Category Archives for School Spotlights

From held back to no holding back

Torey Glover, left, and his twin, Trinidy Glover, right, pictured with their mother, Kim Glover, experienced a stunning academic turnaround at Lake City Christian Academy, which they attend on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

By JEFF BARLIS

LAKE CITY, Fla. – Sitting in the principal’s office of her twin sons’ school, Kim Glover pushed aside a couple of strands of wavy, auburn hair and took a breath to compose herself as she recounted the boys’ stunning transformation.

“I’ll try not to cry,” she said with her mellifluous Southern drawl.

After the family endured a drawn-out, painful divorce, Torey and Trinidy went from failing classroom distractions to model students, from being retained in seventh grade to posting high GPAs.

Her boys did the heavy lifting, but Kim says it wouldn’t have been possible without the stable, nurturing environment of Lake City Christian Academy and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship from Step Up For Students that enabled a divorced mom with three jobs to afford tuition.

“You can see how much this environment makes a difference,” Kim said with a sweep of her arm as if to highlight the abundance of open, green space, and the peaceful sounds of farm animals and children that waft through the 20-acre campus.

“It’s smaller classrooms. It’s teachers giving more one on one. They give you their phone numbers. It’s a family environment.”

Kim heard about the scholarship from a staffer at the neighborhood elementary school, where her oldest son, Trey, had been held back in first grade and was struggling with dyslexia. He got on track at LCCA. The twins followed after trying the neighborhood school for one week and not liking it.

Torey and Trinidy are fraternal twins, but hard to tell apart. They have the same angular faces with side-swept, light brown hair that falls in their eyes. They prefer to wear muted colors. They’re best friends who idolize their older brother, love baseball and being outdoors. Kim sometimes thinks they’re telepathic.

Seeing their parents’ marriage fall apart and being caught literally in the middle of mental and physical abuse took an awful toll.

“It got very bad,” Kim said. “When we split, it got violent. I went into a shelter for three months with all three boys. It took four years to get a divorce.”

The twins shut down at school. They were chronically tardy, disregarded classwork and talked incessantly.

“We were focused on socializing, mainly hanging out with friends, becoming teenagers,” Trinidy said. “Our priorities were screwed up.”

Twins Torey and Trinidy Glover have bonded with friends and teachers on the Lake City Christian Academy campus, which boasts a 21-stall horse barn, a farming area and a dance studio.

Torey and Trinidy had been behind after arriving at LCCA in second grade unable to read. It helped that principal Tana Norris and pastor/administrator Pete Beaulieu had known the family since the boys were little.

“We could have pushed them forward and hoped they would catch on at some point,” said Beaulieu, who had been the children’s pastor. “Holding somebody back is never an easy decision. But they were going through stress at home, and they were in the middle of searching for themselves.”

Too many D’s and F’s in seventh grade gave Torey and Trinidy no choice but to repeat. Friends asked what happened but were supportive. Teachers rallied. Everyone lifted them up with care, sensitivity, and good advice.

The twins took it to heart.

“I just got tired of failing,” Torey said.

Their teacher told Kim how Torey decided he wanted to get good grades because he saw how hard his mom worked, and he wanted to take care of her.

“That was heartbreaking in a good way,” she said.

The changes came suddenly. Kim remembers coming home one evening to Torey and Trinidy doing homework. She felt their foreheads.

Are you my child?

What’s going on?

“That light just clicked on,” Norris said.

Since eighth grade, C’s are rare. Kim has stopped worrying and no longer has to nag about school.

“They tell me what’s going on,” she said. “I hear them talking about school, classes, tests, and homework. It makes me proud.”

Torey and Trinidy give much of the credit to LCCA and their teachers.

“We have really close interactions with the teachers,” Trinidy said. “It’s nice. In the small classrooms you get a bond with all of your friends and even with the teachers. It feels like they’re one of your best friends or even a family member.”

The twins are in 10th grade now. Torey has a 3.75 GPA; Trinidy has a 3.41. They talk about starting careers after high school, although their ideas seem to change daily. They have a firm belief in themselves that Norris says wasn’t there before.

“They’re totally different,” she said. “They have goals and they have things they want to do, and they know they can accomplish them because they’re successful.”

About Lake City Christian Academy

Norris opened the school on a 1-acre lot with a 3,000-square-foot building in 1994 with 25 students. In 2000, LCCA moved to a vast campus with a 21-stall horse barn, a lighted equestrian arena, farming areas, a dance studio, a chapel, softball and baseball fields, a covered basketball court, 15 classrooms and a cafeteria. LCCA employs an experiential learning approach with farming, equestrian and video game design programs. Every student has an individual learning plan. BJU Press and Abeka are among the classroom materials. The independent, non-denominational school is accredited by Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS), and has 242 K-12 students, including 132 on Step Up For Students Florida Tax Credit scholarships. The Stanford 10 test is administered in April and STAR reading and math assessments are given three times a year. K-12 tuition is $6,000.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.


Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

Private school, public district collaborate to benefit teachers, students

school choice
St. Andrew assistant principal Bambi Giles, left, and principal Judi Hughes worked together for more than four years in Lee and Collier county district schools

By JEFF BARLIS

CAPE CORAL, Fla. – Judi Hughes is a serial retirer.

Nowhere is her quick wit more evident than when she explains why she came out of retirement a third time – after more than 40 years in the School District of Lee County – to be principal at St. Andrew Catholic School in this sprawling, sun-soaked suburban city.

“Irish Catholic guilt,” she says with a rhythmic chuckle, adding that she only had intended to help with the hiring process when the school drafted her.

Five years later, she’s still brimming with infectious energy that flashes from her baby blue eyes, and she’s found a way to marry her knack for building relationships with a natural instinct for being a private school administrator.

Some folks just aren’t meant to retire.

“I know!” she beams. “I’ve tried it a few times. I think I’m getting the hang of it now.”

Hughes did it all in Lee County public schools. A teacher in the county’s first middle school program, a principal, district director for elementary and secondary education. She opened a few schools, won blue ribbons and other awards, worked as a curriculum director in jails, retention centers, and drug rehabilitation centers before twice being coaxed out of retirement to start ninth-grade programs.

Now she’s the leader and beating heart of a thriving Catholic school – 315 K-8 students, up from 295 last year and 275 the year before – and she couldn’t be happier. Seventy-nine students use a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families. Step Up For Students administers the scholarships.

“This place is just different, and it’s a pleasure,” she said during a recent tour. “These folks have known each other for years, but they welcome new people in. The understanding is that you join the culture of caring and building faith. Hearts and minds, it’s not just words in a mission statement. They pondered it. These teachers do more. They know every child by name.”

