BY ROGER MOONEY
JACKSONVILLE, Florida – Willette Treadway wants to help.
She wants to help her classmates, teachers and administrators at North Florida School of Special Education, where she is in the Secondary 3 classroom. She wants to help her family and friends.
She wants to help the homeless population in Jacksonville.
“One thing about me,” Willette said, “I like to help everybody.”
“She has a big heart,” said her mom, Lisa Diana.
Willette, 14, was diagnosed at 7 with an intellectual difference and language impairment, which are neurodevelopmental conditions that appear in early childhood. She is a high performer socially but a low performer cognitively, where according to her mom, Willette is in the second to fourth grade level range with math, reading and vocabulary.
She attended her district school from kindergarten through the sixth grade. And while Lisa said Willette did well with her Individual Education Plan (IEP), she felt Willette “wasn’t grasping the material.” Searching for a school that better fit her daughter’s unique abilities, Lisa enrolled Willette in North Florida School of Special Education (NFSSE) in Jacksonville for the 2021-22 school year. She attends the school assisted by the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA), managed by Step Up For Students.
“What I love about North Florida is they use different teaching styles and are a little bit more patient, especially with the smaller classes, to work with her and the material,” Lisa said. “I wanted her to be in a space where she would learn and retain and work with professionals who are hopefully going to get through to her maybe in a way that I can’t, or other teachers haven’t been able to.”
NFSSE provides an innovative academic and therapeutic setting for students, ages 6-22, who have intellectual and developmental differences. The secondary program is for students ages 14 to 17. They take academic classes and also emphasize vocational training, where they learn pre-employment skills.
The school’s transition program is for students ages 18-22. There, they learn how to budget money, pay bills, read bus schedules, and put together a resume. The students also work at jobs off campus with the goal of landing internships and fulltime positions.
“She would be devastated if she ever had to leave that school,” Lisa said. “She’s loving it. It’s everything I hoped it would be for her. This is the first time in her academic life that I don’t have to worry about her going to school.”
That some members of the school’s staff have children who attend or attended the school is a plus for Lisa, who is a nurse.
“As a teacher, an educator, someone who’s been where we are as parents,” Lisa said, “you have no idea the amount of relief it is to be able to talk to somebody who gets it.”
Willette arrived for her first day at her new school like a ball of sunshine, with a smile that lit up the campus. She made friends with everyone.
“I really like this school because it’s very nice,” Willette said. “All the teachers and staff are very nice here. All my friends are nice to me all the time.”
It wasn’t always that way at her previous school, where she was often the target of bullies.
Willette was one of the students picked to speak last January at a school pep rally last for Education Choice Week. She spoke of how well her classmates and teachers treat her, how she loved reading to “the little ones” on Thursday, how calm and peaceful she feels at the school and how the staff “lets me be the best Willette I can be.”
Lauren Perry, a Secondary 2 teacher at NFSSE, said that’s easy with a student like Willette.
“She loves to be around people,” Perry said. “She loves to talk and connect, and it’s a really beautiful thing for someone so young.”
While addressing the school, Willette also mentioned her job during dismissal.
She took it upon herself last year to help with the car line. She recruited two classmates to assist her when she fractured her right ankle falling off her scooter near the end of the year. The three held staff meetings every morning. Willette carried a clipboard.
“Yeah, that’s Willette,” Lisa said.
Willette’s cast was black and gold, matching the colors of her favorite football team – the Pittsburgh Steelers. Lisa’s mom wrapped a yellow Terrible Towel – a Steelers’ talisman – around Willette shortly after she was born. If you want to hear passion in Willette’s voice, ask her about who should be the Steelers quarterback.
If you want that passion to go up a notch, ask Willette about the homeless in Jacksonville – a segment of the population that is dear to her heart. She has visited homeless shelters and soup kitchens in the city with her grandmother on her father’s side. Lisa and Willette once made 150 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to distributed to the homeless shortly before the start of the pandemic. Last school year, Willette helped classmates make care packages for the homeless.
“Let’s say you need to make 150 bags of food for the homeless. Would you do it?” she asked. “Yes, I would do it.”
Willette wants to be a teacher.
“I like to help kids. I like to help teachers,” she said. “I like to help everybody.”
