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.
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 We hear outdated comments about their potential.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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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 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.
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 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 email@example.com.
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.
“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.
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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
By JEFF BARLIS
TAMPA, Fla. – Two months after her son was diagnosed with autism, Laurie Guzman felt broken and defeated, exhausted from searching for the right school.
A scholarship made her whole, if only for a short time.
Ezra was a tall, slender 4-year-old when he and his mom took a tour of LiFT Academy, a private school in Seminole that serves children with special needs.
Meeting the school’s executive director, Ezra furrowed his brow and narrowed his deep brown eyes.
“I’m a bad boy,” he stated as a matter of fact, “so I know you won’t let me come here.”
Kim Kuruzovich, equal parts caring mother and wizened educator, was stunned.
“There are no bad children,” she said, her voice raising an octave. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh, no,” Ezra said, “my teacher told me that. I’m a bad boy. That’s why I got kicked out of school.”
Kuruzovich knelt down to meet Ezra’s gaze and put her hands on his shoulders.
“You are not a bad boy,” she said. “You’re a great boy.”
She turned to Laurie and insisted Ezra enroll, if for no other reason than to learn he’s not bad.
Instantly, Laurie felt a great dam of tension burst with relief. She knew LiFT was where Ezra needed to be.
“I cried on the way home,” Laurie said. “It was heartbreaking. That was the first time I had heard him say he was a bad boy. We don’t use that in our house, so I knew where it was coming from.”
Ezra was 2 when his father, Air Force Sgt. Luis Guzman-Castillo, got orders to move to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Two years later, Ezra’s explosive meltdowns had left whole classrooms trembling in his wake. Laurie was told to find a new preschool.
The diagnosis followed, but it didn’t bring clarity or relief. Instead, raw fear galloped through every synapse of Laurie’s mind as she drove home from the doctor’s office in a daze.
“I knew nothing about anything with autism,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do, where to go, nothing.”
She knew that Ezra was bright and verbal at an early age. She and Luis taught him with flash cards when he was 6 months old.
Ezra was so sweet and charming. Laurie could get lost in his eyes in one moment and then watch storm clouds gather in another.
The meltdowns were devastating. Kicking, screaming, crying, and sometimes running.
“They’re about 45 minutes,” Laurie explained, “and I’d be melting down with him by the end.”
She quit her job as a bank branch manager to stay home with Ezra and his little brother, Elijah. Laurie’s sister, who had two sons with autism back in their home state of Alabama was helpful. But there was so much to learn, it was easy to feel overwhelmed and lonely.
LiFT Academy broke the spell.
One of the tenets of the school is that parents are the experts on their children, so engagement is high. Kuruzovich, who has a daughter with autism, has an inviting way of sharing 20-plus years of experience with parents who are just learning how to navigate this world.
She told Laurie about the Gardiner Scholarship, a state program that allows families with children who have special needs to pay for therapy, tuition and other education-related services of their choice.
“The Gardiner Scholarship literally changed our lives,” Laurie said. “It made it so we are actually able to breathe. It gave me hope that my son can get help and learn like every other kid. I didn’t know that was going to be possible.”
Ezra felt more comfortable right away. He made friends. One teacher wondered if he really had autism.
Just wait, Kuruzovich said.
“When we saw it, it was pretty big,” she said of the inevitable first meltdown. “But it’s not a negative.”
That was the biggest relief to Laurie, who used to lose sleep worrying Ezra would get kicked out the next time he knocked over a desk. But at LiFT, the teachers, administrators and his therapists all know how to avoid and defuse meltdowns.
One year later, Ezra is in first grade, studying at a second-grade level. He even represented the school recently when some business people came to visit, telling them: “I love this school because I’m really safe. I can be who I am. People like me here.”
With structures in place at school and a home, everything was going well. Laurie had a plan to go back to work.
Then Luis’ new orders came. They’re moving to Alabama in January.
