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Of baby supplies, care packages for soldiers and feeding the needy: The tale of one student’s charity

By ROGER MOONEY

After he helped deliver food to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic in late February, Jack Figueredo helped bring more food to five impoverished families in a nearby town.

The next day, Jack and his mom held a baby shower in another part of the Dominican for 35 financially disadvantaged moms-to-be, arranged by the Rawlings Foundation, a Christian mission and outreach organization.

After the women received their bags filled with much-needed baby supplies, finished their lunches and polished off the sheet cake, Jack took time to reflect and was, in his words, “shocked” at what he witnessed during his two days in the country.

The poverty. The need for food and supplies. The unbridled joy of those he helped.

Jack and Helen Figueredo at the baby shower in the Dominican Republic.

“We did so much, and yet I wanted to do so much more,” he said. “As soon as we came back to America, I hit the ground running because I want to help all these people.”

So, Jack has plans for a farmer’s market in Miami-Dade County, where he will help deliver fresh produce to low-income families. And he is organizing a campaign to send care packages to members of the armed forces in Afghanistan. He is currently securing permits so he can help feed and clothe the homeless in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Miami and Homestead.

The baby shower went so well, there are plans for another, this one in Venezuela.

It should be noted that Jack is 16 and finishing his sophomore year at Miami’s Westwood Christian School, a private K-12 school that he and his brother Jonas, who recently graduated, attend with the help of Florida Tax Credit Scholarships.

Managed by Step Up for Students, the scholarship enables lower-income families to send their children to private schools.

Helen and Frank Figueredo qualified after the collapse of the real estate market in 2008 ruined their real estate business.

Westwood provided Jack and Jonas with a quality education in a religious setting. The real estate collapse showed the brothers what life is like for those struggling to get by.

Their parents no longer owned Porsches, and they no longer shopped at high-end stores.

Even during the family’s financial hardship, Helen made the boys pick one wrapped present under the Christmas tree to donate to a needy child. And at Thanksgiving and Easter, the family piled into the car Frank bought for less than $90 at a police auction and made their way to Miami to deliver sandwiches to the homeless who congregate near downtown.

It was part of Helen’s grand lesson to her children: Material things don’t matter. People do.

“The only way these kids are going to appreciate what they had was by seeing what life could be like if they didn’t have much and to instill in them that desire to always want to share, always want to give back, to put humans over material stuff, life over material stuff,” Helen said.

Jack delivering food to impoverished families in the Dominican Republic.

Looking back, Jack said the family trips to feed the homeless was “a great experience.”

“It broke my heart to see a lot of people like this,” Jack said. “I wanted to do something on my own to help them.”

So, Jack decided when he got older, he was going to organize his own charity – Socks and Sandwiches.

That goal became reality last September when Jack started Kids United Foundation. There are five members on the board of directors – Jack and four high school seniors, including Jonas.

“I thought it fit perfectly. Kids helping kids because I’m a kid,” Jack said.

The name was changed because Jack wants to help as many people as possible. And, because it takes time to obtain the permits needed to work with the homeless.


Jack didn’t want to wait. He was upset last summer when he was too young to travel to the Dominican with Helen and Jonas on a mission trip sponsored by the First Baptist Church of Westwood Lakes. Jack was 15, and the minimum age was 16.

“I was kind of bummed,” he said. “This was one of the main reasons I started my own charity. I wanted to help in a way where my age would not be an issue. The only way to do that is if I started it, I did, I created it and I was the boss.”

After hearing Helen’s stories about the extreme poverty she and Jonas encountered on the mission, Jack decided to act.

He came up with the idea of a baby shower after Helen told him of all the pregnant women she saw walking around barefoot and all the small children she saw barely clothed.

Jack filling bags with baby supplies for the baby shower.

They organized a fundraiser Valentine’s Day 2019 at the Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theater in Coral Gables. Kids United received a percentage of the ticket sales. They raised $7,000.

