By JEFF BARLIS
SEMINOLE, Fla. – Kim Kuruzovich’s daughter Gina has moderate autism, speech apraxia and dyslexic tendencies. She began a suite of therapies at age 2, then, at age 4, saw a psychologist for an educational evaluation.
The expert wasn’t encouraging.
“He told us, ‘You can look forward to Gina putting pencils in a box,’ ” recalled Kuruzovich, who has more than 20 years of experience teaching students with disabilities.
She and husband Mike drove home in stunned silence. It took a couple of months, but they snapped out of the haze and chose to ignore that doctor. It was the start of Kuruzovich learning to trust her instincts as a parent as much as she trusted her instincts as an educator.
Now, 19 years later, Kuruzovich is executive director of a private school built on those instincts.
LiFT, which stands for Learning Independence for Tomorrow, opened in 2013 with 17 students and five unpaid teachers who wore every hat imaginable. Today, it operates on two spacious, tree-lined church campuses. They serve more than 130 students with special needs, 124 of whom attend thanks to state-supported school choice scholarships.
“I never, ever wanted to go into administration. Ever,” Kuruzovich said. “I only ever wanted to be a teacher. I love teaching. I love seeing the kid get it and feel good about themselves.”
“What I found is I still get it as an administrator, but I get it in a bigger way. Now it’s not just my classroom, it’s every kid in this school.”
Before LiFT, Kuruzovich had taught in public, private and home schools. Her passion and talents helped make LiFT possible.
So did school choice.
Three state-supported scholarships – the McKay Scholarship, a voucher for students with disabilities; the Gardiner Scholarship, an education savings account for students with certain special needs such as autism; and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students – allow many LiFT parents to access a school they wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise. Step Up For Students helps run the Gardiner and Florida Tax Credit scholarships. But those scholarships also opened doors for Kuruzovich and her colleagues. It gave them power to create a school that could best serve those parents – and sync with their own visions of what a school should be.
In Florida, where school choice is becoming mainstream, more and more educators like Kuruzovich are walking through those doors.
It’s the first week of the school year, and Kuruzovich is in peak form – gliding through hallways and classrooms, a fast-talking, wise-cracking, blond blur of smiles and warmth.
The sheer number of inside jokes she shares with her students highlights how deep her connection runs with each of them.
Kuruzovich leads a robust faculty of 40-plus and oversees two growing programs – K-12 LiFT Academy and a four-year post-secondary transition program called LiFT University.
There’s also a post-graduate program so new it doesn’t have a name.
What it does have is Gina, its first enrollee.
“It’s a pilot program,” Kuruzovich said, “and she’s the pilot.”
Look beyond Gina’s darker hair, eyes and complexion, and you’ll see mom’s smile and bubbly charm. Kuruzovich began teaching special ed years before Gina was born, but her daughter has been the inspiration behind most everything at LiFT.
There isn’t anything Kuruzovich hasn’t done and seen from the perspective of both teacher and parent, which explains one of her guiding philosophies at LiFT: “Parents are the experts.”
As a strong-willed public school teacher, Kuruzovich craved autonomy and often bucked administration to work directly with parents. But being a parent changed the way she thought about teaching. She had experienced the system from both sides and learned the importance of listening to parents.
When Gina was in public school, Kuruzovich wielded her knowledge of the IEP Matrix like a magic wand. She knew how to get what was needed. She was the parent who didn’t back down.
“I want to make sure my kids get everything they deserve and have the right to get,” she said. “And I want that for every kid here, too.”
“There are a lot of people who don’t have that knowledge. So if you don’t go out and figure it out yourself or have a background, you’re stuck. And that’s sad. Not everybody has the resources that I had, the background that I had to make good decisions.”
That explains the tightness of the LiFT community. Collaboration and engagement are wired into the walls.
“It’s not a cookie cutter,” said Betsy Torop, whose son was in the first class to graduate LiFT University last May and whose daughter is now a senior in LiFT Academy. Both attended public schools, and they eventually ran into the limits of what those schools could provide. “There’s a particular willingness to talk about what the child needs and to make that change. Kim set that tone.”
After years of navigating public school as a mom and becoming entrenched in the advocacy community, it was finally time to return to teaching.
