Conn’s HomePlus has contributed $174,000 to Step Up For Students, helping 23 deserving Florida schoolchildren access the right education to help them succeed.
This is the first year Conn’s HomePlus has partnered with Step Up For Students to contribute to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, an income-based scholarship program funded by tax-credited contributions from corporations. The K-12 scholarships allow Florida students to pursue and engage in the best learning environments for their individual needs by attending a private school or public school different than their zoned district school.
Conn’s HomePlus is one of the top consumer goods retailers in the country whose mission is to make it possible for everyone to purchase quality, long-lasting products for their home. Through their partnership with Step Up, they also support the mission of giving students access to the educational options they need. Step Up scholarships help provide those options to students like Joshua Brutus, a senior at Tampa Bay Christian Academy (TBCA).
Joshua was once considered the class clown until he was appointed junior class president by the principal of TBCA — a decision intended to draw out Joshua’s full potential. Joshua rose to the challenge, becoming a class leader and earning A’s and B’s.
Now, he has big plans for his future: a college education and possibly a career as an electrical engineer. Joshua is also committed to giving back. He wants to start a nonprofit to help young Black men in economically-struggling communities around Tampa transition from middle school to high school. He wants to show the same belief in them as the TBCA teachers and administrators have shown in him.
“I’m very fortunate that I get to go here and get the support from them,” Joshua said.
Just like Joshua, tens of thousands of Florida schoolchildren are able to access the learning environment that works best for them with the help of a Step Up scholarship, which are possible because of the support of companies like Conn’s HomePlus.
“At Conn’s HomePlus, we are committed to supporting students and families in the communities where we live and work,” said Chandra Holt, Conn’s HomePlus President and CEO. “We believe in the mission of Step Up For Students and are excited to partner with them to help provide Florida students the educational options they need to succeed.”
In February 2019, the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, released results of a study on the effectiveness of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, the nation’s largest private K-12 scholarship program. The study found that students on scholarship for four or more years were up to 99% more likely to attend a four-year college than their peers in public school, and up to 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.
Since 2002, Step Up For Students has awarded more than one million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
“With the support of Conn’s HomePlus, even more students in Florida will be given access to the educational environment that works best for them,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “We are grateful for their generosity and commitment to helping students throughout Florida.”
By ROGER MOONEY
TAMPA – One of Margene Avery’s first moves as principal at Tampa Bay Christian Academy was to install a student government. For junior class president, she chose Joshua Brutus, an immensely popular yet irresponsible student who was content to coast through high school.
Joshua summed up his reaction in one word: “Me?”
“My freshman, sophomore year, I don’t want to say I was the class clown, but I was the class clown,” Joshua said. “I never got any big responsibilities. But to step into those shoes, I was surprised.”
The teachers and administrators at the pre-K through 12 private school saw Joshua’s potential. Avery felt that putting him in charge of his class would turn Joshua into a serious student.
“When he applies himself, he really does well,” Avery said. “He has a great common sense as well as intellectual capacity.”
Joshua, 17, now a senior, attends TBCA on a scholarship for private schools managed by Step Up For Students.
While surprised at his appointment, Joshua was also energized by the confidence shown in him by Avery and TBCA Head of School Matthew Peavyhouse. He went from being the class clown to being class leader, from being a lethargic student to one who earns A’s and B’s.
“He’s become a man that I am proud is graduating from this school,” Peavyhouse said. “He’s grown a great deal, more than anything, character wise. He’s become a strong young man.”
Joshua has big plans for his future: a college education, possibly a career as an electrical engineer. He wants to start a nonprofit to help Black boys in economically struggling communities around Tampa transition from middle school to high school. He wants to show the same belief in them as the TBCA teachers and administrators have shown in him.
“Because not everyone has what I have, and I’m very fortunate that I get to go here and get the support from them,” Joshua said.
Celene Flerine, Joshua’s mother, wanted her son to attend TBCA for the benefits that come with attending a private school with a student population of 200: small class sizes, more one-on-one attention from the teachers, and the support offered by the administration.
“I felt the people at this school, the principal and teachers, are happy to help you with your children,” she said. “If there is any problem, if your child doesn’t do homework, they call you and say this is not working, this is not good.
“That’s what I want, because I don’t want for them to wait for six months or one year to find out my child isn’t doing good at your school. Then it’s too late. At this school, they make sure they work together (with parents). You go talk to them. They open the door for you. This is a good school for me.”
Celene knew what Joshua was capable of achieving and reminded him of that every time he brought home a disappointing report card.
“When I was a younger, I was like, ‘Why do they expect so much of me? I’m just a regular kid. I don’t want to do all this stuff,’” Joshua said. “And now that I’m here, I feel like I should have listened from the beginning, because if I had listened from the beginning, I could be way smarter, have more opportunities.”
Joshua kicked off his senior year by earning student of the month honors for August. He is working hard during his final year at TBCA to bring his GPA from a 2.8 to a 3.0, which he hopes will make him eligible for financial assistance to college.
