Tag Archives forStep Up For Students

Step Up For Students launches alumni network  

 

By LISA A. DAVIS

Step Up For Students is excited to announce the creation of the Step Up For Students Alumni Network, bringing former scholars who have graduated from high school together to advocate for the advancement of all Florida schoolchildren.

Natasha Infante, now a University of South Florida Student, is one of the first members of the Network.

The network’s mission is to strengthen the relationship between schoolchildren in underserved communities and the educational-choice community. Alumni members will work toward educating and informing their community members at large, including lawmakers and donors, about school choice and its benefits. Step Up is a nonprofit organization in Florida that manages two scholarship programs for the state’s most underprivileged children,: The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students and the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs.

“Our scholars’ stories – past and present – are the best way to understand the impact school choice has on the children we serve,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “Their backgrounds and challenges are compelling and tug at your heartstrings. We can tell you these stories ourselves, but they are the best narrators for educational options.”

Natasha Infante, a 2014 Tampa Catholic High School graduate said she joined the network because the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students opened a world of possibilities for her.

“Step Up For Students allowed me to go to the high school I wanted to go to,” said Infante, who is now pre-veterinary major at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “I feel like it’s a pay-it-forward thing. If Step Up helped me, then I feel like I should help them.  It’s been such a positive thing in my life, I feel like I need to share my experience so others can benefit from it in the future.”

Infante was one of the first alumni to sign on to the Alumni Network and has been involved since it was only an idea, advising Step Up staff how to proceed. She has already written letters to lawmakers in support of Step Up and school choice in general.

“I’m open to more advocating for school choice because it’s so important,” she said, noting a recent lawsuit that sought to shut down the tax credit scholarship program. “We almost lost Step Up once and we can’t ever let that happen because it helps so many students like me have a better future.“

The membership roster already has 160 registered members, but Step Up For Students is seeking many more alumni to make it successful.

“Obviously, the more graduates we have, the more ground we can cover in advocating for Florida’s youth,” Tuthill said. “And the members will certainly reap the benefits of being involved too. For one, they will have an impact on the educational landscape of Florida for future generations. That’s rewarding for sure, but they will also have personal benefits as well with networking opportunities and more.”

Membership benefits include access to online professional development courses, exclusive discounts to retail stores, vacation packages, movie tickets, and the opportunity to network with decision-makers, donors, potential employers and other alumni through various events and social media.

Membership to the Step Up alumni network is free.

To join the Step Up For Students Alumni Network or to learn more, click here.

Lisa A. Davis can be reached at ldavis@StepUpForStudents.org

 

Two minutes with Step Up President Doug Tuthill

Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students, recently took a few moments to talk about his vision for the organization.

“We’re in the equal opportunity business,” Tuthill said. “We want to make sure that low-income children have the same opportunities more affluent kids have. We want to make sure special needs (students) have their needs met also.”

 

 

School Spotlight: Pace Brantley School in Longwood

By GEOFF FOX

It was just after 10 a.m. and dozens of students at Pace Brantley School were in the middle of campus, kicking soccer balls in a large field, playing on a jungle gym, swinging and jumping rope under a cloudless sky.

Their voices and laughter were carried on a light breeze that shook Spanish moss in dozens of majestic oak trees that line the sprawling, nine-acre campus.

Ben Zanca suffers from asthma, cerebral palsy, autism and CLOVES syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by tissue overgrowth and complex vascular malformations. After struggling in public school and at a charter school, he is thriving in his first year at Pace Brantley.

It was eighth-grader Ben Zanca’s favorite time of day.

“I like it because I get to make friends, and you get to do a lot of fun things,” he said.

Ben suffers from asthma, cerebral palsy, autism and CLOVES syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by tissue overgrowth and complex vascular malformations. After struggling in public school and at a charter school, he was thriving in his first year at Pace Brantley.

“His self-confidence has increased tremendously,” said his mother, Ann Zanca. “It’s a lot of hands-on learning. He made a car out of a Coke bottle and started telling me about Newton’s laws of motion.  His reading had regressed when he went into middle school, but here his reading, spelling and writing has much improved. And he’s enthusiastic about going to school.”