“Ezra is about to experience the biggest transition of his life,” Laurie said. “And he doesn’t do well with transition anyway. His school is going to change. His friends are going to change. His support is going to change. All of that keeps me up at night.”
Laurie has family in Alabama, but there is no special needs scholarship. The school she found charges $8,000 for tuition – paid up front. It’s a price tag that would make any working-class family swoon.
A proposal in the U.S. House of Representatives to create education spending accounts for some military families would have helped the Guzmans, but the House Rules Committee did not include it for a vote in May.
Rather than panicking, Laurie feels herself rising to the challenge of helping to create a scholarship.
Now, she’s the one with marching orders.
“We were meant to come to Tampa,” she said. “We were meant to get the diagnosis. We were meant to come to LiFT. And I am meant to go to Alabama and make the difference I can make.”
“That’s my mission, to talk to people eye to eye and say what we need, what would help. I’ll say, ‘Look at a mother and a father who got a diagnosis that was completely devastating, thinking our lives were over. And they’re not.’ ”
Jeff Barlis can be reached at email@example.com.
Editor’s note: This story was originally posted on redefinED on February 10, 2017.
By JEFF BARLIS
Maria and Marcos Verciano will never forget the anguish over their daughter’s struggles in third and fourth grade. That’s why they’re so grateful for the scholarship that changed their lives.
At first it was the D’s and F’s on Hadassa’s report cards that raised their concern. Then the poor progress reports, all of the meetings at their neighborhood school in Destin, Florida, being told Hadassa wasn’t on track to make the next grade level – it all added up to a serious strain on the family.
Hadassa’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis didn’t do much to change her path, either.
“They just set her apart and gave her more time to do the tests, but nothing more than that,” Maria said. “It was so sad for me, for her dad and for her, because she felt different from the other students. She felt like she was not accepted.”
“It was kind of overwhelming to think that she wouldn’t make it to fourth and fifth grade, that this was going to be her life forever. It was a very bad feeling that she was always behind.”
When Hadassa’s normally bright spirit and enthusiasm for school turned to dejection, her parents knew they had to make a change.
A Step Up For Students scholarship empowered them to do it.
The couple had always dreamed of sending Hadassa to a private school, but with Marcos’ work installing pavers and Maria’s job managing a beach house, they could never afford it. At their small Brazilian church, they found out about Rocky Bayou Christian School, a place that caters to all manner of students with different educational needs.
At Rocky Bayou’s Destin campus, principal Joe Quilit told Maria about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which helps lower-income families afford tuition. She applied, but it was too late in the school year. All of the scholarships had been awarded. Continue reading
By ASHLEY ZARLE
POMPANO BEACH, Fla.– Waste Management, the leading provider of comprehensive waste management environmental services in North America, announced today (Oct. 9) a $5 million donation to Step Up For Students, helping lower-income children attend the K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.
The contribution was celebrated at Highlands Christian Academy in Pompano Beach with an engaging activity, teaching students about recycling. Third- through fifth-grade students learned what items can and cannot be recycled, and to help with the activity, Waste Management brought out its recycling robot, Cycler.
During the event, Dawn McCormick, Waste Management director of communications & community relations, presented the $5 million check to Step Up. The donation will fund 744 K-12 scholarships for the 2018-19 school year through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which serves lower-income children in Florida so they can attend the school of their choice.
Since first partnering with Step Up in 2007, Waste Management has contributed $42 million, providing 8,237 scholarships.
“We are proud of the impact we’ve had on Florida schoolchildren through our contributions to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program,” said McCormick. “Waste Management takes pride in helping our communities become better places to live and work and we know this partnership is doing just that.”
Pompano Beach Mayor Lamar Fisher attended the event and thanked Waste Management for giving back to the community. Mayor Fisher, an alumni of Highlands Christian Academy, shared the impact of the Step Up Scholarship in Pompano Beach.
“In Pompano Beach, 590 students at 9 participating schools are using scholarships provided by Step Up For Students,” said Fisher. “Thanks to companies like Waste Management, families in our community have more educational options.”
