By DAVID TUTHILL
Jacob Monastra came home from school in tears every day.
He struggled in class and was often bullied, practically from the day he started first grade.
“Our hearts were heavy watching our bright little boy’s self-esteem erode before my eyes,” said Lynn Lambo, Jacob’s grandmother and guardian. “He called himself the worst kid in school and thought he was so dumb.”
He had always seemed to toil developmentally and barely spoke until he was 3.
During his third grading period of first grade at his neighborhood school in St. Petersburg, Florida, Jacob was a candidate to be held back for a year. Lambo dealt with that as she and husband Daniel began the process of moving with Jacob to Live Oak, a more rural area east of Tallahassee.
Prior to the move, Lambo briefly enrolled Jacob at a learning center in St. Petersburg for additional help. The one on one attention he received enabled him to enter second grade at Suwannee Elementary School in Live Oak, where his teacher was Charlene Redish.
“Jacob came into my classroom very shy and withdrawn,” Redish said. “He was in desperate need of confidence, because of his academic struggles and because of bullying. He would cry easily and didn’t trust anything around him. We had to fight for him so hard.”
While Jacob’s academic struggles continued, he made strides socially. When a disruptive student was new to Redish’s classroom, Jacob befriended him, even teaching him how to share, Redish said. As a form of reciprocation, the other boy helped protect Jacob from bullies.
But Jacob’s academic issues could not be ignored. He passed second grade – with great effort – but continued to struggle in third grade with a new teacher. In November 2016, Redish, a teacher Jacob had grown to admire and trust and still saw every morning before school, left Suwannee Elementary for a job at a private school.
That left Jacob with a new teacher – and more of the same issues.
By January 2017, Lambo was again told her grandson might be held back.
“I was shocked,” she said. “The school year wasn’t even half over, and I didn’t understand how they could tell me that.”
Fortunately for Jacob, help came from a familiar source.
Charlene Redish always kept tabs on Jacob and his family, and the bond between he and Redish proved too deep to break. Redish advised Lambo to send Jacob to her new school, New Generation School, also in Live Oak, for a one-week trial to see how he fit in.
The results were immediate and stunning.
“When I picked him up that (first) day, he said to me ‘This is my new school now,’” Lambo said with pride.
With Redish as his new third-grade teacher, Jacob’s transition to the new school was practically flawless.
“It was like night and day at New Generation,” Redish says. “He picked up quickly and became a leader in my classroom.”
Almost overnight, Lambo also saw a change. The smaller class sizes and flexibility of the curriculum was just what Jacob needed.
Once the quietest kid in a classroom, he is now well known for helping others, raising his hand frequently and almost always answering questions correctly. Every Friday, students at New Generation are released from classes early and have the option to leave at noon or stay in an after-school program until 2 p.m. But Lambo said he’s never once wanted to leave early.
“I used to have to peel him off me,” she said. “Now he’s smiling from ear to ear.”
Jacob breezed through third grade at New Generation and is now working through fourth grade, again under the tutelage of Redish. Now 9, he recently earned the New Generation Spirit Award, awarded to the student who most symbolizes integrity, kindness and the school’s purpose.
At school, Jacob and a few of his close friends often embark on playground archaeological digs, looking for rocks and pretending they are minerals.
Outside the classroom, Jacob enjoys fishing and recently caught a 13-inch crappie. He also enjoys riding a four-wheeler with his grandfather.
Jacob’s future is the brightest it has ever been.
“I am so happy they were able to get a scholarship for Jacob,” Redish said. “It was truly a blessing.”
Reach David Hudson Tuthill at email@example.com.
By PAUL SOOST
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Florida Farm Bureau Group, a multi-line Florida based property and casualty insurance company, announced Nov. 8 it is donating $500,000 to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.
The donation will fund about 76 K-12 scholarships in the 2017-18 school year.
