By SUSAN SLEBODA, GUEST BLOGGER
My son, Ryan is 15 years old. He has autism spectrum disorder. Ryan has been receiving the Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students since the fall of 2015. I would imagine Ryan’s story is a common one if you have a child with autism.
For many years we bounced around the central Florida (Lake Mary and Sanford) area signing up Ryan for just about every sport you could imagine. Basketball, soccer, baseball and swimming. Ryan tried them all, however, he would get easily bored or frustrated, inevitably ending in a full-blown earthquake or meltdown. This led to teasing and taunting by other children. It led to dirty looks from other parents. I would wager that almost every one of you have felt this heart wrenching moment – as you watch your child struggle, falter and fail. My husband, Bill, and I had the eternal hope of finding a “good fit” for Ryan.
After several seasons of tears, anger, anxiety and stress, our family had enough. We finally accepted that sports would not be the right fit for Ryan. The doctors stressed the need for Ryan to be in an activity where he could stay active, work on his social skills and maybe even make a friend. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any luck. Ryan was unhappy and lonely. I have always believed that when one door closes, somewhere God opens a window. That held true for Ryan.
In the fall of 2013, I went on a field trip for one of my older sons and met a mom named Christine Eckstein. I opened up to her and shared Ryan’s story. I told her about Ryan’s educational and medical journey with autism. I relayed our plight in finding a sport for Ryan and our sadness with our lack of success. Imagine my surprise when she shared her story of her sons David and Kenny, who also happen to have autism spectrum disorder. Christine told me about a martial arts program that her daughter, Katarina, created to help families just like ours. It’s called Breaking Barriers Martial Arts. They created a nonprofit program to provide martial arts instruction to students with disabilities to help them grow into independent, self-assured adults. As a family they began their journey to help Kenny and David and turned it miraculously into a way to help strangers in need. I was impressed and in awe of their story. The mom, dad, Katarina, David, Kenny and even little sister Ava all earned their black belts.
Christine insisted I speak with Katarina about the program. Katarina came over the very next day and met Ryan. She believed the Breaking Barriers program would help Ryan and she insisted we give it a try. To be honest, I was nervous and really questioned how it would be possible for Ryan to learn martial arts. How could he focus and have the discipline needed in a sport such as this? I was afraid to hope. I was even more afraid to set up Ryan for another failure. Could Ryan succeed in taekwondo(TKD) with his autism? I didn’t know for certain but desperate times called for desperate measures.
With a glimmer of hope, we took Ryan to D.C. Turnbull’s Martial Arts studio in Sanford, Fla. for his first Breaking Barriers TKD class in January 2014. The students and instructors welcomed Ryan literally with hugs and high fives. We were amazed by the kindness and love we experienced that day by this open and loving group of students. It was incredible to watch these students who happened to have varying disabilities (autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy, hearing impairments, visual impairments and intellectual disabilities) demonstrate their martial arts abilities. They were not just taking part in the class, they were excelling at the sport. As parents we were in awe. Ryan was invited onto the mats and by the time class was over he was hooked! Ryan began his TKD journey. It has now been two years and Ryan is a deputy black belt and will be testing for his BLACK BELT in November of this year.
What we have witnessed is truly an incredible transformation in Ryan. Guess what happened? It was something we had always hoped for in spite of Ryan’s many setbacks over the years. Ryan became a LEADER. In February, he was awarded the rank of a Teaching Assistant in the special needs program, assisting younger students with disabilities to learn TKD. Breaking Barriers taught Ryan self-control, discipline, self-confidence, perseverance and indomitable spirit. When Ryan puts on his uniform and steps onto the mat the transformation is incredible! He repeats the mantra “Yes I can,” whenever he learns something challenging and new. Ryan has competed and earned gold and silver medals in forms and sparring. His favorite competitive event is board breaking. He is really good at it. Seriously, you should see his spinning hook kick!
And you know what? NONE of this would have been possible without the help of Gardiner Scholarship has assisted us in providing an incredible learning experience for Ryan at Pace Brantley School in Longwood, FL. This has freed up other funds in our budget so Ryan can participate in new experiences such as the life changing TKD program at Breaking Barriers Martial Arts.
