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‘This is the year my daughter learned to read’

Kaelani is overcoming dyslexia with the help of the Orton-Gillingham Approach and a Step Up scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

Kaelani Dix can read. You can’t imagine what that means to her mother unless you have a child with dyslexia.

“Oh my gosh,” Kaelani’s mom, Kimberly Caleb, said. “I’m so grateful.”

Kaelani, 10, just finished the third grade at Pace Brantley School in Longwood, Florida, a private school, with grades 1 through 12, that specializes in teaching children who need specialized attention. Kaelani attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two private school scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.

Caleb, who lives 40 minutes away in Orlando, found Pace Brantley when searching the internet for resources for kids with dyslexia in Central Florida. She learned while researching reading programs or services for students with special needs that Kaelani would benefit from a school that taught the Orton-Gillingham Approach. The Approach was developed in the 1930s to teach students with dyslexia how to read. It has been used at Pace Brantley for nearly 20 years.

Kaelani, who entered Pace Brantley as a first grader, began the Orton-Gillingham Approach when school began last August. By November, she was able to read “Put Me in the Zoo” by Robert Lopshire, as well as a few pages from her children’s bible.

“I remember people saying this year is a wash (for students) with everything in the pandemic,” Caleb said, “but this is the year my daughter learned to read.”

‘A significant commitment’

According to ortonacademy.org, the Orton-Gillingham Approach is “a direct, explicit, multisensory, structured, sequential, diagnostic, and prescriptive way to teach literacy when reading, writing, and spelling does not come easily to individuals, such as those with dyslexia.”

Kaelanie reading one of her favorite books.

Orton-Gillingham focuses on the connection between letters and sounds then builds on those connections. Some schools use the Wilson Language or the Barton Reading and Spelling System to teach reading to special needs students. Both programs are offshoots of the Orton-Gillingham Approach.

At Pace Brantley, students usually are in the third grade to enter the Orton-Gillingham Approach after spending the first and second grades prepping for it.

“There’s music involved,” Pace Brantley Principal Jennifer Foor said of the prep work. “There is a lot of imagery involved that are building that working memory that they may be struggling with to get them to move into Orton, because when you move into the Orton program, it requires a lot of memory and working memory. You have to be able to learn information and hold on to it and still be able to pull previously learned information.”

The Approach is a three-year program for the students. They meet in small groups (no more than four students) three or four times a week, 40 minutes at a time. If they haven’t mastered reading in those three years, they can take a fourth year.

“It’s a pretty significant commitment as far as time goes,” Foor said. “Obviously, if we dedicate that much time for our students, we’re saying it works.”

When talking about the Orton-Gillingham Approach, Pam Tapley, Pace Brantley’s head of school, offered Kaelani is the success story for the 2020-21 school year.

“She came to us with no foundation,” Tapley said. “The teacher started with all of the early reading skills, the phonemic awareness, letter and sound recognition, and this is a little girl who is now reading and as importantly, because we’ve seen the two correlations, she’s writing.”

‘You’re giving them life’

Kaelani was speech-delayed, but Caleb was unaware her daughter was dyslexic.

“When she got into school she struggled tremendously. Nothing was clicking. It was difficult,” she said.

Kaelani repeated pre-K. Testing revealed she had specific learning disabilities and, while not officially diagnosed, Caleb said her daughter displayed all the symptoms and criteria of dyslexia.

That’s what sent Caleb searching for the proper school, a search that led her to Pace Brantley.

Caleb spent 15 years as an elementary and middle school teacher at district schools. She understands the importance of reading. Plus, everyone in the family is an avid reader. Books abound in their home.

Kaelani always wanted to read. She would even take a book and pretend she was reading it. And, if it was a page that had been read to her enough times, Kaelani could act as if she was reading by reciting what she had heard over and over.

Caleb bought “Put Me in the Zoo” and wanted Kaelani to read it before school. And one morning she did.

“This wasn’t a passage she was practicing. These were brand new words she hadn’t read. She sat there and started reading it,” Caleb said.

It was an emotional moment for a mother.

“I was just overwhelmed,” she said. “I compare a teacher who can teach a child how to read like a doctor. You’re giving them life. You’re saving a life. Especially one who struggles.

“My daughter wanted to read so bad. She would pick up books and pretend to read. Now that she can make sense of those words, I can’t describe it. I was so worried. I didn’t know what was wrong. I didn’t know why she couldn’t do what other kids do.”

Now Kaelani can do what the other kids can do. She can read.

“OK,” Caleb said, “she’s ready now and she’s able to excel.”

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

MVP on the court, MVP in the classroom thanks to a private school scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

Praise Temple Christian Academy teacher Anna Langley found herself a little teary-eyed recently, while watching the seniors walk down the aisle during practice for the June 4 graduation ceremony.

Langley, who has taught at the school for three years, will miss all the seniors, including one who Langley admits held a special place in her class and at Praise Temple in general.

