Thanks to school choice, “the boys are getting what they need”

Benjamin and Isaiah

Benjamin and Isaiah

Isaiah Vargas entered the world addicted to drugs.

As the toxins were purged from his tiny body in the hospital, he had repeated seizures and fought to stay alive. His first two months of life were spent in the neonatal intensive care unit, said his grandmother, Cheryl Valladares.

“They didn’t give us a good prognosis on him,” she said. But Isaiah is now a fourth-grade Step Up For Students scholar at New Jerusalem Christian Academy in Seffner and excels academically. The 10-year-old student also plays the flute at school, and takes gymnastics at the local YMCA.

Still, he didn’t completely escape the perils of his mother’s drug addiction. Nor did she.

Isaiah’s eyes have been crossed since birth, which made sitting up and walking more of a challenge early on, and he would fall more often than a typical toddler. He also was born with spina bifida occulta, a spinal cord disorder resulting in sensory delays, so when he did fall, he couldn’t feel pain and still doesn’t feel it the way most people do. The disorder has made it difficult for his family to know when his injuries are significant. He still has difficulty with fine motor skills and shows little emotion.

For the third time, he had eye surgery in November 2012 in hopes of further straightening them. This is only some of what he copes with each day.

His mother didn’t fare as well.

At age 18, Kristi became entangled in drugs, said her mother, Cheryl. She had grown up with a supportive family and gained a solid educational background, but started running with the wrong crowd, Cheryl said. She married another drug user when she was 25, and had Benjamin that same year.

Cheryl was awarded guardianship of her two grandsons in 2004 after her daughter had been arrested on previous drug charges. Shortly after, Cheryl lost her job managing a chiropractic office in Tampa where she was employed for seven years, she said, because her boss told her she would be out too much with Isaiah’s doctor’s appointments. She has worked at a much lower paying job without benefits ever since.

By the time Isaiah was 3 and in preschool, administrators and teachers at his neighborhood school were overwhelmed by his physical challenges and ultimately placed him in special education classes, despite his obvious intelligence, Cheryl said.

“His mind’s intact,” Cheryl would tell school teachers and administrators. “Please don’t treat him like he’s mentally handicapped.”

By first grade, Isaiah was given yet another lifeline by the educators in his family, who founded and still run New Jerusalem Christian Academy in Seffner, just outside of Tampa.His aunt, Dari Valladares, is the principal at New Jerusalem, which was started by her mother, Miriam Gonzalez. Dari first informally tested Isaiah to see if he could follow directions, knew his sounds, letters and numbers and had the ability to write and hold scissors and pencils. While he has a shaky hand when writing or holding scissors because of his lack of hand-eye coordination due to his sensory delay and vision problems, he did well on everything else.

“I didn’t want to put him here if he wasn’t ready,” Dari said.

Cheryl couldn’t afford the tuition on her own, but applied and received Step Up school choice scholarships for the boys. “It was the best thing that has happened,” she said. “Financially, things have been a struggle, but the boys are getting what they need.”

Both boys seem happy and comfortable at school, but Isaiah especially shines. Dari calls him a social butterfly. His passion is gymnastics, and he smiles when he has a chance to show off his handstand on the playground. The brothers seem to enjoy hamming it up when photographs are snapped. They also clearly have a special bond with their principal and aunt.

“Academically, he’s done phenomenally,” Dari said of Isaiah. “He’s done phenomenally socially. In the special needs class (at his previous school) he didn’t really talk.”

Benjamin is doing well in school, but has a difficult time focusing because he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, one of the most common childhood behavioral disorders, thought to be a result of all he has gone through. He enjoys playing on school sports teams like soccer and volleyball. Both boys, in fact, take behavioral modification medication, and are benefitting from being in small classrooms and receiving one-on-one attention, Cheryl said. She’s confident they will both succeed in life, but she is especially pleased with Isaiah’s transformation so far.

“He’s been at the top of his class the whole time,” his grandmother says. “The boy is just amazing because he found out he’s smart.”

About New Jerusalem Christian Academy

Miriam Gonzalez, who with her husband, Elvin, has been pastoring New Jerusalem Church, now called New Jerusalem International Ministries, since 1991. She opened a New Jerusalem Christian Academy on the same property in 1996, where her daughter Dari Valladares now serves as principal. After making the decision to start a school, Gonzalez earned her master’s degree in Christian education and said she mostly relied on prayer and donations to open the school, which now serves students preK-2 through middle school. Currently, the school has about 140 students, of which 43 students are Step Up scholars. In addition to standard curriculum, it also offers classes including dance, band and TV production. The school uses the TerraNova assessment test to measure individual academic success. Tuition for the 2012-13 school year is$4,000 for grades kindergarten through fifth grade and $4,500 for middle school students.

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One Response to Thanks to school choice, “the boys are getting what they need”

  1. chris guerrieri March 21, 2013 at 10:08 am #

    At 3 I guessed that would have put him in pre-pre-k but regardless I wonder how many charter and voucher schools take 3 year olds. Also it sounds like perhaps the mother was confused. There are all types of special education classes’ even ones for children with normal intelligence.

    I could go on and on and on but instead I’ll just remind everyone, his problems were not created by the public school system and it doesn’t sound like they were exacerbated by it either and in fact we have no idea if he would be doing better or not had he stayed and I will wish him well.

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