By LISA A. DAVIS
On most Friday mornings 14-year-old Matthew Mezzei springs awake in the 5 o’clock hour, excited to start his school day. It’s the earliest he rises. His inner alarm clock alerts him to a special day in his family’s home in rural Pasco County:
“Fun Friday!” his mother, Lisa Mezzei, said. “It’s a reward at the end of a busy week.”
On this particular Friday, it’s 10 a.m., and Matthew, a bespectacled boy with a bright smile and a love for baseball, excitedly greets a visitor to his home in Zephyrhills. His house is also his classroom. The day’s schedule is laid out on the kitchen counter. It includes several educational centers such as science, math, reading and even an obstacle course for agility exercises. They use much of their home’s shared living space as a classroom, and Fun Friday consists of educational game centers rather than straight curriculum.
“Centers help me to remember,” Matthew said.
Matthew was born with Down syndrome. His education began at his neighborhood school where he had an Individualized Education Program, known as an IEP, which is essentially a guide for children with certain special needs to reach their educational goals more easily. Matthew was in a general classroom and had great support, but by first grade something changed.
“When he was 7, he started not understanding what was being asked of him on tests,” his mother recalled. “He kept saying he felt tricked, and he started withdrawing at school.”
That’s when Mezzei knew she had to do something, because her happy-go-lucky boy was now often sad. She began researching her options and realized private and charter schools were not a good fit for Matthew either. Then she discovered the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarship program was new at that time. Home school seemed like the best option, and at an average of $10,000 per student annually to pay for curriculum and other approved learning tools, she added full-time teacher to her role. She decided it was best for her son to repeat first grade.
“Because of the Gardiner Scholarship, it wasn’t as daunting (to try home schooling),” she said. “The timing was so fortuitous. We had been wanting to withdraw him from the school, but we had no other options. At least the financial part wasn’t so scary.”
She used the scholarship to purchase learning aids for Matthew from places like Lakeshore Learning and Rainbow Resource. She bought science experiment kits, agility equipment, math games, chapter books, Handwriting Without Tears curriculum and more. They have used the funds for speech and occupational therapy.
Home schooling made all the difference, Mezzei said.
“Within six months, not only was his personality back, his confidence was back, and his love of learning was back,” she said.
He made great strides, and his reading comprehension increased substantially.
His occupational and speech therapists agree that Matthew, now a seventh grader has made great progress since being home-schooled.
“The Mezzei family is a therapist’s dream family,” said Kelly Partain, Matthew’s occupational therapist. “They truly take all recommendations to heart and actually implement them, which makes for excellent outcomes. Matthew continues to exceed his goals as he has an excellent attitude and works hard every day at home while being home-schooled, at therapy, or on the ball field.”
Added his speech therapist, Lindsey Leeson, who works at the same clinic as Partain, “He has a big heart and is always looking to help other kids in our clinic and tells us how much he loves and appreciates us every session. “He’s a gem.”
Like most things, his therapy sessions moved online in March, but he continues to make strides.
Matthew’s speech is often hard to understand for those who first meet him, but his glowing personality and love of learning come shining through.
“This scholarship is life-changing and allows us to educate Matthew to the fullest extent of his abilities,” Mezzei said. “Our biggest hope is for him to be happy and successful in life, and as you know, we believe unequivocally this is his best path. … Matthew is so proud of what he learns and knows.”
Lisa A. Davis 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 DAVID TUTHILL
Josh Clay sometimes speaks at such a frantic speed he needs to slow himself down.
But he speaks with authority on so many topics – from theater, to the band Green Day, to the world of comedy – that you would never believe the challenges he’s overcome.
The 15-year-old was born with Asperger’s syndrome. Considered to be at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, those with Asperger’s often have difficulty with social interactions, and may exhibit compulsive behaviors and repetitive movements. They also tend to show an intense, all-absorbing interest in topics they enjoy.
In preschool, Josh often hit milestones later than his classmates, and he exhibited behavioral tics associated with Asperger’s.
In elementary school, he was placed on an Individualized Education Plan to help him navigate the special education he needed, which seemed to work. He was on an adequate academic pace and he made good acquaintance with fellow students. Thanks to a strict school policy, bullies were virtually nonexistent.
