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Recession crushed family business but dream of quality education burns bright

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school choice
With the help of Florida Tax Credit Scholarships from Step Up For Students, Jonas, left, and Jack Figueredo are thriving at Westwood Christian School in Miami.

By ROGER MOONEY

MIAMI – The conversations moved from the house to the garage, away from the boys, who were too young to understand their parents’ words but would have picked up on the worry in their voices.

Real estate bubble? Recession? Bankruptcy? What sense could Jonas, 6, and Jack, 4, make of those things?

It was 2008, and Frank and Helen Figuerdo did their best to shield their sons. But the real estate company the couple owned was crumbling. Then, the recession cost them everything: Their business. Their savings. Their house. They filed for bankruptcy twice and ended up in foreclosure.

“We didn’t want the boys to know what was going on,” Helen said.

Frank went to work for the state of Florida as a claims adjuster earning $38,000 a year. The couple had cleared 10 times that with their real estate business.

“Thirty-eight grand in Miami with a family of four and two kids in private school,” Frank remembers.

Yes, private school.

The boys were attending Westwood Christian School, a pre-K through 12 school where yearly tuition ranges from $4,780 for preschool to $9,400 for high school – per child. The No. 1 priority that surfaced in those talks in the garage, besides how to keep a roof over the family’s head, was how to keep the boys at Westwood.

The Figueredos met with school officials and told them of their rapidly diminishing finances. That’s when they learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families managed by Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog. The couple learned the scholarship could cover half the boys’ tuition.

Bill Thomson, Westwood’s head administrator and secondary school principal, remembers that meeting in 2008.

“They definitely were at a crossroads of having to possibly uproot their boys from our school and our church and our philosophy and into a different environment that they just weren’t comfortable with,” Thomson said. “They were introduced to Step Up, and it has been very beneficial to them over the years, as it has with many families. It definitely is kind of a success story for that family.”

 Their world

Today, Jonas is 16 and a junior at Westwood. Jack, 14, is a freshman. What the two have accomplished scholastically with the help of the Tax Credit Scholarship is impressive. What they have accomplished away from school with the support of their parents is equally notable.

Jonas is vice president of the junior class, president of the high school band, a second chair trumpeter on the all-district band, and has qualified for the all-state band. He plays taps at funerals and memorials for veterans as a volunteer for Bugles Across America.

He is ranked among the top five students in his class with a grade point average above 4.0. He is member of the National Honor Society and the debate team.

He also is a worship leader at Westwood and finished first last year in a preaching competition at the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools. He is a student ambassador and a former varsity soccer player.

In his spare time, Jonas is a second-degree black belt in taekwondo and competes nationally. He teaches anti-bullying, anti-abduction and self-defense classes to younger children, including those at Westwood. He has plans to teach the classes at a women’s shelter.

He can play the piano, guitar, ukulele and harmonica. He helped put together a musical production at Villa Lyan Academy, a school in Miami for children and young adults with special needs.

His brother, Jack, is a third chair trumpeter in the all-district band and has qualified for the all-state band. He also plays piano and violin. He served as president of the middle school band as an eighth-grader and was instrumental in bringing back the high school debate team. His grade point average is above 4.0. He is a student ambassador and was the goalie on the varsity soccer team for two years.

He plans to race a Mustang next season in the National Auto Sports Association and is starting his own nonprofit, Socks and Sandwiches, to feed and clothe the homeless.

The boys have great role models in their parents. Frank and Helen started the nonprofit “Kids United Foundation” several years ago to send clothes and food to homeless children in Columbia. When the boys were young, Helen took them with her to Miami’s Little Havana when she brought food to the homeless.

“I remember that,” Jack said. “It was a great experience. It broke my heart to see a lot of people like this. I wanted to do something on my own to help them.”

While in middle school, the brothers worked as pages for Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, who was then a state representative in South Florida.

“We’re very thankful for them to be a part of our school,” Thomson, the head administrator, said.

 ‘You’re going to law school’

Jonas has thought about becoming a criminal profiler for the FBI. Jack would love to race cars professionally. Both plan on attending law school.

Getting a law degree is mandatory for the Figueredo boys.

