Editor’s note: My Perspective is a new, occasional series asking subject matter experts their thoughts on different educational topics. First up is Dr. Debra Rains, who holds a Doctorate in Educational Leadership (Ed.D.) and is an administrator at the North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville. She talks about finding a school for children with special needs or unique abilities.
Looking for a school for your child with special needs?
There are many resources to assure you find the best school to support your student’s unique learning needs.
Technology has made access to resources more accessible. The first place to begin is the Florida School Choice website. Florida School Choice provides families a list of private schools categorized by school district. On this website, schools identify disabilities they are able to accommodate and the support services they can offer.
Additionally, families can look to local support groups which advocate for their child’s diagnosed difference such as Autism and Down syndrome support groups. Special needs families will advocate for the schools they believe in and will provide good insight to other families looking to utilize school choice for their student who learns differently.
s you can turn to when choosing a school for your child with special needs is likely found on your smart phone or tablet. Just go into your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account and search for the schools you are considering.
“I believe that looking on a school’s social media account provides a realistic view at what they offer students and families,” Rains said.
“See what schools are posting. You can learn a lot about our school by going on our social media and seeing what we do. I think it’s another way of getting a behind the scenes look at what we offer our students.”
The North Florida School of Special Education is a private school that serves students ages 6 to 22 with intellectual and developmental differences. It accepts the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs that is managed by Step Up For Students.
The school will celebrate its 30th anniversary during the 2021-22 school. Rains said North Florida School of Special Education has 190 students enrolled for the upcoming school year and 75 young adults over the age of 22 who participate in the day program.
Posts for the graduating class of 2021, this summer’s I Can Bike Camp, and artwork from a transition student about mental health, can be found on the school’s Facebook page and offers a glimpse of the North Florida School of Special Education.
Social media posts are a start. But to ensure you make the right choice, you need to do a thorough investigation to make certain your child and the school are the right fit. Enrollment is a mutual agreement between the school and the family that the school can provide necessary services and the supports needed for the student.
Rains offers some advice.
Get to know each other: “I think it’s important (for parents) to interview schools,” Rains said. “Let the school interview you and be open and upfront about what your child can do. I think one of the things that is critical for us is that the student come and spend time at the school. We want the student to want to be here as much as we want the student to be here.”
Be honest: It is just as important to inform the school of what your child can’t do as it is what he can. “If a parent is not open about their student needing (certain) type of services and the school accepts that student without doing the due diligence into what they really need, then it’s going to be a lose-lose situation for the family, the school, and most off all, the student,” Rains said.
This is particularly important for families who are taking their child out of a public school and thus, taking them away from the federally funded Individual Education Plan (IEP).
“It’s imperative that the family understands this is what we are able to do: For example, we can offer occupational therapy in a group, but we can’t do it one-on-one three times a week, because it’s cost-prohibitive. But we can offer it in this way and address independent and vocational training skills.” Rains said.
“So, making sure we have that upfront conversation with families, saying this is our tuition and these are the things that are included in the tuition. I always tell my families when we sit down for a tour that this is a team approach, and it will work best if we’re all open and honest with each other about what the student needs and what we’re able to provide.”
Trust: Changing schools and leaving a trusted peer group is difficult for any child. Rains said it’s important the student trusts the decision being made by the parents and understands the parents are placing the child in a setting that will support the student academically as well as socially. And it is imperative that a family trusts the school has the student’s best interest at the forefront of their mission.
Tour the school: Parents need to tour the school and spend time in classrooms, observing the interaction between the teachers/support staff and students.
“And then the question is: Can you envision your child being successful in this setting?” Rains said.
A standard of accountability: While private schools are not required to provide an IEP, which monitors a student’s progress and sets goals, this is something that is done at the North Florida School of Special Education. The students progress towards those goals are reported to the parents twice a year. New IEP goals are set each year.