Kuruzovich spent six years at a private school, where she valued the freedom to do things differently. Gina was enrolled, too. They became close with several of the moms and children with neurodiversities who were the same age as Gina.
When the school struggled with administrative issues (and eventually closed), a parent asked Kuruzovich to home-school her child along with Gina. Another urged her to open a school.
Kuruzovich and some of her mom friends there had already been working on a business plan for a transition program named LiFT University that would serve their kids and others after high school. But with some of their kids in 11th grade, suddenly there was a need for a K-12 school instead.
LiFT Academy was born six weeks later.
“We basically went online,” Kuruzovich said, “and searched for ‘How do you open a private school in Florida?’ ”
Fast forward six years. Last spring, Gina walked with the first graduating class at LiFT U. Like her two classmates, she has a job, strives to live as independently as possible, and wants to get out of her parents’ house.
That’s Kuruzovich’s next goal – a long-term living community for young adults, which could also offer a residence for LiFT University students. It’s not something she ever foresaw, but Kuruzovich has learned to listen to the universe.
As always, Gina is the guide. If she wants it, it means there are others who do, too. She works four days a week at a retirement community and spends every Friday at LiFT, working with her post-grad teacher on their craft and design microbusiness. She goes out to movies with friends, goes on dates, uses ride-sharing services frequently.
“Things I always wanted for my daughter, I’ll fight tooth and nail for them,” Kuruzovich said, “but could she really do them? Turns out, yeah.”
“She certainly can do more than put pencils in a box.”
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By JEFF BARLIS
GROVELAND, Fla. – The sign at their church trumpeted the opening of a new private school:
For Adaijah Jackson and her mother, Sheila James, the word Hope was all they saw.
“It was an answer to prayer,” Sheila said, smiling and shaking her head at the memory. “The timing was just perfect.”
Adaijah (pronounced Ahd-asia) was desperate to leave the neighborhood school where she had nearly failed 10th grade.
Sheila was a single mom with two children and a job working the overnight shift at a convenience store. She never thought she could afford Hope. But the school told her about the Florida Tax Credit scholarship from Step Up For Students that covered tuition.
“It changed our lives,” she said. “I wish I would have known about the scholarship earlier.”
As a child, Adaijah was very bright and happy. You couldn’t miss her gleaming eyes and deep dimples, because she smiled all the time. She was a sensitive soul at 10, and her life was thrown into turmoil when her great grandmother died, and her parents split a few months later.
That’s when Sheila and her kids moved to Miami to live with her parents. Adaijah had been a strong student in a small PK-5 charter school in Orlando, but suddenly she was finishing fifth grade in a new neighborhood and a much larger school.
“It was the worst thing ever,” she said, recalling the confusion she felt walking into classrooms with two or three times the number of students she was accustomed to.
They lived in Miami for just eight months before moving back north to Minneola, about 30 miles west of Orlando. But the switch to large neighborhood schools had just begun, and Adaijah continued to feel like an outsider, even with a clean slate at the start of middle school.
“I didn’t know anyone,” she said. “It was hard to fit in with a large group of people.”
That’s when the bullying began.
“They used to call me bad names – fat, chubby, short,” she said. “They made fun of my natural hair. I have curly, kinky hair sitting up on my head, and it’s really poofy. I grew up loving my hair.”
She switched to extensions, wigs and weaves. Anything to try to fit in.
She found no friends among the girls, and the boys were merciless. They catcalled when she ate lunch and when she tried to exercise in PE class.
“It was torture,” she said. “They wrecked my self-esteem.”
Adaijah went from A’s and B’s in sixth grade to B’s and C’s in eighth. High school, with more than 2,000 students, was worse. She kept to herself for most of her freshman year, but her desire for acceptance took on more urgency, and she settled for any friends she could get.
They skipped class constantly and hardly studied. At home, Adaijah was angry all the time, talking back and getting in petty fights with younger brother Adrian.
She wasn’t herself. Her GPA bottomed out at 1.3. It was time for a change.
“I could not go back for my junior year,” she said. “I knew I was either going to be arrested or get pregnant. I was not going to make it to college.”
Then she found Hope.
Adaijah and her brother were among the first of 25 students to enroll. Everyone was smiling again.
