Editor’s Note: This post originally ran March 25, 2021 on the redefinED blog, which is hosted by Step Up For Students. This is the third in a series of stories exploring the Gardiner Scholarship Program.
By Lisa Buie
Chrissy Weisenberger is one busy mom.
With five children, including 3-year-old twin boys and two daughters who are both on the autism spectrum, homeschooling the whole brood made the most sense for the family. It allows her to design each child’s learning plan to best fit his or her educational needs.
“It’s very Frankensteined,” joked Weisenberger, who lives in Palm Bay, Florida, a city southeast of Orlando known for its sports and nature parks.
By that, she means like many homeschool parents, she has strategically used a little of this and a little of that, a grassroots method of creating the perfect learning environment for her family.
Her two daughters, Keira, 8, and Tessa, 6, are on the autism spectrum and participate in the Gardiner Scholarship Program for students with unique abilities. The scholarships allow parents to customize their child’s education by using flexible spending accounts called education savings accounts.
While traditional vouchers pay for private school tuition, the savings accounts are more flexible. The Florida Department of Education transfers a portion of a child’s funds from the state education formula to a state-approved nonprofit organization, such as Step Up For Students, which puts these funds into an account for each child. Parents then apply to this nonprofit for permission to use their child’s ESA funds to buy state-authorized educational services and products.
The girls need help to stay focused on learning, so in addition to purchasing educational materials such as books and workbooks, Weisenberger has used her daughters’ education savings accounts to buy specialized equipment such as swings, which calm kids with autism, and a mini trampoline that helps with balance and gross motor skills.
She bought two chewable necklaces for Keira, who otherwise would chew on her hair during class. She bought the girls laptops to access virtual lessons in math and reading, which she says were a godsend during the pandemic when co-op meetings with other homeschool families were canceled. And she bought them a kit that taught them how to build a volcano.
Most Gardiner families typically make purchases through MyScholarShop, Step Up For Students’ online catalog of pre-approved educational products. The platform includes curriculum materials, digital devices, and education software. Families may be able to purchase items or services not on the pre-approved list by submitting a pre-authorization request that includes supporting documentation and an explanation of how the purchase will meet the individual educational needs of the student.
An internal committee, which includes a special needs educator, conducts a review to determine if the item or service is allowable under the program’s expenditure categories and spending caps, and a notification is sent to the parent. The item or service may then be submitted on a reimbursement request that must match the corresponding pre-authorization.
Step Up For Students employs numerous measures to protect against fraud and theft. For example, if a service provider’s reimbursement request is submitted from an IP address and the platform sees that the parental approval came from the same IP address, the anti-fraud staff is alerted to investigate.
Weisenberger followed this process to purchase one item not on the pre-approved list: a $25 inflatable kiddie pool.
While a swimming pool would not qualify as a reimbursable expense under the program’s rules, Weisenberger’s proposed use made it eligible. Inspired by a Pinterest post, she converted the rectangular pool, which she ordered from Amazon, into a ball pit that she filled with almost 3,000 plastic balls. Her girls use the reconfigured pool to help them with balance.
But Weisenberger’s creativity extends further. She’s devised a way to use the pool to help her kids with math.
Using three buckets, she teaches place value by having them put the appropriate number of balls in each. For example, the number 436 would be represented by putting four balls in the hundreds place bucket, three balls in the tens place and six balls in the one place buckets.
The inventive mom has found yet another way to utilize the purchase. She pours the balls over Keira as a way to soothe her sensory-challenged daughter.
Weisenberger, who learned about Gardiner from a speech therapist two years ago, said she is very pleased with the program. While she suspects two of her other children may qualify for a scholarship, the funding she presently receives satisfies the family’s learning needs.
“I don’t want to take it away from somebody else who needs it,” she said.
Lisa Buie is online reporter for redefinED.
By ROGER MOONEY
Reading was a struggle for Maloni Lewis as a third grader. So was writing and math.
Her whole life was a struggle. Both parents were disabled. Her three older brothers had been to jail. They told their mom that going to school and being smart were not cool among the group they associated with.
Maloni’s mom was determined to end that cycle with her daughter.
Renée Lewis found Seven Rivers Christian School in Lecanto, Florida, near their home. With the help of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families, she was able to afford the tuition at the pre-K through 12 private school. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.
