Heidi Gonzalez was aware of the warning signs. Her daughter Samantha had just started sixth grade at her neighborhood middle school in Miami, and already she was going down the wrong path.
Bad grades. Bad behavior. Falling in with the wrong crowd.
As a 10th grade teacher who worked with at-risk students at a public high school, Heidi knew veering off course in middle school could lead to much worse later. So she spent lunch breaks researching private schools near their home, determined to find a better environment. A Florida tax credit scholarship made it possible for her to consider them. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the scholarship program.)
“I’m very lucky,” Heidi said, “to have caught it on time.”
It wasn’t an easy choice. Heidi knew she might hear whispers at work. She had spent years working in public schools. But this was her sweet little Sammy, and the sudden changes were alarming.
“I’m a parent first and a teacher second,” Heidi said. “So she’s my daughter and I’m going to do whatever is best for her despite wherever I’m working. It doesn’t matter what other people say, what the community says, what society says. At the end of the day you’re bringing that kid home with you. It’s your problem to solve.”
Sammy was Heidi’s “little angel” until middle school. Report cards with D’s and F’s and poor conduct prompted constant bickering. Samantha’s piercing brown eyes would roll with indifference every time her mom tried to give her guidance.
“It didn’t look like she cared about her future,” Heidi said.
Heidi started paying closer attention to Samantha’s new friends and the area around the school, which was tucked between an expressway and a busy six-lane street. She drove through the neighborhood after morning drop-off and saw children skipping school and middle-schoolers smoking.
That was it. Heidi’s mind was made up.
Samantha said she was just trying to fit in. She often walked across the street with her friends to a bakery, where they’d eat, hang out, and return to school when they felt like it.
“I was new,” she said, “and new kids tend to do whatever everyone is doing.”
Like her friends, Samantha was struggling academically, too. Longtime difficulties with math landed her in a remedial class, but she couldn’t stand doing classwork on a computer every day.
“I didn’t like that class,” she said, “so I didn’t really bother going.”
Near the end of the school year, Heidi broke the news to Samantha – she was transferring to Miami Christian School for seventh grade.
A short drive away, the campus was wide open with big, green spaces for sports, and gardens for vegetables and butterflies. It was tranquil and clean.
Samantha was especially surprised by the class sizes. There were about half as many students as she was used to, and the teachers made a point of working with each.
The students were different, too.
Samantha quickly became friends with three girls who made a strong impression on her with their behavior and work ethic and grades like she had never seen before. They weren’t skipping classes.
“I thought that was weird, but then I thought maybe I should start staying in class more, because they’re doing it,” she said. “And so I did.”
“When I first saw everyone in the school getting really, really good grades it made me feel like I’ve got to push myself and get better. If everyone there is getting good grades, what am I doing slacking off?”
Slowly, Samantha gained confidence in the classroom. She improved in her first couple of years, then took a dramatic step last year in 10th grade. She earned all A’s and B’s and made honor roll for the first time in her life. Heidi was so emotional, she had the award framed.
Now in 11th grade, Samantha is headed for another honor roll. She’s also starting to plan for college, with an interest in becoming a physical therapist. She credits Miami Christian School with encouraging her to volunteer in the community and participate in sports.
When Samantha arrived at Miami Christian, she had never played on a team and didn’t like watching sports. But because the school is so small, she was needed on all the teams – soccer, volleyball, softball, and basketball.
In time, she discovered a knack for softball and was named the team’s most valuable player last year. It’s become a passion. She practices or plays nearly every day during the season and even works by herself in the offseason.
It’s a level of dedication so unexpected, it makes her laugh to think about the shy girl who first set foot on the dusty diamond on Miami Christian’s campus.
“It’s about being a well-rounded individual, and sports can be a big part of that,” said high school principal Woody Gentry. “I think it’s helped her. You see the growth, you see her developing, you see her confidence. … We’re just happy to have been part of it.”
Samantha didn’t like switching to private school at first. She cried often about missing her old friends. But it wasn’t long before she came to agree with her mom’s decision.
“I matured 100 percent,” she said.
For Samantha, the change also brought the bonus of a more peaceful and loving relationship with her mom.
For mom, it’s everything to get her sweet Sammy back.
About Miami Christian School
Established in 1954, the non-denominational school is accredited by SACS (Southern Association of Schools and Colleges) and ACSI (Association of Christian Schools International). For 2016-17, there are 270 PreK-12 students, including 140 on the Step Up For Students scholarship. In the past five years, Miami Christian has graduated 222 students who were accepted to more than 100 different national and international universities and were offered $8.9 million in four-year scholarships. The school offers honors, Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment classes. High school students take the PSAT every fall and the Terranova test every spring. Annual tuition is $6,000 for K3-4, $6,900 for Kindergarten, $8,000 for grades 1-5, $8,625 for grades 6-8, and $9,500 for grades 9-12.