Tag Archives forStep Up For Students

Trip to Microsoft Store combines coding with cool for Bible Truth Ministries Academy students

By ROGER MOONEY

TAMPA, Fla. – The Microsoft Store at International Plaza was filled with students from Bible Truth Ministries Academy, each seated in front of a Surface Pro laptop while completing coding tasks associated with the hugely popular video game Minecraft.

Students from Bible Truth Ministries Academy work on coding the Microsoft Store at International Plaza in Tampa.

As far as field trips go, this one was like entering the Nether – that’s Minecraft speak for an alternative dimension.

“One of the best,” said Elijah Jenkins, a sophomore at Bible Truth.

Jenkins was one of 50 students from the private pre-K-12 school in Tampa, Florida who spent a recent Thursday morning at the Microsoft Store.

“That’s awesome to hear,” said Ryan Candler, community development specialist at the Microsoft Store.

The workshop meshed with Bible Truth’s STEM education program – science, technology, engineering and math. The students received an introduction to coding using Minecraft and received free backpacks filled with school supplies.

“It’s a great experience to learn about computer software, where things come from and how they operate their business,” Jenkins said.

The Minecraft coding workshop was arranged by Step Up For Students, which has a partnership with Microsoft.

Bible Truth has 105 students this year with 50, including Jenkins, attending the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students, which is managed by Step Up.

“This was an amazing learning experience for the students at Bible Truth and a great opportunity for each student to experience power of technology,” said Carol Macedonia, Step Up’s, Office of Student Learning vice president. “Our team at OSL was very pleased to have our partnership with Microsoft unite with one of our most supportive schools.”

Suzette Dean, Bible Truth principal, wants to improve her school’s technology capabilities, both for teachers and students.

“I want the students to have more exposure to good information on the internet, educational directed information versus Facebook and Instagram and all the other information they normally go on their cell phones for or their computers for,” Dean said.

She met representatives from Microsoft’s education and training department last spring during a Step Up meeting about MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) skills, an online academic assessment for students.

Microsoft later visited Bible Truth to see the technology the school had and determine how it could be improved. Teachers attended workshops and the students were invited to the store for a two-hour, hands-on field trip.

While free back-to-school workshops in the Microsoft Store is the norm, Candler said the Bible Truth turnout was the largest. As a result, he needed a half-dozen employees to teach the students, answer questions and keep the throng moving from station to station.

The employees made it work, and Candler said it was worth the effort.

“Microsoft is big on diversity and inclusion, so being able to support a school that is coming from a startup phase and trying to get more attention to their school is pretty awesome,” Candler said. “A lot of what we do is not only supporting the students but also the teacher development. When they leave the environment like today having fun, they can also have that same STEM engagement in the classroom.”

Teacher development is key. The idea is to have the students continue to learn the technology they were introduced to during the workshop throughout the school year.

Bible Truth has a 3-D printer and offers classes in programming and robotics. It formed a team last year to compete in the FIRST Lego League.

“They didn’t do too well,” Dean said, “but they had the exposure to competition. This year they’re really fired up about doing that.”

Dean feels the earlier she can expose her students to computers the better.

“It’s the way the world is going,” she said.

While Dean would like all of her students to graduate and attend college, she knows that is not everyone will choose that option.

“College is not for everyone,” she said. “So at least we would have given them some basic exposure, so when they leave us, they can go get a job.”

About Bible Truth Ministries Academy

The private school located in the Belmont Heights section of Tampa has enrollment from pre-K to 12. It also provides day care. The main academic focus is on math, English and reading comprehension. Students also receive training in life skills – cooking, budgeting, home organization and management, construction, electrical and mechanics. Students also participate in community cleanups and assist elderly and disabled residents with home beautifying projects.

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

Republic National Distributing Company donates $65 million to help fund scholarship program for lower-income students

By Ashley Zarle

TAMPA, Fla.– Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC), one of the nation’s leading wholesale alcohol beverage distributors, has once again contributed $65 million to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.

RNDC celebrated on Oct. 22 the substantial donation while visiting Tampa Catholic High School students who use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students. RNDC’s contribution funds 9,339 scholarships for deserving K-12 Florida schoolchildren. The scholarships give lower-income children the opportunity to attend a private or out-of-district school that best meets their learning needs.

“At Republic National Distributing Company, we are committed to making a positive difference that enriches the spirit and well-being of our associates, communities, and business partners”, said Ron Barcena, executive vice president of RNDC. “We know that our partnership with Step Up For Students is doing just that and we are proud to help provide thousands of Florida schoolchildren with the educational opportunities they deserve.”


Republic National Distributing Company announced a $65 million contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (adults from left to right) are Step Up For Students Founder & Chairman John Kirtley, Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill, and RNDC Florida Executive Vice President Ron Barcena. They are joined by Tampa Catholic High School students who are benefiting from the scholarship.

