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King family offers a dozen reasons why ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ when it comes to education

By ROGER MOONEY

LAKE MARY, Florida – The King family is together on a Saturday morning – and that means kids everywhere.

Christy and Troy King have 16 children, including 11 who were adopted. The oldest is a college graduate who lives on her own. Three are off to college in Ohio. That leaves 12 at home, and they range from first grade to 12th with two sets of twins.

That’s a dozen children, each with their own personalities, likes and dislikes and learning styles.

Those who think “one size fits all” when it comes to education haven’t met the King clan.

“That’s not realistic,” Christy said. “It doesn’t even fit every year with the same kid. It changes.”

Several of the children have special needs. Others have learning challenges. Christy and Troy like to homeschool their children during the middle school years.

Also, the Kings want their children to receive a Catholic school education.

With the help of education choice scholarships managed by Step Up For Students, Christy and Troy can check off all the boxes when it comes to their children’s schooling.

Five of the children receive the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities. Because of that, the remaining seven siblings are eligible for and receive the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options.

The youngest 12 of the King children attend Catholic schools on education choice scholarships.

“The scholarship program that we’ve been using has been a tremendous part of our life and enabled us to continually try to push the boundaries of what our kids’ capabilities are and educate them in a way that we feel is best for each kid,” said Troy, a pediatric dentist. “Without it, who knows where it would have ended up, but I do know this, I do know that from the standpoint of the betterment of our kids and our lives, this scholarship has made a tremendous impact and continues to do so on a day-to-day basis.”

Three of the King’s children attend Bishop Moore Catholic High School in Orlando, which is a 15-minute drive from their Lake Mary home. One just began the 11th grade at Chesterton Academy of Orlando. The remaining eight attend Annunciation Catholic Academy in Altamont Springs, which is a 15-minute drive in the opposite direction from Bishop Moore.

The Kings love the educational flexibility provided by the FES-EO and FES-UA scholarships. Though this is the first year they are not homeschooling one of their children, the option remains.

“It lets us choose the educational path that they take that might change with the seasons of our lives,” Troy said. “Some might need to be homeschool at certain times of their lives because of things that we encounter in school, and to be trapped into not being able to do that because you might lose something is a burden, sometimes.”

Case in point is their daughter who entered Chesterton Academy, a private Catholic school with 30 students in grades 9, 10 and 11. The school plans on adding a 12th grade next year. She began Bishop Moore as a freshman but left after a semester to be homeschooled. After doing that for a year-and-a-half, she returned to a brick-and-mortar school.

“A big school wasn’t a good fit for her,” Christy said. “She does better in smaller classes, and we were able to do that. Now she has this opportunity that’s working out really well.”

Molly, the only one of their children the Kings allowed to be named in this story, is in the seventh grade at Annunciation. She has cerebral palsy and uses a walker.

Molly is one of 11 children adopted by the Christy and Troy.

“The first one was so awesome,” Christy said, “The experience of it, I knew right away that we were definitely doing this again, and you realize you have more room in your life.

“The youngest grows older, learns how to empty the dishwasher, or we go to a restaurant, and nobody crawls under a table, you think, we can probably do one more. Just one more. And we did ‘just one more’ a bunch of times.”

Which is how Christy and Troy came to own a Ford Transit, a full-sized passenger van that has a center aisle and seats 15. The kids are a little embarrassed when mom pulls up to school, driving what Christy calls her “Amazon van,” but their friends love to catch rides with the Kings.

Molly said the best part of having so many brothers and sisters is that she’s never lonely.

“Sometimes it gets noisy,” she deadpanned.

Molly once wanted to be a teacher and own a beachside restaurant. Now she wants to be an ophthalmologist, because she loves science and studying the human body,

“Eyes and stuff,” she said.

Molly finds is easy to navigate her school, though Christy wonders if that will remain the case when Molly enters high school.

“I don’t know what high school is going to look like for her,” Christy said.

But thanks to the education choice provided by the FES-UA scholarship, the Kings are confident they will find the right setting for Molly as they have been able to do for all their children.

“The scholarships have been awesome. Obviously, financially it’s helped us a ton,” Christy said. “I can change schools. I can homeschool for a year or two if I need to and have the flexibility to go back.”

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

Two Step Up For Students schools earn coveted National Blue Ribbon Schools distinction

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 rmooney@sufs.org.

