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.
By PAUL SOOST
Liberty National Life Insurance Company, a provider of life and supplemental health insurance, announced on Sept. 25 a $25,000 contribution to Step Up For Students, funding three K-12 scholarships during the 2018-19 school year. The scholarships allow lower-income children the opportunity to attend the school that best meets their learning needs.
This is the first time that Liberty National has partnered with Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations.
“From our corporate office to local agencies, Liberty National gives back to the community we serve,” said Joel Scarborough, senior vice president and general counsel of Liberty National. “We’re proud to partner with Step Up For Students in support of educational opportunities that will help develop future leaders for our community.”
The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged schoolchildren 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.
“We are thrilled that Liberty National has partnered with us to provide educational options for lower-income families in Florida,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “We are grateful for their generosity and commitment to helping students in their community.”
For the 2018-19 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 98,500 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 1,750 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
Paul Soost can be reach at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today is back-to-school day for most school districts in Florida.
But for the Plucinski family of Central Florida, it’s back to schools. And not just district schools.
Sisters Cora and Zuri boarded a school bus to start the day at a district elementary school, while mom Corin Plucinski drove brothers Zach and Nathan 30 minutes to a private school. They attend the schools with help from one of Florida’s multiple educational choice scholarships.
In many parts of the country, this may be unusual. But in Florida, which offers one of the robust arrays of school choice in the country, it’s increasingly common. Growing numbers of families have different children attending different schools in different educational sectors.
To the Plucinskis, whose oldest is now headed to college after graduating from a district high school, there’s nothing odd about it.
“When you’ve got five kids you’re always juggling something anyway,” Corin Plucinski said.
Thirty years ago, roughly 90 percent of Florida students in pre-K through 12 attended assigned district schools, and about 10 percent attended private schools. Beyond a handful of magnet schools, there was no state-supported school choice.
Fast forward a generation. Today, 46 percent of Florida students – 1.7 million – attend something other than their assigned district schools. About 300,000 attend charter schools. Another 300,000 attend private schools. Most of the rest attend options created by school districts, from magnet schools and career academies to IB and dual enrollment programs.
This flourishing landscape gives parents more opportunities to find the right fit for their kids. And for many families, that means one child in this sector, another in that sector.
Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Corin and her husband Mark knew they wanted a big family. When they discovered they couldn’t have children of their own, they turned to the foster care system. Soon they welcomed siblings Cora, Zuri, Zach and Nathan into their home. Not long after, Leonte joined the family as the new big brother.
The Plucinskis moved to Florida two years ago, in part to escape Milwaukee winters and to start fresh as a family. They were pleasantly surprised by what they discovered.
As a multi-racial family, the Plucisnkis felt Milwaukee was far too segregated. People talked. Others stared and judged. In the Orlando area, there was none of that.
“It’s more racially diverse here,” Corin said of her new neighborhood in east Orlando. Even her kids were shocked by the diversity. Florida wasn’t just black and white like Milwaukee, it was multi-colored. The warm weather, lush palm trees and nearby beaches didn’t hurt either.
They also discovered something else. Florida’s public schools, in their view, were better. Way better.
“Moving to Florida has been a world of change,” said Corin about Florida’s K-12 education system.
Florida public schools had smaller classes, which allowed Zuri (now in third grade) and Leonte to get the extra help they needed. She also felt her kids were being held to a higher standard.
Leonte struggled with the higher expectations at first, but his new public school teachers provided extra help to raise his scores on the state standardized test and the SAT. He finished his senior year at East River High School in Orlando with his GPA comfortably above 3.0. Leonte will be a freshman at Seminole State College this year and wants to become a fireman when he graduates.
Zuri loves her public school, East Lake Elementary, and is excited to welcome her little sister Cora to the kindergarten class.
Meanwhile, Zachary (seventh grade) and Nathan (fifth grade), will both attend The Arbor School in Winter Springs, a private school for children with special needs. Both have multiple learning disabilities, and both use the Gardiner Scholarship, an education savings account for students with special needs. The program is administered by Step Up For Students.
Zachary and Nathan weren’t always private school students. They’ve tried public school, home education and Florida Virtual School too.
For Zachary, a district elementary school worked better in Florida than in Milwaukee. In Wisconsin, he struggled so much in his public school that he was home schooled by his adoptive mom instead. But in Florida, he was able to flourish thanks to smaller class sizes and teachers that his parents said put in extra effort.
Middle school was a different story, however. The school was just too big and held too many distractions. Zachary’s grades began to suffer. That’s when Plucinski turned to the Gardiner Scholarship.
Zachary’s grades dramatically improved at The Arbor School, from D’s and F’s to A’s and B’s.
Until this year, Nathan had only been home schooled. He needed occupational, physical, speech and behavioral therapy, all of which made attending a traditional school difficult.
This year will be Nathan’s first at The Arbor School with his big brother. He’s already made friends at the school and Plucinski believes the option will be a great fit for him.
