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All Posts by Roger Mooney

From jumping rope to riding bikes, education savings accounts help those with autism expand their world

BY ROGER MOONEY

SARASOTA – Sophia Slaughter, who is 15, recently learned to jump rope.

Maybe that is not a big deal to someone who was skipping Double Dutch at 5, but it is to Sophia, who is on the autism spectrum and has dyspraxia. Known as developmental co-ordination disorder, dyspraxia hinders her coordination. Some activities that neurotypical teenagers consider routine are nearly impossible for her.

Or were.

While working with trainer Dani Williams at NXT Generation Wellness in Sarasota for the past two years, Sophia gradually gained command of her muscles and their movements. She can hold a yoga pose and coordinate her footwork to move through a series of squares taped on the floor at NXT Generation.

Sophia Slaughter jumps rope during a recent training sessions at NXT Generation Wellness.

And she can complete in proper order the mini skills that allow her to jump rope.

“It’s life-changing,” said Sophia’s mom, Jennifer Slaughter.

Sophia, who lives in Sarasota and is home schooled, receives the Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with unique abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship). It is managed by Step Up For Students. Sophia uses her education savings account that comes with the scholarship to pay for the sessions at NXT Generation, as well as for yoga classes and ballroom dancing.

These activities added health and fitness to Sophia’s life, helped her become more socially interactive, and gain a circle of friends.

“That’s the ultimate goal,” Williams said. “Elevate and enhance their current life, or what they view as their current life, and open doors and continue on this path.”

In early August, 20-year-old Riley Joyce for the first time in his life rode a two-wheel bicycle without any assistance. His mom, Judi, who watched from the driveway of their Sarasota-home cried.

“It was the best thing ever to see,” Judi said.

Like Sophia, Riley is on the autism spectrum. He lives in Sarasota and is home schooled. Riley also receives the Family Empowerment Scholarship (formerly Gardiner) and uses his education savings account for yoga, ballroom dancing and sessions with Williams.

Riley was introduced to Williams three years ago during her Saturday group classes, which are sponsored by Face Autism. For the past two years, Riley has taken weekly one-on-one classes with Williams.

Jordan Soriano and NXT Generation Wellness owner Dani Williams.

Started by Colleen Buccieri, whose godson Jordan Soriano is on the spectrum, Face Autism is a nonprofit that organizes autism-appropriate activities such as bowling, horseback riding, and golf. It also sponsors a ballroom dancing class at Dynasty Dance Club in Sarasota.

Judi enrolled Riley in the fitness class, hoping he would get healthier and make friends. Check and check.

Riley has lost 33 pounds since he began working with Williams. At first, he could barely manage five minutes on the treadmill. Now he can walk and run for 30 minutes, increasing the pace as he goes along.

“His endurance has gone off the charts,” Judi said.

As for socializing, Riley chats with everyone he encounters, making friends wherever he goes.

“He doesn’t stop talking, which is great,” Judi said. “I love it.”

In July, Riley spent a week in the Adirondack Mountains of New York with a small group of friends who are on the spectrum. They hiked, went fly fishing, ziplining, and kayaking.

The outing was the idea of Williams’ boyfriend, Chase Pettey, who runs Adventure For All, a nonprofit that creates interactive adventures for those with intellectual and/or developmental exceptionalities.

Riley tried to ride a two-wheel bike during the trip and came close. He finally conquered that feat not long after returning home.

Williams helped Riley master the bicycle (which Riley purchased with his education saving account) with a series of exercises over a six-month period that improved his balance and stability.

“The confidence in Riley has just skyrocketed,” Williams said. “He’s much more willing to try new things, so that’s been a wonderful thing to witness.”

As Jordan’s godmother, Colleen was keenly aware of how children on the spectrum grow up without friends. They aren’t invited to birthday parties or asked to go to the movies. She created Face Autism in 2009 to change that.

“I just look for different opportunities for kids to be involved in, things that typical kids would be involved in,” she said. “And I’m a big proponent of getting them off the video games and the computers. A lot of the kids don’t have fitness in their life. I think it’s very important – have a healthy heart, a strong body. Most of them don’t have upper body strength.”

Jordan, 21, lacked upper body strength when he began training with Williams four years ago. He couldn’t jump rope. He could ride a two-wheel bike, but he couldn’t peddle with much power.

A recipient of the Family Empowerment (formerly Gardiner) Scholarship, Jordan, who is homeschooled, used his education savings account to pay for his training sessions with Williams.

Jordan can jump rope. He can vertically jump 36 inches. He has learned to stand when he rides his bike so he can generate more power when he peddles. He runs 35 minutes around his home in Ellenton, Florida every other day. He is making plans to bring his bicycle to Riley’s house, so they can ride their bikes together.

Jordan, who excels at ballroom dancing, was part of the group that made the trip to the Adirondacks.

“This has given him confidence to try new things and to challenge himself,” Colleen said.

And to keep trying. During the Adirondack trip, Jordan tried to complete an obstacle course on his bike. He was unsuccessful the first time, and he was unsuccessful the second time. He didn’t quit, though, and eventually he completed the course.

“He has really shown determination,” Colleen said, “something he never had.”

That’s all part of the plan Williams has for each of her clients. Knowing no two have the same challenges, she devises individual programs for each. “Outside the box” training, she called it. Williams developed a book where they can chart their progress during workouts and encourages them to write in a journal. She teaches them about proper nutrition and the importance of staying hydrated.

