By ROGER MOONEY
“We are proud of this recognition,” said Step Up president Doug Tuthill. “We strive for a work culture that is nurturing and joyful and allows our employees to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities.”
Sixty Tampa Bay area companies were nominated for recognition across four categories: Small (10-24 employees); Medium (25-49 employees), Large (50-99 employees); and Extra-Large (100-plus employees).
Quantum Workplace surveyed employees at the nominated companies and evaluated each in the areas of team effectiveness, retention risk, alignment with goals, trust with co-workers, individual contribution, manager effectiveness, trust in senior leaders, feeling valued, work engagement and people practices.
It described Step Up’s company culture with the hashtag #caringpassionateandimpactful.
“That really sums us up,” Tuthill said. “Our employees are passionate about what they do. This passionate caring is why they have such a positive impact on the families we serve.”
Step Up helps more than 115,000 pre-K-12 children in Florida gain access to a better education by managing four scholarships: The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families; the Gardiner Scholarship for children with special needs or unique abilities; the Hope Scholarship for students who have been bullied at a public school; and the Reading Scholarship Accounts for children in grades 3-5 who struggle with reading.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
By JEFF BARLIS
CAPE CORAL, Fla. – Judi Hughes is a serial retirer.
Nowhere is her quick wit more evident than when she explains why she came out of retirement a third time – after more than 40 years in the School District of Lee County – to be principal at St. Andrew Catholic School in this sprawling, sun-soaked suburban city.
“Irish Catholic guilt,” she says with a rhythmic chuckle, adding that she only had intended to help with the hiring process when the school drafted her.
Five years later, she’s still brimming with infectious energy that flashes from her baby blue eyes, and she’s found a way to marry her knack for building relationships with a natural instinct for being a private school administrator.
Some folks just aren’t meant to retire.
“I know!” she beams. “I’ve tried it a few times. I think I’m getting the hang of it now.”
Hughes did it all in Lee County public schools. A teacher in the county’s first middle school program, a principal, district director for elementary and secondary education. She opened a few schools, won blue ribbons and other awards, worked as a curriculum director in jails, retention centers, and drug rehabilitation centers before twice being coaxed out of retirement to start ninth-grade programs.
Now she’s the leader and beating heart of a thriving Catholic school – 315 K-8 students, up from 295 last year and 275 the year before – and she couldn’t be happier. Seventy-nine students use a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families. Step Up For Students administers the scholarships.
“This place is just different, and it’s a pleasure,” she said during a recent tour. “These folks have known each other for years, but they welcome new people in. The understanding is that you join the culture of caring and building faith. Hearts and minds, it’s not just words in a mission statement. They pondered it. These teachers do more. They know every child by name.”
It’s no coincidence that Hughes and assistant principal Bambi Giles, who spent more than four years in Lee and Collier county schools, have hired educators with a similar public school background. Ten of the school’s 23 teachers, in fact.
It’s also no surprise that Hughes and those teachers have maintained their ties. For years, teachers at St. Andrews have participated in professional development with the Lee County district, learning about classroom management, teaching strategies and exceptional student education.
“Once you’re a member of the school district of Lee County, you’re part of our family,” said Lynn Harrell, executive director of leadership, professional development and recruitment for Lee County schools. “Judi was for lots and lots of years. That makes it just a little bit easier, just like in any family, to keep and maintain that relationship so that we’re working together. Because in the end, we’re all working for children.”
Hughes was a mentor to Harrell earlier in her career when Harrell was a school administrator. It’s just one of myriad relationships forged through years of work and trust and common goals.
“Our relationship with Lee County is really wonderful,” said Giles, noting the weight that Hughes’ name carries. “They are very professional. They’ll answer any questions. They’ll contact us. It’s never a problem.”
James Herzog, associate director for education with the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, is encouraged by this example of public-private school partnership.
“It shows that education is not an us-against-them proposition,” he said. “Instead it’s all about collaboration to benefit all of Florida’s school children. Hopefully we can encourage other schools and districts to work together.”
Every Wednesday at St. Andrew there is early dismissal for teachers to collaborate and do professional development.
“I just think that’s what runs everything,” Hughes said.
Some of those former public school educators at St. Andrew, like first-grade teacher Crystal Melton, get two emails every Monday morning about professional development offerings – one from Giles and one from a former public school mentor.
This group-within-a-group of teachers has helped the members transition from public to private. They’re all grateful for the extensive training they received in the public school system, but they’re also quick to state their reasons for choosing to teach at a private school.
Music teacher Julius Davis simply feels more at home in a spiritual environment. Davis, in his first year at St. Andrew, said he feels “set free” to be himself and exude his principles. Christmastime was particularly satisfying after nearly 20 years in public schools.
“I grew up in a black Baptist church, and I’ve played (music) for Methodist churches,” he said. “Coming here, the emphasis on the spiritual, this is the first time I’ve been able to teach stuff I grew up with. I wasn’t allowed to do that in the public school.”
Others, like Melton, kindergarten teacher Susie Loughren, and fifth-grade teacher Lisa Olson, have children at St. Andrew. But while the family atmosphere contributes greatly to their happiness, their choice to teach in private school was more complex.
Loughren, in her second year at St. Andrew after seven years teaching in public schools, feels she can be more creative, has more freedom and less test anxiety.
“The administration trusts us that we’re going to do what’s best in the interests of those children,” she said. “So if something goes on in your classroom and you need to focus on a social, emotional skill, you take that liberty to do it. It’s not just about getting in the academic rigor. We do it on a daily basis, but we have the opportunity to stop and do those teachable moments.”
Hughes recognized that stress, saw the anxious teachers who were afraid to break from the mold, “afraid of their own shadow,” as she saw it. There was more and more emphasis on tests and fewer field trips.
At St. Andrew, she works to pump confidence and empowerment into her staff.
