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From jumping rope to riding bikes, education savings accounts help those with autism expand their world

BY ROGER MOONEY

SARASOTA – Sophia Slaughter, who is 15, recently learned to jump rope.

Maybe that is not a big deal to someone who was skipping Double Dutch at 5, but it is to Sophia, who is on the autism spectrum and has dyspraxia. Known as developmental co-ordination disorder, dyspraxia hinders her coordination. Some activities that neurotypical teenagers consider routine are nearly impossible for her.

Or were.

While working with trainer Dani Williams at NXT Generation Wellness in Sarasota for the past two years, Sophia gradually gained command of her muscles and their movements. She can hold a yoga pose and coordinate her footwork to move through a series of squares taped on the floor at NXT Generation.

Sophia Slaughter jumps rope during a recent training sessions at NXT Generation Wellness.

And she can complete in proper order the mini skills that allow her to jump rope.

“It’s life-changing,” said Sophia’s mom, Jennifer Slaughter.

Sophia, who lives in Sarasota and is home schooled, receives the Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with unique abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship). It is managed by Step Up For Students. Sophia uses her education savings account that comes with the scholarship to pay for the sessions at NXT Generation, as well as for yoga classes and ballroom dancing.

These activities added health and fitness to Sophia’s life, helped her become more socially interactive, and gain a circle of friends.

“That’s the ultimate goal,” Williams said. “Elevate and enhance their current life, or what they view as their current life, and open doors and continue on this path.”

In early August, 20-year-old Riley Joyce for the first time in his life rode a two-wheel bicycle without any assistance. His mom, Judi, who watched from the driveway of their Sarasota-home cried.

“It was the best thing ever to see,” Judi said.

Like Sophia, Riley is on the autism spectrum. He lives in Sarasota and is home schooled. Riley also receives the Family Empowerment Scholarship (formerly Gardiner) and uses his education savings account for yoga, ballroom dancing and sessions with Williams.

Riley was introduced to Williams three years ago during her Saturday group classes, which are sponsored by Face Autism. For the past two years, Riley has taken weekly one-on-one classes with Williams.

Jordan Soriano and NXT Generation Wellness owner Dani Williams.

Started by Colleen Buccieri, whose godson Jordan Soriano is on the spectrum, Face Autism is a nonprofit that organizes autism-appropriate activities such as bowling, horseback riding, and golf. It also sponsors a ballroom dancing class at Dynasty Dance Club in Sarasota.

Judi enrolled Riley in the fitness class, hoping he would get healthier and make friends. Check and check.

Riley has lost 33 pounds since he began working with Williams. At first, he could barely manage five minutes on the treadmill. Now he can walk and run for 30 minutes, increasing the pace as he goes along.

“His endurance has gone off the charts,” Judi said.

As for socializing, Riley chats with everyone he encounters, making friends wherever he goes.

“He doesn’t stop talking, which is great,” Judi said. “I love it.”

In July, Riley spent a week in the Adirondack Mountains of New York with a small group of friends who are on the spectrum. They hiked, went fly fishing, ziplining, and kayaking.

The outing was the idea of Williams’ boyfriend, Chase Pettey, who runs Adventure For All, a nonprofit that creates interactive adventures for those with intellectual and/or developmental exceptionalities.

Riley tried to ride a two-wheel bike during the trip and came close. He finally conquered that feat not long after returning home.

Williams helped Riley master the bicycle (which Riley purchased with his education saving account) with a series of exercises over a six-month period that improved his balance and stability.

“The confidence in Riley has just skyrocketed,” Williams said. “He’s much more willing to try new things, so that’s been a wonderful thing to witness.”

As Jordan’s godmother, Colleen was keenly aware of how children on the spectrum grow up without friends. They aren’t invited to birthday parties or asked to go to the movies. She created Face Autism in 2009 to change that.

“I just look for different opportunities for kids to be involved in, things that typical kids would be involved in,” she said. “And I’m a big proponent of getting them off the video games and the computers. A lot of the kids don’t have fitness in their life. I think it’s very important – have a healthy heart, a strong body. Most of them don’t have upper body strength.”

Jordan, 21, lacked upper body strength when he began training with Williams four years ago. He couldn’t jump rope. He could ride a two-wheel bike, but he couldn’t peddle with much power.

