By JEFF BARLIS
Middle school is tough for a lot of kids. For Valentin Mendez, it was hell.
At night, he would try to sleep on the floor of the downtown Miami gas station where his mother worked the graveyard shift.
In the mornings, he’d think about who was going to beat him up that day.
After school, he’d clutch his mom and cry.
“It was chaos,” he said.
Non-stop bullying left Valentin so hopeless, he dropped out of his neighborhood school in sixth grade and moved to Nicaragua to be with his father. That could have been the end of a heartbreaking story.
But thanks to a scholarship, Valentin got a chance to start over at a different school – and to turn everything around.
“The scholarship,” said Valentin’s mother, Jeannethe Ruiz, “saved my son.”
Valentin was born in Miami but lived in Nicaragua with his father, Roberto Mendez, from age 3 to 9. The tall, chubby kid with glasses was an easy target for bullies. That he didn’t speak much English made it worse.
Money was tight, so Valentin and his mom lived in her sister’s apartment in a rough neighborhood near downtown. While Jeannethe worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., Valentin could hear the sound of gunfire and drug raids. She decided to have him sleep on a thin comforter inside the gas station’s plate-glass booth.
“The floor was very cold,” Valentin said, “but at least I knew I was secure.”
That wasn’t the case at school. He lasted a month before mom transferred him to another district middle school. He made it six weeks there.
“Bullies were everywhere,” he said. “I saw people doing drugs. … They were smoking. I saw cocaine as well. It was heavy stuff.”
One rainy morning, a boy spiked a football into a puddle, drenching Valentin with water and dirt. Other kids laughed. Valentin was crushed.
His mom had enough when Valentin told her about boys who terrorized students from beneath a staircase. Valentin spoke out and got punched in the back of his head.
“They grabbed him and beat him up,” Jeannethe said, “and no one from the school said anything to me.”
Valentin begged his mother to send him back to Nicaragua.
“I wasn’t thinking about returning. I just needed to get away, the farther the better,” he said. “The moment the plane touched ground I felt secure.”
Just being with his grandparents and father was a comfort. So was grandma’s red beans and rice.
Valentin figured he’d go to school there, maybe become a construction worker. He had given up on any American dreams.
But back in Miami, his mother was making plans. A neighbor told her about a private school – La Progresiva Presbyterian School in Little Havana. Jeannethe walked by the cluster of vanilla-colored buildings one day and saw a banner for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which helps parents of lower-income students pay tuition. She applied that day.
The family flew Valentin back to Miami to visit the new school and take an assessment test. Between the lost months in his neighborhood schools and the brief time in Nicaragua, he had missed most of the first half of the school year. He still wasn’t speaking much English.
The principal, Melissa Rego, broke the news that Valentin would start in fifth grade. His spirits sank. His mother cried. But Rego had a goal to make Valentin a reader by year’s end, and she determined that having one teacher in fifth grade instead of several teachers in sixth would give him the attention he needed.
There was also the issue of rehabilitating Valentin’s traumatized psyche.
“His self-esteem was shot,” Rego recalled. “The first two weeks were rough. He refused to speak. Val was angry. Val was aggressive. He would lash out at anything.”
It took him a year to get over the flashbacks of being bullied. The intensity of his memories faded as he felt the embrace of his new teacher and classmates.
“I was always the big, chubby kid, but now it broke the ice,” he said. “They looked up to me. They would ask how tall I was. They were always interested in me. They wanted to be my friend, and it felt weird.”
By the end of the first year at La Progresiva, things were better. Valentin’s father rejoined the family that December. Safety and stability became normal again.
“I felt complete,” Valentin said.
At the end of sixth grade, his SAT 10 scores showed he was on grade level for the first time. Rego called him and his mother in to her office separately. Both cried, fearing he was being kicked out. Instead, he was promoted to eighth grade.
“I was speechless,” Valentin said.
Rego’s plan had worked. The school had unlocked his ability to learn. The next year he earned nearly straight A’s.
Valentin made deep, lasting friendships with his new classmates, who inspired him with their work ethic and grades. He graduated with honors and a 3.78 weighted GPA. He also won a science honor and was recognized for completing 300 hours of community service.
“I always knew I was a good student. I just felt I was in the wrong place,” Valentin said. “Getting a scholarship from Step Up For Students gave me a new beginning, a new opportunity in life, to become someone I knew I could become.”