Step Up helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, allowing recipients to choose between a scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools. The program is funded by corporations through dollar-for-dollar tax-credited donations.
“Thanks to Waste Management, more schoolchildren will have the opportunity to attend the school that fits the way they learn, regardless of where they live or their parents’ income,” said Anne White, chief operating officer of Step Up For Students. “On behalf of Step Up and the families we serve, we thank Waste Management for their generosity and their commitment to support our mission.”
For the 2018-19 school year, Step Up is serving nearly 98,300 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. In Broward County, more than 8,900 students at over 150 schools participate in the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.
By JEFF BARLIS
GROVELAND, Fla. – The sign at their church trumpeted the opening of a new private school:
For Adaijah Jackson and her mother, Sheila James, the word Hope was all they saw.
“It was an answer to prayer,” Sheila said, smiling and shaking her head at the memory. “The timing was just perfect.”
Adaijah (pronounced Ahd-asia) was desperate to leave the neighborhood school where she had nearly failed 10th grade.
Sheila was a single mom with two children and a job working the overnight shift at a convenience store. She never thought she could afford Hope. But the school told her about the Florida Tax Credit scholarship from Step Up For Students that covered tuition.
“It changed our lives,” she said. “I wish I would have known about the scholarship earlier.”
As a child, Adaijah was very bright and happy. You couldn’t miss her gleaming eyes and deep dimples, because she smiled all the time. She was a sensitive soul at 10, and her life was thrown into turmoil when her great grandmother died, and her parents split a few months later.
That’s when Sheila and her kids moved to Miami to live with her parents. Adaijah had been a strong student in a small PK-5 charter school in Orlando, but suddenly she was finishing fifth grade in a new neighborhood and a much larger school.
“It was the worst thing ever,” she said, recalling the confusion she felt walking into classrooms with two or three times the number of students she was accustomed to.
They lived in Miami for just eight months before moving back north to Minneola, about 30 miles west of Orlando. But the switch to large neighborhood schools had just begun, and Adaijah continued to feel like an outsider, even with a clean slate at the start of middle school.
“I didn’t know anyone,” she said. “It was hard to fit in with a large group of people.”
That’s when the bullying began.
“They used to call me bad names – fat, chubby, short,” she said. “They made fun of my natural hair. I have curly, kinky hair sitting up on my head, and it’s really poofy. I grew up loving my hair.”
She switched to extensions, wigs and weaves. Anything to try to fit in.
She found no friends among the girls, and the boys were merciless. They catcalled when she ate lunch and when she tried to exercise in PE class.
“It was torture,” she said. “They wrecked my self-esteem.”
Adaijah went from A’s and B’s in sixth grade to B’s and C’s in eighth. High school, with more than 2,000 students, was worse. She kept to herself for most of her freshman year, but her desire for acceptance took on more urgency, and she settled for any friends she could get.
They skipped class constantly and hardly studied. At home, Adaijah was angry all the time, talking back and getting in petty fights with younger brother Adrian.
She wasn’t herself. Her GPA bottomed out at 1.3. It was time for a change.
“I could not go back for my junior year,” she said. “I knew I was either going to be arrested or get pregnant. I was not going to make it to college.”
Then she found Hope.
Adaijah and her brother were among the first of 25 students to enroll. Everyone was smiling again.
Though she was quiet and guarded at first, Adaijah knew she belonged. She felt safe and comfortable. With only a handful of classmates, she got to know her teachers personally, just how it was at her charter elementary school.
She bought in to everything – even the dress code and no-cellphone policy. She recovered some lost credits, turned her grades completely around, and became a role model to the younger students.
Principal Eucretiae Waite and her staff had a hard time connecting this Adaijah to her past.
“We couldn’t believe that she was really struggling, but of course we saw the transcript,” Waite said. “She came here and was just phenomenal. We figured it was just because we’re a small school and she got more attention.”