A recipient of the Family Empowerment (formerly Gardiner) Scholarship, Jordan, who is homeschooled, used his education savings account to pay for his training sessions with Williams.

Jordan can jump rope. He can vertically jump 36 inches. He has learned to stand when he rides his bike so he can generate more power when he peddles. He runs 35 minutes around his home in Ellenton, Florida every other day. He is making plans to bring his bicycle to Riley’s house, so they can ride their bikes together.

Jordan, who excels at ballroom dancing, was part of the group that made the trip to the Adirondacks.

“This has given him confidence to try new things and to challenge himself,” Colleen said.

And to keep trying. During the Adirondack trip, Jordan tried to complete an obstacle course on his bike. He was unsuccessful the first time, and he was unsuccessful the second time. He didn’t quit, though, and eventually he completed the course.

“He has really shown determination,” Colleen said, “something he never had.”

That’s all part of the plan Williams has for each of her clients. Knowing no two have the same challenges, she devises individual programs for each. “Outside the box” training, she called it. Williams developed a book where they can chart their progress during workouts and encourages them to write in a journal. She teaches them about proper nutrition and the importance of staying hydrated.

Williams, who graduated from Saint Francis University (Loretto, Pennsylvania) in 2011 with a dual degree in Elementary and Special Education, works as a learning support teacher at Community Day School in Sarasota.

In 2012, Williams began Kids in Motion, which morphed into the wellness program that is now NXT Generation.

“Watching the underdogs take on things we’ve preconceived them unable to do or limited what they could actually do and see them be able to do it with the correct support and guidance is one of my greatest joys in life, hands down,” Williams said.

Her goal is to push clients with special needs through the glass ceiling society has placed above them, to show the impossible is possible.

Like jumping rope for Sophia Slaughter.

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Florida Legislature is normalizing, expanding access to education choice

By DOUG TUTHILL

The Florida House and Senate have sent Gov. Ron DeSantis legislation that will continue normalizing and expanding access to choice in public education.

Doug Tuthill

Florida began expanding access to education choice in the late 1970s/early ’80s through the creation of district magnet schools. Next came charter schools and the Florida Virtual School in the 1990s, the McKay vouchers in 1999, tax credit scholarships in 2001, Gardiner education savings accounts (ESAs) in 2014, Hope scholarships in 2018, and the Family Empowerment Scholarship in 2019.

Today, about half of Florida’s PreK-12 students attend schools other than their assigned neighborhood school. This new legislation, House Bill 7045, will make even more students eligible for education choice.

HB 7045 also continues the movement to make all government-regulated education choice programs a normal and permanent part of Florida’s public education system. This normalization effort began in earnest with the 2019 passage of the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES), which created a scholarship program for lower-income students within the state’s public education funding system.  

HB 7045’s integration of the Gardiner Scholarship for students with unique abilities/special needs into the FES furthers this normalization. The Gardiner scholarship was created as a standalone program that the Legislature funded by an annual line-item appropriation. Every year the program had a waiting list, and every year parents had to ask the Legislature to appropriate more money to serve more students.

Now that the Legislature is merging the Gardiner program into the FES and the state’s public education funding system, the program’s enrollment and scholarship amount will grow automatically.

The McKay program, which is a second scholarship for children with unique abilities/special needs, will be merged with the Gardiner Scholarship and also integrated into the FES in the 2022-23 school year. This merger will make it easier for families with unique abilities/special needs children to access the funding and services that best meet each child’s needs, while knowing that their scholarship amounts will automatically go up as the state’s overall funding for public education increases.

Like Gardiner, the McKay program will become an education savings account in the 2022-23 school year. This will give the McKay families the same flexibility the Gardiner families have to better customize education services and products to the unique needs of their children.

The Senate wanted to turn all the lower-income scholarships into ESAs, but the House thought it was too soon. Nonetheless, over the next several years, ESAs, which are an essential tool in our effort to provide every student with an equal opportunity to succeed, will also become a normal and permanent part of public education. 

All aspects of how public education is organized and delivered are controlled by its funding procedures. Education choice will not be sustainable if it does not become an integrated part of the state’s public education funding mechanism, which is why HB 7045 is so important.