“It was a very successful fundraiser for our first one,” Jack said.

That enabled Kids United to put together gift bags for each of the 35 expectant mothers filled with $72 worth of diapers, bottles and baby clothes.

It also allowed them to buy food for the children in the orphanage and for five additional families in the Dominican.

Jack’s next move was the join the Consortium for a Healthier Miami-Dade, an organization committed to promoting a healthy lifestyle and disease prevention. He was added to the Children’s Issues and Oral Health Committee.

At one of the meetings, Jack suggested a farmer’s market in low-income areas to help children who are not getting enough nutrition in their diet.

The idea was a hit. The question: Who would spearhead the campaign?

“I can do it,” Jack said.

Kids United partnered with Farm Share, a nonprofit that delivers fresh food to needy families and individuals in Florida. In October, Farm Fresh donated 2,800 pounds of produce to Kids United, which then distributed it during a harvest festival at Tropical Park in Miami.

The plan was to hold a farmer’s market four times a year, but the shutdown because of the coronavirus put that plan on hold. It also canceled another dinner theater fundraiser that was set for last November.

Still, Jack’s charity is forging ahead.

With the help of his godfather, Romy Comargo, Jack started H.E.R.O. – Honoring Every Ranger Overseas.

Romy, Helen’s cousin, was a Chief Warrant Officer 3 with the Special Forces. While serving in Afghanistan in 2008, he was shot on the back of the neck and paralyzed from the neck down.

Romy and his wife, Gaby, have since started the Stay in Step Brain and Spinal Cord Injury Recovery Center in Tampa. Stay in Step provides exercise programs for patients both military and civilian with spinal cord injuries and neurological disorders.

H.E.R.O will send care packages containing comfort food, socks and paper stationary to soldiers overseas. The stationary is so the soldiers can correspond with schoolchildren from the Miami area. Kids United is in the process of contacting schools in that area for volunteers to be pen pals.

Gaby Camargo is Venezuelan. She told Jack that she and her husband would help fund the trip if the next Kids United baby shower was held in Venezuela.

The coronavirus has placed a temporary hold on Jack’s idea for Seniors vs. Seniors trivia, where high school seniors compete against residents at the Allegro Senior Living facility in Dadeland.

The moms-to-be at the baby shower.

Originally, Helen advised her son to stick with one charitable endeavor.

“We want to help people, but we don’t want to be committed to one thing,” Jack said. “That’s why we’re committed to such a wide variety of events, and we want to do what no one else is doing.”

Helen also impressed the importance of education on her sons. Both are top-of-the-class students at Westwood and members of the National Honor Society.

Jonas is a finalist for the Silver Knights Award. Held annually by the Miami Herald, the awards go to students who have high grades while making significant contributions to their schools and communities. Jonas, who holds a second-degree black belt in taekwondo, teaches self-defense to Westwood students in grades kindergarten through third. He is headed to the University of Miami with plans to become a lawyer.

Jack is following the same path as Jonas.

No one wants to be poor, Helen said. No one wants to see their business collapse and the savings disappear because of a downward turn of the economy.

But, out of their struggle grew a desire from Jonas and Jack to help those less fortunate.

“We are getting Kids United Foundation off the ground,” Jack said, “but we are barely scratching the surface of what we want to do.”

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

Cristo Rey’s first graduating class took the path less taken

By ROGER MOONEY

A pamphlet for a new private Catholic high school arrived in the mail one day when Abi’ya Wright was in the eighth grade. Four words jumped off the pages: “Corporate Work Study Program.”

Abi’ya noticed that Cristo Rey Tampa Salesian High School in Tampa, which would accept its first students the following August, was the only high school in the Tampa area that offered such a program.

“I was like, ‘Oh that’s a high school I can go to,’” she said.

And so, she did.

Abi’ya Wright

In August 2016, Abi’ya joined the students who comprised the first-ever freshman class at Cristo Rey. They took their first awkward steps as high schoolers together in a setting foreign to nearly every high school student. Cristo Rey’s first school year included only ninth graders.

