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Choosing a school for a child with special needs: What to look for and what to ask

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.

Debra Rains, an administrator at North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville, and Macy Flakus, a student at the school.

One sources 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.

North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville.

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.

‘This is the year my daughter learned to read’

Kaelani is overcoming dyslexia with the help of the Orton-Gillingham Approach and a Step Up scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

Kaelani Dix can read. You can’t imagine what that means to her mother unless you have a child with dyslexia.

“Oh my gosh,” Kaelani’s mom, Kimberly Caleb, said. “I’m so grateful.”

Kaelani, 10, just finished the third grade at Pace Brantley School in Longwood, Florida, a private school, with grades 1 through 12, that specializes in teaching children who need specialized attention. Kaelani attends the school on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two private school scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.

Caleb, who lives 40 minutes away in Orlando, found Pace Brantley when searching the internet for resources for kids with dyslexia in Central Florida. She learned while researching reading programs or services for students with special needs that Kaelani would benefit from a school that taught the Orton-Gillingham Approach. The Approach was developed in the 1930s to teach students with dyslexia how to read. It has been used at Pace Brantley for nearly 20 years.

Kaelani, who entered Pace Brantley as a first grader, began the Orton-Gillingham Approach when school began last August. By November, she was able to read “Put Me in the Zoo” by Robert Lopshire, as well as a few pages from her children’s bible.

“I remember people saying this year is a wash (for students) with everything in the pandemic,” Caleb said, “but this is the year my daughter learned to read.”

‘A significant commitment’

According to ortonacademy.org, the Orton-Gillingham Approach is “a direct, explicit, multisensory, structured, sequential, diagnostic, and prescriptive way to teach literacy when reading, writing, and spelling does not come easily to individuals, such as those with dyslexia.”

Kaelanie reading one of her favorite books.

Orton-Gillingham focuses on the connection between letters and sounds then builds on those connections. Some schools use the Wilson Language or the Barton Reading and Spelling System to teach reading to special needs students. Both programs are offshoots of the Orton-Gillingham Approach.

At Pace Brantley, students usually are in the third grade to enter the Orton-Gillingham Approach after spending the first and second grades prepping for it.

“There’s music involved,” Pace Brantley Principal Jennifer Foor said of the prep work. “There is a lot of imagery involved that are building that working memory that they may be struggling with to get them to move into Orton, because when you move into the Orton program, it requires a lot of memory and working memory. You have to be able to learn information and hold on to it and still be able to pull previously learned information.”

The Approach is a three-year program for the students. They meet in small groups (no more than four students) three or four times a week, 40 minutes at a time. If they haven’t mastered reading in those three years, they can take a fourth year.

“It’s a pretty significant commitment as far as time goes,” Foor said. “Obviously, if we dedicate that much time for our students, we’re saying it works.”

When talking about the Orton-Gillingham Approach, Pam Tapley, Pace Brantley’s head of school, offered Kaelani is the success story for the 2020-21 school year.

“She came to us with no foundation,” Tapley said. “The teacher started with all of the early reading skills, the phonemic awareness, letter and sound recognition, and this is a little girl who is now reading and as importantly, because we’ve seen the two correlations, she’s writing.”

‘You’re giving them life’

Kaelani was speech-delayed, but Caleb was unaware her daughter was dyslexic.

“When she got into school she struggled tremendously. Nothing was clicking. It was difficult,” she said.

Kaelani repeated pre-K. Testing revealed she had specific learning disabilities and, while not officially diagnosed, Caleb said her daughter displayed all the symptoms and criteria of dyslexia.

That’s what sent Caleb searching for the proper school, a search that led her to Pace Brantley.

Caleb spent 15 years as an elementary and middle school teacher at district schools. She understands the importance of reading. Plus, everyone in the family is an avid reader. Books abound in their home.

Kaelani always wanted to read. She would even take a book and pretend she was reading it. And, if it was a page that had been read to her enough times, Kaelani could act as if she was reading by reciting what she had heard over and over.

Caleb bought “Put Me in the Zoo” and wanted Kaelani to read it before school. And one morning she did.

“This wasn’t a passage she was practicing. These were brand new words she hadn’t read. She sat there and started reading it,” Caleb said.

It was an emotional moment for a mother.

“I was just overwhelmed,” she said. “I compare a teacher who can teach a child how to read like a doctor. You’re giving them life. You’re saving a life. Especially one who struggles.

“My daughter wanted to read so bad. She would pick up books and pretend to read. Now that she can make sense of those words, I can’t describe it. I was so worried. I didn’t know what was wrong. I didn’t know why she couldn’t do what other kids do.”

Now Kaelani can do what the other kids can do. She can read.

“OK,” Caleb said, “she’s ready now and she’s able to excel.”

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

MVP on the court, MVP in the classroom thanks to a private school scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

Praise Temple Christian Academy teacher Anna Langley found herself a little teary-eyed recently, while watching the seniors walk down the aisle during practice for the June 4 graduation ceremony.

Langley, who has taught at the school for three years, will miss all the seniors, including one who Langley admits held a special place in her class and at Praise Temple in general.

