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Florida schools roundup: Scholarship oversight, tests, charter ban and more

Scholarship oversight: Florida’s school scholarship programs serve about 140,000 students and redirect almost $1 billion a year to private schools, but state regulation of those schools is so weak that many employ teachers who aren’t college graduates, falsify safety records but continue to stay in business, and fail to educate students without suffering the consequences public schools face, according to a newspaper’s investigation. The number of students using tax credit, Gardiner or McKay scholarships has more than tripled in the past decade. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer the tax credit and Gardiner scholarship programs. Orlando Sentinel.

Testing the tests: The Florida Department of Education hires a company to evaluate whether the SAT and ACT tests can replace the state’s 10th-grade language arts Florida Standards Assessments and algebra I end-of-course exams. The Legislature required the review as part of the new education law, H.B. 7069. The assessment is expected to be finished in time for Education Commissioner Pam Stewart to make a recommendation on the substitution by Jan. 1. Meanwhile, Stewart says the department won’t decide on whether to delay the spring assessments testing window until after the hurricane season is over. Gradebook.

Charters schools: For the first time, the 50 or so charter schools in Palm Beach County were banned from this year’s “Showcase of Schools,” an event to show parents some of the most popular programs offered in county schools. School Superintendent Robert Avossa says the charter movement is “about spurring competition. So if that’s the case, why would you invite the competition to your event?” The incident is the latest in the escalating fight between district officials and charter schools. Palm Beach Post. The Florida Commission on Ethics rules that charter schools are not public agencies, but instead are more similar to business entities. Politico Florida.

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Magnet, charter schools again lead Fla. National Blue Ribbon honors

This year, 12 Florida schools won National Blue Ribbon School designations from the federal government.

This year’s winners have one of two things in common. They’re either schools of choice (charter, magnet or magnet-like, private), or they’re part of the Brevard County school district.

We’re a bit late to the news. We missed the announcement when it came last week. But it’s worth noting because it continues a familiar pattern from previous years. Magnet and charter schools are over-represented among Florida’s award-winning schools.

The annual federal awards come in two categories: Schools that excel closing achievement gaps for disadvantaged students, and those with high overall student achievement.

Florida has more schools in both categories than it in the past several years. Once again, there several Miami-Dade charters on the list. There are also multiple charters (Doral and Somerset) operated by the management company Academica. Continue Reading →


Fla. school choice grads take their education to the next level

School choice advocates are sometimes accused of making their case with anecdotes. On this blog, we stand guilty as charged. We’ve profiled dozens of individual students who have taken advantage of the nation’s largest private school choice program. Many of them struggled in their former schools and went on to attend college.

These anecdotes, by themselves, aren’t enough to show the program is working. But the Urban Institute shed some light on the bigger picture last week. It released a major new study of more than 10,000 students who have used Florida tax credit scholarships. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the program.)

The study found students who use the nation’s largest private school choice program are more likely to enroll in college and more likely to earn associate degrees.

These students’ stories help bring those research findings to life.


Valentin Mendez graduated from La Progresiva in Miami and attends Miami-Dade College.

Jasmine Harrington graduated as valedictorian at School of the Immaculata and attends St. Petersburg College.

Jordan Massie graduated from The Foundation Academy and attends Florida State College in Jacksonville. Continue Reading →


With the right school and a portable scholarship, she found her voice and graduated with honors

Eliya McDonald was in ninth grade when everything fell apart.

First her mom was diagnosed with frontal lobe epilepsy, a condition that caused frequent seizures and forced her to quit working. Before long, the family was homeless and car-less, living in a roach-infested hotel with most of their possessions gone. Then Eliya was diagnosed with Graves disease, a thyroid condition that caused symptoms like insomnia, mood swings, weight and hair loss.

Eliya McDonald graduated in May 2017 from Tampa Bay Christian Academy.