Willette’s story: Vibing to her own frequency and helping everyone she meets along the way

BY ROGER MOONEY

JACKSONVILLE, Florida – Willette Treadway wants to help.

She wants to help her classmates, teachers and administrators at North Florida School of Special Education, where she is in the Secondary 3 classroom. She wants to help her family and friends.

She wants to help the homeless population in Jacksonville.

“One thing about me,” Willette said, “I like to help everybody.”

“She has a big heart,” said her mom, Lisa Diana.

Willette, 14, was diagnosed at 7 with an intellectual difference and language impairment, which are neurodevelopmental conditions that appear in early childhood. She is a high performer socially but a low performer cognitively, where according to her mom, Willette is in the second to fourth grade level range with math, reading and vocabulary.

She attended her district school from kindergarten through the sixth grade. And while Lisa said Willette did well with her Individual Education Plan (IEP), she felt Willette “wasn’t grasping the material.” Searching for a school that better fit her daughter’s unique abilities, Lisa enrolled Willette in North Florida School of Special Education (NFSSE) in Jacksonville for the 2021-22 school year. She attends the school assisted by the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA), managed by Step Up For Students.

There were hugs all around for Willette on the first day of school.

“What I love about North Florida is they use different teaching styles and are a little bit more patient, especially with the smaller classes, to work with her and the material,” Lisa said. “I wanted her to be in a space where she would learn and retain and work with professionals who are hopefully going to get through to her maybe in a way that I can’t, or other teachers haven’t been able to.”

NFSSE provides an innovative academic and therapeutic setting for students, ages 6-22, who have intellectual and developmental differences. The secondary program is for students ages 14 to 17. They take academic classes and also emphasize vocational training, where they learn pre-employment skills.

The school’s transition program is for students ages 18-22. There, they learn how to budget money, pay bills, read bus schedules, and put together a resume. The students also work at jobs off campus with the goal of landing internships and fulltime positions.

“She would be devastated if she ever had to leave that school,” Lisa said. “She’s loving it. It’s everything I hoped it would be for her. This is the first time in her academic life that I don’t have to worry about her going to school.”

That some members of the school’s staff have children who attend or attended the school is a plus for Lisa, who is a nurse.

“As a teacher, an educator, someone who’s been where we are as parents,” Lisa said, “you have no idea the amount of relief it is to be able to talk to somebody who gets it.”

Willette arrived for her first day at her new school like a ball of sunshine, with a smile that lit up the campus. She made friends with everyone.

“I really like this school because it’s very nice,” Willette said. “All the teachers and staff are very nice here. All my friends are nice to me all the time.”

It wasn’t always that way at her previous school, where she was often the target of bullies.

Willette was one of the students picked to speak last January at a school pep rally last for Education Choice Week. She spoke of how well her classmates and teachers treat her, how she loved reading to “the little ones” on Thursday, how calm and peaceful she feels at the school and how the staff “lets me be the best Willette I can be.”

Lauren Perry, a Secondary 2 teacher at NFSSE, said that’s easy with a student like Willette.

“She loves to be around people,” Perry said. “She loves to talk and connect, and it’s a really beautiful thing for someone so young.”

While addressing the school, Willette also mentioned her job during dismissal.

She took it upon herself last year to help with the car line. She recruited two classmates to assist her when she fractured her right ankle falling off her scooter near the end of the year. The three held staff meetings every morning. Willette carried a clipboard.

“Yeah, that’s Willette,” Lisa said.

Willette’s cast was black and gold, matching the colors of her favorite football team – the Pittsburgh Steelers. Lisa’s mom wrapped a yellow Terrible Towel – a Steelers’ talisman – around Willette shortly after she was born. If you want to hear passion in Willette’s voice, ask her about who should be the Steelers quarterback.

Willette shows off her Pittsburgh Steelers’ themed cast after she fractured her right ankle last spring.

If you want that passion to go up a notch, ask Willette about the homeless in Jacksonville – a segment of the population that is dear to her heart. She has visited homeless shelters and soup kitchens in the city with her grandmother on her father’s side. Lisa and Willette once made 150 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to distributed to the homeless shortly before the start of the pandemic. Last school year, Willette helped classmates make care packages for the homeless.

“Let’s say you need to make 150 bags of food for the homeless. Would you do it?” she asked. “Yes, I would do it.”

Willette wants to be a teacher.

“I like to help kids. I like to help teachers,” she said. “I like to help everybody.”

