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Earthquake survivor uses education choice scholarship to become a ‘Rising Star’

BY ROGER MOONEY

MARGATE, Florida – Sophonie Jean Baptiste was in the family’s second-floor apartment the day in 2010 when an earthquake rocked her native Haiti. She grabbed her daughter, Gema, who was not quite 3, and tried to run for safety while the three-story building they lived in crumbled.

They didn’t make it.

Nearly five hours later, family members heard Gema’s cries from under the rubble. She was the only one of the nine who were in the apartment to survive the 7.0 magnitude earthquake.

“My mom died trying to save me,” Gema said.

Debris lodged in Gema’s right eye cost her the vision in that eye.

Gema does not remember the earthquake that claimed an estimated 100,000 to 160,000 lives, nor any of the estimated 52 aftershocks that occurred during the following 12 days. She does not remember her father, Emmanuel, taking her to a hospital in the Dominican Republic for treatment on her eye.

Emmanuel and Gema before the Rising Stars Award ceremony April 27 at Abundant Life Christian Academy in Margate.

Gema said she cannot remember anything that happened in her life before the age of 5, which was when she and her dad immigrated to the United States.

“I don’t remember my mother,” she said.

Gema, now 14, answered questions about the earthquake while sitting in an office inside Abundant Life Christian Academy in Margate, where she is finishing her freshman year. She has attended the private K-12 school since third grade on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.

She spoke in the quiet, confident voice of someone who knows where she is going in life.

To Broward College next year, where she will be dual enrolled.

To an Ivy League college.

To medical school.

To a life helping those who need help.

She wants to someday open her own hospital in Haiti.

“I always wanted to do something big with my life,” she said.

Gema received the High Achieving Student Award during this year’s Rising Stars Awards program, hosted by Step Up. Abundant Life Principal Stacy Angier nominated her for the award, which is for students who excel in academics, arts or athletics.

Gema excels in academics, where she is one of the top students in her school. She is a member of the National Junior Honor Society, tutors classmates in math and science, and volunteers for Abundant Life outreach programs, including a 2019 mission trip to Havana, Cuba. She can also be heard playing Beethoven on the school’s piano.

“Gema’s always been good at math and she’s a really hard worker and that’s a huge part of it,” Angier said. “The ability you bring to the table is important, but what’s really important is what you put into it, and she puts her heart and soul into it.”

Education is of the utmost importance to Gema and her father. That’s how she found her way to Abundant Life.

Gema introduces herself at the Rising Stars Award event.

Emmanuel wanted a more-demanding education for his daughter than the one she was receiving at her district school.

“Anything that’s easy for Gema, she gets bored,” Emmanuel said. “She doesn’t want problems like one plus one equal two. She wants problems that are hard, that make you think.”

A coworker told him about Abundant Life. Emmanuel’s concerns about the school’s tuition were put to rest when he learned of the scholarships to K-12 private schools administered by Step Up.

He knew his daughter was in the right education environment when she came home after her first day in the third grade with 12 books in her backpack.

“They’re going to teach you a lot,” he told Gema.

Emmanuel, now a civil engineer for the City of Margate, calls the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program “the best thing ever.”

“This is amazing,” he said. “I tell Gema, ‘When you get to the Ivy League school and get your degrees and are making big bucks, I want you to put money into that program.’ This is the best program ever. I love it.

“Because of this program, she can be in one of the best schools in the district. I can’t say ‘thank you’ enough to those who contribute to the program.”

Emmanuel and his second wife, Sherline, have two sons – Emmanuel II, 7, and Stephen, 5. Both will begin attending Abundant Life in the 2022-23 school year.

“It’s a quality education,” Emmanuel said.

Gema’s mom, Sophonie, thought of becoming a doctor before deciding on a career as a nurse. Emmanuel said Sophonie’s dream was to guide their daughter to a career in medicine.

Gema was unaware of that plan when, at the age of 5, she told her dad that she wanted to be a doctor.

“As soon as she said that to me, I was like, ‘Wow! This was something your mom was dreaming about, you becoming a doctor,’ ” Emmanuel said.