It’s no coincidence that Hughes and assistant principal Bambi Giles, who spent more than four years in Lee and Collier county schools, have hired educators with a similar public school background. Ten of the school’s 23 teachers, in fact.

It’s also no surprise that Hughes and those teachers have maintained their ties. For years, teachers at St. Andrews have participated in professional development with the Lee County district, learning about classroom management, teaching strategies and exceptional student education.

“Once you’re a member of the school district of Lee County, you’re part of our family,” said Lynn Harrell, executive director of leadership, professional development and recruitment for Lee County schools. “Judi was for lots and lots of years. That makes it just a little bit easier, just like in any family, to keep and maintain that relationship so that we’re working together. Because in the end, we’re all working for children.”

Hughes was a mentor to Harrell earlier in her career when Harrell was a school administrator. It’s just one of myriad relationships forged through years of work and trust and common goals.

“Our relationship with Lee County is really wonderful,” said Giles, noting the weight that Hughes’ name carries. “They are very professional. They’ll answer any questions. They’ll contact us. It’s never a problem.”

James Herzog, associate director for education with the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, is encouraged by this example of public-private school partnership.

“It shows that education is not an us-against-them proposition,” he said. “Instead it’s all about collaboration to benefit all of Florida’s school children. Hopefully we can encourage other schools and districts to work together.”

Every Wednesday at St. Andrew there is early dismissal for teachers to collaborate and do professional development.

“I just think that’s what runs everything,” Hughes said.

Some of those former public school educators at St. Andrew, like first-grade teacher Crystal Melton, get two emails every Monday morning about professional development offerings – one from Giles and one from a former public school mentor.

St. Andrew educators, from left, Sharon Zebley, Crystal Melton, Lisa Olson, Susie Loughren, Cathy Calcaterra and Bambi Giles, come together as a family to nurture students and each other.

This group-within-a-group of teachers has helped the members transition from public to private. They’re all grateful for the extensive training they received in the public school system, but they’re also quick to state their reasons for choosing to teach at a private school.

Music teacher Julius Davis simply feels more at home in a spiritual environment. Davis, in his first year at St. Andrew, said he feels “set free” to be himself and exude his principles. Christmastime was particularly satisfying after nearly 20 years in public schools.

“I grew up in a black Baptist church, and I’ve played (music) for Methodist churches,” he said. “Coming here, the emphasis on the spiritual, this is the first time I’ve been able to teach stuff I grew up with. I wasn’t allowed to do that in the public school.”

Others, like Melton, kindergarten teacher Susie Loughren, and fifth-grade teacher Lisa Olson, have children at St. Andrew. But while the family atmosphere contributes greatly to their happiness, their choice to teach in private school was more complex.

Loughren, in her second year at St. Andrew after seven years teaching in public schools, feels she can be more creative, has more freedom and less test anxiety.

“The administration trusts us that we’re going to do what’s best in the interests of those children,” she said. “So if something goes on in your classroom and you need to focus on a social, emotional skill, you take that liberty to do it. It’s not just about getting in the academic rigor. We do it on a daily basis, but we have the opportunity to stop and do those teachable moments.”

Hughes recognized that stress, saw the anxious teachers who were afraid to break from the mold, “afraid of their own shadow,” as she saw it. There was more and more emphasis on tests and fewer field trips.

At St. Andrew, she works to pump confidence and empowerment into her staff.

“I’m happy I made the choice to come here, because I didn’t end my teaching career at a time when things weren’t going as positively,” she said. “I felt the stress of the teachers and couldn’t do anything to help them. They were losing their identity, feeling like they don’t have any choice or any power.

“Here they are free to make sound educational choices. And they have to be sound, because they have to show how it’s going to help with the standards. We give them as much freedom as we can. And they really own part of this school.”

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

School choice gave this educator a LiFT

By JEFF BARLIS

SEMINOLE, Fla. – Kim Kuruzovich’s daughter Gina has moderate autism, speech apraxia and dyslexic tendencies. She began a suite of therapies at age 2, then, at age 4, saw a psychologist for an educational evaluation.

The expert wasn’t encouraging.

“He told us, ‘You can look forward to Gina putting pencils in a box,’ ” recalled Kuruzovich, who has more than 20 years of experience teaching students with disabilities.

Kim Kuruzovich, an educator with more than 20 years experience in public, private and home schools, is executive director of LiFT Academy, a private school for students with special needs. Of 130 students, 124 attend with help from state-supported school choice scholarships.

Kim Kuruzovich, an educator with more than 20 years experience in public, private and home schools, is executive director of LiFT Academy, a private school for students with special needs. Of 130 students, 124 attend with help from state-supported school choice scholarships.

She and husband Mike drove home in stunned silence. It took a couple of months, but they snapped out of the haze and chose to ignore that doctor. It was the start of Kuruzovich learning to trust her instincts as a parent as much as she trusted her instincts as an educator.

Now, 19 years later, Kuruzovich is executive director of a private school built on those instincts.

LiFT, which stands for Learning Independence for Tomorrow, opened in 2013 with 17 students and five unpaid teachers who wore every hat imaginable. Today, it operates on two spacious, tree-lined church campuses. They serve more than 130 students with special needs, 124 of whom attend thanks to state-supported school choice scholarships.

“I never, ever wanted to go into administration. Ever,” Kuruzovich said. “I only ever wanted to be a teacher. I love teaching. I love seeing the kid get it and feel good about themselves.”

“What I found is I still get it as an administrator, but I get it in a bigger way. Now it’s not just my classroom, it’s every kid in this school.”

Before LiFT, Kuruzovich had taught in public, private and home schools. Her passion and talents helped make LiFT possible.

So did school choice.

Three state-supported scholarships – the McKay Scholarship, a voucher for students with disabilities; the Gardiner Scholarship, an education savings account for students with certain special needs such as autism; and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students – allow many LiFT parents to access a school they wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise. Step Up For Students helps run the Gardiner and Florida Tax Credit scholarships. But those scholarships also opened doors for Kuruzovich and her colleagues. It gave them power to create a school that could best serve those parents – and sync with their own visions of what a school should be.

In Florida, where school choice is becoming mainstream, more and more educators like Kuruzovich are walking through those doors.

***

It’s the first week of the school year, and Kuruzovich is in peak form – gliding through hallways and classrooms, a fast-talking, wise-cracking, blond blur of smiles and warmth.

The sheer number of inside jokes she shares with her students highlights how deep her connection runs with each of them.

Kuruzovich leads a robust faculty of 40-plus and oversees two growing programs – K-12 LiFT Academy and a four-year post-secondary transition program called LiFT University.

There’s also a post-graduate program so new it doesn’t have a name.

What it does have is Gina, its first enrollee.

“It’s a pilot program,” Kuruzovich said, “and she’s the pilot.”