While visiting Tampa Catholic High School, RNDC representatives had a chance to experience the zSpace Lab. zSpace is a virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) system that uses a unique stylus and eyewear to create an interactive experience covering subjects like animal dissection and anatomy, but also others like geography and history. Users can access a frog dissection model, as well as other 3D programs like simulated archaeological digs or interactive geometry. Students enjoyed showing the representatives how to use the program and the different courses that are available.


Tampa Catholic High School students, who use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students, had fun showing
Republic National Distributing Company key account manager Perry Thomas how to use the zSpace program.

Since 2012, Republic National Distributing Company has generously funded 49,675 scholarships through contributions totaling $310 million to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations. Step Up is serving more than 100,400 students for the 2019-20 school year. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.

“RNDC has once again shown their incredible commitment to Florida’s disadvantaged schoolchildren through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program which is producing exceptional results,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “Recently, the Urban Institute evaluated graduates of our program and found students who use the scholarship for at least four years are 99% more likely to attend a four-year college and up to 45% more likely than their public school peers to earn a bachelor’s degree. RNDC is a critical part of this success and we are grateful for their support of deserving students in our community.”

Ashley Zarle can be reached at AZarle@StepUpForStudents.org.

If you can sing it, you can learn it: How music is helping schoolchildren improve their reading

By ROGER MOONEY   

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. –During the weeks leading up to the start of fifth grade, when Cee J Knause was home doing not much of anything, she found herself singing the Short Vowel Song.

“A … a … a …a … apple

E … e … e … e … egg.”

Or the Long Vowel Song.

“I got an a for apron

An e for eagle.”

Sometimes, Cee J sang “The Ballad of the Silent E.”

“She sings those songs all day,” her mom, Kellie Mendheim said. “Sometimes she lets me sing them.”

Cee J, now in the fifth grade at Mount Zion, improved her reading last spring through Winning Reading Boost

Cee J is a student at the Mount Zion Christian Academy in St. Petersburg. Like nearly all of her 90 schoolmates, she attends the K-5 private school using a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families. The program is managed by Step Up For Students.

Cee J learned those songs last spring when she participated in the Winning Reading Boost program for second-graders and above who struggled to read.

They are catchy tunes, and that is the point.

Sue Dickson, a former first-grade teacher and Safety Harbor, Florida, resident, wrote them years ago. The songs were the foundation of Dickson’s Sing, Spell, Read and Write, a widely successful phonics-based program published in 1972 that taught children to read. A decade later, when Dickson saw the need to reach older non-readers, she wrote Winning, a 90-hour intervention program with age appropriate stories and songs that had tremendous success in jails and teen detention centers.

“If you can sing it, you can learn it,” Dickson said.

Mount Zion was used as a pilot program last spring with 10 students participating. Cee J, then in fourth grade, was one of those students.

“The program went very well,” Mount Zion principal Franca Sheehy said. “We saw results.”

Students who misread more than five fluency words out of 60 on a K-1 phonics test were included in the program. Combined, the 10 students averaged nearly 27 missed words. Only one, a third-grader, missed fewer than 10, and that student missed nine.

“I love it,” said Cee J, who missed 29 of the 60 words. “When I didn’t do Winning Reading Boost, I used to struggle at reading. As soon as I started this, it started helping me, and I love how the songs made it fun.”

Cee J’s struggles stemmed from reading too fast, causing her to miss words. Winning Reading taught her to read at a slower pace, which increased her fluency learning.

Shakeila Bogle-Duke, who teaches Winning Reading Boost at Mount Zion, said Cee J showed the most improvement of the 10 students.

“Everyone showed some growth,” Bogle-Duke said. “It was significant in others and a little less in one or two.”

Students gained confidence in their ability to read. Using phonics, they learned to decode words, rather than guess at them. Those who entered as choppy readers learned to read at a smoother pace.

Sheehy was so impressed with Winning Reading Boost that it was added to the 2019-20 budget. It will be used throughout the school year after they identify which students need the intervention program.

Why Johnny can’t read

An October 2018 story in the New York Times referenced a study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress that found only four of 10 fourth graders were competent readers. A big reason, the story stated, is students are not taught to read phonically, meaning they do not learn to decode words.

This is not a new development. Dickson began teaching first grade in the 1950s in Arlington, Virginia, when it was forbidden to teach phonics, learning by decoding the relationship between sounds and spelling.

“The schools of education ridiculed the teaching of phonics,” she said. “It was just awful.”

Sue Dickson began writing songs for her reading programs in the 1960s.

Because she was fresh out of college and just beginning her career, Dickson complied with the school district’s stance during her first two years as a teacher. Yet, she knew she failed those students who didn’t pass reading.

In 1955, Rudolf Flesch wrote, “Why Johnny Can’t Read: And what you can do about it.” The book advocated phonics over the standard reading by sight, often referred to as “Look-say.”

Reading the book reinforced Dickson’s belief that the school district’s stance was wrong. Not only could she see that from the reading scores of her students, but also with her younger brother, David, who struggled with reading. Dickson saw first-hand the impact that had on David’s education.

 “I was tuned-in to the problems that come along when a kid can’t read. He was ruined,” Dickson said. “I was looking for a way to fix it, and I found what was wrong.”