When it was time to start middle school, other potential issues came into focus. Josh was an “out of zone” Title I student for elementary school, but a lack of room in the preferred middle schools meant Josh would have to attend the school near his address, where he knew no one, and no one knew him.
His parents, Edward and Julie Clay didn’t feel confident their neighborhood school in Naples, Florida, could accommodate him academically.
So, Edward and Julie decided to home-school Josh in sixth and seventh grade.
“Josh was academically fine in elementary school,” Julie Clay said. “He was just a little fidgety. We decided home schooling for middle school was probably for the best as he got older.”
Josh’s sixth- and seventh-grade years were successful. His mother had no plans of putting Josh back in school, but things were about to change.
Knowing his diagnosis meant he would always need extra attention and therapy, Julie Clay took Josh to a behavioral therapist before he started eighth grade this year.
The therapist told her about two things that would change the direction of Josh’s education: the Gardiner Scholarship for families with children with certain medical diagnoses, such as Asperger’s, and De LaSalle Academy, a private school for students with special needs in nearby Fort Myers, Florida.
“When I heard about (De LaSalle) I thought, ‘Wow, this would be really great for him. Let’s walk down this path and see if it’s the right fit,’” Julie Clay said.
On his first visit to De LaSalle, Josh noticed how different the school was from his previous ones.
“I saw they all had classes with kids who reminded me of me,” he said. “I got along well with the teachers, and I liked that the only homework was classwork that we didn’t finish.”
While Josh was eager to attend and blend into the De LaSalle culture, there were some growing pains. He applied for and received the Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students.
His situation was nothing new to De LaSalle Principal Lori Riti. Under her direction, the school’s speech language pathologist, social communication , occupational therapist and counselor all work in tandem for students like Josh.
“Josh came here with some social issues, mainly with getting along and connecting in a way with other kids that was healthy,” Riti said.
Some of the issues Josh mastered at De LaSalle Academy were interpreting nonverbal communication and perception, as well as conflict resolution. The school’s specialists made tremendous strides with him. One of his closest friends at school was once a child with whom he argued and fought with regularly.
“Josh had some onboard skills, but he had to take where he was and develop much further,” Riti said. “He wasn’t successful until he had direct intensive work. I give a lot of credit to our teachers and advisors for his success.”
His achievements aren’t limited to the classroom. Josh has become one of De LaSalle’s star theater performers. He recently starred as Long John Silver in the school’s rendition of “Treasure Island.”
This winter, the school’s Performing Arts Club will perform the Christmas classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” De LaSalle’s stage will be designed to look like an old-time radio station, and Josh will play several roles, including the “warped and frustrated” Mr. Potter, Mr. Gower, the druggist, and Ernie, the cab driver.
A natural performer, his penchant for inspiring laughter at school is legendary.
On a recent weekday, he told one of his favorite jokes about ordering steak at a restaurant: “When they asked how I wanted it cooked, I said, ‘On a stove.’”
While Josh’s favorite band is Green Day, he strongly warns against their occasionally profane language. The family saw the band perform live in September. Since the tickets were purchased in January, Josh had to wait nine months.
It was worth it.
The show, he said, “was legendary.”
Josh said he hopes to someday attend Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, where he wants to continue improving his acting chops and hone his comedic talent.
As for his experiences at De LaSalle, he couldn’t be happier.
“For parents who want to send their kids to this school, well, it’s the greatest school in the universe,” Josh said. “It will be the greatest move you ever do.”
David Tuthill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By GEOFF FOX
Wesley Hamilton, a curious, curly-haired six-year-old was blessed with a high IQ.
When he was 3, a preschool teacher asked his class to say words that started with “a.” While many of his classmates answered “apple” or “ant,” Wesley said, “actually.”
He started having some uncommon struggles at a young age, said his mother, Emily Ashworth Hamilton, chief technology officer with ABB Optical Group in Coral Springs.
He didn’t like having his fingernails clipped.
He wouldn’t touch things with his hands, including food.
He stopped making eye contact with other people.
He had trouble sleeping, and when he did sleep, he often had nightmares.
He also would overreact to “the simplest things,” said Ashworth Hamilton, who lives in Miami with Wesley, her 2-year-old daughter Holly and husband Bill Hamilton, a mobile software architect with AT&T.
