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Welcome

Welcome to the Step Up For Students blog, “Stepping Beyond the Scholarship.” We’re excited to have you join us as we debut a new forum for our parents, teachers, students and advocates to connect with one another and share their personal experiences with the (income-based) Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs.

We hope to be informative, sharing news about Step Up For Students, our scholarship application periods, participating schools and services, among other topics. We also aim to intrigue you with profiles about our scholarship recipients and their families, our partner schools, our program donors and partners.

In addition, we’d like to help answer your questions and provide a network of support for you as you navigate your child’s educational path. Which private schools accept the scholarships in your community? What combinations of therapies have helped your child with special needs? Is there a homeschool curriculum that really brings results? In the months ahead, we will feature guest bloggers, including parents and educators. We’ll also publish various series, such as a behind- the-scenes look at all things Step Up. We invite you, our readers, to become active participants.

We look forward to growing our blog, and taking this adventure with you. Thank you for reading.

Your friends at Step Up.

Florida Legislature is normalizing, expanding access to education choice

By DOUG TUTHILL

The Florida House and Senate have sent Gov. Ron DeSantis legislation that will continue normalizing and expanding access to choice in public education.

Doug Tuthill

Florida began expanding access to education choice in the late 1970s/early ’80s through the creation of district magnet schools. Next came charter schools and the Florida Virtual School in the 1990s, the McKay vouchers in 1999, tax credit scholarships in 2001, Gardiner education savings accounts (ESAs) in 2014, Hope scholarships in 2018, and the Family Empowerment Scholarship in 2019.

Today, about half of Florida’s PreK-12 students attend schools other than their assigned neighborhood school. This new legislation, House Bill 7045, will make even more students eligible for education choice.

HB 7045 also continues the movement to make all government-regulated education choice programs a normal and permanent part of Florida’s public education system. This normalization effort began in earnest with the 2019 passage of the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES), which created a scholarship program for lower-income students within the state’s public education funding system.  

HB 7045’s integration of the Gardiner Scholarship for students with unique abilities/special needs into the FES furthers this normalization. The Gardiner scholarship was created as a standalone program that the Legislature funded by an annual line-item appropriation. Every year the program had a waiting list, and every year parents had to ask the Legislature to appropriate more money to serve more students.

Now that the Legislature is merging the Gardiner program into the FES and the state’s public education funding system, the program’s enrollment and scholarship amount will grow automatically.

The McKay program, which is a second scholarship for children with unique abilities/special needs, will be merged with the Gardiner Scholarship and also integrated into the FES in the 2022-23 school year. This merger will make it easier for families with unique abilities/special needs children to access the funding and services that best meet each child’s needs, while knowing that their scholarship amounts will automatically go up as the state’s overall funding for public education increases.

Like Gardiner, the McKay program will become an education savings account in the 2022-23 school year. This will give the McKay families the same flexibility the Gardiner families have to better customize education services and products to the unique needs of their children.

The Senate wanted to turn all the lower-income scholarships into ESAs, but the House thought it was too soon. Nonetheless, over the next several years, ESAs, which are an essential tool in our effort to provide every student with an equal opportunity to succeed, will also become a normal and permanent part of public education. 

All aspects of how public education is organized and delivered are controlled by its funding procedures. Education choice will not be sustainable if it does not become an integrated part of the state’s public education funding mechanism, which is why HB 7045 is so important.

This bill accelerates the effort begun with the 2019 creation of the FES to fully integrate all government-regulated choice programs into the state’s education funding system, thereby ensuring their long-term viability and normalization.

The benefits of private schools

By ROGER MOONEY

Most mornings, history teacher Quintarries Upshaw stands in the hallway and greets the arriving students at the Dixon School of Arts & Sciences with a song he plays on his clarinet.

The melodies are soothing, welcoming. Meant to create a mood.

“What he’s doing is setting a temperature that says, ‘When you come in, this is your safe place,’” Dixon principal Donna Curry said.

The Dixon School of Arts & Sciences in Pensacola, Florida creates a welcoming environment for students who have dealt with trauma at home.

The private K-8 school in Pensacola, Florida sits in a high-crime neighborhood. Curry said it’s hard for her students not to be affected by their surroundings, which is why the staff and faculty are trained in trauma sensitivity.

“We cannot control what happens outside the school,” Curry said. “But when the students come through the doors, it has to be the calmest, inviting place that they have been in. We created that on purpose.”

When someone interested in education choice approaches Curry and asks about the benefits of sending their child to a private school, her response is about the protective shield her school creates not only for the students but for their parents, as well.

“What I normally tell parents, the beauty of Dixon being a private school is that we understand our parents,” Curry said. “We are a true community school.”

Dixon is one of 2,625 private schools in Florida, according to the Private School Review. They range from pre-K to high school with an average enrollment of 172 in elementary schools and 200 in high schools.

There are some that cater to the arts and sciences, like Dixon. Others offer an International Baccalaureate program or a Waldorf education, developing children’s intellectual, artistic, and practical skills in an integrated and holistic manner. Many private schools are faith-based, and there are schools that accommodate children with special needs.

For decades, parents have realized the benefits of sending their children to private schools, including:

  • Smaller class sizes and more favorable teacher-student ratio.
  • A faith-based education.
  • A challenging curriculum.
  • The opportunity for a parent to exercise school choice.
  • A safer education environment.
  • A shared educational philosophy between the parent and the school.
  • The school as a community environment found at smaller schools.
  • Athletic programs.

But many parents can’t easily afford private schools. The cost of yearly tuition for a private school in Florida is lower than the national average. The average for an elementary school is $7,785 (the national average is $10,066). For a high school it is $9,899 ($14,978 nationally).

In Florida, however, parents can apply for scholarships managed by Step Up For Students that can help with tuition, fees and more.

