Student Voices

A school choice scholarship saved Elijah’s life – and allowed him to be who he is

Elijah Robinson, 18, was relentlessly bullied in his prior school because of his sexual identity but is back on track emotionally and academically thanks to The Foundation Academy, a private school where he’s found a safe haven. PHOTO: Lance Rothstein

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Every day, they cut him with slurs. Almost every day, they tried to block him from the boys’ locker room. For Elijah Robinson, a soft-spoken kid with mocha skin and almond eyes, the harassment at his high school was cruel punishment for his sexual identity.

It started in ninth grade and continued through most of 10th. It eventually turned physical, with boys pushing and kicking him, hoping to provoke a fight.

At some point, Elijah said, the bullying made him too “scatterbrained” to focus on academics. His A’s and B’s fell to F’s. But bad grades were the least of it.

To hear Elijah’s story in his own words, click on the video link at the end of this story. PHOTO: Lance Rothstein

The bullying led to depression. Depression spiraled into a suicide attempt.

Once Elijah got out of the hospital, his mom decided to take him out of the assigned public school that had become his nightmare and send him to a place called The Foundation Academy. A friend assured Elijah’s mom that the eclectic little private school was warm and welcoming – to all students.

To pay tuition, the single mother and nail salon worker secured a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students. Funded by corporate contributions, the scholarship is used by 100,000 students statewide, two thirds of them black and Hispanic and typically the ones who struggled the most in their prior public schools.

Without it, Elijah’s mom said, she wouldn’t have been able to afford the school.

Without it, Elijah said, he wouldn’t be alive.

“If I had stayed at my previous school,” he said, “I honestly think I would have lost my life.”

Elijah is 18 now, and a senior. The bullying is behind him. His academics are back on track.

The students and teachers at The Foundation Academy “didn’t see me as a label. They saw me for me,” he said. “I definitely am in a better place.”

Elijah’s story would be compelling any time, but it’s especially poignant now as there has been increased criticism of the scholarship program and religious schools with policies adhering to their faith.

According to the most recent survey from GLSEN, 72 percent of LGBTQ students in public district schools said they experienced bullying, harassment and assault due to their sexual orientation, compared to 68 percent of LGBTQ students in private, religious schools. For bullying, harassment and assault based on gender expression, the corresponding rates were 61 percent and 56 percent.

Those numbers speak to an urgent need for more awareness and action across all types of schools. But in the meantime, this fact cannot be ignored: The growing availability of choice scholarships has given more students like Elijah the ability to find a safe haven.

Elijah learned about The Foundation Academy’s drama program from a friend. He values the opportunity the program has given him to express himself and credits it for making him a better actor. PHOTO: Lance Rothstein

Elijah is tall and thin, with a shock of hair that makes his mixed-race features even more striking. He likes to jog. He likes to read. He likes “Call of Duty,” and salmon sashimi, and fishing with his uncle. He exudes a quiet confidence that sometimes comes to those who have endured so much, so young.

Elijah thinks he was harassed in his prior school because he liked to wear girl’s jeans and sweaters and was not “acting like the stereotypical guy.” He said he didn’t fight back. Instead, he did what bullied kids are advised to do: tell the adults in charge. The teachers and administrators said they told his tormentors to stop, but they didn’t stop. Elijah said when he continued to complain, the teachers and administrators told him to “just ignore it.”

The Foundation Academy is 15 minutes from Elijah’s old school, but in terms of school culture it’s on another planet. It serves 375 students in K-12, with 86 percent using choice scholarships. Thanks to those scholarships, the school is remarkably diverse, and has served at least two dozen openly LGBTQ students.

In a 2018 story about another LGBTQ student who found refuge at the school, founder and principal Nadia Hionides noted she has a son, a brother and a niece who are LGBTQ. “We love Jesus, and Jesus loves everybody,” Hionides said. “We must affirm and accept everybody.”

Elijah isn’t sure exactly what he’s doing after graduation, but he’s planning on college and wants to be a nurse like his aunt. He likes the thought of helping people in pain. He already knows a lot about hurt and healing.

