By GEOFF FOX
Wesley Hamilton, a curious, curly-haired six-year-old was blessed with a high IQ.
When he was 3, a preschool teacher asked his class to say words that started with “a.” While many of his classmates answered “apple” or “ant,” Wesley said, “actually.”
He started having some uncommon struggles at a young age, said his mother, Emily Ashworth Hamilton, chief technology officer with ABB Optical Group in Coral Springs.
He didn’t like having his fingernails clipped.
He wouldn’t touch things with his hands, including food.
He stopped making eye contact with other people.
He had trouble sleeping, and when he did sleep, he often had nightmares.
He also would overreact to “the simplest things,” said Ashworth Hamilton, who lives in Miami with Wesley, her 2-year-old daughter Holly and husband Bill Hamilton, a mobile software architect with AT&T.
“He would have kind of the classic 2-year-old temper tantrum, but they never ended,” she said. “Not only in the moment, but they’d just never stop. His language was sort of odd, too, but he was incredibly verbal. His sentences were very deliberate, but the words he used were huge.”
In April 2015, Wesley was diagnosed as being on the “high-functioning” end of the autism spectrum.
Ashworth Hamilton eventually applied for and received a Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students. The state-funded scholarship is for students between 3 and 22 and who have disabilities including: autism spectrum disorder, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Spina bifida and other impairments.
The scholarship allows parents to personalize their child’s education by directing money toward schools, therapists, specialists, curriculum and technology, as well as a college savings account.
Last year, Wesley’s family used the scholarship to help pay for Applied Behavior Analysis therapy through Optimum Behavioral Services in Sunrise. Ashworth Hamilton said the therapy is not covered by her insurance.
Much of Wesley’s first year of therapy was not spent in a school or social setting, but “in a clinical environment,” she said.
“It could pertain to playing with others appropriately, or in a classroom, or following the instructions of a parent or adult in charge – how to react appropriately in certain situations,” Ashworth Hamilton said.
“(Children on the autism spectrum) have to be explicitly taught. They can’t simply observe or follow other people’s leads.”
Blanca Onetto, clinical director at Optimum Behavioral Services, where Wesley is a patient, said therapists quickly realized Wesley was very bright, with an enthusiasm for learning and a healthy sense of humor.
She said he enjoys music – particularly Queen’s classic rock hit, “We Will Rock You” – using his iPad, building with blocks, and playing with toy airplanes, cars and construction materials.
However, Onetto said, Wesley had difficulty communicating “across multiple contexts,” such as “social-emotional reciprocity,” non-verbal communication used in social interaction, and developing, maintaining and understanding relationships.
Sometimes, Onetto said, he threw the tantrums his mother described, displayed physical aggression and had anxiety issues.
Peer training, positive reinforcement and “naturalistic-incidental teaching” at the center has helped improve his conversational skills, while therapies to assist with shyness and impatience have included participation in a social skills group that features role playing.
To address tantrums and aggression, the center has used therapies that “decrease Wesley’s inappropriate behaviors by replacing them with appropriate ones,” Onetto said.
“Our goal is to teach Wesley appropriate social interactions, which at the same time would help to develop many other skills, including listening, attention, reading body language and social references,” she said. “He has shown considerable progress on all his treatment goals, but we will continue working on achieving higher standards.”
Onetto’s team of therapists have accompanied Wesley to school, thanks to Gardiner. This has helped Wesley transition into an academic environment and a mainstream classroom successfully with the support he needs.
Ashworth Hamilton said she did not want Wesley to go to his neighborhood elementary school, where, thanks to his high IQ, he would likely have been mainstreamed into a large class with a teacher who may not have experience handling students with special needs.
Through the Gardiner Scholarship, Wesley attends Miami Shores Presbyterian Church School, a kindergarten- through fifth-grade private school with a preschool program. He is now in first grade.
