Education choice scholarships help family continue on chosen education path

Jan 18 2023 • By Roger Mooney

BY ROGER MOONEY

Those were tears of joy rolling down her cheeks after Maureen Press opened the email and learned her four children were eligible for education choice scholarships that would keep them in private school.

“I was beside myself,” Maureen recalled of that day in the spring of 2017. “I didn’t think it would happen.”

The family’s finances had recently taken a turn for the worst. Maureen's husband John left his job as a real estate agent to open his own landscaping business. But that business didn't flourish the way he envisioned.

Maureen returned to her previous career in education to teach at a district school, and John became a supervisor for a landscaping company. As a result, they could no longer afford to send their children to the Catholic school they were attending near their home in Boca Raton.

(From left) Elizabeth, James, Grace and John Jr.

Maureen was preparing to deliver the news to her children that they would be leaving the only school they ever knew, as well as all the friends they made there, when they would have to transition to a district school the following August.

Then came word they qualified for Florida Tax Credit Scholarships (FTC), funded by corporate donations to Step Up For Students, beginning with the 2017-18 school year.

This meant Grace, John Jr., Elizabeth and James would remain at Saint Joan of Arc Catholic School, then move to Saint John Paul II Academy for high school. Maureen attended Saint Joan of Arc and she and John are graduates Saint John Paul. They wanted the same education path for their children.

“I wanted my children to be raised in the faith-based environment,” Maureen said. “That’s important to us, and I wanted it to continue through high school.”

Grace graduated last spring in the top-10 of her class at Saint John Paul II Academy.

Grace, who graduated from Saint John Paul last spring, is in the middle of her freshman year at the University of Florida. She is majoring in civil engineering.

John Jr., a junior, and Elizabeth, a sophomore, attend Saint John Paul. James is in the eighth grade at Saint Joan of Arc. He’ll enter Saint John Paul next year.

Like Grace, John Jr. attends school with the help of the FTC scholarship. Elizabeth and James, who suffer from hearing loss and wear hearing aids (as does Grace), have transitioned to the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA). The scholarship, formerly the Gardiner Scholarship, now includes students with hearing loss after merging in 2022 with the McKay Scholarship.

Maureen said the Education Savings Account that comes with the FES-UA is put toward tuition for Elizabeth and James. Those funds can also be spent on other education-related items, such as tutors, therapies or technology.

“We’re blessed,” Maureen said. “Without Step Up we wouldn’t have been able to afford to send them there.”

The children continue to have the same education experience as their parents, which means a faith-based education, sports, clubs and the benefits that come with attending a small school. Plus, Maureen and John Jr. are active in the Saint John Paul community as members of the alumni club.

“(The schools) are not so small that they can’t meet their kind of people. They are able to connect with people with different personalities, interests, but they are still small enough that their teachers know their name,” Maureen said.

Grace was class president as a freshman and sophomore, student council historian as a junior and student council vice president as a senior at Saint John Paul. John Jr. was class president as a freshman and sophomore and student council treasurer this year. Elizabeth is freshman class president.

Grace was a member of the lacrosse and swim teams in high school. John Jr. is on the swimming and soccer teams. Elizabeth is on the soccer, lacrosse and bowling teams.

James, the athlete in the family according to his mom, plays flag football, soccer, basketball and baseball. He plays baseball at Saint Joan of Arc and for a local travel team.

The Press family when all four kids attended Saint Joan of Arc Catholic School.

The children all volunteer at TOPSoccer, a program in Boca Raton for young athletes with unique abilities. They spend three to four hours there every Saturday. That’s how Grace accumulated nearly 200 more volunteer hours than the 100 required at Saint John Paul.

Grace worked through high school, beginning with her first job as a hostess at Ben’s Deli when she was 15. She worked as a babysitter and dog sitter, earning the money to buy her first car. John and Elizabeth also began working when they turned 15.

Maureen said her children are maximizing the benefits of their education setting. They all achieve high grades – Grace graduated in the top10 of her class and was a member of the National Honor Society and math honor society.

It is that well-rounded education that Maureen and John always wanted for their kids. Thanks to the scholarships, they can afford it.

“I don’t know where I would be without it,” Grace said. “I may not be at UF. I’m glad the course of my life worked out the way that it did because of the scholarship.”

Grace said the smaller class sizes led to strong relationships with her teachers which led to a better academic performance. Attending school with the same classmates since basically the first grade allowed her to come out of her shell, which then enabled her to gain confidence in herself and run for office and tryout for teams.

“It made me who I am today,” Grace said.

Maureen agreed.

“She might not have that same opportunity in a school where there are 3,000 kids,” Maureen said. “She was in a smaller setting, and she was able to shine more.”

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

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