victim’s advocate for the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office. It did not go well.
Camron’s early childhood was plagued by neglect and exposure to domestic violence and drugs. The emotional damage was made worse by more than 20 foster homes and several schools before he was adopted. He was too much for most people to handle.
“He didn’t trust anybody. He didn’t like loud noises. If there was somebody yelling on TV, he used to run and hide in the bathtub,” Melissa said. “If you said no to him, his little face would scrunch up. He’d cross his arms and stomp his foot.”
At school, Camron wrestled with learning disabilities, severe ADHD and difficulty adjusting.
“Every day I was getting calls to come get him,” Melissa said. “He was hiding under his desk, screaming and throwing things, not paying attention, smacking other kids.”
Because Brandon does pest control work throughout the region, it was Melissa who had to leave her work frequently.
“It was extremely stressful,” she said.
Frustrated with a lack of support and communication from the school, Melissa resolved to find a better option and learned about Step Up For Students scholarships from another adoptive mother. Children in foster care or out-of-home care automatically qualify for the Step Up scholarship and can keep it if they are adopted.
Melissa said Camron’s first private school, a Catholic school in Lecanto, was amazing – welcoming, tight-knit, communicative. But by the end of his first year, he was still having major difficulty with reading.
Melissa and Brandon agonized over the decision to switch schools again. Camron had been through so much change. But Melissa trusted her gut feeling that a better fit was available.
They found Solid Rock Christian Academy in Inverness, a mile and a half from their home. It offered a phonics-based reading curriculum that specializes in helping struggling readers. But the school turned out to be so much more.
Sitting on 12 acres of mostly open land, it has an old-fashioned feel, like the schools Melissa attended. There are chalkboards, beanbag chairs, and teachers who dress up for holidays.
The principal, Sheila Chau, grew up with foster children in her home. Melissa did not know that at the time, but couldn’t be more grateful.
“She gets it, literally gets it,” Melissa said. “She’s aware of all the issues and challenges. When she talks to Camron, she’s firm but she also shows him respect. She knows what he’s going through.”
Chau estimates at least 10 percent of her students are adopted.
“I guess word of mouth has spread,” she said. “We nurture the child first. Academics are definitely important, but the first thing we do is look at the child and the circumstances where they’re coming from, and we meet the child where they are. There’s always a root to every child’s difficulties, and I keep that at the forefront with my teachers.”
Camron eased into his new school with summer tutoring and was placed in a special class that combined first and second grade material. It was a challenging time, as Melissa and Brandon adopted another boy, Rylan, who was 5 and came from a background as troubled as his new brother’s.
Like Camron, Rylan struggled in his neighborhood kindergarten while he was in foster care. So when he was adopted, Melissa applied for a Step Up scholarship on a Thursday, got approved on a Friday and had him at Solid Rock the following Monday.
“The process was phenomenal,” said Merritt, who has become a foster care advocate.
Now in their second year at Solid Rock, 8-year-old Camron and 6-year-old Rylan are in a safe, stable environment. Teachers talk to them without raising their voices, and know how to defuse a meltdown.
In a third-grade class with eight other children, Camron still struggles with reading but gets extra attention three times a week. He’s on grade level and has a mix of B’s and C’s. “That’s great for Camron,” Melissa said. “He’s doing very, very well.”
Rylan is on target with his first-grade academics and is doing better emotionally after having trust and behavior issues when he repeated kindergarten last year.
It’s not a utopia, but the school feels like an extended family. The boys have friends. The parents all know each other. It’s a happy place, an extension of the home Melissa and Brandon have made for their boys.
“It was such a relief to have one full day where I actually didn’t get a call from a teacher or a note from a teacher with an angry, frowny face because their behavior was totally crazy,” Melissa said. “They still have bad days like all kids, but they’re few and farther between now.”
About Solid Rock Christian Academy
Established in 1998 and affiliated with Inverness Church of God, the school has 180 K-12 students, including 140 on the Step Up scholarship. It is accredited by the Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS) and nationally through the Association of Christian Teachers and Schools (ACTS). The school uses the A Beka Book curriculum and administers the Stanford 10 test annually. Tuition is $6,500 annually.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By DAVID TUTHILL
Jacob Monastra came home from school in tears every day.