She began teaching phonics to her students, and their reading scores improved. Eventually, Dickson was asked to teach reading her way during summer school.

She realized some students struggled because they were tripped up by what she called, “hidden bloopers,” like the difference in the graphic forms of the letters “a” and “g” in written text, and addressed them in her programs.

Throughout the 1960s, Dickson combined her love of music with her love of teaching, sat at her piano and composed the songs for Sing, Spell, Read and Write.

The program went nationwide in the 1970s, and school districts reported improved reading scores by students who participated.

“It’s earth-shaking,” Dickson said of the program’s success.

‘It’s the music’

In 2015, The Tampa Bay Times ran a series on how the Pinellas County School Board in Tampa Bay turned five once average public schools in low-income areas into what it termed, “Failure Factories.”

Searching for help, a grass roots St. Petersburg community reached out to Don Pemberton at University of Florida’s Lastinger Center, an innovative hub that brings together the latest developments in academic research and practice to improve education. Lisa Langley, Lastinger’s chief of staff, along with the UF team, Sue Dickson and her daughter Dianne Dickson-Fix (a retired elementary school teacher in Pinellas County) updated Winning and created Winning Reading Boost for students in grades 2 and up.

The new program involves 36 sequenced steps to independent reading through songs and games and four books.

“Anything we want the kids to memorize is in the songs, because the songs provide the repetition to make the learning fast and easy,” Dickson-Fix said.

The lessons are put to music – rock, rap, country and calypso.


Shakeila Bogle-Duke, who teaches Winning Reading Boost at Mount Zion, said all the students in last spring’s program improved their reading.

“It’s a hands-on approach and it gets them excited to do the stories,” said Bogle-Duke, the Mount Zion teacher. “The stories are not very long, so they get through each part. They’re using the skills and they are reminded about what they just learned to use as a tool for what they’re reading.”

To prevent students from stumbling over words they don’t know, there is not one word in the story that hasn’t already been covered.

“Sue thought it out,” Langley said. “It’s like a shaky foundation for a house. She had to knock that house down and rebuild that foundation.”

Why does it work?

“It’s the music,” Bogle-Duke said.

Sheehy agreed. She said her students don’t have a problem learning Bible verses and pledges when they sing them.

“They are able to memorize this information, and music helps them memorize the sounds,” Sheehy said. “You hear them singing that song later. Eventually, the more they sing it, they start putting the dots together and realize what they are singing. The lightbulb goes on.”

Mendheim, Cee J’s mom, said she was glad when her daughter was asked last spring to join the program.

“I was teaching Cee J to read, but I wanted someone to take it a step forward,” she said. “She was reading, but not how I wanted her to read.”

When told she was in the program, Cee J said her response was, “OK, I’m struggling. I need to practice.”

Cee J continued to read her Winning Reading Boost books over the summer. She even erased her answers so she could take the quizzes over.

Cee J’s reward for improving? A bookshelf in her bedroom and books to put on the shelf.

“It’s really important to read,” Cee J said, “because when you grow up, you have to pay bills and stuff, and you have to know what it says that you have to pay.”

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

With 2 mouse clicks and a login, telepractice brings speech therapy to Gardiner student’s rural home

By ROGER MOONEY

Beth Flowers logs onto the computer set up in the dining area of the family’s home, and within seconds, Allison Geller, the speech language pathologist who will spend the next hour working with Beth’s daughter, appears on the screen.

Welcome to the world of telepractice.

The Flowers live in Perry, Florida, a rural community in the state’s Big Bend where, Beth said, the nearest speech pathologist is 50 miles away in Tallahassee.

Beth could make the 100-mile round trip three times a week with Bralyn, 12, who is on the autism spectrum and is developmentally delayed. But that’s an inconvenience she wants to avoid, especially since her son Drayden, 8, would be included.

“That’s a lot, to load two small kids (in the car),” Beth said. “(And) it’s not that easy for a child with the daily struggle Bralyn deals with.”

Instead, Bralyn, with the help of a Gardiner Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students for children with certain special needs, works with a speech language pathologist who could not be any closer to her home even though the practice is located nearly 200 miles south in Tampa.

Geller is just two mouse clicks and a login away.

How simple is that?

“No kidding,” Beth said. “It’s amazing.”

Heaven-Sent

Bralyn was born 16 weeks premature. She weighed 1 pound, 11 ounces. As an infant, she needed physical therapy so she could hold her head up. She then needed more physical therapy to learn to sit and walk.

Bralyn shows off some of the medals she earned during a Special Olympics competition.

Bralyn lacked hand-eye coordination and muscle tone, but that didn’t stop her from becoming a Special Olympian, who participates in swimming, gymnastics and soccer skills.

She loves tubbing down the nearby Suwanee River, camping and singing.

Especially singing.

Bralyn can cover any song from classic rock to today’s hits.

“She’s been our radio in the woods,” her mom said. “She’s right on key. There’ll be no other music. It’s straight a cappella, and before you know it, you’re snapping your fingers.”