“I think it’s a very strong level of accountability to make sure the students are making progress in response to how we teach,” she said. “It’s a cultural perspective that all students can learn, and so making sure our teachers, our families all buy into that culture and then how we show that’s actually happening.”
Talk to parents: Rains encourages prospective parents to talk with parents of students enrolled in the school.
Rains shared a conversation she recently had with a woman from Texas who is thinking of moving her family to Jacksonville so her child can attend the North Florida School of Special Education. During the conversation, Rains mentioned a family that moved to Jacksonville last year from Virginia so their child could attend the school. Rains suggested the mom from Texas contact the mother from Virginia and was not at surprised to learn that already happened. The two mothers met through Facebook.
“That’s the special needs community,” Rains said. “They are very engaged online with one another.
By ROGER MOONEY
Most mornings, history teacher Quintarries Upshaw stands in the hallway and greets the arriving students at the Dixon School of Arts & Sciences with a song he plays on his clarinet.
The melodies are soothing, welcoming. Meant to create a mood.
“What he’s doing is setting a temperature that says, ‘When you come in, this is your safe place,’” Dixon principal Donna Curry said.
The private K-8 school in Pensacola, Florida sits in a high-crime neighborhood. Curry said it’s hard for her students not to be affected by their surroundings, which is why the staff and faculty are trained in trauma sensitivity.
“We cannot control what happens outside the school,” Curry said. “But when the students come through the doors, it has to be the calmest, inviting place that they have been in. We created that on purpose.”
When someone interested in education choice approaches Curry and asks about the benefits of sending their child to a private school, her response is about the protective shield her school creates not only for the students but for their parents, as well.
“What I normally tell parents, the beauty of Dixon being a private school is that we understand our parents,” Curry said. “We are a true community school.”
Dixon is one of 2,625 private schools in Florida, according to the Private School Review. They range from pre-K to high school with an average enrollment of 172 in elementary schools and 200 in high schools.
There are some that cater to the arts and sciences, like Dixon. Others offer an International Baccalaureate program or a Waldorf education, developing children’s intellectual, artistic, and practical skills in an integrated and holistic manner. Many private schools are faith-based, and there are schools that accommodate children with special needs.
For decades, parents have realized the benefits of sending their children to private schools, including:
But many parents can’t easily afford private schools. The cost of yearly tuition for a private school in Florida is lower than the national average. The average for an elementary school is $7,785 (the national average is $10,066). For a high school it is $9,899 ($14,978 nationally).
In Florida, however, parents can apply for scholarships managed by Step Up For Students that can help with tuition, fees and more.
Financial Assistance to private schools for Florida schoolchildren include:
More than 1,800 Florida private schools accept Step Up For Students scholarships for one or more of its programs. That’s a lot of choices for Step Up scholars.
Faith and safety
Raising children a second time, Sharon Strickland looked for an academic environment where she would feel comfortable sending her granddaughters, and where they would feel safe.
After more than 20 years of living on her own, Strickland gained custody of her two great-granddaughters during the 2019-20 school year. The girls, 9 and 4, respectively, needed a school. Strickland remembered the overcrowded classrooms from 20 years ago when she used to take one of her granddaughters to the district middle school. She could only imagine the situation now.
Feeling her oldest granddaughter would benefit from a smaller teacher/student ratio and wanting a faith-based education for the two, Strickland enrolled them in a private Christian school five minutes from their home.
Savannah, the oldest who is in the second grade, attends Warner Christian Academy, a pre-K through 12th grade private school in South Daytona, Florida, on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Her sister, Karlee, will receive the scholarship when she enters kindergarten.
Savannah, who repeated the second grade during her first year at the school, has improved her grades over those she earned while attending a district school.
“She doesn’t have a learning disability, but she’s not on the level the other kids are,” Strickland said. “She has 12 kids in her class. That’s great. She’ll get all the instruction she needs.”
The faith-based education, the school’s anti-bullying policy and the fact tutors are available for all students is what sold Strickland on Warner Christian.