“She was willing to help in the classroom and outside the classroom. She would stay after school. We would have to literally take her home sometimes. Like, ‘Adaijah are you going home today?’ ”
In two years at Hope Academy, Adaijah got all A’s and one B and graduated last spring with honors. Teachers and administrators had promised to get her ready for college, and together, that promise was fulfilled.
Adaijah was accepted to South Florida, Florida International, Florida Atlantic and Southeastern among others. But she decided to attend Tallahassee Community College. She started in August and is loving the confidence that has come with her newfound independence.
She plans to stay at TCC for two years before going to Florida State to study physical therapy.
Why not go straight to one of those universities?
“I wasn’t ready for a four-year school,” she said. “I like the smaller setting.”
Adaijah didn’t just survive her rocky roads, she learned from the bumps. She’s planning to build a business in Houston or Atlanta someday, and she knows just the steps to get there.
“I’ve always thrived in small situations,” she said. “So for me to even think about big cities … it’s like, ‘Whoa, you are really growing.’ ”
Thanks, in part, to finding Hope.
About Hope Preparatory Academy
Opened in 2016, the school is affiliated with non-denominational Hope International Church in Groveland. It has 76 students in grades 6-12, 63 of whom use Step Up For Students scholarships. The school uses the Edgenuity curriculum with an emphasis on college prep courses. The Terranova 3 test is administered annually, and high school students also take the SAT and ACT. Tuition is $6,300 for grades 6-8 and $6,700 for grades 9-12.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By JEFF BARLIS
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – In the damp, rising heat of a late-morning graduation ceremony in May, with historic Farragut Hall as a backdrop, a hush crept through the crowd of students, relatives, friends, and faculty as they anticipated the next name.
The roar was pent-up and prolonged, louder than one family could possibly deliver. This was the sound of the entire Admiral Farragut Academy family cheering and tearing up for the senior who 10 months prior had been a celebrated football player one day and was fighting for his life in intensive care the next.
As Marquis walked slowly across the stage to receive his diploma with a shy, child-like smile, parents LaTaura Blount and Mark Lambert swelled with joy, gratitude, pride, and even some disbelief.
“This almost didn’t happen for us,” LaTaura said.
Memories washed over them in waves.
Four years ago, a Florida tax credit scholarship made it possible to join the Farragut family. It was the perfect fit. Marquis dreamed of a future in football. His parents dreamed of an academic turnaround after their oldest son was just getting by in his neighborhood school with a C average.
“The standards, the rules, and the curriculum … I knew it would be a fresh start,” said LaTaura, who had heard about the Step Up For Students scholarship from a friend.
She was 16 when she had Marquis. She and Mark were kids trying to grow up. She worked jobs as a nursing home caregiver, a teacher and a pharmacy technician. Mark delivered phone books and traveled frequently.
Their home was as warm as their smiles, with three boys, plenty of noise and laughter. But money was always tight.
That’s why Mark and LaTaura always instilled the importance of academics. They didn’t go to college, but their children would.
“Sports can be taken away, but nobody can take away what you’ve learned and what you’ve earned,” LaTaura preached.
For football-crazy Marquis, the message only landed when it was echoed by coaches, peers and college recruiters. As he added muscle to his lean 5-foot-10 frame, he soared to a 3.7 GPA in his junior year. His dream (and his parents’) was coming into focus.
“He’d been playing football since he was little, and he had this expectation his entire life,” said Angie Koebel, who is Academic Services Director at Farragut and a doting school mom to Marquis. “That was his ticket out. He started thinking about his grades and doing better and changing, growing up.”
His coaches saw it, too.
There were only a handful of seniors on Farragut’s 2018 football team, and they were as close as brothers. Early in the spring, Marquis was the only one without a scholarship offer.
“We sat down and made a plan,” head coach Rick Kravitz said. “He worked his butt off to make himself a very good player, a recruitable player. He went from having no offers to 12 offers in a three-week period. It was just beginning to pick up even more when he had the accident.”