Some, like Nicole Singletary, were also drawn to the school by the Corporate Work Study Program, where every student spends one day a week doing office work as entry-level employees at one of 50 Tampa Bay area business, including Step Up For Students.

Others, like Aydin Montero and Jose Calixto, were attracted by the school’s commitment to prepare each student for a college education.

“It was kind of weird at first, because we were the only class there, and nobody really knew what to expect,” Nicole said. “We were learning as we were going.”

Cristo Rey added a freshman class each year after its inaugural year, making the 2019-20 school year the first with freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. It also makes the Class of 2020 its first graduating class.

So, naturally, Abi’ya, Nicole, Aydin and Jose and the other 40 seniors are part of the school’s historic milestone. The Cristo Rey seniors are proud of that unique honor.

“It feels like an accomplishment because were the first ones to test it out. Yes, it was hard work. We didn’t have all the teachers to cover all the classes, some of the elective classes. Some of us had to do online classes, but we still made it work,” Jose said. “At the end, it’s a great honor.”

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the senior prom was canceled, and the school’s first traditional graduation ceremony was rescheduled from June 6 to Aug. 8. Until that time, the school honored the graduating class with social media posts and a walk-through block party, where the students received swag bags, senior T-shirts and photos.

The pandemic made for a bumpy end to the high school experience for the seniors.

“Still lots to celebrate, though,” said school principal Matt Torano.

The path less taken

Torano said he doesn’t know if he could do what the seniors did – commit to a high school as eighth graders when, at the time, the high school was in name only.

“They chose the path less taken. They forged ahead not really knowing what it meant, not really knowing what was going to happen,” he said. “That alone is impressive to me, because I don’t know if I would have had, as a 14- or 15-year-old, the guts to do that.”

Cristo Rey is located in a lower-income section of Tampa. It is designed for students from lower-income families, many of whom will be the first in their family to either graduate from high school or attend college or both.

Nicole Singletary

Every student attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, an income-based scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.

“Their parents are hardworking folks but never had the opportunities to consider college as a pathway,” Torano said. “They want better for their children, and they want their children to be the first to go to college and be the first to experience the benefits of that four-year degree.”

Nearly everyone in the senior class – 98% – are headed to a college or university.

They are led by Jeremy Hurtado, the valedictorian who earned a QuestBridge Scholarship to Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Based in California, QuestBridge is a nonprofit organization that helps top academic students from low-income backgrounds attend some of the country’s best colleges and universities.

Nicole begins her nursing studies this summer at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

“It’s just something that’s been calling to me,” she said. “I enjoy the medical field and just being in the medical environment.”

Abi’ya is headed to Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., where she will study criminology in advance of a career as an FBI profiler.

“I mostly chose that one because, one, it’s not in Florida. I didn’t want to go to any school in Florida, because I want to branch out,” she said. “And two, it’s a small, private school. I want to have the same school environment as high school, because it’s easier for me to learn that way.”

Jose is taking a gap year with some online courses mixed in. If the COVID-19 travel restrictions are relaxed, he plans to travel to Mexico and visit family. After that, Jose said he will enroll at Hillsborough Community College for two years then head to St. Leo University. He’s thinking of majoring in business.

Aydin will study software engineering at Florida Institute of Technology across the state in Melbourne. He is the first one in his family to graduate high school and he will be the first to attend college.

“I feel like I’m representing myself and my family,” he said of graduating from Cristo Rey. “My mom was really focused on me getting through high school and to college. I think that’s one of the reasons she chose (Cristo Rey), because she knew I would have a better chance going on to college.”

Real life experience

With every student in every grade participating, the Corporate Work Study Program is, naturally, a huge part of the Cristo Rey experience. Participating businesses include those in health care, finance, law, engineering, food and beverage, law enforcement and education.