It took a few years, but Maloni eventually became passionate about her education. She played sports, and by her senior year of high school, her grade point average was 3.8. She left for college with the goal of becoming a nurse like her mom.
“Step Up For Students is a lifeline,” Renée said. “It allows kids and families to dream. What they thought was so far out of reach is possible.”
There are many reasons why children struggle in school. For some, the class size is too big, and they feel lost among the crowd. Others have certain special needs that cannot be fully addressed at neighborhood schools. Some kids are bullied. Some are hindered by language barriers.
And then there are those like Maloni, whose homelife is so challenging that school is not a priority.
Step Up can help.
Lower-income families can apply for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship. Both scholarships are based on a family’s financial need, and both give families a choice to find a new learning environment for their child.
Parents use a single application for the scholarships and Step Up determines eligibility for either the tax-credit scholarship or the Family Empowerment Scholarship.
Parents of children with special needs can turn to the Gardiner Scholarship.
This scholarship allows parents to personalize the education of their pre-K through 12 children with certain special needs by directing money toward a combination of approved programs and providers. A list of special needs covered by the Gardiner Scholarship is found here under “eligibility requirements.”
Parents whose child is being bullied at a public school can apply for the Hope Scholarship.
In 2018, the Florida Legislature created the Hope Scholars to give relief for K-12 public school children from bullying and violence. The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district.
The Hope Scholarship, which is not based on a family’s income, provides families with financial assistance to send a child who suffered from a qualifying incident to an eligible private school, or to transport him or her to a public school in another district. The scholarship value depends on the grade level and county the family lives in.
The transportation scholarship is worth up to $750 and can be used to attend any out-of-district public school with available space.
Step Up has managed more than 1 million scholarships in the 20 years since its inception. These scholarships have been life-changers for the students and their families.
“I felt completely blessed to even have the scholarship. I don’t know what I would have done without it,” said Pamela Howard, whose son, Malik Farrell, reaped the awards of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.
Malik had been to four schools district schools in four years and repeated third grade after getting a report card filled with F’s.
Pamela learned of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and moved her son to Potter’s House Christian Academy, a pre-K through 12 private school in Jacksonville, Florida.
Weeks after enrolling, Malik’s older brother was murdered. The teachers and administrators at Potter’s House rallied around Malik. They eventually gained Malik’s trust, and because of that, Malik’s grades turned into C’s. He was a solid B student during his final two years of high school. He graduated and attended college in Tennessee.
Pamela credited Potter’s House and the Step Up scholarship for her son’s scholastic turnaround.
“To see my son just completely turn around, there aren’t even words,” she said. “That he overcame these struggles and turned out to become the young man that he is, there are no words to even explain how proud I am of him.”
Roger Mooney can be reached at rmooney@StepUpForStudents.org.
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
The collapse of the real estate market in 2008 signaled the crumbling of the luxurious lifestyle for Helen and Frank Figueredo, who owned a real estate firm in Miami.
The recession cost them everything: Their business. Their savings. Their house. They filed for bankruptcy twice and ended up in foreclosure. They sold nearly all their possessions to make ends meet.
One thing that was nonnegotiable for the Figueredos was a private education for their two sons: Jonas and Jack.
They needed financial help to make that work, and that’s where Step Up For Students came into play.
Step Up manages five scholarships that provide K through 12 education choices to students from lower-income families, those with certain special needs, students who have been bullied at a public school and struggling readers in public school in grades three through five.
A parent or guardian might ask: What scholarship do I qualify for?
Well, let’s take a look using these examples.
Scholarships for children from lower-income families
The Figueredos were eligible for a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two income-based scholarships managed by Step Up. The other is the Family Empowerment Scholarships. Both scholarships are based on a family’s financial need, and both give families a choice to find a new learning environment for their child.
Parents use a single application for the scholarships and Step Up determines eligibility for either the tax-credit scholarship or the newer Family Empowerment Scholarship.
In the case of the Figueredos, it was the Westwood Christian School, a private pre-K through 12 school near their Miami home. Both boys entered when they were eligible for pre-K. Jonas recently graduated from the private school near the top of his class with a scholarship to the University of Miami. Jack just completed his sophomore year and is following in his brother’s academic footsteps.
