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How a great-grandmother and a Step Up scholarship changed the lives of two young girls

By ROGER MOONEY

On a Friday morning in March 2020, a judge granted Sharon Strickland temporary custody of her great-granddaughter, Savannah.

The little girl, 8 at the time, had been living in unsanitary conditions, Strickland said, with an elderly relative who was in failing health. Savannah often went hungry.

According to Sharon, the family dynamic has been complicated and the children’s mother lost parental rights to all four of her daughters.

The youngest great-grandchild, Karlee, was already living with Strickland, having been placed there by the state four months earlier. Karlee arrived at Strickland’s doorstep at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday in early November 2019, carrying all her possessions in a backpack and a trash bag. She was 3.

Savannah came with even less. Just the clothes she wore that day to school – a shirt that was missing a few buttons and tattered pants. No socks.

Savannah and Karlee collect shells at Daytona Beach.

For years, Strickland tried to gain custody of her great-granddaughters.

“Nobody was standing up for these girls and these girls needed a voice,” Sharon said. “I said, ‘I’m the voice.’”

And Judge John D. Galluzzo of the 18th Judicial Court in Seminole County, Florida listened. He ordered Savannah to live with Sharon for one week and scheduled another hearing for the following Friday.

Savannah moved into her “Gram’s” clean house in South Daytona Beach, where she ate three meals a day, wore new clothes, slept in a real bed, and played with her little sister.

At the end of that week, Savannah found herself in front of the judge again for a custody hearing. He asked Savannah if she wanted to return to her old home or remain with her sister and great-grandmother.

“I want to live with my great-grandma,” Savannah answered without hesitation.

For nearly a year, Savannah has lived with her Gram. When recently asked why she picked her great-grandmother, Savannah said, “I have my own room. My Gram is nice to me.”

Strickland was thrilled. Now 65, she finds herself again in the role of mother after empty nesting for more than 20 years.

“God has a plan for all of us,” she said. “He placed me in this position for a reason.”

Strickland’s goal is to adopt Savannah and Karlee as well as a third great-granddaughter.

A fourth sister lives with her biological father and is doing well, Strickland said.

Strickland sees a better life for Savannah and Karlee, ones that include clean clothes, nutritious meals and a quality education.

 “I’m going to make it happen,” Strickland said.

‘A good fit’

Once the girls moved in, Strickland learned about the income-based scholarships managed by Step Up For Students from the Child Protective Home Study Specialist in Volusia county. She applied and received the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for Savannah. With the opportunity to give her great- granddaughters a faith-based education, she decided on Warner Christian Academy, a Pre-K through 12 private school in South Daytona. The school is five minutes from home, eight minutes from where she works and came highly recommended.

The girls enrolled before this school year. Savannah, now 9, is in second grade. Karlee, 4, is in VPK and isn’t yet old enough to use the scholarship program.

Nealy Walton is the elementary school principal at Warner Christian. She listened intently as Strickland told Savannah’s story when they first met last spring. Education was not a point of emphasis in Savannah’s prior home, and she struggled in a neighborhood school, especially with reading. Stickland wanted Savannah to repeat the second grade.

But there was more. She had trust issues when it came to adults. She used to check each day to make sure no one took her clothes and toys. She hid food around the house.

Strickland once found a piece of paper on which Savannah wrote, “I hate you!” Strickland asked her about it and was shocked by Savannah’s answer.

“She was talking about herself. At 8 years old, that’s concerning. That’s very concerning,” Strickland said.

Both girls receive counseling.

“It might take years for them to feel good,” Strickland said.

As Strickland talked, one name came to Walton’s mind: Debbie Adams. She has taught second grade at Warner Christian for 43 years. During that time, Adams has developed the ability to read a student, to learn his or her interests, habits, and hang-ups. What makes them happy. What makes them mad. What frightens them. She knows some students are dealing with far greater problems then the lessons being taught in class.

“I can’t help them if I don’t know where they have been and what they need,” Adams said. “Once you get that, the education will come.”

Savannah and Adams, Walton said, “are a good fit.”

And given the spiritual foundation of the school and the unstable lives Savannah and Karlee led before living with their great-grandmother, Walton said, “It’s no accident they are here. The Lord definitely created an opportunity for them to be here. It’s not by luck.”

