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Republic National Distributing Company donates $82 million to help provide scholarships for Florida schoolchildren

Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC), one of the nation’s leading wholesale alcohol beverage distributors, has contributed $82 million to Step Up For Students, providing more than 10,300 Florida schoolchildren with access to the right education to help them succeed.

Since 2012, Republic National Distributing Company has generously funded more than 81,170 scholarships through contributions totaling more than $547 million to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program, which is funded by tax-credited contributions from corporations, allows families to choose between a scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to a public school different than the one they are assigned.

“At Republic National Distributing Company, we are committed to making a positive difference that enriches the spirit and well-being of our associates, communities, and business partners,” said Ron Barcena, executive vice president of RNDC. “We are proud to continue our partnership with Step Up For Students to help provide thousands of Florida schoolchildren with the educational opportunities they deserve.”

RNDC contributed $82 million to Step Up For Students to help Florida schoolchildren. Pictured (left to right) are Step Up For Students Vice President of Development Anne Francis, RNDC Executive Vice President Ron Barcena, and
Step Up For Students Chairman and Founder John Kirtley.

Republic National Distributing Company celebrated this impactful donation during a company meeting in Tampa. Company representatives had the opportunity to hear about the impact of their investment and the importance of the scholarship from Step Up For Students Chairman and Founder John Kirtley.

“Once again, RNDC has shown their incredible commitment to helping Florida students access the education that best fits their learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “The support RNDC provides is critical to this program and we are very grateful for their continued partnership.”

In February 2019, the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, released results of a study on the effectiveness of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, the nation’s largest private K-12 scholarship program. The study found that students on scholarship for four or more years were up to 99% more likely to attend a four-year college than their peers in public school, and up to 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.

Since 2002, Step Up For Students has awarded more than 1 million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. Nearly 2,000 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Education choice scholarship helps Khairi dream big

ROGER MOONEY

MIAMI GARDENS, Florida – Like nearly every football-playing high school senior in the country, Khairi Muhammad dreams of an All-American college career that leads to his selection near the top of the NFL Draft.

The desire fuels him, sometimes waking him in the middle of the night with a burst of adrenalin so strong he hops out of bed to do pushups.

Unlike nearly every football-playing high school senior in the country, though, Khairi, 18, is a newcomer to the sport. A wide receiver/cornerback, he didn’t begin playing until TRU Prep Academy started a football program when he was 16. Khairi attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.

“Football wasn’t my thing,” he said. “We weren’t a football family.”

“We didn’t even own a football,” added his mom, Andrea.

Despite not playing football until he was 16, Khairi has big goals for himself.

Originally, Khairi wanted to work out with the team – join them in the weightroom and on the field during the conditioning portion of practice. At the time, he was into mixed martial arts, rap music, hip hop dancing, and architecture. He studied buildings in Miami, went to architecture camp at the University of Miami and was a member of Black Architects in the Making. He planned on becoming an interior designer.

An honor student who finished the 2021-22 school year with a 4.6 GPA and 31 college credits through dual enrollment at Miami Dade College, Khairi figured he would earn an academic scholarship to college.

But the more time he spent with the football team, the more intrigued he became with the sport. After one practice, Khairi told his mom, “I think I want to play.”

“You serious?” Andrea asked.

He was, and he threw himself into the sport just as he threw himself into everything that interested him. Architecture? He carried a sketchbook and designed his own buildings. Hip hop dancing? He choreographed his own moves.

“I was one of those children who if I liked something, I jumped right into it,” he said. “I’d do 30 different things, because I liked those things. Football wasn’t one of those things for me. It became one of those things.”

That he and his siblings were homeschooled was a reason Khairi didn’t play football while growing up in Miramar, deep in football-crazy South Florida. Khairi wasn’t surrounded by classmates who played or teachers who coached the school team and could recruit him.

That would change when Andrea and her husband, Garthion, join the administration at TRU Prep, a K-12 private school in Miami Gardens with an enrollment of 100 students. Garthion is the dean of students and Andrea is the dean of academics and a high school instructor. The Muhammad’s met Mario Smith, TRU Prep’s founder and executive director in 2018.

A former football player at Monsignor Pace High School in Miami and at Kansas State University, Smith wanted to open a school that would stress athletics as a means to get to college, yet add areas of study like sports management, sports journalism, and sports medicine. Smith, who played in the Canadian Football League, knows how hard it is to continue playing football after high school. Offering those courses would allow students to have a sports-based career.

