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Step Up manages 5 education choice scholarships: Which one do you qualify for?

By Roger Mooney

The collapse of the real estate market in 2008 signaled the crumbling of the luxurious lifestyle for Helen and Frank Figueredo, who owned a real estate firm in Miami.

The recession cost them everything: Their business. Their savings. Their house. They filed for bankruptcy twice and ended up in foreclosure. They sold nearly all their possessions to make ends meet.

Jonas and Jack Figueredo

One thing that was nonnegotiable for the Figueredos was a  private education for their two sons: Jonas and Jack.

They needed financial help to make that work, and that’s where Step Up For Students came into play.

Step Up manages five scholarships that provide K through 12 education choices to students from lower-income families, those with certain special needs, students who have been bullied at a public school and struggling readers in public school in grades three through five.

A parent or guardian might ask: What scholarship do I qualify for?

Well, let’s take a look using these examples.

Scholarships for children from lower-income families

The Figueredos were eligible for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two income-based scholarships managed by Step Up. The other is the Family Empowerment Scholarships. Both scholarships are based on a family’s financial need, and both give families a choice to find a new learning environment for their child.

Parents use a single application for the scholarships and Step Up determines eligibility for either the tax-credit scholarship or the newer Family Empowerment Scholarship.

In the case of the Figueredos, it was the Westwood Christian School, a private pre-K through 12 school near their Miami home. Both boys entered when they were eligible for pre-K. Jonas recently graduated from the private school near the top of his class with a scholarship to the University of Miami. Jack just completed his sophomore year and is following in his brother’s academic footsteps.

Scholarships for children with certain special needs

Phyllis Ratliff worried about her son Nicolas.

Diagnosed with high-functioning autism at age three, Nicholas was nearing the end of the eighth grade. It was time for Phyllis to search for a high school that could accommodate her son’s needs.

Nicolas Ratliff-Batista and Kiwi relaxing at home.

She feared that the large neighborhood high school would present a threatening environment, that Nicholas would be an easy target for bullies. She worried that Nicholas would be intimidated by the large class sizes.

A friend told her about Monsignor Pace High School, located in Miami Lakes, 10 miles from their home. Upon visiting the school, Phyliss learned of the Gardiner Scholarship, which allows parents to personalize the education of their pre-K through 12 children with certain special needs by directing money toward a combination of approved programs and providers. (A list of special needs covered by the Gardiner Scholarship is found here under “eligibility requirements.”)

The Gardiner Scholarship helped cover the tuition at Pace.

Phyllis was relieved.

“That was phenomenal,” Phyllis said. “We were so excited there was something out there for him.”

Nicolas graduated with honors and recently finished his first year at Broward College, where he is studying environmental science.

Scholarship for students who have been bullied

Jordyn Simmons-Outland had been a target of bullies in his public school since the second grade. The physical and emotional toll over the next two years was so intense that Jordyn told his grandparents that he wished he were dead. He began to see a therapist.

Jordyn Simmons-Outland

In 2018, the Florida Legislature created the Hope Scholarship to give relief for K-12 public school children from bullying and violence. The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district.

Jordyn was the first-ever recipient of the Hope Scholarship. He began attending Lakeview Christian School in Lake Placid, Florida as a fifth grader in the fall of 2018.

“Hope is the best description (for the scholarship). I keep thinking ‘There is hope, there is hope, there is hope,’” said Cathy Simmons, Jordyn’s grandmother. “I can’t wait to tell everyone what a blessing the Hope Scholarship has been. Now there’s peace.”

Scholarship for students struggling to read

In third grade, Kiersten Covic’s reading score on the Florida Standards Assessments (FSA) was high enough where it signaled that she would likely excel in English Language Arts the following school year.

Instead, her grade plummeted to “below satisfactory.”

It wasn’t the only thing that plunged. So did her confidence.

Kiersten Covic

Fortunately, her mother, Kelly Covic, learned about the Reading Scholarship Accounts managed by Step Up For Students that could help pay for a reading program called ENCORE! Reading at Kiersten’s school, Dayspring Academy.