Williams, who graduated from Saint Francis University (Loretto, Pennsylvania) in 2011 with a dual degree in Elementary and Special Education, works as a learning support teacher at Community Day School in Sarasota.

In 2012, Williams began Kids in Motion, which morphed into the wellness program that is now NXT Generation.

“Watching the underdogs take on things we’ve preconceived them unable to do or limited what they could actually do and see them be able to do it with the correct support and guidance is one of my greatest joys in life, hands down,” Williams said.

Her goal is to push clients with special needs through the glass ceiling society has placed above them, to show the impossible is possible.

Like jumping rope for Sophia Slaughter.

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

From Ethiopia to No. 1 in his high school class to UF with the help of a private school scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

For Yonas Worku, obstacles are opportunities.

When he was 5, Yonas and his mother emigrated from Ethiopia to join his father in Las Vegas. They immediately had to overcome numerous hurdles.

“It was really rough,” he said. “The language barrier, the culture barrier, you can just imagine how difficult it was to assimilate into this culture. It was rough learning the language at first. Getting to know people, finding friends, that was a little tough for me, but it all worked out in the end.”

Thanks in large part to a quality education made possible by a private school scholarship for K-12 schoolchildren in Florida, managed by Step Up For Students.

As if Yonas wasn’t already facing enough challenges adapting to a new country, when he was in fourth grade his father left the family.

Bewildered and angry at first, Yonas said he grew to accept his father’s actions.

“I’m kind of glad that he did (leave) in the sense that I wouldn’t be here now,” said Yonas, 17. “It kind of motivated me to become the person I am today. Having that burden, it motivates you to be better. If I had everything handed to me, I don’t think this would be my life.”

Yonas with his mom, Zinash, after Yonas graduated No. 1 in his class from Bishop John Snyder High School in Jacksonville.

Suddenly, Zinash Tekleweld found herself a single mom trying to raise her son Yonas in a still unfamiliar country nearly 8,000 miles from her homeland. A year later, she and Yonas moved to Jacksonville, where she worked a minimum-wage job at a cotton candy factory.

Tekleweld learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up. She applied and was accepted. The scholarship enabled her to afford tuition to private schools that helped make him the person he is today.

The scholarship “really lifted the burden for our family and made life much easier,” Tekleweld said.

“Step Up was a big help,” Yonas said. “A very big help. We didn’t have any money. It was paycheck-to-paycheck.”

Yonas said he wanted to help his mother, but when he talked of getting a job, she told him to work on school.

“I realized that education was the most important thing in this country and that through it, Yonas can become a better individual,” said Tekleweld, who now works as a school janitor. “Education is the key to getting anything that he wants. I realized that it can open many doors for him in the future.”

Yonas finished middle school at Sacred Heart Catholic School, then attended Bishop John Snyder High School, where he graduated in June as the valedictorian. He took summer classes at the University of Florida. This August, he will begin working on his major – computer science. He is interested in a career in software development or cybersecurity.

Yonas was accepted to six colleges, including Georgia Tech and Boston College. He chose Florida because his college tuition would be covered with all the academic scholarships he has earned, including the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship.

Yonas had a decorated academic career at Bishop Snyder. In addition to graduating first in his class with a 4.44 grade-point average, he was president of the National Honor Society his senior year, as well as a member of the French, science, math, social studies and English honor societies. He received the school’s Christian Service Award for exemplary service to the community, the Senior Cardinal Award, and the Math Department Award.

“He’s the whole package,” said Kelly Brown, Bishop Snyder’s dean of academics and the school’s sponsor of the National Honor Society.

Brown also teaches AP Calculus. She said the other students wanted to be partners with Yonas on class projects because, well, they knew working with him would ensure a top grade, but also because he could break down the complicated material in a way they could understand.

“He’s a rare find,” Brown said. “He’s a very driven young man with high aspirations and goals. That often comes with a personality that is pretty intense, but not in his case.”

While Yonas earns all A’s, his personality is far from Type A. He is a hard worker who was challenged by Bishop Snyder’s demanding academics. Presented with the opportunity to talk about the struggles he and his mom encountered during their first few years in the United States or brag a little on his academic achievements during his valedictorian address, Yonas chose to talk about what he and his fellow graduates accomplished.

“This means the world to us,” he said of their diplomas.

“I was really happy to hear that Yonas graduated first from his class,” Tekleweld said. “I was really proud of him because I’ve seen how hard he has worked to reach this point. I remember crying about it because I was so happy.”

The emotional toll of his dad leaving, and the financial hardship left in its wake motivated Yonas to excel in school so he could receive the grades needed for the academic scholarships that will pay for his college education.

“That’s what got me here,” he said of his spot in the University of Florida’s incoming freshman class. “In the end it works out. Everything does work out.”

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

Private school scholarship ‘molded me into a better person’

By ROGER MOONEY

Lucas Kirschner came for the basketball. He stayed for the education.

The recent graduate of Miami Christian School enrolled there as an eighth grader with the help of a private school scholarship managed by Step Up for Students. The draw for him was Miami Christian’s highly regarded boys basketball program. The draw for his mom was the school’s academics.

At the time, Lucas had dreams of playing professional basketball. But after two seasons his playing time was scarce. Several of his friends on the team were leaving for a neighborhood high school, and Lucas seriously considered joining them.

