The bus ride to school is long but the opportunity for a Catholic education is well worth the trip
BY ROGER MOONEY
PALM COAST – Every school day at 7 a.m., a small bus rolls to a stop in front of the rectory of the Catholic church in Crescent City. Waiting to board are a handful of students, including Jesus Martinez-Cruz and his little brother, Christian.
They are headed on a 50-minute ride to Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School in Palm Coast.
Jesus and his schoolmates are part of the Rural Education Initiative, a program started during the 2020-21 school year by the Diocese of St. Augustine as a means of creating opportunities for a Catholic education to students who live in sparsely populated areas that cannot support a Catholic school. Crescent City’s population is under 1,700, and St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, where Jesus and his friends catch the bus, does not have a Catholic school.
If not for the REI, these children would not receive a Catholic education. And if not for the scholarships managed by Step Up For Students, many of those families would not be able to attend a Catholic school.
Jesus, a sixth-grader, and Christian, a second-grader, receive the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options.
“To have the Step Up scholarship, for his parents to be able to choose a Catholic school that they want so much for their children and Jesus wants for himself, they would never have that opportunity without Step Up,” said Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School principal Barbara Kavanagh.
There have been days when the bus broke down and the boys’ parents had to drive them back-and-forth to school. That’s more than 90minutes roundtrip twice a day. As it is, the bus returns the students to Crescent City at 4 p.m.
But Elvira Cruz and her husband, Jesus Martinez-Puente, are not deterred by the distance and the drive from their home to their children’s school.
“My dream was to always have them in a Catholic school,” Elvira said. “It’s a better education.”
Her son, Jesus, agreed.
He said he didn’t feel challenged at his assigned school in Crescent City.
“I wanted to take hard exams, but they were pretty easy,” he said. “This school is really good. I really like the challenge.”
Every morning, Kavanagh watches the students from Crescent City step off the bus and head into school, and every morning she watches Jesus give his little brother a hug and a blessing.
“It is really beautiful,” Kavanagh said. “It is so touching to me.”
That’s an example of the faith that guides Jesus and his family.
Each night after dinner the family goes for a walk in the neighborhood. The family prays together before Jesus and Christian go to bed.
“The things he holds dear, you don’t hear so much about from young kids today,” Kavanagh said. “You don’t often hear that they are going for walks with the family, and they are praying together as a family. I believe a student’s success is home and school working together.”
The combo serves Jesus well. He is a hard-working, attentive student.
“He loves a challenge,” Kavanagh said. “He doesn’t want it to be easy. He wants to do better. He always wants to do better. That’s his personality.”
When asked what he wants to be when he grows up, Jesus said, “I’m just waiting for God to tell me.”
Kavanagh heard the answer and smiled. Later, she said, “That’s him. He believes he will be directed to what he’s called to do with his life.”
In March of 2022, Jesus received the “Great Kids Award” from Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly. According to the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, the award is “presented monthly by the Sheriff to a student selected by School Resource Deputies who show respect for their peers, help others, work hard to do well in academics and represent themselves, their family and their school with great character.”
Jesus was surprised to see his parents at school on the day of the presentation.
“That felt awesome,” he said.
The plaque sits on the top of the dresser next to his bed. Resting next to it is the medal Jesus received during the Rising Stars Awards event held in May in Jacksonville. Sponsored by Step Up For Students, Rising Stars honors K-12 students who receive a Step Up scholarship. Jesus was recognized as a “Turnaround Student,” which is someone who made dramatic improvements since they began attending their school.
Jesus entered Saint Elizabeth Ann Seaton Catholic School in the fall of 2020 as a shy student who needed time to acclimate himself to a private school setting. Because English is his second language, Jesus struggled in all his classes. But with extra help from his teachers and a better grasp of English, Jesus is thriving.
“He’s really improved,” Elvira said.
As thrilled as he was to receive the award from Sheriff Staly, Jesus said he was equally honored to be recognized at the Rising Stars event. He proudly stood next to Paula Nelson, Step Up’s vice president for Customer Experience, who presented the awards that night.
“I almost started to cry,” Jesus said.
Why? Because his family made the long drive from Crecent City to Jacksonville for the event? Because Nelson took the better part of a minute to read his accomplishments? Because everyone in the auditorium cheered for him?
“All of those,” Jesus said.
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.