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Step Up For Students among best places to work in Tampa Bay

By ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students has been recognized as one of the best places to work by the Tampa Bay Business Journal, placing eighth in the large business category.

“We are proud of this recognition,” said Step Up president Doug Tuthill. “We strive for a work culture that is nurturing and joyful and allows our employees to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities.”

Step Up employees celebrate the TBBJ’s announcement April 12 at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa.

Sixty Tampa Bay area companies were nominated for recognition across four categories: Small (10-24 employees); Medium (25-49 employees), Large (50-99 employees); and Extra-Large (100-plus employees).

Quantum Workplace surveyed employees at the nominated companies and evaluated each 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.

It described Step Up’s company culture with the hashtag #caringpassionateandimpactful.

“That really sums us up,” Tuthill said. “Our employees are passionate about what they do. This passionate caring is why they have such a positive impact on the families we serve.”

Step Up helps more than 115,000 pre-K-12 children in Florida gain access to a better education by managing four scholarships: The Florida Tax Credit 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.

Step Up’s Jacksonville office is a finalist in the Jacksonville Business Journal’s 2019 Best Places to Work. Those results will be announced later this spring.

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

Choice scholarship provided brothers an extended family

Preston, Linda, and Tyler McDonald.

By JEFF BARLIS

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Tyler McDonald, 19, and his brother Preston, 18, stand out in a crowd. Tall and athletic, their breezy, no-worries attitudes are as evident as the sparkle in their hazel-brown eyes.

They are All-American, boy-next-door types, the highest of achievers who say they wouldn’t be where they are now – Princeton and Duke, respectively – had it not been for Clearwater Central Catholic High School and the education choice scholarship that made it possible to attend.

Going to CCC was about much more than great academics.

They initially were raised in a comfortable middle-class home, never wanting. Everything changed seven years ago when their father left. The divorce was bitter and protracted. Their mother, Linda, would cry in her closet.

“She may think she hid it, but we could tell,” Tyler recounted with a twinge of sadness. “The toughest thing was there was nothing we could do about it.”

A couple of years before the divorce, Linda had stopped working as a nurse to take care of her mother, who was left paralyzed after an operation. During and after the divorce, she felt the sting of an extended unemployment she never planned. She needed a job with more flexibility and became a substitute teacher at the neighborhood middle school to be closer to her sons.

But it wasn’t enough. The three moved to smaller and smaller homes. The power and water were turned off on more than one occasion. Food shopping was for necessities only. Clothes shopping was once a year when the sales were on. Sports shoes and equipment had to last two years instead of one.

As they rallied around each other, help arrived in the form of a private school family that embraced and lifted them.

 

Sunlight cascades through the north-facing windows of the administration building at CCC. When visitors enter, they see the cheery, bespectacled face of front office manager Mary Weber. Her unofficial title is Director of First Impressions, and it only takes a moment to see why – she knows every one of the 500-plus students by name.

A warm, family feeling permeates campus.

That’s how it was for Tyler and Preston, when they each visited as eighth-graders and spent shadow days sitting in on a full slate of classes. CCC students grabbed every chance to talk to Tyler, asking as many questions about him as they answered.

“I shadowed at a nearby district school right before that,” he said. “It felt like I was just watching class. No one talked to me. It was a big difference.”

A year later, Preston got the same vibe at CCC.

“People were telling me the good stuff so that I would come,” he said. “It was really welcoming.”

 

Tyler, Preston, and Linda are a tight unit, a triumphant trio. They joke, tease, and finish each other’s sentences.

Born in the Bahamas and raised in Florida, Linda has a light accent and a modest, girlish giggle. It comes over her like a blush when she talks about her sons’ accomplishments.

After the divorce, anger and hurt were common but never affected Tyler or Preston at school. Linda had always pushed them gently to strive for straight A’s, and when they got the taste for it, they never looked back.

When it was time to choose a high school, there were public school magnets and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs in the mix. But it was the family feeling at CCC that made such an impression on those first visits – for the boys and for Linda.

“I remember going into (Director of Enrollment Tara Shea McLaughlin’s) office, knowing Tyler had really fallen in love with the school,” Linda said. “I was in tears because I didn’t know how I was going to afford this.”

McLaughlin spoke with the finance department. The school offered significant tuition assistance, but it wasn’t enough. They also helped Linda apply for the Step Up For Students scholarship that empowers low-income families to choose a private school.

It still didn’t cover everything.

