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Reflections on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship’s 15th birthday

Editor’s note: This is the first post in a series celebrating 15 years of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Join us in the coming months as we take a look back on the program’s beginning and look ahead to serving more students in the future.

By JOHN KIRTLEY

john-kirtleyI’m not a baseball fan, but I love the movie “Bull Durham.” In the film, baseball groupie Susan Sarandon compliments Kevin Costner for approaching the minor league home run record. Costner remarks that it’s a dubious honor – it means he’s spent an awful long time trying to get to the majors. That’s how I feel sometimes when I realize I have been working for the cause of parental choice in education for 20 years. If I were any good at this, shouldn’t the job be done by now?

Nothing like the parental choice movement to make you appreciate incremental progress. But on the 15th anniversary of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC), I look around and see so much to be thankful for. When the Legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush created the FTC in 2001, school choice in Florida was in its infancy. The definition of “public education” was pretty simple: raise taxpayer dollars to educate kids, give all the money to the districts – which run all the schools in a fairly uniform manner – and assign kids by their ZIP codes.

How far we have come since then. Today, more than 30 percent of K-12 children funded by the taxpayers don’t attend their zoned public school. They attend magnets, charters and virtual schools. They take classes under dual enrollment programs at colleges and community colleges. They now even combine providers and delivery methods at the same time. And yes, some children even attend private schools, including faith-based ones.

The FTC is a small but critical part of this new definition of public education. This year the program is serving 92,000 children, who are attending more than 1,600 private schools chosen by their parents. This sounds like a lot—and it’s more than I ever thought we would serve – but it’s still a pretty small number in context. There are 2.8 million students in Florida’s public schools (including magnets and charters). So the FTC still represents only 3 percent of that total. But to each scholarship family, it’s the most important thing in the world. Research shows the FTC kids are the poorest, and poorest performers, in their public schools when they leave. The scholarship empowers poor parents to find an environment that better suits their children’s unique needs.

The FTC – along with the McKay and Gardiner scholarships for special needs children – makes available an option that would otherwise be off the table: private and faith-based schools. My 20-year experience has taught me that these schools must be available to poor and special-needs kids. They aren’t for everyone, certainly – but for some of these kids, they are the only place they will thrive. I can’t tell you how many students over the years have told me, “I was going the wrong direction, but the environment at my school set me straight,” or words to that effect. These schools must be a part of our new definition of public education.

Back to the Bull Durham analogy: I would have thought that by now, after 20 years, everyone would have accepted and embraced the FTC. Especially with more than 30 percent of all publicly funded students choosing! But no. After all this time, and after all its proven success, there is a lawsuit to shut down the program and evict more than 92,000 poor children. Why would opponents to choice focus on the program with only 3 percent of the kids, and the poorest and poorest performers at that? Maybe because it’s the fullest expression of parental empowerment.

The silver lining to this lawsuit is that it has galvanized the scholarship parents and their community leaders to fight to maintain this precious power. More than 10,000 people came to Tallahassee this year the day after the MLK holiday to hear his son, MLK III, denounce the suit. Coalitions of over 200 African-American and Latino ministers around the state have formally demanded the suit be dropped. I am proud to be a foot soldier in this most important battle.

One of the many rewards of being in this movement is fighting with these choice warriors. Parents. Students. Teachers and Principals. Ministers. Names you will never know. Names you know, like MLK III and Jeb Bush. Names you should know, like the Rev. H.K. Matthews – one of Florida’s most revered civil rights leaders. All of them fighting for parental empowerment.

I am so grateful to all of them, just like I am grateful to all the legislators of both parties who have supported the program. I’m grateful to the donors who have embraced the program.  I am also so grateful to all the employees of Step Up For Students, who run the program with such transparency and accountability that has consistently earned a four-star rating – and this year a perfect score – from Charity Navigator, the largest independent evaluator of nonprofits in the country.  And I’m so grateful that a former president of the Pinellas teachers’ union decided to call me up in 2006 to discuss common ground. Doug Tuthill is now president of Step Up and ably running it as I never would be able to.

My dream when the program debuted was that it would survive (which was not certain in the beginning). Then my dream was that we would someday reach 100,000 children. Now my dream is more ambitious: that someday every low-income parent in Florida – and the country – will be able to choose the best school for their children, regardless of who runs it.

Happy 15th birthday, Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Congratulations, Step Up  For Students!

John Kirtley is founder and chairman of Step Up For Students.

