By GEOFF FOX
It was just after 10 a.m. and dozens of students at Pace Brantley School were in the middle of campus, kicking soccer balls in a large field, playing on a jungle gym, swinging and jumping rope under a cloudless sky.
Their voices and laughter were carried on a light breeze that shook Spanish moss in dozens of majestic oak trees that line the sprawling, nine-acre campus.
It was eighth-grader Ben Zanca’s favorite time of day.
“I like it because I get to make friends, and you get to do a lot of fun things,” he said.
Ben has asthma, cerebral palsy, autism and CLOVES syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by tissue overgrowth and complex vascular malformations. After struggling in public school and at a charter school, he was thriving in his first year at Pace Brantley.
“His self-confidence has increased tremendously,” said his mother, Ann Zanca. “It’s a lot of hands-on learning. He made a car out of a Coke bottle and started telling me about Newton’s laws of motion. His reading had regressed when he went into middle school, but here his reading, spelling and writing has much improved. And he’s enthusiastic about going to school.”
In 2016-17, Pace Brantley served over 170 second- to 12th grade students. Ben was one of about 35 students on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.
The school includes seven buildings, an outdoor basketball court and well-manicured football and baseball fields. The campus had one building, a former house, when the school opened in 1971. Additional buildings have been added as needed, and as money was available. The school has always been geared toward students with learning issues.
“The majority of our students have a difficulty such as auditory processing disorder, dyslexia or ADHD,” said Jennifer Foor, Pace Brantley’s elementary and middle school principal. “Some of them are on the autism spectrum, but on the high-functioning side. The kids on the spectrum are not here because of behavior concerns.”
Pace Brantley currently has three mental health counselors on campus, as well as an occupational therapist, speech pathologist and full-time nurse who specializes in handling students with anxiety issues.
This year, the school even “hired” Ben, a therapy dog who lives with school nurse Tara Mahoney and comes with her to work every day – like a law enforcement K-9 officer. An American breed mix, Ben is quick to lick the hands of strangers. When he is tired, he is not shy about dropping to the floor and stretching with a low yowl.
Ben has been immensely popular since his Jan. 3 debut on campus. Whenever students are feeling especially anxious, they can see Mahoney – and Ben.
“It’s positive redirection and visualization. I speak in a calm voice and there’s low lighting,” Mahoney said. “We typically end up on the floor. They can convey their feelings to Ben or just pet him. Usually, after 10 or 15 minutes they’re ready to go back to class. There’s a more relaxing vibe with him being here. He makes everybody feel more comfortable.”
Pam Tapley, who has been Pace Brantley’s head of school for three years, is always looking to incorporate effective, innovative concepts to benefit her students. She was previously an assistant superintendent of schools in Osceola County and has been a high school principal.
“I’m passionate about providing the environment that allows students with differences to be celebrated and surrounded by people who honor and respect that, but also believe they can be successful,” Tapley said. “We have a wrap-around philosophy. We want to provide the environment for students to be successful, but we do it with the parents, with the occupational therapy, with the speech therapy, the mental health therapy.
“We wrap the whole family into the support. A lot of times the families are frustrated. They’re seeking answers and support and we give that to them here. They don’t feel isolated anymore.”
The environment includes everything from cutting-edge technology in classrooms to practical lessons outdoors.
For example, there is a television production studio, where morning announcements are made under the supervision of instructor Katie Nichols and broadcast through the school. The studio features a green virtual television studio background, Macintosh computers, iMovies for editing, three cameras and a teleprompter.
There is also a greenhouse, where students grow snap peas, tomatoes, lettuce, kale and cabbage under the guidance of science teacher Suzy Grimm. Toward the back of the campus is the Arts Building, where drama classes are held. This year, the school is working on a production of “Aladdin.”
Ninth-grader Ryan Sleboda, a first-year student at Pace Brantley, said he loves the school.
“It’s more challenging than my other schools,” said Ryan, a Gardiner scholar who was diagnosed with autism. “The other schools just did the basics. This really is way more interesting.”
Those on the autism spectrum also benefit from social skills groups in which they learn to better interact with their peers.
“They go over eye contact and body language during personal interaction,” Foor said. “They learn how to react in situations and have conversations.”
The campus’ newest building is the high school, which opened in the 2010-11 school year. Besides classrooms and lockers, the high school features a complete science lab.
“They do dissections in there and everything,” Foor said.
According to Tapley, the school may not be done growing. She hopes to begin a capital campaign to build a vocational center on campus. Tapley is involved with the Greater Sanford Chamber of Commerce and often talks to business leaders in the community to determine what kind of employees they need.
It’s a way of helping her students succeed after graduation.
“What are we providing in a learning situation that gives them the time to learn to be valuable employees?” Tapley said. “We’re gathering the data now. We’re looking at (careers in) plumbing, construction, air-conditioning, culinary and early childhood. We want to look at the employability rates, because you don’t want to flood the market.”
Susan Sleboda, Ryan’s mother, said the school has been a blessing for her entire family.
