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Willette’s story: Vibing to her own frequency and helping everyone she meets along the way

BY ROGER MOONEY

JACKSONVILLE, Florida – Willette Treadway wants to help.

She wants to help her classmates, teachers and administrators at North Florida School of Special Education, where she is in the Secondary 3 classroom. She wants to help her family and friends.

She wants to help the homeless population in Jacksonville.

“One thing about me,” Willette said, “I like to help everybody.”

“She has a big heart,” said her mom, Lisa Diana.

Willette, 14, was diagnosed at 7 with an intellectual difference and language impairment, which are neurodevelopmental conditions that appear in early childhood. She is a high performer socially but a low performer cognitively, where according to her mom, Willette is in the second to fourth grade level range with math, reading and vocabulary.

She attended her district school from kindergarten through the sixth grade. And while Lisa said Willette did well with her Individual Education Plan (IEP), she felt Willette “wasn’t grasping the material.” Searching for a school that better fit her daughter’s unique abilities, Lisa enrolled Willette in North Florida School of Special Education (NFSSE) in Jacksonville for the 2021-22 school year. She attends the school assisted by the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA), managed by Step Up For Students.

There were hugs all around for Willette on the first day of school.

“What I love about North Florida is they use different teaching styles and are a little bit more patient, especially with the smaller classes, to work with her and the material,” Lisa said. “I wanted her to be in a space where she would learn and retain and work with professionals who are hopefully going to get through to her maybe in a way that I can’t, or other teachers haven’t been able to.”

NFSSE provides an innovative academic and therapeutic setting for students, ages 6-22, who have intellectual and developmental differences. The secondary program is for students ages 14 to 17. They take academic classes and also emphasize vocational training, where they learn pre-employment skills.

The school’s transition program is for students ages 18-22. There, they learn how to budget money, pay bills, read bus schedules, and put together a resume. The students also work at jobs off campus with the goal of landing internships and fulltime positions.

“She would be devastated if she ever had to leave that school,” Lisa said. “She’s loving it. It’s everything I hoped it would be for her. This is the first time in her academic life that I don’t have to worry about her going to school.”

That some members of the school’s staff have children who attend or attended the school is a plus for Lisa, who is a nurse.

“As a teacher, an educator, someone who’s been where we are as parents,” Lisa said, “you have no idea the amount of relief it is to be able to talk to somebody who gets it.”

Willette arrived for her first day at her new school like a ball of sunshine, with a smile that lit up the campus. She made friends with everyone.

“I really like this school because it’s very nice,” Willette said. “All the teachers and staff are very nice here. All my friends are nice to me all the time.”

It wasn’t always that way at her previous school, where she was often the target of bullies.

Willette was one of the students picked to speak last January at a school pep rally last for Education Choice Week. She spoke of how well her classmates and teachers treat her, how she loved reading to “the little ones” on Thursday, how calm and peaceful she feels at the school and how the staff “lets me be the best Willette I can be.”

Lauren Perry, a Secondary 2 teacher at NFSSE, said that’s easy with a student like Willette.

“She loves to be around people,” Perry said. “She loves to talk and connect, and it’s a really beautiful thing for someone so young.”

While addressing the school, Willette also mentioned her job during dismissal.

She took it upon herself last year to help with the car line. She recruited two classmates to assist her when she fractured her right ankle falling off her scooter near the end of the year. The three held staff meetings every morning. Willette carried a clipboard.

“Yeah, that’s Willette,” Lisa said.

Willette’s cast was black and gold, matching the colors of her favorite football team – the Pittsburgh Steelers. Lisa’s mom wrapped a yellow Terrible Towel – a Steelers’ talisman – around Willette shortly after she was born. If you want to hear passion in Willette’s voice, ask her about who should be the Steelers quarterback.

Willette shows off her Pittsburgh Steelers’ themed cast after she fractured her right ankle last spring.

If you want that passion to go up a notch, ask Willette about the homeless in Jacksonville – a segment of the population that is dear to her heart. She has visited homeless shelters and soup kitchens in the city with her grandmother on her father’s side. Lisa and Willette once made 150 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to distributed to the homeless shortly before the start of the pandemic. Last school year, Willette helped classmates make care packages for the homeless.

“Let’s say you need to make 150 bags of food for the homeless. Would you do it?” she asked. “Yes, I would do it.”

Willette wants to be a teacher.

“I like to help kids. I like to help teachers,” she said. “I like to help everybody.”

Lisa said her daughter is a natural caregiver, especially when it comes to her classmates. Lisa called her a “kid whisperer” because she makes those around her feel welcomed and appreciated.

Lisa could see Willette working in some capacity at a school like NFSSE. Most of all, Lisa said, “I hope that she’s an independent adult. She has her own strong personality. She’s not one to go with the crowd. She vibes to her own frequency and I love it, and I hope that never goes away.”

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

Podcast: Florida mom looks forward to additional benefits of education savings account

Karen and David Prewitt with their son, Caleb.

reimaginED Senior Writer Lisa Buie talks with Karen Prewitt, whose son, Caleb, 15, is benefitting from a change in Florida law that is merging the McKay Scholarship program into the state’s Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities.


Click here to listen to the podcast.


Born with Down Syndrome, Caleb attends North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville, his parents’ school of choice for him since kindergarten.

While the McKay Scholarship made it possible for Caleb to have the best possible educational environment, it covered tuition only, leaving the family with out-of-pocket costs for physical, occupational and speech therapies that help children with Down Syndrome learn to be as independent as possible.

The new scholarship program is an education savings account, which allows parents the flexibility to spend their money not only on tuition and fees but also on necessities such as private tutoring, devices and therapies not covered by insurance.

My Perspective: 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.