Donate

Tag Archives forschool choice

STEP UP FOR STUDENTS APPOINTS DENISHA MERRIWEATHER TO ITS BOARD OF DIRECTORS

Step Up For Students, the nation’s largest education choice scholarship funding organization, is proud to announce that Denisha Merriweather has been appointed to its Board of Directors. The Jacksonville native becomes the first scholarship program alumnus to serve on the non-profit’s board.

Denisha Merriweather

Denisha previously served as School Choice and Youth Liaison to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at the U.S. Department of Education. She currently is Director of Public Relations and Content Marketing at the American Federation for Children and founder of Black Minds Matter, an organization devoted to promoting the development of high-quality school options for Black students. Denisha was recently awarded the 2021 Maverick PAC Future 40 award for her work in education advocacy. Denisha has shared her voice on education freedom across the country and her work has been published in the Wall Street JournalPragerU, the Washington Examiner, EducationWeek, Real Clear, Fox News , among other outlets.

Raised in poverty, Merriweather had been a troubled student who was held back twice at her assigned public schools. In the sixth grade she received the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship which allowed her family to afford tuition at a private school in Jacksonville, where she blossomed. She has been a passionate advocate for education freedom since.

Merriweather earned a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary social science from the University of West Florida, and a master’s degree in social work from the University of South Florida.

“Denisha embodies the power of educational choice,” said John Kirtley, chairman and founder of Step Up For Students. “I first knew she was special when she led a rally of over 5,000 people in Tallahassee as a high school senior to support a choice bill. It is a great honor to have her on our board.”

The nine-member Board of Directors is the governing and fiduciary body for Step Up. It sets policy, develops and approves strategic plans and the related allocation of resources, and is responsible for the organization’s performance.

Prenda microschools provide education choice opportunities for educators as well as students

BY ROGER MOONEY

After 13 years of teaching at district schools in Shreveport, Louisiana, Pam Lee was searching for something that would give the students what she called a “better opportunity” to succeed.

Disappointed in Louisiana’s education system, which annually ranks near the bottom in the nation, Lee’s passion for her job was slowly eroding. She wanted to continue teaching, but she desperately needed a change.

“I felt that there was something bigger,” Lee said, “and I was praying every day I would find it.”

The answer came in the form of a Facebook ad for Prenda, a network of K-8 microschools headquartered in Arizona. “Open your own microschool,” it read. Lee was intrigued. She clicked on the ad, and within 24 hours had talked to a Prenda representative and was making plans to open her own microschool.

Lee loved Prenda’s model: small classes of five to 10 students that can meet in the teacher’s (called “guides”) home or at a facility that meets state safety requirements; the ability for guides to set the curriculum and for students to learn at their own pace; and the flexibility for guides to set their own class hours, which run no more than 25 hours a week.

Students at a Prenda Microschool in Glendale, Arizona.

Lee opened a Prenda Microschool Den of Shreveport in September, which meets at a local daycare center. After more than a dozen years of teaching within the guidelines set by district schools, Lee said she hasn’t once looked back.

“I think Prenda is heaven-sent, actually, for us here in Louisiana,” Lee said. “My students are kind of the ones that get looked over in class. I have a fifth-grader who can’t read at all. Just having Prenda come here and me having the opportunity to reach those kids has been amazing.”

Lee’s is a case of education choice saving the student as well as the educator.

“This is what I was praying for, for years and years,” Lee said. “I say divine intervention is what brought Prenda to me.”

***

Prenda Microschools was founded in 2018 by Kelly Smith, who holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from Brigham Young University and a master’s degree in plasmas and fusion from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was intrigued with the way the students in the computer programming class he taught at a Mesa, Arizona library showed up each week and worked hard at Code Club. Smith realized kids learn better if they are interested in what they are learning.

It began with one microschool made up of seven kids from Smith’s neighborhood. Its mission: to “empower learners.”

“That’s what this is,” said Rachelle Gibson, Prenda’s New Markets Team Leader. “Let them be who they are and become who they are meant to be. It isn’t just education. ‘Empower Learners’ at its core means children understand that they can do anything once they learn how to learn and appreciate who they are as a person.”

Today, there are more than 2,500 students in 300 Prenda Microschools stretched across 5 states. Gibson is overseeing the organization’s expansion into a 6th state – Florida.

With Florida being a leader in education choice, and with the scholarships to K-12 private schools administered by Step Up For Students, the Sunshine State has always been at the top of Prenda’s expansion list. Gibson said there is support for microschools in Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville.

