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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.

Does your child struggle at school? Step Up For Students can help

By ROGER MOONEY

Reading was a struggle for Maloni Lewis as a third grader. So was writing and math.

Her whole life was a struggle. Both parents were disabled. Her three older brothers had been to jail. They told their mom that going to school and being smart were not cool among the group they associated with.

Maloni’s mom was determined to end that cycle with her daughter.

Maloni Lewis turned her academic path around after receiving a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up.

Renée Lewis found Seven Rivers Christian School in Lecanto, Florida, near their home. With the help of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families, she was able to afford the tuition at the pre-K through 12 private school. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.

It took a few years, but Maloni eventually became passionate about her education. She played sports, and by her senior year of high school, her grade point average was 3.8. She left for college with the goal of becoming a nurse like her mom.

“Step Up For Students is a lifeline,” Renée said. “It allows kids and families to dream. What they thought was so far out of reach is possible.”

There are many reasons why children struggle in school. For some, the class size is too big, and they feel lost among the crowd. Others have certain special needs that cannot be fully addressed at neighborhood schools. Some kids are bullied. Some are hindered by language barriers.

And then there are those like Maloni, whose homelife is so challenging that school is not a priority.

Step Up can help.

Lower-income families can apply for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship. Both scholarships are based on a family’s financial need, and both give families a choice to find a new learning environment for their child.

Parents use a single application for the scholarships and Step Up determines eligibility for either the tax-credit scholarship or the Family Empowerment Scholarship.

Click here to apply for an income-based scholarship.

Parents of children with special needs can turn to the Gardiner Scholarship.

This scholarship allows parents to personalize the education of their pre-K through 12 children with certain special needs by directing money toward a combination of approved programs and providers. A list of special needs covered by the Gardiner Scholarship is found here under “eligibility requirements.”

Click here to join the 2021-22 interest list for the Gardiner Scholarship.

Parents whose child is being bullied at a public school can apply for the Hope Scholarship.

In 2018, the Florida Legislature created the Hope Scholars to give relief for K-12 public school children from bullying and violence. The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district.

The Hope Scholarship, which is not based on a family’s income, provides families with financial assistance to send a child who suffered from a qualifying incident to an eligible private school, or to transport him or her to a public school in another district. The scholarship value depends on the grade level and county the family lives in.

Click here to view the 2020-21 Hope Scholarship award chart.

The transportation scholarship is worth up to $750 and can be used to attend any out-of-district public school with available space.

Click here to apply for the Hope Scholarship.

Step Up has managed more than 1 million scholarships in the 20 years since its inception. These scholarships have been life-changers for the students and their families.

“I felt completely blessed to even have the scholarship. I don’t know what I would have done without it,” said Pamela Howard, whose son, Malik Farrell, reaped the awards of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

Malik had been to four schools district schools in four years and repeated third grade after getting a report card filled with F’s.

Pamela learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and moved her son to Potter’s House Christian Academy, a pre-K through 12 private school in Jacksonville, Florida.

Weeks after enrolling, Malik’s older brother was murdered. The teachers and administrators at Potter’s House rallied around Malik. They eventually gained Malik’s trust, and because of that, Malik’s grades turned into C’s. He was a solid B student during his final two years of high school. He graduated and attended college in Tennessee.

Pamela credited Potter’s House and the Step Up scholarship for her son’s scholastic turnaround.

“To see my son just completely turn around, there aren’t even words,” she said. “That he overcame these struggles and turned out to become the young man that he is, there are no words to even explain how proud I am of him.”

Roger Mooney can be reached at rmooney@StepUpForStudents.org.

The many puzzle pieces that tell the story of Ryan Sleboda

By ROGER MOONEY

If it were any other spring but this one, Ryan Sleboda would stand in front of the graduates at the Pace Brantley School and, as valedictorian, would deliver his speech.

Ryan would tell the room filled with students and their families, teachers and administrators about living on the autism spectrum and how it shaped his life.

To illustrate his points, Ryan would hold a piece from a puzzle – the autism symbol.

One puzzle piece for his family. One for his friends. One for his teachers. Put them together and you see a picture forming of Ryan Sleboda.

“It’s going to bring people to tears,” Ryan, 19, said.

Ryan Sleboda breaks three concrete tiles to earn his third-degree black belt in taekwondo.

He hopes the visual has the same impact when viewed remotely. Since this is the age of the coronavirus, Pace Brantley’s 2020 graduation will be held virtually.

Disappointing, for sure, but not enough to damper Ryan’s enthusiasm for his graduation. Nothing really dampers his enthusiasm for anything.

“Ryan simply has a zest for life,” his mother, Susan, said.

That zest began to emerge when Ryan was 13. He joined a taekwondo class and developed self-confidence and a knack for leadership. It exploded two years later when Ryan attended Pace Brantley in Longwood, Florida as a ninth grader with the help of a Gardiner Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.

The Gardiner Scholarship is for students with certain special needs.

During the 2019-20 school year, 13,035 schoolchildren received a Gardiner Scholarship, including 8,097 who are on the autism spectrum. 

