By ROGER MOONEY
At three months old, Joshua Sandoval was diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis complex, a genetic disorder where the body produces benign tumors.
The tumors are in his brain, and the medication needed to prevent daily seizures makes him fidgety. Staying focused during class can be a chore.
Teachers at prior schools told Joshua’s mother, Nilsa, that her son had behavioral issues and struggled to finish assignments. In the words of one, Joshua was “unteachable.”
Nonsense, Nilsa said. Her son can speak two languages (English and Spanish), is an avid reader and has an extensive vocabulary for a child his age. Joshua, now 13, just needed the right academic setting.
Like many parents of children with special needs and learning disabilities, Nilsa searched for a school that could meet Joshua’s needs. She found one at LIFT Educational Academy, a private one-through-12 school in Miami Lakes, Florida, not far from their home.
LIFT is a psychology, tutoring and brain fitness center that helps children develop the brain skills essential for learning.
After bouncing through six neighborhood schools since Joshua began first grade, Nilsa had finally found the right fit for her son.
There are a number of schools across Florida equipped to serve students with special needs. Many accept the Gardiner Scholarship, which allows parents to personalize the education of their children with certain unique abilities by directing money toward a participating school, a combination of approved programs and services, as well as other approved providers and resources. These include schools, therapists, specialists, curriculum, technology – even a college savings account.
This scholarship is for Florida students 3 years old through 12th grade or age 22, whichever comes first, with one of the following disabilities: Autism spectrum disorder, Muscular dystrophy, Cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Phelan McDermid syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, Spina bifida, Williams syndrome, Intellectual disability (severe cognitive impairment), rare diseases as defined by the National Organization for Rare Disorders, anaphylaxis, deaf, visually impaired, dual sensory impaired, traumatic brain injured, hospital or homebound as defined by the rules of the State Board of Education and evidenced by reports from local school districts, or three, four or five year-olds who are deemed high-risk due to developmental delays.
The Gardiner Scholarship is a boon to children with certain special needs and their families. You can read here about Julian, who has cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus and a severe hearing loss that has impeded his speech, and here about Ryan, who is on the autism spectrum, and here about Valentina, who has Down syndrome.
You can read Joshua’s story here, though there is a postscript. LIFT Educational Academy went virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nilsa said Joshua did not respond well to that type of learning. So, she searched for another school that would fit his needs. In short time, she found one – Aktiv Learning Academy in Miami, which is also close to their Miami Lakes home and accepts the Gardiner Scholarship.
Nilsa said the transition was smooth.
“Joshua is going to an in-person school that is simply fabulous,” Nilsa said. “He is super happy and back to learning.”
Roger Mooney can be reached at rmooney@StepUpForStudents.org.
By ROGER MOONEY
An email arrived in Michele Hopstetter’s inbox on July 16 that made her cry.
“Happy tears,” she said.
The notification came from Step Up For Students and informed Michele and her husband, Dan, that despite the recent increase in their annual income because Michele landed a full-time job, their daughter, Evelyn, will remain eligible for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship until she graduates high school.
The “once in, always in” rule was part of HB7067, signed into law in late June by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The bill expands the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Family Empowerment Scholarship, two income-based programs managed by Step Up. (Parents will need to complete an online application each year to indicate that their children will continue using the scholarship.)
Evelyn used the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship to attend Keswick Christian School in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she excelled last year as a first grader.
“Now she can stay (at Keswick) and continue to do well,” Michele said. “I was ecstatic. I really was. I cried because I was so excited.”
Michele and Dan live in St. Petersburg and have two children. Both attend school with the help of scholarships managed by Step Up.
Michele called the scholarships a “godsend.”
“It has helped us tremendously, because both our children are extremely bright,” Michele said, “I’m not just saying that because I’m their mom. I’m saying that because I’ve seen what they’ve done.”
Triston, who turns 12 this month, was 8 when diagnosed with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), severe anxiety and depression.
“It’s been a very challenging time with him,” Michele said. “He’s very high-functioning. Very intelligent. But emotionally and socially he is so far behind.”
Prone to angry outburst, Triston struggled at his neighborhood school. Michele said it was because he had yet to receive his diagnoses and the school’s staff really didn’t know what they were dealing with. She learned of the Gardiner Scholarship from a neighbor and after researching schools, settled on LIFT, a private K-12 school that accepts all students but specializes in those with neurodiversity. Triston began attending the school in the second grade.
“I love everything about LIFT,” Michele said. “I would not take him anywhere else. He is thriving there.”
The Hopstetters learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship as Evelyn was getting ready to enter first grade.
Dan works in the deli department at Publix. Michele said it was a struggle to make ends meet, but they were living in her dad’s house, and he was helping with some of the bills.
Michele was not working at the time. She was finishing her bachelor’s degrees in business management and human resources from the University of Phoenix with a full-time course load from the online university.
She began work on her college degrees in 2009 when the family lived in Chauncey, Ohio.
They moved to St. Petersburg in 2015, and Michele home-schooled Triston until he was diagnosed, and they learned of the Gardiner Scholarship and LIFT.
Having qualified for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Michele began researching private schools in the St. Petersburg area. She settled on Keswick, because she liked the faith-based education and felt Evelyn would be challenged academically.
Turns out it was a perfect fit. Evelyn made the honor roll all four quarters as a first grader.
“That’s why she’s going to a school that’s way beyond our (financial) reach,” Michele said. “I know she’ll excel there.”
Diana Dumais, Keswick’s lower school principal, described Evelyn as an enthusiastic student who loves school and arrives each day with a smile on her face.
“She’s a real blessing in the classroom,” Diana said. “The teachers enjoy her little sense of humor. She’s just a great kid all around. She really works hard and wants to do better. She’s just precious.”
While Evelyn was enjoying her first year at Keswick, Michele received her degrees from the University of Phoenix and started working full-time in the human resource department at the Children’s Home Network in Tampa. Her salary raised the family’s income above the income ceiling for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. So, when she applied earlier this year for renewal, her application was denied.
“We were worried about what we were going to do,” Michele said. “We were going to have to move her, because we couldn’t afford (Keswick).”
The tuition for second through fourth grade at Keswick is $11,150 a year. Without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Michele and Dan would have to pay more than $900 a month. That meant they were looking for another school. But that email on July 16 from Step Up changed everything.
Plus, Keswick informed Michele that Evelyn was eligible for some financial aid. That plus the scholarship reduced the tuition to $280 a month plus expenses.
“We would do what we could to help them, to keep Evelyn here,” Diana said.
Life, Michele said, has often gotten in the way for the Hopstetters. But Michele has her degree and a career that she expects to build upon, and Dan is up for a promotion at work. And, because of education choice, their children are thriving in their scholastic settings.
“Having the Step Up For Students’ scholarships has improved (our lives) to where my children are going to make it,” Michele said. “Especially my son.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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 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.
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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.