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Adelante! Why a former Step Up scholar completed his UF degree during rookie season in NFL

BY ROGER MOONEY

Where to begin with CJ Henderson?

That the former Step Up For Students scholar used his time wisely at Christopher Columbus High in Miami and earned a football scholarship to the University of Florida?

That he turned three seasons with the Florida Gators into an NFL career, and in 2020 was drafted ninth overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars?

CJ Henderson (23) makes a tackle against Houston during the Jaguars first game of the season. (Photo courtesy of the Jacksonville Jaguars)

That he continued his coursework during his rookie season and graduated last May from Florida with his class?

That in May he donated $250,000 to the new training facility at Columbus?

CJ Henderson’s senior picture at Christopher Columbus High in Miami.

Each of those are noteworthy on their own. Added together, they help tell the story of a student/athlete who lives by the motto used by those associated with Columbus: Adelante! It is Spanish for “forward” or “onward.”

CJ moves forward with his goals. That’s why he received a scholarship to play cornerback at a major university and why he was a top-10 pick by an NFL team. He made that goal when he was young.

“CJ had the ambition to go to the NFL since kindergarten, first grade,” his dad, Chris, said. “He used to write that in his journal.”

It’s also why CJ, who was traded Sept. 27 to the Carolina Panthers, has a degree in education science and why he chose to give back to his alma mater.

It’s called C-Pride, said Xzavier Henderson, CJ’s younger brother who is a sophomore wide receiver at Florida.

“We hold ourselves to a standard,” Xzavier said. “C-Pride is having pride in the alumni base, athletics, academics, having pride in everything you do in high school.”

Columbus High, CJ said during a video announcing his donation to the school, taught him the discipline needed to succeed at a university like Florida. That’s the reason Chris wanted his son to attend a private high school and why CJ chose Columbus, a Catholic school. The campus has a college-like vibe, the athletic program is among the best in the state and the academics are demanding.

Xzavier Henderson’s senior picture at Christopher Columbus High in Miami.

“They have rules to keep you in line, and those same rules you have to apply to yourself in college,” Chris said.

Chris had the same NFL dreams as CJ. After a standout football career at his neighborhood high school in Miami, Chris attended the University of Cincinnati on a football scholarship. Looking back, Chris said he wasn’t prepared for the academic side of being a college football player. He left Cincinnati, attended two more colleges, and never graduated.

Chris and his wife, Prudence, wanted their sons to have the best chance at succeeding in college. They began researching the private high schools in the Miami area when CJ was in the eighth grade. That’s when they learned about the private school scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.

“That really helped,” Chris said, “because without that, it’s hard to say if we would have made it through all those years.”

Xzavier received the same scholarship and followed CJ to Columbus.

“They represent Step Up and what it’s all about,” Columbus Principal David Pugh said. “I think they got the most out of what Step Up is meant to do, provide students like CJ and Xzavier with another option, and they made the most of it.”

The jump from high school classwork to college is demanding, but the four years at Columbus left CJ and Xzavier better prepared for what awaited them at Florida.

“That was the preparation I was looking for,” Chris said. “To thrive in college, you really need to be disciplined (in class) to give you a push. Going to play football sounds fun and easy, but going to Florida, that’s tough. CJ took advantage of his resources and made it happen.”

And he graduated with his class despite spending what would have been his senior year in the NFL. CJ managed to mix in virtual classes to finish his degree while navigating life as an NFL rookie.

“That was an accomplishment I wanted to achieve,” Henderson told floridagators.com. “I just wanted to get it out of the way rather than wait until later and come back and do it.”

Tony Meacham, assistant director for academic services at Florida’s University Athletic Association, told floridagators.com that he could not remember a football player who continued to work toward his degree during his first year in the NFL. Most wait until at least the end of their rookie season before resuming their education.

“To his credit, he was willing to put in the work besides the work he was putting in on the field,” Meachum said. “You think someone in his position would be glued to football, but he was doing both. It was very impressive for someone to do that in his position.”

Said Pugh, “I wouldn’t expect anything less. It just shows you the level of commitment that a guy like CJ makes. He made that commitment to Christopher Columbus High School, and he made that commitment to the University of Florida.”

Xzavier Henderson warming up before Florida’s game against USF on Sept. 11 in Tampa. (Photo courtesy of University Athletic Association)

The Hendersons wanted all their children to graduate from college. CJ’s sister, Daija, graduated last spring from Florida A&M and is pursuing a master’s degree while working as a dental assistant. Xzavier was named to the Southeastern Conference First-Year Honor Role as a freshman.