Today, Valentin is a 19-year-old freshman at Miami Dade College, majoring in accounting. He’s no longer chubby and stands 6-foot-5. His dreams are growing bigger than ever. He’s trying to get straight A’s and join an honor society by the end of his first semester. He aims to go to Vanderbilt University.
Valentin’s primary motivation remains his family. His parents never went to college. Dad works in his brother’s tire shop. Mom still works the night shift at the gas station.
“I need to get her out of there,” Valentin said. “I need to get them to retire. I tell them that all the time. They know why I go to school. They support me and I’ll support them. We’re all we have.”
Valentin said he doesn’t regret anything that happened to him. It taught him to believe in himself. It also serves as a lesson to others.
“If I can get away from that, many other kids can as well,” he said. “I just say one thing about my story: Anything is possible.”
About La Progresiva Presbyterian School
Originally founded in Cuba in 1900, the school was taken over by the communist regime in 1961. Ten years later it opened in Little Havana in Miami. Today, the school is accredited by AdvancEd and Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS). There are 660 K-12 students, including 620 on Step Up scholarships. Grades K-8 use the BJU Press curriculum, while 9-12 uses Harcourt/Houghton Mifflin. The school provides iPads for all high school students. The school administers the MAP test three times a year. Tuition for grades K-5 is $540 a month, while 6-12 is $571 a month.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at email@example.com.
By SHELBY HOBBS, Special to Step Up For Students
NAPLES, Fla. – In this season of giving, UnitedHealthcare announced Dec. 4 a record-breaking contribution of $15 million to Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer the needs-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.
Step Up For Students celebrated the support and contributions of UnitedHealthcare during an event at Naples Adventist Christian School. Since 2009, UnitedHealthcare has contributed more than $88 million to Step Up For Students, providing scholarships for nearly 17,000 students across Florida to attend either an out-of-district public school or private school that best suits their academic needs.
“UnitedHealthcare is proud to partner with Step Up For Students and support this impressive organization which invests in the future of our children,” said Nicholas Zaffiris, CEO of UnitedHealthcare of South Florida. “Especially during the holiday season, it’s important to support programs in our communities that help others. Step Up provides hope for Florida’s children to access a quality education that best fits their needs, and we are glad to support such a worthy initiative.”
Step Up For Students, the nonprofit organization that helps administer the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, is providing opportunities for nearly 105,000 lower-income students across Florida this school year with 441 residing in Collier County
“None of this would be possible without the support of the community and contributions of organizations like UnitedHealthcare,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “I’m just so pleased to know that together with our partners we are making such an important difference in our state by giving students the educational opportunities they deserve.”
At the event, Audrey Wainwright, principal at Naples Adventist Christian School, shared her support for the Step Up organization and thanked UnitedHealthcare for its ongoing commitment to the program. She encouraged other companies to consider participation.
“I have seen first-hand the benefits of this scholarship program,” Wainwright said. “So many of our students have made tremendous improvements with the help of Step Up For Students, leading to a better future for themselves and our state.”
Scholarship parent Onetia Lansiquot, who spoke at the event, said the scholarship has allowed her to provide her daughter, Leilah, a second-grader at Naples Adventist, with strong academics in a comfortable, secure environment.
“Without Step Up For Students, Leilah would likely be going to a charter or public school,” Lansiquot said before thanking UnitedHealthcare. “I’m sure her progress would be OK, but being in a private school, she gets that extra attention, that extra little push, ensuring that her educational needs are met. You are truly changing lives by investing in the future of our children’s education, and my family is so grateful.”
Editor’s note: November is National Adoption Month, which allows us to spotlight that the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, the nation’s largest private school choice program, also extends eligibility year-round to children in foster care. This year, more than 1,200 children in foster care like Camron and Rylan Merritt, who are profiled below, are using the scholarship.
By JEFF BARLIS
When Camron Merritt came home from first grade with a card inviting him to a birthday party, he didn’t know what it was.
Recently adopted after two turbulent years in foster care, the 6-year-old had never been invited to a birthday party before.
He was the difficult kid with storm clouds behind his dark brown eyes. The one that other children and their parents couldn’t understand.
All of that started to change when Camron’s adoptive parents took him out of his neighborhood school in Bushnell and enrolled him in a private school with a school choice scholarship.
New mom Melissa Merritt cried when she saw the invitation.
“Seeing your kid go from being the outcast, the kid that nobody talks to, to getting invited to a birthday party is such a big deal,” she said.