That would be Samantha Gulli, the salutatorian of the Class of 2021, who was vice president of the student council, captain and MVP of the volleyball team, a teacher’s aide, an actress in all the school plays and a volunteer in every activity and fundraiser held at the school during the last four years.

“I can’t imagine a classroom without her,” Langley said. “There are seniors who graduate and leave, but when there was one who was so involved in so many aspects of the school, it leaves a little bigger hole.”

Samantha Gulli graduated second in her class at
Praise Temple Christian Academy.

Oh, Samantha is not really leaving Praise Temple. She plans to enter cosmetology school to pursue her lifelong ambition of owning her own beauty salon, but she said she will continue her work as a teacher’s aide next year. She would love to help Langley, who coaches volleyball, as an assistant coach.

“I may be graduating, but I will still be there,” Samantha said.

Samantha, who lives in Clermont, Florida, began attending the K-12 Christian private school in nearby Groveland as a freshman. After graduating from a district middle school, Samantha wanted to attend a Christian high school.

“I wanted to learn more about the Bible,” Samantha said, “and I wasn’t going to learn about it at a (district) school.”

Samantha attended Praise Temple on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two private school scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.

“I wouldn’t be here without this scholarship,” Samantha said. “I really appreciate it. I’m really thankful and grateful for it.”

“The Step Up scholarship has been a blessing,” her mom, Michelle Gulli, said. “It gave her this opportunity.”

Samantha flourished in high school, both academically and socially.

When she arrived at Praise Temple, she was behind in math and English but worked during the school years and over the summers to catch up by her senior year. Her grades were high enough to rank her second in the graduating class.

“That took not only a lot of hard work but a lot of thorough work that had to be done well,” Langley said.

Said Gulli: “Samantha had to hustle, but she’s a hard worker.”

Gulli, who works at the school as a teacher’s aide, described her daughter as a “wallflower” before she entered Praise Temple.

“Always quiet and good,” she said. “But (in high school), she came out of her shell. That’s what I noticed. It really helped her blossom. I never thought she would be captain of a volleyball team or vice president of her high school.”

Samantha credited that to joining the volleyball team and to making friends with peers who share her Christian values.

“The volleyball team really helped me to open up, because it’s a very verbal sport,” she said. “I was forced to open up to be a good player, teammate, and that carried over to my schoolwork and how I interacted with other people.”

As for her high school friends, Samantha said, “The Christian atmosphere around me made it easier to fit in. It made me feel at home.”

Samantha and Sissy, her graduation present.

Samantha speaks freely about her faith. It’s a major part of her makeup. Perhaps that’s no surprise since she has a grandfather and great-grandfather who were involved in ministry.

Samantha’s faith and love for volleyball came together when she received the Christian Character Award after one season. The award was voted on by the opposing coaches.

“I liked that better than the trophy for coming in second in the state,” Gulli said. “I like that better than being named captain.”

It’s also of little surprise that Samantha wants a career as a hairstylist and to own a salon. Her mom is a hairstylist. She has an aunt and a grandfather who both owned salons.

“It’s in the family,” she said.

Samantha’s popularity at school stems from her leadership ability, her devotion to her faith (which she shares with the students in the lower grades) and her disposition, which can best be described as sunny.

“What stands out to me probably more than the academics is I don’t ever recall seeing her come in with an attitude,” Langley said. “She’s always here with a smile, encouraging other students. She’s always happy and it’s infectious to others.”

What Gulli wanted four years ago for her daughter was a faith-based education that would challenge her academically and prepare her for life beyond high school and a career. Samantha received that and more.

“I don’t think there was a day in her high school career that was wasted,” Langley said. “Every day she made the most of it and went above and beyond in whatever it was, whether it was academics or making her fellow peers happier or helping out with the teachers. Whatever it was, she made the most of it.”

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

New Florida law expands K-12 Scholarships by $200 million

More students eligible for private school and more

STAFF REPORT

Since Gov. Ron DeSantis put pen to paper on May 11 signing into law  the landmark education choice bill, much work has been underway at Step Up For Students preparing for the 2021-22 school year.

In case you missed it, the law is a $200 million expansion of the state’s K-12 scholarship programs. It opens up education choice to more families in Florida than ever before. Read more here.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the landmark education choice bill.

Billed as the largest expansion of education choice in Florida history, the new law merges the state’s two scholarship programs for students with unique abilities, McKay and Gardiner, in 2022, and combines them with the Family Empowerment Scholarship program.

One category of the Family Empowerment Scholarship will serve students with unique abilities and special needs while the other will continue to serve lower-income families.

The law leaves intact the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which some mistakenly call school vouchers and is funded by corporate tax donations, and the Hope Scholarship program for students who have experienced bullying at their district schools. More than 160,000 students across Florida participate in K-12 scholarship programs. The law is expected to add as many as 61,000 new students and cost about $200 million, according to a legislative analysis.

The law simplifies eligibility requirements by aligning qualifying income levels of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship with the Family Empowerment Scholarship. The two programs previously had different income requirements.

