By ROGER MOONEY
Elisabeth Edwards came home from school one afternoon and told her mom that she wanted to die.
She was 6.
Elisabeth was stupid, she told her mom. That’s how they made her feel at school. She questioned why God made her that way. She questioned why God made her at all.
She told her mom that she wanted to kill herself. She asked if she could kill herself right then.
Her daughter’s words were nearly too much for Consuelo to process. But she clung to the hope that Elisabeth was having a rough time adjusting to the first grade and to her new school, and this was her way of acting out.
But then Elisabeth began banging her head against the walls at home when she was angry. Then she started banging her head against the walls at school.
“That’s when I knew she was serious,” Consuelo said.
Elisabeth, now 9, has a sensory disorder that can prevent her from processing at lot of information at once. It became an issue soon after Elisabeth began attending the first grade. She would get confused in class and grew angry over her confusion. What Elisabeth perceived as a less-than-empathetic reaction from those around her – classmates and teachers – made the situation worse.
That’s when Elisabeth developed suicidal thoughts. Consuelo found a therapist and another school for her daughter. Elisabeth lasted a week. Administrators at the new school asked Consuelo to withdraw Elisabeth because they weren’t equipped to handle students with behavioral issues.
If you or a loved one is feeling distressed, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Trained counselors provide free and confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Consuelo and her husband, Maxwell, a plumber, qualified for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two income-based scholarships managed by Step Up For Students. She found herself scrolling through the school directory on Step Up’s website, searching for one near their Apopka, Florida home that accepts students with a sensory disorder.
Consuelo came across Master’s Training Academy in Apopka, a K-12 private Christian school about 20 miles outside of Orlando. The school focuses on students with behavioral health and learning disabilities. She called Helenikki Thompson, the school principal. Consuelo was upfront about Elisabeth’s condition and expected to be turned away. Thompson invited Elisabeth to spend a day at the school.
It was a perfect match. Elisabeth is now in the fourth grade at Master’s. She has a legion of friends. She leaves “Thank You” notes and homemade muffins for her teachers. She said she can’t remember the last time she was angry at school.
“I felt like I was at home, because I just saw everybody was happy,” Elisabeth said of that first visit. “All the kids were funny, happy, everything that you would want in a friend. So was the teacher.”
Consuelo no longer receives phone calls from exasperated teachers and is no longer worried about her daughter’s mental health. She said she owes Elisabeth’s life to Master’s Training Academy and to Step Up.
“If it wasn’t for Master’s, I’d probably be going to grave site grieving for her,” Consuelo said. “It was that bad.”
‘We want her back’
Consuelo describes her daughter as an outgoing young lady with a beautiful smile and a warm heart.
“To me she is a typical person who is trying to find her way in a world that is full of craziness,” Consuelo said. “Sometimes, when she was young, she didn’t know how to internalize that.”
A person’s tone of voice can provoke Elisabeth. Stern language from the teachers and staff at the first two schools Elisabeth attended only made her outbursts worse.
“I had broken out in hives when she was going through all that,”
Consuelo said. “That’s how bad it was. It was because of nerves. When your kid goes through something, you go through something.”
Elisabeth did have an outburst during her initial visit to Master’s Training Academy. It happened when a teacher asked her to read out loud. Elisabeth received speech therapy to help her properly enunciate words. She had some bad experiences when asked in school to read in front of the class. She thought this new teacher was setting her up for more embarrassment.
The reaction from Thompson, who was in the room, was not what Consuelo or her daughter expected.
Thompson remembers telling Elisabeth, “I’m sorry for your past hurt. I don’t know who hurt you. We’re not here to hurt you. We’re here to help you.”
She said she gave Elisabeth a hug and told her she would see her the next day.
“I don’t know what type of experiences she had, but I know she was hurt,” Thompson said. “She was damaged really bad.”
Thompson’s son, Brendan, was bullied in his district school. He received therapy and attended Apopka Christian Academy for high school, where he attended on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. He graduated in 2016 and is currently enrolled in Seminole State College of Florida.
Dealing with what her son went through gives Thompson a unique perspective on why children can feel threatened at school. Thompson and her staff do not raise their voices when a student is acting out. They try to dilute the situation with kind words and hugs. The school has a quiet room, where a student go to calm down. The room has soft lighting and comfortable chairs. The student can read, listen to soft music or pray if they choose.
Teachers at Master’s have been known to diffuse a situation by taking the student or the entire class outside for some fresh air. Thompson said there is at least one activity a week that allows the students to put away the books and have some fun. An example: a spa day for the elementary school girls, where they do each other’s hair and nails. Pre-pandemic, of course.
Consuelo said it took Elisabeth months before she realized she could trust the staff at her new school. And when she did, she took off academically.
“I can tell you, when someone breaks down a kid, they can really break a kid down, and it takes a long time to build a kid back up,” Consuelo said. “What they did for her in the beginning, when she had her blowouts and cried, the teacher would look at her and say, ‘You know what? We still love you here. You can be mad at us and you can cry, but we’ll see you again tomorrow.’”
Thompson remembers a day not long after Elisabeth enrolled when Consuelo came after school to pick up her daughter. Consuelo asked Thompson how the day went. Thompson said Elisabeth had a moment.
“She said, ‘I’m sorry. I know you don’t want her back,’” Thompson recalled. “I said, ‘Why would you say that? We want her back. I just want you to know as a parent that she was having a bad day.’”
Master’s tailored the curriculum for Elisabeth, giving her extra time in subjects where she struggled and letting her advance at her own pace in those where she excelled.
Elisabeth has stopped telling her mom that she feels stupid.