Financial Assistance to private schools for Florida schoolchildren include:

  • The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship are two scholarships for private school (or transportation help to a district school).
  • The Gardiner Scholarship is an education savings account, known better as ESA, that serves children with certain special needs.
  • The Hope Scholarship is for schoolchildren who reported being bullied or were a victim of violence in their district school.

More than 1,800 Florida private schools accept Step Up For Students scholarships for one or more of its programs. That’s a lot of choices for Step Up scholars.

Faith and safety

Raising children a second time, Sharon Strickland looked for an academic environment where she would feel comfortable sending her granddaughters, and where they would feel safe.

After more than 20 years of living on her own, Strickland gained custody of her two great-granddaughters during the 2019-20 school year. The girls, 9 and 4, respectively, needed a school. Strickland remembered the overcrowded classrooms from 20 years ago when she used to take one of her granddaughters to the district middle school. She could only imagine the situation now.

Feeling her oldest granddaughter would benefit from a smaller teacher/student ratio and wanting a faith-based education for the two, Strickland enrolled them in a private Christian school five minutes from their home.

Savannah and Karlee Strickland celebrate Christmas at Daytona Beach.

Savannah, the oldest who is in the second grade, attends Warner Christian Academy, a pre-K through 12th grade private school in South Daytona, Florida, on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Her sister, Karlee, will receive the scholarship when she enters kindergarten.

Savannah, who repeated the second grade during her first year at the school, has improved her grades over those she earned while attending a district school.

“She doesn’t have a learning disability, but she’s not on the level the other kids are,” Strickland said. “She has 12 kids in her class. That’s great. She’ll get all the instruction she needs.”

The faith-based education, the school’s anti-bullying policy and the fact tutors are available for all students is what sold Strickland on Warner Christian.

“To sum it up, I can go to work and feel good about leaving them there,” she said.

Hybrid learning

Wellmont Academy, a faith-based K-12 private school in St. Petersburg, Florida is an example of education choice at work.

Defined as a hybrid school, Wellmont offers students the option of attending school five days a week, three days (upper grades) or two (lower grades).

Wellmont Academy in St. Petersburg offers a unique hybrid education program.

Those students who opt for hybrid learning spend the days when they are not in the classroom learning at home or participating in the school’s Assisted Learning Program.

“The hybrid model allows parents to be involved more in their education,” Danielle Marolf, Wellmont’s founder and principal, said. “Parents can enroll their kids the way they need to enroll them. It’s really popular.”

Marolf said parents have two main concerns when they discuss moving their child from a district to a private school: class sizes and a safe environment.

At Wellmont, classes are capped at 15 students and include a teacher and an aid.

“That teacher knows those kids so well,” Marolf said. “She knows exactly what their needs are, and she can work with them.”

As for bullying, Marolf said, “We have zero tolerance for bullying, and we mean it. Our kids know that we’re serious, and when we tell them this is a safe place and we will listen to you and our door is open, they know it. They can come into my office and talk to me.”

A sense of community

The sense of community is as much of a selling point for private schools as the value of the education they provide. The two often go hand-in-hand. And when the school loops in the parent’s right to exercise education choice, it presents an attractive alternative to a district school.

Back at the Dixon School of Arts & Science, safety from the neighborhood is only one benefit. It also offers an arts program that has produced students whose works are featured in local galleries and magazines, and student scientists, who have traveled to Washington D.C. to present their projects at a convention for real scientists.

Like every principal, Curry said it is the job of her faculty to find that switch that will turn the students into scholars. That can be difficult for a student who is dealing with trauma at home, so couches are placed in the hallways for students who need some quiet time to relax or a place to talk to a teacher or staff member about their troubles.

Parents are allowed to use those couches, too.

“You cannot love children without loving the parents. So, what we invite our parents to is a school that not only cares about the children, but cares about them,” Curry said.

“It makes them feel less traumatized. And if I have a less traumatized parent, I have a less traumatized child, and that makes it easier for me to teach A,B,C’s and 1,2, 3’s.”

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

Education choice helps in transformation to student council president

BY ROGER MOONEY

The early grades were not easy for Joshua Joseph. Trouble seemed to find him.

“I had anger issues,” Joshua, now 14, said. “People would make fun of me. Since my mom is not the richest, sometimes I would have mismatched socks, or my shoes would be dirty.”

That made Joshua a target at his district school. And, he admitted, he didn’t turn the other cheek when trouble came calling.

His mother, Elide, didn’t care who was the instigator. All she saw was a son who had a habit of making bad choices, whether it was controlling his anger or his choice of friends. The combination was hurting her son academically.

“He was bad,” Elide said with a sigh.

And she had enough.

With the help of a Step Up scholarship, Joshua turned his life around at
Sacred Heart Catholic School in Lake Worth, Florida.

A long-time parishioner at Sacred Heart Church in Lake Worth, Florida, Elide wanted to move Joshua to Sacred Heart Catholic School, a private pre-K-8 school near their home. She hoped a Catholic education and the small-classroom setting would work better for Joshua. Elide, a nursing assistant, was thrilled when she learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, which provides private school opportunities for economically disadvantaged families. Joshua entered Sacred Heart in the fourth grade.

“She was looking for something different for Joshua,” Sacred Heart Principal Tricia Duvall said. “These are the families that the scholarship really, really helps. They want it, and they’re willing to work and partner with the school.”

Joshua wasn’t excited about switching schools. The transformation was gradual. But he is now in the eighth grade, and has experienced a dramatic change in behavior, attitude and grades. And, in what might be a surprise to those who knew Joshua when he was younger, he is the Sacred Heart Student Council president.

“He’s come full circle,” Duvall said. “He works really hard academically. He’s working really hard to make good choices and do the right thing.”

This is everything Elide envisioned for her son when she made the move to change schools.

“We prayed so hard,” she said. “Now he’s different.”

Looking back now, Joshua knew he was on a dangerous path.

