A licensed speech therapist, Stacey Thomas interned as a University of South Florida graduate student at Morning Star School, a small Catholic school in Pinellas Park serving students with special needs.
“When I was there, I knew that school was special,’’ Thomas said.
Years later, the wife and mother of three returned to Morning Star, but this time as a parent. Thomas’ eldest child, Liam, has Down syndrome. He longed to attend a school where he could do the things other kids did like sit at their own desk and eat lunch in the cafeteria with friends. But Liam needed special services like one-on-one instruction and speech therapy. Thomas, featured recently with Liam in our student spotlight, immediately thought of Morning Star.
She just wasn’t sure her family could afford tuition until Liam qualified for the Gardiner Scholarship, formerly Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, through Step Up For Students. The annual scholarship, on average about $10,000 per student, is awarded to families based on their children’s certain disabilities and can help cover costs for tuition, curriculum, therapies and other education needs.
“It literally has been the hugest blessing,’’ said Thomas, who lives in Tampa with her husband, Trey, Liam, 9, and his two siblings, Sydney, 8, and Laine, 3.
With Liam making huge learning gains during his third-grade year at Morning Star, Thomas agreed to share with us her strategy on finding the school that worked best for him:
Do you have some words of wisdom to share with other parents and caregivers, or do you have an idea for a story? Please contact Sherri Ackerman, public relations manager, at sackerman@StepUpForStudents.org
St. PETERSBURG – One by one their names were called, and nearly two dozen Step Up For Students scholars from St. Petersburg to Bradenton grinned from ear to ear as they walked in front of a packed house to accept their Scholars of Excellence Award medals.
Like Zharia Stephens, a sixth-grade tax-credit scholar at Mt. Moriah Christian Fundamental Academy in St. Petersburg. She has been on honor roll all year, participates in many activities and wants to become a lawyer.
“These students are working so hard and many have come such a long way since using one of our scholarships. We are so proud of all of them and need to applaud them publicly,” Carol Thomas, vice president of Step Up’s Office for Student Learning, said after the event.
The awards ceremony Feb. 1 at the Cathedral of St. Jude honored students who made significant academic strides since receiving their scholarships and was the kickoff to this year’s series of regional meeting tours held by Step Up For Students. The annual event helps provide participants and supporters with timely updates on the nearly 15-year-old Tax Credit Scholarship Program for low-income families and the Gardiner Scholarship, formerly known as the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, for children with certain special needs.
New to this year’s program are special awards given to teachers and parents. At some locations, such as St. Jude, corporate donors were invited to join the awards ceremony and share the moment with the children they help.
Hugh Culbreath, a social studies teacher from Academy Prep, was among the first educators honored by Step Up at the regional meetings. He has taught at the school for about five years and puts his students first in all that he does, eating lunch with them, playing games and leading class trips.
“We are so excited to recognize outstanding teachers and parents and even grandparents this year,” Thomas said. “As we teach in our Success Partners program, it takes all of these people contributing for the success of a child. They deserve to be recognized, too.”
Step Up started the regional tours in 2014 as a way to give educators from partner schools a chance to learn more about the program and get questions answered directly from Step Up staff. This year, Step Up is holding about a dozen meetings, concluding Feb. 25 in Fort Myers.
“We found that it was extremely valuable in our partnership with our schools,” Thomas said. “We’re working for Florida’s students together, so it’s important we communicate regularly to foster the success of the program, and, of course, the success of the scholars”
As the students’ awards were presented at the St. Jude event, donors created a reception line to personally congratulate each of the scholars, and afterwards many families circulated to meet the donors to thank them directly.
“What a terrific event,” said Dick Kelecy, Chief Operating Officer of UretekHoldings, Inc., a geotechnical construction company. “It was really rewarding to see all the children and educators who benefit so much from Step Up For Students’ efforts. Having many of the parents come up on their own afterwards to personally thank the sponsors, one of which came to tears as she spoke about the benefits her children had received, was particularly rewarding.”
Highlighting these students’ achievements spotlighted the positive impact receiving a Step Up scholarship brings to each child.
“I continue to be awed by the results being achieved by Step Up,” said Shaun Williams, CFO of Sagicor Life Insurance.