“I’m happy I made the choice to come here, because I didn’t end my teaching career at a time when things weren’t going as positively,” she said. “I felt the stress of the teachers and couldn’t do anything to help them. They were losing their identity, feeling like they don’t have any choice or any power.
“Here they are free to make sound educational choices. And they have to be sound, because they have to show how it’s going to help with the standards. We give them as much freedom as we can. And they really own part of this school.”
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By JEFF BARLIS
OCOEE, Fla. – The young teacher called, tears choking her words. She wanted to quit.
On the other end of the line was Rose Theagene, horrified but not surprised. She knew her youngest son, Darryl Dutervil, was on the verge of expulsion due to escalating behavior problems in first grade at his neighborhood school.
“He threw a chair at the teacher, and it almost hit another student,” she recalled. “He was pushing and hitting kids. Parents were complaining. It was very bad. At the meeting, I just said I would take Darryl out of the school to save everyone the trouble.”
Rose had her theories about what was behind Darryl’s problems. He had been diagnosed with ADHD and the medicine was making him feel sick. At home, she said, his behavior was fine but only because she spoiled him.
After years of working in customer care for a health care company and attending school as a single mother of two, Rose became a licensed practical nurse two years ago, around the time she withdrew Darryl. A fellow nurse told her about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which helps lower-income families with private school tuition.
It took almost two years and an ill-fated move to Daytona Beach for work reasons, but in January 2017, Rose finally found a school – Glad Tidings Academy – where Darryl and older brother Stacey Singleton were at home.
The teacher who went beyond
Parents and students alike love Andrene Donaldson. She’s fair and compassionate, but she can be tough and blunt, too. A former public school teacher in Jamaica, her thick accent floats through the classroom like music. But all it takes is one look, and the students know she’s serious.
“She has so much fun with them that they instantly know when she’s not happy,” said Glad Tidings principal Amanda Bleggi.
Donaldson was Stacey’s sixth-grade teacher last year. He was a breeze. Good student. Shy, honest, and respectful.
This year, Donaldson teaches Darryl in third grade. Within two days, she, too, thought she might give up.
Darryl was angry and aggressive all the time. He screamed. He cursed. He never had anything nice to say to his classmates. He would snap and toss chairs. Once, he pushed Donaldson.
“Last year,” he said meekly, “was challenging.”
Donaldson made it a point to always respond with patience, understanding, and soft tones.
“He expected me to be mad at him, but I just never treated him the way he expected,” she said. “When he was negative, I was positive.”
One Saturday, Donaldson’s husband bought her a success board for Darryl to track his achievements. They started small. Two hours a day of good behavior slowly turned into one full day a week. She rewarded him with certificates, snacks, pencils, erasers, and sometimes something sweet.
“I couldn’t believe the amount of work and effort she put into just one child,” Bleggi said. “But he started to see he could succeed. It was that board.”
It was a matter of trust, too.
“When I’m angry, she calms me down,” Darryl said. “She’ll take me outside to take deep breaths, and then she lets me come back in and try again, over and over again. If I make her mad, she still loves me.”
The principal who understood
It was Bleggi, a Long Islander who became a customer relations expert in her previous career with Disney, who recognized that academics were quietly fueling Darryl’s loud outbursts.
“When he came to us, he was failing everything,” she said. “He had no confidence in himself. He didn’t believe he could do his work. There were little things he couldn’t understand, so he would get frustrated and embarrassed.”
There were countless incidents, several worthy of dismissal. But Bleggi dug in her heels.
“He should have been expelled, but I knew that wouldn’t do anything,” she said. “He would just be shoved along.”
She called Rose in for a talk and assured her that Darryl wasn’t going anywhere. Rose was taken aback. She had expected the opposite.
“When she said that, it gave me a chance to breathe,” Rose said. “They are fighting for him.”
The mom who pushed
In her new job, Rose was adjusting to working 12-hour shifts – at night. She got off at 7 a.m. and still made sure the kids got to school on time.
But every morning by 10, she expected a call from the school about Darryl. Desperately tired, she tried bribing him with ice cream and pizza.
“Just let Mommy sleep until 3 o’clock,” she pleaded.
Last fall, the calls stopped coming. Donaldson was using an app to communicate with parents. It made a ping on Rose’s phone whenever she got a message. That noise used to wake her up at 10 a.m. as well, but it was gradually replaced with photos of Darryl at work and at play, updates to his success board, and other encouraging notes.
It wasn’t an overnight transformation, but the extra communication helped. Rose got more involved during the day. She was getting fewer calls and pings, but she insisted on coming in to talk to Darryl every time.
It felt like she, Donaldson, and Bleggi were on the same page. Their patience became her patience. Their positive message hers.
She marveled at Darryl’s improvements this year and shined proudly when she saw A’s, B’s and one C on his report card.
“Darryl would wake up early, ready to go to school,” she said. “He would say, ‘Mommy, I’m going to have a good day today. You can sleep. You don’t have to worry.’ That’s when I knew the changes were real.”
The brother who led
At Glad Tidings, big brother Stacey was worried and afraid Darryl would get expelled and end up in a bad school. But at their neighborhood school, Stacey felt the sting of being lumped in and labeled.
“I heard teachers say, ‘There goes Darryl’s brother,’ ” Stacey said. “That’s why I didn’t want him to be bad, because it also reflects on me and my family.”
Darryl idolizes his brother. He wears his hair in the same kind of flat top with shaved sides as Stacey. They’re both stocky. They have the same cheeky grin. Stacey knew he could get through to Darryl. At Glad Tidings, he checked on his brother regularly.
“He looks after me,” Darryl said. “Even more than my mom.”
Stacey made a ritual of guiding his brother, made him his responsibility.
“Every morning, I gave him a pep talk of what not to do and what to do,” he said. “If there’s a person bothering you, just ignore him or tell the teacher.”
Stacey could see how those long, confidential talks really helped. Rose also felt it was a turning point when Darryl realized he was embarrassing his brother.