“To sum it up, I can go to work and feel good about leaving them there,” she said.
Wellmont Academy, a faith-based K-12 private school in St. Petersburg, Florida is an example of education choice at work.
Defined as a hybrid school, Wellmont offers students the option of attending school five days a week, three days (upper grades) or two (lower grades).
Those students who opt for hybrid learning spend the days when they are not in the classroom learning at home or participating in the school’s Assisted Learning Program.
“The hybrid model allows parents to be involved more in their education,” Danielle Marolf, Wellmont’s founder and principal, said. “Parents can enroll their kids the way they need to enroll them. It’s really popular.”
Marolf said parents have two main concerns when they discuss moving their child from a district to a private school: class sizes and a safe environment.
At Wellmont, classes are capped at 15 students and include a teacher and an aid.
“That teacher knows those kids so well,” Marolf said. “She knows exactly what their needs are, and she can work with them.”
As for bullying, Marolf said, “We have zero tolerance for bullying, and we mean it. Our kids know that we’re serious, and when we tell them this is a safe place and we will listen to you and our door is open, they know it. They can come into my office and talk to me.”
A sense of community
The sense of community is as much of a selling point for private schools as the value of the education they provide. The two often go hand-in-hand. And when the school loops in the parent’s right to exercise education choice, it presents an attractive alternative to a district school.
Back at the Dixon School of Arts & Science, safety from the neighborhood is only one benefit. It also offers an arts program that has produced students whose works are featured in local galleries and magazines, and student scientists, who have traveled to Washington D.C. to present their projects at a convention for real scientists.
Like every principal, Curry said it is the job of her faculty to find that switch that will turn the students into scholars. That can be difficult for a student who is dealing with trauma at home, so couches are placed in the hallways for students who need some quiet time to relax or a place to talk to a teacher or staff member about their troubles.
Parents are allowed to use those couches, too.
“You cannot love children without loving the parents. So, what we invite our parents to is a school that not only cares about the children, but cares about them,” Curry said.
“It makes them feel less traumatized. And if I have a less traumatized parent, I have a less traumatized child, and that makes it easier for me to teach A,B,C’s and 1,2, 3’s.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
Editor’s Note: This post originally ran April 1, 2021 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students. This is the fourth in a series of stories exploring the Gardiner Scholarship Program.
By ROGER MOONEY
Roman Scott’s bedroom has two walls painted orange and two painted blue. On the floor is a rug with the design of a two-lane road wending its way through a small town.
A train set sits on the rug, because Roman, 4, loves trains. And there is a stack of trays that hold his toys and musical instruments, because Roman loves to, as his mom says, “rock out” on his tambourine, cymbals and triangle.
Urrikka Woods-Scott refers to this as a “sensory room” for her son, who is on the autism spectrum.
“The goal was to get him to engage in his room, love his room by having all the support in that room,” she said.
Roman receives the Gardiner Scholarship for children with special needs. (The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.) Many of the items in Roman’s room, including the educational toys from Melissa & Doug and the stack of books from the Frog and Toad series, were purchased with funds from the Gardiner’s education savings account. These flexible spending accounts allow parents to use their children’s education dollars for a variety of educational purposes.
The scholarship also pays for Roman’s therapy at Bloom Behavioral Solutions, which is near their home in Jacksonville, Florida.
Woods-Scott got the idea to turn Roman’s bedroom into a sensory room from Bloom. She learned what Roman gravitates to in Bloom’s sensory room and did her best to replicate those items at home.
“We’re trying to transition (him) from sleeping in my bed to sleeping in his own bedroom,” Woods-Scott said. “I want him to have what he needs to be comfortable in his own room. My thought was to make his room a destination.”
Woods-Scott’s husband, Romain, suggested the colors for the walls. Orange and blue are two of Roman’s favorites. Blue is considered soothing and is a popular choice for sensory rooms. Woods-Scott added brown curtains to give the room more life.
