Author Archive | Jeff Barlis

School choice scholarship ‘saved’ bullying victim

Middle school is tough for a lot of kids. For Valentin Mendez, it was hell.

At night, he would try to sleep on the floor of the downtown Miami gas station where his mother worked the graveyard shift.

Valentin Mendez still visits La Progresiva and principal Melissa Rego regularly.

In the mornings, he’d think about who was going to beat him up that day.

After school, he’d clutch his mom and cry.

“It was chaos,” he said.

Non-stop bullying left Valentin so hopeless, he dropped out of his neighborhood school in sixth grade and moved to Nicaragua to be with his father. That could have been the end of a heartbreaking story.

But thanks to a scholarship, Valentin got a chance to start over at a different school – and to turn everything around.

“The scholarship,” said Valentin’s mother, Jeannethe Ruiz, “saved my son.”

Valentin was born in Miami but lived in Nicaragua with his father, Roberto Mendez, from age 3 to 9. The tall, chubby kid with glasses was an easy target for bullies. That he didn’t speak much English made it worse.

Money was tight, so Valentin and his mom lived in her sister’s apartment in a rough neighborhood near downtown. While Jeannethe worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., Valentin could hear the sound of gunfire and drug raids. She decided to have him sleep on a thin comforter inside the gas station’s plate-glass booth.

“The floor was very cold,” Valentin said, “but at least I knew I was secure.”

That wasn’t the case at school. He lasted a month before mom transferred him to another district middle school. He made it six weeks there.

“Bullies were everywhere,” he said. “I saw people doing drugs. … They were smoking. I saw cocaine as well. It was heavy stuff.”

One rainy morning, a boy spiked a football into a puddle, drenching Valentin with water and dirt. Other kids laughed. Valentin was crushed.

His mom had enough when Valentin told her about boys who terrorized students from below a staircase. Valentin spoke out and got punched in the back of his head.

“They grabbed him and beat him up,” Jeannethe said, “and no one from the school said anything to me.”

Valentin begged his mother to send him back to Nicaragua.

“I wasn’t thinking about returning. I just needed to get away, the farther the better,” he said. “The moment the plane touched ground I felt secure.”

Just being with his grandparents and father was a comfort. So was grandma’s red beans and rice.

Valentin figured he’d go to school there, maybe become a construction worker. He had given up on any American dreams.

But back in Miami, his mother was making plans. A neighbor told her about a private school – La Progresiva in Little Havana. Jeannethe walked by the cluster of vanilla-colored buildings one day and saw a banner for a Florida tax credit scholarship, which helps parents of low-income students pay tuition. She applied that day. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the tax credit scholarship program.) Continue Reading →

Adoptive family grateful for private school, scholarship that made it possible

When Camron Merritt came home from first grade with a card inviting him to a birthday party, he didn’t know what it was.

Recently adopted after two turbulent years in foster care, the 6-year-old had never been invited to a birthday party before.

He was the difficult kid with storm clouds behind his dark brown eyes. The one that other children and their parents couldn’t understand.

Camron and Rylan Merritt are typical brothers. “They fight like cats and dogs, and 10 minutes later they’re best friends again,” said adoptive mom Melissa Merritt.

All of that started to change when Camron’s adoptive parents took him out of his neighborhood school in Bushnell and enrolled him in a private school with a school choice scholarship.

New mom Melissa Merritt cried when she saw the invitation.

“Seeing your kid go from being the outcast, the kid that nobody talks to, to getting invited to a birthday party is such a big deal,” she said.

When they got Camron at age 5, Melissa and husband Brandon put him in the neighborhood school that was closest to her job as a victim’s advocate for the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office. It did not go well.

Camron’s early childhood was plagued by neglect and exposure to domestic violence and drugs. The emotional damage was made worse by more than 20 foster homes and several schools before he was adopted. He was too much for most people to handle.

“He didn’t trust anybody. He didn’t like loud noises. If there was somebody yelling on TV, he used to run and hide in the bathtub,” Melissa said. “If you said no to him, his little face would scrunch up. He’d cross his arms and stomp his foot.”

At school, Camron wrestled with learning disabilities, severe ADHD and difficulty adjusting.

“Every day I was getting calls to come get him,” Melissa said. “He was hiding under his desk, screaming and throwing things, not paying attention, smacking other kids.”

Because Brandon does pest control work throughout the region, it was Melissa who had to leave her work frequently.

“It was extremely stressful,” she said.