Beth and her husband Marti decided to home-school Bralyn when she was 8. That left their daughter without access to the speech therapist provided by their district school. Bralyn’s parents could help her with physical and occupational therapy, but for speech therapy, Bralyn needed a professional, and those are hard to find if you live in Perry. Because of that, Bralyn went two years without speech therapy.

Beth was almost resigned to load her children in the car and make the long commute to Tallahassee when she had an idea.

One night in the summer of 2018, she Googled, “online speech therapy.”

Up popped Connected Speech Pathology, Geller’s practice.

“I was at my wits’ end. I had no idea it even existed,” Beth said. “I was taking a shot in the dark. It was heaven-sent.”

The daily routine

Geller has been a speech language therapist for 18 years. She began her telepractice in the spring of 2018 to reach clients who have transportation issues or cannot leave the house.

Allison Geller has been a speech language pathologist for 18 years.

Telepractice is convenient for stroke victims or Parkinson Disease patients or someone with a weakened immune system and must be in a controlled environment, though those disabilities are not covered with the Gardiner Scholarship.

Melissa Jakubowitz, the coordinator for the telepractice special interest group for the American Speech Language and Hearing Association, said telepractice began in the late 1990s and really took off this decade.

“All the research that is available to date shows that it is as effective (as in-person visits with a speech pathologist),” she said. “There is some newer research with kids on the spectrum showing that it might be more effective for kids on the spectrum than in-person therapy, which is really fascinating to me.

“I am eagerly awaiting for more research to come out in that area because I think it might make a big difference for kids on the spectrum down the road and it may be a more preferred way to treat them if the research holds up.”

Geller, who is licensed to practice in Florida, New York and Kansas, uses Zoom, a video conferencing program that allows Bralyn to access the screen and, with the use of her mouse, click on images and boxes and write answers.

“It’s interactive, so it keeps them engaged,” Geller said. “And kids love the remote control.”

They work together for an hour each week, and Geller leaves Beth with instructions and activities for Bralyn to work on before the next session.

Geller’s work with Bralyn is more than just improving her speech. They work on communication and cognitive skills.

Bralyn is learning the different denominations of money and how to use them, how to interpret traffic and safety signs, recognize the changes in the weather and how to dress accordingly, how to prepare herself to go out in public, how to communicate with an adult as opposed to someone her own age, how to write and mail a letter.

One of the first things Geller did with Bralyn was compose a song about her daily routine so she can perform simple tasks many take for granted without being prompted by her mother. Knowing Bralyn’s love of singing, Geller put the song to the tune of “Happy,” by Pharrell Williams.

“Wake up in the morning it’s a great day …”

That’s followed by wash your face, eat breakfast, make your bed, get dressed and so on.

“Bralyn learned that song in two days,” Beth said. “My child can now sing her daily routine and remember.”

‘Sunshine in my life’

Beth is pleased with the strides her daughter has made in the year she has worked with Geller. Her vocabulary has not only improved, but so has her ability to use words correctly.

The Flowers family.

“Bralyn sometimes says things way out of context, but I can tell when certain subjects have clicked because of how she said it,” Beth said. “If you’re talking about money, she might have said, ‘I have monies to buy things.’ Instead she will say, ‘I have money. I can buy things’ or ‘to buy things with.’”

Geller, who has not met Bralyn or Beth in person (but hopes to the next time the Special Olympics is held in Central Florida), has noticed improvements in Bralyn’s communication skills from watching the videos Beth sends from the Special Olympic competitions.

Geller sees a 12-year-old girl laughing and dancing with the other competitors.

“Her face is lit up. She’s so happy and engaged with her friends,” Geller said. “I think she uses a lot of these social skills and communication skills when she’s out there in the real world communicating with other people.”

Beth said her daughter believes in the Little Mermaid, believes in Prince Charming and cannot wait to become a teenager.

“She wants whatever’s good in the world,” Beth said.

Beth calls Bralyn, “the sunshine in my life. It’s impossible to have a bad day with that much happiness.”

But Beth knows Bralyn will never be able to live unsupervised. Still, she wants her daughter to have as much independence as possible. Improving her communications skills is a huge step in that direction. “I want Bralyn to blossom to her fullest potential and do for herself as much as she can,” Beth said. “Obviously, and she wants that for herself, as well. Without (Geller’s) services, that will hinder her even more.”

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

Want to be a Step Up SuperFan? It’s easy and no capes required

By JUDITH THOMAS

Want to be a Step Up For Students hero, but can’t find your cape?

Here’s the next best thing and it’s at your fingertips: Become a Step Up SuperFan.

No capes required.

How? It’s easy: by staying connected with Step Up and becoming a social ambassador. You’re invited to join the Step Up For Students SuperFans program.

We will begin sending you our most exciting news through email to share with your friends and followers. You choose where you share our content and any commentary you wish to make. You can share it through email, on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or all of the above. Sharing our posts helps spread the word about our programs to those who need it most so they can get the educational help they need.

Helping us spread the word so it gets to those who might not know about our five scholarship programs makes you not just a superfan, but a hero in our eyes. And it’s just plain fun.