Lisa said her daughter is a natural caregiver, especially when it comes to her classmates. Lisa called her a “kid whisperer” because she makes those around her feel welcomed and appreciated.
Lisa could see Willette working in some capacity at a school like NFSSE. Most of all, Lisa said, “I hope that she’s an independent adult. She has her own strong personality. She’s not one to go with the crowd. She vibes to her own frequency and I love it, and I hope that never goes away.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at email@example.com.
BY ROGER MOONEY
SARASOTA – Sophia Slaughter, who is 15, recently learned to jump rope.
Maybe that is not a big deal to someone who was skipping Double Dutch at 5, but it is to Sophia, who is on the autism spectrum and has dyspraxia. Known as developmental co-ordination disorder, dyspraxia hinders her coordination. Some activities that neurotypical teenagers consider routine are nearly impossible for her.
While working with trainer Dani Williams at NXT Generation Wellness in Sarasota for the past two years, Sophia gradually gained command of her muscles and their movements. She can hold a yoga pose and coordinate her footwork to move through a series of squares taped on the floor at NXT Generation.
And she can complete in proper order the mini skills that allow her to jump rope.
“It’s life-changing,” said Sophia’s mom, Jennifer Slaughter.
Sophia, who lives in Sarasota and is home schooled, receives the Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with unique abilities (formerly the Gardiner Scholarship). It is managed by Step Up For Students. Sophia uses her education savings account that comes with the scholarship to pay for the sessions at NXT Generation, as well as for yoga classes and ballroom dancing.
These activities added health and fitness to Sophia’s life, helped her become more socially interactive, and gain a circle of friends.
“That’s the ultimate goal,” Williams said. “Elevate and enhance their current life, or what they view as their current life, and open doors and continue on this path.”
In early August, 20-year-old Riley Joyce for the first time in his life rode a two-wheel bicycle without any assistance. His mom, Judi, who watched from the driveway of their Sarasota-home cried.
“It was the best thing ever to see,” Judi said.
Like Sophia, Riley is on the autism spectrum. He lives in Sarasota and is home schooled. Riley also receives the Family Empowerment Scholarship (formerly Gardiner) and uses his education savings account for yoga, ballroom dancing and sessions with Williams.
Riley was introduced to Williams three years ago during her Saturday group classes, which are sponsored by Face Autism. For the past two years, Riley has taken weekly one-on-one classes with Williams.
Started by Colleen Buccieri, whose godson Jordan Soriano is on the spectrum, Face Autism is a nonprofit that organizes autism-appropriate activities such as bowling, horseback riding, and golf. It also sponsors a ballroom dancing class at Dynasty Dance Club in Sarasota.
Judi enrolled Riley in the fitness class, hoping he would get healthier and make friends. Check and check.
Riley has lost 33 pounds since he began working with Williams. At first, he could barely manage five minutes on the treadmill. Now he can walk and run for 30 minutes, increasing the pace as he goes along.
“His endurance has gone off the charts,” Judi said.
As for socializing, Riley chats with everyone he encounters, making friends wherever he goes.
“He doesn’t stop talking, which is great,” Judi said. “I love it.”
In July, Riley spent a week in the Adirondack Mountains of New York with a small group of friends who are on the spectrum. They hiked, went fly fishing, ziplining, and kayaking.
The outing was the idea of Williams’ boyfriend, Chase Pettey, who runs Adventure For All, a nonprofit that creates interactive adventures for those with intellectual and/or developmental exceptionalities.
Riley tried to ride a two-wheel bike during the trip and came close. He finally conquered that feat not long after returning home.
Williams helped Riley master the bicycle (which Riley purchased with his education saving account) with a series of exercises over a six-month period that improved his balance and stability.
“The confidence in Riley has just skyrocketed,” Williams said. “He’s much more willing to try new things, so that’s been a wonderful thing to witness.”
As Jordan’s godmother, Colleen was keenly aware of how children on the spectrum grow up without friends. They aren’t invited to birthday parties or asked to go to the movies. She created Face Autism in 2009 to change that.
“I just look for different opportunities for kids to be involved in, things that typical kids would be involved in,” she said. “And I’m a big proponent of getting them off the video games and the computers. A lot of the kids don’t have fitness in their life. I think it’s very important – have a healthy heart, a strong body. Most of them don’t have upper body strength.”