The legislation also provides greater convenience for families by placing management of the Family Empowerment program under nonprofit scholarship organizations, including Step Up For Students.

The new law allows more families than ever to be eligible for a scholarship. Read about it here.

Florida Legislature is normalizing, expanding access to education choice, according to Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. Read more about it here.

Listen to Tuthill’s podcast with State Senator Manny Diaz Jr., on the future of education choice in Florida. Listen here.

‘Who’s going to be the next villain?’ The story of one survivor of bullying

By ROGER MOONEY

Brendan Thompson remembers the day in the fourth grade when he was jumped by a pack of bullies in a school bathroom. He remembers how he fought back, and he remembers how futile it was, because he was outnumbered. He remembers how classmates watched and laughed as he absorbed the blows to his face that left him with a bloody cut near his eye and a split lip.

There are some days you never forget, even when more than a decade has passed.

Brendan Thompson graduated in May from Seminole State College with a degree in general studies.
He will continue his education at the University of Central Florida.

Thompson vividly remembers the reaction later that day by school administrators when confronted by his mother, who, you can imagine, was angry.

Her son, she was told, was big enough to defend himself.

Yes, Thompson was among the taller and heavier kids in his school. But Nikki Thompson didn’t raise her son to fight, and Brendan was the mellow type who made friends easily and was nicknamed the “Gentle Giant” by his mother.

Despite his size –and maybe because of it – Thomspon was a target. He was picked on in the lower grades for being pigeon-toed and later for the hump behind his neck, something, he said, that developed from years of walking with his head bowed in an attempt to blend in.

Thompson recently spoke freely of his experiences at the hands of bullies one morning while taking a break from teaching bible and math at Master’s Training Academy, a K-12 private Christian school in Apopka, Florida, which his mother opened five years ago. In the end, it would be a Step Up For Students scholarship that allowed him to attend a private high school where bullying from classmates was no longer an issue.

The bulling started in the first grade and continued through the eighth. Thompson attended four schools during that span, twice changing schools because was bullied.

“It was like a TV show,” he said. “Who’s going to be the next villain? That’s what it was like every single year.”

He is 23 and a recent graduate from Seminole State College with a degree in general studies. He will continue his education in the fall at the University of Central Florida, where he intends to study creative writing.

His plan is to produce movies and documentaries. He also wants to write books, including one on bullying. It will be about his experiences and his thoughts on how bullying is portrayed in movies and on TV.

“It needs to stop being normalized,” Thompson said. “Bullying has become normal, and it shouldn’t be normal, because the kids who are being bullied, they don’t feel normal. They feel alone. They feel suicidal. They feel empty inside, numb inside.”

Though he lived with his mother and two sisters while growing up and had other family members he could turn to, Thompson felt alone, as so many victims do. He would refuse to talk at home and stayed in his bedroom, where he listened to what his mom described as “violent music.”

Thompson said he often thought about running away from home. He had darker thoughts, too.

“I don’t really tell people this, but there were times when I did think to myself, ‘What if I just ended everything? What if I did end my life?’” he said. “Thank God I didn’t, but I did think about that. Those thoughts popped up a lot during middle school.”

What stopped him?

“I would be selfish, because it wouldn’t be me who was in pain now, it would be my family and those who loved me,” he said. “It would be selfish and the coward way out. I would hate for anyone to think I was a coward.”

For Thompson, Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students made all the difference. He used it to attend high school at Apopka Christian Academy, where he graduated in the spring of 2016. The bullying by students didn’t follow him there but he remained wary, alert for the next villain.

“Getting bullied, it was miserable,” he said. “There were nights that I would go home and feel terrible about myself. Prayer got me through a lot of stuff. Reading my bible got me through a lot of stuff.”

His renewed faith began to impact his family. Bible study became a regular part of the family’s week. His mother, Nikki Thompson, who had worked two jobs to support her family, felt the call to start her own faith-based private school.

“I wanted to help those who were in need,” she said.

So, she quit her jobs and opened Master’s Academy in 2016. It has become a haven for children who were bullied at previous schools. That’s by design, Nikki Thompson said. Watching her son suffer the abuse of classmates and listening to school administrators who didn’t seem interested in stopping it leaves a scar on a mother.

“It was hard knowing I had to leave my child (in a school) where he was being bullied,” she said. “He was being hurt. He wasn’t comfortable. He didn’t feel right.”

Today, Florida schoolchildren have more options when they become a victim of bullying. Students in public school who are bullied can benefit from the Hope Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students. Hope was created in 2018 by the Florida Legislature to address the staggering number of schoolchildren who are bullied each year. It provides families with financial assistance to send a child who suffers from a qualifying incident at a public school to an eligible private school or help pay for transportation to a public school in another district.

Back when Brendan Thompson was a student, his only option to escape his bullies was financially qualifying for the tax-credit scholarship.  For the 2020-21 school year, 468 students are using Hope.