Lisa said her daughter is a natural caregiver, especially when it comes to her classmates. Lisa called her a “kid whisperer” because she makes those around her feel welcomed and appreciated.

Lisa could see Willette working in some capacity at a school like NFSSE. Most of all, Lisa said, “I hope that she’s an independent adult. She has her own strong personality. She’s not one to go with the crowd. She vibes to her own frequency and I love it, and I hope that never goes away.”

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

Of courage, basketball and conquering the obstacles in his way: The Justin Williams story

BY ROGER MOONEY

OCOEE, Florida – Justin Williams was 8 when he underwent surgery to allow more room for his brain to grow. For two months he wore a halo brace and a plate on the roof of his mouth to push the bones in his face forward one agonizing millimeter at a time.

At one point, Justin told his dad, John, that he’d rather die than live through that again.

“At the time, I was probably exaggerating,” Justin said, “but it was the worst eight weeks of my life.”

Justin, 18, was born with Apert syndrome, a rare condition where the joints in a baby’s head, face, feet, and hands close while in the womb. He’s undergone surgeries on his feet, hands, face and head – 15 in all. The first was when he was 9 months old. He learned to walk with both feet and hands in casts.

While Justin has endured some difficult moments in his life, he will be the last to say he’s had a difficult life.

“I’ve gone through a lot,” he said, “and it hasn’t affected me.”

Stacy, Justin and John Williams.

Justin grew up on Ocoee, just a short walk from his family’s blueberry farm, where he helps direct the parking during picking season.

He graduated in the spring from Foundation Academy in nearby Winter Garden. He attended the private Christian school since pre-K on a McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities (now the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities, administered by Step Up For Students). He begins classes at Valencia College in August.

Justin was one of the most popular students on campus and certainly the most popular player on the basketball team. His classmates would fill the stands and chant his name until Coach Nathaniel Hughes sent Justin into the game. Then Justin would reward his fans by hitting long-range 3-point shots.

“It’s so much fun to watch him play,” Justin’s mom, Stacy, said. “It blows me away, the support of all the people.”

Justin’s efforts on the court led to his receiving the Jersey Mike’s Naismith High School Basketball Courage Award. The honor is given annually to a male and female high school basketball player who has “gone above and beyond throughout the basketball season and has demonstrated courage in their approach to their team, school, and community.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard him complain, say something was too hard or he couldn’t do it,” Hughes said. “I never heard that, and he has way more reason to complain than I do.”

HE CAN DO IT!

“What is a normal life?” John Williams asked on a recent afternoon at the blueberry farm.

While pregnant with Justin, Stacy said she wondered what type of life he would lead. Would he excel in sports? In school? What would his interests be? His talents? What would he choose for a career?

Justin was born in September 2003 with a craniofacial disorder so rare it is found in 1 in 65,000 to 88,000 babies. Now Stacy and John had entirely different questions: What would Justin’s quality of life be? Could he even go to school?

“When you have a child with special needs, your whole outlook is different because everything changes,” Stacy said, “so you have to find your new normal.”

The new normal included flights to the Craniofacial Center at Medical City Children’s Hospital in Dallas for those surgeries, and what John said seemed like endless months in hotels, as well as nights where he and Stacy tried to sleep on the couch in Justin’s hospital room.

It also included Little League baseball and youth basketball, soccer and golf, and plenty of roughhousing with his cousins around the blueberry farm.

Stacy and John were determined to meet Apert syndrome head on.

Justin would do everything every other kid his age did. They signed him up for baseball when he was 4 even though he had trouble holding a bat because he doesn’t have knuckles in his fingers.

So what if he couldn’t hit the ball? Neither could the other 4-year-olds, John said.

It was the same way in school.

“Do not help him,” Stacy sternly told Justin’s teacher on her son’s first day of kindergarten. “He can do it.”

“I think I scared her,” Stacy said. “I just wanted to give him a chance. You have to give people a chance to be who they can be.”

Maybe people outside of school stared at Justin and made rude comments to Stacy, but at Foundation Academy, Justin was just one of the kids. His popularity grew as he moved up through the grades.

“There is something about Justin that makes everyone love him,” Foundation Principal Sarah Reynolds said. “He is so friendly, so kind. No one sees his disability. No one. It’s just a non-issue.”

