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Tips on transitioning your child to a new school or learning environment

By ROGER MOONEY

The Buddy Bench found on the playground at Christ the King Catholic School in Jacksonville is a yellow beacon that helps new students find playmates, make friends, and ease the transition to their new school.

Amanda McCook

The Lunch Bunch provides the same opportunities, but in a private setting.

These are two examples offered by Amanda McCook, the school’s assistant principal/guidance counselor, when asked for tips on transitioning a child to a new school or learning environment.

Another school year is underway, which means there is no shortage of students who are walking the halls of unfamiliar buildings populated by many unfamiliar faces.

They can be children in kindergarten or pre-teens entering high school. Or they can be students who made the switch from a neighborhood school to a private one. A number of these students receive scholarships managed by Step Up For Students to attend private K-12 schools in Florida.

The transitioning can be daunting.

Part of McCook’s duties at the private pre-K through eighth school is to ease that transition. Having two daughters who made the move from their neighborhood school to a private one, McCook has seen this process from both sides.

The advice she gave her daughters was to join clubs and activity groups and sit with different groups of students during lunch. It’s the same advice she gives to parents of students new to Christ the King.

“The more involved you are, the more people you meet,” she said.

McCook has a list of tips that she developed during her 19 years as an educator, both in public and private schools. Some, like the Buddy Bench and the Lunch Bunch (more on those later), are unique to Christ the King.

If your child is having an uneasy time during the first few weeks at a new school, McCook said you can:

  • See if the school has a student- or parent-led board that can provide insight and advice. At Christ the King, McCook said, “We try to match families with new families to give them those tips and tricks. There’s always going to be families in the school system who are there for that kind of support. I definitely think you should reach out to some families in the school to get those tips.”
  • Read the parent/student handbook. “That has all those details that you might miss as far as the structure of the school and uniform policies,” McCook said. “That’s totally different when you come from a public school.”
  • Get to know your administration. “That’s what I’m here for as an assistant principal, to help new families transition, if they have any questions,” McCook said.
  • Also, open a line of communication with your child’s teachers. Get their email address. Don’t hesitate to ask questions or voice concerns.
  • Volunteer. Christ the King, like most faith-based schools, requires parents to volunteer. “That’s such a great opportunity to meet other families and to learn more about the school,” she said. “We realize how important that is to the vitality of the school to have parents involved. Definitely the more involved you are, the more you feel vested in your school. I feel like that is definitely a plus to get involved.”

For those parents with children in Catholic schools, McCook suggested they attend the midweek Mass for the students.

“We always encourage our parents to come to Mass to get a feel for our school and our pastor,” McCook said.

Even when parents follow these tips, their child might still feel uneasy during the first weeks at a new school. Fortunately for those at Christ the King, McCook has a few more tricks.

The Buddy Bench at Christ the King Catholic School in Jacksonville.

During the first few days of school, McCook visits each classroom and tells the story of the Buddy Bench.

The yellow bench sits in the middle of the playground. It is a signal that someone can use a friend.

“If you’re playing and you’re all by yourself and are lonely, you can go sit on the bench.,” McCook said. “And everyone knows if you ever see someone sitting on the Buddy Bench, you have to go up to them and say, ‘Hey, do you want to play?’ And you have to say, ‘Yes.’

“We teach our kids that way and they do it successfully. That really helps everybody feel included and not go home and say, ‘Nobody played with me,’ because that hurts a parent’s heart. We praise kids who come over and ask kids to join them, so they want to be the one who asks.”

Finally, there is the Lunch Bunch.

“If I see there’s someone new that’s struggling to make friends, I call in three friends from their class and they eat lunch with me in my office,” McCook said.

McCook breaks the ice with conversation-starters.

“Who’s been to Disney World?”

“Who likes Harry Potter?”

“Who likes Marvel comics?”

“I find that really helps, especially with my more-shy students, make connections they couldn’t make on their own,” McCook said.

