Today is back-to-school day for most school districts in Florida.
But for the Plucinski family of Central Florida, it’s back to schools. And not just district schools.
Sisters Cora and Zuri boarded a school bus to start the day at a district elementary school, while mom Corin Plucinski drove brothers Zach and Nathan 30 minutes to a private school. They attend the schools with help from one of Florida’s multiple educational choice scholarships.
In many parts of the country, this may be unusual. But in Florida, which offers one of the robust arrays of school choice in the country, it’s increasingly common. Growing numbers of families have different children attending different schools in different educational sectors.
To the Plucinskis, whose oldest is now headed to college after graduating from a district high school, there’s nothing odd about it.
“When you’ve got five kids you’re always juggling something anyway,” Corin Plucinski said.
Thirty years ago, roughly 90 percent of Florida students in pre-K through 12 attended assigned district schools, and about 10 percent attended private schools. Beyond a handful of magnet schools, there was no state-supported school choice.
Fast forward a generation. Today, 46 percent of Florida students – 1.7 million – attend something other than their assigned district schools. About 300,000 attend charter schools. Another 300,000 attend private schools. Most of the rest attend options created by school districts, from magnet schools and career academies to IB and dual enrollment programs.
This flourishing landscape gives parents more opportunities to find the right fit for their kids. And for many families, that means one child in this sector, another in that sector.
Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Corin and her husband Mark knew they wanted a big family. When they discovered they couldn’t have children of their own, they turned to the foster care system. Soon they welcomed siblings Cora, Zuri, Zach and Nathan into their home. Not long after, Leonte joined the family as the new big brother.
The Plucinskis moved to Florida two years ago, in part to escape Milwaukee winters and to start fresh as a family. They were pleasantly surprised by what they discovered.
As a multi-racial family, the Plucisnkis felt Milwaukee was far too segregated. People talked. Others stared and judged. In the Orlando area, there was none of that.
“It’s more racially diverse here,” Corin said of her new neighborhood in east Orlando. Even her kids were shocked by the diversity. Florida wasn’t just black and white like Milwaukee, it was multi-colored. The warm weather, lush palm trees and nearby beaches didn’t hurt either.
They also discovered something else. Florida’s public schools, in their view, were better. Way better.
“Moving to Florida has been a world of change,” said Corin about Florida’s K-12 education system.
Florida public schools had smaller classes, which allowed Zuri (now in third grade) and Leonte to get the extra help they needed. She also felt her kids were being held to a higher standard.
Leonte struggled with the higher expectations at first, but his new public school teachers provided extra help to raise his scores on the state standardized test and the SAT. He finished his senior year at East River High School in Orlando with his GPA comfortably above 3.0. Leonte will be a freshman at Seminole State College this year and wants to become a fireman when he graduates.
Zuri loves her public school, East Lake Elementary, and is excited to welcome her little sister Cora to the kindergarten class.
Meanwhile, Zachary (seventh grade) and Nathan (fifth grade), will both attend The Arbor School in Winter Springs, a private school for children with special needs. Both have multiple learning disabilities, and both use the Gardiner Scholarship, an education savings account for students with special needs. The program is administered by Step Up For Students.
Zachary and Nathan weren’t always private school students. They’ve tried public school, home education and Florida Virtual School too.
For Zachary, a district elementary school worked better in Florida than in Milwaukee. In Wisconsin, he struggled so much in his public school that he was home schooled by his adoptive mom instead. But in Florida, he was able to flourish thanks to smaller class sizes and teachers that his parents said put in extra effort.
Middle school was a different story, however. The school was just too big and held too many distractions. Zachary’s grades began to suffer. That’s when Plucinski turned to the Gardiner Scholarship.
Zachary’s grades dramatically improved at The Arbor School, from D’s and F’s to A’s and B’s.
Until this year, Nathan had only been home schooled. He needed occupational, physical, speech and behavioral therapy, all of which made attending a traditional school difficult.