With the education choice option that came with the McKay Scholarship, Stacy and John settled on Foundation Academy because they wanted a smaller scholastic setting for Justin, one where his teachers would know and understand his needs and where he could spend the years with the same classmates.

Having the scholarship pay his tuition was huge when Justin was undergoing his surgeries and treatments.

“We, honestly, would not have been able to keep him at the same school had we not had the scholarship,” Stacy said.

J-MONEY

John put up a basketball hoop in the family’s driveway because he thought it was a game Justin could play. He was right. Justin was hooked at an early age.

Justin’s ability score on long-range jump shots earned him the nickname “J-Money” from his teammates because, as Hughes said, “He makes his money on the 3-point line.”

(Watch Justin Williams make his “money from the 3-point line.”)

Justin was not the most talented player on the team, but Hughes said he made the most of his skills. He also understands the game, the way the offense and defense work. Hughes often asked Justin what he thought of something that occurred during a game, and Justin would offer an honest and accurate assessment.

He was also the teammate who kept everyone loose and focused.

“A glue guy you can’t live without as a team,” Hughes said.

As he walked out of the gym after every practice and game, Justin would always find Hughes and say, “Thanks, Coach. See you tomorrow.”

It was Hughes who nominated Justin for the Naismith award, and the school celebrated the announcement of Justin winning with a pep rally in front of the entire student body. They chanted his name and Justin took a shot, though opting for a high-percentage layup. The crowd went wild as the ball dropped through the net.

There were TV crews from Orlando-area news stations and one shooting a video for the award.

“I like sharing my story and having an impact,” Justin said.

His message?

“You need to lean on your family and friends because they are always there for you, no matter what you’re going through,” he said. “If you’re having a rough day or a hard time, always trust in God. He will make your path straight. I think people get down on themselves because they think they are not normal or not as good as someone else, but I think if they pray and follow God, they will be fine.”

College classes begin soon for Justin. He’s thinking of studying business. He will help Hughes coach this season and wants to someday coach high school basketball.

“He has totally superseded anything I envisioned for him,” Stacy said. “I never thought he would be as awesome as he is. He surprises you all the time. He has the best sense of humor. He never complains about anything. He’s always a try-hard kid, which blows me away.”

As for what she now envisions for Justin’s future, Stacy said, “I think it’s up to him. The sky is the limit. I can’t wait to see in five years where he’s at.”

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

New autism center in Florida Keys offers education, therapy, resources – and hope

For 23 years, the Carrie Brazer Center for Autism in Miami has served students on the autism spectrum and others with neurodiverse conditions. During that time, Brazer, a Florida-certified special education teacher with a master’s degree in special education, noticed that families from the Florida Keys were driving as much as three hours to come to the area for therapies and other services.

To better serve those families, Brazer opened a small office in Tavernier, an unincorporated area in Key Largo with a population of 2,530. When a charter school campus across the street became available, Brazer seized the opportunity to open the school’s second campus on the half-acre lot.

The new campus opened last year with six large classrooms in a 5,000-square-foot building. The school has a large indoor play area with lots of swings. The weather usually is pleasant enough for the students to eat lunch outdoors.

“It’s just gorgeous,” Brazer said. “It’s very beachy and homey and airy and spacious.”

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Education savings account allows Dylan to gain independence one step at a time

BY ROGER MOONEY

SEMINOLE, Florida – Dylan Quessenberry was 15 when he walked up a flight of stairs for the first time.

It was 20 steps, linking two floors at his school. But for Dylan, who has cerebral palsy, that staircase was more than just a route to the cafeteria at Learning Independence For Tomorrow (LiFT) Academy, a private K-12 school that serves neurodiverse students.

Those 20 steps were part of his journey to what he called “independence,” something he sought when he joined the school in the fifth grade on a Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship).

“It was a defining moment in his life,” LiFT Principal Holly Andrade said. “A massive milestone.”

Dylan has “gained a lot of independence” during his seven years at LiFT Academy.

Dylan, now 18 and a senior at LiFT, recently recalled that day as if he were still standing at the summit, sweaty and spent and filled with a sense of accomplishment that few can understand.

Like a marathoner on race day, Dylan woke that morning knowing the years of work he put in with his physical therapist, Valerie, were about to pay off.

“Those stairs,” he thought, “are mine!”

And they were, one arduous step at a time.

Leaving his walker at the bottom and cheered on by students who were involved in afterschool programs, the school staff still on campus and Valerie, Dylan made the ascent. He pumped his fists in the air when he finished.

