Author Archive | Jeff Barlis

School choice scholarship student soars after quickly hurdling language barrier

MIAMI – The day after Maria Corrales’ tear-soaked graduation ceremony from St. Brendan High School, her mother, Carmen Urquijo, still searched for perspective.

“I have no words,” said Urquijo of her oldest daughter’s path from Cuba to Miami, a four-year journey that saw a girl who didn’t speak any English transform into a college-bound honors student.

A moment later the words spilled forth.

“Proud, grateful, full of joy that she was able to achieve so much,” Carmen said in Spanish. As Maria translated, a slight blush came over her golden skin.

Maria’s journey is a testament to perseverance and opportunity. St. Brendan became a second home, a refuge and a springboard to the American dream. But Maria’s family wouldn’t have been able to afford tuition had it not been for the Florida tax credit scholarship that helps low-income and working-class families. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the scholarship program.)

The journey began in the hilly town of Santa Clara, Cuba. Maria was one of the top students in her middle school, but knew from her parents that studies were no guarantee of success in Cuba. Her mom was a doctor, but the profession paid very little. Her father, Fabio Corrales, studied to be an electrician but ended up a businessman who worked with artisans.

The family was comfortable, but a future in Florida looked far brighter. Continue Reading →

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Football? Academics? Scholarship student chooses both at Dartmouth

Robert Crockett III is headed to Dartmouth College to play football and study pre-med.

MIAMI – Robert Crockett III is engaged in hand-to-hand combat with his uncooperative red-and-white striped necktie as a photographer sets him up for the next shot.

On a bright, breezy spring day at Christopher Columbus High School in Miami, teachers and fellow students say hi as they walk past without an ounce of surprise to see the affable senior representing the school. With his close-cropped hair and perfect smile, Robert is a star on campus.

Getting accepted to Dartmouth College has only added to the mystique.

“We need to buy him a lifetime supply of school sweatshirts to have him be the face of a Columbus alumnus,” said English teacher Bob Linfors. “He’s a success. I don’t know how much credit we should get for molding him, but he’s somebody to put on our posters.”

When Robert came to Columbus for ninth grade, it was his third school in three years. He excelled at a K-8 magnet school through seventh grade, but mom Stacy Preston, who also grew up in Miami, wanted Robert to get the big neighborhood school experience for eighth grade. It turned out to be too easy. Continue Reading →

Florida charter school beams with pride over valedictorian’s college choice

Amanda Fernandez is valedictorian at Doral Academy Preparatory School in Miami.

DORAL – Senior Amanda Fernandez walks the halls of Doral Academy Prep in Miami in her neatly tucked red Doral polo, her long, wavy brown hair and tortoise shell glasses doing their best to hide her shy smile.

But there is no hiding – even in a school of 1,700 overachievers – when everyone knows who you are.

She’s a brain.

She’s a beast.

Amanda’s fellow students revere her. Top athletes are intimidated by her. Everyone can recite her accomplishments. 4.0 GPA. Perfect score on the ACT. And they all know the four colleges she was accepted by – Harvard, Stanford, MIT and Princeton.

“She’s the Michael Jordan of Doral,” said principal Carlos Ferralls, who made a bigger deal of each acceptance letter than any sports standout at his school.

The star treatment took some getting used to, but Amanda has always been easy to approach and humble.

“Juniors especially will come up and ask me for tips on how to get into their dream school,” she said. “They see it as more attainable, I guess, because they see me. It’s not that far out of reach.”

The second and youngest child of Cuban immigrants, Amanda grew up knowing how much her parents sacrificed to move to the U.S. before she was born.

“They started from zero twice,” she said. Continue Reading →

School choice scholarship student enjoying the calm after the storm

TJ Butler is all smiles as he nears graduation from Hillsborough Baptist School in Seffner, Fla.

The lean, angular kid arrived at his new school three years ago, whip-smart and rage-filled. TJ Butler didn’t want to make eye contact, didn’t want to make friends, didn’t want to follow the rules. Instead, he screamed, slammed doors and threw things, including, one time, a desk.

