Tag Archives forStep Up For Students

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.

 

Meet Judith Thomas, Step Up’s new social media manager

Judith Thomas, Step Up's new social media manager, enjoys traveling and here is pictured in Scotland in 2015.

Judith Thomas, Step Up’s new social media manager, enjoys traveling and here is pictured in Scotland in 2015.

CaptureBehindthescenesJudith grew up in Germany and first came to live in the U.S. in January 2004 as an au pair – a nanny – for a family in New Jersey. Shortly after, she moved to Jacksonville, Florida, with her au pair family. She fell in love with Florida and her future husband, Josh. After her au pair year, she went back home to Germany for college. She majored in American Studies and Rhetoric at the Eberhard Karls University, one of the oldest universities in Europe located in the picturesque town of Tuebingen.

During her time in Tuebingen, she worked as an education advisor and public relations assistant for the German-American Institute starting her career in social media and marketing.

After graduating, Judith moved to the U.S. in May 2012, and first worked for a local gym in Jacksonville to develop and grow their social media presence. The last four years she has worked in the communications department of an association management company in Jacksonville where she developed strategies for social media, communications and marketing for multiple nonprofit healthcare associations.

In her free time, Judith loves to travel – no matter if that means exploring local destinations or other cities, states or countries. When she is traveling, her husband and her Nikon D3200 camera are her steady companions. She inherited her passion for photography from her dad, who probably has about a million pictures of her and her two sisters growing up for which Judith is very grateful.

She also loves reading, yoga, the beach, camping, baking (German goodies), good food, and spending time with her family and friends.

Judith joined Step Up For Students in April 2017 as the first full-time social media manager. She is excited about the opportunity to develop strategies for social media and increase awareness of Step Up For Students through social media.

Reach her at jthomas@sufs.org.  

 

Meet Ben Zanca, Gardiner scholar

By GEOFF FOX

Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedDoctors didn’t expect Ben Zanca to live very long. Even before his birth, fluid was drained from his lungs every week for eight weeks until he was delivered.

Ben’s parents, Ann and Tony Zanca, were told Ben may need a chest tube after his birth and possibly surgery.

“But, when they put the (chest) tube in all the blood vessels shut down,” Ann Zanca said. “It’s called persistent pulmonary hypertension, which not many people survive at that age. He was transferred to Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children (in Orlando) where there is a heart-lung bypass machine.” Ben Z

Things looked bleak.

“They told us he was going to die,” Tony Zanca said. “They called in a priest and everything.”

Fortunately, a nitric oxide treatment worked and Ben did not have to go on the lung-heart bypass machine.

“They said they’d never seen a baby as sick as Ben pull through,” Ann Zanca said.

Unfortunately, Ben’s medical struggles and the family’s worries were only beginning. Problems with his blood vessels went misdiagnosed for more than 12 years.

About 18 months ago, Ben, now an outgoing 14-year-old who loves camping, was finally diagnosed with CLOVES syndrome, an extremely rare disorder characterized by tissue overgrowth and complex vascular malformations. Worldwide, less than 200 cases of CLOVES syndrome have ever been identified, according to information from Boston Children’s Hospital.

Because of CLOVES, Ben is at risk for developing blood clots and has regular doctor visits to monitor his vascular health.

That’s not his only issue. Shortly after he was born, Ben was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He also has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum and deals with epilepsy and asthma.

Until the current school year, he attended public school in Altamonte Springs, Florida, where he lives with his family, including 9-year-old sister Megan. Tony Zanca works in the parts department of a local auto dealer and Ann works part-time jobs as a computer programmer analyst and as an advocate for parents with children who have an Individualized Educational Plan.

Ben was not thriving at the public school.

“It’s not that they didn’t care, but he wasn’t going anywhere; he was going backward,” Tony Zanca said. “Teachers have their hands tied with all the new testing and all they did was quizzing for the test. There was no hands-on learning, which is what Ben thrives on.”

For years, Ann Zanca wanted to enroll Ben in the nearby Pace Brantley School in Longwood, but the family couldn’t afford it. Established in 1971, the school has always been geared toward students with learning issues. It is situated on nine wooded acres that offer a serene setting.

Eventually, a friend told Ann Zanca about the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs; the scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students. In 2016, the Zancas applied for the scholarship – which can help families pay for tuition at partner schools,  approved therapists, specialists, curriculum, technology or even a college savings account – and Ben was accepted.

“Ben is very social and I don’t want him to miss out on the experience of school,” Ann Zanca said. “They have a well-rounded curriculum and lots of extra-curricular activities. They even have a prom. I was also concerned if it would be academic enough. Of all the places I knew of or visited, it seemed to be up to standards.

