BY ROGER MOONEY
Holy Spirit Catholic School, a preK-8 school in Jacksonville with an enrollment of 219, and St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, with a student body of more than 2,000, are the only schools in Florida to earn the coveted National Blue Ribbon Schools distinction for 2022.
Both schools have students who receive education choice scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.
The National Blue Ribbon Schools Award was established in 1982 to recognize the best schools in the country. Private schools are recognized as “Exemplary High Performing” if students in every grade score in the top 15% in the country in the standardized Math and Reading tests.
The results were based on test scores from the 2021-22 school year, with 24 private and 273 public schools nationwide earning the distinction.
“As our country continues to recover from the pandemic, we know that our future will only be as strong as the education we provide to all of our children,” U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a press release. “Blue Ribbon Schools have gone above and beyond to keep students healthy and safe while meeting their academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs.”
Dr. John Luciano has been the Principal at Holy Spirit for 21 years. For nearly two decades he has checked to see if each grade level achieved the required score for a Blue Ribbon application to be submitted. The school came close a number of years, finally achieving the goal in 2020-21 school year.
“The standardized test scores alone was a huge accomplishment for us,” said Luciano, whose school last year had 35 students receive the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, 67 on the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options, and 6 on the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities. “And then for it to be based upon a pandemic year where we had remote learning going on for eight months, it’s pretty remarkable.”
The small enrollment also presented a challenge. Having one class for every grade, and some grades with fewer than 25 students, meant nearly every student in that grade had to score well on the standardized tests. Otherwise, the percentage would drop from only two or three low scores.
“For a small school to have standardized test scores that ranked among the highest in the nation, that was a huge surprise,” Luciano said. “It’s an indication that there’s solid instruction happening at every grade level. We’re just a small neighborhood school that has had a solid academic program in place for many years.”
Holy Spirit is the first school in the Diocese of St. Augustine to receive this award in the last 11 years.
St. Thomas Aquinas, which had 310 students on the FES-EO last year, is known for being among the best in the nation athletically, especially when it comes to football. That’s why being designated a National Blue Ribbon school is a big accomplishment for Aquinas Principal Denise Aloma.
“We’re well known for our athletics, but I think it’s additionally rewarding to know that there is a national recognition of our academic focus,” she said.
In addition to a student body that performed well on the tests, Aloma said the distinction also shines a light on who she called the “unsung heroes of education – the teachers.”
“You don’t have a great school without committed, dedicated professionals,” Aloma said. “So, it’s another platform for me to say kudos to our students who work hard, but these achievements would never be on the platform or the national level if I did not have the committed amazing educators that we have at this school.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at email@example.com.
BY ASHLEY ZARLE
The contribution will be used to provide educational opportunities to more than 100 students through K-12 scholarships and underscores Cadence’s commitment to supporting programs and initiatives that help its communities thrive. Since 2019, the bank has funded 160 scholarships through contributions, totaling $1.2 million.
“We’re pleased to support Step Up For Students’ efforts to provide educational options for students who have financial needs,” said Frank Hall, president – Northwest Florida division for BancorpSouth, a division of Cadence Bank. “These scholarships are providing our future leaders with access to resources and opportunities that will help them tap into their full potential.”
Step Up For Students helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides lower-income families with financial assistance toward private school tuition and fees, or with transportation costs to attend an out-of-district public school. Through partnering with Step Up For Students, companies can fund scholarships and receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits for their contributions.
“We are grateful for the continued support of Cadence Bank,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up For Students president. “Because of its generosity, we are able to continue to provide Florida’s students with the educational opportunities they deserve.”
In February 2019, the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, released results of a study on the effectiveness of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, the nation’s largest private K-12 scholarship program. The study found that students on scholarship for four or more years were up to 99% more likely to attend a four-year college than their peers in public school, and up to 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.