“He has blossomed because of being at that school,” she said. “What they offer these kids – the environment, in particular – is in my opinion revolutionary. For a child like mine, who can’t typically succeed in a learning environment, it’s like a puzzle fitting together. For Ryan, it provides the perfect environment. The teachers are understanding of your child’s disabilities, as well as their abilities.
“It would be difficult to afford without the scholarship. It would be like paying another college tuition.”
Geoff Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By GEOFF FOX
Nataleigh Monterio put on her pink riding helmet and light-up cowboy boots.
“I’ve been riding horses my entire life,” said Nataleigh, 9. “Sometimes they answer questions. Miss Patty will ask them yes or no questions and they shake their head yes.”
Nearby, her classmate, Xavier Cebollero, 8, watched with envy. With a cast covering his left forearm after a tumbling accident, he was unable to ride that day.
“Some of the horses are a pain, because they don’t listen to me,” he said. “They speak horse.”
Nataleigh and Xavier, both third-graders, are two of HOPE Ranch’s 125 students. About 60 percent of the students are on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs; Natalie and Xavier have diagnoses on the autism spectrum. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.
“Some of these kids have been bullied and abused,” said Jose Suarez, who has run the school since 2005 with Ampy, his wife of 34 years. “They don’t trust people and adults.”
The school’s horsemanship classes are taught by Patty Anderton – known to the students as “Miss Patty.” Anderton used to run a business in Odessa, Florida, where she taught clients the finer points of horse riding. About six years ago, Jose Suarez asked her to help out at the school temporarily. It turned into a full-time job and Anderton hasn’t looked back.
“I love it here,” she said. “It’s much different. My clients before were usually adults and I wanted something different.”
As Anderton spoke, Nataleigh navigated Georgie around a figure eight pattern and had her trot at different speeds.
“The horses help bring them out of their shell,” she said. “A lot of them haven’t had the greatest life in school. They don’t trust a whole lot and the horses help bring that trust out.”
While horse riding is a popular activity, none of the students automatically get to ride every week.
“Horsemanship is a class, but riding is a privilege,” Jose Suarez said. “They have to have their grades and behavior under control. They have to earn it.”
The Suarezes opened the ranch in 2005, originally for troubled children. By then the couple, who have two adult children, had been caring for foster children for two years. Not long after opening the ranch, the mother of an autistic child approached them about expanding the program.
Ampy Suarez couldn’t say no.
“We want to give them opportunities that they never would have had otherwise,” she said.
It seems to be working. A discussion Nataleigh and Xavier had in the horse arena demonstrated genuine enthusiasm among the students.
“I just love this school, in general,” Nataleigh said. “When I was five or six, I went to a completely different school. When I was really young, I was really picky, though. They didn’t have a barn; they didn’t have any animals.”
“In Miss Patty’s class, we get to go on field trips. We went to We Rock the Spectrum in Pinellas County,” Xavier said, referring to the Clearwater gym with equipment designed to help children with sensory processing disorders. “We also went to The Brick University (an art school for children). We got to make a plane and a cupcake out of LEGOs.”
Xavier wasn’t done talking, but Natalie’s excitement prevented her from staying quiet.
“One week every year, we have Spirit Week,” she said.
Xavier started to speak again.
“Xavier, calm yourself,” she said. “Then, on a specific day, we have Character Day.”
“That’s when we get to dress up like any character,” he said.
“Yes, thank you, Xavier,” she said. “I went as a HOPE Ranch Learning Academy fairy. I had a little skirt and fairy wings, and it was really cute.”
“I was a mixture of super heroes,” he said. “I had a Captain America mask and a Superman cape.”
“He was Super Ultra Xavier!” she said.
As the school continues to grow, Jose Suarez said it will expand. He expects 200 students next year.
“We’ll need to beef up our infrastructure and maybe open another campus,” he said.
Suarez attributed the school’s growth to word-of-mouth advertising among parents of children with special needs, as well as a Google arrangement that drives Internet browsers to HOPE Ranch’s website.
“I’m starting to get requests from across the nation,” he said. “I recently got a call from Wisconsin. They said, ‘If that’s the right school, we’ll move.’”
Reach Geoff Fox at email@example.com.
By SUSAN SLEBODA, GUEST BLOGGER
My son, Ryan is 15 years old. He has autism spectrum disorder. Ryan has been receiving the Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students since the fall of 2015. I would imagine Ryan’s story is a common one if you have a child with autism.
For many years we bounced around the central Florida (Lake Mary and Sanford) area signing up Ryan for just about every sport you could imagine. Basketball, soccer, baseball and swimming. Ryan tried them all, however, he would get easily bored or frustrated, inevitably ending in a full-blown earthquake or meltdown. This led to teasing and taunting by other children. It led to dirty looks from other parents. I would wager that almost every one of you have felt this heart wrenching moment – as you watch your child struggle, falter and fail. My husband, Bill, and I had the eternal hope of finding a “good fit” for Ryan.
