By LISA A. DAVIS
On most Friday mornings 14-year-old Matthew Mezzei springs awake in the 5 o’clock hour, excited to start his school day. It’s the earliest he rises. His inner alarm clock alerts him to a special day in his family’s home in rural Pasco County:
“Fun Friday!” his mother, Lisa Mezzei, said. “It’s a reward at the end of a busy week.”
On this particular Friday, it’s 10 a.m., and Matthew, a bespectacled boy with a bright smile and a love for baseball, excitedly greets a visitor to his home in Zephyrhills. His house is also his classroom. The day’s schedule is laid out on the kitchen counter. It includes several educational centers such as science, math, reading and even an obstacle course for agility exercises. They use much of their home’s shared living space as a classroom, and Fun Friday consists of educational game centers rather than straight curriculum.
“Centers help me to remember,” Matthew said.
Matthew was born with Down syndrome. His education began at his neighborhood school where he had an Individualized Education Program, known as an IEP, which is essentially a guide for children with certain special needs to reach their educational goals more easily. Matthew was in a general classroom and had great support, but by first grade something changed.
“When he was 7, he started not understanding what was being asked of him on tests,” his mother recalled. “He kept saying he felt tricked, and he started withdrawing at school.”
That’s when Mezzei knew she had to do something, because her happy-go-lucky boy was now often sad. She began researching her options and realized private and charter schools were not a good fit for Matthew either. Then she discovered the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarship program was new at that time. Home school seemed like the best option, and at an average of $10,000 per student annually to pay for curriculum and other approved learning tools, she added full-time teacher to her role. She decided it was best for her son to repeat first grade.
“Because of the Gardiner Scholarship, it wasn’t as daunting (to try home schooling),” she said. “The timing was so fortuitous. We had been wanting to withdraw him from the school, but we had no other options. At least the financial part wasn’t so scary.”
She used the scholarship to purchase learning aids for Matthew from places like Lakeshore Learning and Rainbow Resource. She bought science experiment kits, agility equipment, math games, chapter books, Handwriting Without Tears curriculum and more. They have used the funds for speech and occupational therapy.
Home schooling made all the difference, Mezzei said.
“Within six months, not only was his personality back, his confidence was back, and his love of learning was back,” she said.
He made great strides, and his reading comprehension increased substantially.
His occupational and speech therapists agree that Matthew, now a seventh grader has made great progress since being home-schooled.
“The Mezzei family is a therapist’s dream family,” said Kelly Partain, Matthew’s occupational therapist. “They truly take all recommendations to heart and actually implement them, which makes for excellent outcomes. Matthew continues to exceed his goals as he has an excellent attitude and works hard every day at home while being home-schooled, at therapy, or on the ball field.”
Added his speech therapist, Lindsey Leeson, who works at the same clinic as Partain, “He has a big heart and is always looking to help other kids in our clinic and tells us how much he loves and appreciates us every session. “He’s a gem.”
Like most things, his therapy sessions moved online in March, but he continues to make strides.
Matthew’s speech is often hard to understand for those who first meet him, but his glowing personality and love of learning come shining through.
“This scholarship is life-changing and allows us to educate Matthew to the fullest extent of his abilities,” Mezzei said. “Our biggest hope is for him to be happy and successful in life, and as you know, we believe unequivocally this is his best path. … Matthew is so proud of what he learns and knows.”
Lisa A. Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Ashley Zarle
TAMPA, Fla.– Republic National Distributing Company (RNDC), one of the nation’s leading wholesale alcohol beverage distributors, has once again contributed $65 million to the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program.
RNDC celebrated on Oct. 22 the substantial donation while visiting Tampa Catholic High School students who use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students. RNDC’s contribution funds 9,339 scholarships for deserving K-12 Florida schoolchildren. The scholarships give lower-income children the opportunity to attend a private or out-of-district school that best meets their learning needs.