This bill accelerates the effort begun with the 2019 creation of the FES to fully integrate all government-regulated choice programs into the state’s education funding system, thereby ensuring their long-term viability and normalization.

How an education savings account turned a child’s room into a ‘destination’

Editor’s Note: This post originally ran April 1, 2021 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students. This is the fourth in a series of stories exploring the Gardiner Scholarship Program.

By ROGER MOONEY

Roman Scott’s bedroom has two walls painted orange and two painted blue. On the floor is a rug with the design of a two-lane road wending its way through a small town.

A train set sits on the rug, because Roman, 4, loves trains. And there is a stack of trays that hold his toys and musical instruments, because Roman loves to, as his mom says, “rock out” on his tambourine, cymbals and triangle.

Urrikka Woods-Scott refers to this as a “sensory room” for her son, who is on the autism spectrum.

“The goal was to get him to engage in his room, love his room by having all the support in that room,” she said.

Roman sits at the desk in his bedroom/sensory room.

Roman receives the Gardiner Scholarship for children with special needs. (The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.) Many of the items in Roman’s room, including the educational toys from Melissa & Doug and the stack of books from the Frog and Toad series, were purchased with funds from the Gardiner’s education savings account. These flexible spending accounts allow parents to use their children’s education dollars for a variety of educational purposes.

The scholarship also pays for Roman’s therapy at Bloom Behavioral Solutions, which is near their home in Jacksonville, Florida.

Woods-Scott got the idea to turn Roman’s bedroom into a sensory room from Bloom. She learned what Roman gravitates to in Bloom’s sensory room and did her best to replicate those items at home.

“We’re trying to transition (him) from sleeping in my bed to sleeping in his own bedroom,” Woods-Scott said. “I want him to have what he needs to be comfortable in his own room. My thought was to make his room a destination.”

Woods-Scott’s husband, Romain, suggested the colors for the walls. Orange and blue are two of Roman’s favorites. Blue is considered soothing and is a popular choice for sensory rooms. Woods-Scott added brown curtains to give the room more life.

The results, she said, are beyond encouraging.

Woods-Scott said Roman has made great strides since joining the Gardiner program in 2020. Much of that comes from his time at Bloom, which he attends for 30 hours a week. The rest comes from the tools available at home that Woods-Scott purchased through MyScholarShop, Step Up For Student’s online catalog of pre-approved educational products.

Families also can purchase items or services that are not on the pre-approved list. They must submit a pre-authorization request that includes supporting documentation and an explanation of how the purchase will meet the individual educational needs of the student. 

A review is then conducted by an internal committee, which includes a special needs educator, to determine if the item or service is allowable under the program’s expenditure categories and spending caps, and a notification is sent to the parent. The item or service may then be submitted on a reimbursement request that must match the corresponding pre-authorization.

Step Up For Students employs numerous measures to protect against fraud and theft, such as ensuring a service provider’s reimbursement request and a parental approval came from different IP addresses.

Woods-Scott purchased an iPad on MyScholarShop, which Roman uses for speech, math and preschool prep. She buys arts and craft supplies because they help Roman improve his fine motor skills.

Roman was diagnosed in October 2019. The family was living in Charlotte, North Carolina at the time. That November, Woods-Scott changed jobs and the family moved to Jacksonville, where, unbeknownst to her, Roman was eligible for the Gardiner Scholarship, the largest education savings account program in the nation.

The walls of Roman’s bedroom are painted blue and orange to help create a sensory room.

At the time, Roman was a “scripter,” which meant his speech was limited to repeating what he heard on a television show or a movie.

“It wasn’t a functional type of speech and he wasn’t expressing what he needed,” Woods-Scott said. “He wasn’t saying, ‘Mom, I want a banana,’ or something like that. He was only saying what he heard on a show. Now he says ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy.’ He tells you what he wants.”

Roman can count to 100 and recite the alphabet. He can read his Frog and Toad books out loud.

Next year, Woods-Scott would like to use her Gardiner funds to send Roman to the Jericho School of Autism in Jacksonville.

After having what she called “my little moment of crying” when Roman was diagnosed with autism, Woods-Scott went to work seeking therapy for her son and advocating for those on the spectrum. She started Mocha Mama on FIRE, a YouTube vlog that promotes autism awareness in the Black community.

