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Tips on picking the right school for your child

By ROGER MOONEY

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

Andrew Campanella, National School Choice Week president.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking for a school for your child with special needs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville.

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

Rains offers some advice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More students eligible for private school and more

STAFF REPORT

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

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

Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the landmark education choice bill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tripping the light fantastic while building confidence in the ballroom

Gardiner students learn to tango and much more

By ROGER MOONEY

SARASOTA, Florida – Sarah Parkerson has her left hand on Jordan Soriano’s shoulder. Jordan’s right hand rests on the small of his partner’s back. Their other hands are entwined as they move across the dance floor.

Sometimes it’s a waltz. One, two, three. One, two, three.

Other times, a tango. Slow, Slow. Quick, quick, slow.  

Or the foxtrot. Slow, slow, quick, quick. Slow, slow, quick, quick.

But for Sarah, it doesn’t matter which dance they are doing, or if 100 people are looking on. She is in her own world. She is moved by the music and follows Jordan’s lead.

“I really feel like I don’t see the people (watching),” she said. “It’s just me, my partner, the music. It’s just really amazing.”

Sarah, 15, and Jordan, 20, are both on the autism spectrum. Both receive the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs, managed by Step Up For Students.

Sarah, who lives in Sarasota, and Jordan, who lives in nearby Ellenton, train at Dynasty Dance Club in Sarasota under Sarah Lototskyy.

Jordan Soriano and Sarah Parkerson are two of the Gardiner students participating in Dynasty Dance Club’s Dynasty Stars program.

Sarah and Jordan met there two years ago when she joined the studio’s Dynasty Stars program after moving from Alabama with her mom. Though she danced at a ballet studio in Alabama, Sarah arrived at the new dance club as a shy teenager with little confidence. Her mother, Cathy Parkerson, said Sarah kept to herself, standing with her hands clasped and her head down while avoiding eye contact.

Now Sarah is poised and smiles as she looks into her dance partner’s eyes. The progress has surprised even Sarah.

“Before I was very unconfident. I didn’t really move much at all,” she said. “Once I started dancing, I felt better. I felt happier. I had more confidence.”

When asked what she likes most about ballroom dancing, Sarah thought for a few moments, then answered, “Basically everything.”

The Stars are born

Dynasty Stars was born in January 2016 when Lototskyy noticed the brother of one of her students bopping to the music while he watched his sister dance. The boy’s name is Michael, and he has Down syndrome. Lototskyy asked Michael if he wanted to dance. He said yes, and they danced for 10 minutes.

Lototskyy decided to start a program for those with special needs. The first class consisted of a man with autism, a young girl with epilepsy and Michael.

Soon after, Colleen Buccieri, who runs the nonprofit Face Autism and is Jordan Soriano’s godmother and caregiver, learned of the new program. Buccieri told Lototskyy she would bring some children who are on the spectrum to the next class.

By the end of the first month, Dynasty Stars had 20 students. It has grown steadily ever since. Through her Dynasty Dance Club Studios in Sarasota, Venice and Lakewood Ranch (she will soon open a studio in St. Petersburg) and the schools where she teaches, Lototskyy estimates she teaches 150 special needs dancers, ranging in age from 3 to 54.

Nine students attend the Dynasty Stars class that meets in Sarasota on Tuesdays and Fridays. Five of those dancers, including Sarah and Jordan, receive the Gardiner Scholarship. The scholarship does cover the dance lessons. For Sarah and Jordan, the dance instructions are covered through Gardiner to help them with music education, socialization and memory skills.

“What’s been so great about Gardiner is students have been able to explore this side of themselves,” Lototskyy said. “With all of the therapies, it’s nice for them to have a mentally and physically stimulating activity to do.”

Why can’t they?

Jordan was 9 when Buccieri started Face Autism to provide sensory friendly activities, support groups and more for children on the spectrum and their families. As Jordan’s godmother, Buccieri watched him grow up without going to the movies or the mall or to children’s birthday parties. She formed the nonprofit and with the help of volunteers, organized autism-appropriate activities and classes, asking questions that always began with the same three words: “Why can’t they …?

Why can’t they go fishing?

Why can’t they go golfing?

Why can’t they go horseback riding?

As soon as she learned of Lototskyy’s new dance class, Buccieri asked, “Why can’t they go ballroom dancing?”