It took nearly half an hour.

“It was amazing,” he said. “I was like, glorified.”

Andrade arrived on the scene in time to see Dylan reach the second-floor landing.

“I cried like a baby,” she said. “Oh my gosh! I’ll never forget his face.”

It’s hard to imagine a bigger smile.


LiFT is not far from Dylan’s home in Seminole, where he lives with his mother, Marlena, and his twin brother, Ryan. The school includes LiFT University Transition Program, a four-year, post-high school program that Dylan will attend after he graduates this spring.

The program is for neurodiverse young adults who won’t follow the typical path for secondary education. It teaches employability skills, independent living skills and social skills. Community partners offer internships, which often lead to fulltime jobs.

Dylan said his mom’s blunt honestly about his physical limitations has allowed him to overcome a number of obstacles.

“This school has been amazing for him,” Marlena said. “I don’t know where we would be if we didn’t have LiFT Academy.

“He’s so fortunate to have this school. I’m so fortunate to have this school, because I can send him here and not have to worry about a thing.”

The Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities, managed by Step Up For Students, is an education savings account (ESA). ESAs allow parents to spend their children’s education dollars on a variety of educational purposes. Marlena uses it to cover Dylan’s tuition.

“If he didn’t have Step Up, he wouldn’t have accomplished what he has today,” Marlena said.

When Dylan arrived in the fifth grade, he couldn’t button his shirt or zip his jacket. He couldn’t open a bag of snacks or put a straw in his drink. He couldn’t open a door. Or walk up a flight of stairs.

In seven years, he changed those can’ts into cans.

“I gained a lot of independence,” Dylan said.

A lot of those gains were accomplished because of hours spent in physical and occupational therapy. Some were the product of surgeries.

“We’ve been through some surgeries,” Marlena said.

How many? Dylan and his mom both answer the question with a groan.

“About seven,” he said.

Dylan was born with scoliosis, reactive airway disease, a Grade IV brain bleed, Hydrocephalus and a congenital heart defect. He’s had surgeries to lengthen his hamstrings, heel cords and hip adductors.

On three occasions, Dylan spent six weeks in a cast that began at his chest and ran to the bottom of both feet.

What is remarkable about Dylan, Andrade said, is that in the seven years she has known him, she has never heard him complain about his surgeries or the obstacles placed in his life.

“Not once,” she said. “It’s that kind of positive attitude that has gotten him to where he is.”

Could you blame Dylan if he did? Especially when his twin brother does not have cerebral palsy.

“It was hard, at first,” Dylan admitted, “but I overcame the hardships of life and moved on. It’s still in the back of my mind.”

Dylan’s legs are not strong enough to support him on their own, so he uses a walker. He is working toward walking with canes.

The walker doesn’t slow him down. With it, Dylan is one of the fastest students in LiFT’s running club. Assistant Principal Darrin Karuzas never fails to offer this warning when he sees Dylan zip down a hallway:

“Slow down or you’ll get a ticket!”


Marlena has taught Dylan to embrace being neurodiverse. She was adopted by her parents and vividly recalled the day in the first grade when she mentioned that in class. Her teacher scolded her for talking about it.

“I was proud of being adopted,” Marlena said. “My parents taught me to be proud of it, and that’s what I tell Dylan, ‘Be proud of who you are.’ We don’t refer to it as a disability.”

Marlena has always been up front with her son about his physical limitations. There are some things Dylan can do and some he can’t, and Marlena has helped him deal with both sides. It’s that honesty that has allowed Dylan to overcome so much.

“One hundred percent,” he said.

Dylan shows off his muscles.

Dylan endured the surgeries because he knew each would help bring him closer to the independence he craved.

“I hated it,” he said, “but I had to do it. It helped me walk. It helped me get up in the car and everything I needed to do.”

Dylan wants to get his driver’s license. He wants to get married someday and start a family.

“That’s my ultimate dream,” he said.

He’s hoping to land a job at a local Winn-Dixie, beginning first as a bagger then, hopefully, as a stock clerk.

“I can easily stock shelves,” he said.

A lover of all things cars and trucks, Dylan would ultimately like to work in an auto shop, fixing cars. Maybe own a garage.

He also wants a Chevy Silverado.

“There is a lot he wants to do in life,” Marlena said. “That’s one thing about him, he is driven.”