The best part? The more you share and participate, the more points you’ll earn towards a monthly giveaway. This month we’re giving away a $20 Amazon gift card and one of Step Up’s new promotional items of your choosing (from a selection).

To join now, click on the link below, connect with one of your social networks and start earning points to win. We are extremely grateful to those who help us get the message out.

JOIN STEP UP FOR STUDENTS SUPERFANS

Step Up offering leadership course for private school leaders and aspiring leaders

By ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students Office of Student Learning is offering the Choice Leader of Excellence Certification program to partner private school leaders and aspiring leaders across Florida.

The online course is run in partnership with BloomBoard, the leading platform for enabling education advancement using micro-credentials.

The program begins Sept. 16 and runs until March 1, 2021.

Each micro-credential, according to BloomBoard, defines a specific goal or purpose; proven growth in practice and competence in each skill, and recognition for that growth through a digital certification for the skill.

“Despite most school leaders’ desire for opportunities to hone their craft and improve key practices for teaching and learning, they simply do not have the time to research and create their own professional growth experiences,” said Carol Macedonia, vice president of the Office of Student Learning at Step Up for Students. “Through this new certification program, Step Up For Students is committed to providing school leaders with personalized, job-embedded professional learning that is tailored to the culture of private education settings and results in a change of practice, not just learning.”

Participants have 18 months to earn eight micro-credentials – six required and two electives – that are designed to foster professional growth and forward thinking for school leaders. To earn a micro-credential, participants must demonstrate competency in specific areas. A certificate is awarded upon earning the eight micro-credentials.

“Step Up for Students believes that the Choice Leader of Excellence Certification Program is an important vehicle by which we can help administrators improve and refine their practice and elevate the impact their school has on the lives of their students,” said Jamie Onorato, Step Up For Students’ Office of Student Learning coordinator.

The required micro-credentials are:

  • Guiding schoolwide positive student conduct.
  • Engaging families in support of student learning.
  • Selecting and facilitating use of common instructional strategies.
  • Adopting a systems approach to school improvement.
  • Developing distributive leadership teams in support of academic success.
  • Your choice: Mission, vision, values.

Participants choose two of the following electives:

  • Equity and cultural responsiveness.
  • Promoting professional learning for continuous improvement.
  • Operations and management.

The benefits of completing this program are school distinction (a searchable filter on Step Up For Students’ ‘Find a School’ tool), board leverage (ability to demonstrate competency as a school leader) and leadership building.

“School leaders have a significant influence on student learning and it’s imperative that we provide them with professional learning opportunities that are personalized to their individual needs,” BloomBoard CEO Sanford Kenyon said. “We’re excited to partner with Step Up for Students to offer private school leaders around the state an opportunity to build capacity while gaining opportunities for incentives and advancement.”

Registration, which closes Aug. 26, is $695. There is a $100 reimbursement upon completion. Payment plans are available.

For more information, contact Onorato at jonorato@sufs.org or 904-616-7765.

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

Lofty grades, lofty goals lead to QuestBridge Scholarships for Jesuit High graduates

By ROGER MOONEY

TAMPA – Trace Nuss was in the library at Jesuit High School a few weeks before Christmas when he received the email that he called, “absolutely life-changing.” He had been accepted to Princeton University on a QuestBridge Scholarship.

“To know that I will be able to go to one of the top universities, not only in the nation but in the entire world and be supported all the way through financially, means the world to me,” Trace, 18, said. “It’s amazing.”

That same day, fellow senior Miguel Coste Jr., received a similar email from QuestBridge. He had been accepted to the University of Notre Dame.

“I’m grateful,” Miguel, 18, said, “Eternally grateful.”

Both young men attended Jesuit, a catholic high school in Tampa, using Florida Tax Credit Scholarships run by Step Up For Students.

Miguel Coste Jr. (left) and Trace Nuss

Miguel and Trace each scored high enough as eighth graders on Jesuit’s entrance exam to qualify for the school’s financial assistance package, which covered roughly half of the tuition. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarships covered the rest.

“We’re so thankful for Step Up and the opportunity they gave him,” said Lisa Nuss, Trace’s mother. “We wanted him to have every opportunity available to him, and we didn’t want any of our circumstances to get in his way.”

Lofty goals

Based in California, QuestBridge is a nonprofit organization that runs the QuestBridge Scholarship. It was designed to help head-of-the-class students from low-income backgrounds attend some of the country’s best colleges and universities.

For Trace, the scholarship means he can major in history and political science at an Ivy League school while setting the foundation for a career as a civil rights attorney. His goal is to protect the rights of those with mental and physical disabilities to ensure they are not abused, a pursuit forged during his years of working with Special Olympic athletes.

For Miguel, it means he will be first in his family to attend college as he begins his journey toward a career as a doctor who brings quality healthcare to lower-income families and neighborhoods. That quest stems from his economic background and the fact both of his parents suffer from debilitating health issues.

“This,” said Miguel’s mom, Nordis Del Toro, “is absolutely fabulous.”

