Author Archive | Sherri Ackerman

Thanks to school choice scholarship, “he’s where he needs to be”

The BluesWhen Julie Blue agreed to be a foster parent to brothers Logan and Mason, she knew she wanted to send them to a high-performing school.

Blue attended a private elementary school as a child and later worked as a private school P.E. coach after a decade employed by Broward County public schools.

A private education with individual instruction and a safe environment seemed the best fit for the boys, who had been abused and neglected by their biological family before social workers took custody.

Today, the children are legally Blue’s sons and enrolled in Calvary Christian Academy, a private pre-K-12 school in Fort Lauderdale. Logan is a third-grader catching up quickly with his peers and Mason is thriving in a pre-K class.

“To be able to give them this same opportunity is a gift,’’ said Blue, a single parent who relies on tuition assistance from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, a parental school choice program administered by Step Up For Students (which co-hosts this blog). “I would not be able to send them to this school without it.’’

Logan, who just turned 10, received a full scholarship this year. The award covers roughly half of the academy’s $8,500 annual tuition plus fees. Blue pays about $6,500 for Mason, 4, who will become a Step Up scholar next school year when he is a kindergartner.

The private school price tag is an adjustment, said Blue, a swim school operator. She works harder growing her business, rarely eats out, rents movies instead of going to the theater and shops with coupons.

“It’s a sacrifice,’’ she said, “but it doesn’t feel like one when you see the fruits of your labor.’’

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School choice scholarship student pays it forward



When Lynden Simmons was in the eighth grade, his family had to move into a homeless shelter. It was the longest three months of his life.

At school, he smiled like he always did and joked with friends. At the shelter, Lynden kept to himself. He had chores, like the rest of his family, and a curfew. Homework became a refuge.

“I just did what I had to do,’’ he said.

Instead of letting the experience disrupt his life, Lynden called upon it for motivation. That year was among his best, academically.

“It encouraged him to work harder,’’ said the teen’s mom, Linda Jones, a sporadically-employed housekeeper from the Bahamas who battles Lupus and struggles to read and write English. “It pushed him.’’

Lynden went from a high-performing public middle school to Christopher Columbus High School, a prestigious Catholic school with a student roster made up of some of Miami’s wealthiest and most notable families.

He made it there – and has stayed there – due to a tremendous work ethic and a little extra help, including a school choice scholarship from Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog. Now he’s the junior class vice president vying for a coveted spot on the varsity basketball team.

And at just 16, Lynden’s also the president of 305-United, a relatively new nonprofit founded and operated by students predominantly from Catholic schools across South Florida. Their mission: to help less fortunate families by doing good deeds like raising money to buy toys for children in shelters.

For Lynden, the outreach is especially poignant.

“It makes me remember to never forget where I came from,’’ he said. “And I was there.’’ Continue Reading →


Private school in Haiti gets help from U.S. charter school company

Charter Schools USA is one of the nation’s largest for-profit charter school management companies, with 58 schools in seven states. But the Florida-based organization also has a charitable arm that’s helping a hardscrabble private school in Haiti.

Students of the Genecoit School of Excellence in Haiti may have a new school building by the end of this year. Charter Schools USA, through its charitable arm, is raising money to help build the private, tuition-free school.  PHOTO: Charter Schools USA

Students of the Genecoit School of Excellence in Haiti may have a new school building by the end of this year. Charter Schools USA, through its charitable arm, is raising money to help build the private, tuition-free school. PHOTO: Charter Schools USA

The Giving Tree Foundation has pledged to raise $250,000 to build a new tuition-free school in Francois, a remote mountain village about an hour and a half outside of the capital of Port-au-Prince. In addition, Charter Schools USA founder and chief executive officer Jonathan Hage has offered to match the funds.

The new school is slated to open in the fall.

A half-a-million dollars will go a long way in a village where few residents have access to running water and electricity, said Richard Page, vice president of development for CSUSA. Page traveled to Haiti in December with his wife and their two daughters to see the school and help deliver 700 Christmas presents to the local children. For many, it was the first Christmas gift they had ever received.

For now, the Genecoit School of Excellence is in a one-room, dilapidated building. It employs about a dozen teachers and serves 119 students in K-6. There are no laptops or Smart Boards, or even enough books.

“The conditions are so far from what we as Americans could ever imagine,’’ said Page, whose recent trip was documented on CSUSA’s Facebook page. “Yet, the children are bubbly, excited and happy. They put on a fashion show for us. They were on fire for life.’’

