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Florida Farm Bureau Group helps Florida families with $500,000 donation to Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By PAUL SOOST

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Florida Farm Bureau Group, a multi-line Florida based property and casualty insurance company, announced Nov. 8 it is donating $500,000 to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.

The donation will fund about 76 K-12 scholarships in the 2017-18 school year. 

“At Florida Farm Bureau Group, helping families is what we do best. We are thrilled to partner with Step Up For Students to help deserving Florida schoolchildren reach for their educational dreams,” said Florida Farm Bureau Chief Executive Officer, Steve Murray. “We hope these students reach high, and we look forward to a long relationship with Step Up For Students.”

This is Florida Farm Bureau Group’s first donation to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged Florida school children. The program is funded with tax-credited donations and 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.

“Thanks to the generosity of our donors, Step Up For Students is helping Florida families customize their children’s educational opportunities,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “On behalf of our Step Up families, we thank Florida Farm Bureau Group for its commitment and generosity.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for K through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Paul Soost can be reached at psoost@sufs.org.

 

 

Summit Bank supports educational success through $100,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program

By PAUL SOOST

PANAMA CITY, FL – Summit Bank, N.A., a regional provider of personalized, concierge-style financial services, announced Oct. 26 a $100,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program, funding 15 scholarships for the 2017-18 school year in Bay County, Escambia County and Okaloosa County.

Summit Bank executives visited Saint John Catholic School in Panama City to present Step Up For Students with a contribution to the Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Summit Bank is contributing a total of $100,000 to provide scholarships for the 2017-18 school year in Bay, Escambia and Okaloosa counties. Pictured are (kneeling) Andy Stein, Summit Bank President & CEO, (standing left to right) Jeff Dibenedictis, Summit Bank Senior Vice President, Commercial Relationship Manager, Barbara Haag, Summit Bank Executive Vice President/Chief Financial Officer, Jim Looker, Summit Bank Executive Vice President/Chief Lending Officer, Dr. Vicki Parks, Saint John Catholic School Principal, Renae Sweeney, Step Up For Students Development Director, and Frank Hall, Summit Bank Executive Vice President/Chief Operating Officer. They are joined by a few students benefiting from the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.

This marks the fourth year Summit Bank has supported the scholarship program. Since joining Step Up as a corporate partner in 2014, the company has contributed a total of $450,000, the equivalent of 77 scholarships.

“Summit Bank is committed to making a difference in our local communities and is excited to provide the opportunity for 15 families to find the right learning environment for their child through the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program,” said President and CEO Andy Stein. “We hope this support helps propel these students towards educational success and bright futures.”

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged Florida schoolchildren. 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 grateful that Summit Bank joins us in our mission to impact the poverty cycle by providing educational options for lower-income Florida families,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “On behalf of Step Up and the students participating in our program, we thank Summit Bank for their generosity.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up $6,343 per student for K-5th grade, $6,631 for 6th-8th grade and $6,920 for 9th-12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide. In Bay, Escambia and Okaloosa counties this school year, 43 schools are participating in the program which will benefit more than 2,475 students.

Reach Paul Soost at psoost@sufs.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Public, private schools’ partnership lifts up Orlando neighborhood

By JEFF BARLIS

Every week, students and parents at Calvary City Christian Academy, a K-12 school in one of Orlando’s most hardscrabble communities, convert groceries into care packages for scores of their neighbors. That those neighbors happen to be homeless students at Sadler Elementary, another school three blocks away, is only the first clue that the relationship between these high-poverty schools – one public, one private – is special.

Calvary principal Denise Vega and Sadler principal Kahlil Ortiz say that uniting as one makes both school stronger. “That sends a message to our parents. We’re not divided. We’re not two. We’re one. One with one purpose – to work together to make sure our children in our lower-income communities are getting everything possible. That only happens when you unite.”

For four years, the schools have worked hand-in-hand to serve their students, parents and neighborhoods, regardless of which school the students attend.