Andrea said Smith’s academic philosophy aligned with those of her and her husband, both of whom have extensive backgrounds in education. They accepted his job offers and enrolled their children.

Khairi and his parents, Garthion and Andrea.

Andrea is thankful Step Up For Students enables her to use education choice.

“I went to private school, so I understand the value of education, period, but definitely of private education,” he said. “I think if a parent wants to send their child to a smaller learning environment so they can have a model that works best for them, they should have that opportunity.”

Khairi said he quickly adjusted to life with classmates in a brick-and-mortar school.

“For me, it opened the opportunity to skyrocket academically,” he said. “Coming here, I was able to expand socially and academically.”

Khairi, who is 6-feet and 150 pounds, has drawn interest from a few NCAA Division III college programs. His goal this season is to play well enough to receive an offer from a Division I program, one that would offer better exposure to NFL scouts. He knows his lack of experience could hurt him since he’s being recruited from a talent pool that includes high school seniors who have been playing football since they were 5.

“You heard that saying, ‘Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.’ I have to be that ‘hard work,’ ” he said.

Because of that, Khairi isn’t pinning his future on football. He is just as interested in a career in sports journalism and sports medicine.

“You still have to go to school. You still have to get an education,” he said. “You still need that experience, still need to network, make connections. I can’t put all my eggs in one basket. I have to put a few here and a few here. This road that I’m on, if there is construction on it and it’s a dead-end, I have to be able to make that left or that right to keep going.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@SUFS.org.

Gas South donates $500,000 to support Florida schoolchildren

Gas South, one of the leading natural gas marketers in the Southeast, has contributed $500,000 to Step Up For Students, helping more than 65 Florida schoolchildren attend a K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.

This is the first year that Gas South has partnered with Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program, which is funded by tax-credited contributions from corporations, allows families to choose between a scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to a public school different than the one they are assigned.

“Our core purpose is to ‘Be A Fuel For Good,’ and one of the most important ways we achieve that is by impacting children in the communities we serve,” said Kevin Greiner, president and CEO of Gas South. “Education is a critical tool for our children to reach their full potential, and we are confident our partnership with Step Up For Students will provide life-changing opportunities for Florida schoolchildren.”

Gas South contributed $500,000 to Step Up For Students to help Florida schoolchildren. Pictured (left to right) are Step Up For Student Senior Development Officer Diana Allan and Gas South Senior Manager of Commercial Sales Topher Jensen.

“We are grateful to have Gas South as a partner in our mission to help Florida students access the right education,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “With their support, even more schoolchildren will be able to access an education that fits their learning needs.”

In February 2019, the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, released results of a study on the effectiveness of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, the nation’s largest private K-12

scholarship program. The study found that students on scholarship for four or more years were up to 99% more likely to attend a four-year college than their peers in public school, and up to 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.

Since 2002, Step Up For Students has awarded more than 1 million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. Nearly 2,000 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

‘Better options’ for their daughter included a move to America and an education choice scholarship

BY ROGER MOONEY

Roberto Porras was at his job as a pharmaceutical rep in his native Venezuela when his wife, Ony, called with the news that she was pregnant.

It was the spring of 2003, and Roberto, overjoyed at the thought of becoming a dad, was concerned about the baby’s future in a country rife with political unrest.

“I started thinking what I can offer to my child, better options,” Roberto said. “At that moment I decided I had to move from there.”

So, he and Ony left their home in Maracaibo and followed family members who had immigrated to Miami.

Diana with all the honors she earned during her four years at Pace High.

On Dec. 24 of that year, Ony gave birth to a girl they named Diana. On May 26 of this year, Diana graduated near the top of her class from Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Miami, having compiled a 5.29 weighted GPA and 33 dual enrollment credits to college.

Diana, 18, will attend Florida International University (FIU), where she plans to double major in computer science and Spanish. Having earned an Ambassador Scholarship from FIU and a Florida Medallion Scholarship plus a Federal Pell Grant, Diana’s college tuition is fully covered.

“We are blessed with her,” Roberto said. “She is very smart.”

The “better options” Roberto hoped to offer his daughter came to fruition in their new home with the help of an education choice scholarship.

Diana received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship to attend Catholic school from kindergarten through 12th grade. The same with her sister, Mariana, who will be an eighth-grader during the 2022-23 school year at Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic School in Miami Lakes.

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship is funded by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.

“Without Step Up, I wouldn’t be here today with all these accolades,” Diana said. “Without Step Up, I wouldn’t have realized what a privilege it is to be in the position that I am, receiving all these opportunities. I have to take advantage of them.

