By ROGER MOONEY
Alton Bolden, principal at Piney Grove Boys Academy in Lauderdale Lakes, Florida, has a new name for Feb. 5.
“Championship Wednesday,” he said.
It began that morning when a quartet of middle schoolers won in dominated fashion the 13th annual City of Lauderhill MLK Taskforce Hall & Rosenberg Brain Bowl. (Click here to watch the competition.) Later that afternoon, students cliched another victory in the elementary school basketball championship game.
“We were winning every which way we looked,” Bolden said.
What made their accomplishments that Wednesday more impressive is the fact about 35 students, including the Brian Bowl winners and several members of the basketball team, spent almost 20 hours the day before traveling to and from the State Capitol in Tallahassee. They were there to support Step Up and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship during a media event for the program at the Capitol Rotunda.
“Although it was a lot of time on the bus, I feel it was worth it,” said eighth grader Alex Day, captain of the Brain Bowl team. “It is amazing when all the people from different backgrounds – high-income, low-income, no matter the differences – can come together and solve one problem.”
The students toured the state senate and met a number of the black and Hispanic pastors from across the state who also traveled to Tallahassee for the event.
“I got to meet new people and knowing that people care about our education and are willing to pay for us to go to school, that’s what I took away from the trip,” said eighth grader Shaun Scott-Richards.
Bolden quizzed the Brian Bowl team and went over plays with the basketball team during the bus rides.
“They were well-prepared,” he said.
It showed during the finals when Alex, Shaun and teammates Julian Day (seventh grade) and Nathan Smith (sixth) rolled to a 300-60 victory against Lauderhill 6-12 STEM MED School. All four students receive Florida Tax Credit Scholarships.
The win was a by-product of preparation. Bolden said the students studied daily for a month.
“I learned more about my history,” Nathan said.
Julian admitted he and his teammates were a little nervous about the competition for several reasons: Lauderhill 6-12 won it last year while it was Piney Grove’s first time in the event, and it was being recorded by the Broward Educational Community Network. There were video cameras, bright lights and BEACON TV host, Lisa Lee.
“But if you get a chance, don’t give up,” Julian said. “Take another chance, another chance. Don’t give it up.”
The boys jumped to an early lead and never looked back. The topic was Black History Month and several times they provided correct answers before the host finished asking the questions.
The Tuskegee Airmen.
The answers flowed and so did some tears.
“I don’t cry easily but they had me in tears because they were answering questions before they were finished asking the questions,” Bolden said. “They were committed.”
Alex, Shaun, Nathan and Julian each received an HP Chromebook for their efforts. Bolden was presented with the trophy.
After the awards ceremony, Bolden had to hustle back to campus, so he could drive the bus carrying the basketball team to its championship game at West Broward Prep. School, Piney Grove took home the second trophy of the day, courtesy of a 38-32 victory.
“They definitely made a statement about the school,” Bolden said. “We don’t have just athletes. People think this is a behavioral-change school, and we tell them it’s not a behavioral-change school. We are a school offering inner-city youth a college preparatory education in the inner city.
“That was a very busy 48 hours, and successful, too. I was very proud of them for that.”
ABOUT PINEY GROVE BOYS ACADEMY
The school’s mission is to provide a “harmonious, educational environment that enhances the physical, mental and spiritual talents” for the K-12 students. The school’s Primary curriculum is A Beka. High School and Middle school students take Advance & AP classes through Florida Virtual School. High school students are also offered duel enrollment at Broward College and Bethune-Cookman University. Tuition including fees: kindergarten $6,669; grades 1-4 $6,619; 5th grade $6,669; grades 6-7 $6,915; 8th grade $6,990; grades 9-11 $7,211 and 12th grade $7,286.
By ROGER MOONEY
DUNEDIN, Fla. – Manny Perez used to stand in the back of the violin ensemble, hoping to shield himself from those in the audience with discerning ears who would know when he missed a note or, in his words, messed up.