“He would have kind of the classic 2-year-old temper tantrum, but they never ended,” she said. “Not only in the moment, but they’d just never stop. His language was sort of odd, too, but he was incredibly verbal. His sentences were very deliberate, but the words he used were huge.”
In April 2015, Wesley was diagnosed as being on the “high-functioning” end of the autism spectrum.
Ashworth Hamilton eventually applied for and received a Gardiner Scholarship through Step Up For Students. The state-funded scholarship is for students between 3 and 22 and who have disabilities including: autism spectrum disorder, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Spina bifida and other impairments.
The scholarship allows parents to personalize their child’s education by directing money toward schools, therapists, specialists, curriculum and technology, as well as a college savings account.
Last year, Wesley’s family used the scholarship to help pay for Applied Behavior Analysis therapy through Optimum Behavioral Services in Sunrise. Ashworth Hamilton said the therapy is not covered by her insurance.
Much of Wesley’s first year of therapy was not spent in a school or social setting, but “in a clinical environment,” she said.
“It could pertain to playing with others appropriately, or in a classroom, or following the instructions of a parent or adult in charge – how to react appropriately in certain situations,” Ashworth Hamilton said.
“(Children on the autism spectrum) have to be explicitly taught. They can’t simply observe or follow other people’s leads.”
Blanca Onetto, clinical director at Optimum Behavioral Services, where Wesley is a patient, said therapists quickly realized Wesley was very bright, with an enthusiasm for learning and a healthy sense of humor.
She said he enjoys music – particularly Queen’s classic rock hit, “We Will Rock You” – using his iPad, building with blocks, and playing with toy airplanes, cars and construction materials.
However, Onetto said, Wesley had difficulty communicating “across multiple contexts,” such as “social-emotional reciprocity,” non-verbal communication used in social interaction, and developing, maintaining and understanding relationships.
Sometimes, Onetto said, he threw the tantrums his mother described, displayed physical aggression and had anxiety issues.
Peer training, positive reinforcement and “naturalistic-incidental teaching” at the center has helped improve his conversational skills, while therapies to assist with shyness and impatience have included participation in a social skills group that features role playing.
To address tantrums and aggression, the center has used therapies that “decrease Wesley’s inappropriate behaviors by replacing them with appropriate ones,” Onetto said.
“Our goal is to teach Wesley appropriate social interactions, which at the same time would help to develop many other skills, including listening, attention, reading body language and social references,” she said. “He has shown considerable progress on all his treatment goals, but we will continue working on achieving higher standards.”
Onetto’s team of therapists have accompanied Wesley to school, thanks to Gardiner. This has helped Wesley transition into an academic environment and a mainstream classroom successfully with the support he needs.
Ashworth Hamilton said she did not want Wesley to go to his neighborhood elementary school, where, thanks to his high IQ, he would likely have been mainstreamed into a large class with a teacher who may not have experience handling students with special needs.
Through the Gardiner Scholarship, Wesley attends Miami Shores Presbyterian Church School, a kindergarten- through fifth-grade private school with a preschool program. He is now in first grade.
Ashworth Hamilton said she’s now optimistic Wesley will be better able to manage his anxieties, focus on tasks and increase his “functional capabilities.” His successful integration into a mainstream classroom is due to the partnership at school between parents, teachers and therapists and is building a strong foundation for Wesley.
“The goal is to build him up so the support needed will decrease over time,” his mother said. “I think he will continue to need a learning environment that is very much able to have some flexibility with his learning style; he’s very visual and has lots of sensory stimuli to contend with.”
Onetto is also impressed.
Because Wesley is high-functioning, Onetto said she doesn’t see any reason why he won’t be able to someday live independently and lead a fulfilling life.
“Each individual with autism is unique,” she said. “Many of those on the autism spectrum have exceptional abilities in visual skills, music, and academic skills. About 40 percent have average to above-average intellectual abilities. Indeed, many persons on the spectrum take deserved pride in their distinctive abilities and atypical ways of viewing the world. Others with autism have significant disability and are unable to live independently.
“With the appropriate support, (Wesley) will be a productive and successful citizen – maybe another Bill Gates!”
Reach Geoff Fox at Gfox@sufs.org.
By GEOFF FOX
Missy Futrell and her husband Carl wanted nothing more than to raise a family of their own.