“It’s a privilege to be educated. There are so many people who can’t or don’t want to.”

To say Diana loves to learn is an understatement.

She loves taking notes in class, studying, and getting perfect scores on tests and assignments.

“It’s about focusing on school and not having a life, I guess,” she joked before adding, “Applying the stuff I learn to the real world is the most fun part of it for me.”

During her senior year at Pace, Diana took advance placement (AP) classes in government, literature, computer science and calculus, plus a physics honors course.

She took the AP Spanish exam in May without taking AP Spanish. Diana spent the two days prior to the test studying Spanish literature, then aced the exam.

“She’s that kind of student,” said Hedda Falcon, who teaches computer science and technology at Pace. “She’s so bright. She can do anything.”

For Shadow Day during her senior year, when students follow a teacher around to see what the job entails, Diana chose to shadow Falcon. They each wore the same dress, the same shoes and the same nail polish. It was Diana’s way of paying tribute to the teacher who had the most impact on her education.

“I don’t even know how to say it,” Falcon said. “It was an honor.”

Diana was involved in 10 clubs during her four years at Pace, including STEM Academy, Women in STEM Club, engineering and computer technology. She was also a member of the Spartan Ambassador Society. She was president of several of those clubs. Those roles, Diana said, helped her build leadership skills. It also helped her develop what she called her “public voice.”

“How to talk to classmates. How to talk to teachers,” she said.

Diana took a class in Microsoft as a freshman. Students are required to receive certification in Word, Excel and PowerPoint to pass. Diana went two steps further and received certification in Outlook and Word Expert Level.

It was during a robotics class as a sophomore when Diana realized she loved computers. She helped build a robot that could throw a ball, move around a room and play music, including “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” The computer is named “Bubbles,” and they call the remote used to control it the “Soap Bar.”

“That’s when I realized I just don’t like computers,” she said, “I also want to learn how they are made.”

Diana and her father, Roberto, during Step Up For Students’ Rising Stars Awards event at Monsignor Pace High. Diana received an award for being a Super Senior.

Diana was the valedictorian of her eighth-grade class at Mother of Our Redeemer Catholic School in Miami. As part of her graduation speech, she reflected on how far she came during her nine years at the school. She remembered not being able to speak English when she entered kindergarten and how she could at the end of that school year.

By the eighth grade she knew why her parents moved to the United States.

“I’m very grateful for everything they have done,” she said. “They did not have to go through that, but they did for me and my sister and our futures.”

Once in Miami, Roberto entered nursing school, juggling a full-time job and his family with his studies. He is now a nurse at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood.

Earning top grades was Diana’s way of saying, “Thank you” for the opportunity of an education.

“That’s a maturity level you don’t see a lot of in high school,” Falcon said. “She appreciates what her parents have done for her.”

Roger Mooney, communications, manager, can be reached at rmooney@SUFS.org.

School is not out for summer at TRU Prep Academy, which has adopted a year-round schedule

BY ROGER MOONEY

MIAMI GARDENS, Florida – The calendar said it was July 6, but parents pulled their cars to a stop outside TRU Prep Academy and students stepped out wearing their standard school attire – black slacks, white shirts, and red ties.

School is out for summer in most parts of the country, but at TRU Prep it was very much in session, with students returning $500 cash loan online from summer vacation only the day before.

Welcome to a year-round school.

Students at TRU Prep Academy in Miami Gardens returned for the 2022-23 school year on July 5.

The private K-12 school in Miami Gardens, where nearly all the 100 students receive an education choice scholarship administered by Step Up For Students, moved to the alternative format during the 2021-22 school year. Classes begin during the first full week of July and run for six weeks, followed by a week off. The six-weeks-on, one-week-off block continues until the Memorial Day weekend in May, with a two-week break for Thanksgiving, a two-week break for Christmas, and other holidays off mixed in.

The summer break is basically the month of June.

The idea is to reduce the “summer slide” in knowledge gained the previous school year by giving students and teachers breaks throughout the year to recoup the time off missed with the shorter summer — and to recharge.

“When I first heard about it, I was actually happy,” said seventh-grader Justin Haynes. “The week off helps me relax, and when we come back, I feel refreshed.”

According to the website Resilient Educator, a number of school districts throughout the country have moved from the traditional school calendar to year-round classes. A study by Duke University showed students who attend year-round schools have a “slight advantage” over their counterparts who enjoy the traditional 10- to 12-week summer vacation.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) reported that students, particularly those from economically disadvantaged areas, struggle to retain the material they learned from the previous year when they return from the long summer break.