“I thought I messed up most of the time,” Manny said.
Funny thing, though. No one ever approached Manny after a performance and told him he had messed up. Instead, those who listened to the group perform said things like, “You were amazing!” and “Great job!” and “I wish I could play the violin.”
They say that to Manny, a fifth grader, and the rest of the members of Strings of Joy, the violin ensemble made up of fourth and fifth graders from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Dunedin.
The blossoming musicians found themselves the object of attention and some envy last spring when they played in the lobby of the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg before a performance by the Florida Orchestra.
They were nervous beforehand.
“I had goosebumps,” Manny said.
They were thrilled afterward.
“It was my first time (playing) at a real theater, playing for so many people,” fourth grader Caden Wehrli said. “And seeing their faces, it was like, ‘Wow!’”
Strings of Joy is 17 strong with more than half its members, including those interviewed for this story, attending the private K-8 school using a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.
The ensemble consists of those who demonstrate an aptitude for playing the instrument and a love of performing.
In the two years since it was formed, Strings of Joy has grown from playing during services at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and at nearby senior centers and senior homes, to playing the Mahaffey Theater.
They have a gig lined up this spring to play in the lobby of Ruth Eckard Hall in Clearwater before another performance by the Florida Orchestra. They have been invited to play the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee for Gov. Ron DeSantis, a graduate of Our Lady of Lourdes.
“Isn’t that amazing?” asked Mary Rehm, the school’s interim principal. “We’re incredible proud of what we do here.”
There are a number of studies on the link between playing a musical instrument and academic performance. Albert Einstein played the violin. Thomas Jefferson, too.
The motor, visual and auditory parts of the brain are all engaged when Manny or Caden are playing their violin. One study referred to it as the brain receiving a full body workout. And like any workout, this ability becomes stronger over time and is eventually applied to other tasks, such as learning.
Jackson Smudde, a fifth grader in the ensemble, said that is true in his case.
“I didn’t always pay attention in class that well. I was just kind of looking off,” he said. “Now I actually focus on what my teacher is saying.”
Father Gary Dowsey, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, agreed.
“I think we’ve seen potential in children that we’ve never seen before,” he said. “It certainly unleased a lot of their gifts and talents and their potential outside of playing the violin.”
Caden’s mom, Kelly Wehrli, said she wasn’t sure if her son had the discipline needed to learn the violin. Turns out, he was. And that discipline carried over to the classroom.
“He has done so much better academically and musically than I could have ever expected,” she said. “I see a huge change. He gets straight A’s, which I’m really proud of.”
Kristy Bates, whose daughter Alivia is a fourth grader in the ensemble, played the clarinet and bagpipes when she was in middle school. She felt a change in the way she learned after she began playing those instruments.
“I noticed that it just kind of puts your brain in a different way of learning to where you just start thinking outside of the box,” Bates said. “And then reading notes is almost like a second language, so it’s a completely different method of learning, and it does help you in your other areas of schooling, as well.”
Our Lady of Lourdes has, historically, been big on the arts. Music and drama teacher Lisa Suarez estimated at least half of the school’s 210 students are involved in either the choir, the school play or Strings of Joy.
This year’s play will be “Fiddler on the Roof,” a nod to the young violinists.
Suarez said she was curious to see the response from the third-grade class when they began learning the violin.
“To see the kids gravitate towards it, that really surprised me, how much they love it,” she said.
Caden said the violin class was fun.
“I thought it was going to be hard, but actually it wasn’t,” he said. “Each time I heard the song once, I would play it once, and I would get it correct.”
Kate Francis, who oversees the Strings of Joy, said what is unique about the violin program is while some schools offer an instrument as an elective or extracurricular activity, Our Lady of Lourdes includes it among the third-grade courses. So, students who might not have any interest or might be intimidated are uncovering a hidden talent.
“Manny loves the violin, and that’s going to be a part of him for his whole life and he learned it here,” Francis said. “That’s so cool.”
