With the final Florida schools kicking off the 2016-17 school year in the coming days, Step Up For Students team members have been busily working on applications for both the Florida Tax Credit (income-based) scholarship and the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs.
For the income-based scholarship, Step Up expects to have more than 92,000 students enrolled for the new year, and another several thousand more using the Gardiner to customize their learning.
“This is going to be the biggest year yet,” said Step Up President Doug Tuthill. “We’re elated to be able to offer learning options to this many Florida students who need it most. I am proud and humbled by our scholarship operations staff for the incredible work they have been doing, and the long hours they have put in, to get these applications processed and awards into the hands of these deserving families.”
Step Up staff has been working tirelessly completing applications, as well as working on regular year-round duties. More than 106,000 students have been awarded on the tax-credit scholarship with nearly 91,500 enrolling by Aug. 22. Of those, about 61,200 are renewal scholars.
This year’s scholarship is worth up to $5,886 for tuition assistance or $500 for transportation funding to an out-of-district public school.
Lawmakers broadened the income-based scholarship this year to students whose household income level was slightly higher than the 185 percent of the poverty level previously required, similar to the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program. If found eligible, many of these families can receive a partial scholarship to offset tuition costs.
The changes in the law, however, still require that the lowest-income families be awarded first. About 3,200 of these families, however, have already been awarded the tax-credit scholarship, too.
“Even working class families struggle with finding the right school for their children,” Tuthill said. “It’s tough to afford private school at those income levels as well. Now, we can start assisting these families find the best school for their children, too. And that’s very exciting.”
Also through the second week of August, more than 11,800 Gardiner applications had been started with about 5,600 students with certain special needs awarded for the new school year. The average Gardiner Scholarship is worth $10,000.
Both scholarships are still available for the 2016-17 school year. Income-based applicants who have been awarded, but have not yet formally enrolled their children into a private school must do so by Aug. 31 or forfeit the scholarship. After that, Step Up will continue to award scholarships until funding is depleted. This may mean that families receive news of a scholarship during the year.
Income-based scholarships will be accepted until Sept. 30. No new applications will be accepted after this time.
Gardiner applications remain open indefinitely.
Within the past week, Step Up For Students has sent three payment files to the bank to reimburse Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA) parents and guardians, providers and schools for expenses.
There were more than 1,000 reimbursement requests in these files totaling $1.2 million.
“Since the implementation of PLSA, this is the most that we have paid in a week,” said Jasmine Johnson, PLSA claims manager for Step Up For Students
Several factors led to the milestone for the program that serves children, ages 3 up to 22, with certain special needs in Florida.
“The new IT systems that Step Up For Students built from scratch, the policies and procedures that we have enhanced, our reflections on lessons learned, and the dedication from each employee on every team got us to this point,” said Gina Lynch, Step Up’s senior director of Operations and Organizational Improvement. “We can and should be proud of what we are doing for our PLSA families.”
It seems the milestone led to an outpouring of praise on Step Up’s Facebook page with more than a dozen parents writing 5-star reviews in recent days, as well as expressing their appreciation for the PLSA program and recent funding.
“The ability to get what is needed to teach my child with special needs feels like giving her a future,” wrote PLSA parent Lisa Cali on Step Up’s Facebook page. “Learning what she needs, when, where and with the tools she needs to accurately absorb the information – it’s changed our life.”
The Florida Legislature created the state-funded PLSA program in 2014, and it’s the second year Step Up has helped administer the program for students with certain special needs. Once the program was signed into law, Step Up had only weeks to create and set up a system to run the program and staff members have been working hard to make improvements ever since.
“Our PLSA families have played a big role in our successes by alerting us when things aren’t working and letting us know what works, too,” said Lynch. “We thank them for their help and their patience. It is our greatest goal to serve our families the best we can.”
Step Up For Students’ work with both the PLSA and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, a scholarship program for K-12 low-income children, has made the nonprofit organization a national model for the programs it runs.
“This is a significant honor,” Lynch said.
For more information about Step Up’s scholarship programs, visit www. StepUpForStudents.org.