“I’m proud of him,” Stacey said. “I tell him ‘Good job’ a lot now, and I let him play with my video games more often.”
It’s always been about attention for Darryl, but now he feels the difference between positive and negative.
The more marks he got on his success board, the more often he went to Bleggi’s office to show her.
“By December,” she said, “I was looking at a new kid.”
Donaldson asked Bleggi to give Darryl a part in the Christmas play.
“It was a big deal for him,” Donaldson said. “Being in the play showed him and everybody that he wasn’t an outcast.”
It meant a lot more than positive reinforcement to Darryl.
“There were a lot of people, like a thousand,” he recounted. “I tried to act cool, but my heart was beating. When it was over, I felt happy. My family was proud of me.”
Darryl is happier, having more fun, getting in trouble less often and getting much better grades. Donaldson says his reading level is way up. He helps in the classroom, cleaning up and handing out folders and papers to his fellow students. He fits in at Glad Tidings in a way that he never had in school before.
“The whole school loves him,” Bleggi said. “We’re able to see his little personality now, instead of him being angry and disrespectful all the time.”
“I used to cringe every time I would hear his name, but now he comes up and gives me the biggest hugs. I can’t wait to see him in the morning. I can’t wait to hear what grade he got on his test, and he always comes up to show me now. It’s probably one of my favorite stories since working here. It’s been the most impressive turnaround I’ve seen any student make.”
About Glad Tidings Academy
Opened as a preschool in 2005, Glad Tidings expanded to kindergarten in 2014 and opened a second campus for K-8 in 2016. The school plans to have ninth grade next year and to add grades 10-12 each year thereafter. Glad Tidings is accredited and certified by Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS). There are 108 K-8 students, including 75 on Step Up For Students FTC scholarship. Glad Tidings emphasizes a child’s emotional, physical, relational, and cognitive development. The school uses Bob Jones University Press and Abeka curricula. The MAP Growth test is administered three times a year. Annual tuition is $5,940 for K-5 and $6,370 for 6-8.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at email@example.com.
By ROGER MOONEY
MIAMI – The conversations eventually moved from the house to the garage, far away from the boys, who were too young to understand the words used by their parents but could certainly sense the worry in their voices.
Real estate bubble? Recession? Bankruptcy?
What did the boys know about those things? Why should they?
Jonas Figueredo was 6 at the time. His brother, Jack, was 4.
“We didn’t want the boys to know what was going on,” their mom, Helen, said.
It was 2008 and the real estate company owned by Helen and her husband, Frank, was crumbling.
“We were heavy into real estate when the bubble burst,” Helen Figueredo said, “and we were left holding the bag.”
The recession cost them everything: Their business. Their savings. Their house. They filed for bankruptcy twice and ended up in foreclosure.
Frank Figueredo took a job working for the state of Florida as a claims adjuster. It paid $38,000 a year. They were clearing 10-times as much with their real estate business.
“Thirty-eight grand in Miami with a family of four and two kids in private school,” he said.
Yes, private school.
The boys were attending Westwood Christian School, a pre-K through 12 private school in Miami. During those talks in the garage away from curious ears, the No. 1 topic was how to keep the boys at Westwood. Besides a roof over their head, this was their priority.
The Figueredos met with school officials and told them of their rapidly diminishing finances. That’s when they learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarship covered half the tuition.
Bill Thomson, Westwood’s head administrator and secondary school principal, recalled that 2008 meeting.
“They definitely were at a crossroads of having to possibly uproot their boys from our school and our church and our philosophy and into a different environment that they just weren’t comfortable with,” he said. “They were introduced to Step Up, and it has been very beneficial to them over the years as it has with many families. It definitely is kind of a success story for that family.”
Today, Jonas, 16, is a junior at Westwood. Jack, 14, is a freshman. What the two have accomplished scholastically with the help of Step Up is impressive. What they have accomplished away from school with the support of their parents is equally as notable.
Jonas is vice president of the junior class, president of the high school band, a second chair trumpeter on the all-district band and has qualified for the all-state band. He is ranked in the top-5 of his class with a GPA above 4.0, is a member of the National Honor Society and a member of the debate team.
“I just love to argue,” he said.
Jonas is a worship leader at Westwood and finished first last year in a preaching competition at the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. He is a student ambassador and a former varsity soccer player.
In his spare time, Jonas is a second-degree black belt in taekwondo who competes nationally and teaches anti-bullying, anti-abduction and self-defense classes to younger children, including those at Westwood. He has plans to teach the same at a women’s shelter. He volunteers for Bugles Across America and plays taps at funerals for veterans.
He can play the piano, guitar, ukulele and harmonica. He helped put together a musical production at Villa Lyan Academy, a school in Miami for children and young adults with special needs.
His brother, Jack, is a freshman. His GPA is above 4.0, he is a third chair trumpeter in the all-district band and has qualified for the all-state band, was president of the middle school band as an eighth-grader and was instrumental in bringing back the high school debate team. He is a student ambassador and was the goalie on the varsity soccer team from the sixth to eighth grades.
In his spare time, Jack plans to race a Mustang next season in the National Auto Sports Association, where you can drive when you’re 14. He is in the process of starting his own nonprofit to feed and clothe the homeless, called “Socks and Sandwiches.”
Helen and Frank Figueredo started the nonprofit “Kids United Foundation” several years ago to send clothes and food to homeless children in Columbia.
When the boys were young, Helen Figueredo took them to Miami’s Little Havana when she brought food to the homeless.
“I remember that,” Jack said. “It was a great experience. It broke my heart to see a lot of people like this. I wanted to do something on my own to help them.”
Jack also plays the piano and violin.
While in middle school, both brothers worked as pages for Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, when she was a state representative in South Florida.
“We’re very thankful for them to be a part of our school,” Bill Thomson, Westwood’s head administrator and secondary school principal, said.
‘You’re going to law school’
Jonas has thought about becoming a criminal profiler for the FBI. Jack would love to race cars professionally. Both plan on attending law school.