When Katie Cutford attended her neighborhood district school in Lake City, classmates sometimes made fun of her thick glasses and fainting spells. Katie has juvenile glaucoma and POTS (Postural Tachycardia Syndrome), a heart condition that causes her to occasionally lose consciousness.
Her younger brother, Caleb Cutford, diagnosed with cerebral palsy and autism, also struggled at the school. That prompted their parents to look for other options.
Caleb was eligible for the McKay Scholarship, a state program that serves children with special needs. The financial assistance allowed the family to enroll him in Lake City Christian Academy, a private school that could provide the extra attention and services he needed.
Katie didn’t qualify for the McKay, though, said her mom, Amanda Dudley. But she and her husband transferred Katie to the academy anyway and paid tuition on their own for three years. Then the couple divorced and money became tight. Caleb remained at the academy on his scholarship, but Katie had to return to her neighborhood school in the eighth grade. Once again, she was bullied and her grades dropped.
“I was miserable,’’ recalled the teen, who went on to try homeschooling.
Katie’s grandmother oversaw lessons, but Katie fell behind academically, especially in math, and became withdrawn. Dudley, a single mom who works as a medical assistant and receptionist at a local doctor’s office, turned to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.
Katie received the scholarship that helps low-income K-12 students with private-school tuition, and returned to Lake City Christian Academy her junior year. Today, she’s a senior making mostly A’s and getting the tutoring she needs in math.
She recently passed her college entrance exam and has signed up for two dual-enrollment courses at Florida Gateway College with plans to study education. Her dream is to complete her teaching degree at Vanderbilt University near where her aunt lives in Tennessee.
Caleb is a sophomore making progress in one of the academy’s three exceptional student education (ESE) classes.
“They have been able to help us a lot,’’ said Dudley, whose 5-year-old son, Harley Dudley, is a kindergartener on scholarship at the academy.
Lake City Christian Academy is a nondenominational private school serving about 194 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade. Of those, about 81 receive the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students. Another 24 participate in the Gardiner Scholarships, formerly the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts program Step Up also helps oversee.
The rest receive the McKay Scholarship or pay full tuition, which ranges from $5,700 to $8,000, depending on students’ needs, plus additional fees for exceptional therapies and transportation.
The school is accredited by the Florida League of Christian Schools and uses the Bob Jones University curriculum. Student learning gains are measured annually by the Stanford 10 assessment test and others like STAR for reading and math.
Principal Tana Norris, a former public school teacher, founded the academy in 1994 to cater to students with special needs or those who don’t fit in at other schools. The idea was to give teachers the freedom to teach and students the freedom to learn in a way that meets their needs.
“I wanted my teachers to be able to think outside the box, and my students to be able to use as many of their senses as they can,’’ Norris said. “I like cooperative, hands-on learning.’’
In addition to core classes and electives like Spanish, drama, stage band, chorus and dance, the academy also offers gifted and college prep programs, mentoring, horse therapy and tutoring. Class sizes are kept small, with about 11 to 15 students per teacher.
That’s a big plus for Katie.
“I can get one-on-one help from my teachers whenever I need it,’’ she said. “I can go talk to the administrator and the pastor, and I know they can help.’’
Katie was one of those students who almost fell through the cracks, Norris said. Now she’s a confident student participating in peer counseling, where she coaches fellow students, and has discovered her passion for teaching.
Getting a scholarship through Step Up and finding the right kind of school for her made all the difference, Katie said.
“There are many families like mine who can’t afford private school,’’ she said. “This program gives us a chance.’’
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the redefinED blog on Dec. 14, 2015. The blog is hosted by Step Up For Students and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.
By TRAVIS PILLOW, redefinED
One recent morning, Tana Norris walked into the small building that houses the makeshift dance studio at her North Florida private school. “I’m a dancer!” Stephen, an 11th-grader, responded. He and some classmates launched into a routine set to the contemporary Christian sounds of MercyMe, twirling, tapping and finishing with a confident bow.“I hear there are some amazing dancers in here,” she intoned.
Stephen, it turns out, is more than a dancer. He’s also a prize-winning Special Olympics athlete (his finishes in local competitions include second place in the broad jump and first place in bowling) and a testament to the approach Norris said has guided Lake City Christian Academy since she founded it more than 20 years ago: “If a child feels good about themselves, and feels safe, they can learn.”
