By GEOFF FOX
Linery Burgos’ voice cracked with emotion as she spoke about the academic progress of her oldest daughter, Ariely, a ninth-grader at the recently opened Cristo Rey Tampa High School.
For years, Ariely has struggled with dyslexia, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), the last a condition that makes it hard for her to understand vocal tones or distinguish certain sounds.
“Some people think she can’t hear, but she can,” Burgos said of Ariely, who is 15. “Her brain just doesn’t always process what she’s hearing. Some sounds and words sound similar, so she can’t always catch if someone is being sarcastic or joking. It directly influences her reading fluency and that causes issues in school.”
Watching Ariely struggle through their neighborhood school tore at her mother’s heart. Imagine trying to learn how to read when some of the letters don’t look right and the words sound wrong.
“Sometimes, I’ll read words that aren’t even on the page and I’ll mix up sentences or skip sentences,” Ariely said.
Due to her challenges, Ariely often speaks in a soft voice and isn’t one to initiate conversation, but her smile can light up a room.
Burgos wanted to enroll her in a private Catholic school, where she could receive more attention in a Christian setting, but she and husband Jose Burgos couldn’t afford it.
Fortunately, as Ariely was about to enter third grade, her mother learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The family applied and Ariely was accepted. She enrolled at Tampa’s St. Joseph Catholic School for three years before transferring to Morning Star School, a private school that serves students with learning disabilities.
At Morning Star, Burgos said, the teachers worked “miracles” with Ariely.
“Step Up was great because we could get her in a school for learning disabilities,” Burgos said. “When she started sixth grade at Morning Star, she was reading on a third grade level. She is now reading on a high seventh-grade or low eighth-grade level. She still has difficulty, but she’s acquired a lot of different skills.”
Ariely said she enjoyed St. Joseph and Morning Star because of more individualized instruction, especially with reading.
“The teachers were really fun and that makes it easier to learn,” Ariely said. “They bring joy into the classroom. They were always cheerful and always caring.”
Morning Star Principal Eileen Odom said that while Ariely was struggling in a few subjects when she entered the school in sixth grade, she was obviously “very bright and spiritual.” Despite Ariely’s reading struggles, Odom said she excelled at math.
“I think she just needed an environment that was more student-centered,” Odom said. “She’s initially kind of shy and quiet. If I would get her to read something, she would talk in a real quiet voice, but if you provide her with some successful experiences she can rise to the occasion. We helped her realize she had strengths and could succeed. We spent the next three years trying to boost her up and give her confidence.”
Ariely was eventually comfortable enough at the school to run for Student Council, star in Christmas plays, assist as an altar server and help with fundraising.
When it was time for Ariely to enter high school, Burgos didn’t hesitate to choose Cristo Rey, which opened in August 2016. She said the school’s Corporate Work Study Program was particularly appealing.
Through that program, Ariely now works at Step Up’s Clearwater office several times a month. In that capacity, she has written a story about herself for Step Up’s blog, helped create a video describing her school’s relationship with Step Up, which will be shown to the nonprofit’s board of directors, as well as paperwork and other duties.
“The opportunity to go into the workforce, and a professional workforce, that’s what sold me,” Burgos said. “These children will have an opportunity that is usually for students who are leaving college. That will pump up their self-esteem and give them networking opportunities they never knew were available. It can help them have a different outlook on life.
“They’re doing it for underprivileged kids because they need it the most. Hopefully, they won’t get stuck in the rut of leaving high school and just getting some job. For a lot of their parents, maybe that’s all they knew. This may help them see that, hey, I can go to college and make something better. That will help my family and anyone who comes behind me. Giving that opportunity to children who wouldn’t otherwise have it is a blessing on its own.”
While Cristo Rey serves only low-income students, it is choosy about who is enrolled. Students must be able to maintain a C grade point average and be able to do college preparatory work.
Cristo Rey is already one of Step Up’s Success Partners, meaning it participates in a two-year comprehensive professional development program that is free to all schools serving Step Up scholars. Success Partners is grounded in current research that directly correlates student success with parent involvement regardless of economic, racial, ethnic or educational backgrounds .At Cristo Rey Principal Jim Madden said Ariely already seems comfortable. She made all A’s and one B in the first semester.
“Ariely is very quiet, but very observant,” Madden said. “She takes in everything around her. She tries hard and has already been having success in the classroom and social environment.”
Burgos said her family is thankful for the scholarship, and not just for Ariely. Her younger daughters, Linery, 13, and Jolie, 6, also have received tax-credit scholarships to attend Villa Madonna Catholic School in Tampa. Linery has been on the scholarship seven years, like Ariely, and Jolie for two.
“We are eternally grateful for these opportunities,” Burgos said. “This was a dream come true. Without Step Up, we couldn’t put our kids in Catholic school and give them the education we think they need. That’s one thing in life people can’t take from you. People can hurt you and break your heart, but no one can take away what you’ve learned.”