In 2016-17, Pace Brantley served over 170 second- to 12th grade students. Ben was one of about 35 students on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.

The school includes seven buildings, an outdoor basketball court and well-manicured football and baseball fields. The campus had one building, a former house, when the school opened in 1971. Additional buildings have been added as needed, and as money was available. The school has always been geared toward students with learning issues.

“The majority of our students have a difficulty such as auditory processing disorder, dyslexia or ADHD,” said Jennifer Foor, Pace Brantley’s elementary and middle school principal. “Some of them are on the autism spectrum, but on the high-functioning side. The kids on the spectrum are not here because of behavior concerns.”

Pace Brantley currently has three mental health counselors on campus, as well as an occupational therapist, speech pathologist and full-time nurse who specializes in handling students with anxiety issues.

This year, the school even “hired” Ben, a therapy dog who lives with school nurse Tara Mahoney and comes with her to work every day – like a law enforcement K-9 officer. An American breed mix, Ben is quick to lick the hands of strangers. When he is tired, he is not shy about dropping to the floor and stretching with a low yowl.

Ben has been immensely popular since his Jan. 3 debut on campus. Whenever students are feeling especially anxious, they can see Mahoney – and Ben.

“It’s positive redirection and visualization. I speak in a calm voice and there’s low lighting,” Mahoney said. “We typically end up on the floor. They can convey their feelings to Ben or just pet him. Usually, after 10 or 15 minutes they’re ready to go back to class. There’s a more relaxing vibe with him being here. He makes everybody feel more comfortable.”

Pam Tapley, who has been Pace Brantley’s head of school for three years, is always looking to incorporate effective, innovative concepts to benefit her students. She was previously an assistant superintendent of schools in Osceola County and has been a high school principal.

“I’m passionate about providing the environment that allows students with differences to be celebrated and surrounded by people who honor and respect that, but also believe they can be successful,” Tapley said. “We have a wrap-around philosophy. We want to provide the environment for students to be successful, but we do it with the parents, with the occupational therapy, with the speech therapy, the mental health therapy.

“We wrap the whole family into the support. A lot of times the families are frustrated. They’re seeking answers and support and we give that to them here. They don’t feel isolated anymore.”

The environment includes everything from cutting-edge technology in classrooms to practical lessons outdoors.

For example, there is a television production studio, where morning announcements are made under the supervision of instructor Katie Nichols and broadcast through the school. The studio features a green virtual television studio background, Macintosh computers, iMovies for editing, three cameras and a teleprompter.

There is also a greenhouse, where students grow snap peas, tomatoes, lettuce, kale and cabbage under the guidance of science teacher Suzy Grimm. Toward the back of the campus is the Arts Building, where drama classes are held. This year, the school is working on a production of “Aladdin.”

Ninth-grader Ryan Sleboda, a first-year student at Pace Brantley, said he loves the school.

Ninth-grader Ryan Sleboda, a first-year student at Pace Brantley, who is on the autism spectrum, said he loves the school.

“It’s more challenging than my other schools,” said Ryan, a Gardiner scholar who was diagnosed with autism. “The other schools just did the basics. This really is way more interesting.”

Those on the autism spectrum also benefit from social skills groups in which they learn to better interact with their peers.

“They go over eye contact and body language during personal interaction,” Foor said. “They learn how to react in situations and have conversations.”

The campus’ newest building is the high school, which opened in the 2010-11 school year. Besides classrooms and lockers, the high school features a complete science lab.

“They do dissections in there and everything,” Foor said.

According to Tapley, the school may not be done growing. She hopes to begin a capital campaign to build a vocational center on campus. Tapley is involved with the Greater Sanford Chamber of Commerce and often talks to business leaders in the community to determine what kind of employees they need.

It’s a way of helping her students succeed after graduation.

“What are we providing in a learning situation that gives them the time to learn to be valuable employees?” Tapley said. “We’re gathering the data now. We’re looking at (careers in) plumbing, construction, air-conditioning, culinary and early childhood. We want to look at the employability rates, because you don’t want to flood the market.”