When they were still childless after 13 years of marriage, the Futrells began exploring adoption. It wasn’t a quick process. For a few years, the Jacksonville, Florida, couple viewed scores of profiles of children up for adoption and were interested in many. Every time, though, adoption coordinators didn’t think the match was right.
But the Futrells were persistent. Eventually, Missy Futrell saw a picture of an 18-month-old boy named Treston.
He wasn’t an “ordinary” baby. Besides being born with fetal alcohol syndrome, Treston – or “Trey” – was diagnosed with mosaic Down syndrome, a type of Down syndrome in which a percentage of a person’s cells have an extra copy of the 21st chromosome. Mosaic Down syndrome is extremely rare, affecting 2 to 4 percent of Down syndrome cases; about one in 27,000 people are diagnosed with it, according to the International Mosaic Down Syndrome Association.
Trey also has autistic tendencies, but none of that mattered to the Futrells.
“The adoption workers made it seem so bad; they said he may never walk, read or speak – and he would need lifelong care,” Missy Futrell said. “That seemed odd to me. They had nothing really positive to say about this child. We had had several miscarriages and if I was having a baby, I wouldn’t care (about the diagnoses). That’s my child.”
Carl, who helps manage a local funeral home, said the couple was equally resolute.
“They told us, ‘He’s not normal, do you still want him?’” he said. “Well, how do they know if we’re the ones who aren’t normal? What’s normal? The way somebody acts? Everybody acts differently. When you love somebody, you see them in a different way. If you love something, it’s 100 percent perfect for you.”
The Futrells adopted Trey in 2008 and despite Trey’s challenges, he thrived. The family was happy and Trey was growing up in a loving environment. The Futrells, who have been married 21 years, also recently adopted a 2-year-old girl, MaryBelle. They have also provided foster care for other children.
When it was time for Trey to begin school, Missy Futrell, who had worked in the recruiting and staffing field, decided to homeschool him through kindergarten and first grade.
A couple of years ago, the Futrells learned about the Gardiner Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students. The scholarship helps parents individualize the educational plans for their children with certain special needs, including autism, spina bifida, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.
With the scholarship, parents can direct funds toward a combination of programs and approved providers, which may include schools, therapists, specialists, curriculum, technology and a college savings account. The average scholarship is worth $10,000. The Futrells applied for the scholarship and Trey was accepted.
Last year, Trey, who recently turned 10, went to second grade at a private school for children with learning disabilities or emotional issues.
It didn’t go well.
“Trey is an extremely trusting and sweet child,” Missy Futrell said. “He’s very quiet in public, and he is nervous around large crowds, new people and children. At home, he’s a lot more talkative, but he doesn’t talk much in social situations and can be awkward socially as well. He went (to the private school) all last year and made little progress academically. He also doesn’t interact with the others and was bullied. It just wasn’t a good fit for him.”
Thanks to the scholarship’s flexibility, Missy Futrell home-schooled him last year, as she was able to give him an environment that puts him at ease and the one-on-one attention he needs. Much of the scholarship money now goes toward curriculum, including online courses, and various technology, as Trey works much better with computers than pen and paper.
The family has used Step Up’s Purchase Assistance with Best Buy Education program, a partnership that allows Gardiner Scholarship parents to easily purchase items, many of which are pre-approved. Best Buy Education bills Step Up, which pays through the student’s scholarship account. Parents praise the program because many struggle to pay for all the care that comes with raising a child with special needs, so it can be tough to wait for reimbursements out of the scholarship account for big-ticket items.
“When I heard about Step Up’s Purchase Assistance with the Best Buy Education program, I jumped on it,” Missy Futrell said. “He really does so much better with technology. When he has to write, it could take him 45 minutes to an hour to do a 10-question worksheet, because he has to make each letter perfectly or he (gets frustrated). Through use of an iPad or computer, I can see more of what he’s able to do. With the technology, he clicks it or touches it and he just likes it so much better. I’ve heard that a lot of kids with special needs are like that.
“We use Time4Learning online courses that has all different subjects. We use it on his computer and his confidence is really growing. When he does something right, it tells him, ‘Wonderful!’ Or, if he’s wrong, it tells him in ways that don’t upset him. I can gauge where he is and what he knows. And there are so many apps on the iPad. I can take a picture of his worksheets and it converts them to where he can type in the letters rather than write them.”