Look beyond Gina’s darker hair, eyes and complexion, and you’ll see mom’s smile and bubbly charm. Kuruzovich began teaching special ed years before Gina was born, but her daughter has been the inspiration behind most everything at LiFT.

There isn’t anything Kuruzovich hasn’t done and seen from the perspective of both teacher and parent, which explains one of her guiding philosophies at LiFT: “Parents are the experts.”

As a strong-willed public school teacher, Kuruzovich craved autonomy and often bucked administration to work directly with parents. But being a parent changed the way she thought about teaching. She had experienced the system from both sides and learned the importance of listening to parents.

When Gina was in public school, Kuruzovich wielded her knowledge of the IEP Matrix like a magic wand. She knew how to get what was needed. She was the parent who didn’t back down.

“I want to make sure my kids get everything they deserve and have the right to get,” she said. “And I want that for every kid here, too.”

“There are a lot of people who don’t have that knowledge. So if you don’t go out and figure it out yourself or have a background, you’re stuck. And that’s sad. Not everybody has the resources that I had, the background that I had to make good decisions.”

That explains the tightness of the LiFT community. Collaboration and engagement are wired into the walls.

“It’s not a cookie cutter,” said Betsy Torop, whose son was in the first class to graduate LiFT University last May and whose daughter is now a senior in LiFT Academy. Both attended public schools, and they eventually ran into the limits of what those schools could provide. “There’s a particular willingness to talk about what the child needs and to make that change. Kim set that tone.”

***

After years of navigating public school as a mom and becoming entrenched in the advocacy community, it was finally time to return to teaching.

Kuruzovich spent six years at a private school, where she valued the freedom to do things differently. Gina was enrolled, too. They became close with several of the moms and children with neurodiversities who were the same age as Gina.

When the school struggled with administrative issues (and eventually closed), a parent asked Kuruzovich to home-school her child along with Gina. Another urged her to open a school.

Kuruzovich and some of her mom friends there had already been working on a business plan for a transition program named LiFT University that would serve their kids and others after high school. But with some of their kids in 11th grade, suddenly there was a need for a K-12 school instead.

LiFT Academy was born six weeks later.

“We basically went online,” Kuruzovich said, “and searched for ‘How do you open a private school in Florida?’ ”

Fast forward six years. Last spring, Gina walked with the first graduating class at LiFT U. Like her two classmates, she has a job, strives to live as independently as possible, and wants to get out of her parents’ house.

That’s Kuruzovich’s next goal – a long-term living community for young adults, which could also offer a residence for LiFT University students. It’s not something she ever foresaw, but Kuruzovich has learned to listen to the universe.

As always, Gina is the guide. If she wants it, it means there are others who do, too. She works four days a week at a retirement community and spends every Friday at LiFT, working with her post-grad teacher on their craft and design microbusiness. She goes out to movies with friends, goes on dates, uses ride-sharing services frequently.

“Things I always wanted for my daughter, I’ll fight tooth and nail for them,” Kuruzovich said, “but could she really do them? Turns out, yeah.”

“She certainly can do more than put pencils in a box.”

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

For wayward boys, a wild balm of a school

By JEFF BARLIS

Fighting, skipping, smoking pot – Jake Clayton’s freshman year in a public high school was a disaster, with explosive anger issues leading to a school record 44 disciplinary actions. Most days, the skinny kid with the mischievous smile would walk off campus and hang at a friend’s house. He failed nearly every class.

Jake Clayton was a troubled teen, but now is on track to graduate this year thanks to a McKay Scholarship and Gator Wilderness Camp School.

After his expulsion, his older sister discovered an off-beat private school called Gator Wilderness Camp School, where troubled boys live on 250 acres with cows and bee hives and learn to find paths to success. Could this work for Jake?

Jake’s adoptive mom, Virginia Clayton, was desperate enough to give it a shot. And thanks to a McKay Scholarship, a type of school choice scholarship for Florida students with disabilities, she could afford it.

Today, Jake is 17, months from graduating from his virtual high school, and planning to go to college. “The anger never comes out any more,” he said. “I’d be in a pretty bad spot if I hadn’t gone to camp.”

Since its founding in 2009, Gator Wilderness Camp School has served 139 students – nearly all of them on school choice scholarships – and become another distinctive piece in Florida’s increasingly diverse mosaic of educational options. Most of the roughly 2,000 private schools that participate in the state’s scholarship programs could be described as “mainstream,” but there are plenty of niche schools like Gator Camp. State-supported choice programs allow them to cater to the more specific needs of individual students and parents, and the more specific visions of individual educators.

Greg Kanagy, director of Gator Camp, is one of them. The mild-mannered 50-year-old grew up loving the outdoors in Pennsylvania, and earned degrees in physical education and special ed. He liked the idea of combining the two. “But I didn’t relish the thought of spending 25-30 years inside of four walls,” he said.

The camp says 80 percent of its students graduate; 85 percent of its graduates stay out of legal trouble; and 80 percent stay in school or work. That is “considered very high for the population we’re working with,” said school director Greg Kanagy.

In South Carolina, he worked for a similar school and found a passion for helping at-risk boys. The concept was inspired by a Texan named Campbell Loughmiller, who developed the first camp near Dallas in the 1940s and helped spread the idea around the country. After Kanagy got his master’s in education, the opportunity arose to move his family to the semi-tropical wilds of southwest Florida and start Gator Camp.

There is no sign on State Road 131 in Charlotte County when it’s time to turn off the paved road. That’s intentional. Isolation is key. A couple of miles down a dusty, white-sand road, the “school” sits, surrounded by vast tracts of farm land. The nearest visible neighbor is a sand and shell mine.

“I was a bit afraid of getting my hands dirty,” Jake said, “but I was up for giving it a try.”

The environment helped. It was hot and buggy, but also incredibly peaceful to hear nothing but animals and breezes making their way through the oaks, pines and cypresses.

The camp serves boys in three separate age groups between 10 and 15, with no more than eight campers in each. Most have special needs or disabilities. Many are deeply wounded.

“The families are pretty hopeless when they call us,” said Jackie Brucker, one of the camp’s two full-time family social workers.

A camper’s session lasts 15-18 months. Tuition is $1,000 a month, which sounds prohibitive, but the camp works with families to pay what they can. “We started in September 2009. We had one boy and two counselors,” said Kanagy. “His family said they could pay $200 a month, which (I knew) they couldn’t do. So, it’s got to come from somewhere.”

Gator Camp uses two types of choice scholarships to bridge tuition gaps: McKay Scholarships for students with disabilities, and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students, which Step Up For Students helps manage.. The rest comes from grants and donations from organizations, businesses, and individuals.