It’s an ambitious dream for anyone, let alone a 5-year-old

After emerging from the rubble, Gema is building the foundation of a bright future. Emmanuel said his daughter has benefited by coming to America at a young age, learning to speak English well, getting a good education – all things he missed out on.

“The stuff I didn’t do, I can see it through her,” he said. “She’s going to make it.”

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

Cancer doesn’t interrupt path to med school for alumni of Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program

BY ROGER MOONEY

It was the beginning of the 2019-20 school year and Luke Desclefs was smoothly sailing toward graduating Jacksonville’s Bishop Snyder High School that spring. His course load wasn’t heavy. His grades were in order. His plans for college were in place.

Then in October, he noticed a lump on his neck.

Cancer.

Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that attacks the body’s immune system.

His reaction? “It stinks.”

Luke was more upset with the intrusion in the plans for his final year of high school than the disease.

“Everyone faces something,” he said.

Luke understood that all too well.

Five years earlier, his mother Kathy, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And in August, two months before Luke’s diagnosis, his dad Benoit was found to have an inoperable malignant brain tumor.

“We never asked, ‘Why us?’” Luke said. “Complaining about it isn’t going to help.”

Luke Desclefs

Life continued as best as it could for the Desclefs. Kathy ran The Magnificat Café, the French-American restaurant they owned in downtown Jacksonville, while Benoit underwent treatment. Luke endured three months of chemotherapy. His teachers at Snyder, which he attended on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, adjusted his class schedule to accommodate his treatments.

“It’s not that enjoyable to have cancer,” Luke said. “Sometimes you’re tired of it, and you want to take off this jacket that’s cancer, breathe for a little bit and just put it on later. You can’t do that.

“But it could have been so much worse. You begin to feel blessed. It really changes your perspective on life.”

Luke, 20, is currently a sophomore at Florida State University. He is majoring in both exercise physiology and French. The first is part of a pre-med track. The latter is so he can converse with his family in France, where his dad was born, and possibly study abroad.

His coursework is demanding. He navigates that with the discipline to learn and study he acquired while attending private schools, first Christ the King Catholic School then Snyder.

“It’s incredible that I was able to do that,” Luke said. “But as I got older, I did begin to wonder how my parents paid for my education.”

The answer was the tax credit scholarship, made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.

Step Up is celebrating its 20th anniversary of providing education choice to families of Florida schoolchildren. Last year, it awarded its 1 millionth scholarship.

How Luke came to receive an FTC Scholarship is an example of the sacrifice a father is willing to make for his family.

Family time is important for Benoit. His father had been in the restaurant business and worked nights and weekends. Benoit, who was born in a town outside of Paris and studied at a culinary school in Bordeaux, dreamed of owning his own restaurant. He also wanted to be home for dinner. He wanted to spend the weekends with Kathy and the kids.

Hours like that don’t exist in that line of work. Unless you own the restaurant. And you only serve lunch.

In September 2003, Benoit opened The Magnificat Café. The restaurant was surrounded by office buildings that supplied the lunch crowd. Benoit had his wish. He was doing what he loved while spending time with those he loved.

Benoit and Kathy Desclefs.

“It worked out for our kids. It worked out for us,” Benoit said. “I spent time with my kids at night. I watched them grow. I was with my wife at night and on the weekends.”

But it came with a price. Lunch hours are just that. Most patrons had little time for appetizers or dessert. The big money comes at dinner, when people order several courses and maybe mix in a bottle of wine.

 “Your profit margin at night is much higher,” Benoit said.

“Hence,” Kathy added, “that’s why we were on Step Up For Students. We worked hard, but we didn’t make the income.”

Kathy and Benoit wanted a Catholic education for Luke.

“This scholarship really afforded him a great education, and he was in an environment that was conducive to studying and had great teachers and all the discipline that comes with parochial school,” Kathy said. “It helped provide him with the hunger and thirst to learn, and he did very well as a result, obviously.”

Kathy, who put her treatments on hold when Benoit and Luke became sick, recently returned to work. But not at The Magnificat Café. They had to sell it in August 2020, a casualty of COVID-19 as much as Benoit’s inability to work.