“I feel like I’m the smartest kid in the world,” she said.
Consuelo volunteers at the school. She’ll help out in the main office, chaperon field trips and watch a class if a teacher needs to step away. She has nothing but praise for Master’s Training Academy, the empathy toward Elisabeth shown by Thompson and her staff, and for Step Up, for managing the scholarship that enabled Elisabeth to attend the school.
“(Master’s) represent the scholarship very well,” Consuelo said. “If it wasn’t for Step Up, I wouldn’t be able to afford the tuition. I owe (Step Up) my daughter’s life, and that means the world to me.”
ABOUT MASTER’S TRAINING ACADEMY
Located in Apopka, Florida, Master’s a K-12, Christian-based school that focuses on mental and behavioral health and learning disabilities. Students can attend the school in-person or virtually during the pandemic. Tuition is $5,800 for the 2020-21 school year. Book materials for K-3 is $350; 4-8 is $390 and 9-12 is $410. There is a $50 testing fee of the ACT Aspire and $25 for Map growth.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
As a first-grader, Kira Murillo developed stomach pains every Sunday night. That’s how much she hated going to her neighborhood school.
When her mother asked what was wrong, “we had to pry it out of her,” recalled, Elsie Murillo, who was crushed to discover Kira was unhappy at school. “A little child like that shouldn’t have to go through all that anxiety.”
School administrators told her Kira couldn’t keep up with her classmates and she eventually had to repeat the grade. It wasn’t the education her parents had envisioned.
Today, Kira is a high school senior, member of the National Christian Student Honor Association among others and a cheerleader with big dreams to become a pediatric physical therapist.
Hard work and family support led to the amazing transformation. But Kira also acknowledges the strong educational foundation she received from a private school her parents could afford only because they qualified for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program through Step Up For Students.
“If it weren’t for this scholarship, I probably wouldn’t be here at Meadowbrook Academy and succeeding,” Kira said. “I don’t even want to imagine where she’d be,” Murillo added. “Not with all the accomplishments she’s had.”
Her mom and dad learned about the scholarship at their church, which is affiliated with the academy. The 20-year-old private school in Ocala has 288 students in kindergarten through 12th grade with about 46 percent receiving the tax credit scholarship through Step Up, a nonprofit that administers the program.
“I never knew this was available,” said Murillo, a former prekindergarten teacher who now works as an assistant kindergarten teacher at Meadowbrook.
The income-based program provides eligible families with tuition assistance at more than 1,500 participating private schools throughout the state, or helps with transportation costs to attend an out-of-county public school. Meadowbrook’s tuition is $5,850 plus fees for books and registration.
Since 2001, Step Up has provided nearly 480,000 K-12 scholarships. The organization also manages the Gardiner Scholarship, formerly known as Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, for children with certain special needs.
Once Murillo realized her family might qualify for the tax-credit scholarship, she quickly filled out the Step Up application for Kira and prayed.
“When we heard she was accepted, we were so excited,” Murillo said. “We called all of our family.”
Kira spent her first six years in traditional public schools, completing kindergarten in New York and, after her family moved to Florida, and two more years at an Ocala elementary school.
She was so unhappy, said her dad, Luis Murillo, a retired railroad worker.
When the family moved to a different house in Ocala, Kira started third grade at another public school. It was much better, her mom said, but middle school – with larger classes – was looming.
“I knew I wanted a better option for her,” Elsie Murillo said. “Some place where there weren’t so many students and she could be comfortable learning and getting the help she needed.”
Meadowbrook seemed perfect with its small classes with about 25 students to a teacher in K-8 and 18-to-1 in grades 9-12; rigorous curriculum offerings with a Christian perspective through A Beka Book; academic clubs, like the National Christian Honor Society, and social clubs such as the Chik-Fil-A Leader Academy, which teaches young people how to help their community; and sports teams like volleyball, softball, basketball, flag football, track and golf.
The nondenominational school, situated on 80 acres with sprawling athletic fields and natural wooded areas, is accredited by the International Christian Accrediting Association (ICAA) and Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Academic achievement is measured annually by the national Terra Nova standardized test.
“We have the same accreditation as public schools, so we have the same accountability, too,” said Principal Tina Stelogeannis, who started working at the school in 1996 as a kindergarten teacher and now oversees a staff of three administrators and 19 degreed teachers.
Depending on grade level, students also take college placement exams, including the PSAT, SAT and ACT in addition to weekly tests and projects to demonstrate competency of concepts. Students can take test prep classes and receive extra tutoring after school.
There’s also a dual enrollment program through the College of Central Florida in Ocala for students wanting to get a head start on college. Students travel to the college for classes, but soon will have access on Meadowbrook’s campus.
For Kira, the school has been a good fit, but it was rough at first.
“She came in like a little closed-up rosebud,” Stelogeannis said. “But then she blossomed into a beautiful, confident young lady.”
Kira had some catching up to do with her Meadowbrook peers in sixth grade, “but it just went up from there,” she said. “Learning is one on one and teachers ask you to interact, to raise your hand and be involved in the class.”
Her favorite class is economics “because it’s so different from all the other classes,” said the 18-year-old, who has a 3.6 GPA. And because her teacher, David Wallace, makes it fun to learn.
Future plans include attending the College of Central Florida then transferring to the University of South Florida in Tampa for a business degree and a master’s in physical therapy. Meanwhile, Kira is focused on finishing her senior year at the same school where her little sister, Lanina Murillo, is a sixth-grader on scholarship.
“I love what my girls are learning here,” Elsie Murillo said. “Meadowbrook feels like home. It feels like family.”