Lototskyy has been teaching dance for 12 years. She said anyone can learn. Jordan, who was in the first group that Buccieri brought to the new class, is proving his teacher right.

“He was all left feet,” Buccieri said. “Unfocused. He was a mess. And now he’s really, really good and he loves it. He feels it’s something that he himself has accomplished.”

Jordan is progressing though the levels of ballroom dancing. He has shelves in his home filled with more than 25 trophies earned at dance competitions.

“I love to dance, because it’s fun and it’s challenging, and I get to see my friends,” he said.

The many trophies Jordan has won for ballroom dancing.

Like Sarah Parkerson, Jordan was shy and avoided eye contact when he first walked through the doors of the dance studio. But that changed. It had to. Ballroom dancing requires the male to escort his partner to the dance floor, to look into her eyes and lead her through the steps.

“The main thing is the confidence to get out there on a big ballroom floor, and they can really overcome their sensitivities, because you have the bright lights, the loud music. You have the crowd. They’re out on that big ballroom floor, looking into the eyes of a hundred or more spectators just staring at them,” Buccieri said. “It’s sometimes a little overwhelming, but they seem to get into that music and that all goes away.”

At the beginning, Buccieri thought dancing would be like any other activity sponsored by Face Autism. She hoped the kids could dance for an hour a week, get some exercise, maybe make a friend or two and go home. Never did she dream Jordan and the others in the program would develop into competitive ballroom dancers with their own routines and trophies earned around the Southeast.  

“I never thought Sarah would take it to the level she has,” Buccieri said. “Now she’s well-known in the dance world for her special needs program. There’s nothing like it around.”

Take a bow

Lototskyy, who owns her dance studios with her husband, Maks, has been dancing for 27 years. She thought of becoming a special education teacher while in high school before her dancing career took off. She said teaching the Dynasty Stars students is her favorite class of the week.

Recently, Lototskyy sat with a visitor to a Dynasty Stars class.

“Do you know how to do any of these things?” she asked, motioning to the students who were dancing a salsa.

One, two, three. (Pause.) Five, six, seven. (Pause.)

The answer was no.

“So,” she said, “you can imagine how difficult it is to just (learn one move) with everything else they are facing. So, the fact that they can go out there and perform at a high level and pick music, that gives them confidence.”

Sarah and Jordan practice with dance coach Sarah Lototskyy at the Dynasty Dance Club in Sarasota.

Confidence is the word used most often when talking about the benefits of ballroom dancing to someone on the spectrum.

Cathy Parkerson, Sarah’s mom, said her daughter receives that and more.

“So much more,” she said. “The interaction is amazing because there are so many skills they are doing. Socially, they have to listen with other people, interact, work with a partner. They have to think, ‘What does my partner need from me? What do I have to do?’ Thinking of someone else is a really good skill, especially for someone with autism. They are kind of sometimes in their own world.”

Being in their own world is what ballroom dancing provides. Each dance has its own personality, Lototskyy said. The tango is passionate, dramatic, aggressive. The foxtrot is sassy and playful.

“The waltz is more elegant and more dreamy, more like Prince Charming and Cinderella,” she said. “They get to feel that way even if when they leave here, they have seizures and take so many medications that they don’t feel like Cinderella or Prince Charming. But they do when they’re here.”

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

Florida Legislature is normalizing, expanding access to education choice

By DOUG TUTHILL

The Florida House and Senate have sent Gov. Ron DeSantis legislation that will continue normalizing and expanding access to choice in public education.

Doug Tuthill

Florida began expanding access to education choice in the late 1970s/early ’80s through the creation of district magnet schools. Next came charter schools and the Florida Virtual School in the 1990s, the McKay vouchers in 1999, tax credit scholarships in 2001, Gardiner education savings accounts (ESAs) in 2014, Hope scholarships in 2018, and the Family Empowerment Scholarship in 2019.

Today, about half of Florida’s PreK-12 students attend schools other than their assigned neighborhood school. This new legislation, House Bill 7045, will make even more students eligible for education choice.

HB 7045 also continues the movement to make all government-regulated education choice programs a normal and permanent part of Florida’s public education system. This normalization effort began in earnest with the 2019 passage of the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES), which created a scholarship program for lower-income students within the state’s public education funding system.  

HB 7045’s integration of the Gardiner Scholarship for students with unique abilities/special needs into the FES furthers this normalization. The Gardiner scholarship was created as a standalone program that the Legislature funded by an annual line-item appropriation. Every year the program had a waiting list, and every year parents had to ask the Legislature to appropriate more money to serve more students.