Chief Greg – as he and the counselors are called – lists the tenants of how the camp works:

  • Choice: Every boy agrees to attend, no one is forced.
  • Relationships: Those within the group and with the chiefs are paramount and constantly worked on. “The camper-chief relationship is oftentimes the first successful trust relationship these boys have with an adult,” Kanagy said.
  • Planning: Every day and every week, there is a plan, including chores and responsibilities.
  • Structure: The boys wake up at 6:30 a.m. Every day the camp sites are cleaned, pathways raked, gear stored. Bedtime is when all problems of the day have been solved.
  • Problem-solving: When there’s any kind of conflict, even something as seemingly minor as name-calling, the group stops what it’s doing and talks it to a resolution.
  • Evaluation: Everything they do is discussed after completion to analyze and reaffirm lessons learned.

The camp has horses, cows, bees (a dozen kid-sized suits were donated so the boys can help the beekeeper when he visits) and an area known as “Fruit Alley” with rows and rows of fruit trees.

There are no cellphones or video games.

“Come to camp,” Kanagy said, “and you’ll never hear them talk about missing those things.”

The boys are free to focus on themselves and their group, which is always planning something – budgets, meals, upgrading the facilities by hand, and trips to hike, swim and canoe. Every structure at the group’s campsite – including complex tiki huts – is either built or rebuilt by the boys.

“These represent some of the biggest accomplishments of their lives,” Kanagy said.

Jake’s anger issues came up frequently in his early days at camp, but the group and the chiefs talked it out meticulously. There was a lot of arguing, he said, but it was handled pretty quickly.

Jake got into a routine of doing the right things, and after several months began to realize how self-centered he had been. That’s when he started to truly embrace the group and help drive its progress along with his own.

“You had to want to be there and make a difference in your life,” he said. “I try to carry a lot of stuff over from camp. Structure is a big one. I felt lucky to go to a camp like that.”

The camp says 80 percent of its students graduate; 85 percent of its graduates stay out of legal trouble; and 80 percent stay in school or work. That is “considered very high for the population we’re working with,” Kanagy said.

“What this camp does is give the boys purpose,” he continued. “This is about a culture, and we work really hard to develop it and keep it in place. It’s incredible to see our students’ accomplishments.”

Jeff Barlis can be reached at jbarlis@sufs.org.

Seton Strong: Finding the normal after Hurricane Irma

By DAVID TUTHILL

Maria Niebuhr, first year principal of St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic School in Naples, Florida, sits behind her desk in an office filled with boxes stacked on boxes, placed on a floor stripped away to bare concrete.

As she holds two pictures showing the $1 million in damages the school sustained from Hurricane Irma, the sound of a screw gun pierces the air as its drilled into a nearby wall.

Maria Niebuhr, first year principal of St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic School in Naples, Florida, said dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma has been stressful, but the school’s spirit cannot be broken.

Maria Niebuhr, first year principal of St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic School in Naples, Florida, said dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma has been stressful, but the school’s spirit cannot be broken.

This is the new normal for St. Elizabeth Seton.

The pre-K3 through eighth-grade school lost power for two weeks during the storm and was forced to remain closed for three and a half weeks, longer than every other school under the Diocese of Venice.

Of the school’s 202 students, more than 70 students are on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income families. The program is managed by Step Up For Students.

Students young enough to enjoy a daily nap must do so on blankets placed on bare concrete. Black plastic has been placed over areas where the drywall was ruined. In several classrooms, entire walls are covered with it.

Maria Crowley has been teaching at Seton for 28 years. Her kindergarten classroom is lined with the black plastic. Underneath her desk, a large chunk of concrete is missing.

When Irma was bearing down, Crowley was ready. She stored things out of reach of the flooding. When the rain stopped and the wind passed, she showed up to sweep water out of her room.

“I just fear what happens if we have another hurricane,” Crowley says. “But we’ll do what we have to do.”

In Seton’s main building that houses pre-K3 through fifth grade, as well as the media center, everything had to be moved out, boxed up, put into the gymnasium and manually scrubbed down before being brought back inside.

The damage is extensive. Every classroom needs a combination of new ceilings, drywall and lighting fixtures. Outdoor bulletin board glass casings went flying during the storm, never to return. In the school’s courtyard, old bricks that once surrounded a statue of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton were rearranged by Mother Nature, while the statue was moved by work crews. Niebuhr says she still is still dealing with leaks nearly every day.

While insurance will cover the costly damages, the school is trying to recoup its $100,000 deductible to make other repairs that have long plagued it. Years of quick fixes left the 36-year-old school more vulnerable when Irma struck as a Category 2 hurricane on Sept. 10.

The rebuilding plan is to place all the students in portable classrooms so repairs and enhancements can be done simultaneously. It could take several months to complete all the work.

Despite all this, Niebuhr remains impressed by the resilience of her students.

“The children become immune to it, but it’s sad,” she says. “We’ve got to move forward with all of this.”

Annabel Krystaszek, an 8-year-old third-grader said it “felt weird being out of school” after Hurricane Irma hit.

Annabel Krystaszek, an 8-year-old third-grader said it “felt weird being out of school” after Hurricane Irma hit.

Annabel Krystaszek is a bright-eyed, 8-year-old in Erin Lanigan’s third-grade class. Her family had no power for a week and lost a big tree in her yard; Annabel loved the tree. To deal with the stifling heat, her family left their doors and windows open.

“It felt weird being out of school,” Annabel says. “I was happy to get math and spelling homework.”

Adaora Obidiegwu , 12, said Irma was the first hurricane she has experienced. The seventh-grader said her family lost power for about three weeks.

“I was scared when the storm came,” she says. “I didn’t like being out of school much. It was a little bit of a break, but I missed it.”

Irma might have battered Seton, but the school’s spirit has not been dampened. Upon returning to school, every child received a yellow #SetonStrong hard hat. A relaxed dress code on Fridays allows students to wear jeans and their #SetonStrong T-shirts.

In the spirit of solidarity, several Catholic schools across the country, including some as far away as Illinois and Connecticut, have “adopted” Seton and have raised money for its cause. An anonymous California benefactor sent a $5,000 check, while St. Joseph Catholic School in Bradenton held a fundraiser for St. Seton while repairing damages of its own.

Seventh-grader Adaora Obidiegwu, 12, said Irma was the first hurricane she has experienced. Her family lost power for about three weeks.

Seventh-grader Adaora Obidiegwu, 12, said Irma was the first hurricane she has experienced. Her family lost power for about three weeks.

One of the bulletin boards near Seton’s courtyard that was spared damage is lined with letters of support and drawings sent from a school in Hawaii.

In Irma’s aftermath, Seton students created an art project that involved coloring and branding rocks with the #SetonStrong motto and placing them throughout the community. The project caught the attention of the Naples Daily News, which ran a feature story about the positive vibes the project spread through the city.

