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Busy 48 hours includes trip to State Capitol, trophies for Piney Grove Boys Academy

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.

Piney Grove is a private K-12 school with 75 of its 98 students attending on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.

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.

From bottom left: Nathan Smith, Alex Day, Julian Day and Shaun Scott-Richards with the HP Chromebooks they won for finishing first in the 13th Annual City of Lauderhill MLK Taskforce Hall & Rosenberg Brain Bowl.

“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.

Rosa Parks.

Muhammad Ali.

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.

Young violinists bring joy to audiences and teachers

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.

Caden Wehrli

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.

The students have also played at the Disney Performing Arts at Walt Disney World and at the Catholic Foundation Gala in Tampa.

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.”

All-around students

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

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.”

Life-long violinists

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 Perez

“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.”

Why?

“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 rmooney@sufs.org.

Mount Zion students show they care with supplies sent to hurricane survivors

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.

(Back row from left) Principal Franca Sheehy, E’Monie Cooper, Angelica Strong and Keizyon Taylor and (front row from left) Aubreanna Clements, Taliyah Jones, Alexander James and Tavaris Jones Jr., of Mount Zion Christian Academy helped pack 120 care boxes for children in the Bahamas living in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian.

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 rmooney@sufs.org.

Breakthru Beverage Florida donates $35 million to Step Up’s scholarship program

By ASHLEY ZARLE

FORT LAUDERDALE – Breakthru Beverage Florida, one of the largest distributors of wines, spirits and non-alcoholic beverages in the state, announced Friday that it is donating $35 million to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.

Breakthru’s donation will fund more than 5,028 scholarships for K-12 lower-income Florida schoolchildren for the 2019-20 school year.

Breakthru Beverage Florida and Step Up For Students celebrated the ninth consecutive year of Breakthru’s support at Abundant Life Christian Academy with students that benefit from a Step Up scholarship. Since 2011, Breakthru Beverage Florida has generously funded 55,882 Florida Tax Credit scholarships through contributions totaling more than $324 million to Step Up For Students.

“One of our core values at Breakthru is to do our part to better the communities we serve,” said Eric Pfeil, executive vice president of Breakthru Beverage Florida. “We are proud to support Step Up For Students and are dedicated to helping give Florida schoolchildren the opportunity to reach their highest potential.”

Breakthru Beverage Florida  celebrated their ninth consecutive year of support of Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are, Breakthru Beverage Florida Chief Financial Officer Eric Roth, Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students Vice President of Development Anne Francis, Breakthru Beverage Florida Executive Vice President Eric Pfeil, and Abundant Life Christian Academy Principal Stacy Angier. They are joined by Abundant Life Christian Academy students who are benefiting from the scholarship.

During the visit at Abundant Life Christian Academy, the students talked about all the unique opportunities they have at the school and their goals for the future. A couple of students also shared their science fair project that will be up for judging soon. One fourth grade student, who uses the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students, presented his science project on rocks and minerals to a very impressed crowd.

Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and gives lower-income children the opportunity to attend a private or out-of-district school that best meets their learning needs. Step Up is serving more than 100,400 students for the 2019-20 school year. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Students at Abundant Life Christian Academy shared their science projects that will be up for judging soon.

“Breakthru Beverage Florida continues to show their incredible commitment to deserving schoolchildren through their support of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “Breakthru understands how important this scholarship is to so many students in Florida. They are a critical part of the program’s success and we are grateful for their continued support.”

If you can sing it, you can learn it: How music is helping schoolchildren improve their reading

By ROGER MOONEY   

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. –During the weeks leading up to the start of fifth grade, when Cee J Knause was home doing not much of anything, she found herself singing the Short Vowel Song.

“A … a … a …a … apple

E … e … e … e … egg.”

Or the Long Vowel Song.

“I got an a for apron

An e for eagle.”

Sometimes, Cee J sang “The Ballad of the Silent E.”

“She sings those songs all day,” her mom, Kellie Mendheim said. “Sometimes she lets me sing them.”

Cee J, now in the fifth grade at Mount Zion, improved her reading last spring through Winning Reading Boost

Cee J is a student at the Mount Zion Christian Academy in St. Petersburg. Like nearly all of her 90 schoolmates, she attends the K-5 private school using a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families. The program is managed by Step Up For Students.