The results, she said, are beyond encouraging.
Woods-Scott said Roman has made great strides since joining the Gardiner program in 2020. Much of that comes from his time at Bloom, which he attends for 30 hours a week. The rest comes from the tools available at home that Woods-Scott purchased through MyScholarShop, Step Up For Student’s online catalog of pre-approved educational products.
Families also can purchase items or services that are not on the pre-approved list. They must submit a pre-authorization request that includes supporting documentation and an explanation of how the purchase will meet the individual educational needs of the student.
A review is then conducted by an internal committee, which includes a special needs educator, to determine if the item or service is allowable under the program’s expenditure categories and spending caps, and a notification is sent to the parent. The item or service may then be submitted on a reimbursement request that must match the corresponding pre-authorization.
Step Up For Students employs numerous measures to protect against fraud and theft, such as ensuring a service provider’s reimbursement request and a parental approval came from different IP addresses.
Woods-Scott purchased an iPad on MyScholarShop, which Roman uses for speech, math and preschool prep. She buys arts and craft supplies because they help Roman improve his fine motor skills.
Roman was diagnosed in October 2019. The family was living in Charlotte, North Carolina at the time. That November, Woods-Scott changed jobs and the family moved to Jacksonville, where, unbeknownst to her, Roman was eligible for the Gardiner Scholarship, the largest education savings account program in the nation.
At the time, Roman was a “scripter,” which meant his speech was limited to repeating what he heard on a television show or a movie.
“It wasn’t a functional type of speech and he wasn’t expressing what he needed,” Woods-Scott said. “He wasn’t saying, ‘Mom, I want a banana,’ or something like that. He was only saying what he heard on a show. Now he says ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy.’ He tells you what he wants.”
Roman can count to 100 and recite the alphabet. He can read his Frog and Toad books out loud.
Next year, Woods-Scott would like to use her Gardiner funds to send Roman to the Jericho School of Autism in Jacksonville.
After having what she called “my little moment of crying” when Roman was diagnosed with autism, Woods-Scott went to work seeking therapy for her son and advocating for those on the spectrum. She started Mocha Mama on FIRE, a YouTube vlog that promotes autism awareness in the Black community.
And, she has started the nonprofit Shades of Autism Parent Network to focus on multicultural parents of children on the spectrum and create recreational experiences through travel.
Woods-Scott knows how fortuitous it was to land the job in Florida, and what that meant for Roman.
“It was definitely all for a purpose,” she said.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ROGER MOONEY
TAMPA, Fla. – The Microsoft Store at International Plaza was filled with students from Bible Truth Ministries Academy, each seated in front of a Surface Pro laptop while completing coding tasks associated with the hugely popular video game Minecraft.
As far as field trips go, this one was like entering the Nether – that’s Minecraft speak for an alternative dimension.
“One of the best,” said Elijah Jenkins, a sophomore at Bible Truth.
Jenkins was one of 50 students from the private pre-K-12 school in Tampa, Florida who spent a recent Thursday morning at the Microsoft Store.
“That’s awesome to hear,” said Ryan Candler, community development specialist at the Microsoft Store.
The workshop meshed with Bible Truth’s STEM education program – science, technology, engineering and math. The students received an introduction to coding using Minecraft and received free backpacks filled with school supplies.
“It’s a great experience to learn about computer software, where things come from and how they operate their business,” Jenkins said.
The Minecraft coding workshop was arranged by Step Up For Students, which has a partnership with Microsoft.
Bible Truth has 105 students this year with 50, including Jenkins, attending the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students, which is managed by Step Up.
“This was an amazing learning experience for the students at Bible Truth and a great opportunity for each student to experience power of technology,” said Carol Macedonia, Step Up’s, Office of Student Learning vice president. “Our team at OSL was very pleased to have our partnership with Microsoft unite with one of our most supportive schools.”
Suzette Dean, Bible Truth principal, wants to improve her school’s technology capabilities, both for teachers and students.
