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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.