That would be Samantha Gulli, the salutatorian of the Class of 2021, who was vice president of the student council, captain and MVP of the volleyball team, a teacher’s aide, an actress in all the school plays and a volunteer in every activity and fundraiser held at the school during the last four years.

“I can’t imagine a classroom without her,” Langley said. “There are seniors who graduate and leave, but when there was one who was so involved in so many aspects of the school, it leaves a little bigger hole.”

Samantha Gulli graduated second in her class at
Praise Temple Christian Academy.

Oh, Samantha is not really leaving Praise Temple. She plans to enter cosmetology school to pursue her lifelong ambition of owning her own beauty salon, but she said she will continue her work as a teacher’s aide next year. She would love to help Langley, who coaches volleyball, as an assistant coach.

“I may be graduating, but I will still be there,” Samantha said.

Samantha, who lives in Clermont, Florida, began attending the K-12 Christian private school in nearby Groveland as a freshman. After graduating from a district middle school, Samantha wanted to attend a Christian high school.

“I wanted to learn more about the Bible,” Samantha said, “and I wasn’t going to learn about it at a (district) school.”

Samantha attended Praise Temple on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, one of two private school scholarships managed by Step Up For Students.

“I wouldn’t be here without this scholarship,” Samantha said. “I really appreciate it. I’m really thankful and grateful for it.”

“The Step Up scholarship has been a blessing,” her mom, Michelle Gulli, said. “It gave her this opportunity.”

Samantha flourished in high school, both academically and socially.

When she arrived at Praise Temple, she was behind in math and English but worked during the school years and over the summers to catch up by her senior year. Her grades were high enough to rank her second in the graduating class.

“That took not only a lot of hard work but a lot of thorough work that had to be done well,” Langley said.

Said Gulli: “Samantha had to hustle, but she’s a hard worker.”

Gulli, who works at the school as a teacher’s aide, described her daughter as a “wallflower” before she entered Praise Temple.

“Always quiet and good,” she said. “But (in high school), she came out of her shell. That’s what I noticed. It really helped her blossom. I never thought she would be captain of a volleyball team or vice president of her high school.”

Samantha credited that to joining the volleyball team and to making friends with peers who share her Christian values.

“The volleyball team really helped me to open up, because it’s a very verbal sport,” she said. “I was forced to open up to be a good player, teammate, and that carried over to my schoolwork and how I interacted with other people.”

As for her high school friends, Samantha said, “The Christian atmosphere around me made it easier to fit in. It made me feel at home.”

Samantha and Sissy, her graduation present.

Samantha speaks freely about her faith. It’s a major part of her makeup. Perhaps that’s no surprise since she has a grandfather and great-grandfather who were involved in ministry.

Samantha’s faith and love for volleyball came together when she received the Christian Character Award after one season. The award was voted on by the opposing coaches.

“I liked that better than the trophy for coming in second in the state,” Gulli said. “I like that better than being named captain.”

It’s also of little surprise that Samantha wants a career as a hairstylist and to own a salon. Her mom is a hairstylist. She has an aunt and a grandfather who both owned salons.

“It’s in the family,” she said.

Samantha’s popularity at school stems from her leadership ability, her devotion to her faith (which she shares with the students in the lower grades) and her disposition, which can best be described as sunny.

“What stands out to me probably more than the academics is I don’t ever recall seeing her come in with an attitude,” Langley said. “She’s always here with a smile, encouraging other students. She’s always happy and it’s infectious to others.”

What Gulli wanted four years ago for her daughter was a faith-based education that would challenge her academically and prepare her for life beyond high school and a career. Samantha received that and more.

“I don’t think there was a day in her high school career that was wasted,” Langley said. “Every day she made the most of it and went above and beyond in whatever it was, whether it was academics or making her fellow peers happier or helping out with the teachers. Whatever it was, she made the most of it.”

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

New Florida law expands K-12 Scholarships by $200 million

More students eligible for private school and more

STAFF REPORT

Since Gov. Ron DeSantis put pen to paper on May 11 signing into law  the landmark education choice bill, much work has been underway at Step Up For Students preparing for the 2021-22 school year.

In case you missed it, the law is a $200 million expansion of the state’s K-12 scholarship programs. It opens up education choice to more families in Florida than ever before. Read more here.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the landmark education choice bill.

Billed as the largest expansion of education choice in Florida history, the new law merges the state’s two scholarship programs for students with unique abilities, McKay and Gardiner, in 2022, and combines them with the Family Empowerment Scholarship program.

One category of the Family Empowerment Scholarship will serve students with unique abilities and special needs while the other will continue to serve lower-income families.

The law leaves intact the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which some mistakenly call school vouchers and is funded by corporate tax donations, and the Hope Scholarship program for students who have experienced bullying at their district schools. More than 160,000 students across Florida participate in K-12 scholarship programs. The law is expected to add as many as 61,000 new students and cost about $200 million, according to a legislative analysis.