Though she was quiet and guarded at first, Adaijah knew she belonged. She felt safe and comfortable. With only a handful of classmates, she got to know her teachers personally, just how it was at her charter elementary school.
She bought in to everything – even the dress code and no-cellphone policy. She recovered some lost credits, turned her grades completely around, and became a role model to the younger students.
Principal Eucretiae Waite and her staff had a hard time connecting this Adaijah to her past.
“We couldn’t believe that she was really struggling, but of course we saw the transcript,” Waite said. “She came here and was just phenomenal. We figured it was just because we’re a small school and she got more attention.”
“She was willing to help in the classroom and outside the classroom. She would stay after school. We would have to literally take her home sometimes. Like, ‘Adaijah are you going home today?’ ”
In two years at Hope Academy, Adaijah got all A’s and one B and graduated last spring with honors. Teachers and administrators had promised to get her ready for college, and together, that promise was fulfilled.
Adaijah was accepted to South Florida, Florida International, Florida Atlantic and Southeastern among others. But she decided to attend Tallahassee Community College. She started in August and is loving the confidence that has come with her newfound independence.
She plans to stay at TCC for two years before going to Florida State to study physical therapy.
Why not go straight to one of those universities?
“I wasn’t ready for a four-year school,” she said. “I like the smaller setting.”
Adaijah didn’t just survive her rocky roads, she learned from the bumps. She’s planning to build a business in Houston or Atlanta someday, and she knows just the steps to get there.
“I’ve always thrived in small situations,” she said. “So for me to even think about big cities … it’s like, ‘Whoa, you are really growing.’ ”
Thanks, in part, to finding Hope.
About Hope Preparatory Academy
Opened in 2016, the school is affiliated with non-denominational Hope International Church in Groveland. It has 76 students in grades 6-12, 63 of whom use Step Up For Students scholarships. The school uses the Edgenuity curriculum with an emphasis on college prep courses. The Terranova 3 test is administered annually, and high school students also take the SAT and ACT. Tuition is $6,300 for grades 6-8 and $6,700 for grades 9-12.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at email@example.com.
By JEFF BARLIS
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – In the damp, rising heat of a late-morning graduation ceremony in May, with historic Farragut Hall as a backdrop, a hush crept through the crowd of students, relatives, friends, and faculty as they anticipated the next name.
The roar was pent-up and prolonged, louder than one family could possibly deliver. This was the sound of the entire Admiral Farragut Academy family cheering and tearing up for the senior who 10 months prior had been a celebrated football player one day and was fighting for his life in intensive care the next.
As Marquis walked slowly across the stage to receive his diploma with a shy, child-like smile, parents LaTaura Blount and Mark Lambert swelled with joy, gratitude, pride, and even some disbelief.
“This almost didn’t happen for us,” LaTaura said.
Memories washed over them in waves.
Four years ago, a Florida tax credit scholarship made it possible to join the Farragut family. It was the perfect fit. Marquis dreamed of a future in football. His parents dreamed of an academic turnaround after their oldest son was just getting by in his neighborhood school with a C average.
“The standards, the rules, and the curriculum … I knew it would be a fresh start,” said LaTaura, who had heard about the Step Up For Students scholarship from a friend.
She was 16 when she had Marquis. She and Mark were kids trying to grow up. She worked jobs as a nursing home caregiver, a teacher and a pharmacy technician. Mark delivered phone books and traveled frequently.
Their home was as warm as their smiles, with three boys, plenty of noise and laughter. But money was always tight.
That’s why Mark and LaTaura always instilled the importance of academics. They didn’t go to college, but their children would.
“Sports can be taken away, but nobody can take away what you’ve learned and what you’ve earned,” LaTaura preached.
For football-crazy Marquis, the message only landed when it was echoed by coaches, peers and college recruiters. As he added muscle to his lean 5-foot-10 frame, he soared to a 3.7 GPA in his junior year. His dream (and his parents’) was coming into focus.
“He’d been playing football since he was little, and he had this expectation his entire life,” said Angie Koebel, who is Academic Services Director at Farragut and a doting school mom to Marquis. “That was his ticket out. He started thinking about his grades and doing better and changing, growing up.”
His coaches saw it, too.
There were only a handful of seniors on Farragut’s 2018 football team, and they were as close as brothers. Early in the spring, Marquis was the only one without a scholarship offer.