Until that point, she had been an excellent student, first at a charter school for the performing arts, and later – with a Florida tax credit scholarship – at Academy Prep, a highly regarded private middle school in Tampa. But now in a top-tier private high school, and rocked by everything she and her family had to endure, she began to fall behind.

Her GPA fell to 2.33. Worse, the once-boisterous girl with the loud, infectious laugh and Cheshire Cat smile crawled into a shell.

“That year was really rough,” Eliya said. “I was in and out of school, and when I was in school I didn’t really fit in. I wasn’t able to keep up.”

“It was really heartbreaking,” said Eliya’s mom, Ebony Smith. “That was not my daughter. It was totally out of character. Her nerves were horrible.”

Thankfully, the scholarship helped Eliya and her family rise above. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the scholarship program.)

Ebony raised Eliya and two older sisters in West Tampa, a neighborhood she described as “drowning in poverty.” She was determined to lift them out, using school choice as the ladder. She enrolled them in charter schools, where Eliya discovered a talent for singing and acting, then secured Step Up scholarships so they could attend private schools.

“My girls are not going to live the way that I have had to live, and I made that pledge to them,” Ebony said. “Education is the only thing that’s going to save them.”

Things finally stabilized for Eliya when she and her mom began to find the right medications, and a non-profit charity donated money to get the family into an apartment that is still home today.

Eliya transferred to Tampa Bay Christian Academy to get a fresh start and a better fit. But she was still in her shell. She didn’t know if she was in the right school, yet.

“In 10th grade, you hardly knew she was there,” said Natasha Sherwood, head of TBCA. “She was scared to move or talk. Her eyes didn’t look up. You’d see the top of her head more than you could see her face.”

Eliya isn’t sure how, but an English and drama teacher named Selma Grantham found out about her performance background and pushed her to sing in a chapel service.

Slowly the shell began to crack, as Eliya started asking questions in class. But the big breakthroughs were performances as Baloo in “The Jungle Book” and Rafiki in “The Lion King.”

As Eliya stretched her vocal chords, she rediscovered her self-esteem.

She became a leader. Her grades bounced back. She earned two scholarships, one for $10,000, to Southeastern University in Lakeland. Continue Reading →


Heartache in Puerto Rico hits close to home for Ocala school

From left to right, Mario Vazquez, AVA tech, Nicole Rivera, Joselyn Figueroa, and Lori Silloway, staff at Ocala Preparatory Academy, all have family in Puerto Rico. Credit: Ocala Preparatory Academy

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, Joselyn Figueroa was beside herself.

A student aide at Ocala Preparatory Academy, a private school that serves 50 students in Marion County, Fla., Figueroa did not hear from her parents for five days.

She could only wait, listening to news reports, stunned that a historic Category 4, near-Category 5 hurricane wrought havoc on the island she called home for many years.

She described the phone call that she finally received, after days of waiting, as “beautiful.”

“I needed to hear their voice to tell me, they are OK,” she said.

Her mother and father were safe but shaken by the storm. They lost their home. They now struggle to find food, water and medicine. Figueroa’s mother had a kidney transplant and needs to get her monthly medication. They live in the small agricultural town of Yauco. It was founded in 1756 and dubbed “Coffee City.” It was once known as the global capital for the caffeinated crop. They don’t know how it will rebuild.

“It is so frustrating for me,” Figueroa said. “I hear my mom tell me, ‘Everything is destroyed around here.’”

She found support from the school where she works. It’s home to several members of Florida’s growing Puerto Rican diaspora. Its students and staff have witnessed the island’s mounting humanitarian crisis from afar. And now, they are looking for ways to help. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: H.B. 7069 suit, makeup days, choice gains and more

H.B. 7069 lawsuit: The Clay County School Board votes 3-2 to join 14 other school districts in suing the state over the new education law, H.B. 7069. The suit, which has not yet been filed, is expected to challenge the constitutionality of the law on grounds that it covers more than one subject, and that it redirects traditional public school money to charter schools while stripping local boards of authority over those charter schools. Florida Times-Union. Collier County School Board members decline to join the lawsuit, by a 4-1 vote. Next month the board will consider filing a separate lawsuit. Naples Daily News. At a Hillsborough County School Board finance committee meeting, several district officials express reluctance to join other districts in suing the state over the new education law. “Why is it that we just can’t we just go up there and talk?” mused Gretchen Saunders, the district’s chief business officer. The board will discuss the lawsuit at a workshop Thursday. Gradebook.