Now that the Legislature is merging the Gardiner program into the FES and the state’s public education funding system, the program’s enrollment and scholarship amount will grow automatically.

The McKay program, which is a second scholarship for children with unique abilities/special needs, will be merged with the Gardiner Scholarship and also integrated into the FES in the 2022-23 school year. This merger will make it easier for families with unique abilities/special needs children to access the funding and services that best meet each child’s needs, while knowing that their scholarship amounts will automatically go up as the state’s overall funding for public education increases.

Like Gardiner, the McKay program will become an education savings account in the 2022-23 school year. This will give the McKay families the same flexibility the Gardiner families have to better customize education services and products to the unique needs of their children.

The Senate wanted to turn all the lower-income scholarships into ESAs, but the House thought it was too soon. Nonetheless, over the next several years, ESAs, which are an essential tool in our effort to provide every student with an equal opportunity to succeed, will also become a normal and permanent part of public education. 

All aspects of how public education is organized and delivered are controlled by its funding procedures. Education choice will not be sustainable if it does not become an integrated part of the state’s public education funding mechanism, which is why HB 7045 is so important.

This bill accelerates the effort begun with the 2019 creation of the FES to fully integrate all government-regulated choice programs into the state’s education funding system, thereby ensuring their long-term viability and normalization.

How an education savings account turned a child’s room into a ‘destination’

Editor’s Note: This post originally ran April 1, 2021 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students. This is the fourth in a series of stories exploring the Gardiner Scholarship Program.

By ROGER MOONEY

Roman Scott’s bedroom has two walls painted orange and two painted blue. On the floor is a rug with the design of a two-lane road wending its way through a small town.

A train set sits on the rug, because Roman, 4, loves trains. And there is a stack of trays that hold his toys and musical instruments, because Roman loves to, as his mom says, “rock out” on his tambourine, cymbals and triangle.

Urrikka Woods-Scott refers to this as a “sensory room” for her son, who is on the autism spectrum.

“The goal was to get him to engage in his room, love his room by having all the support in that room,” she said.

Roman sits at the desk in his bedroom/sensory room.

Roman receives the Gardiner Scholarship for children with special needs. (The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.) Many of the items in Roman’s room, including the educational toys from Melissa & Doug and the stack of books from the Frog and Toad series, were purchased with funds from the Gardiner’s education savings account. These flexible spending accounts allow parents to use their children’s education dollars for a variety of educational purposes.

The scholarship also pays for Roman’s therapy at Bloom Behavioral Solutions, which is near their home in Jacksonville, Florida.

Woods-Scott got the idea to turn Roman’s bedroom into a sensory room from Bloom. She learned what Roman gravitates to in Bloom’s sensory room and did her best to replicate those items at home.

“We’re trying to transition (him) from sleeping in my bed to sleeping in his own bedroom,” Woods-Scott said. “I want him to have what he needs to be comfortable in his own room. My thought was to make his room a destination.”

Woods-Scott’s husband, Romain, suggested the colors for the walls. Orange and blue are two of Roman’s favorites. Blue is considered soothing and is a popular choice for sensory rooms. Woods-Scott added brown curtains to give the room more life.

The results, she said, are beyond encouraging.

Woods-Scott said Roman has made great strides since joining the Gardiner program in 2020. Much of that comes from his time at Bloom, which he attends for 30 hours a week. The rest comes from the tools available at home that Woods-Scott purchased through MyScholarShop, Step Up For Student’s online catalog of pre-approved educational products.

Families also can purchase items or services that are not on the pre-approved list. They must submit a pre-authorization request that includes supporting documentation and an explanation of how the purchase will meet the individual educational needs of the student. 

A review is then conducted by an internal committee, which includes a special needs educator, to determine if the item or service is allowable under the program’s expenditure categories and spending caps, and a notification is sent to the parent. The item or service may then be submitted on a reimbursement request that must match the corresponding pre-authorization.

Step Up For Students employs numerous measures to protect against fraud and theft, such as ensuring a service provider’s reimbursement request and a parental approval came from different IP addresses.

Woods-Scott purchased an iPad on MyScholarShop, which Roman uses for speech, math and preschool prep. She buys arts and craft supplies because they help Roman improve his fine motor skills.