The brain tumor forced Benoit into an early retirement. Kathy, who beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma when she was 30, recently began working at the Women’s Help Center in Jacksonville.

Luke sees that as a return to some normalcy for the family.

“It’s not really normal when your parents don’t work for reasons of health,” Luke said.

Luke’s cancer is two years in remission. He hasn’t decided on what he will specialize in, but he knows he will bring a unique perspective to the profession.

“The blessings that come from having cancer far surpass the suffering,” he said. “I can understand my patients more, and because of that, I can work with them in ways that other physicians can’t. The patient-physician relationship will be better. It’s more real. It’s more honest. I can respond to their needs better.”

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

Northeast Florida Catholic school lauded for outreach efforts to immigrant families

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School principal Barbara Kavanagh poses with students who are participating in the school’s rural education program.

BY LISA BUIE

A parochial school program intent on extending education choice to children of migrant workers has received a national award for its efforts.

The National Catholic Education Association announced that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School in Palm Coast, Florida, will receive the Catherine T. McNamee CSJ Award. The award is given to an individual or institution that offers exceptional leadership in promoting a vision of Catholic education that welcomes and serves cultural and economic diversity or serves students with diverse needs.

The award is one of five presidents’ awards that will be bestowed April 18 at the association’s annual convention in New Orleans. Given in honor of past NCEA presidents, the 2022 awards honor those who demonstrate change and inspiration to further the mission of Catholic education.

“Catholic school communities nationwide are blessed to have individuals and organizations such as our honorees as devoted and faithful servants to the gospel values we hold dear and a deep commitment to Catholic school education,” association president Lincoln Snyder said in a news release announcing the winners.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton received the national recognition for its participation in a rural education program. Founded in 1997, the school, known as SEAS, has an enrollment of 189 students in 3-year-old pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

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Two families, football and education choice helps Junior realize his dreams of a college scholarship

BY ROGER MOONEY

TAMPA, Florida – Jessie “Junior” Vandeross considers himself “blessed” because:

  • His father died when he was 3.
  • He has a heart murmur that was detected when he was in the seventh grade and threatened to end his athletic career.
  • The grim memories of the day his father passed away surfaced when Junior was in the 10th grade and caused anxiety attacks.

Blessed?

“Going through tough times and getting through it and being successful, you have to be blessed,” he said.

Mary Lou Lopez, Junior Vandeross and Nina Vandeross. (Photo courtesy of Jesuit High School.)

Junior, 18, is a senior at Jesuit High School in Tampa. He has a football scholarship to the University of Toledo. As the leading receiver on Jesuit’s football team last fall, he helped lead the Tigers to an undefeated season and a state championship.

After the season, Junior received the Bill Minahan Award, presented annually to a football player in Hillsborough County who best demonstrated “extraordinary perseverance as well as leadership, selflessness, passion, loyalty, excellence on the field and service to others.”

“He keeps pushing,” said Nina Vandeross, Junior’s mom. “He never gives up. That’s what I love about him.”

Junior attends the private Catholic high school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, funded by corporate contributions to Step Up For Students.

“The Step Up scholarship helped him tremendously. I really appreciate that they have that for children,” Nina said. “Everybody is not fortunate, but the Step Up program makes it possible for people to have a better education and a better future.

“I love it. It makes your kid better. It makes them feel like they can do what they want to do. I am so grateful for it.”

Nina is also grateful for Denis Lopez and his family, who entered Junior’s life at a time when he needed a strong male role model.

“They are angels on earth,” she said.

Lopez is an officer with the Tampa Police Department. He was serving as the athletic director and football coach at the Police Athletic League when he met Junior, who was 7 at the time. Lopez was impressed not only with Junior’s talent on the field but his demeanor away from it. He volunteered to drive Junior home from practice because Nina didn’t have a car. Lopez took more of an interest in Junior when he learned his father had died and that Nina often worked nights at her job as an IHOP waitress.

Lopez asked Nina if Junior could spend some nights at his house with his wife, Mary Lou, and their sons, Xavier, who is a year older than Junior, and Xander, who is a year younger. Nina willingly agreed.