Ryan and his Breaking Barriers buddies prove time and again that their ABILITIES far outweigh any disability they may have. They are breaking boards while breaking barriers. These participants show improvement in their physical abilities such as coordination and strength, but MORE importantly, the BB students show MARKED success in their social skills, focus, independence, respect and confidence. The best part is that TKD is a lifelong sport. If a student is able to reach the rank of black belt, they can choose to keep going and earn higher degrees of black belt. This is different than most sports where students tend to drop out as they get older. Instead TKD and the BB program encourages its students to challenge themselves to stick with the program and achieve higher black belt ranks.
Do you want to be impressed?
Take a minute to watch this video. It will show you the incredible abilities of our Breaking Barriers students. Added bonus: You get to see my superstar son, Ryan – he is the student holding up the autism sign. Watch for his incredible spinning hook!
Breaking Barriers is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Florida. Its goal is to teach martial arts to children with special needs. Organizers recently held their first fundraiser – the Breaking Barriers Invitational – an AAU Martial Arts tournament. There were special needs competitors from different areas of Florida as well traditional competitors. It was a big success and next year will be even better. All money raised by the Breaking Barriers programs goes to purchase specialty gear, additional instructors, use of the training facility, etc. The program will continue to expand and provide education and opportunities for special needs students as well as assistance to instructors who wish to offer their own special needs programs in other areas.
Susan Sleboda is not only mom to Ryan, she has two other older, sons, and a husband, Bill. By profession, she is a lawyer, but on sabbatical from practicing so she could raise her three boys. When she’s not watching Ryan break boards, she spends time advocating for him and volunteering in their community. The family lives in Lake Mary, Fla.
Editor’s note: This is the first post in a series celebrating 15 years of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Join us in the coming months as we take a look back on the program’s beginning and look ahead to serving more students in the future.
By JOHN KIRTLEY
I’m not a baseball fan, but I love the movie “Bull Durham.” In the film, baseball groupie Susan Sarandon compliments Kevin Costner for approaching the minor league home run record. Costner remarks that it’s a dubious honor – it means he’s spent an awful long time trying to get to the majors. That’s how I feel sometimes when I realize I have been working for the cause of parental choice in education for 20 years. If I were any good at this, shouldn’t the job be done by now?
Nothing like the parental choice movement to make you appreciate incremental progress. But on the 15th anniversary of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC), I look around and see so much to be thankful for. When the Legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush created the FTC in 2001, school choice in Florida was in its infancy. The definition of “public education” was pretty simple: raise taxpayer dollars to educate kids, give all the money to the districts – which run all the schools in a fairly uniform manner – and assign kids by their ZIP codes.
How far we have come since then. Today, more than 30 percent of K-12 children funded by the taxpayers don’t attend their zoned public school. They attend magnets, charters and virtual schools. They take classes under dual enrollment programs at colleges and community colleges. They now even combine providers and delivery methods at the same time. And yes, some children even attend private schools, including faith-based ones.
The FTC is a small but critical part of this new definition of public education. This year the program is serving 92,000 children, who are attending more than 1,600 private schools chosen by their parents. This sounds like a lot—and it’s more than I ever thought we would serve – but it’s still a pretty small number in context. There are 2.8 million students in Florida’s public schools (including magnets and charters). So the FTC still represents only 3 percent of that total. But to each scholarship family, it’s the most important thing in the world. Research shows the FTC kids are the poorest, and poorest performers, in their public schools when they leave. The scholarship empowers poor parents to find an environment that better suits their children’s unique needs.
The FTC – along with the McKay and Gardiner scholarships for special needs children – makes available an option that would otherwise be off the table: private and faith-based schools. My 20-year experience has taught me that these schools must be available to poor and special-needs kids. They aren’t for everyone, certainly – but for some of these kids, they are the only place they will thrive. I can’t tell you how many students over the years have told me, “I was going the wrong direction, but the environment at my school set me straight,” or words to that effect. These schools must be a part of our new definition of public education.
Back to the Bull Durham analogy: I would have thought that by now, after 20 years, everyone would have accepted and embraced the FTC. Especially with more than 30 percent of all publicly funded students choosing! But no. After all this time, and after all its proven success, there is a lawsuit to shut down the program and evict more than 92,000 poor children. Why would opponents to choice focus on the program with only 3 percent of the kids, and the poorest and poorest performers at that? Maybe because it’s the fullest expression of parental empowerment.
The silver lining to this lawsuit is that it has galvanized the scholarship parents and their community leaders to fight to maintain this precious power. More than 10,000 people came to Tallahassee this year the day after the MLK holiday to hear his son, MLK III, denounce the suit. Coalitions of over 200 African-American and Latino ministers around the state have formally demanded the suit be dropped. I am proud to be a foot soldier in this most important battle.