Susan Sleboda, Ryan’s mother, said the school has been a blessing for her entire family.

“He has blossomed because of being at that school,” she said. “What they offer these kids – the environment, in particular – is in my opinion revolutionary. For a child like mine, who can’t typically succeed in a learning environment, it’s like a puzzle fitting together. For Ryan, it provides the perfect environment. The teachers are understanding of your child’s disabilities, as well as their abilities.

“It would be difficult to afford without the scholarship. It would be like paying another college tuition.”

Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@sufs.org.

 

 

 

 

School Spotlight: The Broach School Tampa Campus

By GEOFF FOX

Classes were changing at The Broach School Tampa Campus and veteran teacher Susan Gettys was busy steering students to their proper classrooms.

With only a few weeks before the end of the school year, the notorious “spring fever” had set in for some students who lingered in the hallway.

“Come on, let’s go gentlemen and ladies!” Gettys called.

She looked into a classroom.

“OK, who else is in there?” she said. “Let’s go.”

Seventeen-year-old Enmanuel Gonzalez moved to Tampa from Cuba several years ago and struggled to fit in at a large neighborhood school. He has attended Broach School Tampa Campus since 2012.

Within moments the students were in the right classrooms and Gettys relaxed with a grin.

Of the 90 or so students at Broach Tampa this year, 18 were on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income families and four were on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs; Step Up For Students helps manage both scholarships.

The K-12 school has been in Tampa since 2000 and at its current location on Linebaugh Avenue since 2013, according to Principal Sonia Anderson. She said word-of-mouth advertising has been responsible for the school’s growth. This year’s enrollment was more than double its 2015-16 numbers.

“I think it’s the love and commitment we have with our families,” Anderson said. “We do more than just teach. We feed them if they’re hungry, clothe them if they need it. My staff does it from the heart, not just for a paycheck. Some of our current students have cousins and other family members that went here 15 years ago.”

Besides having an inclusive environment with small class sizes that offer students more individual attention, Broach Tampa has graduated many students who go on to college.

“We have children with autism who have gone onto college,” said Gettys, who taught in Tampa public schools before coming to Broach Tampa 12 years ago. “We have (former students in college) all over the place. One young man couldn’t read a lick when he got here; he was in ninth grade and could not read. But we have an American history book in graphic novel form and that’s when he got it. He’s in college now.

“Stories like that are why I love this school so much. Once a kid finds reading, there’s no stopping them.”

Many students at Broach Tampa have previously attended public schools, where they either got lost in a sea of other students, didn’t perform well or sometimes got bullied.

Seventeen-year-old Enmanuel Gonzalez moved to Tampa from Cuba several years ago with his mother. Naturally quiet, he struggled to fit in at a large neighborhood school.

His mother learned about and applied for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, and Enmanuel was accepted. He has attended Broach Tampa since 2012.

“The people around me (at school) are much better to be around,” Enmanuel said. “I like that the classes are smaller and if you ask the teacher a question, they try and work with you.”

Enmanuel said he most enjoys English, history and American government but is considering a career in computer programming.

Amani Santana, a 17-year-old 10th-grader, has attended the school for about a year. She previously attended an overcrowded public high school in Tampa, where she struggled academically and socially.

Amani Santana, who hopes to someday open a bakery in New York, has thrived since she started attending The Broach School Tampa Campus in 2016.

Amani said she is relieved that her primary guardian Jenny Fillmore learned about the tax-credit scholarship.

“A lot of the teachers here are more hands-on and they really take the time to help you,” Amani said, adding that she most enjoys cooking, sewing and science classes.

“I want to go to go into a culinary school that also teaches business so I can open a bakery in New York,” she said. “When I went to New York, I didn’t see a whole lot of bakeries and a lot of people like pastries.”

Gettys has confidence the school can help turn Enmanuel’s and Amani’s aspirations into realities. She and the school’s other teachers understand their students well enough to know when they need to be pushed academically and when to ease up – but always in a positive manner.