Among other things, the family has also purchased a Phillips Hue Table Lamp and color ambiance kits. Whenever Trey starts getting overwhelmed by something, they switch the light on to a color that helps calm him.
Thanks to the Amazon Echo, which uses the voice-controlled service, Alexa, Trey can also listen to relaxing music when he needs to. Because the device is compatible with the Phillips Hue Lamp, it helps him understand his moods.
“If he’s upset, we tell (Alexa) to make the light angry and it turns red,” Missy Futrell said. “He can see in color what his current mood is. It makes him understand more what he’s feeling and if he’s mad, then he needs to relax. It helps identify his behavior and also helps the people around him.”
Carl Futrell described Step Up’s Purchase Assistance with the Best Buy Education program as blessings for which his family is grateful.
“In order to raise children with special needs, you have to have those who are willing to help,” he said. “These things we can outsource, it helps our family. It’s hard to make ends meet. You keep working and working and you get that income, but you miss that time being with your family.
“Now, he can call me on Facetime on his iPad and just say, ‘Dad, what are you doing?’ And I ask him how his day is going and if he’s being good for his mom. He’s usually playing with his stuffed animals – he loves monkeys. He pretends they’re the Ninja Turtles.”
For the Futrell family, this is their normal. And it’s the family they always dreamed about having, one connected by unconditional love.
Step Up For Students, a Florida-based nonprofit, empowers parents to pursue and engage in the most appropriate learning options for their children, with an emphasis on families who lack the financial resources to access these options. By pursuing this mission, Step Up For Students helps public education fulfill the promise of equal opportunity. In addition to the Gardiner Scholarship Program which helps parents customize the education of their children, ages 3 to 22, with certain special needs, Step Up For Students also administers the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC). With the FTC scholarship, economically disadvantaged parents of children in grades kindergarten through 12 are empowered to find the school – private or out-of-district public – that meets their child’s learning needs. Step Up For Students’ dedication, however, doesn’t end when students are awarded one of these scholarships. Through its Innovation Fund, Step Up helps maximize the impact of the scholarships by creating and enhancing education-based innovations that propel children toward a brighter future. To learn more about Step Up For Students, or to find out how you can help, please visit www.StepUpForStudents.org.
A COPY OF THE OFFICIAL REGISTRATION (CH-14609) AND FINANCIAL INFORMATION MAY BE OBTAINED FROM THE DIVISION OF CONSUMER SERVICES BY CALLING TOLL-FREE 1-800-435-7352 WITHIN THE STATE OR ON THEIR WEBSITE WWW.800HELPFLA.COM. REGISTRATION DOES NOT IMPLY ENDORSEMENT, APPROVAL, OR RECOMMENDATION BY THE STATE.
Geoff Fox can be reached at email@example.com.
Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students, recently took a few moments to talk about his vision for the organization.
“We’re in the equal opportunity business,” Tuthill said. “We want to make sure that low-income children have the same opportunities more affluent kids have. We want to make sure special needs (students) have their needs met also.”
By GEOFF FOX
It was just after 10 a.m. and dozens of students at Pace Brantley School were in the middle of campus, kicking soccer balls in a large field, playing on a jungle gym, swinging and jumping rope under a cloudless sky.
Their voices and laughter were carried on a light breeze that shook Spanish moss in dozens of majestic oak trees that line the sprawling, nine-acre campus.
It was eighth-grader Ben Zanca’s favorite time of day.
“I like it because I get to make friends, and you get to do a lot of fun things,” he said.
Ben has asthma, cerebral palsy, autism and CLOVES syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by tissue overgrowth and complex vascular malformations. After struggling in public school and at a charter school, he was thriving in his first year at Pace Brantley.
“His self-confidence has increased tremendously,” said his mother, Ann Zanca. “It’s a lot of hands-on learning. He made a car out of a Coke bottle and started telling me about Newton’s laws of motion. His reading had regressed when he went into middle school, but here his reading, spelling and writing has much improved. And he’s enthusiastic about going to school.”
In 2016-17, Pace Brantley served over 170 second- to 12th grade students. Ben was one of about 35 students on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs. The scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students.
The school includes seven buildings, an outdoor basketball court and well-manicured football and baseball fields. The campus had one building, a former house, when the school opened in 1971. Additional buildings have been added as needed, and as money was available. The school has always been geared toward students with learning issues.