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

Podcast: Florida mom looks forward to additional benefits of education savings account

Karen and David Prewitt with their son, Caleb.

reimaginED Senior Writer Lisa Buie talks with Karen Prewitt, whose son, Caleb, 15, is benefitting from a change in Florida law that is merging the McKay Scholarship program into the state’s Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities.


Click here to listen to the podcast.


Born with Down Syndrome, Caleb attends North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville, his parents’ school of choice for him since kindergarten.

While the McKay Scholarship made it possible for Caleb to have the best possible educational environment, it covered tuition only, leaving the family with out-of-pocket costs for physical, occupational and speech therapies that help children with Down Syndrome learn to be as independent as possible.

The new scholarship program is an education savings account, which allows parents the flexibility to spend their money not only on tuition and fees but also on necessities such as private tutoring, devices and therapies not covered by insurance.

Northeast Florida Catholic school lauded for outreach efforts to immigrant families

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School principal Barbara Kavanagh poses with students who are participating in the school’s rural education program.

BY LISA BUIE

A parochial school program intent on extending education choice to children of migrant workers has received a national award for its efforts.

The National Catholic Education Association announced that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School in Palm Coast, Florida, will receive the Catherine T. McNamee CSJ Award. The award is given to an individual or institution that offers exceptional leadership in promoting a vision of Catholic education that welcomes and serves cultural and economic diversity or serves students with diverse needs.

The award is one of five presidents’ awards that will be bestowed April 18 at the association’s annual convention in New Orleans. Given in honor of past NCEA presidents, the 2022 awards honor those who demonstrate change and inspiration to further the mission of Catholic education.

“Catholic school communities nationwide are blessed to have individuals and organizations such as our honorees as devoted and faithful servants to the gospel values we hold dear and a deep commitment to Catholic school education,” association president Lincoln Snyder said in a news release announcing the winners.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton received the national recognition for its participation in a rural education program. Founded in 1997, the school, known as SEAS, has an enrollment of 189 students in 3-year-old pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

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Catholic high school returns to Key West. Scholarships help make it possible

For the first time in nearly 40 years, Catholic high school education will return to Key West.

The Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea, which currently educates students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, this week announced plans to add grades 9 and 10 in August 2023. The Basilica High School will be the only Catholic high school in Monroe County, and plans to offer enrollment to students in Key West and the Lower Keys, Principal Robert Wright told the Keys Weekly.

The last Catholic high school in Key West, Mary Immaculate, closed in 1986 due to declining enrollment.

However, demand has since been rising. According to Wright, the Basilica School’s enrollment increased 100 percent between 2013-2019, and currently is at capacity with a waiting list. Many of those families want to extend their children’s Catholic education beyond middle school.

In a 2019 column for Keys Weekly, Wright credited Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship for helping fuel that growth. “In 2013,” he wrote, “we began accepting Florida Tax Credit Scholarship students. That made a private school education affordable to scores of families seeking alternatives to the public schools that, for whatever reasons, weren’t working out for them. Since then, our enrollment has nearly doubled, from 170 students to 320. We have 100 on a waiting list, simply because we lack the capacity to accommodate them. If we fail to provide a right and just education, these families would seek to go elsewhere.”

The Basilica School currently serves 154 students who attend on the income-based tax credit scholarship or Family Empowerment Scholarship (created by the Legislature in 2019), and 20 who attend on the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities.

In announcing plans for the high school, Wright noted that “scholarship programs, available through Step Up for Students, will keep costs affordable for all families.”

Overall, Catholic school enrollment in Florida increased this academic year following a nearly 7% decline at the start of the COVID pandemic. According to data from the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, enrollment grew by 4,610 students, or nearly 6%, during the 2021-22 school year. Again, Florida’s choice scholarships helped make that possible: Scholarship students made up just 24% of Catholic school enrollment in 2015 but make up 47% of enrollment today.

LiFT Academy receives boost from Tampa Bay Lightning as it prepares to move to new campus

BY ROGER MOONEY

High above the ice at Amalie Arena during a recent Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game stood Keli Mondello and Kim Kuruzovich, the founders of Learning Independence for Tomorrow (LiFT), and Holly Andrade, a founding teacher. They were bathed in the spotlight while the fans cheered, and the players on the ice below paid tribute with a time-honored hockey salute – tapping the blades of their sticks on the ice.