McCook said it shouldn’t take more than a month for the unfamiliar to become familiar for new students. Stephanie Engelhardt, Christ the King’s principal, contacts the parents of all the new students within the first three weeks of the school year.

“Just to make sure they’re feeling comfortable,” McCook said. “Do they know the process? How is their student liking school? We always check up within the first month.”

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

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.

My Perspective: Choosing a school for a child with special needs – What to look for and what to ask

Editor’s note: My Perspective is a new, occasional series asking subject matter experts their thoughts on different educational topics. First up is Dr. Debra Rains, who holds a Doctorate in Educational Leadership (Ed.D.) and is an administrator at the North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville. She talks about finding a school for children with special needs or unique abilities.

Looking for a school for your child with special needs?

There are many resources to assure you find the best school to support your student’s unique learning needs.

Technology has made access to resources more accessible. The first place to begin is the Florida School Choice website. Florida School Choice provides families a list of private schools categorized by school district. On this website, schools identify disabilities they are able to accommodate and the support services they can offer.

Additionally, families can look to local support groups which advocate for their child’s diagnosed difference such as Autism and Down syndrome support groups. Special needs families will advocate for the schools they believe in and will provide good insight to other families looking to utilize school choice for their student who learns differently.

Debra Rains, an administrator at North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville, and Macy Flakus, a student at the school.

One sources you can turn to when choosing a school for your child with special needs is likely found on your smart phone or tablet. Just go into your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account and search for the schools you are considering.

“I believe that looking on a school’s social media account provides a realistic view at what they offer students and families,” Rains said.

“See what schools are posting. You can learn a lot about our school by going on our social media and seeing what we do. I think it’s another way of getting a behind the scenes look at what we offer our students.”

The North Florida School of Special Education is a private school that serves students ages 6 to 22 with intellectual and developmental differences. It accepts the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs that is managed by Step Up For Students.

The school will celebrate its 30th anniversary during the 2021-22 school. Rains said North Florida School of Special Education has 190 students enrolled for the upcoming school year and 75 young adults over the age of 22 who participate in the day program.

Posts for the graduating class of 2021, this summer’s I Can Bike Camp, and artwork from a transition student about mental health, can be found on the school’s Facebook page and offers a glimpse of the North Florida School of Special Education.

North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville.

Social media posts are a start. But to ensure you make the right choice, you need to do a thorough investigation to make certain your child and the school are the right fit. Enrollment is a mutual agreement between the school and the family that the school can provide necessary services and the supports needed for the student.

Rains offers some advice.

Get to know each other: “I think it’s important (for parents) to interview schools,” Rains said. “Let the school interview you and be open and upfront about what your child can do. I think one of the things that is critical for us is that the student come and spend time at the school. We want the student to want to be here as much as we want the student to be here.”

Be honest: It is just as important to inform the school of what your child can’t do as it is what he can. “If a parent is not open about their student needing (certain) type of services and the school accepts that student without doing the due diligence into what they really need, then it’s going to be a lose-lose situation for the family, the school, and most off all, the student,” Rains said.

This is particularly important for families who are taking their child out of a public school and thus, taking them away from the federally funded Individual Education Plan (IEP).

“It’s imperative that the family understands this is what we are able to do: For example, we can offer occupational therapy in a group, but we can’t do it one-on-one three times a week, because it’s cost-prohibitive. But we can offer it in this way and address independent and vocational training skills.” Rains said.

“So, making sure we have that upfront conversation with families, saying this is our tuition and these are the things that are included in the tuition. I always tell my families when we sit down for a tour that this is a team approach, and it will work best if we’re all open and honest with each other about what the student needs and what we’re able to provide.”

Trust: Changing schools and leaving a trusted peer group is difficult for any child. Rains said it’s important the student trusts the decision being made by the parents and understands the parents are placing the child in a setting that will support the student academically as well as socially. And it is imperative that a family trusts the school has the student’s best interest at the forefront of their mission.

Tour the school: Parents need to tour the school and spend time in classrooms, observing the interaction between the teachers/support staff and students.