The result: Both schools and their heavily Hispanic populations now benefit from a wide array of social services – everything from English-language classes to housing assistance – provided by the church affiliated with Calvary. Both see each other as assets that can best uplift a community by cooperating. And both are quietly offering a glimpse of what’s possible if artificial walls between public and private schools can be knocked down.

“We’re modeling what is right by working together,” said Calvary principal Denise Vega. “That sends a message to our parents. We’re not divided. We’re not two. We’re one. One with one purpose – to work together to make sure our children in our lower-income communities are getting everything possible. That only happens when you unite.”

“You think of it as an octopus with eight legs,” said Sadler principal Kahlil Ortiz. “There are certain things that these legs can do, and certain things that those legs can do. So that’s kind of how we work. What can I help you with? What can you help me with?”

The partnership started with a phone call.

Four years ago, officials at Sadler asked Calvario City Church if they could use the church as a shelter in case of emergency. Of course, the pastors said. Is there anything else we can do?

That’s when they heard about Sadler’s homeless children. There were 30 to 40 back then. Now there are 85 to 90. (Sadler’s enrollment ballooned from 400 to 800 over that span.)

Vega, who is also a children’s pastor at the church, said she was in shock. “I felt a burden,” said Vega, a whirlwind of motion with a perpetually hoarse voice. “How can you learn on an empty stomach?”

One hundred percent of students at Sadler are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch. About 60 percent are English language learners. The demographics at Calvary City Christian Academy are challenging, too, with about 90 percent of students using the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students. The scholarship is administered by Step Up For Students.

But that didn’t deter anyone at either school from joining hands. In fact, the profound need compelled it.

The schools and the church hatched a plan to provide food to the homeless families on weekends, when the public school could not provide for the students. The groceries are purchased on Wednesdays, bagged on Thursdays and handed out from a pantry at Sadler on Fridays.

In addition, large companies like Publix, Goya, Nabisco and Merita have donated food unsolicited. It all ends up with the lowest-income families at Sadler.

Valeria Angeles, a sixth-grader who attended Sadler from K-5, was one of the students who received them. She brought them to her grandmother, Enitt Manzano, at the hotel she paid for weekly.

“I was so surprised and amazed,” said Manzano. “I didn’t have words to describe the happiness. It’s only the two of us, and all of a sudden we were overwhelmed with so many groceries.”

Valeria now attends Calvary City Christian Academy. She did well at Sadler, but her grandmother wanted to put her in a private school and she qualified for a Step Up scholarship.

Vega said there have been occasions in which each school has recommended to parents that the other might be a better fit for their child. The bottom line, she said, is helping the community, not staking out territory.

“Are they my competition? No!” Vega said. “These are children and they need support from people who are willing to extend a helping hand. That’s all we want to be.”

Food wasn’t the only thing missing at Sadler.

As the schools grew closer, other needs were identified and other services offered.

To start the school year, Calvary families round up backpacks full of school supplies to give to their counterparts at Sadler. At Thanksgiving, they give additional baskets full of food. At Christmas, they deliver presents in an Angel Tree event in response to student wish lists.

Calvary students, families and church members have painted buildings at Sadler and gardened in the courtyard. Vega taps into the church’s ministries for more resources.

The result is a suite of wraparound services for Sadler’s most disadvantaged families: English-language classes for parents. Assistance in getting food stamps, affordable housing, health care and jobs. There are even referrals for drug rehabilitation and a shelter for abused women.

“Everything that is available to us, we make available to the community,” Vega said.

Vega and Ortiz have forged a tight bond that reflects the closeness of their schools. They laugh together, plan social events together, and finish each other’s sentences.

A 15-year educator, Ortiz said the support his school receives from Calvary is unlike anything he’s ever experienced. It’s given him a vision of the future where institutions, including schools, can form even stronger ties to maximize their strengths.

“There should be no hurdles to providing for the community. That’s it. That’s basically what this is all about,” he said. “It’s just saying there are no lines here. Let’s make sure we can help our neighbor out, just as they would help us.”