Scholarships for children with certain special needs
Phyllis Ratliff worried about her son Nicolas.
Diagnosed with high-functioning autism at age three, Nicholas was nearing the end of the eighth grade. It was time for Phyllis to search for a high school that could accommodate her son’s needs.
She feared that the large neighborhood high school would present a threatening environment, that Nicholas would be an easy target for bullies. She worried that Nicholas would be intimidated by the large class sizes.
A friend told her about Monsignor Pace High School, located in Miami Lakes, 10 miles from their home. Upon visiting the school, Phyliss learned of the Gardiner Scholarship, which allows parents to personalize the education of their pre-K through 12 children with certain special needs by directing money toward a combination of approved programs and providers. (A list of special needs covered by the Gardiner Scholarship is found here under “eligibility requirements.”)
The Gardiner Scholarship helped cover the tuition at Pace.
Phyllis was relieved.
“That was phenomenal,” Phyllis said. “We were so excited there was something out there for him.”
Nicolas graduated with honors and recently finished his first year at Broward College, where he is studying environmental science.
Scholarship for students who have been bullied
Jordyn Simmons-Outland had been a target of bullies in his public school since the second grade. The physical and emotional toll over the next two years was so intense that Jordyn told his grandparents that he wished he were dead. He began to see a therapist.
In 2018, the Florida Legislature created the Hope Scholarship to give relief for K-12 public school children from bullying and violence. The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district.
Jordyn was the first-ever recipient of the Hope Scholarship. He began attending Lakeview Christian School in Lake Placid, Florida as a fifth grader in the fall of 2018.
“Hope is the best description (for the scholarship). I keep thinking ‘There is hope, there is hope, there is hope,’” said Cathy Simmons, Jordyn’s grandmother. “I can’t wait to tell everyone what a blessing the Hope Scholarship has been. Now there’s peace.”
Scholarship for students struggling to read
In third grade, Kiersten Covic’s reading score on the Florida Standards Assessments (FSA) was high enough where it signaled that she would likely excel in English Language Arts the following school year.
Instead, her grade plummeted to “below satisfactory.”
It wasn’t the only thing that plunged. So did her confidence.
Fortunately, her mother, Kelly Covic, learned about the Reading Scholarship Accounts managed by Step Up For Students that could help pay for a reading program called ENCORE! Reading at Kiersten’s school, Dayspring Academy.
In 2018, Florida lawmakers created the reading scholarship to help public school students in third through fifth grade who struggle with reading. The program offers parents access to Education Savings Accounts, worth $500 each, to pay for tuition and fees for approved part-time tutoring, summer and after-school literacy programs, instructional materials and curriculum related to reading or literacy.
Third through fifth grade public school students who scored a 1 or 2 on the third or fourth grade English Language Arts (ELA) section of the Florida Standards Assessments in the prior year are eligible. (Due to COVID-19, the reading portion of the test was canceled. The Florida Department of Education is assessing eligibility requirements for the 2020-21 school year.)
With a score of 2 on the English Language Arts section of the test, Kiersten qualified. Her mother applied for the scholarship, was approved and enrolled Kiersten into the program at the A-rated public charter school in New Port Richey during the 2018-19 school year.
The program was enough to boost her reading grade on the state test to a 3, a perfectly acceptable grade to put her back on track for success.
“We were really, really thrilled and relieved,” said her mom.
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By LISA A. DAVIS
Hundreds of parents, guardians, students, and teachers joined Step Up For Students online May 21 to recognize the resilient senior Class of 2020 in a time when COVID-19 has added the new term social distancing to everyday vocabulary and canceled in-person milestone events.
The recorded virtual senior celebration can be viewed online here.
In their final two months of their high school careers, students nationwide had to finish their education virtually as stay-at-home orders shuttered school buildings, on March 16 in Florida. High school seniors perhaps felt the impact most, with senior events like prom and graduation being canceled or moved to drive-by parades and virtual celebrations. Soon after typical everyday life came to a halt, Step Up staff began planning the special online event for scholarship seniors.
“High school graduation is a time to celebrate the achievement of Florida’s young men and women and the current pandemic won’t stop us from recognizing the achievements of these special students,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up.