‘A brave little girl’

Adams said Savannah gives the best bear hugs.

“Yes, I do,” Savannah said.

She loves her new school, because Adams is “super nice,” and she has a lot of friends.

The smaller class sizes at Warner Christian allow for more one-on-one time between Savannah and Adams. Her grades have improved, especially in reading.

“If that scholarship wasn’t there, I don’t know, she would be struggling,” Strickland said.

The family: Savannah, Sharon and Karlee.

The biggest part of Savannah’s success was learning to trust adults. She had been let down by so many during her first eight years. The young girl doesn’t know who her father is.

“We live in a tough world, and she has had to deal with an even tougher world,” Adams said. “For me, I think these kids just want to know you love them. They want to know you understand.”

Once Savannah accepted the love from Adams, Walton and the rest of the Warner Christian staff, she began to emerge from the protective shell she was forced to build around herself.

“She’s more content,” Adams said. “She’s happier with herself, because she is settled in. She works hard. She’s proud of what she does, so her inner dialogue that she has with herself has improved tremendously. When she first came in, it was more of a negative thing and life was just tough, and she’s a very sensitive girl. She was hard on herself, but she’s had a lot of baggage to overcome.

“Her and I working together, we have a good bond at this point, a lot of respect for each other. She’s a brave little girl, I’ll tell ya. She’s a very loving girl.”

Faith is a big part of the teacher-student relationship at Warner Christian. That’s what Strickland was looking for when she chose the school. She loves helping Savannah with her homework, especially when it comes to learning bible verses. She loves that Karlee sits next to Savannah and learns the verses, too.

“This (Florida Tax Credit Scholarship) has just been a blessing to me, because there is no way I could have afforded to send either one of them there to get the education they are going to receive on what I make,” said Strickland, an administrative assistant at The House Next Door, a family counseling center in Daytona Beach.

Conversations and laughs

One night while saying prayers at bedtime, Savannah turned to her Gram and asked, “Am I ever going to leave here?

“No,” Strickland said.

“Good,” Savannah said. “I don’t ever want to go back.”

Strickland, who has been divorced since 1982 and lived alone for 23 years before she gained custody of Karlee, is adjusting to the sights and sounds of having young children in the house.

“Here we go again,” she said. “It’s the whole aspect of learning each one of them. I’ve had a year with Karlee. She’s still tricking me, because she’ll eat green beans sometimes and sometimes, she won’t.”

Karlee loves Cheerios. Savannah won’t eat lunch meat. Both girls love to dance. Strickland said she thinks Savannah will someday be some type of leader.

Strickland welcomes the noise and the mess of a house filled with clothes and toys. The worst part about living alone all those years, she said, was eating dinner by herself.

“Now I have conversations and laughs and goofiness while we’re eating,” she said. “That’s something to be thankful for.”

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

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

By ASHLEY ZARLE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to nominate your students for Rising Stars Awards

By ROGER MOONEY

Do you have a Step Up For Students scholar who made significant improvements academically since attending your school?

How about a Step Up student who consistently displays outstanding compassion, perseverance and courage?

Or one who excels in academics, the arts or athletically?

Now is the time for school leaders to honor those students for Step Up’s annual Rising Stars Awards program, scheduled for Feb. 25, 2021. This year’s event will be held virtually from 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Another change this year due to COVID-19 is we are limiting the categories to student only. Next year we hope to honor parents and teachers again in person.

“Step Up For Students celebrates our outstanding scholarship students every year through our Rising Stars Award ceremonies across the state. We had to cancel the 2020 celebration due to COVID-19, so we are excited to announce that we will be back in 2021 with a virtual celebration!

“While we wish we could be together in person, we promise that this live virtual event will be an exciting and special way to honor our amazing scholarship students and the great work they are able to do in their chosen schools,” said Lauren Barlis, Step Up’s senior director of Student Learning & Partner Success.

School leaders can nominate up to three total students in the following categories:

  • High Achieving Student Award. Students who excel in academics, arts or athletics.
  • Turnaround Student Award. A student who struggled when they first attended your school and has since made dramatic improvements.
  • Outstanding Student Character Award. A student who demonstrates outstanding compassion, perseverance, courage, initiative, respect, fairness, integrity, responsibility, honesty or optimism.

