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.
s 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.
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.
Since Gov. Ron DeSantis put pen to paper on May 11 signing into law
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.
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.
By LISA A. DAVIS
When Gerry Brooks appeared on computer screens streaming live the afternoon of May 21 to address an audience primarily of Florida private school educators, the first thing he did was pat his hair to fix a poof of gray strands that stood above his crown.
“Oooh,” he said, catching a glimpse of his misbehaving hair on the screen. “Look at my hair sitting this way. I should have done something beforehand.”
Brooks immediately brings a smile to your face and makes you feel as though you are old friends, even through a computer monitor. His accent is thick with a twang, perhaps a mix of his native Florida and Lexington, Kentucky, where he has built a successful 20-year-plus career as an educator.
Brooks has a lot of experience in front of a camera addressing a large audience.
Five years ago, his world changed when he posted a video on social media that went viral, and ever since he continues to post comical videos about his real-life educational experiences like this. Today, he has amassed more than 2 million followers on social media channels, including 1.7 million on Facebook. He has taken that fame to the national speaking circuit to encourage educators in their career to becoming the best they can.
On this day, he was speaking to a live audience of nearly 1,000 strong during Step Up For Students 2021 Choice in Education Celebration: Boosting Learning Through Laughter.
Despite his viral fame, one thing was immediately clear to the audience of mostly educators: he was one of them.
He’s smart. He’s funny. He’s down-to-earth. He knows what he’s talking about. His goal is to share that knowledge and empower other educators.
During Thursday’s event, Brooks taught educators about eight “object lessons.” Well, those and his love affair with the Dollar Tree, where he frequents.
“So, what I’ve done is I’ve gathered some of my favorite things at Dollar Tree and I want to share them with you to hopefully be able to encourage you, in the position that you are in, to be better in whatever it is,” he told the audience.
Lesson One: Reading glasses.
“I collect these for my teachers,” he said holding up a pair. “When we go back to school in August every one of my teachers gets pair of reading glasses.”
“You will never be as good as you are supposed to be or fulfill your calling until you can look through the lens of other people. Because when you are only looking through your lens, then you’re only looking at how a situation affects you as a teacher, as a PE teacher, as a music teacher as a classroom teacher because you are only focusing on how it affects you.”
Brooks said you have to consider the perspective of those around you: the student, the parents, and others. If you don’t stop to think about where they may be coming from when a child is late for school, (it could be because of a divorce, a job loss, an illness, not enough money to pay the electric bill), you might not interact with them in a way you should. When you look through other people’s lenses, he noted, you gain “sympathy, empathy and understanding.”
“You can’t be great until you start looking through the lens of other people,” he said.
Lesson 2: Light switch (not from Dollar Tree)
Brooks said a teacher he met would buy light switches for each of her students and have them paint them as an art project. Then they would keep them on their desks. If the children were having a hard time transitioning from recess to math, for example, she would have the students flip their light switch.
“She used this to remind students the importance of moving our minds from one activity to another” he said. “…Everybody turn off your recess light. Ok, guys we’ve got to get in our math minds. Turn on your math light.”
While it’s great for students, it’s equally as great for educators to remind them you have to turn off work on a regular basis so you can enjoy your personal life and don’t burn out on your professional life.
“You in education have to be able to turn off your professional mind on a daily basis because – here’s why – if you can’t turn off your professional mind, then you’re no good to no one,” Brooks said.
Lesson 3: Pacifier
“This represents someone’s baby,” he said. “Here’s the reason I give this to all the teachers because they are dealing with someone’s baby.”
Brooks said it’s important that educators remember they are helping raise someone else’s baby. When talking with their students’ parents, even if it’s a difficult student, you have to look at it from the parent’s perspective and think about that when you have a conversation with them about their child.
Lesson 4: M&M’s
His local Dollar Tree has a dozen varieties of M&M candies. He urges administrators to know which kind each staff members likes so they can buy them their favorites. This is an example of relationship building, he said.
“The number one thing to job place happiness and staff retention is relationships,” Brooks said.
Lesson 5: Butterfinger candy bar
This is a two-for lesson, he told the educators, and “BF” is key.
“Bye Felicia,” he said, referring to a pop culture reference from the 1995 film “Friday,” which is a dismissal of a person. In this case, Brooks said, it’s moving away from negative people. These are the constant complainers, he said, who talk negatively about the administration, policies, children and their parents.
“We need to get negative people out of our lives,” he said. “If you hang out with people you become negative.”
The second meaning of BF is for best friend.
“You need a professional best friend who you can go to,” Brooks said.
Because everyone has times they have to vent, this is the person you can go to who will give you “sympathy, empathy and understanding.” They will help you get through the bad days and not spread the negativity to the rest of the school.
Lesson 6: Magic 8 ball
Brooks remembers being a kid and using a Magic 8 ball to ask it all of life’s questions and receive all the answers. Unfortunately, he said, that doesn’t work in his professional world.
“Guess what? There’s no Magic 8 ball in education,” he said.