When they got Camron at age 5, Melissa and husband Brandon put him in the neighborhood school that was closest to her job as a victim’s advocate for the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office. It did not go well.
Camron’s early childhood was plagued by neglect and exposure to domestic violence and drugs. The emotional damage was made worse by more than 20 foster homes and several schools before he was adopted. He was too much for most people to handle.
“He didn’t trust anybody. He didn’t like loud noises. If there was somebody yelling on TV, he used to run and hide in the bathtub,” Melissa said. “If you said no to him, his little face would scrunch up. He’d cross his arms and stomp his foot.”
At school, Camron wrestled with learning disabilities, severe ADHD and difficulty adjusting.
“Every day I was getting calls to come get him,” Melissa said. “He was hiding under his desk, screaming and throwing things, not paying attention, smacking other kids.”
Because Brandon does pest control work throughout the region, it was Melissa who had to leave her work frequently.
“It was extremely stressful,” she said.
Frustrated with a lack of support and communication from the school, Melissa resolved to find a better option and learned about Step Up For Students scholarships from another adoptive mother. Children in foster care or out-of-home care automatically qualify for the Step Up scholarship and can keep it if they are adopted.
Melissa said Camron’s first private school, a Catholic school in Lecanto, was amazing – welcoming, tight-knit, communicative. But by the end of his first year, he was still having major difficulty with reading.
Melissa and Brandon agonized over the decision to switch schools again. Camron had been through so much change. But Melissa trusted her gut feeling that a better fit was available.
They found Solid Rock Christian Academy in Inverness, a mile and a half from their home. It offered a phonics-based reading curriculum that specializes in helping struggling readers. But the school turned out to be so much more.
Sitting on 12 acres of mostly open land, it has an old-fashioned feel, like the schools Melissa attended. There are chalkboards, beanbag chairs, and teachers who dress up for holidays.
The principal, Sheila Chau, grew up with foster children in her home. Melissa did not know that at the time, but couldn’t be more grateful.
“She gets it, literally gets it,” Melissa said. “She’s aware of all the issues and challenges. When she talks to Camron, she’s firm but she also shows him respect. She knows what he’s going through.”
Chau estimates at least 10 percent of her students are adopted.
“I guess word of mouth has spread,” she said. “We nurture the child first. Academics are definitely important, but the first thing we do is look at the child and the circumstances where they’re coming from, and we meet the child where they are. There’s always a root to every child’s difficulties, and I keep that at the forefront with my teachers.”
Camron eased into his new school with summer tutoring and was placed in a special class that combined first and second grade material. It was a challenging time, as Melissa and Brandon adopted another boy, Rylan, who was 5 and came from a background as troubled as his new brother’s.
Like Camron, Rylan struggled in his neighborhood kindergarten while he was in foster care. So when he was adopted, Melissa applied for a Step Up scholarship on a Thursday, got approved on a Friday and had him at Solid Rock the following Monday.
“The process was phenomenal,” said Merritt, who has become a foster care advocate.
Now in their second year at Solid Rock, 8-year-old Camron and 6-year-old Rylan are in a safe, stable environment. Teachers talk to them without raising their voices, and know how to defuse a meltdown.
In a third-grade class with eight other children, Camron still struggles with reading but gets extra attention three times a week. He’s on grade level and has a mix of B’s and C’s. “That’s great for Camron,” Melissa said. “He’s doing very, very well.”
Rylan is on target with his first-grade academics and is doing better emotionally after having trust and behavior issues when he repeated kindergarten last year.
It’s not a utopia, but the school feels like an extended family. The boys have friends. The parents all know each other. It’s a happy place, an extension of the home Melissa and Brandon have made for their boys.
“It was such a relief to have one full day where I actually didn’t get a call from a teacher or a note from a teacher with an angry, frowny face because their behavior was totally crazy,” Melissa said. “They still have bad days like all kids, but they’re few and farther between now.”
About Solid Rock Christian Academy
Established in 1998 and affiliated with Inverness Church of God, the school has 180 K-12 students, including 140 on the Step Up scholarship. It is accredited by the Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS) and nationally through the Association of Christian Teachers and Schools (ACTS). The school uses the A Beka Book curriculum and administers the Stanford 10 test annually. Tuition is $6,500 annually.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By DAVID TUTHILL
Jacob Monastra came home from school in tears every day.