The law simplifies eligibility requirements by aligning qualifying income levels of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship with the Family Empowerment Scholarship. The two programs previously had different income requirements.

The legislation also provides greater convenience for families by placing management of the Family Empowerment program under nonprofit scholarship organizations, including Step Up For Students.

The new law allows more families than ever to be eligible for a scholarship. Read about it here.

Florida Legislature is normalizing, expanding access to education choice, according to Step Up For Students President Doug Tuthill. Read more about it here.

Listen to Tuthill’s podcast with State Senator Manny Diaz Jr., on the future of education choice in Florida. Listen here.

‘Who’s going to be the next villain?’ The story of one survivor of bullying

By ROGER MOONEY

Brendan Thompson remembers the day in the fourth grade when he was jumped by a pack of bullies in a school bathroom. He remembers how he fought back, and he remembers how futile it was, because he was outnumbered. He remembers how classmates watched and laughed as he absorbed the blows to his face that left him with a bloody cut near his eye and a split lip.

There are some days you never forget, even when more than a decade has passed.

Brendan Thompson graduated in May from Seminole State College with a degree in general studies.
He will continue his education at the University of Central Florida.

Thompson vividly remembers the reaction later that day by school administrators when confronted by his mother, who, you can imagine, was angry.

Her son, she was told, was big enough to defend himself.

Yes, Thompson was among the taller and heavier kids in his school. But Nikki Thompson didn’t raise her son to fight, and Brendan was the mellow type who made friends easily and was nicknamed the “Gentle Giant” by his mother.

Despite his size –and maybe because of it – Thomspon was a target. He was picked on in the lower grades for being pigeon-toed and later for the hump behind his neck, something, he said, that developed from years of walking with his head bowed in an attempt to blend in.

Thompson recently spoke freely of his experiences at the hands of bullies one morning while taking a break from teaching bible and math at Master’s Training Academy, a K-12 private Christian school in Apopka, Florida, which his mother opened five years ago. In the end, it would be a Step Up For Students scholarship that allowed him to attend a private high school where bullying from classmates was no longer an issue.

The bulling started in the first grade and continued through the eighth. Thompson attended four schools during that span, twice changing schools because was bullied.

“It was like a TV show,” he said. “Who’s going to be the next villain? That’s what it was like every single year.”

He is 23 and a recent graduate from Seminole State College with a degree in general studies. He will continue his education in the fall at the University of Central Florida, where he intends to study creative writing.

His plan is to produce movies and documentaries. He also wants to write books, including one on bullying. It will be about his experiences and his thoughts on how bullying is portrayed in movies and on TV.

“It needs to stop being normalized,” Thompson said. “Bullying has become normal, and it shouldn’t be normal, because the kids who are being bullied, they don’t feel normal. They feel alone. They feel suicidal. They feel empty inside, numb inside.”

Though he lived with his mother and two sisters while growing up and had other family members he could turn to, Thompson felt alone, as so many victims do. He would refuse to talk at home and stayed in his bedroom, where he listened to what his mom described as “violent music.”

Thompson said he often thought about running away from home. He had darker thoughts, too.

“I don’t really tell people this, but there were times when I did think to myself, ‘What if I just ended everything? What if I did end my life?’” he said. “Thank God I didn’t, but I did think about that. Those thoughts popped up a lot during middle school.”

What stopped him?

“I would be selfish, because it wouldn’t be me who was in pain now, it would be my family and those who loved me,” he said. “It would be selfish and the coward way out. I would hate for anyone to think I was a coward.”

For Thompson, Step Up’s Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students made all the difference. He used it to attend high school at Apopka Christian Academy, where he graduated in the spring of 2016. The bullying by students didn’t follow him there but he remained wary, alert for the next villain.

“Getting bullied, it was miserable,” he said. “There were nights that I would go home and feel terrible about myself. Prayer got me through a lot of stuff. Reading my bible got me through a lot of stuff.”

His renewed faith began to impact his family. Bible study became a regular part of the family’s week. His mother, Nikki Thompson, who had worked two jobs to support her family, felt the call to start her own faith-based private school.

“I wanted to help those who were in need,” she said.

So, she quit her jobs and opened Master’s Academy in 2016. It has become a haven for children who were bullied at previous schools. That’s by design, Nikki Thompson said. Watching her son suffer the abuse of classmates and listening to school administrators who didn’t seem interested in stopping it leaves a scar on a mother.

“It was hard knowing I had to leave my child (in a school) where he was being bullied,” she said. “He was being hurt. He wasn’t comfortable. He didn’t feel right.”

Today, Florida schoolchildren have more options when they become a victim of bullying. Students in public school who are bullied can benefit from the Hope Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students. Hope was created in 2018 by the Florida Legislature to address the staggering number of schoolchildren who are bullied each year. It provides families with financial assistance to send a child who suffers from a qualifying incident at a public school to an eligible private school or help pay for transportation to a public school in another district.

Back when Brendan Thompson was a student, his only option to escape his bullies was financially qualifying for the tax-credit scholarship.  For the 2020-21 school year, 468 students are using Hope.

