By ROGER MOONEY
Lucas Kirschner came for the basketball. He stayed for the education.
The recent graduate of Miami Christian School enrolled there as an eighth grader with the help of a private school scholarship managed by Step Up for Students. The draw for him was Miami Christian’s highly regarded boys basketball program. The draw for his mom was the school’s academics.
At the time, Lucas had dreams of playing professional basketball. But after two seasons his playing time was scarce. Several of his friends on the team were leaving for a neighborhood high school, and Lucas seriously considered joining them.
His mom, Ocilia Diaz, told Lucas his friends had their reasons for leaving and he had plenty of reasons to stay, namely the education.
Woody Gentry, Miami Christian principal, told Lucas that just because basketball wasn’t working out as he hoped, he could work harder to earn more playing time.
“Grow through the experience, whether you’re playing or not,” Gentry recalled saying.
Eventually, Lucas decided to stay.
“I ended up staying because Miami Christian has a very good basketball team but also has a great educational system,” he said.
The teachers, Lucas said, care about the students. They provide support and hold them accountable.
“I didn’t want to leave that, because I felt if I left that I would have gone off the track,” he said.
Lucas, 17, is set to begin his freshman year at Miami Dade College, where he will study automotive engineering. The goal of playing in the NBA has been replaced by one of working as an engineer for a Formula One racing team.
“I love engineering,” he said. “I love working with cars.”
Lucas attended Miami Christian, because his mom felt he was going off the track at his neighborhood middle school. She wasn’t pleased with the students he was hanging out with or his conduct in class.
“It was just behavior,” Diaz said. “Clicking the pencil on the desk. Talking. Over talking. Getting up to sharpen the pencil. It got to the point in junior high where he was starting to make comments and laughing and becoming disruptive in class. Becoming the silly boy. Ha. Ha. Ha. It’s so funny, but it’s not funny anymore. The teachers get annoyed.”
Diaz was worried where this was heading. She and Lucas’ father, Holger Kirschner (they divorced when Lucas was 4), decided to send their son to a private school. Diaz learned of Miami Christian, located 20 minutes from their Miami home. The basketball program was certainly attractive. And so was the school’s faith-based education, academic reputation and small class sizes. The tuition was a concern – currently $10,000 per year for middle school and $10,500 for high school.
Diaz was told about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which allows parents to send their child to a school of their choice. She applied.
“When we were accepted, it was the best thing ever,” she said.
Lucas knew it was the right move.
“I was hanging out with the wrong people, skipping school a lot, not doing homework, not doing classwork. Just slacking off. Not caring. I had nobody to push me,” he said about his neighborhood school.
That changed at his new private school.
“I felt the environment around me change completely,” he said. “The environment changed me. The teachers changed me. It helped me get out of that state I was in in middle school.”
Lucas also found Principal Gentry.
Gentry realized quickly that this new student liked to feel needed, liked to be given tasks.
So, Gentry asked Lucas to help set up for school functions around campus. Lucas helped grill and serve hotdogs during school cookouts. He made Lucas the “cell phone captain,” meaning Lucas was charged with collecting his classmates’ cellphones before class and distributing them after class.
In that role, Gentry said, “He was phenomenal.”
Lucas was a mainstay on Project Plus, an afterschool program created by Gentry for campus projects. One was to make bulletin boards with plexiglass covers that can withstand the elements at the school’s open-air campus.
“He thrived with doing those kinds of things,” Gentry said. “When he had an assignment, a project, hands-on, felt a sense of ownership with it, that helped him a lot.”
When Lucas was a junior, his maternal grandfather passed away and he had a hard time dealing with his grief. Gentry noticed and invited Lucas to spend the day in his office. Gentry told Lucas to not worry about his schoolwork that day, just work through his feelings and that he was there if Lucas felt like talking.
“He made everything comfortable, comforting,” Gentry said.
On the day Lucas graduated from high school, Gentry gave him a hug and said, “You’re going to be something out there.”
Diaz, standing nearby, was filled with pride. The decision to send her son to Miami Christian and her son’s decision to stay accomplished everything she had ever hoped.
“They molded him,” Diaz said. “He has the thought of continuing to study and wanting something bigger for himself.”
As the years went by, Lucas, a 6-foot-3 guard/forward, learned there was more to high school than playing time on the basketball team. He has grown through the experience.
“I’m actually very glad I went there,” Lucas said. “It changed my life for the better. It molded me into something I actually wanted to become. It molded me into a better person. I can see my future better.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By JEFF BARLIS
Heidi Gonzalez saw the warning signs. Her daughter Samantha Delgado had just started sixth grade at her neighborhood middle school in Miami, and already she was going down the wrong path.
