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 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:
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:
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, 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.
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).
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
By ROGER MOONEY
Charles Sears recalled a conversation he had last winter with Stephanie Engelhardt, principal of Christ the King Catholic School. It occurred outside the school while Sears was waiting to pick up his 9-year-old granddaughter, Luna.
Sears is 69. His wife, Colleen, is 49. They have full-time custody of Luna, which thrills them to no end. But sometimes Sears fixates on the age difference between he and Luna, and this was one of those times.
He remembered telling Engelhardt that he felt bad for Luna because someone so old picks her up after school. Engelhardt told Sears to look around. He’s not the only senior citizen in the pickup line, and that some of the others aren’t babysitters waiting to pick up the grandkids. Like Sears, they are grandparents raising their grandchildren.
“There are a lot of grandparents doing the parenting duty,” Engelhardt said. “That’s the truth.”
They are called grandfamilies, and they are on the rise.
According to grandfamilies.org, there are 139,542 grandparents in Florida raising their grandchildren. The number of children in the United States living in grandfamilies has doubled since 1970, according to a 2018 story in The Atlantic. The Centers for Disease Control estimates there are 2.6 million grandfamilies nationwide.
“The number seems to be growing every year,” said Karen Boebinger, Grandparents as Parents Program coordinator at the Tallahassee Senior Center & Foundation.
Living with the grandparents can provide a stable homelife for the children, perhaps for the first time in their young lives. But it can place a hardship on the grandparents, especially if they are elderly. There is a financial burden for those living on fixed incomes. There can be a health component involved for those grandparents dealing with a physical issue or illness and are now tasked with raising young children. And the idea of giving up their retirement years and a leisurely way of life to return to parenting can be frustrating.
Yet, many do it.
“In general, these grandparents are amazing people,” Boebinger said. “They will do anything to keep the family together, including working past retirement (and) depleting their savings in order to take care of the kids.”
This is what Sears wanted when he and Colleen gained custody of Luna seven years ago. He wanted a steady home for his granddaughter, something, he said, Luna never had during the brief time when she lived with her parents. Luna’s father is Sears’ son, a musician who played in a band and was constantly on the road. The couple never married and eventually split when Luna was 1. Sears said Luna’s mother left Luna with he and Colleen so often it seemed like she lived with them.
“I want to do what’s best for Luna,” Sears said.
After raising his four children in his home in Jacksonville, Florida, Sears is glad to be a parent again and “back on the carrousel.”
Sears worked as a certified public accountant until 2010 when he had a heart attack. He reduced his workload considerably until 2016, which was when he received custody of Luna. So, Sears returned to working part-time because he wants Luna to enjoy an active childhood filled with as many activities and sports as she wants. Sears sent his children to Christ the King, a pre-K through eight private school, and wanted the same education for his granddaughter.
“It was a great education and a great experience,” Sears said.
Luna attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two scholarship available to Florida residents and managed by Step Up For Students that give students the option to find the best schools to meet their K-12 learning needs. The other is the Florida Empowerment Scholarship.
The scholarships can add a degree of comfort for those raising their grandchildren.
“It’s certainly been a financial relief for us,” Sears said. “I have heart problems and was basically out of the business. I went back working part-time, because regardless of the generosity of Step Up For Students, we want Luna to have a good life.”
Boebinger, of the Tallahassee Senior Center & Foundation, said the financial aspect of raising grandkids is one of the main concerns of grandparents. Paying for a private education might not be doable for those on a fixed income. But for those grandparents who live in Florida, school choice remains an option because of Step Up For Students.
Consider Sharon Strickland, who was nearing her mid-60s when, after being an empty nester for more than 20 years, she gave up her retirement years to raise two of her great-granddaughters. Strickland has cared for the girls for more than a year after their mother lost parental rights.
“Never underestimate the love of a grandmother,” Strickland, 65, said.