Given her son’s experiences, it’s no surprise that Nikki Thompson is a fan of the Hope Scholarship which opens up a way for K-12 students in Florida to find a learning environment away from their tormentors and feel safer.

“I think it’s awesome,” she said. “There’s bullying and you have parents who can’t afford a private school education and those scholarships, they do a lot. They help a lot of families out.

“Our No. 1 priority is taking care of our students. The moment they walk through the door they become my child and I will protect them by any means necessary.”

The pain Brendan endured from school bullies and his commitment to his faith motivated his mother, Nikki, to open a private school.

The students at Master’s Academy are drawn to Brendan Thompson, who at 6-foot, 290 pounds, remains a gentle giant. Especially to those who were bullied at a previous school. He knows their pain. He understands.

“He’s a role model for kids who have been bullied,” his mom said.

While the incidents took him to dark and painful places, Thompson is an example of a bullying victim who has healed. He knows that many victims still suffer from the experience into adulthood. Not him, he said.

“No,” he said. “I try not to focus on what others say about me, but just focus on the positive things about myself.”

Thompson said being a victim of bullying helped him develop a thick skin against taunts and taught him to stick up for himself.

He recalled an incident before physical education class in the eighth grade when he noticed three bullies were closing in on him. Thompson said he made the first move, asking if they “wanted to go?” They backed down. A classmate who witnessed the incident called Thompson a superhero.

Thomspon didn’t think he was. He just knew if he didn’t act then, he would remain a victim, and he was tired of being a victim. He also knows not every victim can stand up for themselves.

That’s why he wants to write a book about his experiences. While in college, he wrote research papers and spoke about it during speech class, using statistics of the many victims who chose suicide to make his point.

While Thompson has spoken to victims, he also spoke with aggressors. Several of his former classmates who bullied him have reached out on Facebook or by email to express their sorrow for how they acted and to explain why they did. Some talked about being abused at home and turned to bullying as an outlet for their pain.

Thompson listened.

“Did it change the way I feel? No,” he said. “But it’s better than no apology, I guess.”

If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or are in emotional distress, please speak to someone today. Help is available. Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. It is available 24/7.

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

Longtime educator turned social media guru shares eight lessons for Florida private school educators

By LISA A. DAVIS

When Gerry Brooks appeared on computer screens streaming live the afternoon of May 21 to address an audience primarily of Florida private school educators, the first thing he did was pat his hair to fix a poof of gray strands that stood above his crown.

“Oooh,” he said, catching a glimpse of his misbehaving hair on the screen. “Look at my hair sitting this way. I should have done something beforehand.”

Brooks immediately brings a smile to your face and makes you feel as though you are old friends, even through a computer monitor. His accent is thick with a twang, perhaps a mix of his native Florida and Lexington, Kentucky, where he has built a successful 20-year-plus career as an educator.

Brooks has a lot of experience in front of a camera addressing a large audience.

Gerry Brooks, a longtime educator turned social media star, shared with a live online audience of teachers and administrators around the state, eight important “object lessons.” Nearly 1,000 people on May 20 attended the virtual Step Up For Students 2021 Choice in Education Celebration: Boosting Learning Through Laughter.

Five years ago, his world changed when he posted a video on social media that went viral, and ever since he continues to post comical videos about his real-life educational experiences like this. Today, he has amassed more than 2 million followers on social media channels, including 1.7 million on Facebook. He has taken that fame to the national speaking circuit to encourage educators in their career to becoming the best they can.

On this day, he was speaking to a live audience of nearly 1,000 strong during Step Up For Students 2021 Choice in Education Celebration: Boosting Learning Through Laughter.

Despite his viral fame, one thing was immediately clear to the audience of mostly educators: he was one of them.

He’s smart. He’s funny. He’s down-to-earth. He knows what he’s talking about. His goal is to share that knowledge and empower other educators.

During Thursday’s event, Brooks taught educators about eight “object lessons.” Well, those and his love affair with the Dollar Tree, where he frequents.

“So, what I’ve done is I’ve gathered some of my favorite things at Dollar Tree and I want to share them with you to hopefully be able to encourage you, in the position that you are in, to be better in whatever it is,” he told the audience.

Lesson One: Reading glasses.

“I collect these for my teachers,” he said holding up a pair. “When we go back to school in August every one of my teachers gets pair of reading glasses.”

Why?

“You will never be as good as you are supposed to be or fulfill your calling until you can look through the lens of other people. Because when you are only looking through your lens, then you’re only looking at how a situation affects you as a teacher, as a PE teacher, as a music teacher as a classroom teacher because you are only focusing on how it affects you.”

Brooks said you have to consider the perspective of those around you: the student, the parents, and others. If you don’t stop to think about where they may be coming from when a child is late for school, (it could be because of a divorce, a job loss, an illness, not enough money to pay the electric bill), you might not interact with them in a way you should. When you look through other people’s lenses, he noted, you gain “sympathy, empathy and understanding.”

“You can’t be great until you start looking through the lens of other people,” he said.