“If I stayed at my old school, I … probably would have ended up in juvie (juvenile detention),” he said.

As principal, Duvall said she is trying to change the culture where some students view getting in trouble as being “cool.” It’s not a Herculean task, given there are only 250 students in the school. But she needs help from some students.

And that’s where Joshua comes in.

He’s now a leader in the cause for avoiding trouble.

“Absolutely,” Duvall said. “He embraces that.”

In fact, Duvall thinks the example that Joshua sets for other students played a role in his election as president.

Joshua has big plans for his football career.

“He’s kind to everyone,” Duvall said. “He’s friendly to everyone. He has a good sense of humor. He’s never disrespectful ever. That carries into everything, he treats everybody with respect.”

Said Joshua: “The whole school basically knows me. They are my friends.”

“In my other school, I had anger issues. People would make fun of me. But Sacred Heart changed me and made me understand that sometimes people’s opinions doesn’t really matter.”

Duvall told Joshua that the Student Council president has to be the leader of the school. During school spirit week, Joshua would have to show the most spirit, which he did. He also took the lead during a recent beach cleanup and a December fundraiser to feed the homeless.

“I’m so proud of him,” Elide said. “When he told me he was president, I was so happy.”

Joshua has big plans for his future.

“My goal is to be in the NFL,” he said.

He currently is a defensive lineman on his youth football team, but he hopes to become a running back. That’s why he wants to attend Cardinal Newman High in West Palm Beach. He wants to be part of the Crusaders’ football program.

“He aspires to get there.” Duvall said. “So, he’s always asking, ‘Have you heard anything? Do you know when admission is open? Do they have scholarships available? What kind of GPA do I need?’ He’s asking the questions that if you knew him three or four years ago, you probably wouldn’t have thought he’d be asking them, because he was so unfocused.”

About Sacred Heart School:

Sacred Heart School was founded in 1944 and serves approximately 250 students in PreK 3–8, including 109 on the FTC Scholarship and 55 on the FES Scholarship. It is a Catholic school with a mission to “provide all students, of diverse cultures and abilities, an education of excellence, in a Christ-centered environment.” Sacred Heart is accredited by the Florida Catholic Conference. Tuition is roughly $10,300 and all students take the TerraNova assessment.

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

Grandparents raising grandkids: A look at one grandfamily

By ROGER MOONEY

Charles Sears recalled a conversation he had last winter with Stephanie Engelhardt, principal of Christ the King Catholic School. It occurred outside the school while Sears was waiting to pick up his 9-year-old granddaughter, Luna.

Sears is 69. His wife, Colleen, is 49. They have full-time custody of Luna, which thrills them to no end. But sometimes Sears fixates on the age difference between he and Luna, and this was one of those times.

Charles Sears and his granddaughter, Luna.

He remembered telling Engelhardt that he felt bad for Luna because someone so old picks her up after school. Engelhardt told Sears to look around. He’s not the only senior citizen in the pickup line, and that some of the others aren’t babysitters waiting to pick up the grandkids. Like Sears, they are grandparents raising their grandchildren.

“There are a lot of grandparents doing the parenting duty,” Engelhardt said. “That’s the truth.”

They are called grandfamilies, and they are on the rise.

According to grandfamilies.org, there are 139,542 grandparents in Florida raising their grandchildren. The number of children in the United States living in grandfamilies has doubled since 1970, according to a 2018 story in The Atlantic. The Centers for Disease Control estimates there are 2.6 million grandfamilies nationwide.

“The number seems to be growing every year,” said Karen Boebinger, Grandparents as Parents Program coordinator at the Tallahassee Senior Center & Foundation.

Living with the grandparents can provide a stable homelife for the children, perhaps for the first time in their young lives. But it can place a hardship on the grandparents, especially if they are elderly. There is a financial burden for those living on fixed incomes. There can be a health component involved for those grandparents dealing with a physical issue or illness and are now tasked with raising young children. And the idea of giving up their retirement years and a leisurely way of life to return to parenting can be frustrating.

Yet, many do it.

“In general, these grandparents are amazing people,” Boebinger said. “They will do anything to keep the family together, including working past retirement (and) depleting their savings in order to take care of the kids.”


This is what Sears wanted when he and Colleen gained custody of Luna seven years ago. He wanted a steady home for his granddaughter, something, he said, Luna never had during the brief time when she lived with her parents. Luna’s father is Sears’ son, a musician who played in a band and was constantly on the road. The couple never married and eventually split when Luna was 1. Sears said Luna’s mother left Luna with he and Colleen so often it seemed like she lived with them.

“I want to do what’s best for Luna,” Sears said.

After raising his four children in his home in Jacksonville, Florida, Sears is glad to be a parent again and “back on the carrousel.”

Sears worked as a certified public accountant until 2010 when he had a heart attack. He reduced his workload considerably until 2016, which was when he received custody of Luna. So, Sears returned to working part-time because he wants Luna to enjoy an active childhood filled with as many activities and sports as she wants. Sears sent his children to Christ the King, a pre-K through eight private school, and wanted the same education for his granddaughter.

“It was a great education and a great experience,” Sears said.

Luna attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two scholarship available to Florida residents and managed by Step Up For Students that give students the option to find the best schools to meet their K-12 learning needs. The other is the Florida Empowerment Scholarship.

The scholarships can add a degree of comfort for those raising their grandchildren.

“It’s certainly been a financial relief for us,” Sears said. “I have heart problems and was basically out of the business. I went back working part-time, because regardless of the generosity of Step Up For Students, we want Luna to have a good life.”

Boebinger, of the Tallahassee Senior Center & Foundation, said the financial aspect of raising grandkids is one of the main concerns of grandparents. Paying for a private education might not be doable for those on a fixed income. But for those grandparents who live in Florida, school choice remains an option because of Step Up For Students.