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Military-style charter schools sprouting across Florida

From Acclaim Academy's facebook page: Students at the Duval school participating in a cadet promotion ceremony.

From Acclaim Academy’s facebook page: Students at the Duval school participating in a cadet promotion ceremony.

Like they are in other states, military-style charter schools are gaining a foothold in Florida.

There are new ones in Broward, Sarasota, Osceola and Duval counties – and more on the way. With a focus on rigor, structure, responsibility and respect, supporters say such schools experience fewer behavioral problems and better academic success.

Acclaim Academy, a fairly new charter schools outfit that embraces that formula, opened its first school in 2012 in Kissimmee, followed by another in August in Jacksonville. Local school boards, which authorize charter schools in Florida, recently approved three more academies to open next fall with one each in Duval, Orange and Palm Beach counties.

The schools feature high-tech equipment, with SMART boards for every teacher and take-home laptops for every student. But organizers defer to an old-school philosophy of discipline and rules, looking to the Army’s JROTC program as a format to promote structure, character and confidence.

Students are known as cadets. They wear Army fatigues. They participate in drills. It’s an experience that may lead some participants to the armed forces, but that’s not the academy’s mission.

“We’re not creating little soldiers,’’ said Bill Orris, Acclaim Academy’s director of education. Instead, the school is working to change the learning habits of 600 of the state’s most struggling students, he said. Continue Reading →

A Catholic school network for special-needs students

Students at Morning Star Catholic School in Tampa, Fla., learn how to keep looking ahead with their studies - and in life.

“They’re just children,’’ Principal Eileen Daly says of her students at Morning Star Catholic School in Tampa, Fla. “They come to us to learn what they’re good at and what they can do. … But really we’re teaching them how to do well in school.’’

When Madelyn Tomas was in the third grade, teachers at her public school wanted to retain the speech- impaired student another year. Madelyn’s mom, a school nurse, chose, instead, to move her daughter to Morning Star Catholic School in Tampa, Fla.

Madelyn Tomas says Morning Star helped her not only fit in at school, but excel.

Madelyn Tomas says Morning Star helped her fit in at school, and excel.

“It saved my life, to be honest,’’ said Madelyn, now an eighth-grader who earned straight A’s last semester. “The small class sizes helped me focus. I’ve gone from thinking I couldn’t learn anything to knowing I can learn.’’

That’s the goal at Morning Star, one of six private schools and three programs in the Florida Catholic Diocese system that serves 566 children with special needs. The first Morning Star opened in Jacksonville in 1956 to serve boys and girls with physical needs. Through the years, the schools have broadened that focus based on a growing need to provide more educational opportunities for students with learning disabilities.

“They’re just children,’’ said Principal Eileen Daly, who has been with the Tampa school for 23 years, first as a reading teacher. “They come to us to learn what they’re good at and what they can do. … But really we’re teaching them how to do well in school.’’

Morning Star opened in Tampa in 1958 in a small concrete-block building behind Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church. Most of the school’s 78 students in grades first through eighth have been diagnosed with a speech, language or learning disability. The rest have a combination of physical impairments and developmental disorders, such as autism or Tourette syndrome.

Sixty students receive McKay Scholarships, state dollars that go to families of children with special needs. Another four receive Florida Tax Credit Scholarships for low-income students, which provides $4,880 of the school’s $10,750 annual tuition. (Step Up For Students is the nonprofit that administers the scholarship program and co-hosts this blog).

The school, a nonprofit that receives funding from the diocese as well as the community, also provides its own scholarships. About half of the student body is Catholic, but Morning Star focuses more on academics, said administrative coordinator Paul Reed.

Students are taught in classes with 10 students per teacher. Sometimes, when the school has extra dollars, there’s an aide. There also are SMART boards, laptops and iPad minis in almost every class. Junior high students are allowed to bring their own devices, such as a tablet.

Lessons adhere to the same standards and benchmarks taught at other diocesan schools, but Morning Star students don’t receive grades. Learning gains are measured through the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

Students also are exposed to classes and clubs found in most any school, like student council, yearbook and show choir – “so they can kind of be top dog, where elsewhere they wouldn’t be,’’ Daly said.