St. Elizabeth Seton is battered, but Niebuhr says its spirit cannot be broken.

“Everyone here cares about each other,” she says. “The heart of the school is in each and every one of these teachers and students. We are Seton Strong regardless of what happens here. We have pride in who we are.”

David Hudson Tuthill can be reached at dhudson@sufs.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School in Orlando: Where everyone is welcome

By GEOFF FOX

In a middle school science room at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic hangs a quote from Albert Einstein: “You never fail until you stop trying.”

Another poster says, “Everyone is welcome here. Everyone belongs.”

Around teacher Barbara Schirard’s classroom are other posters showing the Periodic Table of Elements and the Earth’s solar system. On a recent fall day, the class was in the middle of a biology lesson.

“What is an internal stimulus?” Schirard asked.

“Feelings of hunger,” a student said.

“What is an external stimulus?” Schirard asked.

The class was quiet for a few moments.

“Remember when I dropped a book and it made you all flinch?” Schirard said. “That’s an external stimulus.”

The students at the Orlando, Florida, school nodded.

Principal Nathan Nadeau smiled as he watched.

“We’re a very good, diverse school,” Nadeau said. “You look at the population of Orlando and we’re a pretty good mirror (of the demographics). We have rich, not-so-rich and middle-class students. We have Vietnamese, Hispanic, African-American and white students.”

Of the 330 students at St. Charles Borromeo, 111 are on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income families, while five students are on the Gardiner Scholarship program for students with certain special needs. Both scholarship programs are managed by Step Up For Students.

The school shares a 20-acre tract with Bishop Moore Catholic School, a private high school where about 85 percent of St. Charles Borromeo graduates attend, and Morning Star Catholic School, which serves students with special needs. The campuses surround St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church located along the picturesque southwest shore of Little Lake Fairview.

According to Nadeau, the atmosphere is so inclusive that some students at St. Charles Borromeo elect to have physical education classes with their peers at Morning Star.

“They’re like a big community,” said Linda Caldwell, a marketing director in the Diocese of Orlando’s Office of Catholic Schools. “What I like is the diversity, all sorts of different kids add to the richness” of the environment.

“Nathan’s wonderful,” Caldwell said. “You can tell he loves the children. He is a very strong principal and doing tremendous work.”

In Holly Tulbert’s middle school English and language arts classroom, vocabulary words are written on a white board: desert, hover, wrath, envy and kleptomaniac. A sign on an adjacent wall reminds students that nouns are “words that names, persons, places and things,” while adjectives “describe nouns and pronouns.”

Still, the classroom is decorated to inspire teenage students.

In a corner stands a large cardboard cutout figure of Legolas, the expert archer from “Lord of the Rings.”

Outside the middle school building on this day, students spent their recess playing soccer in the grass and basketball on an outdoor court. Nearby, a group of students jumped rope.

“Ready, set – jump!” called one girl as another leapt between whirling ropes.

Besides its thriving academic environment, the school has basketball, soccer, track, volleyball and flag football teams that participate in the Catholic Youth League organized by the Diocese of Orlando.

At St. Charles there are 24 classrooms, 20 teachers and 40 employees. This year, 110 new students enrolled at St. Charles, an 11 percent increase over 2016-17.

“There’s a perception that when families come here, nobody pays tuition,” Nadeau said. “But we hold them to the fire to pay (the balance of FTC or Gardiner scholarships) – even if it’s $50 a month. Everybody here has a buy-in or a stake.”

That includes Nadeau, 36, principal at St. Charles since 2014.

One of the school’s five Gardiner scholars is his son Dominic, a 10-year-old fifth-grader. Nadeau’s daughters, Olivia, 8, a third-grader, and Clare, a 4-year-old preschooler, also attend St. Charles Borromeo. Olivia and Clare do not receive scholarships. Nadeau’s wife Mariana Nadeau teaches chemistry at Bishop Moore.

Nadeau’s experience as a father of a child with special needs “gives him a better understanding of what families need,” Caldwell said.

Dominic was medically diagnosed on the autism spectrum at age 5.

“He couldn’t talk at a year and a half, not one single word,” Nadeau said of Dominic. “Everyone tells you he’s fine, but you have to trust your gut. We got him into language therapy. He still gets language therapy twice a week, through Gardiner. He also learns social skills through camps at the YMCA. There are therapists there who work with small groups of kids at the camp, and (the therapy) is also covered by Gardiner.

“An autistic kid can do anything, but they have to be taught,” he said. “You have to teach them about things like personal space.”

While there are relatively few students with special needs at the school, parent Alfredo Ortiz said other students seem to understand they are not all alike and there are no issues with bullies. His son, Christian, a fourth-grader, is also on the autism spectrum and receives a Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up.

“The scholarship has been amazing,” Ortiz said. “Our son has some challenges, but the school has been accommodating and encouraging, but challenging at the same time. He’s been there since the middle of first grade. He was at another Catholic school, but we felt he needed a fresh start at a school that would understand his needs.

“It’s been night and day,” he said. “We’ve been so blessed. The atmosphere at the school is amazing. They’re very disciplined. The teachers are professionals and dedicated.”

Ortiz said Christian was previously bullied at a different Catholic school, but that ended at St. Charles Borromeo.

“Christian is a child with challenges and sometimes he reacts differently than the others,” Ortiz said. “When they do a fire drill he might get rattled with all the noise, but the kids and teachers work well with him. When they go on field trips they’re always looking out for him.

“They encourage him and his social skills have developed tremendously. He’s very funny and outspoken, and they gravitate toward him. When he needs his space, they give him his space. The administrators are willing to accommodate the school to the needs of the students, not the other way around.”

Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@sufs.org.

A post-hurricane story: ‘Right now, we just survive’

By GEOFF FOX

Dawn Baker, principal of Temple Christian School in North Fort Myers, Florida, struggled to remain stoic as she gave a tour of her school, which was badly damaged when Hurricane Irma ripped through the area in September.

Temple Christian School Principal Dawn Baker surveys damage from Hurricane Irma in what was once a classroom. She said it is unclear when renovations may be complete. Insurance will not cover all of it and the school must pay for $35,000 deductible.

She had already shown us what was once the library, where there were no shelves or books, just an exposed concrete floor and lots of missing drywall.

The scene, three months after Category 2 winds plowed through the area, was similar in all six classrooms, some of which were used to store the facility’s damaged toilets, sinks and other plumbing items. In some rooms at the private, pre-K-3 through 12 school, smoke alarms hung by wires from ceilings.

At least some drywall in every room was removed with up to five feet of it gone in some areas.

A musty smell permeated the premises.

