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.

Continue Reading →

redefinED roundup: charters in NY, virtual schools in ME, tax credit scholarships in FL


Alaska: A bill will allow citizens to vote to remove a Blaine Amendment from the state constitution but it may not have enough votes to pass (Anchorage Daily NewsAnchorage Press). A mom says public education needs more money not school choice (Alaska Dispatch).

Arizona: House Democrats oppose expanding the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (Tucson Weekly). Proposed legislation may allow hundreds of thousands of Arizona students to become eligible for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (Associated Press).

D.C.: Enrollment at St. Ann’s Academy has fallen to 139 students so the Catholic diocese will shut down the school this fall (Washington Post).

Florida: A bill to expand the state’s tax credit scholarship program passes out of the House Tax and Finance Committee (Sunshine State News, News Service of Florida, Associated Press, Gainesville SunMiami Herald). A Florida mom drives to Tallahassee to speak before the legislature about how much tax-credit scholarships mean to her and her family (redefinED). A Republican lawmaker wants to require all private school voucher students to take the state assessment (Tampa Bay Times, Sun Sentinel). A charter school in Broward County was nearly shut down after failing to obtain the proper building permits (Sun Sentinel). Frank Biden, the brother of Vice President Biden, advocates for charter schools (Post on Politics). A House panel proposes education savings accounts for special needs students (Orlando Sentinel, Tampa Bay Times). Rev. Robert Ward says tax credit scholarships help the poor (Tampa Bay Times). The school board in Palm Beach will consider a plan to allow full public school choice within the district (1230 AM WBZT, Sun Sentinel). Writer Julie Delegal says private school voucher students should take the state test because researchers can’t compare different tests (Florida Today). Jon East from Step Up For Students says the debate on accountability is about which test to use (redefinED). The superintendent of Broward County Public Schools focuses on building bridges with the community and charter schools (Education Week).

Idaho: A bill to create tax credit scholarships advances in the House (Idaho Reporter). Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: Tax credit scholarships, school spending, teacher evals & more

Tax credit scholarships. The Tampa Tribune comes down in favor of the expansion bill. The testing issue for tax credit scholarships is complicated. Gradebook. As she has many times before, Jacksonville’s Julie Delegal says valid comparisons to public school students can’t be made when tax credit scholarship students take similar but not the same standardized tests. Florida Today. GTN TV does a story on the bill. So does Watchdog.orgNews Service of Florida asks Gov. Rick Scott about what he said last year regarding scholarship students and testing. (The scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. A Q&A with the new principal of the University Prep charter school in St. Petersburg. Tampa Bay Times. WMNF’s “Urban Cafe” show interview the principal of Seminole Heights High School, a charter school for 16- to 21-year-old males who want a “fresh chance” at earning a high school diploma. (Starts about the 8 minute mark.) A Palm Beach County School Board member suggests a multi-million dollar marketing campaign to stem the tide of students leaving for charter schools. Palm Beach Post.

Common Core. Despite claims, many textbooks are NOT aligned to Common Core. Tampa Bay Times. Common Core standards are in use in art classes, too. Tampa Tribune. How the Common Core rollout is going in Florida middle schools. StateImpact Florida.

Pre-K. Kids who participate are more ready for kindergarten than those who don’t. School Zone.

School choice.  Parents, choose carefully. Tampa Bay Times. Probably better, for now, that the Palm Beach County school district expand its existing choice programs rather than go to “full” district choice. Palm Beach Post.

Parents. They must be challenged to help, early and often. Pensacola News Journal.

Accountability. EdWeek logs in Sen. Bill Montford’s “pause” bill.

Teacher evals. VAM scores could lead to unfair ratings. Florida Times Union. The state should chuck its eval system and let districts come up with something better. Tampa Bay Times.

Testing. Some teachers didn’t appreciate the ed commish’s letter on testing for special needs students. Gradebook. Conflict between FCAT and Passover. Gainesville Sun. Continue Reading →

FL mom: Without more school choice, we’ll get more welfare

Editor’s note: About 200 people who support Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, including many scholarship students themselves, attended yesterday’s legislative committee hearing on a bill to expand the program. Many speakers made many good points, but a woman from Ocala stole the show. The audience applauded her, lawmakers praised her, reporters quoted her. Here is what Chanae Jackson-Baker told the committee. Her remarks were edited slightly for length and clarity.

Chantae Jackson-Baker

Chanae Jackson-Baker

I worked 12 hours last night in Gainesville. I drove to Ocala to get my kid to school, then drove to Tallahassee to be here. That’s how important this is to me.

We keep talking about money, we keep talking about the money. The children are an investment.  … I pay $500 a month over what the scholarship covers. … Because we’re putting in more, and investing more, we are willing to give more.

I don’t know about anybody else’s private school, but the one my children attend, they took the Stanford 10, which is actually a lot better … than the FCAT. I keep hearing talk of the FCAT. When my son took the FCAT in third grade, he was doing horrible. He was doing horrible because he had auditory processing disorder. He has dyslexia. He’s on the autism spectrum. When he was in public school, and I hate to bash public school because I was the parent on SAC committee and PTO before I gave up on public school … He left public school reading at third grade, four month level in sixth grade. He’s now in seventh grade and he’s on level. I never thought I’d see my son read a book.

I have my step daughter … she came from a public school. She missed 85 days in kindergarten. No one stepped in. No one. She almost flunked out of kindergarten. She’s now in her school. She’s now excelling.