“It was important to come up with a monthly payment that was not overwhelming, so she wasn’t in a panic every month,” said McLaughlin, herself an alumnus of CCC. “Any of us could be in the same situation. We saw the potential in those boys, so we needed to make it happen.”

McLaughlin also opened the school closet of gently used uniforms to Linda and got CCC’s uniform company to donate shoes to all of the school’s Step Up scholars.

Tyler McDonald’s senior portrait.

Preston McDonald’s senior portrait.

“It’s hard to compute the things they’ve done for my kids,” Linda said, recalling how she sometimes had to send Tyler to the finance office with a late check and an apology. “They were an amazing group of people. They nurtured my kids.”

Wanting to show her gratitude, Linda threw herself into volunteering. Despite working full-time as a public school teacher, she sold tickets and concessions at sporting events and helping with the school’s annual fundraising gala.

“Every CCC parent volunteers 15 hours, but Linda was in the hundreds of hours,” McLaughlin said. “She was everywhere.”

Tyler and Preston were enormously popular. They were sports stars who shined even brighter in the classroom. Tyler was valedictorian with an Ivy League future. Preston graduated at the top of his class with a full IB diploma.

“We’re beyond proud,” McLaughlin said, radiating like a parent. “We’re over the moon that they came here, and they will always be part of the CCC family.”

 

Today, Tyler is a sophomore football player majoring in economics at Princeton (which he chose over Harvard and Yale). He’s pondering careers in investment banking, private equity, corporate real estate, and management consulting.

In his first year at Duke, Preston wants to study computer programming and software engineering while getting a business certificate.

The boys stay in touch with each other mostly via text, at least three times a week. They’ve always been competitive and love to verbally spar over their IQs and now their colleges’ rankings. When they returned for the holiday, they cherished their time at home, together again.

Thanksgiving used to evoke dark memories.

“Right after the divorce, splitting every holiday was weird,” Tyler said. “Thanksgiving is supposed to be about family, but it’ll never be the same.”

This year, Tyler took part in “Friendsgiving,” a potluck set up by 15-20 CCC grads that’s been going on for three years. There was turkey, ham, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole … all the trimmings.

“It started my senior year, just to hang out,” he said. “But it’s still running two years out of high school.”

“I don’t think we’d have that big a group or that cohesive a group if we had gone to any other high school.”

Indeed, after going to CCC, family will never be the same.

About Clearwater Central Catholic High School

Founded in 1962 with 96 students and seven staff members, the school graduated its first class of 26 seniors two years later. CCC, which is overseen by the Diocese of St. Petersburg, has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a National School of Excellence. The 40-acre campus is a short walk from an inlet of Tampa Bay. The school is accredited by AdvancED and has 541 students, including 75 on Step Up For Students scholarships. CCC is an IB School with a 65 percent award rate in the full IB Diploma Program. The school also offers dual enrollment courses with St. Petersburg College as well as Advanced Placement (AP) Program courses for college credit. The PSAT test is administered to ninth and 10th graders. Tuition is $14,950 annually, and $12,400 for a family affiliated with a local Catholic parish. In 2017-18, CCC provided more than $425,000 in income-based tuition assistance to more than 25 percent of its families.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

Military family on mission to raise awareness for Gardiner scholarships

The Gardiner Scholarship has been a lifeline for the Laurie Guzman and her son Ezra, diagnosed with autism.

By JEFF BARLIS

TAMPA, Fla. – Two months after her son was diagnosed with autism, Laurie Guzman felt broken and defeated, exhausted from searching for the right school.

A scholarship made her whole, if only for a short time.

Ezra was a tall, slender 4-year-old when he and his mom took a tour of LiFT Academy, a private school in Seminole that serves children with special needs.

Meeting the school’s executive director, Ezra furrowed his brow and narrowed his deep brown eyes.

“I’m a bad boy,” he stated as a matter of fact, “so I know you won’t let me come here.”

Kim Kuruzovich, equal parts caring mother and wizened educator, was stunned.

“There are no bad children,” she said, her voice raising an octave. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh, no,” Ezra said, “my teacher told me that. I’m a bad boy. That’s why I got kicked out of school.”

Kuruzovich knelt down to meet Ezra’s gaze and put her hands on his shoulders.

“You are not a bad boy,” she said. “You’re a great boy.”

She turned to Laurie and insisted Ezra enroll, if for no other reason than to learn he’s not bad.

Instantly, Laurie felt a great dam of tension burst with relief. She knew LiFT was where Ezra needed to be.

