Hayden Hernandez and Cambria Rogers

It didn’t take long for Jenna Rogers to realize her son’s neighborhood school wasn’t working for him. A kindergartner, Hayden wasn’t grasping basic reading and writing skills. And he didn’t like interacting with classmates.hayden

“He was really struggling there,’’ Jenna said of the Clearwater school, rated a D at the time by the state.

With Hayden’s little sister starting kindergarten the following year, Jenna knew she had to act fast. She applied to every Pinellas County fundamental school she could during that district’s school choice lottery.

“We went on all the waiting lists,’’ Jenna said, but the siblings never won seats.

Then Hayden’s grandmother heard about Step Up For Students and one of the programs the nonprofit helps administer: the Florida Tax Credit scholarship for low-income children.

Jenna, a single parent who works full time for a communications company, qualified for the scholarship and soon began researching education options.

Finally, she could choose a school based on her children’s needs – not their ZIP code.

“I am so grateful for this program,’’ said Jenna, who selected St. Petersburg Christian School, a high performing K-8 private school and recipient of a National Blue Ribbon Award in 2003. “I don’t even know how I could do this without Step Up For Students.’’

cambriaThe scholarship covers more than half of the school’s annual $7,670 to $9,150 annual tuition, with Jenna – and a little help from her mother – making up the difference in monthly installments. It’s hard, Jenna said, but worth it. Her children have the opportunity of a lifetime to attend a school that challenges and nurtures them.

“St. Petersburg Christian has received so many positive reviews from other parents,’’ Jenna said. “They also have an excellent reading program. I love how they give my children a solid Christian foundation. I believe that is very important, especially in today’s society.’’

At St. Petersburg Christian, classes are small, with 18 students per teacher in kindergarten and first; 22 students per teacher in grades two through five; and about 25 students per teacher in grades six through eight. The setting provides a close-knit atmosphere for children, who feel comfortable and confident among their peers, and for their parents.

“The teachers and staff are all so involved and nurturing in all of the students’ lives that it feels like they are a part of your family,’’ Jenna said.

Instruction is focused on reading, writing, vocabulary and spelling. Technology is emphasized, with a state-of-the-art computer lab, Smart Boards and access to specialized reading software that helps evaluate students’ reading levels. There are also honors and advanced math programs for gifted students.

Although the school is not affiliated with a church, daily prayer and bible study are part of the curriculum. Students also participate in fine arts classes, P.E. and sports to round out their education.

All students take the Stanford Achievement Test annually to measure academic gains. In most areas, students perform one-and-a-half to two grade levels above the national average, said Principal Steve Knellinger.

Hayden struggled his first year with the new school’s increased rigor. But he didn’t give up, working diligently with teachers and his mom. Today, the third-grader who relishes mimicking Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, keeps up with his peers and then some.

“He’s reading well above grade level,’’ said Jenna, who also noticed a surge in Hayden’s circle of friends. “Oh, my gosh! He broke out of his shell.’’

His favorite classes?

“I really like lunch because I really like food,’’ said Hayden, who also looks forward to library time. “You can grab a book and read it. They even let you take it home and bring it back!’’

His little sister also had a hard time adjusting, though it was more of a social concern than an academic one, Jenna said. She decided to heed the school’s recommendation to keep Cambria in kindergarten another year. Now in the first grade, Cambria is making A’s, her mom said.

“I’m so glad we made that decision,’’ said Jenna. “And I am so glad I chose this school and got approved for Step Up For Students. I would encourage everyone to spread the word about this wonderful scholarship program to families in need.’’

About St. Petersburg Christian School

St. Petersburg Christian School is a nondenominational private school with 440 students in kindergarten through eighth. Of those, 91 students are Step Up scholars. Another 41 students receive the McKay Scholarship for students with special needs. The school was named a National Blue Ribbon School in 2003 and is a member of the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI). It is accredited by the Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS) and Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

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