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LiFT Academy receives boost from Tampa Bay Lightning as it prepares to move to new campus

BY ROGER MOONEY

High above the ice at Amalie Arena during a recent Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game stood Keli Mondello and Kim Kuruzovich, the founders of Learning Independence for Tomorrow (LiFT), and Holly Andrade, a founding teacher. They were bathed in the spotlight while the fans cheered, and the players on the ice below paid tribute with a time-honored hockey salute – tapping the blades of their sticks on the ice.

The three clutched an oversized check made out to LiFT Academy for $50,000. The Lightning Foundation donates that amount during each home game to a Tampa Bay area nonprofit as part of the Lightning Community Hero program presented by Jabil.  LiFT was honored by the Lightning on Jan. 27 during a game against the New Jersey Devils.

Learning Independence for Tomorrow (LiFT) includes LiFT Academy, a K-12 private school, LiFT University Transition Program, a four-year post-high school program, and LiFT Day Program in Seminole, Florida that serves neurodiverse students. Neurodiversity is the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, that falls outside societal standards of typical.

“We’re so excited about it. It’s really good timing,” said Andrade, now the school’s principal.

After nine years, LiFT Academy, LiFT University Transition Program and the LiFT Day Program have outgrown their current locations of rented space from two churches. It’s time for a bigger building that can accommodate the school’s expanding programs and growing enrollment.

With a total enrollment of 147 learners across all its programs and a lengthy waiting list, LiFT simply needs more space. Andrade said the new site will initially double the capacity and could ultimately serve 386 learners.

In December, LiFT purchased a former YMCA building in nearby Clearwater with plans to convert it into a new campus. The LiFTING OUR FUTURE capital campaign has begun to help finance the move, remodel and expansion. The $50,000 grant from the Lightning is a great start.

“We are moving to more centralized location in Pinellas County where we can be a resource and partner for the whole community,” Andrade said. We’re going to be more visible and make a larger impact by enhancing the neurodiverse student experience with a safe and inclusive space to learn, thrive, and succeed.”

LiFT Academy’s enrollment include 65 students who receive the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship) and 47 students who receive the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities. The two scholarship programs will merge on July 1, 2022, and will be managed by Step Up For Students.

LiFT Academy opened its doors Jan. 9, 2013, to 17 K-12 students. At the time, Mondello, Kuruzovich and Andrade each had neurodiverse children who were sophomores at the same high school. Their goal was to create an educational program that focused on independent living for their children and others living with neurodiversity.

LiFT University Transition Program, a four-year program for neurodiverse young adults who won’t follow the typical path for secondary education, opened the following year. LiFT University Transition Program teaches employability skills, independent living skills and social skills. The program has approximately 30 community partners who offer internships, and those internships often lead to paid employment.

The LiFT University Transition Program also runs three microbusinesses. These businesses allow students the opportunity to gain social, vocational, and critical thinking skills that will add greatly to their value as an employee. As entrepreneurs, students learn to take risks, manage time, put customers first, seek opportunities to lead and interpersonal skills, all of which are highly transferable skills sought by employers. LiFT Your Fork is a catering service that prepares its neurodiverse students for work in the hospitality industry. LiFT Your Heart makes and sells handmade items such as canvas bags, towels, soaps and scrubs and candles. There is also the LiFT University Cleaning Crew, which has contracts with area churches and movie theaters.

Andrade said, “LiFT’s growth always outpaced our funding. We relied on donations from community partners like Jabil and Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. When Eckerd refurbished its science wing, the college donated furniture and equipment.”

Andrade said she and Kuruzovich carted everything from the college campus to the academy in their “mom vans.”

“We made five trips back and forth, carting science tables, dissection equipment and rolling desk chairs for our teachers,” she said. “That’s how we made it work in the earlier years.”

Kim Kuruzovich, Holly Andrade and Keli Mondello were honored recently as Lightning Community Heros by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Thanks to the Lightning, Andrade said they can now purchase flexible seating options, new furniture, light dimmers for students with visual sensitivities, and additional equipment and fidgets that will serve as therapeutic purposes. These improvements will empower students to focus on their learning, without distractions and discomfort due to their sensory sensitivities. 

“I did it for my son Daniel, and for all the other children like him,” Andrade said. “Neurodiverse children have so much to offer the world. The only thing that holds them back is how the world limits them. But we can change how the world sees them and I want to be a part of that. There’s absolutely nothing like providing an opportunity to help children become what they were destined to be. It was always something that we hoped for and worked for.”

LiFT Academy is the 473rd nonprofit to be named a Lightning Community Hero. Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and his wife, Penny, started the program during the 2011-12 season with a $10 million, five-year commitment to the area. Since then, they have awarded nearly $25 million to more than 600 nonprofits in the greater Tampa Bay area. Last summer, the Viniks announced the program will award another $10 million to nonprofits during the next five seasons.

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

Plenty of school choices for children with special needs

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.

Joshua Sandoval and his mom, Nilsa.

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.

With the help of a Gardiner Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students, Joshua entered LIFT as a sixth grader during the 2019-20 school year.

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.

Click here to apply for a scholarship for children with certain special needs.

Click here to find a list of schools that accept the Gardiner Scholarship.

Valentina Guerrero, who has Down syndrome, attends Morningside K-8 Academy in Miami.

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.

Click here to find a list of all rare diseases defined by the National Organization for Rare Disorders.

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.