Because of damage, the school’s front office was moved to a hallway and the staff nursery was moved into a pastor’s office; the school is part of Temple Baptist Church.

Third through 12th graders were being taught at six large tables in the cafeteria.

Outside, two portable toilets used by older students stood near the front entrance, a fence was damaged and a scoreboard across the athletic field lay twisted and crumpled.

“We never dreamed there would be this much damage,” said Baker, who is in her second year as the school’s principal. “We figured we’d be back in business after a few days. We weren’t prepared for the ramifications. It’s been very stressful for everybody.”

Dawn Baker, principal at Temple Christian School in North Fort Myers, helps a student with a math problem. The class was meeting in the school’s cafeteria because of serious damage caused by Hurricane Irma.

Damages to the building were estimated at around $240,000; the school’s deductible is $35,000, and Dawn Baker said she doesn’t know how the school will raise that amount.

Unfortunately, she said, a former church official had removed contents from its insurance policy just before the hurricane hit.

School officials have been working with an insurance company, but it is still not clear how much money the school will have to raise or when the work might be completed.

Of the 105 students at Temple Christian, 51 are on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income families; the program is managed by Step Up For Students.

Despite the number of lower-income families at the school, Baker said some of them have contributed money to the rebuilding efforts.

She paused as she relayed that information and her eyes welled with tears.

“It’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what we need,” she said. ““Right now, we just survive and keep going and keep the students’ needs met.”

The church was built in 1975 and repair work must adhere to stricter, costlier codes.

But the school’s most urgent needs relate to student seating. Thanks to Irma, the school lost all of its cubicle-like work stations where students could work individually and with less disruption.

Baker has found sources that can provide three-paneled desks for $300 each or computer carrels for $100 apiece, but money would remain an issue. Fifty desks at $300 is $15,000, while the carrels would cost $5,000.

Teacher Chet Baker, Dawn Baker’s husband, said he knew there would be big problems when they visited the school after the storm passed.

“The water was up in the back of the building, just gushing through the doors and going everywhere,” he said.

After Irma, school was out for two weeks.

As the Bakers worried about when the school will be renovated and how it will be paid for, teachers and students went about the business of learning.

In a first- and second-grade classroom, teacher Evelyn Kennedy was in the midst of a reading lesson. She pointed to the word knot.

“Do you hear the K? What do we hear instead?” Kennedy asked.

“The N,” several students said in unison.

She then went over the “onk” sound in the word honk, the “unk” in trunk and the Y sound in baby.

When Dawn Baker opened a door to the cafeteria, the din of dozens of third through 12th graders spilled into the hallway.

“This is the struggle, but what do you expect?” she said. “I’m surprised at how much progress I’m still seeing. It’s miraculous to me, because it gets pretty noisy. If I can’t concentrate in here sometimes, how can the kids?”

Amid the noise, high school teacher Jason Yeargin was teaching pre-geometry to eight-graders and Algebra I and II to high school students. Yeargin said his students have adapted well under the unforeseen circumstances.

“We do physical science in the hallway, but there are always a whole bunch of interruptions,” he said. “Students go outside for free time, and you can’t get outside without going through the hallway.”

Despite its challenges, the school is still participating in an annual Toys for Tots Christmas toy drive and working on a small Christmas production to be performed near the holiday. The program will include five carols, ending with “Silent Night.”

Baker was determined to forge on.

There wasn’t much choice.

“We’re trying to keep it simple,” she said, “but even now I’m feeling super overwhelmed.”

Geoff Fox can be reached at GFox@sufs.org.

 School Spotlight: De LaSalle Academy strives to make each day great for students

By GEOFF FOX

Hanging on a wall near the front desk at De LaSalle Academy is a large paper rendering of “The Cat in the Hat’s” iconic red-and-white hat. Next to the hat, cut-out paper letters spell out the following words from Dr. Seuss:

“You’re off to a great day

“Today is your day

“Your mountain is waiting

“So get on your way”

Motivational quotes, colorful posters and unique artwork line many of the walls at the academy, a private, first- through 12th-grade school for students with special needs in Fort Myers, Florida.

Principal Lori Riti has led De LaSalle Academy since it opened in 2012.

Opening the school in 2012 was the personal mission of Principal Lori Riti, who previously presided over a smaller school location nearby. When she realized that a larger school with more land would better serve students, she turned to her board of directors.

The lifelong educator was as persuasive as she is passionate about special education.

“Some donors gave seven figures to get us started,” she said.

There were 60 students when De LaSalle Academy of Fort Myers opened in 2012 and enrollment has grown every year. This year, the school is home to nearly 160 students, 54 of whom are on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs. The school also has one student on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families. Both scholarship programs are managed by Step Up For Students.

Many students at De LaSalle are high-functioning on the autism spectrum or have an intellectual disability.

“Our teachers and therapists are on the front lines, giving kids what they need every day,” Riti said. “And the parents have made a choice to put their kids in a private school, and they are very engaged. We want to interact with parents to help their kids reach their goals, and they give us feedback. It’s a collaborative relationship.

“We have kids with learning disabilities, language impairments, anxiety or mild mood disorders. A lot of the kids present socially typical, which helps the other students feel comfortable.”

There are currently 12 homerooms with 12 to 14 students per class. The school has 18 classrooms in which students are educated based on ability. For example, a reading classroom may have students of varying ages and grade levels, but all share the same educational needs.

De LaSalle employs 20 teachers and five therapists, including a speech and language pathologist, a communications specialist an occupational therapist and two counselors. There are also four therapy dogs: Sammi, a Westie; a pug named Daisy; Belle, a golden retriever; and Tucker, a cocker spaniel who can devour a foot-long Subway sandwich in minutes (just ask Riti).

Of the Gardiner students, three have been diagnosed with Prader-Willi Syndrome, a complex genetic disorder that affects one in 12,000 to 15,000 people. The disorder can affect appetite, growth, metabolism and cognitive function, according to the Prader-Willi Syndrome Association.

The school caters to the unique abilities of its young scholars. Since the school opened in 2012, 24 students have graduated and 12 have gone onto college, including two students who were accepted at out-of-state schools; three other graduates have gone onto a technical school.

In teacher Andy Delgado’s technology lab, there is a computer at each seat and the walls are covered with posters and pictures that resonate with the students – and Delgado. Super Mario, Spider-Man, Pokemon, Batman and “The Legend of Zelda” are all represented.

Drawn on a white board is a dark green rendering of Sheldon J. Plankton, a character from “SpongeBob SquarePants.” Attributed to the character is a quote: “Knowledge is power!”

The colorful classroom seems to make academics more fun and accessible.

“No other school would allow me to be myself and express myself to my kids,” Delgado says.