After several seasons of tears, anger, anxiety and stress, our family had enough. We finally accepted that sports would not be the right fit for Ryan. The doctors stressed the need for Ryan to be in an activity where he could stay active, work on his social skills and maybe even make a friend. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any luck. Ryan was unhappy and lonely. I have always believed that when one door closes, somewhere God opens a window. That held true for Ryan.
In the fall of 2013, I went on a field trip for one of my older sons and met a mom named Christine Eckstein. I opened up to her and shared Ryan’s story. I told her about Ryan’s educational and medical journey with autism. I relayed our plight in finding a sport for Ryan and our sadness with our lack of success. Imagine my surprise when she shared her story of her sons David and Kenny, who also happen to have autism spectrum disorder. Christine told me about a martial arts program that her daughter, Katarina, created to help families just like ours. It’s called Breaking Barriers Martial Arts. They created a nonprofit program to provide martial arts instruction to students with disabilities to help them grow into independent, self-assured adults. As a family they began their journey to help Kenny and David and turned it miraculously into a way to help strangers in need. I was impressed and in awe of their story. The mom, dad, Katarina, David, Kenny and even little sister Ava all earned their black belts.
Christine insisted I speak with Katarina about the program. Katarina came over the very next day and met Ryan. She believed the Breaking Barriers program would help Ryan and she insisted we give it a try. To be honest, I was nervous and really questioned how it would be possible for Ryan to learn martial arts. How could he focus and have the discipline needed in a sport such as this? I was afraid to hope. I was even more afraid to set up Ryan for another failure. Could Ryan succeed in taekwondo(TKD) with his autism? I didn’t know for certain but desperate times called for desperate measures.
With a glimmer of hope, we took Ryan to D.C. Turnbull’s Martial Arts studio in Sanford, Fla. for his first Breaking Barriers TKD class in January 2014. The students and instructors welcomed Ryan literally with hugs and high fives. We were amazed by the kindness and love we experienced that day by this open and loving group of students. It was incredible to watch these students who happened to have varying disabilities (autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy, hearing impairments, visual impairments and intellectual disabilities) demonstrate their martial arts abilities. They were not just taking part in the class, they were excelling at the sport. As parents we were in awe. Ryan was invited onto the mats and by the time class was over he was hooked! Ryan began his TKD journey. It has now been two years and Ryan is a deputy black belt and will be testing for his BLACK BELT in November of this year.
What we have witnessed is truly an incredible transformation in Ryan. Guess what happened? It was something we had always hoped for in spite of Ryan’s many setbacks over the years. Ryan became a LEADER. In February, he was awarded the rank of a Teaching Assistant in the special needs program, assisting younger students with disabilities to learn TKD. Breaking Barriers taught Ryan self-control, discipline, self-confidence, perseverance and indomitable spirit. When Ryan puts on his uniform and steps onto the mat the transformation is incredible! He repeats the mantra “Yes I can,” whenever he learns something challenging and new. Ryan has competed and earned gold and silver medals in forms and sparring. His favorite competitive event is board breaking. He is really good at it. Seriously, you should see his spinning hook kick!
And you know what? NONE of this would have been possible without the help of Gardiner Scholarship has assisted us in providing an incredible learning experience for Ryan at Pace Brantley School in Longwood, FL. This has freed up other funds in our budget so Ryan can participate in new experiences such as the life changing TKD program at Breaking Barriers Martial Arts.
Ryan and his Breaking Barriers buddies prove time and again that their ABILITIES far outweigh any disability they may have. They are breaking boards while breaking barriers. These participants show improvement in their physical abilities such as coordination and strength, but MORE importantly, the BB students show MARKED success in their social skills, focus, independence, respect and confidence. The best part is that TKD is a lifelong sport. If a student is able to reach the rank of black belt, they can choose to keep going and earn higher degrees of black belt. This is different than most sports where students tend to drop out as they get older. Instead TKD and the BB program encourages its students to challenge themselves to stick with the program and achieve higher black belt ranks.
Do you want to be impressed?
Take a minute to watch this video. It will show you the incredible abilities of our Breaking Barriers students. Added bonus: You get to see my superstar son, Ryan – he is the student holding up the autism sign. Watch for his incredible spinning hook!
Breaking Barriers is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Florida. Its goal is to teach martial arts to children with special needs. Organizers recently held their first fundraiser – the Breaking Barriers Invitational – an AAU Martial Arts tournament. There were special needs competitors from different areas of Florida as well traditional competitors. It was a big success and next year will be even better. All money raised by the Breaking Barriers programs goes to purchase specialty gear, additional instructors, use of the training facility, etc. The program will continue to expand and provide education and opportunities for special needs students as well as assistance to instructors who wish to offer their own special needs programs in other areas.
Susan Sleboda is not only mom to Ryan, she has two other older, sons, and a husband, Bill. By profession, she is a lawyer, but on sabbatical from practicing so she could raise her three boys. When she’s not watching Ryan break boards, she spends time advocating for him and volunteering in their community. The family lives in Lake Mary, Fla.