Once a straight-F student in middle school, Gettys said she remembers the commitment shown her by teachers at a small school in rural Florida. Broach Tampa reminds her of that school.

“We have a family atmosphere here,” she said. “All of our parents know first-hand what’s going on and we do several events each year for the families.”

Fillmore, Amani’s guardian, is thankful for the opportunities Amani has enjoyed at Broach Tampa.

“She’s having no struggles now, none,” she said. “They’ve both been doing great. It’s the best school they’ve ever been in. I could go on and on about it. That school has been a Godsend.”

Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@sufs.org.

 

 

 

Step Up For Students named education nonprofit of 2017 by Tampa Bay Business Journal

By GEOFF FOX 

Step Up For Students Director of Advancement Amanda Lopez, center, accepted Nonprofit of the Year in the education category from the Tampa Bay Business Journal on June 8 during a ceremony held at the Bryan Glazer Family JCC in Tampa.

CLEARWATER The Tampa Bay Business Journal on June 8 named Step Up For Students Nonprofit of the Year in the education category.

Step Up For Students helps manage both the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for students from lower-income families and the Gardiner Scholarship Program for students with certain special needs. The statewide organization has offices in Clearwater and Jacksonville.

Other organizations considered for the honor include Early Learning Coalition of Manatee County; Frameworks of Tampa Bay Inc; Girl Scouts of West Central Florida; and R’Club Child Care Inc.

“This is further validation of the great work our staff, board and donors are doing to serve our families,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students.

Step Up is allotted a 3 percent operating allowance, far less than most other nonprofits. Based on its record of fiscal responsibility, accountability and transparency, Step Up For Students has earned Charity Navigator’s four-star rating –the highest possible – for six consecutive years.

Through the close of the 2016-17 school year, Step Up For Students has awarded nearly 580,000 tax credit scholarships to disadvantaged Florida students since its inception in 2001. And another nearly 13,500 Gardiner Scholarships have been awarded since that program began in 2014.

Also, on May 23, Step Up’s Jacksonville office was selected by the Jacksonville Business Journal as one of the best places to work in Jacksonville for a company between 100 and 245 employees.

Step Up is in good company in that size category with companies such as the Jacksonville Jaguars, Florida Capital Bang and Omni Hotels Jacksonville, among others.

“All of the work that each of you has done to strengthen our culture and enhance our workplace has led us to this recognition this year,” Step Up COO Anne White told staff during the announcement of the recognition. “I am very proud to work among such a fantastic group of professionals.”

 

 

Step Up For Students named a top employer in Jacksonville

By LISA A. DAVIS

Step Up For Students has been selected by the Jacksonville Business Journal as one of the best places to work in Jacksonville for a company between 100 and 245 employees, the newspaper announced Tuesday. 

Step Up is in good company in that size category with companies such as the Jacksonville Jaguars, Florida Capital Bang and Omni Hotels Jacksonville, among others.

“All of the work that each of you has done to strengthen our culture and enhance our workplace has led us to this recognition this year,” Step Up COO Anne White told staff during the announcement of the recognition. “… I am very proud to work among such a fantastic group of professionals.  Next step – St. Pete!”

Step Up For Students is a nonprofit that helps run the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income K-12 students, funded by corporate donors, and the state-funded Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs. Combined, the programs are serving more than 100,000 students for the 2016-17 school year. Step Up For Students employs 194 full-time employees in its Jacksonville, St. Petersburg and remote locations. The Journal’s recognition applies only to the Jacksonville location where 127 employees are based.

The Journal has been partnering with Quantum Workplace, an employee engagement research firm, collecting data from surveys taken by each company that submitted an application. Finalists are chosen by analyzing the results of the employee satisfaction data.

In the application survey, it asks why a company should make the list of the Best Place to Work and what programs have been implemented to make the company a great place to work.

“Valuing the employee is of utmost importance to us, and hopefully when reading the other responses, it is evident that we take this to heart based on the support and opportunities employees are provided,” states one of Step Up’s responses.

