Author Archive | Jeff Barlis

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 →


Jacksonville private school, scholarship fueled student’s emotional turnaround

Malik Ferrell turned his life around at The Potter’s House Christian Academy in Jacksonville.


That’s where Pamela Howard feared her son, Malik Ferrell, would end up after years of struggles at different schools in Jacksonville.

She couldn’t afford to let that happen. Malik needed a caring environment, especially after he and his family were rocked by the murder of his older brother, Derrell Baker.

Pamela had been searching for the right fit for Malik – four different schools in four years.

Finally a friend told her about the Step Up For Students scholarship, which allowed her to send him to The Potter’s House Christian Academy.

(Step Up For Students publishes this blog, and helps administer the tax credit scholarship program in Florida.)

That’s where Malik’s life unraveled – and where he ultimately put it all back together.

“Having the opportunity to go to a private school helped get him on track,” Pamela said. “I cannot even tell you the difference it made in his life.”

At his neighborhood school, Malik made mostly D’s in second grade, then mostly F’s in third grade, which he had to repeat.

Three years and three schools later, at the age of 11, he got a fresh start at The Potter’s House.

Then the unthinkable happened.

Just weeks after Malik enrolled, Derrell, 17, was killed in a drive-by shooting. Police had no suspects. There were no arrests.

Pamela was working full-time at Blue Cross Blue Shield, taking complaints in the executive department. The grief and stress overwhelmed her, and the mother of five went on disability. She now works part-time doing billing at McKesson.

“Seeing my momma cry and my sisters cry, it was … it was just a lot to deal with,” Malik said. “That was my only big brother, so there was nothing for me to look up to.”

Derrell was everything to Malik – best friend, football hero, protector, disciplinarian, role model. Continue Reading →

Scholarship helps student’s, parents’ smiles return

Maria and Marcos Verciano will never forget the anguish over their daughter’s struggles in third and fourth grade. That’s why they’re so grateful for the scholarship that changed their lives.

At first it was the D’s and F’s on Hadassa’s report cards that raised their concern. Then the poor progress reports, all of the meetings at their neighborhood school in Destin, Fla., being told Hadassa wasn’t on track to make the next grade level – it all added up to a serious strain on the family.

Hadassa’s ADHD diagnosis didn’t do much to change her path, either.

Hadassa Verciano, 12, has improved her academics at Rocky Bayou Christian School in Niceville, Fla. “It’s way easier to learn,” she said. “If you don’t understand something the teachers explain it really well.”

Hadassa Verciano, 12, has improved her academics at Rocky Bayou Christian School in Destin, Fla. “It’s way easier to learn,” she said. “If you don’t understand something the teachers explain it really well.”

“They just set her apart and gave her more time to do the tests, but nothing more than that,” Maria said. “It was so sad for me, for her dad and for her, because she felt different from the other students. She felt like she was not accepted.”

“It was kind of overwhelming to think that she wouldn’t make it to fourth and fifth grade, that this was going to be her life forever. It was a very bad feeling that she was always behind.”

When Hadassa’s normally bright spirit and enthusiasm for school turned to dejection, her parents knew they had to make a change.

A Step Up For Students scholarship empowered them to do it.

The couple had always dreamed of sending Hadassa to a private school, but with Marcos’ work installing pavers and Maria’s job managing a beach house, they could never afford it. At their small Brazilian church, they found out about Rocky Bayou Christian School, a place that caters to all manner of students with different educational needs.

At Rocky Bayou’s Destin campus, principal Joe Quilit told Maria about the Florida tax credit scholarship, which helps low-income families afford tuition. She applied, but it was too late in the school year. All of the scholarships had been awarded. Continue Reading →

A supportive environment made all the difference for this scholarship student

Tatianna Mondesir used to pull her hair down over her face in class. She was trying to hide, trying to avoid being called upon to answer questions she knew she would get wrong.

“When I got a wrong answer, people would laugh at me,” said the normally vibrant girl with the long braids. “I didn’t understand as well as them.”

In her zoned neighborhood school, she was earning C’s, D’s and F’s in third grade and was in danger of being retained. She managed to scrape by, but her pediatrician had advice for her mother: Look into the Step Up For Students scholarship for low-income students. Consider a private school that might give Tatianna a better chance to learn and grow.