“We sat down and made a plan,” head coach Rick Kravitz said. “He worked his butt off to make himself a very good player, a recruitable player. He went from having no offers to 12 offers in a three-week period. It was just beginning to pick up even more when he had the accident.”
Marquis was driving to football practice on July 17, 2017 when a gold SUV cut in front of him. He swerved on the wet pavement, skipped over a curb and wrapped his car around a tree.
The scene was horrific. Marquis was pronounced dead after paramedics arrived. But a nurse who was driving by and heard the crash from afar, stopped and noticed his fingers moving. Without her intervention – oxygen and the fire department’s Jaws of Life – Marquis would not have lived.
He had a traumatic brain hemorrhage, a broken neck, a torn meniscus in his knee, nerve damage in his arm, and was in a coma for two weeks. He spent 41 days in the hospital.
He wasn’t alone for a minute. Mark and LaTaura stopped working to be by his side every day. Marquis’ closest friends – the senior football players – and his position coach visited daily. Coach Kravitz and three teachers visited regularly.
The Farragut family rallied.
“They made sure we had food, donations came in (through a GoFundMe page),” LaTaura said, “and being there mentally for us was the biggest thing, because I wasn’t there at all. I was in pieces.”
When Marquis started to wake up, he wasn’t himself. Intense pain made him angry. He lashed out verbally and physically. It was hard for everyone to watch. LaTaura cried every night. But her boy was alive.
“I don’t remember anything,” Marquis said. “They had me on a lot of medicine. I remember my parents telling me I was acting funny. I was cussing a lot, being loud. Nurses were aggravated.”
Therapy – physical, speech and occupational – was grueling. But in August, just as he was getting out of a wheelchair and starting to walk, a birthday party in the hospital cafeteria lifted Marquis’ spirits. The entire football team came as a surprise.
“That’s how much he was loved,” Kravitz said.
The party inspired Marquis. He worked harder in therapy. He wanted out of that hospital, and there was a bigger goal – the first football game of the season.
Administrators at Farragut said not to rush, but everyone had their hopes up. On the day of the game, Marquis got out, had his hair cut and went to the stadium. In the locker room, he saw they had retired his jersey, put his No. 3 on helmet stickers, and didn’t allow anyone to use his locker.
“It meant a lot,” he said.
He put on his jersey, prayed with his team and led them out.
“They announced one of the captains would be Marquis,” LaTaura said, recalling her surprise at the reaction. “It was kind of a sad moment. Everybody started crying. The parents knew what was going on, but they hadn’t seen him. They were expecting him to be in a wheelchair.”
Marquis came out in a golf cart, smiling. He walked to the middle of the field to gasps and did the coin toss. In the Disney version of this story, Farragut would play its most inspired game and win big. But that didn’t happen. Real life is more complex, and Marquis had a hard time not being on the field for his senior season. Coach Kravitz explained why recruiters stopped calling.
“There was a lot of sadness watching everybody play,” Marquis said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get back out there.”
Football was over, but he turned his determination to school and graduating with his class. Juggling therapy and school, he improved at both. By the end of the year he was going to physical therapy just once a week and no longer needed help in class. He was accepted to St. Petersburg College, where he starts Aug. 14 with a full class load and a plan to become a pharmacist.
Graduation was an inspiration to so many at Farragut, but Marquis had a different perspective. He calmly soaked it all in, felt the love, and was proud he accomplished his goal. He just wanted to be with his classmates and feel normal.
It was the same thing at prom a few weeks earlier.
“I had a good time,” he said. “Music, dancing, laughing, good talks with friends.
“I’m glad I didn’t miss it.”
So is the Farragut family.
About Admiral Farragut Academy
Opened in 1945 as the second campus of its namesake in New Jersey, is one of only two honor naval schools in the country and is re-accredited annually by the U.S. Department of the Navy. Last year, the school served 457 PreK-12 students, including 38 on Step Up For Students scholarships. The school annually administers the Terra Nova 3 test to students in grades 2-7 and the PSAT to students in grades 8-11. Tuition is $13,000 annually for Kindergarten, $16,300 for Grades 1-5, $18,900 for Grades 6 and 7, and $23,300 for high school. Payment plans and financial aid are available.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.