Lesson 2: Light switch (not from Dollar Tree)

Brooks said a teacher he met would buy light switches for each of her students and have them paint them as an art project. Then they would keep them on their desks. If the children were having a hard time transitioning from recess to math, for example, she would have the students flip their light switch.

“She used this to remind students the importance of moving our minds from one activity to another” he said. “…Everybody turn off your recess light. Ok, guys we’ve got to get in our math minds. Turn on your math light.”

While it’s great for students, it’s equally as great for educators to remind them you have to turn off work on a regular basis so you can enjoy your personal life and don’t burn out on your professional life.

“You in education have to be able to turn off your professional mind on a daily basis because – here’s why – if you can’t turn off your professional mind, then you’re no good to no one,” Brooks said.

Lesson 3: Pacifier

“This represents someone’s baby,” he said. “Here’s the reason I give this to all the teachers because they are dealing with someone’s baby.”

Brooks said it’s important that educators remember they are helping raise someone else’s baby. When talking with their students’ parents, even if it’s a difficult student, you have to look at it from the parent’s perspective and think about that when you have a conversation with them about their child.

Lesson 4: M&M’s

His local Dollar Tree has a dozen varieties of M&M candies. He urges administrators to know which kind each staff members likes so they can buy them their favorites. This is an example of relationship building, he said.

“The number one thing to job place happiness and staff retention is relationships,” Brooks said.

In Gerry Brooks’ Lesson No. 5, Butterfingers are the memory spark and “BF” is key.

Lesson 5: Butterfinger candy bar

This is a two-for lesson, he told the educators, and “BF” is key.

“Bye Felicia,” he said, referring to a pop culture reference from the 1995 film “Friday,” which is a dismissal of a person. In this case, Brooks said, it’s moving away from negative people. These are the constant complainers, he said, who talk negatively about the administration, policies, children and their parents.

“We need to get negative people out of our lives,” he said. “If you hang out with people you become negative.”

The second meaning of BF is for best friend.

“You need a professional best friend who you can go to,” Brooks said.

Because everyone has times they have to vent, this is the person you can go to who will give you “sympathy, empathy and understanding.” They will help you get through the bad days and not spread the negativity to the rest of the school.

Lesson 6: Magic 8 ball

Brooks remembers being a kid and using a Magic 8 ball to ask it all of life’s questions and receive all the answers. Unfortunately, he said, that doesn’t work in his professional world.

“Guess what? There’s no Magic 8 ball in education,” he said.

He said people need to realize that what works for one school, or one classroom, won’t necessarily work for the next. It’s the same with students. Education is not one size fits all. Beware of those who think there is a Magic 8 ball in education.

“When you try to push a Magic 8 ball on someone it’s going to backfire on you,” Brook said, reminding educators to consider what works for their students and their environment.

Lesson 7: Peanut butter and jelly

This P&J in this case is professional jealousy, Brooks said.

“If you allow P and J into your life as a professional, you can’t grow,” he said. “We need to guard ourselves from professional jealousy.”

Lesson 8: Peeps

Brooks said he enjoy the seasonal sugary treat all year round, so he has to plan ahead and purchase them around Easter and freeze them to have the rest of the year.  The lessons here, he said, is “seasons come to an end” and “this, too, will pass.”

The pandemic is a season, he told the educators. And it’s been a rough one.

“I know some of you need to hear this,” he said. “We are in a season. And this season will pass. Hang in there.”

For more lessons and comical stories about being an educator, check out Brooks’ YouTube channel here.

Educators, have any friends, family or children who may meet our new guidelines for our private school scholarships or any of our Florida scholarship programs? Please send them to our website to apply for scholarships at www.StepUpForStudents.org.

Lisa A. Davis can be reached at ldavis@sufs.org.


 

Educators learn to boost learning through laughter during Step Up’s virtual education celebration

By LISA A. DAVIS

More than a year after the pandemic shut down most of the nation, Step Up For Students and its leaders in the Student Learning & Partner Success Department knew just what educators needed: a good dose of laughter, the best medicine.

And that’s just what nearly 1,000 private school educators got May 20 virtually from longtime educator turned social media star Gerry Brooks when they logged onto computers from their schools, homes and watch parties for the virtual Step Up For Students 2021 Choice in Education Celebration: Boosting Learning Through Laughter.

Gerry Brooks and his Magic 8 Ball

Last year’s annual Step Up for Students Choice In Education Conference was one of the casualties of COVID-19. So a Step Up team created an event to not only bring some belly laughs, but also take a moment to celebrate educators in what may have been the most challenging time in their career.

Among Brooks’ eight-lesson presentation, infused with laughter and serious advice, is that educators need to remember that this challenging time will not last.

“When you are in the midst of a season, you can’t see your way out. Things are going to get better. The season is going to pass,” he said, holding a package of Peeps. The springtime seasonal candy is among his favorite sugary treats. He saves a stash in his freezer year-round.

Brooks shared with Step Up’s audience eight “object lessons” to really drive home points about educators’ personal time and culture. He held up everything from Dollar Tree reading glasses to Butterfinger candy to peanut butter and jelly.

