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School is not out for summer at TRU Prep Academy, which has adopted a year-round schedule

BY ROGER MOONEY

MIAMI GARDENS, Florida – The calendar said it was July 6, but parents pulled their cars to a stop outside TRU Prep Academy and students stepped out wearing their standard school attire – black slacks, white shirts, and red ties.

School is out for summer in most parts of the country, but at TRU Prep it was very much in session, with students returning $500 cash loan online from summer vacation only the day before.

Welcome to a year-round school.

Students at TRU Prep Academy in Miami Gardens returned for the 2022-23 school year on July 5.

The private K-12 school in Miami Gardens, where nearly all the 100 students receive an education choice scholarship administered by Step Up For Students, moved to the alternative format during the 2021-22 school year. Classes begin during the first full week of July and run for six weeks, followed by a week off. The six-weeks-on, one-week-off block continues until the Memorial Day weekend in May, with a two-week break for Thanksgiving, a two-week break for Christmas, and other holidays off mixed in.

The summer break is basically the month of June.

The idea is to reduce the “summer slide” in knowledge gained the previous school year by giving students and teachers breaks throughout the year to recoup the time off missed with the shorter summer — and to recharge.

“When I first heard about it, I was actually happy,” said seventh-grader Justin Haynes. “The week off helps me relax, and when we come back, I feel refreshed.”

According to the website Resilient Educator, a number of school districts throughout the country have moved from the traditional school calendar to year-round classes. A study by Duke University showed students who attend year-round schools have a “slight advantage” over their counterparts who enjoy the traditional 10- to 12-week summer vacation.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) reported that students, particularly those from economically disadvantaged areas, struggle to retain the material they learned from the previous year when they return from the long summer break.

“This is true pretty much in every educational setting: We spent at least half of the first quarter of school reviewing,” said Andrea Muhammad, TRU Prep’s dean of academics and high school instructor. “If you take a child and give them two-and-half, three months off and expect them to remember everything, there’s going to be a ‘What am I supposed to be doing?’ feel.”

Mario Smith, TRU Prep’s founder and executive director, realized a goal nearly two decades in the making when he opened the school in August 2018. A graduate of nearby Monsignor Pace High School and Kansas State University, Smith said he wanted to create a scholastic setting that would “mesh sports and education together.” He resigned from his job as a teacher and football coach at Pace in 2013 to pursue this dream.

Smith, who starred as a football player at Pace and Kansas State and spent three seasons playing in the Canadian Football League, wanted to better prepare students for college life, especially those who could earn an athletic scholarship. In addition to the core classes, TRU Prep offers classes in sports management, sports journalism and sports medicine. To be eligible to play a sport, TRU Prep athletes must maintain a 2.5 grade point average, which is above the 2.3 mandated by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the 2.0 mandated by the state of Florida.

Smith said he is grateful for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Education Options because it allows students “an opportunity to be in an environment that best suits their needs. (TRU Prep has) a family feel, and having those scholarships, it allows the students to be in this environment.”

Looking for a way to combat the summer slide, Smith and the administrators began talking about the year-round calendar in 2019 and implemented it for the 2021-22 school year.

Like any ground-shaking change to the norm, the new schedule took a little getting used to. Attending school in July while your friends — and, in some cases brothers or sisters — were off, was a bit of a shock for the students.

“That’s not a big deal anymore,” said eighth-grader Azraa Muhammad.

Having a full week off after only six weeks was another shock to the system, though nearly everyone involved said it was welcomed.

“It helps me think about what I just learned,” Azraa said.

It was during that second six-week block that Andrea Muhammad said everything began to feel normal.

“It’s became the natural flow for us,” said Lakeisha Saunders, who teaches the elementary school. “Before you knew it, it was May.”

Andrea Muhammad teaches a middle school class on July 6, one day after students at TRU Prep returned from summer vacation.

Teachers used those weeks off to prepare lesson plans for the upcoming block

“(The week off) also allows those students who were a little bit behind to get extra help from some of us without the distraction of being in the classroom,” Muhammad said.

Some students missed the first week or two of the new school year because they are attending an academic or enrichment camp. Those students will use the off weeks to make up whatever work they missed.

Schools in the Miami Gardens area were summer silent on July 6. Morning commuters did not slow for the blinking lights of school zones or school buses stopped to pick up passengers.

But it was classes as usual inside TRU Prep. Saunders was teaching elementary students about making a household budget. A morning rainstorm passed outside while her students asked questions about paying utility bills and setting aside money for groceries.