“The majority of our students have a difficulty such as auditory processing disorder, dyslexia or ADHD,” said Jennifer Foor, Pace Brantley’s elementary and middle school principal. “Some of them are on the autism spectrum, but on the high-functioning side. The kids on the spectrum are not here because of behavior concerns.”
Pace Brantley currently has three mental health counselors on campus, as well as an occupational therapist, speech pathologist and full-time nurse who specializes in handling students with anxiety issues.
This year, the school even “hired” Ben, a therapy dog who lives with school nurse Tara Mahoney and comes with her to work every day – like a law enforcement K-9 officer. An American breed mix, Ben is quick to lick the hands of strangers. When he is tired, he is not shy about dropping to the floor and stretching with a low yowl.
Ben has been immensely popular since his Jan. 3 debut on campus. Whenever students are feeling especially anxious, they can see Mahoney – and Ben.
“It’s positive redirection and visualization. I speak in a calm voice and there’s low lighting,” Mahoney said. “We typically end up on the floor. They can convey their feelings to Ben or just pet him. Usually, after 10 or 15 minutes they’re ready to go back to class. There’s a more relaxing vibe with him being here. He makes everybody feel more comfortable.”
Pam Tapley, who has been Pace Brantley’s head of school for three years, is always looking to incorporate effective, innovative concepts to benefit her students. She was previously an assistant superintendent of schools in Osceola County and has been a high school principal.
“I’m passionate about providing the environment that allows students with differences to be celebrated and surrounded by people who honor and respect that, but also believe they can be successful,” Tapley said. “We have a wrap-around philosophy. We want to provide the environment for students to be successful, but we do it with the parents, with the occupational therapy, with the speech therapy, the mental health therapy.
“We wrap the whole family into the support. A lot of times the families are frustrated. They’re seeking answers and support and we give that to them here. They don’t feel isolated anymore.”
The environment includes everything from cutting-edge technology in classrooms to practical lessons outdoors.
For example, there is a television production studio, where morning announcements are made under the supervision of instructor Katie Nichols and broadcast through the school. The studio features a green virtual television studio background, Macintosh computers, iMovies for editing, three cameras and a teleprompter.
There is also a greenhouse, where students grow snap peas, tomatoes, lettuce, kale and cabbage under the guidance of science teacher Suzy Grimm. Toward the back of the campus is the Arts Building, where drama classes are held. This year, the school is working on a production of “Aladdin.”
Ninth-grader Ryan Sleboda, a first-year student at Pace Brantley, said he loves the school.
“It’s more challenging than my other schools,” said Ryan, a Gardiner scholar who was diagnosed with autism. “The other schools just did the basics. This really is way more interesting.”
Those on the autism spectrum also benefit from social skills groups in which they learn to better interact with their peers.
“They go over eye contact and body language during personal interaction,” Foor said. “They learn how to react in situations and have conversations.”
The campus’ newest building is the high school, which opened in the 2010-11 school year. Besides classrooms and lockers, the high school features a complete science lab.
“They do dissections in there and everything,” Foor said.
According to Tapley, the school may not be done growing. She hopes to begin a capital campaign to build a vocational center on campus. Tapley is involved with the Greater Sanford Chamber of Commerce and often talks to business leaders in the community to determine what kind of employees they need.
It’s a way of helping her students succeed after graduation.
“What are we providing in a learning situation that gives them the time to learn to be valuable employees?” Tapley said. “We’re gathering the data now. We’re looking at (careers in) plumbing, construction, air-conditioning, culinary and early childhood. We want to look at the employability rates, because you don’t want to flood the market.”
Susan Sleboda, Ryan’s mother, said the school has been a blessing for her entire family.
“He has blossomed because of being at that school,” she said. “What they offer these kids – the environment, in particular – is in my opinion revolutionary. For a child like mine, who can’t typically succeed in a learning environment, it’s like a puzzle fitting together. For Ryan, it provides the perfect environment. The teachers are understanding of your child’s disabilities, as well as their abilities.
“It would be difficult to afford without the scholarship. It would be like paying another college tuition.”
Geoff Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By GEOFF FOX
Doctors didn’t expect Ben Zanca to live very long. Even before his birth, fluid was drained from his lungs every week for eight weeks until he was delivered.
