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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
By GEOFF FOX
Ampy Suarez laughed heartily, while her husband Jose raised his eyebrows with a sigh.
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 email@example.com.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.’’
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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.
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.
Founded 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.
“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
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.
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.
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.