He was proud of what he accomplished in class once he began to apply himself and he was proud that he made his mother, well, proud.
“My mom is really happy for me,” he said. “She just wants the best for me. And now all her efforts weren’t in vain. I’m actually trying, and she sees that I’m trying and she’s proud of me, which makes me proud of myself.”
Joshua, who wants to be an electrical engineer, said he wants to be a person who makes a difference in his community. That’s why he’s interested in starting his nonprofit.
The idea came to life during a class discussion with Peavyhouse, who posed this question: What makes high school freshmen so annoying? Peavyhouse was looking for serious answers, and Joshua provided one: “They don’t know what they don’t know.”
Joshua’s solution was to offer a mentorship program to those who lack male role models. Those young men get lost, Joshua said, because they have no one to show them the importance of an education, that a 3.0 GPA is better than a 2.0 and a 3.5 is better than a 3.0. It’s hard to believe in yourself, Joshua said, when no one believes in you.
Speaking from his own experiences, Joshua said, “I just saw a lot of people with potential that they never really could do anything about it because of their situation. They need help.
“They can be the smartest person in the world living in poverty and not having the means or the support to actually be someone in life, and they could be. But instead, it gets thrown out the window. It’s just a waste of potential.”
Being named junior class president ignited the serious student that for so long, lay dormant inside Joshua.
“They make me feel like I’m worth something,” he said, “that I can actually do something with my life. Junior year I said, ‘Enough is enough, because I want to have a future.’”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SPECIAL TO STEP UP FOR STUDENTS
Tampa middle school students from Tampa Bay Christian Academy are well on their way to be the next generation of environmental leaders as they creatively displayed the importance of recycling in a recent art contest.
In honor of Earth Day, fifth, sixth, and seventh grade students participated in a Recycling and Science Poster Contest organized by Covanta, operator of eight Energy-from-Waste (EfW) facilities in Florida and Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that administers scholarships for Florida schoolchildren.
The contest asked students to visualize their commitment to recycling and science by depicting a theme, such as Energy-from-Waste, composting, recycling, electronic recycling and more. For its participation, the school received a $500 gift card to Staples to be used for school supplies.
Winners were honored for their outstanding design at a ceremony held on Earth Day.
Through Step Up For Students, Covanta has funded more than 140 scholarships for deserving Florida schoolchildren since 2016. The funds are donated through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which serves lower-income children in Florida and allows them to attend the school of their choice.
“We are proud of the impact we’ve had on Florida schoolchildren through our contributions to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program and were thrilled to see the passion for the environment that each student displayed in their posters,” said Tom Murphy, client services manager for Covanta. “It’s fun activities like this one that teach kids the importance of reduce, reuse and recycle. This also includes educating students about the fourth R, recovery, which ensures that we recover energy from waste that cannot otherwise be recycled. We thank all of the students who submitted posters and encourage them to bring that same zeal and creativity to make a positive impact in their school and community.”
“Because of companies like Covanta, Florida’s lower-income students are provided the educational options they need to succeed,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “We are grateful for their partnership, generosity and commitment to helping students in their community.”
“We are proud of the impact we’ve had on Florida schoolchildren through our contributions to the Step Up For Students Scholarship program and were thrilled to see the passion for the environment that each student displayed in their posters,” Murphy said. “It’s fun activities like this one that teach kids the importance of reduce, reuse and recycle. This also includes educating students about the fourth R, recovery, which ensures that we recover energy from waste that cannot otherwise be recycled. We thank all of the students who submitted posters and encourage them to bring that same zeal and creativity to future opportunities to make a positive impact in their school and community.”
Covanta’s EfW operations provide sustainable waste management to Florida that generates enough renewable energy to power more than 300,000 area homes and businesses.
Within a few months, her husband found another job at a similar company in Tampa, but he still wasn’t earning enough. The family spent the summer living in an extended-day hotel while trying to get on their feet.
To make ends meet, the 6-foot-8 former college basketball player found a side job coaching Tampa Bay Christian Academy’s boys’ basketball team. The private school in Tampa became a lifeline for the Cherry family.
Despite their financial turmoil, both parents set their sights on finding good, stable schools for their four children. They never dreamed private school would be an option, but Tampa Bay Christian Academy seemed a perfect fit.
The school, with prekindergarten through 12th grade, could accommodate all four of their kids – a huge plus for a family that had grown even more dependent on one another during the past few months. The Cherrys also liked the focus on college preparation and individual instruction.
“I love this about this school,’’ Nina Cherry said. “They recognize who needs help and who needs to be challenged.’’
When a school administrator told her about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Nina Cherry immediately Googled the program and learned it provides low-income families with tuition assistance at more than 1,500 participating private schools.
The Cherrys qualified for the scholarship through Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps manage the program, and enrolled their children. Not long after, Nina, a former telecommunications training manager turned stay-at-home mom, landed a receptionist job at the school.