“This is true pretty much in every educational setting: We spent at least half of the first quarter of school reviewing,” said Andrea Muhammad, TRU Prep’s dean of academics and high school instructor. “If you take a child and give them two-and-half, three months off and expect them to remember everything, there’s going to be a ‘What am I supposed to be doing?’ feel.”

Mario Smith, TRU Prep’s founder and executive director, realized a goal nearly two decades in the making when he opened the school in August 2018. A graduate of nearby Monsignor Pace High School and Kansas State University, Smith said he wanted to create a scholastic setting that would “mesh sports and education together.” He resigned from his job as a teacher and football coach at Pace in 2013 to pursue this dream.

Smith, who starred as a football player at Pace and Kansas State and spent three seasons playing in the Canadian Football League, wanted to better prepare students for college life, especially those who could earn an athletic scholarship. In addition to the core classes, TRU Prep offers classes in sports management, sports journalism and sports medicine. To be eligible to play a sport, TRU Prep athletes must maintain a 2.5 grade point average, which is above the 2.3 mandated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the 2.0 mandated by the state of Florida.

Smith said he is grateful for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Education Options because it allows students “an opportunity to be in an environment that best suits their needs. (TRU Prep has) a family feel, and having those scholarships, it allows the students to be in this environment.”

Looking for a way to combat the summer slide, Smith and the administrators began talking about the year-round calendar in 2019 and implemented it for the 2021-22 school year.

Like any ground-shaking change to the norm, the new schedule took a little getting used to. Attending school in July while your friends — and, in some cases brothers or sisters — were off, was a bit of a shock for the students.

“That’s not a big deal anymore,” said eighth-grader Azraa Muhammad.

Having a full week off after only six weeks was another shock to the system, though nearly everyone involved said it was welcomed.

“It helps me think about what I just learned,” Azraa said.

It was during that second six-week block that Andrea Muhammad said everything began to feel normal.

“It’s became the natural flow for us,” said Lakeisha Saunders, who teaches the elementary school. “Before you knew it, it was May.”

Andrea Muhammad teaches a middle school class on July 6, one day after students at TRU Prep returned from summer vacation.

Teachers used those weeks off to prepare lesson plans for the upcoming block

“(The week off) also allows those students who were a little bit behind to get extra help from some of us without the distraction of being in the classroom,” Muhammad said.

Some students missed the first week or two of the new school year because they are attending an academic or enrichment camp. Those students will use the off weeks to make up whatever work they missed.

Schools in the Miami Gardens area were summer silent on July 6. Morning commuters did not slow for the blinking lights of school zones or school buses stopped to pick up passengers.

But it was classes as usual inside TRU Prep. Saunders was teaching elementary students about making a household budget. A morning rainstorm passed outside while her students asked questions about paying utility bills and setting aside money for groceries.

Those students were beginning their second turn at a year-round school calendar. Alani Hunte, a fourth grader, said she didn’t mind, even if it meant getting up a 6 a.m. to go to school in July.

“Because,” she said with a measure of pride, “my dad said I’m going to be smarter than everybody.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

How do you turn students into readers? At Alpha Learning Academy, by turning a classroom into a library

BY ROGER MOONEY

ORLANDO, Florida – Shakelia Henderson sat behind the desk inside a classroom that was recently converted into a library and nodded at the shelves full of books that lined the walls.

“This,” she said, “is the beginning of a literacy journey that’s going to make our kids stronger. I really do believe that.”

Henderson just completed her fourth year as principal at Alpha Learning Academy in Orlando, a K-5 private school. The majority of the 139 students attend with the help of education choice scholarships administered by Step Up For Students.

Henderson, who has been in education for nearly 25 years, is keenly aware of the role reading plays in a child’s learning. A student who struggles to read is more likely to struggle in other subjects.

“It’s important for students to engage with books to become strong readers, because reading is the foundation of all the subject areas,” said Henderson, an English major in college who taught language arts before moving into the administrative side of education.

She was aware ALA did not have a library when she became the principal and made it her mission to correct that. It took three years to get the project rolling and almost another year to convert a classroom into a library, obtain books and add labels to each so they can be filed probably and monitored through the checkout system.

The library opened May 1 with six ribbon-cutting ceremonies – one for each grade.

Naasir Laird, who enters the second grade in August, said he was “so excited” when he found out his school was getting a library.

