By PAUL SOOST
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Step Up For Students announced Oct. 12 a $2 million contribution to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program from Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company (UPCIC), a wholly owned subsidiary of Universal Insurance Holdings, Inc.
The $2 million donation will fund 305 K-12 scholarships for the 2017-18 school year so lower-income children can attend the school that best meets their learning needs. This is the first time that UPCIC has partnered with Step Up For Students, which is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations.
“We are grateful for corporate donors like Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Company who are helping us provide Florida schoolchildren with an education that will serve not only themselves, but also positively impact our communities in the future,” said Joe Pfountz, chief financial officer of Step Up For Students. “Without our donors help, we would not be able to continue to grow the scholarship program.”
The donation was announced by Steve Donaghy, chief operating officer for UPCIC, at an event hosted by Abundant Life Christian Academy in Margate, Florida. Abundant Life Christian Academy is one of more than 1,700 schools that participate in the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program statewide.
Dan Marino, UPCIC spokesperson, National Football League hall of famer and former Miami Dolphins quarterback made a special appearance at Abundant Life Christian Academy and spoke to the schoolchildren.
“Having options and choice in where you go to school is important and I’m excited to see so many students here today who have access to the learning environment that best suits their individual needs,” said Marino. “We know that the education you receive will help propel you to do great things.”
Step Up For Students helps administer the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which allows recipients to choose between a scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.
For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 105,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for K through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide. In Broward County this school year, more than 150 schools participate in the program with more than 8,900 students benefiting.
By SHELBY HOBBS, Special to Step Up For Students
TAMPA, Fla. – Step Up For Students and Tower Hill Insurance Group joined together Oct. 10 at Florida College Academy to celebrate the insurance company’s record-setting contribution to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC) during National Hispanic Heritage month.
Since 2011, Tower Hill has contributed more than $3 million to Step Up For Students, providing scholarships to more than 600 of Florida’s underprivileged students who are given access to a private school or financial assistance to attend an out-of-district public school.
“During a time when we recognize the prominent role the Hispanic community has played in building this great nation, I am proud that Tower Hill is working to fund hundreds of scholarships in order to help serve more students,” said Don Matz, CEO of Tower Hill. “It has been a pleasure meeting with so many brilliant, caring students this morning.”
Step Up For Students, the nonprofit organization that helps administer the income-based FTC scholarship program, provides opportunities to nearly 105,000 students across Florida this school year. Roughly 38 percent of students statewide are Hispanic, and the typical scholarship student comes from a single-parent household where the average income is $25,353.
In Hillsborough County, 40 percent of the 4,850 students benefiting from the program are Hispanic. Step Up For Students praised Tower Hill’s generosity, which has been crucial to fueling the growth of the program.
“The impressive level of support from Florida’s insurance industry is critical to advancing our mission of providing educational options to underprivileged children across the state,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “Tower Hill’s contribution is an investment in students and allows them to access the education that best meets their individual learning needs.”
Families and students that have benefited from the FTC scholarship program spoke out in support, urging other leading companies to consider participation. Florida College Academy, located in Temple Terrace, has 258 students in pre-K through eighth grade, approximately 50 percent of whom are Step Up scholars.
“As both a teacher at Florida College Academy and a parent of two scholarship students, I have witnessed first-hand the overwhelming transformation this program has made in the lives of its recipients,” said Stephanie Meier, mother to third- and fourth-grade scholarship students. “I hope that all interested families who qualify for this program are granted the same opportunity that my family has been privileged to experience.”
A recent study of the program found that FTC scholarship students are significantly more likely to attend college and receive a degree. The study compared FTC students to a comparable set of Florida public school students, assessing college enrollment, persistence, and attainment rates. The widely reported study found that students who are on the FTC scholarship program for four or more years are 40 percent more likely than their public school counterparts to attend college and 29 percent more likely to earn an associate degree.
By Shelby Hobbs, Special to Step Up For Students
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Florida’s insurance industry has stepped up to support the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program at a record level, committing $61.2 million this year to fund scholarships for more than 9,380 students. Leading the pack is UnitedHealthcare, which has contributed more than $83 million to Step Up For Students over the past decade.