The key is finding guides.

“People who are educationally minded with the entrepreneurial spirit, here is an opportunity in Florida to serve kids who really need it in a really incredible way,” she said.

Gibson said 30% of Prenda guides are certified teachers, but it is not a requirement. Guides can be moms looking to get back into the workforce, or who homeschool their own children and want to take on a few more students. Guides can be teachers looking for another way of teaching, or seniors who are retired but want to work with children for 25 hours a week.

“It’s an opportunity for all of those people to find a really great way to impact kids and make a difference,” Gibson said.

Ideally, Prenda Microschools are divided into three age groups: K-second grade, third through fifth, and sixth through eighth, though that can change based on the availability of microschools and the ages of the children in that area. The microschools can be held at locations such as community centers, churches, tutoring venues, gymnastics centers or dance studios.

Prenda Microschools meet all the state requirements for a school, and the students learn the core subjects, Gibson said. What separates them from other schools is the microschools are limited to five to 10 students, and the guides have the autonomy to tailor their lessons to topics and subjects that interest the students.

“We feel like there is an opportunity to change the world because a different educational environment will unlock things that kids aren’t getting right now,” Gibson said.

***

With October coming to an end, Beth Garcia expects the students in her microschool to be interested in Halloween.

“If they want to learn about pumpkins this month, we’ll learn about pumpkins,” she said. “They wanted to learn about bats, so we added bats. They wanted to learn about flowers, so we did that.”

Students learning about gardening at a Prenda Microschool in Glendale, Arizona.

Garcia is in her second year as a guide in Sahuarita, Arizona. A teacher with five years’ experience in district schools, Garcia was teaching preschool out of her home when she learned about Prenda’s microschools. With her son ready for kindergarten, she thought it was a great way to homeschool him. Some of the other parents thought so, too, and asked Garcia if their child could continue under her tutelage. So Little Fox Preschool became Little Fox 2 Prenda Microschool, with eight students in grades K-2.

“I definitely love Prenda,” Garcia said. “I love the fact that kids can work at their own pace. It’s very tailored to a child. If a child is in first grade and still working at a kinder level, that’s OK. There are no standards that need to be met as far as (district) school system. We can tailor it to them.”

A Guide and her student at a Prenda Microschool in
Buckeye, Arizona.

Garcia said she knows where all eight students are academically, which allows her the freedom to adjust the lessons accordingly. She also loves the smaller class size and the fact she can teach from her home, which allows her to spend time with her youngest son, who is a year away from beginning kindergarten.

“I like the freedom as a guide to be able to tailor our curriculum around student interest,” Garcia said. “That’s the fun part of teaching, I think.”

 The oldest of Garcia’s three children is her daughter Alanah, 10. Alanah struggled in her district school. She found the lessons moving too fast, which caused anxiety and behavioral problems. She had to repeat the third grade.

Alanah now attends a Prenda Microschool, where she is doing well academically and making friends.

“She’s like a whole different child,” Garcia said. “I really think for her, Prenda has saved her soul. I really believe that.”

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

Tips on transitioning your child to a new school or learning environment

By ROGER MOONEY

The Buddy Bench found on the playground at Christ the King Catholic School in Jacksonville is a yellow beacon that helps new students find playmates, make friends, and ease the transition to their new school.

Amanda McCook

The Lunch Bunch provides the same opportunities, but in a private setting.

These are two examples offered by Amanda McCook, the school’s assistant principal/guidance counselor, when asked for tips on transitioning a child to a new school or learning environment.

Another school year is underway, which means there is no shortage of students who are walking the halls of unfamiliar buildings populated by many unfamiliar faces.

They can be children in kindergarten or pre-teens entering high school. Or they can be students who made the switch from a neighborhood school to a private one. A number of these students receive scholarships managed by Step Up For Students to attend private K-12 schools in Florida.

The transitioning can be daunting.

Part of McCook’s duties at the private pre-K through eighth school is to ease that transition. Having two daughters who made the move from their neighborhood school to a private one, McCook has seen this process from both sides.

The advice she gave her daughters was to join clubs and activity groups and sit with different groups of students during lunch. It’s the same advice she gives to parents of students new to Christ the King.

“The more involved you are, the more people you meet,” she said.

McCook has a list of tips that she developed during her 19 years as an educator, both in public and private schools. Some, like the Buddy Bench and the Lunch Bunch (more on those later), are unique to Christ the King.