Makeup days: Palm Beach County school officials want to use three professional development days as makeup days for classtime lost to Hurricane Irma, and will ask the state to waive two more makeup days. Students were out of school seven days, and the state has already waived two of those days. In Broward County, officials are proposing that two early-release days be converted to full days. Schools must be in session for 180 days, or 720 hours for K-3 and 900 hours for grades 4-12. Palm Beach PostSun-Sentinel. WPBF.

Gains for choice students: Low-income students who use Florida tax credit scholarships to attend private schools are more likely to go to college and get degrees than their peers in public schools, according to a study by the Urban Institute. The college enrollment rate is 15 percent higher, but jumps to 40 percent among students who use a scholarship for at least four years. More than 100,000 students use the scholarships. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer the program. redefinED. Associated Press. Chalkbeat. Politico Florida.

District budgets: The Collier County School Board approves a $1.05 billion budget, which is an increase of about $24 million over last year’s spending. Naples Daily News. The Brevard County School Board approves a $942 million budget over the protests of teachers who want a raise of more than 1 percent. Florida Today.

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Public, private schools’ partnership lifts up Orlando neighborhood

Every week, students and parents at Calvary City Christian Academy, a K-12 school in one of Orlando’s most hardscrabble communities, convert groceries into care packages for scores of their neighbors.

That those neighbors happen to be homeless students at Sadler Elementary, another school three blocks away, is only the first clue that the relationship between these high-poverty schools – one public, one private – is special.

For four years, the schools have worked hand-in-hand to serve their students, parents and neighborhoods, regardless of which school the students attend.

The result: Both schools and their heavily Hispanic populations now benefit from a wide array of social services – everything from English-language classes to housing assistance – provided by the church affiliated with Calvary. Both see each other as assets that can best uplift a community by cooperating. And both are quietly offering a glimpse of what’s possible if artificial walls between public and private schools can be knocked down.

“We’re modeling what is right by working together,” said Calvary principal Denise Vega. “That sends a message to our parents. We’re not divided. We’re not two. We’re one. One with one purpose – to work together to make sure our children in our lower-income communities are getting everything possible. That only happens when you unite.” Continue Reading →

From street life to college life – thanks to a private school scholarship

Deion Washington still frequents Betton Hills School in Tallahassee, Fla.

Deion Washington didn’t plan to speak to lawmakers. But as he sat with classmates in a committee meeting about school choice in the Florida state capitol, the urge overtook him.

The eyes of lawmakers and the lenses of cameras trained on him as he stepped to the podium and told his story.

How he skipped classes almost every day in his neighborhood school. How a private school straightened him out. How a Florida tax credit scholarship made it possible. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the scholarship program.)

“I just felt like I had to do it,” Deion said. “They never got to hear the voice of someone who actually needed the scholarship to go to school.”

Three years later, Deion’s story of hope and opportunity includes moving new chapters. Now 20, he’s working his way through college. He’s also a frequent visitor to Betton Hills School, the tiny Tallahassee school he credits with turning his life around.

“If I didn’t go to Betton Hills,” he said, “I probably wouldn’t have finished school.”

Deion’s early education came on the streets. He was the youngest out there late at night, small and skinny and quiet, hanging around grown men.

To some in his neighborhood, success meant selling dope, and at the age of 8 he occasionally counted the money. He got paid for it a couple of times. Mostly it was just something to do.

With his mom typically working three jobs, including one at night, most days it was up to Deion to get his younger sister and brother ready for school; to and from school; and then fed and put to bed.

Then he went out. Continue Reading →