Susan and her husband Bill, who live in nearby Sanford, wanted to send Ryan to Pace Brantley for high school. Brantley is a grade 1 through 12 private school that specializes in teaching students who need individualized attention.

Susan said she knew the school would challenge Ryan both academically and socially. With the Gardiner Scholarship covering most of the cost of tuition, Susan said she and Bill could use other funds to pay for Ryan’s medical expenses and social activities, like taekwondo and a dance program.

Those are also pieces to the Ryan Sleboda puzzle. There are more. Many more.

You can add his attempts at playing soccer, baseball, basketball and swimming as a youngster, because Ryan’s inability to take to those sports is what led him to taekwondo.

And it was in taekwondo where Ryan began to find Ryan.

“It was,” Susan said. “Ryan had had many difficulties behaviorally and socially. Ryan had a lot of difficulty regulating his behavior. He didn’t speak until he was 7.

“He had a very difficult time. Kids could be mean, and some kids knew which buttons to push to get Ryan to explode, and he could be very explosive back then.”

Yet Ryan found a calmness in taekwondo, a martial art that emphasizes jumping, spinning and kicking.

Susan and Bill took him to Breaking Barriers Martial Arts in Sanford, which trains children with special needs.

“It was kids with disabilities helping others with disabilities,” Susan said. “Ryan took to it quickly.”

Why?

“I got more energy,” he said, “being more active and communicating with others, being around other people, and definitely the ability to be a leader.”

And confidence?

“Lots of confidence,” he said.

Ryan has earned a third-degree black belt and is a certified taekwondo instructor, teaching other special needs children on Saturday mornings.

“It makes me feel like a leader when I get that opportunity,” he said.

Ryan holds the trophy he received for being named the University of South Florida’s Arts4AllFlorida program’s Student of the Month for Sept. 2019 for the documentary he made on the Pace Brantley School.

Ryan always wanted to be a leader, even when he was struggling to find himself on the baseball field or a basketball court. Society was telling Ryan what he couldn’t do, as it often does to children on the spectrum. His classmates and teammates were mean, as they often are to classmates and teammates who are perceived to be different. But Ryan felt it didn’t have to be that way, and he said he knew someday it wouldn’t.

He had weaknesses, sure. But Ryan also knew he had strengths.

Those strengths began to surface when Susan and Bill enrolled Ryan in Bridges Academy, a private K-12 school for children with autism and other special needs.

In an instant, Ryan was no longer different from his classmates.

“He was one of the students, and that’s what started him on the path to building self-confidence,” Susan said.

Ryan moved to Pace Brantley as a high school freshman. He was challenged, both inside and outside of the classroom. And he embraced those challenges.

“Ryan has grown up so much and truly wants to make a difference for others,” said Pam Tapley, Pace Brantley principal.

Not only will Ryan graduate as the class valedictorian, he is school president, an anchor of the school’s TV channel and a member of the running club.

He also gave a prerecorded speech online for Step Up For Students Class of 2020 Senior Celebration.

Ryan’s term project for the television class he took as a junior was a documentary on the history of Pace Brantley. He received an A for the assignment, and the video was voted the documentary of the year at the school.

The documentary also earned Ryan the University of South Florida’s Arts4AllFlorida program’s Student of the Month for Sept. 2019.

“The end product was wonderful, and he worked so hard on it to make it represent the history of our wonderful school,” Tapley said.

In collaboration with Chance 2 Dance, a program that works with students of all abilities, Ryan starred in a music video shot in the halls of Pace Brantley.

The song is “Waving Through a Window,” from the Broadway musical, “Dear Evan Hansen.”

“On the outside, always looking in
Will I ever be more than I’ve always been?”

The song symbolizes what children with special abilities go through.

Once, that was Ryan’s life.

Not anymore.

That puzzle piece has been tossed aside by others, including ones that are yet to come.

Through his vocational rehab program, Ryan scored an internship with the Central Florida Zoo’s conservation education department. He is fascinated with wolves and tigers.

“Very unique animals,” Ryan said.

In the fall, he will begin classes at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida.

The college serves students with learning disabilities. Ryan will major in anthrozoology. He hopes to someday work at an animal shelter or a zoo.

“I’d like to build a really good facility with a lot of animals,” he said. “I could have a training program of some kind.”

That’s another puzzle piece – his future.

Ryan holds his acceptance letter to Beacon College.

Ryan could stand in front of a packed room or stare into his laptop for a virtual graduation ceremony and his message will be the same.

Yes, he is autistic.

No, it does not define him.

The puzzle pieces, they define him.

His family and friends. His school and teachers. Taekwondo. Dance. TV production. His love of animals. His desire for a career working with animals.

“Pretty much all the other stuff I’ve managed and done throughout my life,” he said.

Together, those pieces help build the picture of Ryan Sleboda. But it is far from complete, because there are still more pieces to come.

“I’m going to the next part of life,” Ryan said. “That will be extra hard, but I like challenges, and I am excited to see what comes next.”

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