For a boy diagnosed with bipolar disorder, whose father was in prison, who grew up with police lights flashing in his front yard, maybe that’s no surprise. But the teachers and administrators at Hillsborough Baptist School weren’t going to give in.

Nearly every day for the first year, the principal, Jessica Brockett, talked with TJ – and listened. For a boy who never thought anyone would listen, this was therapy.

“I wanted him to have a fresh start,” Brockett said. “I said, ‘Look, we’re not kicking you out of here, so let’s just get past all that.’ That developed a trust and a connection that he could come down here and say what he needed to say.”

Three years later, a visible calm has settled over TJ. Now 18, he walks the halls with the confident, purposeful stride of a young man who’s on the verge of graduating from high school and going to college. Continue Reading →

A wild balm of a school

Every structure at the boys’ camp site, including this tiki hut, has been built by the campers.

Editor’s note: See a profile of Gator Camp student Ross Perkins here.

Fighting, skipping, smoking pot – Jake Clayton’s freshman year in a public high school was a disaster, with explosive anger issues leading to a school record 44 disciplinary actions. Most days, the skinny kid with the mischievous smile would walk off campus and hang at a friend’s house. He failed nearly every class.

After his expulsion, his older sister discovered an off-beat private school called Gator Wilderness Camp, where troubled boys live on 250 acres with cows and beehives and learn to find paths to success. Could this work for Jake?

Jake’s adoptive mom, Virginia Clayton, was desperate enough to give it a shot. And thanks to a McKay Scholarship, a type of school choice scholarship for Florida students with disabilities, she could afford it.

Today, Jake is 17, months from graduating from his virtual high school, and planning to go to college. “The anger never comes out anymore,” he said. “I’d be in a pretty bad spot if I hadn’t gone to camp.”

Since its founding in 2009, Gator Wilderness Camp has served 139 students – nearly all of them on school choice scholarships – and become another distinctive piece in Florida’s increasingly diverse mosaic of educational options. Most of the roughly 2,000 private schools that participate in the state’s scholarship programs could be described as “mainstream,” but there are plenty of niche schools like Gator Camp. State-supported choice programs allow them to cater to the more specific needs of individual students and parents, and the more specific visions of individual educators.

Greg Kanagy, director of Gator Camp, is one of them. The mild-mannered 50-year-old grew up loving the outdoors in Pennsylvania, and earned degrees in physical education and special ed. He liked the idea of combining the two. “But I didn’t relish the thought of spending 25-30 years inside of four walls,” he said.

Camp director Greg Kanagy

In South Carolina, he worked for a similar school and found a passion for helping at-risk boys. The concept was inspired by a Texan named Campbell Loughmiller, who developed the first camp near Dallas in the 1940s and helped spread the idea around the country. After Kanagy got his master’s in education, the opportunity arose to move his family to the semi-tropical wilds of southwest Florida and start Gator Camp.

There is no sign on State Road 131 in Charlotte County when it’s time to turn off the paved road. That’s intentional. Isolation is key. A couple of miles down a dusty, white-sand road, the “school” sits, surrounded by vast tracts of farmland. The nearest visible neighbor is a sand and shell mine.

“I was a bit afraid of getting my hands dirty,” Jake said, “but I was up for giving it a try.”

The environment helped. It was hot and buggy, but also incredibly peaceful to hear nothing but animals and breezes making their way through the oaks, pines and cypresses.

The camp serves boys in three separate age groups between 10 and 15, with no more than eight campers in each. Most have special needs or disabilities. Many are deeply wounded. Continue Reading →

A private school off the beaten path was the key to a major turnaround

Kelly Perkins was in a full-blown panic when she woke up at 5:15 a.m. and her son Ross wasn’t there. For three days he wasn’t at school, which was nothing new, but he wasn’t answering his phone. She drove the streets of Cape Coral looking for him day and night.