Since 2002, Step Up For Students has awarded more than one million Florida Tax Credit Scholarships. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
Ashley Zarle, senior manager, community relations donor events, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Step Up is ranked 13th, the highest ranking for among education charities.
“Step Up For Students is proudly celebrating its 20th anniversary of providing scholarships to underprivileged children, and the Forbes ranking underscores just how far we have come in those two decades,” said Anne Francis, Step Up’s vice president, development.
“We are grateful for the support of our donors, whose support is integral to receiving this honor. With over one million scholarships distributed by Step Up, deserving students are being positively impacted each day, thanks to our generous donors.”
During the past fiscal year, Step Up received $976 million in private donations. The bulk of those donations are contributed from corporations participating in the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) Scholarship Program.
Passed into law in 2001, the FTC Scholarship Program allows companies to receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits against certain tax liabilities. The funds provide K-12 scholarships to children, eligible through their household income.
Ashley Elliott says the FTC scholarship made all the difference. Raised by her grandmother in Lakeland, Fla., Ashley was struggling in high school. She used an FTC scholarship to attend Victory Christian Academy. She went from failing to graduating high school with honors, then earning her associate degree from Valencia College, and is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Central Florida.
“Your education determines your future,” she said. “When I received school choice, it changed my future. I want that opportunity for everyone, not just me.”
Florida’s largest nonprofit scholarship administrator is celebrating its 20th anniversary of providing families more options in their children’s education.
Step Up For Students, a 501c3 nonprofit based in Jacksonville and St. Petersburg, has awarded more than 1 million scholarships since it was founded in 2002. Today, Step Up administers five of the state’s K-12 scholarship programs: the donor-supported Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) and the taxpayer-funded Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options (FES-EO), for low- and middle-income students; the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA, formerly Gardiner); the Reading Scholarship for public school students in grades 3-5 with low reading test scores; and the Hope Scholarship for bullied students.
Step Up currently serves more than 170,000 students, most of them lower-income or with special needs. The scholarships empower their families to access the learning options that work best for their children so they can maximize their potential.
“As I reflect upon the last 20 years, I want to thank all the legislators, educators and donors who made this program and this movement possible,” said John Kirtley, chairman and founder of Step Up for Students. “As important, I want to thank the families who were empowered by the scholarships to give their students the chance to find an educational environment that best suited their individual needs.”
Florida has witnessed a sea change in education over the last 20 years. Once languishing at the bottom, Florida has skyrocketed to No. 3 in the nation in K-12 achievement, according to Education Week. With a focus on matching the child to the right education environment, Florida created a variety of educational options, including Step Up’s scholarships, to meet the needs of students. Today, almost half of the state’s 3.6 million students attend schools other than their assigned neighborhood school.
Scholarship students, and the private schools serving them, have played a role in the state’s educational success.
An Urban Institute analysis of the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship found recipients were shown to be up to 99% more likely to attend four-year colleges, and 45% more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees, than like students in public schools.
“Parents are increasingly insisting on a public education system that is able to provide each child with an effective and efficient customized education,” Step Up President Doug Tuthill said. “Helping parents achieve this vision for the last 20 years has been an honor and a privilege. The next 20 years are really going to be amazing.”
Denisha Merriweather is a testament to the power of education choice.
The daughter of a teenaged mom and high school dropout, raised in poverty, Denisha thought she was destined for a similar path. Receiving a scholarship from Step Up For Students changed her life.
Denisha had been a troubled student who was held back twice at her assigned public schools. But when she went to live with her godmother in sixth grade, her guardian applied for and received a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. That allowed Denisha to afford tuition at the private school of her choice, Esprit de Corps Center of Learning in Jacksonville, where she blossomed.
Denisha went on to graduate with honors, earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of West Florida and a master’s degree in social work from the University of South Florida. From there she served as School Choice and Youth Liaison to the Secretary of Education at the U.S. Department of Education. In 2020 she founded Black Minds Matter, an organization devoted to promoting the development of high-quality school options for Black students. Recently she became the first scholarship student alumnus to serve as a member of Step Up’s Board of Directors.
