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.
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 email@example.com.
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.
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.
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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 email@example.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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 email@example.com.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
“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 email@example.com.
By GEOFF FOX
Classes were changing at The Broach School Tampa Campus and veteran teacher Susan Gettys was busy steering students to their proper classrooms.
With only a few weeks before the end of the school year, the notorious “spring fever” had set in for some students who lingered in the hallway.
“Come on, let’s go gentlemen and ladies!” Gettys called.
She looked into a classroom.
“OK, who else is in there?” she said. “Let’s go.”
Within moments the students were in the right classrooms and Gettys relaxed with a grin.
Of the 90 or so students at Broach Tampa this year, 18 were on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for lower-income families and four were on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs; Step Up For Students helps manage both scholarships.
The K-12 school has been in Tampa since 2000 and at its current location on Linebaugh Avenue since 2013, according to Principal Sonia Anderson. She said word-of-mouth advertising has been responsible for the school’s growth. This year’s enrollment was more than double its 2015-16 numbers.
“I think it’s the love and commitment we have with our families,” Anderson said. “We do more than just teach. We feed them if they’re hungry, clothe them if they need it. My staff does it from the heart, not just for a paycheck. Some of our current students have cousins and other family members that went here 15 years ago.”
Besides having an inclusive environment with small class sizes that offer students more individual attention, Broach Tampa has graduated many students who go on to college.
“We have children with autism who have gone onto college,” said Gettys, who taught in Tampa public schools before coming to Broach Tampa 12 years ago. “We have (former students in college) all over the place. One young man couldn’t read a lick when he got here; he was in ninth grade and could not read. But we have an American history book in graphic novel form and that’s when he got it. He’s in college now.
“Stories like that are why I love this school so much. Once a kid finds reading, there’s no stopping them.”
Many students at Broach Tampa have previously attended public schools, where they either got lost in a sea of other students, didn’t perform well or sometimes got bullied.
Seventeen-year-old Enmanuel Gonzalez moved to Tampa from Cuba several years ago with his mother. Naturally quiet, he struggled to fit in at a large neighborhood school.
His mother learned about and applied for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, and Enmanuel was accepted. He has attended Broach Tampa since 2012.
“The people around me (at school) are much better to be around,” Enmanuel said. “I like that the classes are smaller and if you ask the teacher a question, they try and work with you.”
Enmanuel said he most enjoys English, history and American government but is considering a career in computer programming.
Amani Santana, a 17-year-old 10th-grader, has attended the school for about a year. She previously attended an overcrowded public high school in Tampa, where she struggled academically and socially.
Amani said she is relieved that her primary guardian Jenny Fillmore learned about the tax-credit scholarship.
“A lot of the teachers here are more hands-on and they really take the time to help you,” Amani said, adding that she most enjoys cooking, sewing and science classes.
“I want to go to go into a culinary school that also teaches business so I can open a bakery in New York,” she said. “When I went to New York, I didn’t see a whole lot of bakeries and a lot of people like pastries.”
Gettys has confidence the school can help turn Enmanuel’s and Amani’s aspirations into realities. She and the school’s other teachers understand their students well enough to know when they need to be pushed academically and when to ease up – but always in a positive manner.
Once a straight-F student in middle school, Gettys said she remembers the commitment shown her by teachers at a small school in rural Florida. Broach Tampa reminds her of that school.
“We have a family atmosphere here,” she said. “All of our parents know first-hand what’s going on and we do several events each year for the families.”
Fillmore, Amani’s guardian, is thankful for the opportunities Amani has enjoyed at Broach Tampa.
“She’s having no struggles now, none,” she said. “They’ve both been doing great. It’s the best school they’ve ever been in. I could go on and on about it. That school has been a Godsend.”
Geoff Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By GEOFF FOX
Nataleigh Monterio put on her pink riding helmet and light-up cowboy boots.
“I’ve been riding horses my entire life,” said Nataleigh, 9. “Sometimes they answer questions. Miss Patty will ask them yes or no questions and they shake their head yes.”
Nearby, her classmate, Xavier Cebollero, 8, watched with envy. With a cast covering his left forearm after a tumbling accident, he was unable to ride that day.
“Some of the horses are a pain, because they don’t listen to me,” he said. “They speak horse.”
Nataleigh and Xavier, both third-graders, are two of HOPE Ranch’s 125 students. About 60 percent of the students are on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs; Natalie and Xavier have diagnoses on the autism spectrum. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.
“Some of these kids have been bullied and abused,” said Jose Suarez, who has run the school since 2005 with Ampy, his wife of 34 years. “They don’t trust people and adults.”
The school’s horsemanship classes are taught by Patty Anderton – known to the students as “Miss Patty.” Anderton used to run a business in Odessa, Florida, where she taught clients the finer points of horse riding. About six years ago, Jose Suarez asked her to help out at the school temporarily. It turned into a full-time job and Anderton hasn’t looked back.
“I love it here,” she said. “It’s much different. My clients before were usually adults and I wanted something different.”
As Anderton spoke, Nataleigh navigated Georgie around a figure eight pattern and had her trot at different speeds.
“The horses help bring them out of their shell,” she said. “A lot of them haven’t had the greatest life in school. They don’t trust a whole lot and the horses help bring that trust out.”
While horse riding is a popular activity, none of the students automatically get to ride every week.
“Horsemanship is a class, but riding is a privilege,” Jose Suarez said. “They have to have their grades and behavior under control. They have to earn it.”
The Suarezes opened the ranch in 2005, originally for troubled children. By then the couple, who have two adult children, had been caring for foster children for two years. Not long after opening the ranch, the mother of an autistic child approached them about expanding the program.
Ampy Suarez couldn’t say no.
“We want to give them opportunities that they never would have had otherwise,” she said.
It seems to be working. A discussion Nataleigh and Xavier had in the horse arena demonstrated genuine enthusiasm among the students.
“I just love this school, in general,” Nataleigh said. “When I was five or six, I went to a completely different school. When I was really young, I was really picky, though. They didn’t have a barn; they didn’t have any animals.”
“In Miss Patty’s class, we get to go on field trips. We went to We Rock the Spectrum in Pinellas County,” Xavier said, referring to the Clearwater gym with equipment designed to help children with sensory processing disorders. “We also went to The Brick University (an art school for children). We got to make a plane and a cupcake out of LEGOs.”
Xavier wasn’t done talking, but Natalie’s excitement prevented her from staying quiet.
“One week every year, we have Spirit Week,” she said.
Xavier started to speak again.
“Xavier, calm yourself,” she said. “Then, on a specific day, we have Character Day.”
“That’s when we get to dress up like any character,” he said.
“Yes, thank you, Xavier,” she said. “I went as a HOPE Ranch Learning Academy fairy. I had a little skirt and fairy wings, and it was really cute.”
“I was a mixture of super heroes,” he said. “I had a Captain America mask and a Superman cape.”
“He was Super Ultra Xavier!” she said.
As the school continues to grow, Jose Suarez said it will expand. He expects 200 students next year.
“We’ll need to beef up our infrastructure and maybe open another campus,” he said.
Suarez attributed the school’s growth to word-of-mouth advertising among parents of children with special needs, as well as a Google arrangement that drives Internet browsers to HOPE Ranch’s website.
“I’m starting to get requests from across the nation,” he said. “I recently got a call from Wisconsin. They said, ‘If that’s the right school, we’ll move.’”
Reach Geoff Fox at email@example.com.