Author Archive | Jeff Barlis

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 She was quiet and withdrawn, afraid to ask for help, made fun of because she couldn’t read.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 →

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 →