“It seems to challenge him but he doesn’t seem overwhelmed. There are people there to help him. We do have a private tutor for math. His teacher tells me he’s definitely challenged in pre-algebra, but he’s doing well. That makes me happy. The goal is that he’ll be able to get a regular diploma and either go to vocational school or college afterward.”

Now in eighth grade, Ben enjoys going to school. Due to his medical issues, he often has doctor’s appointments during the school day. Before, his mother said, he would sometimes call from school to see if she could pick him up early. Now, he doesn’t want to leave Pace Brantley’s campus.

While he has historically struggled with reading, English is now one of his favorite subjects, along with math.

“We were learning substitution, the three ways of substitution in math,” Ben said after a recent day at school. “That’s in algebra; it’s coming along.”

Of his favorite times of day is FLEX (Focused Learning Experience) Time, when students can choose a subject of their own to explore after lunch. Activities can include arts and crafts, learning a foreign language, tennis, yoga, tai chi or taking virtual field trips on a Smartphone.

On this particular day, Ben chose art.

“We were drawing different types of flags and what they look like,” he said. “I drew the Florida flag.”

Jennifer Portilla, Ben’s reading and language arts teacher, said she has seen him flourish since the school year began.

“He seems really comfortable and he’s willing to take risks. He’s not afraid to not be successful” in class, she said. “Academically, he’s making strides. He’s a pretty good writer for his age. He is able to write an essay and he doesn’t seem to struggle as much as at the beginning of the year.”

One of Ben’s other interests is the Boy Scouts. Despite his son’s many medical obstacles, Tony Zanca said he tries to treat him “like any other boy would be treated.” On a recent Boy Scout camping trip, he allowed Ben to paddle on a canoe with another scout.

“Years ago, I would never let him out in canoes down the river without me,” Tony Zanca said. “But it’s like I told him, ‘I’m going to have to start letting you do things by yourself, make your decisions and not do things wrong’. Someday soon, I’ll let him go on a (Boy Scout) camping trip by himself.”

The Zancas say that while Ben is obviously aware that he has medical issues, he doesn’t dwell on them. Because CLOVES can cause blood clots (Ben has had a few), they constantly monitor how he’s feeling. Now that he’s at Pace Brantley, which has a nurse on campus, his parents are more at ease.

“The scholarship was huge, like the answer to our prayers,” Ann Zanca said. “His self-confidence has increased tremendously. 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 self-confidence has increased tremendously.”

Reach Geoff Fox at Gfox@sufs.org

Students, parents and educators recognized during Step Up’s Rising Stars Awards

By LISA A. DAVIS

Isis Severe, 8, a third grader from Masters Preparatory School, is presented with a scholarship during Step Up For Students' Rising Star Awards at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, Florida on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017.

Isis Severe, 8, a third grader from Masters Preparatory School, is presented with a medal during Step Up For Students’ Rising Star Awards at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, Florida on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017.

For two weeks in February Step Up For Students shined the spotlight on scholars, parents and educators who this school year have gone above and beyond while participating in at least one of two scholarship programs for schoolchildren in Florida.

The Rising Stars Awards ceremony was held at nine different locations across the state, recognizing those outstanding individuals involved with either Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income students, or the state-funded Gardiner Program for children with certain special needs. This year, Step Up received more than 650 nominations for the Rising Stars Awards.

Teachers, students, and scholars’ family members were nominated by teachers and school administrators for exceptional work throughout the school year at their respective Step Up partner schools.

Step Up For Students present students with scholarships during their Rising Star Awards at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, Florida on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017.

Step Up For Students present students with medals during their Rising Star Awards at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, Florida on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017.

This year, nearly 98,000 K-12 students are using the tax-credit scholarship statewide for tuition assistance at the private school of their choice, or on a transportation scholarship to offset the cost to an out-of-district public school. Another nearly 8,000 more scholars, ages 3 to 22, use the Gardiner Scholarship to customize their education by attending participating schools or by using approved, therapists, specialists, curriculum, technology – even a college savings account.

Ken Jerry Synvrit, from Schoolhouse Preparatory, is presented with a scholarship during Step Up For Students' Rising Star Awards at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, Florida on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017.

Ken Jerry Synvrit, from Schoolhouse Preparatory, is presented with a medal during Step Up For Students’ Rising Star Awards at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, Florida on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017.

“We are so proud of our scholars and those who help them realize their dreams and academic success,” Step Up President Doug Tuthill said before the event.  “It’s important to recognize all of those who make this program a success, and that includes the teachers who educate these kids, the parents who wanted more for their children, the kids who work hard toward their futures, and of course, our generous donors, which without them we would not exist.”