Frustrated with a lack of support and communication from the school, Melissa resolved to find a better option and learned about Florida tax credit scholarships* from another adoptive mother. Children in foster care or out-of-home care automatically qualify for the scholarships and can keep them if they are adopted.

Since 2014, state law has allowed foster parents to apply for scholarships year-round. Continue Reading →

School choice scholarship helps Orlando graduate literally soar

As a boy, Orlando Rivera dreamed of being a pilot.

He grew up in the shadow of Orlando International Airport, staring up at planes from his backyard. By age 6 he could pick out airline logos. At 7, he could ID manufacturers and models. He even found an amazing school for pilots just an hour away.

But when Orlando learned what it takes to get into the school, his dream took a nosedive.

“I started looking at the financial requirements and grade requirements and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m not going to make it,’ ” he said. “My mom is disabled. My father was in prison. So I was like, ‘I don’t have any help. This is not going to happen.’ ”

Orlando Rivera flies a Cessna 172 as he trains for his pilot’s license.

Years later, though, a scholarship – and a little opportunity – put Orlando’s dream back into flight.

A passion for aviation runs through Orlando’s family. His uncle wanted to be a pilot but didn’t have good-enough vision. His mom wanted to be a flight attendant but didn’t pursue it when she started a family in her early 20s.

Shortly after Orlando was born, a stroke left her disabled. “My dream,” she said, “lives on in my son.”

When Orlando was 7, Uncle Manny gave him Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004. Orlando played every day, sitting at his little computer desk with a joystick and throttle.

“I’d pretend I was flying a Jet Blue plane across the world,” he said. Continue Reading →

With the right school and a portable scholarship, she found her voice and graduated with honors

Eliya McDonald was in ninth grade when everything fell apart.

First her mom was diagnosed with frontal lobe epilepsy, a condition that caused frequent seizures and forced her to quit working. Before long, the family was homeless and car-less, living in a roach-infested hotel with most of their possessions gone. Then Eliya was diagnosed with Graves disease, a thyroid condition that caused symptoms like insomnia, mood swings, weight and hair loss.

Eliya McDonald graduated in May 2017 from Tampa Bay Christian Academy.

Until that point, she had been an excellent student, first at a charter school for the performing arts, and later – with a Florida tax credit scholarship – at Academy Prep, a highly regarded private middle school in Tampa. But now in a top-tier private high school, and rocked by everything she and her family had to endure, she began to fall behind.

Her GPA fell to 2.33. Worse, the once-boisterous girl with the loud, infectious laugh and Cheshire Cat smile crawled into a shell.

“That year was really rough,” Eliya said. “I was in and out of school, and when I was in school I didn’t really fit in. I wasn’t able to keep up.”

“It was really heartbreaking,” said Eliya’s mom, Ebony Smith. “That was not my daughter. It was totally out of character. Her nerves were horrible.”

Thankfully, the scholarship helped Eliya and her family rise above. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the scholarship program.)

Ebony raised Eliya and two older sisters in West Tampa, a neighborhood she described as “drowning in poverty.” She was determined to lift them out, using school choice as the ladder. She enrolled them in charter schools, where Eliya discovered a talent for singing and acting, then secured Step Up scholarships so they could attend private schools.

“My girls are not going to live the way that I have had to live, and I made that pledge to them,” Ebony said. “Education is the only thing that’s going to save them.”

Things finally stabilized for Eliya when she and her mom began to find the right medications, and a non-profit charity donated money to get the family into an apartment that is still home today.

Eliya transferred to Tampa Bay Christian Academy to get a fresh start and a better fit. But she was still in her shell. She didn’t know if she was in the right school, yet.

“In 10th grade, you hardly knew she was there,” said Natasha Sherwood, head of TBCA. “She was scared to move or talk. Her eyes didn’t look up. You’d see the top of her head more than you could see her face.”

Eliya isn’t sure how, but an English and drama teacher named Selma Grantham found out about her performance background and pushed her to sing in a chapel service.

Slowly the shell began to crack, as Eliya started asking questions in class. But the big breakthroughs were performances as Baloo in “The Jungle Book” and Rafiki in “The Lion King.”

As Eliya stretched her vocal chords, she rediscovered her self-esteem.

She became a leader. Her grades bounced back. She earned two scholarships, one for $10,000, to Southeastern University in Lakeland. Continue Reading →

Public, private schools’ partnership lifts up Orlando neighborhood

Every week, students and parents at Calvary City Christian Academy, a K-12 school in one of Orlando’s most hardscrabble communities, convert groceries into care packages for scores of their neighbors.