Roman was diagnosed in October 2019. The family was living in Charlotte, North Carolina at the time. That November, Woods-Scott changed jobs and the family moved to Jacksonville, where, unbeknownst to her, Roman was eligible for the Gardiner Scholarship, the largest education savings account program in the nation.

The walls of Roman’s bedroom are painted blue and orange to help create a sensory room.

At the time, Roman was a “scripter,” which meant his speech was limited to repeating what he heard on a television show or a movie.

“It wasn’t a functional type of speech and he wasn’t expressing what he needed,” Woods-Scott said. “He wasn’t saying, ‘Mom, I want a banana,’ or something like that. He was only saying what he heard on a show. Now he says ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy.’ He tells you what he wants.”

Roman can count to 100 and recite the alphabet. He can read his Frog and Toad books out loud.

Next year, Woods-Scott would like to use her Gardiner funds to send Roman to the Jericho School of Autism in Jacksonville.

After having what she called “my little moment of crying” when Roman was diagnosed with autism, Woods-Scott went to work seeking therapy for her son and advocating for those on the spectrum. She started Mocha Mama on FIRE, a YouTube vlog that promotes autism awareness in the Black community.

And, she has started the nonprofit Shades of Autism Parent Network to focus on multicultural parents of children on the spectrum and create recreational experiences through travel.

Woods-Scott knows how fortuitous it was to land the job in Florida, and what that meant for Roman.

“It was definitely all for a purpose,” she said.

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

Education savings accounts offer creative solutions for students with learning differences

Editor’s Note: This post originally ran March 25, 2021 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students. This is the third in a series of stories exploring the Gardiner Scholarship Program.

By Lisa Buie

Chrissy Weisenberger is one busy mom.

With five children, including 3-year-old twin boys and two daughters who are both on the autism spectrum, homeschooling the whole brood made the most sense for the family. It allows her to design each child’s learning plan to best fit his or her educational needs.

“It’s very Frankensteined,” joked Weisenberger, who lives in Palm Bay, Florida, a city southeast of Orlando known for its sports and nature parks.

By that, she means like many homeschool parents, she has strategically used a little of this and a little of that, a grassroots method of creating the perfect learning environment for her family.

Her two daughters, Keira, 8, and Tessa, 6, are on the autism spectrum and participate in the Gardiner Scholarship Program for students with unique abilities. The scholarships allow parents to customize their child’s education by using flexible spending accounts called education savings accounts.

While traditional vouchers pay for private school tuition, the savings accounts are more flexible. The Florida Department of Education transfers a portion of a child’s funds from the state education formula to a state-approved nonprofit organization, such as Step Up For Students, which puts these funds into an account for each child. Parents then apply to this nonprofit for permission to use their child’s ESA funds to buy state-authorized educational services and products.

Chrissy Weisenberger of Palm Bay, Florida made creative use of her education savings account, converting a swimming pool into a ball pit for her two sensory-challenged daughters. Sometimes, the whole family joins in.

The girls need help to stay focused on learning, so in addition to purchasing educational materials such as books and workbooks, Weisenberger has used her daughters’ education savings accounts to buy specialized equipment such as swings, which calm kids with autism, and a mini trampoline that helps with balance and gross motor skills.

She bought two chewable necklaces for Keira, who otherwise would chew on her hair during class. She bought the girls laptops to access virtual lessons in math and reading, which she says were a godsend during the pandemic when co-op meetings with other homeschool families were canceled. And she bought them a kit that taught them how to build a volcano.

Most Gardiner families typically make purchases through MyScholarShop, Step Up For Students’ online catalog of pre-approved educational products. The platform includes curriculum materials, digital devices, and education software. Families may be able to purchase items or services not on the pre-approved list by submitting a pre-authorization request that includes supporting documentation and an explanation of how the purchase will meet the individual educational needs of the student. 

An internal committee, which includes a special needs educator, conducts a review to determine if the item or service is allowable under the program’s expenditure categories and spending caps, and a notification is sent to the parent. The item or service may then be submitted on a reimbursement request that must match the corresponding pre-authorization.  

Step Up For Students employs numerous measures to protect against fraud and theft. For example, if a service provider’s reimbursement request is submitted from an IP address and the platform sees that the parental approval came from the same IP address, the anti-fraud staff is alerted to investigate.

Weisenberger followed this process to purchase one item not on the pre-approved list: a $25 inflatable kiddie pool.

