By JEFF BARLIS
When Kayla Fudge was a newborn, her mother struggled to take care of her. In swooped Kayla’s great aunt Glendora like a guardian angel. She loved. She nurtured. And she taught.
A public school teacher for 14 years, Glendora Jackson-Fudge raised three children of her own before adopting Kayla when she was 2. Glendora and husband Michael Fudge, a landscaper for 31 years, didn’t have much money. But as parents they were full of fun, wisdom, and old-school values.
“They’re mom and dad to me,” said Kayla, who was born and raised in Jacksonville. “They didn’t have to take me, they wanted to. That makes me feel special. I know they believe in me if no one else does.”
That belief propelled the 20-year-old to college. She is only one credit away from earning her associate degree. Kayla still lives under her parents’ roof, but those old-school sensibilities mean she pays for room and board, does chores, and works part time.
As a mother and educator, Glendora knew best. After Kayla attended her neighborhood elementary school, Glendora switched her to private school. Kayla was always a bright student with grades to match. Glendora was watching over her and knew she would do even better with an education customized for her.
A native of Jacksonville’s southside, Glendora was a working mom who put in enough nights and weekends to earn two master’s degrees in education. She taught social science in district schools. One day she fell coming out of her classroom and tore cartilage in her knee. She endured unbearable pain for three years before retiring in 2010.
“We lost a big chunk of my teaching income, like 60%, when I had to retire and go on disability,” Glendora said. “So, the scholarship really helped. And my husband’s work is seasonal. We were able to survive. If we didn’t have that scholarship, we wouldn’t have been able to pay for private school.”
It took just two weeks at Kayla’s neighborhood middle school for Glendora to make the decision.
“Kayla couldn’t take it there,” Glendora said. “I couldn’t even take being a substitute teacher there, so I couldn’t imagine her staying there. All the fights, the drama, the disruption in the classrooms.
“And Kayla wasn’t being challenged, either. She was bored. I thought she would do better with more individualized attention.”
Glendora and Kayla say the scholarship was like a ladder to fulfilling her potential. The neighborhood schools were swelling with students, and Kayla felt like she didn’t belong and couldn’t stand out.
“In public school, my mom said I would dumb myself down to blend in. I didn’t think she was right,” Kayla said. “But when I got to different schools with more people on the same academic level as me, I really felt what she was talking about.”
She longed for classroom challenges, but just as important was a brightly lit stage and her desire to explore performance art.
Glendora knew Kayla had talent when she was in fourth grade. She sang a Celine Dion song and won first place in a summer camp talent show.
Kayla has a strong, soulful voice and graceful movements. Her almond eyes convey myriad emotions. Her personality sparkles in conversation, but on the stage she really comes alive.
Bishop Kenny High School was Kayla’s third private school, and when she arrived for 11th grade, she quickly found it was worth the wait.
“It really made me more excited about academics,” Kayla said. “I wasn’t just remembering information for a test, I was actually learning skills. But the biggest thing was I had a lot more opportunity to show my personality than at other schools.”
Kayla’s guidance counselor, Scott Sberna, pushed her to get better grades, but more importantly, he pushed her to enter the school pageant. She wasn’t going to do it, but he wouldn’t let it go. When he saw the spark of Kayla’s passion, he motivated and encouraged her to go for it.
“The pageant is a very big deal to a lot of families and young ladies in our school,” Sberna said. “Tryouts start before the Christmas holiday. Practices run three days a week or more until dress rehearsal. Many families hire private pageant coaches.”
Kayla had scant experience doing plays at her previous high school. This was a solo shot, and a pressure cooker at that.
“Typically, we have six to 10 visiting queens and members of their court (from nearby high schools) who come for the show and support their BKHS friends competing,” Sberna said.
For her performance, Kayla danced while singing “Almost There” from Disney’s “Princess and the Frog.” The applause was thunderous. She was the pageant runner-up and won the award for most talented. She created a YouTube page to share a video of the performance.
Her confidence soared.
That led to an audition for a performing arts college in Los Angeles. She was accepted, but tuition was about $22,000 a year even with the school granting a scholarship. It was out of reach, but not out of her heart.
Kayla went on to graduate magna cum laude with a 3.89 grade point average. She attends Florida State College in Jacksonville, where she has a 3.2 grade point average studying physical therapy and has never gotten a C. She’s thinking about transferring to the University of Central Florida for a seven-year physical therapy program. She’s also considering the University of North Florida to switch her focus to animal care.
