She paints, she cheers, she earns top grades: Brooke is back with help of Hope Scholarship

Jul 11 2023 • By Roger Mooney


LAKELAND – Brooke Bertsch is back. The one who loves to sketch and paint and who earns top grades in class.

The one who smiles.

That was Brooke before the bullying began in middle school. Before she became withdrawn and depressed.

And that’s her now.

“I feel good again,” she said.

The comeback began in eighth grade when Brooke changed schools with the help of the Hope Scholarship. Managed by Step Up For Students, the scholarships provides funds for Florida schoolchildren grades K-12 who have been victimized by bullying in their assigned school to attend a private school or a public school in a different district.

Brooke is back to being her old self after changing schools with the help of the Hope Scholarship.

Brooke now attends Victory Christian Academy, a K-12 private school in Lakeland. She will be a sophomore during the 2023-24 school year.

“She had to figure out how to fit in at a new school, and she just nailed it,” said Jason Bertsch, Brooke’s dad. “It’s brought her back.”

Brooke is a member of the cheerleading squad at her new school.

Brooke kept mostly to herself in sixth grade because most of her friends from elementary school attended a different middle school. The friends who did attend that school were changing, Brooke said.

“I felt I had to fit in with them, because they were my friends since first grade. I felt I had to change because they were changing,” Brooke said. “I’m a quiet person but being a quiet person didn’t help at all. They would just pick on me.”

It began with verbal abuse and became violent. Brook’s “friends” pulled her hair and once pushed her head into a pole.

The lively, upbeat young woman who wants to be a marine biologist was now sullen. She stayed in her room at home, wore dark clothes and rarely smiled.

“She wasn’t her cheery self,” Jason said.

Jason and his wife, Janette, thought it was just a phase. They asked Brooke if anything was wrong, and the answer was always no.

“We just couldn't put two and two together until it all came to a head that one day,” Jason said.

That was the day Janette asked to see Brooke’s phone. Janette realized it was something sinister when she saw threatening text messages left by Brooke’s tormentors.

“That’s when she just started telling me everything,” Janette said. “She thanked me for taking her phone, and she didn't want it back for a while. That’s the way people could get to her.”

Brooke said she felt as if she were pulled out of that setting once she opened up to her mom.

“It made me feel better,” she said. “I didn’t feel so depressed.”

In 2018, the Florida Legislature decided to address the staggering number of schoolchildren who are bullied each year by creating the Hope Scholarship.

According to a 2020 report by PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center, one out of every five students reports being bullied. The same ratio applies to students between the ages of 9-12 who said they were cyberbullied. The study reported that cyberbullying is highest among middle school students, especially girls.

Jason and Janette acted quickly, first having Brooke attend school virtually and then moving her to Victory Christian. They felt a welcoming, safe environment when they toured the school and decided to send Brooke there even if the tuition would tax their budget.

“We would figure it out,” Jason said. “This is our daughter.”

The Victory Christian administration informed the Bertsches about the Hope Scholarship. The amount received by families depends on the student’s grade level and the county in which they live but averages $7,700 annually.

“The (scholarship) is a big relief,” Janette said. “It changed her environment. It changed her world.”

Brooke with her parents, Jason and Janette.

Brooke felt more comfortable as freshman year moved along. She ran track and joined the cheerleading squad, something she never did at her previous schools. Her grades rebounded to the A’s and B’s her parents were used to seeing on her report cards.

Brooke’s passions include the ocean and art. When she was younger, she dreamed of exploring oceans in a submarine and taking pictures of the creatures that lived there. She’s a big fan of jellyfish.

“I kind of forgot about that for a while,” she said.

Now Brooke is looking into what colleges she needs to attend to achieve that dream.

She also loves to paint. Sunsets. Fields with flowers. People. Animals.

She didn’t draw as much when she was in middle school. When she did, she said it wasn’t her best work.

“It was depressing,” she said.

While out to dinner recently with the family, Brooke began sketching on a napkin as they waited for their meals to arrive. She drew a clownfish (think “Finding Nemo”).

Janette teared up while showing the picture of that sketch on her phone.

“We have our old Brooke back,” she said.

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at [email protected].

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Roger Mooney