Step Up For Students, a Florida-based nonprofit scholarship funding organization, manages the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Family Empower Scholarship for lower-income families, the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs, the Hope Scholarship for children who are bullied in public schools and the Reading Scholarship Accounts. For the 2019-20 school year, Step Up served more than 130,000 students, including 4,445 seniors.
Tuthill, Step Up Founder and Chairman John Kirtley, and corporate donor representatives addressed the Class of 2020 during the event. The Rev. Robert Ward of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg gave the invocation.
State lawmakers congratulated the class of 2020 as well.
“Even though you’ve gone through strange times and faced many obstacles,” Sen. Manny Diaz, who serves as the Senate Committee on Education chair, said to the graduating seniors, “We are here today to give you a graduation message, and that is congratulations for your hard work.”
Added Rep. Susan Valdes, “Best of luck to you and go get them, Class of 2020. I know that our future is much brighter because of you.”
Paul Shoukry, a Step Up advisory board member and CFO for Raymond James Financial, a founding donor of Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, was one of several donor representatives who spoke during the 30-minute event.
“Continue investing in yourself, as this is an important step in a long and successful journey. Congratulations,” he said.
Step Up selected two scholarship students to address their peers.
Florida Tax Credit scholar Gabriella Bueno, of Boca Christian School, credited her scholarship with helping her get the education she needed to set her on a path to become a pharmacist.
“I have much to be grateful for and I would personally like to thank Step Up, the lawmakers who believe in education choice and the donor who support it. You have all allowed me to attend what I believe has been the best school for me and has helped shaped me into the person I am today.”
Gardiner scholar Ryan Sleboda, also shared his journey with autism, not being able to speak until the age of 7, and with the help of a scholarship graduating as the class valedictorian in unprecedented times.
“Who would have imagined this is the way our senior year would end,” said, Ryan Sleboda, a Gardiner Scholarship student and valedictorian from the Pace Brantley School in Longwood, Fla. “Class of 2020, let’s go forth and resume this incredible journey!”
Kirtley, Step Up’s founder, closed out the event, saying success should not be measured by the norm.
“Be conscious of what scoreboard you are using to measure yourself. I know mine has changed. Pursue those things that can be measured for sure — those grades, that college admission, that job, that raise, that promotion. But don’t forget to measure yourself by things that have no numbers or figures,” he said and continued telling a story about a cab that drove by him in New York City advertising the Broadway musical Rent, with the words “Measure your life in love.”
“Well that sign stopped me in my tracks,” he said. “And I realized right then that I needed to worry less about measuring my life in numbers, in figures, and maybe take the advice on that sign. And it took me a few more years to understand that it’s much more important to measure the love that you give, rather than the love that you receive.
“One of the ways that I measure the love that I give is what I do everyday to empower parents to choose the best education for their kids, and knowing that you are today are graduating is all the love I need in return and knowing that you will put that education to work in these interesting times.”
Lisa A. Davis can be reached at email@example.com.
By ROGER MOONEY
Nine Gardiner Scholarship students on the autism spectrum wrote an essay and gave the world a gift in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic: free downloadable children’s books and literary classics from Audible.
“It’s definitely the coolest thing I have ever done, honestly,” said Sheryl Bo, who runs Brain Lab Tutoring in Palm Bay, Florida and worked with her students on the essay.
The students’ essay (read it here) was emailed on March 13 to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asking that Audible books be made available to everyone while schools are closed during the pandemic. It was forwarded to Don Katz, founder of Audible.
After a few emails between Katz’s assistant and Bo, Audible created stories.audible.com, where hundreds of books in six languages are available for streaming worldwide.
“They really stepped up. This was definitely way more than I asked for,” said Bo, who originally asked for credits for those who couldn’t afford the service.
With schools and libraries closed indefinitely, Bo knows many schoolchildren are without access to free books.
“What are these kids going to do? Where are they going to get books? How are they going to keep their reading skills up?” she asked.
She had an idea.
“I’m teaching (my students) the persuasive essay with the punch at the end,” she said. “We have to challenge them. We need a call to action at the end. Will you step up? Will you be a positive influence to other corporations in this crises?”
Her students brainstormed and wrote the essay on Friday, March 13, the first day schools were closed.
The essay began: “Did you know that students with disabilities, like us, need audiobooks for most subjects? It’s true. We are a group of high-functioning autistic students in Florida. We have a private tutor that helps us learn. A lot of us learn best when we can hear the book read aloud because some of us have dyslexia as well.”