“And then the question is: Can you envision your child being successful in this setting?” Rains said.

A standard of accountability: While private schools are not required to provide an IEP, which monitors a student’s progress and sets goals, this is something that is done at the North Florida School of Special Education. The students progress towards those goals are reported to the parents twice a year. New IEP goals are set each year.

“I think it’s a very strong level of accountability to make sure the students are making progress in response to how we teach,” she said. “It’s a cultural perspective that all students can learn, and so making sure our teachers, our families all buy into that culture and then how we show that’s actually happening.”

Talk to parents: Rains encourages prospective parents to talk with parents of students enrolled in the school.

Rains shared a conversation she recently had with a woman from Texas who is thinking of moving her family to Jacksonville so her child can attend the North Florida School of Special Education. During the conversation, Rains mentioned a family that moved to Jacksonville last year from Virginia so their child could attend the school. Rains suggested the mom from Texas contact the mother from Virginia and was not at surprised to learn that already happened. The two mothers met through Facebook.

“That’s the special needs community,” Rains said. “They are very engaged online with one another.

New Florida law expands K-12 Scholarships by $200 million

More students eligible for private school and more

STAFF REPORT

Since Gov. Ron DeSantis put pen to paper on May 11 signing into law  the landmark education choice bill, much work has been underway at Step Up For Students preparing for the 2021-22 school year.

In case you missed it, the law is a $200 million expansion of the state’s K-12 scholarship programs. It opens up education choice to more families in Florida than ever before. Read more here.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the landmark education choice bill.

Billed as the largest expansion of education choice in Florida history, the new law merges the state’s two scholarship programs for students with unique abilities, McKay and Gardiner, in 2022, and combines them with the Family Empowerment Scholarship program.

One category of the Family Empowerment Scholarship will serve students with unique abilities and special needs while the other will continue to serve lower-income families.

The law leaves intact the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which some mistakenly call school vouchers and is funded by corporate tax donations, and the Hope Scholarship program for students who have experienced bullying at their district schools. More than 160,000 students across Florida participate in K-12 scholarship programs. The law is expected to add as many as 61,000 new students and cost about $200 million, according to a legislative analysis.

The law simplifies eligibility requirements by aligning qualifying income levels of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship with the Family Empowerment Scholarship. The two programs previously had different income requirements.

The legislation also provides greater convenience for families by placing management of the Family Empowerment program under nonprofit scholarship organizations, including Step Up For Students.

The new law allows more families than ever to be eligible for a scholarship. Read about it here.

Florida Legislature is normalizing, expanding access to education choice, according to Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. Read more about it here.

Listen to Tuthill’s podcast with State Senator Manny Diaz Jr., on the future of education choice in Florida. Listen here.

Tripping the light fantastic while building confidence in the ballroom

Gardiner students learn to tango and much more

By ROGER MOONEY

SARASOTA, Florida – Sarah Parkerson has her left hand on Jordan Soriano’s shoulder. Jordan’s right hand rests on the small of his partner’s back. Their other hands are entwined as they move across the dance floor.

Sometimes it’s a waltz. One, two, three. One, two, three.

Other times, a tango. Slow, Slow. Quick, quick, slow.  

Or the foxtrot. Slow, slow, quick, quick. Slow, slow, quick, quick.

But for Sarah, it doesn’t matter which dance they are doing, or if 100 people are looking on. She is in her own world. She is moved by the music and follows Jordan’s lead.

“I really feel like I don’t see the people (watching),” she said. “It’s just me, my partner, the music. It’s just really amazing.”

Sarah, 15, and Jordan, 20, are both on the autism spectrum. Both receive the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs, managed by Step Up For Students.

Sarah, who lives in Sarasota, and Jordan, who lives in nearby Ellenton, train at Dynasty Dance Club in Sarasota under Sarah Lototskyy.

Jordan Soriano and Sarah Parkerson are two of the Gardiner students participating in Dynasty Dance Club’s Dynasty Stars program.