In 2018, Florida lawmakers created the reading scholarship to help public school students in third through fifth grade who struggle with reading. The program offers parents access to Education Savings Accounts, worth $500 each, to pay for tuition and fees for approved part-time tutoring, summer and after-school literacy programs, instructional materials and curriculum related to reading or literacy.

Third through fifth grade public school students who scored a 1 or 2 on the third or fourth grade English Language Arts (ELA) section of the Florida Standards Assessments in the prior year are eligible. (Due to COVID-19, the reading portion of the test was canceled. The Florida Department of Education is assessing eligibility requirements for the 2020-21 school year.)

With a score of 2 on the English Language Arts section of the test, Kiersten qualified. Her mother applied for the scholarship, was approved and enrolled Kiersten into the program at the A-rated public charter school in New Port Richey during the 2018-19 school year.

The program was enough to boost her reading grade on the state test to a 3, a perfectly acceptable grade to put her back on track for success.

“We were really, really thrilled and relieved,” said her mom.

Again, to learn more about the Step Up scholarships, click here. To read more stories about how those scholarships impact the lives of the
Step Up scholars, click here.

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

Reading scholarship boosts confidence, scores

By LISA A. DAVIS

In third grade, Kiersten Covic’s reading score on the Florida Standards Assessments (FSA) was high enough where it signaled that she would likely excel in English Language Arts the following school year.

Instead, her grade plummeted to “below satisfactory.”

It wasn’t the only thing that plunged. So did her confidence.

Fortunately, her mother, Kelly Covic, learned about the Reading Scholarship Accounts managed by Step Up For Students that could help pay for a reading program called ENCORE! Reading at Kiersten’s school, Dayspring Academy.

Kiersten Covic benefited from the Reading Scholarship Accounts program during the 2018-19 school year.

 In 2018, Florida lawmakers created the reading scholarship to help public school students in third through fifth grade who struggle with reading. The program offers parents access to Education Savings Accounts, worth $500 each, to pay for tuition and fees for approved part-time tutoring, summer and after-school literacy programs, instructional materials and curriculum related to reading or literacy. Third through fifth grade public school students who scored a 1 or 2 on the third or fourth grade English Language Arts (ELA) section of the Florida Standards Assessments in the prior year are eligible.

With a score of 2 on the English Language Arts section of the test, Kiersten qualified. Her mother applied for the scholarship, was approved and enrolled Kiersten into the program at the A-rated public charter school in New Port Richey during the 2018-19 school year.

“When I first found out that I had to do this, I was disappointed,” said Kiersten, now a sixth grader at the school. “I thought of myself as stupid that I had to take this course.”

But soon she started reaping the benefits of the after-school reading program when her

grades had an uptick. Kiersten enjoyed the variety of methods the program used with reading assignments, writing prompts based on the books, vocabulary building activities and testing. She also found the program’s point-and-reward system motivating, using things like a prize box for students and the promise of a pizza party for good work.

Dayspring educators designed the program after the creation of the scholarship, answering the call to further help struggling readers.

“We designed the program to provide targeted instruction to small groups of learners. We saw this as an opportunity for our learners to receive additional support from their teachers,” said Wendy Finlay, Dayspring principal.

 “We had six teachers teaching in our ENCORE! program to ensure that our groups would remain small and the instruction remained individualized and differentiated.”

That formula worked for Kiersten.

“I feel more confident about (reading) because we went over a lot of stuff and some of the vocabulary we went over was on the test, and I would not have known it if we didn’t,” Kiersten said.

The program was enough to boost her reading grade on the state test to a 3, a perfectly acceptable grade to put her back on track for success.

“We were really, really thrilled and relieved,”said Kelly Covic.

Kiersten was not the only one whose reading improved in the program.

“The first year of ENCORE! was a success,” Finlay said. “Our data indicates we had a 14% gain with our lowest 25% in the area of ELA. Not only did we see lowest quartile gains, we also saw an overall increase in our learning gains in ELA. Our overall achievement level in the area of ELA increased by 9%.”