“At Florida Farm Bureau Group, helping families is what we do best. We are thrilled to partner with Step Up For Students to help deserving Florida schoolchildren reach for their educational dreams,” said Florida Farm Bureau Chief Executive Officer, Steve Murray. “We hope these students reach high, and we look forward to a long relationship with Step Up For Students.”
This is Florida Farm Bureau Group’s first donation to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged Florida school children. The program is funded with tax-credited donations and allows parents and schoolchildren to choose between a K-12 scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.
“Thanks to the generosity of our donors, Step Up For Students is helping Florida families customize their children’s educational opportunities,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “On behalf of our Step Up families, we thank Florida Farm Bureau Group for its commitment and generosity.”
For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for K through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
Paul Soost can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By JEFF BARLIS
Eventually, Jodi Haley said, she had enough. She felt she had no choice but to remove her son Jessie from his neighborhood school.
She was fed up with his failing grades, crushed every time she saw him cry about school, bewildered by the mysterious headaches he came home with every day.
All of that went away when Jessie got back on track at a little Catholic school, where Jodi credits a scholarship for opening the door.
In their town of Frostproof, Florida, Jodi said, the neighborhood school just wasn’t working for Jessie, even though it had been a good fit for his three older brothers.
“He was really struggling and it was heartbreaking,” said Jodi, a divorced mother of six who works as a technician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “(My fear was) that he would eventually quit school and then go down a bad path.”
At the end of Jessie’s third grade year, school officials told his mom he would have to be retained because he was so far behind. Around the same time, he was diagnosed with dyslexia. Jodi knew her son needed help, immediately.
Coincidentally, she came across a flyer for St. Catherine Catholic School in nearby Sebring. The principal at the time, Dr. Anna Adam, tested and evaluated Jessie.
Now principal at a Catholic school in New York City, Dr. Adam can vividly recall the anguish on Jessie’s face when she met him. He was sweet and polite, but the uncertainty in his eyes and smile revealed how quiet and painfully shy he could be in the classroom.
“He came in as pretty much a non-reader,” Dr. Adam said. “But I didn’t want to retain him. I think if he would have been retained he would have been absolutely crushed, and we would have lost him. That would have been the end of him. He just would have curled up in a hole and gone away.”
Dr. Adam was confident she and her staff could work with Jessie, and Jodi’s heart soared. Not only had she found the right school, but they also told her about the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students that enabled her to afford the tuition.
In the three-building school with its small classes, Dr. Adam and Jessie’s teacher, Katherine Spencer, were able to give him lots of one-on-one attention. Getting him to read was a challenge.
“I felt for him so much,” Adam said. “He would cry and cry, because he tried so hard and just wasn’t getting it. We set up a lot of accommodations and modifications for him (in class).”
In getting to know Jessie, his teachers found out about his love for animals of all shapes and sizes (“We have everything – horses, dogs, and cats and ferrets and guinea pigs,” Jodi said of the rural Haley family home. “But he does like sharks and whales and tigers … things that’ll eat ya.”). They often tied Jessie’s assignments to those interests to keep him engaged and better unlock his abilities.
“We were taking the time to find out about him as a person, not as a student, but as a person at home,” Dr. Adam said. “So when we did ask him to write we made sure it was something that he knew about.”
Improvement came slowly, but Jodi saw progress in Jessie’s first report card. At a meeting with Ms. Spencer, Jodi was overwhelmed with emotion.
“Something finally clicked,” Jodi said. “You could tell he was beginning to understand the concepts and wasn’t freezing up. It was wonderful. I went and thanked the teacher. And hey, I’m crying now because I can’t believe it’s finally happening and he’s doing good, he’s learning now.”
The drive from Frostproof to Sebring and back every day was more than an hour, but worth it. Jessie’s headaches were gone. He no longer cried about homework.
“It was the teachers,” he said. “They would work it through with me step by step.”
Three years later, Jessie graduated St. Catherine’s sixth grade and was honored as the school’s top turnaround student.