While a swimming pool would not qualify as a reimbursable expense under the program’s rules, Weisenberger’s proposed use made it eligible. Inspired by a Pinterest post, she converted the rectangular pool, which she ordered from Amazon, into a ball pit that she filled with almost 3,000 plastic balls. Her girls use the reconfigured pool to help them with balance.

But Weisenberger’s creativity extends further. She’s devised a way to use the pool to help her kids with math.

Using three buckets, she teaches place value by having them put the appropriate number of balls in each. For example, the number 436 would be represented by putting four balls in the hundreds place bucket, three balls in the tens place and six balls in the one place buckets.

The inventive mom has found yet another way to utilize the purchase. She pours the balls over Keira as a way to soothe her sensory-challenged daughter.

Weisenberger, who learned about Gardiner from a speech therapist two years ago, said she is very pleased with the program. While she suspects two of her other children may qualify for a scholarship, the funding she presently receives satisfies the family’s learning needs.

“I don’t want to take it away from somebody else who needs it,” she said.

Lisa Buie is online reporter for redefinED.

How an education savings account is helping a Gardiner scholar see the world – virtually

Editor’s Note: This post originally ran March 18, 2021 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students. This is the second in a series of stories exploring the Gardiner Scholarship Program.

By ROGER MOONEY

Danielle Drummond was skeptical when she first saw the virtual reality headsets and consoles, and even the large-screen TVs, that are available to families who receive Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs.

“At first, I even wondered, ‘What on earth is the educational value of this?’” said Drummond, who lives in Fort Lauderdale.

It was 2018 and Drummond’s son Tristan, who is on the autism spectrum and is homeschooled, had recently undergone back surgery to correct a tethered spinal cord, which he had since birth. Drummond hoped Tristan, 6 at the time, could relearn to walk with the help of virtual reality.

Virtual reality has been used since the mid-1990s to help people on the spectrum learn to communicate and connect with others. Adults can use the technology to prepare for job interviews. Children use it to improve cognitive and gross motor skills.

Tristan has increased his attention span, improved his hand-eye coordination and developed his core strength through virtual reality.

Drummond believed the VR equipment could do the same for her son. She purchased the equipment with funds from Gardiner’s education savings account (ESA) through MyScholarShop, Step Up For Students’ online catalog of pre-approved educational products. It includes curriculum materials, digital devices, and education software.

Families can also purchase items or services that are not on the pre-approved list. They must submit a pre-authorization request that includes supporting documentation and an explanation of how the purchase will meet the individual educational needs of the student.

A review is then conducted by an internal committee, which includes a special needs educator, to determine if the item or service is allowable under the program’s expenditure categories and spending caps, and a notification is sent to the parent. The item or service may then be submitted on a reimbursement request, and it must match the corresponding pre-authorization.

Step Up For Students employs numerous measures to protect against fraud and theft. For example, if a service provider’s reimbursement request is submitted from an IP address and the platform sees that the parental approval came from the same IP address, the anti-fraud staff is alerted to investigate.

Thanks to the VR equipment made possible by the ESA, Tristan, now 8, did relearn to walk. But that was just the beginning.

“Then we discovered it had a lot more value,” Drummond said.

VR is also helpful during Tristan’s occupational and physical therapy sessions.

Since he began using virtual reality, Tristan has increased his attention span, improved his hand-eye coordination, and developed his core strength. He has learned how to interact socially, how to count and how to exercise.

Tristan cannot go on field trips like other students. He can’t even sit in a movie theater.

However, through virtual reality, Tristan has visited Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. He landed on the moon with Apollo 11, and went scuba diving through the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, where he swam with sharks.

“It’s enriched his life in ways that we would have been otherwise unable to do,” Drummond said.

Tristan also uses VR for his occupational and physical therapy. Drummond said it used to be a chore to get Tristan to participate in therapy.

“We would lose 75% to 80% of therapy lessons trying to get him into a groove to enjoy what he is doing,” she said. “It’s a struggle every parent with a child like Tristan knows.”

But with virtual reality now part of the sessions, Drummond said it only takes Tristan a few minutes to get into the therapy groove.

“So, we’re now getting full therapy sessions and because of that, he’s talking more, he’s interacting with us more. He’s actually becoming more social,” she said. “It’s gotten him into being healthier, because he has the ability to do physical therapy, which is absolutely his favorite thing to do.”