Sarah and Jordan met there two years ago when she joined the studio’s Dynasty Stars program after moving from Alabama with her mom. Though she danced at a ballet studio in Alabama, Sarah arrived at the new dance club as a shy teenager with little confidence. Her mother, Cathy Parkerson, said Sarah kept to herself, standing with her hands clasped and her head down while avoiding eye contact.

Now Sarah is poised and smiles as she looks into her dance partner’s eyes. The progress has surprised even Sarah.

“Before I was very unconfident. I didn’t really move much at all,” she said. “Once I started dancing, I felt better. I felt happier. I had more confidence.”

When asked what she likes most about ballroom dancing, Sarah thought for a few moments, then answered, “Basically everything.”

The Stars are born

Dynasty Stars was born in January 2016 when Lototskyy noticed the brother of one of her students bopping to the music while he watched his sister dance. The boy’s name is Michael, and he has Down syndrome. Lototskyy asked Michael if he wanted to dance. He said yes, and they danced for 10 minutes.

Lototskyy decided to start a program for those with special needs. The first class consisted of a man with autism, a young girl with epilepsy and Michael.

Soon after, Colleen Buccieri, who runs the nonprofit Face Autism and is Jordan Soriano’s godmother and caregiver, learned of the new program. Buccieri told Lototskyy she would bring some children who are on the spectrum to the next class.

By the end of the first month, Dynasty Stars had 20 students. It has grown steadily ever since. Through her Dynasty Dance Club Studios in Sarasota, Venice and Lakewood Ranch (she will soon open a studio in St. Petersburg) and the schools where she teaches, Lototskyy estimates she teaches 150 special needs dancers, ranging in age from 3 to 54.

Nine students attend the Dynasty Stars class that meets in Sarasota on Tuesdays and Fridays. Five of those dancers, including Sarah and Jordan, receive the Gardiner Scholarship. The scholarship does cover the dance lessons. For Sarah and Jordan, the dance instructions are covered through Gardiner to help them with music education, socialization and memory skills.

“What’s been so great about Gardiner is students have been able to explore this side of themselves,” Lototskyy said. “With all of the therapies, it’s nice for them to have a mentally and physically stimulating activity to do.”

Why can’t they?

Jordan was 9 when Buccieri started Face Autism to provide sensory friendly activities, support groups and more for children on the spectrum and their families. As Jordan’s godmother, Buccieri watched him grow up without going to the movies or the mall or to children’s birthday parties. She formed the nonprofit and with the help of volunteers, organized autism-appropriate activities and classes, asking questions that always began with the same three words: “Why can’t they …?

Why can’t they go fishing?

Why can’t they go golfing?

Why can’t they go horseback riding?

As soon as she learned of Lototskyy’s new dance class, Buccieri asked, “Why can’t they go ballroom dancing?”

Lototskyy has been teaching dance for 12 years. She said anyone can learn. Jordan, who was in the first group that Buccieri brought to the new class, is proving his teacher right.

“He was all left feet,” Buccieri said. “Unfocused. He was a mess. And now he’s really, really good and he loves it. He feels it’s something that he himself has accomplished.”

Jordan is progressing though the levels of ballroom dancing. He has shelves in his home filled with more than 25 trophies earned at dance competitions.

“I love to dance, because it’s fun and it’s challenging, and I get to see my friends,” he said.

The many trophies Jordan has won for ballroom dancing.

Like Sarah Parkerson, Jordan was shy and avoided eye contact when he first walked through the doors of the dance studio. But that changed. It had to. Ballroom dancing requires the male to escort his partner to the dance floor, to look into her eyes and lead her through the steps.

“The main thing is the confidence to get out there on a big ballroom floor, and they can really overcome their sensitivities, because you have the bright lights, the loud music. You have the crowd. They’re out on that big ballroom floor, looking into the eyes of a hundred or more spectators just staring at them,” Buccieri said. “It’s sometimes a little overwhelming, but they seem to get into that music and that all goes away.”

