By Gina Lynch, Step Up For Students
The SUFS Information Technology team is never really seen by anyone except for those who work inside the walls at Step Up for Students. Did you know that Step Up has 25 people dedicated to ensuring that all of the systems are up and running and secure 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year?
Filling out an online application for our scholarships? Using our Teaching and Learning Exchange? Sending in a Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA) Reimbursement Request? All of these systems are built, managed and supported by our dedicated IT staff.
Top on the priority list for IT, is building out a new, custom software solution to be ready for the second year of the PLSA program. The PLSA program started in mid-June of 2014 and has been a huge success for more than 1,500 special needs children in Florida. Here we are in the second year and the program has the potential to nearly triple in size to support more than 5,500 special needs students across the state of Florida. The success and growth of the PLSA program has dictated that our systems be able to handle the additional traffic without failure and with top-notch security.
The IT team took on this challenge early in May after legislation was approved. Since then, the entire team has hunkered down to work on new designs, better infrastructure and more secure policies. We have also listened to parents and providers about their issues and difficulties over the past year and are aiming to correct those pain points within the new system.
Most recently, Operations, IT, Finance and The Office of Student Learning teamed up to host parent and provider focus groups. Two evenings in August were spent with PLSA parents and providers to elicit feedback on our new system prior to going live. We received great insights and valuable feedback that went directly back to the IT team for implementation.
The PLSA program is very unique and robust. We are tasked with ensuring that the funds in the PLSA scholarship accounts are handled with care. The new system will have many new features in order to give our parents and providers the best possible experience.
The IT team’s goal is to build a very lean, intuitive system so parents and providers spend more time learning about educational tools for the specific needs of their child, and less time on burdensome paperwork and administration.
We look forward to its launch in September .
Gina Lynch is the Director of Project Management in the IT Department for Step Up for Students. She manages a team of seven talented, smart and wonderful people that are dedicated to educational choice for all children. Having two daughters of her own, ages 8 and 6, Gina is very busy with school activities, sports and keeping up with homework assignments.
Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared as an article in the 2015 Back to Homeschool issue of the FPEA Connect magazine. Used by permission of the FPEA.
By Mary Kurnik, Guest Blogger
We did not plan to homeschool. I definitely enjoy being home with our children, especially since my husband and I weren’t even sure we would become parents.
Through the blessing of adoption, we became parents to our daughter and, 21 months later, to our son who has autism. Thankfully, we began homeschooling when Krystyn was four years old. We figured this way, we could “try it out” for a year and send her to kindergarten if the experiment failed.
John was two years old at the time. He did well with Five in a Row, a literature-based, unit study approach. We all snuggled on the couch while I read our story for the day. If John chose, he could sit on the floor and keep busy with various shoeboxes filled with his “school things.” For the most part, though, he wanted to be a part of every aspect of our homeschool day, right along with his big sister. All the years of Five in a Row provided a solid foundation for a well-rounded child and built strength in reading and language arts.
An environment of family togetherness, safety and comfort at home, and learning at his own pace, have served John well. In the early years, our homeschool days consisted of many trips to the library to choose books, take part in its organized programs, and star in its theater. We went to parks and the YMCA. We belonged to MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) and a Thursday social group. We took trips to the museums, the zoo, the Florida Aquarium, and Busch Gardens. We visited many businesses to get a backstage tour in order to learn about their operations and the necessity of a practical education. We toured Tampa International Airport, fire departments, even the Coast Guard. All of these opportunities were facilitated in a small, manageable group, with Mom’s watchful eye, giving birth to independence and confidence for John.
I can’t emphasize enough how important the flexibility has been. If John is restless, he can play basketball in our driveway in between subjects or throw the ball in the backyard to our
rambunctious, loveable lab, Libby. We school year round, so if family comes in town or an event comes up, we can take advantage of that opportunity. For John’s therapy appointments, professionals are more accessible to us during the morning or early afternoon, rather than after-school hours. If John needs more time learning long division, it’s not a problem. If we need to revisit a concept in a particular subject six months from now, when he can grasp it better, no worries.
Every day is a learning opportunity at home and out in the world. Life skills are essential for John, and my husband and I endeavor to teach him more than academics. John is learning to change the oil in Dad’s truck, shop at home improvement stores, do yardwork, fix and maintain things at home, learn the value of money – all with Dad’s guidance. Mom, on the other hand, does something John calls “Mom’s Scenarios.” This is when a teachable moment comes along, no matter where we happen to be, and I run by certain scenarios with John – all the while keeping a sense of humor if warranted, or a serious tone if not. John often needs a further explanation of what is happening around him, and we are able to take the time to explain as much as he needs.