Marquis was driving to football practice on July 17, 2017 when a gold SUV cut in front of him. He swerved on the wet pavement, skipped over a curb and wrapped his car around a tree.
The scene was horrific. Marquis was pronounced dead after paramedics arrived. But a nurse who was driving by and heard the crash from afar, stopped and noticed his fingers moving. Without her intervention – oxygen and the fire department’s Jaws of Life – Marquis would not have lived.
He had a traumatic brain hemorrhage, a broken neck, a torn meniscus in his knee, nerve damage in his arm, and was in a coma for two weeks. He spent 41 days in the hospital.
He wasn’t alone for a minute. Mark and LaTaura stopped working to be by his side every day. Marquis’ closest friends – the senior football players – and his position coach visited daily. Coach Kravitz and three teachers visited regularly.
The Farragut family rallied.
“They made sure we had food, donations came in (through a GoFundMe page),” LaTaura said, “and being there mentally for us was the biggest thing, because I wasn’t there at all. I was in pieces.”
When Marquis started to wake up, he wasn’t himself. Intense pain made him angry. He lashed out verbally and physically. It was hard for everyone to watch. LaTaura cried every night. But her boy was alive.
“I don’t remember anything,” Marquis said. “They had me on a lot of medicine. I remember my parents telling me I was acting funny. I was cussing a lot, being loud. Nurses were aggravated.”
Therapy – physical, speech and occupational – was grueling. But in August, just as he was getting out of a wheelchair and starting to walk, a birthday party in the hospital cafeteria lifted Marquis’ spirits. The entire football team came as a surprise.
“That’s how much he was loved,” Kravitz said.
The party inspired Marquis. He worked harder in therapy. He wanted out of that hospital, and there was a bigger goal – the first football game of the season.
Administrators at Farragut said not to rush, but everyone had their hopes up. On the day of the game, Marquis got out, had his hair cut and went to the stadium. In the locker room, he saw they had retired his jersey, put his No. 3 on helmet stickers, and didn’t allow anyone to use his locker.
“It meant a lot,” he said.
He put on his jersey, prayed with his team and led them out.
“They announced one of the captains would be Marquis,” LaTaura said, recalling her surprise at the reaction. “It was kind of a sad moment. Everybody started crying. The parents knew what was going on, but they hadn’t seen him. They were expecting him to be in a wheelchair.”
Marquis came out in a golf cart, smiling. He walked to the middle of the field to gasps and did the coin toss. In the Disney version of this story, Farragut would play its most inspired game and win big. But that didn’t happen. Real life is more complex, and Marquis had a hard time not being on the field for his senior season. Coach Kravitz explained why recruiters stopped calling.
“There was a lot of sadness watching everybody play,” Marquis said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get back out there.”
Football was over, but he turned his determination to school and graduating with his class. Juggling therapy and school, he improved at both. By the end of the year he was going to physical therapy just once a week and no longer needed help in class. He was accepted to St. Petersburg College, where he starts Aug. 14 with a full class load and a plan to become a pharmacist.
Graduation was an inspiration to so many at Farragut, but Marquis had a different perspective. He calmly soaked it all in, felt the love, and was proud he accomplished his goal. He just wanted to be with his classmates and feel normal.
It was the same thing at prom a few weeks earlier.
“I had a good time,” he said. “Music, dancing, laughing, good talks with friends.
“I’m glad I didn’t miss it.”
So is the Farragut family.
About Admiral Farragut Academy
Opened in 1945 as the second campus of its namesake in New Jersey, is one of only two honor naval schools in the country and is re-accredited annually by the U.S. Department of the Navy. Last year, the school served 457 PreK-12 students, including 38 on Step Up For Students scholarships. The school annually administers the Terra Nova 3 test to students in grades 2-7 and the PSAT to students in grades 8-11. Tuition is $13,000 annually for Kindergarten, $16,300 for Grades 1-5, $18,900 for Grades 6 and 7, and $23,300 for high school. Payment plans and financial aid are available.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at email@example.com.