Public or private? It doesn’t matter to the Plucinskis.
“We’re just happier,” Corin Plucinski said. “This is how schools are supposed to be.”
Patrick R. Gibbons can be reached at email@example.com.
By JEFF BARLIS
Last fall, as she started her senior year in high school, IvonD’liz Chernoff was full of love and gratitude. She was excelling in school. She had overcome years of ridicule. She was headed for college.
Tracking a monster hurricane was the last thing on her mind.
But there it was. Maria. Tearing through her beloved Puerto Rico.
“I couldn’t look away,” IvonD’liz recounted. “Houses with roofs coming off, water coming in from the ocean. It was terrifying … heartbreaking. The worst part was the aftermath, seeing people suffering, kids crying because they don’t have a home or food or because their dolls are gone with the storm.”
I have to do something, she thought.
So she did. The girl who failed third grade was now student body president. The girl rescued by a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students now found the strength to rescue others.
I can move mountains, she thought.
IvonD’liz, also known as Ivon or Ivy, was born in Orlando. But in her heart, she’s Puerto Rican. She moved to the U.S. territory when she was three months old, and didn’t return to central Florida, to live with her grandparents, until she was 5. “I’m a pure Latina,” she said with an accent, a broad smile and a little shimmy that sent her tight, black curls into a dance. “My whole family shares that Puerto Rican spice.”
Florida turned out to be turbulent. When Ivon began attending her neighborhood kindergarten, she didn’t know English. She soon became comfortable speaking it. But reading?
“Reading was really difficult,” she said, “especially when you had to stand up. I would stutter. The kids who knew English would laugh.”
Ivon felt the sting of classmates calling her dumb. She cried a lot.
When her mom got married a few years later, she took Ivon and her two sisters from their grandparents’ home and moved south to Poinciana. In school, Ivon continued to struggle. She was bullied by a boy who picked on her incessantly. She got mostly F’s and D’s. She didn’t have many friends.
“I didn’t feel accepted,” she said.
After a falling out with her mother, Ivon and her two sisters moved back to Orlando to live with their grandparents. Despite financial hardships, it was peaceful and stable. Ivon’s grades rebounded.
As a freshman at her neighborhood high school, Ivon did well and was happy. But she told her grandmother, Luz Ruiz, she wanted to leave because the classes were so large.
“I didn’t like the fact that when I didn’t understand anything, they couldn’t slow it down for me,” she said. “I wanted to go somewhere where I could have a one-on-one conversation with a teacher.”
Enter Raising Knowledge Academy. Ivon and her grandmother toured the school and met the principal, a strong, warm-hearted woman named Ariam Cotto. It was too late to get a Step Up scholarship, Ms. Cotto explained. But when she saw Ivon’s enthusiasm for the school, she worked out an affordable payment plan with Ivon’s grandmother, who worked in housekeeping at Disney.
“She saw something in me,” Ivon said. “I was so happy I was crying when we left.”
It took time for Ivon to find her groove. But with a Step Up scholarship in place for her 11th grade year, the self-admitted goofy kid started taking school more seriously. In her senior year, she was elected student body president.
Then Maria happened.
The destruction devastated Ivon. But it also spurred her to action.
She immediately went to Cotto, and they came up with a plan.
It was simple at first. Ivon and some students stood at the busy intersection near the school with signs for hurricane relief, waving a Puerto Rican flag and selling water bottles. The early donations were encouraging. The first time someone handed Ivon $40 was stunning. But she was thinking bigger.
While Cotto called local officials, Ivon galvanized the entire school community – students, parents, their churches. It took weeks to plan and even longer to coordinate with a church in Puerto Rico, but the refocused efforts paid off.
Donations streamed in – food, supplies, aid kits and money ($1,000 in one day gave everyone shivers of empowered delight). Students filled bags and boxes with supplies for women, men, children and babies.
“She raised more than $7,000 and another $5,000 in food and clothing,” Mrs. Cotto said, crediting Ivon as the driving force. “She’s a wonderful leader.”
Ivon accumulated 120 volunteer hours in two months. At graduation, the school gave her its Citizenship Award.
She finished with a 3.5 GPA. She was also accepted to Adventist University of Health Sciences, where she plans to become a pediatric cancer nurse.
Ivon’s nursing aspirations began five years ago, when she learned from post-operation hospital nurses how to care for her grandparents at home. She cries happily at the thought of how much they’ve done for her.
Grandma couldn’t be prouder to see how Ivon has grown. She credits Raising Knowledge Academy. “There were moments when Ivon fell down,” she said, “and they helped her get back up.”
She’s well on her way to paying it forward.