“I want the students to have more exposure to good information on the internet, educational directed information versus Facebook and Instagram and all the other information they normally go on their cell phones for or their computers for,” Dean said.
She met representatives from Microsoft’s education and training department last spring during a Step Up meeting about MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) skills, an online academic assessment for students.
Microsoft later visited Bible Truth to see the technology the school had and determine how it could be improved. Teachers attended workshops and the students were invited to the store for a two-hour, hands-on field trip.
While free back-to-school workshops in the Microsoft Store is the norm, Candler said the Bible Truth turnout was the largest. As a result, he needed a half-dozen employees to teach the students, answer questions and keep the throng moving from station to station.
The employees made it work, and Candler said it was worth the effort.
“Microsoft is big on diversity and inclusion, so being able to support a school that is coming from a startup phase and trying to get more attention to their school is pretty awesome,” Candler said. “A lot of what we do is not only supporting the students but also the teacher development. When they leave the environment like today having fun, they can also have that same STEM engagement in the classroom.”
Teacher development is key. The idea is to have the students continue to learn the technology they were introduced to during the workshop throughout the school year.
Bible Truth has a 3-D printer and offers classes in programming and robotics. It formed a team last year to compete in the FIRST Lego League.
“They didn’t do too well,” Dean said, “but they had the exposure to competition. This year they’re really fired up about doing that.”
Dean feels the earlier she can expose her students to computers the better.
“It’s the way the world is going,” she said.
While Dean would like all of her students to graduate and attend college, she knows that is not everyone will choose that option.
“College is not for everyone,” she said. “So at least we would have given them some basic exposure, so when they leave us, they can go get a job.”
About Bible Truth Ministries Academy
The private school located in the Belmont Heights section of Tampa has enrollment from pre-K to 12. It also provides day care. The main academic focus is on math, English and reading comprehension. Students also receive training in life skills – cooking, budgeting, home organization and management, construction, electrical and mechanics. Students also participate in community cleanups and assist elderly and disabled residents with home beautifying projects. Tuition is $8,375 per year.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
By JEFF BARLIS
LAKE CITY, Fla. – Sitting in the principal’s office of her twin sons’ school, Kim Glover pushed aside a couple of strands of wavy, auburn hair and took a breath to compose herself as she recounted the boys’ stunning transformation.
“I’ll try not to cry,” she said with her mellifluous Southern drawl.
After the family endured a drawn-out, painful divorce, Torey and Trinidy went from failing classroom distractions to model students, from being retained in seventh grade to posting high GPAs.
Her boys did the heavy lifting, but Kim says it wouldn’t have been possible without the stable, nurturing environment of Lake City Christian Academy and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship from Step Up For Students that enabled a divorced mom with three jobs to afford tuition.
“You can see how much this environment makes a difference,” Kim said with a sweep of her arm as if to highlight the abundance of open, green space, and the peaceful sounds of farm animals and children that waft through the 20-acre campus.
“It’s smaller classrooms. It’s teachers giving more one on one. They give you their phone numbers. It’s a family environment.”
Kim heard about the scholarship from a staffer at the neighborhood elementary school, where her oldest son, Trey, had been held back in first grade and was struggling with dyslexia. He got on track at LCCA. The twins followed after trying the neighborhood school for one week and not liking it.
Torey and Trinidy are fraternal twins, but hard to tell apart. They have the same angular faces with side-swept, light brown hair that falls in their eyes. They prefer to wear muted colors. They’re best friends who idolize their older brother, love baseball and being outdoors. Kim sometimes thinks they’re telepathic.
Seeing their parents’ marriage fall apart and being caught literally in the middle of mental and physical abuse took an awful toll.
“It got very bad,” Kim said. “When we split, it got violent. I went into a shelter for three months with all three boys. It took four years to get a divorce.”
The twins shut down at school. They were chronically tardy, disregarded classwork and talked incessantly.