Bad grades. Bad behavior. Falling in with the wrong crowd.
As a 10th grade teacher who worked with at-risk students at a public high school, Gonzalez knew veering off course in middle school could lead to much worse later. She spent lunch breaks researching private schools near their home, determined to find a better environment. A Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students made it possible for her to consider them.
“I’m very lucky,” Gonzalez said, “to have caught it on time.”
It wasn’t an easy choice. Gonzalez knew she might hear whispers at work. She had spent years working in public schools. But this was her sweet little Sammy.
“I’m a parent first and a teacher second,” Gonzalez said. “She’s my daughter and I’m going to do whatever is best for her despite wherever I’m working. It doesn’t matter what other people say, what the community says, what society says. At the end of the day you’re bringing that kid home with you. It’s your problem to solve.”
Sammy was Gonzalez’s “little angel” until middle school. Report cards with D’s and F’s and poor conduct prompted constant bickering. Samantha’s piercing brown eyes would roll with indifference every time her mom tried to give her guidance.
“It didn’t look like she cared about her future,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez started paying closer attention to Samantha’s new friends and the area around the school, which was tucked between an expressway and a busy six-lane street. She drove through the neighborhood after morning drop-off and saw children skipping school and middle-schoolers smoking.
Samantha said she was just trying to fit in. She often walked across the street with her friends to a bakery, where they’d eat, hang out, and return to school when they felt like it.
“I was new,” she said, “and new kids tend to do whatever everyone is doing.”
Like her friends, Samantha was struggling academically, too. Longtime difficulties with math landed her in a remedial class, but she couldn’t stand doing classwork on a computer every day.
“I didn’t like that class,” she said, “so I didn’t really bother going.”
Near the end of the school year, Gonzalez broke the news to Samantha – she was transferring to Miami Christian School for seventh grade.
A short drive away, the campus was wide open with big, green spaces for sports, and gardens for vegetables and butterflies. It was tranquil and clean.
Samantha was especially surprised by the class sizes. There were about half as many students as she was used to, and the teachers made a point of working with each.
The students were different, too.
Samantha quickly became friends with three girls who made a strong impression on her with their behavior and work ethic. They weren’t skipping classes.
“I thought that was weird, but then I thought maybe I should start staying in class more, because they’re doing it,” she said. “And so I did.”
“When I first saw everyone in the school getting really, really good grades it made me feel like I’ve got to push myself and get better. If everyone there is getting good grades, what am I doing slacking off?”
Slowly, Samantha gained confidence in the classroom. She improved in her first couple of years, then took a dramatic step in 10th grade. She earned all A’s and B’s and made honor roll for the first time in her life. Gonzalez was so emotional, she had the award framed.
Now in 12th grade, she’s planning for college, with an interest in becoming a physical therapist.
Her horizon is broadening in other ways. Miami Christian encourages its students to volunteer in the community, and Samantha has contributed by preparing meals for needy children and joining students with disabilities on bicycle rides.
She’s also discovered hidden talents.
Before Miami Christian, Samantha had never played on a team and didn’t like watching sports. But because the school is so small, she was needed on all teams – soccer, volleyball, softball, and basketball.
In time, she discovered a knack for softball and, last year, was named the team’s most valuable player. Now she practices or plays nearly every day during the season and works by herself in the offseason.
“It’s about being a well-rounded individual, and sports can be a big part of that,” said high school principal Woody Gentry. “I think it’s helped her. You see the growth, you see her developing, you see her confidence. … We’re just happy to have been part of it.”
Samantha didn’t like switching to private school at first. She cried often about missing her old friends. But it wasn’t long before she came to agree with her mom’s decision.
“I matured 100 percent,” she said.
For Samantha, the change brought the bonus of a more peaceful and loving relationship with her mom.
For mom, it’s everything to get her sweet Sammy back.
About Miami Christian School
Established in 1954, the non-denominational school is accredited by SACS (Southern Association of Schools and Colleges) and ACSI (Association of Christian Schools International). For 2017-18, there are 270 Pre-K through 12 students, including 17 on Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. In the past five years, Miami Christian has graduated 222 students who were accepted to more than 100 different national and international universities and were offered $8.9 million in four-year scholarships. The school offers honors, Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment classes. High school students take the PSAT every fall and the Terranova test every spring. Annual tuition is $7,225 for kindergarten, $8,325 for grades 1-5, $8,950 for grades 6-8, and $9,8250 for grades 9-12.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@StepUpForStudents.org.