He struggled in class and was often bullied, practically from the day he started first grade.
“Our hearts were heavy watching our bright little boy’s self-esteem erode before my eyes,” said Lynn Lambo, Jacob’s grandmother and guardian. “He called himself the worst kid in school and thought he was so dumb.”
He had always seemed to toil developmentally and barely spoke until he was 3.
During his third grading period of first grade at his neighborhood school in St. Petersburg, Florida, Jacob was a candidate to be held back for a year. Lambo dealt with that as she and husband Daniel began the process of moving with Jacob to Live Oak, a more rural area east of Tallahassee.
Prior to the move, Lambo briefly enrolled Jacob at a learning center in St. Petersburg for additional help. The one on one attention he received enabled him to enter second grade at Suwannee Elementary School in Live Oak, where his teacher was Charlene Redish.
“Jacob came into my classroom very shy and withdrawn,” Redish said. “He was in desperate need of confidence, because of his academic struggles and because of bullying. He would cry easily and didn’t trust anything around him. We had to fight for him so hard.”
While Jacob’s academic struggles continued, he made strides socially. When a disruptive student was new to Redish’s classroom, Jacob befriended him, even teaching him how to share, Redish said. As a form of reciprocation, the other boy helped protect Jacob from bullies.
But Jacob’s academic issues could not be ignored. He passed second grade – with great effort – but continued to struggle in third grade with a new teacher. In November 2016, Redish, a teacher Jacob had grown to admire and trust and still saw every morning before school, left Suwannee Elementary for a job at a private school.
That left Jacob with a new teacher – and more of the same issues.
By January 2017, Lambo was again told her grandson might be held back.
“I was shocked,” she said. “The school year wasn’t even half over, and I didn’t understand how they could tell me that.”
Fortunately for Jacob, help came from a familiar source.
Charlene Redish always kept tabs on Jacob and his family, and the bond between he and Redish proved too deep to break. Redish advised Lambo to send Jacob to her new school, New Generation School, also in Live Oak, for a one-week trial to see how he fit in.
The results were immediate and stunning.
“When I picked him up that (first) day, he said to me ‘This is my new school now,’” Lambo said with pride.
With Redish as his new third-grade teacher, Jacob’s transition to the new school was practically flawless.
“It was like night and day at New Generation,” Redish says. “He picked up quickly and became a leader in my classroom.”
Almost overnight, Lambo also saw a change. The smaller class sizes and flexibility of the curriculum was just what Jacob needed.
Once the quietest kid in a classroom, he is now well known for helping others, raising his hand frequently and almost always answering questions correctly. Every Friday, students at New Generation are released from classes early and have the option to leave at noon or stay in an after-school program until 2 p.m. But Lambo said he’s never once wanted to leave early.
“I used to have to peel him off me,” she said. “Now he’s smiling from ear to ear.”
Jacob breezed through third grade at New Generation and is now working through fourth grade, again under the tutelage of Redish. Now 9, he recently earned the New Generation Spirit Award, awarded to the student who most symbolizes integrity, kindness and the school’s purpose.
At school, Jacob and a few of his close friends often embark on playground archaeological digs, looking for rocks and pretending they are minerals.
Outside the classroom, Jacob enjoys fishing and recently caught a 13-inch crappie. He also enjoys riding a four-wheeler with his grandfather.
Jacob’s future is the brightest it has ever been.
“I am so happy they were able to get a scholarship for Jacob,” Redish said. “It was truly a blessing.”
Reach David Hudson Tuthill at email@example.com.
By DAVID TUTHILL
Josh Clay sometimes speaks at such a frantic speed he needs to slow himself down.
But he speaks with authority on so many topics – from theater, to the band Green Day, to the world of comedy – that you would never believe the challenges he’s overcome.
The 15-year-old was born with Asperger’s syndrome. Considered to be at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, those with Asperger’s often have difficulty with social interactions, and may exhibit compulsive behaviors and repetitive movements. They also tend to show an intense, all-absorbing interest in topics they enjoy.
In preschool, Josh often hit milestones later than his classmates, and he exhibited behavioral tics associated with Asperger’s.
In elementary school, he was placed on an Individualized Education Plan to help him navigate the special education he needed, which seemed to work. He was on an adequate academic pace and he made good acquaintance with fellow students. Thanks to a strict school policy, bullies were virtually nonexistent.