“We take our academics seriously,” Xzavier said. “We want to be champions in everything we do.”

Like CJ, Xzavier occasionally returns to Columbus to work out and spend time with students. He can now work out in the facility that bears his family’s name – the Henderson Family Athletic Training Center. The 2,000 square foot building provides the school’s athletes with better evaluation, treatment and rehabilitation of injuries.

“CJ and Xzavier are role models,” Pugh said. “Other students would want to emulate what they do, because they do it the right way.”

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

From Ethiopia to No. 1 in his high school class to UF with the help of a private school scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

For Yonas Worku, obstacles are opportunities.

When he was 5, Yonas and his mother emigrated from Ethiopia to join his father in Las Vegas. They immediately had to overcome numerous hurdles.

“It was really rough,” he said. “The language barrier, the culture barrier, you can just imagine how difficult it was to assimilate into this culture. It was rough learning the language at first. Getting to know people, finding friends, that was a little tough for me, but it all worked out in the end.”

Thanks in large part to a quality education made possible by a private school scholarship for K-12 schoolchildren in Florida, managed by Step Up For Students.

As if Yonas wasn’t already facing enough challenges adapting to a new country, when he was in fourth grade his father left the family.

Bewildered and angry at first, Yonas said he grew to accept his father’s actions.

“I’m kind of glad that he did (leave) in the sense that I wouldn’t be here now,” said Yonas, 17. “It kind of motivated me to become the person I am today. Having that burden, it motivates you to be better. If I had everything handed to me, I don’t think this would be my life.”

Yonas with his mom, Zinash, after Yonas graduated No. 1 in his class from Bishop John Snyder High School in Jacksonville.

Suddenly, Zinash Tekleweld found herself a single mom trying to raise her son Yonas in a still unfamiliar country nearly 8,000 miles from her homeland. A year later, she and Yonas moved to Jacksonville, where she worked a minimum-wage job at a cotton candy factory.

Tekleweld learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up. She applied and was accepted. The scholarship enabled her to afford tuition to private schools that helped make him the person he is today.

The scholarship “really lifted the burden for our family and made life much easier,” Tekleweld said.

“Step Up was a big help,” Yonas said. “A very big help. We didn’t have any money. It was paycheck-to-paycheck.”

Yonas said he wanted to help his mother, but when he talked of getting a job, she told him to work on school.

“I realized that education was the most important thing in this country and that through it, Yonas can become a better individual,” said Tekleweld, who now works as a school janitor. “Education is the key to getting anything that he wants. I realized that it can open many doors for him in the future.”

Yonas finished middle school at Sacred Heart Catholic School, then attended Bishop John Snyder High School, where he graduated in June as the valedictorian. He took summer classes at the University of Florida. This August, he will begin working on his major – computer science. He is interested in a career in software development or cybersecurity.

Yonas was accepted to six colleges, including Georgia Tech and Boston College. He chose Florida because his college tuition would be covered with all the academic scholarships he has earned, including the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship.

Yonas had a decorated academic career at Bishop Snyder. In addition to graduating first in his class with a 4.44 grade-point average, he was president of the National Honor Society his senior year, as well as a member of the French, science, math, social studies and English honor societies. He received the school’s Christian Service Award for exemplary service to the community, the Senior Cardinal Award, and the Math Department Award.

“He’s the whole package,” said Kelly Brown, Bishop Snyder’s dean of academics and the school’s sponsor of the National Honor Society.

Brown also teaches AP Calculus. She said the other students wanted to be partners with Yonas on class projects because, well, they knew working with him would ensure a top grade, but also because he could break down the complicated material in a way they could understand.

“He’s a rare find,” Brown said. “He’s a very driven young man with high aspirations and goals. That often comes with a personality that is pretty intense, but not in his case.”

While Yonas earns all A’s, his personality is far from Type A. He is a hard worker who was challenged by Bishop Snyder’s demanding academics. Presented with the opportunity to talk about the struggles he and his mom encountered during their first few years in the United States or brag a little on his academic achievements during his valedictorian address, Yonas chose to talk about what he and his fellow graduates accomplished.

“This means the world to us,” he said of their diplomas.

“I was really happy to hear that Yonas graduated first from his class,” Tekleweld said. “I was really proud of him because I’ve seen how hard he has worked to reach this point. I remember crying about it because I was so happy.”

