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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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 email@example.com.
On a Friday morning in March 2020, a judge granted Sharon Strickland temporary custody of her great-granddaughter, Savannah.
The little girl, 8 at the time, had been living in unsanitary conditions, Strickland said, with an elderly relative who was in failing health. Savannah often went hungry.
According to Sharon, the family dynamic has been complicated and the children’s mother lost parental rights to all four of her daughters.
The youngest great-grandchild, Karlee, was already living with Strickland, having been placed there by the state four months earlier. Karlee arrived at Strickland’s doorstep at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday in early November 2019, carrying all her possessions in a backpack and a trash bag. She was 3.
Savannah came with even less. Just the clothes she wore that day to school – a shirt that was missing a few buttons and tattered pants. No socks.
For years, Strickland tried to gain custody of her great-granddaughters.
“Nobody was standing up for these girls and these girls needed a voice,” Sharon said. “I said, ‘I’m the voice.’”
And Judge John D. Galluzzo of the 18th Judicial Court in Seminole County, Florida listened. He ordered Savannah to live with Sharon for one week and scheduled another hearing for the following Friday.
Savannah moved into her “Gram’s” clean house in South Daytona Beach, where she ate three meals a day, wore new clothes, slept in a real bed, and played with her little sister.
At the end of that week, Savannah found herself in front of the judge again for a custody hearing. He asked Savannah if she wanted to return to her old home or remain with her sister and great-grandmother.
“I want to live with my great-grandma,” Savannah answered without hesitation.
For nearly a year, Savannah has lived with her Gram. When recently asked why she picked her great-grandmother, Savannah said, “I have my own room. My Gram is nice to me.”
Strickland was thrilled. Now 65, she finds herself again in the role of mother after empty nesting for more than 20 years.
“God has a plan for all of us,” she said. “He placed me in this position for a reason.”
Strickland’s goal is to adopt Savannah and Karlee as well as a third great-granddaughter.
A fourth sister lives with her biological father and is doing well, Strickland said.
Strickland sees a better life for Savannah and Karlee, ones that include clean clothes, nutritious meals and a quality education.
“I’m going to make it happen,” Strickland said.
‘A good fit’
Once the girls moved in, Strickland learned about the income-based scholarships managed by Step Up For Students from the Child Protective Home Study Specialist in Volusia county. She applied and received the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for Savannah. With the opportunity to give her great- granddaughters a faith-based education, she decided on Warner Christian Academy, a Pre-K through 12 private school in South Daytona. The school is five minutes from home, eight minutes from where she works and came highly recommended.
The girls enrolled before this school year. Savannah, now 9, is in second grade. Karlee, 4, is in VPK and isn’t yet old enough to use the scholarship program.
Nealy Walton is the elementary school principal at Warner Christian. She listened intently as Strickland told Savannah’s story when they first met last spring. Education was not a point of emphasis in Savannah’s prior home, and she struggled in a neighborhood school, especially with reading. Stickland wanted Savannah to repeat the second grade.
But there was more. She had trust issues when it came to adults. She used to check each day to make sure no one took her clothes and toys. She hid food around the house.
Strickland once found a piece of paper on which Savannah wrote, “I hate you!” Strickland asked her about it and was shocked by Savannah’s answer.
“She was talking about herself. At 8 years old, that’s concerning. That’s very concerning,” Strickland said.
Both girls receive counseling.
“It might take years for them to feel good,” Strickland said.
As Strickland talked, one name came to Walton’s mind: Debbie Adams. She has taught second grade at Warner Christian for 43 years. During that time, Adams has developed the ability to read a student, to learn his or her interests, habits, and hang-ups. What makes them happy. What makes them mad. What frightens them. She knows some students are dealing with far greater problems then the lessons being taught in class.
“I can’t help them if I don’t know where they have been and what they need,” Adams said. “Once you get that, the education will come.”
Savannah and Adams, Walton said, “are a good fit.”
And given the spiritual foundation of the school and the unstable lives Savannah and Karlee led before living with their great-grandmother, Walton said, “It’s no accident they are here. The Lord definitely created an opportunity for them to be here. It’s not by luck.”
‘A brave little girl’
Adams said Savannah gives the best bear hugs.
“Yes, I do,” Savannah said.
She loves her new school, because Adams is “super nice,” and she has a lot of friends.
The smaller class sizes at Warner Christian allow for more one-on-one time between Savannah and Adams. Her grades have improved, especially in reading.
