Layla and Jeremiah Cirino

Adrienne Cirino’s children started their formal education at their neighborhood school, but soon her son started shying away from kindergarten and her daughter had days where she was ducking desks thrown by angry peers.

“I felt scared,” said Layla, who starts seventh grade in August. “Me and my friends would go in the corner. I didn’t really feel like going to school.”

Always a solid student, Layla’s grades started to suffer.

“My daughter went from an A-B honor roll to getting Fs on tests,” Adrienne recalled. “I try to shelter my kids as much as possible… but they were really exposed to a lot of stuff.”

Her son Jeremiah’s situation worsened, too.

“The bullying my son endured in that school system was ridiculous,” she said. In fact, she added, when he once tried to stand up for himself it backfired and he ended up being suspended. Then he started acting out, which resulted in numerous suspensions.

“They got to the point they didn’t want to go to school anymore,” Adrienne said. “And this was third and fourth grade and that’s way too young to start hating school.”

Adrienne desperately wanted to find a new school for her children, but then the single parent lost her job. The family was struggling financially when she heard about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program and applied through Step Up For Students.

“I was talking to a friend that I really don’t have options for my kids to go anywhere else because I’m not one of the fortunate ones,” she said.

But something fortunate did happen.

“I was praying and when we were approved, me and my mom were so ecstatic that I could give my kids a good education,” Adrienne said.

Layla and Jeremiah began attending PHA Preparatory School in Kissimmee in the fourth and fifth grades.

“Since he’s been in his new school, he has not had any problems,’’ she said. “That just shows what kind of environment he was in; he’s gone two years now with a perfect behavior record.”

A bonus, Adrienne said, is that they are an education that mirrors what she teaches her children at home.

“I’m very blessed that Step Up has brought the love of school back to my kids,’’ she said. “They’re getting an education and I can see the light shining in them. They love to learn. They started going and they just excelled.”

Layla has gone back to being an honor-roll student, and Jeremiah is no longer a C-D student. Moving her children from a crowded environment into a small school with a family focus made all the difference.

“He tried so hard to get straight A’s and he succeeded.”

Layla appreciates her new learning environment, too.

“At the school, they really care about their students,’’ Layla said. I say hi to the principal every day. You’ll see her walking in the halls to make sure everything is fine and OK. She does her checks. I like how they are very attentive.”

Irene Oramas taught Layla for two years at PHA and knew quickly that she was something special.

“She’s a fantastic student,” she said, adding that she’s even helped struggling students. “She’s always willing to do more than what she’s supposed to do.”

In fact, Layla recently learned she tested at a high school level in several subjects and will be doing honors work when school begins, including eighth-grade coursework. Jeremiah scored in the eighth-grade range in some subjects, too.

“I’m so proud of them,’’ Adrienne said. “Step Up is a true blessing. Their self-confidence has grown so much. They hold their head up high. I couldn’t be prouder.”

About PHA Preparatory School in Kissimmee

PHA Preparatory opened in 2011 and is a nondenominational Christian preK-12 school that uses the accredited bible-based curriculums ACE, Bob Jones University and A Beka. Of the school’s 328 students last school year, 211 were Step Up scholars. Tuition ranged from $4,680 for kindergartners to $4,900 for seniors. The school uses the Stanford 10 test academic achievement annually. PHA offers numerous afterschool programs to add to students’ academic and social success, such as Yearbook Committee, sports teams, Naval Sea Cadets and tutoring. The school is accredited by Green Apple Association of Children’s Services.

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