The three clutched an oversized check made out to LiFT Academy for $50,000. The Lightning Foundation donates that amount during each home game to a Tampa Bay area nonprofit as part of the Lightning Community Hero program presented by Jabil.  LiFT was honored by the Lightning on Jan. 27 during a game against the New Jersey Devils.

Learning Independence for Tomorrow (LiFT) includes LiFT Academy, a K-12 private school, LiFT University Transition Program, a four-year post-high school program, and LiFT Day Program in Seminole, Florida that serves neurodiverse students. Neurodiversity is the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, that falls outside societal standards of typical.

“We’re so excited about it. It’s really good timing,” said Andrade, now the school’s principal.

After nine years, LiFT Academy, LiFT University Transition Program and the LiFT Day Program have outgrown their current locations of rented space from two churches. It’s time for a bigger building that can accommodate the school’s expanding programs and growing enrollment.

With a total enrollment of 147 learners across all its programs and a lengthy waiting list, LiFT simply needs more space. Andrade said the new site will initially double the capacity and could ultimately serve 386 learners.

In December, LiFT purchased a former YMCA building in nearby Clearwater with plans to convert it into a new campus. The LiFTING OUR FUTURE capital campaign has begun to help finance the move, remodel and expansion. The $50,000 grant from the Lightning is a great start.

“We are moving to more centralized location in Pinellas County where we can be a resource and partner for the whole community,” Andrade said. We’re going to be more visible and make a larger impact by enhancing the neurodiverse student experience with a safe and inclusive space to learn, thrive, and succeed.”

LiFT Academy’s enrollment include 65 students who receive the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship) and 47 students who receive the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities. The two scholarship programs will merge on July 1, 2022, and will be managed by Step Up For Students.

LiFT Academy opened its doors Jan. 9, 2013, to 17 K-12 students. At the time, Mondello, Kuruzovich and Andrade each had neurodiverse children who were sophomores at the same high school. Their goal was to create an educational program that focused on independent living for their children and others living with neurodiversity.

LiFT University Transition Program, a four-year program for neurodiverse young adults who won’t follow the typical path for secondary education, opened the following year. LiFT University Transition Program teaches employability skills, independent living skills and social skills. The program has approximately 30 community partners who offer internships, and those internships often lead to paid employment.

The LiFT University Transition Program also runs three microbusinesses. These businesses allow students the opportunity to gain social, vocational, and critical thinking skills that will add greatly to their value as an employee. As entrepreneurs, students learn to take risks, manage time, put customers first, seek opportunities to lead and interpersonal skills, all of which are highly transferable skills sought by employers. LiFT Your Fork is a catering service that prepares its neurodiverse students for work in the hospitality industry. LiFT Your Heart makes and sells handmade items such as canvas bags, towels, soaps and scrubs and candles. There is also the LiFT University Cleaning Crew, which has contracts with area churches and movie theaters.

Andrade said, “LiFT’s growth always outpaced our funding. We relied on donations from community partners like Jabil and Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. When Eckerd refurbished its science wing, the college donated furniture and equipment.”

Andrade said she and Kuruzovich carted everything from the college campus to the academy in their “mom vans.”

“We made five trips back and forth, carting science tables, dissection equipment and rolling desk chairs for our teachers,” she said. “That’s how we made it work in the earlier years.”

Kim Kuruzovich, Holly Andrade and Keli Mondello were honored recently as Lightning Community Heros by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Thanks to the Lightning, Andrade said they can now purchase flexible seating options, new furniture, light dimmers for students with visual sensitivities, and additional equipment and fidgets that will serve as therapeutic purposes. These improvements will empower students to focus on their learning, without distractions and discomfort due to their sensory sensitivities. 

“I did it for my son Daniel, and for all the other children like him,” Andrade said. “Neurodiverse children have so much to offer the world. The only thing that holds them back is how the world limits them. But we can change how the world sees them and I want to be a part of that. There’s absolutely nothing like providing an opportunity to help children become what they were destined to be. It was always something that we hoped for and worked for.”

LiFT Academy is the 473rd nonprofit to be named a Lightning Community Hero. Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and his wife, Penny, started the program during the 2011-12 season with a $10 million, five-year commitment to the area. Since then, they have awarded nearly $25 million to more than 600 nonprofits in the greater Tampa Bay area. Last summer, the Viniks announced the program will award another $10 million to nonprofits during the next five seasons.

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

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