This year will be Nathan’s first at The Arbor School with his big brother. He’s already made friends at the school and Plucinski believes the option will be a great fit for him.
Public or private? It doesn’t matter to the Plucinskis.
“We’re just happier,” Corin Plucinski said. “This is how schools are supposed to be.”
Patrick R. Gibbons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By PAUL SOOST
Frontline Insurance, a provider of property and casualty insurance for coastal homeowners, announced on May 10 a $1.1 million donation to Step Up For Students, helping lower-income children attend the K-12 school that best fits their learning needs.
The contribution was celebrated at Holy Cross Lutheran Academy in Sanford with an activity helping students get prepared for the upcoming hurricane season.
Holy Cross fifth-graders learned about hurricanes and how they can help make sure their families are prepared, should a hurricane threaten Florida. Students assembled safety kits to take home for their families.
During the event, Frontline Insurance Vice President of Business Development Brian Smith presented the $1.1 million check to Step Up For Students. The donation will fund 163 K-12 scholarships for the 2017-18 school year through the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which serves lower-income children in Florida so they can attend the school of their choice. About 90 students at Holy Cross use the tax-credit scholarship.
“Frontline Insurance is proud to be active in our Florida communities, educating children and families on the importance of being prepared for hurricane season,” said Smith. “We’re even more excited to help Florida children and families prepare for a successful future through our support of educational choice and the Step Up For Students Scholarship Program. Finding the right learning environment for every child will help put them on the path to future success.”
During its four-year partnership with Step Up, Frontline Insurance has donated $3.56 million dollars to Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged schoolchildren. The program is funded with tax-credited donations and allows parents and schoolchildren to choose between a K-12 scholarship that helps with private school tuition and fees, or one that assists with transportation costs to out-of-county public schools.
“Since 2014, more than 570 Florida schoolchildren have been able to attend the school of their choice thanks to the generosity of Frontline Insurance. We are truly grateful that Frontline Insurance joins us in our mission to provide educational options for deserving families,” said Step Up CFO Joe Pfountz. “On behalf of Step Up and the families we serve, we thank Frontline Insurance for its continued commitment and support.”
For the 2017-18 school year, Step Up For Students is serving more than 100,000 students throughout Florida with tuition scholarships valued at up to $6,343 per student for kindergarten through fifth grade, $6,631 for sixth through eighth grade, and $6,920 for ninth through 12th grade. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the scholarship program statewide.
Paul Soost can be reached at email@example.com.
By JEFF BARLIS
The lean, angular kid arrived at his new school three years ago, whip-smart and rage-filled. TJ Butler didn’t want to make eye contact, didn’t want to make friends, didn’t want to follow the rules. Instead, he screamed, slammed doors and threw things, including, one time, a desk.
For a boy diagnosed with bipolar disorder, whose father was in prison, who grew up with police lights flashing in his front yard, maybe that’s no surprise. But the teachers and administrators at Hillsborough Baptist School weren’t going to give in.
Nearly every day for the first year, the principal, Jessica Brockett, talked with TJ – and listened. For a boy who never thought anyone would listen, this was therapy.
“I wanted him to have a fresh start,” Brockett said. “I said, ‘Look, we’re not kicking you out of here, so let’s just get past all that.’ That developed a trust and a connection that he could come down here and say what he needed to say.”
Three years later, a visible calm has settled over TJ. Now 18, he walks the halls with the confident, purposeful stride of a young man who’s on the verge of graduating from high school and going to college.
“This school really changed me,” he said. It “broke down the walls surrounding my heart.”
TJ’s story turns on the school that wouldn’t give up on him – and the school choice scholarships that gave him the opportunity to attend.
He grew up in Tampa. His father is in prison for life for drug trafficking and shooting a police officer. Home life with mom was a swirl of chaos and conflict with boyfriends and then a stepfather. The violence and threats that rattled the walls traumatized TJ and his two younger brothers.