 

 

 

Pausing to honor a colleague

BY REDEFINED STAFF We pause today for a funeral and introspection. Sherri Ackerman, formerly the associate editor of this blog, died suddenly on Friday at age 52. She was a journalist who wrote for two major daily newspapers, the Tampa Tribune and the Tampa Bay Times, before she found a home at the nonprofit, Step Up For Students, that publishes this blog. Sherri believed in the possibilities education holds for every child. Her gift was to tell stories that breathed life into our often-sterile debate. We reflect on Sherri today through a powerful account, written two years ago, about a school in her back yard of Tampa. Academy Prep Center was and remains, to use her words, “electric with opportunity.”

A school where ‘realization of possibility’ is routine

By Sherri Ackerman

Jorge Perez remembers the first time he stepped behind the black iron gates surrounding Academy Prep Center of Tampa, Fla. The private school for students in grades 5-8 is wedged beside a Cuban bakery and the interstate in a faded neighborhood with sagging bungalows. Yet, something made it electric with opportunity.

“It was very different from other middle schools I had seen and the atmosphere was buzzing,” recalls Perez, then a rising sixth-grader. “It felt like a place where I could grow.”

Jorge Perez graduated from Academy Prep Center of Tampa, a private middle school in Florida, as class valedictorian. He earned a full scholarship to the prestigious Phillips Exeter prep school in New Hampshire and, today, is a sophomore at Columbia University in New York City. Photo provided by family.

Jorge Perez graduated from Academy Prep Center of Tampa, a private middle school in Florida, as class valedictorian. He earned a full scholarship to the prestigious Phillips Exeter prep school in New Hampshire and, today, is a sophomore at Columbia University in New York City.
Photo provided by family.

And grow he did. Perez graduated from Academy Prep, earned a full ride to the legendary Phillips Exeter Academy boarding school in New Hampshire, and now attends Columbia University in New York City.

The story is all the more remarkable because, for Academy Prep, it’s not all that surprising. Since 2003, when the school was founded, many of its students – all of them low-income and almost all of them black or Hispanic – have moved on to top public and private high schools, and then to highly regarded public and private colleges.

No one at the school expects anything less.

It’s just after 7 on a Tuesday morning. Cars whiz by Academy Prep’s renovated red brick building, a former grammar school where children of cigar workers once learned to speak English. Students in uniforms haul backpacks and hurry inside even though school doesn’t officially start for another 30 minutes.

It’s breakfast time and everyone here qualifies for a free one. All 112 students also receive a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, awarded to low-income families to help pay a portion of the school’s $16,000-plus annual tuition. (The scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.) The rest of the money comes from private donors and foundations that have come together with one mission: to dramatically change the lives of low-income children through the power of education.

“It is incumbent upon us as a society to give everyone an opportunity,” said Principal Lincoln Tamayo, a Harvard graduate who grew up in Tampa and went to kindergarten a few blocks from the academy.

Academy Prep Center of Tampa

Academy Prep Center of Tampa

Academy Prep and its sister school in St. Petersburg, Fla. are modeled after the recently disbanded Nativity Miguel Network of Schools, acclaimed nonprofit schools that catered to economically disadvantaged children. Its tradition of excellence continues at Academy Prep, where the graduation rate stands at 94.4 percent, Tamayo said.

About 80 percent of the school’s graduates go on to private high schools, including Exeter and, closer to home, Tampa Prep. Many of the rest enroll in top, local public schools, including Blake Magnet School and Brooks DeBartolo Charter High School. About 82 percent then go on to college, the vast majority of them four-year schools, including top-tier institutions like the University of Florida, Bard College in New York and, now, Columbia.

None of this is by happenstance.

Students are eligible to enroll in Academy Prep in fifth or sixth grade, but not after. The school needs at least three years to give the students the continuity and structure they need to succeed, Tamayo said. But first, they must apply, a lengthy process that requires a teacher’s recommendation, written essays, and a passing score on a skills test to ensure they’ve mastered basic reading, spelling and math.

“We’re not designed for pre-readers,” Tamayo said. Or for students with behavioral issues: “If you come here with problems, we’ll work with you,” he said. “But accept God’s grace. There are consequences for your actions. If we don’t teach our kids that, we have failed as educators.”

About four to seven students in each cohort end up leaving, he said. Some because their parents moved; others because they didn’t want to do the work or couldn’t maintain at least a C average.

Principal Lincoln Tamayo calls Academy Prep his “dream job.”

Principal Lincoln Tamayo calls Academy Prep his “dream job.”

“We are preparing them for success at a college preparatory school,” said Tamayo, who used to help oversee admissions at Boston University. “They’re not going to go if they have a 2.0.”