“We were focused on socializing, mainly hanging out with friends, becoming teenagers,” Trinidy said. “Our priorities were screwed up.”
Torey and Trinidy had been behind after arriving at LCCA in second grade unable to read. It helped that principal Tana Norris and pastor/administrator Pete Beaulieu had known the family since the boys were little.
“We could have pushed them forward and hoped they would catch on at some point,” said Beaulieu, who had been the children’s pastor. “Holding somebody back is never an easy decision. But they were going through stress at home, and they were in the middle of searching for themselves.”
Too many D’s and F’s in seventh grade gave Torey and Trinidy no choice but to repeat. Friends asked what happened but were supportive. Teachers rallied. Everyone lifted them up with care, sensitivity, and good advice.
The twins took it to heart.
“I just got tired of failing,” Torey said.
Their teacher told Kim how Torey decided he wanted to get good grades because he saw how hard his mom worked, and he wanted to take care of her.
“That was heartbreaking in a good way,” she said.
The changes came suddenly. Kim remembers coming home one evening to Torey and Trinidy doing homework. She felt their foreheads.
Are you my child?
What’s going on?
“That light just clicked on,” Norris said.
Since eighth grade, C’s are rare. Kim has stopped worrying and no longer has to nag about school.
“They tell me what’s going on,” she said. “I hear them talking about school, classes, tests, and homework. It makes me proud.”
Torey and Trinidy give much of the credit to LCCA and their teachers.
“We have really close interactions with the teachers,” Trinidy said. “It’s nice. In the small classrooms you get a bond with all of your friends and even with the teachers. It feels like they’re one of your best friends or even a family member.”
The twins are in 10th grade now. Torey has a 3.75 GPA; Trinidy has a 3.41. They talk about starting careers after high school, although their ideas seem to change daily. They have a firm belief in themselves that Norris says wasn’t there before.
“They’re totally different,” she said. “They have goals and they have things they want to do, and they know they can accomplish them because they’re successful.”
About Lake City Christian Academy
Norris opened the school on a 1-acre lot with a 3,000-square-foot building in 1994 with 25 students. In 2000, LCCA moved to a vast campus with a 21-stall horse barn, a lighted equestrian arena, farming areas, a dance studio, a chapel, softball and baseball fields, a covered basketball court, 15 classrooms and a cafeteria. LCCA employs an experiential learning approach with farming, equestrian and video game design programs. Every student has an individual learning plan. BJU Press and Abeka are among the classroom materials. The independent, non-denominational school is accredited by Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS), and has 242 K-12 students, including 132 on Step Up For Students Florida Tax Credit scholarships. The Stanford 10 test is administered in April and STAR reading and math assessments are given three times a year. K-12 tuition is $6,000.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at email@example.com.
By JEFF BARLIS
CAPE CORAL, Fla. – Judi Hughes is a serial retirer.
Nowhere is her quick wit more evident than when she explains why she came out of retirement a third time – after more than 40 years in the School District of Lee County – to be principal at St. Andrew Catholic School in this sprawling, sun-soaked suburban city.
“Irish Catholic guilt,” she says with a rhythmic chuckle, adding that she only had intended to help with the hiring process when the school drafted her.
Five years later, she’s still brimming with infectious energy that flashes from her baby blue eyes, and she’s found a way to marry her knack for building relationships with a natural instinct for being a private school administrator.
Some folks just aren’t meant to retire.
“I know!” she beams. “I’ve tried it a few times. I think I’m getting the hang of it now.”
Hughes did it all in Lee County public schools. A teacher in the county’s first middle school program, a principal, district director for elementary and secondary education. She opened a few schools, won blue ribbons and other awards, worked as a curriculum director in jails, retention centers, and drug rehabilitation centers before twice being coaxed out of retirement to start ninth-grade programs.
Now she’s the leader and beating heart of a thriving Catholic school – 315 K-8 students, up from 295 last year and 275 the year before – and she couldn’t be happier. Seventy-nine students use a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families. Step Up For Students administers the scholarships.
“This place is just different, and it’s a pleasure,” she said during a recent tour. “These folks have known each other for years, but they welcome new people in. The understanding is that you join the culture of caring and building faith. Hearts and minds, it’s not just words in a mission statement. They pondered it. These teachers do more. They know every child by name.”
It’s no coincidence that Hughes and assistant principal Bambi Giles, who spent more than four years in Lee and Collier county schools, have hired educators with a similar public school background. Ten of the school’s 23 teachers, in fact.
It’s also no surprise that Hughes and those teachers have maintained their ties. For years, teachers at St. Andrews have participated in professional development with the Lee County district, learning about classroom management, teaching strategies and exceptional student education.
“Once you’re a member of the school district of Lee County, you’re part of our family,” said Lynn Harrell, executive director of leadership, professional development and recruitment for Lee County schools. “Judi was for lots and lots of years. That makes it just a little bit easier, just like in any family, to keep and maintain that relationship so that we’re working together. Because in the end, we’re all working for children.”
Hughes was a mentor to Harrell earlier in her career when Harrell was a school administrator. It’s just one of myriad relationships forged through years of work and trust and common goals.
“Our relationship with Lee County is really wonderful,” said Giles, noting the weight that Hughes’ name carries. “They are very professional. They’ll answer any questions. They’ll contact us. It’s never a problem.”
James Herzog, associate director for education with the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, is encouraged by this example of public-private school partnership.
“It shows that education is not an us-against-them proposition,” he said. “Instead it’s all about collaboration to benefit all of Florida’s school children. Hopefully we can encourage other schools and districts to work together.”
Every Wednesday at St. Andrew there is early dismissal for teachers to collaborate and do professional development.
“I just think that’s what runs everything,” Hughes said.
Some of those former public school educators at St. Andrew, like first-grade teacher Crystal Melton, get two emails every Monday morning about professional development offerings – one from Giles and one from a former public school mentor.
This group-within-a-group of teachers has helped the members transition from public to private. They’re all grateful for the extensive training they received in the public school system, but they’re also quick to state their reasons for choosing to teach at a private school.
Music teacher Julius Davis simply feels more at home in a spiritual environment. Davis, in his first year at St. Andrew, said he feels “set free” to be himself and exude his principles. Christmastime was particularly satisfying after nearly 20 years in public schools.
“I grew up in a black Baptist church, and I’ve played (music) for Methodist churches,” he said. “Coming here, the emphasis on the spiritual, this is the first time I’ve been able to teach stuff I grew up with. I wasn’t allowed to do that in the public school.”
Others, like Melton, kindergarten teacher Susie Loughren, and fifth-grade teacher Lisa Olson, have children at St. Andrew. But while the family atmosphere contributes greatly to their happiness, their choice to teach in private school was more complex.
Loughren, in her second year at St. Andrew after seven years teaching in public schools, feels she can be more creative, has more freedom and less test anxiety.
“The administration trusts us that we’re going to do what’s best in the interests of those children,” she said. “So if something goes on in your classroom and you need to focus on a social, emotional skill, you take that liberty to do it. It’s not just about getting in the academic rigor. We do it on a daily basis, but we have the opportunity to stop and do those teachable moments.”
Hughes recognized that stress, saw the anxious teachers who were afraid to break from the mold, “afraid of their own shadow,” as she saw it. There was more and more emphasis on tests and fewer field trips.
At St. Andrew, she works to pump confidence and empowerment into her staff.
“I’m happy I made the choice to come here, because I didn’t end my teaching career at a time when things weren’t going as positively,” she said. “I felt the stress of the teachers and couldn’t do anything to help them. They were losing their identity, feeling like they don’t have any choice or any power.
“Here they are free to make sound educational choices. And they have to be sound, because they have to show how it’s going to help with the standards. We give them as much freedom as we can. And they really own part of this school.”
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.