Given her son’s experiences, it’s no surprise that Nikki Thompson is a fan of the Hope Scholarship which opens up a way for K-12 students in Florida to find a learning environment away from their tormentors and feel safer.

“I think it’s awesome,” she said. “There’s bullying and you have parents who can’t afford a private school education and those scholarships, they do a lot. They help a lot of families out.

“Our No. 1 priority is taking care of our students. The moment they walk through the door they become my child and I will protect them by any means necessary.”

The pain Brendan endured from school bullies and his commitment to his faith motivated his mother, Nikki, to open a private school.

The students at Master’s Academy are drawn to Brendan Thompson, who at 6-foot, 290 pounds, remains a gentle giant. Especially to those who were bullied at a previous school. He knows their pain. He understands.

“He’s a role model for kids who have been bullied,” his mom said.

While the incidents took him to dark and painful places, Thompson is an example of a bullying victim who has healed. He knows that many victims still suffer from the experience into adulthood. Not him, he said.

“No,” he said. “I try not to focus on what others say about me, but just focus on the positive things about myself.”

Thompson said being a victim of bullying helped him develop a thick skin against taunts and taught him to stick up for himself.

He recalled an incident before physical education class in the eighth grade when he noticed three bullies were closing in on him. Thompson said he made the first move, asking if they “wanted to go?” They backed down. A classmate who witnessed the incident called Thompson a superhero.

Thomspon didn’t think he was. He just knew if he didn’t act then, he would remain a victim, and he was tired of being a victim. He also knows not every victim can stand up for themselves.

That’s why he wants to write a book about his experiences. While in college, he wrote research papers and spoke about it during speech class, using statistics of the many victims who chose suicide to make his point.

While Thompson has spoken to victims, he also spoke with aggressors. Several of his former classmates who bullied him have reached out on Facebook or by email to express their sorrow for how they acted and to explain why they did. Some talked about being abused at home and turned to bullying as an outlet for their pain.

Thompson listened.

“Did it change the way I feel? No,” he said. “But it’s better than no apology, I guess.”

If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or are in emotional distress, please speak to someone today. Help is available. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. It is available 24/7.

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

Educators learn to boost learning through laughter during Step Up’s virtual education celebration

By LISA A. DAVIS

More than a year after the pandemic shut down most of the nation, Step Up For Students and its leaders in the Student Learning & Partner Success Department knew just what educators needed: a good dose of laughter, the best medicine.

And that’s just what nearly 1,000 private school educators got May 20 virtually from longtime educator turned social media star Gerry Brooks when they logged onto computers from their schools, homes and watch parties for the virtual Step Up For Students 2021 Choice in Education Celebration: Boosting Learning Through Laughter.

Gerry Brooks and his Magic 8 Ball

Last year’s annual Step Up for Students Choice In Education Conference was one of the casualties of COVID-19. So a Step Up team created an event to not only bring some belly laughs, but also take a moment to celebrate educators in what may have been the most challenging time in their career.

Among Brooks’ eight-lesson presentation, infused with laughter and serious advice, is that educators need to remember that this challenging time will not last.

“When you are in the midst of a season, you can’t see your way out. Things are going to get better. The season is going to pass,” he said, holding a package of Peeps. The springtime seasonal candy is among his favorite sugary treats. He saves a stash in his freezer year-round.

Brooks shared with Step Up’s audience eight “object lessons” to really drive home points about educators’ personal time and culture. He held up everything from Dollar Tree reading glasses to Butterfinger candy to peanut butter and jelly.

“When they see the object that you show them then, hopefully, they will remember that lesson weeks down the road,” he said.

The objective of this virtual lesson: “My goal is to be able to encourage you as an individual and open up some doors,” he told his audience. “… I believe if you have positive personal climate and culture you can get through anything.”

In the talk that lasted more than an hour, Brooks told stories about being a kid and when the “Mr. Magic 8 Ball” could predict which kid was in love with whom. He talked about a lot of serious things, too, while still getting many laughs like he does from his viral videos. He did this while wearing a bright blue shirt saying “Erducator Strong!”

“I like misspellings,” he said, his southern accent thick.

Before he took the virtual stage, Step Up For Students Founder and Chairman John Kirtley applauded educators.

“I know I’m stating the obvious when I say that we at Step Up are grateful for the incredible efforts you have put forth during the pandemic,” Kirtley said. “It may be obvious, but it still needs saying. Here at Step Up, we know how hard it’s been for you.

“… You adapted, you worked harder than ever, and frankly, you took risks for your students. Step Up knows that, and we are very grateful.”

Paula Nelson, senior director of Student Learning & Partner Success, said after the event she couldn’t be more thrilled.

“I think this has turned out to be even better because it came at a time when we really need to have a celebration,” she said. “The message was so timely and powerful. I think there’s a chance we may do it again.”

Lisa A. Davis can be reached at ldavis@sufs.org.

Zoe’s future looks bright thanks to private school scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

Zoe Elverillo’s mother dropped out of school in the eighth grade. So did Zoe’s brother. Zoe, however, has blazed a different path.