Actually, getting a law degree is mandatory for the Figueredo boys.
“I always told them, ‘You don’t need to worry about what you’re going to do. You can worry about that when you graduate law school,’” Helen Figueredo said. “I do believe that a law degree is a license to do whatever you want to do.”
“Honestly, I agree with her,” Jonas said. “With a law degree you have more options. Maybe I do become a lawyer. Maybe a I don’t. But I do have the law degree with me.”
The options for the future of the Figueredo boys appear limitless. That’s why their parents felt compelled to keep their sons at Westwood.
The couple made the sacrifices for their boys to continue there. They sold their luxury cars and Frank picked up an older car at a police auction for $89. They rented a house owned by the school for $550 a month and began to slowly rebuild their finances.
“The school teaches wisdom,” Frank Figueredo said, “and with wisdom, you learn to learn.”
He currently works as a bodily injury adjuster for an insurance company. Helen, who has a degree in business administration and a master’s in educational leadership, works part time as a health care risk management consultant.
“We turned our lifestyle upside down to teach them what is important, what really matters,” Helen Figueredo said. “A car? Or knowledge and wisdom? It’s taught them not to be materialistic. It’s taught them that people are more important.”
Jonas and Jack are aware of the changes made by their parents. They know the role Step Up played in their education. They are thankful for both.
“I’ve been (at Westwood) since I was 2 years old,” Jonas said. “It shaped me to who I am today.”
“It’s a great education,” Jack added. “The staff, all the teachers, they’re all very supportive, very friendly. They’re always willing to help.”
The boys are eager to see what they can accomplish in the future.
“After they go to law school,” Helen Figueredo said.
About Westwood Christian School
Established in 1959 by the First Baptist Church of Westwood Lake, the school provides Biblical and academic education for 550 students from pre-K-12, including more than 230 who are on Step Up For Students’ scholarships. Students must pass an entrance exam to gain enrollment. The school has state recognized band, choir, drama and art programs. All teachers are fully accredited with the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools and the National Council for Private School Accreditation.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ROGER MOONEY
ZEPHYRHILLS – Sitting opposite where his 8-year-old granddaughter stood near their dining room table, George Hill, nodded at the second-grader and said, “We’ve been blessed, really, just (because of) the kind of person that she is. She’s dedicated. She’s smart. She’s a hard worker.”
He used another word to describe Skylar Goeb: Perseverant.
You wouldn’t know it by looking at her as she stood alongside her grandmother, quiet, though filling the room with her mega-watt smile, but Skylar had a rough start to life.
She was born addicted to the opioids her mother took while pregnant. She doesn’t know her mother, and her mother wants nothing to do with her.
“She doesn’t write her. She doesn’t try to get a hold of her. Nothing,” George Hill said.
But Skylar, a Florida Tax Credit scholar, is flourishing with the love and guidance of her grandparents who have raised her since she was an infant.
Skylar loves school, too. She is a straight-A student at Heritage Academy in Zephyrhills, a K2 through eighth grade Christian school founded in 1998,
Last fall, she was one of 10 students honored as the Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce Citizens of the Month. Students are nominated by their teachers. One student from every school in Zephyrhills is honored each month. From that pool, one is selected in June as the chamber’s citizen of the year.
According to Michelle Walls, director of operations and finance at Heritage Academy, Skylar was nominated because she met the following criteria:
“We’re very proud,” her grandmother, Robin Hill, said.
When asked one January afternoon at the family’s Zephyrhills home how she felt about the academic honor, Skylar turned toward her grandmother and whispered, “Good.”
Skylar is also shy.
“She doesn’t say a whole lot. She’s kind of reserved,” said Rene Campbell, Skylar’s teacher at Heritage Academy. “When I talk to her, I have to pull things out.”
Math, and learning, seem to boost her confidence, however.
When Campbell asks for a volunteer to come to the front of the class and solve a math problem, Skylar’s shyness evaporates.
“If I ask if someone can help me, she’ll raise her hand,” Campbell said. “She has a willing spirit to learn.”
Balance beams and parallel bars
Skylar also is certainly not shy when she’s competing in gymnastics – she placed fifth last year at the state championships.
On the walls of her bedroom are several hooks that strain to hold the 60 medals she has won competing in gymnastics, including that state award. Across the hall you’ll find Skylar’s favorite room.
With walls painted light blue, the room is empty but for a horizontal bar that sits on supports four feet above the beige carpet, a balance beam raised a few inches off the floor, a pink mat and two plastic bins for the white chalk Skylar rubs on her hands to increase her grip as she swings around the bar.
It is here that Skylar spends hours practicing gymnastics.
Skylar is a blonde-haired pixie, who loves all things pink, adores unicorns and especially loves sailing over bars and flipping across beams.
The Hills enrolled Skylar in gymnastics when she was 3, because they wanted her involved in an activity that would allow her to exercise. By the time Skylar was 5, her grandparents knew gymnastics was more than an after-school activity.
“She loves competition,” George Hill said. “Some girls get nervous. She’s like, ‘Let’s go!’”
Her idol is American gymnast Simone Biles, the four-time world all-around champion who won four gold medals and a bronze at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
“She’s great,” Skylar said.
Like every girl her age enrolled in gymnastics, Skylar would love to compete in the Olympics.
In early January, Skylar began training in Fast Track, a program designed for kids with natural gymnastic ability, strength and flexibility. It is an advanced program, especially for girls her age.
Skylar is also a part of the Tops Program, where gymnasts travel around the state and are tested on different physical abilities as they relate to gymnastics.
“Skylar is very dedicated,” said her coach, Jacqueline Vogel. “I actually don’t know if she’s ever missed a practice intentionally unless it was for something for school.”
As Skylar ran through her gymnastics scheduled – 13 hours a week over four nights at Premier Gymnastics in Wesley Chapel – her grandmother asked, “What comes first?”