Ben’s parents, Ann and Tony Zanca, were told Ben may need a chest tube after his birth and possibly surgery.
“But, when they put the (chest) tube in all the blood vessels shut down,” Ann Zanca said. “It’s called persistent pulmonary hypertension, which not many people survive at that age. He was transferred to Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children (in Orlando) where there is a heart-lung bypass machine.”
Things looked bleak.
“They told us he was going to die,” Tony Zanca said. “They called in a priest and everything.”
Fortunately, a nitric oxide treatment worked and Ben did not have to go on the lung-heart bypass machine.
“They said they’d never seen a baby as sick as Ben pull through,” Ann Zanca said.
Unfortunately, Ben’s medical struggles and the family’s worries were only beginning. Problems with his blood vessels went misdiagnosed for more than 12 years.
About 18 months ago, Ben, now an outgoing 14-year-old who loves camping, was finally diagnosed with CLOVES syndrome, an extremely rare disorder characterized by tissue overgrowth and complex vascular malformations. Worldwide, less than 200 cases of CLOVES syndrome have ever been identified, according to information from Boston Children’s Hospital.
Because of CLOVES, Ben is at risk for developing blood clots and has regular doctor visits to monitor his vascular health.
That’s not his only issue. Shortly after he was born, Ben was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He also has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum and deals with epilepsy and asthma.
Until the current school year, he attended public school in Altamonte Springs, Florida, where he lives with his family, including 9-year-old sister Megan. Tony Zanca works in the parts department of a local auto dealer and Ann works part-time jobs as a computer programmer analyst and as an advocate for parents with children who have an Individualized Educational Plan.
Ben was not thriving at the public school.
“It’s not that they didn’t care, but he wasn’t going anywhere; he was going backward,” Tony Zanca said. “Teachers have their hands tied with all the new testing and all they did was quizzing for the test. There was no hands-on learning, which is what Ben thrives on.”
For years, Ann Zanca wanted to enroll Ben in the nearby Pace Brantley School in Longwood, but the family couldn’t afford it. Established in 1971, the school has always been geared toward students with learning issues. It is situated on nine wooded acres that offer a serene setting.
Eventually, a friend told Ann Zanca about the Gardiner Scholarship for children with certain special needs; the scholarship is managed by Step Up For Students. In 2016, the Zancas applied for the scholarship – which can help families pay for tuition at partner schools, approved therapists, specialists, curriculum, technology or even a college savings account – and Ben was accepted.
“Ben is very social and I don’t want him to miss out on the experience of school,” Ann Zanca said. “They have a well-rounded curriculum and lots of extra-curricular activities. They even have a prom. I was also concerned if it would be academic enough. Of all the places I knew of or visited, it seemed to be up to standards.
“It seems to challenge him but he doesn’t seem overwhelmed. There are people there to help him. We do have a private tutor for math. His teacher tells me he’s definitely challenged in pre-algebra, but he’s doing well. That makes me happy. The goal is that he’ll be able to get a regular diploma and either go to vocational school or college afterward.”
Now in eighth grade, Ben enjoys going to school. Due to his medical issues, he often has doctor’s appointments during the school day. Before, his mother said, he would sometimes call from school to see if she could pick him up early. Now, he doesn’t want to leave Pace Brantley’s campus.
While he has historically struggled with reading, English is now one of his favorite subjects, along with math.
“We were learning substitution, the three ways of substitution in math,” Ben said after a recent day at school. “That’s in algebra; it’s coming along.”
Of his favorite times of day is FLEX (Focused Learning Experience) Time, when students can choose a subject of their own to explore after lunch. Activities can include arts and crafts, learning a foreign language, tennis, yoga, tai chi or taking virtual field trips on a Smartphone.
On this particular day, Ben chose art.
“We were drawing different types of flags and what they look like,” he said. “I drew the Florida flag.”
Jennifer Portilla, Ben’s reading and language arts teacher, said she has seen him flourish since the school year began.
“He seems really comfortable and he’s willing to take risks. He’s not afraid to not be successful” in class, she said. “Academically, he’s making strides. He’s a pretty good writer for his age. He is able to write an essay and he doesn’t seem to struggle as much as at the beginning of the year.”