“At Republic National Distributing Company, we are committed to making a positive difference that enriches the spirit and well-being of our associates, communities, and business partners”, said Ron Barcena, executive vice president of RNDC. “We know that our partnership with Step Up For Students is doing just that and we are proud to help provide thousands of Florida schoolchildren with the educational opportunities they deserve.”
While visiting Tampa Catholic High School, RNDC representatives had a chance to experience the zSpace Lab. zSpace is a virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) system that uses a unique stylus and eyewear to create an interactive experience covering subjects like animal dissection and anatomy, but also others like geography and history. Users can access a frog dissection model, as well as other 3D programs like simulated archaeological digs or interactive geometry. Students enjoyed showing the representatives how to use the program and the different courses that are available.
Since 2012, Republic National Distributing Company has generously funded 49,675 scholarships through contributions totaling $310 million to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit organization that helps manage the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The program is funded by corporations with tax-credited donations. Step Up is serving more than 100,400 students for the 2019-20 school year. More than 1,800 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
“RNDC has once again shown their incredible commitment to Florida’s disadvantaged schoolchildren through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program which is producing exceptional results,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students. “Recently, the Urban Institute evaluated graduates of our program and found students who use the scholarship for at least four years are 99% more likely to attend a four-year college and up to 45% more likely than their public school peers to earn a bachelor’s degree. RNDC is a critical part of this success and we are grateful for their support of deserving students in our community.”
Ashley Zarle can be reached at AZarle@StepUpForStudents.org.
By GEOFF FOX
Missy Futrell and her husband Carl wanted nothing more than to raise a family of their own.
When they were still childless after 13 years of marriage, the Futrells began exploring adoption. It wasn’t a quick process. For a few years, the Jacksonville, Florida, couple viewed scores of profiles of children up for adoption and were interested in many. Every time, though, adoption coordinators didn’t think the match was right.
But the Futrells were persistent. Eventually, Missy Futrell saw a picture of an 18-month-old boy named Treston.
He wasn’t an “ordinary” baby. Besides being born with fetal alcohol syndrome, Treston – or “Trey” – was diagnosed with mosaic Down syndrome, a type of Down syndrome in which a percentage of a person’s cells have an extra copy of the 21st chromosome. Mosaic Down syndrome is extremely rare, affecting 2 to 4 percent of Down syndrome cases; about one in 27,000 people are diagnosed with it, according to the International Mosaic Down Syndrome Association.
Trey also has autistic tendencies, but none of that mattered to the Futrells.
“The adoption workers made it seem so bad; they said he may never walk, read or speak – and he would need lifelong care,” Missy Futrell said. “That seemed odd to me. They had nothing really positive to say about this child. We had had several miscarriages and if I was having a baby, I wouldn’t care (about the diagnoses). That’s my child.”
Carl, who helps manage a local funeral home, said the couple was equally resolute.
“They told us, ‘He’s not normal, do you still want him?’” he said. “Well, how do they know if we’re the ones who aren’t normal? What’s normal? The way somebody acts? Everybody acts differently. When you love somebody, you see them in a different way. If you love something, it’s 100 percent perfect for you.”
The Futrells adopted Trey in 2008 and despite Trey’s challenges, he thrived. The family was happy and Trey was growing up in a loving environment. The Futrells, who have been married 21 years, also recently adopted a 2-year-old girl, MaryBelle. They have also provided foster care for other children.
When it was time for Trey to begin school, Missy Futrell, who had worked in the recruiting and staffing field, decided to homeschool him through kindergarten and first grade.
A couple of years ago, the Futrells learned about the Gardiner Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarship helps parents individualize the educational plans for their children with certain special needs, including autism, spina bifida, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.
With the scholarship, parents can direct funds toward a combination of programs and approved providers, which may include schools, therapists, specialists, curriculum, technology and a college savings account. The average scholarship is worth $10,000. The Futrells applied for the scholarship and Trey was accepted.
