As a first-grader, Kira Murillo developed stomach pains every Sunday night. That’s how much she hated going to her neighborhood school.
When her mother asked what was wrong, “we had to pry it out of her,” recalled, Elsie Murillo, who was crushed to discover Kira was unhappy at school. “A little child like that shouldn’t have to go through all that anxiety.”
School administrators told her Kira couldn’t keep up with her classmates and she eventually had to repeat the grade. It wasn’t the education her parents had envisioned.
Today, Kira is a high school senior, member of the National Christian Student Honor Association among others and a cheerleader with big dreams to become a pediatric physical therapist.
Hard work and family support led to the amazing transformation. But Kira also acknowledges the strong educational foundation she received from a private school her parents could afford only because they qualified for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program through Step Up For Students.
“If it weren’t for this scholarship, I probably wouldn’t be here at Meadowbrook Academy and succeeding,” Kira said. “I don’t even want to imagine where she’d be,” Murillo added. “Not with all the accomplishments she’s had.”
Her mom and dad learned about the scholarship at their church, which is affiliated with the academy. The 20-year-old private school in Ocala has 288 students in kindergarten through 12th grade with about 46 percent receiving the tax credit scholarship through Step Up, a nonprofit that administers the program.
“I never knew this was available,” said Murillo, a former prekindergarten teacher who now works as an assistant kindergarten teacher at Meadowbrook.
The income-based program provides eligible families with tuition assistance at more than 1,500 participating private schools throughout the state, or helps with transportation costs to attend an out-of-county public school. Meadowbrook’s tuition is $5,850 plus fees for books and registration.
Since 2001, Step Up has provided nearly 480,000 K-12 scholarships. The organization also manages the Gardiner Scholarship, formerly known as Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, for children with certain special needs.
Once Murillo realized her family might qualify for the tax-credit scholarship, she quickly filled out the Step Up application for Kira and prayed.
“When we heard she was accepted, we were so excited,” Murillo said. “We called all of our family.”
Kira spent her first six years in traditional public schools, completing kindergarten in New York and, after her family moved to Florida, and two more years at an Ocala elementary school.
She was so unhappy, said her dad, Luis Murillo, a retired railroad worker.
When the family moved to a different house in Ocala, Kira started third grade at another public school. It was much better, her mom said, but middle school – with larger classes – was looming.
“I knew I wanted a better option for her,” Elsie Murillo said. “Some place where there weren’t so many students and she could be comfortable learning and getting the help she needed.”
Meadowbrook seemed perfect with its small classes with about 25 students to a teacher in K-8 and 18-to-1 in grades 9-12; rigorous curriculum offerings with a Christian perspective through A Beka Book; academic clubs, like the National Christian Honor Society, and social clubs such as the Chik-Fil-A Leader Academy, which teaches young people how to help their community; and sports teams like volleyball, softball, basketball, flag football, track and golf.
The nondenominational school, situated on 80 acres with sprawling athletic fields and natural wooded areas, is accredited by the International Christian Accrediting Association (ICAA) and Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Academic achievement is measured annually by the national Terra Nova standardized test.
“We have the same accreditation as public schools, so we have the same accountability, too,” said Principal Tina Stelogeannis, who started working at the school in 1996 as a kindergarten teacher and now oversees a staff of three administrators and 19 degreed teachers.
Depending on grade level, students also take college placement exams, including the PSAT, SAT and ACT in addition to weekly tests and projects to demonstrate competency of concepts. Students can take test prep classes and receive extra tutoring after school.
There’s also a dual enrollment program through the College of Central Florida in Ocala for students wanting to get a head start on college. Students travel to the college for classes, but soon will have access on Meadowbrook’s campus.
For Kira, the school has been a good fit, but it was rough at first.
“She came in like a little closed-up rosebud,” Stelogeannis said. “But then she blossomed into a beautiful, confident young lady.”
Kira had some catching up to do with her Meadowbrook peers in sixth grade, “but it just went up from there,” she said. “Learning is one on one and teachers ask you to interact, to raise your hand and be involved in the class.”
Her favorite class is economics “because it’s so different from all the other classes,” said the 18-year-old, who has a 3.6 GPA. And because her teacher, David Wallace, makes it fun to learn.
Future plans include attending the College of Central Florida then transferring to the University of South Florida in Tampa for a business degree and a master’s in physical therapy. Meanwhile, Kira is focused on finishing her senior year at the same school where her little sister, Lanina Murillo, is a sixth-grader on scholarship.
“I love what my girls are learning here,” Elsie Murillo said. “Meadowbrook feels like home. It feels like family.”