Zoe will graduate this spring from the demanding International Baccalaureate program at Carrollwood Day School in Tampa with a 4.0 grade point average. Unlike anyone in her family before her, she will head to Louisiana State University in the fall, where she plans to study sports medicine.

After that?

“I definitely see myself owning my own business,” Zoe, 18, said. “I definitely want to be my own boss. I see myself having my own therapy center.”

This is exactly what Zoe’s mom, Pamala Moreau, wanted for her daughter when she decided to send her to a private school – a bright future. A single mother, Moreau was able to do that with a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.

Education Choice Student Zoe Elverillo
Zoe Elverillo graduated from the demanding IB program at Tampa’s Carrollwood Day School
and will begin classes in the fall at LSU.

The scholarship covers about a third of the yearly tuition at the prestigious private school. Carrollwood, a pre-K to 12 private school near the family’s home, has a network of donors who cover the rest. That enables Zoe and her younger sister, Nya, 15, to receive an education their mother could otherwise never afford.

“I’m so thankful and so grateful, and look at where Zoe is today,” Moreau said. “She would not be where she is today if she did not have the Step Up scholarship and go to that school.”

Zoe is a confident and determined student. She approached her classes in the IB program with the same competitive spirit she displays while playing first base for one of the Tampa Bay area’s top softball travel teams.

“It’s definitely a challenging school. They put you next to challenging students,” Zoe said. “It’s pretty competitive here. I adopted well to it.”

Drew Guarino, Carrollwood’s senior associate director of college counseling, said Zoe’s commitment to her education was evident during the first semester of her senior year. That’s a time when seniors tend to slack off a little, Guarino said. But Zoe had her best semester of her high school career, earning five A’s and one B.

“She takes her academics seriously,” Guarino said.

Zoe had little choice when it comes to that. Her mom wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I definitely don’t want them to follow in my shoes, that’s for sure,” Moreau said.

Moreau was 12 when she dropped out of school. She washed dishes. She checked coats at a hotel. By the age of 15, she was living on her own. As an adult, Moreau found work in the hospitality industry while raising her children.

“Not an easy life,” she said, “but I was happy.”

Moreau, who now works as an office manager, did the best she could with an eighth-grade education, but she wanted so much more for her daughters.

“Absolutely,” she said. “I want them to be able to take care of themselves. I don’t want them to have to rely on anybody for anything, ever. I want them to be able to be successful on their own. That’s very important. School, that was a big priority.”

Moreau wanted her daughters to attend Carrollwood because she felt the school’s IB program would prepare them for college.

Education Choice Student
Pamala Moreau and her daughter, Zoe.

“(Zoe) blossomed and got stronger as the curriculum became more challenging to the point where I’m confident she will be successful once she gets off to college because of all the hard work she’s put in over the last few years,” Guarino said.

In addition to LSU, Zoe was accepted at Florida Atlantic University, Pace University, Coastal Carolina University, James Madison University and the University of North Florida. She settled on LSU because she liked the campus culture and school spirit and because of the sports medicine program.

Zoe took Sports and Exercise Health Science as a junior. She shadowed Carrollwood’s athletic trainer during football season and interned at a local chiropractor’s office.

“Sports medicine has always been a big interest for me,” she said. “I never had a passion for anything other than that.”

Moreau regrets not continuing her education. She hears her friends talk about their proms and going to college and attending class reunions. She didn’t want her daughters to miss out on those experiences. But mostly, Moreau didn’t want her daughters to miss out on what they can achieve with a solid education.

“I’ve always felt education was No. 1 over everything,” Zoe said. “I always wanted to prove it to myself. I took it upon myself and this is a big accomplishment to me.”

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

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.

Education choice helps in transformation to student council president

BY ROGER MOONEY

The early grades were not easy for Joshua Joseph. Trouble seemed to find him.

“I had anger issues,” Joshua, now 14, said. “People would make fun of me. Since my mom is not the richest, sometimes I would have mismatched socks, or my shoes would be dirty.”

That made Joshua a target at his district school. And, he admitted, he didn’t turn the other cheek when trouble came calling.

His mother, Elide, didn’t care who was the instigator. All she saw was a son who had a habit of making bad choices, whether it was controlling his anger or his choice of friends. The combination was hurting her son academically.

“He was bad,” Elide said with a sigh.

And she had enough.

With the help of a Step Up scholarship, Joshua turned his life around at
Sacred Heart Catholic School in Lake Worth, Florida.

A long-time parishioner at Sacred Heart Church in Lake Worth, Florida, Elide wanted to move Joshua to Sacred Heart Catholic School, a private pre-K-8 school near their home. She hoped a Catholic education and the small-classroom setting would work better for Joshua. Elide, a nursing assistant, was thrilled when she learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students, which provides private school opportunities for economically disadvantaged families. Joshua entered Sacred Heart in the fourth grade.