“School,” Skylar said.
“We’re always on the run,” added George Hill, “but she keeps her grades top-notch.”
Skylar has been writing in cursive since kindergarten, and her penmanship is text-book sound.
She enjoys history, science, spelling, reading and math. Especially math.
“When we get in the car, she brings her book and makes up math problems,” her grandmother, Robin Hill, said. “She has a mind for numbers.”
“She has a great memory, too,” added her grandfather. “That helps.”
George Hill said Skylar is getting everything she can out of her Step Up scholarship.
“It’s been a blessing,” he said. “It’s placed her in the best learning environment she can be in. It also got her in a Christian school, which is important to us.”
The rough start
George Hill, 64, is an engineer with Frontier Communications. He has worked for the company for 31 years, starting in the late 1970s when it was known as GTE. Robin Hill, 63, retired after working more than 20 years at the Pizza Hut in Brandon, Fla.
The Hills raised four children. Raising a grandchild is certainly not something they planned, but life has a funny way of grabbing you by surprise.
Skylar’s father, Steven Hill, is finishing a seven-year prison sentence for a series of crimes he committed with Skylar’s mom. He is scheduled to be released in October. Skylar visits him in a transitional housing facility in Tarpon Springs.
“We take (Skylar) to see him. She knows who he is. We don’t try to hide anything,” George Hill said. “They get along super great. They play together when she’s there. They’re good together.”
Skylar’s mom tried to put her up for adoption before giving birth. The Hills hired a lawyer and successfully prevented it. They received court-ordered legal custody of their granddaughter when she was 8 weeks old. Skylar calls her grandparents “Mom” and “Dad.”
“If that went through, we would have never known where she went,” George Hill said. “We weren’t going to let her go. Who knows what kind of household she would have went to? You just never know. It’s been a blessing for her and for us.”
Skylar’s mom did not list a father on the birth certificate, which is why Skylar has her mother’s last name.
Her parents went to prison in 2012 on a litany of charges that included burglary, dealing in stolen property, possession of a controlled substance and petit theft, according to court records.
Skylar’s mother, who served an 18-month prison term, now lives in Ohio and is out of her life. Her father can soon enter it on a more regular basis.
“We’ll see how that goes,” George Hill said.
What the Hills do know is they never could have imagined how raising Skylar could so profoundly change their lives.
When it comes to Skylar, the Hills, wouldn’t want it any other way, especially when you consider what might have been had the adoption gone through.
“I think it’s a blessing. Really, I do,” George Hill said. “For sure, she keeps you young.”
About Heritage Academy
Founded in 1998 under the ministry of Oasis World Outreach, Heritage Academy is a pre-K-8 school that serves 160 students, including 54on Step Up scholarships. The school uses the Abeka curriculum, and the education is based on Biblical truth. The curriculum consists of reading, writing, comprehension, study skills, critical thinking, problem solving, and number skills. Spanish, art, music and physical education are also offered. Annual tuition is $6,080 for K2-K3; $3,610 for K4-VPK; $6,500 for K5-fifth grade; $6,800 for sixth-eighth grade. Before and after school care and tutoring are available for a fee.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
By JEFF BARLIS
DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. – Just when Ruthanne Dumas thought her life couldn’t fall apart any further, she got the biggest scare of it.
A steady financial decline had left her and her two youngest daughters, Isabella and Gabriella, homeless. The girls had recently started at a new private school, thanks to education choice scholarships. And then a sudden illness landed Isabella in intensive care.
Doctors thought she might have leukemia.
“It was horrible,” Ruthanne recalled, her voice trembling.
After it turned out to be just a virus and the raw fear and panic had subsided, Isabella’s new principal and teacher arrived. They brought a garbage bag full of stuffed animals and cards from everyone in Isabella’s class. Her face lit up with joy.
“I didn’t know anyone other than my mom could care so much,” Isabella said.
That’s how it’s always been for the Dumas family at Saint Ambrose Catholic School in Deerfield Beach. Isabella wasn’t doing poorly in her neighborhood school, but Ruthanne wanted more – a smaller, safer school with a family environment. Saint Ambrose has been that and more.
She heard about it from a friend, visited and loved the efficiently laid-out campus. The main building is a 10-side polygon for grades K-5 with a social hall in the middle. Grades 6-8 are steps away. It’s hard to get lost. Principal Lisa Dodge, a police officer in the Dade County school system for 20 years, added safety measures like fences and a single point of entry.
“It was a no-brainer,” Ruthanne said.
That was six years ago. Ruthanne owned five vacation rentals, but a steady stream of hurricanes starting in 2005 left her business in steep decline. She eventually had to sell the homes at a loss.
Her husband left around that time. Her mother, who helped out financially, got sick and died.
“You had to rob Peter to pay Paul,” she said. “Then all of a sudden there was no Peter left, and Paul was gone. It was ridiculous. Every day was something new. I looked up one day and that was it. It was all gone. There was nothing to dip into, no savings, no house, everything was gone.”
Before they started at Saint Ambrose, Ruthanne and her daughters packed everything they had into the trunk of her car. The girls stayed with friends. Ruthanne told them she was doing the same, but she was sleeping in the front seat of that hand-painted blue Toyota Corolla. Soon, they moved into a cheap motel.
“It was so bad,” she said. “There was prostitution next door. I wouldn’t let the girls go outside. We had to get out of there. We found a hotel close to the school with a mini-fridge and a microwave. That was our base.
“Every time we would move out thinking we had someplace to stay, we always went back to the same hotel.”
They’d stay for months at a time. Ruthanne used her tax return to get an apartment, but she couldn’t keep up with the rent. One year they stayed in an old camper on a friend’s property. But they ended up back at the hotel.
Ruthanne worked as a receptionist, making $420 a week. The hotel cost $386. But there was free breakfast and friendly staffers who let the girls take yogurt, bagels, fruit and cereal for lunches and dinners.
