Author Archive | Lisa A. Davis

Moving to a smaller school environment made all the difference

Adrienne Cirino’s children started their formal education at their neighborhood school, but soon her son started shying away from kindergarten and her daughter had days where she was ducking desks thrown by angry peers.

“I felt scared,” said Layla, who just started seventh grade. “Me and my friends would go in the corner. I didn’t really feel like going to school.”

Always a solid student, Layla’s grades started to suffer.

“My daughter went from an A-B honor roll to getting Fs on tests,” Adrienne recalled. “I try to shelter my kids as much as possible… but they were really exposed to a lot of stuff.”

Her son Jeremiah’s situation worsened, too.

“The bullying my son endured in that school system was ridiculous,” she said. In fact, she added, when he once tried to stand up for himself it backfired and he ended up being suspended. Then he started acting out, which resulted in numerous suspensions.

“They got to the point they didn’t want to go to school anymore,” Adrienne said. “And this was third and fourth grade and that’s way too young to start hating school.” Continue Reading →

School choice scholarship gives FL family more nurturing options

The Nelson family

The Nelson family

After looking at the school options for her firstborn, Benjamin, Autumn Nelson of Yalaha in Lake County, didn’t like what she saw.

“We wanted an environment that was really nurturing and we just didn’t see that in our neighborhood school,” Autumn said.

 The neighborhood school they were zoned for was a D and has since fallen to an F, so she started homeschooling. When it got closer for her younger children, Nathaniel and Meghan, to start school, she rethought that option, too.

“Looking down the pipeline and seeing that I had two more coming up, I knew that it was going to be a little too stressful for me for me to homeschool all three,” Nelson said.

She and her husband, Daniel, started looking at private schools and learned about Step Up For Students school choice scholarships, but at the time students had to attend a public school for a year prior to becoming eligible for the scholarship. The Nelsons obtained a zone waiver for Benjamin, so he could attend a public school outside of his neighborhood for a year and become eligible for Step Up. This one was rated a C.

“He cried every day. Every day,” Autumn recalled.

Nathaniel, however, was able to start at kindergarten at Liberty Christian Prep School in Tavares with the help of a Step Up school choice scholarship. The family immediately fell in love with the school, even Benjamin, who looked forward to starting there the following year. He would attend fairs at the school and was very impressed the teachers knew his name even before he began attending.

When he could start at Liberty in third grade, everything changed for Benjamin.

“His first day at Liberty he said he loved his teacher, and he wanted to stay at the school forever.  As a mom, that sealed the deal for me,” said Autumn.

Now all three of her children attend the school and are doing well.

Continue Reading →

School choice scholarship ensures he doesn’t get lost in a crowd



Editor’s note: As we point out often, this blog is co-hosted by Step Up For Students, which administers Florida’s tax credit scholarship program for low-income students. Step Up periodically profiles students who benefit from the program, and though we strive not to be a vehicle for self-promotion, we think it’s important for policy makers and the public to hear more from families who benefit from school choice. Here is the story of one of them.

Even in the womb, doctors noticed Semaj Iwan Mack was considerably smaller than other babies. By the time he was 3, physicians decided it was time to start growth hormones, but before they began decided to perform an MRI – just in case.

That’s when they discovered a cyst growing on the toddler’s pituitary gland, said his mother Bridget Geiger Pye. The pea-sized gland sits at the base of the brain and naturally produces, among other things, the growth hormone.

“It was causing him not to grow well,” she said.

Three weeks after the cyst’s discovery in 2011, surgeons performed a procedure not to remove the cyst, but to puncture it and create a drainage system to alleviate pressure on Semaj’s brain. But, Bridget said, something went terribly wrong.

“The doctor accidentally nicked a vessel in his brain,” she said.

The result was similar to a stroke, causing paralysis on Semaj’s left side.

“He was on life support for two days,” Bridget said. “He woke up and had tubes and everything draining from him. We lived in the hospital and he couldn’t move. He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t do anything.”