“She was looking for something different for Joshua,” Sacred Heart Principal Tricia Duvall said. “These are the families that the scholarship really, really helps. They want it, and they’re willing to work and partner with the school.”

Joshua wasn’t excited about switching schools. The transformation was gradual. But he is now in the eighth grade, and has experienced a dramatic change in behavior, attitude and grades. And, in what might be a surprise to those who knew Joshua when he was younger, he is the Sacred Heart Student Council president.

“He’s come full circle,” Duvall said. “He works really hard academically. He’s working really hard to make good choices and do the right thing.”

This is everything Elide envisioned for her son when she made the move to change schools.

“We prayed so hard,” she said. “Now he’s different.”

Looking back now, Joshua knew he was on a dangerous path.

“If I stayed at my old school, I … probably would have ended up in juvie (juvenile detention),” he said.

As principal, Duvall said she is trying to change the culture where some students view getting in trouble as being “cool.” It’s not a Herculean task, given there are only 250 students in the school. But she needs help from some students.

And that’s where Joshua comes in.

He’s now a leader in the cause for avoiding trouble.

“Absolutely,” Duvall said. “He embraces that.”

In fact, Duvall thinks the example that Joshua sets for other students played a role in his election as president.

Joshua has big plans for his football career.

“He’s kind to everyone,” Duvall said. “He’s friendly to everyone. He has a good sense of humor. He’s never disrespectful ever. That carries into everything, he treats everybody with respect.”

Said Joshua: “The whole school basically knows me. They are my friends.”

“In my other school, I had anger issues. People would make fun of me. But Sacred Heart changed me and made me understand that sometimes people’s opinions doesn’t really matter.”

Duvall told Joshua that the Student Council president has to be the leader of the school. During school spirit week, Joshua would have to show the most spirit, which he did. He also took the lead during a recent beach cleanup and a December fundraiser to feed the homeless.

“I’m so proud of him,” Elide said. “When he told me he was president, I was so happy.”

Joshua has big plans for his future.

“My goal is to be in the NFL,” he said.

He currently is a defensive lineman on his youth football team, but he hopes to become a running back. That’s why he wants to attend Cardinal Newman High in West Palm Beach. He wants to be part of the Crusaders’ football program.

“He aspires to get there.” Duvall said. “So, he’s always asking, ‘Have you heard anything? Do you know when admission is open? Do they have scholarships available? What kind of GPA do I need?’ He’s asking the questions that if you knew him three or four years ago, you probably wouldn’t have thought he’d be asking them, because he was so unfocused.”

About Sacred Heart School:

Sacred Heart School was founded in 1944 and serves approximately 250 students in PreK 3–8, including 109 on the FTC Scholarship and 55 on the FES Scholarship. It is a Catholic school with a mission to “provide all students, of diverse cultures and abilities, an education of excellence, in a Christ-centered environment.” Sacred Heart is accredited by the Florida Catholic Conference. Tuition is roughly $10,300 and all students take the TerraNova assessment.

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

Grandparents raising grandkids: A look at one grandfamily

By ROGER MOONEY

Charles Sears recalled a conversation he had last winter with Stephanie Engelhardt, principal of Christ the King Catholic School. It occurred outside the school while Sears was waiting to pick up his 9-year-old granddaughter, Luna.

Sears is 69. His wife, Colleen, is 49. They have full-time custody of Luna, which thrills them to no end. But sometimes Sears fixates on the age difference between he and Luna, and this was one of those times.

Charles Sears and his granddaughter, Luna.

He remembered telling Engelhardt that he felt bad for Luna because someone so old picks her up after school. Engelhardt told Sears to look around. He’s not the only senior citizen in the pickup line, and that some of the others aren’t babysitters waiting to pick up the grandkids. Like Sears, they are grandparents raising their grandchildren.

“There are a lot of grandparents doing the parenting duty,” Engelhardt said. “That’s the truth.”

They are called grandfamilies, and they are on the rise.

According to grandfamilies.org, there are 139,542 grandparents in Florida raising their grandchildren. The number of children in the United States living in grandfamilies has doubled since 1970, according to a 2018 story in The Atlantic. The Centers for Disease Control estimates there are 2.6 million grandfamilies nationwide.

“The number seems to be growing every year,” said Karen Boebinger, Grandparents as Parents Program coordinator at the Tallahassee Senior Center & Foundation.

Living with the grandparents can provide a stable homelife for the children, perhaps for the first time in their young lives. But it can place a hardship on the grandparents, especially if they are elderly. There is a financial burden for those living on fixed incomes. There can be a health component involved for those grandparents dealing with a physical issue or illness and are now tasked with raising young children. And the idea of giving up their retirement years and a leisurely way of life to return to parenting can be frustrating.

Yet, many do it.

“In general, these grandparents are amazing people,” Boebinger said. “They will do anything to keep the family together, including working past retirement (and) depleting their savings in order to take care of the kids.”