Last year, Trey, who recently turned 10, went to second grade at a private school for children with learning disabilities or emotional issues.
It didn’t go well.
“Trey is an extremely trusting and sweet child,” Missy Futrell said. “He’s very quiet in public, and he is nervous around large crowds, new people and children. At home, he’s a lot more talkative, but he doesn’t talk much in social situations and can be awkward socially as well. He went (to the private school) all last year and made little progress academically. He also doesn’t interact with the others and was bullied. It just wasn’t a good fit for him.”
Thanks to the scholarship’s flexibility, Missy Futrell home-schooled him last year, as she was able to give him an environment that puts him at ease and the one-on-one attention he needs. Much of the scholarship money now goes toward curriculum, including online courses, and various technology, as Trey works much better with computers than pen and paper.
The family has used Step Up’s Purchase Assistance with Best Buy Education program, a partnership that allows Gardiner Scholarship parents to easily purchase items, many of which are pre-approved. Best Buy Education bills Step Up, which pays through the student’s scholarship account. Parents praise the program because many struggle to pay for all the care that comes with raising a child with special needs, so it can be tough to wait for reimbursements out of the scholarship account for big-ticket items.
“When I heard about Step Up’s Purchase Assistance with the Best Buy Education program, I jumped on it,” Missy Futrell said. “He really does so much better with technology. When he has to write, it could take him 45 minutes to an hour to do a 10-question worksheet, because he has to make each letter perfectly or he (gets frustrated). Through use of an iPad or computer, I can see more of what he’s able to do. With the technology, he clicks it or touches it and he just likes it so much better. I’ve heard that a lot of kids with special needs are like that.
“We use Time4Learning online courses that has all different subjects. We use it on his computer and his confidence is really growing. When he does something right, it tells him, ‘Wonderful!’ Or, if he’s wrong, it tells him in ways that don’t upset him. I can gauge where he is and what he knows. And there are so many apps on the iPad. I can take a picture of his worksheets and it converts them to where he can type in the letters rather than write them.”
Among other things, the family has also purchased a Phillips Hue Table Lamp and color ambiance kits. Whenever Trey starts getting overwhelmed by something, they switch the light on to a color that helps calm him.
Thanks to the Amazon Echo, which uses the voice-controlled service, Alexa, Trey can also listen to relaxing music when he needs to. Because the device is compatible with the Phillips Hue Lamp, it helps him understand his moods.
“If he’s upset, we tell (Alexa) to make the light angry and it turns red,” Missy Futrell said. “He can see in color what his current mood is. It makes him understand more what he’s feeling and if he’s mad, then he needs to relax. It helps identify his behavior and also helps the people around him.”
Carl Futrell described Step Up’s Purchase Assistance with the Best Buy Education program as blessings for which his family is grateful.
“In order to raise children with special needs, you have to have those who are willing to help,” he said. “These things we can outsource, it helps our family. It’s hard to make ends meet. You keep working and working and you get that income, but you miss that time being with your family.
“Now, he can call me on Facetime on his iPad and just say, ‘Dad, what are you doing?’ And I ask him how his day is going and if he’s being good for his mom. He’s usually playing with his stuffed animals – he loves monkeys. He pretends they’re the Ninja Turtles.”
For the Futrell family, this is their normal. And it’s the family they always dreamed about having, one connected by unconditional love.
Step Up For Students, a Florida-based nonprofit, empowers parents to pursue and engage in the most appropriate learning options for their children, with an emphasis on families who lack the financial resources to access these options. By pursuing this mission, Step Up For Students helps public education fulfill the promise of equal opportunity. In addition to the Gardiner Scholarship Program which helps parents customize the education of their children, ages 3 to 22, with certain special needs, Step Up For Students also administers the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC). With the FTC scholarship, economically disadvantaged parents of children in grades kindergarten through 12 are empowered to find the school – private or out-of-district public – that meets their child’s learning needs. Step Up For Students’ dedication, however, doesn’t end when students are awarded one of these scholarships. Through its Innovation Fund, Step Up helps maximize the impact of the scholarships by creating and enhancing education-based innovations that propel children toward a brighter future. To learn more about Step Up For Students, or to find out how you can help, please visit www.StepUpForStudents.org.