About Calvary City Christian Academy

Located in Orlando’s Oak Ridge community, the school is a ministry of Calvario City Church and was formerly known as Iglesia El Calvario. There are 256 K-12 students, including 226 on the Step Up scholarship. Affiliated with the Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS), the school is accredited by the Association of Christian Teachers and Schools (ACTS) as well as Green Apple. It uses a mix of A Beka, Bob Jones and Saxon Math curriculums. The Terranova test is administered three times a year to measure growth. Tuition is $6,000 annually for K-8 and $6,300 for high school.

Reach Jeff Barlis at jbarlis@sufs.org.

Tower Hill Honors Hispanic Heritage month with record-setting contribution to Step Up For Students

By SHELBY HOBBS, Special to Step Up For Students

TAMPA, Fla. – Step Up For Students and Tower Hill Insurance Group joined together Oct. 10 at Florida College Academy to celebrate the insurance company’s record-setting contribution to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program  (FTC) during National Hispanic Heritage month.

Don Matz, CEO of Tower Hill Insurance, told students at Florida College Academy in Temple Terrace that he is proud to support Step Up scholars.

Since 2011, Tower Hill has contributed more than $3 million to Step Up For Students, providing scholarships to more than 600 of Florida’s underprivileged students who are given access to a private school or financial assistance to attend an out-of-district public school.

“During a time when we recognize the prominent role the Hispanic community has played in building this great nation, I am proud that Tower Hill is working to fund hundreds of scholarships in order to help serve more students,” said Don Matz, CEO of Tower Hill. “It has been a pleasure meeting with so many brilliant, caring students this morning.”

Step Up For Students, the nonprofit organization that helps administer the income-based FTC scholarship program, provides opportunities to nearly 105,000 students across Florida this school year. Roughly 38 percent of students statewide are Hispanic, and the typical scholarship student comes from a single-parent household where the average income is $25,353.

In Hillsborough County, 40 percent of the 4,850 students benefiting from the program are Hispanic. Step Up For Students praised Tower Hill’s generosity, which has been crucial to fueling the growth of the program.

Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill told the crowd at Florida College Academy that Step Up couldn’t help children without the assistance of companies like Tower Hill Insurance.

“The impressive level of support from Florida’s insurance industry is critical to advancing our mission of providing educational options to underprivileged children across the state,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “Tower Hill’s contribution is an investment in students and allows them to access the education that best meets their individual learning needs.”

Families and students that have benefited from the FTC scholarship program spoke out in support, urging other leading companies to consider participation. Florida College Academy, located in Temple Terrace, has 258 students in pre-K through eighth grade, approximately 50 percent of whom are Step Up scholars.

Students from Florida College Academy (FCA) from center left to right pose with Step Up President Doug Tuthill, Tower Hill CEO Don Matz and FCA principal Lynn Wade.

“As both a teacher at Florida College Academy and a parent of two scholarship students, I have witnessed first-hand the overwhelming transformation this program has made in the lives of its recipients,” said Stephanie Meier, mother to third- and fourth-grade scholarship students. “I hope that all interested families who qualify for this program are granted the same opportunity that my family has been privileged to experience.”

A recent study of the program found that FTC scholarship students are significantly more likely to attend college and receive a degree. The study compared FTC students to a comparable set of Florida public school students, assessing college enrollment, persistence, and attainment rates. The widely reported study found that students who are on the FTC scholarship program for four or more years are 40 percent more likely than their public school counterparts to attend college and 29 percent more likely to earn an associate degree.

 

 

SKECHERS steps in to help disadvantaged Florida schoolchildren with Step Up For Students scholarships

By PAUL SOOST

CLEARWATER, Fla. – SKECHERS USA, Inc., a global leader in the performance and lifestyle footwear industry, today announced a $210,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students scholarship program.

This is the second year that SKECHERS, headquartered in Manhatten Beach, California, has supported the program and their contribution will fund scholarships for 32 Florida students in the 2017-18 school year.

“SKECHERS is proud to participate in Florida’s Step Up For Students program for the second consecutive year,” said Michael Greenberg, president of SKECHERS. “This essential state program complements ongoing efforts at SKECHERS to help kids around the globe, including our charitable BOBS footwear collection and the annual SKECHERS Pier-to-Pier Friendship Walk in Manhattan Beach, CA that supports kids with special needs, and education.”