Covic, who teaches music at Dayspring Academy, said she is thankful for the reading scholarship and its benefits for her daughter and other struggling young readers.

“The earlier you can intervene into your child’s reading the better because it is so vital for their success,” she said. “Reading is such a cornerstone of everything that it’s important to get this down.”

Step Up For Students ranked 18th among America’s Top 100 favorite charities

By ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students continues to provide education choice to Florida schoolchildren from disadvantaged backgrounds and its efforts continue to garner national acclaim.

Step Up cracked the Top 20 in America’s Favorite Charities, the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual list of the Top 100 nonprofits. Step Up was ranked 18th, up from 31st last year and 42nd in 2017.

“It is an honor to be placed in this prestigious ranking by the Chronicle of Philanthropy,” said Anne Francis, Step Up’s vice president of development. “Being ranked 18th in the nation, and first in Florida, is a monumental achievement that has been made possible by our generous donors.

“In the last couple years, Step Up has grown from two scholarship offerings to five. Our largest program, the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, serves families with an average household income that is merely 8 % above poverty. Donors who invest in our scholarships and programs know their contributions change the lives of vulnerable children in Florida who seek a brighter future.”

Step Up’s total revenues in the 2018 fiscal year was $705.6 million, an increase over its $548.5 million in total revenue in 2017. This allowed Step Up to serve more than 125,000 pre-K through12 students across the five scholarships programs it manages:

In addition to the Chronicle of Philanthropy honor, Step Up was ranked 19th on Forbes’ list of America’s Top Charities 2018.

Charity Navigator and GuideStar, a pair of nonprofit watchdog groups, recognized Step Up in 2018 for its accountability and transparency.

Charity Navigator awarded Step Up a four-star rating for the eighth consecutive year, a credit that only 4 percent of charities have earned by the nation’s top charity evaluator. Step Up has earned the Platinum Seal of Transparency with GuideStar, a public database that evaluates the mission and effectiveness of nonprofits.

Also, Step Up’s Jacksonville office was ranked third among best places to work in that city for businesses with 100-249 employees by the Jacksonville Business Journal. Its Clearwater office was ranked eighth among large companies in the Tampa Bay area by the Tampa Bay Business Journal.

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

Read! Read! Read!

By CAROL MACEDONIA

Kids Who Read Beat Summer Slide. Studies show that access to books during the summer prevents a drastic loss in reading skill - especially for kids in need. (PRNewsFoto/First Book)

today's lesson snipIf this graphic above caught your attention, read on.  As a parent of a now-grown son who is a successful attorney, I can tell you that years ago I was that parent trying to figure how to get my very athletic, very intelligent son to enjoy – or at least partake in –  reading that was not  a “school assignment.” I was determined to have him love reading even if it was the last thing he wanted to do!!!  For him, it wasn’t that he couldn’t read, rather, it was he simply didn’t see the need to read.   So I set out to create reasons why a 9-year-old would actually want to pick up some form of text (notice I didn’t say a book) and read. Now 20 years later, I’m happy to report that although it took some time my plan worked!!

So here’s my summer formula for reading with reluctant readers!! READ, READ, READ and then read some more!

First, figure out what makes your child click. Is water sports? Climbing trees? Creepy bugs? Or things that bump in the night? Summer can be a busy time for families to fit reading into their daily routine, but like the Nike ad says, “Just Do  It!” Make it a habit that is embraced by your whole family.

That’s right, mom, dad, auntie and grandpa need to be seen reading and TALKING about what they read! A habit only takes 21 days to establish and after that it is very hard to break.

(Do you know any children who struggle to read? Step Up For Students offers the Reading Scholarship Accounts for parents with children in public school to access services for their children in grades three through five who are having trouble reading. Click here to learn more.)