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Florida schools roundup: State tests, Common Core, teacher evals & more

State tests: The end of the much-maligned FCAT is no cause for celebration by critics, writes the Palm Beach Post. Sen. John Legg correctly recognizes there are too many standardized tests in Florida’s public schools, but his proposed solution of a test-free period around state-required tests is impractical, writes the Tampa Bay Times.

FL roundup logo snippedCommon Core: A state senator has submitted legislation to stop the Common Core State Standards from taking effect in Florida. The Buzz. The new state standards place more emphasis on cursive writing, but not everyone is on board as technology takes over the classroom. Fort Myers News-Press. Studies find textbooks are a poor match for Common Core standards. StateImpact Florida.

Teacher evals: The publication of teacher performance scores this week resonate in Leon County Schools, drawing criticism from school board members and fueling recruitment efforts by the local teachers union. Tallahassee Democrat.

Special needs: The state teachers union releases a video showing Polk County school administrators giving a standardized test to a blind child in a persistent vegetative state. Herald/Times.

State grades: The state Board of Education should listen to parents and educators who want to put the brakes on the grading plan, writes The Ledger.

Pay raises: Pasco County’s superintendent recommends new salary schedules for administrators and non-bargaining personnel that would increase their pay by 4 percent and 4.8 percent, respectively. Tampa Bay Times. The roughly 6,000 Palm Beach school district service employees like bus drivers, custodians and electricians will get a 4 percent raise under a new tentative labor agreement. Palm Beach Post.

School boards: Pinellas County School Board members vote unanimously to change the time allotted for public comments from the beginning of their meetings to the end, despite initial concerns the switch would discourage public participation. The Tampa Tribune. More from the Tampa Bay Times. The Palm Beach County school board hears some tough talk on a still-sparse budget for next school year. Palm Beach Post.

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Proposed MacDill charter school loses first appeal

A charter school sought by MacDill Air Force Base in Florida has lost the first round of an appeals process.

The Florida Charter School Appeal Commission on Monday sided with the Hillsborough County School District, which had denied an application for the proposed school. The case will now go before the state Board of Education, which is scheduled to make the final decision March 18.

“As we’ve known from the very beginning of this journey, building a charter school on a military base is a very complex process and this phase is just one more step in that process,” said Colleen Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the applicant, Florida Charter Educational Foundation and its partner, Charter Schools USA.

“Although this advisory panel did not recommend overturning the district’s denial, the need for military families is well-documented and was reinforced again today,” Reynolds said in a prepared statement. “Ultimately, the State Board of Education will determine whether or not the denial should be overturned and we are committed to continue the fight for military families who want this educational option available on base for their children. We will not give up on doing what’s right for students.”

The foundation applied in August for a charter to build an 875-student K-8 school that would provide a middle school option for military families who live on and off the base. MacDill Charter Academy also would help ease crowding at the district-run elementary school at MacDill, proponents said.

The Hillsborough County School Board denied the application in December, following a recommendation from Superintendent MaryEllen Elia. Continue Reading →

Florida schools roundup: Charters, private schools, STEM & more

Charter schools:  A charter school sought by MacDill Air Force Base in Florida has lost the first round of an appeals process. redefinED. The state charter appeals commission sides with the Hillsborough County School Board in its decision to turn down the application. The Tampa Tribune.

florida-roundup-logoPrivate schools: Tampa’s Jesuit High School debaters eye national championships. The Tampa Tribune. Private schools’ FCAT fears mirror the frustrations Florida parents have with the assessment, writes Scott Maxwell for the Orlando Sentinel. 

STEM: Students and supporters celebrate the launch of Polk County’s first High School High Tech program that allows students to explore STEM career paths. The Ledger.

Michelle Obama: The First Lady unveils a widespread expansion of afterschool exercise and snack programs during her visit to the Miami-Dade school district, part of her “Let’s Move!” healthy kids program. Miami Herald.

Common Core: Brevard middle and high schools may adopt 30 new textbooks as part of English and math standards being rolled out next school year. Florida Today.

Teacher evals: A former Florida Schools superintendent thinks back to a time when teachers were judged solely on how they delivered a lesson while in the presence of a principal. Florida Times-Union.

Support: Teachers, parents, politicians and local business leaders gather to discuss how to improve students’ success rates at one of the lowest performing schools in Escambia County. Pensacola News-Journal.

Principals: Leon County Schools employs a high percentage of black principals compared to the rest of the state and nation. Tallahassee Democrat.

School boards: Orange School Board members say they won’t buy land for high schools in rural settlements. Orlando Sentinel.

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