Through the BOBS from Skechers program, SKECHERS has donated new shoes to more than 14 million kids affected by poverty, homelessness and disasters in the United States and more than 30 countries worldwide.

Step Up For Students helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides K-12 grade scholarships to qualified lower-income families throughout Florida. The tax credit program was created by the Florida Legislature in 2001 and is funded by corporations that receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for their contributions. The program allows recipients to choose between a scholarship to help with private school tuition and fees, or a transportation scholarship to assist with transportation costs to an out-of-district public school.

“We are grateful to SKECHERS for its support of our mission to ensure Florida students have access to learning environments that suit their individual needs through educational choice,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “On behalf of Step Up and the tens of thousands of families we serve, we thank SKECHERS for their commitment to our Florida communities.”

For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for grades K-5, $6,631 for six to eight and $6,920 for grades nine to 12. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Paul Soost can be reached at psoost@sufs.org.

 

 

 

Family Spotlight: Futrells benefit by Step Up, Best Buy Education partnership

By GEOFF FOX

Missy Futrell and her husband Carl wanted nothing more than to raise a family of their own.

When they were still childless after 13 years of marriage, the Futrells began exploring adoption. It wasn’t a quick process. For a few years, the Jacksonville, Florida, couple viewed scores of profiles of children up for adoption and were interested in many. Every time, though, adoption coordinators didn’t think the match was right.

Missy Futrell and son “Trey,” a Gardiner scholar through Step Up For Students. The family makes educational purchases through the scholarship using the Step Up partnership with Best Buy Education.

But the Futrells were persistent. Eventually, Missy Futrell saw a picture of an 18-month-old boy named Treston.

He wasn’t an “ordinary” baby. Besides being born with fetal alcohol syndrome, Treston – or “Trey” – was diagnosed with mosaic Down syndrome, a type of Down syndrome in which a percentage of a person’s cells have an extra copy of the 21st chromosome. Mosaic Down syndrome is extremely rare, affecting 2 to 4 percent of Down syndrome cases; about one in 27,000 people are diagnosed with it, according to the International Mosaic Down Syndrome Association.

Trey also has autistic tendencies, but none of that mattered to the Futrells.

“The adoption workers made it seem so bad; they said he may never walk, read or speak – and he would need lifelong care,” Missy Futrell said. “That seemed odd to me. They had nothing really positive to say about this child. We had had several miscarriages and if I was having a baby, I wouldn’t care (about the diagnoses). That’s my child.”

Carl, who helps manage a local funeral home, said the couple was equally resolute.

“They told us, ‘He’s not normal, do you still want him?’” he said. “Well, how do they know if we’re the ones who aren’t normal? What’s normal? The way somebody acts? Everybody acts differently. When you love somebody, you see them in a different way. If you love something, it’s 100 percent perfect for you.”

The Futrells adopted Trey in 2008 and despite Trey’s challenges, he thrived. The family was happy and Trey was growing up in a loving environment. The Futrells, who have been married 21 years, also recently adopted a 2-year-old girl, MaryBelle. They have also provided foster care for other children.

When it was time for Trey to begin school, Missy Futrell, who had worked in the recruiting and staffing field, decided to homeschool him through kindergarten and first grade.

A couple of years ago, the Futrells learned about the Gardiner Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarship helps parents individualize the educational plans for their children with certain special needs, including autism, spina bifida, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.

With the scholarship, parents can direct funds toward a combination of programs and approved providers, which may include schools, therapists, specialists, curriculum, technology and a college savings account. The average scholarship is worth $10,000. The Futrells applied for the scholarship and Trey was accepted.

Last year, Trey, who recently turned 10, went to second grade at a private school for children with learning disabilities or emotional issues.

It didn’t go well.

“Trey is an extremely trusting and sweet child,” Missy Futrell said. “He’s very quiet in public, and he is nervous around large crowds, new people and children. At home, he’s a lot more talkative, but he doesn’t talk much in social situations and can be awkward socially as well. He went (to the private school) all last year and made little progress academically. He also doesn’t interact with the others and was bullied. It just wasn’t a good fit for him.”