Corporate donors who help fund the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program attended each of the Rising Star Awards events and were also recognized for their support, and had a chance to meet the families they help through their donations. In 2016, the corporate community contributed a total $552 million to Step Up for these scholarships.

 

 

Step Up expands Teaching and Learning Exchange tool for teachers, parents and students

By LISA A. DAVIS

There’s something amazing going on in Step Up For Students partner schools and hundreds of teachers, their students and their students’ parents and guardians are benefiting from it: The Teaching and Learning Exchange.

The Teaching and Learning Exchange (TLE) is a free web-based application designed to support teaching, learning, communication and accountability for administrators, teachers, parents and guardians and students. It was created by Step Up For Students Office of Student Learning and IT team members.TLEcapture

“This tool is opening the lines of communications between all key factors in a child’s education: students, teachers and parents,” said Carol Thomas, vice president of Office of Student Learning. “And our latest update of the applications has really made some tremendous improvements, particularly on the parents’ side.”

The most recent rollout of the TLE features an easy-to-use parent portal, which enhances communication and collaboration between school staff and families.

“It allows families to stay engage in their child’s academic and social progress, all from the click of their home computer,” said Thomas. “It’s not supposed to replace in-person parent involvement, it’s supposed to enhance it.”

The TLE allows teachers to create Personal Learning Plans (PLP) for their students, customizing what they need to work on at their pace. It helps has a collaborative parent conferencing tool, assists in identify student strengths and concern, document academic, social, emotional and note behavior goals and provides parents with a live view of their children’s grades. The TLE also has a comprehensive grade book, allowing teachers to record conduct grades and create progress reports, report cards and transcripts. It even has an attendance tracker and lunch count feature. Other features include easy access to explore Florida State Standards, unit and lesson planning, and standards mapping.

Currently, the TLE has more than 800 administrators, teacher and guardian active users. Educators, especially, are finding it a valuable tool.

Said Lilah Mills, principal at Masters Preparatory School in Hialeah:

“I really like the Personal Learning Plan, especially the conference feature. I think the format of the PLP [the elements of what the teacher is doing, what the student needs to do, and what the parent can do] really triangulates the responsibility between all three groups and provides accountability for the parents and teachers.My teachers think it is so user friendly: all the standards are pre-loaded and all of the resources are easy to access.”

Susan Gettys , lead educator at Broach School Tampa is also impressed with the TLE, especially the Personal Learning Plan.

“I love that the Personal Learning Plan tells us automatically if a student has mastered or passed or failed a specific standard based on their grades, since we can tie assignments to standards,” she said. “The customer service aspect has been amazing. Usually with a software program, you install it and never can reach anyone again. But with Step Up, I can always get help, and I love that you tweaked it based on our suggestions and needs.

“We teach multiple grade levels in a classroom, and students with multiple special needs, so the flexibility of this program makes it really viable for us as a special needs school.”

Thomas said she encourages scholarship parents to ask their teachers to use Step Up’s TLE.

“It really enhances and aids the learning experience for all parties involved,” she said. “It makes it easier for parents and guardians to communicate with their children’s teachers, received class announcements and really be in tune with what standards your child should be mastering and how they’re doing in school on a regular basis.”

Teachers, administrators, and guardians interested in using the TLE or learning about other Office of Student Learning programs, please click here to reach OSL staff.

Reach Lisa Davis at ldavis@sufs.org.

 

Step Up scholarship helps boost Ariely’s grades and confidence

By GEOFF FOX

Student-Spotlight_blog REseizedLinery Burgos’ voice cracked with emotion as she spoke about the academic progress of her oldest daughter, Ariely, a ninth-grader at the recently opened Cristo Rey Tampa High School.

Ariely Burgos, a freshman at Cristo Rey Tampa High School, wants to be an athletic

Ariely Burgos, a freshman at Cristo Rey Tampa High School, wants to be an athletic coach or PE teacher.

For years, Ariely has struggled with dyslexia, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), the last a condition that makes it hard for her to understand vocal tones or distinguish certain sounds.

“Some people think she can’t hear, but she can,” Burgos said of Ariely, who is 15. “Her brain just doesn’t always process what she’s hearing. Some sounds and words sound similar, so she can’t always catch if someone is being sarcastic or joking. It directly influences her reading fluency and that causes issues in school.”

Watching Ariely struggle through their neighborhood school tore at her mother’s heart. Imagine trying to learn how to read when some of the letters don’t look right and the words sound wrong.