She sings at church and still dreams of performing. To keep that dream in the forefront, Glendora is bringing Kayla to a Tyler Perry audition in Atlanta later in November.
“My goals after college are to be a physical therapist, have my doctorate in physical therapy specifically and to be an actress at the same time, which is a weird combo, but it’s completely achievable,” says Kayla with a bright smile. She knows her future is bright.
“It would not surprise me if she does all three,” Sberna said. “She has the intelligence, grit, and chops to do it all. She deserves all the credit for pushing herself to where she is today.”
Judith Thomas, Step Up’s social media manager, contributed to this report.
By ROGER MOONEY
The first 100 kids receive superhero capes and masks. There will be hands-on activities, interactive arts and crafts booths and more.
Admission is free.
While kids are putting on their capes and masks and pretending to be a caped crusader, parents can learn about Step Up For Students and the four types of scholarships.
Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Based on financial need, this scholarship provides families with the choice of financial assistance toward a private school or help with transportation costs to attend a public school in another county.
Gardiner Scholarship. This scholarship enables parents to personalize the education of a child with certain special needs by directing money toward a combination of approved programs and providers.
Hope Scholarship. This allows parents of children in public school to find a new learning environment for their child who is being bullied or a victim of violence.
Reading Scholarship Accounts. This program allows parents with children in public school to access services for their children in grades 3 through 5 who are having trouble reading.
Step Up is a nonprofit scholarship funding organization serving Florida schoolchildren that is expected to help 125,000 children during the 2018-19 school year with the four scholarships.
For more information, click on Step Up For Students or visit our table Sunday and meet Stephanie Love, Step Up’s community outreach manager, or Roger Mooney, Step Up’s marketing communications manager.
Marketing Communications Manager Roger Mooney can be reached at email@example.com.
By JEFF BARLIS
Robert Crockett III is engaged in hand-to-hand combat with his uncooperative red-and-white striped necktie as a photographer sets him up for the next shot.
On a bright, breezy spring day at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, teachers and fellow students say hi as they walk past without an ounce of surprise to see the affable senior representing the school. With his close-cropped hair and perfect smile, Robert is a star on campus.
Getting accepted to Dartmouth College has only added to the mystique.
“We need to buy him a lifetime supply of school sweatshirts to have him be the face of a Columbus alumnus,” said English teacher Bob Linfors. “He’s a success. I don’t know how much credit we should get for molding him, but he’s somebody to put on our posters.”
When Robert came to Columbus for ninth grade, it was his third school in three years. He excelled at a K-8 magnet school through seventh grade, but mom Stacy Preston, who also grew up in Miami, wanted Robert to get the big neighborhood school experience for eighth grade. It turned out to be too easy.
She knew about Columbus, where a nephew had gone years prior, but it came with a daunting price tag. Then a friend whose son went to Columbus told her about the Step Up For Students scholarship, which helps lower-income families with tuition.
Stacy has worked in HR at the University of Miami for 11 years. She’s separated from husband Robert Crockett Jr., who works for a moving company. Neither went to college after high school, but Stacy is now just four credits shy of getting her bachelor’s degree.
She raised Robert with an expectation of college but said “it hasn’t been common in our family. That’s what got me back to school. I couldn’t push my kids and not be an example.”
Stacy didn’t know how Robert would do in an elite private school, but she didn’t need to worry. According to Columbus principal David Pugh, Robert excelled at the school from day one and is taking five Honors and two Advanced Placement courses as a senior.
“Sometimes it can be a difficult transition to a competitive college preparatory school, and he’s met all of our expectations,” Pugh said. “For four years, Robert has worn his uniform impeccably.”
Robert wears another uniform as captain of the football team.
Growing up in this football-crazed city, Robert fell in love with the sport at age four. He put on his 11-year-old brother’s helmet and pads and ran around his house and yard yelling, “Hut! Hut!”
“The helmet was about to take him over, the pads were way too big,” Stacy recalled. “It was super cute. But that’s him. He’s been at this a long time.”
Dad was the football parent who coached pee wee leagues. Mom was the school parent who demanded that academics come first. She’d seen other parents put sports first and wasn’t having it.
Today, Stacy simultaneously beams and deflects credit when she talks about Dartmouth. From an early age, she guided Robert, the second of her three boys. But he didn’t need much pushing.
“He saw how I was with his older brother,” she said. “You came in, sat down, got a snack and did your homework. As a little kid, Robert would want to do homework, too, and he wasn’t even in school. We would have to sit him at the table with his older brother and give him pencil and paper, and he couldn’t even spell his name yet. That’s just been him from the very beginning. He was a different kid.”