Ashworth Hamilton said she’s now optimistic Wesley will be better able to manage his anxieties, focus on tasks and increase his “functional capabilities.” His successful integration into a mainstream classroom is due to the partnership at school between parents, teachers and therapists and is building a strong foundation for Wesley.
“The goal is to build him up so the support needed will decrease over time,” his mother said. “I think he will continue to need a learning environment that is very much able to have some flexibility with his learning style; he’s very visual and has lots of sensory stimuli to contend with.”
Onetto is also impressed.
Because Wesley is high-functioning, Onetto said she doesn’t see any reason why he won’t be able to someday live independently and lead a fulfilling life.
“Each individual with autism is unique,” she said. “Many of those on the autism spectrum have exceptional abilities in visual skills, music, and academic skills. About 40 percent have average to above-average intellectual abilities. Indeed, many persons on the spectrum take deserved pride in their distinctive abilities and atypical ways of viewing the world. Others with autism have significant disability and are unable to live independently.
“With the appropriate support, (Wesley) will be a productive and successful citizen – maybe another Bill Gates!”
Reach Geoff Fox at Gfox@sufs.org.
A licensed speech therapist, Stacey Thomas interned as a University of South Florida graduate student at Morning Star School, a small Catholic school in Pinellas Park serving students with special needs.
“When I was there, I knew that school was special,’’ Thomas said.
Years later, the wife and mother of three returned to Morning Star, but this time as a parent. Thomas’ eldest child, Liam, has Down syndrome. He longed to attend a school where he could do the things other kids did like sit at their own desk and eat lunch in the cafeteria with friends. But Liam needed special services like one-on-one instruction and speech therapy. Thomas, featured recently with Liam in our student spotlight, immediately thought of Morning Star.
She just wasn’t sure her family could afford tuition until Liam qualified for the Gardiner Scholarship, formerly Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, through Step Up For Students. The annual scholarship, on average about $10,000 per student, is awarded to families based on their children’s certain disabilities and can help cover costs for tuition, curriculum, therapies and other education needs.
“It literally has been the hugest blessing,’’ said Thomas, who lives in Tampa with her husband, Trey, Liam, 9, and his two siblings, Sydney, 8, and Laine, 3.
With Liam making huge learning gains during his third-grade year at Morning Star, Thomas agreed to share with us her strategy on finding the school that worked best for him:
Do you have some words of wisdom to share with other parents and caregivers, or do you have an idea for a story? Please contact Sherri Ackerman, public relations manager, at sackerman@StepUpForStudents.org
When Katie Cutford attended her neighborhood district school in Lake City, classmates sometimes made fun of her thick glasses and fainting spells. Katie has juvenile glaucoma and POTS (Postural Tachycardia Syndrome), a heart condition that causes her to occasionally lose consciousness.
Her younger brother, Caleb Cutford, diagnosed with cerebral palsy and autism, also struggled at the school. That prompted their parents to look for other options.
Caleb was eligible for the McKay Scholarship, a state program that serves children with special needs. The financial assistance allowed the family to enroll him in Lake City Christian Academy, a private school that could provide the extra attention and services he needed.
Katie didn’t qualify for the McKay, though, said her mom, Amanda Dudley. But she and her husband transferred Katie to the academy anyway and paid tuition on their own for three years. Then the couple divorced and money became tight. Caleb remained at the academy on his scholarship, but Katie had to return to her neighborhood school in the eighth grade. Once again, she was bullied and her grades dropped.
“I was miserable,’’ recalled the teen, who went on to try homeschooling.
Katie’s grandmother oversaw lessons, but Katie fell behind academically, especially in math, and became withdrawn. Dudley, a single mom who works as a medical assistant and receptionist at a local doctor’s office, turned to Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.
Katie received the scholarship that helps low-income K-12 students with private-school tuition, and returned to Lake City Christian Academy her junior year. Today, she’s a senior making mostly A’s and getting the tutoring she needs in math.