This is what Sears wanted when he and Colleen gained custody of Luna seven years ago. He wanted a steady home for his granddaughter, something, he said, Luna never had during the brief time when she lived with her parents. Luna’s father is Sears’ son, a musician who played in a band and was constantly on the road. The couple never married and eventually split when Luna was 1. Sears said Luna’s mother left Luna with he and Colleen so often it seemed like she lived with them.

“I want to do what’s best for Luna,” Sears said.

After raising his four children in his home in Jacksonville, Florida, Sears is glad to be a parent again and “back on the carrousel.”

Sears worked as a certified public accountant until 2010 when he had a heart attack. He reduced his workload considerably until 2016, which was when he received custody of Luna. So, Sears returned to working part-time because he wants Luna to enjoy an active childhood filled with as many activities and sports as she wants. Sears sent his children to Christ the King, a pre-K through eight private school, and wanted the same education for his granddaughter.

“It was a great education and a great experience,” Sears said.

Luna attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two scholarship available to Florida residents and managed by Step Up For Students that give students the option to find the best schools to meet their K-12 learning needs. The other is the Florida Empowerment Scholarship.

The scholarships can add a degree of comfort for those raising their grandchildren.

“It’s certainly been a financial relief for us,” Sears said. “I have heart problems and was basically out of the business. I went back working part-time, because regardless of the generosity of Step Up For Students, we want Luna to have a good life.”

Boebinger, of the Tallahassee Senior Center & Foundation, said the financial aspect of raising grandkids is one of the main concerns of grandparents. Paying for a private education might not be doable for those on a fixed income. But for those grandparents who live in Florida, school choice remains an option because of Step Up For Students.

Consider Sharon Strickland, who was nearing her mid-60s when, after being an empty nester for more than 20 years, she gave up her retirement years to raise two of her great-granddaughters. Strickland has cared for the girls for more than a year after their mother lost parental rights.

“Never underestimate the love of a grandmother,” Strickland, 65, said.

Strickland wanted a faith-based education for the girls, Savannah, 9, and Karlee, 4. After qualifying for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Strickland enrolled Savannah at Warner Christian Academy, a pre-K through 12 private school located near their south Daytona Beach home. Savannah is in the second grade. Strickland said Karlee will follow her sister to Warner Christian once she is old enough.

Savannah struggled in the school she attended before moving in with her great-grandmother. Warner Christian administrators and Strickland thought it was best for Savannah to repeat the second grade. Placed in an environment with smaller class sizes and more one-on-one time with her teacher, Savannah has improved her grades.

“If that scholarship wasn’t there, I don’t know, she would be struggling,” Strickland said.


Whether the creation of the grandfamily is sudden or expected, it can be overwhelming for a grandparent.

“They don’t know what to do,” Boebinger said. “They don’t know what to do first.”

In Leon County, Boebinger estimates there are more than 2,000 grandparents raising their grandkids. Only 150 of those grandparents are in her program.

“So, there’s a lot more out there that we are trying to reach,” she said.

Boebinger said she encourages them to join the virtual meetings at the Tallahassee Senior Center & Foundation, Grandparents as Parents Program.

“They can get a lot out of talking to people who are in the same situation. They don’t feel so alone,” Boebinger said. “This is not what they were planning on doing, so it helps to talk to somebody who’s been through it.”

Hopefully, Boebinger said, the grandparents will refocus and turn the initial stress into the energy needed to raise the grandkids. Also, they can benefit from what can be a closer relationship with those grandchildren than with the grandchildren they have who are living somewhere else.

Luna keeps her grandparents busy with an active life that includes dance and music classes, volleyball, basketball, student council, robotics and sewing clubs.

Sears said his relationship with Luna is different than it is with his other grandchildren.

“With Luna, I can’t be a grandparent. I have to say no sometimes, which can be very unpleasant,” he said.

Grandfamiles can deal with anger issues, especially those that came together because of the parents’ drug use or incarceration. The anger, Boebinger said, is usually directed at the parents.

“The grandparents are frustrated with the parents for having the wrong priorities. The kids feel that as well. ‘Why did mom or dad do whatever?’” she said. “So, some of the acting out is their anger at the parents and not so much that they are with the grandparents. A lot of time that’s the first stability they have had in their lives.”

Sears said he’s never heard Luna express any resentment over her situation. It’s the only arrangement she has ever known.

“It’s just a very good thing for her, I think,” he said. “She’s a child who’s very happy, but she never tells you about her emotions. She’s only 10, but you’d never know if anything is bothering her about it.”


Engelhardt has been associated with Christ the King for 20 years, the first five as a teacher and the last 15 as the principal. She has seen the amount of grandfamilies steadily increase during her tenure.

“It’s definitely a trend, a noticeable trend,” she said.

And while Engelhardt understands why Sears can be concerned about the 60-year age difference between he and Luna, she sees that as a positive trait, the same trait she sees in all the grandparents committed to raising their grandkids.