He said people need to realize that what works for one school, or one classroom, won’t necessarily work for the next. It’s the same with students. Education is not one size fits all. Beware of those who think there is a Magic 8 ball in education.
“When you try to push a Magic 8 ball on someone it’s going to backfire on you,” Brook said, reminding educators to consider what works for their students and their environment.
Lesson 7: Peanut butter and jelly
This P&J in this case is professional jealousy, Brooks said.
“If you allow P and J into your life as a professional, you can’t grow,” he said. “We need to guard ourselves from professional jealousy.”
Lesson 8: Peeps
Brooks said he enjoy the seasonal sugary treat all year round, so he has to plan ahead and purchase them around Easter and freeze them to have the rest of the year. The lessons here, he said, is “seasons come to an end” and “this, too, will pass.”
The pandemic is a season, he told the educators. And it’s been a rough one.
“I know some of you need to hear this,” he said. “We are in a season. And this season will pass. Hang in there.”
For more lessons and comical stories about being an educator, check out Brooks’ YouTube channel here.
Educators, have any friends, family or children who may meet our new guidelines for our private school scholarships or any of our Florida scholarship programs? Please send them to our website to apply for scholarships at www.StepUpForStudents.org.
Lisa A. Davis can be reached at email@example.com.
By ROGER MOONEY
Most mornings, history teacher Quintarries Upshaw stands in the hallway and greets the arriving students at the Dixon School of Arts & Sciences with a song he plays on his clarinet.
The melodies are soothing, welcoming. Meant to create a mood.
“What he’s doing is setting a temperature that says, ‘When you come in, this is your safe place,’” Dixon principal Donna Curry said.
The private K-8 school in Pensacola, Florida sits in a high-crime neighborhood. Curry said it’s hard for her students not to be affected by their surroundings, which is why the staff and faculty are trained in trauma sensitivity.
“We cannot control what happens outside the school,” Curry said. “But when the students come through the doors, it has to be the calmest, inviting place that they have been in. We created that on purpose.”
When someone interested in education choice approaches Curry and asks about the benefits of sending their child to a private school, her response is about the protective shield her school creates not only for the students but for their parents, as well.
“What I normally tell parents, the beauty of Dixon being a private school is that we understand our parents,” Curry said. “We are a true community school.”
Dixon is one of 2,625 private schools in Florida, according to the Private School Review. They range from pre-K to high school with an average enrollment of 172 in elementary schools and 200 in high schools.
There are some that cater to the arts and sciences, like Dixon. Others offer an International Baccalaureate program or a Waldorf education, developing children’s intellectual, artistic, and practical skills in an integrated and holistic manner. Many private schools are faith-based, and there are schools that accommodate children with special needs.
For decades, parents have realized the benefits of sending their children to private schools, including:
But many parents can’t easily afford private schools. The cost of yearly tuition for a private school in Florida is lower than the national average. The average for an elementary school is $7,785 (the national average is $10,066). For a high school it is $9,899 ($14,978 nationally).
In Florida, however, parents can apply for scholarships managed by Step Up For Students that can help with tuition, fees and more.
Financial Assistance to private schools for Florida schoolchildren include:
More than 1,800 Florida private schools accept Step Up For Students scholarships for one or more of its programs. That’s a lot of choices for Step Up scholars.
Faith and safety
Raising children a second time, Sharon Strickland looked for an academic environment where she would feel comfortable sending her granddaughters, and where they would feel safe.
After more than 20 years of living on her own, Strickland gained custody of her two great-granddaughters during the 2019-20 school year. The girls, 9 and 4, respectively, needed a school. Strickland remembered the overcrowded classrooms from 20 years ago when she used to take one of her granddaughters to the district middle school. She could only imagine the situation now.
Feeling her oldest granddaughter would benefit from a smaller teacher/student ratio and wanting a faith-based education for the two, Strickland enrolled them in a private Christian school five minutes from their home.
Savannah, the oldest who is in the second grade, attends Warner Christian Academy, a pre-K through 12th grade private school in South Daytona, Florida, on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Her sister, Karlee, will receive the scholarship when she enters kindergarten.
Savannah, who repeated the second grade during her first year at the school, has improved her grades over those she earned while attending a district school.
“She doesn’t have a learning disability, but she’s not on the level the other kids are,” Strickland said. “She has 12 kids in her class. That’s great. She’ll get all the instruction she needs.”
The faith-based education, the school’s anti-bullying policy and the fact tutors are available for all students is what sold Strickland on Warner Christian.
“To sum it up, I can go to work and feel good about leaving them there,” she said.
Wellmont Academy, a faith-based K-12 private school in St. Petersburg, Florida is an example of education choice at work.
Defined as a hybrid school, Wellmont offers students the option of attending school five days a week, three days (upper grades) or two (lower grades).
Those students who opt for hybrid learning spend the days when they are not in the classroom learning at home or participating in the school’s Assisted Learning Program.
“The hybrid model allows parents to be involved more in their education,” Danielle Marolf, Wellmont’s founder and principal, said. “Parents can enroll their kids the way they need to enroll them. It’s really popular.”