UnitedHealthcare CEO Greg Reidy on Oct. 4 visited Arlington Community Academy in Jacksonville, where students are among the beneficiaries of the scholarships, to promote the program’s impact and encourage other insurance companies to participate.
“By helping struggling students get into an educational environment where they can succeed, we know we are helping to make our state stronger,” said Reidy. “It’s gratifying to meet the students who are benefiting from these scholarships and see them on a track to reach their full potential.”
Step Up For Students, the nonprofit organization that helps administer the needs-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, praised the insurance company’s historic support for the program. Step Up provides scholarships for lower-income students to attend the schools that best meet their individual needs. A recent study found that students who receive these scholarships for at least four years are 40 percent more likely to attend college than their public school counterparts, and 29 percent more likely to earn an associate degree.
Since 2009, UnitedHealthcare’s contributions have enabled more than 18,000 Florida students to attend schools that offer them a chance at a brighter future. The company’s recent contribution will help serve the 7,483 students who receive the scholarships in Duval County alone.
“Support from Florida’s insurance industry is critical for the work our team does to support children across the state,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “This contribution is an investment in students, and it enables the positive impacts of this program to continue and expand to change more lives for the better.”
Families and students who have benefited from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program added their voices in support of the insurance industry’s efforts, urging other companies to consider participation.
“This program directly helps children in our local area, and I am grateful that my own children can now attend the school that’s right for them,” said Tamara Herring, whose daughter Tori is a second-grader are Arlington Community Academy. “I am so grateful for the many donors who support this program, individuals and companies that are helping children like mine have a better future. Every child deserves that chance.”
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the redefinED blog on Sept. 27, 2017. The blog is hosted by Step Up For Students and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.
Meanwhile, scholarship students are 8 percent more likely to obtain associate degrees. That number rises to 29 percent for those who secured scholarships in earlier grades and used them at least four years.
Annual evaluations of standardized test results in the scholarship program have consistently found the average student who uses the program to attend a private school makes roughly one year’s academic progress in one year’s time.
They’ve also found students who use the scholarships tend to be more disadvantaged than other lower-income students who don’t use them.
Urban Institute authors Matthew M. Chingos and Daniel Kuehn describe scholarship students this way: “They have low family incomes, they are enrolled at low-performing public schools (as measured by test scores), and they have poorer initial test performance compared with their peers.”
Studies have looked at long-term outcomes for other programs that help disadvantaged students pay private school tuition.
But researchers haven’t looked as much at college enrollment among students who received scholarships from big, statewide programs. The Urban Institute report is unprecedented in its scale. It looks at more than 10,000 students across the nation’s third-largest state. It uses data from the Florida Department of Education, as well as Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer the scholarships.
Unpacking the findings
The study finds students who use tax credit scholarships are significantly more likely than peers with similar disadvantages to enroll in college within two years of finishing high school.
Students who continued using a scholarship for four years or more saw, by far, the largest college-enrollment boost. Those who only used a scholarship for one year saw essentially no benefit.
The researchers note one potential factor. Students who leave the scholarship program after a short time tend to struggle more academically. Those who remain on scholarships for several years tend to perform better, perhaps because they’ve found schools that work for them.
Most of the enrollment boost for scholarship alumni happened at Florida’s community colleges. The state’s 28 community colleges are intended to be accessible and affordable. Tuition and fees for full-time Florida College System students working toward associate degrees cost roughly half what students pay at the state’s four-year public universities. The researchers noted the two-year schools are “more financially accessible to the low-income students participating in FTC.”
The researchers didn’t look at private or out-of-state institutions, where data wasn’t as readily available. As a result, they cautioned that: “National data indicate that low-income students from private high schools are more likely to enroll in private and out-of-state colleges than low-income students from public high schools. Because of this, our results may understate the true impact of FTC participation on college enrollment and degree attainment.”