The emotional toll of his dad leaving, and the financial hardship left in its wake motivated Yonas to excel in school so he could receive the grades needed for the academic scholarships that will pay for his college education.

“That’s what got me here,” he said of his spot in the University of Florida’s incoming freshman class. “In the end it works out. Everything does work out.”

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

His cleats, our cause

By ROGER MOONEY

Former University of Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel is creating some buzz for Step Up For Students this month during the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats campaign.

Driskel, a member of the Denver Broncos, had Step Up’s logo emblazoned on a pair of his cleats in support of the nonprofit scholarship funding organization based in Florida.

Driskel, who grew up in Oviedo, Florida, partnered with Step Up over the summer in an effort to combat racial inequity.

“That’s why I support education choice,” Driskel wrote in an op-ed piece that ran in The Gainesville Sun in August. “Education can be one of the great equalizers in society, and equalizing opportunities is fundamental to finding the learning environment that works best for each child.”

My Cause My Cleats was started by the NFL players in 2016. They showcase foundations or nonprofit organizations they support by having logos and slogans on their cleats during this annual event. The cleats are auctioned off with the proceeds to benefit the players’ selected charities.

All proceeds from the auction of Driskel’s cleats will go directly to Step Up. They are available at Denver Broncos Charities. The auction began Dec. 1 and ends Dec. 18.

“We are honored that Jeff chose to support Step Up in our mission of creating equal education opportunity for children,” said Lesley Searcy, Step Up’s Chief External Relations Officer.”With 150,000 Step Up scholars, I think the Broncos just got a lot more fans!”

The Broncos players will wear their personalized cleats during Sunday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Driskel will support Step Up on his social media platforms and other partnership initiatives.

“I’m a quarterback, so I naturally believe in being aggressive and going on the offensive,” Driskel wrote. “On the field, you need as many options as possible to succeed in any situation. Similarly, education choice attacks inequality by providing parents with multiple ways to find the setting that best meets their children’s needs.”

Step Up manages five scholarships for pre-K-through-12 schoolchildren. Two are income-based: the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship. The Gardiner Scholarship serves children with certain special needs. The Hope Scholarship is for schoolchildren who are bullied in public schools. The Reading Scholarship Account is for public schoolchildren grades three through five who have trouble reading.

Driskel played four seasons at the University of Florida before finishing his career as a graduate transfer at Louisiana Tech. A sixth-round draft pick in 2016 by the San Francisco 49ers, he has played for the Cincinnati Bengals and the Detroit Lions before joining the Broncos last March.

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

Jailine Garcia has a wish: ‘I kind of want to do something in our world’

By ROGER MOONEY

CLEARWATER, Fla. – One day last summer during a school-sponsored trip to Spain and Italy, Jailine Garcia found herself at the Trevi Fountain in Rome. She held three coins; the exact change needed to make three wishes.

Custom at the famous tourist spot dictates your first wish must be to return to the ancient city. Jailine complied.

Her second wish was for good health.

As her final coin splashed into the crystal-clear water, she made a wish that, to those who know her, captured her spirit: Jailine Garcia wished to help others.

“I kind of want to do something in our world,” Jailine said. “I could do something with my family. That would be my start. Then do something bigger in the community.”

Jailine wants a career in pediatrics so she can help provide a better life for disadvantaged children and children with special needs.

Jailine’s aspires to be the first in her family to graduate from college and break the family cycle of living paycheck-to-paycheck.

A senior honors student at Clearwater Central Catholic High School, where she attends on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students, Jailine, 17, wants to major in pediatrics, psychology or neurology. She wants to help provide a better life for disadvantaged children and those with special needs.

She wants to help her parents care for Bella, her 11-year-old sister, who has developmental delays from a rare genetic disorder.

She wants to contribute to the family’s finances and help her parents enjoy their golden years, maybe take them to the Trevi Fountain when that first wish comes true.

Most of all, Jailine wants to reward her parents, Alexandria and Nicolas, for the sacrifices they have made enabling her to have a brighter future than they realized.

“I couldn’t be prouder of her,” Alexandria said. “She puts everything ahead of herself.”

She appreciates everything

During a pizza party last year for students hosted by Step Up For Students, Jailine was asked to write a short essay on what it means to attend a private school on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

She began by detailing a childhood that some would consider less-than-ideal. She did not see her parents often because they were always working. The family bounced between living with Jailine’s grandmother and an uncle because her parents couldn’t afford a place of their own. She wrote of nights when there was barely enough food to feed her and her younger brother, Nicolas, now 14 and a freshman at a district school.

