Liam Thomas has Down syndrome and benefits from weekly occupational and speech therapies. But the 9-year-old whirl of energy wants to do what other kids do at school like walk down the hall with friends, eat lunch in the cafeteria and sit at his own desk.
He gets all of that and more at Morning Star School, a small, private Catholic school in Pinellas Park that serves students with special needs.
Because of his disability, Liam qualified for the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA) through Step Up For Students. The state-funded program works like an educational savings account, letting Liam’s parents choose how to spend the additional dollars – on average, about $10,000 a year per child – from approved options.
Liam’s scholarship covers Morning Star’s annual $9,850 tuition and another $855 in dues and fees for books, technology, speech evaluations and more. Money left over can go toward future expenses, including college. Families are eligible based on their children’s need, not household income.
The PLSA is one of two statewide programs Step Up helps manage. The other is the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC), an income-based program serving low-income children in Florida. Since 2002, individuals and corporations have contributed more than $2 billion toward the FTC, providing more than 480,000 scholarships.
Both programs are designed to alleviate education expenses so families can focus on helping their kids not just survive, but thrive.
“When you have a child with special needs, you want them to be the best they can be,’’ said Thomas, who lives in Tampa with husband Trey, a sales director for a medical device company, and their children, Liam, daughter Sydney, 8, and son Laine, 2 ½. “Kids with special needs need more.’’
Liam attended two other private schools before the family enrolled him in Morning Star.
“I knew the school was really special,’’ Stacey Thomas said. “I felt so thankful that we could afford it.’’
But during that first year, the couple started to feel strained financially while paying tuition to send Sydney to a private school in Tampa that worked well for her. At the same time, the Thomases were caring for an infant at home.
That’s when Morning Star Principal Sue Conza told them about the PLSA, approved in 2014.
Liam’s parents were making all the sacrifices they could, Conza said. But when you have a child with special needs, there are “layers and layers’’ of unforeseen expenses. Especially for future needs.
Will Liam go to college or need job training? Will he live independently? How much will all of that cost and what impact will it have on his siblings?
“We have to save for that and think about all of those things,’’ Stacey Thomas said.
For now, Liam is progressing as a third-grader at Morning Star, where he’s challenged daily and continues to grow intellectually, socially and emotionally. He loves to read and performs at grade level, working on his reading comprehension with a personalized learning plan. He also enjoys music and art.
“He’s making academic progress, but at his own speed and in his own time,’’ Conza said.
The PLSA gave the Thomases the flexibility to choose the learning environment they believed best met Liam’s needs.
“I applaud the government for providing this program,’’ Trey Thomas said. “We wouldn’t be able to do this without the scholarship.’’
Part of the Florida Catholic Diocese system, Morning Star School in Pinellas Park has educated students with special learning needs for 46 years. The school is one of six in a network across Florida; the first school opened in Jacksonville in 1956 to serve boys and girls with physical needs.
The Pinellas County school has about 87 students in first through 12th. Of those 17 receive the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA) through Step Up For Students.
The PLSA funding is directed by families so they can choose their children’s learning options, using the award to pay for approved therapists, private school tuition or technology. They can even save some of it for college.
Morning Star is a nonprofit and receives some of its funding from the diocese as well as the community. The school is accredited by the Florida Catholic Conference and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Students receive grades based on their abilities. They also are evaluated quarterly and take annual standardized tests, including the national Iowa Tests of Standard Basic Skills (ITSBS) used by Catholic schools across the country. The curriculum is in line with national standards and benchmarks. Courses of study include language arts, math, science and social studies. Students also take part in religious education, P.E., technology, library and art. A new music therapy program started in the fall.
The school employs nine teachers, three teaching assistants and four administrators who focus on providing students with everything they need to be successful, including individual learning plans in small group settings. On average, there is one teacher per 11 students. Teachers are not only state-certified, but have additional ESE (Exceptional Student Education) credentials.
“That’s what I think really makes our school stand out,’’ said Morning Star Marketing Director Jennifer Brooks, who was so impressed by the level of professionalism that she and her husband enrolled their 10-year-old son, Adam.
Adam has a severe speech and language process disorder along with auditory processing disorder, so the onsite speech and occupational therapy specialists were other perks.
“That’s part of the tuition, so it’s not extra,’’ Brooks said.
Morning Star takes great pride in providing that value to families in addition to ensuring their children receive a quality education.
“I like to tell people, ‘We’re just a regular school that operates on a highly-specialized level,’ ’’ Brooks said.