Academy Prep school days are 11 hours long. The school year lasts 11 months, and includes some Saturdays. It’s not for everyone.

“I do remember wanting to switch schools mid-way through the year because of the rigor of classes, along with the very strict style of learning and discipline,” said Jorge, the graduate now at Columbia. “At times the work was overwhelming and very tough. Over time, however, the challenge begins to mold and shape work ethic and determination.”

For Jorge, who graduated as valedictorian in 2008, that meant pushing himself even harder to earn a full scholarship to Exeter, a pipeline to the Ivy League. Four years later, with Academy Prep mentors at his side, he accepted another scholarship and became the first academy graduate to go to Columbia.

Today, Jorge is a 19-year-old sophomore studying philosophy and economics, and guiding his younger brother, Julian, on a similar path. Julian, an eighth-grader at Academy Prep, is now fielding scholarship offers from Exeter and the elite Saint Andrews Preparatory School in Boca Raton, Fla.

Like his big brother, Julian Perez is fielding scholarships from top private high schools.

Like his big brother, Julian Perez is fielding scholarships from top private high schools.

After breakfast, Academy Prep students line up by grade and wait to be greeted by Tamayo or another academy staff member. On this morning, it’s history teacher Henry Ibanez, who extends his right hand to every girl and boy, looks them in the eye and says, “Good morning.”

The pleasantry is repeated at least 200 times with each student expected to emulate the gesture. Then everyone gathers quietly in a large room that doubles as the indoor gym and cafeteria. Dangling from the ceiling are pennants emblazoned with the names of the top-tier high schools they hope to attend.

“Dear Lord, we are human by our very nature very frail,” Tamayo says, reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, like a father praying with his family. Afterward, two students step on stage and take turns practicing public speaking by answering, “How can I be a better me?”

Students at Academy Prep Center of Tampa line up outside each morning before shaking hands with one of the school’s administrators. The greeting teaches the boys and girls how to look people in the eye when speaking to them and act professionally.

Students at Academy Prep Center of Tampa line up outside each morning before shaking hands with one of the school’s administrators. The greeting teaches the boys and girls how to look people in the eye when speaking to them and act professionally.

It’s a theme that carries them throughout the day. Girls and boys are separated in core classes, except for some honors courses like algebra. In addition to math, science, history and language arts lessons, they also take art, music, P.E. and other enrichment classes like chess and sewing.

By the time they graduate, Tamayo said, most Academy Prep students are two to four years above grade level in reading and math.

That kind of academic success was what Tynese Randolph and her husband were looking for when they enrolled their twin boys, Levi and Sterling, in the academy’s fifth and sixth grades.

The boys came from a traditional public school where Sterling was promoted to a higher grade, but it was still too easy, Randolph said. “They tried, they really did,” she said. “But public school had nothing to offer my boys.”

The first year at the academy was anything but easy. Some days, the twins went to school when it was dark and came home when it was dark. Randolph and her husband coordinated drop-offs and took turns volunteering on nights and weekends. “It was hard,” she recalled. “But so what? It’s your child.”

Academy Prep students gather each morning before the start of the school day to talk and pray – just like a family.

Academy Prep students gather each morning before the start of the school day to talk and pray – just like a family.

The extra effort paid off, said Randolph, who eventually accepted a front office job at the academy and, later, enrolled her daughter in the school. The hope is that she will follow in her brothers’ footsteps.

Levi, now a senior at Tampa Prep, is considering several college choices. Sterling is studying meteorology as a freshman at Florida State University. His first semester, he racked up a 4.0 GPA.

Academy Prep gifted Jorge’s mother, Sophia Flores, with plane tickets so she and her son could visit Exeter before making any big decisions.
Sophia Flores

Sophia Flores

Sophia Flores

“They treated us like millionaires,” Flores said of the New Hampshire school’s administrators. When the family left, Flores asked her son if he knew what he wanted to do. She said his eyes watered as he told her, “Mom, this is where I want to be.”

It was hard to have her first-born so far away, but it also gave her peace of mind.

“I used to wonder, ‘How will my kids go to college?’ ” said Flores, a high school graduate who sometimes worked three jobs to make ends meet. “I don’t know how to express, truly, every day, the blessings of the academy. … They are changing these kids’ lives forever.”

Now halfway through his second year at Columbia, Jorge already is thinking about what’s next – maybe law school and, someday, a career in finance. It’s a vision, he said, that really started at Academy Prep.

“If I had to summarize my experience at Academy Prep with just one sentence,” Jorge said, “I would say that it was a realization of possibility.”