Then Jailine wrote this: “I never got many opportunities to repay my parents for all their sacrifices.”

The Garcias went without a lot of things so their children could have more.

“Jailine is so proud of her parents,” said Patty Ceraola, who teaches Spanish at Clearwater Central Catholic. “She just appreciates everything. Everything.”

Alexandria didn’t have it easy when she was Jailine’s age. She moved from New Jersey to Clearwater when she was 13. Her mom worked two jobs, so Alexandria had to care for her younger siblings. She made sure they got home from school and did their homework. Then she cooked dinner. By 8 p.m. she was exhausted.

She tried college but couldn’t afford it.

She married Nicolas when she was 18. Jailine came along one year later. Two years after that they had Nicolas.

Then came Bella, who has Potocki-Lupski syndrome, a condition that includes developmental delays and speech, eating and neurological issues. It also includes surgeries and hospital stays and doctor appointments. It is so time-consuming her father quit his job as a laminator to become Bella’s full-time caregiver.

Alexandria had a job with mandatory overtime, working 12 to 14 hours a day. They only time she would see Jailine was in the morning before school.

“I know it was hard for her,” Alexandria said.

The Garcias (from left): Bella, Nicolas, Nicolas, Jailine and Alexandria.

Given the instability in her life, you could understand if Jailine rebelled. Instead, she threw herself into her schoolwork.

“She studied harder. She made sure she was making the grades,” Alexandria said. “She was working hard to show me what I’m doing was worth it.”

How do you say thank you?

While living in New Jersey, Alexandria attended Our Lady of Perpetual Hope, a small Catholic grammar school. She liked the small classes and the way the faculty and staff looked after the students. She liked the structure that comes with a religious education.

Alexandria wanted the same for her oldest daughter, so, with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Jailine attended St. Cecelia Interparochial Catholic School from sixth to eighth grade.

After that, Jailine moved on to Clearwater Central Catholic, where she thrived as a freshman. She found the coursework motivating and the teachers eager to stay after class or after school to provide extra help.

But, Jailine longed to attend a Pinellas County magnet school for its medical program, and when a spot opened, she left Clearwater Central Catholic after her freshman year, intent on getting a jump on her career in pediatrics.

The move proved to be a mistake.

She found the teachers unavailable for extra help, the classes too big for her needs. In one, Jailine sat at the teacher’s desk, because it was the only available seat.

“It was an awkward transition,” Jailine said.

Her grades fell, and she worried if she was ruining her chance of attending a top university.

“It wasn’t long, but I knew it just wasn’t right,” Jailine said. “I was not doing well there at all. It was like, ‘OK, you might need to come back to CCC.’”

By the start of the second semester, Jailine was back at Clearwater Central Catholic. Back to its nurturing environment. Back to the honor rolls.

“Honestly,” Jailine said, “it was probably the best thing I have ever done.”

Alexandria, sitting next to Jailine in a spacious conference room on the high school campus, pumped her right fist, smiled and quietly said, “Yes.”

What mother doesn’t want to hear that confirmation from their teenage daughter?

“It makes us feel good, because we’re sending her on the right path,” Alexandria said. “And when she graduates, hopefully that path will take her to a better tomorrow, where she wants to go, where she favors to go.”

Jailine, who is in the International Baccalaureate program and is a member of the National and Spanish honor societies. She wants to attend the University of Florida, the next step toward realizing her dreams.

Jailine in Spain last summer during the high school trip.

That school trip to Europe cost almost $6,000. Alexandria squeezed $157 out of her paycheck every two weeks, and Jailine took jobs babysitting children in the neighborhood. Her grandmother also contributed to the fund, so Jailine could visit places like the Basílica de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Spain, the Vatican, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and that legendary fountain in Rome.

How do you thank your parents for their sacrifices? In Jailine’s case, you work hard in school, tutor classmates in Spanish, help take care of your younger brother and sister – put everyone else first.

And, maybe someday, Jailine might reach into her pocket for a coin so her mother can make a wish at the Trevi Fountain.

“I think that would be a dream come true, the both of us,” Alexandria said. “Knowing that she went back, and I could be there with her, that would be awesome.”

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

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

By ROGER MOONEY   

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

“A … a … a …a … apple

E … e … e … e … egg.”