“Nina is the star of the show,” Lopez said, “because she made the biggest sacrifice of everyone, giving up time with her son.”

Junior has his own bedroom at the Lopez house and a closet filled with clothes. He also has his own set of chores.

“We’re all one family now,” Nina said.

A routine physical when Junior was 12 uncovered a heart murmur, placing his football future in jeopardy. After a battery of tests, Junior was cleared to play, and the murmur has never been an issue.

With the help of a tax credit scholarship, Junior followed Xavier to Jesuit.

Junior struggled in class as a sophomore, the result of a series of anxiety attacks. It seems he could no longer suppress the memories of his father’s death.

Junior had gone to the store with Nina that day. When they returned, Junior ran into his parents’ bedroom and began climbing on his dad, who had been napping. Nina was surprised her husband didn’t wake up. Jessie Vandeross Jr. (Junior is actually Jessie Vandeross III) had died of a heart attack. He was 29.

“When you’re that age, you can see it, but you can’t understand it,” Junior said. “But when I got older, I can remember everything, how the whole entire day went. Seeing him in bed. Seeing him being taken away in an ambulance.”

Junior sometimes wonders what life would be like with his father.

“Everything I do is for him, because he would want me to do the same thing if he were here,” he said.

As they did with their sons, Denis and Mary Lou Lopez hammered the importance of education into Junior.

“Education, it changes everything for you,” Lopez said. “That’s what breaks cycles.”

Junior found Jesuit’s academic rigors to be challenging at times, but he applies to the classroom the same focus and drive that carries him on the football field.

“It doesn’t come easy for him, but he works hard, and I think that will benefit him at the next level,” said Steve Matesich, Jesuit’s director of admissions. “He doesn’t realize it yet how prepared he’s going to be once he gets to Toledo.”

Like a lot of high school football players, especially those who were top players on state championship teams in Florida, Junior dreams of playing in the NFL. But he wants to major in business at Toledo, because he’s also eying a career in real estate.

With her son nearing high school graduation with a college scholarship in hand, Nina says she can finally breathe.

“Life is so much better when you see your children are living their dreams,” Nina said. “I’m glad he’s doing what he wants to do, because some kids don’t get the opportunity to do what they want to do.”

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

Sisters make education choice scholarships a family affair

BY ROGER MOONEY

It has been nearly a decade since Jasmine and Emily Rojas graduated Abundant Life Christian Academy as eighth graders, yet in a sense, they never left.

The sisters still email or visit their former teachers and volunteer for school activities. When Jasmine needed a letter of recommendation for dental school, she turned to Abundant Life Principal Stacy Angier. When Angier needed volunteers to judge the recent science fair, she turned to Emily.

When they struggled with a science assignment during high school and college, they both turned to Loretta Camacho, their former middle school science teacher.

“That,” Angier said, “is what a school is supposed to be, right?”

It is for the Rojas sisters, who credit the academic disciplined learned there as a big key to their success at an academically competitive public high school, Florida Atlantic University, and their postgraduate studies. Jasmine is scheduled to attend dental school at Case Western Reserve University in August, and Emily is working virtually toward her master’s in music at Liberty University.

“(Abundant Life) was a big part of my foundation going into high school and going into college, facing those worldly situations and having the discernment to make the right choices,” Jasmine said.

Jasmine (Class of ’13) and Emily (Class of ’14) attended Abundant Life, a private school in Margate, Florida, with the help of Florida Tax Credit Scholarships, which are provided by corporate tax contributions to Step Up For Students.

Step Up celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. That’s 20 years of empowering parents to find an educational environment that best suits the needs of their children. During that time Step Up has awarded more than 1 million scholarships across the five programs it manages.

Claudia and Wilman Rojas are proponents of school choice. They sent their two oldest children – Bryan and Kelley – to Abundant Life because they wanted them to have a faith-based education.

“They wanted us to have that foundation, even when we’re not at home,” Emily said.

The plan was the same for Jasmine and Emily. But when the nation’s economy plunged into a deep recession in 2008, the school was no longer affordable. Or it wasn’t until the family learned of the FTC Scholarship.