When it was time to start middle school, other potential issues came into focus. Josh was an “out of zone” Title I student for elementary school, but a lack of room in the preferred middle schools meant Josh would have to attend the school near his address, where he knew no one, and no one knew him.
His parents, Edward and Julie Clay didn’t feel confident their neighborhood school in Naples, Florida, could accommodate him academically.
So, Edward and Julie decided to home-school Josh in sixth and seventh grade.
“Josh was academically fine in elementary school,” Julie Clay said. “He was just a little fidgety. We decided home schooling for middle school was probably for the best as he got older.”
Josh’s sixth- and seventh-grade years were successful. His mother had no plans of putting Josh back in school, but things were about to change.
Knowing his diagnosis meant he would always need extra attention and therapy, Julie Clay took Josh to a behavioral therapist before he started eighth grade this year.
The therapist told her about two things that would change the direction of Josh’s education: the Gardiner Scholarship for families with children with certain medical diagnoses, such as Asperger’s, and De LaSalle Academy, a private school for students with special needs in nearby Fort Myers, Florida.
“When I heard about (De LaSalle) I thought, ‘Wow, this would be really great for him. Let’s walk down this path and see if it’s the right fit,’” Julie Clay said.
On his first visit to De LaSalle, Josh noticed how different the school was from his previous ones.
“I saw they all had classes with kids who reminded me of me,” he said. “I got along well with the teachers, and I liked that the only homework was classwork that we didn’t finish.”
While Josh was eager to attend and blend into the De LaSalle culture, there were some growing pains. He applied for and received the Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students.
His situation was nothing new to De LaSalle Principal Lori Riti. Under her direction, the school’s speech language pathologist, social communication , occupational therapist and counselor all work in tandem for students like Josh.
“Josh came here with some social issues, mainly with getting along and connecting in a way with other kids that was healthy,” Riti said.
Some of the issues Josh mastered at De LaSalle Academy were interpreting nonverbal communication and perception, as well as conflict resolution. The school’s specialists made tremendous strides with him. One of his closest friends at school was once a child with whom he argued and fought with regularly.
“Josh had some onboard skills, but he had to take where he was and develop much further,” Riti said. “He wasn’t successful until he had direct intensive work. I give a lot of credit to our teachers and advisors for his success.”
His achievements aren’t limited to the classroom. Josh has become one of De LaSalle’s star theater performers. He recently starred as Long John Silver in the school’s rendition of “Treasure Island.”
This winter, the school’s Performing Arts Club will perform the Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” De LaSalle’s stage will be designed to look like an old-time radio station, and Josh will play several roles, including the “warped and frustrated” Mr. Potter, Mr. Gower, the druggist, and Ernie, the cab driver.
A natural performer, his penchant for inspiring laughter at school is legendary.
On a recent weekday, he told one of his favorite jokes about ordering steak at a restaurant: “When they asked how I wanted it cooked, I said, ‘On a stove.’”
While Josh’s favorite band is Green Day, he strongly warns against their occasionally profane language. The family saw the band perform live in September. Since the tickets were purchased in January, Josh had to wait nine months.
It was worth it.
The show, he said, “was legendary.”
Josh said he hopes to someday attend Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, where he wants to continue improving his acting chops and hone his comedic talent.
As for his experiences at De LaSalle, he couldn’t be happier.
“For parents who want to send their kids to this school, well, it’s the greatest school in the universe,” Josh said. “It will be the greatest move you ever do.”
David Tuthill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By PAUL SOOST
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Florida Farm Bureau Group, a multi-line Florida based property and casualty insurance company, announced Nov. 8 it is donating $500,000 to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.
The donation will fund about 76 K-12 scholarships in the 2017-18 school year.
“At Florida Farm Bureau Group, helping families is what we do best. We are thrilled to partner with Step Up For Students to help deserving Florida schoolchildren reach for their educational dreams,” said Florida Farm Bureau Chief Executive Officer, Steve Murray. “We hope these students reach high, and we look forward to a long relationship with Step Up For Students.”
This is Florida Farm Bureau Group’s first donation to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged Florida school children. The program is funded with tax-credited donations and allows parents and schoolchildren to choose between a K-12 scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.
“Thanks to the generosity of our donors, Step Up For Students is helping Florida families customize their children’s educational opportunities,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “On behalf of our Step Up families, we thank Florida Farm Bureau Group for its commitment and generosity.”
For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for K through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
Paul Soost can be reached at email@example.com.