Thanks to the scholarship’s flexibility, Missy Futrell home-schooled him last year, as she was able to give him an environment that puts him at ease and the one-on-one attention he needs. Much of the scholarship money now goes toward curriculum, including online courses, and various technology, as Trey works much better with computers than pen and paper.

The family has used Step Up’s Purchase Assistance with Best Buy Education program, a partnership that allows Gardiner Scholarship parents to easily purchase items, many of which are pre-approved. Best Buy Education bills Step Up, which pays through the student’s scholarship account. Parents praise the program because many struggle to pay for all the care that comes with raising a child with special needs, so it can be tough to wait for reimbursements out of the scholarship account for big-ticket items.

“When I heard about Step Up’s Purchase Assistance with the Best Buy Education program, I jumped on it,” Missy Futrell said. “He really does so much better with technology. When he has to write, it could take him 45 minutes to an hour to do a 10-question worksheet, because he has to make each letter perfectly or he (gets frustrated). Through use of an iPad or computer, I can see more of what he’s able to do. With the technology, he clicks it or touches it and he just likes it so much better. I’ve heard that a lot of kids with special needs are like that.

“We use Time4Learning online courses that has all different subjects. We use it on his computer and his confidence is really growing. When he does something right, it tells him, ‘Wonderful!’ Or, if he’s wrong, it tells him in ways that don’t upset him. I can gauge where he is and what he knows. And there are so many apps on the iPad. I can take a picture of his worksheets and it converts them to where he can type in the letters rather than write them.”

Among other things, the family has also purchased a Phillips Hue Table Lamp and color ambiance kits. Whenever Trey starts getting overwhelmed by something, they switch the light on to a color that helps calm him.

Thanks to the Amazon Echo, which uses the voice-controlled service, Alexa, Trey can also listen to relaxing music when he needs to. Because the device is compatible with the Phillips Hue Lamp, it helps him understand his moods.

“If he’s upset, we tell (Alexa) to make the light angry and it turns red,” Missy Futrell said. “He can see in color what his current mood is. It makes him understand more what he’s feeling and if he’s mad, then he needs to relax. It helps identify his behavior and also helps the people around him.”

Carl Futrell described Step Up’s Purchase Assistance with the Best Buy Education program as blessings for which his family is grateful.

“In order to raise children with special needs, you have to have those who are willing to help,” he said. “These things we can outsource, it helps our family. It’s hard to make ends meet. You keep working and working and you get that income, but you miss that time being with your family.

“Now, he can call me on Facetime on his iPad and just say, ‘Dad, what are you doing?’ And I ask him how his day is going and if he’s being good for his mom. He’s usually playing with his stuffed animals – he loves monkeys. He pretends they’re the Ninja Turtles.”

For the Futrell family, this is their normal. And it’s the family they always dreamed about having, one connected by unconditional love.

Step Up For Students, a Florida-based nonprofit, empowers parents to pursue and engage in the most appropriate learning options for their children, with an emphasis on families who lack the financial resources to access these options. By pursuing this mission, Step Up For Students helps public education fulfill the promise of equal opportunity. In addition to the Gardiner Scholarship Program which helps parents customize the education of their children, ages 3 to 22, with certain special needs, Step Up For Students also administers the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC). With the FTC scholarship, economically disadvantaged parents of children in grades kindergarten through 12 are empowered to find the school –  private or out-of-district public – that meets their child’s learning needs. Step Up For Students’ dedication, however, doesn’t end when students are awarded one of these scholarships. Through its Innovation Fund, Step Up helps maximize the impact of the scholarships by creating and enhancing education-based innovations that propel children toward a brighter future.  To learn more about Step Up For Students, or to find out how you can help, please visit www.StepUpForStudents.org

 

A COPY OF THE OFFICIAL REGISTRATION (CH-14609) AND FINANCIAL INFORMATION MAY BE OBTAINED FROM THE DIVISION OF CONSUMER SERVICES BY CALLING TOLL-FREE 1-800-435-7352 WITHIN THE STATE OR ON THEIR WEBSITE WWW.800HELPFLA.COM. REGISTRATION DOES NOT IMPLY ENDORSEMENT, APPROVAL, OR RECOMMENDATION BY THE STATE.

Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@sufs.org

Step Up For Students launches alumni network  

 

By LISA A. DAVIS

Step Up For Students is excited to announce the creation of the Step Up For Students Alumni Network, bringing former scholars who have graduated from high school together to advocate for the advancement of all Florida schoolchildren.

Natasha Infante, now a University of South Florida Student, is one of the first members of the Network.

The network’s mission is to strengthen the relationship between schoolchildren in underserved communities and the educational-choice community. Alumni members will work toward educating and informing their community members at large, including lawmakers and donors, about school choice and its benefits. Step Up is a nonprofit organization in Florida that manages two scholarship programs for the state’s most underprivileged children,: The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students and the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs.

“Our scholars’ stories – past and present – are the best way to understand the impact school choice has on the children we serve,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “Their backgrounds and challenges are compelling and tug at your heartstrings. We can tell you these stories ourselves, but they are the best narrators for educational options.”

Natasha Infante, a 2014 Tampa Catholic High School graduate said she joined the network because the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students opened a world of possibilities for her.

“Step Up For Students allowed me to go to the high school I wanted to go to,” said Infante, who is now pre-veterinary major at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “I feel like it’s a pay-it-forward thing. If Step Up helped me, then I feel like I should help them.  It’s been such a positive thing in my life, I feel like I need to share my experience so others can benefit from it in the future.”

Infante was one of the first alumni to sign on to the Alumni Network and has been involved since it was only an idea, advising Step Up staff how to proceed. She has already written letters to lawmakers in support of Step Up and school choice in general.

“I’m open to more advocating for school choice because it’s so important,” she said, noting a recent lawsuit that sought to shut down the tax credit scholarship program. “We almost lost Step Up once and we can’t ever let that happen because it helps so many students like me have a better future.“

The membership roster already has 160 registered members, but Step Up For Students is seeking many more alumni to make it successful.

“Obviously, the more graduates we have, the more ground we can cover in advocating for Florida’s youth,” Tuthill said. “And the members will certainly reap the benefits of being involved too. For one, they will have an impact on the educational landscape of Florida for future generations. That’s rewarding for sure, but they will also have personal benefits as well with networking opportunities and more.”

Membership benefits include access to online professional development courses, exclusive discounts to retail stores, vacation packages, movie tickets, and the opportunity to network with decision-makers, donors, potential employers and other alumni through various events and social media.

Membership to the Step Up alumni network is free.

To join the Step Up For Students Alumni Network or to learn more, click here.

Lisa A. Davis can be reached at ldavis@StepUpForStudents.org

 

Two minutes with Step Up President Doug Tuthill

Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students, recently took a few moments to talk about his vision for the organization.

“We’re in the equal opportunity business,” Tuthill said. “We want to make sure that low-income children have the same opportunities more affluent kids have. We want to make sure special needs (students) have their needs met also.”

 

 

School Spotlight: Pace Brantley School in Longwood

By GEOFF FOX

It was just after 10 a.m. and dozens of students at Pace Brantley School were in the middle of campus, kicking soccer balls in a large field, playing on a jungle gym, swinging and jumping rope under a cloudless sky.

Their voices and laughter were carried on a light breeze that shook Spanish moss in dozens of majestic oak trees that line the sprawling, nine-acre campus.

Ben Zanca suffers from asthma, cerebral palsy, autism and CLOVES syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by tissue overgrowth and complex vascular malformations. After struggling in public school and at a charter school, he is thriving in his first year at Pace Brantley.

It was eighth-grader Ben Zanca’s favorite time of day.

“I like it because I get to make friends, and you get to do a lot of fun things,” he said.

Ben has asthma, cerebral palsy, autism and CLOVES syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by tissue overgrowth and complex vascular malformations. After struggling in public school and at a charter school, he was thriving in his first year at Pace Brantley.