The enrollment boost was larger for a few notable groups. Scholarships students born outside the U.S. and those who spoke a language other than English at home saw some of the largest jumps in college enrollment.
Scholarship students weren’t just more likely to attend two-year colleges. They were also 8 percent more likely to earn associate degrees. But the researchers note there was some drop-off between the jump in college attendance and the jump in completion.
Also, scholarship students were not significantly more likely to earn four-year degrees. The researchers note their sample sizes were small for this group, so it was hard to make statistical comparisons. They also noted that only 4 percent of the disadvantaged public-school students they compared to scholarship recipients earn bachelor’s degrees.
What the findings mean
Low-income students from high-poverty schools face greater barriers getting to college than their middle-income peers. To earn a four-year degree, the barriers are larger still. They’re more likely to struggle with tuition payments, student loans and jobs that take time away from their studies.
These barriers deserve a closer look, the Urban Institute researchers write.
This study finds that the nation’s largest private school choice program helps students into college, but too many still fail to earn degrees. A fuller understanding of what this means for these students will require continuing to track their outcomes, including bachelor’s degree attainment rates and incomes. But this study shows that policymakers considering the design, expansion, or reform of private school choice programs should carefully consider not just their likely impact on short-term metrics such as test scores, but also how they might shape long-term outcomes, including college enrollment and graduation.
Other programs dedicated to expanding educational opportunity for lower-income students have seen similar results. In 2011, the Knowledge Is Power Program learned roughly 33 percent of students who completed middle school with the nation’s largest charter school network managed to graduate college.
Those results didn’t satisfy KIPP. So the charter organization created a new program to help its alumni not only reach college, but finish it.
Still, for school choice programs facing a flurry of headlines, the Urban Institute report suggests the anecdotes about school choice scholarship recipients awakening to the possibility of college aren’t mere anomalies.
Travis Pillow can be reached at Tpillow@sufs.org.
By PAUL SOOST
CLEARWATER, Fla. – SKECHERS USA, Inc., a global leader in the performance and lifestyle footwear industry, today announced a $210,000 contribution to the Step Up For Students scholarship program.
This is the second year that SKECHERS, headquartered in Manhatten Beach, California, has supported the program and their contribution will fund scholarships for 32 Florida students in the 2017-18 school year.
“SKECHERS is proud to participate in Florida’s Step Up For Students program for the second consecutive year,” said Michael Greenberg, president of SKECHERS. “This essential state program complements ongoing efforts at SKECHERS to help kids around the globe, including our charitable BOBS footwear collection and the annual SKECHERS Pier-to-Pier Friendship Walk in Manhattan Beach, CA that supports kids with special needs, and education.”
Through the BOBS from Skechers program, SKECHERS has donated new shoes to more than 14 million kids affected by poverty, homelessness and disasters in the United States and more than 30 countries worldwide.
Step Up For Students helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides K-12 grade scholarships to qualified lower-income families throughout Florida. The tax credit program was created by the Florida Legislature in 2001 and is funded by corporations that receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for their contributions. The program allows recipients to choose between a scholarship to help with private school tuition and fees, or a transportation scholarship to assist with transportation costs to an out-of-district public school.
“We are grateful to SKECHERS for its support of our mission to ensure Florida students have access to learning environments that suit their individual needs through educational choice,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “On behalf of Step Up and the tens of thousands of families we serve, we thank SKECHERS for their commitment to our Florida communities.”
For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for grades K-5, $6,631 for six to eight and $6,920 for grades nine to 12. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
Paul Soost can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By GEOFF FOX
Eduardo Rivero was a sixth-grader reading at a fourth-grade level when school started last year. He was also behind in math and had trouble concentrating.
As he begins seventh grade at Kingdom Academy, a pre-K through 8 private school in Miami, the 12-year-old is reading at an eighth-grade level and thriving in math.
The amazing turnaround has left his mother, Jovanna Rivero, pleasantly surprised.