By PAUL SOOST
PANAMA CITY, FL – Summit Bank, N.A., a regional provider of personalized, concierge-style financial services, announced Oct. 26 a $100,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program, funding 15 scholarships for the 2017-18 school year in Bay County, Escambia County and Okaloosa County.
This marks the fourth year Summit Bank has supported the scholarship program. Since joining Step Up as a corporate partner in 2014, the company has contributed a total of $450,000, the equivalent of 77 scholarships.
“Summit Bank is committed to making a difference in our local communities and is excited to provide the opportunity for 15 families to find the right learning environment for their child through the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program,” said President and CEO Andy Stein. “We hope this support helps propel these students towards educational success and bright futures.”
Step Up For Students is a nonprofit that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged Florida schoolchildren. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and allows parents and students to choose between a K-12 scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.
“We are grateful that Summit Bank joins us in our mission to impact the poverty cycle by providing educational options for lower-income Florida families,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “On behalf of Step Up and the students participating in our program, we thank Summit Bank for their generosity.”
For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up $6,343 per student for K-5th grade, $6,631 for 6th-8th grade and $6,920 for 9th-12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide. In Bay, Escambia and Okaloosa counties this school year, 43 schools are participating in the program which will benefit more than 2,475 students.
Reach Paul Soost at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By JEFF BARLIS
Every week, students and parents at Calvary City Christian Academy, a K-12 school in one of Orlando’s most hardscrabble communities, convert groceries into care packages for scores of their neighbors. That those neighbors happen to be homeless students at Sadler Elementary, another school three blocks away, is only the first clue that the relationship between these high-poverty schools – one public, one private – is special.
For four years, the schools have worked hand-in-hand to serve their students, parents and neighborhoods, regardless of which school the students attend.
The result: Both schools and their heavily Hispanic populations now benefit from a wide array of social services – everything from English-language classes to housing assistance – provided by the church affiliated with Calvary. Both see each other as assets that can best uplift a community by cooperating. And both are quietly offering a glimpse of what’s possible if artificial walls between public and private schools can be knocked down.
“We’re modeling what is right by working together,” said Calvary principal Denise Vega. “That sends a message to our parents. We’re not divided. We’re not two. We’re one. One with one purpose – to work together to make sure our children in our lower-income communities are getting everything possible. That only happens when you unite.”
“You think of it as an octopus with eight legs,” said Sadler principal Kahlil Ortiz. “There are certain things that these legs can do, and certain things that those legs can do. So that’s kind of how we work. What can I help you with? What can you help me with?”
The partnership started with a phone call.
Four years ago, officials at Sadler asked Calvario City Church if they could use the church as a shelter in case of emergency. Of course, the pastors said. Is there anything else we can do?
That’s when they heard about Sadler’s homeless children. There were 30 to 40 back then. Now there are 85 to 90. (Sadler’s enrollment ballooned from 400 to 800 over that span.)
Vega, who is also a children’s pastor at the church, said she was in shock. “I felt a burden,” said Vega, a whirlwind of motion with a perpetually hoarse voice. “How can you learn on an empty stomach?”
One hundred percent of students at Sadler are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch. About 60 percent are English language learners. The demographics at Calvary City Christian Academy are challenging, too, with about 90 percent of students using the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students. The scholarship is administered by Step Up For Students.
But that didn’t deter anyone at either school from joining hands. In fact, the profound need compelled it.
The schools and the church hatched a plan to provide food to the homeless families on weekends, when the public school could not provide for the students. The groceries are purchased on Wednesdays, bagged on Thursdays and handed out from a pantry at Sadler on Fridays.
In addition, large companies like Publix, Goya, Nabisco and Merita have donated food unsolicited. It all ends up with the lowest-income families at Sadler.
Valeria Angeles, a sixth-grader who attended Sadler from K-5, was one of the students who received them. She brought them to her grandmother, Enitt Manzano, at the hotel she paid for weekly.
“I was so surprised and amazed,” said Manzano. “I didn’t have words to describe the happiness. It’s only the two of us, and all of a sudden we were overwhelmed with so many groceries.”
Valeria now attends Calvary City Christian Academy. She did well at Sadler, but her grandmother wanted to put her in a private school and she qualified for a Step Up scholarship.
Vega said there have been occasions in which each school has recommended to parents that the other might be a better fit for their child. The bottom line, she said, is helping the community, not staking out territory.