Consider Sharon Strickland, who was nearing her mid-60s when, after being an empty nester for more than 20 years, she gave up her retirement years to raise two of her great-granddaughters. Strickland has cared for the girls for more than a year after their mother lost parental rights.

“Never underestimate the love of a grandmother,” Strickland, 65, said.

Strickland wanted a faith-based education for the girls, Savannah, 9, and Karlee, 4. After qualifying for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Strickland enrolled Savannah at Warner Christian Academy, a pre-K through 12 private school located near their south Daytona Beach home. Savannah is in the second grade. Strickland said Karlee will follow her sister to Warner Christian once she is old enough.

Savannah struggled in the school she attended before moving in with her great-grandmother. Warner Christian administrators and Strickland thought it was best for Savannah to repeat the second grade. Placed in an environment with smaller class sizes and more one-on-one time with her teacher, Savannah has improved her grades.

“If that scholarship wasn’t there, I don’t know, she would be struggling,” Strickland said.


Whether the creation of the grandfamily is sudden or expected, it can be overwhelming for a grandparent.

“They don’t know what to do,” Boebinger said. “They don’t know what to do first.”

In Leon County, Boebinger estimates there are more than 2,000 grandparents raising their grandkids. Only 150 of those grandparents are in her program.

“So, there’s a lot more out there that we are trying to reach,” she said.

Boebinger said she encourages them to join the virtual meetings at the Tallahassee Senior Center & Foundation, Grandparents as Parents Program.

“They can get a lot out of talking to people who are in the same situation. They don’t feel so alone,” Boebinger said. “This is not what they were planning on doing, so it helps to talk to somebody who’s been through it.”

Hopefully, Boebinger said, the grandparents will refocus and turn the initial stress into the energy needed to raise the grandkids. Also, they can benefit from what can be a closer relationship with those grandchildren than with the grandchildren they have who are living somewhere else.

Luna keeps her grandparents busy with an active life that includes dance and music classes, volleyball, basketball, student council, robotics and sewing clubs.

Sears said his relationship with Luna is different than it is with his other grandchildren.

“With Luna, I can’t be a grandparent. I have to say no sometimes, which can be very unpleasant,” he said.

Grandfamiles can deal with anger issues, especially those that came together because of the parents’ drug use or incarceration. The anger, Boebinger said, is usually directed at the parents.

“The grandparents are frustrated with the parents for having the wrong priorities. The kids feel that as well. ‘Why did mom or dad do whatever?’” she said. “So, some of the acting out is their anger at the parents and not so much that they are with the grandparents. A lot of time that’s the first stability they have had in their lives.”

Sears said he’s never heard Luna express any resentment over her situation. It’s the only arrangement she has ever known.

“It’s just a very good thing for her, I think,” he said. “She’s a child who’s very happy, but she never tells you about her emotions. She’s only 10, but you’d never know if anything is bothering her about it.”


Engelhardt has been associated with Christ the King for 20 years, the first five as a teacher and the last 15 as the principal. She has seen the amount of grandfamilies steadily increase during her tenure.

“It’s definitely a trend, a noticeable trend,” she said.

And while Engelhardt understands why Sears can be concerned about the 60-year age difference between he and Luna, she sees that as a positive trait, the same trait she sees in all the grandparents committed to raising their grandkids.

“All these people,” Engelhardt said, “are either still working to afford the grandkid or are in carpool, going to dance practice or basketball practice or doing homework, homework, homework or going to meetings, sacrificing or giving up all the stuff that was supposed to be for them and redoing everything again. It’s humbling to see what they do.”

Luna and Colleen.

That Colleen is 20 years younger than her husband gives her more energy to attend to Luna’s needs, Sears said.

“Statistically speaking,” he added, “she’ll be there for Luna’s college graduation. I hope I am.”

Sears said he’s more prepared for parenthood this time since he has the experience of raising four children. He said Luna keeps them busy with all her activities – dance and music classes, volleyball, basketball, student council, robotics and sewing clubs.

“But” he said, “the downside about it has been our lifestyle. I’m 69. I would be retired. I would be one heck of a golfer right now.

“We’re doing all the things that we shouldn’t be doing. I get up every day at 5 a.m. to make her breakfast and her lunch. As you can imagine our day is tied around Luna. Somebody has to pick her up after school and we have all her weekend activities.”

Still, Sears can’t picture his life any other way.

“She keeps us young, because we have to be active,” he said.

Although, Sears admitted, that sometimes comes at a price.

“It’s been tough practicing volleyball, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “I tore my calf muscle.”

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

How an education savings account turned a child’s room into a ‘destination’

Editor’s Note: This post originally ran April 1, 2021 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students. This is the fourth in a series of stories exploring the Gardiner Scholarship Program.

By ROGER MOONEY

Roman Scott’s bedroom has two walls painted orange and two painted blue. On the floor is a rug with the design of a two-lane road wending its way through a small town.

A train set sits on the rug, because Roman, 4, loves trains. And there is a stack of trays that hold his toys and musical instruments, because Roman loves to, as his mom says, “rock out” on his tambourine, cymbals and triangle.

Urrikka Woods-Scott refers to this as a “sensory room” for her son, who is on the autism spectrum.

“The goal was to get him to engage in his room, love his room by having all the support in that room,” she said.

Roman sits at the desk in his bedroom/sensory room.

Roman receives the Gardiner Scholarship for children with special needs. (The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.) Many of the items in Roman’s room, including the educational toys from Melissa & Doug and the stack of books from the Frog and Toad series, were purchased with funds from the Gardiner’s education savings account. These flexible spending accounts allow parents to use their children’s education dollars for a variety of educational purposes.

The scholarship also pays for Roman’s therapy at Bloom Behavioral Solutions, which is near their home in Jacksonville, Florida.

Woods-Scott got the idea to turn Roman’s bedroom into a sensory room from Bloom. She learned what Roman gravitates to in Bloom’s sensory room and did her best to replicate those items at home.