“From where he was it was amazing,” Dr. Adam said. “He’s going to always have to work hard, but I think that’s what we gave him – the confidence to know that he could.”
Today Jessie is in 8th grade, back in his neighborhood school – and doing well.
“He made A’s and B’s in his last report card,” Jodi said, “and is determined to make all A’s on his next one.”
About St. Catherine Catholic School
First opened in 2008, St. Catherine is the only Catholic school in Highlands County, and part of the Diocese of Venice. It serves 119 pre-K through sixth-grade students, including 57 on the Step Up For Students scholarship. Principal Jorge Rivera touts the school’s emphasis on technology and writing skills. The school administers the Iowa Test of Basic Skills annually. K-6 tuition is $6,250 a year.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at email@example.com.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students, recently took a few moments to talk about his vision for the organization.
“We’re in the equal opportunity business,” Tuthill said. “We want to make sure that low-income children have the same opportunities more affluent kids have. We want to make sure special needs (students) have their needs met also.”
By GEOFF FOX
Outgoing, loyal, charismatic, hard-working.
The adjectives used by officials at Seffner Christian Academy to describe senior Darius Lue are words any parent would want to hear about their child.
Humble, friendly, intelligent, dedicated – the list goes on.
“He’s a natural leader,” said Amanda Allotta, school counselor at Seffner Christian.
Sam Moorer, the school’s basketball coach, agreed. Standing 6-feet-1-inch, Darius is a dynamic point guard who is was scouted by several universities, while maintaining a 3.96 GPA. He’s the kind of student-athlete who studies or does homework on the team bus and before practice.
“I think the world of him,” Moorer said. “He doesn’t look to cut corners. He’s Mr. Positive. He encourages people and never tears them down. He treats his teammates like he wants to be treated and takes a genuine interest in people. Every day, he comes up to me and asks, ‘Hey coach, how’s your day going?’ There aren’t many kids who do that. I don’t know of anybody who doesn’t like him.”
Darius is the youngest of Denise Waite’s three sons. A single mother, Waite learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students as her middle son, Miles, was entering fifth grade. She applied for and was awarded the scholarship, which allowed Miles to attend Florida College Academy in Temple Terrace, where he thrived. Miles, 21, now attends Hillsborough Community College.
Waite applied for the scholarship again before Darius started kindergarten; he has been on the scholarship through Step Up ever since.
“Our neighborhood schools might not have been terrible, but they were not the best,” said Waite, an independent insurance agent. “I wanted to give him the opportunity to grow and flourish in an environment with a lot of positivity.
“The environment is full of encouraging teachers, so he’s always surrounded by someone to encourage great behavior. The coaches and staff, everybody knows him and they know me. It’s great to have that support all around. If anything ever went wrong, I know they’d be there.”
While Darius’ prowess on the basketball court is now obvious, he said he was hardly a natural athlete and barely did more than dribble a basketball until about age 9. But once he did, hoops fever took hold and he committed himself to constantly practicing and studying the game.
He improved rapidly. By the time Darius, 18, reached ninth grade at Seffner Christian, he was playing on the varsity squad.
“I had to work pretty hard,” Darius said. “I had some athleticism, but when I was smaller I wasn’t fast and I had some weight on me. I was not one of those skinny kids who can dunk and run fast.”
His hard work on and off the basketball court has paid off, as he accepted a scholarship this year to play basketball at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
While Darius dreams of someday playing in the National Basketball Association, he is as practical as he is athletic. He is considering majoring in business management or accounting in college.
“I always wanted to be the top guy sitting over the business, the one with the ideas,” he said.
The adults in Darius’ life are confident he will succeed regardless of which path he takes.
“He takes very challenging courses,” said Allotta, the guidance counselor. “He’s in honor’s level or AP (Advanced Placement) courses. He challenges himself and still does very well. I’m confident he’ll be successful in whatever he does.”
Geoff Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By GEOFF FOX
Chris Yother could have slipped through the cracks.