Marolf said parents have two main concerns when they discuss moving their child from a district to a private school: class sizes and a safe environment.
At Wellmont, classes are capped at 15 students and include a teacher and an aid.
“That teacher knows those kids so well,” Marolf said. “She knows exactly what their needs are, and she can work with them.”
As for bullying, Marolf said, “We have zero tolerance for bullying, and we mean it. Our kids know that we’re serious, and when we tell them this is a safe place and we will listen to you and our door is open, they know it. They can come into my office and talk to me.”
A sense of community
The sense of community is as much of a selling point for private schools as the value of the education they provide. The two often go hand-in-hand. And when the school loops in the parent’s right to exercise education choice, it presents an attractive alternative to a district school.
Back at the Dixon School of Arts & Science, safety from the neighborhood is only one benefit. It also offers an arts program that has produced students whose works are featured in local galleries and magazines, and student scientists, who have traveled to Washington D.C. to present their projects at a convention for real scientists.
Like every principal, Curry said it is the job of her faculty to find that switch that will turn the students into scholars. That can be difficult for a student who is dealing with trauma at home, so couches are placed in the hallways for students who need some quiet time to relax or a place to talk to a teacher or staff member about their troubles.
Parents are allowed to use those couches, too.
“You cannot love children without loving the parents. So, what we invite our parents to is a school that not only cares about the children, but cares about them,” Curry said.
“It makes them feel less traumatized. And if I have a less traumatized parent, I have a less traumatized child, and that makes it easier for me to teach A,B,C’s and 1,2, 3’s.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ROGER MOONEY
Charles Sears recalled a conversation he had last winter with Stephanie Engelhardt, principal of Christ the King Catholic School. It occurred outside the school while Sears was waiting to pick up his 9-year-old granddaughter, Luna.
Sears is 69. His wife, Colleen, is 49. They have full-time custody of Luna, which thrills them to no end. But sometimes Sears fixates on the age difference between he and Luna, and this was one of those times.
He remembered telling Engelhardt that he felt bad for Luna because someone so old picks her up after school. Engelhardt told Sears to look around. He’s not the only senior citizen in the pickup line, and that some of the others aren’t babysitters waiting to pick up the grandkids. Like Sears, they are grandparents raising their grandchildren.
“There are a lot of grandparents doing the parenting duty,” Engelhardt said. “That’s the truth.”
They are called grandfamilies, and they are on the rise.
According to grandfamilies.org, there are 139,542 grandparents in Florida raising their grandchildren. The number of children in the United States living in grandfamilies has doubled since 1970, according to a 2018 story in The Atlantic. The Centers for Disease Control estimates there are 2.6 million grandfamilies nationwide.
“The number seems to be growing every year,” said Karen Boebinger, Grandparents as Parents Program coordinator at the Tallahassee Senior Center & Foundation.
Living with the grandparents can provide a stable homelife for the children, perhaps for the first time in their young lives. But it can place a hardship on the grandparents, especially if they are elderly. There is a financial burden for those living on fixed incomes. There can be a health component involved for those grandparents dealing with a physical issue or illness and are now tasked with raising young children. And the idea of giving up their retirement years and a leisurely way of life to return to parenting can be frustrating.
Yet, many do it.
“In general, these grandparents are amazing people,” Boebinger said. “They will do anything to keep the family together, including working past retirement (and) depleting their savings in order to take care of the kids.”
This is what Sears wanted when he and Colleen gained custody of Luna seven years ago. He wanted a steady home for his granddaughter, something, he said, Luna never had during the brief time when she lived with her parents. Luna’s father is Sears’ son, a musician who played in a band and was constantly on the road. The couple never married and eventually split when Luna was 1. Sears said Luna’s mother left Luna with he and Colleen so often it seemed like she lived with them.
“I want to do what’s best for Luna,” Sears said.
After raising his four children in his home in Jacksonville, Florida, Sears is glad to be a parent again and “back on the carrousel.”
Sears worked as a certified public accountant until 2010 when he had a heart attack. He reduced his workload considerably until 2016, which was when he received custody of Luna. So, Sears returned to working part-time because he wants Luna to enjoy an active childhood filled with as many activities and sports as she wants. Sears sent his children to Christ the King, a pre-K through eight private school, and wanted the same education for his granddaughter.
“It was a great education and a great experience,” Sears said.
Luna attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two scholarship available to Florida residents and managed by Step Up For Students that give students the option to find the best schools to meet their K-12 learning needs. The other is the Florida Empowerment Scholarship.
The scholarships can add a degree of comfort for those raising their grandchildren.
“It’s certainly been a financial relief for us,” Sears said. “I have heart problems and was basically out of the business. I went back working part-time, because regardless of the generosity of Step Up For Students, we want Luna to have a good life.”
Boebinger, of the Tallahassee Senior Center & Foundation, said the financial aspect of raising grandkids is one of the main concerns of grandparents. Paying for a private education might not be doable for those on a fixed income. But for those grandparents who live in Florida, school choice remains an option because of Step Up For Students.