He struggled in class and was often bullied, practically from the day he started first grade.
“Our hearts were heavy watching our bright little boy’s self-esteem erode before my eyes,” said Lynn Lambo, Jacob’s grandmother and guardian. “He called himself the worst kid in school and thought he was so dumb.”
He had always seemed to toil developmentally and barely spoke until he was 3.
During his third grading period of first grade at his neighborhood school in St. Petersburg, Florida, Jacob was a candidate to be held back for a year. Lambo dealt with that as she and husband Daniel began the process of moving with Jacob to Live Oak, a more rural area east of Tallahassee.
Prior to the move, Lambo briefly enrolled Jacob at a learning center in St. Petersburg for additional help. The one on one attention he received enabled him to enter second grade at Suwannee Elementary School in Live Oak, where his teacher was Charlene Redish.
“Jacob came into my classroom very shy and withdrawn,” Redish said. “He was in desperate need of confidence, because of his academic struggles and because of bullying. He would cry easily and didn’t trust anything around him. We had to fight for him so hard.”
While Jacob’s academic struggles continued, he made strides socially. When a disruptive student was new to Redish’s classroom, Jacob befriended him, even teaching him how to share, Redish said. As a form of reciprocation, the other boy helped protect Jacob from bullies.
But Jacob’s academic issues could not be ignored. He passed second grade – with great effort – but continued to struggle in third grade with a new teacher. In November 2016, Redish, a teacher Jacob had grown to admire and trust and still saw every morning before school, left Suwannee Elementary for a job at a private school.
That left Jacob with a new teacher – and more of the same issues.
By January 2017, Lambo was again told her grandson might be held back.
“I was shocked,” she said. “The school year wasn’t even half over, and I didn’t understand how they could tell me that.”
Fortunately for Jacob, help came from a familiar source.
Charlene Redish always kept tabs on Jacob and his family, and the bond between he and Redish proved too deep to break. Redish advised Lambo to send Jacob to her new school, New Generation School, also in Live Oak, for a one-week trial to see how he fit in.
The results were immediate and stunning.
“When I picked him up that (first) day, he said to me ‘This is my new school now,’” Lambo said with pride.
With Redish as his new third-grade teacher, Jacob’s transition to the new school was practically flawless.
“It was like night and day at New Generation,” Redish says. “He picked up quickly and became a leader in my classroom.”
Almost overnight, Lambo also saw a change. The smaller class sizes and flexibility of the curriculum was just what Jacob needed.
Once the quietest kid in a classroom, he is now well known for helping others, raising his hand frequently and almost always answering questions correctly. Every Friday, students at New Generation are released from classes early and have the option to leave at noon or stay in an after-school program until 2 p.m. But Lambo said he’s never once wanted to leave early.
“I used to have to peel him off me,” she said. “Now he’s smiling from ear to ear.”
Jacob breezed through third grade at New Generation and is now working through fourth grade, again under the tutelage of Redish. Now 9, he recently earned the New Generation Spirit Award, awarded to the student who most symbolizes integrity, kindness and the school’s purpose.
At school, Jacob and a few of his close friends often embark on playground archaeological digs, looking for rocks and pretending they are minerals.
Outside the classroom, Jacob enjoys fishing and recently caught a 13-inch crappie. He also enjoys riding a four-wheeler with his grandfather.
Jacob’s future is the brightest it has ever been.
“I am so happy they were able to get a scholarship for Jacob,” Redish said. “It was truly a blessing.”
Reach David Hudson Tuthill at email@example.com.
By PAUL SOOST
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Florida Farm Bureau Group, a multi-line Florida based property and casualty insurance company, announced Nov. 8 it is donating $500,000 to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.
The donation will fund about 76 K-12 scholarships in the 2017-18 school year.
“At Florida Farm Bureau Group, helping families is what we do best. We are thrilled to partner with Step Up For Students to help deserving Florida schoolchildren reach for their educational dreams,” said Florida Farm Bureau Chief Executive Officer, Steve Murray. “We hope these students reach high, and we look forward to a long relationship with Step Up For Students.”