“I cried on the way home,” Laurie said. “It was heartbreaking. That was the first time I had heard him say he was a bad boy. We don’t use that in our house, so I knew where it was coming from.”

Ezra was 2 when his father, Air Force Sgt. Luis Guzman-Castillo, got orders to move to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Two years later, Ezra’s explosive meltdowns had left whole classrooms trembling in his wake. Laurie was told to find a new preschool.

The diagnosis followed, but it didn’t bring clarity or relief. Instead, raw fear galloped through every synapse of Laurie’s mind as she drove home from the doctor’s office in a daze.

“I knew nothing about anything with autism,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do, where to go, nothing.”

She knew that Ezra was bright and verbal at an early age. She and Luis taught him with flash cards when he was 6 months old.

Ezra was so sweet and charming. Laurie could get lost in his eyes in one moment and then watch storm clouds gather in another.

The meltdowns were devastating. Kicking, screaming, crying, and sometimes running.

“They’re about 45 minutes,” Laurie explained, “and I’d be melting down with him by the end.”

She quit her job as a bank branch manager to stay home with Ezra and his little brother, Elijah. Laurie’s sister, who had two sons with autism back in their home state of Alabama was helpful. But there was so much to learn, it was easy to feel overwhelmed and lonely.

LiFT Academy broke the spell.

One of the tenets of the school is that parents are the experts on their children, so engagement is high. Kuruzovich, who has a daughter with autism, has an inviting way of sharing 20-plus years of experience with parents who are just learning how to navigate this world.

She told Laurie about the Gardiner Scholarship, a state program that allows families with children who have special needs to pay for therapy, tuition and other education-related services of their choice.

“The Gardiner Scholarship literally changed our lives,” Laurie said. “It made it so we are actually able to breathe. It gave me hope that my son can get help and learn like every other kid. I didn’t know that was going to be possible.”

Ezra felt more comfortable right away. He made friends. One teacher wondered if he really had autism.

Just wait, Kuruzovich said.

“When we saw it, it was pretty big,” she said of the inevitable first meltdown. “But it’s not a negative.”

That was the biggest relief to Laurie, who used to lose sleep worrying Ezra would get kicked out the next time he knocked over a desk. But at LiFT, the teachers, administrators and his therapists all know how to avoid and defuse meltdowns.

One year later, Ezra is in first grade, studying at a second-grade level. He even represented the school recently when some business people came to visit, telling them: “I love this school because I’m really safe. I can be who I am. People like me here.”

With structures in place at school and a home, everything was going well. Laurie had a plan to go back to work.

Then Luis’ new orders came. They’re moving to Alabama in January.

“Ezra is about to experience the biggest transition of his life,” Laurie said. “And he doesn’t do well with transition anyway. His school is going to change. His friends are going to change. His support is going to change. All of that keeps me up at night.”

Laurie has family in Alabama, but there is no special needs scholarship. The school she found charges $8,000 for tuition – paid up front. It’s a price tag that would make any working-class family swoon.

A proposal in the U.S. House of Representatives to create education spending accounts for some military families would have helped the Guzmans, but the House Rules Committee did not include it for a vote in May.

Rather than panicking, Laurie feels herself rising to the challenge of helping to create a scholarship.

Now, she’s the one with marching orders.

“We were meant to come to Tampa,” she said. “We were meant to get the diagnosis. We were meant to come to LiFT. And I am meant to go to Alabama and make the difference I can make.”

“That’s my mission, to talk to people eye to eye and say what we need, what would help. I’ll say, ‘Look at a mother and a father who got a diagnosis that was completely devastating, thinking our lives were over. And they’re not.’ ”

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

Choosing the right school helped turn tragedy into triumph

By JEFF BARLIS

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – In the damp, rising heat of a late-morning graduation ceremony in May, with historic Farragut Hall as a backdrop, a hush crept through the crowd of students, relatives, friends, and faculty as they anticipated the next name.

Marquis Lambert

The roar was pent-up and prolonged, louder than one family could possibly deliver. This was the sound of the entire Admiral Farragut Academy family cheering and tearing up for the senior who 10 months prior had been a celebrated football player one day and was fighting for his life in intensive care the next.

As Marquis walked slowly across the stage to receive his diploma with a shy, child-like smile, parents LaTaura Blount and Mark Lambert swelled with joy, gratitude, pride, and even some disbelief.

Marquis at Admiral Farragut Academy graduation with parents Mark Lambert and LaTaura Blount.

“This almost didn’t happen for us,” LaTaura said.

