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School choice scholarship was her ticket out of extreme poverty

By JEFF BARLIS

At Seven Rivers Christian School in Lecanto, there’s a list of core values for students. Among them: Do hard things.

Maloni Lewis knows it. She’s lived it.

Maloni Lewis, a Step Up For Students graduate, now attends College of Central Florida in Ocala.

With two disabled parents and three older brothers in and out of jail, Maloni grew up in extreme poverty. Their community in nearby Crystal River, with its run-down homes and overgrown yards, was full of hopeless people.

Devastated by the path her sons had taken, mom Renée had an unyielding determination to chart a different course for Maloni. A tall, broad-shouldered woman, she made a school-choice scholarship the ticket to a better life.

“We went through a lot of trauma,” Renée said after a pause, her eyes welled up with tears. “But I told Maloni, it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s where you’re at.”

Like her brothers, Maloni struggled in third grade at her neighborhood school. Her reading, writing and math grades were poor. Other than her trademark mane of meticulous braids, she wasn’t herself. The playful smile, the one mom said “has diamonds in it,” was missing.

Renée had seen this before. Her boys were bright and talented, but they came home from school explaining how it wasn’t cool to be smart. They were made fun of for speaking proper English. Bad friends led to bad choices. Going to jail, Renée said, was a virus that tore through the family.

Maloni would be different.

Through a local nonprofit organization, Renée found out about Seven Rivers and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program that would make paying the tuition possible. She applied through Step Up For Students.

Formerly a certified nursing assistant who worked late hours and double shifts to make ends meet, Renée went on disability after she was injured in a fall. She also has kidney and heart problems that cause frequent hospitalizations.

After her injury, husband Donald went on partial disability due to worsening asthma. Money became a problem. Power and water were hard to keep on.

It was all a blur to Maloni. Until Seven Rivers.

Her first memory of the school is from age 9, when teachers, staff and parents came to help her family move. The Lewis home had been deemed uninhabitable, and they needed help moving to Maloni’s grandparents’ house.

“They’ve always been family to us,” Maloni said of the school.

Nestled along a rolling hillside dotted with oaks and pines, the school’s rusticated concrete-block buildings are modern and clean. For Maloni, the people inside made all the difference.

Chief among them was resource coordinator Donna Nelson, a wiry, fiery, caring woman who is now the school’s director of admissions. She became a mentor to Maloni and a close friend of the family.

“My secret angel,” Renée said.

Nelson’s job was to work with struggling kids, and she spoke frequently with Renée about Maloni’s strengths, weaknesses and direction. They plotted a course to help Maloni catch up in an academic environment that was far more rigorous than her previous school.

“At first I thought she was mean,” Maloni said. “But she wasn’t. She’s just passionate. She wants people to learn. She wants to help you.”

Maloni turned to Nelson in and out of school. If she needed tutoring or was hungry, Nelson was there. Sometimes when Renée was in the hospital, it was Nelson who broke the news to Maloni and offered rides and a place to stay.

“She loves her,” Renée said. “And I just wish for other families to have that. It’s so huge.”

Even with Nelson and Renée pushing, it took years to get Maloni on track in the classroom. Math was a stubborn nemesis, and she was plagued by doubts. I shouldn’t be here. Maybe college isn’t for me.

But her teachers never gave up. Maloni’s support structures grew to include year-round sports – volleyball, basketball and track.

Renée Lewis, left, and Donna Nelson forged a strong bond in raising Maloni together.

After being a student who put forth a minimal effort, Maloni found a passion for learning and hit her stride in high school. Her GPA went from 2.4 as a freshman to 3.8 as a senior. She even conquered math.

With graduation looming in the spring of 2017, Maloni applied and got accepted to a small college in Pennsylvania.

“She wanted to go as far away from her community as possible,” Nelson said.

The school offered some scholarship money. But it wasn’t enough, so Maloni decided to go to the College of Central Florida in Ocala.

She recently finished her first semester with mostly A’s. Her plan is to get an associate’s degree, then transfer to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. The dream is to become a nurse like her mom and travel the world.

So much of her success is owed to Seven Rivers.

“I’m overly prepared,” she said. “Freshman year is supposed to be hard, but it’s really easy. It makes me realize I’ve been educated properly.”

From the moment her daughter graduated high school, Renée was “on a cloud.” She felt a sense of peace, perspective, and gratitude for the scholarship that made Seven Rivers possible.

“Step Up For Students is a lifeline,” she said. “It allows kids and families to dream. What they thought was so far out of reach is possible.”

Maloni knows. She’s lived it.

About Seven Rivers Christian School

Founded in 1988, the school is affiliated with Seven Rivers Presbyterian Church. It is accredited by Christian Schools of Florida, the National Council for Private School Accreditation, and AdvancEd. The school serves 502 K-12 students, including 126 on Step Up For Students scholarships. The curriculum has an emphasis on college prep and includes honors, Advanced Placement, and dual enrollment courses in high school. The school administers the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test three times a year. Tuition rang

Reach Jeff Barlis at jbarlis@sufs.org. 