Ana Flores, Manny’s mother, remembered covering her ears when her son first started practicing at home. And now?
“He makes me feel like a proud mom,” she said. “He said he’s going to do it for the rest of his life. I’m going to have a violinist at home.”
Jackson said he wants to play for a long time.
“Probably ’til the end of my life,” he said.
And Caden? “Until I get about 30-something,” he said.
“He has two goals,” said Caden’s mom. “He wants to be a professional musician now, and a professional baseball player, so, I’ll hit the lottery either way.”
Manny, the boy who once tried to remain unnoticed when he played, now plays solos. He was upset last May when the school year ended, and he had to return his violin.
He said he wants to play the violin for “a very long time.”
“Because,” he said, “I can bring joy to people without singing or without talking, just with moving my hand with the bow and making gestures with my hands and the violin strings.”
About Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School
Founded in 1962, Our Lady of Lourdes sits in a 34-acre campus in a residential neighborhood in Dunedin and is accredited by the Florida Catholic Conference. More than 70 of the 210 K-8 students attend the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. The school incorporates the Catholic tradition in its curriculum, though accepts students from all faiths. Tuition for parishioners for the 2019-20 school year begins at $7,435 for the first student and increases by $6835 per additional child. For non-parishioners, tuition is $9,305 for the first students and increases by $8,705 for each additional child.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
By ROGER MOONEY
St. PETERSBURG, FL – The plastic boxes, originally meant to hold school supplies like pencils and markers and glue and tape, were stuffed with necessities like toothbrushes and toothpaste, deodorant and underwear.
Each box contained a note written by a student at the Mount Zion Christian Academy.
“Hello, friend. I hope this brings you some happiness and joy,” wrote Tavaris Jones Jr., 6, a first grader at the K-5 private school in St. Petersburg, Florida.
E’Monie Cooper, 8, a second grader, stuffed socks, soap, a toothbrush, rubber bands, baby wipes, pens and a hand towel into a box.
“Love you and be safe,” she wrote on her note.
The boxes were then taped shut and shipped to the Bahamas, where they were intended to ease the burden of children living in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, the Category 5 hurricane that made landfall on Sept. 1 and cut a destructive path across the group of islands.
“I was sad that that happened, and it was sad for them, because some people got hurt,” said Keizyon Taylor, 10, a fourth grader. “I had feelings for them.”
Keizyon’s box contained socks, underwear, soap, hand sanitizer and tissues.
“It made me feel good because I was helping somebody,” he said.
Mount Zion’s 90 students plus teachers and staff packed 120 of those care packages and delivered them to a hurricane relief collection center.
“It was going to the kids who did not have the stuff we have,” said kindergartener Aubreanna Clements, 5.
All but one of Mount Zion’s students attend the school with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship or Family Empowerment Scholarship for lower-income families. The scholarships are managed by Step Up For Students.
“This project, I felt, would let them feel like they were doing something for someone in need. Even something as small as a little note is golden to the victims,” Mount Zion Principal Franca Sheehy said.
Sheehy said the project fit in well with her theme for this school year: “Acts of Kindness.”
“Every week they focus on different behaviors,” she said. “Welcoming a person. How to listen. Empathy. Especially empathy. It was part of this project, emphasizing feeling how another person would feel in this situation.”
The idea for the care packages came to Sheehy a few days after Hurricane Dorian’s 185 mph winds left thousands homeless and caused $3.4 billion in damage to the Bahamas.
Inside her office were more than 100 plastic pencil boxes that had been donated to her school the previous month. She and the staff were discussing ways the boxes could be used. Several of the civic groups she belongs to were already organizing hurricane relief projects. Sheehy looked at the empty boxes and said, “We can do this, too.”
Letters were sent to the parents and guardians of her students asking them to donate children’s supplies, if they could, with emphasis placed on “if they could.”