Thanks to school choice, ‘the most amazing opportunities’

school choice
Natasha Infante with her grandmother and mother.

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a week-long series of posts from students and parents who’ve benefited from school choice. For yesterday’s story, click HERE.

by Natasha Infante

From the age of 5, I was raised by a single mother. This made finances an issue. My grandmother helped raise me, and she financially supported my mother and me for most of my life. She recently decided to retire – at age 85 – after having been a bookkeeper and accountant since she was 18. She was an important factor in keeping me in school, as well as having a roof over my head. But even she couldn’t do everything.

We’ve turned over redefinED this Thanksgiving to the important voices in ed choice – parents and students.

Fortunately, I received a scholarship that made a difference in my life. It gave me the opportunity to build on the sacrifices of my mother and grandmother, to attend a top-notch school, and to truly pursue my dreams.

I was always dedicated to my schoolwork. My mother kept me in private, magnet, and charter schools all my life. I never attended a typical public school. She wanted to make sure that I was given a quality education that challenged me so I would have more opportunities when I grew up. Unfortunately, I switched schools often due to bullying, so I never really had a steady school life. My mother and grandmother tried to keep everything as stable as possible in my home life so that I would have something to help me feel grounded.

When it came to choosing my high school, my mom wanted to keep me in a private school to give me the best chance of getting into a good college and getting a degree. I passed the placement exams for the major private schools in my area and chose Tampa Catholic High School. The problem was that the tuition was extremely high and my family did not have the means to pay for it by ourselves.

My mom had a period of two years around the recession where she was unemployed and we were relying entirely on my grandmother. My mother was also a bookkeeper and had successfully gained a degree in interior design, hoping to transition into that field. Due to our finances and the job market, that has yet to happen.

This is where the Step Up For Students scholarship came into the picture. It helped pay for most of my tuition; the rest was paid for by grants from my high school due to my academic achievement. I was able to attend all four years of private school for free, which is rare.

I was also offered the most amazing opportunities.

Due to Tampa Catholic’s service-hour requirement, I volunteered at many organizations that I now proudly support. I have been able to network with leaders in my community through those organizations. My high academic achievement earned me membership in five prestigious honor societies in high school. Tampa Catholic truly gave me the individual attention and rigorous coursework that I needed to prepare myself for college and be successful.

My performances on the SAT and ACT earned me the highest Florida Bright Futures scholarship, the Florida Academic Scholars, which funds 100 percent of college tuition and fees. My 3.8 GPA also provided me greater opportunity for scholarships and entrance into collegiate honor societies.

I attended Hillsborough Community College and joined the Honors Institute. It was an incredible experience. I was surrounded by like-minded and scholarly students. I gained a support system and connections within the honors program. The program helped me in the transition from high school to college. I also joined several honor societies within HCC. I became an officer of Phi Theta Kappa and attended several leadership events and professional development conferences. The organization also helped me earn several honors and scholarships, such as being a member of the All-Florida Academic Team.

Through Phi Theta Kappa, I earned a scholarship for my current school, the University of South Florida. I continue to succeed academically and be active in honor societies. I will graduate USF this year with a bachelor’s degree in biology, with a goal of obtaining a doctorate in veterinary medicine.

I have achieved so much since my first semester. I have joined three more honor societies, including Alpha Epsilon Delta, a pre-health honor society where I served as an officer from 2017-2018. I am currently a leader in the Global Citizens Project, an office on campus that inspires students to become more globally focused and culturally aware. Through this program I received a $2,500 scholarship to study over the summer in London and Paris. The rest of my study abroad trip was paid for by a scholarship I received from the National Society of Collegiate Scholars for mentoring a high school student and helping her in the transition to college.

My whole life I have been paying it forward and giving back. I volunteer in my community at ZooTampa at Lowry Park, Humane Society of Tampa, Hope Lodge, Metropolitan Ministries, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and so many other organizations that I admire. I give back by helping others who were in my situation and by being a mentor to those who would benefit from my advice and leadership.

I hope my story can inspire others to work toward their dreams, and move people to support the Step Up For Students scholarship so that other high school students can receive the opportunity I was given.

Editor’s note: Step Up For Students publishes this blog.

