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School Spotlight: Morning Star School, Pinellas Park

By Sherri Ackerman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Catholic school turnaround in Florida’s rural heartland

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

By Travis Pillow

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

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

St_-Catherine_art-class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth-graders take questions from a classroom visitor.

Fourth-graders take questions from a classroom visitor.

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

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

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

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

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

School Spotlight: Merritt Island Christian School

By Estefania “Nia” Nunez-Brady

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

Principal Jamie Bopp

Principal Jamie Bopp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet MICS graduate Savannah Lang.