Sheehy, along with combined donations from the teachers and staff members, bought washcloths, underwear, wipes, toothbrushes and socks.
The items were lined up, along with those donated by the parents and others, on tables in a classroom. Each student chose items to fill their pink or blue box. The students wrote notes intended to lift the spirits of the child who would receive it.
“I hope you like these gifts we sent from Mount Zion,” wrote second grader Angelica Strong, 7.
She put soap, towels, underwear and socks in her care package.
“It was raining bad (in the Bahamas), and on the news they were checking on the kids, seeing if anything happened to them,” Angelica said. “That made me feel sad.”
Sheehy was pleased with how her school was able to make a small dent in the relief effort and how her students responded to the project.
“Our students need to learn that they can give and help others. This was a time where it wasn’t about them and their needs, but about someone else’s needs,” she said. “I think the project was a success, and they got something from it.”
Aubreanna, the kindergartener who recognized the need to help those less fortunate, remembered seeing the devastating images on TV – families that lost their homes and parents searching for their children. She did not write a note. Instead, she drew a picture of children playing at the beach.
“It was a happy picture,” Aubreanna said.
About Mount Zion Christian Academy
The Mount Zion Christian Academy opened in August 2012 under the leadership of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. Enrollment at the K-5 school increased since 2014 by 95% with a 90% retention rate. All teachers have a Bachelor’s or Master’s Degree and all teacher assistants have an Associate’s Degree minimum. Half of faculty/staff have Orton Gillingham Reading Approach (multi-sensory) training. All students receive breakfast/lunch assistance. Tuition with fees for K-3 is $6,993. Tuition with fees for grades 4-5 is $6,519.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Catherine Durkin Robinson
When her daughter Xioamara Kitchen was born prematurely and with a heart defect, Deaundrice held the baby in her arms, fragile and so tiny, and worried about all the things that concern parents, especially those with premature infants.
Deaundrice, who wasn’t able to attend college and worked in a cafeteria for the local school district, knew the key to a successful life would be found in a terrific school.
As Xioamara approached school age, Deaundrice faced so many fears. She wanted an environment where her daughter would be safe and where her health condition could be monitored.
Xioamara had been born with a heart that, instead of having chambers, was one massive muscle – essentially, all heart. At 3 months, doctors recommended surgery to create different chambers. As a new, young mother, Deaundrice got second opinions and, after meditating on everything, decided to wait for the surgery.
That meant monthly doctor appointments both near and far.
Three days before Xioamara’s third birthday, Deaundrice scheduled the surgery. She faced another major decision: Entrusting her daughter to the right school afterward. Deaundrice visited schools that friends and family recommended, yet none could provide what her daughter needed.
Xioamara required smaller class sizes, more hands-on learning, and an environment that encouraged intellectual growth. One that had a nurse. That was safe.
Deaundrice thought such a school would be prohibitively expensive.
Her family lived paycheck to paycheck. Some days Deaundrice wasn’t sure if they would eat. How could she afford tuition to the private school that was the best match for her daughter’s needs?
One day, she was driving down a familiar street and noticed something new: a sign that read, “Step Up Scholarships Accepted.” The school was Sacred Heart Cathedral School in Pensacola.
Deaundrice contacted them the next day and scheduled a visit. Once she toured the facility, she knew they were the best fit for her child. The energy was one of safety, security, and genuine sincerity.
In 2005, Xioamara began kindergarten, thanks to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up that helped pay the tuition. Teachers saw in her a special soul. Xioamara worked hard. The teachers provided that one-on-one attention and care that encouraged her to reach deep down within herself. She began to flourish, socially as well as academically.
When she needed extra help with math, teachers worked with her to understand the problems in a way that made sense. They paid attention to how she processed information and adjusted their teaching styles accordingly.
They lived the motto that every child can learn.
This instilled confidence and showed Xioamara that hard work can lead to success.