“We’re trying to transition (him) from sleeping in my bed to sleeping in his own bedroom,” Woods-Scott said. “I want him to have what he needs to be comfortable in his own room. My thought was to make his room a destination.”

Woods-Scott’s husband, Romain, suggested the colors for the walls. Orange and blue are two of Roman’s favorites. Blue is considered soothing and is a popular choice for sensory rooms. Woods-Scott added brown curtains to give the room more life.

The results, she said, are beyond encouraging.

Woods-Scott said Roman has made great strides since joining the Gardiner program in 2020. Much of that comes from his time at Bloom, which he attends for 30 hours a week. The rest comes from the tools available at home that Woods-Scott purchased through MyScholarShop, Step Up For Student’s online catalog of pre-approved educational products.

Families also can purchase items or services that are not on the pre-approved list. They must submit a pre-authorization request that includes supporting documentation and an explanation of how the purchase will meet the individual educational needs of the student. 

A review is then conducted by an internal committee, which includes a special needs educator, to determine if the item or service is allowable under the program’s expenditure categories and spending caps, and a notification is sent to the parent. The item or service may then be submitted on a reimbursement request that must match the corresponding pre-authorization.

Step Up For Students employs numerous measures to protect against fraud and theft, such as ensuring a service provider’s reimbursement request and a parental approval came from different IP addresses.

Woods-Scott purchased an iPad on MyScholarShop, which Roman uses for speech, math and preschool prep. She buys arts and craft supplies because they help Roman improve his fine motor skills.

Roman was diagnosed in October 2019. The family was living in Charlotte, North Carolina at the time. That November, Woods-Scott changed jobs and the family moved to Jacksonville, where, unbeknownst to her, Roman was eligible for the Gardiner Scholarship, the largest education savings account program in the nation.

The walls of Roman’s bedroom are painted blue and orange to help create a sensory room.

At the time, Roman was a “scripter,” which meant his speech was limited to repeating what he heard on a television show or a movie.

“It wasn’t a functional type of speech and he wasn’t expressing what he needed,” Woods-Scott said. “He wasn’t saying, ‘Mom, I want a banana,’ or something like that. He was only saying what he heard on a show. Now he says ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy.’ He tells you what he wants.”

Roman can count to 100 and recite the alphabet. He can read his Frog and Toad books out loud.

Next year, Woods-Scott would like to use her Gardiner funds to send Roman to the Jericho School of Autism in Jacksonville.

After having what she called “my little moment of crying” when Roman was diagnosed with autism, Woods-Scott went to work seeking therapy for her son and advocating for those on the spectrum. She started Mocha Mama on FIRE, a YouTube vlog that promotes autism awareness in the Black community.

And, she has started the nonprofit Shades of Autism Parent Network to focus on multicultural parents of children on the spectrum and create recreational experiences through travel.

Woods-Scott knows how fortuitous it was to land the job in Florida, and what that meant for Roman.

“It was definitely all for a purpose,” she said.

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

Education savings accounts offer creative solutions for students with learning differences

Editor’s Note: This post originally ran March 25, 2021 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students. This is the third in a series of stories exploring the Gardiner Scholarship Program.

By Lisa Buie

Chrissy Weisenberger is one busy mom.

With five children, including 3-year-old twin boys and two daughters who are both on the autism spectrum, homeschooling the whole brood made the most sense for the family. It allows her to design each child’s learning plan to best fit his or her educational needs.

“It’s very Frankensteined,” joked Weisenberger, who lives in Palm Bay, Florida, a city southeast of Orlando known for its sports and nature parks.

By that, she means like many homeschool parents, she has strategically used a little of this and a little of that, a grassroots method of creating the perfect learning environment for her family.

Her two daughters, Keira, 8, and Tessa, 6, are on the autism spectrum and participate in the Gardiner Scholarship Program for students with unique abilities. The scholarships allow parents to customize their child’s education by using flexible spending accounts called education savings accounts.

While traditional vouchers pay for private school tuition, the savings accounts are more flexible. The Florida Department of Education transfers a portion of a child’s funds from the state education formula to a state-approved nonprofit organization, such as Step Up For Students, which puts these funds into an account for each child. Parents then apply to this nonprofit for permission to use their child’s ESA funds to buy state-authorized educational services and products.

Chrissy Weisenberger of Palm Bay, Florida made creative use of her education savings account, converting a swimming pool into a ball pit for her two sensory-challenged daughters. Sometimes, the whole family joins in.

The girls need help to stay focused on learning, so in addition to purchasing educational materials such as books and workbooks, Weisenberger has used her daughters’ education savings accounts to buy specialized equipment such as swings, which calm kids with autism, and a mini trampoline that helps with balance and gross motor skills.

She bought two chewable necklaces for Keira, who otherwise would chew on her hair during class. She bought the girls laptops to access virtual lessons in math and reading, which she says were a godsend during the pandemic when co-op meetings with other homeschool families were canceled. And she bought them a kit that taught them how to build a volcano.

Most Gardiner families typically make purchases through MyScholarShop, Step Up For Students’ online catalog of pre-approved educational products. The platform includes curriculum materials, digital devices, and education software. Families may be able to purchase items or services not on the pre-approved list by submitting a pre-authorization request that includes supporting documentation and an explanation of how the purchase will meet the individual educational needs of the student. 

An internal committee, which includes a special needs educator, conducts a review to determine if the item or service is allowable under the program’s expenditure categories and spending caps, and a notification is sent to the parent. The item or service may then be submitted on a reimbursement request that must match the corresponding pre-authorization.  

Step Up For Students employs numerous measures to protect against fraud and theft. For example, if a service provider’s reimbursement request is submitted from an IP address and the platform sees that the parental approval came from the same IP address, the anti-fraud staff is alerted to investigate.

Weisenberger followed this process to purchase one item not on the pre-approved list: a $25 inflatable kiddie pool.