It concluded with, “Students like us need Audible to help us learn. … Students who miss reading for weeks at a time will lose out on learning.”
They attached the essay to this email to Bezos:
“Dear Mr. Bezos,
We are practicing writing an essay today with our teacher. We hope that you will read it, because we think that you could really help teachers and kids during this crisis. It’s five paragraphs, so please don’t skip anything. We hope you like our essay!”
On the subject line, Bo wrote, “Will you help kids and schools during this pandemic?”
“I honestly didn’t think I would get a reply,” Bo said. “We were just doing it as a cool assignment.”
But on Monday, Bo got a reply: an email from Maureen Muenster, Katz’s assistant.
“Happy to help!” she wrote.
Bo was thrilled.
Bo wrote back saying the request was for students who are now home, teachers who are planning assignments and curriculum, and parents who need a break during this trying time.
A day later, a new email from Muenster came with a link to Audible’s new free streaming website.
“I hope this helps,” Muenster wrote.
“With all the chaos, we felt we made a difference,” Bo said.
“Our intent,” Katz explained in the companywide email, “is that Stories will offer parents, educators, and caregivers – anyone helping kids as daily routines are disrupted – a screen-free experience to look forward to each day, while keeping young minds engaged.”
Bo taught at both private and district schools for eight years before beginning Brain Lab Tutoring in 2017 to help Ethan become acclimated to being around other students. The class usually meets at Bo’s house. Right now, she reaches her students through Zoom, a virtual meeting service.
The students used the new Audible site they helped spur to download Jack London’s “White Fang.”
At first, Bo said, her students weren’t thrilled with the essay writing assignments. Now, they want to know who they will write to next.
“You have to know how to write, and you have to know how to compose something so that people will listen to you and have reasons and have details to back up what you’re saying,” Bo said. “Have that call to action. Ask something. Ask for something to change. Ask them to provide something. I think it was a good lesson for them.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By LISA A. DAVIS
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – This morning, the buses will roll into the same parking lot at Florida State University – some after driving more than seven hours from Miami. It will not be an easy journey for some who traveled on the motor coaches from all over Florida. They will come from other bus stops, too, in Jacksonville, Tampa, Orlando and Pensacola. Some will drive up in their personal vehicles.
The destination is the same: Waller Park at the Florida State Capitol for the Gardiner Celebration Rally organized by Step Up For Students and its advocacy arm, Florida Voices For Choices.
The mission: to thank Florida legislators and Gov. Ron DeSantis for supporting the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs. Additionally, we are asking for $42 million more in funding for the 2020-21 school year so 4,000 more children with unique abilities can receive the same help as the other children who use the scholarship now.
This year, more than 13,000 students have been funded for the Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students.
Still, it’s not enough.
“Every student with special needs in Florida who would be better served academically through education options deserves this scholarship,” said Doug Tuthill, Step Up’s president. “We are so grateful for the support we have had from lawmakers. We applaud them and the work we have done together, but we want to help more children.”
The scholarship is for Florida students 3 years old through 12th grade or age 22, whichever comes first, who have the following diagnoses: 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, or three, four or five year-olds who are deemed high-risk due to developmental delays.
It’s children with these challenges– and their parents, educators and other advocates– who made the trek to Tallahassee today. So, yes, it wasn’t easy for many of them. But it was important. That’s why they are here and will let their voices be heard during the rally.
If you’re in the area, join us. It begins at noon. If not, follow us on social media using the hashtag #GardinerCelebrationRally. Also be sure to check out other rally coverage on our sister blog www.redefinedonline.org.
During the rally, parents like Katie Swingle, whose son Gregory is on the autism spectrum and has thrived using the Gardiner Scholarship, will talk about how she is #GratefulForGardiner.
Other parents will share their stories as well. Their stories are so moving that Step Up For Students is kicking off an ongoing social media campaign so families can regularly share their stories. We will tell these stories on our social media channels beginning today, using the hashtag #GratefulForGardiner.
This scholarship is changing lives. Learn how by following us on social media Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. You may also share your story with us by sending your story and contact information to email@example.com. Please use #GratefulForGardiner in the subject line.
Lisa A. Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.