Click here to nominate your students.

The deadline for nominations is Dec. 4.

Before making nominations, please have all necessary information available, including school name, school DOE number, each nominee’s contact information (name, phone number, email address, Step Up Award number). Please include a short description of why each person is being nominated.

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

Cristo Rey’s first graduating class took the path less taken

By ROGER MOONEY

A pamphlet for a new private Catholic high school arrived in the mail one day when Abi’ya Wright was in the eighth grade. Four words jumped off the pages: “Corporate Work Study Program.”

Abi’ya noticed that Cristo Rey Tampa Salesian High School in Tampa, which would accept its first students the following August, was the only high school in the Tampa area that offered such a program.

“I was like, ‘Oh that’s a high school I can go to,’” she said.

And so, she did.

Abi’ya Wright

In August 2016, Abi’ya joined the students who comprised the first-ever freshman class at Cristo Rey. They took their first awkward steps as high schoolers together in a setting foreign to nearly every high school student. Cristo Rey’s first school year included only ninth graders.

Some, like Nicole Singletary, were also drawn to the school by the Corporate Work Study Program, where every student spends one day a week doing office work as entry-level employees at one of 50 Tampa Bay area business, including Step Up For Students.

Others, like Aydin Montero and Jose Calixto, were attracted by the school’s commitment to prepare each student for a college education.

“It was kind of weird at first, because we were the only class there, and nobody really knew what to expect,” Nicole said. “We were learning as we were going.”

Cristo Rey added a freshman class each year after its inaugural year, making the 2019-20 school year the first with freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. It also makes the Class of 2020 its first graduating class.

So, naturally, Abi’ya, Nicole, Aydin and Jose and the other 40 seniors are part of the school’s historic milestone. The Cristo Rey seniors are proud of that unique honor.

“It feels like an accomplishment because were the first ones to test it out. Yes, it was hard work. We didn’t have all the teachers to cover all the classes, some of the elective classes. Some of us had to do online classes, but we still made it work,” Jose said. “At the end, it’s a great honor.”

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the senior prom was canceled, and the school’s first traditional graduation ceremony was rescheduled from June 6 to Aug. 8. Until that time, the school honored the graduating class with social media posts and a walk-through block party, where the students received swag bags, senior T-shirts and photos.

The pandemic made for a bumpy end to the high school experience for the seniors.

“Still lots to celebrate, though,” said school principal Matt Torano.

The path less taken

Torano said he doesn’t know if he could do what the seniors did – commit to a high school as eighth graders when, at the time, the high school was in name only.

“They chose the path less taken. They forged ahead not really knowing what it meant, not really knowing what was going to happen,” he said. “That alone is impressive to me, because I don’t know if I would have had, as a 14- or 15-year-old, the guts to do that.”

Cristo Rey is located in a lower-income section of Tampa. It is designed for students from lower-income families, many of whom will be the first in their family to either graduate from high school or attend college or both.

Nicole Singletary

Every student attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, an income-based scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.

“Their parents are hardworking folks but never had the opportunities to consider college as a pathway,” Torano said. “They want better for their children, and they want their children to be the first to go to college and be the first to experience the benefits of that four-year degree.”

Nearly everyone in the senior class – 98% – are headed to a college or university.

They are led by Jeremy Hurtado, the valedictorian who earned a QuestBridge Scholarship to Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Based in California, QuestBridge is a nonprofit organization that helps top academic students from low-income backgrounds attend some of the country’s best colleges and universities.

Nicole begins her nursing studies this summer at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

“It’s just something that’s been calling to me,” she said. “I enjoy the medical field and just being in the medical environment.”

Abi’ya is headed to Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., where she will study criminology in advance of a career as an FBI profiler.

“I mostly chose that one because, one, it’s not in Florida. I didn’t want to go to any school in Florida, because I want to branch out,” she said. “And two, it’s a small, private school. I want to have the same school environment as high school, because it’s easier for me to learn that way.”

Jose is taking a gap year with some online courses mixed in. If the COVID-19 travel restrictions are relaxed, he plans to travel to Mexico and visit family. After that, Jose said he will enroll at Hillsborough Community College for two years then head to St. Leo University. He’s thinking of majoring in business.