At the beginning, Buccieri thought dancing would be like any other activity sponsored by Face Autism. She hoped the kids could dance for an hour a week, get some exercise, maybe make a friend or two and go home. Never did she dream Jordan and the others in the program would develop into competitive ballroom dancers with their own routines and trophies earned around the Southeast.  

“I never thought Sarah would take it to the level she has,” Buccieri said. “Now she’s well-known in the dance world for her special needs program. There’s nothing like it around.”

Take a bow

Lototskyy, who owns her dance studios with her husband, Maks, has been dancing for 27 years. She thought of becoming a special education teacher while in high school before her dancing career took off. She said teaching the Dynasty Stars students is her favorite class of the week.

Recently, Lototskyy sat with a visitor to a Dynasty Stars class.

“Do you know how to do any of these things?” she asked, motioning to the students who were dancing a salsa.

One, two, three. (Pause.) Five, six, seven. (Pause.)

The answer was no.

“So,” she said, “you can imagine how difficult it is to just (learn one move) with everything else they are facing. So, the fact that they can go out there and perform at a high level and pick music, that gives them confidence.”

Sarah and Jordan practice with dance coach Sarah Lototskyy at the Dynasty Dance Club in Sarasota.

Confidence is the word used most often when talking about the benefits of ballroom dancing to someone on the spectrum.

Cathy Parkerson, Sarah’s mom, said her daughter receives that and more.

“So much more,” she said. “The interaction is amazing because there are so many skills they are doing. Socially, they have to listen with other people, interact, work with a partner. They have to think, ‘What does my partner need from me? What do I have to do?’ Thinking of someone else is a really good skill, especially for someone with autism. They are kind of sometimes in their own world.”

Being in their own world is what ballroom dancing provides. Each dance has its own personality, Lototskyy said. The tango is passionate, dramatic, aggressive. The foxtrot is sassy and playful.

“The waltz is more elegant and more dreamy, more like Prince Charming and Cinderella,” she said. “They get to feel that way even if when they leave here, they have seizures and take so many medications that they don’t feel like Cinderella or Prince Charming. But they do when they’re here.”

Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, 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.

The benefits of private schools

By ROGER MOONEY

Most mornings, history teacher Quintarries Upshaw stands in the hallway and greets the arriving students at the Dixon School of Arts & Sciences with a song he plays on his clarinet.

The melodies are soothing, welcoming. Meant to create a mood.

“What he’s doing is setting a temperature that says, ‘When you come in, this is your safe place,’” Dixon principal Donna Curry said.

The Dixon School of Arts & Sciences in Pensacola, Florida creates a welcoming environment for students who have dealt with trauma at home.

The private K-8 school in Pensacola, Florida sits in a high-crime neighborhood. Curry said it’s hard for her students not to be affected by their surroundings, which is why the staff and faculty are trained in trauma sensitivity.

“We cannot control what happens outside the school,” Curry said. “But when the students come through the doors, it has to be the calmest, inviting place that they have been in. We created that on purpose.”

When someone interested in education choice approaches Curry and asks about the benefits of sending their child to a private school, her response is about the protective shield her school creates not only for the students but for their parents, as well.

“What I normally tell parents, the beauty of Dixon being a private school is that we understand our parents,” Curry said. “We are a true community school.”

Dixon is one of 2,625 private schools in Florida, according to the Private School Review. They range from pre-K to high school with an average enrollment of 172 in elementary schools and 200 in high schools.

There are some that cater to the arts and sciences, like Dixon. Others offer an International Baccalaureate program or a Waldorf education, developing children’s intellectual, artistic, and practical skills in an integrated and holistic manner. Many private schools are faith-based, and there are schools that accommodate children with special needs.

For decades, parents have realized the benefits of sending their children to private schools, including:

  • Smaller class sizes and more favorable teacher-student ratio.
  • A faith-based education.
  • A challenging curriculum.
  • The opportunity for a parent to exercise school choice.
  • A safer education environment.
  • A shared educational philosophy between the parent and the school.
  • The school as a community environment found at smaller schools.
  • Athletic programs.

