Author Archive | Jeff Barlis

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 →

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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 →

‘I’m a parent first and a teacher second’

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.)

Samantha Delgado went from D’s and F’s at her neighborhood school to honor roll at Miami Christian.

“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. Continue Reading →

Scholarship alum grateful after being selected in the NFL draft

After being drafted, former Monsignor Edward Pace High School linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. embraces his father, Anthony Walker Sr. “I was happy for my dad,” Anthony Jr. said, “to see all the hard work that he did for me pay off. I was just happy to see that, and just to give my dad a hug.”

Anthony Walker Jr. sat in his home, ear to cell phone, new coach on the line. Then came the announcement on TV that had the room full of family and friends explode in celebration.

With the 161st pick in the NFL draft, the Indianapolis Colts select Anthony Walker Jr., linebacker from Northwestern …

Step Up For Students* scholars have gone on to all kinds of impressive accomplishments. Now they can add the NFL to the collective list.

Walker’s parents secured a Florida tax credit scholarship so he could attend a private middle school, wanting a better situation for him academically and socially. Walker went on to Monsignor Edward Pace High School, a private school in Miami Gardens.

“He’s thrived academically, socially and athletically,” said Anthony Walker Sr., his father and one of his football coaches at Monsignor Pace. “We couldn’t be happier and more proud of him.”

Led by his dream of playing in the NFL, Anthony Jr. was always a good student and hard worker. He knows his parents put him in position to succeed. But the scholarship was important, he said, because his parents wouldn’t have been able to afford tuition without it.

“There’s definitely a noticeable difference going to a private school,” he said. “There are a lot less distractions. It’s more than just education. There are outside pressures, teen peer pressure to do anything but succeed in school. So me being in the private school setting limited that and kept me on the right track.”

Success on the field and in the classroom translated to Walker getting recruited by revered academic institutions like Northwestern, Stanford, and Duke. All have excellent football programs.

When Northwestern offered a scholarship, Walker accepted and moved to Evanston, Ill. The structure and time-management skills he learned at Monsignor Pace helped him balance school and football.

Getting drafted is only one of this year’s big milestones. Walker is set to graduate in June with a degree in Learning and Organizational Change. After his playing career, he hopes to work in an NFL front office and one day be a general manager.

“The degree is way more important than the football,” Walker said. “but to be able to get both is awesome.”

About Monsignor Edward Pace High School

Founded in 1961, Monsignor Pace is located on 44 acres in Miami Gardens and part of the Archdiocese of Miami. It’s a member of the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) and accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). The school has a 1-to-14 teacher-to-student ratio with 830 students in grades 9-12, including 377 on the Step Up scholarship. With a focus on college preparation, the school boasts a 100 percent graduation rate and 99 percent college attendance. The school annually administers the PSAT, Aspire and ACT tests for various grades. Tuition is $11,725 for grades 9-11 and $11,975 for grade 12.

*Step Up For Students administers Florida’s tax credit scholarship program and publishes this blog.

A scholarship to a rural Catholic school made this student’s turnaround possible

Eventually, Jodi Haley said, she had enough. She felt she had no choice but to remove her son Jessie from his neighborhood school.

She was fed up with his failing grades, crushed every time she saw him cry about school, bewildered by the mysterious headaches he came home with every day.

All of that went away when Jessie got back on track at a little Catholic school, where Jodi credits a scholarship for opening the door.

In their town of Frostproof, Jodi said, the neighborhood school just wasn’t working for Jessie, even though it had been a good fit for his three older brothers.

“He was really struggling and it was heartbreaking,” said Jodi, a divorced mother of six who works as a technician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “(My fear was) that he would eventually quit school and then go down a bad path.”

At the end of Jessie’s third grade year, school officials told his mom he would have to be retained because he was so far behind. Around the same time, he was diagnosed with dyslexia. Jodi knew her son needed help, immediately.

From left, Pat Carrol, Dr. Anna Adam and Patricia Gutierrez celebrate Jessie Haley’s Turnaround Student award.

Coincidentally, she came across a flier for St. Catherine Catholic School in nearby Sebring. The principal at the time, Dr. Anna Adam, tested and evaluated Jessie.

Now principal at a Catholic school in New York City, Dr. Adam can vividly recall the anguish on Jessie’s face when she met him. He was sweet and polite, but the uncertainty in his eyes and smile revealed how quiet and painfully shy he could be in the classroom.

“He came in as pretty much a non-reader,” Dr. Adam said. “But I didn’t want to retain him. I think if he would have been retained he would have been absolutely crushed, and we would have lost him. That would have been the end of him. He just would have curled up in a hole and gone away.”

Dr. Adam was confident she and her staff could work with Jessie, and Jodi’s heart soared. Not only had she found the right school, but they also told her about the Step Up For Students scholarship that enabled her to afford the tuition. (Step Up For Students administers Florida’s tax credit scholarship program and publishes this blog.) Continue Reading →