“His self-confidence has increased tremendously,” said his mother, Ann Zanca. “It’s a lot of hands-on learning. He made a car out of a Coke bottle and started telling me about Newton’s laws of motion.  His reading had regressed when he went into middle school, but here his reading, spelling and writing has much improved. And he’s enthusiastic about going to school.”

In 2016-17, Pace Brantley served over 170 second- to 12th grade students. Ben was one of about 35 students on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.

The school includes seven buildings, an outdoor basketball court and well-manicured football and baseball fields. The campus had one building, a former house, when the school opened in 1971. Additional buildings have been added as needed, and as money was available. The school has always been geared toward students with learning issues.

“The majority of our students have a difficulty such as auditory processing disorder, dyslexia or ADHD,” said Jennifer Foor, Pace Brantley’s elementary and middle school principal. “Some of them are on the autism spectrum, but on the high-functioning side. The kids on the spectrum are not here because of behavior concerns.”

Pace Brantley currently has three mental health counselors on campus, as well as an occupational therapist, speech pathologist and full-time nurse who specializes in handling students with anxiety issues.

This year, the school even “hired” Ben, a therapy dog who lives with school nurse Tara Mahoney and comes with her to work every day – like a law enforcement K-9 officer. An American breed mix, Ben is quick to lick the hands of strangers. When he is tired, he is not shy about dropping to the floor and stretching with a low yowl.

Ben has been immensely popular since his Jan. 3 debut on campus. Whenever students are feeling especially anxious, they can see Mahoney – and Ben.

“It’s positive redirection and visualization. I speak in a calm voice and there’s low lighting,” Mahoney said. “We typically end up on the floor. They can convey their feelings to Ben or just pet him. Usually, after 10 or 15 minutes they’re ready to go back to class. There’s a more relaxing vibe with him being here. He makes everybody feel more comfortable.”

Pam Tapley, who has been Pace Brantley’s head of school for three years, is always looking to incorporate effective, innovative concepts to benefit her students. She was previously an assistant superintendent of schools in Osceola County and has been a high school principal.

“I’m passionate about providing the environment that allows students with differences to be celebrated and surrounded by people who honor and respect that, but also believe they can be successful,” Tapley said. “We have a wrap-around philosophy. We want to provide the environment for students to be successful, but we do it with the parents, with the occupational therapy, with the speech therapy, the mental health therapy.

“We wrap the whole family into the support. A lot of times the families are frustrated. They’re seeking answers and support and we give that to them here. They don’t feel isolated anymore.”

The environment includes everything from cutting-edge technology in classrooms to practical lessons outdoors.

For example, there is a television production studio, where morning announcements are made under the supervision of instructor Katie Nichols and broadcast through the school. The studio features a green virtual television studio background, Macintosh computers, iMovies for editing, three cameras and a teleprompter.

There is also a greenhouse, where students grow snap peas, tomatoes, lettuce, kale and cabbage under the guidance of science teacher Suzy Grimm. Toward the back of the campus is the Arts Building, where drama classes are held. This year, the school is working on a production of “Aladdin.”

Ninth-grader Ryan Sleboda, a first-year student at Pace Brantley, said he loves the school.

Ninth-grader Ryan Sleboda, a first-year student at Pace Brantley, who is on the autism spectrum, said he loves the school.

“It’s more challenging than my other schools,” said Ryan, a Gardiner scholar who was diagnosed with autism. “The other schools just did the basics. This really is way more interesting.”

Those on the autism spectrum also benefit from social skills groups in which they learn to better interact with their peers.

“They go over eye contact and body language during personal interaction,” Foor said. “They learn how to react in situations and have conversations.”

The campus’ newest building is the high school, which opened in the 2010-11 school year. Besides classrooms and lockers, the high school features a complete science lab.

“They do dissections in there and everything,” Foor said.

According to Tapley, the school may not be done growing. She hopes to begin a capital campaign to build a vocational center on campus. Tapley is involved with the Greater Sanford Chamber of Commerce and often talks to business leaders in the community to determine what kind of employees they need.

It’s a way of helping her students succeed after graduation.