“I’m just so grateful,” Denisha said. “This never would have been possible without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.”
For more information about the scholarship programs, or for help arranging an interview with a scholarship family, contact Scott Kent, assistant director of strategic communications, at 727-451-9832 or email@example.com, or visit www.StepUpForStudents.org.
BY ROGER MOONEY
Where to begin with CJ Henderson?
That he continued his coursework during his rookie season and graduated last May from Florida with his class?
That in May he donated $250,000 to the new training facility at Columbus?
Each of those are noteworthy on their own. Added together, they help tell the story of a student/athlete who lives by the motto used by those associated with Columbus: Adelante! It is Spanish for “forward” or “onward.”
CJ moves forward with his goals. That’s why he received a scholarship to play cornerback at a major university and why he was a top-10 pick by an NFL team. He made that goal when he was young.
“CJ had the ambition to go to the NFL since kindergarten, first grade,” his dad, Chris, said. “He used to write that in his journal.”
It’s also why CJ, who was traded Sept. 27 to the Carolina Panthers, has a degree in education science and why he chose to give back to his alma mater.
It’s called C-Pride, said Xzavier Henderson, CJ’s younger brother who is a sophomore wide receiver at Florida.
“We hold ourselves to a standard,” Xzavier said. “C-Pride is having pride in the alumni base, athletics, academics, having pride in everything you do in high school.”
Columbus High, CJ said during a video announcing his donation to the school, taught him the discipline needed to succeed at a university like Florida. That’s the reason Chris wanted his son to attend a private high school and why CJ chose Columbus, a Catholic school. The campus has a college-like vibe, the athletic program is among the best in the state and the academics are demanding.
“They have rules to keep you in line, and those same rules you have to apply to yourself in college,” Chris said.
Chris had the same NFL dreams as CJ. After a standout football career at his neighborhood high school in Miami, Chris attended the University of Cincinnati on a football scholarship. Looking back, Chris said he wasn’t prepared for the academic side of being a college football player. He left Cincinnati, attended two more colleges, and never graduated.
Chris and his wife, Prudence, wanted their sons to have the best chance at succeeding in college. They began researching the private high schools in the Miami area when CJ was in the eighth grade. That’s when they learned about the private school scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.
“That really helped,” Chris said, “because without that, it’s hard to say if we would have made it through all those years.”
Xzavier received the same scholarship and followed CJ to Columbus.
“They represent Step Up and what it’s all about,” Columbus Principal David Pugh said. “I think they got the most out of what Step Up is meant to do, provide students like CJ and Xzavier with another option, and they made the most of it.”
The jump from high school classwork to college is demanding, but the four years at Columbus left CJ and Xzavier better prepared for what awaited them at Florida.
“That was the preparation I was looking for,” Chris said. “To thrive in college, you really need to be disciplined (in class) to give you a push. Going to play football sounds fun and easy, but going to Florida, that’s tough. CJ took advantage of his resources and made it happen.”
And he graduated with his class despite spending what would have been his senior year in the NFL. CJ managed to mix in virtual classes to finish his degree while navigating life as an NFL rookie.
“That was an accomplishment I wanted to achieve,” Henderson told floridagators.com. “I just wanted to get it out of the way rather than wait until later and come back and do it.”
Tony Meacham, assistant director for academic services at Florida’s University Athletic Association, told floridagators.com that he could not remember a football player who continued to work toward his degree during his first year in the NFL. Most wait until at least the end of their rookie season before resuming their education.
“To his credit, he was willing to put in the work besides the work he was putting in on the field,” Meachum said. “You think someone in his position would be glued to football, but he was doing both. It was very impressive for someone to do that in his position.”
Said Pugh, “I wouldn’t expect anything less. It just shows you the level of commitment that a guy like CJ makes. He made that commitment to Christopher Columbus High School, and he made that commitment to the University of Florida.”