While a swimming pool would not qualify as a reimbursable expense under the program’s rules, Weisenberger’s proposed use made it eligible. Inspired by a Pinterest post, she converted the rectangular pool, which she ordered from Amazon, into a ball pit that she filled with almost 3,000 plastic balls. Her girls use the reconfigured pool to help them with balance.

But Weisenberger’s creativity extends further. She’s devised a way to use the pool to help her kids with math.

Using three buckets, she teaches place value by having them put the appropriate number of balls in each. For example, the number 436 would be represented by putting four balls in the hundreds place bucket, three balls in the tens place and six balls in the one place buckets.

The inventive mom has found yet another way to utilize the purchase. She pours the balls over Keira as a way to soothe her sensory-challenged daughter.

Weisenberger, who learned about Gardiner from a speech therapist two years ago, said she is very pleased with the program. While she suspects two of her other children may qualify for a scholarship, the funding she presently receives satisfies the family’s learning needs.

“I don’t want to take it away from somebody else who needs it,” she said.

Lisa Buie is online reporter for redefinED.

How an education savings account is helping a Gardiner scholar see the world – virtually

Editor’s Note: This post originally ran March 18, 2021 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students. This is the second in a series of stories exploring the Gardiner Scholarship Program.

By ROGER MOONEY

Danielle Drummond was skeptical when she first saw the virtual reality headsets and consoles, and even the large-screen TVs, that are available to families who receive Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs.

“At first, I even wondered, ‘What on earth is the educational value of this?’” said Drummond, who lives in Fort Lauderdale.

It was 2018 and Drummond’s son Tristan, who is on the autism spectrum and is homeschooled, had recently undergone back surgery to correct a tethered spinal cord, which he had since birth. Drummond hoped Tristan, 6 at the time, could relearn to walk with the help of virtual reality.

Virtual reality has been used since the mid-1990s to help people on the spectrum learn to communicate and connect with others. Adults can use the technology to prepare for job interviews. Children use it to improve cognitive and gross motor skills.

Tristan has increased his attention span, improved his hand-eye coordination and developed his core strength through virtual reality.

Drummond believed the VR equipment could do the same for her son. She purchased the equipment with funds from Gardiner’s education savings account (ESA) through MyScholarShop, Step Up For Students’ online catalog of pre-approved educational products. It includes curriculum materials, digital devices, and education software.

Families can also purchase items or services that are not on the pre-approved list. They must submit a pre-authorization request that includes supporting documentation and an explanation of how the purchase will meet the individual educational needs of the student.

A review is then conducted by an internal committee, which includes a special needs educator, to determine if the item or service is allowable under the program’s expenditure categories and spending caps, and a notification is sent to the parent. The item or service may then be submitted on a reimbursement request, and it must match the corresponding pre-authorization.

Step Up For Students employs numerous measures to protect against fraud and theft. For example, if a service provider’s reimbursement request is submitted from an IP address and the platform sees that the parental approval came from the same IP address, the anti-fraud staff is alerted to investigate.

Thanks to the VR equipment made possible by the ESA, Tristan, now 8, did relearn to walk. But that was just the beginning.

“Then we discovered it had a lot more value,” Drummond said.

VR is also helpful during Tristan’s occupational and physical therapy sessions.

Since he began using virtual reality, Tristan has increased his attention span, improved his hand-eye coordination, and developed his core strength. He has learned how to interact socially, how to count and how to exercise.

Tristan cannot go on field trips like other students. He can’t even sit in a movie theater.

However, through virtual reality, Tristan has visited Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. He landed on the moon with Apollo 11, and went scuba diving through the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, where he swam with sharks.

“It’s enriched his life in ways that we would have been otherwise unable to do,” Drummond said.

Tristan also uses VR for his occupational and physical therapy. Drummond said it used to be a chore to get Tristan to participate in therapy.

“We would lose 75% to 80% of therapy lessons trying to get him into a groove to enjoy what he is doing,” she said. “It’s a struggle every parent with a child like Tristan knows.”

But with virtual reality now part of the sessions, Drummond said it only takes Tristan a few minutes to get into the therapy groove.

“So, we’re now getting full therapy sessions and because of that, he’s talking more, he’s interacting with us more. He’s actually becoming more social,” she said. “It’s gotten him into being healthier, because he has the ability to do physical therapy, which is absolutely his favorite thing to do.”

The technology also helps Tristan overcome his fear of visiting a place for the first time, like a medical facility. He can tour the facility virtually ahead of time.

“But now with the virtual reality, I can set him up on that, have the exact place we are going on it, and allow him to look around in a safe environment,” Drummond said. “That way when he finally goes, I don’t have to make plans for our arrival like an army general. I don’t have to have 500 contingency plans because he’s expecting it. He knows what it’s going to sound like. What it’s going to look like. He’s going to know where things are. All these things help him get acclimated and actually get more out of going to these places.”

Drummond never thought that Job Simulator on Oculus Quest, or the Ring Fit Adventure game for Nintendo Switch, or Beat Saber would improve Tristan’s life in so many ways, but they have.

“They’re a lot of fun, but it’s also a way to sneak education into him,” Drummond said. “I don’t know if I can really say it enough about it. It just helps him to do pretty much everything. He has a blast with it.”

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

Horse therapy opens new world for blind teen

Editor’s Note:  This post originally ran March 11, 2021 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students. This is the first in a series of stories exploring the Gardiner Scholarship Program.

By LISA BUIE

Yvonne Clanton realizes some might question why a state scholarship would pay for kids to ride horses.

She wondered herself, until her daughter Sarah began attending weekly sessions at Emerald M Therapeutic Riding Center in Brooksville. The farm is nearly an hour from the Clantons’ home in Zephyrhills, but the experience, Clanton says, has been “life changing.”

Horse therapy student
Sarah Clanton, blind since birth, gives commands to her horse, Cappy, at the Emerald M. Therapeutic Riding Center as owner and therapist Lisa Michelangelo, left, lends a hand.