“I like that we can read books, and we can all have fun reading them,” he said. “It’s really fun when I come here.”

Naasir’s mom, Toccara West, is equally thrilled.

“He loves going to the library,” she said, adding her son’s reading improved during the first month the library was open.

West was among the army of ALA parents who volunteered to turn what was once a classroom used for art and Spanish into one filled with 10 bookcases. Chairs dot the room, spaced far enough apart so students can have a little privacy when they sit and read. The room is decorated with a superhero theme as voted on by the students.

Nearly all the books are used and donated, and each had to be labeled so they could be scanned into Booksource, a computerized management tool. It was a time-consuming labor of love for the parents who lugged home boxes of books to be labeled.

Booksource allows Henderson and Ashlei James, ALA’s administrative assistant and assistant librarian, to check the books in and out and monitor what the children are reading. “The Wild Robot” quickly emerged as a favorite, so Henderson and James recognized the need to obtain more books on robots.

Historically, ALA students have underperformed in reading. The school addresses that with Wilson Language Training. But Henderson feels the need to go beyond that, to make reading a force of habit for as many students as possible. She hopes having a room filled with books of all topics accessible to all the students will be the first bricks of a foundation needed for academic success.

“In addition to what students are assigned to read by their teachers, I also want the students to fall in love with the aesthetic feel of reading and read what they want for their pleasure,” Henderson said. “And I also want them to build their home libraries. We know the more a child reads, the better reader they become.”

The ALA library contains books on Martin Luther King Jr. and Black history. Books on science and technology. Books on superheroes and sports. Bookcases are labeled by grade, but there is one designated for advanced readers. That’s where DeMarko Avant found “Star Wars: The Legends of Luke Skywalker.”

DeMarko, who is headed to the fifth grade, said he visits the library often, sometimes as much as three times a week. He reads at home, he said, usually before bedtime and usually about Star Wars or the Ninja Mutant Turtles or The Flash.

“I like superhero books,” he said.

Ashlei Jameses’ daughter Nhyla, who starts the third grade in August, said she loves reading about Black history, especially Ruby Bridges, a pillar of the civil rights movement who famously integrated an elementary school in New Orleans when she was 6.

“It is really important for me for her to have this (library) experience in a school that she goes to,” Ashlei James said.

James remembered visiting a bookstore for the first time when she was in middle school. She couldn’t believe there was a store dedicated solely to books. She feels children today are missing out on the experience of reading books and visiting bookstores and libraries.

Ashlei James, Alpha Learning Academy’s administrative assistant and assistant librarian, and school principal Shakelia Henderson.

“I feel like in this day and age, kids know how to do everything on phones, on computers. They know all that. To me, bringing them back to actually sitting down and reading a book, that’s good stock,” she said. “You can’t get away from that.”

Henderson agreed.

“There’s nothing like a book,” she said. “I think our children are very used to using their devices, their phones, iPads and tablets. They work wonders, but the old fashioned, having a book in your hand, nothing replaces that, in my opinion.

“This (library) has a ton of potential. I am very proud. In my career, this is in top-three. This is monumental and it has impacted the lives of our children immediately.

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

After taking charge of his education, Step Up alumni achieves goal of attending University of Florida

BY ROGER MOONEY

On a Wednesday morning in early January, a day after he turned 20, Josep Amiguet walked into a classroom inside Matherly Hall on the edge of campus for his intermediate microeconomics class, his first as a student at the University of Florida.

“OK,” he remembers thinking, “I’m here.”

It took three years of laser-like focus on his studies at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami and three semesters of work at Santa Fe College in Gainesville before Josep reached his goal of enrolling at Florida and studying economics.

“It really was a good feeling,” he said.

Josep’s path to Florida wasn’t as straight as he would have liked. A poor year academically as a freshman at Columbus, which he attended on an education choice scholarship, forced the South Miami native to play catchup during his final three years at the private Catholic high school. He was not accepted to Florida after graduating Columbus in the spring of 2020. So, he attended Santa Fe to work on an associate degree, graduating in December 2021.

He reapplied to Florida and was accepted, receiving the confirmation email last November while studying for a psychology exam.

“It was a cool moment,” he said.

What wasn’t cool, Josep will tell you, was what he called the “below staller” grades on his report card as a Columbus freshman and the weeks he spent in summer school.

“Why am I here?” he remembered asking himself.

Especially when the reason he attended Columbus was because of the school’s demanding academic course load. Josep wanted to be challenged academically, the better to prepare him for college loans-cash.net .