Another response also points out that Step Up leaders have also committed to working on relationship management, as well as investing in employee happiness by creating a new department called Organization and Professional Development, which focuses on overall wellness of Step Up employees.

“Our goal is to promote our two core company values through these areas: Every employee is an asset. Every event is an improvement opportunity. It has become ‘the way in which we do things,'” according to information sent to the Journal.

“Step Up For Students devotes a lot of time, money and resources to improving employees’ cognitive and emotional management,” a survey response points out. “We believe that the root cause of many business-related challenges can be overcome by ensuring employees are self-aware, empathetic and are able to manage themselves and their relationships within the organization.”

Company rankings will be announced during an awards ceremony on June 22 at the Omni Jacksonville Hotel.

 

Congratulations on your master’s degree, Denisha!

By LISA A. DAVIS

From middle school on, we’ve watched Denisha Merriweather grow from an uncertain and failing young student into a confident, strong and already successful young woman.

Through the years, she has taken the stage as a Step Up For Students scholar and graduate, advocating for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, the program that changed her life.

She has spoken in front of, and been introduced by, governors and other high-ranking politicians, including the President of the United States. In a big way, she has become the face of school choice not only in Florida, but in the nation.

Once destined to drop out of school after failing third grade not once, but twice, Denisha today receives her master’s degree in social work from the University of South Florida College of Behavioral and Community Studies.

Denisha is not only a friend to the staff of Step Up For Students, she is now a coworker advocating for families all over the state.  To say the staff is proud of her is a bit of an understatement. But, yes, Denisha, your Step Up family is so, so proud of you and can’t wait to applaud you as you continue your life’s journey.

Congratulations on this amazing accomplishment!

From John Kirtley, founder and chairman of Step Up For Students:

“Denisha embodies the power of choice. Her life story shows the wonderful things that can happen if a student can find the right learning environment. Congratulations Denisha!”

Said Jen Canning, Step Up process manager for the office of the president:

“It’s an honor to celebrate Denisha’s accomplishments with her today. Denisha isn’t just a model student, she’s a model citizen. Her commitment to using her life experiences to make the world a better place is truly remarkable. I’m proud of Denisha’s academic success, but I’m even more proud to call her my friend. ”

From Step Up Vice President of Advancement and CMO Alissa Randall:

“From failing third grade twice to working toward her master’s degree and earning it, that’ s quite an accomplishment. With the opportunity of a scholarship, she excelled and has made us all so very proud. She is a strong young woman who has an amazing future ahead of her. I’m so incredibly proud of her and all she has accomplished and what she will in the future.”

From “Nia” Estefania Nunez-Brady, Step Up manager of faith-based initiatives:

“I am so proud of the woman, sister and friend she has become to me. Everything she has accomplished, she worked hard for. Denisha, now it’s time to make all your dreams come true. I love you, friend.”

To learn about Denisha’s journey, click here.

Lisa Davis can be reached at ldavis@sufs.org

Former lawmaker joins Step Up For Students board

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the redefinED blog on April 26, 2017.  The blog is hosted by Step Up For Students and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.

Sen. John Legg

A former state lawmaker who helped shape Florida education in policy for more than a decade will join the board of Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer two major school choice programs.

State Sen. John Legg served in the Florida House from 2004 to 2012. He was elected to the state Senate in 2012, and served as chairman of the Education Committee for four years before leaving the Legislature in 2016.

Before he supported the school choice movement as a legislator, Legg supported it as an educator. In 2000, he helped found Dayspring Academy, a high-performing Pasco County charter school where he serves as an administrator.

Step Up’s board unanimously elected Legg to the unpaid position this week. He will join another former state lawmaker, Democratic Congressman Al Lawson.

“John Legg is an innovative and successful educator, as well as a gifted legislator and a great person,” said Step Up President Doug Tuthill. “John is committed to serving disadvantaged youth, and will be a wonderful addition to our organization.”

“It’s humbling to be a part of such an amazing team that has made such a dramatic impact in the lives of young people and families,” Legg wrote in an email.