The next year, at Abundant Life Christian Academy in Margate, Tatianna was still struggling and hiding behind her hair. But now no one laughed when she couldn’t produce the answers.


Tatianna Mondesir graduated from 8th grade at Abundant Life Christian Academy in Margate last spring.

This was the start of a transformation.

“The teachers and my classmates supported me,” said Tatianna, now a ninth-grader. “In fourth grade and fifth grade I struggled a lot, because I wasn’t on the same level as other kids. But I improved to getting C’s.”

Smaller classes, after-school tutoring, and extra attention from her teachers helped. But nothing made as big an impact, Tatianna said, as the compassion and encouragement she felt all around her.

Finally, she had hope, which began to turn into belief in herself.

“When she came to sixth grade, she was still a year behind,” said history teacher Laura Hennebery. “But she was really working hard.”

And wanting more. Quarter after quarter, Tatianna watched her friends go up on stage for an honor roll ceremony while she sat alone next to their empty chairs. She became obsessed with making honor roll, too.

At the end of the fourth quarter, she thought she was there. But when she and her mom, Karen, met with her math teacher, she learned she was short by a single point.

“I had a 79,” Tatianna recalled. “I was so happy! I thought she was going to round up, but she didn’t. My mom asked her if I could have extra credit so I could make the honor roll, but she wouldn’t let me. She said I should have done the extra credit that was available (during the school year). But I never did that, which was a mistake.” Continue Reading →

School choice scholarship helps earthquake survivor thrive in South Fla.

Shalala Dubuisson was 13 years old when a massive earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, killing tens of thousands of people and turning her family’s world upside down. The last thing the traumatized teenager needed when her parents sent her to live in America in the aftermath was more turmoil, but that’s what she found in a place that was supposed to be a refuge.

Shalala’s new school in South Florida turned out to be different than her school in Haiti. Less discipline. More disrespect for teachers. And Shalala’s inability to speak English at first made her a target for bullies.

Problems continued in ninth grade, when Shalala began attending her zoned high school in Homestead. That’s when Christina Toussaint, Shalala’s older sister and de facto mom in the U.S., decided enough was enough.

“In less than a month she got into like three or four fights,” Christina said.

Connections within the local Haitian community led Christina to Ebenezer Christian School, a small, orderly school tucked between a shopping plaza and a residential area. She needed to find the right fit for Shalala and also wanted to enroll Chanukah, her 6-year-old sister.

Shalala Dubuisson graduated from Ebenezer Christian School last year and is now attending Miami-Dade College.

Principal Rose Flore Charles, who is Haitian, told Christina and her parents about the Step Up For Students scholarship, a program that gives low-income and working-class families tuition assistance to choose from more than 1,600 schools statewide.

“They could not afford a private school,” Charles said. “It was tough … especially because (Shalala) was very emotional after the earthquake.”

Even a glimpse into Shalala’s backstory makes it easy to see why.

On January 12, 2010, Shalala was staying late for math tutoring in Port-au-Prince when, suddenly, the world shook. She ran out of her school in time to watch half of it collapse.

As the ground continued to shake, Shalala could hear screams. Continue Reading →

The right school choice made all the difference for De’Asia Waters

Note: Step Up For Students helps administer the tax credit scholarship program, and employs the author of this post.

Demetria Hutley-Johnson can laugh about it now, but not long ago her daughter, De’Asia Waters, was having such a hard time in school she tried to hide her grades.

“I used to have to search her backpack,” Demetria said. “She’s sneaky. Their tests and quizzes have to be signed by parents. She knew about it. She just wouldn’t give them to me. Now she does.”

De’Asia, 14, laughs about it, too. She’s proud of her grades now. There’s no more hiding, because her troubles are behind her.


De’Asia Waters went from repeating fourth grade to excelling at Masters Preparatory Christian Academy in Havana, Fla.

The struggles began in third grade at her neighborhood school in Quincy, about a half-hour northwest of Tallahassee.

“I just felt like she was being left behind,” said Demetria, a licensed practical nurse since 2013. “She had a substitute teacher all the way through December. She didn’t get her real teacher until they came back from their winter break in January.”

De’Asia’s grades fell from A’s to F’s, as mom grew increasingly frustrated.