A Merritt Island resident, he was one of nine children – and one of a set of quadruplets – born to Kate Brown and Michael Yother.
Unfortunately, Yother’s parents eventually divorced and money was tight. He had always been a conscientious student, but as high school approached, his mother decided she wanted the quadruplets educated at Brevard Private Academy (BPA), a local private school.
The Yothers applied for Florida Tax Credit Scholarships through Step Up For Students, and each of the quadruplets – Chris, Eric, Josh and Allison – were accepted.
At BPA, Chris Yother took dual-enrollment classes through Brevard Community College, now Eastern Florida State College, and often tutored other students. By the time he graduated from high school in 2013, he had also earned an associate’s degree.
Now a 21-year-old senior at the University of Central Florida majoring in international relations, he still wants to help others.
After he earns his bachelor’s degree, Yother wants to join the U.S. Navy as a commissioned officer.
“Down the road, I’d like to the represent the State Department as a foreign service officer; that would be my dream job,” Yother said. “You represent the interests of Americans abroad, protect them and stand up for their rights.
“I’d love to be in France. I speak some decent French, but I really like the French culture. The opportunity to be stationed anywhere abroad would be an honor.”
His brothers, Eric and Josh Yother, currently serve in the U.S Navy and Marine Corps., respectively. Allison Yother has also considered a military career.
“We’re from a huge military family, and I almost joined right after high school,” Chris Yother said. “Both of my grandfathers were in the military and lots of uncles and a great-grandfather.”
Chris Yother said he and his siblings weren’t falling behind at their local public school, but a private institution seemed “more like a better fit,” adding that their ninth-grade transition to Brevard Private Academy “was very smooth.”
“I liked it a lot,” he said. “The big difference was (smaller) class sizes. The instruction was more personalized. The teachers could do more one-on-one stuff. The environment was modified to help the individual.
“In public school, we were having trouble connecting with the instructors and the material.”
Brown, Yother’s mother, was especially pleased with the change of environment for her quadruplets.
“With the one-on-one attention, they really learned and excelled,” she said.
Jenna Brocchini, an administrator at Brevard Private Academy, described Chris Yother as the most outgoing of his siblings. His positive effect on the small private school was almost immediate.
“He’s a friend to everybody and probably never had an enemy a day in his life,” Brocchini said. “What always struck me about him was he always had a very strong interest in politics. He actually went to see Obama speak” at Merritt Island in 2010.
“He camped out just to see the president speak. He was there the night before, and Obama didn’t speak until the afternoon. He was there in a camping chair and waiting for hours. A lot of kids that age don’t know much about politics or really care.”
As Yother prepares for his senior year at UCF, he is working at Office Depot, where he fixes computers in the technology department. He is also busy organizing paperwork for the Navy.
“It’s a rarity that I have much down time, although I did take a little break this summer,” he said. “I like to read a lot, stay home and still follow all the political stuff.”
And, he’s still helping people.
Brocchini said she recently posted a message on Brevard Private Academy’s Facebook page, asking if anyone could help set up computers at the school or offer technological support.
“Right away, he said, ‘I’ll come, anytime,’” she said. “He’s one of those people you rarely come across. He used to tutor his peers, and he wasn’t selfish with his counseling. He was always ready to help any of his friends. Public service is something I’ve always seen him doing.
“He’s a real humanitarian. I really feel like he’s going to have a successful future.”
By PAUL SOOST
TAMPA – Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC), the nation’s second largest premium wine and spirits distributor, announced Monday a $55 million donation to Step Up For Students to provide scholarships for financially disadvantaged children in Florida.
The donation was announced Monday at Cristo Rey Tampa High School, a Catholic college-preparatory school and work study program for lower-income children in the Tampa Bay area. Of the 88 students attending Cristo Rey Tampa High School, 76 of them are recipients of the Step Up For Students scholarship.