His mom, Ocilia Diaz, told Lucas his friends had their reasons for leaving and he had plenty of reasons to stay, namely the education.

Woody Gentry, Miami Christian principal, told Lucas that just because basketball wasn’t working out as he hoped, he could work harder to earn more playing time.

Lucas Kirschner

“Grow through the experience, whether you’re playing or not,” Gentry recalled saying.

Eventually, Lucas decided to stay.

“I ended up staying because Miami Christian has a very good basketball team but also has a great educational system,” he said.

The teachers, Lucas said, care about the students. They provide support and hold them accountable.

“I didn’t want to leave that, because I felt if I left that I would have gone off the track,” he said.

Lucas, 17, is set to begin his freshman year at Miami Dade College, where he will study automotive engineering. The goal of playing in the NBA has been replaced by one of working as an engineer for a Formula One racing team.

“I love engineering,” he said. “I love working with cars.”

Lucas attended Miami Christian, because his mom felt he was going off the track at his neighborhood middle school. She wasn’t pleased with the students he was hanging out with or his conduct in class.

“It was just behavior,” Diaz said. “Clicking the pencil on the desk. Talking. Over talking. Getting up to sharpen the pencil. It got to the point in junior high where he was starting to make comments and laughing and becoming disruptive in class. Becoming the silly boy. Ha. Ha. Ha. It’s so funny, but it’s not funny anymore. The teachers get annoyed.”

Diaz was worried where this was heading. She and Lucas’ father, Holger Kirschner (they divorced when Lucas was 4), decided to send their son to a private school. Diaz learned of Miami Christian, located 20 minutes from their Miami home. The basketball program was certainly attractive. And so was the school’s faith-based education, academic reputation and small class sizes. The tuition was a concern – currently $10,000 per year for middle school and $10,500 for high school.

Diaz was told about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which allows parents to send their child to a school of their choice. She applied.

“When we were accepted, it was the best thing ever,” she said.

Lucas knew it was the right move.

“I was hanging out with the wrong people, skipping school a lot, not doing homework, not doing classwork. Just slacking off. Not caring. I had nobody to push me,” he said about his neighborhood school.

That changed at his new private school.

“I felt the environment around me change completely,” he said. “The environment changed me. The teachers changed me. It helped me get out of that state I was in in middle school.”

Lucas also found Principal Gentry.

Gentry realized quickly that this new student liked to feel needed, liked to be given tasks.

So, Gentry asked Lucas to help set up for school functions around campus. Lucas helped grill and serve hotdogs during school cookouts. He made Lucas the “cell phone captain,” meaning Lucas was charged with collecting his classmates’ cellphones before class and distributing them after class.

In that role, Gentry said, “He was phenomenal.”

Lucas was a mainstay on Project Plus, an afterschool program created by Gentry for campus projects. One was to make bulletin boards with plexiglass covers that can withstand the elements at the school’s open-air campus.

“He thrived with doing those kinds of things,” Gentry said. “When he had an assignment, a project, hands-on, felt a sense of ownership with it, that helped him a lot.”

His dream of playing in the NBA didn’t work out, but Lucas has his sights set on another competitive sport: Formula One racing.

When Lucas was a junior, his maternal grandfather passed away and he had a hard time dealing with his grief. Gentry noticed and invited Lucas to spend the day in his office. Gentry told Lucas to not worry about his schoolwork that day, just work through his feelings and that he was there if Lucas felt like talking.

“He made everything comfortable, comforting,” Gentry said.

On the day Lucas graduated from high school, Gentry gave him a hug and said, “You’re going to be something out there.”

Diaz, standing nearby, was filled with pride. The decision to send her son to Miami Christian and her son’s decision to stay accomplished everything she had ever hoped.

“They molded him,” Diaz said. “He has the thought of continuing to study and wanting something bigger for himself.”

As the years went by, Lucas, a 6-foot-3 guard/forward, learned there was more to high school than playing time on the basketball team. He has grown through the experience.

“I’m actually very glad I went there,” Lucas said. “It changed my life for the better. It molded me into something I actually wanted to become. It molded me into a better person. I can see my future better.”

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

Tips on picking the right school for your child

By ROGER MOONEY

Because of the expanded eligibility requirements that went into effect July 1, more families in Florida are eligible for private school scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.

Andrew Campanella, National School Choice Week president.

The Family Empowerment Scholarship is now available to families with higher incomes, up to nearly $100,000 per year for a family of four. Also, dependents of active-duty members of the armed forces, children in foster care and out-of-home care, and those who have been adopted are now eligible for the scholarship.

The FES scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship) includes more eligible diagnoses.

This means more families have more options when it comes to school choice.

For those new to the Step Up program, here is some advice on picking a school from Andrew Campanella, National School Choice Week president and author of the School Choice Road Map: 7 Steps for Finding the Right School for Your Child.

Focus on what is the right education environment for your child: “What I encourage parents to do is think about what your goals are for your child,” Campanella said. “Think about how your child learns, in what environments your child is most likely to succeed and what your child’s interest are and keep those things at the front of your mind as you look at schools, because you want to find an environment that will meet your own criteria. One family might have a whole different set of criteria than another, and that’s completely fine.”

The biggest misconception when it comes to school choice: “People think there are good schools and bad schools, and they need to get their child into a good school,” Campanella said. “It goes beyond that. You need to get your child into a school that is good for him or her. That’s the most important thing.”

