Due to complications with her birth in 2006, Sophia Brown was in need of intensive medical care after entering the world. She almost died, said her mother Stephanie Vitale Brown, and was in the hospital for three weeks, requiring breathing assistance while there.
She was diagnosed with hypotonia, or low muscle tone, and strabismus, more commonly known as crossed eyes. Sophia’s conditions have resulted in her having trouble with her eyesight, strength and motor skills, and it prevented her from walking until she was 22 months old. Stephanie worked closely with various specialists to help Sophia with everything from physical to speech issues.
When it came time for Sophia to start her formal education, Stephanie dreaded enrolling her in their neighborhood school. She was concerned she would get lost in the large class sizes and worried she wouldn’t keep up with the other children. She can’t run as fast as other kids, is clumsy and falls a lot and has trouble walking up stairs, Stephanie said.
Her mother wanted another option for her daughter. Enrolling her in Morningside Academy, a private school in Port St. Lucie, was an attractive prospect in part because Stephanie already had a relationship with the school. Sophia’s older sister, Gianna, now 12 and in the seventh grade, has attended Morningside since pre-kindergarten. In addition, Stephanie and her family had also attended the affiliated Morningside Church for about a decade.
Stephanie was attending college herself when Sophia was entering school. She has been studying nursing and is currently unemployed so she can go to school and care for her children. Her husband, Mark Brown, works in construction.
“I would not have been able to afford to send her to Morningside,” Stephanie said.
Stephanie said she learned about the Step Up For Students Scholarship through Morningside because staff there knew the family was having financial problems. Stephanie applied for the scholarship and got it for Sophia. For several years, Stephanie and Mark were able to pay for Gianna’s tuition, but now that they are struggling financially even more, Gianna doesn’t qualify for the scholarship program because of the law requiring Step Up Scholarship recipients to attend public school the year before being eligible for sixth-12th grades.
Sophia started at Morningside as a kindergartener during the 2011-12 school year, and her challenges were immediately addressed. She couldn’t reach the soap dispenser or open the bathroom door in kindergarten because she was too short and not strong enough. So her kindergarten teacher put a stool up to the sink so she could reach it and bought an extra soap dispenser she could easily reach as well. Someone was assigned to help her open the bathroom door.
Sophia also participates in Morningside’s award-wining music program playing the violin, and other students help her by carrying her instrument.
Stephanie said Sophia, who is now 7 and in second grade, is getting the attention she needs at Morningside. It puts her mother’s mind at ease.
“It doesn’t even feel like I’m sending her to school,” Stephanie said. “It feels like I’m sending her to be with family.”
Sophia has flourished academically at Morningside. Stephanie said she is very smart and likes to read, and that her reading is advanced. She has made the honor roll and principal’s honor roll and was named Student of the Month in September 2013. She has needed minimal help from her mother to receive straight A’s, and Stephanie credits the school for that.
Laurie Gagne taught both Sophia and her sister in kindergarten. She remembers seeing Sophia blossom to the point where she was able to climb the stairs at a talent show and display a piece of art to the audience. Gagne said she’s proud to work for a school where teachers pay attention not only to their students’ academic growth but their spiritual development.
“They truly care so much about the child,” she said.
Morningside Academy is a private Christian school on Florida’s Treasure Coast and serves students in pre-kindergarten-12th grade. It was founded in 1987 and is accredited by the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools and it uses the Stanford Achievement Test to measure academic success. For the 2013-2014 school year, tuition rates vary with grade level of the student and begin as low as $484 per month. It currently serves 450 students of whom about 89 are Step Up scholars. The average class size is about 20 students, although that varies for Morningside’s middle and upper schools. It has a highly regarded arts program with three award-winning orchestras, and the kids regularly go to competitions.