RNDC State Executive Vice President Ron Barcena presented Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill with an oversized check representing the company’s $55 million contribution for the 2016-17 school year. The company’s donation, more than triple the amount of previous years, will fund more than 9,000 K-12 scholarships. The donation marks the fifth consecutive year that RNDC has partnered with Step Up, bringing its total to $115 million since 2012.
“As part of our commitment to social responsibility, we are focused on making positive differences that enrich the spirit and well-being of those in the communities we serve,” said Barcena. “We’re thrilled that this contribution will provide educational choices for lower-income Florida families, helping them set their children up for a successful future.”
From a truck driver to sales representative to human resources manager, a diverse group of RNDC associates attended the event with Barcena.
“We can’t do this without them,” Barcena said, adding it takes a strong effort from all parts of the business to be successful as a company, and the same is true for community engagement.
State Sen. Darryl Rouson attended the event at Cristo Rey to thank Republic National Distributing Company for supporting the community and lower-income students.
“Having received a private school education myself, I’m proud to see so many deserving students receiving the same learning opportunity, thanks to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program and to corporate donors like Republic National Distributing Company,” he said.
Rouson recalled a time as a boy he attended camp on the same grounds as Cristo Rey, and that he, too, went to Catholic school which led him to his successful career as a lawyer and a legislator.
“Saints walk among us daily and they come in the form of companies like Republic National Distributing Company and provide opportunities for children who need it,” Rouson said.
Steven Faison is one such student. The ninth-grader at Cristo Rey told the small crowd of guests at his school that while he went to a public magnet school, the overcrowding was troublesome for him. But private school seemed financially out of reach until he and his family learned about Cristo Rey and the scholarships through Step Up For Students.
“Education is very important to my family,” he said, “I plan to be the first in my family to attend and graduate from college.”
Step Up helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships to qualified lower-income K-12 schoolchildren throughout Florida. The program allows recipients to choose between a scholarship to help with private school tuition and fees, or a transportation scholarship to attend an out-of-district public school.
“We are truly grateful for the generosity and support of Republic National Distributing Company. The positive impact they will have on more than 9,000 children this year alone is truly remarkable,” said Tuthill. “RNDC is a great partner, and on behalf of our families, we thank them for their continued support.”
During the 2016-17 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 95,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued up to $5,886 per student. More than 1,600 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
Step Up public relations and social media manager Lisa A. Davis contributed to this report.
By PAUL SOOST
BETHESDA, MD — Global restaurateur HMSHost has pledged $400,000 to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income schoolchildren in Florida.
HMSHost’s contribution will benefit children whose educational options are limited by household income, helping underprivileged children attend a K-12 school of their parents’ choice that better fits their learning needs. Parents can choose between a scholarship toward private school tuition and fees, or one to offset the cost of transportation to an out-of-county public school.
“HMSHost values education immensely, and investing in the local communities where we operate is extremely important to our company,” said HMSHost President and CEO Steve Johnson. “The Step Up For Students organization is doing important work in Florida and it is a privilege to have formed this partnership to help set up Florida youth for success.”
The scholarship program’s funding comes from tax-credited donations from corporations like HMSHost that do business in Florida.
“Thanks to HMSHost, 66 Florida schoolchildren will have the opportunity to attend a school that fits the way they learn, regardless of where they live or their parents’ income,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “On behalf of Step Up and our families, we thank HMSHost for its generosity and we are grateful they have chosen to support our mission.”
Florida enacted the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program in 2001 to expand educational opportunities for children of families with limited financial resources. Since its inception, the program has grown exponentially and awarded more than 95,000 scholarships to economically disadvantaged students for the 2016-17 school year.
HMSHost operates restaurants in nine Florida airports and is committed to supporting state and local communities. Visit HMSHost’s location finder to see where HMSHost operates. Further details about HMSHost’s commitment to community relations can be found here:http://www.hmshost.com/community.