Abi’ya and Jose worked at Step Up. Nicole worked at a law firm. Aydin worked at three different companies, including a commercial real estate firm.

Aydin Montero

The students are paid a salary for each job experience, but the salary goes toward their tuition.

Yearly tuition for Cristo Rey is approximately $18,000. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship covers 40% of that, as does the Corporate Work Study Program. Philanthropic contributions cover 14%, leaving the families to pay 6%. Torano said that comes out to $65 per month for the parents.

“So, to get a Catholic college preparatory experience for 65 bucks a month, that’s a heck of a deal,” he said.

Spending time in a work-setting helps the students build people skills and gain confidence. They also create a network of contacts who can be relied upon to write recommendations for college and, maybe in a few years, for jobs.

“For me, it was kind of scary at first,” said Abi’ya, who initially was intimidated working among adults. “I was not a very sociable person, and it made me extremely nervous to talk to people or have the potential of talking to someone.

“I’m much, much better now.”

A legacy

It may have been an unusual start, but once that first freshman class settled in, they encountered a high school experience similar to their peers around the country.

Nicole played on the basketball, volleyball and soccer teams. She joined the youth ministry, worked on the yearbook staff and helped start the audio-visual club.

Abi’ya helped start the anime club as a junior. Aydin was captain of the basketball team as a senior.

All the seniors played four square volleyball outside the school building as often as possible.

Jose Calixto

When asked for his favorite highlight of high school, Jose said, “My friends, because the school is not really big and we knew each other for four years, we started becoming a family. We were comfortable with each other.”

It’s all over now for the seniors, except for the traditional graduation. All that remains of the class of 2020 is their legacy.

“A lot of freshmen and sophomores came up to me and said, ‘You guys are amazing. Thank you for starting the path,’” Nicole said. “It’s kind of reassuring that we were doing a good job, and the school is going to be remembered for generations to come.”

That is the hope of Principal Torano.

A Tampa native, Torano looks around at the other private high schools in Tampa, including Jesuit High that dates back to 1899, and sees the contributions their alumni have made to the city of Tampa. It will take time, he admits, but he expects Cristo Rey graduates to have the same impact.

“Hopefully in 50 years they talk about Cristo Rey in kind of the same breath as these institutions that have been so instrumental in moving Tampa forward into each next step of the evolution that we have experienced as a city,” he said. “And it all started here. It started with this class. There had to be a first one and hats off to these men and women for taking a chance and making it happen.”

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

A Virtual Pomp and Circumstance: Step Up celebrates Class of 2020

By LISA A. DAVIS

Hundreds of parents, guardians, students, and teachers joined Step Up For Students online May 21 to recognize the resilient senior Class of 2020 in a time when COVID-19 has added the new term social distancing to everyday vocabulary and canceled in-person milestone events.

The recorded virtual senior celebration can be viewed online here.

In their final two months of their high school careers, students nationwide had to finish their education virtually as stay-at-home orders shuttered school buildings, on March 16 in Florida. High school seniors perhaps felt the impact most, with senior events like prom and graduation being canceled or moved to drive-by parades and virtual celebrations. Soon after typical everyday life came to a halt, Step Up staff began planning the special online event for scholarship seniors.

“High school graduation is a time to celebrate the achievement of Florida’s young men and women and the current pandemic won’t stop us from recognizing the achievements of these special students,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up.

Step Up For Students, a Florida-based nonprofit scholarship funding organization, manages the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Family Empower Scholarship for lower-income families, the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs, the Hope Scholarship for children who are bullied in public schools and the Reading Scholarship Accounts. For the 2019-20 school year, Step Up served more than 130,000 students, including 4,445 seniors.

Florida Tax Credit scholar Gabriella Bueno
of Boca Christian School.

Tuthill, Step Up Founder and Chairman John Kirtley, and corporate donor representatives addressed the Class of 2020 during the event. The Rev. Robert Ward of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg gave the invocation.