While the 2015-16 school year is in its third month, it’s already that time of year again. Parents and guardians of Florida Tax Credit scholars through Step Up For Students may now apply for the 2016-17 school year.
Step Up partner schools have also been notified about the application season and have been asked to remind scholars to reapply now.
“This is something we have been working toward for several years and we’re excited that this year we can actually do it for our parents,” said Step Up’s Chief Operating Officer Anne White. “As our fundraising cap increases each year, our 3 percent administrative funds do as well, reducing the need for the application service fee. Our original budget had the fee being reduced to $14, but we worked with our various departments to ensure we can eliminate it altogether.”
The rest of the renewal process will look much the same, said Jeff Giese, director of operations.
For those renewal families, please access your parent login to begin the application process. As you apply, please be mindful of the following:
“As always, we urge you to completely finish your applications as soon as you can. This means submitting all of the requested documents. An application isn’t considered complete and can’t be processed until the application is filled out and all documents are in,” said Giese. “Once again, we expect an overwhelming number of applications and we would hate for renewal scholars especially to miss out due to missing paperwork, or an application filing that lingered too long.”
Applicants with any questions or concerns about this process, can all 877-735-7837. The Step Up Contact Center is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Eastern, with an hour closure from 11 a.m. to noon.
New family applications will open in the early spring, but those interested can add their information to our interest list and we will notify those families as we are preparing to open applications then.
About 2,400 Step Up for Students’ Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts families should have noticed something in their accounts this week: their funding for the 2015-16 school year.
The Florida Department of Education (DOE) has completed the review of first batch of approved accounts, and the remaining eligible student accounts are expected to be completed and funded in the near future.
“We appreciate everyone’s patience as the DOE has been working through its process to ensure those who have been approved are not enrolled in any other state-funded programs,” said Elizabeth Watson, Step Up’s director of client services.
The Florida Legislature created the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts program, a state-funded scholarship for children with certain special needs in 2014. With the PLSA, families may personalize educational plans for their children by directing scholarship funds toward a combination of approved programs and providers including private schools, therapists, technology and even a college savings account. Each approved student receives an average of $10,000 annually.
This year, lawmakers increased the budget from about $18.5 million to $55 million to fund about 4,000 from the PLSA program this year.
Those accounts that are funded, parents and guardians may now access their child’s PLSA ID card containing the student’s PLSA number, by accessing your Parent login.
“The payment process can now begin for the 2015-16 school year, and with our new payment system in place, we expect that the submission to payment timeline to move much faster and be run more smoothly,” Watson said.
Step Up has sent out emails to each account holder, as well as to providers.
Parents are reminded that if there are providers that plan to submit reimbursement requests on behalf of their student, please share a copy of the PLSA ID card with that provider. The PLSA ID listed on that card is necessary to their reimbursement request process.
“Please be aware that reimbursement requests that come from a provider have to be approved by you prior to processing for payment. This approval process takes place within your parent login,” Watson said.
Providers may now submit reimbursement requests for funded students.
Additional questions regarding submitting reimbursement requests can be answered by reading our Provider Handbook.
PLSA applications are still open for the 2015-16 school year. To apply, got to (link).
Many parent questions about the PLSA program can be answered in the Parent handbook.
Anyone who needs additional help with questions or concerns about this, can contact Step Up at firstname.lastname@example.org or 877-735-7837.
By TRAVIS PILLOW
Florida’s tax credit scholarships continue to draw some of the state’s most disadvantaged students from struggling public schools, according to the latest evaluation of the program by independent researchers.
As in previous years, Florida Tax Credit Scholarship students kept pace, on average, with their national peers. A score of zero means a student made the same learning gains as all test-takers.
After the students enroll in private schools on the scholarship, they tend to keep pace with their peers around the country, making about a year’s worth of academic progress in a year’s time.
The report for the 2013-14 school year, released by the state Department of Education on Tuesday, is based on test scores for more than 27,000 students in grades 3-10. It is the eighth evaluation of its kind, and the first conducted by a team from the Learning Systems Institute at Florida State University, which took over the role after a 2014 change in state law.