Keep an open mind: “You really do need to take stock of your own biases and your own experiences as a parent, because you went to a certain type of school,” Campanella said. “You might have liked it. You might have not liked it. You might have had a good or bad experience.

“Unless you live in the same area where you are going to send your child to school, you can’t write off one entire type of school because you might have had a bad experience. You need to recognize you had experiences that may have been unique to you and that your child is an individual and they may respond differently to that type of environment.”

Advice from family and friends can be helpful and important, but …: “What I encourage parents to do is don’t ask questions that lead to generalities,” Campanella said. “Ask specific questions. For example, don’t say, ‘Did you like it? Did you not like it?’ Ask how the teachers were with the students. Ask what type of homework was assigned. Asked what type of classes the child found most interesting. Don’t ask for a parent to be either a cheerleader or a reviewer of the school, because your own view is going to be reinforced somehow.”

Do your homework: Don’t let someone steer you in one direction before you’ve done your own research,” Campanella said. “Bring a list of criteria with you when touring the school. Form your own impression, then ask questions.

“Parents feel judged for making choices, but you have to remember: People can give their advice, but at the end of the day, you know your child better than anyone out there.”

Involve your child in the process: Campanella said don’t present it as a choice, but ask your child for input. See what they like and don’t like. See how they react to the environment during the school visit. If they hate the school, it’s not likely going to be a good fit.

“I encourage families to make it a family discussion,” Campanella said. “But remember, even though it is a family discussion, the ultimate decision is yours as a parent.”

Campanella’s seven steps for finding the right school are:

  1. Think back on your own time in school.
  2. Identify goals for your child. What do you see for their future? What are your hopes and dreams for them? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
  3. Decide what you need or want from a school or learning experience.
  4. Make a list and research the schools.
  5. Visit schools. Can you see your child succeed in that learning environment?
  6. Evaluate the schools.
  7. Choose a school.

Choosing a school for a child is one of the most important decisions a parent will make. Campanella said a recent poll conducted by National School Choice Week revealed making the wrong choice is the biggest fear among parents.

“There is great anxiety about this process, because education for too long has been filled with lots of buzz words and jargon and bureaucracy that have been understandably difficult for many parents to navigate,” Campanella said. “School choice is designed to make education more user friendly, more parent friendly, more kid friendly. So the goal needs to be to empower parents, just like Step Up is doing, with not only the resources to choose learning environments for their kids that work, but also the information to go about that process and feel confident in the choices they’re making.”

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

My perspective: What to look for in a child care center and how to make it affordable

Editor’s note: My Perspective is an occasional series asking subject matter experts their thoughts on different educational topics. In this edition, Annette Cacicedo, director of Kids Learning Center of South Dade, talks about what to look for in child care centers and ways to make it affordable for lower-income families.

Annette Cacicedo has been working at Kids Learning Center of South Dade in Miami for 17 years. Now the program’s director, she’s dealt with so many parents who asked so many questions that she is certain about this:

“Ninety-five percent of parents, I would say, have no idea what they would qualify for (financially) and don’t have any idea of what (financial assistance) really is out there,” she said. “They might see signs, advertisements, but are not really sure what is being advertised.”

Childcare is not cheap. According to the Center for American Progress, a Washington D.C. based think tank for economic and social issues, it can cost nearly 10% of a family’s income. For low-income families, the cost can climb to nearly 30% to 35%. For some families, that’s virtually unaffordable. Yet, families in Florida have access to it, thanks to a number of financial assistance programs.

While Step Up For Students does not service preschool-age children, except in some cases with the Gardiner Scholarship Program for children with certain special needs or unique abilities, we know that many families learn about our programs through these facilities or come from those and use a scholarship at our partner schools and more.

So, we thought we’d ask an expert on how anyone can afford preschool and what to look for when searching for one for your child. That’s where Cacicedo comes in.

When researching childcare centers (more on that later), make sure to inquire about financial options.

Many parents arrive at Kids Learning Center of South Dade with some idea of what to expect, Cacicedo said, thanks to word-of-mouth referrals and the information available on social media. After giving parents a tour of the facility, Cacicedo asks the most important question: How will you pay for this? If the parents don’t know, she directs them to outlets that provide financial assistance.

Each serves children from birth to age 5 so the child can receive an early learning system.

The Florida Department of Children and Families website has a section for choosing a child care provider with a link to help parents find one in their area. The Early Learning Coalition shares the same link on its website.

Some childcare centers, like Kids Learning Center of South Dade, located in a low-income area in Miami, also have elementary and middle school programs. Cacicedo said her program has the capacity of serving 213 children from birth to eighth grade (in its Eureka location), with 80 children currently enrolled in the preschool program.

For those parents seeking financial aid to attend her elementary or middle school, Cacicedo tells them about the two scholarships for private schools, managed by Step Up For Students.


Related:


While paying for childcare is critical, it is equally as important to find a center or program that you can trust. To accomplish that, you have to do your homework.

Research should include recommendations from parents. Social media is a good place to start, since parents and guardians share information about childcare services on platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

You should interview the center and ask plenty of questions, like these. Next, set up a visit to the center and look to see if the children and staff seem happy, are they interacting, what measures are taken to ensure the safety of the children and is it a clean and healthy environment.

Then, stop by unannounced to see if everything is the same as when they knew you were coming for a visit.

You can turn to the Florida Department of Children and Families for more guidance.