“What are we providing in a learning situation that gives them the time to learn to be valuable employees?” Tapley said. “We’re gathering the data now. We’re looking at (careers in) plumbing, construction, air-conditioning, culinary and early childhood. We want to look at the employability rates, because you don’t want to flood the market.”

Susan Sleboda, Ryan’s mother, said the school has been a blessing for her entire family.

“He has blossomed because of being at that school,” she said. “What they offer these kids – the environment, in particular – is in my opinion revolutionary. For a child like mine, who can’t typically succeed in a learning environment, it’s like a puzzle fitting together. For Ryan, it provides the perfect environment. The teachers are understanding of your child’s disabilities, as well as their abilities.

“It would be difficult to afford without the scholarship. It would be like paying another college tuition.”

Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@sufs.org.

 

 

 

 

Student spotlight: Darius Lue

 

By GEOFF FOX

Outgoing, loyal, charismatic, hard-working.

“I had to work pretty hard,” Darius said of playing on varsity win ninth grade at Seffner Academy. “I had some athleticism, but when I was smaller I wasn’t fast and I had some weight on me. I was not one of those skinny kids who can dunk and run fast.”

The adjectives used by officials at Seffner Christian Academy to describe senior Darius Lue are words any parent would want to hear about their child.

Humble, friendly, intelligent, dedicated – the list goes on.

“He’s a natural leader,” said Amanda Allotta, school counselor at Seffner Christian.

Sam Moorer, the school’s basketball coach, agreed. Standing 6-feet-1-inch, Darius is a dynamic point guard who is was scouted by several universities, while maintaining a 3.96 GPA. He’s the kind of student-athlete who studies or does homework on the team bus and before practice.

“I think the world of him,” Moorer said. “He doesn’t look to cut corners. He’s Mr. Positive. He encourages people and never tears them down. He treats his teammates like he wants to be treated and takes a genuine interest in people. Every day, he comes up to me and asks, ‘Hey coach, how’s your day going?’ There aren’t many kids who do that. I don’t know of anybody who doesn’t like him.”

Darius is the youngest of Denise Waite’s three sons. A single mother, Waite learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students as her middle son, Miles, was entering fifth grade. She applied for and was awarded the scholarship, which allowed Miles to attend Florida College Academy in Temple Terrace, where he thrived. Miles, 21, now attends Hillsborough Community College.

Waite applied for the scholarship again before Darius started kindergarten; he has been on the scholarship through Step Up ever since.

“Our neighborhood schools might not have been terrible, but they were not the best,” said Waite, an independent insurance agent. “I wanted to give him the opportunity to grow and flourish in an environment with a lot of positivity.

“The environment is full of encouraging teachers, so he’s always surrounded by someone to encourage great behavior. The coaches and staff, everybody knows him and they know me. It’s great to have that support all around. If anything ever went wrong, I know they’d be there.”

Darius Lua, on college signing day, with from left to right, Nnece Kamiyah Brown, nephew Wayne Brown and cousin Makayla Hylton.

While Darius’ prowess on the basketball court is now obvious, he said he was hardly a natural athlete and barely did more than dribble a basketball until about age 9. But once he did, hoops fever took hold and he committed himself to constantly practicing and studying the game.

He improved rapidly. By the time Darius, 18, reached ninth grade at Seffner Christian, he was playing on the varsity squad.

“I had to work pretty hard,” Darius said. “I had some athleticism, but when I was smaller I wasn’t fast and I had some weight on me. I was not one of those skinny kids who can dunk and run fast.”

His hard work on and off the basketball court has paid off, as he accepted a scholarship this year to play basketball at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

While Darius dreams of someday playing in the National Basketball Association, he is as practical as he is athletic. He is considering majoring in business management or accounting in college.

“I always wanted to be the top guy sitting over the business, the one with the ideas,” he said.

The adults in Darius’ life are confident he will succeed regardless of which path he takes.

“He takes very challenging courses,” said Allotta, the guidance counselor. “He’s in honor’s level or AP (Advanced Placement) courses. He challenges himself and still does very well. I’m confident he’ll be successful in whatever he does.”

Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@sufs.org.