Born blind and severely developmentally delayed, Sarah, now 14, spent her early years warehoused in an orphanage in Ukraine. Strapped to a bed for nearly 24 hours a day, she was never held or cuddled. When Clanton and her husband, Jon, adopted Sarah at age 5, Sarah was wearing infant-sized clothing. She could not walk or talk.

The Clantons tried unsuccessfully to educate Sarah through their school district’s homebound program. Next, they tried sending her to a small private school, but when one of her brothers, who is visually impaired and has cerebral palsy, got sick and had to be hospitalized, the family opted to homeschool both children.

Now, Sarah and her brother Sam both participate in the Gardiner Scholarship Program for students with unique abilities administered by Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog. The Clantons use the education savings accounts attached to their Gardiner Scholarships to cover the cost for both children to attend Emerald M, among other purchases, which they would not be able to afford otherwise.

“It was our last hope,” Clanton said, explaining that if this therapy, designed to make Sarah stronger, failed, the only alternative would have been purchasing a lift system on a track to support Sarah throughout the house. A bathroom renovation looked inevitable, another pricy item for a family of six whose sole breadwinner, Sarah’s father, is pastor of a small church and a prison chaplain.

The Clantons applied and were approved through Step Up For Students’ detailed process to use their Gardiner funds at Emerald M, which has been an authorized Gardiner service provider since 2016.

After each therapy session, Emerald M is required to submit a request for payment via Step Up’s direct-pay process. The secure platform routes the request to the parent for approval once staff determines the purchase meets state eligibility guidelines.

Step Up also has an online catalog of pre-approved educational products, such as curriculum materials, digital devices, and education software, that families may select. Families may also purchase items and services out of their own pockets and submit receipts and supporting documentation to Step Up for review for reimbursement.

That process includes an internal review committee with a special needs educator; regular input from a statewide Gardiner parent advisory council; and a long list of limits and prohibitions on certain expenditures and categories of expenditures. Reviewers examine each application to determine not only its eligibility but also its appropriateness for that child’s learning plan.

Step Up uses technology to look for evidence of attempted fraud or theft. For example, if a service provider’s reimbursement request is submitted from an IP address and the platform sees that the parental approval came from the same IP address, the anti-fraud staff is alerted to investigate.

Clanton says the therapies have been a godsend for Sarah over the past three years. Sarah, who was non-verbal when she arrived at the riding center and shied away from human touch, had to be carried to the riding ring by her brother.

Watch Sarah’s story.

Then she met Cappy, a dark bay horse with a gentle trot. Sarah learned how to circle the ring atop Cappy as a therapist gave her commands to give to the horse. As Sarah began experiencing the horse’s movements, which mimic the human gait, her balance and coordination improved. She learned how to orient herself in space.

Emerald M owner Lisa Michelangelo, a physical therapist, has observed Sarah making “incredible gains” this past year.

“She is able to walk best now with just one arm linked around someone else, and she is walking straighter and not showing the drastic signs of hip drop that she was before” Michelangelo said. “Her core, pelvis and hips continue to get stronger each week.”

Clanton has purchased a few other items with funds from her education savings account, such as a therapeutic swing and a lighted wall that makes water noises. Research shows both devices help calm children with special needs like Sarah’s and Sam’s.

Today, Sarah accompanies Clanton on outings to restaurants and to church. Slowly, Sarah is learning to be more social. And she’s learning to talk.

One of her most frequently uttered words is “horse.”

Lisa Buie is an online reporter for redefinED.

Universal Property & Casualty Insurance donates $5 million to Step Up

By ASHLEY ZARLE

March 10, 2021 | FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.– Step Up For Students announced March 10 a $5 million contribution to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program from Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company (UPCIC), helping 708 lower-income Florida schoolchildren attend the K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.

Since 2017, UPCIC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Universal Insurance Holdings, Inc. has generously funded 1,968 scholarships through contributions totaling $13.5 million to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and allows parents and students to choose between a scholarship to support private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.

UPCIC announced a $5 million contribution to Step Up For Students. Pictured (from left to right) are
American Platinum Vice President of Marketing David Ahern, UPCIC Vice President of Marketing Stacey Tomko, UPCIC Spokesperson and NFL Hall of Famer Dan Marino, and Step Up For Students Development Officer David Bryant.

“Universal is committed to giving back to the communities we serve,” said Steve Donaghy, Chief Executive Officer for Universal Insurance Holdings, Inc. (UIH). “We are proud to support hundreds of Florida schoolchildren through our partnership with Step Up For Students.”

UPCIC celebrated this donation with a check presentation at their corporate office in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Dan Marino, UPCIC spokesperson, National Football League hall of famer and former Miami Dolphins quarterback joined the celebration in support of UPCIC’s commitment to Florida schoolchildren.

“Because of the support of companies like UPCIC, deserving students throughout Florida can access the school that best fits their learning needs,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “UPCIC’s commitment to their community is incredible and because of their continued partnership we are able to provide educational options for lower-income families in Florida.”

During the 2020-21 school year, nearly 100,000 K-12 students throughout Florida are benefiting from a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up for Students. About 57% of scholarship children are from single-parent households and nearly 68% are Black or Hispanic. The average household income of families accepted to receive scholarships is $25,755 – a mere 9% above poverty. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the program.

Ashley Zarle can be reached at azarle@sufs.org.

A sigh of relief: How the Hope Scholarship helped change one student’s life

By ROGER MOONEY

ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, Fla. – There was a reason for Nick Guiley’s tears and his utter refusal to get out of his father’s car at school one morning during the sixth grade.

“I felt like something was going to happen when I stepped into school,” Nick said. “That someone was going to come up and hurt me or something.”

Nick was being physically bullied by two boys at his neighborhood school near their home in Altamonte Springs, Florida. They made entering that building a nightmare for Nick.