Last year, he even started a socially interactive video game club that has been extremely popular. The school also has soccer, cheerleading, basketball, golf and bowling teams and offers thriving clubs for drama, yearbook, yoga and cooking.

Next door to Delgado’s room, Rebecca Detwiler teaches a high school-level physical science class. On this day, her 14 students are learning how to use a compass to find true north.

“Geographic north,” she explains, “is different than magnetic north.”

Detwiler also teaches American Sign Language.

Eagle-eyed 10th grader Bryant Smith wants to someday work in the computer industry.

In Detwiler’s class is Bryant Smith, an energetic 15-year-old 10th grader who was diagnosed on the autism spectrum and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He previously attended a neighborhood school in Cape Coral, but has been at De LaSalle for three years.

“I like the smaller classes here,” Bryant says. “There are only about 11 students in each class and you can go outside and be with your friends.”

More importantly, Bryant says, the teachers and students at De LaSalle “know that I have all this energy and they understand it.”

“At my old school, they didn’t understand,” he says.

Bryant says he wants to someday work with computers, as he is good with his hands and technology. As he speaks, his peripheral vision catches a strange movement.

“Snake!” he says, his eyebrows raised and his left hand pointing down the sidewalk.

Sure enough, a non-venomous black racer has slithered out of some bushes and is relaxing on the warm concrete.

As Bryant tells his classmates about the black racer, students in Jessica Madera’s nearby science class are learning about bacteria cells.

On a wall in Madera’s classroom is a quote: “If we did all the things we were capable of doing we would literally astonish ourselves.”

A self-described ‘dog person,’ Alliya Dermer hopes to be an actress – or a veterinarian.

One of Madera’s students is Alliya Dermer, a junior, who has attended De LaSalle since her freshman year. She previously attended a local high school, where she said she struggled academically and socially.

All of that changed at De LaSalle.

“I made a lot of friends here,” she says. “The girls here are like my sisters.”

One of the most enjoyable experiences she had at the school was last year when the Drama Club performed “Treasure Island.” Alliya, 17, played Billy Bones, a rum-swilling bully known to spontaneously burst into song.

A self-described “dog person,” she smiles at the memory.

“There are too many things I want to do,” she says. “I want to go to college and I love New York. I want to be an actress, but I also want to be a veterinarian.”

Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@sufs.org.

 

 

 

 

Public, private schools’ partnership lifts up Orlando neighborhood

By JEFF BARLIS

Every week, students and parents at Calvary City Christian Academy, a K-12 school in one of Orlando’s most hardscrabble communities, convert groceries into care packages for scores of their neighbors. That those neighbors happen to be homeless students at Sadler Elementary, another school three blocks away, is only the first clue that the relationship between these high-poverty schools – one public, one private – is special.

Calvary principal Denise Vega and Sadler principal Kahlil Ortiz say that uniting as one makes both school stronger. “That sends a message to our parents. We’re not divided. We’re not two. We’re one. One with one purpose – to work together to make sure our children in our lower-income communities are getting everything possible. That only happens when you unite.”

For four years, the schools have worked hand-in-hand to serve their students, parents and neighborhoods, regardless of which school the students attend.

The result: Both schools and their heavily Hispanic populations now benefit from a wide array of social services – everything from English-language classes to housing assistance – provided by the church affiliated with Calvary. Both see each other as assets that can best uplift a community by cooperating. And both are quietly offering a glimpse of what’s possible if artificial walls between public and private schools can be knocked down.

“We’re modeling what is right by working together,” said Calvary principal Denise Vega. “That sends a message to our parents. We’re not divided. We’re not two. We’re one. One with one purpose – to work together to make sure our children in our lower-income communities are getting everything possible. That only happens when you unite.”

“You think of it as an octopus with eight legs,” said Sadler principal Kahlil Ortiz. “There are certain things that these legs can do, and certain things that those legs can do. So that’s kind of how we work. What can I help you with? What can you help me with?”

The partnership started with a phone call.

Four years ago, officials at Sadler asked Calvario City Church if they could use the church as a shelter in case of emergency. Of course, the pastors said. Is there anything else we can do?

That’s when they heard about Sadler’s homeless children. There were 30 to 40 back then. Now there are 85 to 90. (Sadler’s enrollment ballooned from 400 to 800 over that span.)

Vega, who is also a children’s pastor at the church, said she was in shock. “I felt a burden,” said Vega, a whirlwind of motion with a perpetually hoarse voice. “How can you learn on an empty stomach?”

One hundred percent of students at Sadler are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch. About 60 percent are English language learners. The demographics at Calvary City Christian Academy are challenging, too, with about 90 percent of students using the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students. The scholarship is administered by Step Up For Students.

But that didn’t deter anyone at either school from joining hands. In fact, the profound need compelled it.

The schools and the church hatched a plan to provide food to the homeless families on weekends, when the public school could not provide for the students. The groceries are purchased on Wednesdays, bagged on Thursdays and handed out from a pantry at Sadler on Fridays.

In addition, large companies like Publix, Goya, Nabisco and Merita have donated food unsolicited. It all ends up with the lowest-income families at Sadler.

Valeria Angeles, a sixth-grader who attended Sadler from K-5, was one of the students who received them. She brought them to her grandmother, Enitt Manzano, at the hotel she paid for weekly.

“I was so surprised and amazed,” said Manzano. “I didn’t have words to describe the happiness. It’s only the two of us, and all of a sudden we were overwhelmed with so many groceries.”

Valeria now attends Calvary City Christian Academy. She did well at Sadler, but her grandmother wanted to put her in a private school and she qualified for a Step Up scholarship.

Vega said there have been occasions in which each school has recommended to parents that the other might be a better fit for their child. The bottom line, she said, is helping the community, not staking out territory.

“Are they my competition? No!” Vega said. “These are children and they need support from people who are willing to extend a helping hand. That’s all we want to be.”

Food wasn’t the only thing missing at Sadler.

As the schools grew closer, other needs were identified and other services offered.

To start the school year, Calvary families round up backpacks full of school supplies to give to their counterparts at Sadler. At Thanksgiving, they give additional baskets full of food. At Christmas, they deliver presents in an Angel Tree event in response to student wish lists.

Calvary students, families and church members have painted buildings at Sadler and gardened in the courtyard. Vega taps into the church’s ministries for more resources.

The result is a suite of wraparound services for Sadler’s most disadvantaged families: English-language classes for parents. Assistance in getting food stamps, affordable housing, health care and jobs. There are even referrals for drug rehabilitation and a shelter for abused women.

“Everything that is available to us, we make available to the community,” Vega said.

Vega and Ortiz have forged a tight bond that reflects the closeness of their schools. They laugh together, plan social events together, and finish each other’s sentences.