“There was a lot of burning tension,” TJ recalled. “There was so much anger you could feel it.”
The anger became part of TJ’s wiring. The littlest thing could set him off. He was expelled from his neighborhood elementary school for fighting. He continued to find trouble with teachers and students at a second elementary school before moving to a charter school.
TJ doesn’t remember much of his childhood before age 10. It’s a dark haze that’s painful to probe. His mother, Ngozi Morris, now a single mom who works as a tax preparer, said he was always a good student.
“He’s very intelligent and capable,” she said, “but it was frustrating to see him struggle with his emotions. When he got to middle school, wooo, he just escalated out of control.”
By then, TJ had deep depressions. He thought about suicide all the time.
At his neighborhood middle school, TJ was constantly in trouble, constantly suspended in school and out. He fought with students, shouted at teachers, took out his anger on anything that wasn’t nailed down. It culminated in an episode late in his eighth-grade year in which he climbed onto the roof and threw anything he could find down at the principal’s window.
“It solidified everything for me,” she said. “His father had the same thing.”
With the diagnosis, Ngozi got TJ a McKay Scholarship for students with special needs and found a private school for her son to start ninth grade. A couple months later, he was expelled for an altercation he didn’t start under a zero-tolerance policy. He made it the rest of that year without incident at a second private school, but the academics weren’t challenging.
Ngozi worried TJ would never graduate, that he would end up in jail like his father. Then another mom told her about Hillsborough Baptist School, about how well they handled kids with behavior problems. Ngozi enrolled him. She eventually switched from the McKay Scholarship to the Step Up scholarship, because she was on an extremely tight budget and it reduced her monthly tuition supplements.
Hillsborough Baptist was TJ’s seventh school. As usual, he was mad when he arrived. As usual, he was trouble.
But bit by bit, trust grew and anger subsided.
Brockett, an unassuming young administrator with a shy smile and twinkling eyes, learned to read TJ’s face in the hallways. She would proactively call him into her office to talk. She could disarm an explosion before he even got to a classroom.
“A lot of times when he releases that anger, he cries,” she said.
Another breakthrough occurred at the start of TJ’s senior year. With his mom’s blessing, he moved in with the family of his best friend, Mathew Evatt. The calm and stability there resulted in further improvement in TJ’s behavior at school.
In the meantime, he serves as a teacher’s assistant, practicing the approach his school used with him.
One recent day, he stood at the whiteboard in front of first-graders, as one bouncy student attacked a math problem. The little brown-haired boy figured it out so quickly, celebration morphed from amusing to disruptive.
TJ let it go. His patience paid off. In short order, the boy settled down and correctly explained how he got the answer to his classmates.
Said TJ with a smile, “I saw myself in him.”
About Hillsborough Baptist School
Founded in 1992 and affiliated with Landmark Baptist Church, the school serves 147 K-12 students, including 85 on Step Up For Students scholarships and 36 on McKay Scholarships. The school uses the Abeka curriculum with lots of supplemental materials, like Bob Jones for upper elementary reading. It administers the NWEA’s Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP) as its standardized test. Tuition is $4,947 for K-6 and $5,432 for 7-12.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By PAUL SOOST
KAR Auction Services, Inc. (NYSE: KAR), a global vehicle remarketing and technology solutions provider, on Feb. 26 made a $1 million contribution to Step Up For Students, a Florida-based nonprofit, which administers scholarships for lower-income schoolchildren.
KAR’s financial commitment will fund scholarships for 153 Florida children — giving them more educational options and opportunities.
“We believe in second chances for cars, people and communities — that includes partnering to provide students with quality educational options,” said Jim Hallett, chairman and CEO of KAR. “The state of Florida is home to more than 650 KAR employees as well as countless valued business partners and customers. And we are committed to supporting the communities in which we work and live.”