My Perspective: Choosing a school for a child with special needs – What to look for and what to ask

Editor’s note: My Perspective is a new, occasional series asking subject matter experts their thoughts on different educational topics. First up is Dr. Debra Rains, who holds a Doctorate in Educational Leadership (Ed.D.) and is an administrator at the North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville. She talks about finding a school for children with special needs or unique abilities.

Looking for a school for your child with special needs?

There are many resources to assure you find the best school to support your student’s unique learning needs.

Technology has made access to resources more accessible. The first place to begin is the Florida School Choice website. Florida School Choice provides families a list of private schools categorized by school district. On this website, schools identify disabilities they are able to accommodate and the support services they can offer.

Additionally, families can look to local support groups which advocate for their child’s diagnosed difference such as Autism and Down syndrome support groups. Special needs families will advocate for the schools they believe in and will provide good insight to other families looking to utilize school choice for their student who learns differently.

Debra Rains, an administrator at North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville, and Macy Flakus, a student at the school.

One sources you can turn to when choosing a school for your child with special needs is likely found on your smart phone or tablet. Just go into your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account and search for the schools you are considering.

“I believe that looking on a school’s social media account provides a realistic view at what they offer students and families,” Rains said.

“See what schools are posting. You can learn a lot about our school by going on our social media and seeing what we do. I think it’s another way of getting a behind the scenes look at what we offer our students.”

The North Florida School of Special Education is a private school that serves students ages 6 to 22 with intellectual and developmental differences. It accepts the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs that is managed by Step Up For Students.

The school will celebrate its 30th anniversary during the 2021-22 school. Rains said North Florida School of Special Education has 190 students enrolled for the upcoming school year and 75 young adults over the age of 22 who participate in the day program.

Posts for the graduating class of 2021, this summer’s I Can Bike Camp, and artwork from a transition student about mental health, can be found on the school’s Facebook page and offers a glimpse of the North Florida School of Special Education.

North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville.

Social media posts are a start. But to ensure you make the right choice, you need to do a thorough investigation to make certain your child and the school are the right fit. Enrollment is a mutual agreement between the school and the family that the school can provide necessary services and the supports needed for the student.

Rains offers some advice.

Get to know each other: “I think it’s important (for parents) to interview schools,” Rains said. “Let the school interview you and be open and upfront about what your child can do. I think one of the things that is critical for us is that the student come and spend time at the school. We want the student to want to be here as much as we want the student to be here.”

Be honest: It is just as important to inform the school of what your child can’t do as it is what he can. “If a parent is not open about their student needing (certain) type of services and the school accepts that student without doing the due diligence into what they really need, then it’s going to be a lose-lose situation for the family, the school, and most off all, the student,” Rains said.

This is particularly important for families who are taking their child out of a public school and thus, taking them away from the federally funded Individual Education Plan (IEP).

“It’s imperative that the family understands this is what we are able to do: For example, we can offer occupational therapy in a group, but we can’t do it one-on-one three times a week, because it’s cost-prohibitive. But we can offer it in this way and address independent and vocational training skills.” Rains said.

“So, making sure we have that upfront conversation with families, saying this is our tuition and these are the things that are included in the tuition. I always tell my families when we sit down for a tour that this is a team approach, and it will work best if we’re all open and honest with each other about what the student needs and what we’re able to provide.”

Trust: Changing schools and leaving a trusted peer group is difficult for any child. Rains said it’s important the student trusts the decision being made by the parents and understands the parents are placing the child in a setting that will support the student academically as well as socially. And it is imperative that a family trusts the school has the student’s best interest at the forefront of their mission.

Tour the school: Parents need to tour the school and spend time in classrooms, observing the interaction between the teachers/support staff and students.

“And then the question is: Can you envision your child being successful in this setting?” Rains said.

A standard of accountability: While private schools are not required to provide an IEP, which monitors a student’s progress and sets goals, this is something that is done at the North Florida School of Special Education. The students progress towards those goals are reported to the parents twice a year. New IEP goals are set each year.

“I think it’s a very strong level of accountability to make sure the students are making progress in response to how we teach,” she said. “It’s a cultural perspective that all students can learn, and so making sure our teachers, our families all buy into that culture and then how we show that’s actually happening.”

Talk to parents: Rains encourages prospective parents to talk with parents of students enrolled in the school.

Rains shared a conversation she recently had with a woman from Texas who is thinking of moving her family to Jacksonville so her child can attend the North Florida School of Special Education. During the conversation, Rains mentioned a family that moved to Jacksonville last year from Virginia so their child could attend the school. Rains suggested the mom from Texas contact the mother from Virginia and was not at surprised to learn that already happened. The two mothers met through Facebook.

“That’s the special needs community,” Rains said. “They are very engaged online with one another.

‘This is the year my daughter learned to read’

Kaelani is overcoming dyslexia with the help of the Orton-Gillingham Approach and a Step Up scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

Kaelani Dix can read. You can’t imagine what that means to her mother unless you have a child with dyslexia.

“Oh my gosh,” Kaelani’s mom, Kimberly Caleb, said. “I’m so grateful.”

Kaelani, 10, just finished the third grade at Pace Brantley School in Longwood, Florida, a private school, with grades 1 through 12, that specializes in teaching children who need specialized attention. Kaelani attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two private school scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.

