Category Archives for School Spotlights

School Spotlight: Hope Ranch Learning Academy

By GEOFF FOX

Nataleigh Monterio put on her pink riding helmet and light-up cowboy boots.

Smiling wide, she stepped onto a mounting block, threw her leg over a 1,000-pound Appendix Quarter Horse named Georgie and began riding her around an outdoor arena at HOPE Ranch Learning Academy.

“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.”

Nataleigh Monterio

Nataleigh Monterio, who is on the autism spectrum, enjoys equine therapy at HOPE Ranch Learning Academy in Pasco County.

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.

Equine therapy is one aspect of a typical school week at HOPE Ranch, which operates three campuses – two in rural Hudson in northeast Pasco County and one in Zephyrhills on the county’s east side.

“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.

Anderton smiled.

“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.

Xavier-Cebollero-2

Xavier Cebollero, says riding a horse can be a challenge. “Some of the horses are a pain, because they don’t listen to me,” he said. “They speak horse.”

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 gfox@sufs.org.

 

By GEOFF FOX

Ampy Suarez laughed heartily, while her husband Jose raised his eyebrows with a sigh. VDay2017

The couple, who run Hope Ranch Learning Academy in Hudson, Florida, have been married 34 years. The children of Cuban immigrants who came to Miami in the mid-1960s were asked about their first date, which involved an unfortunate rollercoaster ride at a fair in Miami. Rollercoasters did not agree with Jose, but he didn’t want to disappoint the girl who would become his bride.

So, he got on. He was woozy when the ride ended. So woozy, that, well … Somehow, the poise Jose showed in the aftermath forever warmed Ampy’s heart.

Nowadays, the Suarezes love their work as much as they love each other. The couple, who has three adult daughters and five grandchildren, serve 120 special needs students at Hope Ranch campuses in Hudson and Zephyrhills. About half of the students are on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs; a scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.

One aspect of the academy’s curriculum includes equine interactions, which uses activities with horses to promote physical, occupational and emotional growth. Annually, the ranch
hosts a Horse Jamboree, and parents often get teary-eyed as they watch their child lead a 1,000-pound animal around the arena.

“ We just want to give them opportunities they never would have had otherwise,” Ampy Suarez said with a loving smile. And Jose beamed, too.

Reach Geoff Fox at gfox@sufs.org. 

School Spotlight: Lake City Christian Academy

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the redefinED blog on Dec. 14, 2015. The blog is hosted by Step Up For Students and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.

By TRAVIS PILLOW, redefinED

One recent morning, Tana Norris walked into the small building that houses the makeshift dance studio at her North Florida private school. “I’m a dancer!” Stephen, an 11th-grader, responded. He and some classmates launched into a routine set to the contemporary Christian sounds of MercyMe, twirling, tapping and finishing with a confident bow.“I hear there are some amazing dancers in here,” she intoned.

Lake City Christian students learn to tap dance.

Lake City Christian students learn to tap dance.

Stephen, it turns out, is more than a dancer. He’s also a prize-winning Special Olympics athlete (his finishes in local competitions include second place in the broad jump and first place in bowling) and a testament to the approach Norris said has guided Lake City Christian Academy since she founded it more than 20 years ago: “If a child feels good about themselves, and feels safe, they can learn.”

The nondenominational private school has found ways to cater to a diverse group of children, the majority of whom either have special needs or didn’t quite fit in at other schools. Nearly half of its 194 students rely on McKay scholarships, the state’s voucher program for special needs students. Others use tax-credit scholarships for low-income students or the state’s newest option, the Gardiner Scholarships, formerly known as the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer the latter two programs.

Crystal Hair, the school’s dance instructor, said movement and music can have benefits for all kinds of students. For some, dance can even help with reading instruction.

“It’s operating their whole brain,” she said. “It’s amazing to see how much dance helps in their academics.”

Norris graduated from the University of Florida and began her career teaching in public schools. She quickly grew frustrated. The classes were too large and the rules too burdensome for her to give students the individual attention she felt they needed. She took a pay cut, and started teaching at a small private school for $150 a week.