More than 16,000 high school seniors nationwide applied in 2018 for a QuestBridge Scholarship. Only 1,044 were awarded.

Trace and Miguel join Tommy Pham, also a former Step Up recipient and 2018 graduate, as Jesuit’s only QuestBridge scholars since the program began in 2004. Pham recently completed his freshman year at Notre Dame.

The path to Princeton

Trace is the only child of Lisa and Richard Nuss Jr. Richard suffers from Brown-Séquard syndrome, a neurological condition caused by a lesion in the spinal cord, and is unable to work. Whatever financial hardship that presented certainly didn’t hold Trace back inside or outside the classroom.

He is one of 161 high school seniors nationwide to be named a Presidential Scholar, an honor that came with a trip in June to Washington D.C. and a meet-and-greet with President Donald Trump.

“It’s just amazing to be recognized for all the hard work and dedication I’ve put into my studies,” he said.

Trace scored a 1550 on his SAT, graduated high school with an unweighted 4.0 GPA and was a National Merit semifinalist. He was a member of Jesuit’s Key Club, the Tampa Mayor’s Youth Corps and received the H. Norman Schwarzkopf Leadership Award from the West Point Society.

Trace was honored in March by the Tampa Bay Lightning as a Community Hero of Tomorrow. (Photo provided by the Tampa Bay Lightning)

Trace was honored in March as a Community Hero of Tomorrow by the Tampa Bay Lightning for his work with Special Olympics, something he began doing during his freshman year at Jesuit.

“Once I was there, some of the athletes were like, ‘Oh Trace, can you come to our football practice? Can you come to our volleyball practice? And I slowly and slowly got more involved with all the different sports that Special Olympics offers and got to see how life-changing these activities are for people,” he said.

The Lightning awards $50,000 to a community hero every home game. Half goes to the student’s education; the other half goes to a charity of his choice. Trace chose the Special Olympics of Florida and Superstars of Hillsborough.

The Lightning provide a suite for the Community Hero honoree. Trace filled it with Special Olympic athletes.

A captain of Jesuit’s bowling team as a senior, Trace received a scholarship from the U.S. Bowling Congress, was named to the Dexter High School All-American Bowling Team and received the 2019 Chuck Hall Stars of Tomorrow Award by the International Bowling Campus Youth Committee.

He recently competed in his second Teen Masters, the top tournament for teenage bowlers.

Trace, who carries a 209 average and once bowled a 300 game as a freshman, coaches and supervises the Superstars Bowling League in Tampa for bowlers with physical and cognitive disabilities.

“He’s an inherently good person who’s kind and compassionate,” Lisa Nuss said. “He’s wanted to change the world for as long as I can remember.”

One of the more impactful moments of his high school career came last summer during a Jesuit-sponsored mission trip to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. There, Trace and several of his classmates encountered children living in extreme poverty.

“Their life was such hardship and difficulty that it’s something that I’ll never experience,” Trace said. “It was kind of a life-changing moment to see how the poverty in some places in the country and how much it needs to be changed and aided.”

When he returned home, Trace wrote a note to his mom, thanking her for letting him attend the mission. Then he filled a few boxes with toys and supplies and mailed them to the reservation.

“I’m truly thankful for the Step Up scholarship,” Trace said. “I feel that’s what drives me to service, because someone is doing the service for me, so I want to give back to the community, give back to other people. I want to pay it forward.”

The path to Notre Dame

Miguel will major in premed and minor in poverty studies.

Why poverty studies?

“I enjoy helping people in that state of living,” he said.

Since his freshman year, Miguel has volunteered at Tampa Bay Harvest, an organization that collects and distributes food to the hungry and homeless in the bay area.

“I think that helped him set his goal when he realized how many people in this world are needy,” Nordis said.

Miguel (top) captured a district wrestling title during his senior year.

Like Trace, Miguel has an unweighted 4.0 GPA and was a member of Jesuit’s Key Club. He scored a 1510 on the SAT, is an AP Scholar with Distinction and was a tri-valedictorian of his graduation class.

He also served as a peer minister and an alter server during his four years in high school.

Last winter, Miguel won a district championship as a member of Jesuit’s wrestling team.

His parents, Miguel Coste Sr., and Nordis, endured their own hardship when they emigrated from their native countries – Miguel Sr. from the Dominican Republic when he was 30; Nordis from Cuba when she was 8.

Miguel Sr. was born without the use of his left arm. He managed to find work as a truck driver until he was injured 10 years ago and forced to retire. He does not speak English well, but managed to volunteer his time at Jesuit as often as possible during the last four years.

Nordis worked at a printing company before having to quit because of diabetes and arthritis.

The couple is also raising two granddaughters because their mother is in prison.

Miguel works at a restaurant to help his parents pay some bills. He also volunteers this summer in the interventional radiology department at St. Joe’s Hospital in Tampa.

Those who apply for a QuestBridge Scholarship are required to write a series of essays – some general, others aimed at a specific school.

One essay asked applicants to write about themselves.