If your child is having an uneasy time during the first few weeks at a new school, McCook said you can:

  • See if the school has a student- or parent-led board that can provide insight and advice. At Christ the King, McCook said, “We try to match families with new families to give them those tips and tricks. There’s always going to be families in the school system who are there for that kind of support. I definitely think you should reach out to some families in the school to get those tips.”
  • Read the parent/student handbook. “That has all those details that you might miss as far as the structure of the school and uniform policies,” McCook said. “That’s totally different when you come from a public school.”
  • Get to know your administration. “That’s what I’m here for as an assistant principal, to help new families transition, if they have any questions,” McCook said.
  • Also, open a line of communication with your child’s teachers. Get their email address. Don’t hesitate to ask questions or voice concerns.
  • Volunteer. Christ the King, like most faith-based schools, requires parents to volunteer. “That’s such a great opportunity to meet other families and to learn more about the school,” she said. “We realize how important that is to the vitality of the school to have parents involved. Definitely the more involved you are, the more you feel vested in your school. I feel like that is definitely a plus to get involved.”

For those parents with children in Catholic schools, McCook suggested they attend the midweek Mass for the students.

“We always encourage our parents to come to Mass to get a feel for our school and our pastor,” McCook said.

Even when parents follow these tips, their child might still feel uneasy during the first weeks at a new school. Fortunately for those at Christ the King, McCook has a few more tricks.

The Buddy Bench at Christ the King Catholic School in Jacksonville.

During the first few days of school, McCook visits each classroom and tells the story of the Buddy Bench.

The yellow bench sits in the middle of the playground. It is a signal that someone can use a friend.

“If you’re playing and you’re all by yourself and are lonely, you can go sit on the bench.,” McCook said. “And everyone knows if you ever see someone sitting on the Buddy Bench, you have to go up to them and say, ‘Hey, do you want to play?’ And you have to say, ‘Yes.’

“We teach our kids that way and they do it successfully. That really helps everybody feel included and not go home and say, ‘Nobody played with me,’ because that hurts a parent’s heart. We praise kids who come over and ask kids to join them, so they want to be the one who asks.”

Finally, there is the Lunch Bunch.

“If I see there’s someone new that’s struggling to make friends, I call in three friends from their class and they eat lunch with me in my office,” McCook said.

McCook breaks the ice with conversation-starters.

“Who’s been to Disney World?”

“Who likes Harry Potter?”

“Who likes Marvel comics?”

“I find that really helps, especially with my more-shy students, make connections they couldn’t make on their own,” McCook said.

McCook said it shouldn’t take more than a month for the unfamiliar to become familiar for new students. Stephanie Engelhardt, Christ the King’s principal, contacts the parents of all the new students within the first three weeks of the school year.

“Just to make sure they’re feeling comfortable,” McCook said. “Do they know the process? How is their student liking school? We always check up within the first month.”

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

Tips on picking the right school for your child

By ROGER MOONEY

Because of the expanded eligibility requirements that went into effect July 1, more families in Florida are eligible for private school scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.

Andrew Campanella, National School Choice Week president.

The Family Empowerment Scholarship is now available to families with higher incomes, up to nearly $100,000 per year for a family of four. Also, dependents of active-duty members of the armed forces, children in foster care and out-of-home care, and those who have been adopted are now eligible for the scholarship.

The FES scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship) includes more eligible diagnoses.

This means more families have more options when it comes to school choice.

For those new to the Step Up program, here is some advice on picking a school from Andrew Campanella, National School Choice Week president and author of the School Choice Road Map: 7 Steps for Finding the Right School for Your Child.

Focus on what is the right education environment for your child: “What I encourage parents to do is think about what your goals are for your child,” Campanella said. “Think about how your child learns, in what environments your child is most likely to succeed and what your child’s interest are and keep those things at the front of your mind as you look at schools, because you want to find an environment that will meet your own criteria. One family might have a whole different set of criteria than another, and that’s completely fine.”

The biggest misconception when it comes to school choice: “People think there are good schools and bad schools, and they need to get their child into a good school,” Campanella said. “It goes beyond that. You need to get your child into a school that is good for him or her. That’s the most important thing.”

Keep an open mind: “You really do need to take stock of your own biases and your own experiences as a parent, because you went to a certain type of school,” Campanella said. “You might have liked it. You might have not liked it. You might have had a good or bad experience.

“Unless you live in the same area where you are going to send your child to school, you can’t write off one entire type of school because you might have had a bad experience. You need to recognize you had experiences that may have been unique to you and that your child is an individual and they may respond differently to that type of environment.”