 State lawmakers congratulated the class of 2020 as well.

“Even though you’ve gone through strange times and faced many obstacles,” Sen. Manny Diaz, who serves as the Senate Committee on Education chair, said to the graduating seniors, “We are here today to give you a graduation message, and that is congratulations for your hard work.”

Added Rep. Susan Valdes, “Best of luck to you and go get them, Class of 2020. I know that our future is much brighter because of you.”

Paul Shoukry, a Step Up advisory board member and CFO for Raymond James Financial, a founding donor of Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, was one of several donor representatives who spoke during the 30-minute event.

“Continue investing in yourself, as this is an important step in a long and successful journey. Congratulations,” he said.

Step Up selected two scholarship students to address their peers.

Florida Tax Credit scholar Gabriella Bueno, of Boca Christian School, credited her scholarship with helping her get the education she needed to set her on a path to become a pharmacist.

Gardiner scholar Ryan Sleboda of Pace Brantley School in Longwood.

“I have much to be grateful for and I would personally like to thank Step Up, the lawmakers who believe in education choice and the donor who support it. You have all allowed me to attend what I believe has been the best school for me and has helped shaped me into the person I am today.”

Gardiner scholar Ryan Sleboda, also shared his journey with autism, not being able to speak until the age of 7, and with the help of a scholarship graduating as the class valedictorian in unprecedented times.

“Who would have imagined this is the way our senior year would end,” said, Ryan Sleboda, a Gardiner Scholarship student and valedictorian from the Pace Brantley School in Longwood, Fla. “Class of 2020, let’s go forth and resume this incredible journey!”

Kirtley, Step Up’s founder, closed out the event, saying success should not be measured by the norm.

“Be conscious of what scoreboard you are using to measure yourself. I know mine has changed. Pursue those things that can be measured for sure — those grades, that college admission, that job, that raise, that promotion. But don’t forget to measure yourself by things that have no numbers or figures,” he said and continued telling a story about a cab that drove by him in New York City advertising the Broadway musical Rent, with the words “Measure your life in love.”

“Well that sign stopped me in my tracks,” he said. “And I realized right then that I needed to worry less about measuring my life in numbers, in figures, and maybe take the advice on that sign. And it took me a few more years to understand that it’s much more important to measure the love that you give, rather than the love that you receive.

“One of the ways that I measure the love that I give is what I do everyday to empower parents to choose the best education for their kids, and knowing that you are today are graduating is all the love I need in return and knowing that you will put that education to work in these interesting times.”

Lisa A. Davis can be reached at ldavis@sufs.org.

The world is watching and sweating along with the students in Father Lopez virtual gym class

By ROGER MOONEY

It’s 9 a.m. on a Tuesday, Larissa Maloney, standing on a mat in the corner of her garage, presses the record button on her phone and what might be the largest physical education class in the world is under way.

Beginning with a simple warmup exercise – butt kicks – Maloney leads her virtual students that sometimes number in the thousands through a 30-minute workout. Depending on the day, the class includes burpees, heel touches, kick boxing, basketball jump shots, volleyball overhand smashes and digs, and yes, even swimming.

Maloney is physical education teacher at Father Lopez Catholic High School in Daytona Beach, Florida. Many of the students attend the private school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. She began the virtual class in late March after schools in Florida were closed because of COVID-19.

Maloney named the class Active Kids 2.0 and started a YouTube channel so her students could participate.

Yet, four weeks later, Active Kids 2.0 has nearly 1,500 subscribers on YouTube. Some days, a session receives as many as 6,000 clicks.

“It’s just blown up,” Maloney said. “I just thought originally it was going to be for my students, then I had a friend ask if her students could do it too. I said, ‘Of course. Why not?’”

The success of the virtual gym class does not surprise Father Lopez Principal Leigh Svajko. Maloney changes the workouts daily to keep them fresh and goes through the workouts herself, keeping the class as close to real for her students as can be excepted during the pandemic.