Step Up helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which helps more than 98,000 low-income and working class students afford private school tuition. It also helps administer the Gardiner Scholarships, which provide education savings accounts to more than 7,000 students with cetain special needs.

Travis Pillow can be reached at tpillow@sufs.org.

Student spotlight: Darius Lue

 

By GEOFF FOX

Outgoing, loyal, charismatic, hard-working.

“I had to work pretty hard,” Darius said of playing on varsity win ninth grade at Seffner Academy. “I had some athleticism, but when I was smaller I wasn’t fast and I had some weight on me. I was not one of those skinny kids who can dunk and run fast.”

The adjectives used by officials at Seffner Christian Academy to describe senior Darius Lue are words any parent would want to hear about their child.

Humble, friendly, intelligent, dedicated – the list goes on.

“He’s a natural leader,” said Amanda Allotta, school counselor at Seffner Christian.

Sam Moorer, the school’s basketball coach, agreed. Standing 6-feet-1-inch, Darius is a dynamic point guard who is was scouted by several universities, while maintaining a 3.96 GPA. He’s the kind of student-athlete who studies or does homework on the team bus and before practice.

“I think the world of him,” Moorer said. “He doesn’t look to cut corners. He’s Mr. Positive. He encourages people and never tears them down. He treats his teammates like he wants to be treated and takes a genuine interest in people. Every day, he comes up to me and asks, ‘Hey coach, how’s your day going?’ There aren’t many kids who do that. I don’t know of anybody who doesn’t like him.”

Darius is the youngest of Denise Waite’s three sons. A single mother, Waite learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students as her middle son, Miles, was entering fifth grade. She applied for and was awarded the scholarship, which allowed Miles to attend Florida College Academy in Temple Terrace, where he thrived. Miles, 21, now attends Hillsborough Community College.

Waite applied for the scholarship again before Darius started kindergarten; he has been on the scholarship through Step Up ever since.

“Our neighborhood schools might not have been terrible, but they were not the best,” said Waite, an independent insurance agent. “I wanted to give him the opportunity to grow and flourish in an environment with a lot of positivity.

“The environment is full of encouraging teachers, so he’s always surrounded by someone to encourage great behavior. The coaches and staff, everybody knows him and they know me. It’s great to have that support all around. If anything ever went wrong, I know they’d be there.”

Darius Lua, on college signing day, with from left to right, Nnece Kamiyah Brown, nephew Wayne Brown and cousin Makayla Hylton.

While Darius’ prowess on the basketball court is now obvious, he said he was hardly a natural athlete and barely did more than dribble a basketball until about age 9. But once he did, hoops fever took hold and he committed himself to constantly practicing and studying the game.

He improved rapidly. By the time Darius, 18, reached ninth grade at Seffner Christian, he was playing on the varsity squad.

“I had to work pretty hard,” Darius said. “I had some athleticism, but when I was smaller I wasn’t fast and I had some weight on me. I was not one of those skinny kids who can dunk and run fast.”

His hard work on and off the basketball court has paid off, as he accepted a scholarship this year to play basketball at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

While Darius dreams of someday playing in the National Basketball Association, he is as practical as he is athletic. He is considering majoring in business management or accounting in college.

“I always wanted to be the top guy sitting over the business, the one with the ideas,” he said.

The adults in Darius’ life are confident he will succeed regardless of which path he takes.

“He takes very challenging courses,” said Allotta, the guidance counselor. “He’s in honor’s level or AP (Advanced Placement) courses. He challenges himself and still does very well. I’m confident he’ll be successful in whatever he does.”

Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@sufs.org.

School Spotlight: Hope Ranch Learning Academy

By GEOFF FOX

Nataleigh Monterio put on her pink riding helmet and light-up cowboy boots.

Smiling wide, she stepped onto a mounting block, threw her leg over a 1,000-pound Appendix Quarter Horse named Georgie and began riding her around an outdoor arena at HOPE Ranch Learning Academy.

“I’ve been riding horses my entire life,” said Nataleigh, 9. “Sometimes they answer questions. Miss Patty will ask them yes or no questions and they shake their head yes.”