“When they see the object that you show them then, hopefully, they will remember that lesson weeks down the road,” he said.

The objective of this virtual lesson: “My goal is to be able to encourage you as an individual and open up some doors,” he told his audience. “… I believe if you have positive personal climate and culture you can get through anything.”

In the talk that lasted more than an hour, Brooks told stories about being a kid and when the “Mr. Magic 8 Ball” could predict which kid was in love with whom. He talked about a lot of serious things, too, while still getting many laughs like he does from his viral videos. He did this while wearing a bright blue shirt saying “Erducator Strong!”

“I like misspellings,” he said, his southern accent thick.

Before he took the virtual stage, Step Up For Students Founder and Chairman John Kirtley applauded educators.

“I know I’m stating the obvious when I say that we at Step Up are grateful for the incredible efforts you have put forth during the pandemic,” Kirtley said. “It may be obvious, but it still needs saying. Here at Step Up, we know how hard it’s been for you.

“… You adapted, you worked harder than ever, and frankly, you took risks for your students. Step Up knows that, and we are very grateful.”

Paula Nelson, senior director of Student Learning & Partner Success, said after the event she couldn’t be more thrilled.

“I think this has turned out to be even better because it came at a time when we really need to have a celebration,” she said. “The message was so timely and powerful. I think there’s a chance we may do it again.”

Lisa A. Davis can be reached at ldavis@sufs.org.

Zoe’s future looks bright thanks to private school scholarship

By ROGER MOONEY

Zoe Elverillo’s mother dropped out of school in the eighth grade. So did Zoe’s brother. Zoe, however, has blazed a different path.

Zoe will graduate this spring from the demanding International Baccalaureate program at Carrollwood Day School in Tampa with a 4.0 grade point average. Unlike anyone in her family before her, she will head to Louisiana State University in the fall, where she plans to study sports medicine.

After that?

“I definitely see myself owning my own business,” Zoe, 18, said. “I definitely want to be my own boss. I see myself having my own therapy center.”

This is exactly what Zoe’s mom, Pamala Moreau, wanted for her daughter when she decided to send her to a private school – a bright future. A single mother, Moreau was able to do that with a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship managed by Step Up For Students.

Education Choice Student Zoe Elverillo
Zoe Elverillo graduated from the demanding IB program at Tampa’s Carrollwood Day School
and will begin classes in the fall at LSU.

The scholarship covers about a third of the yearly tuition at the prestigious private school. Carrollwood, a pre-K to 12 private school near the family’s home, has a network of donors who cover the rest. That enables Zoe and her younger sister, Nya, 15, to receive an education their mother could otherwise never afford.

“I’m so thankful and so grateful, and look at where Zoe is today,” Moreau said. “She would not be where she is today if she did not have the Step Up scholarship and go to that school.”

Zoe is a confident and determined student. She approached her classes in the IB program with the same competitive spirit she displays while playing first base for one of the Tampa Bay area’s top softball travel teams.

“It’s definitely a challenging school. They put you next to challenging students,” Zoe said. “It’s pretty competitive here. I adopted well to it.”

Drew Guarino, Carrollwood’s senior associate director of college counseling, said Zoe’s commitment to her education was evident during the first semester of her senior year. That’s a time when seniors tend to slack off a little, Guarino said. But Zoe had her best semester of her high school career, earning five A’s and one B.

“She takes her academics seriously,” Guarino said.

Zoe had little choice when it comes to that. Her mom wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I definitely don’t want them to follow in my shoes, that’s for sure,” Moreau said.

Moreau was 12 when she dropped out of school. She washed dishes. She checked coats at a hotel. By the age of 15, she was living on her own. As an adult, Moreau found work in the hospitality industry while raising her children.

“Not an easy life,” she said, “but I was happy.”

Moreau, who now works as an office manager, did the best she could with an eighth-grade education, but she wanted so much more for her daughters.

“Absolutely,” she said. “I want them to be able to take care of themselves. I don’t want them to have to rely on anybody for anything, ever. I want them to be able to be successful on their own. That’s very important. School, that was a big priority.”

Moreau wanted her daughters to attend Carrollwood because she felt the school’s IB program would prepare them for college.

Education Choice Student
Pamala Moreau and her daughter, Zoe.

“(Zoe) blossomed and got stronger as the curriculum became more challenging to the point where I’m confident she will be successful once she gets off to college because of all the hard work she’s put in over the last few years,” Guarino said.

In addition to LSU, Zoe was accepted at Florida Atlantic University, Pace University, Coastal Carolina University, James Madison University and the University of North Florida. She settled on LSU because she liked the campus culture and school spirit and because of the sports medicine program.

Zoe took Sports and Exercise Health Science as a junior. She shadowed Carrollwood’s athletic trainer during football season and interned at a local chiropractor’s office.

“Sports medicine has always been a big interest for me,” she said. “I never had a passion for anything other than that.”

Moreau regrets not continuing her education. She hears her friends talk about their proms and going to college and attending class reunions. She didn’t want her daughters to miss out on those experiences. But mostly, Moreau didn’t want her daughters to miss out on what they can achieve with a solid education.