Strickland wanted a faith-based education for the girls, Savannah, 9, and Karlee, 4. After qualifying for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Strickland enrolled Savannah at Warner Christian Academy, a pre-K through 12 private school located near their south Daytona Beach home. Savannah is in the second grade. Strickland said Karlee will follow her sister to Warner Christian once she is old enough.
Savannah struggled in the school she attended before moving in with her great-grandmother. Warner Christian administrators and Strickland thought it was best for Savannah to repeat the second grade. Placed in an environment with smaller class sizes and more one-on-one time with her teacher, Savannah has improved her grades.
“If that scholarship wasn’t there, I don’t know, she would be struggling,” Strickland said.
Whether the creation of the grandfamily is sudden or expected, it can be overwhelming for a grandparent.
“They don’t know what to do,” Boebinger said. “They don’t know what to do first.”
In Leon County, Boebinger estimates there are more than 2,000 grandparents raising their grandkids. Only 150 of those grandparents are in her program.
“So, there’s a lot more out there that we are trying to reach,” she said.
Boebinger said she encourages them to join the virtual meetings at the Tallahassee Senior Center & Foundation, Grandparents as Parents Program.
“They can get a lot out of talking to people who are in the same situation. They don’t feel so alone,” Boebinger said. “This is not what they were planning on doing, so it helps to talk to somebody who’s been through it.”
Hopefully, Boebinger said, the grandparents will refocus and turn the initial stress into the energy needed to raise the grandkids. Also, they can benefit from what can be a closer relationship with those grandchildren than with the grandchildren they have who are living somewhere else.
Sears said his relationship with Luna is different than it is with his other grandchildren.
“With Luna, I can’t be a grandparent. I have to say no sometimes, which can be very unpleasant,” he said.
Grandfamiles can deal with anger issues, especially those that came together because of the parents’ drug use or incarceration. The anger, Boebinger said, is usually directed at the parents.
“The grandparents are frustrated with the parents for having the wrong priorities. The kids feel that as well. ‘Why did mom or dad do whatever?’” she said. “So, some of the acting out is their anger at the parents and not so much that they are with the grandparents. A lot of time that’s the first stability they have had in their lives.”
Sears said he’s never heard Luna express any resentment over her situation. It’s the only arrangement she has ever known.
“It’s just a very good thing for her, I think,” he said. “She’s a child who’s very happy, but she never tells you about her emotions. She’s only 10, but you’d never know if anything is bothering her about it.”
Engelhardt has been associated with Christ the King for 20 years, the first five as a teacher and the last 15 as the principal. She has seen the amount of grandfamilies steadily increase during her tenure.
“It’s definitely a trend, a noticeable trend,” she said.
And while Engelhardt understands why Sears can be concerned about the 60-year age difference between he and Luna, she sees that as a positive trait, the same trait she sees in all the grandparents committed to raising their grandkids.
“All these people,” Engelhardt said, “are either still working to afford the grandkid or are in carpool, going to dance practice or basketball practice or doing homework, homework, homework or going to meetings, sacrificing or giving up all the stuff that was supposed to be for them and redoing everything again. It’s humbling to see what they do.”
That Colleen is 20 years younger than her husband gives her more energy to attend to Luna’s needs, Sears said.
“Statistically speaking,” he added, “she’ll be there for Luna’s college graduation. I hope I am.”
Sears said he’s more prepared for parenthood this time since he has the experience of raising four children. He said Luna keeps them busy with all her activities – dance and music classes, volleyball, basketball, student council, robotics and sewing clubs.
“But” he said, “the downside about it has been our lifestyle. I’m 69. I would be retired. I would be one heck of a golfer right now.
“We’re doing all the things that we shouldn’t be doing. I get up every day at 5 a.m. to make her breakfast and her lunch. As you can imagine our day is tied around Luna. Somebody has to pick her up after school and we have all her weekend activities.”
Still, Sears can’t picture his life any other way.
“She keeps us young, because we have to be active,” he said.
Although, Sears admitted, that sometimes comes at a price.
“It’s been tough practicing volleyball, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “I tore my calf muscle.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.