“If that scholarship wasn’t there, I don’t know, she would be struggling,” Strickland said.
The biggest part of Savannah’s success was learning to trust adults. She had been let down by so many during her first eight years. The young girl doesn’t know who her father is.
“We live in a tough world, and she has had to deal with an even tougher world,” Adams said. “For me, I think these kids just want to know you love them. They want to know you understand.”
Once Savannah accepted the love from Adams, Walton and the rest of the Warner Christian staff, she began to emerge from the protective shell she was forced to build around herself.
“She’s more content,” Adams said. “She’s happier with herself, because she is settled in. She works hard. She’s proud of what she does, so her inner dialogue that she has with herself has improved tremendously. When she first came in, it was more of a negative thing and life was just tough, and she’s a very sensitive girl. She was hard on herself, but she’s had a lot of baggage to overcome.
“Her and I working together, we have a good bond at this point, a lot of respect for each other. She’s a brave little girl, I’ll tell ya. She’s a very loving girl.”
Faith is a big part of the teacher-student relationship at Warner Christian. That’s what Strickland was looking for when she chose the school. She loves helping Savannah with her homework, especially when it comes to learning bible verses. She loves that Karlee sits next to Savannah and learns the verses, too.
“This (Florida Tax Credit Scholarship) has just been a blessing to me, because there is no way I could have afforded to send either one of them there to get the education they are going to receive on what I make,” said Strickland, an administrative assistant at The House Next Door, a family counseling center in Daytona Beach.
Conversations and laughs
One night while saying prayers at bedtime, Savannah turned to her Gram and asked, “Am I ever going to leave here?
“No,” Strickland said.
“Good,” Savannah said. “I don’t ever want to go back.”
Strickland, who has been divorced since 1982 and lived alone for 23 years before she gained custody of Karlee, is adjusting to the sights and sounds of having young children in the house.
“Here we go again,” she said. “It’s the whole aspect of learning each one of them. I’ve had a year with Karlee. She’s still tricking me, because she’ll eat green beans sometimes and sometimes, she won’t.”
Karlee loves Cheerios. Savannah won’t eat lunch meat. Both girls love to dance. Strickland said she thinks Savannah will someday be some type of leader.
Strickland welcomes the noise and the mess of a house filled with clothes and toys. The worst part about living alone all those years, she said, was eating dinner by herself.
“Now I have conversations and laughs and goofiness while we’re eating,” she said. “That’s something to be thankful for.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
DADE CITY, Fla.– Cal-Maine Foods, Inc., the largest producer and marketer of eggs in the United States, has contributed $100,000 to Step Up For Students, helping more than 14 Florida lower-income schoolchildren attend a K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.
This is the second year that Cal-Maine Foods has partnered with Step Up for Students and has generously funded nearly 30 Florida Tax Credit scholarships through contributions totaling $200,000.
“At Cal-Maine Foods, it is a priority for us to give back to our community,” said Dolph Baker, CEO of Cal-Maine Foods. “We are proud to invest in the future of Florida schoolchildren and we know our partnership with Step Up For Students is doing just that.”
Step Up For Students is a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. This income-based scholarship program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations and gives lower-income students in Florida the opportunity to attend a private or assists with transportation costs to an out-of-district school that best meets the scholar’s learning needs.
“We are excited to have Cal-Maine Foods as a partner again this year,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “It is because of donors like Cal-Maine foods that we are able to fulfil our mission of helping disadvantaged schoolchildren access a school that fits their learning needs.”
During the 2020-21 school year, nearly 100,000 K-12 Florida students are benefiting from a Florida Tax Credit scholarship administered by Step Up for Students. About 57% of these scholars 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 scholarship program statewide.
Reading was a struggle for Maloni Lewis as a third grader. So was writing and math.
Her whole life was a struggle. Both parents were disabled. Her three older brothers had been to jail. They told their mom that going to school and being smart were not cool among the group they associated with.
Maloni’s mom was determined to end that cycle with her daughter.
Renée Lewis found Seven Rivers Christian School in Lecanto, Florida, near their home. With the help of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families, she was able to afford the tuition at the pre-K through 12 private school. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.
It took a few years, but Maloni eventually became passionate about her education. She played sports, and by her senior year of high school, her grade point average was 3.8. She left for college with the goal of becoming a nurse like her mom.
“Step Up For Students is a lifeline,” Renée said. “It allows kids and families to dream. What they thought was so far out of reach is possible.”