The technology also helps Tristan overcome his fear of visiting a place for the first time, like a medical facility. He can tour the facility virtually ahead of time.

“But now with the virtual reality, I can set him up on that, have the exact place we are going on it, and allow him to look around in a safe environment,” Drummond said. “That way when he finally goes, I don’t have to make plans for our arrival like an army general. I don’t have to have 500 contingency plans because he’s expecting it. He knows what it’s going to sound like. What it’s going to look like. He’s going to know where things are. All these things help him get acclimated and actually get more out of going to these places.”

Drummond never thought that Job Simulator on Oculus Quest, or the Ring Fit Adventure game for Nintendo Switch, or Beat Saber would improve Tristan’s life in so many ways, but they have.

“They’re a lot of fun, but it’s also a way to sneak education into him,” Drummond said. “I don’t know if I can really say it enough about it. It just helps him to do pretty much everything. He has a blast with it.”

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

Horse therapy opens new world for blind teen

Editor’s Note:  This post originally ran March 11, 2021 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students. This is the first in a series of stories exploring the Gardiner Scholarship Program.

By LISA BUIE

Yvonne Clanton realizes some might question why a state scholarship would pay for kids to ride horses.

She wondered herself, until her daughter Sarah began attending weekly sessions at Emerald M Therapeutic Riding Center in Brooksville. The farm is nearly an hour from the Clantons’ home in Zephyrhills, but the experience, Clanton says, has been “life changing.”

Horse therapy student
Sarah Clanton, blind since birth, gives commands to her horse, Cappy, at the Emerald M. Therapeutic Riding Center as owner and therapist Lisa Michelangelo, left, lends a hand.

Born blind and severely developmentally delayed, Sarah, now 14, spent her early years warehoused in an orphanage in Ukraine. Strapped to a bed for nearly 24 hours a day, she was never held or cuddled. When Clanton and her husband, Jon, adopted Sarah at age 5, Sarah was wearing infant-sized clothing. She could not walk or talk.

The Clantons tried unsuccessfully to educate Sarah through their school district’s homebound program. Next, they tried sending her to a small private school, but when one of her brothers, who is visually impaired and has cerebral palsy, got sick and had to be hospitalized, the family opted to homeschool both children.

Now, Sarah and her brother Sam both participate in the Gardiner Scholarship Program for students with unique abilities administered by Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog. The Clantons use the education savings accounts attached to their Gardiner Scholarships to cover the cost for both children to attend Emerald M, among other purchases, which they would not be able to afford otherwise.

“It was our last hope,” Clanton said, explaining that if this therapy, designed to make Sarah stronger, failed, the only alternative would have been purchasing a lift system on a track to support Sarah throughout the house. A bathroom renovation looked inevitable, another pricy item for a family of six whose sole breadwinner, Sarah’s father, is pastor of a small church and a prison chaplain.

The Clantons applied and were approved through Step Up For Students’ detailed process to use their Gardiner funds at Emerald M, which has been an authorized Gardiner service provider since 2016.

After each therapy session, Emerald M is required to submit a request for payment via Step Up’s direct-pay process. The secure platform routes the request to the parent for approval once staff determines the purchase meets state eligibility guidelines.

Step Up also has an online catalog of pre-approved educational products, such as curriculum materials, digital devices, and education software, that families may select. Families may also purchase items and services out of their own pockets and submit receipts and supporting documentation to Step Up for review for reimbursement.

That process includes an internal review committee with a special needs educator; regular input from a statewide Gardiner parent advisory council; and a long list of limits and prohibitions on certain expenditures and categories of expenditures. Reviewers examine each application to determine not only its eligibility but also its appropriateness for that child’s learning plan.

Step Up uses technology to look for evidence of attempted fraud or theft. For example, if a service provider’s reimbursement request is submitted from an IP address and the platform sees that the parental approval came from the same IP address, the anti-fraud staff is alerted to investigate.

Clanton says the therapies have been a godsend for Sarah over the past three years. Sarah, who was non-verbal when she arrived at the riding center and shied away from human touch, had to be carried to the riding ring by her brother.

Watch Sarah’s story.

Then she met Cappy, a dark bay horse with a gentle trot. Sarah learned how to circle the ring atop Cappy as a therapist gave her commands to give to the horse. As Sarah began experiencing the horse’s movements, which mimic the human gait, her balance and coordination improved. She learned how to orient herself in space.