Aydin will study software engineering at Florida Institute of Technology across the state in Melbourne. He is the first one in his family to graduate high school and he will be the first to attend college.

“I feel like I’m representing myself and my family,” he said of graduating from Cristo Rey. “My mom was really focused on me getting through high school and to college. I think that’s one of the reasons she chose (Cristo Rey), because she knew I would have a better chance going on to college.”

Real life experience

With every student in every grade participating, the Corporate Work Study Program is, naturally, a huge part of the Cristo Rey experience. Participating businesses include those in health care, finance, law, engineering, food and beverage, law enforcement and education.

Abi’ya and Jose worked at Step Up. Nicole worked at a law firm. Aydin worked at three different companies, including a commercial real estate firm.

Aydin Montero

The students are paid a salary for each job experience, but the salary goes toward their tuition.

Yearly tuition for Cristo Rey is approximately $18,000. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship covers 40% of that, as does the Corporate Work Study Program. Philanthropic contributions cover 14%, leaving the families to pay 6%. Torano said that comes out to $65 per month for the parents.

“So, to get a Catholic college preparatory experience for 65 bucks a month, that’s a heck of a deal,” he said.

Spending time in a work-setting helps the students build people skills and gain confidence. They also create a network of contacts who can be relied upon to write recommendations for college and, maybe in a few years, for jobs.

“For me, it was kind of scary at first,” said Abi’ya, who initially was intimidated working among adults. “I was not a very sociable person, and it made me extremely nervous to talk to people or have the potential of talking to someone.

“I’m much, much better now.”

A legacy

It may have been an unusual start, but once that first freshman class settled in, they encountered a high school experience similar to their peers around the country.

Nicole played on the basketball, volleyball and soccer teams. She joined the youth ministry, worked on the yearbook staff and helped start the audio-visual club.

Abi’ya helped start the anime club as a junior. Aydin was captain of the basketball team as a senior.

All the seniors played four square volleyball outside the school building as often as possible.

Jose Calixto

When asked for his favorite highlight of high school, Jose said, “My friends, because the school is not really big and we knew each other for four years, we started becoming a family. We were comfortable with each other.”

It’s all over now for the seniors, except for the traditional graduation. All that remains of the class of 2020 is their legacy.

“A lot of freshmen and sophomores came up to me and said, ‘You guys are amazing. Thank you for starting the path,’” Nicole said. “It’s kind of reassuring that we were doing a good job, and the school is going to be remembered for generations to come.”

That is the hope of Principal Torano.

A Tampa native, Torano looks around at the other private high schools in Tampa, including Jesuit High that dates back to 1899, and sees the contributions their alumni have made to the city of Tampa. It will take time, he admits, but he expects Cristo Rey graduates to have the same impact.

“Hopefully in 50 years they talk about Cristo Rey in kind of the same breath as these institutions that have been so instrumental in moving Tampa forward into each next step of the evolution that we have experienced as a city,” he said. “And it all started here. It started with this class. There had to be a first one and hats off to these men and women for taking a chance and making it happen.”

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

Student spotlight: Ryan Tetoff, graduate of Chaminade-Madonna College Preparatory in Hollywood, Fla.

By Sherri Ackerman

Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedJune Welcome looked forward to sending her son, Ryan Tetoff, to his neighborhood school. By first grade, though, she worried he wasn’t being challenged academically.

“Sometimes I would go to school and have lunch with him,’’ Welcome recalled. “I would find him upset. He was getting in trouble for not being able to sit still after he had completed his work.’’

Welcome met with administrators and they agreed Ryan was bright, even testing him for the gifted program. When they told her he didn’t qualify, Welcome enrolled Ryan in a new local charter school. But it wasn’t run well, she said, so she returned Ryan to his old neighborhood school.

“Third grade starts with the same issues,’’ Welcome said. “Again, I ask for him to be tested for gifted and again they tell me he shows no signs.’’

It took her awhile, but the hair salon receptionist set aside the $400 it cost to have her son tested privately. This time, he qualified. His mother wanted to look at private schools for sixth grade, but Ryan begged to stay with his friends.

“Against my better judgment, I gave in,’’ she said.

Within the first month of middle school, Ryan was being harassed by other students and got into a fight. It went downhill from there, Welcome said, prompting her to transfer him to another charter school where he finished eighth grade.