“Absolutely a blessing,” Jasmine said. “We wouldn’t have been able to continue to go to that school without the scholarship.”

Said Emily: “Abundant Life is such a good school. It helped us grow with our relationship with God and keep firm with that, and with our studies as well. There wasn’t another school that would have been like that. I’m extremely grateful.”

Jasmine and Emily Rojas in 2005 while attending Abundant Life Christian Academy

In addition to being “top-notch students,” as Angier described them, Jasmine and Emily were mainstays on the girls basketball, softball and volleyball teams.

“They came to school early. They stayed late,” Angier said. “Anything we needed, they helped with. They always did their work. Polite. Respectful. There was never any discipline. Not even, ‘Hey, don’t talk in class.’ They learned in their home that you respect authority, that you work hard, that you always do your best. That permeated their time here.”

Abundant Life was K-8 when the Rojas children attended. (It has since added a high school.) That meant Jasmine and Emily needed to find a new school after eighth grade. After using education choice in the form of a tax credit scholarship to attend Abundant

Life, the Rojas family exercised another form when Jasmine and Emily both chose to attend Florida Atlantic University High School.

FAUHS is a competitive school that requires an admissions test, letters of recommendation and an interview. Students graduate with three years of college credits. While the school is not part of the local public school system, it is recognized as a public school by the State University System. Angier sent them there with recommendation letters and her blessings.

“And they were rock stars there, too,” she said.

Angier and her staff try to build a relationship with all their families, though not all are as close as the one with the Rojases. When Jasmine expressed an interest in studying nonprofit management at FAU, Angier offered to set up an internship for her at her old school. Writing letters of recommendation for any of the Rojas children was an easy task for Angier.

Claudia calls her children’s time at Abundant Life a “blessing.”

“I’m very grateful for this school,” Claudia said. “They helped my kids in so many ways, growing spiritually and growing into the persons they are right now. The experience there, I think I was more happy than they were.”

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

Dreams of owning a home, quality schools for the boys come true thanks to education choice scholarship

BY ROGER MOONEY

ORLANDO, Florida – Juliette Harrell was 17 when she told her mom she was pregnant. She was promptly kicked out of her house.

A single mother herself, Juliette’s mom painted a bitter picture of Juliette’s new world.

“My mom told me my life was over. You got to take care of your kids. You can’t do anything,” she said.

Juliette agreed with only one part: She would take care of her baby. But she felt her life was not over, and she was determined to realize her dreams of completing her education, starting a business, owning a home, and raising a family in a nuclear household.

Now, 10 years after Aiden was born, Juliette has realized all but one of those goals. Her childcare business is still in the planning stages. But it will operate out of the home Juliette and her husband, Allen, own at the end of a cul de sac in Orlando, where they live with Aiden and his brothers Amar’e, 6, and Asht’n, 2.

The path to the present wasn’t easy for the Harrells, who found themselves homeless at one point. They remained on course through an unwavering belief in themselves and a Step Up For Students scholarship. The scholarship relieved some of the financial burden and allowed the Harrells to exercise their right to school choice and send Aiden and Amar’e to a private schools located within walking distance of their home.

“The scholarship really has helped us tremendously. I don’t know where I’d be without it,” Juliette said. “The school that we’re zoned for hasn’t been performing well – well, not up to my liking, anyways.”

The Harrell family: Asht’n, Juliette, Aiden, Amar’e and Allen (standing).

Allen was working as a groundskeeper at an Orlando apartment complex when he learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is provided by corporate tax contributions to Step Up For Students. The scholarship allowed Juliette and Allen to enroll Aiden in Orlando Day Nursery, a private pre-K and kindergarten school near their apartment at the time.

Aiden now attends Alpha Learning Academy, a K-5 private school, where he is in the fifth grade. Amar’e attended Orlando Day Nursery for pre-K and kindergarten and is now in the first grade at Alpha Learning Academy.

Juliette said receiving the FTC Scholarship eased the anxiety she had about Aiden’s education.

“For me, it was really important that we not only get the best education, but the education environment that best fit our family,” she said. “At the time, the public school we were zoned for wasn’t the best. I wanted options for (Aiden), and we were looking for the best opportunities for him.”