Or the Long Vowel Song.

“I got an a for apron

An e for eagle.”

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

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

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

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

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

They are catchy tunes, and that is the point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Johnny can’t read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It’s the music’

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Why does it work?

“It’s the music,” Bogle-Duke said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step Up For Students’ David Bryant talks shop at the University of Florida’s business school’s Alumni Café

By David Bryant, Step Up For Students

CaptureBehindthescenesI recently had the great pleasure to go back to my business school alma mater to give an informal lunch talk to undergraduate business students. The lunch was hosted by University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business in Gainesville. I graduated from UF’s MBA program in 2001, and except for attending some college football games at the Swamp, I had not been very active with the business school’s alumni association.

Since 2012, I have been working for Step Up For Students as a development officer, where I am part of the team responsible for fundraising for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, one of two scholarship programs our company helps administer. (The other is the state-funded Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts program for children with certain special needs.)

So I was excited to share my experience about working for Step Up as part of the college’s Alumni Café series. Here’s a description from the Warrington website:

Alumni Café is a casual lunch-and-learn speaker series that connects a small number of our undergraduate business students per session with a local Warrington alum. The goal is to facilitate our students’ understanding of classroom concepts by offering the experienced and balanced perspectives of our diverse alumni base. The intimate and relaxed setting, with catered lunch, creates an environment that encourages meaningful engagement.

No PowerPoints, flashy handouts or suits are required. We’re simply recruiting great storytellers who appreciate the learning process. This is your chance to give back to Warrington and connect with students in a very unique way.

I was especially intrigued by that second paragraph, and I really liked the informal nature of the presentation. Instead of just talking at the students and treating it like a lecture, the lunch was conducted as a two-way conversation. Thirteen students participated, and I found the small size of the group facilitated an excellent discussion.

My topic was on corporate philanthropy, which fits Step Up For Students very well since the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship initiative of our organization depends on corporate tax-credited donations to fund these scholarships for low-income Florida students in kindergarten through 12th grade. This program provides options for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have any choice but to go to their zoned neighborhood school. The really cool thing about our program is it gives kids a chance to find a school that best meets their learning needs.

Step Up development officer David Bryant, front row, fourth from the left, recently spoke at his alma mater, University of Florida's Warrington College of Business in Gainesville.

Step Up development officer David Bryant, front row, fourth from the left, recently spoke at his alma mater, University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business in Gainesville.

The college students were very intrigued by the large amount that we fundraise ($559 million is the goal for 2016), and asked me how the Step Up development team tackles such a large goal. I explained how we first try to find companies that qualify for donating to our program and we tell them about the benefits of participating, and that it’s actually quite simple for companies to donate. These scholarships that wouldn’t be possible without our donors are changing the lives of thousands of children each year. In fact, for this new school year, we already have nearly 77,000 Florida Tax Credit scholars enrolled in school through Step Up. This year’s scholarship helps pay up to $5,677 in tuition and fees. When our donors or prospective donors hear the stories of how these students are affected, and sometimes even meet the children, they know it is a worthwhile cause. The students were very interested in learning about how Step Up helps these low-income kids, and they said that we are providing a great public service by making private school available to our students.

The students asked me great questions about my career path, too, and one student wanted to know what qualities make up a great fundraiser for Step Up. I shared with them that it’s vital to be very persistent with prospective donors, and also to be available at all times for any questions. It is also important to build a good relationship with the donors. We look at our corporate contributors as more than donors, they are partners. They want to see and hear the success stories they helped create, and we love sharing our scholarship stories.  Sharing these stories helps us be good stewards to the donors, which is very important.  But the most important trait of a good development officer at Step Up is passion, passion for what we do and passion for making a difference in children’s lives. You have to have that to be part of our organization. I enjoy working for Step Up For Students, and I am pleased to be part of such a dedicated team.

Overall, the Alumni Café was a great experience, and I was honored to get a chance to speak with the students about the awesome work we’re doing at Step Up. I was very impressed by how smart and insightful the students were, too. The University of Florida is churning out super smart kids, and I’m proud to be an alumnus. Who knows, maybe some of them will join the Step Up team one day.

David Bryant is a Development Officer for Step Up for Students, and works closely with the development team and donor companies to raise money for scholarships. David has 14 years of experience in fundraising and nonprofit management, and he is excited to take on the $559 million goal for 2016. David has held the CFRE (Certified Fund Raising Executive) credential since 2009.