And, she has started the nonprofit Shades of Autism Parent Network to focus on multicultural parents of children on the spectrum and create recreational experiences through travel.

Woods-Scott knows how fortuitous it was to land the job in Florida, and what that meant for Roman.

“It was definitely all for a purpose,” she said.

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

Education savings accounts offer creative solutions for students with learning differences

Editor’s Note: This post originally ran March 25, 2021 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students. This is the third in a series of stories exploring the Gardiner Scholarship Program.

By Lisa Buie

Chrissy Weisenberger is one busy mom.

With five children, including 3-year-old twin boys and two daughters who are both on the autism spectrum, homeschooling the whole brood made the most sense for the family. It allows her to design each child’s learning plan to best fit his or her educational needs.

“It’s very Frankensteined,” joked Weisenberger, who lives in Palm Bay, Florida, a city southeast of Orlando known for its sports and nature parks.

By that, she means like many homeschool parents, she has strategically used a little of this and a little of that, a grassroots method of creating the perfect learning environment for her family.

Her two daughters, Keira, 8, and Tessa, 6, are on the autism spectrum and participate in the Gardiner Scholarship Program for students with unique abilities. The scholarships allow parents to customize their child’s education by using flexible spending accounts called education savings accounts.

While traditional vouchers pay for private school tuition, the savings accounts are more flexible. The Florida Department of Education transfers a portion of a child’s funds from the state education formula to a state-approved nonprofit organization, such as Step Up For Students, which puts these funds into an account for each child. Parents then apply to this nonprofit for permission to use their child’s ESA funds to buy state-authorized educational services and products.

Chrissy Weisenberger of Palm Bay, Florida made creative use of her education savings account, converting a swimming pool into a ball pit for her two sensory-challenged daughters. Sometimes, the whole family joins in.

The girls need help to stay focused on learning, so in addition to purchasing educational materials such as books and workbooks, Weisenberger has used her daughters’ education savings accounts to buy specialized equipment such as swings, which calm kids with autism, and a mini trampoline that helps with balance and gross motor skills.

She bought two chewable necklaces for Keira, who otherwise would chew on her hair during class. She bought the girls laptops to access virtual lessons in math and reading, which she says were a godsend during the pandemic when co-op meetings with other homeschool families were canceled. And she bought them a kit that taught them how to build a volcano.

Most Gardiner families typically make purchases through MyScholarShop, Step Up For Students’ online catalog of pre-approved educational products. The platform includes curriculum materials, digital devices, and education software. Families may be able to purchase items or services not on the pre-approved list by submitting a pre-authorization request that includes supporting documentation and an explanation of how the purchase will meet the individual educational needs of the student. 

An internal committee, which includes a special needs educator, conducts a review to determine if the item or service is allowable under the program’s expenditure categories and spending caps, and a notification is sent to the parent. The item or service may then be submitted on a reimbursement request that must match the corresponding pre-authorization.  

Step Up For Students employs numerous measures to protect against fraud and theft. For example, if a service provider’s reimbursement request is submitted from an IP address and the platform sees that the parental approval came from the same IP address, the anti-fraud staff is alerted to investigate.

Weisenberger followed this process to purchase one item not on the pre-approved list: a $25 inflatable kiddie pool.

While a swimming pool would not qualify as a reimbursable expense under the program’s rules, Weisenberger’s proposed use made it eligible. Inspired by a Pinterest post, she converted the rectangular pool, which she ordered from Amazon, into a ball pit that she filled with almost 3,000 plastic balls. Her girls use the reconfigured pool to help them with balance.

But Weisenberger’s creativity extends further. She’s devised a way to use the pool to help her kids with math.

Using three buckets, she teaches place value by having them put the appropriate number of balls in each. For example, the number 436 would be represented by putting four balls in the hundreds place bucket, three balls in the tens place and six balls in the one place buckets.

The inventive mom has found yet another way to utilize the purchase. She pours the balls over Keira as a way to soothe her sensory-challenged daughter.

Weisenberger, who learned about Gardiner from a speech therapist two years ago, said she is very pleased with the program. While she suspects two of her other children may qualify for a scholarship, the funding she presently receives satisfies the family’s learning needs.

“I don’t want to take it away from somebody else who needs it,” she said.