Advice from family and friends can be helpful and important, but …: “What I encourage parents to do is don’t ask questions that lead to generalities,” Campanella said. “Ask specific questions. For example, don’t say, ‘Did you like it? Did you not like it?’ Ask how the teachers were with the students. Ask what type of homework was assigned. Asked what type of classes the child found most interesting. Don’t ask for a parent to be either a cheerleader or a reviewer of the school, because your own view is going to be reinforced somehow.”

Do your homework: Don’t let someone steer you in one direction before you’ve done your own research,” Campanella said. “Bring a list of criteria with you when touring the school. Form your own impression, then ask questions.

“Parents feel judged for making choices, but you have to remember: People can give their advice, but at the end of the day, you know your child better than anyone out there.”

Involve your child in the process: Campanella said don’t present it as a choice, but ask your child for input. See what they like and don’t like. See how they react to the environment during the school visit. If they hate the school, it’s not likely going to be a good fit.

“I encourage families to make it a family discussion,” Campanella said. “But remember, even though it is a family discussion, the ultimate decision is yours as a parent.”

Campanella’s seven steps for finding the right school are:

  1. Think back on your own time in school.
  2. Identify goals for your child. What do you see for their future? What are your hopes and dreams for them? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
  3. Decide what you need or want from a school or learning experience.
  4. Make a list and research the schools.
  5. Visit schools. Can you see your child succeed in that learning environment?
  6. Evaluate the schools.
  7. Choose a school.

Choosing a school for a child is one of the most important decisions a parent will make. Campanella said a recent poll conducted by National School Choice Week revealed making the wrong choice is the biggest fear among parents.

“There is great anxiety about this process, because education for too long has been filled with lots of buzz words and jargon and bureaucracy that have been understandably difficult for many parents to navigate,” Campanella said. “School choice is designed to make education more user friendly, more parent friendly, more kid friendly. So the goal needs to be to empower parents, just like Step Up is doing, with not only the resources to choose learning environments for their kids that work, but also the information to go about that process and feel confident in the choices they’re making.”

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

Amerisure donates $350,000; helps lower-income students in Florida have access to education choice

By ASHLEY ZARLE

Amerisure, one of the nation’s leading providers of commercial insurance, has announced a $350,000 contribution to Step Up For Students, helping more than 49 Florida schoolchildren attend a K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.

Since partnering with Step Up, Amerisure has generously funded 323 Florida Tax Credit Scholarships through contributions totaling more than $2.2 million. This income-based scholarship program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and gives lower-income students in Florida the opportunity to attend a private school or assists with transportation costs to an out-of-district school that best meets the scholar’s learning needs.

Tax credit scholars like Gabriella Bueno, a 2020 graduate of Boca Raton Christian School, is now studying at Florida Atlantic University and pursuing a pharmaceutical career.

“When my parents made the decision to enroll me in a private Christian school they soon realized they could not afford the tuition, but they believed this was the best fit for me. Then they were blessed with the knowledge that they could pursue their choice of education for their children – all three of us – through the financial assistance and support of Step Up,” she said shortly before graduating.

“I truly believe that Step Up helped in motivating myself to be the best student I could be. I was the Student Council Secretary, the girls’ varsity basketball captain, and the National Honor Society President, and I was also involved in various other clubs at my school. I have much to be grateful for and I would personally like to thank Step Up For Students, the lawmakers who believe in education choice and the donor who support it. You have all allowed me to attend what I believe has been the best school for me and has helped shaped me into the person I am today.”

Just like Gabriella, schoolchildren throughout Florida are benefiting from the scholarship they receive through Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

“Enhancing our communities and participating in outreach programs is a large part of the Amerisure service culture,” said Greg Crabb, Amerisure President and CEO. “We are committed to supporting nonprofit organizations that enhance the lives of people in communities touched by Amerisure, our agents and our policyholders and believe our partnership with Step Up for Students does just that.”

During the 2020-21 school year, nearly 100,000 K-12 Florida students are benefiting from an FTC scholarship managed by Step Up.  About 57% of these scholars are from single-parent households and nearly 68% are Black or Hispanic. The average household income of families accepted to receive scholarships is $25,755 – a mere 9% above poverty. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

“We are excited that Amerisure has partnered with us to provide educational options for lower-income families in Florida,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “Because of their support, deserving students can access the school that best fit their learning needs.”

Ashley Zarle can be reached at azarle@sufs.org.