Memories washed over them in waves.

Four years ago, a Florida tax credit scholarship made it possible to join the Farragut family. It was the perfect fit. Marquis dreamed of a future in football. His parents dreamed of an academic turnaround after their oldest son was just getting by in his neighborhood school with a C average.

“The standards, the rules, and the curriculum … I knew it would be a fresh start,” said LaTaura, who had heard about the Step Up For Students scholarship from a friend.

She was 16 when she had Marquis. She and Mark were kids trying to grow up. She worked jobs as a nursing home caregiver, a teacher and a pharmacy technician. Mark delivered phone books and traveled frequently.

Their home was as warm as their smiles, with three boys, plenty of noise and laughter. But money was always tight.

That’s why Mark and LaTaura always instilled the importance of academics. They didn’t go to college, but their children would.

“Sports can be taken away, but nobody can take away what you’ve learned and what you’ve earned,” LaTaura preached.

For football-crazy Marquis, the message only landed when it was echoed by coaches, peers and college recruiters. As he added muscle to his lean 5-foot-10 frame, he soared to a 3.7 GPA in his junior year. His dream (and his parents’) was coming into focus.

“He’d been playing football since he was little, and he had this expectation his entire life,” said Angie Koebel, who is Academic Services Director at Farragut and a doting school mom to Marquis. “That was his ticket out. He started thinking about his grades and doing better and changing, growing up.”

His coaches saw it, too.

There were only a handful of seniors on Farragut’s 2018 football team, and they were as close as brothers. Early in the spring, Marquis was the only one without a scholarship offer.

“We sat down and made a plan,” head coach Rick Kravitz said. “He worked his butt off to make himself a very good player, a recruitable player. He went from having no offers to 12 offers in a three-week period. It was just beginning to pick up even more when he had the accident.”

Marquis was driving to football practice on July 17, 2017 when a gold SUV cut in front of him. He swerved on the wet pavement, skipped over a curb and wrapped his car around a tree.

The fire department had to use the Jaws of Life to free Marquis from the wreckage.

The scene was horrific. Marquis was pronounced dead after paramedics arrived. But a nurse who was driving by and heard the crash from afar, stopped and noticed his fingers moving. Without her intervention – oxygen and the fire department’s Jaws of Life – Marquis would not have lived.

He had a traumatic brain hemorrhage, a broken neck, a torn meniscus in his knee, nerve damage in his arm, and was in a coma for two weeks. He spent 41 days in the hospital.

He wasn’t alone for a minute. Mark and LaTaura stopped working to be by his side every day. Marquis’ closest friends – the senior football players – and his position coach visited daily. Coach Kravitz and three teachers visited regularly.

The Farragut family rallied.

“They made sure we had food, donations came in (through a GoFundMe page),” LaTaura said, “and being there mentally for us was the biggest thing, because I wasn’t there at all. I was in pieces.”

When Marquis started to wake up, he wasn’t himself. Intense pain made him angry. He lashed out verbally and physically. It was hard for everyone to watch. LaTaura cried every night. But her boy was alive.

“I don’t remember anything,” Marquis said. “They had me on a lot of medicine. I remember my parents telling me I was acting funny. I was cussing a lot, being loud. Nurses were aggravated.”

Therapy – physical, speech and occupational – was grueling. But in August, just as he was getting out of a wheelchair and starting to walk, a birthday party in the hospital cafeteria lifted Marquis’ spirits. The entire football team came as a surprise.

“That’s how much he was loved,” Kravitz said.

The party inspired Marquis. He worked harder in therapy. He wanted out of that hospital, and there was a bigger goal – the first football game of the season.

Administrators at Farragut said not to rush, but everyone had their hopes up. On the day of the game, Marquis got out, had his hair cut and went to the stadium. In the locker room, he saw they had retired his jersey, put his No. 3 on helmet stickers, and didn’t allow anyone to use his locker.

“It meant a lot,” he said.

He put on his jersey, prayed with his team and led them out.

“They announced one of the captains would be Marquis,” LaTaura said, recalling her surprise at the reaction. “It was kind of a sad moment. Everybody started crying. The parents knew what was going on, but they hadn’t seen him. They were expecting him to be in a wheelchair.”

Marquis came out in a golf cart, smiling. He walked to the middle of the field to gasps and did the coin toss. In the Disney version of this story, Farragut would play its most inspired game and win big. But that didn’t happen. Real life is more complex, and Marquis had a hard time not being on the field for his senior season. Coach Kravitz explained why recruiters stopped calling.

