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.
“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.