Consider Sharon Strickland, who was nearing her mid-60s when, after being an empty nester for more than 20 years, she gave up her retirement years to raise two of her great-granddaughters. Strickland has cared for the girls for more than a year after their mother lost parental rights.
“Never underestimate the love of a grandmother,” Strickland, 65, said.
Strickland wanted a faith-based education for the girls, Savannah, 9, and Karlee, 4. After qualifying for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Strickland enrolled Savannah at Warner Christian Academy, a pre-K through 12 private school located near their south Daytona Beach home. Savannah is in the second grade. Strickland said Karlee will follow her sister to Warner Christian once she is old enough.
Savannah struggled in the school she attended before moving in with her great-grandmother. Warner Christian administrators and Strickland thought it was best for Savannah to repeat the second grade. Placed in an environment with smaller class sizes and more one-on-one time with her teacher, Savannah has improved her grades.
“If that scholarship wasn’t there, I don’t know, she would be struggling,” Strickland said.
Whether the creation of the grandfamily is sudden or expected, it can be overwhelming for a grandparent.
“They don’t know what to do,” Boebinger said. “They don’t know what to do first.”
In Leon County, Boebinger estimates there are more than 2,000 grandparents raising their grandkids. Only 150 of those grandparents are in her program.
“So, there’s a lot more out there that we are trying to reach,” she said.
Boebinger said she encourages them to join the virtual meetings at the Tallahassee Senior Center & Foundation, Grandparents as Parents Program.
“They can get a lot out of talking to people who are in the same situation. They don’t feel so alone,” Boebinger said. “This is not what they were planning on doing, so it helps to talk to somebody who’s been through it.”
Hopefully, Boebinger said, the grandparents will refocus and turn the initial stress into the energy needed to raise the grandkids. Also, they can benefit from what can be a closer relationship with those grandchildren than with the grandchildren they have who are living somewhere else.
Sears said his relationship with Luna is different than it is with his other grandchildren.
“With Luna, I can’t be a grandparent. I have to say no sometimes, which can be very unpleasant,” he said.
Grandfamiles can deal with anger issues, especially those that came together because of the parents’ drug use or incarceration. The anger, Boebinger said, is usually directed at the parents.
“The grandparents are frustrated with the parents for having the wrong priorities. The kids feel that as well. ‘Why did mom or dad do whatever?’” she said. “So, some of the acting out is their anger at the parents and not so much that they are with the grandparents. A lot of time that’s the first stability they have had in their lives.”
Sears said he’s never heard Luna express any resentment over her situation. It’s the only arrangement she has ever known.
“It’s just a very good thing for her, I think,” he said. “She’s a child who’s very happy, but she never tells you about her emotions. She’s only 10, but you’d never know if anything is bothering her about it.”
Engelhardt has been associated with Christ the King for 20 years, the first five as a teacher and the last 15 as the principal. She has seen the amount of grandfamilies steadily increase during her tenure.
“It’s definitely a trend, a noticeable trend,” she said.
And while Engelhardt understands why Sears can be concerned about the 60-year age difference between he and Luna, she sees that as a positive trait, the same trait she sees in all the grandparents committed to raising their grandkids.
“All these people,” Engelhardt said, “are either still working to afford the grandkid or are in carpool, going to dance practice or basketball practice or doing homework, homework, homework or going to meetings, sacrificing or giving up all the stuff that was supposed to be for them and redoing everything again. It’s humbling to see what they do.”
That Colleen is 20 years younger than her husband gives her more energy to attend to Luna’s needs, Sears said.
“Statistically speaking,” he added, “she’ll be there for Luna’s college graduation. I hope I am.”
Sears said he’s more prepared for parenthood this time since he has the experience of raising four children. He said Luna keeps them busy with all her activities – dance and music classes, volleyball, basketball, student council, robotics and sewing clubs.
“But” he said, “the downside about it has been our lifestyle. I’m 69. I would be retired. I would be one heck of a golfer right now.
“We’re doing all the things that we shouldn’t be doing. I get up every day at 5 a.m. to make her breakfast and her lunch. As you can imagine our day is tied around Luna. Somebody has to pick her up after school and we have all her weekend activities.”
Still, Sears can’t picture his life any other way.
“She keeps us young, because we have to be active,” he said.
Although, Sears admitted, that sometimes comes at a price.
“It’s been tough practicing volleyball, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “I tore my calf muscle.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
Step Up For Students was founded to empower families to pursue and engage in the most appropriate learning options for their children, with an emphasis on families who lack the information and financial resources to access these options. Over the years, Step Up has developed internal systems and procedures to administer these scholarships, which disproportionally benefit minority children and families, but now they are expecting exponential growth in demand.
“Even before COVID,” said Doug Tuthill, President, Step Up, “we were expecting to grow from administering $700 million in scholarships to over $1 billion. But now, families are having to supplement their children’s education at home and/or through neighborhood pods, which has increased the need for parents to have access to more scholarship funds, and more flexibility in how these funds are spent.”