She recently passed her college entrance exam and has signed up for two dual-enrollment courses at Florida Gateway College with plans to study education. Her dream is to complete her teaching degree at Vanderbilt University near where her aunt lives in Tennessee.
Caleb is a sophomore making progress in one of the academy’s three exceptional student education (ESE) classes.
“They have been able to help us a lot,’’ said Dudley, whose 5-year-old son, Harley Dudley, is a kindergartener on scholarship at the academy.
Lake City Christian Academy is a nondenominational private school serving about 194 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade. Of those, about 81 receive the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students. Another 24 participate in the Gardiner Scholarships, formerly the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts program Step Up also helps oversee.
The rest receive the McKay Scholarship or pay full tuition, which ranges from $5,700 to $8,000, depending on students’ needs, plus additional fees for exceptional therapies and transportation.
The school is accredited by the Florida League of Christian Schools and uses the Bob Jones University curriculum. Student learning gains are measured annually by the Stanford 10 assessment test and others like STAR for reading and math.
Principal Tana Norris, a former public school teacher, founded the academy in 1994 to cater to students with special needs or those who don’t fit in at other schools. The idea was to give teachers the freedom to teach and students the freedom to learn in a way that meets their needs.
“I wanted my teachers to be able to think outside the box, and my students to be able to use as many of their senses as they can,’’ Norris said. “I like cooperative, hands-on learning.’’
In addition to core classes and electives like Spanish, drama, stage band, chorus and dance, the academy also offers gifted and college prep programs, mentoring, horse therapy and tutoring. Class sizes are kept small, with about 11 to 15 students per teacher.
That’s a big plus for Katie.
“I can get one-on-one help from my teachers whenever I need it,’’ she said. “I can go talk to the administrator and the pastor, and I know they can help.’’
Katie was one of those students who almost fell through the cracks, Norris said. Now she’s a confident student participating in peer counseling, where she coaches fellow students, and has discovered her passion for teaching.
Getting a scholarship through Step Up and finding the right kind of school for her made all the difference, Katie said.
“There are many families like mine who can’t afford private school,’’ she said. “This program gives us a chance.’’
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the redefinED blog on Dec. 14, 2015. The blog is hosted by Step Up For Students and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.
By TRAVIS PILLOW, redefinED
One recent morning, Tana Norris walked into the small building that houses the makeshift dance studio at her North Florida private school. “I’m a dancer!” Stephen, an 11th-grader, responded. He and some classmates launched into a routine set to the contemporary Christian sounds of MercyMe, twirling, tapping and finishing with a confident bow.“I hear there are some amazing dancers in here,” she intoned.
Stephen, it turns out, is more than a dancer. He’s also a prize-winning Special Olympics athlete (his finishes in local competitions include second place in the broad jump and first place in bowling) and a testament to the approach Norris said has guided Lake City Christian Academy since she founded it more than 20 years ago: “If a child feels good about themselves, and feels safe, they can learn.”
The nondenominational private school has found ways to cater to a diverse group of children, the majority of whom either have special needs or didn’t quite fit in at other schools. Nearly half of its 194 students rely on McKay scholarships, the state’s voucher program for special needs students. Others use tax-credit scholarships for low-income students or the state’s newest option, the Gardiner Scholarships, formerly known as the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer the latter two programs.
Crystal Hair, the school’s dance instructor, said movement and music can have benefits for all kinds of students. For some, dance can even help with reading instruction.
“It’s operating their whole brain,” she said. “It’s amazing to see how much dance helps in their academics.”
Norris graduated from the University of Florida and began her career teaching in public schools. She quickly grew frustrated. The classes were too large and the rules too burdensome for her to give students the individual attention she felt they needed. She took a pay cut, and started teaching at a small private school for $150 a week.
She founded Lake City Christian in 1994, seeing a need for a private school that wasn’t affiliated with a single church. She set out to meet the needs of students she struggled to accommodate in public school — from those with special needs to those who are academically gifted. Dance helped for some. Others needed art lessons or auto-mechanics classes or college courses while they were still in high school. Some young children could learn responsibility and pattern recognition by caring for the baby pigs, goats and tortoises the school keeps on its campus.