“I sat down with his teacher at the end of the year, and they showed me the (reading) score and, oh, my God, I was so emotional and happy,” Jovanna Rivero said. “It was like opening up a box with a surprise in it. I didn’t think it would be so good. Even the teachers and staff thought it was amazing by how much progress he made in that time.”
Besides Eduardo’s hard work, she said teacher Xiomara Carrera was instrumental in his success.
“She saw that he was falling behind in his studies and understood that he was missing the previous year’s foundational understanding of math and English,” Rivero said. “Not addressing it would cause him to spiral into a failing year. The pressure of not understanding each day’s advancing subject matter was hurting him not only academically, but socially as well.
“When I approached the school about this, they offered to add him in Mrs. Carrera’s after-school tutoring program. Unfortunately, by the second quarter of the school year the program was already full. Mrs. Carrera took the initiative to open her schedule and some personal time to work with Eduardo. It makes me so happy to see that teachers like Mrs. Carrera are willing to work with parents and truly care for our children’s success.”
Eduardo recently entered his third year at Kingdom Academy. His mother said he previously attended a local elementary school, but while he made mostly A’s and B’s, he was not happy there.
Jovanna Rivero learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program through a friend whose child went to Kingdom Academy. A single mother of two who works as a medical assistant, she applied for the program for lower-income families through Step Up For Students and Eduardo was accepted.
While many students in the program realize academic improvements after receiving a scholarship, Eduardo was different.
“During his fifth-grade year, we noticed an odd behavior when it came to focusing on a task,” Rivero said. “Through counseling it was determined he had a mild learning disability. He was also diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.”
She doubts Eduardo would have gotten as much individualized attention at their neighborhood school. Her younger son Julian is now doing well as a first-grader at Kingdom Academy; he is also on the scholarship program through Step Up.
When he isn’t astounding his family and teachers with academic progress, Eduardo enjoys computer coding, video games, Minecraft and art.
“So far, I want to be animator,” he said.
“He draws characters from his imagination,” his mother said. “Whatever goes into his brain, he draws.”
She said Eduardo’s confidence has soared since his remarkable academic turnaround.
“We’re very grateful to everyone at Step Up and Kingdom Academy,” she said.
Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@StepUpForStudents.org.
By JEFF BARLIS
Heidi Gonzalez saw the warning signs. Her daughter Samantha Delgado had just started sixth grade at her neighborhood middle school in Miami, and already she was going down the wrong path.
Bad grades. Bad behavior. Falling in with the wrong crowd.
As a 10th grade teacher who worked with at-risk students at a public high school, Gonzalez knew veering off course in middle school could lead to much worse later. She spent lunch breaks researching private schools near their home, determined to find a better environment. A Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students made it possible for her to consider them.
“I’m very lucky,” Gonzalez said, “to have caught it on time.”
It wasn’t an easy choice. Gonzalez knew she might hear whispers at work. She had spent years working in public schools. But this was her sweet little Sammy.
“I’m a parent first and a teacher second,” Gonzalez said. “She’s my daughter and I’m going to do whatever is best for her despite wherever I’m working. It doesn’t matter what other people say, what the community says, what society says. At the end of the day you’re bringing that kid home with you. It’s your problem to solve.”
Sammy was Gonzalez’s “little angel” until middle school. Report cards with D’s and F’s and poor conduct prompted constant bickering. Samantha’s piercing brown eyes would roll with indifference every time her mom tried to give her guidance.
“It didn’t look like she cared about her future,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez started paying closer attention to Samantha’s new friends and the area around the school, which was tucked between an expressway and a busy six-lane street. She drove through the neighborhood after morning drop-off and saw children skipping school and middle-schoolers smoking.
Samantha said she was just trying to fit in. She often walked across the street with her friends to a bakery, where they’d eat, hang out, and return to school when they felt like it.
“I was new,” she said, “and new kids tend to do whatever everyone is doing.”
Like her friends, Samantha was struggling academically, too. Longtime difficulties with math landed her in a remedial class, but she couldn’t stand doing classwork on a computer every day.
“I didn’t like that class,” she said, “so I didn’t really bother going.”