Cee J learned those songs last spring when she participated in the Winning Reading Boost program for second-graders and above who struggled to read.

They are catchy tunes, and that is the point.

Sue Dickson, a former first-grade teacher and Safety Harbor, Florida, resident, wrote them years ago. The songs were the foundation of Dickson’s Sing, Spell, Read and Write, a widely successful phonics-based program published in 1972 that taught children to read. A decade later, when Dickson saw the need to reach older non-readers, she wrote Winning, a 90-hour intervention program with age appropriate stories and songs that had tremendous success in jails and teen detention centers.

“If you can sing it, you can learn it,” Dickson said.

Mount Zion was used as a pilot program last spring with 10 students participating. Cee J, then in fourth grade, was one of those students.

“The program went very well,” Mount Zion principal Franca Sheehy said. “We saw results.”

Students who misread more than five fluency words out of 60 on a K-1 phonics test were included in the program. Combined, the 10 students averaged nearly 27 missed words. Only one, a third-grader, missed fewer than 10, and that student missed nine.

“I love it,” said Cee J, who missed 29 of the 60 words. “When I didn’t do Winning Reading Boost, I used to struggle at reading. As soon as I started this, it started helping me, and I love how the songs made it fun.”

Cee J’s struggles stemmed from reading too fast, causing her to miss words. Winning Reading taught her to read at a slower pace, which increased her fluency learning.

Shakeila Bogle-Duke, who teaches Winning Reading Boost at Mount Zion, said Cee J showed the most improvement of the 10 students.

“Everyone showed some growth,” Bogle-Duke said. “It was significant in others and a little less in one or two.”

Students gained confidence in their ability to read. Using phonics, they learned to decode words, rather than guess at them. Those who entered as choppy readers learned to read at a smoother pace.

Sheehy was so impressed with Winning Reading Boost that it was added to the 2019-20 budget. It will be used throughout the school year after they identify which students need the intervention program.

Why Johnny can’t read

An October 2018 story in the New York Times referenced a study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress that found only four of 10 fourth graders were competent readers. A big reason, the story stated, is students are not taught to read phonically, meaning they do not learn to decode words.

This is not a new development. Dickson began teaching first grade in the 1950s in Arlington, Virginia, when it was forbidden to teach phonics, learning by decoding the relationship between sounds and spelling.

“The schools of education ridiculed the teaching of phonics,” she said. “It was just awful.”

Sue Dickson began writing songs for her reading programs in the 1960s.

Because she was fresh out of college and just beginning her career, Dickson complied with the school district’s stance during her first two years as a teacher. Yet, she knew she failed those students who didn’t pass reading.

In 1955, Rudolf Flesch wrote, “Why Johnny Can’t Read: And what you can do about it.” The book advocated phonics over the standard reading by sight, often referred to as “Look-say.”

Reading the book reinforced Dickson’s belief that the school district’s stance was wrong. Not only could she see that from the reading scores of her students, but also with her younger brother, David, who struggled with reading. Dickson saw first-hand the impact that had on David’s education.

 “I was tuned-in to the problems that come along when a kid can’t read. He was ruined,” Dickson said. “I was looking for a way to fix it, and I found what was wrong.”

She began teaching phonics to her students, and their reading scores improved. Eventually, Dickson was asked to teach reading her way during summer school.

She realized some students struggled because they were tripped up by what she called, “hidden bloopers,” like the difference in the graphic forms of the letters “a” and “g” in written text, and addressed them in her programs.

Throughout the 1960s, Dickson combined her love of music with her love of teaching, sat at her piano and composed the songs for Sing, Spell, Read and Write.

The program went nationwide in the 1970s, and school districts reported improved reading scores by students who participated.

“It’s earth-shaking,” Dickson said of the program’s success.

‘It’s the music’

In 2015, The Tampa Bay Times ran a series on how the Pinellas County School Board in Tampa Bay turned five once average public schools in low-income areas into what it termed, “Failure Factories.”