“Sometimes, I’ll read words that aren’t even on the page and I’ll mix up sentences or skip sentences,” Ariely said.

Due to her challenges, Ariely often speaks in a soft voice and isn’t one to initiate conversation, but her smile can light up a room.

Burgos wanted to enroll her in a private Catholic school, where she could receive more attention in a Christian setting, but she and husband Jose Burgos couldn’t afford it.

Fortunately, as Ariely was about to enter third grade, her mother learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The family applied and Ariely was accepted. She enrolled at Tampa’s St. Joseph Catholic School for three years before transferring to Morning Star School, a private school that serves students with learning disabilities.

At Morning Star, Burgos said, the teachers worked “miracles” with Ariely.

“Step Up was great because we could get her in a school for learning disabilities,” Burgos said. “When she started sixth grade at Morning Star, she was reading on a third grade level. She is now reading on a high seventh-grade or low eighth-grade level. She still has difficulty, but she’s acquired a lot of different skills.”

Ariely said she enjoyed St. Joseph and Morning Star because of more individualized instruction, especially with reading.

“The teachers were really fun and that makes it easier to learn,” Ariely said. “They bring joy into the classroom. They were always cheerful and always caring.”

Morning Star Principal Eileen Odom said that while Ariely was struggling in a few subjects when she entered the school in sixth grade, she was obviously “very bright and spiritual.” Despite Ariely’s reading struggles, Odom said she excelled at math.

“I think she just needed an environment that was more student-centered,” Odom said. “She’s initially kind of shy and quiet. If I would get her to read something, she would talk in a real quiet voice, but if you provide her with some successful experiences she can rise to the occasion. We helped her realize she had strengths and could succeed. We spent the next three years trying to boost her up and give her confidence.”

It worked.

Ariely was eventually comfortable enough at the school to run for Student Council, star in Christmas plays, assist as an altar server and help with fundraising.

When it was time for Ariely to enter high school, Burgos didn’t hesitate to choose Cristo Rey, which opened in August 2016. She said the school’s Corporate Work Study Program was particularly appealing.

Through that program, Ariely now works at Step Up’s Clearwater office several times a month. In that capacity, she has written a story about herself for Step Up’s blog, helped create a video describing her school’s relationship with Step Up, which will be shown to the nonprofit’s board of directors, as well as paperwork and other duties.

“The opportunity to go into the workforce, and a professional workforce, that’s what sold me,” Burgos said. “These children will have an opportunity that is usually for students who are leaving college. That will pump up their self-esteem and give them networking opportunities they never knew were available. It can help them have a different outlook on life.

“They’re doing it for underprivileged kids because they need it the most. Hopefully, they won’t get stuck in the rut of leaving high school and just getting some job. For a lot of their parents, maybe that’s all they knew. This may help them see that, hey, I can go to college and make something better. That will help my family and anyone who comes behind me. Giving that opportunity to children who wouldn’t otherwise have it is a blessing on its own.”

While Cristo Rey serves only low-income students, it is choosy about who is enrolled. Students must be able to maintain a C grade point average and be able to do college preparatory work.

Cristo Rey is already one of Step Up’s Success Partners, meaning it participates in a two-year comprehensive professional development program that is free to all schools serving Step Up scholars. Success Partners is grounded in current research that directly correlates student success with parent involvement regardless of economic, racial, ethnic or educational backgrounds .At Cristo Rey Principal Jim Madden said Ariely already seems comfortable. She made all A’s and one B in the first semester.

“Ariely is very quiet, but very observant,” Madden said. “She takes in everything around her. She tries hard and has already been having success in the classroom and social environment.”

Burgos said her family is thankful for the scholarship, and not just for Ariely. Her younger daughters, Linery, 13, and Jolie, 6, also have received tax-credit scholarships to attend Villa Madonna Catholic School in Tampa. Linery has been on the scholarship seven years, like Ariely, and Jolie for two.

“We are eternally grateful for these opportunities,” Burgos said. “This was a dream come true. Without Step Up, we couldn’t put our kids in Catholic school and give them the education we think they need. That’s one thing in life people can’t take from you. People can hurt you and break your heart, but no one can take away what you’ve learned.”

Reach Geoff Fox at gfox@sufs.org.

 

 

 

 

 

My Story: Ariely Burgos

By ARIELY BURGOS
My story blog

 

My name is Ariely Burgos and this is my story.

I was born in Belleville, New Jersey and when I was little, I moved to Tampa, Florida. I moved to Florida in between the time I was baptized and when my little sister was born.We are 15  months apart. She’s been by my side all of my life. She is my best friend.