After frequent visits to the school and many conversations with school officials, Demetria decided she needed to explore other options. She started calling private schools and found out about the Step Up For Students scholarship, which helps parents of low-income K-12 students pay tuition.

Thanks to the scholarship, Demetria was able to steer her daughter’s academic journey back towards a happy ending.

It didn’t happen immediately. De’Asia’s poor grades required her to repeat fourth grade at the first private school she and her mom chose. The retention was supposed to help, but her troubles continued. After De’Asia spent fifth grade working at her own pace in a computer-based curriculum, her mom decided for a second time to seek a better fit.

A teacher suggested Masters Preparatory Christian Academy in nearby Havana. There, De’Asia’s grades began to stabilize in the sixth grade, thanks to small classes, one-on-one attention, and support from her teachers. Continue Reading →

Scholarship helped an aspiring pediatrician get back on track

Note: Step Up For Students publishes this blog and employs its editor as well as the author of this post.

As early as sixth grade, Lacey Nowling knew her love for children was calling her to become a pediatrician.

Living in the tiny town of Jay, Fla., in the far northwestern reaches of the panhandle, she had a clear vision of her future.

But certainty turned to doubt as her school work got harder and harder in ninth grade.

Lacey Nowling is a nursing student at Jefferson Davis Community College in Brewton, Ala.

Lacey Nowling is a nursing student at Jefferson Davis Community College in Brewton, Ala.

“She had bad grades,” Lacey’s mom, Elizabeth Nowling, recalled. “She was running D’s and F’s most of the school year. She was just barely making it by the skin of her teeth.”

At the same time, Lacey was feeling more and more out of place at her neighborhood school. Because of the bad influences there, she was becoming distracted from her schoolwork. Then, the only thing that was keeping her at that school – band – fell apart as well.

“Band was my safe place,” she said. “Band was what kept me going.”

The last straw was at band camp when Lacey, a piccolo player, unwittingly broke a rule by drinking Gatorade on the field. The director chided her in front of the band and made her stay in a push-up position for the rest of practice.

“After practice we went back to the band room, and I went into the bathroom and cried,” Lacey said, still emotional as she recounted the event years later. “It was a few weeks later when I quit.”

For months, Lacey’s mother had been pushing her to transfer to Faith Christian Academy, a private school at their church. Lacey was now open to the change.

Her younger brother, Zack, was already attending FCA with the help of the Step Up For Students scholarship, which gives parents the ability to choose from more than 1,600 participating private schools statewide. Continue Reading →

From bullying victim to valedictorian

It would have been hard to picture Jasmine Harrington as a class valedictorian in 2012. As a ninth-grader at her south Pinellas County neighborhood high school, she was routinely physically and emotionally attacked by her classmates, and her misery was reflected in a GPA of 0.625.

Until eighth grade, she had been a good student who enjoyed school. Then the nightmare began.

“I went through a terrible middle school experience,” Jasmine said. “Then it followed me into my ninth grade year. I figured ‘We’re in high school now, everyone will let it go.’ But I had the wrong people around me at the wrong times.”

Jasmine Harrington graduation

Jasmine Harrington, left, and her mother Angela Little will both be enrolled at St. Petersburg College this fall. Harrington graduated valedictorian from School of the Immaculata, while Little is set to graduate college after the fall semester.

Jasmine’s mother, Angela Little, was spending more and more time at the school pleading Jasmine’s case to teachers, administrators and resource officers. She was irate and feeling hopeless.

“[Jasmine] made it the first year,” Angela recalled, “only because every day I had to be there 10-15 minutes before school let out, standing immediately right there as she walks out to make sure five or six of them didn’t pummel her.”

“The cyberbullying was horrible. I had to see all this stuff that was on Facebook and in text messages, and I reported all of that to the school.”

Angela followed the school’s procedures and filed complaints. She even went to the homes of parents whose children were involved. Nothing changed Jasmine’s plight.

“I kept continuously getting in trouble and continuously arguing with the same people,” Jasmine said. “It was extremely hard (to focus on school). No teacher, not one of them, could control their class.”

“I never learned. I literally would skip class all day and no one would care.”

Angela knew where Jasmine was headed. Continue Reading →