But many parents can’t easily afford private schools. The cost of yearly tuition for a private school in Florida is lower than the national average. The average for an elementary school is $7,785 (the national average is $10,066). For a high school it is $9,899 ($14,978 nationally).

In Florida, however, parents can apply for scholarships managed by Step Up For Students that can help with tuition, fees and more.

Financial Assistance to private schools for Florida schoolchildren include:

  • The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship are two scholarships for private school (or transportation help to a district school).
  • The Gardiner Scholarship is an education savings account, known better as ESA, that serves children with certain special needs.
  • The Hope Scholarship is for schoolchildren who reported being bullied or were a victim of violence in their district school.

More than 1,800 Florida private schools accept Step Up For Students scholarships for one or more of its programs. That’s a lot of choices for Step Up scholars.

Faith and safety

Raising children a second time, Sharon Strickland looked for an academic environment where she would feel comfortable sending her granddaughters, and where they would feel safe.

After more than 20 years of living on her own, Strickland gained custody of her two great-granddaughters during the 2019-20 school year. The girls, 9 and 4, respectively, needed a school. Strickland remembered the overcrowded classrooms from 20 years ago when she used to take one of her granddaughters to the district middle school. She could only imagine the situation now.

Feeling her oldest granddaughter would benefit from a smaller teacher/student ratio and wanting a faith-based education for the two, Strickland enrolled them in a private Christian school five minutes from their home.

Savannah and Karlee Strickland celebrate Christmas at Daytona Beach.

Savannah, the oldest who is in the second grade, attends Warner Christian Academy, a pre-K through 12th grade private school in South Daytona, Florida, on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Her sister, Karlee, will receive the scholarship when she enters kindergarten.

Savannah, who repeated the second grade during her first year at the school, has improved her grades over those she earned while attending a district school.

“She doesn’t have a learning disability, but she’s not on the level the other kids are,” Strickland said. “She has 12 kids in her class. That’s great. She’ll get all the instruction she needs.”

The faith-based education, the school’s anti-bullying policy and the fact tutors are available for all students is what sold Strickland on Warner Christian.

“To sum it up, I can go to work and feel good about leaving them there,” she said.

Hybrid learning

Wellmont Academy, a faith-based K-12 private school in St. Petersburg, Florida is an example of education choice at work.

Defined as a hybrid school, Wellmont offers students the option of attending school five days a week, three days (upper grades) or two (lower grades).

Wellmont Academy in St. Petersburg offers a unique hybrid education program.

Those students who opt for hybrid learning spend the days when they are not in the classroom learning at home or participating in the school’s Assisted Learning Program.

“The hybrid model allows parents to be involved more in their education,” Danielle Marolf, Wellmont’s founder and principal, said. “Parents can enroll their kids the way they need to enroll them. It’s really popular.”

Marolf said parents have two main concerns when they discuss moving their child from a district to a private school: class sizes and a safe environment.

At Wellmont, classes are capped at 15 students and include a teacher and an aid.

“That teacher knows those kids so well,” Marolf said. “She knows exactly what their needs are, and she can work with them.”

As for bullying, Marolf said, “We have zero tolerance for bullying, and we mean it. Our kids know that we’re serious, and when we tell them this is a safe place and we will listen to you and our door is open, they know it. They can come into my office and talk to me.”

A sense of community

The sense of community is as much of a selling point for private schools as the value of the education they provide. The two often go hand-in-hand. And when the school loops in the parent’s right to exercise education choice, it presents an attractive alternative to a district school.

Back at the Dixon School of Arts & Science, safety from the neighborhood is only one benefit. It also offers an arts program that has produced students whose works are featured in local galleries and magazines, and student scientists, who have traveled to Washington D.C. to present their projects at a convention for real scientists.

Like every principal, Curry said it is the job of her faculty to find that switch that will turn the students into scholars. That can be difficult for a student who is dealing with trauma at home, so couches are placed in the hallways for students who need some quiet time to relax or a place to talk to a teacher or staff member about their troubles.