“I want to go to a good college and pursue a degree that can allow me to make enough money to take care of my family, because that’s all I care about,” he said. “I want to take care of my mom and take care of my dad. They’ve been through a lot, and I want to take care of them.”

He scored high enough on his entrance exams to take honors courses as a freshman. And that’s when Josep’s life took some unexpected turns.

Josep and his mom, Kathy.

His father, Jose, was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia, which forced his mother, Kathy to quit her job as a medical sales rep so she could care for her husband. That forced the family to sell their house and move in with Josep’s grandfather, who is wheelchair-bound, and grandmother, who suffered from dementia. But that house was too small, so Josep lived with an aunt until a room could be converted into a bedroom. When Josep was able to reunite with his family, his grandmother passed away.

“A lot of things in my personal life kept changing,” Josep said.

The one constant was his new school, which Josep was able to attend with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students.

“(The scholarship) was one of the driving forces that made me into the person I am today,” he said. “My parents couldn’t have afforded Columbus without the help of the scholarship, a thousand percent.

“I was very appreciative to my parents and Step Up, of course, and everyone at Columbus. Step Up has afforded me a lot of opportunities, I have taken advantage of them.”

Kathy had attended Catholic schools and wanted the same education for her son. With all that was going on at home, she was sure she didn’t have to worry about Josep keeping up his grades. He was a straight-A student while attending Catholic grammar school.

But Josep struggled academically at his new school and finished freshman year with a GPA below 2.0.

People tell Josep he was a victim of his circumstances. He doesn’t agree. He spent so many hours each night texting friends and watching YouTube that he neglected his schoolwork.

“I would actually get to school and not have any homework done,” he said. “I hadn’t studied for anything. I just did not perform at all.”

School guidance counselors would later ask Josep why he didn’t tell them about his problems at home.

“He’s a private person,” Kathy said. “We’re private people.”

And Kathy was so busy caring for Jose and his ailing parents that Josep was able to hide his failing grades.

“He’s a smart kid. He’s always did well in school. I never had to supervise him,” she said. “(When he moved in with his aunt) I said, ‘OK, I’m going to give him that liberty.’ But I never realized how difficult it would be for him.”

Summer school was a wake-up call for Josep. So was his sophomore schedule.

“I got bumped down to the classes below honors, and I wasn’t happy about that at all,” he said.

He took the initiative to meet with a guidance counselor and developed an academic plan that would help him overcome his poor start to high school.  He attacked his education, taking a total of 13 honors courses over his last three years. As a sophomore, Josep interned at MasTec, a Fortune 500 infrastructure engineering and construction company based in Coral Gables. He interned at two Miami law firms during the summer before his senior year.

He graduated with honors, lifting that 1.75 GPA from his freshman year to a 3.75 weighted GPA for his high school career.

“I just tried to make the most out of my situation after I got my head in the game,” he said.

Jose, who worked as a compliance auditor before he became sick, is doing better after undergoing a stem cell transplant. But he’s unable to return to work.

“It’s been a process,” Kathy said. “But we didn’t have to worry about Josep’s education.”

Josep is spending this summer interning at the Insigneo Financial Group in Miami. He’s putting in long hours, occasionally working nights and weekends. He loves it. This is what he was aiming for as a sophomore when he turned around his academic direction.

“I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t continue the path I was on.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

School Choice Boyz: Christopher Columbus High in Miami shows a recipe for success

Nathan Cunneen offered some thoughts on Christopher Columbus High School in Miami after he and Walter Blanks Jr. visited the school earlier this year, Nathan and Walter teamed to form the School Choice Boyz, a podcast to bring the value of education choice to a younger audience. They work for the American Federation of Children, where Walter is the press secretary and Nathen is a communications associate. 

A Recipe for a Great School: Christopher Columbus High School

During a Spring trip to Miami, the School Choice Boyz had the opportunity to tour and explore Christopher Columbus High School, a Marist Brothers institution serving the Miami area. We were impressed with everything at CCHS, from academics to world-class extracurriculars. They deliver incredible value to students and their community, which includes a significant population of students utilizing Florida school choice programs like those managed by Step Up For Students. Here are some thoughts from our visit about what makes CHS – and any school – such a success.

Culture is everything:

Christopher Columbus has experienced incredible success since its founding in 1958. Frankly, there’s too much to fit into this short description. One hundred percent of Columbus Explorers are accepted to college, and the class of 2021 earned more than 20 million dollars’ worth of collegiate scholarships. The school has an Emmy-winning broadcast journalism program. The robotics program won the state championship in 2020. The debate team consistently ranks in the top 10% nationally. Teams win state titles in multiple sports on a regular basis. The school offers more than 70 career, service, or social-oriented clubs and honor societies. You get the point.