Jordan, 21, lacked upper body strength when he began training with Williams four years ago. He couldn’t jump rope. He could ride a two-wheel bike, but he couldn’t peddle with much power.
A recipient of the Family Empowerment (formerly Gardiner) Scholarship, Jordan, who is homeschooled, used his education savings account to pay for his training sessions with Williams.
Jordan can jump rope. He can vertically jump 36 inches. He has learned to stand when he rides his bike so he can generate more power when he peddles. He runs 35 minutes around his home in Ellenton, Florida every other day. He is making plans to bring his bicycle to Riley’s house, so they can ride their bikes together.
Jordan, who excels at ballroom dancing, was part of the group that made the trip to the Adirondacks.
“This has given him confidence to try new things and to challenge himself,” Colleen said.
And to keep trying. During the Adirondack trip, Jordan tried to complete an obstacle course on his bike. He was unsuccessful the first time, and he was unsuccessful the second time. He didn’t quit, though, and eventually he completed the course.
“He has really shown determination,” Colleen said, “something he never had.”
That’s all part of the plan Williams has for each of her clients. Knowing no two have the same challenges, she devises individual programs for each. “Outside the box” training, she called it. Williams developed a book where they can chart their progress during workouts and encourages them to write in a journal. She teaches them about proper nutrition and the importance of staying hydrated.
Williams, who graduated from Saint Francis University (Loretto, Pennsylvania) in 2011 with a dual degree in Elementary and Special Education, works as a learning support teacher at Community Day School in Sarasota.
In 2012, Williams began Kids in Motion, which morphed into the wellness program that is now NXT Generation.
“Watching the underdogs take on things we’ve preconceived them unable to do or limited what they could actually do and see them be able to do it with the correct support and guidance is one of my greatest joys in life, hands down,” Williams said.
Her goal is to push clients with special needs through the glass ceiling society has placed above them, to show the impossible is possible.
Like jumping rope for Sophia Slaughter.
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: My Perspective is a new, occasional series asking subject matter experts their thoughts on different educational topics. First up is Dr. Debra Rains, who holds a Doctorate in Educational Leadership (Ed.D.) and is an administrator at the North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville. She talks about finding a school for children with special needs or unique abilities.
Looking for a school for your child with special needs?
There are many resources to assure you find the best school to support your student’s unique learning needs.
Technology has made access to resources more accessible. The first place to begin is the Florida School Choice website. Florida School Choice provides families a list of private schools categorized by school district. On this website, schools identify disabilities they are able to accommodate and the support services they can offer.
Additionally, families can look to local support groups which advocate for their child’s diagnosed difference such as Autism and Down syndrome support groups. Special needs families will advocate for the schools they believe in and will provide good insight to other families looking to utilize school choice for their student who learns differently.
s you can turn to when choosing a school for your child with special needs is likely found on your smart phone or tablet. Just go into your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account and search for the schools you are considering.
“I believe that looking on a school’s social media account provides a realistic view at what they offer students and families,” Rains said.
“See what schools are posting. You can learn a lot about our school by going on our social media and seeing what we do. I think it’s another way of getting a behind the scenes look at what we offer our students.”
The North Florida School of Special Education is a private school that serves students ages 6 to 22 with intellectual and developmental differences. It accepts the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs that is managed by Step Up For Students.
The school will celebrate its 30th anniversary during the 2021-22 school. Rains said North Florida School of Special Education has 190 students enrolled for the upcoming school year and 75 young adults over the age of 22 who participate in the day program.
Posts for the graduating class of 2021, this summer’s I Can Bike Camp, and artwork from a transition student about mental health, can be found on the school’s Facebook page and offers a glimpse of the North Florida School of Special Education.
Social media posts are a start. But to ensure you make the right choice, you need to do a thorough investigation to make certain your child and the school are the right fit. Enrollment is a mutual agreement between the school and the family that the school can provide necessary services and the supports needed for the student.
Rains offers some advice.
Get to know each other: “I think it’s important (for parents) to interview schools,” Rains said. “Let the school interview you and be open and upfront about what your child can do. I think one of the things that is critical for us is that the student come and spend time at the school. We want the student to want to be here as much as we want the student to be here.”