He had to learn to walk and talk all over again. Still, Semaj was home by that Christmas and was able to run again for the first time that January.

“They said that he was healing so fast because he was a child,” Bridget recalled. “Of course, I believe in the power of prayer.”

More than two years later, Semaj, now a kindergartener, is doing beautifully. He still doesn’t have full mobility and needs to use his two hands to perform a simple task such as holding a school folder, and he still requires speech and occupational therapy, but he has come a long way since those days immediately following surgery. And while he once didn’t even register on the growth charts for his age group, he is within the 10th percentile in height. He’s still the shortest boy in his class, but he’s on par with some of the girls, Bridget said.

When it came time for Semaj to start kindergarten, Bridget, who also has two grown children, wanted to make sure he would get the extra attention he needed. She toured the neighborhood school.

“I felt like my son would get pushed aside and forgotten,” said the single mom. “Maybe even pushed into a special (needs) class.”

And she didn’t think she could send him to a private school. While Semaj was still recovering in the hospital, Bridget lost her job in the U.S. Navy when her position was deemed non-critical after the Navy restructured due to overstaffing. After her dismissal, she took on a job paying $25,000 less a year.

She thought private school was impossible at this point, and then her son’s babysitter told her about the Step Up school choice program. “The Step Up program has eased my mind so much that I can’t put into words how thankful I am,” Bridget said. “My son is loved at that school and he’s getting the extra attention and time he needs.” Continue Reading →

Scholarship student & dad overcome struggles, graduate together

Demonte Thomas and his father, Mario, at graduation.

Demonte Thomas and his father, Mario, at graduation.

On graduation day 2013 for Franklin Academy in Tallahassee, the sanctuary at Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church was packed with 1,500 guests who came to support the small private school’s 24 graduates.

But there were two students who brought the guests to their feet.

School Principal and Founder Margaret Franklin told the crowd, she had never done this before, and then called Demonte Thomas, 18, and his father, Mario, 40, to walk together down the aisle to receive their diplomas.

“As they marched down together it was just awesome,” recalled Franklin. “The crowd stood up and they were just roaring.”

It was a day for Mario that was a long time coming, and one that almost didn’t come for Demonte.

By 11th grade, Demonte was failing at his neighborhood school, which led his parents to secure a Step Up For Students Scholarship for him to attend Franklin Academy, where his brother was already attending and thriving. (The tax credit scholarships are sometimes called private school vouchers; they’re administered by Step Up, which co-hosts this blog.) But Demonte was still not committed to his future, and when his father tried to give him advice, he’d brush it off.

Mario was terrified his son would end up on the street where as a younger man he spent many years as a member of a local gang, and survived being shot twice before realizing he had to change his ways or end up dead.

Mario looked to the school for help with his son, and Principal Franklin reached out to Demonte regularly, but her words didn’t seem to be getting through.

“Demonte came in as a child not really respecting his father,” she said. “He kept saying he (his father) didn’t even have a diploma.”

And that was all about to change. Continue Reading →

School “voucher” lifts father and son

Orlando and Gaby

Orlando and Gaby

Orlando Garcia never imagined he’d be a single father, and his friends didn’t think he could handle it.

When his buddies asked him how he could take care of his infant son when he couldn’t even take care of himself, Orlando would shrug it off and quickly answer that he didn’t have a choice.

“When he is sick, I will take him to the doctor,” he told them. “And when he needs medicine, I will go to the pharmacy. When he is wet, I will change his diaper.”

Despite his positive attitude when talking with his friends,Orlando still had some doubt about how he could raise young Gabriel “Gaby” alone — until he saw a man with four young children standing in front of him in line at the grocery store.

“Are you a single dad?” Orlando asked, holding his 1-year-old Gaby. ”Yes,” the man answered.

Orlando smiled, and that moment changed his outlook.

“He looked so happy, and I will never forget that. I remember it like it was yesterday,” Orlando said of his memorable conversation that was nearly 10 years ago.