She founded Lake City Christian in 1994, seeing a need for a private school that wasn’t affiliated with a single church. She set out to meet the needs of students she struggled to accommodate in public school — from those with special needs to those who are academically gifted. Dance helped for some. Others needed art lessons or auto-mechanics classes or college courses while they were still in high school. Some young children could learn responsibility and pattern recognition by caring for the baby pigs, goats and tortoises the school keeps on its campus.

Others, like a first-grader named Tegan, found solace on the back of a horse.

Tegan suffered a stroke before she was born, which has inhibited the growth of her muscles and her use of language. Zoey, one of the school’s therapy horses, is teaching her to exercise both her body and her voice. She’s learning to shout commands and perform stretches in the saddle.“Horses make very good counselors,” said Norris, who’s also a certified riding instructor. The rhythm of their gait is similar to humans’. Riding can help children with under-developed muscles. If a child is having a seizure, a horse can detect it before adult humans nearby.

Tegan performs stretching exercises while riding Zoey.

Tegan performs stretching exercises while riding Zoey.

Norris said Tegan, in her first year at the school, has made huge strides in just a few months.

“Before she was nonverbal,” she said. “She didn’t really participate. And now, she wants to participate in everything.”

Other students face more mundane challenges. For 12th-grader Katie Cutford, it was math anxiety. Earlier in her academic career, she left the school and bounced among other options, including home schooling, before returning to Lake City Christian during high school, where she got the extra help she needed in the subject that challenged her the most.

“It just wasn’t working for me,” she said. “When I came back, I realized what I had. My teachers were willing to stay after school with me.”

Now, she’s in dual-enrollment courses at Florida Gateway College. She signed up for the school’s peer-counseling program, which lets her work one-on-one with other students at the school. Through that experience, she’s discovered a potential career path.

“I feel like it’s preparing me to be a teacher even before I go to college,” she said.

 

School Spotlight: PenTab, Miami Gardens

By SHERRI ACKERMAN

When PenTab Academy opened 13 years ago inside a Miami Gardens church, it had one teacher and five students.

The school was part of a ministry led by Pastor Robert Stewart of Pentecostal Tabernacle International. He turned his office into a classroom to provide the congregation and community with a safe place for children to grow academically and spiritually.

By the end of its first year, PenTab added eight more students. Today there are 256 boys and girls in prekindergarten through 8th grade filling 10 classrooms – part of a church expansion that incorporated a neighborhood strip mall at 18415 N.W. 7th Ave.

“Parents began to search us out because they wanted something better for their children,” said Barbara Sharpe, who became principal in 2005 and now oversees 25 teachers and five administrators. “Many students were not meeting success – academic or behavioral. ’’

PenTab Academy Principal Barbara Sharpe

PenTab Academy Principal Barbara Sharpe

PenTab offers individualized instruction, a Christian-based curriculum, small classes and teachers who reflect the diverse international community served by the school.

Sharpe counts students and staff from her homeland of Jamaica, the Bahamas, Haiti, Trinidad, Guyana and the United States.

Enrollment also has increased due to the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, she said, with 156 students receiving the income-based tuition assistance program through Step Up For Students. Annual tuition is $4,820 plus fees.

“Many of our families could not afford a private school education for their children without the scholarship,’’ Sharpe said.

A member of Pentecostal Tabernacle, she stepped up to serve as PenTab principal after almost six years teaching third through fifth grades at traditional public schools. Sharpe viewed the vacancy as a calling.

“I came to a private school because I believe in the mission of small schools,’’ she said. “I believe in educating the whole child – academically, emotionally and spiritually.’’

PenTab offers students in K-8 the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) curriculum, instruction used by many Christian schools and homeschoolers that is designed to help students master one content area before moving to the next.

“We provide a diagnostic test, determine their needs, then implement an academic plan,’’ Sharpe said. “They won’t be promoted unless they have demonstrated at least 80 percent mastery in all content areas.’’

This approach works well for struggling and high-achieving students, she said. Slower learners can work at their own pace until they grasp the lesson while advanced learners can move ahead if they’re ready.

Learning gains are measured annually by the national Stanford Achievement Test. PenTab also started participating this school year in Success Partners, a free program from Step Up For Students that provides professional development and software to help spur parental engagement and assess student data.