The Hendersons wanted all their children to graduate from college. CJ’s sister, Daija, graduated last spring from Florida A&M and is pursuing a master’s degree while working as a dental assistant. Xzavier was named to the Southeastern Conference First-Year Honor Role as a freshman.
“We take our academics seriously,” Xzavier said. “We want to be champions in everything we do.”
Like CJ, Xzavier occasionally returns to Columbus to work out and spend time with students. He can now work out in the facility that bears his family’s name – the Henderson Family Athletic Training Center. The 2,000 square foot building provides the school’s athletes with better evaluation, treatment and rehabilitation of injuries.
“CJ and Xzavier are role models,” Pugh said. “Other students would want to emulate what they do, because they do it the right way.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ROGER MOONEY
The Buddy Bench found on the playground at Christ the King Catholic School in Jacksonville is a yellow beacon that helps new students find playmates, make friends, and ease the transition to their new school.
The Lunch Bunch provides the same opportunities, but in a private setting.
These are two examples offered by Amanda McCook, the school’s assistant principal/guidance counselor, when asked for tips on transitioning a child to a new school or learning environment.
Another school year is underway, which means there is no shortage of students who are walking the halls of unfamiliar buildings populated by many unfamiliar faces.
They can be children in kindergarten or pre-teens entering high school. Or they can be students who made the switch from a neighborhood school to a private one. A number of these students receive scholarships managed by Step Up For Students to attend private K-12 schools in Florida.
The transitioning can be daunting.
Part of McCook’s duties at the private pre-K through eighth school is to ease that transition. Having two daughters who made the move from their neighborhood school to a private one, McCook has seen this process from both sides.
The advice she gave her daughters was to join clubs and activity groups and sit with different groups of students during lunch. It’s the same advice she gives to parents of students new to Christ the King.
“The more involved you are, the more people you meet,” she said.
McCook has a list of tips that she developed during her 19 years as an educator, both in public and private schools. Some, like the Buddy Bench and the Lunch Bunch (more on those later), are unique to Christ the King.
If your child is having an uneasy time during the first few weeks at a new school, McCook said you can:
For those parents with children in Catholic schools, McCook suggested they attend the midweek Mass for the students.
“We always encourage our parents to come to Mass to get a feel for our school and our pastor,” McCook said.
Even when parents follow these tips, their child might still feel uneasy during the first weeks at a new school. Fortunately for those at Christ the King, McCook has a few more tricks.
During the first few days of school, McCook visits each classroom and tells the story of the Buddy Bench.
The yellow bench sits in the middle of the playground. It is a signal that someone can use a friend.
“If you’re playing and you’re all by yourself and are lonely, you can go sit on the bench.,” McCook said. “And everyone knows if you ever see someone sitting on the Buddy Bench, you have to go up to them and say, ‘Hey, do you want to play?’ And you have to say, ‘Yes.’
“We teach our kids that way and they do it successfully. That really helps everybody feel included and not go home and say, ‘Nobody played with me,’ because that hurts a parent’s heart. We praise kids who come over and ask kids to join them, so they want to be the one who asks.”
Finally, there is the Lunch Bunch.
“If I see there’s someone new that’s struggling to make friends, I call in three friends from their class and they eat lunch with me in my office,” McCook said.
McCook breaks the ice with conversation-starters.
“Who’s been to Disney World?”
“Who likes Harry Potter?”
“Who likes Marvel comics?”
“I find that really helps, especially with my more-shy students, make connections they couldn’t make on their own,” McCook said.
McCook said it shouldn’t take more than a month for the unfamiliar to become familiar for new students. Stephanie Engelhardt, Christ the King’s principal, contacts the parents of all the new students within the first three weeks of the school year.
“Just to make sure they’re feeling comfortable,” McCook said. “Do they know the process? How is their student liking school? We always check up within the first month.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at email@example.com.
By ROGER MOONEY
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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
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.