Caleb, who lives 40 minutes away in Orlando, found Pace Brantley when searching the internet for resources for kids with dyslexia in Central Florida. She learned while researching reading programs or services for students with special needs that Kaelani would benefit from a school that taught the Orton-Gillingham Approach. The Approach was developed in the 1930s to teach students with dyslexia how to read. It has been used at Pace Brantley for nearly 20 years.

Kaelani, who entered Pace Brantley as a first grader, began the Orton-Gillingham Approach when school began last August. By November, she was able to read “Put Me in the Zoo” by Robert Lopshire, as well as a few pages from her children’s bible.

“I remember people saying this year is a wash (for students) with everything in the pandemic,” Caleb said, “but this is the year my daughter learned to read.”

‘A significant commitment’

According to ortonacademy.org, the Orton-Gillingham Approach is “a direct, explicit, multisensory, structured, sequential, diagnostic, and prescriptive way to teach literacy when reading, writing, and spelling does not come easily to individuals, such as those with dyslexia.”

Kaelanie reading one of her favorite books.

Orton-Gillingham focuses on the connection between letters and sounds then builds on those connections. Some schools use the Wilson Language or the Barton Reading and Spelling System to teach reading to special needs students. Both programs are offshoots of the Orton-Gillingham Approach.

At Pace Brantley, students usually are in the third grade to enter the Orton-Gillingham Approach after spending the first and second grades prepping for it.

“There’s music involved,” Pace Brantley Principal Jennifer Foor said of the prep work. “There is a lot of imagery involved that are building that working memory that they may be struggling with to get them to move into Orton, because when you move into the Orton program, it requires a lot of memory and working memory. You have to be able to learn information and hold on to it and still be able to pull previously learned information.”

The Approach is a three-year program for the students. They meet in small groups (no more than four students) three or four times a week, 40 minutes at a time. If they haven’t mastered reading in those three years, they can take a fourth year.

“It’s a pretty significant commitment as far as time goes,” Foor said. “Obviously, if we dedicate that much time for our students, we’re saying it works.”

When talking about the Orton-Gillingham Approach, Pam Tapley, Pace Brantley’s head of school, offered Kaelani is the success story for the 2020-21 school year.

“She came to us with no foundation,” Tapley said. “The teacher started with all of the early reading skills, the phonemic awareness, letter and sound recognition, and this is a little girl who is now reading and as importantly, because we’ve seen the two correlations, she’s writing.”

‘You’re giving them life’

Kaelani was speech-delayed, but Caleb was unaware her daughter was dyslexic.

“When she got into school she struggled tremendously. Nothing was clicking. It was difficult,” she said.

Kaelani repeated pre-K. Testing revealed she had specific learning disabilities and, while not officially diagnosed, Caleb said her daughter displayed all the symptoms and criteria of dyslexia.

That’s what sent Caleb searching for the proper school, a search that led her to Pace Brantley.

Caleb spent 15 years as an elementary and middle school teacher at district schools. She understands the importance of reading. Plus, everyone in the family is an avid reader. Books abound in their home.

Kaelani always wanted to read. She would even take a book and pretend she was reading it. And, if it was a page that had been read to her enough times, Kaelani could act as if she was reading by reciting what she had heard over and over.

Caleb bought “Put Me in the Zoo” and wanted Kaelani to read it before school. And one morning she did.

“This wasn’t a passage she was practicing. These were brand new words she hadn’t read. She sat there and started reading it,” Caleb said.

It was an emotional moment for a mother.

“I was just overwhelmed,” she said. “I compare a teacher who can teach a child how to read like a doctor. You’re giving them life. You’re saving a life. Especially one who struggles.

“My daughter wanted to read so bad. She would pick up books and pretend to read. Now that she can make sense of those words, I can’t describe it. I was so worried. I didn’t know what was wrong. I didn’t know why she couldn’t do what other kids do.”

Now Kaelani can do what the other kids can do. She can read.

“OK,” Caleb said, “she’s ready now and she’s able to excel.”

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

MVP on the court, MVP in the classroom thanks to a private school scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

Praise Temple Christian Academy teacher Anna Langley found herself a little teary-eyed recently, while watching the seniors walk down the aisle during practice for the June 4 graduation ceremony.

Langley, who has taught at the school for three years, will miss all the seniors, including one who Langley admits held a special place in her class and at Praise Temple in general.

That would be Samantha Gulli, the salutatorian of the Class of 2021, who was vice president of the student council, captain and MVP of the volleyball team, a teacher’s aide, an actress in all the school plays and a volunteer in every activity and fundraiser held at the school during the last four years.

“I can’t imagine a classroom without her,” Langley said. “There are seniors who graduate and leave, but when there was one who was so involved in so many aspects of the school, it leaves a little bigger hole.”

Samantha Gulli graduated second in her class at
Praise Temple Christian Academy.

Oh, Samantha is not really leaving Praise Temple. She plans to enter cosmetology school to pursue her lifelong ambition of owning her own beauty salon, but she said she will continue her work as a teacher’s aide next year. She would love to help Langley, who coaches volleyball, as an assistant coach.

“I may be graduating, but I will still be there,” Samantha said.

Samantha, who lives in Clermont, Florida, began attending the K-12 Christian private school in nearby Groveland as a freshman. After graduating from a district middle school, Samantha wanted to attend a Christian high school.

“I wanted to learn more about the Bible,” Samantha said, “and I wasn’t going to learn about it at a (district) school.”

Samantha attended Praise Temple on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two private school scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.

