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New program to simplify lives for Step Up families

By Lisa A. Davis

About three years ago, Florida legislators created the Gardiner Scholarship Program for children with certain special needs and put Step Up For Students in charge of running the program.

Since then, parents statewide have felt great relief knowing they aren’t solely responsible for the financial costs associated with having children who need a little extra when it comes to their educational needs, related care and therapies. The idea was simple: Give parents of eligible students financial assistance to help navigate the often complex and bank account-draining world of raising a child who has physical and developmental challenges.

“Gardiner put parents in the driver’s seat of creating the best education plan for their child, allowing them to choose how they used the money with approved tools and services such as curriculum, tutors, occupational therapies, sensory toys, college savings accounts and so much more,” said Step Up Chief Operating Officer Anne White.

The execution of the program, however, proved to be a bit more difficult.

The state-funded Gardiner Scholarship Program was created as an education savings account (ESA), where most scholars receive an average of $10,000 per academic year. Step Up approves all eligible purchases and the parents are reimbursed. This is where challenges came into the mix. While the criteria for the scholarship is not income-based, many families who have mounting medical bills – or who are lower-income – don’t always have the money to pay up front.

“For some families, it became an unsettling balancing act. They had to make life choices that sometimes could mean paying a household bill late while awaiting reimbursement for Gardiner purchases that could sometimes take up to four weeks,” White said.

Submitting for reimbursements and rounding up receipts, also could be tedious, she added. A change was needed to give parents some time back so they could give more attention to their children.

This was not lost on Step Up leaders, who took action.

In early 2018, Step Up For Students is launching an online marketplace, allowing families to use their scholarship funds to purchase products and services. Parents won’t have to worry about paying for school-related supplies up front. They will simply go online to the pre-approved catalog and “Pick It, Click It, Ship It.” The cost will be taken directly from scholars’ accounts and supplies will be delivered right to their doors.

While the state funds the Gardiner scholarships, it is our generous supporters, like you, who can help fund this innovative new system.

Your support is invaluable to parents like Nathan Nadeau, principal of a Step Up partner school and parent of Dominic, Gardiner scholar on the autism spectrum. He said the efforts Step Up and its supporters are making for children like his are more significant than some might realize.

“This system will be an absolute game-changer for families like mine who have a child with special needs, Nadeau said. “This could not be realized without the steadfast support from our donors. Thank you."

After the online marketplace is unveiled to Gardiner families, it will open to students on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC) for lower-income families. The benefit to FTC parents is that they’ll be able to select their child’s school the same way – with a simple click. After the selection is made, tuition will be automatically paid.

“Parents will no longer have to run to schools quarterly to sign tuition checks,” White said. “It’s much simpler.”

Between both scholarship programs, 115,000 scholars are being served for the 2017-18 school year. About 500,000 checks are printed and mailed out each year to pay for school tuition, educational related services and supplies. Most of that will be eliminated. By leveraging direct pay, Step Up For Students avoids the costly process of printing and mailing checks.

Streamlining processes will allow us to give parents a bit of a relief and better serve our scholars.

“In the end,” White said, “that’s the ultimate goal.”

Our dedication to students doesn’t end when they receive a scholarship. Your support will enable Step Up to maximize the impact of the scholarships the students receive.

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