“I come home on the third day and he was sitting on the porch,” Kelly said. “He was hiding with his friends in a golf country club bathroom.”

Kelly was at the end of her rope. Ross, 15, had gone off the rails, and his therapist suggested an out-of-home placement – Gator Wilderness Camp School, an hour north in rural Punta Gorda. That’s what spurred Ross to run away.

Kelly Perkins and her son Ross are all smiles these days.

Kelly didn’t want to send Ross away, but now Ross needed help.

Problem was, even if Ross agreed to camp, Kelly had to figure out how to pay for it.

Luckily, she learned, there was a school choice scholarship that made tuition manageable.

“Without it, I don’t know where we’d be,” she said. “Probably in much more trouble.”Ross was a good student when he was younger. Kelly spoiled him. He had every game system he ever wanted, always had name-brand clothes and shoes.

His hair was a playground. Kelly, a cosmetology teacher with short blond hair and kind eyes, loved to help Ross change his look – hair spikes in preschool, a mohawk in kindergarten. He got his ear pierced on his 10th birthday.

“I went with the mohawk forever,” Ross said with the same Chicago accent as his mother. “I’d wear it up or down in my eyes. I’d dye it crazy colors and shave the sides and wear skinny jeans. I had really great grades, A’s and B’s. So I could do whatever I wanted.” Continue Reading →

Scholarship helped bullying victim find safety and comfort

Jennifer Gross and daughter Hannah Waibel are all smiles these days at Faith Community Christian Academy in Arcadia, Fla.

The note was written on a torn piece of paper slipped through a slot in Hannah Waibel’s locker. When she opened the door, it fell to the floor.

You should just kill yourself. You’re not wanted here.

Hannah cried as she retreated to the bathroom to call her mom. The bullying at her neighborhood middle school in Arcadia had been relentless, but this crossed a red line and triggered Hannah’s darkest moment.

“Maybe they’re right,” she thought, warm tears staining the crumpled note.

She contemplated suicide for a second and it scared the heck out of her. But the next emotion she felt was anger. Minutes before she found the note, Hannah had left a two-hour meeting with her parents and the school resource officer. He had assured them he would fix the situation.

Hannah’s mom, Jennifer Gross, stormed back to the school to withdraw her daughter. Hannah was already in the office filling out her 25th incident report in the first month of her seventh-grade year.

More than 47,000 public school students in Florida were bullied or assaulted in some way in the 2015-2016 school year, according to the most recent state statistics. Spurred by those numbers, state lawmakers are considering a new type of scholarship, the Hope Scholarship, to give more victims a way out.

In Hannah’s case, a Florida tax credit scholarship saved her. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the scholarship program.)

The scholarship allowed her to enroll in Faith Community Christian Academy, one of two private schools in Arcadia, a small town at the heart of Desoto County.

“I couldn’t stay,” said Hannah, chin quivering, voice cracking as she recounted her story. “Suicide is scary. You can never take it back.”

She and her mom share the same dirty blond hair, dark brown eyes and wary smile. They were determined to find safety above all else. Hannah’s grades in elementary school were excellent, but middle school was about survival. She got C’s and D’s.

“She really didn’t care anymore,” Jennifer said. “Didn’t want to be there.”

What started in sixth grade with adolescent dramas between on-and-off friends, turned into excommunication and worse in seventh grade.

Hannah isn’t sure why she became a target of girls she once called friends. She wasn’t born and raised in Arcadia, which made her an outsider. She was also pretty and well dressed, which seemed to explain why they shouted “slut” and “whore” at her.

“I was an outcast,” Hannah said.

Having no friends made things worse. The isolation was devastating.

Harassment came in the form of shouts in the hallway, mutterings in the classroom, text messages from random phone numbers, messages on social media. Hannah was repeatedly threatened for filing incident reports. Usually the gist of it was: “You’re no good” and “Why are you here?”

It didn’t get too physical – a shoulder here, a shove there, a stack of books knocked to the ground – but it still hurt. Yet nothing ever happened to her bullies. The note in the locker was the final straw.