My first school was Sam Rampello Magnet school in downtown Tampa. I started in kindergarten there and my last year there was in second grade. My sister and I both went there, but my sister was in a grade below me. I went to that school for three years. We changed schools because my mom was talking to the priest at my church and he told her about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students. He told her she should apply to see if she would qualify, and she did. We went to St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Tampa where I started  in third grade. I was more nervous than ever.Ariely Burgos

That year, I realized how shy I could be. At school, I did not talk to anyone and when I spoke no one heard me because I was so quiet. No one noticed me. The only person I talked to was my sister at lunch. My sister was – and still is – a confident, social and outgoing person. She is sassy and she is not afraid to speak her mind. My sister and I are complete opposites. She always made friends on the same day. My favorite part of attending the same school as my sister was that she always had my back no matter what. It was a little hard being social, but that was the least of my worries for what was next to come.

When I was in fourth grade, I was really behind with my reading, and I really struggled. I went to therapy. I had a therapist named Ms. Jen, and she was so much fun. She helped me with my homework and other schoolwork. We made real progress and one day she asked me to do this quiz. She said it was to see if I have dyslexia so I said, “OK. Why not?” I took it and the test showed that I have dyslexia. I knew I had memory problems, but this was a completely new level. It explains why it took me three hours to do my homework in fourth grade. It made me feel different, so I had to go in for more testing.

I found out I also have Auditory Processing Disorder and Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD. I tried another year at St. Joseph’s and I was just struggling more. I stayed up really late doing homework; I got stressed out a lot, and I stared to get bad headaches. Nothing was helping me! I really didn’t know want to do. Ms. Jen recommended a new school that would help with everything.  So, I changed schools again. I finished my fifth grade year at St. Joseph’s.

The next year, I went to Morning Star Catholic School in Tampa. Again, I was nervous ever. I went without my sister to this school. I made it through the first couple of hours, then on our break between classes, I could no longer be strong and I cried. I cried because I was in a new school without my sister; I missed being with her and I was going to miss my youngest sister going to preschool. I was scared my sisters would think I was different, and their friends would think I was different because I went to a different school. So, I cried, and then a girl in one of my classes noticed me and I told her why I was crying. She reassured me that I would be OK. I was starting to like this school and it was easy for me to fit in. I made friends and I was more outgoing. I loved how all the teachers cared about me and made learning fun.

My sixth and seventh grades were amazing. My eighth grade year was fun, too, but an event happened that changed the way I looked at life. At the beginning of that year, I looked at life with happiness and joy. I never even saw any darkness; I believed in light. I was so excited when I found out who my homeroom teacher because I had her the last year for religion and she was,  and forever will be, my favorite teacher. In November of that year, as we got ready to leave for our Thanksgiving break, she said would be out for a while because of medical issues, but back before the Christmas play. She said not to worry, so I didn’t. But she didn’t get to come back  at Christmastime.  She was in and out the hospital a lot. She came back to the classroom once or twice.

We didn’t see her for a while and my class was worried. She loved us as if we were her own children. All the teachers told us that she would be OK , but she wasn’t. In April, we got a note that went home saying she had died. I was devastated. She was the only person that I ever knew who passed away. At that moment, my mind was not filled with joy or happiness, but with despair and darkness. At that moment, all of my inner-joy was gone. I was not happy about life; I was not looking forward to anything in the future. I was just hurt. I still went on, though.

I decided to just keep it all inside. That didn’t help at all. I put on a happy face for everyone, but inside I was hurt and didn’t know what to do. After a while, I decided to talk to the guidance counselor. I really just needed to talk and she understood that. I began to feel OK. That lasted until I had to choose high schools. I wanted to choose a high school that was right for me and I could fit into just fine. In the end, my mom decided for me because I couldn’t. She decided on Cristo Rey Tampa High School.

It’s a school that gives you an opportunity. It gives you job experience and it comfortably became my new high school. I just started at the school this fall, but I really like it. I am glad my mom chose it. It is a good school and I really recommend it. As part of the learning,  the school gives you an off-campus job and you work there once a week. I work  Tuesdays at Step Up For Students, where my scholarship comes from, It’s so much fun. Everyone is welcoming and friendly; they all are willing to help you when you need it.  I like working at Step Up and learning more about things that happen in the real world and getting really good experience.

Editor’s note: We like having you at Step Up, too, Ariely. We’re so proud of you and how far you’ve come! We were first introduced to Ariely at Morning Star where we did a photo shoot for our annual report. We learned she wants to become an athletics coach. Here’s her photo in our Step Up For Students 2015-16 annual report with her wonderful smile: coach ariely page

 

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