This is Florida Farm Bureau Group’s first donation to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged Florida school children. The program is funded with tax-credited donations and allows parents and schoolchildren to choose between a K-12 scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.
“Thanks to the generosity of our donors, Step Up For Students is helping Florida families customize their children’s educational opportunities,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “On behalf of our Step Up families, we thank Florida Farm Bureau Group for its commitment and generosity.”
For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for K through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
Paul Soost can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By PAUL SOOST
PANAMA CITY, FL – Summit Bank, N.A., a regional provider of personalized, concierge-style financial services, announced Oct. 26 a $100,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program, funding 15 scholarships for the 2017-18 school year in Bay County, Escambia County and Okaloosa County.
This marks the fourth year Summit Bank has supported the scholarship program. Since joining Step Up as a corporate partner in 2014, the company has contributed a total of $450,000, the equivalent of 77 scholarships.
“Summit Bank is committed to making a difference in our local communities and is excited to provide the opportunity for 15 families to find the right learning environment for their child through the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program,” said President and CEO Andy Stein. “We hope this support helps propel these students towards educational success and bright futures.”
Step Up For Students is a nonprofit that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged Florida schoolchildren. 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 grateful that Summit Bank joins us in our mission to impact the poverty cycle by providing educational options for lower-income Florida families,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “On behalf of Step Up and the students participating in our program, we thank Summit Bank for their generosity.”
For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up $6,343 per student for K-5th grade, $6,631 for 6th-8th grade and $6,920 for 9th-12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide. In Bay, Escambia and Okaloosa counties this school year, 43 schools are participating in the program which will benefit more than 2,475 students.
Reach Paul Soost at email@example.com.
By SHELBY HOBBS, Special to Step Up For Student
ORMOND BEACH, Fla. – Florida insurance companies have been protecting more than just Floridians’ homes this hurricane season, as they have made generous contributions to Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer the needs-based Florida Tax Credit (FTC) Scholarship Program.
Tower Hill Insurance, a significant contributor from the insurance industry, and Step Up For Students hosted an event Oct. 25 at Calvary Christian Academy in Ormond Beach to celebrate the insurance company’s contributions and the work Step Up continues to do for Florida’s lower-income families. Since 2011, Tower Hill has contributed over $3 million to Step Up For Students, providing scholarships to more than 600 of Florida’s most underprivileged students who are given access to a private school or financial assistance for transportation to attend an out-of-district public school.
“By investing in the future of our students, we are investing in the future of Florida,” said Don Matz, president of Tower Hill. “One of our top priorities at Tower Hill is to give back to our community as much as we can, and we choose to start with these deserving students.”
Step Up For Students provides opportunities to nearly 105,000 lower-income students across Florida this school year with 3,213 scholars in Volusia County.
“We are so grateful for Tower Hill’s investment in our program and the children who depend on it,” said Joe Pfountz, CFO 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.”
The typical scholarship student comes from a single-parent household where the average income is $25,353. 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.
During the event, Step Up For Students fourth-grade scholar Mia Rauseo shared her experience.
“I am so happy to be given the chance to come here,” said Rauseo. “And I know it would not have been possible without the help of Step Up For Students and companies like Tower Hill Insurance. I am doing well in my classes and I truly enjoy coming to school.”
By SHELBY HOBBS, Special to Step Up For Students
TAMPA, Fla. – Step Up For Students and Tower Hill Insurance Group joined together Oct. 10 at Florida College Academy to celebrate the insurance company’s record-setting contribution to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC) during National Hispanic Heritage month.
Since 2011, Tower Hill has contributed more than $3 million to Step Up For Students, providing scholarships to more than 600 of Florida’s underprivileged students who are given access to a private school or financial assistance to attend an out-of-district public school.
“During a time when we recognize the prominent role the Hispanic community has played in building this great nation, I am proud that Tower Hill is working to fund hundreds of scholarships in order to help serve more students,” said Don Matz, CEO of Tower Hill. “It has been a pleasure meeting with so many brilliant, caring students this morning.”