To support their mission and growth, Step Up has turned to NLP Logix, a Jacksonville, Florida-based machine learning and artificial intelligence company, to integrate and build the platform the parents can use to manage their children’s education. The platform is incorporating high levels of artificial intelligence to provide such things as course recommendations, educational product purchase recommendations, charter school options and other applications to help users interface with their scholarship benefits.
“We are very proud to have been selected by Step Up For Students to partner in this endeavor,” said Ted Willich, CEO, NLP Logix. “Having an opportunity to support transforming the K-12 education system in America is something we could have only dreamed of when we started NLP Logix ten years ago.”
Step Up For Students and NLP Logix expect to launch the platform in December of 2021 with an extensive roadmap of enhancements to come in the following years.
The platform will first be used by parents and students within the State of Florida who are enrolled in the five scholarship programs administered by Step Up: Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) and the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) for lower-income families, The Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs, the Hope Scholarship for public school students who are bullied or victims of violence and the Reading Scholarship Accounts for public school students in third through fifth grade who struggle with reading.
By ROGER MOONEY
Step Up, a Florida-based scholarship funding organization serving more than 120,000 students annually, was No. 1 among education charities.
This is the fourth year that Step Up has been included in the Top 25 of Forbes’ 22nd annual list of America’s top charities.
“This honor is bestowed on our organization because of the amazing generosity of our donors who believe in our mission of delivering educational opportunities to Florida’s most vulnerable students,” said Anne Francis, Step Up’s vice president of development. “This ranking is particularly special this year because we just celebrated the delivery of our 1 millionth scholarship. The children whose lives are changed by these scholarships are the heart and soul of Step Up.”
The nonprofits that comprise the Top 100 received $49.5 billion in donations during the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2020. That is 11% of the estimated $450 billion raised by the more than 100 charities in America.
Step Up received $618 million in donations during the 2019-20 fiscal year.
In addition to the recognition from Forbes, Step Up received a coveted four-star ranking from Charity Navigator, the nation’s top charity evaluator. It is the 14th time Step Up received Charity Navigator’s highest ranking.
In a letter to Step Up, Charity Navigator President Michael Thatcher wrote, “Attaining a 4-star rating verifies that Step Up For Students exceeds industry standards and outperforms most charities in your work area.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: This is the second in an occasional series exploring career challenges and successes for those individuals on the autism spectrum.
By ROGER MOONEY
“Everyone has a mountain to climb and autism has not been my mountain, it has been my opportunity for victory.”– Rachel Barcellona on Instagram
Rachel Barcellona will tell you her disability is not the fact she’s on the autism spectrum. The disability is the way others react to her being on the spectrum.
It’s the obstacles others placed before Barcellona when she was younger, either by teachers who didn’t believe in her ability to learn or classmates who bullied her because they saw her as different.
Barcellona didn’t fit in. She knew that. But here’s the thing: She never wanted to fit in. She wanted to standout.
“Just because I have autism doesn’t mean I can’t shine,” she said.
Oh, she shines.
Her list of accomplishments is quite long. Here are the highlights:
Most of all, Barcellona is an advocate for autism.
She has her own platform which she calls The Ability Beyond Disability.
She has spoken at the United Nations during World Autism Awareness Day.
Her message: “I think that someone with any disability can become whatever they want. They just have to believe.”
Never give up
People believe in Barcellona. She wants them to believe in her. She knows the impact she has in the autism community, especially to young girls who see her as a role model.
“Families can identify with her story because it’s so multifaceted,” said Christine Rover, assistant program director at CARD USF. “It’s health challenges. It’s bullying. It’s ‘How do you get teachers to recognize my talents?’ Parents can relate to that story.”
But can their daughter grow up to be Miss Florida? Can they host a radio show? Can their voices be heard at the U.N.?
Young girls on the spectrum tell Barcellona they want to be models and enter pageants.
“I always tell people to never give up,” Barcellona said.
In the United States, there are more than 3.5 million people on the autism spectrum. In Florida, Step Up For Students helps schoolchildren on the spectrum meet their educational needs through the Gardiner Scholarship. Managed by Step Up, the Gardiner Scholarship enables parents to personalize the education for children with certain special needs from age 3 through the 12th grade or age 22, whichever happens first. During the 2019-20 school year, 13,035 schoolchildren received a Gardiner Scholarship. Of that total, 8,097 (62%) are on autism spectrum. Click here to learn more about the Gardiner Scholarship.
Barcellona grew up in Palm Harbor, Florida. She is the only child of Barbara and Frank Barcellona.
She was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome when she was 3. She also has dyspraxia (a developmental motor coordination disorder), dyscalculia (difficulty in learning math) and epilepsy.
The early prognoses from doctors were not encouraging. They said Barcellona would have a lifetime of learning and physical challenges.
Barbara Barcellona recalled watching Rachel struggle to hang her backpack on a wall hook while in kindergarten.
“I thought to myself, she’s never going to get that,” Barbara said. “As she got older, it was well she got this step and this step. She kept rising to the occasion. When she was younger people told her she would never go to school, and now she’s two semesters away from her bachelor’s degree.”