Brave warrior, inspiring model flourishes with scholarship

Editor’s note: This story was originally posted on June 28, 2018. We are taking a look back at some of our scholarship stories from the past. Valentina Guerrero continues to thrive using the Gardiner Scholarship. To sign up for our philanthropic newsletter, please click here

By DAVID HUDSON TUTHILL

Her name means “Brave Warrior” in Spanish.

That might not conjure up the image of a 6-year-old girl with blonde hair, glasses and a smile so bright she became the first person with Down syndrome to become a main model for a major fashion brand.

Born with Down syndrome, Valentina Guerrero, started modeling at 9 months old.

But, Valentina Guerrero always defies expectations.

The oldest child of Cecilia Elizalde and Juan Fernando Guerrero, Valentina was born Sept. 16, 2011. Her parents didn’t learn Valentina had Down syndrome until after her birth.  Each year, roughly 6,000 children in the U.S. are born with the genetic condition according to the Centers for Disease Control.

A Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs has helped Valentina shatter incorrect assumptions many people make about people with Down syndrome. Step Up For Students helps manage the scholarship.

“I realized how incredible individuals with Down syndrome are,” Elizalde said. “They’re so evolved on a spiritual level, and we have so much to learn from them. But we don’t hear enough of that. We hear outdated comments about their potential. I wanted to help change that perception.”

The family, including younger brother Oliver, 3, lives in Miami. Other family members remain in their native Ecuador.

Valentina was a few months old when her parents realized some of the challenges she could face. They soon had her working with occupational, physical and speech therapists.

Adriana Tilley, an occupational therapist with 33 years of experience, has been working with Valentina since she was a baby.  Tilley says Elizalde and Guerrero are deeply involved with their daughter’s care, which has had a huge influence on her development. The Gardiner Scholarship helps pay for the care.

“The parents have been incredible and a huge member of the team,” Tilley says. “Valentina is like any other kid, with some limitations. But, we all have limitations.”

Tilley’s six years of work with Valentina have helped the child make tremendous strides in her personality. She constantly is asking how other people are feeling. Tilley marvels at the young woman she’s helped nurture over the past six years.

“She’s met all her milestones and is doing great,” Tilley says. “Now she is learning how to do everything by herself. I’ve loved working with her and learning from her family.”

Even as a baby, Valentina began shattering stereotypes.

She was 9 months old when she began taking the modeling world by storm. Family connections led her to European fashion designer Dolores Cortés. By 2013, she was the main model for the company’s children collection DC Kids USA 2013.  In the ensuing years, Valentina has been featured in a plethora of media outlets, including People Magazine, Down Syndrome World and MTV Tres. She also has modeled for brands such as Walmart, GAP, Toys R Us and Carter’s, the children’s clothing company.

A Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs has helped Valentina Guerreno shatter incorrect assumptions many people make about people with Down syndrome.

Her accomplishments resonated as far away as her family’s native Ecuador – to the extent that the country’s former vice president, Lenin Moreno, wrote Valentina a letter, calling her an inspiration. Moreno is now Ecuador’s President.

“We didn’t take the fame too seriously,” says Elizalde, a former television producer, consultant and music show host on the Spanish-language PBS station V-me. “I saw it as a platform for us to communicate an important message. It was a little hectic having to go from therapies to having cameras all over. It was kind of surreal.”

Social media has played a major role in Valentina’s fame. Thanks to her mother, there are countless photos and videos across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, documenting her life and various activities.

Elizalde also recently began a Spanish language parenting channel on YouTube. She hopes to pass on to other families some of the techniques and therapies that have most helped her family.

She is a firm believer in the adage that it takes a village to raise a child such as Valentina, which is why the family feels so fortunate to be able to choose the right educational path for her.

Valentina enrolled in a three-year pre-K class at Morningside K-8 Academy in Miami. By her third year, she was in class with over 20 kids, one teacher, and an aid. Despite the class size, and with Valentina the only child in class with Down syndrome, the school was largely successful in meeting her needs. When Kindergarten rolled around however, the family toured different school options.

Elizalde was worried about finding the right setting to meet Valentina’s needs. A friend recommended the family check out Von Wedel Montessori School in Miami. As soon as the family walked in, they knew they had found the perfect place for Valentina and her brother, Oliver.

At Von Wedel, the family creates an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, in conjunction with the principal, teachers and with input from Tilley. Valentina thrives in that setting, and Elizalde loves the philosophy of Montessori – to allow children to develop at their own unique pace, to work independently, and embrace the joy of self-discovery.

“None of her peers notice her disability,” Elizalde says. “They acknowledge that we are all different. It’s a really beautiful environment for her.”