“I’ve always felt education was No. 1 over everything,” Zoe said. “I always wanted to prove it to myself. I took it upon myself and this is a big accomplishment to me.”

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

Tripping the light fantastic while building confidence in the ballroom

Gardiner students learn to tango and much more

By ROGER MOONEY

SARASOTA, Florida – Sarah Parkerson has her left hand on Jordan Soriano’s shoulder. Jordan’s right hand rests on the small of his partner’s back. Their other hands are entwined as they move across the dance floor.

Sometimes it’s a waltz. One, two, three. One, two, three.

Other times, a tango. Slow, Slow. Quick, quick, slow.  

Or the foxtrot. Slow, slow, quick, quick. Slow, slow, quick, quick.

But for Sarah, it doesn’t matter which dance they are doing, or if 100 people are looking on. She is in her own world. She is moved by the music and follows Jordan’s lead.

“I really feel like I don’t see the people (watching),” she said. “It’s just me, my partner, the music. It’s just really amazing.”

Sarah, 15, and Jordan, 20, are both on the autism spectrum. Both receive the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs, managed by Step Up For Students.

Sarah, who lives in Sarasota, and Jordan, who lives in nearby Ellenton, train at Dynasty Dance Club in Sarasota under Sarah Lototskyy.

Jordan Soriano and Sarah Parkerson are two of the Gardiner students participating in Dynasty Dance Club’s Dynasty Stars program.

Sarah and Jordan met there two years ago when she joined the studio’s Dynasty Stars program after moving from Alabama with her mom. Though she danced at a ballet studio in Alabama, Sarah arrived at the new dance club as a shy teenager with little confidence. Her mother, Cathy Parkerson, said Sarah kept to herself, standing with her hands clasped and her head down while avoiding eye contact.

Now Sarah is poised and smiles as she looks into her dance partner’s eyes. The progress has surprised even Sarah.

“Before I was very unconfident. I didn’t really move much at all,” she said. “Once I started dancing, I felt better. I felt happier. I had more confidence.”

When asked what she likes most about ballroom dancing, Sarah thought for a few moments, then answered, “Basically everything.”

The Stars are born

Dynasty Stars was born in January 2016 when Lototskyy noticed the brother of one of her students bopping to the music while he watched his sister dance. The boy’s name is Michael, and he has Down syndrome. Lototskyy asked Michael if he wanted to dance. He said yes, and they danced for 10 minutes.

Lototskyy decided to start a program for those with special needs. The first class consisted of a man with autism, a young girl with epilepsy and Michael.

Soon after, Colleen Buccieri, who runs the nonprofit Face Autism and is Jordan Soriano’s godmother and caregiver, learned of the new program. Buccieri told Lototskyy she would bring some children who are on the spectrum to the next class.

By the end of the first month, Dynasty Stars had 20 students. It has grown steadily ever since. Through her Dynasty Dance Club Studios in Sarasota, Venice and Lakewood Ranch (she will soon open a studio in St. Petersburg) and the schools where she teaches, Lototskyy estimates she teaches 150 special needs dancers, ranging in age from 3 to 54.

Nine students attend the Dynasty Stars class that meets in Sarasota on Tuesdays and Fridays. Five of those dancers, including Sarah and Jordan, receive the Gardiner Scholarship. The scholarship does cover the dance lessons. For Sarah and Jordan, the dance instructions are covered through Gardiner to help them with music education, socialization and memory skills.

“What’s been so great about Gardiner is students have been able to explore this side of themselves,” Lototskyy said. “With all of the therapies, it’s nice for them to have a mentally and physically stimulating activity to do.”

Why can’t they?

Jordan was 9 when Buccieri started Face Autism to provide sensory friendly activities, support groups and more for children on the spectrum and their families. As Jordan’s godmother, Buccieri watched him grow up without going to the movies or the mall or to children’s birthday parties. She formed the nonprofit and with the help of volunteers, organized autism-appropriate activities and classes, asking questions that always began with the same three words: “Why can’t they …?

Why can’t they go fishing?

Why can’t they go golfing?

Why can’t they go horseback riding?

As soon as she learned of Lototskyy’s new dance class, Buccieri asked, “Why can’t they go ballroom dancing?”

Lototskyy has been teaching dance for 12 years. She said anyone can learn. Jordan, who was in the first group that Buccieri brought to the new class, is proving his teacher right.

“He was all left feet,” Buccieri said. “Unfocused. He was a mess. And now he’s really, really good and he loves it. He feels it’s something that he himself has accomplished.”

Jordan is progressing though the levels of ballroom dancing. He has shelves in his home filled with more than 25 trophies earned at dance competitions.

“I love to dance, because it’s fun and it’s challenging, and I get to see my friends,” he said.

The many trophies Jordan has won for ballroom dancing.

Like Sarah Parkerson, Jordan was shy and avoided eye contact when he first walked through the doors of the dance studio. But that changed. It had to. Ballroom dancing requires the male to escort his partner to the dance floor, to look into her eyes and lead her through the steps.