Step Up For Students, the nonprofit organization that helps administer the income-based FTC scholarship program, provides opportunities to nearly 105,000 students across Florida this school year. Roughly 38 percent of students statewide are Hispanic, and the typical scholarship student comes from a single-parent household where the average income is $25,353.
In Hillsborough County, 40 percent of the 4,850 students benefiting from the program are Hispanic. Step Up For Students praised Tower Hill’s generosity, which has been crucial to fueling the growth of the program.
“The impressive level of support from Florida’s insurance industry is critical to advancing our mission of providing educational options to underprivileged children across the state,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “Tower Hill’s contribution is an investment in students and allows them to access the education that best meets their individual learning needs.”
Families and students that have benefited from the FTC scholarship program spoke out in support, urging other leading companies to consider participation. Florida College Academy, located in Temple Terrace, has 258 students in pre-K through eighth grade, approximately 50 percent of whom are Step Up scholars.
“As both a teacher at Florida College Academy and a parent of two scholarship students, I have witnessed first-hand the overwhelming transformation this program has made in the lives of its recipients,” said Stephanie Meier, mother to third- and fourth-grade scholarship students. “I hope that all interested families who qualify for this program are granted the same opportunity that my family has been privileged to experience.”
A recent study of the program found that FTC scholarship students are significantly more likely to attend college and receive a degree. The study compared FTC students to a comparable set of Florida public school students, assessing college enrollment, persistence, and attainment rates. The widely reported study found that students who are on the FTC scholarship program for four or more years are 40 percent more likely than their public school counterparts to attend college and 29 percent more likely to earn an associate degree.
By JEFF BARLIS
Heidi Gonzalez saw the warning signs. Her daughter Samantha Delgado had just started sixth grade at her neighborhood middle school in Miami, and already she was going down the wrong path.
Bad grades. Bad behavior. Falling in with the wrong crowd.
As a 10th grade teacher who worked with at-risk students at a public high school, Gonzalez knew veering off course in middle school could lead to much worse later. She spent lunch breaks researching private schools near their home, determined to find a better environment. A Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students made it possible for her to consider them.
“I’m very lucky,” Gonzalez said, “to have caught it on time.”
It wasn’t an easy choice. Gonzalez knew she might hear whispers at work. She had spent years working in public schools. But this was her sweet little Sammy.
“I’m a parent first and a teacher second,” Gonzalez said. “She’s my daughter and I’m going to do whatever is best for her despite wherever I’m working. It doesn’t matter what other people say, what the community says, what society says. At the end of the day you’re bringing that kid home with you. It’s your problem to solve.”
Sammy was Gonzalez’s “little angel” until middle school. Report cards with D’s and F’s and poor conduct prompted constant bickering. Samantha’s piercing brown eyes would roll with indifference every time her mom tried to give her guidance.
“It didn’t look like she cared about her future,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez started paying closer attention to Samantha’s new friends and the area around the school, which was tucked between an expressway and a busy six-lane street. She drove through the neighborhood after morning drop-off and saw children skipping school and middle-schoolers smoking.
Samantha said she was just trying to fit in. She often walked across the street with her friends to a bakery, where they’d eat, hang out, and return to school when they felt like it.
“I was new,” she said, “and new kids tend to do whatever everyone is doing.”
Like her friends, Samantha was struggling academically, too. Longtime difficulties with math landed her in a remedial class, but she couldn’t stand doing classwork on a computer every day.
“I didn’t like that class,” she said, “so I didn’t really bother going.”
Near the end of the school year, Gonzalez broke the news to Samantha – she was transferring to Miami Christian School for seventh grade.
A short drive away, the campus was wide open with big, green spaces for sports, and gardens for vegetables and butterflies. It was tranquil and clean.
Samantha was especially surprised by the class sizes. There were about half as many students as she was used to, and the teachers made a point of working with each.
The students were different, too.
Samantha quickly became friends with three girls who made a strong impression on her with their behavior and work ethic. They weren’t skipping classes.
“I thought that was weird, but then I thought maybe I should start staying in class more, because they’re doing it,” she said. “And so I did.”
“When I first saw everyone in the school getting really, really good grades it made me feel like I’ve got to push myself and get better. If everyone there is getting good grades, what am I doing slacking off?”
