Today is back-to-school day for most school districts in Florida.
But for the Plucinski family of Central Florida, it’s back to schools. And not just district schools.
Sisters Cora and Zuri boarded a school bus to start the day at a district elementary school, while mom Corin Plucinski drove brothers Zach and Nathan 30 minutes to a private school. They attend the schools with help from one of Florida’s multiple educational choice scholarships.
In many parts of the country, this may be unusual. But in Florida, which offers one of the robust arrays of school choice in the country, it’s increasingly common. Growing numbers of families have different children attending different schools in different educational sectors.
To the Plucinskis, whose oldest is now headed to college after graduating from a district high school, there’s nothing odd about it.
“When you’ve got five kids you’re always juggling something anyway,” Corin Plucinski said.
Thirty years ago, roughly 90 percent of Florida students in pre-K through 12 attended assigned district schools, and about 10 percent attended private schools. Beyond a handful of magnet schools, there was no state-supported school choice.
Fast forward a generation. Today, 46 percent of Florida students – 1.7 million – attend something other than their assigned district schools. About 300,000 attend charter schools. Another 300,000 attend private schools. Most of the rest attend options created by school districts, from magnet schools and career academies to IB and dual enrollment programs.
This flourishing landscape gives parents more opportunities to find the right fit for their kids. And for many families, that means one child in this sector, another in that sector.
Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Corin and her husband Mark knew they wanted a big family. When they discovered they couldn’t have children of their own, they turned to the foster care system. Soon they welcomed siblings Cora, Zuri, Zach and Nathan into their home. Not long after, Leonte joined the family as the new big brother.
The Plucinskis moved to Florida two years ago, in part to escape Milwaukee winters and to start fresh as a family. They were pleasantly surprised by what they discovered.
As a multi-racial family, the Plucisnkis felt Milwaukee was far too segregated. People talked. Others stared and judged. In the Orlando area, there was none of that.
“It’s more racially diverse here,” Corin said of her new neighborhood in east Orlando. Even her kids were shocked by the diversity. Florida wasn’t just black and white like Milwaukee, it was multi-colored. The warm weather, lush palm trees and nearby beaches didn’t hurt either.
They also discovered something else. Florida’s public schools, in their view, were better. Way better.
“Moving to Florida has been a world of change,” said Corin about Florida’s K-12 education system.
Florida public schools had smaller classes, which allowed Zuri (now in third grade) and Leonte to get the extra help they needed. She also felt her kids were being held to a higher standard.
Leonte struggled with the higher expectations at first, but his new public school teachers provided extra help to raise his scores on the state standardized test and the SAT. He finished his senior year at East River High School in Orlando with his GPA comfortably above 3.0. Leonte will be a freshman at Seminole State College this year and wants to become a fireman when he graduates.
Zuri loves her public school, East Lake Elementary, and is excited to welcome her little sister Cora to the kindergarten class.
Meanwhile, Zachary (seventh grade) and Nathan (fifth grade), will both attend The Arbor School in Winter Springs, a private school for children with special needs. Both have multiple learning disabilities, and both use the Gardiner Scholarship, an education savings account for students with special needs. The program is administered by Step Up For Students.
Zachary and Nathan weren’t always private school students. They’ve tried public school, home education and Florida Virtual School too.
For Zachary, a district elementary school worked better in Florida than in Milwaukee. In Wisconsin, he struggled so much in his public school that he was home schooled by his adoptive mom instead. But in Florida, he was able to flourish thanks to smaller class sizes and teachers that his parents said put in extra effort.
Middle school was a different story, however. The school was just too big and held too many distractions. Zachary’s grades began to suffer. That’s when Plucinski turned to the Gardiner Scholarship.
Zachary’s grades dramatically improved at The Arbor School, from D’s and F’s to A’s and B’s.
Until this year, Nathan had only been home schooled. He needed occupational, physical, speech and behavioral therapy, all of which made attending a traditional school difficult.
This year will be Nathan’s first at The Arbor School with his big brother. He’s already made friends at the school and Plucinski believes the option will be a great fit for him.
Public or private? It doesn’t matter to the Plucinskis.
“We’re just happier,” Corin Plucinski said. “This is how schools are supposed to be.”
Patrick R. Gibbons can be reached at email@example.com.
With the final Florida schools kicking off the 2016-17 school year in the coming days, Step Up For Students team members have been busily working on applications for both the Florida Tax Credit (income-based) scholarship and the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs.
For the income-based scholarship, Step Up expects to have more than 92,000 students enrolled for the new year, and another several thousand more using the Gardiner to customize their learning.
“This is going to be the biggest year yet,” said Step Up President Doug Tuthill. “We’re elated to be able to offer learning options to this many Florida students who need it most. I am proud and humbled by our scholarship operations staff for the incredible work they have been doing, and the long hours they have put in, to get these applications processed and awards into the hands of these deserving families.”
Step Up staff has been working tirelessly completing applications, as well as working on regular year-round duties. More than 106,000 students have been awarded on the tax-credit scholarship with nearly 91,500 enrolling by Aug. 22. Of those, about 61,200 are renewal scholars.
This year’s scholarship is worth up to $5,886 for tuition assistance or $500 for transportation funding to an out-of-district public school.