Student Spotlight: Kira Murillo, Meadowbrook Academy, Ocala

Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedBy SHERRI ACKERMAN

As a first-grader, Kira Murillo developed stomach pains every Sunday night. That’s how much she hated going to her neighborhood school.

When her mother asked what was wrong, “we had to pry it out of her,” recalled, Elsie Murillo, who was crushed to discover Kira was unhappy at school. “A little child like that shouldn’t have to go through all that anxiety.”

School administrators told her Kira couldn’t keep up with her classmates and she eventually had to repeat the grade. It wasn’t the education her parents had envisioned.

Today, Kira is a high school senior, member of the National Christian Student Honor Association among others and a cheerleader with big dreams to become a pediatric physical therapist.

Kira Murillo

Kira Murillo

Hard work and family support led to the amazing transformation. But Kira also acknowledges the strong educational foundation she received from a private school her parents could afford only because they qualified for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program through Step Up For Students.

“If it weren’t for this scholarship, I probably wouldn’t be here at Meadowbrook Academy and succeeding,” Kira said. “I don’t even want to imagine where she’d be,” Murillo added. “Not with all the accomplishments she’s had.”

Her mom and dad learned about the scholarship at their church, which is affiliated with the academy. The 20-year-old private school in Ocala has 288 students in kindergarten through 12th grade with about 46 percent receiving the tax credit scholarship through Step Up, a nonprofit that administers the program.

“I never knew this was available,” said Murillo, a former prekindergarten teacher who now works as an assistant kindergarten teacher at Meadowbrook.

The income-based program provides eligible families with tuition assistance at more than 1,500 participating private schools throughout the state, or helps with transportation costs to attend an out-of-county public school. Meadowbrook’s tuition is $5,850 plus fees for books and registration.

Since 2001, Step Up has provided nearly 480,000 K-12 scholarships. The organization also manages the Gardiner Scholarship, formerly known as Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, for children with certain special needs.

Once Murillo realized her family might qualify for the tax-credit scholarship, she quickly filled out the Step Up application for Kira and prayed.

“When we heard she was accepted, we were so excited,” Murillo said. “We called all of our family.”

Kira spent her first six years in traditional public schools, completing kindergarten in New York and, after her family moved to Florida, and two more years at an Ocala elementary school.

She was so unhappy, said her dad, Luis Murillo, a retired railroad worker.

When the family moved to a different house in Ocala, Kira started third grade at another public school. It was much better, her mom said, but middle school – with larger classes – was looming.

“I knew I wanted a better option for her,” Elsie Murillo said. “Some place where there weren’t so many students and she could be comfortable learning and getting the help she needed.”

Meadowbrook seemed perfect with its small classes with about 25 students to a teacher in K-8 and 18-to-1 in grades 9-12; rigorous curriculum offerings with a Christian perspective through A Beka Book; academic clubs, like the National Christian Honor Society, and social clubs such as the Chik-Fil-A Leader Academy, which teaches young people how to help their community; and sports teams like volleyball, softball, basketball, flag football, track and golf.

The nondenominational school, situated on 80 acres with sprawling athletic fields and natural wooded areas, is accredited by the International Christian Accrediting Association (ICAA) and Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Academic achievement is measured annually by the national Terra Nova standardized test.

“We have the same accreditation as public schools, so we have the same accountability, too,” said Principal Tina Stelogeannis, who started working at the school in 1996 as a kindergarten teacher and now oversees a staff of three administrators and 19 degreed teachers.

Depending on grade level, students also take college placement exams, including the PSAT, SAT and ACT in addition to weekly tests and projects to demonstrate competency of concepts. Students can take test prep classes and receive extra tutoring after school.

There’s also a dual enrollment program through the College of Central Florida in Ocala for students wanting to get a head start on college. Students travel to the college for classes, but soon will have access on Meadowbrook’s campus.

For Kira, the school has been a good fit, but it was rough at first.

“She came in like a little closed-up rosebud,” Stelogeannis said. “But then she blossomed into a beautiful, confident young lady.”

Kira had some catching up to do with her Meadowbrook peers in sixth grade, “but it just went up from there,” she said. “Learning is one on one and teachers ask you to interact, to raise your hand and be involved in the class.”

Her favorite class is economics “because it’s so different from all the other classes,” said the 18-year-old, who has a 3.6 GPA. And because her teacher, David Wallace, makes it fun to learn.

Future plans include attending the College of Central Florida then transferring to the University of South Florida in Tampa for a business degree and a master’s in physical therapy. Meanwhile, Kira is focused on finishing her senior year at the same school where her little sister, Lanina Murillo, is a sixth-grader on scholarship.

“I love what my girls are learning here,” Elsie Murillo said. “Meadowbrook feels like home. It feels like family.”