The company is a world leader in creating dining for travel venues. HMSHost operates in more than 120 airports around the globe, including 44 of the 50 busiest airports in North America. The Company has annual sales in excess of $2.8 billion and employs more than 37,000 sales associates worldwide. HMSHost is a part of Autogrill Group, the world’s leading provider of food & beverage services for people on the move. With sales of around €4.3 billion in 2015, the Group operates in 31 countries and employs over 57,000 people. It manages approximately 4,200 stores in over 1,000 locations worldwide. Visit www.HMSHost.com for more information. They can also be found on Facebook at fb.com/HMSHost and on Twitter at @HMSHost.
By GEOFF FOX
Ten years after graduating from The Rock School, a K-12 Christian school in Gainesville, Alani Charles is working to ensure that some of Florida’s most vulnerable residents are cared for properly.
At 27, Charles is married to wife Tara and has a 4-year-old son, Olin. For several years, he and Tara Charles worked as family teachers at Boys Town North Florida in Tallahassee. Boys Town is a nonprofit that offers a variety of services to at-risk children and troubled families.
“We were basically like foster parents for four to seven children at a time,” Alani Charles said. “We’d take them to school, take them to dinner. Whatever was needed. I’ve always kind of had a desire to help people.”
A couple years ago, he accepted a new job as a licensing specialist at Daniel Memorial, Inc., in Jacksonville. Daniel Memorial is considered Florida’s oldest child-serving agency.
“What I do is I go out to foster homes and license them; I make sure they’re in compliance to take care of children,” Charles said. “I go into people’s homes. I make sure they’re up-to-date on training, and make sure that things like fire extinguishers and alarms are working. We ensure that parents have all their needs met, as well as the children. I make sure they have the basic necessities.”
While Charles was not raised in foster care, he had personal experience with a broken home, as his parents divorced around the time he entered high school. That left his mother, Maureen Charles, to alone raise Alani and her older son Carlos by herself.
Although Alani Charles wasn’t a troublemaker, he said that period of his life was full of distractions. He didn’t care much for his neighborhood school and was mostly out to have fun.
That’s when administrators at The Rock School in Gainesville told his mother about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students. The scholarship provides financial assistance to low-income families for private school, or assists with transportation costs to attend a public school outside their home district.
Charles said he was comfortable going to The Rock School, as it is affiliated with his family’s church, The Rock of Gainesville.
Maureen Charles said her sons did well in school before they started attending The Rock, but that they both flourished there.
“The atmosphere (at The Rock) was a lot more challenging and people expected more of you,” Alani Charles said recently. “Between going to church and school, I was there six days a week.”
Not only did Alani Charles become co-captain of the basketball team, captain of the soccer team and a track and field participant, who competed in shot put and discus, but his study habits were also bolstered and refined.
The same went for Carlos Charles
In 2006, Alani Charles graduated from The Rock – in a class of 13 – with a 3.8 grade point average. He was named the school’s top scholar-athlete and won awards for exemplifying commitment, trust, excellence and leadership.
Jim McKenzie, principal at The Rock, said he is not surprised by Alani Charles’ continued success.
“He had a great experience here,” McKenzie said, adding that the former student still occasionally visits his old school. “We hope that his experience will be like that for a lot of the kids who come here on scholarship. (Alani) is just a really personable, charismatic guy – friends with everybody. He was always very compassionate and had a big heart; he’s like a big teddy bear.
“He had a big, larger-than-life personality that went with his (physical) stature, but he was very gentle, as well.”
Spurred by his success, Charles enrolled at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, where he graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology.
In May 2015, Carlos Charles graduated from Huston-Tilliotson University – a private, historically black university – in Austin, Texas, where he earned a degree in music, his mother said.
“He stopped (going to college), but he went back,” Maureen Charles said of Carlos. “I always told them you must finish what you start. It took him a little while, but he finished good and that’s the main thing.”
Both her sons have made her proud.
“If you work hard, it pays off. I always told them you don’t get anything for free.”