In addition, PenTab offers Spanish, music and P.E. Although the school continues to grow, Sharpe said it has retained that neighborhood feel that lets her and her staff observe students’ individual talents. During a recent holiday performance, Sharpe got to see one of her fifth-graders dance – a skill even his mother wasn’t aware he had.

“That’s what I like about a small setting,’’ Sharpe said. “It gives you an opportunity to know each student and help them develop to their fullest potential.’’

Want to nominate a school for a profile? Tell us why in an email and send it to Sherri Ackerman, public relations manager, at sackerman@sufs.org.

 

 

School Spotlight: Tampa Bay Christian Academy, Tampa

By SHERRI ACKERMAN

Shaneka Paul struggled with a 2.0 grade point average her freshman year at Tampa Bay Christian Academy, but the 2015 graduate worked diligently with teachers to raise it to 3.1 her senior year – all while working two part-time jobs to help her family.

Shaneka Paul

Shaneka Paul

Now a freshman at Hillsborough Community College, she hopes to be a social worker one day.

Sheneka is one of the many success stories shared by Tampa Bay Christian Academy Headmaster Natasha Sherwood, who credits the school’s dedicated staff, nurturing environment and personalized curriculum with helping students with a wide range of learning skills and backgrounds succeed.

“We’ll work with any family who really wants to be here,’’ Sherwood said.

Of the academy’s 206 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, about 100 receive the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students this school year. The program assists with tuition at more than 1,500 participating private schools across the state.

For many of Sherwood’s students, like Shaneka, a former scholarship recipient, it’s the only way they can attend a private school. The academy is home to a large number of Hispanic and immigrant families, with some students using educational Visas from Vietnam, South Korea and Venezuela.

“We have a wonderful international environment,’’ Sherwood said.

TAMPA BAY CHRISTIAN ACADEMYFounded in 1957, Tampa Bay Christian Academy is accredited by the Christian Schools of Florida and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Tuition ranges from $6,200 to $6,800 plus fees. The upper school curriculum focuses on a rigorous college preparatory, with honors classes and a dual enrollment program through HCC and the University of South Florida.

Students take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills among other national exams to measure learning. Test scores help administrators adjust curriculum based on needs. For instance, when 2013 science scores showed students were performing on average with or slightly behind their national counterparts, administrators analyzed results.

That led to reassigned teachers, new textbooks and new courses. Then the school brought in two science professionals with lab experience and more than 30 years of teaching experience, tasking them with reinventing the upper school science curriculum.

Students started visiting Lowry Park Zoo to work with staff and see science in action. And science started emerging in other courses like English, which included using the chemistry of crime scene investigations while studying Macbeth.

It paid off, Sherwood said. When ACT scores for 2015 came in August, students’ science scores had jumped from 16 percent in 2013 to 22.5 percent – 3 percent above the state average. Now her staff is looking at making similar changes to the lower school as well.

The school is drawing upon skills honed by participating in Success Partners, a free program developed by a team of longtime educators at Step Up For Students. Participating schools receive professional development and software to help them better assess data and cultivate parental engagement with a goal to continually improve achievement.

A spiritual sign hangs at Tampa Bay Christian Academy serves as a reminder of having faith and the good things that will come during the school year.

A spiritual sign hanging at Tampa Bay Christian Academy serves as a reminder of having faith and the good things that will come during the school year.

“It’s a great program,’’ Sherwood said.

In addition to academics, students can participate in various honors clubs, including the National Honor Society and Mu Alpha Theta for mathematics. There’s also yearbook, student government and sports teams including girls’ and boys’ basketball, coed flag football, girls’ volleyball and cheerleading.

The nondenominational school also provides students with a spiritual focus, offering Bible classes, devotionals, retreats and community services. The school continues to grow, with 40 new students enrolling since May, Sherwood said. But it’s still a close-knit environment, where 15 seniors make up the Class of 2016.

“We are proud of a lot of things here at Tampa Bay Christian Academy,’’ Sherwood said. “But the thing that I am most proud of is that we are a family.’’