Parents are allowed to use those couches, too.

“You cannot love children without loving the parents. So, what we invite our parents to is a school that not only cares about the children, but cares about them,” Curry said.

“It makes them feel less traumatized. And if I have a less traumatized parent, I have a less traumatized child, and that makes it easier for me to teach A,B,C’s and 1,2, 3’s.”

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

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.

How an education savings account is helping a Gardiner scholar see the world – virtually

Editor’s Note: This post originally ran March 18, 2021 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students. This is the second in a series of stories exploring the Gardiner Scholarship Program.

By ROGER MOONEY

Danielle Drummond was skeptical when she first saw the virtual reality headsets and consoles, and even the large-screen TVs, that are available to families who receive Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs.

“At first, I even wondered, ‘What on earth is the educational value of this?’” said Drummond, who lives in Fort Lauderdale.

It was 2018 and Drummond’s son Tristan, who is on the autism spectrum and is homeschooled, had recently undergone back surgery to correct a tethered spinal cord, which he had since birth. Drummond hoped Tristan, 6 at the time, could relearn to walk with the help of virtual reality.

Virtual reality has been used since the mid-1990s to help people on the spectrum learn to communicate and connect with others. Adults can use the technology to prepare for job interviews. Children use it to improve cognitive and gross motor skills.

Tristan has increased his attention span, improved his hand-eye coordination and developed his core strength through virtual reality.

Drummond believed the VR equipment could do the same for her son. She purchased the equipment with funds from Gardiner’s education savings account (ESA) through MyScholarShop, Step Up For Students’ online catalog of pre-approved educational products. It includes curriculum materials, digital devices, and education software.

Families can also 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, and it 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.

Thanks to the VR equipment made possible by the ESA, Tristan, now 8, did relearn to walk. But that was just the beginning.

“Then we discovered it had a lot more value,” Drummond said.

VR is also helpful during Tristan’s occupational and physical therapy sessions.

Since he began using virtual reality, Tristan has increased his attention span, improved his hand-eye coordination, and developed his core strength. He has learned how to interact socially, how to count and how to exercise.

Tristan cannot go on field trips like other students. He can’t even sit in a movie theater.

However, through virtual reality, Tristan has visited Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. He landed on the moon with Apollo 11, and went scuba diving through the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, where he swam with sharks.

“It’s enriched his life in ways that we would have been otherwise unable to do,” Drummond said.

Tristan also uses VR for his occupational and physical therapy. Drummond said it used to be a chore to get Tristan to participate in therapy.

“We would lose 75% to 80% of therapy lessons trying to get him into a groove to enjoy what he is doing,” she said. “It’s a struggle every parent with a child like Tristan knows.”

But with virtual reality now part of the sessions, Drummond said it only takes Tristan a few minutes to get into the therapy groove.

“So, we’re now getting full therapy sessions and because of that, he’s talking more, he’s interacting with us more. He’s actually becoming more social,” she said. “It’s gotten him into being healthier, because he has the ability to do physical therapy, which is absolutely his favorite thing to do.”

The technology also helps Tristan overcome his fear of visiting a place for the first time, like a medical facility. He can tour the facility virtually ahead of time.

“But now with the virtual reality, I can set him up on that, have the exact place we are going on it, and allow him to look around in a safe environment,” Drummond said. “That way when he finally goes, I don’t have to make plans for our arrival like an army general. I don’t have to have 500 contingency plans because he’s expecting it. He knows what it’s going to sound like. What it’s going to look like. He’s going to know where things are. All these things help him get acclimated and actually get more out of going to these places.”

Drummond never thought that Job Simulator on Oculus Quest, or the Ring Fit Adventure game for Nintendo Switch, or Beat Saber would improve Tristan’s life in so many ways, but they have.

“They’re a lot of fun, but it’s also a way to sneak education into him,” Drummond said. “I don’t know if I can really say it enough about it. It just helps him to do pretty much everything. He has a blast with it.”

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

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