About Raising Knowledge Academy
Opened in 2015, the non-denominational non-profit had 92 K-12 students last year, including 46 on Step Up scholarships. The school uses Alpha and Omega Publications’ Horizons and Ignitia curriculums, which allow students to customize elective learning in addition to five core subjects. It offers advanced classes and dual enrollment through Valencia College. Its teachers are state certified, class sizes are between 8-10 students, and the school administers NWEA’s Measures of Academic Performance (MAP) test. Tuition is $6,100.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.
By JEFF BARLIS
Robert Crockett III is engaged in hand-to-hand combat with his uncooperative red-and-white striped necktie as a photographer sets him up for the next shot.
On a bright, breezy spring day at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, teachers and fellow students say hi as they walk past without an ounce of surprise to see the affable senior representing the school. With his close-cropped hair and perfect smile, Robert is a star on campus.
Getting accepted to Dartmouth College has only added to the mystique.
“We need to buy him a lifetime supply of school sweatshirts to have him be the face of a Columbus alumnus,” said English teacher Bob Linfors. “He’s a success. I don’t know how much credit we should get for molding him, but he’s somebody to put on our posters.”
When Robert came to Columbus for ninth grade, it was his third school in three years. He excelled at a K-8 magnet school through seventh grade, but mom Stacy Preston, who also grew up in Miami, wanted Robert to get the big neighborhood school experience for eighth grade. It turned out to be too easy.
She knew about Columbus, where a nephew had gone years prior, but it came with a daunting price tag. Then a friend whose son went to Columbus told her about the Step Up For Students scholarship, which helps lower-income families with tuition.
Stacy has worked in HR at the University of Miami for 11 years. She’s separated from husband Robert Crockett Jr., who works for a moving company. Neither went to college after high school, but Stacy is now just four credits shy of getting her bachelor’s degree.
She raised Robert with an expectation of college but said “it hasn’t been common in our family. That’s what got me back to school. I couldn’t push my kids and not be an example.”
Stacy didn’t know how Robert would do in an elite private school, but she didn’t need to worry. According to Columbus principal David Pugh, Robert excelled at the school from day one and is taking five Honors and two Advanced Placement courses as a senior.
“Sometimes it can be a difficult transition to a competitive college preparatory school, and he’s met all of our expectations,” Pugh said. “For four years, Robert has worn his uniform impeccably.”
Robert wears another uniform as captain of the football team.
Growing up in this football-crazed city, Robert fell in love with the sport at age four. He put on his 11-year-old brother’s helmet and pads and ran around his house and yard yelling, “Hut! Hut!”
“The helmet was about to take him over, the pads were way too big,” Stacy recalled. “It was super cute. But that’s him. He’s been at this a long time.”
Dad was the football parent who coached pee wee leagues. Mom was the school parent who demanded that academics come first. She’d seen other parents put sports first and wasn’t having it.
Today, Stacy simultaneously beams and deflects credit when she talks about Dartmouth. From an early age, she guided Robert, the second of her three boys. But he didn’t need much pushing.
“He saw how I was with his older brother,” she said. “You came in, sat down, got a snack and did your homework. As a little kid, Robert would want to do homework, too, and he wasn’t even in school. We would have to sit him at the table with his older brother and give him pencil and paper, and he couldn’t even spell his name yet. That’s just been him from the very beginning. He was a different kid.”
The kind who could learn from others’ mistakes.
Early on, it was no TV or going outside when older brother De’vante Davis didn’t bring home good grades.
Later, it was the threat of losing football privileges.
“I just looked at someone doing bad and said, ‘I don’t want to be like that,’ ” he said. “I think about my parents and football. If I mess up that’s all over with. Colleges wouldn’t be interested. I don’t want to be that kid that messes up and gets everything taken away because I did something stupid.”
Before his senior year, Robert’s inner circle was mostly football friends, some of whom he’s known since pee wee ball. Some are big-time college football recruits, All-Americans who chose football-factory colleges like Alabama, Florida and Miami. Others went down the wrong road, but he’s lost touch with them.
Robert dreams his road will lead to a shot at the NFL. But he has another dream – becoming a surgeon – and he knows pre-med classes at Dartmouth will be more important than any game.
“It really hasn’t hit me yet that I’m going to an Ivy League school,” he said with an arched eyebrow and amused smile. “I don’t puff out my chest. I’m just staying focused, because me getting there and me graduating from there are two different things. I have to do everything I need to do first.”
About Christopher Columbus High School
Established by the Archdiocese of Miami in 1958, Columbus is one of 14 Catholic schools in the U.S. ministered by the Marist Brothers and the only one in the southeast. Within the Marist tradition, the school emphasizes personal development and community service in addition to a college prep curriculum that includes extensive AP and dual-enrollment classes. More than half of the staff hold advanced degrees. Accredited by AdvancEd and a member of the National Catholic Educational Association, the school annually administers the SAT and ACT. There are 1,688 students, including 250 on Step Up scholarships. Tuition is $10,700 a year. Financial assistance is available for qualified families, but each family must contribute something toward their tuition.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.