Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a three-part series for Giving Tuesday on how the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, provided a bright future for a student from a lower-income family.
By ROGER MOONEY
Tommy Pham decided he wanted to become a doctor during a week at a Muscular Dystrophy Association summer camp, helping children who have been affected by the disease that weakens the muscles.
There was swimming and horseback riding, dancing and zip-lining. Fun activities, for sure.
But Tommy and the other volunteers were on-call 24 hours a day to help the children eat and shower, brush their teeth and use the bathroom – simple tasks for most, but, monumental obstacles for these young campers.
“It was probably the first time in my life where I had to actually take care of somebody else besides myself,” Tommy said. “It helped me grow as an individual, for sure.”
That growth led Tommy to the University of Notre Dame, where he is a sophomore in the pre-med program.
“It was definitely an experience that called me into the medical field,” Tommy said. “Definitely.”
Tommy, 19, attended the camp the summer before his senior year at Jesuit High, a private Catholic school in his hometown of Tampa, Florida. The life-altering week was one of several of what Tommy called “resources” available at Jesuit that helped shape who he is today.
(Read the first installment of the three-part series about Tommy here.)
There were the academic resources that allowed Tommy to become an honor student and earn a QuestBridge Scholarship that pays for his entire college education.
There were other resources, the clubs and summer volunteer programs, that added to his personal growth.
They were available to Tommy because of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarship enables students from lower-income families to attend private schools that best fit their learning needs.
Tommy’s parents are from Vietnam. They emigrated to Florida 25 years ago and both work in the service industry. They often work two jobs each to help care for Tommy and his younger sister Jennifer, a senior at the Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa. Jennifer attends the private high school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.
Tommy understands the sacrifices his parents made with the hope he could attain the American dream. He was eager to use every resource available at Jesuit to move him in that direction.
A neuroscience and behavior major at Notre Dame, Tommy wants to become a doctor that helps those in financial need. That desire to work among the underprivileged was born the summer before his junior year. He spent a week on a mission trip to northern Georgia. While Tommy’s family struggled to make ends meet, this was the first time he experienced extreme poverty.
“I realized we can do much more than just work in our local community,” Tommy said. “It broadened my idea of community service. It also expanded my comfort zone.”
The courses, clubs and volunteer programs at Jesuit are designed to move the students along to higher education. That was always Tommy’s goal.
“But I didn’t completely understand the whole application process until junior year,” he said. “Realizing, ‘Oh wait, money is a big factor, too.’ I thought maybe if I work hard on my academics that I could eventually get into a top college.”
And that’s what happened.
The QuestBridge Scholarship was founded by Stanford University in the mid-2000s to give top academic high school seniors from lower-income families the opportunity to attend a top college or university.
Tommy was one of 918 students nationwide from the class of 2018 to earn a QuestBridge scholarship. He was the first from Jesuit to receive one.
He attends school in Indiana, more than 1,100 miles from his hometown. He was introduced during his freshman year to northern winters. For the first time in his life, he saw snow and experienced subfreezing temperatures.
The educational setting is different, but Tommy feels comfortable in his new surroundings. While challenged by the workload associated with pre-med courses, Tommy is prepared.
“I’m much more confident in myself, much more confident in my own abilities,” he said, “just knowing that there is a supportive community (at Notre Dame) that is always willing to help you grow, not only academically but also emotionally and spiritually. Jesuit definitely introduced me to that aspect of learning. For that, I’m very thankful.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
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 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.”
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.
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ASHLEY ZARLE
Globe Life, the top volume issuer of ordinary individual life insurance policies in the United States, announced Dec. 17 a $25,000 contribution to Step Up For Students Scholarship Program for the 2018-19 school year.
This is the first time that Globe Life has supported Step Up For Students. The company’s contribution will fund three K-12 scholarships so lower-income children can attend the school that best meets their learning needs.
“Since 1951, Globe Life has believed in giving back to the communities in which we live and work,” said Corey Jones, Senior Vice President of Digital Marketing and Branding for Globe Life. “We strive to create opportunities to be a source of good to those around us and we are proud to support Step Up For Students to provide education opportunities for children in our community.”
Step Up For Students is 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 allows parents and students to choose between a K-12 scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.
“We are honored to welcome Globe Life as a supporter of our mission to help lower-income Florida families access schools that best fit their children’s unique learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful for their generosity and their commitment to giving back to their community.”
For the 2018-19 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 98,500 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,519 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,815 for sixth through eighth grade, and $7,111 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
Ashley Zarle can be reached at email@example.com.
By PAUL SOOST
American Income Life, a provider of life, accident and supplemental health insurance, announced on June 25 a $25,000 contribution to Step Up For Students, helping lower-income children attend the K-12 school that best fits their learning needs. The contribution will fund three scholarships for the 2018-19 school year.
This is the first time that American Income has partnered with 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.
“American Income Life takes an active role in giving back to the community, in places we live, work and visit. We’re proud to partner with Step Up For Students and to help shape the lives of children through educational opportunities,” said Chief Executive Officer, AIL Agency Division Steve Greer. “Supporting Step Up’s mission will help develop future leaders in our communities and we’re excited to be involved.”
The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged schoolchildren 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.
“We are thrilled that American Income Life has joined us in our efforts to provide educational options for lower-income families in Florida,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “We are grateful for their generosity, and to its employees’ efforts to improve the lives of people living in their communities.”
For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students served more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade, and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
Paul Soost can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.