Education has always been at the forefront of Juliette’s plans. She graduated from high school despite being a teen mom who found herself bouncing between hotels and the homes of family and friends after her mother kicked her out.

“That was really important to me, getting my high school diploma so I didn’t become another statistic,” Juliette said.

Then she received an associate degree from Valencia College in Orlando and a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from the University of Central Florida. Allan has an associate degree from Valencia. He now works in merchandising for City Beverage of Orlando.

The two met in a computer graphics class in high school. Allen was a senior and Juliette a freshman. Juliette saw Allen from across the classroom, walked up and told him they would someday be married. And they are.


Click here to listen to more of Juliette’s story on the reimaginED podcast with Lisa Buie.


Poor money management led to the couple being homeless for six months in 2015. Juliette took Aiden and Amar’e and moved into a woman’s coalition. Allen moved back home with his mom. The separation, Juliette said, made the family bond stronger. It also provided her with the motivation to finish her degree at UCF.

“I felt really hopeless at times,” she said. “I felt like, ‘Why is this happening? What did I do wrong? Why did I go the route that I did?’”

Juliette knew an education was the way out. She wants the same for her boys. She wants to raise them in a stable, two-parent household where they never go hungry and always feel loved.

She wants to open the daycare to help the teen moms and the single parents in the neighborhood. She and Allen have cleared space in their backyard for a community garden, so they can provide fresh vegetables for their neighbors.

Juliette said she feels as if her family is no longer in “survival mode.” Because of that, she said it’s time they help those in their community who can use a hand.

“I want to let other families know that there is a way out of your struggle,” she said. “We did it, and we went to help other people get out of their struggle, also.”

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

Step Up For Students ranked 13th in Forbes list of 100 top American charities

Step Up For Students continues to rise among the top nonprofits in the country, breaking into the top-15 of Forbes’ list of America’s Top 100 Charities 2021.

Step Up is ranked 13th, the highest ranking for among education charities.

Ashley Elliot

“Step Up For Students is proudly celebrating its 20th anniversary of providing scholarships to underprivileged children, and the Forbes ranking underscores just how far we have come in those two decades,” said Anne Francis, Step Up’s vice president, development.

“We are grateful for the support of our donors, whose support is integral to receiving this honor. With over one million scholarships distributed by Step Up, deserving students are being positively impacted each day, thanks to our generous donors.”

During the past fiscal year, Step Up received $976 million in private donations. The bulk of those donations are contributed from corporations participating in the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) Scholarship Program.

Passed into law in 2001, the FTC Scholarship Program allows companies to receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits against certain tax liabilities. The funds provide K-12 scholarships to children, eligible through their household income.

Ashley Elliott says the FTC scholarship made all the difference. Raised by her grandmother in Lakeland, Fla., Ashley was struggling in high school. She used an FTC scholarship to attend Victory Christian Academy. She went from failing to graduating high school with honors, then earning her associate degree from Valencia College, and is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Central Florida.

“Your education determines your future,” she said. “When I received school choice, it changed my future. I want that opportunity for everyone, not just me.”

20 years of Educational Opportunity: Once a beneficiary of education choice, Ashley is now an advocate

BY ROGER MOONEY

The first time Ashley Elliott realized her story could make a difference was when she found herself in Washington, D.C., moving from the office of Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Orlando) to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) to talk about the importance of education choice.

It works, Ashley said. You’re looking at proof.

It was a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship that changed the trajectory of her life for the better. She went from being a bullied student with failing grades at her district high school to one who aced her classes and made friends after enrolling in a private school as a junior. She was a college freshman when she was invited to Washington to share her story, and she didn’t hold back.

“If I could change the hearts of legislatures then it meant that things could change for kids in Florida, as well,” Ashley said.

Once a beneficiary of education choice, Ashley is now an advocate for education choice.

“I think where I see myself (in the future) is just always trying to make educational opportunity a continuing option, at least within Florida and hopefully in the U.S.,” she said.

Step Up For Students celebrates its 20th anniversary this school year. Last year, it funded its millionth scholarship. Many have used the FTC scholarship, provided by corporate tax contributions to Step Up, to combat economic hardship and graduate from high school.  And many of those high school graduates have pursued a college education.