Others, like a first-grader named Tegan, found solace on the back of a horse.
Tegan suffered a stroke before she was born, which has inhibited the growth of her muscles and her use of language. Zoey, one of the school’s therapy horses, is teaching her to exercise both her body and her voice. She’s learning to shout commands and perform stretches in the saddle.“Horses make very good counselors,” said Norris, who’s also a certified riding instructor. The rhythm of their gait is similar to humans’. Riding can help children with under-developed muscles. If a child is having a seizure, a horse can detect it before adult humans nearby.
Norris said Tegan, in her first year at the school, has made huge strides in just a few months.
“Before she was nonverbal,” she said. “She didn’t really participate. And now, she wants to participate in everything.”
Other students face more mundane challenges. For 12th-grader Katie Cutford, it was math anxiety. Earlier in her academic career, she left the school and bounced among other options, including home schooling, before returning to Lake City Christian during high school, where she got the extra help she needed in the subject that challenged her the most.
“It just wasn’t working for me,” she said. “When I came back, I realized what I had. My teachers were willing to stay after school with me.”
Now, she’s in dual-enrollment courses at Florida Gateway College. She signed up for the school’s peer-counseling program, which lets her work one-on-one with other students at the school. Through that experience, she’s discovered a potential career path.
“I feel like it’s preparing me to be a teacher even before I go to college,” she said.
By TRAVIS PILLOW, redefinED
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the redefinED blog on Jan. 21. The blog is hosted by Step Up For Students, and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.
With Gov. Rick Scott’s signature, Florida’s newest educational choice program has a new name, and will be able to serve more students.
Legislative leaders joined Gov. Rick Scott after he approved legislation aimed at helping people with special needs.
Flanked by Senate President Andy Gardiner and his family, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, and the lawmakers who sponsored the legislation, Scott approved SB 672 on Jan. 21 during a ceremony in the governor’s office.
The new law increases funding for the Gardiner Scholarship program by roughly a third, to $71.2 million. It also allows more 3- and 4-year-olds to use the education savings accounts for students with special needs, and makes them available to children with muscular dystrophy and a wider range of students with autism.
The scholarships, previously known as Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, allow families to pay for school tuition, therapy, curriculum and other education-related services of their choice. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer them.
Earlier in the day, Gardiner, whose family provides the namesake for the scholarships, praised another aspect of the law, which expands programs for special needs students at state universities. Scott also approved HB 7003, aimed at helping more special-needs students join the workforce.
In a statement, Gardiner said the new laws will help make Florida “the state where all people have access to an education suited to their own unique needs and the opportunity to achieve their career goals.”
“The complete cradle-to-career pathway to economic independence will make a significant impact on the lives of individuals with unique abilities and their families for generations to come,” he said.
Patricia Levesque, the executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, said in a statement that the new laws never would have come about without advocacy from parents. (Gardiner has a son with Down syndrome.)
“It wasn’t all that long ago when students with disabilities were shunned in classrooms; their needs ignored and their abilities dismissed,” Levesque said. “Every time I see a child with unique abilities, behind him or her I see a parent with unique passion and commitment.”
By STEP UP FOR STUDENTS STAFF
Step Up For Students is pleased to announce that we are now accepting applications for the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA) program for the 2016-17 school year. Click on the Login link to access your parent login area and submit an application for the upcoming school year.
A few things to note as you access the online application:
• Reimbursement requests for previous and current school years can still be accessed as you fill out the online application for the 2016-17 school year. Simply use the tabs at the top of the pages of the parent login to navigate between activities.
• As you renew your application, there may be limited documentation that is needed for Step Up to review the application. In the event that less documents are requested than in previous years, please follow directions and fax or upload only those documents requested via the “Print and Send Documents” tab.