A typical week for Valentina is full of activities. On Monday, there’s swimming lessons after school lets out at 3 p.m. She has occupational and speech therapies on Tuesday. On Wednesday, it’s ballet class. By Thursday, she’s back in the pool. Friday is usually a day to relax and spend time with some of her friends or fit in a modeling gig. Valentina loves going to the playground and to different museums. There is also a standing weekly Friday night dinner with family.

Valentina says she wants to be a chef when she grows up. She likes to play with her kitchen set. Her mother sees a different path, however.  She thinks Valentina is a natural teacher.

Nearly every day at home, Valentina lines up her stuffed animals and reads to them and leads them in a class. The process goes on for a couple hours. Her younger brother Oliver is the only non-stuffed attendee, and she has helped him learn to speak English.

Six years old and with a life so fast paced, it’s hard to imagine the higher levels Valentina Guerrero will reach. With the help of her school, the boundless energy of her mother, and their family’s mission to spread positivity about individuals with Down syndrome, her capacity is endless.

“She’s a warrior,” Elizalde says. “When she has a goal, she fights for it and achieves it.”

Visit Cecilia Elizalde’s YouTube Channel.

David Hudson Tuthill can be reached at dhudson@sufs.org.

The many puzzle pieces that tell the story of Ryan Sleboda

By ROGER MOONEY

If it were any other spring but this one, Ryan Sleboda would stand in front of the graduates at the Pace Brantley School and, as valedictorian, would deliver his speech.

Ryan would tell the room filled with students and their families, teachers and administrators about living on the autism spectrum and how it shaped his life.

To illustrate his points, Ryan would hold a piece from a puzzle – the autism symbol.

One puzzle piece for his family. One for his friends. One for his teachers. Put them together and you see a picture forming of Ryan Sleboda.

“It’s going to bring people to tears,” Ryan, 19, said.

Ryan Sleboda breaks three concrete tiles to earn his third-degree black belt in taekwondo.

He hopes the visual has the same impact when viewed remotely. Since this is the age of the coronavirus, Pace Brantley’s 2020 graduation will be held virtually.

Disappointing, for sure, but not enough to damper Ryan’s enthusiasm for his graduation. Nothing really dampers his enthusiasm for anything.

“Ryan simply has a zest for life,” his mother, Susan, said.

That zest began to emerge when Ryan was 13. He joined a taekwondo class and developed self-confidence and a knack for leadership. It exploded two years later when Ryan attended Pace Brantley in Longwood, Florida as a ninth grader with the help of a Gardiner Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.

The Gardiner Scholarship is for students with certain special needs.

During the 2019-20 school year, 13,035 schoolchildren received a Gardiner Scholarship, including 8,097 who are on the autism spectrum. 

Susan and her husband Bill, who live in nearby Sanford, wanted to send Ryan to Pace Brantley for high school. Brantley is a grade 1 through 12 private school that specializes in teaching students who need individualized attention.

Susan said she knew the school would challenge Ryan both academically and socially. With the Gardiner Scholarship covering most of the cost of tuition, Susan said she and Bill could use other funds to pay for Ryan’s medical expenses and social activities, like taekwondo and a dance program.

Those are also pieces to the Ryan Sleboda puzzle. There are more. Many more.

You can add his attempts at playing soccer, baseball, basketball and swimming as a youngster, because Ryan’s inability to take to those sports is what led him to taekwondo.

And it was in taekwondo where Ryan began to find Ryan.

“It was,” Susan said. “Ryan had had many difficulties behaviorally and socially. Ryan had a lot of difficulty regulating his behavior. He didn’t speak until he was 7.

“He had a very difficult time. Kids could be mean, and some kids knew which buttons to push to get Ryan to explode, and he could be very explosive back then.”

Yet Ryan found a calmness in taekwondo, a martial art that emphasizes jumping, spinning and kicking.

Susan and Bill took him to Breaking Barriers Martial Arts in Sanford, which trains children with special needs.

“It was kids with disabilities helping others with disabilities,” Susan said. “Ryan took to it quickly.”

Why?

“I got more energy,” he said, “being more active and communicating with others, being around other people, and definitely the ability to be a leader.”

And confidence?

“Lots of confidence,” he said.

Ryan has earned a third-degree black belt and is a certified taekwondo instructor, teaching other special needs children on Saturday mornings.

“It makes me feel like a leader when I get that opportunity,” he said.

Ryan holds the trophy he received for being named the University of South Florida’s Arts4AllFlorida program’s Student of the Month for Sept. 2019 for the documentary he made on the Pace Brantley School.