“I wrote about what drives me, my parents and the sacrifices they made, and my siblings, they didn’t meet their potential and how that motivated me,” Miguel said. “I see everything kind of as a competition, because that’s what it is. You’re competing when you go to school. You’re competing to get a better education to be more successful. I used my socioeconomic status and everyone around me as a competition. I didn’t deliberately think about it. It was a subconscious one.”

Nordis first heard her son talk of being a doctor when he was a sophomore.

“Junior year, he was insisting he was going to be a doctor,” he said. “I was so proud of him. Not many kids his age have their goals set up on being a doctor.”

The right situation

Miguel and Trace set themselves up for college during their time at Jesuit. Trace figured he was heading to the University of Florida.

“I had always been a Gator fan,” Trace said. “I always loved the University of Florida. I never thought these schools outside of Florida were a possibility.”

Miguel was interested in Florida, Florida State and Boston College.

Then, during their junior year, Fernando Rodriguez, Jesuit’s director of college counseling, told them both about QuestBridge.

As they moved through the application process, they were matched with some of the top colleges in the country. So, Miguel added Vanderbilt and Notre Dame to his list of colleges. Trace added Notre Dame and Princeton.

Now, Miguel is headed Notre Dame.

“I was fortunate enough to be placed in the right situation to succeed,” Miguel said, “and (QuestBridge) recognize that.”

And Trace is headed to Princeton.

“The Ivy League wasn’t even … that’s like a dream,” Trace said. “I didn’t think that was even possible. It’s been some road.”

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

About Jesuit High School

Established in 1899, Jesuit High has 800 students enrolled in grades 9 through 12. Jesuit provides a college prep curriculum to prepare students for higher education. Tuition is $16,765 plus fees. Need-based financial aid and merit scholarships are available to those who qualify.

Florida Parent Network becomes Florida Voices For Choices

By LISA A. DAVIS

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The Florida Parent Network is now Florida Voices For Choices, a change that reflects the many supporters — beyond parents
— for the education choice movement.

Catherine Durkin Robinson

“While parents and their children are at the core of what we do, our advocates include grandparents, foster parents, educators, alumni, faith leaders and more,” said Catherine Durkin Robinson, executive director of Florida Voices For Choices. “It was time we make our name more encompassing of all of our supporters.”

But the name is all that’s changed.

“New name. Same mission,” Robinson said.

Florida Voices For Choices, the advocacy arm of Step Up For Students, organizes and mobilizes its members. Step Up For Students, a Florida-based nonprofit scholarship funding organization and the largest of its kind in the nation, served more than 110,000 children in Florida for the 2018-19 school year through four scholarship programs.

With Robinson and her team at the helm in Florida, they are among the hundreds of thousands of advocates fighting for children to be educated based on how they learn, rather than where they live.

“Instead of forming different networks, we’re more powerful together. We’re proud of this name change to Florida Voices For Choices,” Robinson said. “We still organize advocates for scholarship programs, charter schools, magnets, virtual schools, homeschools and vouchers. “

The group, which also partners with the Florida Charter School Alliance, works with supporters year-round to mobilize advocates in support of legislation that will get more children off waiting lists and into great schools. They also register voters and keep advocates aware of lawmakers who support, and oppose, their rights to choose the best school or learning environment for their kids. One of its most successful events was back in January 2016, when it organized more than 10,000 Florida Tax Credit Scholarship supporters from throughout Florida to march in Tallahassee when a lawsuit threatened to close down the program.

“That was an amazing day,” Robinson recalled. “But every day brings a new challenge and we need these programs for schoolchildren to continue to gain strength. We still fight for educational equity for all.”

Follow Florida Voices For Choices on social media and text FVFC to 52886 for timely updates.

Young readers learn value of collaboration as friends help a skunk find his stink

By ROGER MOONEY

It’s a sad day for a skunk who loses his stink, especially when the skunk is the sheriff, and his stink is his way of keeping the locals in line.

Ah, but that is the plight of Señor Olor.

The coauthors hope this is the first in a series of books that teach social emotional learning lessons to children pre-K to second grade.

When Bandido the raccoon is seen robbing the grocery store, the sheriff arrives to save the day.

“Put your paws up, or I’ll spray,” shouts the sheriff.

Bring it on, says Bandido.

The sheriff spins, raises his tail and …

¡Nada!

“What’s wrong, Señor? Cat got your stink?” shouts Bandido, as he makes off with his ill-gotten booty.

So begins the tale of Señor Olor, the hero of “The Skunk Who Lost His Stink.”

Published in late-December of 2018, the children’s book aimed at readers pre-K-to-second grade, was coauthored by Jessica Sergiacomi and Jacquelyn Covert, both 32.

Sergiacomi taught first grade at Miami Shores Presbyterian Church School, a K-5 school that accepts Step Up For Students scholarships. (Beginning in August, Sergiacomi will teach third grade at Miami Country Day School in Miami Shores.) She received the Exceptional Teacher Award in February at the Rising Stars Event, hosted by Step Up.

“She’s so creative,” said Emily Ashworth, whose son Wesley is on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum and attends Miami Shores Presbyterian on a Gardiner Scholarship, administered by Step Up.