Ruthanne thought about moving to Chicago to be with family, but she craved stability for her daughters. And that’s exactly what they got at Saint Ambrose.
Principal Dodge helped out with uniforms and waived fees. She also opened up the school’s food bank to the Dumas family and gave donated Christmas presents to the girls.
“I was kind of hesitant to talk about them, because no one here really knows their story,” Dodge said. “Behind the scenes we saw it, but none of the kids knew anything about what was going on with them. There was no difference. It’s a testament to everything – the girls, their mom, Step Up.”
The goal was normalcy, its success measured in how well the girls did in school.
They’re happy, they bring home good grades – Gabriella is an honors student – and they love to participate in the school’s many family-oriented activities.
They had different groups of friends. They’re both shy around outsiders.
“If we walked past each other, we would just give each other a look and smile, not really acknowledge each other,” Gabriella said. “I think one time I tried to hug her and she pushed me away.”
Today, Ruthanne and her daughters live in an apartment with a roommate. Gabriella is in fifth grade. Isabella is in ninth grade at a public charter school. Classes there are a lot bigger. She misses the small campus, the polygon main building, and all the warm faces at Saint Ambrose.
“The girls are just lovely, full of grace, hard-working,” said Cindy Hagaman, who has taught both. “They’re very gentle, humble people. Both of them are excellent students.”
It’s been everything Ruthanne had hoped for and more. Her daughters have stability. It was something she could feel from the first day she dropped them off at Saint Ambrose.
“This school saved us,” she said. “Sometimes I look back and wonder what we would have done without them. They were there for us so many times and continue to be a part of us.”
Like one big family.
About Saint Ambrose Catholic School
Opened in 1964 as a part of the diocese of Palm Beach, the school started with grades 1-5 and expanded to K-8 by 1967. There are 238 students, including 118 on Step Up For Students tax credit scholarships. The curriculum includes a program of computer technology, robotics, art, music, and two foreign languages. The school administers the TerraNova test annually as well as the MAP Growth test three times a year. Annual tuition is $8,250 for K-5, $8,500 for 6-7, and $8,650 for eighth grade.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ROGER MOONEY
NORTH FORT MYERS, Fla. – The Baker family name was synonymous with Temple Christian School for nearly two decades, and it was a name that automatically spread warmth.
Dawn Baker was the principal at the private school and played the piano at church. Her husband, Chet, taught third through sixth grade and was the choir’s song director. Their son, Jamison was in VPK.
They were a beautiful family who led with their faith.
“Their spiritual walk, it goes with the talk,” said Wanda Chirila, who has taught at Temple Christian for 29 years and called Dawn her closest friend.
Dawn and Chet worked at Temple Christian for 18 years. To many, they were Temple Christian.
“This was their home away from home,” said John Edwards, the pastor of the adjourning Temple Baptist Church.
On the night of Oct. 18, 2018, the tightknit school and church community came to a tearful standstill as word spread that the Bakers were involved in a horrific two-car accident.
Chet, 51, died at the scene. Jamison, 4, died later that night at a Lee County hospital. Dawn, 47, passed the next day.
“Everyone is still grieving,” said Krystal Bruce, the school’s office manager.
To honor the memory and the spirit of the Bakers, Step Up For Students will present The Baker Perseverance Award this month at several Rising Star events around the state, honoring Step Up scholars, their family members and educators who have gone above and beyond. This new award goes to school leaders who emulate the Baker’s spirit of perseverance and dedication. The awards begin Tuesday night.
“I am very happy for it,” Krystal said. “It’s really great how (people) don’t want to just forget. They led lives like we should all strive to live. They were willing and able to give at any moment for anything, and they were huge supporters in the school and the church, and if I could be half of that, I would be so blessed.”
Tears rolled down Krystal’s cheeks as she spoke. Krystal cried often on a recent morning as she talked for half an hour about the Bakers.
“Love,” Krystal said. “They had such a love for their students, and they genuinely cared about everyone. They took the time. They’d go visit the kids at their houses. They’d get to know the parents.”
Tougher than Hurricane Irma
Why is Step Up honoring the Bakers with what will be a yearly award?
“Our staff has worked with the Bakers for several years,” said Carol Macedonia, Step Up’s vice president, Office of Student Learning. “The couple was always the most positive, ‘can do,’ child focused administrators we had the pleasure of working with. They always wanted to do what was needed for their students.
“My team came up with the award as a way to memorialize the Bakers and what they stood for. We have many leaders and teachers that are very much like the Bakers in many of our schools across the state, and we want to honor them with this award.”
Dawn spearheaded the reconstruction of the building in the fall and winter of 2017 after Hurricane Irma did her best to smash it, raising funds to repair the $240,000 in damages caused by the storm. Chet grabbed his tools and repaired what he could.
It was Dawn who rallied the school community, telling parents, “This is the plan. This is what we’re going to do. Don’t worry, it’s going to work.”
“And she made it work,” Krystal said. “It was wild and crazy, but if it wasn’t for her, I don’t think the school would have held together.”
Dawn begin her nearly 20-year career at Temple Christian as a teacher. She eventually became the assistant principal and then principal. The Bakers’ older children, Kara and Chet Jr. both graduated from the school. Kara works as a missionary in France. Chet Jr. is in the U.S Air Force.
Hundreds turned out the night after the accident for a candlelight vigil. The tiny flames illuminated the darkness at the small school and church located on a remote stretch of State Road 31, out near a C & C Feed Store and a Shell gas station.
“It was amazing,” Krystal said. “There was just so many people coming, offering condolences. They were giving testimonies. We had people who graduated here 10 years ago talking about how they touched their lives, set them on a certain track and just how they cared for them, so that was really special.”
In her 1996 poem, “The Dash,” Linda Ellis talked about life.
“I read of a man who stood to speak
At the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on her tombstone
From the beginning to the end.