I also know the importance of walking the talk and decided that whatever I would entice my son to read, I’d also read. This opened up great avenues for conversation and eventually even spirited debates about the virtues of a character in a book or predicting just how the story would end.  Conversations about what we were reading often branched off into other topics and created common grounds for reflections and clarifying our beliefs and value.kids on books

Throughout the summer months, I stayed focused on my son’s passions and one morning next to his cereal bowl, I left a magazine article that featured a 10-year-old who ran a triathlon. To challenge my very competitive son I simply said, “Wow, did you see that a 10-year-old finished a triathlon, I wonder if you could too?”  With that single statement he was hooked and off he went to devour the story and soon returned to share his plan for competing in a local race. I did a happy dance, as not only was he planning to compete in a triathlon, he actually asked if I had anything else he could read about world-class runners!

Then we set a target of books to read in a month. I should have known my son was predestined to be an attorney when he wanted to negotiate the numbers of pages of text versus pictures in the book that would constitute reaching his goal. Speaking of pictures, don’t ignore the strategically placed illustrations. Those pictures are great for connecting the story to real-life experiences: predicting what happens next and why, thinking about the author’s purpose for writing the book, and sharing the “movie in the reader’s mind” that the story was conjuring. For our plan, we finally agreed on 10 books or news articles (not too long!) for each month.

5fingerNext, pick “Just Right Books” with your reader As we went off to search for the books that he wouldn’t be able to put down, I had to make sure he had the “Just Right Book” in his hands— not too easy, but not too hard! A super easy way to make sure your child is selecting a book that they won’t labor over and forget why they are reading or speed through with little thought to the meaning is to use the 5 Finger Rule to pick a “Just Right Book,” Kids learn this quickly and for the most part it is a fail-safe quickie to help ensure you have “just right books” for your children.

Now Read every day! So armed with a backpack of those “Just Right Books,” the next step in the plan was to read every day. It doesn’t matter what it is just read something! Bear in mind this did not mean that I set the kitchen timer and had my son read until it buzzed. No way!! Do we, as impassioned readers, read that way? I tried to make it authentic, real. Some days I even read him stories from the newspaper. You guessed it, usually from the sports section, of course, or he’d read the classified ads, looking for a cheap bike, or we’d read together a chapter of one of his “Just Right Books” or while we were in the grocery store I’d give him a detailed list (ex. 2 ½  pounds of jumbo tiger shrimp) that he was responsible for finding. And I made sure he saw me reading. I wanted him to see that I set time aside in our hectic day to slow down and read. It’s that important.

Our Summer Reading Plan became a tradition in our family. Even to the extent of taking a special book or two on vacations to the beach or mountains. Now fast forward to this summer when my now 30-year old very professional, but still extremely sports-minded attorney son stopped by the house this spring. He was dropping off a Mothers Day gift: “The Autobiography of Mark Twain.” It was a great gift and great book, but the greatest gift was his words that accompanied the book, “Hey Mom I’m reading this too. Get started so we can talk about this guys’s crazy life!”

My Summer Reading Plan had worked!!!

Carol Macedonia is the vice president and founder of Step Up’s Office of Student Learning department. She came to us eight years ago after a 31-year career in the Pinellas County School District, where she rose to an assistant superintendent of schools. 

Step Up’s Jacksonville office ranked among best places to work in that city

BY ROGER MOONEY

The honors continue to roll in for Step Up For Students.

The nonprofit’s Jacksonville office was ranked among the top places to work in that city by the Jacksonville Business Journal, placing third in the category for Large Companies (100-249 employees).

“It is such an honor that our employees are being recognized for the work they do each day to create an organizational culture that enables us to fulfill our mission to the best of our abilities,” said Anne White, Step Up’s chief administrative officer.

Representing Step Up’s Jacksonville office at the event were
(top row from left) Jessica Detmer, Diana Beane, Anne White, Renae Sweeney, Kym Beelman (bottom row from left) Judith Thomas, Andrea Thoermer and Kaitlyn Laudenslager

The Jacksonville Business Journal partnered with Quantum Workplace, an employee engagement research firm, to compile the rankings. Quantum Research surveys employees and analyzes the results to determine employee satisfaction.

Employees are evaluated in the areas of team effectiveness, retention risk, alignment with goals, trust with co-workers, individual contribution, manager effectiveness, trust in senior leaders, feeling valued, work engagement and people practices.