Homeschooling also allows John to be with children and adults of all ages. He is not limited to his same-aged peer group. This has been beneficial in that he is able to get along with children during his class at co-op and is also able to be best buddies with the younger set. They look up to him, and I believe John’s life is enhanced by being a role model. Learning at home allows us to build on John’s strengths and work on his weaknesses in a way that is designed for him alone.
More recently, John’s home education has been strengthened by a new state program created last year. The Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, or PLSA as it is better known, provides state funds to parents of special needs children that can be used for a wide range of education-related expenses. That includes private school tuition, tutoring, instructional materials, technological devices and specialized therapies from approved providers.
The amount of the PLSA varies based on the student’s disability and what county he or she lives in, but it averages about $10,000 per year. Funds that aren’t used in one year can be rolled over to the next year. They can also be used for contributions to an approved prepaid college program. As I told the The Tampa Tribune last year, “It’s hard to put into words what it means to us. It’s a gift that was dropped from heaven.”
It’s not just that the PLSA offers funding that can make a real difference for John. It also comes with the kind of flexibility and parental authority that makes sense to home school parents, and to parents, period. It allows parents, not anyone else, to determine what mix of educational programs and services are best for their child.
Right now, we are using the PLSA to help pay for therapy to help John with an auditory processing disorder, along with books, and handwriting and keyboarding programs. We also plan to add, among other things, intensive math skills practice online, materials for robotics, a musical instrument, and a tablet so John can access specialized apps for students with autism. (For anyone who wants more information about PLSAs, contact Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that helps administer the program, at PLSA@sufs.org or 1-877-735-7837.)
Educational choice is a precious freedom, and I am grateful to be Krystyn and John’s Mom first and teacher second. Sometimes the best things in life are not planned after all.
Mary Kurnik is wife to John and has a bachelor’s degree in English education. Her passions are homeschooling, special needs, adoption and horses. She gives all glory to God for His master plan. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Summer has come to a close, and Step Up For Students looks forward to serving more students than ever this school year. An estimated 78,000 income-based scholars are expected to enroll in private schools throughout Florida and increased funding will allow us to award double the number of students we served last year with Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA).
“It’s exciting,” said Jeff Giese, Step Up’s director of operations. “We’re gearing up for another busy year and, as always, we’re looking to fine-tune systems and processes we have in place as we go along.”
One of the biggest changes this year is the PLSA reimbursement system. Step Up took down the old system this month and will launch a new user-friendly system in early September.
“What we heard from parents throughout the first year of the PLSA was that our system was cumbersome and where claims were in the process wasn’t clear, so we’ve actually built an entirely new system,” said Elizabeth Watson, Step Up’s director of client services. “We are certain this system will serve PLSA families and providers well. It will allow parents and providers full visibility to all account activity and, because this system was built by our internal IT department, any system-related issues will be addressed immediately.”
Step Up recently emailed PLSA families to alert them of the changes.
“If you didn’t receive the email, please make sure we have your current email address,” Watson said. “It’s important to keep that updated with us because for the PLSA program and the income-based scholarship program, this is our primary method of communicating with our scholarship families.”
While the transition is in the works, PLSA families won’t be able to submit new reimbursement claims or access their accounts. In the meantime, Step Up employees are still processing reimbursement claims submitted before the 5 p.m., Aug. 17. Once the new system is launched, parents and guardians can immediately submit any claims.
“Remember, you can still be reimbursed for any approved items that were purchased, or approved services rendered after July 1, 2014 as long as you still have funds in your account,” Watson said.
For a list of approved items and services and more instructions on submitting reimbursement requests, review Step Up’s 2015-16 Parent Handbook..
For more Information, email email@example.com or call the Contact Center at 877-735-7837.
“We are committed to answering calls and emails promptly during this period of downtime,” Watson said. “When the new system is live, you’ll again have full access to any account data since the beginning of your participation with the PLSA program. We look forward to hearing your feedback on the new system.”
Welcome to the Step Up For Students blog, “Stepping Beyond the Scholarship.” We’re excited to have you join us as we debut a new forum for our parents, teachers, students and advocates to connect with one another and share their personal experiences with the (income-based) Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs.
We hope to be informative, sharing news about Step Up For Students, our scholarship application periods, participating schools and services, among other topics. We also aim to intrigue you with profiles about our scholarship recipients and their families, our partner schools, our program donors and partners.
In addition, we’d like to help answer your questions and provide a network of support for you as you navigate your child’s educational path. Which private schools accept the scholarships in your community? What combinations of therapies have helped your child with special needs? Is there a homeschool curriculum that really brings results? In the months ahead, we will feature guest bloggers, including parents and educators. We’ll also publish various series, such as a behind- the-scenes look at all things Step Up. We invite you, our readers, to become active participants.
We look forward to growing our blog, and taking this adventure with you. Thank you for reading.
Your friends at Step Up.