“I wouldn’t be here without this scholarship,” Samantha said. “I really appreciate it. I’m really thankful and grateful for it.”

“The Step Up scholarship has been a blessing,” her mom, Michelle Gulli, said. “It gave her this opportunity.”

Samantha flourished in high school, both academically and socially.

When she arrived at Praise Temple, she was behind in math and English but worked during the school years and over the summers to catch up by her senior year. Her grades were high enough to rank her second in the graduating class.

“That took not only a lot of hard work but a lot of thorough work that had to be done well,” Langley said.

Said Gulli: “Samantha had to hustle, but she’s a hard worker.”

Gulli, who works at the school as a teacher’s aide, described her daughter as a “wallflower” before she entered Praise Temple.

“Always quiet and good,” she said. “But (in high school), she came out of her shell. That’s what I noticed. It really helped her blossom. I never thought she would be captain of a volleyball team or vice president of her high school.”

Samantha credited that to joining the volleyball team and to making friends with peers who share her Christian values.

“The volleyball team really helped me to open up, because it’s a very verbal sport,” she said. “I was forced to open up to be a good player, teammate, and that carried over to my schoolwork and how I interacted with other people.”

As for her high school friends, Samantha said, “The Christian atmosphere around me made it easier to fit in. It made me feel at home.”

Samantha and Sissy, her graduation present.

Samantha speaks freely about her faith. It’s a major part of her makeup. Perhaps that’s no surprise since she has a grandfather and great-grandfather who were involved in ministry.

Samantha’s faith and love for volleyball came together when she received the Christian Character Award after one season. The award was voted on by the opposing coaches.

“I liked that better than the trophy for coming in second in the state,” Gulli said. “I like that better than being named captain.”

It’s also of little surprise that Samantha wants a career as a hairstylist and to own a salon. Her mom is a hairstylist. She has an aunt and a grandfather who both owned salons.

“It’s in the family,” she said.

Samantha’s popularity at school stems from her leadership ability, her devotion to her faith (which she shares with the students in the lower grades) and her disposition, which can best be described as sunny.

“What stands out to me probably more than the academics is I don’t ever recall seeing her come in with an attitude,” Langley said. “She’s always here with a smile, encouraging other students. She’s always happy and it’s infectious to others.”

What Gulli wanted four years ago for her daughter was a faith-based education that would challenge her academically and prepare her for life beyond high school and a career. Samantha received that and more.

“I don’t think there was a day in her high school career that was wasted,” Langley said. “Every day she made the most of it and went above and beyond in whatever it was, whether it was academics or making her fellow peers happier or helping out with the teachers. Whatever it was, she made the most of it.”

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

New Florida law expands K-12 Scholarships by $200 million

More students eligible for private school and more

STAFF REPORT

Since Gov. Ron DeSantis put pen to paper on May 11 signing into law  the landmark education choice bill, much work has been underway at Step Up For Students preparing for the 2021-22 school year.

In case you missed it, the law is a $200 million expansion of the state’s K-12 scholarship programs. It opens up education choice to more families in Florida than ever before. Read more here.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the landmark education choice bill.

Billed as the largest expansion of education choice in Florida history, the new law merges the state’s two scholarship programs for students with unique abilities, McKay and Gardiner, in 2022, and combines them with the Family Empowerment Scholarship program.

One category of the Family Empowerment Scholarship will serve students with unique abilities and special needs while the other will continue to serve lower-income families.

The law leaves intact the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which some mistakenly call school vouchers and is funded by corporate tax donations, and the Hope Scholarship program for students who have experienced bullying at their district schools. More than 160,000 students across Florida participate in K-12 scholarship programs. The law is expected to add as many as 61,000 new students and cost about $200 million, according to a legislative analysis.

The law simplifies eligibility requirements by aligning qualifying income levels of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship with the Family Empowerment Scholarship. The two programs previously had different income requirements.

The legislation also provides greater convenience for families by placing management of the Family Empowerment program under nonprofit scholarship organizations, including Step Up For Students.

The new law allows more families than ever to be eligible for a scholarship. Read about it here.

Florida Legislature is normalizing, expanding access to education choice, according to Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. Read more about it here.

Listen to Tuthill’s podcast with State Senator Manny Diaz Jr., on the future of education choice in Florida. Listen here.

‘Who’s going to be the next villain?’ The story of one survivor of bullying

By ROGER MOONEY

Brendan Thompson remembers the day in the fourth grade when he was jumped by a pack of bullies in a school bathroom. He remembers how he fought back, and he remembers how futile it was, because he was outnumbered. He remembers how classmates watched and laughed as he absorbed the blows to his face that left him with a bloody cut near his eye and a split lip.

There are some days you never forget, even when more than a decade has passed.

Brendan Thompson graduated in May from Seminole State College with a degree in general studies.
He will continue his education at the University of Central Florida.

Thompson vividly remembers the reaction later that day by school administrators when confronted by his mother, who, you can imagine, was angry.

Her son, she was told, was big enough to defend himself.

Yes, Thompson was among the taller and heavier kids in his school. But Nikki Thompson didn’t raise her son to fight, and Brendan was the mellow type who made friends easily and was nicknamed the “Gentle Giant” by his mother.

Despite his size –and maybe because of it – Thomspon was a target. He was picked on in the lower grades for being pigeon-toed and later for the hump behind his neck, something, he said, that developed from years of walking with his head bowed in an attempt to blend in.