This is KAR’s first time partnering with Step Up For Students, which helps run the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for financially disadvantaged Florida children. The corporate-funded program gives children assistance with private school tuition or transportation costs for out-of-county public schools. More than 1,700 private schools participate in the program serving nearly 102,000 students during the 2017-18 school year.
“We are excited KAR Auction Services has joined us in our mission to empower Florida families by helping them find the best learning environment for their children,” said Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. “Your contribution to the Step Up scholarship program will make a lasting difference in the communities you serve. On behalf of our Step Up families, we thank KAR.”
KAR owns and operates 15 whole-car and salvage auctions in Florida, and provides wholesale automotive services to auto dealers throughout the state.
By JEFF BARLIS
Demetria Hutley-Johnson can laugh about it now, but not long ago her daughter, De’Asia Waters, was having such a hard time in school she tried to hide her grades.
“I used to have to search her backpack,” Demetria said. “She’s sneaky. Their tests and quizzes have to be signed by parents. She knew about it. She just wouldn’t give them to me. Now she does.”
De’Asia, 16, laughs about it, too. She’s proud of her grades now. There’s no more hiding, because her troubles are behind her.
The struggles began in third grade at her neighborhood school in Quincy, about a half-hour northwest of Tallahassee.
“I just felt like she was being left behind,” said Demetria, a licensed practical nurse since 2013. “She had a substitute teacher all the way through December. She didn’t get her real teacher until they came back from their winter break in January.”
De’Asia’s grades fell from A’s to F’s, as mom grew increasingly frustrated.
After frequent visits to the school and many conversations with school officials, Demetria decided she needed to explore other options. She started calling private schools and found out about the Step Up For Students scholarship, which helps parents of lower-income K-12 students pay tuition.
Thanks to the scholarship, Demetria was able to steer her daughter’s academic journey back towards a happy ending.
It didn’t happen immediately. De’Asia’s poor grades required her to repeat fourth grade at the first private school she and her mom chose. The retention was supposed to help, but her troubles continued. After De’Asia spent fifth grade working at her own pace in a computer-based curriculum, her mom decided for a second time to seek a better fit.
A teacher suggested Masters Preparatory Christian Academy in nearby Havana. There, De’Asia’s grades began to stabilize in the sixth grade, thanks to small classes, one-on-one attention, and support from her teachers.
“After she was retained, she wasn’t motivated about school,” Demetria said. “She was sheltered, quiet, not enthusiastic. After (Masters Prep) did their magic, she’s like a totally different person.”
Said De’Asia: “It was different right away. It was the teachers. My teacher, Ms. Lovett, never gave up on me. They will actually keep me in the room until I finish my work, until I get it.”
Rhonda Lovett worked with De’Asia both in class and after class. De’Asia worked at home, too.
The girl who once hid her school work was starting to thrive.
“She was behind a little bit, but she worked hard,” Lovett said. “The most important thing was her mom. All I was was just her mom at school. Whatever her mom did at home, I was doing the same thing at school.”
De’Asia’s grades jumped from C’s and D’s in sixth grade to A’s and B’s in seventh grade. Her GPA rose from 2.19 to 4.08.
“Her whole attitude toward school changed,” Demetria said. “She finally started talking about college. I had never heard her talk about college before.”
Now a ninth-grader, De’Asia is excited about the future.
“It’s kind of a new thing,” she said. “I’d never thought about going to college, but now I do.”
About Masters Preparatory Christian Academy
The non-denominational Christian school serves a wide range of students, from developmentally delayed to gifted. Thirty-six students – including 18 on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students – attend kindergarten through eighth grade. Parents are required to sign an enrollment contract and commit to be involved in the education process. After a pre-enrollment interview, new students in grades 3-8 take an entrance assessment that tests reading, language arts, and math on the last grade level completed. The school uses the TerraNova Test. It uses the A Beka Book curriculum for reading and language arts in grades 3-5, the Saxon program for all math instruction, and Alpha-Omega programs for all other course work. Tuition is $6,920 a year.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at email@example.com.