“Academically, they weren’t as challenging,’’ she said, “but it was a better environment.’’

With Ryan heading to high school, Welcome wanted a different learning experience for him. A school where kids wanted to get their education. She set her sights on Chaminade-Madonna College Preparatory, a 550-student Catholic high school in Hollywood devoted to academics and spiritual growth.

Tuition seemed out of reach until she discovered she could afford it with help from Step Up For Students. The nonprofit helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which provides low-income families with financial assistance toward tuition at participating private schools. Ryan received the scholarship starting in ninth grade.

Chaminade-Madonna graduate Ryan Tethoff said teachers like Patrick Heffernan, right, and Jason Johnson, left, motivated him and other students to do their best to succeed. Ryan is now a freshman at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.

Chaminade-Madonna graduate Ryan Tetoff said teachers like Patrick Heffernan, right, and Jason Johnson, left, motivated him and other students to do their best to succeed. Ryan is now a freshman at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.

“What a blessing that was,’’ Welcome said. “What an unbelievable gift. As a single mom, to be able to put my son in a positive environment … To let him learn and focus on learning seemed too good to be true. But it happened.’’

Ryan didn’t get into trouble or get bored anymore like he did at his old schools. And Chaminade-Madonna administrators were skilled at motivating him and nurturing his love for learning.

“They definitely cared more about your grades,’’ said Ryan, who graduated in May with an overall GPA of 3.51. “It was a huge change.’’

His coursework, which included Advanced Placement and honors classes, was tough, he said. But teachers like Patrick Heffernan, who taught Ryan honors English, inspired him to go above and beyond.

“We’re more of a village than a city,’’ Heffernan said. “Everybody here is more than just a name. It’s a community.’’

Heffernan credits the school’s Catholic influence and its close-knit learning environment. He grew up attending big Broward County district schools – and some kids do fine at such schools, he said. Others can get swallowed up. They need a more supportive atmosphere where they can be recognized as individuals.

It worked for Ryan. The former varsity high school basketball player earned a Bright Futures Scholarship and the President’s Silver Scholarship from Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, where he’s a college freshman today pledging for a fraternity and planning to study architecture.

“He is very bright,’’ Heffernan said. “Very gifted creatively and socially. Ryan is definitely a success.’’

Have you seen the scholarship in action, or do you have an idea for a story?  Please contact Sherri Ackerman, public relations manager, at sackerman@StepUpForStudents.org

 

About Chaminade-Madonna College Preparatory:

At Chaminade-Madonna College Preparatory, students in grades nine through 12 participate in a learning environment geared toward producing college graduates.

Founded in 1960 in the Marianist tradition, the Catholic school in Hollywood strives to develop the “whole student’’ with spiritual, emotional and educational instruction, said Patrick Heffernan, who has taught at Chaminade-Madonna for 19 years.

Academically, Catholic schools do a good job with average students, he said. But Chaminade-Madonna seeks to meet student needs across the continuum with programs that serve learners from the highest-achieving to those struggling.

The majority of graduates continue their education at a variety of colleges and universities, from Broward Community College in South Florida to Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Others go on to enlist in the military or enroll in vocational schools or service academies.

Chaminade-Madonna provides a student-teacher ratio of 10 to 1. Instruction focuses on a challenging curriculum with 18 Advanced Placement courses and another 14 through dual enrollment with the private St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens.

Other programs include Chaminade Scholars, which offers demanding coursework to keep the top-performing students engaged. The Learning Center accommodates students diagnosed with learning exceptionalities by providing extra help such as preferential seating or more time for assignments and testing.

In addition, students also can participate in spiritual retreats and help mentor classmates. There are honor societies for different subjects, such as art, French and science. Athletics play a significant role in the lives of students at Chaminade-Madonna, with teams for football, soccer, dance, volleyball, golf and cross-country among others.

Of the 550 students enrolled in the 2015-16 school year, 76 receive the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students, said Kristi Tucker, director of guidance and the Learning Center. Tuition ranges from $9,645 to $11,295. Academic achievement is measured by the PSAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT).

Sixty-four percent of the school’s 44-member faculty have advanced degrees. Chaminade-Madonna is accredited by AdvancED (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools on Accreditation).