Nataleigh Monterio

Nataleigh Monterio, who is on the autism spectrum, enjoys equine therapy at HOPE Ranch Learning Academy in Pasco County.

Nearby, her classmate, Xavier Cebollero, 8, watched with envy. With a cast covering his left forearm after a tumbling accident, he was unable to ride that day.

“Some of the horses are a pain, because they don’t listen to me,” he said. “They speak horse.”

Nataleigh and Xavier, both third-graders, are two of HOPE Ranch’s 125 students. About 60 percent of the students are on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs; Natalie and Xavier have diagnoses on the autism spectrum. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.

Equine therapy is one aspect of a typical school week at HOPE Ranch, which operates three campuses – two in rural Hudson in northeast Pasco County and one in Zephyrhills on the county’s east side.

“Some of these kids have been bullied and abused,” said Jose Suarez, who has run the school since 2005 with Ampy, his wife of 34 years. “They don’t trust people and adults.”

The school’s horsemanship classes are taught by Patty Anderton – known to the students as “Miss Patty.” Anderton used to run a business in Odessa, Florida, where she taught clients the finer points of horse riding. About six years ago, Jose Suarez asked her to help out at the school temporarily. It turned into a full-time job and Anderton hasn’t looked back.

“I love it here,” she said. “It’s much different. My clients before were usually adults and I wanted something different.”

As Anderton spoke, Nataleigh navigated Georgie around a figure eight pattern and had her trot at different speeds.

Anderton smiled.

“The horses help bring them out of their shell,” she said. “A lot of them haven’t had the greatest life in school. They don’t trust a whole lot and the horses help bring that trust out.”

While horse riding is a popular activity, none of the students automatically get to ride every week.

“Horsemanship is a class, but riding is a privilege,” Jose Suarez said. “They have to have their grades and behavior under control. They have to earn it.”

The Suarezes opened the ranch in 2005, originally for troubled children. By then the couple, who have two adult children, had been caring for foster children for two years. Not long after opening the ranch, the mother of an autistic child approached them about expanding the program.

Ampy Suarez couldn’t say no.

“We want to give them opportunities that they never would have had otherwise,” she said.

Xavier-Cebollero-2

Xavier Cebollero, says riding a horse can be a challenge. “Some of the horses are a pain, because they don’t listen to me,” he said. “They speak horse.”

It seems to be working. A discussion Nataleigh and Xavier had in the horse arena demonstrated genuine enthusiasm among the students.

“I just love this school, in general,” Nataleigh said. “When I was five or six, I went to a completely different school. When I was really young, I was really picky, though. They didn’t have a barn; they didn’t have any animals.”

“In Miss Patty’s class, we get to go on field trips. We went to We Rock the Spectrum in Pinellas County,” Xavier said, referring to the Clearwater gym with equipment designed to help children with sensory processing disorders. “We also went to The Brick University (an art school for children). We got to make a plane and a cupcake out of LEGOs.”

Xavier wasn’t done talking, but Natalie’s excitement prevented her from staying quiet.

“One week every year, we have Spirit Week,” she said.

Xavier started to speak again.

“Xavier, calm yourself,” she said. “Then, on a specific day, we have Character Day.”

“That’s when we get to dress up like any character,” he said.

“Yes, thank you, Xavier,” she said. “I went as a HOPE Ranch Learning Academy fairy. I had a little skirt and fairy wings, and it was really cute.”

“I was a mixture of super heroes,” he said. “I had a Captain America mask and a Superman cape.”

“He was Super Ultra Xavier!” she said.

As the school continues to grow, Jose Suarez said it will expand. He expects 200 students next year.

“We’ll need to beef up our infrastructure and maybe open another campus,” he said.

Suarez attributed the school’s growth to word-of-mouth advertising among parents of children with special needs, as well as a Google arrangement that drives Internet browsers to HOPE Ranch’s website.

“I’m starting to get requests from across the nation,” he said. “I recently got a call from Wisconsin. They said, ‘If that’s the right school, we’ll move.’”

Reach Geoff Fox at gfox@sufs.org.

 

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