That those neighbors happen to be homeless students at Sadler Elementary, another school three blocks away, is only the first clue that the relationship between these high-poverty schools – one public, one private – is special.

For four years, the schools have worked hand-in-hand to serve their students, parents and neighborhoods, regardless of which school the students attend.

The result: Both schools and their heavily Hispanic populations now benefit from a wide array of social services – everything from English-language classes to housing assistance – provided by the church affiliated with Calvary. Both see each other as assets that can best uplift a community by cooperating. And both are quietly offering a glimpse of what’s possible if artificial walls between public and private schools can be knocked down.

“We’re modeling what is right by working together,” said Calvary principal Denise Vega. “That sends a message to our parents. We’re not divided. We’re not two. We’re one. One with one purpose – to work together to make sure our children in our lower-income communities are getting everything possible. That only happens when you unite.” Continue Reading →

From street life to college life – thanks to a private school scholarship

Deion Washington still frequents Betton Hills School in Tallahassee, Fla.

Deion Washington didn’t plan to speak to lawmakers. But as he sat with classmates in a committee meeting about school choice in the Florida state capitol, the urge overtook him.

The eyes of lawmakers and the lenses of cameras trained on him as he stepped to the podium and told his story.

How he skipped classes almost every day in his neighborhood school. How a private school straightened him out. How a Florida tax credit scholarship made it possible. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the scholarship program.)

“I just felt like I had to do it,” Deion said. “They never got to hear the voice of someone who actually needed the scholarship to go to school.”

Three years later, Deion’s story of hope and opportunity includes moving new chapters. Now 20, he’s working his way through college. He’s also a frequent visitor to Betton Hills School, the tiny Tallahassee school he credits with turning his life around.

“If I didn’t go to Betton Hills,” he said, “I probably wouldn’t have finished school.”

Deion’s early education came on the streets. He was the youngest out there late at night, small and skinny and quiet, hanging around grown men.

To some in his neighborhood, success meant selling dope, and at the age of 8 he occasionally counted the money. He got paid for it a couple of times. Mostly it was just something to do.

With his mom typically working three jobs, including one at night, most days it was up to Deion to get his younger sister and brother ready for school; to and from school; and then fed and put to bed.

Then he went out. Continue Reading →

Scholarship, Kingdom Academy spurred turnaround for Miami student

Henezy Berrios

Eleven-year-old Henezy Berrios’ sparkling brown eyes crinkle in the corners when she smiles, which is just about all the time. She has boundless, contagious enthusiasm. She loves to dance and crack jokes.

She’s the girl that everyone in school likes.

But you would have hardly recognized her in first grade at her neighborhood school in Miami. She was quiet and withdrawn, afraid to ask for help, made fun of because she couldn’t read.

The D’s and F’s and diagnoses of ADHD and dyslexia set off alarms for her mother, Liliana Arguello. She resolved to find a better fit for Henezy’s education, and thanks to a Step Up For Students scholarship was able to access a private school called Kingdom Academy. Continue Reading →

Tampa Catholic grad going from one scholarship to another

Cheyenne Daphney and mom DJ Ruhland celebrate after the graduation ceremony in downtown Tampa.

When she walked across the stage as a freshly minted graduate of Tampa Catholic High School a couple of weeks ago, Cheyenne Daphney looked out at the audience cheering in the downtown theater and thought about all the help she got along the way.

Her mom, DJ Ruhland; her basketball coach, Matt Rocha; her teammates; and the rest of her Tampa Catholic family – they were all there giving a standing ovation.

Cheyenne also thought about the tax credit scholarship that made private school possible, and how she will soon start a new scholarship this summer at St. Petersburg College. (Step Up For Students administers the scholarships and publishes this blog.)

“I’ve got butterflies,” she said after the ceremony. “I’m so grateful. Tampa Catholic turned me around. I really don’t feel I would have made it to college without Tampa Catholic or Step Up.”

In ninth grade at her neighborhood school, Cheyenne’s grades slipped so badly her mom told the basketball coach to bench her despite being the best player on the team.

The discipline didn’t work and Cheyenne’s grades continued to slide. She even earned an F in one class and had to take an online summer course to make up for it.

DJ decided to make a change.

She secured a Step Up scholarship, which helps low-income and working-class students pay for private school tuition. Then she enrolled Cheyenne at Tampa Catholic, something she had always dreamed of but never thought she could afford.

Results were immediate. Continue Reading →