Slowly, Samantha gained confidence in the classroom. She improved in her first couple of years, then took a dramatic step in 10th grade. She earned all A’s and B’s and made honor roll for the first time in her life. Gonzalez was so emotional, she had the award framed.
Now in 12th grade, she’s planning for college, with an interest in becoming a physical therapist.
Her horizon is broadening in other ways. Miami Christian encourages its students to volunteer in the community, and Samantha has contributed by preparing meals for needy children and joining students with disabilities on bicycle rides.
She’s also discovered hidden talents.
Before Miami Christian, Samantha had never played on a team and didn’t like watching sports. But because the school is so small, she was needed on all teams – soccer, volleyball, softball, and basketball.
In time, she discovered a knack for softball and, last year, was named the team’s most valuable player. Now she practices or plays nearly every day during the season and works by herself in the offseason.
“It’s about being a well-rounded individual, and sports can be a big part of that,” said high school principal Woody Gentry. “I think it’s helped her. You see the growth, you see her developing, you see her confidence. … We’re just happy to have been part of it.”
Samantha didn’t like switching to private school at first. She cried often about missing her old friends. But it wasn’t long before she came to agree with her mom’s decision.
“I matured 100 percent,” she said.
For Samantha, the change brought the bonus of a more peaceful and loving relationship with her mom.
For mom, it’s everything to get her sweet Sammy back.
About Miami Christian School
Established in 1954, the non-denominational school is accredited by SACS (Southern Association of Schools and Colleges) and ACSI (Association of Christian Schools International). For 2017-18, there are 270 Pre-K through 12 students, including 17 on Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. In the past five years, Miami Christian has graduated 222 students who were accepted to more than 100 different national and international universities and were offered $8.9 million in four-year scholarships. The school offers honors, Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment classes. High school students take the PSAT every fall and the Terranova test every spring. Annual tuition is $7,225 for kindergarten, $8,325 for grades 1-5, $8,950 for grades 6-8, and $9,8250 for grades 9-12.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@StepUpForStudents.org.
By PAUL SOOST
BETHESDA, MD — Global restaurateur HMSHost has pledged $400,000 to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income schoolchildren in Florida.
HMSHost’s contribution will benefit children whose educational options are limited by household income, helping underprivileged children attend a K-12 school of their parents’ choice that better fits their learning needs. Parents can choose between a scholarship toward private school tuition and fees, or one to offset the cost of transportation to an out-of-county public school.
“HMSHost values education immensely, and investing in the local communities where we operate is extremely important to our company,” said HMSHost President and CEO Steve Johnson. “The Step Up For Students organization is doing important work in Florida and it is a privilege to have formed this partnership to help set up Florida youth for success.”
The scholarship program’s funding comes from tax-credited donations from corporations like HMSHost that do business in Florida.
“Thanks to HMSHost, 66 Florida schoolchildren will have the opportunity to attend a school that fits the way they learn, regardless of where they live or their parents’ income,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “On behalf of Step Up and our families, we thank HMSHost for its generosity and we are grateful they have chosen to support our mission.”
Florida enacted the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program in 2001 to expand educational opportunities for children of families with limited financial resources. Since its inception, the program has grown exponentially and awarded more than 95,000 scholarships to economically disadvantaged students for the 2016-17 school year.
HMSHost operates restaurants in nine Florida airports and is committed to supporting state and local communities. Visit HMSHost’s location finder to see where HMSHost operates. Further details about HMSHost’s commitment to community relations can be found here:http://www.hmshost.com/community.
The company is a world leader in creating dining for travel venues. HMSHost operates in more than 120 airports around the globe, including 44 of the 50 busiest airports in North America. The Company has annual sales in excess of $2.8 billion and employs more than 37,000 sales associates worldwide. HMSHost is a part of Autogrill Group, the world’s leading provider of food & beverage services for people on the move. With sales of around €4.3 billion in 2015, the Group operates in 31 countries and employs over 57,000 people. It manages approximately 4,200 stores in over 1,000 locations worldwide. Visit www.HMSHost.com for more information. They can also be found on Facebook at fb.com/HMSHost and on Twitter at @HMSHost.