The nondenominational private school has found ways to cater to a diverse group of children, the majority of whom either have special needs or didn’t quite fit in at other schools. Nearly half of its 194 students rely on McKay scholarships, the state’s voucher program for special needs students. Others use tax-credit scholarships for low-income students or the state’s newest option, the Gardiner Scholarships, formerly known as the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer the latter two programs.
Crystal Hair, the school’s dance instructor, said movement and music can have benefits for all kinds of students. For some, dance can even help with reading instruction.
“It’s operating their whole brain,” she said. “It’s amazing to see how much dance helps in their academics.”
Norris graduated from the University of Florida and began her career teaching in public schools. She quickly grew frustrated. The classes were too large and the rules too burdensome for her to give students the individual attention she felt they needed. She took a pay cut, and started teaching at a small private school for $150 a week.
She founded Lake City Christian in 1994, seeing a need for a private school that wasn’t affiliated with a single church. She set out to meet the needs of students she struggled to accommodate in public school — from those with special needs to those who are academically gifted. Dance helped for some. Others needed art lessons or auto-mechanics classes or college courses while they were still in high school. Some young children could learn responsibility and pattern recognition by caring for the baby pigs, goats and tortoises the school keeps on its campus.
Others, like a first-grader named Tegan, found solace on the back of a horse.
Tegan suffered a stroke before she was born, which has inhibited the growth of her muscles and her use of language. Zoey, one of the school’s therapy horses, is teaching her to exercise both her body and her voice. She’s learning to shout commands and perform stretches in the saddle.“Horses make very good counselors,” said Norris, who’s also a certified riding instructor. The rhythm of their gait is similar to humans’. Riding can help children with under-developed muscles. If a child is having a seizure, a horse can detect it before adult humans nearby.
Norris said Tegan, in her first year at the school, has made huge strides in just a few months.
“Before she was nonverbal,” she said. “She didn’t really participate. And now, she wants to participate in everything.”
Other students face more mundane challenges. For 12th-grader Katie Cutford, it was math anxiety. Earlier in her academic career, she left the school and bounced among other options, including home schooling, before returning to Lake City Christian during high school, where she got the extra help she needed in the subject that challenged her the most.
“It just wasn’t working for me,” she said. “When I came back, I realized what I had. My teachers were willing to stay after school with me.”
Now, she’s in dual-enrollment courses at Florida Gateway College. She signed up for the school’s peer-counseling program, which lets her work one-on-one with other students at the school. Through that experience, she’s discovered a potential career path.
“I feel like it’s preparing me to be a teacher even before I go to college,” she said.
By TRAVIS PILLOW, redefinED
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the redefinED blog on Jan. 21. The blog is hosted by Step Up For Students, and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.
With Gov. Rick Scott’s signature, Florida’s newest educational choice program has a new name, and will be able to serve more students.
Legislative leaders joined Gov. Rick Scott after he approved legislation aimed at helping people with special needs.
Flanked by Senate President Andy Gardiner and his family, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, and the lawmakers who sponsored the legislation, Scott approved SB 672 on Jan. 21 during a ceremony in the governor’s office.
The new law increases funding for the Gardiner Scholarship program by roughly a third, to $71.2 million. It also allows more 3- and 4-year-olds to use the education savings accounts for students with special needs, and makes them available to children with muscular dystrophy and a wider range of students with autism.
The scholarships, previously known as Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, allow families to pay for school tuition, therapy, curriculum and other education-related services of their choice. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer them.
Earlier in the day, Gardiner, whose family provides the namesake for the scholarships, praised another aspect of the law, which expands programs for special needs students at state universities. Scott also approved HB 7003, aimed at helping more special-needs students join the workforce.
In a statement, Gardiner said the new laws will help make Florida “the state where all people have access to an education suited to their own unique needs and the opportunity to achieve their career goals.”
“The complete cradle-to-career pathway to economic independence will make a significant impact on the lives of individuals with unique abilities and their families for generations to come,” he said.
Patricia Levesque, the executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, said in a statement that the new laws never would have come about without advocacy from parents. (Gardiner has a son with Down syndrome.)
“It wasn’t all that long ago when students with disabilities were shunned in classrooms; their needs ignored and their abilities dismissed,” Levesque said. “Every time I see a child with unique abilities, behind him or her I see a parent with unique passion and commitment.”