Searching for help, a grass roots St. Petersburg community reached out to Don Pemberton at University of Florida’s Lastinger Center, an innovative hub that brings together the latest developments in academic research and practice to improve education. Lisa Langley, Lastinger’s chief of staff, along with the UF team, Sue Dickson and her daughter Dianne Dickson-Fix (a retired elementary school teacher in Pinellas County) updated Winning and created Winning Reading Boost for students in grades 2 and up.

The new program involves 36 sequenced steps to independent reading through songs and games and four books.

“Anything we want the kids to memorize is in the songs, because the songs provide the repetition to make the learning fast and easy,” Dickson-Fix said.

The lessons are put to music – rock, rap, country and calypso.


Shakeila Bogle-Duke, who teaches Winning Reading Boost at Mount Zion, said all the students in last spring’s program improved their reading.

“It’s a hands-on approach and it gets them excited to do the stories,” said Bogle-Duke, the Mount Zion teacher. “The stories are not very long, so they get through each part. They’re using the skills and they are reminded about what they just learned to use as a tool for what they’re reading.”

To prevent students from stumbling over words they don’t know, there is not one word in the story that hasn’t already been covered.

“Sue thought it out,” Langley said. “It’s like a shaky foundation for a house. She had to knock that house down and rebuild that foundation.”

Why does it work?

“It’s the music,” Bogle-Duke said.

Sheehy agreed. She said her students don’t have a problem learning Bible verses and pledges when they sing them.

“They are able to memorize this information, and music helps them memorize the sounds,” Sheehy said. “You hear them singing that song later. Eventually, the more they sing it, they start putting the dots together and realize what they are singing. The lightbulb goes on.”

Mendheim, Cee J’s mom, said she was glad when her daughter was asked last spring to join the program.

“I was teaching Cee J to read, but I wanted someone to take it a step forward,” she said. “She was reading, but not how I wanted her to read.”

When told she was in the program, Cee J said her response was, “OK, I’m struggling. I need to practice.”

Cee J continued to read her Winning Reading Boost books over the summer. She even erased her answers so she could take the quizzes over.

Cee J’s reward for improving? A bookshelf in her bedroom and books to put on the shelf.

“It’s really important to read,” Cee J said, “because when you grow up, you have to pay bills and stuff, and you have to know what it says that you have to pay.”

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

Florida Parent Network becomes Florida Voices For Choices

By LISA A. DAVIS

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The Florida Parent Network is now Florida Voices For Choices, a change that reflects the many supporters — beyond parents
— for the education choice movement.

Catherine Durkin Robinson

“While parents and their children are at the core of what we do, our advocates include grandparents, foster parents, educators, alumni, faith leaders and more,” said Catherine Durkin Robinson, executive director of Florida Voices For Choices. “It was time we make our name more encompassing of all of our supporters.”

But the name is all that’s changed.

“New name. Same mission,” Robinson said.

Florida Voices For Choices, the advocacy arm of Step Up For Students, organizes and mobilizes its members. Step Up For Students, a Florida-based nonprofit scholarship funding organization and the largest of its kind in the nation, served more than 110,000 children in Florida for the 2018-19 school year through four scholarship programs.

With Robinson and her team at the helm in Florida, they are among the hundreds of thousands of advocates fighting for children to be educated based on how they learn, rather than where they live.

“Instead of forming different networks, we’re more powerful together. We’re proud of this name change to Florida Voices For Choices,” Robinson said. “We still organize advocates for scholarship programs, charter schools, magnets, virtual schools, homeschools and vouchers. “

The group, which also partners with the Florida Charter School Alliance, works with supporters year-round to mobilize advocates in support of legislation that will get more children off waiting lists and into great schools. They also register voters and keep advocates aware of lawmakers who support, and oppose, their rights to choose the best school or learning environment for their kids. One of its most successful events was back in January 2016, when it organized more than 10,000 Florida Tax Credit Scholarship supporters from throughout Florida to march in Tallahassee when a lawsuit threatened to close down the program.

“That was an amazing day,” Robinson recalled. “But every day brings a new challenge and we need these programs for schoolchildren to continue to gain strength. We still fight for educational equity for all.”

Follow Florida Voices For Choices on social media and text FVFC to 52886 for timely updates.