The results were announced May 23 at an event held at the Baseball Grounds at Jacksonville.

Step Up’s Clearwater office was recently ranked eighth among large companies in the Tampa Bay area by the Tampa Bay Business Journal.

Nationally, Step Up was ranked 19th on Forbes’ list of America’s Top Charities 2018. It was also recognized in 2018 for its financial accountability and transparency from two nonprofit watchdog groups: Charity Navigator and GuideStar. Charity Navigator awarded Step Up a four-star rating for the seventh consecutive year, a credit that only 4 percent of charities have earned by the nation’s top charity evaluator. Step Up has earned the Platinum Seal of Transparency with GuideStar, a public database that evaluates the mission and effectiveness of nonprofits.

Step Up helps more than 115,000 pre-K-12 children annually in Florida gain access to education options by helping manage five scholarship programs: The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and recently created Family Empowerment Scholarship for lower-income families; the Gardiner Scholarship for children with special needs or unique abilities; the Hope Scholarship for students who have been bullied at a public school; and the Reading Scholarship Accounts for children in grades 3-5 who struggle with reading.

RogerMooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Step Up For Students among best places to work in Tampa Bay

By ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students has been recognized as one of the best places to work by the Tampa Bay Business Journal, placing eighth in the large business category.

“We are proud of this recognition,” said Step Up president Doug Tuthill. “We strive for a work culture that is nurturing and joyful and allows our employees to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities.”

Step Up employees celebrate the TBBJ’s announcement April 12 at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa.

Sixty Tampa Bay area companies were nominated for recognition across four categories: Small (10-24 employees); Medium (25-49 employees), Large (50-99 employees); and Extra-Large (100-plus employees).

Quantum Workplace surveyed employees at the nominated companies and evaluated each in the areas of team effectiveness, retention risk, alignment with goals, trust with co-workers, individual contribution, manager effectiveness, trust in senior leaders, feeling valued, work engagement and people practices.

It described Step Up’s company culture with the hashtag #caringpassionateandimpactful.

“That really sums us up,” Tuthill said. “Our employees are passionate about what they do. This passionate caring is why they have such a positive impact on the families we serve.”

Step Up helps more than 115,000 pre-K-12 children in Florida gain access to a better education by managing four scholarships: The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families; the Gardiner Scholarship for children with special needs or unique abilities; the Hope Scholarship for students who have been bullied at a public school; and the Reading Scholarship Accounts for children in grades 3-5 who struggle with reading.

Step Up’s Jacksonville office is a finalist in the Jacksonville Business Journal’s 2019 Best Places to Work. Those results will be announced later this spring.

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

Become an Imagination Day superhero Sunday at Westfield Citrus Park mall

By ROGER MOONEY

Tampa Bay area families, join us for Imagination Day this Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. at Westfield Citrus Park mall in Tampa and learn what Step Up For Students has to offer Florida school children.

The first 100 kids receive superhero capes and masks. There will be hands-on activities, interactive arts and crafts booths and more.

Admission is free.

While kids are putting on their capes and masks and pretending to be a caped crusader, parents can learn about Step Up For Students and the four types of scholarships.

They are:

Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Based on financial need, this scholarship provides families with the choice of financial assistance toward a private school or help with transportation costs to attend a public school in another county.

Gardiner Scholarship. This scholarship enables parents to personalize the education of a child with certain special needs by directing money toward a combination of approved programs and providers.

Hope Scholarship. This allows parents of children in public school to find a new learning environment for their child who is being bullied or a victim of violence.

Reading Scholarship Accounts. This program allows parents with children in public school to access services for their children in grades 3 through 5 who are having trouble reading.

Step Up is a nonprofit scholarship funding organization serving Florida schoolchildren that is expected to help 125,000 children during the 2018-19 school year with the four scholarships.

For more information, click on Step Up For Students or visit our table Sunday and meet Stephanie Love, Step Up’s community outreach manager, or Roger Mooney, Step Up’s marketing communications manager.

Marketing Communications Manager Roger Mooney can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.