Because Sacred Heart went only to eighth grade, Deaundrice faced another hard decision as high school approached. This time, thanks to the confidence that comes from a foundation of love and consistency, Deaundrice and her daughter tackled the high school search together.
District schools in their area offered career academies for students. They knew the curriculum would be rigorous enough in those academies, but Xioamara wanted to continue her education in a smaller environment, more conducive to her learning style and where she felt comfortable.
They chose Pensacola Catholic High School.
Then came another challenge.
During Xioamara’s sophomore year, Deaundrice was diagnosed with a rare cancer and began chemotherapy treatments. She couldn’t imagine having to undergo such an ordeal without the teachers and staff who rallied in support of them both. To Deaundrice, Pensacola Catholic proved to be more than just a school, it was also family. Thanks to their emotional support, Xioamara and Deaundrice knew they weren’t facing these challenges alone. As Deaundrice entered treatment, Xioamara was supported and didn’t even miss school.
Today, Xioamara is a junior. She has maintained an unweighted GPA of 3.875 throughout high school and was nominated by her teachers to join the National Honor Society. To be recognized for exemplifying the society’s core values – scholarship, leadership, service, and character – was a special moment in her high school career.
Deaundrice’s health is slowly improving. They are both looking toward a future where Xioamara will pursue college, business and any other challenge life throws her way.
Xioamara is no longer a fragile, premature infant or a young girl overcoming adversity. She’s a strong and successful high school student. And with the support of her mom and teachers, there is nothing she can’t do.
All heart indeed.
About Pensacola Catholic High
Established in 1941 in downtown Pensacola, Catholic High has been at its present location since 1958. It is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. It offers dual-enrollment and AP courses. The Adaptive Education Program offers support services for students who have difficulty functioning in the standard curriculum due to an identified learning disability. Pensacola Catholic administers the MAP Growth test three times a year. The school has 786 students, including 133 on Step Up For Students scholarships. Annual tuition is $6,192 for a parish-affiliated student, and $7,920 for a non-affiliated one.
Catherine Durkin Robinson, Executive Director, Advocacy and Civic Engagement, can be reached at email@example.com.
By ROGER MOONEY
It is time to recognize outstanding members of the Step Up For Students family – students, teachers and parents – for their efforts this school year during our annual Rising Stars Awards program.
Each school can nominate up to six individuals, and the first person nominated must be a student.
Those selected will be honored in March and April during ceremonies held in one of 16 locations around the state.
School principals can nominate students for one of the following:
Teachers who push students to succeed, who truly represent the power of parent partnerships and focus on building relationships for success or who embrace the importance of continuous improvement and professional development can be nominated for the Exceptional Teacher Award.
Parents or guardians who actively support your school and the education of his or her child are eligible for the Phenomenal Family Member Award.
Deadline for nominations is Jan. 31, 2020 and can be made here.
Before making nominations, please have all necessary information available, including school name, school Florida Department of Education (DOE) number, each nominee’s contact information (name, phone number, email address). Please include a short description of why each person is being nominated.
The Rising Star Award ceremonies are scheduled for the following cities.
Event locations will be announced at a later date.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By PAUL SOOST
FORT LAUDERDALE – Breakthru Beverage Florida, one of the largest distributors of wines, spirits and non-alcoholic beverages in the state, Tuesday celebrated its $65 million contribution to Step Up For Students at its Florida headquarters in Ft. Lauderdale.
Breakthru’s donation will provide K-12 scholarships to more than 11,100 low-income Florida schoolchildren for the 2015-16 school year.
This is the fifth year Breakthru Beverage Florida, formerly known as Premier Beverage, has contributed to the nonprofit organization that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations that receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits for their contributions.
“A quality education can open the doors to endless possibilities. Breakthru is proud to play a role in providing opportunities for financially-disadvantaged children in Florida through our support of Step Up For Students,” said Bob Drinon, Breakthru Beverage Group South Region president. “We hope that more children will have the opportunity to learn in an environment that best meets their academic needs.”