“Are they my competition? No!” Vega said. “These are children and they need support from people who are willing to extend a helping hand. That’s all we want to be.”
Food wasn’t the only thing missing at Sadler.
As the schools grew closer, other needs were identified and other services offered.
To start the school year, Calvary families round up backpacks full of school supplies to give to their counterparts at Sadler. At Thanksgiving, they give additional baskets full of food. At Christmas, they deliver presents in an Angel Tree event in response to student wish lists.
Calvary students, families and church members have painted buildings at Sadler and gardened in the courtyard. Vega taps into the church’s ministries for more resources.
The result is a suite of wraparound services for Sadler’s most disadvantaged families: English-language classes for parents. Assistance in getting food stamps, affordable housing, health care and jobs. There are even referrals for drug rehabilitation and a shelter for abused women.
“Everything that is available to us, we make available to the community,” Vega said.
Vega and Ortiz have forged a tight bond that reflects the closeness of their schools. They laugh together, plan social events together, and finish each other’s sentences.
A 15-year educator, Ortiz said the support his school receives from Calvary is unlike anything he’s ever experienced. It’s given him a vision of the future where institutions, including schools, can form even stronger ties to maximize their strengths.
“There should be no hurdles to providing for the community. That’s it. That’s basically what this is all about,” he said. “It’s just saying there are no lines here. Let’s make sure we can help our neighbor out, just as they would help us.”
About Calvary City Christian Academy
Located in Orlando’s Oak Ridge community, the school is a ministry of Calvario City Church and was formerly known as Iglesia El Calvario. There are 256 K-12 students, including 226 on the Step Up scholarship. Affiliated with the Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS), the school is accredited by the Association of Christian Teachers and Schools (ACTS) as well as Green Apple. It uses a mix of A Beka, Bob Jones and Saxon Math curriculums. The Terranova test is administered three times a year to measure growth. Tuition is $6,000 annually for K-8 and $6,300 for high school.
Reach Jeff Barlis at email@example.com.
By SHELBY HOBBS, Special to Step Up For Student
ORMOND BEACH, Fla. – Florida insurance companies have been protecting more than just Floridians’ homes this hurricane season, as they have made generous contributions to Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer the needs-based Florida Tax Credit (FTC) Scholarship Program.
Tower Hill Insurance, a significant contributor from the insurance industry, and Step Up For Students hosted an event Oct. 25 at Calvary Christian Academy in Ormond Beach to celebrate the insurance company’s contributions and the work Step Up continues to do for Florida’s lower-income families. Since 2011, Tower Hill has contributed over $3 million to Step Up For Students, providing scholarships to more than 600 of Florida’s most underprivileged students who are given access to a private school or financial assistance for transportation to attend an out-of-district public school.
“By investing in the future of our students, we are investing in the future of Florida,” said Don Matz, president of Tower Hill. “One of our top priorities at Tower Hill is to give back to our community as much as we can, and we choose to start with these deserving students.”
Step Up For Students provides opportunities to nearly 105,000 lower-income students across Florida this school year with 3,213 scholars in Volusia County.
“We are so grateful for Tower Hill’s investment in our program and the children who depend on it,” said Joe Pfountz, CFO of Step Up For Students. “The company’s generosity is crucial to the work our team does and shows just how much they really care about Florida’s kids and its future.”
The typical scholarship student comes from a single-parent household where the average income is $25,353. A recent study found that students who receive these scholarships for at least four years are 40 percent more likely to attend college than their public school counterparts, and 29 percent more likely to earn an associate degree.
During the event, Step Up For Students fourth-grade scholar Mia Rauseo shared her experience.
“I am so happy to be given the chance to come here,” said Rauseo. “And I know it would not have been possible without the help of Step Up For Students and companies like Tower Hill Insurance. I am doing well in my classes and I truly enjoy coming to school.”
By GEOFF FOX
Wesley Hamilton, a curious, curly-haired six-year-old was blessed with a high IQ.
When he was 3, a preschool teacher asked his class to say words that started with “a.” While many of his classmates answered “apple” or “ant,” Wesley said, “actually.”
He started having some uncommon struggles at a young age, said his mother, Emily Ashworth Hamilton, chief technology officer with ABB Optical Group in Coral Springs.
He didn’t like having his fingernails clipped.
He wouldn’t touch things with his hands, including food.
He stopped making eye contact with other people.