Reach Geoff Fox at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ARIELY BURGOS
My name is Ariely Burgos and this is my story.
I was born in Belleville, New Jersey and when I was little, I moved to Tampa, Florida. I moved to Florida in between the time I was baptized and when my little sister was born.We are 15 months apart. She’s been by my side all of my life. She is my best friend.
My first school was Sam Rampello Magnet school in downtown Tampa. I started in kindergarten there and my last year there was in second grade. My sister and I both went there, but my sister was in a grade below me. I went to that school for three years. We changed schools because my mom was talking to the priest at my church and he told her about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students. He told her she should apply to see if she would qualify, and she did. We went to St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Tampa where I started in third grade. I was more nervous than ever.
That year, I realized how shy I could be. At school, I did not talk to anyone and when I spoke no one heard me because I was so quiet. No one noticed me. The only person I talked to was my sister at lunch. My sister was – and still is – a confident, social and outgoing person. She is sassy and she is not afraid to speak her mind. My sister and I are complete opposites. She always made friends on the same day. My favorite part of attending the same school as my sister was that she always had my back no matter what. It was a little hard being social, but that was the least of my worries for what was next to come.
When I was in fourth grade, I was really behind with my reading, and I really struggled. I went to therapy. I had a therapist named Ms. Jen, and she was so much fun. She helped me with my homework and other schoolwork. We made real progress and one day she asked me to do this quiz. She said it was to see if I have dyslexia so I said, “OK. Why not?” I took it and the test showed that I have dyslexia. I knew I had memory problems, but this was a completely new level. It explains why it took me three hours to do my homework in fourth grade. It made me feel different, so I had to go in for more testing.
I found out I also have Auditory Processing Disorder and Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD. I tried another year at St. Joseph’s and I was just struggling more. I stayed up really late doing homework; I got stressed out a lot, and I stared to get bad headaches. Nothing was helping me! I really didn’t know want to do. Ms. Jen recommended a new school that would help with everything. So, I changed schools again. I finished my fifth grade year at St. Joseph’s.
The next year, I went to Morning Star Catholic School in Tampa. Again, I was nervous ever. I went without my sister to this school. I made it through the first couple of hours, then on our break between classes, I could no longer be strong and I cried. I cried because I was in a new school without my sister; I missed being with her and I was going to miss my youngest sister going to preschool. I was scared my sisters would think I was different, and their friends would think I was different because I went to a different school. So, I cried, and then a girl in one of my classes noticed me and I told her why I was crying. She reassured me that I would be OK. I was starting to like this school and it was easy for me to fit in. I made friends and I was more outgoing. I loved how all the teachers cared about me and made learning fun.
My sixth and seventh grades were amazing. My eighth grade year was fun, too, but an event happened that changed the way I looked at life. At the beginning of that year, I looked at life with happiness and joy. I never even saw any darkness; I believed in light. I was so excited when I found out who my homeroom teacher because I had her the last year for religion and she was, and forever will be, my favorite teacher. In November of that year, as we got ready to leave for our Thanksgiving break, she said would be out for a while because of medical issues, but back before the Christmas play. She said not to worry, so I didn’t. But she didn’t get to come back at Christmastime. She was in and out the hospital a lot. She came back to the classroom once or twice.
We didn’t see her for a while and my class was worried. She loved us as if we were her own children. All the teachers told us that she would be OK , but she wasn’t. In April, we got a note that went home saying she had died. I was devastated. She was the only person that I ever knew who passed away. At that moment, my mind was not filled with joy or happiness, but with despair and darkness. At that moment, all of my inner-joy was gone. I was not happy about life; I was not looking forward to anything in the future. I was just hurt. I still went on, though.
I decided to just keep it all inside. That didn’t help at all. I put on a happy face for everyone, but inside I was hurt and didn’t know what to do. After a while, I decided to talk to the guidance counselor. I really just needed to talk and she understood that. I began to feel OK. That lasted until I had to choose high schools. I wanted to choose a high school that was right for me and I could fit into just fine. In the end, my mom decided for me because I couldn’t. She decided on Cristo Rey Tampa High School.
It’s a school that gives you an opportunity. It gives you job experience and it comfortably became my new high school. I just started at the school this fall, but I really like it. I am glad my mom chose it. It is a good school and I really recommend it. As part of the learning, the school gives you an off-campus job and you work there once a week. I work Tuesdays at Step Up For Students, where my scholarship comes from, It’s so much fun. Everyone is welcoming and friendly; they all are willing to help you when you need it. I like working at Step Up and learning more about things that happen in the real world and getting really good experience.
Editor’s note: We like having you at Step Up, too, Ariely. We’re so proud of you and how far you’ve come! We were first introduced to Ariely at Morning Star where we did a photo shoot for our annual report. We learned she wants to become an athletics coach. Here’s her photo in our Step Up For Students 2015-16 annual report with her wonderful smile: