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School Choice Boyz: Christopher Columbus High in Miami shows a recipe for success

Nathan Cunneen offered some thoughts on Christopher Columbus High School in Miami after he and Walter Blanks Jr. visited the school earlier this year, Nathan and Walter teamed to form the School Choice Boyz, a podcast to bring the value of education choice to a younger audience. They work for the American Federation of Children, where Walter is the press secretary and Nathen is a communications associate. 

A Recipe for a Great School: Christopher Columbus High School

During a Spring trip to Miami, the School Choice Boyz had the opportunity to tour and explore Christopher Columbus High School, a Marist Brothers institution serving the Miami area. We were impressed with everything at CCHS, from academics to world-class extracurriculars. They deliver incredible value to students and their community, which includes a significant population of students utilizing Florida school choice programs like those managed by Step Up For Students. Here are some thoughts from our visit about what makes CHS – and any school – such a success.

Culture is everything:

Christopher Columbus has experienced incredible success since its founding in 1958. Frankly, there’s too much to fit into this short description. One hundred percent of Columbus Explorers are accepted to college, and the class of 2021 earned more than 20 million dollars’ worth of collegiate scholarships. The school has an Emmy-winning broadcast journalism program. The robotics program won the state championship in 2020. The debate team consistently ranks in the top 10% nationally. Teams win state titles in multiple sports on a regular basis. The school offers more than 70 career, service, or social-oriented clubs and honor societies. You get the point.

Principal David Pugh and Betty Vinson, the head of CCHS’s guidance department, very kindly showed us around the school and shared its success, attributing these achievements to the tight-knit family environment that the school has cultivated. Principal Pugh explained how for many of their students, the faces of teachers, administrators, and coaches are the first and last that they see each day. Columbus is where life happens for many of these students. Every morning before 5 AM, students begin to gather outside of campus to wait for the doors to open.

It was obvious that students want to be there, which makes all their accomplishments seem like the only natural outcome. Students love to learn, and the results speak for themselves.

Success begets success:

CCHS has a long history of alumni involvement. Nearly half of the existing staff are alumni of the school. This trend again speaks to the family culture at work at this school — time has shown that graduates want to remain involved. Betty assured us, “When you ask one of our students where they went to school, they don’t respond with University of Florida, or Miami, or even Georgetown. They tell you they went to Christopher Columbus.”

Alumni who no longer live in Miami stay involved in other ways. NFL star C.J. Henderson, currently of the Carolina Panthers, donated to the school to build world-class athletic training facilities. He attended the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students. Marcus Lemonis, the host of CNBC’s The Profit, returns to the school to mentor Business Club members. The institution has created a positive feedback loop by fostering a family environment and delivering in the ways that matter. CCHS’s past success is now contributing to its current success.

School choice opens endless doors:

Roughly 45% of Columbus students utilize the Florida tax-credit scholarship or other forms of school choice. Yet how each student is funded is somewhat of an afterthought. We asked Betty how school choice has impacted the growth of the school. She said, “At this school, every dollar is used to the benefit of the students. I honestly could not tell you the difference between scholarship dollars and others. Every dollar follows the student.”

That sentiment powerfully reflects the significance of school choice. Because of school choice programs in the background, many students and faculty can enjoy an excellent educational experience in the foreground. The end goal, after much more progress is made, is for school choice to disappear into the background. “Every dollar following the student,” is something we should be able to take completely for granted. At CCHS, and many other schools in Florida, that’s exactly the case.

Christopher Columbus High School shows a recipe for success in the education space, and the potential that exists when dollars follow students. Beyond the joy of everyone there, the most telling moment of the visit came when we were waiting outside the school for our Uber back to our hotel. We had said goodbye to the helpful staff and were standing by the road when three students went out of their way to approach us, ask us how we were doing, and tell us how awesome their school was. We did not ask them any questions – they just wanted to tell us that they love their school. Every student should have that feeling. School choice can open that possibility for countless students like it has in Florida, if only states are bold enough to take that step.

Northeast Florida Catholic school lauded for outreach efforts to immigrant families

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School principal Barbara Kavanagh poses with students who are participating in the school’s rural education program.

BY LISA BUIE

A parochial school program intent on extending education choice to children of migrant workers has received a national award for its efforts.

The National Catholic Education Association announced that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic School in Palm Coast, Florida, will receive the Catherine T. McNamee CSJ Award. The award is given to an individual or institution that offers exceptional leadership in promoting a vision of Catholic education that welcomes and serves cultural and economic diversity or serves students with diverse needs.

The award is one of five presidents’ awards that will be bestowed April 18 at the association’s annual convention in New Orleans. Given in honor of past NCEA presidents, the 2022 awards honor those who demonstrate change and inspiration to further the mission of Catholic education.

“Catholic school communities nationwide are blessed to have individuals and organizations such as our honorees as devoted and faithful servants to the gospel values we hold dear and a deep commitment to Catholic school education,” association president Lincoln Snyder said in a news release announcing the winners.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton received the national recognition for its participation in a rural education program. Founded in 1997, the school, known as SEAS, has an enrollment of 189 students in 3-year-old pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

To continue reading, click here.

LiFT Academy receives boost from Tampa Bay Lightning as it prepares to move to new campus

BY ROGER MOONEY

High above the ice at Amalie Arena during a recent Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game stood Keli Mondello and Kim Kuruzovich, the founders of Learning Independence for Tomorrow (LiFT), and Holly Andrade, a founding teacher. They were bathed in the spotlight while the fans cheered, and the players on the ice below paid tribute with a time-honored hockey salute – tapping the blades of their sticks on the ice.

The three clutched an oversized check made out to LiFT Academy for $50,000. The Lightning Foundation donates that amount during each home game to a Tampa Bay area nonprofit as part of the Lightning Community Hero program presented by Jabil.  LiFT was honored by the Lightning on Jan. 27 during a game against the New Jersey Devils.

Learning Independence for Tomorrow (LiFT) includes LiFT Academy, a K-12 private school, LiFT University Transition Program, a four-year post-high school program, and LiFT Day Program in Seminole, Florida that serves neurodiverse students. Neurodiversity is the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, that falls outside societal standards of typical.

“We’re so excited about it. It’s really good timing,” said Andrade, now the school’s principal.

After nine years, LiFT Academy, LiFT University Transition Program and the LiFT Day Program have outgrown their current locations of rented space from two churches. It’s time for a bigger building that can accommodate the school’s expanding programs and growing enrollment.

With a total enrollment of 147 learners across all its programs and a lengthy waiting list, LiFT simply needs more space. Andrade said the new site will initially double the capacity and could ultimately serve 386 learners.

In December, LiFT purchased a former YMCA building in nearby Clearwater with plans to convert it into a new campus. The LiFTING OUR FUTURE capital campaign has begun to help finance the move, remodel and expansion. The $50,000 grant from the Lightning is a great start.

“We are moving to more centralized location in Pinellas County where we can be a resource and partner for the whole community,” Andrade said. We’re going to be more visible and make a larger impact by enhancing the neurodiverse student experience with a safe and inclusive space to learn, thrive, and succeed.”

LiFT Academy’s enrollment include 65 students who receive the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship) and 47 students who receive the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities. The two scholarship programs will merge on July 1, 2022, and will be managed by Step Up For Students.

LiFT Academy opened its doors Jan. 9, 2013, to 17 K-12 students. At the time, Mondello, Kuruzovich and Andrade each had neurodiverse children who were sophomores at the same high school. Their goal was to create an educational program that focused on independent living for their children and others living with neurodiversity.

LiFT University Transition Program, a four-year program for neurodiverse young adults who won’t follow the typical path for secondary education, opened the following year. LiFT University Transition Program teaches employability skills, independent living skills and social skills. The program has approximately 30 community partners who offer internships, and those internships often lead to paid employment.

The LiFT University Transition Program also runs three microbusinesses. These businesses allow students the opportunity to gain social, vocational, and critical thinking skills that will add greatly to their value as an employee. As entrepreneurs, students learn to take risks, manage time, put customers first, seek opportunities to lead and interpersonal skills, all of which are highly transferable skills sought by employers. LiFT Your Fork is a catering service that prepares its neurodiverse students for work in the hospitality industry. LiFT Your Heart makes and sells handmade items such as canvas bags, towels, soaps and scrubs and candles. There is also the LiFT University Cleaning Crew, which has contracts with area churches and movie theaters.

Andrade said, “LiFT’s growth always outpaced our funding. We relied on donations from community partners like Jabil and Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. When Eckerd refurbished its science wing, the college donated furniture and equipment.”

Andrade said she and Kuruzovich carted everything from the college campus to the academy in their “mom vans.”

“We made five trips back and forth, carting science tables, dissection equipment and rolling desk chairs for our teachers,” she said. “That’s how we made it work in the earlier years.”

Kim Kuruzovich, Holly Andrade and Keli Mondello were honored recently as Lightning Community Heros by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Thanks to the Lightning, Andrade said they can now purchase flexible seating options, new furniture, light dimmers for students with visual sensitivities, and additional equipment and fidgets that will serve as therapeutic purposes. These improvements will empower students to focus on their learning, without distractions and discomfort due to their sensory sensitivities. 

“I did it for my son Daniel, and for all the other children like him,” Andrade said. “Neurodiverse children have so much to offer the world. The only thing that holds them back is how the world limits them. But we can change how the world sees them and I want to be a part of that. There’s absolutely nothing like providing an opportunity to help children become what they were destined to be. It was always something that we hoped for and worked for.”

LiFT Academy is the 473rd nonprofit to be named a Lightning Community Hero. Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and his wife, Penny, started the program during the 2011-12 season with a $10 million, five-year commitment to the area. Since then, they have awarded nearly $25 million to more than 600 nonprofits in the greater Tampa Bay area. Last summer, the Viniks announced the program will award another $10 million to nonprofits during the next five seasons.

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Step Up’s Rising Stars Award programs returns this year with in-person and virtual events

BY ROGER MOONEY

Step Up For Students’ Rising Stars Award program returns this year with in-person events, a virtual event and a new category – the Super Senior Award.

“Step Up For Students celebrates our outstanding scholarship students every year through our Rising Stars Award ceremonies across the state,” said Jamila Wiltshire, Student Learning & Partner Success manager at Step Up.

“We are excited to return to in-person events this school year. Here at Step Up for Students, we know the importance of celebrating a year of everyday victories and growth which is pivotal to our students.”

Because of the challenges presented by COVID-19, the 2020-21 event was held virtually. Five in-person events are planned for this spring:

  • April 26 – Monsignor Pace High School in Miami and Impact Christian Academy in Jacksonville.
  • April 27 – Abundant Life Christian Academy in Fort Lauderdale.
  • April 28 – Saint Andrew Catholic School in Orlando and Cristo Rey Tampa Salesian High School in Tampa.

In addition, all Rising Stars Award scholars will be honored May 3 during a virtual event.

Principals can nominate students from Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC), Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options (FES-EO), Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique abilities (formerly Gardiner Scholarship) and Hope Scholarship in one of four categories:

  • High Achieving Student Award. Students who excel in academics, arts or athletics.
  • Turnaround Student Award. A student who struggled when they first attended your school and has since made dramatic improvements.
  • Outstanding Student Character Award. A student who demonstrates outstanding compassion, perseverance, courage, initiative, respect, fairness, integrity, responsibility, honesty or optimism.
  • Super Senior Award. A senior who demonstrates academic achievement, leadership, community service and/or extra-curricular achievement.

Click here to nominate your students. Deadline for nominations is Feb. 11.

Principals can nominate up to three students. McKay Scholarship students are not eligible.

Before you begin making your nominations, please have all necessary information available, including: school name, school DOE number, each nominee’s contact information (name, phone number, email address), and a short description of why each student is being nominated.

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

The Foundation Academy students march for unity, education choice at MLK Jr. Day parade

BY ROGER MOONEY

For Daarina Cue, an 11th grader at The Foundation Academy in Jacksonville, marching in the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade is a “great experience.”

The people who line the parade route cheer the students as they pass by while carrying large photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and other luminary figures of Black history.

Elementary grade students at The Foundation Academy in Jacksonville ride on the school’s float during the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade.

It is not lost on Daarina that some of those people received a much different reaction when they marched during the civil rights movement

The parade, Daarina said, “is very meaningful, since it’s our history. It also means a lot since we see what they accomplished in life. We can keep doing what they did.”

More than 70 students, staffers and parents of The Foundation Academy participated Jan. 17 in Jacksonville’s 41st MLK Holiday Grand Parade. It was the seventh consecutive year the private K-12 school has marched in the parade.

“Our diverse school wanted to show that we honor our African-American brothers and sisters,” Principal Nadia Hionides said.

Daarina and Nasiyah both said their participation in the parade was a “great experience.”

This year’s theme was “Strength In Unity.” The float, pulled by one of the school’s vans, was lined with cutout figures depicting children of every race and nationality holding hands. Those who walked alongside wore sandwich boards with photos of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Mae Jemison (first black female astronaut to travel into space), Fredrick Jones (inventor, entrepreneur), George Washington Carver, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and other notable people in Black history.

“The first time I learned about the history of myself, I really got to see how my ancestors used to be, and I am honestly proud to be Black,” said Nasiyah Halls, a seventh grader.

Nasiyah echoed Daarina’s sentiment when he said participating in the parade was “a great experience.”

“Loved the people. Loved the energy,” he said.

Like Daarina, Nasiyah attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The Foundation Academy has a student body of 375, with 231 attending on a Step Up scholarship. That total includes 179 on FTC Scholarships.

In a head start to National School Choice Week, which begins Jan. 23, the school incorporated education choice into its celebration. Students wore yellow National School Choice Week scarves. Those in the elementary grades who rode on the float wore orange T-shirts from Step Up that included the words “Parent Power.”

Many of those who walked wore blue T-shirts with the words “I AM ESSENTIAL” printed on the front. Tia Unthink, the school’s admissions director, said that message is shared among the student body every day.

“When you come to our school, you don’t see one color, you see all colors represented,” she said. “You see multiple nationalities represented, and that’s the only way we will ever present ourselves, because we are all children of God. We are all capable and are excellent in what we do. We want the students who attend TFA to see themselves in leadership.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Entirety K-12: Where learning is fueled by the imagination

BY ROGER MOONEY

BROOKSVILLE – Six individuals who attend Entirety K-12 private school form two lines of three inside the studio used for physical education. Normally, the six would be called students, but at this moment they are known as the “talent.”

In a few minutes, they will go through various workouts – squats and burpees and curls with hand weights. This will be recorded by the video production class as it updates the “Take a Tour” video on the school’s website.

Entirety K-12 students (from left) Colin Galiardo, Vadin Mankotya and Adlin Sowder hang out in the tree house behind the school’s campus.

Penny Bryson, Entirety K-12 owner and principal, walks among the talent, making final preparations before recording.

“I want authentic workout faces,” she says.

It is a Friday in early October, and that means it’s “Talent & Tools” day at the school. Monday through Thursday are for the core courses. On Fridays, the entire student body spends the day on one of eight elective classes. Architecture and engineering, culinary, and dance are year-long courses. Some students opt for the rotation of video production, art, forensics, and acts of service, with each running for eight weeks.

“These are elective courses to develop a talent or to build skills for your life’s toolbox,” Bryson says. “We are known for being a talent development school.”

Entirety K-12’s motto is “Learning. Fueled by imagination.” All things are possible.

In video production, the students learn all phases of making a video, from selecting the talent to storyboarding to setting a production schedule, to prepping the set, to recording and editing the video. The 14 students follow Tyler Mauriello, a professional videographer who teaches the course, around the school building as he sets up and explains the shots.

Earlier, Bryson showed the class the current “Take a Tour” video and sought their input on how to improve it. She wants the students to think of themselves as directors and the video as more of a project for a client than an assignment for a class. To that end, she constantly reminds them that “time is money.”

Physical education teacher Ashley Sims has each of the talent walk through their workout while Mauriello walks among them, setting up his shot.

Finally, everyone is ready.

“Quiet on the set!” Bryson yells.

Action.


Entirety K-12, in its current form, started in 2013. Located just north of downtown Brooksville, it occupies a building that was once a storage facility with a dance studio in the front. It has a student body of 130, with 60% receiving one of the scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.

The school year begins in August and runs through June, with the students having every fifth week off. The teachers spend that week on lesson planning and meetings. The students get a breather from what Bryson said is four weeks of intense learning.

“We go to school for four weeks and we get a week off. Who doesn’t like that?” said Vadin Mankotya, a seventh-grader.

Bryson is a speech and language pathologist who specialized in phonological disorder and dyslexia. She spent 10 years working in a district school system before leaving to conduct a research project.

Entirety K-12 principal Penny Bryson created a unique learning experience for her students.

One of the students in her study was on the autism spectrum. He responded so well that his mother asked Bryson if he could remain in the study the following year as his form of school. Another parent wanted the same for her daughter, so Bryson opened a school for children with dyslexia. All the students were hand-picked, and each was a gifted student. That was in 2011.

The study concluded the following year, but the parents wanted their children to remain with Bryson. So, she hired a teacher and opened the school for students of all abilities, calling it Academy at the Beat.

In 2013, with the student population growing, Bryson hired more teachers and changed the school’s name to Entirety K-12.

While Bryson is the owner and principal, she does not place herself at the top of the staff’s hierarchy.

“We have what I call a platform program,” Bryson said. “We don’t have a top down. It’s a lateral. We all work as one team. We all have our role.”

And she fills the staff with professionals. Sims is a certified personal trainer. Kaylee La Placa is an art teacher with a visual arts and marketing degree from the University of South Florida.

La Placa recalled the day four years ago when she interviewed for a position at Entirety K-12.

“It was so different than anything I thought it would be and anything I’m used to,” she said.

Each school year has a theme, and the theme is divided into four sections. This year’s theme is wild – Wild West, Wild Imagination, Wildlife, and Wild Design. The teachers tailor their lessons around these themes.

“The things the kids get to experience here, not just in the class but on field trips, it’s so awesome,” La Placa said.

The students themselves have roles beyond the classroom. They help set up the school in the morning and clean up after the last class. They make the decorations for the float that traditionally wins first place at Brooksville’s annual Christmas parade. La Placa’s art students paint the murals that decorate the hallways.

“You cannot get bored here,” Vadin said. “There’s just so much to do.”

That’s Bryson’s point. She doesn’t want the students to feel as if they are simply going to school.

“I love Entirety K-12,” said Jennifer Mankotya, Vadin’s mom. “Vadin has been at a couple of different schools, and this one is absolutely amazing. Obviously, you can see their teaching mechanisms are different than normal. I’ve never seen a school like this.

“My son does not like to miss school. He doesn’t. He has fun at school.”


Adlin Sowder soared above the trees and over a river last January during the four-day school outing to a campsite in Ocala. The seventh-grader, along with nearly every student at Entirety K-12, was ziplining.

The middle school students read Edgar Rice Burroughs’s classic novel, “Tarzan of the Apes.” Bryson wanted the students to experience life in the jungle, or life as close to a jungle as kids from central Florida can get.

They camped, hiked, kayaked, swam and went ziplining.

To prepare, the students learned about the plants and wildlife they would encounter. They learned to measure food, so they would have enough to eat. Bryson even had them learn how to swing from one rope to another.

She wanted them to feel like Tarzan.

“We did,” Adlin said, “when we were (ziplining) through the trees.”

After reading about Tarzan, the students at Entirety K-12 spent
four weeks camping in Ocala to get a feel
for what it is like to live in a jungle.

Bryson sees the yearly outings as personal development trips.

“Quietly embedded in every trip is a skill they are weak in,” she said.

One year, the students flew to Washington, D.C. They learned how to find their way around an airport and how to navigate a subway system. Bryson wants her students to realize they can function away from their parents and, in the case of the Tarzan trip, without their iPhones and laptops.

Bryson wants them to expand their comfort zone, which was the purpose of the zipline.

“It was one of the scariest moments, but also one of the most peaceful,” Vadin said. “It was beautiful up there. You could see the river. It was like you were on top of the world.”

When asked about his camping experience, sixth-grader Colin Galiardo said, “We lived the life of Tarzan. It was awesome.”

This year’s trip: Busch Gardens in Tampa, where the students will be embedded with the zoologists for four days, 24/7.

“The trips are experiencing life in its own context,” Bryson said. “You can say, ‘Oh, this is what a zoologist does,’ but unless you are there with the animals, you really don’t know what a zoologist does. You can say this is how Tarzan lived, or this is what it’s like to live in the Congo, but you really don’t know unless you experience it.

“It’s learning what something feels like for real.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Tips on transitioning your child to a new school or learning environment

By ROGER MOONEY

The Buddy Bench found on the playground at Christ the King Catholic School in Jacksonville is a yellow beacon that helps new students find playmates, make friends, and ease the transition to their new school.

Amanda McCook

The Lunch Bunch provides the same opportunities, but in a private setting.

These are two examples offered by Amanda McCook, the school’s assistant principal/guidance counselor, when asked for tips on transitioning a child to a new school or learning environment.

Another school year is underway, which means there is no shortage of students who are walking the halls of unfamiliar buildings populated by many unfamiliar faces.

They can be children in kindergarten or pre-teens entering high school. Or they can be students who made the switch from a neighborhood school to a private one. A number of these students receive scholarships managed by Step Up For Students to attend private K-12 schools in Florida.

The transitioning can be daunting.

Part of McCook’s duties at the private pre-K through eighth school is to ease that transition. Having two daughters who made the move from their neighborhood school to a private one, McCook has seen this process from both sides.

The advice she gave her daughters was to join clubs and activity groups and sit with different groups of students during lunch. It’s the same advice she gives to parents of students new to Christ the King.

“The more involved you are, the more people you meet,” she said.

McCook has a list of tips that she developed during her 19 years as an educator, both in public and private schools. Some, like the Buddy Bench and the Lunch Bunch (more on those later), are unique to Christ the King.

If your child is having an uneasy time during the first few weeks at a new school, McCook said you can:

  • See if the school has a student- or parent-led board that can provide insight and advice. At Christ the King, McCook said, “We try to match families with new families to give them those tips and tricks. There’s always going to be families in the school system who are there for that kind of support. I definitely think you should reach out to some families in the school to get those tips.”
  • Read the parent/student handbook. “That has all those details that you might miss as far as the structure of the school and uniform policies,” McCook said. “That’s totally different when you come from a public school.”
  • Get to know your administration. “That’s what I’m here for as an assistant principal, to help new families transition, if they have any questions,” McCook said.
  • Also, open a line of communication with your child’s teachers. Get their email address. Don’t hesitate to ask questions or voice concerns.
  • Volunteer. Christ the King, like most faith-based schools, requires parents to volunteer. “That’s such a great opportunity to meet other families and to learn more about the school,” she said. “We realize how important that is to the vitality of the school to have parents involved. Definitely the more involved you are, the more you feel vested in your school. I feel like that is definitely a plus to get involved.”

For those parents with children in Catholic schools, McCook suggested they attend the midweek Mass for the students.

“We always encourage our parents to come to Mass to get a feel for our school and our pastor,” McCook said.

Even when parents follow these tips, their child might still feel uneasy during the first weeks at a new school. Fortunately for those at Christ the King, McCook has a few more tricks.

The Buddy Bench at Christ the King Catholic School in Jacksonville.

During the first few days of school, McCook visits each classroom and tells the story of the Buddy Bench.

The yellow bench sits in the middle of the playground. It is a signal that someone can use a friend.

“If you’re playing and you’re all by yourself and are lonely, you can go sit on the bench.,” McCook said. “And everyone knows if you ever see someone sitting on the Buddy Bench, you have to go up to them and say, ‘Hey, do you want to play?’ And you have to say, ‘Yes.’

“We teach our kids that way and they do it successfully. That really helps everybody feel included and not go home and say, ‘Nobody played with me,’ because that hurts a parent’s heart. We praise kids who come over and ask kids to join them, so they want to be the one who asks.”

Finally, there is the Lunch Bunch.

“If I see there’s someone new that’s struggling to make friends, I call in three friends from their class and they eat lunch with me in my office,” McCook said.

McCook breaks the ice with conversation-starters.

“Who’s been to Disney World?”

“Who likes Harry Potter?”

“Who likes Marvel comics?”

“I find that really helps, especially with my more-shy students, make connections they couldn’t make on their own,” McCook said.

McCook said it shouldn’t take more than a month for the unfamiliar to become familiar for new students. Stephanie Engelhardt, Christ the King’s principal, contacts the parents of all the new students within the first three weeks of the school year.

“Just to make sure they’re feeling comfortable,” McCook said. “Do they know the process? How is their student liking school? We always check up within the first month.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

My Perspective: Choosing a school for a child with special needs – What to look for and what to ask

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.

Debra Rains, an administrator at North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville, and Macy Flakus, a student at the school.

One sources 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.

North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville.

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.

The benefits of private schools

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 Dixon School of Arts & Sciences in Pensacola, Florida creates a welcoming environment for students who have dealt with trauma at home.

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:

  • Smaller class sizes and more favorable teacher-student ratio.
  • A faith-based education.
  • A challenging curriculum.
  • The opportunity for a parent to exercise school choice.
  • A safer education environment.
  • A shared educational philosophy between the parent and the school.
  • The school as a community environment found at smaller schools.
  • Athletic programs.

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:

  • The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship are two scholarships for private school (or transportation help to a district school).
  • The Gardiner Scholarship is an education savings account, known better as ESA, that serves children with certain special needs.
  • The Hope Scholarship is for schoolchildren who reported being bullied or were a victim of violence in their district school.

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 and Karlee Strickland celebrate Christmas at Daytona Beach.

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.

Hybrid learning

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).

Wellmont Academy in St. Petersburg offers a unique hybrid education program.

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 rmooney@sufs.org.

How an education savings account turned a child’s room into a ‘destination’

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 sits at the desk in his bedroom/sensory room.

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.

The walls of Roman’s bedroom are painted blue and orange to help create a sensory room.

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 rmooney@sufs.org.

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