While the findings are similar to previous years, they cover more students, and include results for more individual schools, than ever before.
The tax credit scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts the redefinED blog and employs the author of this post. It is the largest private school choice program in the country, and served nearly 60,000 students in the year covered by the report.
New scholarship students were more likely to be black, less likely to be white or Hispanic, and less likely to be English language learners than the low-income students who qualified for the program but did not participate. They also tended to score lower on standardized tests in public schools, and were more likely to come from schools that struggled academically. More than 25 percent of scholarship students came from public schools that had been rated “D” or “F” in the previous year.
“New [scholarship] students, as in previous years, tend to come from lower-performing public schools prior to entering the program,” the report states. “Moreover, they are more likely to be among the lower performing students in their prior school before attending the program, regardless of the performance level of their public school.”
The new evaluation also reports learning gains for scholarship students at 158 private schools, 48 more than the previous year. (Though scholarship students that year attended more than 1,400 schools, the state reports learning gains only for individual schools with at least 30 scholarship students who have current and previous-year test scores.)
Learning gains compare students’ national percentile scores from one year to the next. If students’ percentile rankings hold constant from one year to the next, they can be said to have made about a year’s worth of progress.
There is considerable variation among schools. Researchers found most of the schools achieved roughly the same learning gain as the program overall — a year’s worth of growth in a year’s time. But they also found 18 schools where students’ three-year average gains were significantly greater than the norm, and 31 schools where they were significantly less.
In their conclusion, the researchers note scholarship students overall appear to be keeping pace with their peers.
“[T]he typical FTC student tends to maintain his or her relative position in comparison with all students nationally both in mathematics and reading,” they write. “It is important to note that these national comparisons pertain to all students nationally, and not just students from low-income families.”
Travis Pillow is editor of redefinED. He spent his early professional career reporting on the inner workings of state government for a variety of news organizations, and became immersed in Florida’s education policy debates while covering schools and the Legislature for the Tallahassee Democrat. A product of Seminole County Public Schools, he received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida in 2010. Reach him at email@example.com or (407) 376-3105. Also, follow him on Twitter @travispillow.
Summer has come to a close, and Step Up For Students looks forward to serving more students than ever this school year. An estimated 78,000 income-based scholars are expected to enroll in private schools throughout Florida and increased funding will allow us to award double the number of students we served last year with Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA).
“It’s exciting,” said Jeff Giese, Step Up’s director of operations. “We’re gearing up for another busy year and, as always, we’re looking to fine-tune systems and processes we have in place as we go along.”
One of the biggest changes this year is the PLSA reimbursement system. Step Up took down the old system this month and will launch a new user-friendly system in early September.
“What we heard from parents throughout the first year of the PLSA was that our system was cumbersome and where claims were in the process wasn’t clear, so we’ve actually built an entirely new system,” said Elizabeth Watson, Step Up’s director of client services. “We are certain this system will serve PLSA families and providers well. It will allow parents and providers full visibility to all account activity and, because this system was built by our internal IT department, any system-related issues will be addressed immediately.”
Step Up recently emailed PLSA families to alert them of the changes.
“If you didn’t receive the email, please make sure we have your current email address,” Watson said. “It’s important to keep that updated with us because for the PLSA program and the income-based scholarship program, this is our primary method of communicating with our scholarship families.”
While the transition is in the works, PLSA families won’t be able to submit new reimbursement claims or access their accounts. In the meantime, Step Up employees are still processing reimbursement claims submitted before the 5 p.m., Aug. 17. Once the new system is launched, parents and guardians can immediately submit any claims.
“Remember, you can still be reimbursed for any approved items that were purchased, or approved services rendered after July 1, 2014 as long as you still have funds in your account,” Watson said.
For a list of approved items and services and more instructions on submitting reimbursement requests, review Step Up’s 2015-16 Parent Handbook..
For more Information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call the Contact Center at 877-735-7837.
“We are committed to answering calls and emails promptly during this period of downtime,” Watson said. “When the new system is live, you’ll again have full access to any account data since the beginning of your participation with the PLSA program. We look forward to hearing your feedback on the new system.”