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East County Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019 3 weeks ago

Lakewood Ranch family offers two steps up for education in Manatee County

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ODA students seek higher education opportunities for low-income kids.
by: Pam Eubanks Senior Editor

The kitchen table in the Studdiford family’s Lake Club home often seems more like a place for solving everyday problems than a place for eating.

There, the family gathers to talk and invent. It is where they hatched the idea for Two Steps Further Inc., a nonprofit the Studdiford children — Mairead, 18; Maeve, 16; and Owen, 14 — created in 2017.

It enrolls second grade children into a 529 college savings plan (tax-advantaged savings) and rewards them up to $50 per month for practicing math and English in iReady, a computer-based educational tool.

Participants earn “points” by doing work above and beyond their homework, but the children don’t know how much is required to earn the full $50 each month, which motivates them to work harder. The nonprofit uses a proprietary algorithm to come up with the monthly allocations, but the Studdifords said it generally works out to 20-30 minutes extra in each subject per night.

“It’s to help kids get money, so they can save up for college,” Owen Studdiford said. “These kids want to learn so bad.”

Maeve said her grandmother Nora Croke, an immigrant from Ireland, always has stressed the importance of learning, which is part of the reason the Studdifords feel their mission is so important.

“She always tells us, ‘Your education is the most important thing,’” Maeve Studdiford said. “That’s why we always cherished our education. I want [these kids] to have this opportunity.”

With the help of their parents, John and Cathleen Studdiford, the Studdiford children run the program.

On Aug. 29, they rolled out their third year of enrollment in the program at Gocio Elementary School, a Title 1 school in Sarasota. It starts in second grade and will follow students through eighth grade, with hopes to expand through 12th. Currently, there are 203 participants.

“It’s to help promote higher education,” Maeve Studdiford said. “We’re also starting to look at the 2Gen population. We want parents to encourage their kids.”

Parents would get their own 529 savings plan, to be used for a trade school or other higher-learning institution, for encouraging their children to learn. That idea has not yet been implemented.

Cathleen Studdiford said an education is important for breaking the cycle of poverty.

Currently, the Studdiford family funds the Two Steps Further program itself and has donated about $100,000 since its inception. However, Maeve and Owen have been learning to write grants and accepted their first grant of $1,700 in April from the Lake Club Women’s Giving Circle. They also received funding from the Larsen Family Foundation and The Sack Family Foundation, both of which are in Sarasota.

Cathleen Studdiford said grants will be important for sustaining the nonprofit long-term. Two Steps Further is also working with the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and The Patterson Foundation for potential future funding. Owen even hopes to receive grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation one day.

“We’re trying to reach out to them and other organizations,” he said.

Cathleen Studdiford said the family is taking it slowly to ensure the program is working and that results are tangible before they apply for funding from other organizations. Currently, there’s about a 2-3% improvement for participants, but Cathleen Studdiford said she expects that number to increase over time.

Gocio Elementary School Principal Steven Royce said Gocio is teaching its students the importance of a college education, but many of the children have no understanding of college. Gocio has partnered with Sarasota Community Foundation to provide college trips to students in third through fifth grades. Adding the financial piece through Two Steps Further is the next step.

He said seeing the Studdifords in the school also helps children connect those concepts.

“We tell students they should go to college, but they don’t have any experience as to what college would be or how to get there,” Royce said. “It’s pretty incredible the Studdifords do this. It really is the passion of the entire family to help support children in poverty.

“From a student standpoint, it’s linking the visits, setting vision for where they will be able to go and provide the resources to go. If we just did college visits, it doesn’t have the same impact.”

The Studdiford family hopes to expand Two Steps Further in the years to come, first with other schools in Manatee County (Visible Men Academy is likely next), then introducing it around the state. After that, they would launch on a state-by-state basis until they reach the whole nation.

One day, they hope it can go worldwide.

Maeve and Owen, who attend The Out-of Door Academy, visit Gocio Elementary at least once a month, whether dropping off student achievement certificates for children enrolled in their program or going to read with kids.

Cathleen Studdiford said doing so has taught her children humility and to better appreciate the things they have, including their own educations.

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