Be honest: It is just as important to inform the school of what your child can’t do as it is what he can. “If a parent is not open about their student needing (certain) type of services and the school accepts that student without doing the due diligence into what they really need, then it’s going to be a lose-lose situation for the family, the school, and most off all, the student,” Rains said.
This is particularly important for families who are taking their child out of a public school and thus, taking them away from the federally funded Individual Education Plan (IEP).
“It’s imperative that the family understands this is what we are able to do: For example, we can offer occupational therapy in a group, but we can’t do it one-on-one three times a week, because it’s cost-prohibitive. But we can offer it in this way and address independent and vocational training skills.” Rains said.
“So, making sure we have that upfront conversation with families, saying this is our tuition and these are the things that are included in the tuition. I always tell my families when we sit down for a tour that this is a team approach, and it will work best if we’re all open and honest with each other about what the student needs and what we’re able to provide.”
Trust: Changing schools and leaving a trusted peer group is difficult for any child. Rains said it’s important the student trusts the decision being made by the parents and understands the parents are placing the child in a setting that will support the student academically as well as socially. And it is imperative that a family trusts the school has the student’s best interest at the forefront of their mission.
Tour the school: Parents need to tour the school and spend time in classrooms, observing the interaction between the teachers/support staff and students.
“And then the question is: Can you envision your child being successful in this setting?” Rains said.
A standard of accountability: While private schools are not required to provide an IEP, which monitors a student’s progress and sets goals, this is something that is done at the North Florida School of Special Education. The students progress towards those goals are reported to the parents twice a year. New IEP goals are set each year.
“I think it’s a very strong level of accountability to make sure the students are making progress in response to how we teach,” she said. “It’s a cultural perspective that all students can learn, and so making sure our teachers, our families all buy into that culture and then how we show that’s actually happening.”
Talk to parents: Rains encourages prospective parents to talk with parents of students enrolled in the school.
Rains shared a conversation she recently had with a woman from Texas who is thinking of moving her family to Jacksonville so her child can attend the North Florida School of Special Education. During the conversation, Rains mentioned a family that moved to Jacksonville last year from Virginia so their child could attend the school. Rains suggested the mom from Texas contact the mother from Virginia and was not at surprised to learn that already happened. The two mothers met through Facebook.
“That’s the special needs community,” Rains said. “They are very engaged online with one another.
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 email@example.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.
About 2,400 Step Up for Students’ Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts families should have noticed something in their accounts this week: their funding for the 2015-16 school year.
The Florida Department of Education (DOE) has completed the review of first batch of approved accounts, and the remaining eligible student accounts are expected to be completed and funded in the near future.
“We appreciate everyone’s patience as the DOE has been working through its process to ensure those who have been approved are not enrolled in any other state-funded programs,” said Elizabeth Watson, Step Up’s director of client services.
The Florida Legislature created the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts program, a state-funded scholarship for children with certain special needs in 2014. With the PLSA, families may personalize educational plans for their children by directing scholarship funds toward a combination of approved programs and providers including private schools, therapists, technology and even a college savings account. Each approved student receives an average of $10,000 annually.
This year, lawmakers increased the budget from about $18.5 million to $55 million to fund about 4,000 from the PLSA program this year.
Those accounts that are funded, parents and guardians may now access their child’s PLSA ID card containing the student’s PLSA number, by accessing your Parent login.
“The payment process can now begin for the 2015-16 school year, and with our new payment system in place, we expect that the submission to payment timeline to move much faster and be run more smoothly,” Watson said.
Step Up has sent out emails to each account holder, as well as to providers.
Parents are reminded that if there are providers that plan to submit reimbursement requests on behalf of their student, please share a copy of the PLSA ID card with that provider. The PLSA ID listed on that card is necessary to their reimbursement request process.
“Please be aware that reimbursement requests that come from a provider have to be approved by you prior to processing for payment. This approval process takes place within your parent login,” Watson said.
Providers may now submit reimbursement requests for funded students.
Additional questions regarding submitting reimbursement requests can be answered by reading our Provider Handbook.
PLSA applications are still open for the 2015-16 school year. To apply, got to (link).
Many parent questions about the PLSA program can be answered in the Parent handbook.
Anyone who needs additional help with questions or concerns about this, can contact Step Up at firstname.lastname@example.org or 877-735-7837.