He noted that first came the date of her birth
And spoke of the following date with tears,
But he said what mattered most of all
Was the dash between those years”
“They did a lot with that dash,” Edwards said. “It was a nice dash. It was God honoring.”
Dawn hummed or whistled Christian songs and Disney tunes as she walked the halls of the school. She was full of compassion and yet could be stern. She once expelled one of Chirila’s foster children.
Chet could be found on weekends pulling weeds around the school or the church. He was handy with tools, could fix anything. And if you were moving on the weekend and needed an extra hand, Chet was available. Always.
Jamison was all boy, said those who knew him. He was full of laughter and so much life.
In an instance, they were gone. What remains?
“The impact they had on many lives in this community,” Edwards said. “A profound impact.”
Life does go on, though. Teachers adjusted their schedule to cover Chet’s classes. And there is a new principal, Brittany Lohmeier, who possesses many of the same traits as Dawn.
Lohmeier visited the area over Christmas, saw Temple Christian’s ad for a new principal and applied. Chirila doesn’t believe that is a coincidence.
“She just fits right in,” Chirila said.
The Bakers’ deaths are looked upon as a divine appointment in the Baptist community. Edwards recalled the speech Dawn made the day before the accident during a staff meeting.
“She said, ‘Let’s stop dinking around with Christianity,’ and then she made a confession and prayer to the Lord. She said, ‘Lord, whatever it takes to use me for your glory and honor, to further the Kingdom, I’m in,’ and that next day she died. That was a real shaking moment to reflect upon,” Edwards said. “People think, ‘Man, was that her farewell speech.’”
Edwards noted a number of people who attend Temple Baptist recommitted to their faith after the Baker’s accident.
Sitting in the school’s library, Chirila recalled Dawn’s speech.
“It hit my heart,” she said.
Chirila and her husband have seven foster children at home, ages 4 to 14.
“It’s chaos,” Chirila said. “Dawn always said, ‘I’ll take one. I’ll take them all. I will help you. I will go through that ringer with you.’ She truly meant it. You know how people say, ‘If you need me call me,’ and they’re nowhere to be found? She was always to be found.”
Reminders of the Bakers dot the school and church. Notes written to the Bakers by the student after the accident still hang from the walls of classrooms. Chet’s tools still sit where he left them.
The church sanctuary was recently renamed The Baker Auditorium.
And then there is the school and church building. It remains standing because of the dedication and perseverance, the love and faith of the Bakers.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
By JEFF BARLIS
BELLE GLADE, Fla. – When she’s in class, the look on Armani Powe’s face is solemn, focused. She doesn’t harden her gaze intentionally. It happens naturally.
“When it comes to my grades,” she says, “I get really serious.”
Armani, 12, turns quiet and a little withdrawn when asked about the bullying she endured in second grade at her neighborhood school.
“It makes me all sad just to remember it,” she explains with the distance of several years.
Armani had one bully with a band of two or three other boys who delighted in embarrassing her daily. They mocked her crooked teeth, her clothes, hair, backpack. Anything and everything and nothing.
She admits she was an inviting target.
“Looking back at my little self, I was quiet and nice and always doing my work, studying all the time, reading a book in class, and not talking,” she said. “That’s probably why they picked on me.”
The taunting chipped away at her self-image. The worst was how she felt about her teeth. She kept asking her mom when she could get braces, but they were too expensive.
One day, Armani was crying when her mother, Roline Powe, was called early to pick her up. Armani said she didn’t want to go to school anymore. She showed her mom a red hand print on her face where her bully had just slapped her.
That was it.
Roline had requested meetings before, but school officials never filed reports. They always promised they would handle it.
“They just downplayed everything,” she said. “I went in at least five times.”
She felt a nauseating mix of anger and guilt in her stomach. She couldn’t stop thinking about the braces she couldn’t afford.
“It was the most horrible thing to not be able to give your child the care they need,” she said. “But not only was she teased, she was hit! All because of her appearance.”
Determined to fix the situation herself, Roline went to nearby Glades Day School to see if private school could be an option. Everyone in this small town knows about Glades Day and its reputation for preparing children for college, trades, and agriculture careers.
She was nervous when she went in for a meeting. A friend who sent her daughter to GDS had told Roline the price of one year’s tuition, and she nearly buckled.
“I could only dream,” she said.
But it came true when an administrator told her about the scholarship from Step Up For Students. It gives lower-income families the power to choose the school that best suits their children’s needs.
This school year, the state instituted the HOPE Scholarship to give victims of bullying the option to transfer to another public school or to an approved private school as soon as their scholarship is approved.
Roline is glad to see the new scholarship in place. It might have helped prevent some of the trauma Armani endured in the weeks after she was slapped.
“It was the hardest thing getting through that year,” said Roline, who was then a substitute teacher at the neighborhood middle school and now works as an assistant teacher. “There were times I had to take a day off of work, go there, and monitor without her seeing me. I’d watch the playground from the parking lot. Sometimes I picked her up 10 minutes early.”
“It was a journey. She made it through, but if she had remained there, she probably would have needed some therapy.”
As it turned out, Glades Day School was all Armani needed.
Head of School Amie Pitts, herself a graduate of Glades Day, has carefully crafted a safe space for learning. Character isn’t just emphasized, it’s talked about by the student body on a weekly basis.
“Environment is a very big deal, and this is a different environment,” she said. “Our mission is a safe family environment, and I think we do a very good job. We pride ourselves on family. We see it as a partnership between the home and the school to raise great kids who are successful in life.”
There’s a friendly feeling that swirls through the school buildings along with the strong breeze that pushes from massive Lake Okeechobee to the north. The 30-acre campus is buttressed by cane fields to the south and east, and a sugar mill looms large across the street with smokestacks constantly churning. It’s a reminder of a life in the fields that Roline so badly wants her children to avoid.
It didn’t take long for Armani to adjust. She quickly went from tentative to curious about her new school. Soon, she was talking to others without feeling scared. They were small steps.