“It’s a suspenseful feeling and you’re scared because you don’t know when it’s going to happen,” Nick said. “Where are they going to be? What class? So, I was kind of on the edge, nervous.”

He would spend entire days in the office of a guidance counselor, hiding from his tormentors.

Nick’s parents, Lisa and Todd, were unaware of this. They sensed something was troubling their youngest child. His anxiety level was high, and his heartbeat would at times reach 140 beats per minute. They took Nick to a cardiologist, who said it wasn’t physical. They took Nick to a therapist, who thought the anxiety was related to Nick having Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary, repetitive movements and vocalizations.

Nick and his father, Todd, enjoy a laugh while doing homework.

The root of the problem remained undiscovered.

“We asked him all the questions,” Lisa said. “Everything you could think of as a parent.”

Nick hid the truth with evasive answers. He was, he admitted, scared to tell his parents.

“It was kind of an embarrassing topic to bring up,” he said.

Nick didn’t know how his parents would react. He didn’t know if they would believe him. And, he didn’t have proof.

But the bullying came to light the morning he refused to leave the car. Finally, Nick talked.

“There were two boys who, literally, every chance they got, they would hurt him,” Lisa said. “He was so afraid. He wouldn’t even tell us. In his mind, all he would think was, ‘I can’t go to school.’”

A sigh of relief

Nick stood outside Lake Forrest Preparatory School in Maitland, Florida on a sunny February afternoon and talked about his experiences. Now an eighth grader, he began attending the infants-through-eight private school in January of 2020. It’s a small school with only eight children in this year’s graduating class. It was the perfect landing – small and secure – for someone like Nick.

When asked what it feels like to be dropped off at Lake Forrest in the morning, Nick said, “It’s one of the biggest sighs of relief that I ever had.”

He likes his schoolmates and his teachers. He no longer feels threatened by anyone.

“People knew my name and said ‘hi’ to me after the first couple of days, and that’s when I knew this school would be a good fit for me,” he said.

Nick attends Lake Forrest on a Hope Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The Hope Scholarship allows parents of children who are bullied in neighborhood schools to find new learning environments at another district school or at a participating private school – away from the bully.

“There’s no words to describe it,” Todd Guiley said. “It’s awesome. He complains when he can’t go to school.”

Lisa, Nick and Todd.

Todd and Lisa reacted quickly when Nick finally told them he was being bullied. They meet with the guidance counselor and school administrators. Nick was so traumatized that he didn’t finish the school year.

The Guileys enrolled Nick in a private school near their home for the seventh grade. Things began well, but the bullying returned in a different form. At this time, Nick had developed coprolalia, a Tourette syndrome tic which causes involuntary swearing and inappropriate language.

“Come to find out, he was hanging out with a group of kids who were pretty much emotionally bullying him,” Lisa said. “They encouraged him to cuss, and they would tell on him for doing it. They were pretending to be his friends.”

The Guileys learned of the Hope Scholarship from administrators at this school. While researching where to send Nick with the help of the scholarship, Nick struck up a friendship with a boy his age that he met at the dentist’s office. His new friend attended Lake Forrest, and his mom encouraged Lisa and Todd to visit the school, which is located 20 minutes from their home.

After meeting with Assistant Principal Ann Mallamas, Lisa and Todd decided to enroll Nick.

“My only regret is that we didn’t find this school sooner,” Todd said. “It’s been a positive experience for him all around. The teachers are great. The kids are great. He loves it.”

‘My heart is full’

In February, Step Up recently held its annual Rising Stars Award program, which recognizes scholarship students in several categories – High-Achieving, Outstanding Student character and Turnaround Student. Mallamas nominated Nick for the Turnaround Student award, and Nick was featured in the virtual Rising Stars Award video.

“I’ve seen a huge transformation from the first day that I met Nick until today,” Mallamas said. “He has developed into a wonderful young man with a past that should have never happened to him and was not called for. He’s one the sweetest, most loveable students we have at the school.”

Lisa said her son treats everyone with respect, is genuine and sincere and makes friends easy. Todd said his son is very loving. Nick described himself as kind and caring.

So why was he bullied?

“It did make me wonder why,” Nick said. “I didn’t understand it, because if I was nice to everybody, they don’t really have a reason to bully me.”

Lisa had guesses. Nick was small for his age at the time. He wore glasses. His Tourette syndrome produces tics.

Nick said he often thought of fighting back at his neighborhood school but knew that would get him into trouble. His course of action was to hope the bullying would stop, but it didn’t. It only became worse.

“It’s kind of hard to let go of the past sometimes, because it’s kind of a hard thing to not remember,” he said. “It does lessen as time goes on, but it still sticks with me to this day.”

Nick said he did wonder if the bullying would follow him to Lake Forrest.

“I had a feeling that this is what school is all about, that they would bully me, and the teachers wouldn’t care, because I had been to other schools and the process just kept repeating,” he said. “But when I got to this school there was this good atmosphere that nobody was going to be mean to me, and all the teachers were nice and caring.”

Both Lisa and Todd were devastated when they learned their son was being bullied. They wished he came to them sooner.

“The only thing that I would instill upon kids these days is don’t be afraid to come forward and stick up for yourself,” Todd said. “Go to your teacher, go to your parents, go to your counselors and let them know what’s going on. Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself.”

Lisa stood off camera while her son was being videoed for the Rising Stars show. She listened as Nick talked about how much he loves Lake Forrest, his classmates, his teaches. He talked enthusiastically about wanting to be a marine biologist and explore the uncharted depths of the oceans.

Nick is not the only one who breathes a sigh of relief every morning when he bounces out of the house and heads to school.

“It makes me feel beyond happy,” Lisa said. “My heart is full when I know that my child is happy, and he has no anxiety. He has fun. He does his work. His grades are improving. It’s an awesome feeling as a parent.”

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

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