One of the many rewards of being in this movement is fighting with these choice warriors. Parents. Students. Teachers and Principals. Ministers. Names you will never know. Names you know, like MLK III and Jeb Bush. Names you should know, like the Rev. H.K. Matthews – one of Florida’s most revered civil rights leaders. All of them fighting for parental empowerment.
I am so grateful to all of them, just like I am grateful to all the legislators of both parties who have supported the program. I’m grateful to the donors who have embraced the program. I am also so grateful to all the employees of Step Up For Students, who run the program with such transparency and accountability that has consistently earned a four-star rating – and this year a perfect score – from Charity Navigator, the largest independent evaluator of nonprofits in the country. And I’m so grateful that a former president of the Pinellas teachers’ union decided to call me up in 2006 to discuss common ground. Doug Tuthill is now president of Step Up and ably running it as I never would be able to.
My dream when the program debuted was that it would survive (which was not certain in the beginning). Then my dream was that we would someday reach 100,000 children. Now my dream is more ambitious: that someday every low-income parent in Florida – and the country – will be able to choose the best school for their children, regardless of who runs it.
Happy 15th birthday, Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Congratulations, Step Up For Students!
John Kirtley is founder and chairman of Step Up For Students.
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the redefinED blog on June 7, 2016. The blog is hosted by Step Up For Students and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.
Thank God the Miami-Dade School Board did not investigate my address.
In 2003, I went to a high school where fighting was widespread and I was lucky if I wasn’t accidentally hit when a brawl broke out in the hallway.
One day, while I was using the ladies room, another girl, who was double my size or at least it felt that way at the time, threatened to bash my head on the wall if I didn’t stop hanging out with a guy she liked. Growing up, my dad always told me, “Your face is too pretty to get into a fight.” So, I said to her: “Please don’t hit me. I’ll stay out of your way.”
She laughed. I went back to class, and tried to focus.
The next day, while walking on the hallway at the school, this same girl grabbed another student close to me. She pushed her against the wall and instigated a fight. The difference between myself and this new student: This girl fought back. The bully wasted no time. She grabbed her Snapple bottle, broke it on the wall, and used a piece of glass to slash the student’s face.
I left school early that day, and begged my mom to transfer me to a safer school. I wasn’t worried about the quality of my education. I just wanted to get away from that environment..
My mom and dad had only been in America for four years. Their financial situation was tough, and they didn’t know the system yet. But they knew I had to attend the school where I was assigned, based on where we lived.
So my parents did something thousands of other public-school parents feel forced to do, because they feel they have no other options. They lied about where we lived so I could go to a different school where I would feel safe.
Now, I’m reading in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that the Broward County School Board wants to investigate parents who have used a different address to register their kids in better schools. If they’re caught lying about where they live, they may even be charged with a third-degree felony.
I understand that perjury is against the law, and that the law should be respected. But from my own experience, I know the parents who lie about their address are often the ones with limited resources, the ones who cannot afford to move to a more affluent neighborhood, the ones who can least afford to pay a fine or fight a felony charge.
I can also understand the families who have been kicked out of a school close to where they live, because the school is overcrowded with students from other neighborhoods. That, too, is unfair.
But that’s the problem. The system is unfair.
Isn’t it time for us change that system? Isn’t it time for the parents to have more control over where the kids go to school? Shouldn’t students who feel like they’re lost be able to find a place where they feel at home?
In the years since I’ve graduated, Florida has begun to offer choice that is not tied merely to where a family can afford to buy a home. The number of options available to families in the neighborhood where I grew up has increased. No district has created more magnet schools and choice programs than Miami-Dade County. It also has a growing array of charter schools. It’s home to some of the most vibrant private schools in Florida, and thanks to the growth of three scholarship programs, they are now within reach for thousands more families. In the coming years, parents will likely have even more choices in the public-school system, as open enrollment expands statewide.
No children should have to feel stuck in a school they don’t like. Parents shouldn’t have to commit a felony just to find a school where their child feels safe enough to learn.
To be sure, even with the proliferation of new choices, school districts have their hands full, trying to maintain order over assignment plans based on where students live.
But our schools should not leave desperate parents with few options other than to lie. Creating new and better options for disadvantaged families can help our public education system serve all students better.