“There was a lot of sadness watching everybody play,” Marquis said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get back out there.”

Despite a rigorous schedule of therapy, Marquis was determined to get back to school and graduate with his class.

Football was over, but he turned his determination to school and graduating with his class. Juggling therapy and school, he improved at both. By the end of the year he was going to physical therapy just once a week and no longer needed help in class. He was accepted to St. Petersburg College, where he starts Aug. 14 with a full class load and a plan to become a pharmacist.

Graduation was an inspiration to so many at Farragut, but Marquis had a different perspective. He calmly soaked it all in, felt the love, and was proud he accomplished his goal. He just wanted to be with his classmates and feel normal.

It was the same thing at prom a few weeks earlier.

“I had a good time,” he said. “Music, dancing, laughing, good talks with friends.

“I’m glad I didn’t miss it.”

So is the Farragut family.

About Admiral Farragut Academy

Opened in 1945 as the second campus of its namesake in New Jersey, is one of only two honor naval schools in the country and is re-accredited annually by the U.S. Department of the Navy. Last year, the school served 457 PreK-12 students, including 38 on Step Up For Students scholarships. The school annually administers the Terra Nova 3 test to students in grades 2-7 and the PSAT to students in grades 8-11. Tuition is $13,000 annually for Kindergarten, $16,300 for Grades 1-5, $18,900 for Grades 6 and 7, and $23,300 for high school. Payment plans and financial aid are available.

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

Step Up For Students earns highest rating from Charity Navigator for fourth consecutive year

By Lisa A. Davis

For the fourth consecutive year, Step Up For Students has earned a four-star rating for sound fiscal management and commitment to accountability and transparency from Charity Navigator, the nation’s largest independent charity watchdog.Charitry Navigator logo

“As the nonprofit sector continues to grow at an unprecedented pace, savvy donors are demanding more accountability, transparency and quantifiable results from charities they choose to support with their hard-earned dollars,” John P. Dugan, Charity Navigator’s founder and chairman of the board, wrote in a congratulatory letter to Step Up President Doug Tuthill. “Our goal is to provide donors with essential information needed to give them greater confidence in the charitable choices they make.”

The four-star rating comes after Charity Navigator conducted its annual review of Step Up, giving the nonprofit organization that helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC) an overall 99.92 out of 100 points, with 99.9 points in financial management and a 100-point score in transparency. Step Up also helps administer the state-funded Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA), but the program wasn’t in effect yet during the time period in which the nonprofit was reviewed.

“This is the highest rating a nonprofit may receive and is further recognition of the phenomenal job our staff does every day,” Tuthill said. “This is a wonderful accomplishment and further demonstrates how seriously we take this business of making a difference in the lives of Florida’s schoolchildren who need educational options most.”

During the 2014 fiscal year, Step up received $332.3 million in contributions, gifts and grants to fund and administer the scholarship programs.

“Only 8 percent of the charities we rate have received at least four consecutive four-star evaluations, indicating that Step Up For Students outperforms most other charities in America,” Dugan wrote. “This exceptional designation from Charity Navigator differentiates Step Up For Students from its peers and demonstrates to the public it is worthy of their trust.”

The superior rating secured the Tampa Bay area nonprofit the No. 4 spot for the second year in a row on Charity Navigator’s 10 Top-Notch Charities list, where Step Up moved two years ago from No. 7.  The list attests that the 10 recognized charities adhere to good governance and other best practices that minimize the chance of unethical activities. It also shows they execute their missions in a fiscally responsible way.

“We are proud of being No. 4, but it is our goal to reach No. 1,” Tuthill added. “What we do is extremely important work for low-income children and children with certain special needs, so we need our donors and supporters to know we are and will continue to be good stewards of their money and their trust.”

Since 2002, Charity Navigator, also a nonprofit, has awarded only the most fiscally responsible 501(c)(3) organizations its top ranking using  financial information provided by the organizations’ informational tax returns or IRS Form 990s to determine rankings. The national company then analyzes a charity’s fiscal performance in seven key areas, including program, administrative and fundraising expenses; fundraising efficiency; and revenue growth.

Step Up For Students has been awarding scholarships to low-income families for nearly 15 years, providing more than 400,000 scholarships to K-12 schoolchildren. Step Up expects to serve 78,000 low-income students and several thousand more children with special needs in the 2015-16 school year. The income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship is worth up to $5,677 toward private school tuition and fees; the PLSA scholarship averages $10,000 per student annually.