While she is very open about her past, especially the bullying in middle school, Barcellona doesn’t like to dwell on those days.
“I like to live life in the now,” she said. “I like to be happy and focus on what’s going to happen in the future. Just be positive.”
Her mom tells her that the past plays an important role in the future.
“I sometimes tell her you have to look back to see how far you’ve come,” Barbara said, “and sometimes looking back isn’t always easy.”
Barcellona was 10 when she decided she would change the world.
She was tired of being bullied in middle school and called “The Devil” by classmates and fed up with those who viewed her as different because she was on the spectrum. That included teachers, who she sensed didn’t know how to connect with students with special needs.
“There were lots of us,” she said. “There were autistic (students). There were people with other disabilities that were a lot worse, and nobody knew how to handle them. They were just kind of shoved into a corner, pretty much, and I thought, ‘That isn’t right.’”
Her anger boiled over one day when she couldn’t perform a task, simple to some, maybe, but not to her. Sensing Barcellona’s vulnerability, some of her classmates pounced.
“I could never do anything right,” she said. “They were just yelling at me that I was stupid, so I just yelled at everyone to shut up. Then I got in trouble, of course. The principal asked me, ‘OK Rachel, what’s wrong?’”
“They have me issues!” she screamed.
Then she cried.
“I was very emotional,” she said.
When Barcellona returned home that afternoon she went into her bedroom, grabbed a piece of paper and a pen and started listing the changes she wanted to see in the world.
While she doesn’t remember everything she wrote that afternoon, she remembers what she wrote first. She wanted to have a party for children with special needs.
Barcellona didn’t know it at the time, but she was building the foundation to The Ability Beyond Disabilities. Her ultimate goal is to open a school for students with special needs.
“I really love the fact that she wants to help other people,” Barbara Barcellona said.
People can change
Barbara started entering Rachel in local beauty pageants when she was 4. She thought it might help her daughter cope with her depression. It did.
Standing on the stage, Barcellona felt empowered. She loved to sing. She loved to entertain.
“I remember I got on that stage, I had a fear of coming off of it,” Barcellona said. “I liked showing people that I’m there. I liked just being there. I had a feeling people cared about me for who I was. I didn’t get that when I wasn’t on stage.”
Now, the girl with Asperger’s was drawing attention to herself for different reasons. She placed first at pageants. She was on Tampa Bay area TV shows talking about the difficulties of life on the spectrum and why it shouldn’t be that way. She appeared in the pages of fashion magazines, modeling the latest styles.
She sang the national anthem before a WNBA game in New York and before a Tampa Bay Lightning game in Tampa.
The little girl who was bullied for being different now had hockey and basketball fans cheering and saying, “Wow, I wish I could sing like her.”
Barcellona said it all comes from her heart. It has to. She knows her message must be sincere or people won’t listen.
Her goal is to prove that those on the spectrum can achieve many things. They just need a chance. That is why she is quick to share her story.
“I think she acknowledges that there have been some challenges and struggles for her, but she always says, ‘Yep, that’s life, but I’m not going to let it stop me,’” Rover said. “She really seems to turn it around and use it as fuel and say, ‘I want to help others who’ve had these obstacles put in their way,’ and just shines with it.”
For 10 years, Barcellona received therapy from CARD-USF. Now, she sits on the constituency board, where Rover said Barcellona provides the first-person voice of life on the spectrum.
“To see that come full circle is something I find incredible about her,” Barbara Barcellona said. “She doesn’t need to do that, but she generally wants to help other people. I think the world of her for it.”
Rover credits Barbara and Frank for guiding their daughter through those uneasy childhood moments and supporting her dreams.
“I always thought she was capable of achieving what she wanted to,” Barbara Barcellona said. “But there were oftentimes, especially during middle school, where she faced so many challenges, she had to be very strong. Even though you have a family and a good support system, it has to come from within. Even though we support her 100%, some of the stuff she really had to believe in herself.”
Barcellona is confident in her own abilities and future. She will work in radio. She will have a modeling career. She will build that school for children with special needs.
She will use her platform to change the way people view those on the spectrum, the way they view anyone with a disability.
Every so often Barcellona hears from an old classmate which makes her happy and lets her know her message is being heard.
“The ones that were really mean to me in middle school end up emailing me and telling me how wrong they were, and they were sorry,” she said. “It’s nice to see that people change.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series exploring career challenges and successes for those individuals on the autism spectrum.
By Roger Mooney
Six years ago, Joseph Show stood in front of then Florida Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature and talked about his life on the autism spectrum. He was not nervous.
Quite the opposite, he said.
It was March 2014, a little more than a week before the April 1 start of Autism Awareness Month, and Show was eager to create awareness for some of the state’s most influential people.
“Hey,” he told the lawmakers,” we exist.”
That was a great way for Show to begin.
More than 3.5 million people in the United States are on the autism spectrum, and the advocacy organization Autism Speaks estimates 707,000 to 1.1 million teens will age out of school-related services each year during this decade.