Emerald M owner Lisa Michelangelo, a physical therapist, has observed Sarah making “incredible gains” this past year.

“She is able to walk best now with just one arm linked around someone else, and she is walking straighter and not showing the drastic signs of hip drop that she was before” Michelangelo said. “Her core, pelvis and hips continue to get stronger each week.”

Clanton has purchased a few other items with funds from her education savings account, such as a therapeutic swing and a lighted wall that makes water noises. Research shows both devices help calm children with special needs like Sarah’s and Sam’s.

Today, Sarah accompanies Clanton on outings to restaurants and to church. Slowly, Sarah is learning to be more social. And she’s learning to talk.

One of her most frequently uttered words is “horse.”

Lisa Buie is an online reporter for redefinED.

Does your child struggle at school? Step Up For Students can help

By ROGER MOONEY

Reading was a struggle for Maloni Lewis as a third grader. So was writing and math.

Her whole life was a struggle. Both parents were disabled. Her three older brothers had been to jail. They told their mom that going to school and being smart were not cool among the group they associated with.

Maloni’s mom was determined to end that cycle with her daughter.

Maloni Lewis turned her academic path around after receiving a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up.

Renée Lewis found Seven Rivers Christian School in Lecanto, Florida, near their home. With the help of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families, she was able to afford the tuition at the pre-K through 12 private school. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.

It took a few years, but Maloni eventually became passionate about her education. She played sports, and by her senior year of high school, her grade point average was 3.8. She left for college with the goal of becoming a nurse like her mom.

“Step Up For Students is a lifeline,” Renée said. “It allows kids and families to dream. What they thought was so far out of reach is possible.”

There are many reasons why children struggle in school. For some, the class size is too big, and they feel lost among the crowd. Others have certain special needs that cannot be fully addressed at neighborhood schools. Some kids are bullied. Some are hindered by language barriers.

And then there are those like Maloni, whose homelife is so challenging that school is not a priority.

Step Up can help.

Lower-income families can apply for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship. Both scholarships are based on a family’s financial need, and both give families a choice to find a new learning environment for their child.

Parents use a single application for the scholarships and Step Up determines eligibility for either the tax-credit scholarship or the Family Empowerment Scholarship.

Click here to apply for an income-based scholarship.

Parents of children with special needs can turn to the Gardiner Scholarship.

This scholarship allows parents to personalize the education of their pre-K through 12 children with certain special needs by directing money toward a combination of approved programs and providers. A list of special needs covered by the Gardiner Scholarship is found here under “eligibility requirements.”

Click here to join the 2021-22 interest list for the Gardiner Scholarship.

Parents whose child is being bullied at a public school can apply for the Hope Scholarship.

In 2018, the Florida Legislature created the Hope Scholars to give relief for K-12 public school children from bullying and violence. The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district.

The Hope Scholarship, which is not based on a family’s income, provides families with financial assistance to send a child who suffered from a qualifying incident to an eligible private school, or to transport him or her to a public school in another district. The scholarship value depends on the grade level and county the family lives in.

Click here to view the 2020-21 Hope Scholarship award chart.

The transportation scholarship is worth up to $750 and can be used to attend any out-of-district public school with available space.

Click here to apply for the Hope Scholarship.

Step Up has managed more than 1 million scholarships in the 20 years since its inception. These scholarships have been life-changers for the students and their families.

“I felt completely blessed to even have the scholarship. I don’t know what I would have done without it,” said Pamela Howard, whose son, Malik Farrell, reaped the awards of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

Malik had been to four schools district schools in four years and repeated third grade after getting a report card filled with F’s.

Pamela learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and moved her son to Potter’s House Christian Academy, a pre-K through 12 private school in Jacksonville, Florida.

Weeks after enrolling, Malik’s older brother was murdered. The teachers and administrators at Potter’s House rallied around Malik. They eventually gained Malik’s trust, and because of that, Malik’s grades turned into C’s. He was a solid B student during his final two years of high school. He graduated and attended college in Tennessee.

Pamela credited Potter’s House and the Step Up scholarship for her son’s scholastic turnaround.

“To see my son just completely turn around, there aren’t even words,” she said. “That he overcame these struggles and turned out to become the young man that he is, there are no words to even explain how proud I am of him.”

Roger Mooney can be reached at rmooney@StepUpForStudents.org.

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