Ryan always wanted to be a leader, even when he was struggling to find himself on the baseball field or a basketball court. Society was telling Ryan what he couldn’t do, as it often does to children on the spectrum. His classmates and teammates were mean, as they often are to classmates and teammates who are perceived to be different. But Ryan felt it didn’t have to be that way, and he said he knew someday it wouldn’t.

He had weaknesses, sure. But Ryan also knew he had strengths.

Those strengths began to surface when Susan and Bill enrolled Ryan in Bridges Academy, a private K-12 school for children with autism and other special needs.

In an instant, Ryan was no longer different from his classmates.

“He was one of the students, and that’s what started him on the path to building self-confidence,” Susan said.

Ryan moved to Pace Brantley as a high school freshman. He was challenged, both inside and outside of the classroom. And he embraced those challenges.

“Ryan has grown up so much and truly wants to make a difference for others,” said Pam Tapley, Pace Brantley principal.

Not only will Ryan graduate as the class valedictorian, he is school president, an anchor of the school’s TV channel and a member of the running club.

He also gave a prerecorded speech online for Step Up For Students Class of 2020 Senior Celebration.

Ryan’s term project for the television class he took as a junior was a documentary on the history of Pace Brantley. He received an A for the assignment, and the video was voted the documentary of the year at the school.

The documentary also earned Ryan the University of South Florida’s Arts4AllFlorida program’s Student of the Month for Sept. 2019.

“The end product was wonderful, and he worked so hard on it to make it represent the history of our wonderful school,” Tapley said.

In collaboration with Chance 2 Dance, a program that works with students of all abilities, Ryan starred in a music video shot in the halls of Pace Brantley.

The song is “Waving Through a Window,” from the Broadway musical, “Dear Evan Hansen.”

“On the outside, always looking in
Will I ever be more than I’ve always been?”

The song symbolizes what children with special abilities go through.

Once, that was Ryan’s life.

Not anymore.

That puzzle piece has been tossed aside by others, including ones that are yet to come.

Through his vocational rehab program, Ryan scored an internship with the Central Florida Zoo’s conservation education department. He is fascinated with wolves and tigers.

“Very unique animals,” Ryan said.

In the fall, he will begin classes at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida.

The college serves students with learning disabilities. Ryan will major in anthrozoology. He hopes to someday work at an animal shelter or a zoo.

“I’d like to build a really good facility with a lot of animals,” he said. “I could have a training program of some kind.”

That’s another puzzle piece – his future.

Ryan holds his acceptance letter to Beacon College.

Ryan could stand in front of a packed room or stare into his laptop for a virtual graduation ceremony and his message will be the same.

Yes, he is autistic.

No, it does not define him.

The puzzle pieces, they define him.

His family and friends. His school and teachers. Taekwondo. Dance. TV production. His love of animals. His desire for a career working with animals.

“Pretty much all the other stuff I’ve managed and done throughout my life,” he said.

Together, those pieces help build the picture of Ryan Sleboda. But it is far from complete, because there are still more pieces to come.

“I’m going to the next part of life,” Ryan said. “That will be extra hard, but I like challenges, and I am excited to see what comes next.”

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

Florida Parent Network becomes Florida Voices For Choices

By LISA A. DAVIS

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The Florida Parent Network is now Florida Voices For Choices, a change that reflects the many supporters — beyond parents
— for the education choice movement.

Catherine Durkin Robinson

“While parents and their children are at the core of what we do, our advocates include grandparents, foster parents, educators, alumni, faith leaders and more,” said Catherine Durkin Robinson, executive director of Florida Voices For Choices. “It was time we make our name more encompassing of all of our supporters.”

But the name is all that’s changed.

“New name. Same mission,” Robinson said.

Florida Voices For Choices, the advocacy arm of Step Up For Students, organizes and mobilizes its members. Step Up For Students, a Florida-based nonprofit scholarship funding organization and the largest of its kind in the nation, served more than 110,000 children in Florida for the 2018-19 school year through four scholarship programs.

With Robinson and her team at the helm in Florida, they are among the hundreds of thousands of advocates fighting for children to be educated based on how they learn, rather than where they live.

“Instead of forming different networks, we’re more powerful together. We’re proud of this name change to Florida Voices For Choices,” Robinson said. “We still organize advocates for scholarship programs, charter schools, magnets, virtual schools, homeschools and vouchers. “

The group, which also partners with the Florida Charter School Alliance, works with supporters year-round to mobilize advocates in support of legislation that will get more children off waiting lists and into great schools. They also register voters and keep advocates aware of lawmakers who support, and oppose, their rights to choose the best school or learning environment for their kids. One of its most successful events was back in January 2016, when it organized more than 10,000 Florida Tax Credit Scholarship supporters from throughout Florida to march in Tallahassee when a lawsuit threatened to close down the program.