He had trouble sleeping, and when he did sleep, he often had nightmares.
He also would overreact to “the simplest things,” said Ashworth Hamilton, who lives in Miami with Wesley, her 2-year-old daughter Holly and husband Bill Hamilton, a mobile software architect with AT&T.
“He would have kind of the classic 2-year-old temper tantrum, but they never ended,” she said. “Not only in the moment, but they’d just never stop. His language was sort of odd, too, but he was incredibly verbal. His sentences were very deliberate, but the words he used were huge.”
In April 2015, Wesley was diagnosed as being on the “high-functioning” end of the autism spectrum.
Ashworth Hamilton eventually applied for and received a Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students. The state-funded scholarship is for students between 3 and 22 and who have disabilities including: autism spectrum disorder, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Spina bifida and other impairments.
The scholarship allows parents to personalize their child’s education by directing money toward schools, therapists, specialists, curriculum and technology, as well as a college savings account.
Last year, Wesley’s family used the scholarship to help pay for Applied Behavior Analysis therapy through Optimum Behavioral Services in Sunrise. Ashworth Hamilton said the therapy is not covered by her insurance.
Much of Wesley’s first year of therapy was not spent in a school or social setting, but “in a clinical environment,” she said.
“It could pertain to playing with others appropriately, or in a classroom, or following the instructions of a parent or adult in charge – how to react appropriately in certain situations,” Ashworth Hamilton said.
“(Children on the autism spectrum) have to be explicitly taught. They can’t simply observe or follow other people’s leads.”
Blanca Onetto, clinical director at Optimum Behavioral Services, where Wesley is a patient, said therapists quickly realized Wesley was very bright, with an enthusiasm for learning and a healthy sense of humor.
She said he enjoys music – particularly Queen’s classic rock hit, “We Will Rock You” – using his iPad, building with blocks, and playing with toy airplanes, cars and construction materials.
However, Onetto said, Wesley had difficulty communicating “across multiple contexts,” such as “social-emotional reciprocity,” non-verbal communication used in social interaction, and developing, maintaining and understanding relationships.
Sometimes, Onetto said, he threw the tantrums his mother described, displayed physical aggression and had anxiety issues.
Peer training, positive reinforcement and “naturalistic-incidental teaching” at the center has helped improve his conversational skills, while therapies to assist with shyness and impatience have included participation in a social skills group that features role playing.
To address tantrums and aggression, the center has used therapies that “decrease Wesley’s inappropriate behaviors by replacing them with appropriate ones,” Onetto said.
“Our goal is to teach Wesley appropriate social interactions, which at the same time would help to develop many other skills, including listening, attention, reading body language and social references,” she said. “He has shown considerable progress on all his treatment goals, but we will continue working on achieving higher standards.”
Onetto’s team of therapists have accompanied Wesley to school, thanks to Gardiner. This has helped Wesley transition into an academic environment and a mainstream classroom successfully with the support he needs.
Ashworth Hamilton said she did not want Wesley to go to his neighborhood elementary school, where, thanks to his high IQ, he would likely have been mainstreamed into a large class with a teacher who may not have experience handling students with special needs.
Through the Gardiner Scholarship, Wesley attends Miami Shores Presbyterian Church School, a kindergarten- through fifth-grade private school with a preschool program. He is now in first grade.
Ashworth Hamilton said she’s now optimistic Wesley will be better able to manage his anxieties, focus on tasks and increase his “functional capabilities.” His successful integration into a mainstream classroom is due to the partnership at school between parents, teachers and therapists and is building a strong foundation for Wesley.
“The goal is to build him up so the support needed will decrease over time,” his mother said. “I think he will continue to need a learning environment that is very much able to have some flexibility with his learning style; he’s very visual and has lots of sensory stimuli to contend with.”
Onetto is also impressed.
Because Wesley is high-functioning, Onetto said she doesn’t see any reason why he won’t be able to someday live independently and lead a fulfilling life.
“Each individual with autism is unique,” she said. “Many of those on the autism spectrum have exceptional abilities in visual skills, music, and academic skills. About 40 percent have average to above-average intellectual abilities. Indeed, many persons on the spectrum take deserved pride in their distinctive abilities and atypical ways of viewing the world. Others with autism have significant disability and are unable to live independently.
“With the appropriate support, (Wesley) will be a productive and successful citizen – maybe another Bill Gates!”
Reach Geoff Fox at Gfox@sufs.org.