Principal David Pugh and Betty Vinson, the head of CCHS’s guidance department, very kindly showed us around the school and shared its success, attributing these achievements to the tight-knit family environment that the school has cultivated. Principal Pugh explained how for many of their students, the faces of teachers, administrators, and coaches are the first and last that they see each day. Columbus is where life happens for many of these students. Every morning before 5 AM, students begin to gather outside of campus to wait for the doors to open.

It was obvious that students want to be there, which makes all their accomplishments seem like the only natural outcome. Students love to learn, and the results speak for themselves.

Success begets success:

CCHS has a long history of alumni involvement. Nearly half of the existing staff are alumni of the school. This trend again speaks to the family culture at work at this school — time has shown that graduates want to remain involved. Betty assured us, “When you ask one of our students where they went to school, they don’t respond with University of Florida, or Miami, or even Georgetown. They tell you they went to Christopher Columbus.”

Alumni who no longer live in Miami stay involved in other ways. NFL star C.J. Henderson, currently of the Carolina Panthers, donated to the school to build world-class athletic training facilities. He attended the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students. Marcus Lemonis, the host of CNBC’s The Profit, returns to the school to mentor Business Club members. The institution has created a positive feedback loop by fostering a family environment and delivering in the ways that matter. CCHS’s past success is now contributing to its current success.

School choice opens endless doors:

Roughly 45% of Columbus students utilize the Florida tax-credit scholarship or other forms of school choice. Yet how each student is funded is somewhat of an afterthought. We asked Betty how school choice has impacted the growth of the school. She said, “At this school, every dollar is used to the benefit of the students. I honestly could not tell you the difference between scholarship dollars and others. Every dollar follows the student.”

That sentiment powerfully reflects the significance of school choice. Because of school choice programs in the background, many students and faculty can enjoy an excellent educational experience in the foreground. The end goal, after much more progress is made, is for school choice to disappear into the background. “Every dollar following the student,” is something we should be able to take completely for granted. At CCHS, and many other schools in Florida, that’s exactly the case.

Christopher Columbus High School shows a recipe for success in the education space, and the potential that exists when dollars follow students. Beyond the joy of everyone there, the most telling moment of the visit came when we were waiting outside the school for our Uber back to our hotel. We had said goodbye to the helpful staff and were standing by the road when three students went out of their way to approach us, ask us how we were doing, and tell us how awesome their school was. We did not ask them any questions – they just wanted to tell us that they love their school. Every student should have that feeling. School choice can open that possibility for countless students like it has in Florida, if only states are bold enough to take that step.

Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc. allocates $12 million to help Florida students

Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc., announced June 2 a $12 million contribution to Step Up For Students, helping nearly 1,575 deserving Florida schoolchildren access the right education to help them succeed.

Since partnering with Step Up For Students in 2012, Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc., a leading wine, spirits, and beer distributor, has generously funded nearly 13,040 scholarships through contributions totaling $85.1 million to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.  Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based scholarship program, which is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations. It allows parents and students to choose between a scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to a different public school.

“Johnson Brothers of Florida is proud to have partnered with Step Up For Students for the past 10 years to help Florida schoolchildren access the best education for them,” said Frank Galante, regional president of Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc. “We are committed to supporting students and families throughout the state and we know our partnership with Step Up For Students is doing just that.”

Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc. announced a $12 million contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (from left to right) are Principal of Icon Preparatory Academy Dr. Dwayne Raiford, President of Step Up For Students Doug Tuthill, General Sales Manager for Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc. Mike Madden, General Manager for Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc. Cullen Sullivan, and Vice President of Development for Step Up for Students Anne Francis.

Johnson Brothers of Florida, Inc. celebrated this remarkable donation during a company meeting at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. Company representatives had the opportunity to hear about the impact of their investment and the importance of the scholarship from Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill, and Icon Preparatory School Principal Dr. Dwayne Raiford. Icon Preparatory School is located in Tampa and serves students in grades K-12, with more than 93% of its students benefitting from a Step Up For Students scholarship.

“It is clear that Johnson Brothers of Florida is committed to helping Florida students succeed,” Tuthill said. “Because of their support over the last 10 years, thousands of students throughout the state had access to the educational environment that works best for them, and we are truly grateful for their continued partnership.”