“All these people,” Engelhardt said, “are either still working to afford the grandkid or are in carpool, going to dance practice or basketball practice or doing homework, homework, homework or going to meetings, sacrificing or giving up all the stuff that was supposed to be for them and redoing everything again. It’s humbling to see what they do.”

Luna and Colleen.

That Colleen is 20 years younger than her husband gives her more energy to attend to Luna’s needs, Sears said.

“Statistically speaking,” he added, “she’ll be there for Luna’s college graduation. I hope I am.”

Sears said he’s more prepared for parenthood this time since he has the experience of raising four children. He said Luna keeps them busy with all her activities – dance and music classes, volleyball, basketball, student council, robotics and sewing clubs.

“But” he said, “the downside about it has been our lifestyle. I’m 69. I would be retired. I would be one heck of a golfer right now.

“We’re doing all the things that we shouldn’t be doing. I get up every day at 5 a.m. to make her breakfast and her lunch. As you can imagine our day is tied around Luna. Somebody has to pick her up after school and we have all her weekend activities.”

Still, Sears can’t picture his life any other way.

“She keeps us young, because we have to be active,” he said.

Although, Sears admitted, that sometimes comes at a price.

“It’s been tough practicing volleyball, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “I tore my calf muscle.”

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

Education savings accounts offer creative solutions for students with learning differences

Editor’s Note: This post originally ran March 25, 2021 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students. This is the third in a series of stories exploring the Gardiner Scholarship Program.

By Lisa Buie

Chrissy Weisenberger is one busy mom.

With five children, including 3-year-old twin boys and two daughters who are both on the autism spectrum, homeschooling the whole brood made the most sense for the family. It allows her to design each child’s learning plan to best fit his or her educational needs.

“It’s very Frankensteined,” joked Weisenberger, who lives in Palm Bay, Florida, a city southeast of Orlando known for its sports and nature parks.

By that, she means like many homeschool parents, she has strategically used a little of this and a little of that, a grassroots method of creating the perfect learning environment for her family.

Her two daughters, Keira, 8, and Tessa, 6, are on the autism spectrum and participate in the Gardiner Scholarship Program for students with unique abilities. The scholarships allow parents to customize their child’s education by using flexible spending accounts called education savings accounts.

While traditional vouchers pay for private school tuition, the savings accounts are more flexible. The Florida Department of Education transfers a portion of a child’s funds from the state education formula to a state-approved nonprofit organization, such as Step Up For Students, which puts these funds into an account for each child. Parents then apply to this nonprofit for permission to use their child’s ESA funds to buy state-authorized educational services and products.

Chrissy Weisenberger of Palm Bay, Florida made creative use of her education savings account, converting a swimming pool into a ball pit for her two sensory-challenged daughters. Sometimes, the whole family joins in.

The girls need help to stay focused on learning, so in addition to purchasing educational materials such as books and workbooks, Weisenberger has used her daughters’ education savings accounts to buy specialized equipment such as swings, which calm kids with autism, and a mini trampoline that helps with balance and gross motor skills.

She bought two chewable necklaces for Keira, who otherwise would chew on her hair during class. She bought the girls laptops to access virtual lessons in math and reading, which she says were a godsend during the pandemic when co-op meetings with other homeschool families were canceled. And she bought them a kit that taught them how to build a volcano.

Most Gardiner families typically make purchases through MyScholarShop, Step Up For Students’ online catalog of pre-approved educational products. The platform includes curriculum materials, digital devices, and education software. Families may be able to purchase items or services not on the pre-approved list by submitting a pre-authorization request that includes supporting documentation and an explanation of how the purchase will meet the individual educational needs of the student. 

An internal committee, which includes a special needs educator, conducts a review 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. For example, if a service provider’s reimbursement request is submitted from an IP address and the platform sees that the parental approval came from the same IP address, the anti-fraud staff is alerted to investigate.

Weisenberger followed this process to purchase one item not on the pre-approved list: a $25 inflatable kiddie pool.

While a swimming pool would not qualify as a reimbursable expense under the program’s rules, Weisenberger’s proposed use made it eligible. Inspired by a Pinterest post, she converted the rectangular pool, which she ordered from Amazon, into a ball pit that she filled with almost 3,000 plastic balls. Her girls use the reconfigured pool to help them with balance.

But Weisenberger’s creativity extends further. She’s devised a way to use the pool to help her kids with math.

Using three buckets, she teaches place value by having them put the appropriate number of balls in each. For example, the number 436 would be represented by putting four balls in the hundreds place bucket, three balls in the tens place and six balls in the one place buckets.

The inventive mom has found yet another way to utilize the purchase. She pours the balls over Keira as a way to soothe her sensory-challenged daughter.

Weisenberger, who learned about Gardiner from a speech therapist two years ago, said she is very pleased with the program. While she suspects two of her other children may qualify for a scholarship, the funding she presently receives satisfies the family’s learning needs.

“I don’t want to take it away from somebody else who needs it,” she said.

Lisa Buie is online reporter for redefinED.

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