It’s not just education. It’s character. When my eight-year-old and my nine-year-old come to talk to me about integrity, when they talk about being good to people, when they talk about there being a family at school, that’s what this scholarship is all about. Continue Reading →

Florida roundup: tax credit scholarships, Common Core, testing & more

Tax credit scholarships. The bill to expand the state’s tax credit scholarships program passes its first committee on a party-line vote. redefinED. More from the Halifax Media ServicesMiami Herald, Associated Press, The Florida Current, News Service of Florida, WFSU, Palm Beach PostFaith leaders and their supporters from across Florida gather in the Capitol to support the bill. redefinED. The Ledger doesn’t like it. The Citrus County Chronicle profiles a school choice mom.

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools. The group behind a proposed charter school at MacDill Air Force Base withdraws its application and says it will resubmit. Tampa TribuneTampa Bay Times. New one in Palm Bay celebrates its opening. Florida Today.

Digital learning. Computer class instead of PE? Orlando Sentinel.

Home schooling. Home schooler wins Lee County spelling bee. Fort Myers News Press. Naples Daily News.

Common Core. Two retired U.S. Army generals push for Common Core. School Zone.

Obama. The president is set to visit a Miami-Dade high school today to give a major speech on education and the economy. Miami Herald.

School spending. The superintendent of the Manatee County School District calls for an investigation into the financial practices under former superintendent Tim McGonegal. Bradenton Herald. Sarasota Herald Tribune. Continue Reading →

Application withdrawn for charter school at MacDill Air Force Base

From a press release issued tonight: 

The Florida Charter Educational Foundation, Inc. met today to discuss the best course of action in serving the needs of military families at MacDill Air Force Base. The board voted to withdraw the current appeal being considered by the State Board of Education to open the MacDill Charter Academy on base at MacDill Air Force Base. The board will make revisions and clarifications based on the Charter Schools Appeals Commission’s concerns and resubmit the application in the very near future.

The decision to withdraw the appeal was rooted in the board’s desire to make the process go more smoothly.

“Our goal is to serve the needs of students of our military families as efficiently as possible. To achieve that goal, we decided that the best course of action is to make some minor revisions to the application and resubmit it,” said Ken Haiko, president of the Florida Charter Educational Foundation. “Our proposal is still solid as it stands but if a few clarifications will help the process go more smoothly, in the end, the students will benefit and that’s our focus.”

The new application will be resubmitted as soon as possible and will be sent to the Hillsborough School District. The district then has 60 days from submission to make a decision. Continue Reading →

Florida House panel approves school choice scholarship expansion

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr, R-Hialeah, presented the House's tax-credit scholarship legislation on Thursday,

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr, R-Hialeah, presented the House’s tax-credit scholarship legislation on Thursday.

A bill that would expand Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program for low-income students cleared its first legislative hurdle Thursday.

Students and religious leaders who traveled from around the state packed the House Finance & Tax subcommittee, which approved the measure on a party-line vote.

The bill would allow more students to enter the program more quickly, increase the maximum scholarship amount and create partial scholarships for students with family incomes greater than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

“I think it’s a good thing that we are offering more hard-working families a choice to send a children to the school that best meets their needs,” said Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, who was among the bill’s supporters.

It would also place stricter requirements on the organizations that administer the program, including Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

The committee bill was introduced by Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah. He faced tough questions from Democrats, some of whom said they supported the program in its current form but opposed the bill. Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, said the bill would grow the program “too much, too fast.”

He also questioned provisions that would create partial scholarships for families with incomes up to 260 percent of the federal poverty level, and said private schools participating in the program should be subject to the same grading system as public schools.

If the bill passes, the program could grow to $390 million next school year, while producing nearly $451 million in savings for the Florida Education Finance Program, the state’s main operating fund for public schools, according to estimates by House staff. Continue Reading →

Faith leaders gather to support FL school choice expansion

A contingent of faith leaders and their supporters gathered in the state Capitol Thursday to back a proposed expansion of the state’s tax credit scholarship program for low-income students.ExpandEqualOpportunity_Final4

About 200 of them packed a legislative room before the proposed bill got its first hearing before the House Tax & Finance Subcommittee. More than half of them were private school students from Jacksonville, Orlando and Tallahassee, and most wore bright-yellow shirts that said, “Expanding Equal Opportunity.”

“We will fight for a cause that is a righteous cause,” Isha Haley with the Florida Interfaith Alliance for School Choice told the crowd. “There are too many of our babies that are dying. There are too many of our babies that can’t read and write. … They need an opportunity.”

One of the best things to happen to public education “is the recognition that not every school works for every child,” said Robert Ward, pastor of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. “This scholarship has helped to put many students on the right path. It is by no means a cure all … but surely it is one tool for parents who struggle with poverty.”

The turnout was organized by the interfaith group, which is affiliated with the Florida Alliance for Choices in Education, an umbrella group for an array of school choice organizations, including Step Up For Students. The latter administers the scholarship program and co-hosts this blog.

Nearly 60,000 students now use the school choice scholarships to attend private schools, about 80 percent of which are faith-based. Students must qualify for free- or reduced-price to be eligible for the scholarships. Two-thirds are black or Hispanic, and test data shows they tended to be the lowest academic performers in the public schools they left.

Mikeya Brown, a 10th grader at Tallavana Christian School west of Tallahassee, described herself as “one of the fortunate ones.” She said she attended public schools in Gadsden County before receiving a tax-credit scholarship in fourth grade. She said she benefited from a Christian-school environment, which her parents could not afford on their own. Continue Reading →