A COPY OF THE OFFICIAL REGISTRATION (CH-14609) AND FINANCIAL INFORMATION MAY BE OBTAINED FROM THE DIVISION OF CONSUMER SERVICES BY CALLING TOLL-FREE 1-800-435-7352 WITHIN THE STATE OR ON THEIR WEBSITE WWW.800HELPFLA.COM. REGISTRATION DOES NOT IMPLY ENDORSEMENT, APPROVAL, OR RECOMMENDATION BY THE STATE.
Geoff Fox can be reached at email@example.com.
There’s something amazing going on in Step Up For Students partner schools and hundreds of teachers, their students and their students’ parents and guardians are benefiting from it: The Teaching and Learning Exchange.
The Teaching and Learning Exchange (TLE) is a free web-based application designed to support teaching, learning, communication and accountability for administrators, teachers, parents and guardians and students. It was created by Step Up For Students Office of Student Learning and IT team members.
“This tool is opening the lines of communications between all key factors in a child’s education: students, teachers and parents,” said Carol Thomas, vice president of Office of Student Learning. “And our latest update of the applications has really made some tremendous improvements, particularly on the parents’ side.”
The most recent rollout of the TLE features an easy-to-use parent portal, which enhances communication and collaboration between school staff and families.
“It allows families to stay engage in their child’s academic and social progress, all from the click of their home computer,” said Thomas. “It’s not supposed to replace in-person parent involvement, it’s supposed to enhance it.”
The TLE allows teachers to create Personal Learning Plans (PLP) for their students, customizing what they need to work on at their pace. It helps has a collaborative parent conferencing tool, assists in identify student strengths and concern, document academic, social, emotional and note behavior goals and provides parents with a live view of their children’s grades. The TLE also has a comprehensive grade book, allowing teachers to record conduct grades and create progress reports, report cards and transcripts. It even has an attendance tracker and lunch count feature. Other features include easy access to explore Florida State Standards, unit and lesson planning, and standards mapping.
Currently, the TLE has more than 800 administrators, teacher and guardian active users. Educators, especially, are finding it a valuable tool.
Said Lilah Mills, principal at Masters Preparatory School in Hialeah:
“I really like the Personal Learning Plan, especially the conference feature. I think the format of the PLP [the elements of what the teacher is doing, what the student needs to do, and what the parent can do] really triangulates the responsibility between all three groups and provides accountability for the parents and teachers.My teachers think it is so user friendly: all the standards are pre-loaded and all of the resources are easy to access.”
Susan Gettys , lead educator at Broach School Tampa is also impressed with the TLE, especially the Personal Learning Plan.
“I love that the Personal Learning Plan tells us automatically if a student has mastered or passed or failed a specific standard based on their grades, since we can tie assignments to standards,” she said. “The customer service aspect has been amazing. Usually with a software program, you install it and never can reach anyone again. But with Step Up, I can always get help, and I love that you tweaked it based on our suggestions and needs.
“We teach multiple grade levels in a classroom, and students with multiple special needs, so the flexibility of this program makes it really viable for us as a special needs school.”
Thomas said she encourages scholarship parents to ask their teachers to use Step Up’s TLE.
“It really enhances and aids the learning experience for all parties involved,” she said. “It makes it easier for parents and guardians to communicate with their children’s teachers, received class announcements and really be in tune with what standards your child should be mastering and how they’re doing in school on a regular basis.”
Teachers, administrators, and guardians interested in using the TLE or learning about other Office of Student Learning programs, please click here to reach OSL staff.
Reach Lisa Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org.