Study: FL private school choice students more likely to get to college, get degrees


Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the redefinED blog on Sept. 27, 2017. The blog is hosted by Step Up For Students and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.

By TRAVIS PILLOW

The “triply disadvantaged” students who participate in the nation’s largest private school choice program enroll in college and obtain degrees at higher rates than like students in public schools, and those rates climb the longer the students use the scholarship, according to a first-of-its-kind study released this morning by The Urban Institute. The college enrollment rate overall is 15 percent higher for the low-income students who use Florida tax credit scholarships, the study found. That climbs to about 40 percent higher for students who use a scholarship at least four years.

The longer students participate in the Florida tax credit scholarship program, the more likely they are to enroll in college, compared to peers who do not receive scholarships. Chart by Step Up For Students, using data from the Urban Institute.

Meanwhile, scholarship students are 8 percent more likely to obtain associate degrees. That number rises to 29 percent for those who secured scholarships in earlier grades and used them at least four years.

Annual evaluations of standardized test results in the scholarship program have consistently found the average student who uses the program to attend a private school makes roughly one year’s academic progress in one year’s time.

They’ve also found students who use the scholarships tend to be more disadvantaged than other lower-income students who don’t use them.

Urban Institute authors Matthew M. Chingos and Daniel Kuehn describe scholarship students this way: “They have low family incomes, they are enrolled at low-performing public schools (as measured by test scores), and they have poorer initial test performance compared with their peers.”

Studies have looked at long-term outcomes for other programs that help disadvantaged students pay private school tuition.

They found students in Washington, D.C. and Milwaukee were more likely to graduate high school or attend college, respectively, if they received a voucher.

But researchers haven’t looked as much at college enrollment among students who received scholarships from big, statewide programs. The Urban Institute report is unprecedented in its scale. It looks at more than 10,000 students across the nation’s third-largest state. It uses data from the Florida Department of Education, as well as Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer the scholarships.

Unpacking the findings

The study finds students who use tax credit scholarships are significantly more likely than peers with similar disadvantages to enroll in college within two years of finishing high school.

Students who use Florida tax credit scholarships are more likely to enroll in college. Chart by Urban Institute. *Means results are statistically significant.

Students who continued using a scholarship for four years or more saw, by far, the largest college-enrollment boost. Those who only used a scholarship for one year saw essentially no benefit.

The researchers note one potential factor. Students who leave the scholarship program after a short time tend to struggle more academically. Those who remain on scholarships for several years tend to perform better, perhaps because they’ve found schools that work for them.

Most of the enrollment boost for scholarship alumni happened at Florida’s community colleges. The state’s 28 community colleges are intended to be accessible and affordable. Tuition and fees for full-time Florida College System students working toward associate degrees cost roughly half what students pay at the state’s four-year public universities. The researchers noted the two-year schools are “more financially accessible to the low-income students participating in FTC.”

The researchers didn’t look at private or out-of-state institutions, where data wasn’t as readily available. As a result, they cautioned that: “National data indicate that low-income students from private high schools are more likely to enroll in private and out-of-state colleges than low-income students from public high schools. Because of this, our results may understate the true impact of FTC participation on college enrollment and degree attainment.”

The enrollment boost was larger for a few notable groups. Scholarships students born outside the U.S. and those who spoke a language other than English at home saw some of the largest jumps in college enrollment.

Scholarship students weren’t just more likely to attend two-year colleges. They were also 8 percent more likely to earn associate degrees. But the researchers note there was some drop-off between the jump in college attendance and the jump in completion.

Students who use Florida tax credit scholarships are more likely to obtain associate degrees. Chart by Urban Institute. *Means results are statistically significant.

Also, scholarship students were not significantly more likely to earn four-year degrees. The researchers note their sample sizes were small for this group, so it was hard to make statistical comparisons. They also noted that only 4 percent of the disadvantaged public-school students they compared to scholarship recipients earn bachelor’s degrees.

What the findings mean

Low-income students from high-poverty schools face greater barriers getting to college than their middle-income peers. To earn a four-year degree, the barriers are larger still. They’re more likely to struggle with tuition payments, student loans and jobs that take time away from their studies.

These barriers deserve a closer look, the Urban Institute researchers write.