There are many reasons why children struggle in school. For some, the class size is too big, and they feel lost among the crowd. Others have certain special needs that cannot be fully addressed at neighborhood schools. Some kids are bullied. Some are hindered by language barriers.
And then there are those like Maloni, whose homelife is so challenging that school is not a priority.
This scholarship allows parents to personalize the education of their pre-K through 12 children with certain special needs by directing money toward a combination of approved programs and providers. A list of special needs covered by the Gardiner Scholarship is found here under “eligibility requirements.”
Parents whose child is being bullied at a public school can apply for the Hope Scholarship.
In 2018, the Florida Legislature created the Hope Scholars to give relief for K-12 public school children from bullying and violence. The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district.
The Hope Scholarship, which is not based on a family’s income, provides families with financial assistance to send a child who suffered from a qualifying incident to an eligible private school, or to transport him or her to a public school in another district. The scholarship value depends on the grade level and county the family lives in.
Step Up has managed more than 1 million scholarships in the 20 years since its inception. These scholarships have been life-changers for the students and their families.
“I felt completely blessed to even have the scholarship. I don’t know what I would have done without it,” said Pamela Howard, whose son, Malik Farrell, reaped the awards of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.
Malik had been to four schools district schools in four years and repeated third grade after getting a report card filled with F’s.
Pamela learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and moved her son to Potter’s House Christian Academy, a pre-K through 12 private school in Jacksonville, Florida.
Weeks after enrolling, Malik’s older brother was murdered. The teachers and administrators at Potter’s House rallied around Malik. They eventually gained Malik’s trust, and because of that, Malik’s grades turned into C’s. He was a solid B student during his final two years of high school. He graduated and attended college in Tennessee.
Pamela credited Potter’s House and the Step Up scholarship for her son’s scholastic turnaround.
“To see my son just completely turn around, there aren’t even words,” she said. “That he overcame these struggles and turned out to become the young man that he is, there are no words to even explain how proud I am of him.”
The bullying at school began when Jordyn Simmons-Outland was in the second grade. He was punched and tripped by classmates. He was teased for his weight. He once told his grandparents that he wished he were dead. He eventually saw a therapist.
His grandmother, Cathy Simmons, complained to Jordyn’s teachers and administrators at the neighborhood school, but the violence continued. The last straw for Cathy occurred in 2018 when Jordyn was slapped by a classmate at the start of his fifth-grade year.
What does a parent do when their child is not safe at school?
Where do they turn when their cries of, “Help! My child is being bullied!” go unanswered?
Parents and guardians talk of being frustrated by what they see as inaction by teachers and administrators at their neighborhood school.
According to the Florida’s School Environmental Safety Incident Reporting System, more than 47,000 students in Florida reported being a victim of bullying during the 2015-16 school year. That’s a huge number, yet it’s only the number of schoolchildren who reported an incident. Many more suffered in silence.
In 2018, the Florida Legislature decided to address the staggering number of schoolchildren who are bullied each year by creating the Hope Scholarship.
“Hope is the best description. I keep thinking ‘There is hope. There is hope. There is hope,’” Cathy Simmons said.
The Hope Scholarship, which is not based on a family’s income, provides families with financial assistance to send a child who suffered from a qualifying incident to an eligible private school, or to transport him or her to a public school in another district. The scholarship value depends on the grade level and county the family lives in.
The transportation scholarship is worth up to $750 and can be used to attend any out-of-district public school with available space.
The scholarships are funded by consumers who choose to redirect up to $105 of their motor vehicle purchase taxes to the program.
Who is eligible?
Any public school student in Florida who was a victim of a qualifying incident at a K through 12 school, a school-related or school-sponsored program or activity or was riding in a school bus or waiting at a school bus stop.
What is a qualifying incident? They include battery, harassment, hazing, bullying, kidnapping, physical attack, robbery, sexual offenses (including harassment, assault or battery), threat or intimidation and fighting.
Cathy Simmons began looking for a private school for Jordyn after he was slapped by that classmate. She came across Lakeview Christian School in Lake Placid, Florida, which is not far from their home. That’s where she learned about the Hope Scholarship, then in its infancy.
They applied, and Jordyn became the first student in Florida to reap the benefits of the scholarship. Upon entering his new school for the first time, Jordyn said, “I new it was going to be good.”