Near the end of the school year, Gonzalez broke the news to Samantha – she was transferring to Miami Christian School for seventh grade.
A short drive away, the campus was wide open with big, green spaces for sports, and gardens for vegetables and butterflies. It was tranquil and clean.
Samantha was especially surprised by the class sizes. There were about half as many students as she was used to, and the teachers made a point of working with each.
The students were different, too.
Samantha quickly became friends with three girls who made a strong impression on her with their behavior and work ethic. They weren’t skipping classes.
“I thought that was weird, but then I thought maybe I should start staying in class more, because they’re doing it,” she said. “And so I did.”
“When I first saw everyone in the school getting really, really good grades it made me feel like I’ve got to push myself and get better. If everyone there is getting good grades, what am I doing slacking off?”
Slowly, Samantha gained confidence in the classroom. She improved in her first couple of years, then took a dramatic step in 10th grade. She earned all A’s and B’s and made honor roll for the first time in her life. Gonzalez was so emotional, she had the award framed.
Now in 12th grade, she’s planning for college, with an interest in becoming a physical therapist.
Her horizon is broadening in other ways. Miami Christian encourages its students to volunteer in the community, and Samantha has contributed by preparing meals for needy children and joining students with disabilities on bicycle rides.
She’s also discovered hidden talents.
Before Miami Christian, Samantha had never played on a team and didn’t like watching sports. But because the school is so small, she was needed on all teams – soccer, volleyball, softball, and basketball.
In time, she discovered a knack for softball and, last year, was named the team’s most valuable player. Now she practices or plays nearly every day during the season and works by herself in the offseason.
“It’s about being a well-rounded individual, and sports can be a big part of that,” said high school principal Woody Gentry. “I think it’s helped her. You see the growth, you see her developing, you see her confidence. … We’re just happy to have been part of it.”
Samantha didn’t like switching to private school at first. She cried often about missing her old friends. But it wasn’t long before she came to agree with her mom’s decision.
“I matured 100 percent,” she said.
For Samantha, the change brought the bonus of a more peaceful and loving relationship with her mom.
For mom, it’s everything to get her sweet Sammy back.
About Miami Christian School
Established in 1954, the non-denominational school is accredited by SACS (Southern Association of Schools and Colleges) and ACSI (Association of Christian Schools International). For 2017-18, there are 270 Pre-K through 12 students, including 17 on Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. In the past five years, Miami Christian has graduated 222 students who were accepted to more than 100 different national and international universities and were offered $8.9 million in four-year scholarships. The school offers honors, Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment classes. High school students take the PSAT every fall and the Terranova test every spring. Annual tuition is $7,225 for kindergarten, $8,325 for grades 1-5, $8,950 for grades 6-8, and $9,8250 for grades 9-12.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@StepUpForStudents.org.
By JEFF BARLIS
Shalala Dubuisson was 13 years old when a massive earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, killing tens of thousands of people and turning her family’s world upside down. The last thing the traumatized teenager needed when her parents sent her to live in America in the aftermath was more turmoil, but that’s what she found in a place that was supposed to be a refuge.
Shalala’s new school in South Florida turned out to be different than her school in Haiti. Less discipline. More disrespect for teachers. And Shalala’s inability to speak English at first made her a target for bullies.
Problems continued in ninth grade, when Shalala began attending her zoned high school in Homestead. That’s when Christina Toussaint, Shalala’s older sister and de facto mom in the U.S., decided enough was enough.
“In less than a month she got into like three or four fights,” Christina said.
Connections within the local Haitian community led Christina to Ebenezer Christian School, a small, orderly school tucked between a shopping plaza and a residential area in Florida City. She needed to find the right fit for Shalala and also wanted to enroll Chanukah, her then 6-year-old sister.
Principal Rose Flore Charles, who is Haitian, told Christina and her parents about the Step Up For Students scholarship, a program that gives lower-income families tuition assistance to choose from more than 1,700 schools statewide.
“They could not afford a private school,” Charles said. “It was tough … especially because (Shalala) was very emotional after the earthquake.”