Jennifer, a former chef at a nursing home and later a stay-at-home mom who married a fire sprinkler installer, knew about Faith Community Christian and the Step Up scholarship. She had looked it up years before, when her oldest daughter, Chelsea, suffered through the same kind of bullying at the same school.

Back then, Chelsea was unable to attend because of transportation issues – the family had just one vehicle. This time, when Jennifer called principal Joni Stephens to enroll Hannah, the school was full.

Jennifer detailed Hannah’s ordeal. She begged. Tears fell on both ends of the phone. It was too late in the school year to get a scholarship, but Stephens had never turned anyone away.

“I knew I was going to make room,” she said. “It’s not about the money. If it was, we wouldn’t be here.”

The school is only a few short blocks from the district school, but it felt like a new universe to Hannah.

“She was very quiet, very shy,” Stephens recalled. “She wouldn’t look at you in the face. You could tell she had been emotionally damaged. She didn’t trust anybody.”

In her first two weeks, the unthinkable happened.

Hannah was sitting on a stage in the cafeteria when a bigger, older girl started punching her and dragged her off the stage by her hair. She tried to defend herself, but school officials quickly intervened.

As she sat shaking in the front office, waiting for her mom to arrive, she also saw how Stephens handled the issue on the spot. Two lunch ladies came in and described what happened, confirming Hannah did nothing to provoke the fight.

It turned out the attack wasn’t random. The older girl was a cousin of one of Hannah’s old bullies. She was suspended for a week and later transferred.

After what she had been through at her previous school, Hannah was amazed by the response. Slowly but surely, her frayed nerves recovered. Her confidence returned.

With a Step Up scholarship starting in eighth grade, Hannah soared to the honor roll. Now 16, she has accelerated her learning to combine 10th and 11th grades in the current school year, and is on track to graduate next year as valedictorian or salutatorian.

She’s also thinking about college and an apartment.

“It makes me feel grown up,” she said. “From everything I went through to graduating early, it makes me proud.”

Hannah still runs into her bullies at Walmart or the restaurant where she works part-time as a hostess. They still lob insults and threats, but now Hannah brushes them off and walks away smiling.

Her secret? She uses it as motivation now.

“I just want to show everyone that did me wrong that I’m better than that,” she said.

About Faith Community Christian Academy

The school opened in 2010 with 12 students. It now has 125, including 73 on Step Up For Students scholarships. The school uses a self-paced curriculum called Accelerated Christian Education (ACE), and all high school graduates earn an accredited diploma through dual-enrollment at Lighthouse Christian Academy. The Iowa Test of Basic Skills is administered annually. Tuition is $7,000 a year.

School choice scholarship was her ticket out of extreme poverty

At Seven Rivers Christian School in Lecanto, there’s a list of core values for students. Among them: Do hard things.

Maloni Lewis knows it. She’s lived it.

Maloni Lewis attends College of Central Florida in Ocala.

With two disabled parents and three older brothers in and out of jail, Maloni grew up in extreme poverty. Their community in nearby Crystal River, with its run-down homes and overgrown yards, was full of hopeless people.

Devastated by the path her sons had taken, mom Renée had an unyielding determination to chart a different course for Maloni. A tall, broad-shouldered woman, she made a school-choice scholarship the ticket to a better life.

“We went through a lot of trauma,” Renée said after a pause, her eyes welled up with tears. “But I told Maloni, it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s where you’re at.”

Like her brothers, Maloni struggled in third grade at her neighborhood school. Her reading, writing and math grades were poor. Other than her trademark mane of meticulous braids, she wasn’t herself. The playful smile, the one mom said “has diamonds in it,” was missing.

Renée had seen this before. Her boys were bright and talented, but they came home from school explaining how it wasn’t cool to be smart. They were made fun of for speaking proper English. Bad friends led to bad choices. Going to jail, Renée said, was a virus that tore through the family.

Maloni would be different. Continue Reading →