Thompson recently spoke freely of his experiences at the hands of bullies one morning while taking a break from teaching bible and math at Master’s Training Academy, a K-12 private Christian school in Apopka, Florida, which his mother opened five years ago. In the end, it would be a Step Up For Students scholarship that allowed him to attend a private high school where bullying from classmates was no longer an issue.

The bulling started in the first grade and continued through the eighth. Thompson attended four schools during that span, twice changing schools because was bullied.

“It was like a TV show,” he said. “Who’s going to be the next villain? That’s what it was like every single year.”

He is 23 and a recent graduate from Seminole State College with a degree in general studies. He will continue his education in the fall at the University of Central Florida, where he intends to study creative writing.

His plan is to produce movies and documentaries. He also wants to write books, including one on bullying. It will be about his experiences and his thoughts on how bullying is portrayed in movies and on TV.

“It needs to stop being normalized,” Thompson said. “Bullying has become normal, and it shouldn’t be normal, because the kids who are being bullied, they don’t feel normal. They feel alone. They feel suicidal. They feel empty inside, numb inside.”

Though he lived with his mother and two sisters while growing up and had other family members he could turn to, Thompson felt alone, as so many victims do. He would refuse to talk at home and stayed in his bedroom, where he listened to what his mom described as “violent music.”

Thompson said he often thought about running away from home. He had darker thoughts, too.

“I don’t really tell people this, but there were times when I did think to myself, ‘What if I just ended everything? What if I did end my life?’” he said. “Thank God I didn’t, but I did think about that. Those thoughts popped up a lot during middle school.”

What stopped him?

“I would be selfish, because it wouldn’t be me who was in pain now, it would be my family and those who loved me,” he said. “It would be selfish and the coward way out. I would hate for anyone to think I was a coward.”

For Thompson, Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students made all the difference. He used it to attend high school at Apopka Christian Academy, where he graduated in the spring of 2016. The bullying by students didn’t follow him there but he remained wary, alert for the next villain.

“Getting bullied, it was miserable,” he said. “There were nights that I would go home and feel terrible about myself. Prayer got me through a lot of stuff. Reading my bible got me through a lot of stuff.”

His renewed faith began to impact his family. Bible study became a regular part of the family’s week. His mother, Nikki Thompson, who had worked two jobs to support her family, felt the call to start her own faith-based private school.

“I wanted to help those who were in need,” she said.

So, she quit her jobs and opened Master’s Academy in 2016. It has become a haven for children who were bullied at previous schools. That’s by design, Nikki Thompson said. Watching her son suffer the abuse of classmates and listening to school administrators who didn’t seem interested in stopping it leaves a scar on a mother.

“It was hard knowing I had to leave my child (in a school) where he was being bullied,” she said. “He was being hurt. He wasn’t comfortable. He didn’t feel right.”

Today, Florida schoolchildren have more options when they become a victim of bullying. Students in public school who are bullied can benefit from the Hope Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students. Hope was created in 2018 by the Florida Legislature to address the staggering number of schoolchildren who are bullied each year. It provides families with financial assistance to send a child who suffers from a qualifying incident at a public school to an eligible private school or help pay for transportation to a public school in another district.

Back when Brendan Thompson was a student, his only option to escape his bullies was financially qualifying for the tax-credit scholarship.  For the 2020-21 school year, 468 students are using Hope.

Given her son’s experiences, it’s no surprise that Nikki Thompson is a fan of the Hope Scholarship which opens up a way for K-12 students in Florida to find a learning environment away from their tormentors and feel safer.

“I think it’s awesome,” she said. “There’s bullying and you have parents who can’t afford a private school education and those scholarships, they do a lot. They help a lot of families out.

“Our No. 1 priority is taking care of our students. The moment they walk through the door they become my child and I will protect them by any means necessary.”

The pain Brendan endured from school bullies and his commitment to his faith motivated his mother, Nikki, to open a private school.

The students at Master’s Academy are drawn to Brendan Thompson, who at 6-foot, 290 pounds, remains a gentle giant. Especially to those who were bullied at a previous school. He knows their pain. He understands.

“He’s a role model for kids who have been bullied,” his mom said.

While the incidents took him to dark and painful places, Thompson is an example of a bullying victim who has healed. He knows that many victims still suffer from the experience into adulthood. Not him, he said.

“No,” he said. “I try not to focus on what others say about me, but just focus on the positive things about myself.”

Thompson said being a victim of bullying helped him develop a thick skin against taunts and taught him to stick up for himself.

He recalled an incident before physical education class in the eighth grade when he noticed three bullies were closing in on him. Thompson said he made the first move, asking if they “wanted to go?” They backed down. A classmate who witnessed the incident called Thompson a superhero.

Thomspon didn’t think he was. He just knew if he didn’t act then, he would remain a victim, and he was tired of being a victim. He also knows not every victim can stand up for themselves.

That’s why he wants to write a book about his experiences. While in college, he wrote research papers and spoke about it during speech class, using statistics of the many victims who chose suicide to make his point.

While Thompson has spoken to victims, he also spoke with aggressors. Several of his former classmates who bullied him have reached out on Facebook or by email to express their sorrow for how they acted and to explain why they did. Some talked about being abused at home and turned to bullying as an outlet for their pain.

Thompson listened.

“Did it change the way I feel? No,” he said. “But it’s better than no apology, I guess.”

If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or are in emotional distress, please speak to someone today. Help is available. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. It is available 24/7.

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