One of Ben’s other interests is the Boy Scouts. Despite his son’s many medical obstacles, Tony Zanca said he tries to treat him “like any other boy would be treated.” On a recent Boy Scout camping trip, he allowed Ben to paddle on a canoe with another scout.
“Years ago, I would never let him out in canoes down the river without me,” Tony Zanca said. “But it’s like I told him, ‘I’m going to have to start letting you do things by yourself, make your decisions and not do things wrong’. Someday soon, I’ll let him go on a (Boy Scout) camping trip by himself.”
The Zancas say that while Ben is obviously aware that he has medical issues, he doesn’t dwell on them. Because CLOVES can cause blood clots (Ben has had a few), they constantly monitor how he’s feeling. Now that he’s at Pace Brantley, which has a nurse on campus, his parents are more at ease.
“The scholarship was huge, like the answer to our prayers,” Ann Zanca said. “His self-confidence has increased tremendously. It’s a lot of hands-on learning. He made a car out of a Coke bottle and started telling me about Newton’s Laws of Motion. His self-confidence has increased tremendously.”
Reach Geoff Fox at Gfox@sufs.org.
A licensed speech therapist, Stacey Thomas interned as a University of South Florida graduate student at Morning Star School, a small Catholic school in Pinellas Park serving students with special needs.
“When I was there, I knew that school was special,’’ Thomas said.
Years later, the wife and mother of three returned to Morning Star, but this time as a parent. Thomas’ eldest child, Liam, has Down syndrome. He longed to attend a school where he could do the things other kids did like sit at their own desk and eat lunch in the cafeteria with friends. But Liam needed special services like one-on-one instruction and speech therapy. Thomas, featured recently with Liam in our student spotlight, immediately thought of Morning Star.
She just wasn’t sure her family could afford tuition until Liam qualified for the Gardiner Scholarship, formerly Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, through Step Up For Students. The annual scholarship, on average about $10,000 per student, is awarded to families based on their children’s certain disabilities and can help cover costs for tuition, curriculum, therapies and other education needs.
“It literally has been the hugest blessing,’’ said Thomas, who lives in Tampa with her husband, Trey, Liam, 9, and his two siblings, Sydney, 8, and Laine, 3.
With Liam making huge learning gains during his third-grade year at Morning Star, Thomas agreed to share with us her strategy on finding the school that worked best for him:
Do you have some words of wisdom to share with other parents and caregivers, or do you have an idea for a story? Please contact Sherri Ackerman, public relations manager, at sackerman@StepUpForStudents.org
By TRAVIS PILLOW, redefinED
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on the redefinED blog on Jan. 21. The blog is hosted by Step Up For Students, and is an education blog dedicated to recasting the way we perceive public education.
With Gov. Rick Scott’s signature, Florida’s newest educational choice program has a new name, and will be able to serve more students.
Legislative leaders joined Gov. Rick Scott after he approved legislation aimed at helping people with special needs.
Flanked by Senate President Andy Gardiner and his family, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, and the lawmakers who sponsored the legislation, Scott approved SB 672 on Jan. 21 during a ceremony in the governor’s office.
The new law increases funding for the Gardiner Scholarship program by roughly a third, to $71.2 million. It also allows more 3- and 4-year-olds to use the education savings accounts for students with special needs, and makes them available to children with muscular dystrophy and a wider range of students with autism.
The scholarships, previously known as Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, allow families to pay for school tuition, therapy, curriculum and other education-related services of their choice. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer them.
Earlier in the day, Gardiner, whose family provides the namesake for the scholarships, praised another aspect of the law, which expands programs for special needs students at state universities. Scott also approved HB 7003, aimed at helping more special-needs students join the workforce.
In a statement, Gardiner said the new laws will help make Florida “the state where all people have access to an education suited to their own unique needs and the opportunity to achieve their career goals.”
“The complete cradle-to-career pathway to economic independence will make a significant impact on the lives of individuals with unique abilities and their families for generations to come,” he said.
Patricia Levesque, the executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, said in a statement that the new laws never would have come about without advocacy from parents. (Gardiner has a son with Down syndrome.)
“It wasn’t all that long ago when students with disabilities were shunned in classrooms; their needs ignored and their abilities dismissed,” Levesque said. “Every time I see a child with unique abilities, behind him or her I see a parent with unique passion and commitment.”