The Gardiner Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, enables parents to personalize the education for children with certain special needs from age 3 through the 12th grade or age 22, which ever happens first.
During the 2019-20 school year, 13,035 schoolchildren received a Gardiner Scholarship. Of that total, 8,097 (62%) are on the autism spectrum.
What happens to those students after they age out of a school-based service? That’s what Show wanted to discuss at the Capitol with lawmakers.
Wearing a blue suit he bought the week before at Dillard’s for the occasion, Show explained that people with autism can accomplish many wonderful things. Sure, some may need more time or use methods that are different than those in the neurotypical population, but is that so bad?
Show finished with this plea, one made by far too many adults on the spectrum.
“Please,” he said, “don’t be afraid to hire us.”
Exact figures are hard to pin down, but the estimate of adults with autism who are unemployed nationwide is believed to be between 80% and 85%. Certainly, those numbers are even higher with the COVID-19 outbreak.
Show, 29, a web app developer for a software company in Tallahassee, Florida, finds those numbers difficult to digest even prior to the pandemic. He turned his degree in information technology from Florida State University into a career. He knows of others on the spectrum who experienced similar success.
“I have trouble reconciling that with these unemployment rates,” he said. “There are clearly people like me who did get jobs and are doing fairly well at them, so shouldn’t this rate be going down?”
Under-tapped talent pool
A 2018 in the University of Washington Magazine said studies have found the biggest roadblock to employment among adults with autism who do not have intellectual disabilities is not a lack of ability but a lack of understanding social skills.
Few things derail a job interview quicker than an inability to make eye contact, too much information in answers or an increased anxiety from communicating with strangers in an unfamiliar setting – all traits common among those with autism.
Generally speaking, the traditional interview process is challenging for those on the spectrum.
Then there is the perception that employees with autism are difficult to manage, are prone to angry outbursts and take more sick days than their neurotypical co-workers.
Allison Leatzow, a consultant at the FSU Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD), said the exact opposite is true.
“A lot of them are so into wanting to follow the directions, their work is their social life, that they’re actually more inclined to want to be there and do their best,” she said.
Those adults on the spectrum who are employed are generally found in two areas: the service industry and high-tech companies.
Some possess an extraordinary attention to detail that makes them ideal employees in jobs that require repetitive tasks. For others, their ability to detect patterns and knowledge of computers serves them well at software companies.
SAP, a German software maker, and Microsoft were among the pioneers in the high-tech world in targeting adults on the spectrum. Both created a hiring process to better evaluate autistic talent. The standard interview process was scrapped and replaced with team-building settings, where applicants worked together to accomplish a task. This is a better way to demonstrate an applicant’s talents and thought process.
SAP began this process in 2013. Within five years, it had hired 128 adults on the spectrum to fill roles in graphic design, software testing, data analysis, IT program management, quality assurance, human resources and finance administration.
“We don’t pigeonhole our candidates on the spectrum. We aren’t going to say, ‘Well, you’re only going to be good at certain things,’ because everyone has different interests and unique talents,” Jose Velasco, who oversees the Autism at Works Program at SAP, told CIO.com.
Not a function issue
sits on a busy thoroughfare in Parkland, Florida. Purchased in 2013 by the D’Eri family, it is among the growing number of small business designed to employ a family member who is on the spectrum.
In this case, it is Andrew, 29. His father, John, looked for a business that he and his son, Tom, could run that would not only employ Andrew but other adults with autism. Tom said they wanted a business that was well-structed, detail-oriented and offered entry-level type work. After a year of research, they settled on a car wash.
“We wanted a business that could employ enough people to create a community and hopefully something that could really have an impact on the perception of adults with autism in the workforce,” Tom D’Eri said. “After preliminary research, it was pretty clear that a lot of people with autism have wonderful skills that are perfect for the workforce, but we, as a society, look at autism as a disability that requires sympathy instead of a really valuable diversity, and that perception issue is really why there is (a high) unemployment among adults with autism.”
Today, Rising Tide has two locations and employs 78 adults with autism, which makes up 80% of the workforce.
Tom D’Eri said the Parkland location averaged 3,000 vehicles a month in the year before his family bought the business. It now averages close to 17,000 a month.
The D’Eris also started Rising Tide U, a program to promote the benefits of hiring autistic workers and provide guidance to those who want to start similar businesses to help cut into that high unemployment rate.
“What is so amazing, sad, interesting – whatever word you want to use – is that this is almost completely a perception issue and not a function issue,” Tom D’Eri said.
was 3 when she was diagnosed with autism. Her parents were told she might never be able to hold a job or live on her own. A frightening forecast, for sure, but one her parents never believed.
Society placed obstacles in front of Moss, her parents helped her knock them down.
“When everyone else said no, they were the ones who said yes to at least give me the opportunity to try or keep pushing forward when other people didn’t have that faith,” Moss said.
Moss, 25, is an autism advocate with psychology and criminology degrees from the University of Florida, and a law degree from the University of Miami. She is believed to be the first openly autistic person to pass the Florida bar exam.