“I always told them, ‘You don’t need to worry about what you’re going to do. You can worry about that when you graduate law school,’” Helen said. “I do believe that a law degree is a license to do whatever you want to do.”

“Honestly, I agree with her,” Jonas said. “With a law degree you have more options. Maybe I do become a lawyer. Maybe I don’t. But I do have the law degree with me.”

The Figueredo boys’ options appear limitless. Frank and Helen were determined to keep them at Westwood to make sure of that.

The couple sold their luxury cars, and Frank picked up an older car at a police auction for $89. They rented a house owned by the school for $550 a month and slowly began to rebuild their finances.

“The school teaches wisdom,” Frank said, “and with wisdom, you learn to learn.”

He works now as a bodily injury adjuster for an insurance company. Helen, who has a degree in business administration and a master’s in educational leadership, works part time as a health care risk management consultant.

“We turned our lifestyle upside down to teach them what is important, what really matters,” Helen said. “A car? Or knowledge and wisdom? It’s taught them not to be materialistic. It’s taught them that people are more important.”

Jonas and Jack are aware of the changes their parents have made on their behalf. They also know the role the Tax Credit Scholarship has played in their education. They are thankful for both.

“I’ve been (at Westwood) since I was 2 years old,” Jonas said. “It shaped me to who I am today.”

“It’s a great education,” Jack added. “The staff, all the teachers, they’re all very supportive, very friendly. They’re always willing to help.”

The boys are eager to see what they can accomplish in the future.

“After they go to law school,” Helen said.

 About Westwood Christian School

Established in 1959 by the First Baptist Church of Westwood Lake, the school provides Biblical and academic education for 550 students from pre-K-12, including more than 230 who are on scholarships administered by Step Up For Students. Students must pass an entrance exam to gain enrollment. The school has state recognized band, choir, drama and art programs. All teachers are fully accredited with the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools and the National Council for Private School Accreditation.

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Column: School quality rises as school choice expands

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Editor’s note: This opinion piece, written by Step Up For Students’ director of policy and public affairs, appeared April 19 on the Florida Politics blog. The commentary was submitted as a rebuttal to an editorial in the Palm Beach Post, which declined to publish it.

Florida’s public education system is leaps and bounds better today than the national embarrassment it was 20 years ago.

But critics triggered by “school choice” continue to suggest, without a scrap of proof, that our schools are basket cases, and choice is to blame.

In its April 7 editorial, the Palm Beach Post perpetuates long-running myths and hides inconvenient facts in condemning a proposed new choice scholarship. Its conspiracy theory is a doozy: “Vouchers” are draining money from public schools, in violation of the Florida Constitution, and while our public schools are being decimated, privateers are cashing in.

The new scholarship would end a waitlist of 13,000 for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which serves 100,000 lower-income students. The value of the new scholarship would be akin to the existing one, yet the Post concludes it “robs Florida’s public schools of needed money.”

No, it doesn’t.

The tax credit scholarship is worth 59 percent of per-pupil spending in district schools. That’s why every independent fiscal impact analysis of the program — eight to date — has concluded it saves taxpayer money that can be reinvested in public schools.

The drain on public schools would come if the program ended.

Construction costs alone would surge into the billions if private school students flooded into public schools. If teachers thought getting a decent raise was tough now, imagine the difficulty with massive new strains on government coffers.

The misinformation and oddities don’t end there.

The editorial suggests private schools are run amok with for-profits when in reality the vast majority are tiny nonprofits. If the paper’s main beef is Florida public schools are being fed crumbs — it calls the state’s low rankings on education funding “pathetic” — how could tiny nonprofits “grab a healthy haul” with 59 percent of “pathetic?”

The editorial also gives credence to the insights of the Florida teachers union, which is rich.

In 2017, the Florida Supreme Court dismissed the union-led lawsuit to kill the tax credit scholarship because the union couldn’t provide a microfiber of evidence to back its claims of harm to public schools.

That hasn’t stopped the union from continuing to flood the public arena with the same erroneous claims.

The Post is right about one thing: accountability is different for public and private schools. Private schools aren’t subjected to the same level of regulation as public schools because they also face the accountability that comes when parents have power to choose.

Parents dissatisfied with private schools can leave, at any time. That’s not true for many parents in public schools, particularly low-income parents.

