School of the Immaculata (SOTI), founded in 2005, is a private religious school serving 106 K-12 students in the heart of St. Petersburg, Fla. Its student body is more than 90 percent minority and low income, and nearly all students are recipients of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.
The school opened to confront the school-to-prison pipeline pervasive in the community, said the school’s headmaster, John Giotis. Many of his students come from local public schools featured in a recent report, “Failure Factories.”
Area demand is high for the school’s nurturing, faith-based approach, which led to construction of SOTI’s second campus, set to open in neighboring Tampa Bay this fall.
So far, Giotis and his staff believe they are making a difference. “All of our students who graduate from here go on to post-secondary study,” he said.
Giotis attributes his students’ success to the school’s emphasis on character and spiritual growth paired with rigorous academics. “Our kids are constantly reminded they have to serve God and their community, and life is measured by how much you give back, not by how much you take.”
Students come to SOTI for a variety of reasons.
For eleventh grader Andrea Scruggs, it was because her neighborhood public school did not offer enough rigor for advanced students like herself. “They were focused on helping struggling students,” she said.
She enrolled at SOTI in sixth-grade and immediately noticed a difference in the quality of education. “When I had questions, they were answered. I was assigned more essays and more difficult projects,” she added. “My classes had fewer distractions and were more disciplined.”
Scruggs said SOTI’s culture of high achievement and exposure to higher education opportunities fostered her interest in computer engineering. She plans to dual enroll in college courses and major in computer science after high school.
Imarie Wright, age 12, was struggling academically before coming to SOTI. At her public school, her brothers were succeeding, but she fell further and further behind.
Upon enrolling at SOTI, everything changed. “I got help immediately,” she remembered. “Before, I was worried I was going to fail, and now I’m sure I won’t.”
Coming from a low-income community, Wright feels many in her neighborhood have the wrong impressions of private schools. “People think private schools are just for the rich,” she explained. “Not so. They are for anyone who wishes to do advanced work and prepare for the future.”
Timathy Bryant, a sophomore, bounced between public schools because of behavior problems.
“Throughout middle school, I kept sinking,” he said. “By ninth grade, I started failing because I was more worried about football than schoolwork.”
With a 0.9 GPA, he moved to another high school, where more bad choices got him kicked out. His parents were desperate to save their son.
“Here, they don’t let the little things slide, so big things don’t happen,” Bryant stressed. “They’ll force you to fail, revoke privileges, or whatever they need to do to ensure they do not reward bad behavior.”
Senior student Ethan Kahle agreed. He attended SOTI as a younger student but left for public high school for greater athletic opportunities. But in that environment, his academics quickly deteriorated.
“It felt like the adults didn’t care, so I didn’t care, either,” Kahle said.
With his future on the line, Kahle called Headmaster Giotis and asked to reenroll at SOTI. Since returning, his grades are back on track. After graduation, he plans to study radiology and become an x-ray technician.
“I give all the credit to Mr. Giotis and my teachers,” he said.
While Giotis is thrilled by his students’ success, lawsuits threatening the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program could end their access to private education. Florida’s teachers union and other groups have challenged the program’s constitutionality. Today, nearly 80,000 Florida students receive the scholarship.
“In my opinion, the public school system has failed our urban communities,” Giotis lamented. “Instead of embracing reform, and the benefits of school choice, they are filing lawsuits to force kids back into the same system they fled.”
Giotis added that thousands of parents in urban America have benefited from voucher and scholarship programs.
“I will continue to fight these lawsuits as long as I’m alive,” Giotis concluded. “They offer parents and students trapped in failing schools educational lifelines to a brighter future.”
- Visit out Policy Library to for more about tax credit scholarships and school choice.
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About the author
Kate Wallace @kstreetfla
Kate serves as the Director of Community Engagement (North Florida) for the Foundation for Florida's Future (AFloridaPromise). Prior to joining AFloridaPromise, Kate served as Legislative Coordinator for The Fiorentino Group, a Florida government affairs firm based in Jacksonville. Previously, Kate served as government affairs assistant for the Washington office of Triadvocates, an Arizona government relations firm, and as staff assistant for the Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., federal government relations office. As a college student, Kate interned for the White House in Vice President Dick Cheney’s Office of Domestic Policy and for former Florida Congressman Adam Putnam’s Capitol Hill office. A central Florida native, Kate graduated from University of Florida in 2007 with a B.S. in Public Relations. Contact Kate at Kate@aFloridaPromise.org.