Coming tomorrow: An atypical learner finds the right fit at a charter school.

With school choice, ‘I could strive for greatness’

Fernanda Murgueytio, pictured left with her mother and two brothers, is the new Alumni Coordinator for Step Up For Students. A former Florida Tax Credit Scholarship recipient, her family came the United States when she was six years old.

by Fernanda Murgueytio

I never imagined I’d leave my beautiful home country of Venezuela. My dad was a pharmacist while my mom was a teacher. My brother and I were in a school we loved. However, as the political climate of Venezuela worsened, so did the living conditions. Safety was no longer something expected by citizens trying to live their daily lives. My parents knew there was a chance of a better life in the United States, so when I was six years old they left everything they ever knew behind for us.

At the time, we had no idea how tough the journey would be. Or how something as simple but powerful as a school choice scholarship would change everything for the better.

At first, we moved to Puerto Rico, which was quite an adjustment. My brother and I were in a new school that wasn’t the best. We missed our home, but my parents consoled us by telling us all the sacrifices we’ve made would pay off in the end. It was hard to understand because at the time I only felt sorrow. Family is an important part of our culture, and we left everyone. We didn’t know when we would see grandparents and friends again.

Eventually we made it to St. Petersburg, Florida, and the adjustment was even harder. My parents, both highly educated, struggled to find work, and had to take up menial labor jobs. They were used to making ends meet, but now they needed to work extremely hard and even take up two jobs each. This was very hard to see and changed the structure of my family. We didn’t spend weekends with grandparents or sleep overs with cousins. Holidays felt empty without everyone

Soon enough, it was time to start school. Because we moved so often in a short amount of time, and because I didn’t speak English, I quickly fell behind academically. My brother and I spent a lot of time alone because our parents were at work. They always made sure to tell us to try our hardest in school because they firmly believed education was the pathway to a better life. But they soon realized the school system here was completely different than what they had known.

I went to public school through fifth grade, but my parents knew middle and high school were going to be crucial for my future, and that some schools were rough for kids like me. The schools in our area performed poorly and were known to have issues with violence and drug use among students. My parents wanted to give me the best they could, but they couldn’t afford private school.

Then my mom found out about Step Up for Students* and the scholarships it offered. That changed the trajectory of my life forever.

At first, I was against going to a private school because I had no idea what they were like in the United States. I was scared I wouldn’t fit in. Looking back, I realized going to a private school was the best thing that ever happened to me. My mom valued private education so much that we moved to the other side of the county for my brother and I to be closer to our new schools. For the first time in my life I could participate in after school activities. I no longer had to go home by myself and wait for my parents to come home. I was given the opportunity to learn clarinet and sing in choir.

What wasn’t so obvious at first was that the opportunity to go to private school had broadened my horizons. I learned there was better for myself and I could strive for greatness. I learned that my socio-economic background wouldn’t hold me back. I was able to make new friends and meet new people. My middle school worked with me and wanted to me to achieve great things. The teachers gave me one-on-one time to help me overcome my struggles, especially in math.

Once I got to high school, I became more aware of the gift private school had given my life. I didn’t have to witness violence in school. I wasn’t exposed to drug use. My teachers knew who I was, and they held me accountable. We took field trips and gave back to our community by doing food drives, fundraisers, and volunteering at local schools and parishes. I got the chance to go to mass every month. I got to participate in a sport, softball, and I became team captain.

It was harder to do things such as skipping school, or not doing work, as my friends in public school could easily do. Some of them even dropped out of school. I now understand that my high school, Clearwater Central Catholic High School, made it extremely difficult to drop out because everything my teachers did helped me to succeed. The friends I made also helped me to succeed. They pushed me to do my best.

My schools changed me. The experiences and opportunities they gave me were so incredibly different. They put me on the path to success.

Now, I work at Step Up for Students to help other children like me have the best opportunity to succeed. I will be organizing scholarship students who have recently graduated and help them become advocates for this program. I am so proud to be able to give back.

*Step Up For Students is a nonprofit that administers four state-supported scholarship programs. It also publishes this blog. For more information about the SUFS Alumni Network, click here.