Unlike parents of means, they can’t just up and move to neighborhoods where they’re guaranteed spots in high-performing schools.

Finding the balance between regulations and choice isn’t easy. But the evidence to date suggests we’re on the right track. Standardized test scores show tax credit scholarship students were typically the lowest-performing students in their prior public schools.

But now, according to a new Urban Institute study, they’re up to 43 percent more likely than their public-school peers to attend four-year colleges, and up to 20 percent more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.

That success is not coming at the expense of public schools. Florida’s graduation rate was 52 percent 20 years ago. It’s 86 percent now. Florida is now No. 3 in the nation in percentage of graduating seniors who’ve passed Advanced Placement exams; No. 4 in K-12 Achievement, according to Education Week; No. 1, 1, 3, and 8 on the four core tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, once adjusted for demographics.

These rankings aren’t “moribund.” They’re encouraging.

There’s no good reason why the steady progress of our public schools is routinely ignored. Or why choice programs are selectively scrutinized. Florida has been spending billions of taxpayer dollars on tuition for private and faith-based schools for years — for multiple scholarships in higher education, preschool and K-12. If the proposed new scholarship is “an abuse of the Florida Constitution,” wouldn’t they all be?

Why do critics obsessively single out the choice scholarships that are designed to help low-income families? And shrug at the rest?

Public education in Florida has big challenges, and adequate funding is one of many.

But emotional arguments detached from basic facts don’t advance the hard conversations we need to have.

From held back to no holding back

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Torey Glover, left, and his twin, Trinidy Glover, right, pictured with their mother, Kim Glover, experienced a stunning academic turnaround at Lake City Christian Academy, which they attend on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

LAKE CITY, Fla. – Sitting in the principal’s office of her twin sons’ school, Kim Glover pushed aside a couple of strands of wavy, auburn hair and took a breath to compose herself as she recounted the boys’ stunning transformation.

“I’ll try not to cry,” she said with her mellifluous Southern drawl.

After the family endured a drawn-out, painful divorce, Torey and Trinidy went from failing classroom distractions to model students, from being retained in seventh grade to posting high GPAs.

Her boys did the heavy lifting, but Kim says it wouldn’t have been possible without the stable, nurturing environment of Lake City Christian Academy and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship that enabled a divorced mom with three jobs to afford tuition. (Step Up For Students administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program and hosts this blog.)

“You can see how much this environment makes a difference,” Kim said with a sweep of her arm as if to highlight the abundance of open, green space, and the peaceful sounds of farm animals and children that waft through the 20-acre campus.

“It’s smaller classrooms. It’s teachers giving more one on one. They give you their phone numbers. It’s a family environment.”

Kim heard about the scholarship from a staffer at the neighborhood elementary school, where her oldest son, Trey, had been held back in first grade and was struggling with dyslexia. He got on track at LCCA. The twins followed after trying the neighborhood school for one week and not liking it.

Torey and Trinidy are fraternal twins, but hard to tell apart. They have the same angular faces with side-swept, light brown hair that falls in their eyes. They prefer to wear muted colors. They’re best friends who idolize their older brother, love baseball and being outdoors. Kim sometimes thinks they’re telepathic.

Seeing their parents’ marriage fall apart and being caught literally in the middle of mental and physical abuse took an awful toll.

“It got very bad,” Kim said. “When we split, it got violent. I went into a shelter for three months with all three boys. It took four years to get a divorce.”

The twins shut down at school. They were chronically tardy, disregarded classwork and talked incessantly.

“We were focused on socializing, mainly hanging out with friends, becoming teenagers,” Trinidy said. “Our priorities were screwed up.”

Twins Torey and Trinidy Glover have bonded with friends and teachers on the Lake City Christian Academy campus, which boasts a 21-stall horse barn, a farming area and a dance studio.

Torey and Trinidy had been behind after arriving at LCCA in second grade unable to read. It helped that principal Tana Norris and pastor/administrator Pete Beaulieu had known the family since the boys were little.

“We could have pushed them forward and hoped they would catch on at some point,” said Beaulieu, who had been the children’s pastor. “Holding somebody back is never an easy decision. But they were going through stress at home, and they were in the middle of searching for themselves.”