Once a beneficiary of education choice, Ashley Elliott now advocates for education choice.

Indeed, research shows Ashley is hardly alone. A 2017 report by the Urban Institute found that FTC students were up to 43 percent more likely than similarly disadvantaged students in public schools to attend a four-year college, and those who were on the scholarship for at least four years were 99 percent more likely to attend college. They also were more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.

 Ashley counts herself among that group of FTC alumni. She already has an associate degree from Valencia College and is on pace to graduate this spring from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor’s degree in history. She would like to pursue a master’s degree in history or education policy, and possibly continue on for a Ph.D. She currently works part-time as a writer for the American Federation for Children and would love to continue working for the nonprofit after she graduates UCF.

Ashley said that “ninth-grade Ashley” never thought any of this was possible.

“She wouldn’t know how I got here. She would be confused,” she said. “But ninth-grade Ashley would be happy for me.”

Growing up in Lakeland, Florida, Ashley described her life as the “epitome of American poverty.” She and her younger brother were adopted by their grandmother. They both call Juanita McKinnon “Mom.”

 Despite the love at home and the sacrifices made by Juanita, who gave up her retirement years to raise her grandchildren, Ashley didn’t see much of a future for herself. She didn’t think she would graduate high school. She was resigned to being what she called “a statistic.”

But the principal and a teacher at the alternative high school she attended took an interest in Ashley. When they moved to a private school, they asked Ashley to move, too. With the help of the FTC scholarship, Ashley entered Victory Christian Academy as a junior and went from a student with failing grades and discipline issues to one who earned A’s and B’s and graduated with honors.

“Your education determines your future,” she said. “When I received school choice, it changed my future. I want that opportunity for everyone, not just me.”

Ashley and her mom, Juanita McKinnon.

Ashley forged tight bonds with her teachers at Victory Christian. She remains in touch with many of them. She’ll ask some to proofread a paper before she turns it into one of her college professors.

“They’re always there when I need them,” she said. “I know I can go back and get the help I need at any point in my life.”

Ashley is quick to recount a parent/teacher conference during eight grade where she and Juanita met with seven of her teachers. Two thought Ashley could salvage her grades and graduate. Ashley felt the other five had given up on her.

It was only recently when sharing that story with a couple of her college friends when one asked, “Did you ever think you weren’t receiving the proper help?” that Ashley fully grasped what it meant.

“And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re right,’” she said. “Because when I went to Victory there were the proper teachers to help me. A lot of it was about finding the right environment that worked for me.”

That’s what Ashley advocates for: The proper learning environment for every student. It can be achieved, she said, if families have a say, a chance to choose the education environment for their children.

In February, Ashley spoke to lawmakers in New Mexico. She told them that according to social statistics she should be a high school dropout, not someone who is a few credits shy of a college degree.

“It makes me really frustrated and upset that while our kids are going through the system and suffering, (lawmakers) are saying, ‘Wait. Wait. Just wait for it to be fixed. We’re working on it. Give it some time,’” she said.

“While legislators are saying that, school choice will be there to give an option for students who don’t have that time to wait. There’s no time to wait for a kid who’s trying to get through school. You have to be educated. I want to make sure that educational opportunities are always an option.”

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

The Foundation Academy students march for unity, education choice at MLK Jr. Day parade

BY ROGER MOONEY

For Daarina Cue, an 11th grader at The Foundation Academy in Jacksonville, marching in the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade is a “great experience.”

The people who line the parade route cheer the students as they pass by while carrying large photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and other luminary figures of Black history.

Elementary grade students at The Foundation Academy in Jacksonville ride on the school’s float during the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade.

It is not lost on Daarina that some of those people received a much different reaction when they marched during the civil rights movement

The parade, Daarina said, “is very meaningful, since it’s our history. It also means a lot since we see what they accomplished in life. We can keep doing what they did.”

More than 70 students, staffers and parents of The Foundation Academy participated Jan. 17 in Jacksonville’s 41st MLK Holiday Grand Parade. It was the seventh consecutive year the private K-12 school has marched in the parade.