“The main thing is the confidence to get out there on a big ballroom floor, and they can really overcome their sensitivities, because you have the bright lights, the loud music. You have the crowd. They’re out on that big ballroom floor, looking into the eyes of a hundred or more spectators just staring at them,” Buccieri said. “It’s sometimes a little overwhelming, but they seem to get into that music and that all goes away.”

At the beginning, Buccieri thought dancing would be like any other activity sponsored by Face Autism. She hoped the kids could dance for an hour a week, get some exercise, maybe make a friend or two and go home. Never did she dream Jordan and the others in the program would develop into competitive ballroom dancers with their own routines and trophies earned around the Southeast.  

“I never thought Sarah would take it to the level she has,” Buccieri said. “Now she’s well-known in the dance world for her special needs program. There’s nothing like it around.”

Take a bow

Lototskyy, who owns her dance studios with her husband, Maks, has been dancing for 27 years. She thought of becoming a special education teacher while in high school before her dancing career took off. She said teaching the Dynasty Stars students is her favorite class of the week.

Recently, Lototskyy sat with a visitor to a Dynasty Stars class.

“Do you know how to do any of these things?” she asked, motioning to the students who were dancing a salsa.

One, two, three. (Pause.) Five, six, seven. (Pause.)

The answer was no.

“So,” she said, “you can imagine how difficult it is to just (learn one move) with everything else they are facing. So, the fact that they can go out there and perform at a high level and pick music, that gives them confidence.”

Sarah and Jordan practice with dance coach Sarah Lototskyy at the Dynasty Dance Club in Sarasota.

Confidence is the word used most often when talking about the benefits of ballroom dancing to someone on the spectrum.

Cathy Parkerson, Sarah’s mom, said her daughter receives that and more.

“So much more,” she said. “The interaction is amazing because there are so many skills they are doing. Socially, they have to listen with other people, interact, work with a partner. They have to think, ‘What does my partner need from me? What do I have to do?’ Thinking of someone else is a really good skill, especially for someone with autism. They are kind of sometimes in their own world.”

Being in their own world is what ballroom dancing provides. Each dance has its own personality, Lototskyy said. The tango is passionate, dramatic, aggressive. The foxtrot is sassy and playful.

“The waltz is more elegant and more dreamy, more like Prince Charming and Cinderella,” she said. “They get to feel that way even if when they leave here, they have seizures and take so many medications that they don’t feel like Cinderella or Prince Charming. But they do when they’re here.”

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

Florida Legislature is normalizing, expanding access to education choice

By DOUG TUTHILL

The Florida House and Senate have sent Gov. Ron DeSantis legislation that will continue normalizing and expanding access to choice in public education.

Doug Tuthill

Florida began expanding access to education choice in the late 1970s/early ’80s through the creation of district magnet schools. Next came charter schools and the Florida Virtual School in the 1990s, the McKay vouchers in 1999, tax credit scholarships in 2001, Gardiner education savings accounts (ESAs) in 2014, Hope scholarships in 2018, and the Family Empowerment Scholarship in 2019.

Today, about half of Florida’s PreK-12 students attend schools other than their assigned neighborhood school. This new legislation, House Bill 7045, will make even more students eligible for education choice.

HB 7045 also continues the movement to make all government-regulated education choice programs a normal and permanent part of Florida’s public education system. This normalization effort began in earnest with the 2019 passage of the Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES), which created a scholarship program for lower-income students within the state’s public education funding system.  

HB 7045’s integration of the Gardiner Scholarship for students with unique abilities/special needs into the FES furthers this normalization. The Gardiner scholarship was created as a standalone program that the Legislature funded by an annual line-item appropriation. Every year the program had a waiting list, and every year parents had to ask the Legislature to appropriate more money to serve more students.

Now that the Legislature is merging the Gardiner program into the FES and the state’s public education funding system, the program’s enrollment and scholarship amount will grow automatically.

The McKay program, which is a second scholarship for children with unique abilities/special needs, will be merged with the Gardiner Scholarship and also integrated into the FES in the 2022-23 school year. This merger will make it easier for families with unique abilities/special needs children to access the funding and services that best meet each child’s needs, while knowing that their scholarship amounts will automatically go up as the state’s overall funding for public education increases.

Like Gardiner, the McKay program will become an education savings account in the 2022-23 school year. This will give the McKay families the same flexibility the Gardiner families have to better customize education services and products to the unique needs of their children.

The Senate wanted to turn all the lower-income scholarships into ESAs, but the House thought it was too soon. Nonetheless, over the next several years, ESAs, which are an essential tool in our effort to provide every student with an equal opportunity to succeed, will also become a normal and permanent part of public education. 

All aspects of how public education is organized and delivered are controlled by its funding procedures. Education choice will not be sustainable if it does not become an integrated part of the state’s public education funding mechanism, which is why HB 7045 is so important.

This bill accelerates the effort begun with the 2019 creation of the FES to fully integrate all government-regulated choice programs into the state’s education funding system, thereby ensuring their long-term viability and normalization.

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