Too many D’s and F’s in seventh grade gave Torey and Trinidy no choice but to repeat. Friends asked what happened but were supportive. Teachers rallied. Everyone lifted them up with care, sensitivity, and good advice.

The twins took it to heart.

“I just got tired of failing,” Torey said.

Their teacher told Kim how Torey decided he wanted to get good grades because he saw how hard his mom worked, and he wanted to take care of her.

“That was heartbreaking in a good way,” she said.

The changes came suddenly. Kim remembers coming home one evening to Torey and Trinidy doing homework. She felt their foreheads.

Are you my child?

What’s going on?

“That light just clicked on,” Norris said.

Since eighth grade, C’s are rare. Kim has stopped worrying and no longer has to nag about school.

“They tell me what’s going on,” she said. “I hear them talking about school, classes, tests, and homework. It makes me proud.”

Torey and Trinidy give much of the credit to LCCA and their teachers.

“We have really close interactions with the teachers,” Trinidy said. “It’s nice. In the small classrooms you get a bond with all of your friends and even with the teachers. It feels like they’re one of your best friends or even a family member.”

The twins are in 10th grade now. Torey has a 3.75 GPA; Trinidy has a 3.41. They talk about starting careers after high school, although their ideas seem to change daily. They have a firm belief in themselves that Norris says wasn’t there before.

“They’re totally different,” she said. “They have goals and they have things they want to do, and they know they can accomplish them because they’re successful.”

About Lake City Christian Academy

Norris opened the school on a 1-acre lot with a 3,000-square-foot building in 1994 with 25 students. In 2000, LCCA moved to a vast campus with a 21-stall horse barn, a lighted equestrian arena, farming areas, a dance studio, a chapel, softball and baseball fields, a covered basketball court, 15 classrooms and a cafeteria. LCCA employs an experiential learning approach with farming, equestrian and video game design programs. Every student has an individual learning plan. BJU Press and Abeka are among the classroom materials. The independent, non-denominational school is accredited by Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS), and has 242 K-12 students, including 132 on Step Up For Students Florida Tax Credit scholarships. The Stanford 10 test is administered in April and STAR reading and math assessments are given three times a year. K-12 tuition is $6,000.

American achievement gaps in international context

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The Economist published an interesting article recently titled, “How Chile combines competition and public funding.” The piece included a graphic demonstrating how Chilean students fared on the Program for International Student Assessment, an international test that every three years measures reading, mathematics and science literacy of 15-year-olds. The assessment also includes measures of general or cross-curricular competencies, such as collaborative problem solving.

The graphic revealed how the PISA scores of Chilean students compared to those of students in nearby countries, provided the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average, and showed the market share for various schooling sectors.

Here is the summary graphic:

Chile created a national voucher program in 1981, and lawmakers have made significant revisions to improve equity in recent years. Argentine scholar Mariano Narodowski performed a deep dive on the Chilean voucher program in 2018.

So, when you are an edu-nerd like me and you see something like this, it makes you say, “Hmmm … I wonder how Chile compares to student subgroups in the United States?” Well wonder no more!

Soak up that achievement gap, America, and note for the record that Chilean students attending school in a developing nation outscored American black students – after at least a decade and a half of Chilean improvement.

Greece represents American Hispanic’s nearest international achievement neighbor. American Anglo students, meanwhile, sit comfortably toward the top among the higher performing European and Asian systems but still get beat by countries like Estonia.

If I were feeling unusually cruel, I would look up the average spending per pupil in Chile, Estonia, Greece and the United States. Well, I can tell I’m not fooling you, dear reader; we all know how cruel I can be, so here goes:

Chileans surpassed the average scores for American black students on PISA despite an average per-pupil spending well below half the American average. American Hispanic students score in the vicinity of Greece, which spends more than Chile, but again a mere fraction of the spending in the United States.

Estonia spends less than Greece, and well below half the level of the United States, but outscores America’s highest scoring racial/ethnic subgroup. Estonia, by the way, also has an extensive system of public and private school choice.

Low-performing students have the most to gain from choice, but even relatively high-performing American subgroups may be underperforming their potential. A universal system of choice with a significant funding advantage for low-income families could help students of all backgrounds flourish.