Every Wednesday, students wear orange shirts that say “Bullying” or “Cyberbullying” in a circle with a slash through it. Every Friday, the student body gathers to talk and lift each other up.
“We talk about kindness first,” Armani said. “People talk about what we do and should do in the world. We get it right.”
By the time Armani started her second year, she was joined by older brother Lorenzo and younger brother Shemar.
“It was the best decision I could have made for my family,” Roline said. “And for Armani, it was a game-changer.”
Roline said Glades Day has made her a better, more attentive parent. She doesn’t just help with homework anymore, she has a presence at the school. Everyone knows her as “Momma Powe.”
“She is extremely engaged,” Pitts said. “She’s here every day. She’s at every single sporting event, comes to all the meetings, reads to her son in the media center. She wants better for her kids, and they’re doing very well.”
Armani is a solid B-student striving for more. She asks for help whenever she struggles with a subject. She wants to be a veterinarian someday.
She feels safe now, settled. She has learned how to be brave and confident.
When she looks back at her little self from second grade, she feels a profound difference that goes beyond her long limbs and strong shoulders. She’s comfortable in her own skin and doesn’t worry about her appearance.
Braces fixed her teeth a couple of years ago, and she must be one of the only pre-teens around who’s excited to get them put on for a second time.
“I have a big, cheesy smile,” she said. “My friends love when I smile.”
She does it all the time. Just not when she’s focused in class.
About Glades Day School
Now in its 53rd year, GDS moved from Pahokee to Belle Glade in 1973. The school is accredited by the Florida Council of Independent Schools. Teachers have an average of 20 years of experience. Nineteen GDS employees are graduates. There are 257 K-12 students, including 94 on Step Up For Students Scholarships. The school has a thriving Agri-science program that’s tied to the Future Farmers of America and features welding, gardening, even a hog pen to train students in Grades 7-12. There are also four computer labs and smartboards in several classrooms. Dual enrollment, Advanced Placement and virtual school courses are offered. The Stanford 10 test is administered every March. Annual tuition is $7,800 for K-5; $8,800 for 6-8; and $9,800 for 9-12 with financial aid available. Transportation is available as far east as Royal Palm Beach and as far west as Clewiston.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ROGER MOONEY
The latest ranking was released in December, moving the Florida-based charity up six notches from Forbes’ list in 2017.
“This ranking is a hat tip to our donors who have embraced our mission of providing educational opportunities to Florida’s most vulnerable students,” said Jillian Metz, vice president of development for Step Up For Students. “My gratitude is echoed by more than 100,000 students throughout the state who have been afforded the opportunity to fulfill their educational potential through a Step Up scholarship.”
This was the second time Step Up jumped in a national ranking of top charities. In November, it moved up 11 spots from 42 to 31 in the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s list of America’s Favorite Charities.
Forbes writer William P. Barrett, who covers nonprofits for the publication, compiled the rankings by evaluating financial-efficiency metrics during the fiscal year.
The Forbes ranking was based on the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018, during which Step Up had $708 million in total revenue.
Step Up’s ranking puts it among other well-known, national charities such as Goodwill Industries International (No. 14), American Cancer Society (No. 17) and the American Red Cross (No. 21). The United Way Worldwide is in the No. 1 slot.
The nonprofits that comprised the top 100 received $49 billion in contributions, according to Barrett. That accounted for 12 percent of the $410 billion received by the more than 1.4 million nonprofits in the United States.
In addition to these notable rankings, Step Up received recognition in 2018 for its financial accountability and transparency from two nonprofit watchdog groups: Charity Navigator and GuideStar. Charity Navigator awarded Step Up a four-star rating for the seventh consecutive year, a credit that only 4 percent of charities have earned by the nation’s top charity evaluator. Step Up has earned the Platinum Seal of Transparency with GuideStar, a public database that evaluates the mission and effectiveness of nonprofits.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com
BY ASHLEY ZARLE
WellCare Health Plans, Inc., a leading provider of government-sponsored managed care services, recently announced a $3 million contribution to Step Up For Students (SUFS) Scholarship Program for the 2018-19 school year.
WellCare’s contribution will fund 446 Florida Tax Credit Scholarships that allow lower-income children in K-12 the opportunity to attend schools that best meet their learning needs.
“At WellCare, our mission is to help our members live better, healthier lives,” said Ken Burdick, WellCare’s CEO. “We do this by making connections to critical programs such as Step Up For Students to help ensure Florida schoolchildren have access to the educational opportunities they need for successful futures and healthy adulthoods.”
Since 2004, WellCare has generously funded nearly 3,560 scholarships through contributions totaling more than $16.5 million to SUFS.
“Because of companies like WellCare, Florida’s lower-income students are provided the educational options they need to succeed,” said Doug Tuthill, president of SUFS. “We are grateful for their partnership, generosity and commitment to helping students in their community.”
During this school year, SUFS 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.
About WellCare Health Plans, Inc.
Headquartered in Tampa, Fla., WellCare Health Plans, Inc. (NYSE: WCG) focuses primarily on providing government-sponsored managed care services to families, children, seniors and individuals with complex medical needs primarily through Medicaid, Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans, as well as individuals in the Health Insurance Marketplace. WellCare serves approximately 5.5 million members nationwide as of September 30, 2018. For more information about WellCare, please visit the company’s website at www.wellcare.com.
About the WellCare Community Foundation
The WellCare Community Foundation was established in 2010 and is a nonprofit, private foundation. Its mission is to foster and promote the health, well-being and quality of life for the poor, distressed and other medically underserved populations – including those who are elderly, young and indigent – and the communities in which they live. The WellCare Community Foundation carries out this mission by supporting work that helps people live healthy, safe and productive lives, and by assisting groups with serious and neglected health needs. Underscoring this mission is the WellCare Community Foundation’s goal to serve as a national resource that fosters an environment where there is a continuum of education, access and quality health care, all of which improve the overall health, well-being and quality of life of targeted beneficiaries.