It gave Orlando the confidence that he could be a good dad, even solo.

For personal reasons, it was best that Orlando and Gaby distance themselves from Gaby’s mother and Orlando became a single dad.

“It’s so sad because he wants that love that only a mother can give, that mother’s love,” Orlando said. “I try. I give him extra kisses. He’s 10 now, and I still treat him like a baby.”

As the years have passed, Orlando and Gaby have made a life that works for them, but when the father saw his son struggling in school and encountering bullies, he didn’t know which way to turn.

“He was doing kind of bad and didn’t want to go to school,” Orlando recalled.

He spoke of his concerns at his church and he was told about Florida College Academy, a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade private school in Temple Terrace, just outside of Tampa.

“I told them I couldn’t afford the $5,000 tuition. I could barely pay my bills,” said Orlando, a construction worker.

Then, he heard about and applied for the Step Up For Students school choice scholarship. Gaby started at the school in the second grade. Continue Reading →

Florida ‘voucher’ student works hard on and off the field

While most young men who play high school football dream about making it  to the pros, Kevin Kelly knows that it’s highly unlikely he’ll make it to the NFL.

“I probably won’t, and I’m OK with that,” he said recently. “As long as I get to have fun now, I’m OK with it.”

Kevin in Nicaragua on a medical mission trip.

Kevin in Nicaragua on a medical mission trip.

But the starting defensive end and right guard for the Father Lopez Catholic High School Green Waves has a different – perhaps more realistic – dream: Playing college football.

“I’ve really progressed, and I hope to play college ball,” he said.

Kevin, a junior, attends Father Lopez in Daytona Beach with the help of a Step Up school choice scholarship. There, he has been able to refine his athletic and academic talents. He credits the support of his team, watchful eye of his coaches, along with the reduced team size at his school, for granting him the opportunity on the field despite the highly competitive nature of football in Daytona Beach.

“At Father Lopez, I was able to start in my sophomore year,” Kevin said. “Being on a smaller team, they were able to help me more, coach me up more. The coaching was great, and my teammates were unbelievable.”

While he’s always enjoyed playing the game, Kevin didn’t always have such a passion for football. Now, it’s as if he never wants the game to end.

“When I made my first touchdown, I really didn’t want to stop,” he said.

Before Kevin learned he had to fight hard to win in football, he was taught that you have to work hard to succeed academically. Actually, he said, the lesson he learned at Sacred Heart School in New Smyrna Beach, where he attended kindergarten through eighth grade, pertains to life in general. His former math teacher, Aven Bacon, used a tough-love approach.

“She really pushed me. If I started to get lazy, she would threaten to put me in the lower class,” Kevin recalled. “That really taught me you have to work hard to get what you want.” Continue Reading →

Thanks to school choice, “the boys are getting what they need”

Benjamin and Isaiah

Benjamin and Isaiah

Isaiah Vargas entered the world addicted to drugs.

As the toxins were purged from his tiny body in the hospital, he had repeated seizures and fought to stay alive. His first two months of life were spent in the neonatal intensive care unit, said his grandmother, Cheryl Valladares.

“They didn’t give us a good prognosis on him,” she said. But Isaiah is now a fourth-grade Step Up For Students scholar at New Jerusalem Christian Academy in Seffner and excels academically. The 10-year-old student also plays the flute at school, and takes gymnastics at the local YMCA.

Still, he didn’t completely escape the perils of his mother’s drug addiction. Nor did she.

Isaiah’s eyes have been crossed since birth, which made sitting up and walking more of a challenge early on, and he would fall more often than a typical toddler. He also was born with spina bifida occulta, a spinal cord disorder resulting in sensory delays, so when he did fall, he couldn’t feel pain and still doesn’t feel it the way most people do. The disorder has made it difficult for his family to know when his injuries are significant. He still has difficulty with fine motor skills and shows little emotion.