To learn more about Tampa Bay Christian Academy, go to www.tbcarams.org

 

 

School Spotlight: Morning Star School, Pinellas Park

By Sherri Ackerman

Part of the Florida Catholic Diocese system, Morning Star School in Pinellas Park has educated students with special learning needs for 46 years. The school is one of six in a network across Florida; the first school opened in Jacksonville in 1956 to serve boys and girls with physical needs.

morning starThe model has since expanded, addressing a growing need for schools to provide more educational opportunities for students with learning disabilities and other special needs.

The Pinellas County school has about 87 students in first through 12th. Of those 17 receive the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA) through Step Up For Students.

The PLSA funding is directed by families so they can choose their children’s learning options, using the award to pay for approved therapists, private school tuition or technology. They can even save some of it for college.

Morning Star is a nonprofit and receives some of its funding from the diocese as well as the community. The school is accredited by the Florida Catholic Conference and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Adam Thomas has a severe speech and language process disorder along with an auditory processing disorder, so the onsite speech and occupational therapy specialists at Morning Star School make it easier for him to have his special needs and educational needs met in one place.

Adam Thomas has a severe speech and language process disorder along with an auditory processing disorder, so the onsite speech and occupational therapy specialists at Morning Star School make it easier for him to have his special needs and educational needs met in one place.

Students receive grades based on their abilities. They also are evaluated quarterly and take annual standardized tests, including the national Iowa Tests of Standard Basic Skills (ITSBS) used by Catholic schools across the country. The curriculum is in line with national standards and benchmarks. Courses of study include language arts, math, science and social studies. Students also take part in religious education, P.E., technology, library and art. A new music therapy program started in the fall.

The school employs nine teachers, three teaching assistants and four administrators who focus on providing students with everything they need to be successful, including individual learning plans in small group settings. On average, there is one teacher per 11 students. Teachers are not only state-certified, but have additional ESE (Exceptional Student Education) credentials.

“That’s what I think really makes our school stand out,’’ said Morning Star Marketing Director Jennifer Brooks, who was so impressed by the level of professionalism that she and her husband enrolled their 10-year-old son, Adam.

Adam has a severe speech and language process disorder along with auditory processing disorder, so the onsite speech and occupational therapy specialists were other perks.

“That’s part of the tuition, so it’s not extra,’’ Brooks said.

Morning Star takes great pride in providing that value to families in addition to ensuring their children receive a quality education.

“I like to tell people, ‘We’re just a regular school that operates on a highly-specialized level,’ ’’ Brooks said.

 

A Catholic school turnaround in Florida’s rural heartland

Editor’s note: This story originally ran Sept. 28, 2015 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students, and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.

By Travis Pillow

Three years ago, when Donna Gilbert learned her husband’s job would be transferred to rural community in Florida’s agricultural heartland, she considered staying behind with her son, Christopher. She worried that if her family left St. Cloud, just south of Orlando, he would not be able to continue his Catholic education.

A visit changed her mind. She went to Sebring (Highlands County’s largest city, with a population just over 10,000) and met with Anna Adam, who was then in her second year as principal of St. Catherine Catholic School.Gilbert learned a string of small towns near the headwaters of the Everglades, where nearly one in three residents is older than 65, is home to the kind of turnaround story Catholic school supporters all over the country are hoping for.

St_-Catherine_art-class

Fifth-grade students learn about lines and perspectives during an art lesson at St. Catherine Catholic School in Sebring, Fla.

In five years, St. Catherine has doubled its enrollment. Its academics are getting stronger, too. It’s picking up buzz among parents, and proving the Catholic school renaissance is not just an urban phenomenon.

Since enrolling three years ago, Christopher is learning “all his skills and all his sacraments,” Gilbert said. This year, he started fourth grade reading at a fifth-grade level. Now, her main concern is what will happen when her son is ready for sixth grade. St. Catherine is the only Catholic school in Highlands County, and it only serves preschool and elementary-school students.

“Thank God we’re here,” Gilbert said. “I’m pushing them to add more grades.”

While enrollment numbers and test scores point to a transformation, visitors can find other signs in the school’s front office. Volunteers come streaming in to teach art classes and tutor struggling readers. Teachers and parents rave about how far the school has come, and how quickly.