“That was an amazing day,” Robinson recalled. “But every day brings a new challenge and we need these programs for schoolchildren to continue to gain strength. We still fight for educational equity for all.”

Follow Florida Voices For Choices on social media and text FVFC to 52886 for timely updates.

GEICO funds 1,041 scholarships for Florida’s underprivileged schoolchildren

By ASHLEY ZARLE

TAMPA, Fla.GEICO recently recommitted to supporting underprivileged K-12 schoolchildren in Florida by providing education options through Step Up For Students.

Step Up For Students administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Through GEICO’s generosity, 1,041 financially disadvantaged schoolchildren will be provided the opportunity 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 school.

GEICO has been a partner of Step Up For Students since 2010 and has contributed $33 million toward the scholarship program.

GEICO announced a $7 million contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are Cristo Rey Tampa High School Principal Matthew J. Torano,  Step Up For Students Vice President of Development Jillian Metz, Step Up For Students Founder and Board Chair John Kirtley, Cristo Rey Tampa High School President & CEO Charles D. Imbergamo, GEICO Senior Vice President Pionne Corbin, and GEICO Associate Vice President Heather McIntyre. They are joined by Step Up scholars from Cristo Rey Tampa High School.

GEICO announced a $7 million contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are Cristo Rey Tampa High School Principal Matthew J. Torano,  Step Up For Students Vice President of Development Jillian Metz, Step Up For Students Founder and Board Chair John Kirtley, Cristo Rey Tampa High School President & CEO Charles D. Imbergamo, GEICO Senior Vice President Pionne Corbin, and GEICO Associate Vice President Heather McIntyre. They are joined by Step Up scholars from Cristo Rey Tampa High School.

“GEICO is committed to giving back and making our communities stronger,” said Pionne Corbin, senior vice president of GEICO. “We recognize that each child is unique and as strong corporate stewards, we are confident that our investment in Step Up For Students will provide options to those who need it the most.”

“Companies like GEICO are transforming the lives of Florida’s lower-income students, and through their partnership, the program is producing measurable results,” said John Kirtley, founder, and chairman of Step Up For Students.  “Last year, the Urban Institute evaluated graduates of our program and found that students who are on scholarship for at least four years are more than 40 percent more likely to attend public Florida college. GEICO is a large part of this success.”

The celebration was hosted at Cristo Rey Tampa High School where several students benefit from a Step Up scholarship, and the curriculum boasts a work-study component to give students a competitive edge.  Representatives from GEICO and Step Up For Students gathered with a panel of scholarship students to hear how the program has impacted their visions for the future.

“Through the Step Up scholarship, I have been given the opportunity to attend Cristo Rey where I have access to the tools, I need to be successful,” said Armando Diaz, junior at Cristo Rey.  “I know colleges will look at my resume and see I’ve had four years of internships and experience and I’ll stand out from my friends.  I am dreaming for the future and hope to make GEICO and other donors to Step Up very proud.”

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that administers the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporate tax credits 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.

For the 2018-19 school year, Step Up For Students is serving nearly 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,519 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,815 for sixth through eighth grade, and $7,111 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

Ashley Zarle can be reached at azarle@sufs.org.

Calling all Florida Tax Credit Scholarship renewal families: Applications now open

By JUDITH THOMAS

Florida Tax Credit (income-based) Scholarship parents, we have great news for you. 

 You can now apply for a scholarship for the 2019-20 school year. You are a renewal family if your child is using a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for the 2018-19 school year.  

 Renewal families will have processing priority until Jan. 31, 2019. If you apply on or after Feb. 1, 2019, you lose your priority status over new applications. 

Apply here.

 Don’t delay. Applications are processed on a first-come, first-served basis in the order all required documents are received. Funds are limited, so the sooner you apply and submit all supporting documents, the faster and more likely you are to secure your child’s scholarship for the upcoming school year. 

 Processing times vary depending on the volume of applications received and can take up to eight weeks in some cases. Check your email for more information or use the chat on our website to contact us. Watch this helpful application checklist video today:


 

If you’re currently waitlisted for the Florida Tax Credit (income-based) Scholarship, make sure you’re on the interest list to be notified when we’re opening applications for new families for the 2019-20 school year here.

1 2 3 4