“I think her willingness to get out there to be live every day, especially with our students that she interacts with, just shows her level of investment to them,” Svajko said. “It’s how plugged in she is to it.”

Like every teacher in the state, Maloney needed a way to continue teaching her 75 students. But how do you teach PE without the use of a gym or athletic fields?

“This whole distance learning thing, there was no preparation for teachers,” Maloney said. “I know a lot of teachers didn’t have a lesson plan in their back pocket, especially for physical education.”

She began by writing daily lesson plans – run a mile on Monday, push-ups and sit-ups on Tuesday, arms and abdominal exercises on Wednesday and so on. Her plan was to send them to her students each day and have them reply with what they did and how long it took to complete.

“After I wrote that, I said, ‘How boring.’ I’m boring myself just sitting here reading it,” Maloney said. “I have 14- through 18-year-olds. That’s not going to cut it. I said, ‘You know what? They’re used to seeing me every day, so let’s press record and do it like they’re used to seeing me do it in class.’ Have them see me, see me doing it, see me enjoying it and have them follow along and they can enjoy it, not only by themselves but with their families, as well.”

Father Lopez students are used to seeing Maloney in action. She was a three-sport athlete in high school who earned a volleyball scholarship to Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. After that, she spent five years on the professional beach volleyball circuit. She now coaches the girls’ varsity volleyball team at Father Lopez.

Maloney participates in her PE classes along with her students, whether it’s learning a new sport or completing the stations of circuit training – jumping rope, abdominal station, core station and free weights.

“I knew I wanted to do something to bring that excitement, that intensity and fire within my videos, so they still know I’m still with them,” she said. “I think it’s important for the students to know that I’m doing it with them, I’m working with them and I’m cheering them on. They know that I’m their biggest fan. So, these videos are probably no surprise to my kids.”

Judging by the feedback left on Maloney’s Facebook page by her students, Active Kids 2.0 is as successful as a class held in Father Lopez’s gym.

  • “I’m so surprised by how good the online workouts are!”
  • “The online workouts are great especially since I’m stuck at home all day. It’s a motivational way to get me going in the morning!”
  • “Seeing my coach like I normally would on a school day feels like she’s there with me!”
  • “I try to push as hard as I can because she knows we can complete these workouts and that’s the incentive for me to do my best.”
  • “I love doing these workouts! I really miss seeing everyone, but these are the next best thing.”

What is a surprise to Maloney is how popular her videos have become. She draws viewers from across the United States, Canada, England, Australia and Africa.

Father Lopez Assistant Principal Marie Gallo-Lethcoe said the Coach Maloney those who tune in around the world see every morning is the same Coach Maloney those at the school see every day.

“They’re getting the real deal,” she said.

Before beginning, Maloney posted her idea for the videos, which run Monday through Friday, on several forums for PE teachers.

The reaction?

“This is amazing! Can I use it.”

“This is awesome. I would love to use it.”

Maloney replied to each, “Absolutely! Use it.”

The first video was recorded on the final Monday in March. It drew 100 clicks. The video recorded the following day drew 500 clicks. That quickly jumped to 1,000 the next day and climbed to 6,000 by the end of the week.

“I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s something here,’” Maloney said.

The increase can be attributed to the stay at home orders in most states during this pandemic. Maloney knows a lot of her students are joined by brothers and sisters and parents. She has heard from viewers across North America who complete the sessions during family time, something that can take place at any time of the day since they are recorded.

“Four weeks ago, thinking I would bring families closer together was not even on my radar,” she said.

Maloney said before it was announced that schools in Florida will not reopen this school year that she does not plan on ending Active Kids 2.0.

“I’ve gotten so much – and it’s weird to say this – but fan mail, and I’ve gotten so many families on board and so much love from the videos that people have committed to doing them every day, so I will keep doing them until I don’t have any viewers,” Maloney said. “I’ll do them as long as I can.”

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

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.