The kind who could learn from others’ mistakes.
Early on, it was no TV or going outside when older brother De’vante Davis didn’t bring home good grades.
Later, it was the threat of losing football privileges.
“I just looked at someone doing bad and said, ‘I don’t want to be like that,’ ” he said. “I think about my parents and football. If I mess up that’s all over with. Colleges wouldn’t be interested. I don’t want to be that kid that messes up and gets everything taken away because I did something stupid.”
Before his senior year, Robert’s inner circle was mostly football friends, some of whom he’s known since pee wee ball. Some are big-time college football recruits, All-Americans who chose football-factory colleges like Alabama, Florida and Miami. Others went down the wrong road, but he’s lost touch with them.
Robert dreams his road will lead to a shot at the NFL. But he has another dream – becoming a surgeon – and he knows pre-med classes at Dartmouth will be more important than any game.
“It really hasn’t hit me yet that I’m going to an Ivy League school,” he said with an arched eyebrow and amused smile. “I don’t puff out my chest. I’m just staying focused, because me getting there and me graduating from there are two different things. I have to do everything I need to do first.”
About Christopher Columbus High School
Established by the Archdiocese of Miami in 1958, Columbus is one of 14 Catholic schools in the U.S. ministered by the Marist Brothers and the only one in the southeast. Within the Marist tradition, the school emphasizes personal development and community service in addition to a college prep curriculum that includes extensive AP and dual-enrollment classes. More than half of the staff hold advanced degrees. Accredited by AdvancEd and a member of the National Catholic Educational Association, the school annually administers the SAT and ACT. There are 1,688 students, including 250 on Step Up scholarships. Tuition is $10,700 a year. Financial assistance is available for qualified families, but each family must contribute something toward their tuition.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By PAUL SOOST
Wright Flood, the largest provider of federal flood insurance policies in the U.S., recently announced a $1 million contribution to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The donation will fund 153 K-12 scholarships for the 2017-18 school year, so lower-income children can attend the school that best meets their learning needs.
Since first partnering with Step Up For Students in 2008, Wright Flood has contributed $3,850,000, providing 670 scholarships.
“We are proud of the impact we’ve had on students in our home state of Florida through our contributions to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program,” said Patty Templeton-Jones, president of Wright Flood. “It’s a privilege to have formed this partnership to help Florida youth reach for their dreams.”
Step Up For Students helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which allows recipients to choose between a scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools. The program is funded by corporations through dollar-for-dollar tax credited donations.
“Thanks to Wright Flood, more schoolchildren will have the opportunity to attend the school that fits the way they learn, regardless of where they live or their parents’ income,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “On behalf of Step Up and the families we serve, we thank Wright Flood for their generosity and their commitment to support our mission.”
For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 101,000 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 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
Paul Soost can be reached at email@example.com.
By PAUL SOOST
TAMPA, FL – Cigar City Brewing, a Tampa-area brewery, announced on Feb. 2 a $30,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program for the 2017-18 school year.
This is the first time that Cigar City Brewing has partnered with Step Up For Students. The company’s contribution will fund four K-12 scholarships so financially disadvantaged Florida children can attend the school that best meets their learning needs.
“Cigar City Brewing is proud to support our community, and even more proud to make a difference in the life of a child through providing educational opportunities that might not otherwise be available,” said Justin Clark, Cigar City Brewing’s chief operating officer. “We admire the work of Step Up For Students and are pleased to join in this partnership.”
Step Up For Students is a nonprofit that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income children throughout the state. 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 Cigar City Brewing as a partner in 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 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 kinergarten 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.
If Ashley Elliott’s story continued to unwind the way it began, it was sure to be labeled as a tragedy. She was born drug addicted to a single mom whose love of escaping reality in the most unnatural of ways was greater than her maternal instincts.
“Statistically speaking, I should be on drugs, be dropped out and be pregnant or even have a baby right now,” Elliott said. “But I don’t.”
Fortunately for Elliott, she had the help – and as it turns out, the strength – to spin her story in a different direction. “I grew up in the epitome of American poverty. But I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up anyplace else because it taught me to be humble; it taught me to get out of tough situations; it taught me to help others to get out of these situations,” said Elliott, now 19 and a 2016 high school graduate freshman in college. “That’s why I want to be a teacher.”