Moss has her own apartment. She wrote two books about growing up on the spectrum and has contributed to a number of publications and websites, including the Huffington Post and Teen vogue. She is an artist.
She has not, however, overcome autism.
“That’s something I feel very strongly about, because I haven’t and that’s not something that’s going to exist,” she said. “I’m very proud to be on the spectrum.
“I have overcome the obstacles that society has in my way, the bias, the discrimination. People who don’t believe in you or think that you’re not capable of things, all that I’ve really overcome.”
Moss founded her own company to advocate for neurodiversity in the workplace and consult with companies on the benefits of an inclusive workforce. Her message is adults on the spectrum have strengths and weaknesses just like neurotypical adults. And, like neurotypical adults, those on the spectrum want the same thing: to be treated with respect.
“It’s being treated as a whole person is what we keep fighting for,” Moss said.
While it is encouraging to see companies reach into the autistic population, Moss would like to see more opportunities than those in the retail and STEM fields.
“I like to explain it like a grocery store,” she said. “We all see young adults working as cashiers or the deli counter. You know they probably are people with disabilities, and it makes you feel good. You love it. But are those same companies hiring people like me to work in their general counsel’s office?”
Working through the diagnosis
Mark Fleming believes that if he walked into a gym and applied for a job as a trainer he would not be hired because he is on the spectrum. That is interesting because Fleming has a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a master’s in human performance from the University of Alabama.
So, Fleming, 31, opened his own gym, , in Tampa that serves clients on the spectrum.
He said some parents first view an autism diagnosis as a death knell for their child’s future. Fleming believes it should be the opposite.
“Once you get a diagnosis, you can understand more about yourself,” he said. “I may not be good at this, but it doesn’t limit me from owning a business or doing whatever I want to do. You might have some limitations, but it should never be, ‘My kid can never do this,’ or, ‘I won’t be able to do this because of this.’ It should be, ‘I’m able to do this because of this. I’m able to do other things, because I know myself more, I know that I might need help and that’s OK.’”
Joseph Show, Tom D’Eri, Haley Moss and Mark Fleming each used some variation of the word “frustrated” when asked about the 80% to 85% unemployment rate among adults on the spectrum.
Each feels that number can and will be lowered with education for the employees, the employers and even neurotypical co-workers.
Stereotypes must be erased.
In some instances, accommodations need to be made for an autistic employee. Yet, D’Eri said, that has a positive ripple effect.
“When we design systems that work for them, they work for everyone,” he said. “So not only do you get access to this wonderful talent pool, they help you build a better organization.”
How low can the unemployment rate go is, ultimately, up to employers.
“It’s good for everybody to have a neurodiverse workforce,” Moss said. “You have innovation. You have people that have different experiences working together. It’s about understanding, accommodating, and being accepted.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Step Up For Students is excited to announce the creation of the Step Up For Students Alumni Network, bringing former scholars who have graduated from high school together to advocate for the advancement of all Florida schoolchildren.
The network’s mission is to strengthen the relationship between schoolchildren in underserved communities and the educational-choice community. Alumni members will work toward educating and informing their community members at large, including lawmakers and donors, about school choice and its benefits. Step Up is a nonprofit organization in Florida that manages two scholarship programs for the state’s most underprivileged children,: The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students and the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs.
“Our scholars’ stories – past and present – are the best way to understand the impact school choice has on the children we serve,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “Their backgrounds and challenges are compelling and tug at your heartstrings. We can tell you these stories ourselves, but they are the best narrators for educational options.”
Natasha Infante, a 2014 Tampa Catholic High School graduate said she joined the network because the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students opened a world of possibilities for her.
“Step Up For Students allowed me to go to the high school I wanted to go to,” said Infante, who is now pre-veterinary major at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “I feel like it’s a pay-it-forward thing. If Step Up helped me, then I feel like I should help them. It’s been such a positive thing in my life, I feel like I need to share my experience so others can benefit from it in the future.”
Infante was one of the first alumni to sign on to the Alumni Network and has been involved since it was only an idea, advising Step Up staff how to proceed. She has already written letters to lawmakers in support of Step Up and school choice in general.
“I’m open to more advocating for school choice because it’s so important,” she said, noting a recent lawsuit that sought to shut down the tax credit scholarship program. “We almost lost Step Up once and we can’t ever let that happen because it helps so many students like me have a better future.“
The membership roster already has 160 registered members, but Step Up For Students is seeking many more alumni to make it successful.
“Obviously, the more graduates we have, the more ground we can cover in advocating for Florida’s youth,” Tuthill said. “And the members will certainly reap the benefits of being involved too. For one, they will have an impact on the educational landscape of Florida for future generations. That’s rewarding for sure, but they will also have personal benefits as well with networking opportunities and more.”
Membership benefits include access to online professional development courses, exclusive discounts to retail stores, vacation packages, movie tickets, and the opportunity to network with decision-makers, donors, potential employers and other alumni through various events and social media.
Membership to the Step Up alumni network is free.
To join the Step Up For Students Alumni Network or to learn more, click here.
Lisa A. Davis can be reached at ldavis@StepUpForStudents.org.