So is Covert, who attended The Benjamin School in Palm Beach and is now a Realtor living with her family in Charleston, S.C.

The two became friends in 2005 during move-in day of their freshman year at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.

They began writing books together during their junior year and have written close to 15. All are children’s books with a strong message.

“The Skunk Who Lost His Stink” is the first to be self-published.

The idea, Sergiacomi said, came from her dad.

“It was a few years ago, and my dad said, ‘Baby skunks don’t spray.’ I thought, ‘Oh, that would be a cool title, ‘The Skunk Who Lost His Stink,’ and it went from there,” Sergiacomi said.

It took them an hour to write the first draft.

“We cracked up the whole time,” Covert said.

That’s because they mix humor with a storyline of collaboration.

“Having friends who help. Having friends by your side,” Sergiacomi said.

Ivanna the Iguana, Aramis Dillo the armadillo, and Quill the porcupine join Señor Olor as he journeys to meet the wise grey wolf.

They believe wise grey wolf will help the sheriff find his stink.

Spoiler alert: She does.

She suddenly howls and scares the, um, stink out of the sheriff.

The coauthors: Jackie Covert and Jessica Sergiacomi

That part causes quite the stir when Sergiacomi and Covert read their book to children at schools and libraries.

“We do get a lot of giggles,” Covert said.

The children howl along with the wise grey wolf, and Sergiacomi, dressed in a skunk costume she bought on Amazon, pretends to find her stink.

“This is why (Sergiacomi is) so great,” Ashworth said. “She really gets into the minds of these kids and figures them out. It’s the perfect lower-elementary school level humor, and they think it’s hilarious.”

But there is more to “The Skunk Who Lost His Stink” than some potty humor.

Sergiacomi wants to learn Spanish, so she and Covert sprinkled Spanish words throughout the book.

Señor Olor translates to Mr. Stink.

The Bandido (bandit) robs La Basura (the trash), which is the local grocery store. The characters live in El Pueblo de Animales (The Village of the Animals).

To give their young female readers a strong female character, the coauthors made the wise grey wolf a female.

There is also a social emotional learning (SEL) theme to the book. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning defines social emotional learning as the process where students learn how to manage and understand emotions, act responsibly, maintain positive relationships, achieve goals and display empathy.

Patricia Handly, the former curriculum director at Miami Shores Presbyterian, taught Sergiacomi how to teach social emotional learning.

“It’s really the key,” Sergiacomi said. “It’s a big part of my motivation for teaching. I feel very passionate about SEL, and I incorporate it in my daily lessons. I am the teacher I am today because of (Handly).”

Sergiacomi dresses like the hero of her book when visiting schools and libraries for readings.

While it took Sergiacomi and Covert an hour to write the story, it took them nearly four years to get it published. The biggest piece was finding an illustrator. They used Richard Kenyon, Sergiacomi’s friend from elementary school.

The two authors are already working on a sequel with an anti-violence theme.

“We’ll find out the raccoon is not so bad at all,” Sergiacomi said. “He’s stealing food to feed his cousins. Everyone has a little good in them. He’s trying to help his friends.”

There is talk of a prequel, a story of how Señor Olor became sheriff. If you pay close attention to the illustrations on the first page of the text, you’ll notice photos hanging on the wall of Señor Olor’s home of the sheriffs in his family. One is a female.

Señora Olor?

“These are just ideas floating around,” Sergiacomi said.

The coauthors want to continue this series before moving on to some of their other unpublished works.

“It’s a start,” Sergiacomi said. “The goal is to have a whole bunch of these books with social emotional learning themes.”

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

Step Up’s Jacksonville office ranked among best places to work in that city

BY ROGER MOONEY

The honors continue to roll in for Step Up For Students.

The nonprofit’s Jacksonville office was ranked among the top places to work in that city by the Jacksonville Business Journal, placing third in the category for Large Companies (100-249 employees).

“It is such an honor that our employees are being recognized for the work they do each day to create an organizational culture that enables us to fulfill our mission to the best of our abilities,” said Anne White, Step Up’s chief administrative officer.

Representing Step Up’s Jacksonville office at the event were
(top row from left) Jessica Detmer, Diana Beane, Anne White, Renae Sweeney, Kym Beelman (bottom row from left) Judith Thomas, Andrea Thoermer and Kaitlyn Laudenslager

The Jacksonville Business Journal partnered with Quantum Workplace, an employee engagement research firm, to compile the rankings. Quantum Research surveys employees and analyzes the results to determine employee satisfaction.

Employees are evaluated 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.

The results were announced May 23 at an event held at the Baseball Grounds at Jacksonville.

Step Up’s Clearwater office was recently ranked eighth among large companies in the Tampa Bay area by the Tampa Bay Business Journal.

Nationally, Step Up was ranked 19th on Forbes’ list of America’s Top Charities 2018. It was also recognized 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.

Step Up helps more than 115,000 pre-K-12 children annually in Florida gain access to education options by helping manage five scholarship programs: The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and recently created Family Empowerment 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.

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

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