“This school has been amazing for us,’’ she said. “It’s like a family for our kids. I love it!’’
With the added income from Nina’s job, the Cherrys soon were able to move into a nearby rental house. All the pieces of their life came together – and Tampa Bay Christian Academy played a big part.
“We are really blessed to be here,’’ Nina Cherry said.
That’s how her children feel, too.
Daughter Journie Paul-Cherry is a fifth-grader who likes her teachers and wants to be a veterinarian one day. Little sister Bryce Cherry is a kindergartner who excels in math. Their brother, Elijah Cherry, is a second-grader earning straight A’s every year.
“He’s on the headmaster’s list,’’ his mother boasted.
Her eldest son, Jaedin Henry, was always a good student, too, his mom said. But at his former neighborhood high school, Jaedin started making some bad decisions and his grades suffered. When his family lost their house, he really struggled.
“I was a lot more distracted,’’ the 15-year-old sophomore said. “I kept trying to be cool, trying to fit in. But I was embarrassed. I didn’t want anyone to know what happened.’’
Watching his parents work so hard to get the family back on solid ground inspired Jaedin. Once he enrolled at Tampa Bay Christian Academy, he focused on his schoolwork. Going to a small, private school was a big change.
“It was an adjustment,’’ he said.
It wasn’t until he started playing basketball at school that he really felt like he fit in, Jaedin said. Now he routinely makes honor roll, like his brother and sisters, and plans to go on to law school or the military one day.
“I’m good with my words,’’ the history buff said. “I can be very persuasive.’’
His advice for other students facing life obstacles: “Keep in touch with your parents,’’ Jaedin said. “We’ve always been close. You have to really stay in with your family and talk.’’
And set a goal for the future.
“Mine is college.’’
Shaneka Paul struggled with a 2.0 grade point average her freshman year at Tampa Bay Christian Academy, but the 2015 graduate worked diligently with teachers to raise it to 3.1 her senior year – all while working two part-time jobs to help her family.
Now a freshman at Hillsborough Community College, she hopes to be a social worker one day.
Sheneka is one of the many success stories shared by Tampa Bay Christian Academy Headmaster Natasha Sherwood, who credits the school’s dedicated staff, nurturing environment and personalized curriculum with helping students with a wide range of learning skills and backgrounds succeed.
“We’ll work with any family who really wants to be here,’’ Sherwood said.
Of the academy’s 206 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, about 100 receive the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students this school year. The program assists with tuition at more than 1,500 participating private schools across the state.
For many of Sherwood’s students, like Shaneka, a former scholarship recipient, it’s the only way they can attend a private school. The academy is home to a large number of Hispanic and immigrant families, with some students using educational Visas from Vietnam, South Korea and Venezuela.
“We have a wonderful international environment,’’ Sherwood said.
Founded in 1957, Tampa Bay Christian Academy is accredited by the Christian Schools of Florida and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Tuition ranges from $6,200 to $6,800 plus fees. The upper school curriculum focuses on a rigorous college preparatory, with honors classes and a dual enrollment program through HCC and the University of South Florida.
Students take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills among other national exams to measure learning. Test scores help administrators adjust curriculum based on needs. For instance, when 2013 science scores showed students were performing on average with or slightly behind their national counterparts, administrators analyzed results.
That led to reassigned teachers, new textbooks and new courses. Then the school brought in two science professionals with lab experience and more than 30 years of teaching experience, tasking them with reinventing the upper school science curriculum.
Students started visiting Lowry Park Zoo to work with staff and see science in action. And science started emerging in other courses like English, which included using the chemistry of crime scene investigations while studying Macbeth.
It paid off, Sherwood said. When ACT scores for 2015 came in August, students’ science scores had jumped from 16 percent in 2013 to 22.5 percent – 3 percent above the state average. Now her staff is looking at making similar changes to the lower school as well.
The school is drawing upon skills honed by participating in Success Partners, a free program developed by a team of longtime educators at Step Up For Students. Participating schools receive professional development and software to help them better assess data and cultivate parental engagement with a goal to continually improve achievement.
“It’s a great program,’’ Sherwood said.
In addition to academics, students can participate in various honors clubs, including the National Honor Society and Mu Alpha Theta for mathematics. There’s also yearbook, student government and sports teams including girls’ and boys’ basketball, coed flag football, girls’ volleyball and cheerleading.
The nondenominational school also provides students with a spiritual focus, offering Bible classes, devotionals, retreats and community services. The school continues to grow, with 40 new students enrolling since May, Sherwood said. But it’s still a close-knit environment, where 15 seniors make up the Class of 2016.
“We are proud of a lot of things here at Tampa Bay Christian Academy,’’ Sherwood said. “But the thing that I am most proud of is that we are a family.’’
To learn more about Tampa Bay Christian Academy, go to www.tbcarams.org