Nearly 78,000 low-income students are using income-based Step Up scholarships for the 2015-16 school year, with tuition scholarships valued up to $5,677 per student. More than 1,600 private schools participate in the scholarship program, known as the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, statewide.
“This program is about empowering people to have choices. It’s about empowering low-income families to be able to match their child with the learning environment that best meets their needs,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up president. “We are so grateful to have Breakthru Beverage partnering with our mission to provide equal opportunity for all people. We couldn’t do this without their support and generosity.”
Denisha Merriweather, a Step Up scholarship alumna, was a featured speaker at the event. Step Up helped Merriweather attend the school of her choice. “Without the scholarship, I probably would have dropped out of school,” said Merriweather. “Today, I am proud to say, after all the challenges I faced, I am the first person in my family, my whole family, to graduate from college.” Today, she is a college graduate and is continuing her education to earn her master’s degree.
During the event, Drinon and Tuthill also spoke about the scholarships changing the lives of children throughout Florida. Since the scholarship program began in 2001, nearly 480,000 scholarships have been awarded to low-income students like Denisha.
Breakthru Beverage Florida, formerly known as Premier Beverage, is one of the largest distributors of wines, spirits and other beverages in Florida. A member of the Breakthru Beverage Group, Breakthru Florida services a variety of accounts including hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, grocery and retail stores from offices and distribution facilities throughout the state. Breakthru Beverage Group was formed by joining substantial holdings of The Charmer Sunbelt Group and Wirtz Beverage Group. The company employs more than 7,000 associates and with its affiliates have operations in 19 markets across the country and Canada.
Editor’s Note: This post originally ran Dec. 14 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students, and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education. Jon East is vice president of Policy and Public Affairs for Step Up For Students.
By JON EAST
A national organization that fights for the academic needs of black students entered the lawsuit over Florida’s tax credit scholarship today. The group, Black Alliance for Educational Options, filed an amicus brief urging the First District Court of Appeal to reject the state teacher union’s attempt to shut down the scholarship and to affirm a circuit judge’s dismissal of the case.
The brief tracks some of the legal arguments offered by lawyers representing the state and scholarship parents, but its tone is more personal. “BAEO knows from recent history that without high quality educational options such as the FTC scholarships, many of these students would never be in a position to enjoy their full panoply of civil rights – those rights can ring hollow for illiterate black students,” wrote Michael Ufferman, the attorney for BAEO.
The tax credit scholarship, passed into law in 2001, is serving 78,014 low-income schoolchildren this year. Of those, 23,268 are black. Their average household income is $23,551, which is 0.6 percent above poverty. Roughly 54 percent live with only one parent.
The Florida Education Association and other groups filed suit in August 2014, asking the courts to declare the scholarship unconstitutional. Leon Circuit Judge George Reynolds dismissed the case on standing in May, ruling the plaintiffs could not show how they or public schools were harmed. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 similarly rejected a challenge to a tax credit scholarship law in Arizona, denying standing, and three other state supreme courts have ruled in favor of the scholarships. None to date has ruled against them.
“If this lawsuit succeeds, the results will be devastating to the nearly 80,000 low-income and working-class, mostly black and Hispanic students who will be kicked out of their schools,” BAEO Policy and Research Director Tiffany Forrester said in a news release. “But it will also be a blow to social justice. Wealthy families have always had choices in education; low-income and working-class families deserve the same.”
BAEO also said in the release it was “very disappointed” the Florida NAACP joined in filing the suit. Two other plaintiffs, the Florida School Boards Association and the Florida Association of School Administrators, have withdrawn since the case was dismissed in circuit court. Meanwhile, a growing number of leading black ministers across the state have joined the cause against the lawsuit, calling themselves the “Florida African-American Ministers Alliance For Parental Choice.”
Earlier this month, attorneys for the state and scholarship families filed response briefs in the First District Court of Appeal. They asked to court to schedule oral arguments for the appeal.