Lisa Buie is online reporter for redefinED.

Horse therapy opens new world for blind teen

Editor’s Note:  This post originally ran March 11, 2021 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students. This is the first in a series of stories exploring the Gardiner Scholarship Program.

By LISA BUIE

Yvonne Clanton realizes some might question why a state scholarship would pay for kids to ride horses.

She wondered herself, until her daughter Sarah began attending weekly sessions at Emerald M Therapeutic Riding Center in Brooksville. The farm is nearly an hour from the Clantons’ home in Zephyrhills, but the experience, Clanton says, has been “life changing.”

Horse therapy student
Sarah Clanton, blind since birth, gives commands to her horse, Cappy, at the Emerald M. Therapeutic Riding Center as owner and therapist Lisa Michelangelo, left, lends a hand.

Born blind and severely developmentally delayed, Sarah, now 14, spent her early years warehoused in an orphanage in Ukraine. Strapped to a bed for nearly 24 hours a day, she was never held or cuddled. When Clanton and her husband, Jon, adopted Sarah at age 5, Sarah was wearing infant-sized clothing. She could not walk or talk.

The Clantons tried unsuccessfully to educate Sarah through their school district’s homebound program. Next, they tried sending her to a small private school, but when one of her brothers, who is visually impaired and has cerebral palsy, got sick and had to be hospitalized, the family opted to homeschool both children.

Now, Sarah and her brother Sam both participate in the Gardiner Scholarship Program for students with unique abilities administered by Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog. The Clantons use the education savings accounts attached to their Gardiner Scholarships to cover the cost for both children to attend Emerald M, among other purchases, which they would not be able to afford otherwise.

“It was our last hope,” Clanton said, explaining that if this therapy, designed to make Sarah stronger, failed, the only alternative would have been purchasing a lift system on a track to support Sarah throughout the house. A bathroom renovation looked inevitable, another pricy item for a family of six whose sole breadwinner, Sarah’s father, is pastor of a small church and a prison chaplain.

The Clantons applied and were approved through Step Up For Students’ detailed process to use their Gardiner funds at Emerald M, which has been an authorized Gardiner service provider since 2016.

After each therapy session, Emerald M is required to submit a request for payment via Step Up’s direct-pay process. The secure platform routes the request to the parent for approval once staff determines the purchase meets state eligibility guidelines.

Step Up also has an online catalog of pre-approved educational products, such as curriculum materials, digital devices, and education software, that families may select. Families may also purchase items and services out of their own pockets and submit receipts and supporting documentation to Step Up for review for reimbursement.

That process includes an internal review committee with a special needs educator; regular input from a statewide Gardiner parent advisory council; and a long list of limits and prohibitions on certain expenditures and categories of expenditures. Reviewers examine each application to determine not only its eligibility but also its appropriateness for that child’s learning plan.

Step Up uses technology to look for evidence of attempted fraud or theft. For example, if a service provider’s reimbursement request is submitted from an IP address and the platform sees that the parental approval came from the same IP address, the anti-fraud staff is alerted to investigate.

Clanton says the therapies have been a godsend for Sarah over the past three years. Sarah, who was non-verbal when she arrived at the riding center and shied away from human touch, had to be carried to the riding ring by her brother.

Watch Sarah’s story.

Then she met Cappy, a dark bay horse with a gentle trot. Sarah learned how to circle the ring atop Cappy as a therapist gave her commands to give to the horse. As Sarah began experiencing the horse’s movements, which mimic the human gait, her balance and coordination improved. She learned how to orient herself in space.

Emerald M owner Lisa Michelangelo, a physical therapist, has observed Sarah making “incredible gains” this past year.

“She is able to walk best now with just one arm linked around someone else, and she is walking straighter and not showing the drastic signs of hip drop that she was before” Michelangelo said. “Her core, pelvis and hips continue to get stronger each week.”

Clanton has purchased a few other items with funds from her education savings account, such as a therapeutic swing and a lighted wall that makes water noises. Research shows both devices help calm children with special needs like Sarah’s and Sam’s.

Today, Sarah accompanies Clanton on outings to restaurants and to church. Slowly, Sarah is learning to be more social. And she’s learning to talk.

One of her most frequently uttered words is “horse.”

Lisa Buie is an online reporter for redefinED.