“She just brought this school to life,” kindergarten teacher Adele Moye said. “She makes us happy, and we make the kids happy, and that makes the parents happy.”

Anna-Adam-300x225Adam started teaching nearly 40 years ago. After stints in Manhattan  and the Bronx, she has worked in Florida Catholic schools since 1989.When she took over at St. Catherine, enrollment languished at 53 students, and the school had cycled through four principals in four years. In the 2011-12 school year, she rallied teachers and started accepting tax credit scholarships, which help most of what are now 118 students afford tuition. (Step Up For Students, which employs the author of this post, helps administer the scholarship program.)Volunteers drawn from surrounding parishes provide the kind of support that has sustained successful Catholic schools for centuries.

Reading tutors like Marsha Durrua (who exclaimed “I love it!” after striding through the office door one Wednesday afternoon) help students get one-on-one or small-group attention.Mary Lou Herald teaches older elementary students to notice shapes, lines and perspectives in the world around them, in a series of beginning art lessons she calls “Let’s Take a Line for a Walk.”Adam said volunteers allow the school to offer richer, more effective instruction than its size would normally allow.“We work with each child at their level, and then work with them to bring them up to their capacity,” she said.

Fourth-graders take questions from a classroom visitor.

Fourth-graders take questions from a classroom visitor.

Now, the school is struggling with capacity of a different kind. Its main building is full. A handful of converted houses that dot its campus are also full — including a porch that was walled in this summer to create a new third-grade classroom.

Adam said she could picture a new, L-shaped building lining the edges of the adjacent church parking lot. Churches in neighboring towns might offer space for the middle school parents now want.

A sign out front reminds passers-by the school is open to people of all faiths, and Adam said she’s noticed the school has attracted families from a variety of religious backgrounds, many of them from various Protestant denominations that are common in the area.

“The fact that we’re a Catholic school evokes a sense of morality and stability for them,” she said.

Families, she added later, are drawn to the school for a simple reason: “We’re giving them the best­ education in town.”

School Spotlight: Merritt Island Christian School

By Estefania “Nia” Nunez-Brady

If Principal Jamie Bopp could use only one word to describe Merritt Island Christian School (MICS), it would be “family.”

Principal Jamie Bopp

Principal Jamie Bopp

“Our family environment creates a culture of genuine love for one another,” he said. “We seek to live out our mission … and we are constantly asking ourselves what’s best for our students?”

MICS is a co-educational pre-K through 12th-grade day school on a 14-acre campus along Brevard County’s Space Coast.  Of the school’s 300 K-12 students enrolled in 2015-16, 72 will receive the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students.

Instruction is focused on academic achievement, which is measured annually by the national TerraNova test in grades K-10. Students in grades 11 and 12 take college placement tests, such as the ACT and SAT.

“We want to make data-driven decisions to best serve our students,” Bopp said. “We are proud to say that our school scored above the 2015 national average in every grade!”

Tuition this school year ranges from $6,592 to $9,476, depending on grade. Merritt Island is accredited by the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), and a member of the Southern Baptist Association of Christian Schools.

Students take part in BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), a new initiative that allows them to bring their iPads, Kindles, cellphones and other electronics to class. The goal is to engage students and boost achievement, Bopp said.

MICS also is growing a new Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) program, offering students a diploma track, and the school recognized the first graduates of the program last spring.

“We have invested in technology because it helps our students learn,” Bopp said.

High school students can participate in a dual enrollment program through Palm Beach Atlantic University that allows them to earn college credits faster.

In addition to academic courses, students can choose among more than 35 activities, including robotics, choir and sports – which boasts 10 highly competitive varsity teams. The school also features a fine arts department that produces award-winning work.

Every year, MICS has a theme to encourage students to excel – academically, emotionally and spiritually.

“Our MICS theme for 2015-2016 is ‘Anchored,’” Bopp said. “It is a theme based on identity. We will ask our students, ‘What are you anchored in?’ We will encourage them to be anchored in Christ.”

Have you seen the scholarship in action, or do you have an idea for a story?  Please contact Estefania “Nia” Nunez-Brady, marketing specialist, at nbrady@stepupforstudents.org.

Meet MICS graduate Savannah Lang.