This study finds that the nation’s largest private school choice program helps students into college, but too many still fail to earn degrees. A fuller understanding of what this means for these students will require continuing to track their outcomes, including bachelor’s degree attainment rates and incomes. But this study shows that policymakers considering the design, expansion, or reform of private school choice programs should carefully consider not just their likely impact on short-term metrics such as test scores, but also how they might shape long-term outcomes, including college enrollment and graduation.

Other programs dedicated to expanding educational opportunity for lower-income students have seen similar results. In 2011, the Knowledge Is Power Program learned roughly 33 percent of students who completed middle school with the nation’s largest charter school network managed to graduate college.

Those results didn’t satisfy KIPP. So the charter organization created a new program to help its alumni not only reach college, but finish it.

Still, for school choice programs facing a flurry of headlines, the Urban Institute report suggests the anecdotes about school choice scholarship recipients awakening to the possibility of college aren’t mere anomalies.

Travis Pillow can be reached at Tpillow@sufs.org.

Step Up For Students prepares to roll out new program to assist low-income students in south Pinellas

Lisa A. Davis

Volunteer Florida, the Governor’s Commission on Community Service, recently awarded Step Up For Students an AmeriCorps Grant to assist low-income students in south Pinellas County with supplemental education services to boost their academic achievement. VF logo

Step Up’s AmeriCorps Achieve program will launch in October and provide 20 AmeriCorps volunteers to work as teachers’ aides in seven St. Petersburg schools serving some of the poorest children in the city.

Members will each earn a stipend of $12,530 annually, as well as tuition assistance for college, among other benefits, support the classroom teacher  with increasing literacy and math achievement, said Carol Thomas, vice president of Step Up’s Office of Student Learning, which oversees the program.

The AmeriCorps volunteers also will help track students’ academic progress on special software, part of a program created by Step Up For Students called the Teaching and Learning Exchange (TLE). The software allows teachers to produce learning goals, monitor student success and exchange information with parents or guardians.

The extra help will give teachers more time to work on lesson plans, prepare for parent conferences and meet parents  – something they rarely have time to do, Thomas said.americorps logo

“We are really giving them that gift of time, that resource of time,” she said. “That resource of time is just as valuable a resource as software.”

Additionally, volunteers will operate an afterschool program to enhance learning and help raise awareness about community and education partnerships. At the end of the year, the AmeriCorps members will be responsible for improving the academic achievement of 80 percent of all students participating in the Achieve program.

“The ultimate goal of the AmeriCorps Achieve program is to raise student achievement in reading and math,” said Judi Duff, who will manage the volunteers. “According to a recent investigation in the Tampa Bay Times, most of the public elementary school students in south St. Petersburg are failing in reading and math. The tax credit scholarships given by Step Up For Students are giving families in this area a choice for a better education. AmeriCorps’ Achieve program will provide manpower and resources to help combat this problem.”

Duff used to work in Title 1 public schools in Hillsborough County and, later, as a media specialist for Florida College Academy in Temple Terrace.

“I look forward to getting into each of these schools and finding ways for the AmeriCorps Achieve program to help raise student achievement. Each of these schools is unique with its own set of challenges,” said Duff. “My job will be to provide them with the right AmeriCorps member who will be the best fit for their students and program.”

Glen Gilzean, Step Up’s vice president of Family and Community Affairs, authored the grant proposal to help create the AmeriCorps Achieve program after collaborating with Rev. Dr. Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. Sykes is a strong supporter of Step Up For Students and the tax credit scholarship program.

“My goal is to ensure low-income students have access to additional educational services to succeed academically,” said Gilzean.

The schools mostly are in south St. Petersburg: Mount Moriah Christian Fundamental Academy, Elim Junior Academy, Mt. Zion Christian Academy, Bethel Community Christian School, Academy Prep of St. Petersburg and Cathedral School of St. Jude. More than 570 Step Up income-based scholars attend these schools.

Many of the schools are already part of Step Up’s Success Partners program.

Since AmeriCorps’ founding 21 years ago, more than 900,000 members have contributed more than 1.2 billion hours volunteering across American working with nonprofits, schools, public agencies and community and faith-based groups.