Lawmakers broadened the income-based scholarship this year to students whose household income level was slightly higher than the 185 percent of the poverty level previously required, similar to the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program. If found eligible, many of these families can receive a partial scholarship to offset tuition costs.
The changes in the law, however, still require that the lowest-income families be awarded first. About 3,200 of these families, however, have already been awarded the tax-credit scholarship, too.
“Even working class families struggle with finding the right school for their children,” Tuthill said. “It’s tough to afford private school at those income levels as well. Now, we can start assisting these families find the best school for their children, too. And that’s very exciting.”
Also through the second week of August, more than 11,800 Gardiner applications had been started with about 5,600 students with certain special needs awarded for the new school year. The average Gardiner Scholarship is worth $10,000.
Both scholarships are still available for the 2016-17 school year. Income-based applicants who have been awarded, but have not yet formally enrolled their children into a private school must do so by Aug. 31 or forfeit the scholarship. After that, Step Up will continue to award scholarships until funding is depleted. This may mean that families receive news of a scholarship during the year.
Income-based scholarships will be accepted until Sept. 30. No new applications will be accepted after this time.
Gardiner applications remain open indefinitely.
By GEOFF FOX
We asked educators to share their best advice with parents on how to start out the year strong and build on that momentum. Here are 10 pieces of great advice to help kick off the 2016-17 school year:
1. A new school year is a chance for a new beginning. Each year starts fresh with an opportunity for students to put forth their best efforts.
2. Routines are the best way to ensure consistent performance. Structure your child’s day so that he or she can begin to navigate it independently as the year progresses. This includes both morning and evening routines. Make sure your child is up at the same time each morning, has a nutritious breakfast, and gets to school on time. In the afternoon, have a set time for homework, play and dinner as a family. Avoid over scheduling with activities that can interfere with school success. Remember, your child will need support with the homework routine at first, but eventually he or she will be able to work independently. This will allow him or her to develop responsibility.
3. Having the proper school supplies allows students to be ready right away. Make sure you get the supplies as soon as you have the list so that your child has what she or he needs the first week.
4. Keep a positive attitude! After the fun summer experiences and lots of time with friends and family, students may not want to go back to school. There may be separation anxiety, nervousness about a new class or grade level, or simply a hesitation to return to the rigors of classroom learning. Your child will look to you to set the tone for the year. Listen to your child’s fears about returning, then help to alleviate those fears by coming up with solutions. Having a plan will allow children to feel a sense of control over the situation, thereby reducing stress.
5. Teachers are really, really busy. This is true every day of the school year, but this is especially true at the beginning of the year. Certainly reach out with any questions or information, but try to do so via email or written note so that your child’s teacher can process the information and send a thoughtful response, or set an appointment to speak one-on-one with the teacher when class is not in session. Teachers are working to establish their class routines with the students and get to know them. They want to set the tone now that will allow them to have a successful year, and are also working to start the learning process. Allow your child’s teacher time to get things going before overwhelming him or her with too many concerns. After a few weeks, you will have a better idea of how the classroom works and what the expectations are, and you will be able to ask more specific questions regarding your child’s progress.
6. Look for ways to get involved. Join the PTA. Attend school functions. By being a part of the school community, you are conveying the importance of education to your child. You may not be able to volunteer during the day, but maybe you can help out in other ways, such as the school carnival or the PTA newsletter.
7. Education is a partnership. Be supportive of what your child is doing at school. If you have concerns, reach out to your child’s teacher to find out what can be done to help the situation. Allow your child to suffer the consequences for their actions rather than rescue them. This will help your child to develop a sense of responsibility as well as demonstrate that you and the teacher are both invested in making sure your child is the best she or he can be. Allowing students to fail early on helps them to avoid those same mistakes in the future. Help as needed, but allow your child to grow and learn. Remember, your child’s teacher wants the best for him or her, just like you do. When you work as a team, it allows your child more opportunity to succeed.
8. Save some time for fun! Nothing quells a child’s enthusiasm for learning more than making it a chore that never ends. Let your child have some free time to do nothing. Encourage outdoor play. Plan family outings that are just for fun. Play games and laugh together. Time away from learning will refresh your child’s mind and help him or her to be ready for more learning and to avoid burnout.
9. An organized room makes for smooth sailing. Now is a good time to clean out closets and drawers and make room for some new school outfits. Have a space for supplies and a place to do homework. Establish chores for your child, such as making the bed and putting toys away each evening. Help your child find a place for everything now so that she or he can do this on his or her own during the school year. Help your child pack his or her backpack before going to bed to allow for an easier morning routine.
10. Let your child know that you love him or her. Show affection for your child each day through hugs or encouraging words. Make sure that even if you have had a stressful day, you give a smile and keep a kind tone of voice. Make it a routine each night for every family member to share something positive that happened in their day. So often we get so wrapped up in adult problems that it bleeds into our interactions with our children. Take some time for yourself every now and then, exercise, and maintain healthy habits. When you are feeling your best, you are better able to care for your child. This year will fly by, so make it a goal to create some happy memories along the way. Your child has a job that is just as stressful to him or her as yours is to you. You are teaching your child to cope with stress through your actions. Help your child know that he or she has your support and love. This will equip your child take on the world, and will allow him or her to understand that each school year, like life, is a journey with bumps that can be overcome with hard work and determination.