Reid Stakelum was tired when he entered Equally Fit in Tampa in the afternoon, a result, his mom said, of staying up a little too late the night before to watch the movie “Back to the Future” at a local drive-in theater with his family.
Fatigue can be a trigger for Reid, 17, who is on the autism spectrum and receives the Gardiner Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. It puts “more stress on his body and his brain,” said Reid’s mom, Brittany. Add an hour’s worth of exercise, and Brittany was expecting an unproductive session for her son at the gym.
She based that on experience. Reid had been a member at other gyms, and the trainers there, when facing a less-than-energetic Reid, often pushed him to work harder to shake off the lethargy. That method might work for some, but Brittany knows it does not work with her son.
But Mark Fleming, 32, who owns Equally Fit (formerly Puzzle Piece Fitness), is also on the spectrum. He understands Reid.
When Fleming realized Reid wasn’t physically ready for his typical Thursday afternoon workout, he made adjustments on the fly. Fleming eliminated some of the planned exercises, added more rest and recovery time and increased the weight or the repetitions of others. What had the potential to be a lost afternoon at the gym turned out to be a productive session.
“Mark totally gets it,” Brittany said. “He is totally self-aware. He was able to relate to Reid and get him to calm down. Mark made sure it ended with a positive, where in other gyms, it would have been, ‘Nope, you got to do it,’ and that doesn’t work for people with autism.”
Bringing back the ‘personal’ trainer
Fleming, who was raised in Tampa and attended private schools, has a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a master’s in human performance from the University of Alabama.
It was a natural progression from a youth spent playing sports, mostly basketball and football.
His first love was baseball. Family lore has it, Fleming could read a baseball box score before he could read a book. But his passion for the sport went away when a lack of hand-eye coordination prevented him from hitting a baseball. He moved on to basketball, but again encountered difficulty, because, he said, “my hands didn’t work the way they need to.”
“I had very limited physical skills,” he said. “But due to my fascination with sports, I was able to be determined enough to overcome those issues.”
In high school, Fleming played linebacker on the Cambridge Christian School’s football team despite weighing 145 pounds.
Fleming began working with a physical trainer when he was in middle school. “Traditional weight room stuff,” he said, with the emphasis on weight training.
“I greatly benefited from it,” he said, “because I gained confidence.”
But, he added, “Toward my junior year, I started to accept that I can’t do sports. What am I going to do? It took me a while to find exercise science. That parallel interest really helped me.”
While in graduate school, Fleming said he started working in applied behavioral analysis as a behavioral assistant. He also became a volunteer coach for the Special Olympics.
He worked with children with autism in a school setting and saw those with fine motor and gross motor deficiencies go through occupational and physical therapy. On weekends, he saw the same deficiencies with the adults he coached at Special Olympics.
Many people on the spectrum have low muscle tone that can be improved with therapy but not corrected. It returns when they stop physical and occupational therapy.
Fleming learned there were few if any opportunities for these adults to stay active after they completed occupational and physical therapies.
Fleming had an idea. Already certified as a physical trainer, he decided he would work with those on the spectrum. But instead of emphasizing weight training, he would emphasize basic movements as a means of getting his clients physically active.
There is often stimming behavior – hand-flapping, rocking – but that is not exercise.
“When we’re dealing with autism, specifically, we’re dealing with a lot of sedentary behavior,” Fleming said. “Exercise helps pull kids out of that a little bit.
“A lot of these kids have gross and fine motor issues that need to be worked on. Those are where the starting points are. Let’s get these basic movement patterns down first and then we’ll get into the more complex as we go along.”
Fleming spent his first year as a physical trainer loading hurdles, resistance bands, sandbag style weights, soft medicine balls and steppers in his Honda Accord and driving to his clients, who were fanned out across the Tampa Bay area.
New client fills out a questionnaire, so Fleming can learn their objectives and their triggers. Are they sensitive to the florescent lights? He’ll turn them off. Noise? He’ll slow down an exercise if he hears a loud truck outside. Does their medication raise their body temperature when they are active? If so, Fleming will make the gym cooler during their session.
“You have to bring personal back into personal training,” Fleming said.
Bonding over Phineas and Ferb
Diane Carothers had taken her son, Mikey, to gyms that had classes designed for children. But those gyms played loud music and the lights were too bright. The trainers were loud and a little too enthusiastic for Mikey, who also used a Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up.
“I don’t think they would understand him,” Diane said.