For the third time, he had eye surgery in November 2012 in hopes of further straightening them. This is only some of what he copes with each day.

His mother didn’t fare as well.

At age 18, Kristi became entangled in drugs, said her mother, Cheryl. She had grown up with a supportive family and gained a solid educational background, but started running with the wrong crowd, Cheryl said. She married another drug user when she was 25, and had Benjamin that same year.

Cheryl was awarded guardianship of her two grandsons in 2004 after her daughter had been arrested on previous drug charges. Shortly after, Cheryl lost her job managing a chiropractic office in Tampa where she was employed for seven years, she said, because her boss told her she would be out too much with Isaiah’s doctor’s appointments. She has worked at a much lower paying job without benefits ever since.

By the time Isaiah was 3 and in preschool, administrators and teachers at his neighborhood school were overwhelmed by his physical challenges and ultimately placed him in special education classes, despite his obvious intelligence, Cheryl said.

“His mind’s intact,” Cheryl would tell school teachers and administrators. “Please don’t treat him like he’s mentally handicapped.”

By first grade, Isaiah was given yet another lifeline by the educators in his family, who founded and still run New Jerusalem Christian Academy in Seffner, just outside of Tampa. Continue Reading →

Step Up student critically injured; family needs help with medical bills

The first and only time I met Onicka Patterson was in May 2012, during a Step Up For Students donor event.

Step Up For Students scholar Onicka Patterson was seriously injured in an accident last month.

Step Up For Students scholar Onicka Patterson was seriously injured in an accident last month.

She was one of 22 kindergartners and first-graders from Manatee Learning Academy who joined Step Up and Kemper Corporation representatives for a tour of the Southeastern Guide Dog facility in Palmetto, Fla.

There was a “puppy hugging” session, of all things. With Onicka’s neatly braided hair, full cheeks and unyielding smile, she was hard to miss.

When an 8-week-old black Labrador retriever set his paws on Onicka and started licking her face, the 5-year-old Step Up scholar was all giggles. Her playful nature drew the attention of many that day, especially my colleague, Ashley McDuffie, who took photographs including several of Onicka.

Sadly, the Step Up staff learned this week that Onicka, now 6, was in a serious car accident on Dec. 19, and is still in the hospital fighting for some semblance of the life she once knew. A story that ran Jan. 25 in the Bradenton Herald filled in the details.

The main photograph the newspaper printed of a smiling Onicka with a puppy was one taken by Ashley. The photographs of Onicka in her hospital bed are hard to view, but, clearly, this child is a fighter.

Onicka already has experienced several miracles since her accident, according to the blog, which was set up to support the family. They are struggling to pay medical bills. Those who wish to help can donate to the family directly on this fundraising site by hitting the give button on the left side of the page.

Onicka wasn’t expected to survive emergency brain surgery after the crash, but she did. And on Dec. 24, doctors told her family she will live. She has a long road of recovery ahead, and it’s still unclear how much damage she has suffered.

But Onicka is making progress. She has been able to sit up and has even written her name. On a special Facebook page!/groups/510036345693737/?fref=ts that follows Onicka’s story, her mother, Donna Pearson, posted on Jan. 27 that her daughter spoke for the first time that night.

Onicka Patterson is greatly missed by her Manatee Learning Academy friends. A serious accident last month has left the 5-year-old hospitalized.

Onicka Patterson is greatly missed by her Manatee Learning Academy friends. A serious accident last month has left the 6-year-old recovering from life-threatening injuries.

“God bless her she i(s) a real warrior,” Pearson wrote. A video clip shows Onicka in her hospital bed. “Hello Mommy,” she says quietly.

Our hearts are heavy, and our thoughts and prayers are with Onicka and her family, which extends to Manatee Learning Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Her Step Up family hopes she once again finds her strong voice and sees many more miracles so she can improve every day.

Editor’s note: Step Up For Students is a nonprofit that oversees the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, and the co-host of this blog.