• Remember, you must renew your scholarship each year to receive funding from the Department of Education. We expect to receive funding for eligible students for the 2016-17 school year in the early Fall for use on expenses incurred after July 1, 2016.
Step Up is happy to help should you have any questions or concerns about the online application process. Please direct questions to us via phone at 877-735-7837 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Families who are interested in the PLSA for the current school year and meet the eligibility requirements may still apply for the 2015-16 school year. Average annual scholarships are about $10,000 per student.
Step Up For Students Family and Community Affairs (FCA) team recently began hosting “Coffee and Conversations” events with Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA) recipients’ parents, kicking off the program on Sept. 30 in Tallahassee, the state capital.
Since then, the team has met with parents in St. Petersburg and Jacksonville, and plans to bring the program to other areas throughout Florida.
The PLSA program, which provides funding for children with certain special needs for private school, approved educational tools, therapies and even for college savings, was created by the Florida Legislature in 2014. On average, eligible students receive about $10,000 annually.
The goal of the “Coffee and Conversations” events is for FCA staff to get feedback from PLSA parents on the program including on eligibility and reimbursement processes, use of funds, and for parents to network with other local parents in their area.
“Using that feedback, we will work to make the program better,” said Sara S. Clements, FCA’s director of external affairs. “There is nothing more valuable than hearing directly from parents who are using this program. We are thankful for parents giving us feedback on ways to improve our internal processes, as well as ideas to expand the program legislatively in the future.”
The parent feedback has been positive, Clements said, adding that she said one parent took to Facebook to express her gratitude.
“Loved [Coffee & Conversations]. I got answers to questions, and had the opportunity to meet wonderful staff and fellow parents,” the mother wrote.
The FCA team also uses these meetings as an opportunity to educate parents on the importance of the legislative process, and sharing how they can support the PLSA program by speaking to their elected officials.
The FCA team is hosting additional “Empowerment Trainings” in as a follow-up to Coffee & Conversations, where the focus will be more on parent advocacy, including training on how parents can share their stories with lawmakers and other elected officials.
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.
Within the past week, Step Up For Students has sent three payment files to the bank to reimburse Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA) parents and guardians, providers and schools for expenses.
There were more than 1,000 reimbursement requests in these files totaling $1.2 million.
“Since the implementation of PLSA, this is the most that we have paid in a week,” said Jasmine Johnson, PLSA claims manager for Step Up For Students
Several factors led to the milestone for the program that serves children, ages 3 up to 22, with certain special needs in Florida.
“The new IT systems that Step Up For Students built from scratch, the policies and procedures that we have enhanced, our reflections on lessons learned, and the dedication from each employee on every team got us to this point,” said Gina Lynch, Step Up’s senior director of Operations and Organizational Improvement. “We can and should be proud of what we are doing for our PLSA families.”
It seems the milestone led to an outpouring of praise on Step Up’s Facebook page with more than a dozen parents writing 5-star reviews in recent days, as well as expressing their appreciation for the PLSA program and recent funding.
“The ability to get what is needed to teach my child with special needs feels like giving her a future,” wrote PLSA parent Lisa Cali on Step Up’s Facebook page. “Learning what she needs, when, where and with the tools she needs to accurately absorb the information – it’s changed our life.”
The Florida Legislature created the state-funded PLSA program in 2014, and it’s the second year Step Up has helped administer the program for students with certain special needs. Once the program was signed into law, Step Up had only weeks to create and set up a system to run the program and staff members have been working hard to make improvements ever since.
“Our PLSA families have played a big role in our successes by alerting us when things aren’t working and letting us know what works, too,” said Lynch. “We thank them for their help and their patience. It is our greatest goal to serve our families the best we can.”
Step Up For Students’ work with both the PLSA and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, a scholarship program for K-12 low-income children, has made the nonprofit organization a national model for the programs it runs.
“This is a significant honor,” Lynch said.
For more information about Step Up’s scholarship programs, visit www. StepUpForStudents.org.