She learned of Fleming’s gym through a Facebook group for mothers who home-school special needs children. Like Reid Stakelum, Mikey, 13, is on the spectrum. And like Brittany Stakelum, Diane spent her first visit at Equally Fit filling out the questionnaire and answering questions about Mikey.
Diane said she immediately knew this was the gym for Mikey. The question was: Would Mikey feel the same way? The answer is yes, though it took a few visits.
Mikey and Fleming formed a bond over their shared interest in the video game Roblox and the animated TV series Phineas and Ferb. They discuss those two while Mikey rides an exercise bicycle, lifts his feet over small hurdles, lifts the sandbag style weights and performs squats and lunges.
Mikey has coordination issues. He will slouch if sitting too long. This sometimes causes him to fall out of a chair. But after attending twice-weekly classes for the past year, Diane said Mikey’s coordination has improved and he has more strength in his hands and core.
“It’s been great for my son,” Diane said. “I’ve tried to get him involved in sports, but he doesn’t do well in team sports, and he’s just not very coordinated. Having a personal trainer is great for him, and I think that might not be the case if it was just any personal trainer, but Mark is so good with him. He’s so patient and he’s low-key and he understands him. Mikey is just so comfortable with him.”
So comfortable that Mikey walks on the treadmill at home.
“The only reason he’s willing to do that is Mark encouraged him to do that,” Diane said. “He looks up to Mark as an authority on the subject whereas Mom is not.”
Equally Fit is located 40 minutes from the Carothers’ home in Port Richey. Toss in a 60-minute session to the nearly 90-minute roundtrip commute and that is quite a commitment to make twice a week.
“I do it because it’s really beneficial for Mikey,” Diane said.
Perhaps the biggest endorsement Diane can give Fleming is this: He is one of the few people she feels comfortable leaving Mikey with.
“I’ve always been the kind of mom who sort of hovers,” Diane said.
Initially, she sat in the gym’s waiting room and watched Mikey work out. Then Diane would remain in the car and watch from the parking lot.
Now, she can use that hour to run a quick errand.
“It’s a big thing because Mikey is so comfortable with Mark, and Mark is so competent and understanding that I know Mikey will be fine with him for an hour,” Diane said. “There are very few people that I can leave Mikey with for an hour without Mikey becoming uncomfortable or distressed and there are no other people that I trust to handle a situation where Mikey becomes distressed.”
Excited to work out
Brittany Stakelum knows her son, Reid, would rather stay home and read a book or play a video game. The sedentary lifestyle, she said, fits many who are on the spectrum.
“They have more to offer than that, but they haven’t been around the right people in their lives who actually believe in them and will encourage them and tell them they can do anything they want,” Brittany said. “Mark’s mission is to help my son and his other clients to live their best lives.”
Reid has a part-time job in a supermarket. He used to struggle lifting and carrying cases of water. Fleming showed him the proper way to lift by using his legs. Problem solved.
Brittany also teaches children with special needs. She called Fleming “a breath of fresh air” for his dedication to working with clients on the spectrum and his desire to help them live a life that includes a degree of activity.
Fleming knows his clients do not need the same training he received when he was in school. Fleming, after all, was on the football team.
“A lot of kids I work with aren’t into that stuff. They don’t need that,” he said.
But what they need is the right exercises to get them off the couch, to improve their coordination, flexibility and strength. To improve their confidence, too.
Reid serves as an ambassador for the gym. Fleming posts pictures of Reid’s workouts on the Equally Fit’s Facebook page. For that, Reid received a $100 American Express gift card.
“He’s trying to show each person with autism that their time means something as well.” Brittany said. “Not only is he a great personal trainer, but he’s a great businessman, and he’s a great advocate and a great role model, especially with teens.”
Reid said he enjoys doing leg lifts. He said he likes going to Equally Fit because Fleming is “patient and encouraging” and is helping Reid get stronger.
Like gyms everywhere, Fleming had to close his for a few months during the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. He continued to work virtually with some clients. Others found it difficult to complete the exercises without being in the same room with Fleming.
Reid found himself slipping back to his sedentary lifestyle. He could not wait for the gym to reopen.
“Reid is actually excited to go,” Brittany said, “and I don’t ever remember my son being excited to work out.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
At three months old, Joshua Sandoval was diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis complex, a genetic disorder where the body produces benign tumors.
The tumors are in his brain, and the medication needed to prevent daily seizures makes him fidgety. Staying focused during class can be a chore.