Those students were beginning their second turn at a year-round school calendar. Alani Hunte, a fourth grader, said she didn’t mind, even if it meant getting up a 6 a.m. to go to school in July.

“Because,” she said with a measure of pride, “my dad said I’m going to be smarter than everybody.”

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

How do you turn students into readers? At Alpha Learning Academy, by turning a classroom into a library

BY ROGER MOONEY

ORLANDO, Florida – Shakelia Henderson sat behind the desk inside a classroom that was recently converted into a library and nodded at the shelves full of books that lined the walls.

“This,” she said, “is the beginning of a literacy journey that’s going to make our kids stronger. I really do believe that.”

Henderson just completed her fourth year as principal at Alpha Learning Academy in Orlando, a K-5 private school. The majority of the 139 students attend with the help of education choice scholarships administered by Step Up For Students.

Henderson, who has been in education for nearly 25 years, is keenly aware of the role reading plays in a child’s learning. A student who struggles to read is more likely to struggle in other subjects.

“It’s important for students to engage with books to become strong readers, because reading is the foundation of all the subject areas,” said Henderson, an English major in college who taught language arts before moving into the administrative side of education.

She was aware ALA did not have a library when she became the principal and made it her mission to correct that. It took three years to get the project rolling and almost another year to convert a classroom into a library, obtain books and add labels to each so they can be filed probably and monitored through the checkout system.

The library opened May 1 with six ribbon-cutting ceremonies – one for each grade.

Naasir Laird, who enters the second grade in August, said he was “so excited” when he found out his school was getting a library.

“I like that we can read books, and we can all have fun reading them,” he said. “It’s really fun when I come here.”

Naasir’s mom, Toccara West, is equally thrilled.

“He loves going to the library,” she said, adding her son’s reading improved during the first month the library was open.

West was among the army of ALA parents who volunteered to turn what was once a classroom used for art and Spanish into one filled with 10 bookcases. Chairs dot the room, spaced far enough apart so students can have a little privacy when they sit and read. The room is decorated with a superhero theme as voted on by the students.

Nearly all the books are used and donated, and each had to be labeled so they could be scanned into Booksource, a computerized management tool. It was a time-consuming labor of love for the parents who lugged home boxes of books to be labeled.

Booksource allows Henderson and Ashlei James, ALA’s administrative assistant and assistant librarian, to check the books in and out and monitor what the children are reading. “The Wild Robot” quickly emerged as a favorite, so Henderson and James recognized the need to obtain more books on robots.

Historically, ALA students have underperformed in reading. The school addresses that with Wilson Language Training. But Henderson feels the need to go beyond that, to make reading a force of habit for as many students as possible. She hopes having a room filled with books of all topics accessible to all the students will be the first bricks of a foundation needed for academic success.

“In addition to what students are assigned to read by their teachers, I also want the students to fall in love with the aesthetic feel of reading and read what they want for their pleasure,” Henderson said. “And I also want them to build their home libraries. We know the more a child reads, the better reader they become.”

The ALA library contains books on Martin Luther King Jr. and Black history. Books on science and technology. Books on superheroes and sports. Bookcases are labeled by grade, but there is one designated for advanced readers. That’s where DeMarko Avant found “Star Wars: The Legends of Luke Skywalker.”

DeMarko, who is headed to the fifth grade, said he visits the library often, sometimes as much as three times a week. He reads at home, he said, usually before bedtime and usually about Star Wars or the Ninja Mutant Turtles or The Flash.

“I like superhero books,” he said.

Ashlei Jameses’ daughter Nhyla, who starts the third grade in August, said she loves reading about Black history, especially Ruby Bridges, a pillar of the civil rights movement who famously integrated an elementary school in New Orleans when she was 6.

“It is really important for me for her to have this (library) experience in a school that she goes to,” Ashlei James said.

James remembered visiting a bookstore for the first time when she was in middle school. She couldn’t believe there was a store dedicated solely to books. She feels children today are missing out on the experience of reading books and visiting bookstores and libraries.

Ashlei James, Alpha Learning Academy’s administrative assistant and assistant librarian, and school principal Shakelia Henderson.

“I feel like in this day and age, kids know how to do everything on phones, on computers. They know all that. To me, bringing them back to actually sitting down and reading a book, that’s good stock,” she said. “You can’t get away from that.”

Henderson agreed.

“There’s nothing like a book,” she said. “I think our children are very used to using their devices, their phones, iPads and tablets. They work wonders, but the old fashioned, having a book in your hand, nothing replaces that, in my opinion.

“This (library) has a ton of potential. I am very proud. In my career, this is in top-three. This is monumental and it has impacted the lives of our children immediately.

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

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.

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