At a young age, Elliott was adopted by her grandmother, who also lived in poverty and struggled with health issues. She did the best she could and showered Elliott with love. But as the saying goes, sometimes love just isn’t enough.
By the time Elliott was a teenager, she didn’t feel like she belonged at her neighborhood school and was being bullied. As a result, her grades plummeted. It was at a “last-resort” alternative public school in Polk County where she met teacher Jen Perez, who saw the hurt in Elliott’s eyes and the daily struggle she faced. Mark Thomas, an administrator at the school, noticed it, too.
After Elliott had a fistfight with a boy in ninth grade, Perez reached out to her. “I told her everything that was going on,” Elliott said. “That’s when I knew I could trust her.” The trust quickly became mutual, as Elliott began babysitting Perez’s children. Thomas earned that trust by showing that he cared for Elliott’s well-being. When her family’s power was shut off, for instance, he stopped by with a chicken meal. So, when Thomas accepted an opportunity to lead Victory Christian Academy in Lakeland, it shook Elliott.
“I ran and said, ‘You can’t leave; you can’t leave!’” she said. “I knew the next administrator wouldn’t be someone I could lean on. “Two days later, Ms. Perez called me and said, ‘I think I’m leaving.’” As Elliott’s world froze, Thomas and Perez talked about their special student. “What are we going to do with Ashley?” they asked each other. The answer hit them. “We take her with us,” Perez said.
When Perez first suggested it, Elliott, armed with misconceptions about the private school, resisted. She worried about rich kids and snobbery and, once again, not fitting in. She also thought it was infeasible, until she learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program through Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer the program funded by corporate donations. Suddenly, she was a private school student with Perez and Thomas by her side.
“These two people have been in my life and led me in the right direction before I even knew it,” Elliott said. Things started to change. Elliott began to change. “In my first year, as a junior, I got A’s, B’s and C’s,” she said proudly. “I had my grandma come to school for an open house. She was like, ‘Oh Ashley, A’s, B’s and C’s! You haven’t done this well in a long time!’”
She also ran track and started to tell her story. She made friends and earned the respect, and perhaps admiration, of the so-called “rich kids.” Her confidence grew. And she learned the biggest life lesson one could ever learn: “Your situation does not define you,” she said. “You define your situation.”
When Elliott arrived at Victory, her GPA was 2.16. When she walked across the stage and turned her mortarboard’s tassel from right to left, she had a 3.3 GPA, an acceptance to Valencia College and a plan to continue and complete her teaching degree at the University of Central Florida.
She eventually wants to earn a master’s degree.
“At Victory with the Step Up program, it gave me a chance to succeed because they told me I was worth it,” Elliott said. “Step Up and Victory have changed my life.”
Lisa A. Davis can be reached at email@example.com.
Editor’s note: This story was originally posted on redefinED on July 18, 2016. It’s an interesting look at how bullying affects education. Florida lawmakers are debating a bill that would create a new initiative, called the Hope Scholarship, to aid those students who are bullied in Florida schools. (The School of Immaculata mentioned in this story has since closed.)
By JEFF BARLIS
It would have been hard to picture Jasmine Harrington as a class valedictorian in 2012. As a ninth-grader at her south Pinellas County neighborhood high school, she was routinely physically and emotionally attacked by her classmates, and her misery was reflected in a GPA of 0.625.
Until eighth grade, she had been a good student who enjoyed school. Then the nightmare began.
“I went through a terrible middle school experience,” Jasmine said. “Then it followed me into my ninth grade year. I figured ‘We’re in high school now, everyone will let it go.’ But I had the wrong people around me at the wrong times.”
Jasmine’s mother, Angela Little, was spending more and more time at the school pleading Jasmine’s case to teachers, administrators and resource officers. She was irate and feeling hopeless.
“[Jasmine] made it the first year,” Angela recalled, “only because every day I had to be there 10-15 minutes before school let out, standing immediately right there as she walks out to make sure five or six of them didn’t pummel her.”
“The cyberbullying was horrible. I had to see all this stuff that was on Facebook and in text messages, and I reported all of that to the school.”
Angela followed the school’s procedures and filed complaints. She even went to the homes of parents whose children were involved. Nothing changed Jasmine’s plight.
“I kept continuously getting in trouble and continuously arguing with the same people,” Jasmine said.
“It was extremely hard (to focus on school). No teacher, not one of them, could control their class.”
“I never learned. I literally would skip class all day and no one would care.”
Angela knew where Jasmine was headed.