Teachers at prior schools told Joshua’s mother, Nilsa, that her son had behavioral issues and struggled to finish assignments. In the words of one, Joshua was “unteachable.”
Nonsense, Nilsa said. Her son can speak two languages (English and Spanish), is an avid reader and has an extensive vocabulary for a child his age. Joshua, now 13, just needed the right academic setting.
Like many parents of children with special needs and learning disabilities, Nilsa searched for a school that could meet Joshua’s needs. She found one at LIFT Educational Academy, a private one-through-12 school in Miami Lakes, Florida, not far from their home.
LIFT is a psychology, tutoring and brain fitness center that helps children develop the brain skills essential for learning.
After bouncing through six neighborhood schools since Joshua began first grade, Nilsa had finally found the right fit for her son.
There are a number of schools across Florida equipped to serve students with special needs. Many accept the Gardiner Scholarship, which allows parents to personalize the education of their children with certain unique abilities by directing money toward a participating school, a combination of approved programs and services, as well as other approved providers and resources. These include schools, therapists, specialists, curriculum, technology – even a college savings account.
This scholarship is for Florida students 3 years old through 12th grade or age 22, whichever comes first, with one of the following disabilities: Autism spectrum disorder, Muscular dystrophy, Cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Phelan McDermid syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, Spina bifida, Williams syndrome, Intellectual disability (severe cognitive impairment), rare diseases as defined by the National Organization for Rare Disorders, anaphylaxis, deaf, visually impaired, dual sensory impaired, traumatic brain injured, hospital or homebound as defined by the rules of the State Board of Education and evidenced by reports from local school districts, or three, four or five year-olds who are deemed high-risk due to developmental delays.
The Gardiner Scholarship is a boon to children with certain special needs and their families. You can read here about Julian, who has cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus and a severe hearing loss that has impeded his speech, and here about Ryan, who is on the autism spectrum, and here about Valentina, who has Down syndrome.
You can read Joshua’s story here, though there is a postscript. LIFT Educational Academy went virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nilsa said Joshua did not respond well to that type of learning. So, she searched for another school that would fit his needs. In short time, she found one – Aktiv Learning Academy in Miami, which is also close to their Miami Lakes home and accepts the Gardiner Scholarship.
Nilsa said the transition was smooth.
“Joshua is going to an in-person school that is simply fabulous,” Nilsa said. “He is super happy and back to learning.”
School days meant a 5 a.m. wakeup call for Linzi Morris and her children so they could make the 40-minute ride across Tampa, Florida to their respective middle schools and high schools, passing more conveniently located options along the way.
Because Linzi wanted the best education opportunity for her six children.
“I looked at it as an investment, an investment in their future,” she said. “I can take the easier route, but I’m looking at it as I want them to get the best opportunity to do the best they can do.”
That’s the power behind the income-based and special-needs scholarships managed by Step Up For Students. In Florida, parents are not tethered to their neighborhood schools even when personal funds won’t stretch that far. They have the flexibility to customize their child’s education and the freedom to send their child to a school outside their zone.
Step Up offers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship for those who meet the eligibility requirements found here, and the Gardiner Scholarship for those children with certain special needs who meet the criteria here.
The scholarships are portable, too, meaning if the family moves to another part of the state, the scholarship moves with them to a participating school or approved providers and resources, as does their ability to choose the best education fit for their child.
During the 2020-21 school year, nearly 100,000 economically disadvantaged schoolchildren attended one of the more than 1,800 private schools in Florida that accept Step Up’s income-based scholarships.
Since its inception in 2001, Step Up has funded 1 million scholarships.
Those scholarships were used at faith-based and non-denominational schools; schools that emphasized arts and science and schools designed for children with certain special needs.
Some parents favored small schools with smaller class sizes, so their child could have more one-on-one time with the teacher. Others sent their children to larger private schools, like St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, a Catholic school with a student population of more than 1,800.
Some parents found schools located close to home. Others, like Linzi Morris, set the alarm clock for 5 a.m.
Linzi sent all six of her children to Academy Prep Center, a private middle school in Tampa, because of its high academic standards. Her two oldest sons attended Jesuit High in Tampa, while her daughters and youngest son attended Tampa Catholic High.
Her three oldest children have graduated college. Another will graduate college in the spring. Her two youngest are still in high school.
The morning commute is long and slowed by rush-hour traffic. But to Linzi, it was worth the investment that comes with the freedom given to parents who uses the opportunity to choose the educational path for their child.