A 15-year educator, Ortiz said the support his school receives from Calvary is unlike anything he’s ever experienced. It’s given him a vision of the future where institutions, including schools, can form even stronger ties to maximize their strengths.

“There should be no hurdles to providing for the community. That’s it. That’s basically what this is all about,” he said. “It’s just saying there are no lines here. Let’s make sure we can help our neighbor out, just as they would help us.”

About Calvary City Christian Academy

Located in Orlando’s Oak Ridge community, the school is a ministry of Calvario City Church and was formerly known as Iglesia El Calvario. There are 256 K-12 students, including 226 on the Step Up scholarship. Affiliated with the Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS), the school is accredited by the Association of Christian Teachers and Schools (ACTS) as well as Green Apple. It uses a mix of A Beka, Bob Jones and Saxon Math curriculums. The Terranova test is administered three times a year to measure growth. Tuition is $6,000 annually for K-8 and $6,300 for high school.

Reach Jeff Barlis at jbarlis@sufs.org.

School Spotlight: Pace Brantley School in Longwood

By GEOFF FOX

It was just after 10 a.m. and dozens of students at Pace Brantley School were in the middle of campus, kicking soccer balls in a large field, playing on a jungle gym, swinging and jumping rope under a cloudless sky.

Their voices and laughter were carried on a light breeze that shook Spanish moss in dozens of majestic oak trees that line the sprawling, nine-acre campus.

Ben Zanca suffers from asthma, cerebral palsy, autism and CLOVES syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by tissue overgrowth and complex vascular malformations. After struggling in public school and at a charter school, he is thriving in his first year at Pace Brantley.

It was eighth-grader Ben Zanca’s favorite time of day.

“I like it because I get to make friends, and you get to do a lot of fun things,” he said.

Ben has asthma, cerebral palsy, autism and CLOVES syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by tissue overgrowth and complex vascular malformations. After struggling in public school and at a charter school, he was thriving in his first year at Pace Brantley.

“His self-confidence has increased tremendously,” said his mother, Ann Zanca. “It’s a lot of hands-on learning. He made a car out of a Coke bottle and started telling me about Newton’s laws of motion.  His reading had regressed when he went into middle school, but here his reading, spelling and writing has much improved. And he’s enthusiastic about going to school.”

In 2016-17, Pace Brantley served over 170 second- to 12th grade students. Ben was one of about 35 students on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.

The school includes seven buildings, an outdoor basketball court and well-manicured football and baseball fields. The campus had one building, a former house, when the school opened in 1971. Additional buildings have been added as needed, and as money was available. The school has always been geared toward students with learning issues.

“The majority of our students have a difficulty such as auditory processing disorder, dyslexia or ADHD,” said Jennifer Foor, Pace Brantley’s elementary and middle school principal. “Some of them are on the autism spectrum, but on the high-functioning side. The kids on the spectrum are not here because of behavior concerns.”

Pace Brantley currently has three mental health counselors on campus, as well as an occupational therapist, speech pathologist and full-time nurse who specializes in handling students with anxiety issues.

This year, the school even “hired” Ben, a therapy dog who lives with school nurse Tara Mahoney and comes with her to work every day – like a law enforcement K-9 officer. An American breed mix, Ben is quick to lick the hands of strangers. When he is tired, he is not shy about dropping to the floor and stretching with a low yowl.

Ben has been immensely popular since his Jan. 3 debut on campus. Whenever students are feeling especially anxious, they can see Mahoney – and Ben.

“It’s positive redirection and visualization. I speak in a calm voice and there’s low lighting,” Mahoney said. “We typically end up on the floor. They can convey their feelings to Ben or just pet him. Usually, after 10 or 15 minutes they’re ready to go back to class. There’s a more relaxing vibe with him being here. He makes everybody feel more comfortable.”

Pam Tapley, who has been Pace Brantley’s head of school for three years, is always looking to incorporate effective, innovative concepts to benefit her students. She was previously an assistant superintendent of schools in Osceola County and has been a high school principal.

“I’m passionate about providing the environment that allows students with differences to be celebrated and surrounded by people who honor and respect that, but also believe they can be successful,” Tapley said. “We have a wrap-around philosophy. We want to provide the environment for students to be successful, but we do it with the parents, with the occupational therapy, with the speech therapy, the mental health therapy.

“We wrap the whole family into the support. A lot of times the families are frustrated. They’re seeking answers and support and we give that to them here. They don’t feel isolated anymore.”

The environment includes everything from cutting-edge technology in classrooms to practical lessons outdoors.

For example, there is a television production studio, where morning announcements are made under the supervision of instructor Katie Nichols and broadcast through the school. The studio features a green virtual television studio background, Macintosh computers, iMovies for editing, three cameras and a teleprompter.

There is also a greenhouse, where students grow snap peas, tomatoes, lettuce, kale and cabbage under the guidance of science teacher Suzy Grimm. Toward the back of the campus is the Arts Building, where drama classes are held. This year, the school is working on a production of “Aladdin.”

Ninth-grader Ryan Sleboda, a first-year student at Pace Brantley, said he loves the school.

Ninth-grader Ryan Sleboda, a first-year student at Pace Brantley, who is on the autism spectrum, said he loves the school.

“It’s more challenging than my other schools,” said Ryan, a Gardiner scholar who was diagnosed with autism. “The other schools just did the basics. This really is way more interesting.”

Those on the autism spectrum also benefit from social skills groups in which they learn to better interact with their peers.

“They go over eye contact and body language during personal interaction,” Foor said. “They learn how to react in situations and have conversations.”

The campus’ newest building is the high school, which opened in the 2010-11 school year. Besides classrooms and lockers, the high school features a complete science lab.

“They do dissections in there and everything,” Foor said.

According to Tapley, the school may not be done growing. She hopes to begin a capital campaign to build a vocational center on campus. Tapley is involved with the Greater Sanford Chamber of Commerce and often talks to business leaders in the community to determine what kind of employees they need.

It’s a way of helping her students succeed after graduation.

“What are we providing in a learning situation that gives them the time to learn to be valuable employees?” Tapley said. “We’re gathering the data now. We’re looking at (careers in) plumbing, construction, air-conditioning, culinary and early childhood. We want to look at the employability rates, because you don’t want to flood the market.”

Susan Sleboda, Ryan’s mother, said the school has been a blessing for her entire family.

“He has blossomed because of being at that school,” she said. “What they offer these kids – the environment, in particular – is in my opinion revolutionary. For a child like mine, who can’t typically succeed in a learning environment, it’s like a puzzle fitting together. For Ryan, it provides the perfect environment. The teachers are understanding of your child’s disabilities, as well as their abilities.

“It would be difficult to afford without the scholarship. It would be like paying another college tuition.”

Geoff Fox can be reached at gfox@sufs.org.