Since 2002, Step Up For Students has awarded more than 1 million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. More than 2,000 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Education choice alumni has clear vision for his future: ‘I want to be a missionary’

BY ROGER MOONEY

FORT MYERS, Florida – Zechariah Edwards sat inside the principal’s office at Sonshine Christian Academy one morning during the final days of his senior year and talked about his future.

“I want to be a missionary,” he said.

Interesting. Why?

“That’s a pretty good question.”

After a few moments of thought, he said, “As a Christian, I feel I have to spread the word to people who don’t know.”

That’s a pretty good answer.

Zech, 17, has a vision for his future that is evolving. He’s not unlike a lot of recent high school graduates in that way. Not too long ago he thought of becoming a doctor. Then a math teacher. Now, a missionary.

“Now I’m set on that,” he said.

Rebecca and Zechariah Edwards.

Zech was the valedictorian of his graduating class at Sonshine Christian, a K-12 private school in Fort Myers where he attended on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.

He received the Super Senior Award at this year’s Rising Stars Awards event. Hosted by Step Up, Rising Stars recognizes students in four categories: Outstanding Character, High Achievement, Turnaround Student and Super Senior. A Super Senior demonstrates academic achievement, leadership, community service and extra-curricular activities.

Zech is headed to Florida Gulf Coast University and plans to major in civil engineering. Thanks to the credits accumulated through dual enrollment at Baptist College of Florida and Southeastern University, he’ll begin his first year with three semesters worth of college credits.

“I think Zech has received a good education (at Sonshine Christian), a strong one” said his mom, Rebecca. “He’s well-rounded in his academics.”

Rebecca is also the principal of Sonshine Christian, so she views the school’s education value from two sides – parent and employee. She wouldn’t work there if she didn’t believe in the school. Nor would she send her children there.

Zech is the third of Eric’s and Rebecca’s children to attend Sonshine Christian. Renae and Timothy have graduated. Matthew is a rising sophomore.

After homeschooling their three oldest for several years, the Edwardses looked for a Christian school. With the help of the tax credit scholarships, they were able to afford Sonshine Christian, which is not far from their home in Alva.

“With Step Up, I’m so thankful we didn’t have to choose public school. We could choose something else,” Rebecca said.

“If I had to put all four of my kids in private school, you’re talking a lot of money. The Step Up programs allows families to have that option that didn’t have that option before. It gives you an option to have a school choice, and there are so many parents here who are able to make a choice where without Step Up they wouldn’t have that ability.”

Zech was president of the student council and captain of both the basketball and flag football teams. He’s a preschool leader and involved in several ministries at his church. An avid chess player, Zech won regional championships during the past two years at the Accelerated Christian Education student convention. He beat his older brother Timothy in 2021 and his younger brother Matthew this past April during the finals.

Zech will pursue a degree in civil engineering at Florida Gulf Coast University.

He works at Bellacino’s Pizza & Grinders in Fort Myers, doing everything from washing dishes to busing tables to answering phones to making pizza and grinders.

Not surprisingly, the valedictorian tutors his classmates in a variety of classes, including math. Especially math.

He loves math, namely precalculus.

“That was fun,” he said. “It was a struggle, but it was fun.”

That was his thought process in becoming a doctor. It would be hard but also fun. But the more he thought about it, the less enamored he became with the idea.

So, he turned to math, his favorite subject. He could become a math teacher, maybe even return to Sonshine Christian. But the excitement surrounding that quickly faded.

It was early in the 2021-22 school year when an evangelist visited the school. Zech was drawn to his stories of work as a missionary. He listened to more accounts of missionary work during a four-day Christian retreat in February. The more he heard, the more he was sold.

“I felt like God was telling me to pursue that,” he said.

A civil engineering degree will give him a background in designing, building and maintaining both physical and natural environments. Just what one needs to work as a missionary in underdeveloped or financially strapped regions of the world.

Zech will receive an early introduction into that life in June when he attends Puerto Rico on a mission trip. He knows the work won’t be easy.

“That makes it fun,” he said. “That makes it interesting.”

His sister Renae, now a preschool teacher, went on several mission trips to the Dominican Republic during high school, so serving their faith in that way runs in the Edwards family.

“I think it’s a good opportunity if Zechariah feels that missionary work is what he wants to do,” Rebecca said. “He needs to step out there and see, get the experience.

“It’s a good first step. Still a big step, and I think it will be good for his leadership. He’s shown a lot of leadership skills this year. I think it will be good experience for him to see what the next step is going to be.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

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