“I was a mother at 16 and I always said I wasn’t going to let that cycle continue,” Angela said. “I had to remove her or she was going to be at risk of being a dropout.”
Angela heard about the Step Up For Students scholarship from another mother whose daughter had been down a similar road. It gives low-income parents the power to access private schools.
Jasmine enrolled in Bethel Community Christian School for her 10th grade year. It was just a mile and a half from her neighborhood school, but it felt like a world apart.
Her grades rebounded to A’s, B’s and C’s as teachers and school officials, like administrator Cleopatra Sykes, worked with Jasmine to recover her lost credits.
“She came to us kind of shut down,” Sykes said. “She had a lot of self-esteem issues.”
Jasmine’s time at Bethel was short, however. After just two quarters, Jasmine was on the move again when the school was forced to close its secondary education program because of staffing and financial issues.
Bethel director Rev. Manuel Sykes reached out to John Giotis, headmaster at nearby School of the Immaculata, to place several students. Jasmine knew on her first visit she had found a home.
The campus with its open space and tranquil pond provided the perfect setting to forget about her past troubles. It was safe, quiet. But it was the staff at Immaculata that made all the difference.
“They were very comforting,” she said. “They let me know that I would make it in life.”
It took some time to win Jasmine’s trust, but Giotis and school dean Jennifer Givens believed in her, supported her, and challenged her.
“When she saw that she just wasn’t another number, that she could succeed, she just took off from there,” Givens said. “We began to see a big change in her. She was smiling more, more involved in activities and with other students.”
“At first she kind of stayed to herself. But after she felt that comfort zone, that she could talk to the teachers, once she saw that school was fun and we cared about her, it was just a new Jasmine, just a new child.”
Jasmine became a star student. Her A’s, B’s and C’s turned into mostly A’s. She began to ask for more work – independent studies and college preparation.
The culmination of Jasmine’s turnaround came a few weeks ago. She graduated as her class valedictorian and was accepted into St. Petersburg College, where she plans to study education and become a teacher.
When Givens told Jasmine she had been nominated to be the valedictorian, it was all Jasmine could talk about for weeks.
“I bugged my mom every day to go get that valedictorian sash,” she said. “And I bugged her to go buy me a new cap and gown, because I wanted my own. My mom got two sets of graduation pictures done for me.”
One of the graduation pictures Jasmine took was with her mother, both wearing caps and gowns. That’s because Jasmine won’t be the first in her family to go to college or get a degree.
Angela is also a full-time student at St. Pete College. She’s one semester away from graduating with an associate’s degree in social work after previously working as a seasonal tax preparer for H&R Block.
After getting her GED at age 32, Angela never stopped striving to set an example for her three children.
“She’s very inspiring to me,” Jasmine said of her mother. “I’m glad that she never gave up and that she went back to school.”
“When she graduates, I’ll be there to scream her name just as she did for me.”
Reach Jeff Barlis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By PAUL SOOST
MIAMI – Breakthru Beverage Florida, one of the largest distributors of wines, spirits and non-alcoholic beverages in the state, announced Jan. 19 it is donating $45 million to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.
Breakthru’s donation will fund more than 6,880 K-12 scholarships for lower-income Florida schoolchildren for the 2017-18 school year.
Since 2011, Breakthru Beverage has contributed more than $254 million, providing more than 45,600 scholarships.
“Communities thrive when we all do our part and work together. Breakthru Beverage is proud to support Step Up For Students and give Florida students an opportunity to reach their highest potential,” said Eric Pfeil, executive vice president of Breakthru Beverage Florida. “We’re confident these students will aim high and will be future leaders in our community. We look forward to a long relationship with Step Up For Students.”
This is the seventh consecutive year Breakthru Beverage Florida has contributed to the nonprofit organization that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged schoolchildren. 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 support and generosity of our donors, Step Up For Students is helping parents find the best learning environment for their children that they otherwise couldn’t afford,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “On behalf of our Step Up families, we thank Breakthru Beverage for its continued commitment and generosity.”
The announcement was made at Pentab Academy in Miami, which serves prekindergarten through eighth grade students. More than half of its 260 students use Step Up For Students scholarships.
“At Pentab Academy, our goal is to educate the whole child – academically, emotionally and spiritually. Many of our families could not afford a private school education for their children without the help of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Step Up For Students,” said Barbara Sharpe, Pentab Academy principal. “We are grateful to Breakthru Beverage Florida for being a leader and giving back to our community.”
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 kindergarten 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 email@example.com.
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.