Even a glimpse into Shalala’s backstory makes it easy to see why.
On Jan. 12, 2010, Shalala was staying late for math tutoring in Port-au-Prince when, suddenly, the world shook. She ran out of her school in time to watch half of it collapse.
As the ground continued to shake, Shalala could hear screams. Everyone was running, so she started running, too.
“I got lost,” she said. “I know the way to my house, but that day was so crazy. You couldn’t make a phone call because everything was down. You just had to wait and see if (your family) came home or not.”
They did. Everyone was safe. But when the dust literally settled, her family faced a life-changing choice: Shalala and Chanukah could stay in Haiti and wait at least six months for a semblance of normalcy, or they could move to Florida to live with their sister.
With education at the top of their priorities list, Shalala’s parents decided their children should start anew in America. That meant immediately enrolling in a new school.
“That was my dad’s main focus,” Shalala said. “He was like ‘You’re not going to sit here. You could have done that in Haiti’.”
Shalala arrived in South Florida speaking only Creole and French. The fun-loving girl with the big smile and wide eyes wasn’t noticeably subdued by the trauma she had witnessed, but below the surface the fears that resulted from living through a magnitude 7 earthquake lingered.
“Even going inside the airport and parking the car, she was like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t know if we can be in there,’” Christina said. “You know, all those big buildings.”
At Ebenezer Christian, the safe, nurturing environment allowed anxieties to fade. With one-on-one attention, Shalala was able to focus more on academics and tackle her weaknesses, particularly in math, where she was performing at a fifth-grade level.
“According to (her neighborhood school), her math level was fine,” said Charles. “But when we gave her our assessment test, we had to pull her back.”
Shalala needed an extra year to catch up. Christina, who works at Bed, Bath & Beyond, paid the math teacher to tutor Shalala after school for six months.
“She picked it up very slowly in the beginning,” Charles said, “and after that she was one of the best math students that we ever had here. … She became a straight A and B student.”
Shalala graduated in June 2016 with a 3.24 GPA. She now attends Miami Dade College, where she is studying to be a social worker. Three days a week she returns to Ebenezer Christian to help students in what else? Math!
Despite that triumph, dark memories of that terrible day in Haiti remain. Tall buildings are especially troublesome, but Shalala confidently seeks challenges. She wants to move to New York City after her first two years of college.
She knows, now, that she can face her fears – and overcome them.
About Ebenezer Christian School
ECS is a non-denominational school located at 530 SW 1st St. in Florida City. Founded in 2010, the school is accredited by the National Association of Private Schools. It operates year-round using the self-paced Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) curriculum, which requires academic mastery (grades of 80 or higher). The ACE curriculum also emphasizes Biblical scripture, character training and spiritual growth. There are 50 students in grades K-12, including 29 on the income-based Step Up For Students scholarship. The school uses the Stanford Achievement Test. Tuition is $6,000 a year for students in grades K-5; $9,000 a year for students in grades 6-12. Lower-income students using the Step Up scholarship do not pay additional tuition.
Jeff Barlis works on Step Up’s Policy and Public Affairs team. Reach him at email@example.com.
By STEP UP FOR STUDENTS STAFF
Our scholarship families come from all backgrounds, and have different reasons for seeking out educational options for their children. Corey Crum, of the U.S. Coast Guard, and his wife, Cristina, recently talked with us about their experience with the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Without Step Up For Students‘ supporters, the couple could not afford to send their daughter, first-grader Corin, to Holy Family Catholic School in St. Petersburg, where she is comfortable and thriving.
Hear what they have to say by watching here:
By DAVID TUTHILL
When others looked at Danielle and Nicholas as young children, they only saw their special challenges. But Dorothy Famiano was blinded by love.
Nicholas was born with spina bifida and must use a wheelchair. Danielle was diagnosed at age 2 with autism and cerebral palsy. Few people believed in the pair who were in foster care at the time. But Famiano, a former foster care volunteer, saw something special.
