Gardiner Scholarship mom offers tips on finding a school for your child with special needs
A licensed speech therapist, Stacey Thomas interned as a University of South Florida graduate student at Morning Star School, a small Catholic school in Pinellas Park serving students with special needs.
“When I was there, I knew that school was special,’’ Thomas said.
Years later, the wife and mother of three returned to Morning Star, but this time as a parent. Thomas’ eldest child, Liam, has Down syndrome. He longed to attend a school where he could do the things other kids did like sit at their own desk and eat lunch in the cafeteria with friends. But Liam needed special services like one-on-one instruction and speech therapy. Thomas, featured recently with Liam in our student spotlight, immediately thought of Morning Star.
She just wasn’t sure her family could afford tuition until Liam qualified for the Gardiner Scholarship, formerly Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, through Step Up For Students. The annual scholarship, on average about $10,000 per student, is awarded to families based on their children’s certain disabilities and can help cover costs for tuition, curriculum, therapies and other education needs.
“It literally has been the hugest blessing,’’ said Thomas, who lives in Tampa with her husband, Trey, Liam, 9, and his two siblings, Sydney, 8, and Laine, 3.
With Liam making huge learning gains during his third-grade year at Morning Star, Thomas agreed to share with us her strategy on finding the school that worked best for him:
- Really look at your child’s personality. Liam thrives in a typical school environment, where he can sit at his own desk and eat with other kids in the cafeteria. Morning Star offers an inclusive social experience.
- Consider your child’s cognitive level and needs, and look for a school that can meet both. Liam benefits from additional resource teachers in the classroom who work with him individually on skills, such as reading and math. He also has quick access to on-site occupational and speech therapists.
- Look at the size of classes and the size of the school. While Morning Star offers a “real school’’ experience, with only about 86 students it’s small enough that Liam doesn’t get lost in the crowd. On average, there is one teacher per 11 students. And teachers are not only state-certified, but also have ESE (Exceptional Student Education) credentials.
- Look for a school with a lot of involved parents. “If parents are really involved, they are going to have a good relationship with teachers,’’ Thomas said. Education is a partnership.
- Make sure teachers are committed to continually setting goals and challenging students. Liam struggled with reading when he first arrived at Morning Star. Now he’s performing at grade level. “We’ve just seen huge growth,’’ Thomas said. “I don’t want to limit him.’’
Do you have some words of wisdom to share with other parents and caregivers, or do you have an idea for a story? Please contact Sherri Ackerman, public relations manager, at sackerman@StepUpForStudents.org