“Our diverse school wanted to show that we honor our African-American brothers and sisters,” Principal Nadia Hionides said.

Daarina and Nasiyah both said their participation in the parade was a “great experience.”

This year’s theme was “Strength In Unity.” The float, pulled by one of the school’s vans, was lined with cutout figures depicting children of every race and nationality holding hands. Those who walked alongside wore sandwich boards with photos of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Mae Jemison (first black female astronaut to travel into space), Fredrick Jones (inventor, entrepreneur), George Washington Carver, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and other notable people in Black history.

“The first time I learned about the history of myself, I really got to see how my ancestors used to be, and I am honestly proud to be Black,” said Nasiyah Halls, a seventh grader.

Nasiyah echoed Daarina’s sentiment when he said participating in the parade was “a great experience.”

“Loved the people. Loved the energy,” he said.

Like Daarina, Nasiyah attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The Foundation Academy has a student body of 375, with 231 attending on a Step Up scholarship. That total includes 179 on FTC Scholarships.

In a head start to National School Choice Week, which begins Jan. 23, the school incorporated education choice into its celebration. Students wore yellow National School Choice Week scarves. Those in the elementary grades who rode on the float wore orange T-shirts from Step Up that included the words “Parent Power.”

Many of those who walked wore blue T-shirts with the words “I AM ESSENTIAL” printed on the front. Tia Unthink, the school’s admissions director, said that message is shared among the student body every day.

“When you come to our school, you don’t see one color, you see all colors represented,” she said. “You see multiple nationalities represented, and that’s the only way we will ever present ourselves, because we are all children of God. We are all capable and are excellent in what we do. We want the students who attend TFA to see themselves in leadership.”

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

Conn’s HomePlus Supports Florida Students Through Scholarship Program

Conn’s HomePlus has contributed $174,000 to Step Up For Students, helping 23 deserving Florida schoolchildren access the right education to help them succeed.

This is the first year Conn’s HomePlus has partnered with Step Up For Students to contribute to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, an income-based scholarship program funded by tax-credited contributions from corporations. The K-12 scholarships allow Florida students to pursue and engage in the best learning environments for their individual needs by attending a private school or public school different than their zoned district school.

Conn’s HomePlus is one of the top consumer goods retailers in the country whose mission is to make it possible for everyone to purchase quality, long-lasting products for their home. Through their partnership with Step Up, they also support the mission of giving students access to the educational options they need. Step Up scholarships help provide those options to students like Joshua Brutus, a senior at Tampa Bay Christian Academy (TBCA).

Joshua Brutus, who benefits from a Step Up For Students scholarship, is a senior at
Tampa Bay Christian Academy who plans to attend college and start his own nonprofit.

Joshua was once considered the class clown until he was appointed junior class president by the principal of TBCA — a decision intended to draw out Joshua’s full potential. Joshua rose to the challenge, becoming a class leader and earning A’s and B’s.

Now, he has big plans for his future: a college education and possibly a career as an electrical engineer. Joshua is also committed to giving back. He wants to start a nonprofit to help young Black men in economically-struggling communities around Tampa transition from middle school to high school. He wants to show the same belief in them as the TBCA teachers and administrators have shown in him.

Joshua also understands the importance of the support he is getting from the Step Up scholarship because it gives him the ability to attend Tampa Bay Christian Academy.

“I’m very fortunate that I get to go here and get the support from them,” Joshua said.

Just like Joshua, tens of thousands of Florida schoolchildren are able to access the learning environment that works best for them with the help of a Step Up scholarship, which are possible because of the support of companies like Conn’s HomePlus.  

“At Conn’s HomePlus, we are committed to supporting students and families in the communities where we live and work,” said Chandra Holt, Conn’s HomePlus President and CEO. “We believe in the mission of Step Up For Students and are excited to partner with them to help provide Florida students the educational options they need to succeed.”  

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

Since 2002, Step Up For Students has awarded more than one million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

“With the support of Conn’s HomePlus, even more students in Florida will be given access to the educational environment that works best for them,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful for their generosity and commitment to helping students throughout Florida.”

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