“Everyone told me I was wearing rose-colored glasses with these kids,” says Famiano, 56. “They talked about giving me my own psych examination, because no one else could even begin to see what I saw and feel what I felt for these kids.”
Faminano, a freelance photojournalist who lives in Spring Hill, tuned out the noise and followed her heart. She adopted Nicholas and Danielle, now 16 and 14, respectively, as toddlers. A single mother of two grown biological children, she now spends her days homeschooling Nicholas and Danielle, as well as a third adopted son with severe dyslexia.
Their journey has been marked by difficulty, patience, love and triumph. Nicholas and Danielle both spent years in public school, which was not ideal for them.
“Public school did not work for my children. There was no place to put them,” said Famiano, also a grandmother of five.
Nicholas was placed in secured classrooms full of students with severe behavioral issues. It was not a practical solution.
“Nicholas never met a person he didn’t like. He gets along with everyone,” Famiano says. “They put him in these environments for kids with behavioral issues when he didn’t have any. What he needs is one-on-one instruction at all times. He wasn’t getting that in public school.”
Blessed with an inquisitive nature, Danielle is known to rattle off one question after another – but not always in a predictable direction. The fast-paced rhythm and chaos of a traditional classroom wreaked havoc on her mental health.
Famiano’s voice trembles as she reminisces about her daughter’s intense struggles.
“The structure of the classroom drove Danielle crazy – charts, colors, people talking all over the place,” she said. “The lunchroom would really drive her nuts. She would hold it in all day and as soon as she got in the car she would explode. Screaming, crying, ripping at her clothes.”
Children on the autism spectrum often can have sensory issues and act out when overstimulated.
A few years ago, a public school teacher told Famiano about the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs. She applied through Step Up For Students and Nicholas and Danielle were accepted. The scholarships have given new hope to a mother who saw great potential in her children.
The ability to teach her children at a speed they were comfortable with has resulted in great academic progress.
“They have gifts that aren’t necessarily discovered in a classroom setting. I saw that potential in them from the first time I met them,” Famiano says. “The success my children are enjoying is due to the fact the Gardiner Scholarship is geared towards each child’s strength. It’s the personalized learning experience that has made it so successful. A lot of people don’t understand this.”
Christina Cancel, a teacher and home-school evaluator with Central Florida Home Education Services, currently works with Nicholas and Danielle. She has been impressed with the children’s progress in the three years she has known them.
“Both their worlds have blown wide open through the resources and opportunities now available to them,” Cancel says. “They’ve really come out of their shells.”
Those resources include working with blocks for Nicholas, which has led to a boost in his confidence and a blossoming of his social ability. For Danielle, greater access to technology, such as cameras, has helped improve her studies as well.
“Both will always struggle, but (Gardiner) has been life-changing for them,” Cancel says.
Stories like theirs emphasize the importance of dynamic and flexible educational plans for children based on their individual needs.
As Famiano likes to tell it, some of the days Nicholas and Danielle learn best are when she “tricks” them into thinking they aren’t having school that day.
“You can’t believe what these kids can do,” Famiano says. “They just do it differently.”
Nicholas has discovered an ability to build things. He puts together gear systems with Lego sets, and is learning to calculate numbers in his head from using computers.
Danielle has made a leap in her reading through her work with video production and photography. The Famianos continue their journey on the Gardiner Scholarship, armed with a level of parental empowerment that helps maximize the children’s abilities.
That empowerment extends to Danielle and Nicholas.
With an eye to their futures, the siblings written off by so many are filled with wide-eyed optimism.
Nicholas competes in the Special Olympics. He is an avid power lifter, bowler and swimmer, recently winning an assisted-swimming competition in Crystal River. He dreams of one day becoming a police officer.
Danielle wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a photographer. Famiano says her mastery of their Cannon Mark 3 camera is a sight to behold.
One thing is certain: The progress Nicholas and Danielle have made since their adoption has been staggering. Famiano is grateful.
“The biggest thing for me is they have a goal,” she says. “I was always told they wouldn’t have them, that they wouldn’t be able to form them. That’s the most exciting thing for me.”