Virtual school gives teen entrepreneur freedom to thrive

Willow Tufano and her mom, Shannon Moore, say having a choice in Willow's education gave her the freedom and confidence to excel. PHOTO provided by family.

Willow Tufano and her mom, Shannon Moore, say having a choice in Willow’s education gave her the freedom and confidence to excel. PHOTO provided by family.

When Willow Tufano left a public school for the gifted three years ago and enrolled in Florida Virtual School, she discovered a doorway to opportunity.

No longer confined to a typical school day, the eighth-grader spent mornings and afternoons combing Craigslist and garage sales for electronics and other items, then sold them for a profit. At night, she studied English and algebra, keeping up her grades and socking away enough cash to buy a house with her mom, a real estate broker.

At 14, Willow became a landlord. Then she saved enough for another house. Two years later, the Palm Island, Fla., teen has sold both houses and is finishing her sophomore year online with Florida Virtual School, earning mostly A’s and B’s, while fielding offers from Hollywood for a reality TV show.

None of those feats likely would have happened, say Willow and her mother, if she couldn’t pick the best learning option for her.

“I’m doing my school work at 2 in the morning instead of 9 a.m.,’’ Willow said. “I really like that flexibility.’’

The story of Willow’s ingenuity has circulated far and wide, from NPR to the Huffington Post to the Ellen DeGeneres Show. What remains largely untold is how education’s fast-changing landscape and, more specifically, the expansion of online learning, helped propel her success.

When Willow needs an afternoon free to show a house or sell something – or meet with an entertainment attorney, like she did recently – she can take it.

“She came home at 6 p.m. and did school work until 1 in the morning,’’ recalled Willow’s mom, Shannon Moore. “That’s what works for us.’’ Continue Reading →

redefinED roundup: NC injunction against vouchers, virtual school ban in IL, voucher talk in AK, KS and ID


Alaska: The state’s Blaine Amendment prohibits voucher programs which is why the state legislature seeks to pass a constitutional amendment (Anchorage Daily News). Vouchers discussed in the state assembly (The Frontiersman). Support for the amendment decreases (Alaska Dispatch).  Even though the proposed amendment does not create a voucher program, Dermot Cole, the editor of the Alaska Dispatch, says supporters must estimate the costs of a voucher program. The charter school movement grows statewide (Coolidge Examiner). Rural parents voice concerns about school choice (The Seward Phoenix Log). Should voters decide the amendment (Alaska Dispatch)? Two Democrats argue that magnet and charter schools are enough choice for parents (Anchorage Daily News). The mayor of Anchorage argues that many western democracies fund public and private schools (Anchorage Daily News).

Arizona: The non-profit running the phone calls to parents informing them of their right to school choice says the phone numbers were bought from a private agency, not the state Department of Education (Arizona Republic).

Connecticut: Gov. Dannel Malloy wants charter schools to access the school safety grant fund (West Hartford News).

D.C.: The charter school board postpones its vote to close a low-performing charter school (Washington Post).

Delaware: Two charter schools could serve as models for Rep. Eric Cantor (Daily Caller).

Florida: In a column at The Ledger, former state Sen. Paul Dockery argues for more school spending, less testing and that tax credit scholarship students take the FCAT. A new bill on the tax credit scholarship program looks to increase the scholarship amount and cap while allowing higher-income families access to partial scholarships (redefinEDNews Service of Florida, Associated Press). Two school choice advocates argue that forcing private schools to administer the FCAT may weaken the appeal of private schools (Orlando Sentinel). The Florida League of Women Voters opposes expanding the tax credit scholarship program, arguing that private schools are too different from public schools (Orlando Advocate). Financial errors between district and charter schools will cost the Broward County School District $1.7 million in fines (Miami Herald, NBC 4). Julie Young led the Florida Virtual School for 16 years before retiring (Education Next). Continue Reading →

Florida schools roundup: Vouchers, fundamental schools, testing & more

Vouchers: Standardized testing would threaten private-school appeal, writes the Orlando Sentinel.  The president of the League of Women Voters of Florida says expanding private scholarships is a further abdication of the state’s responsibility to provide a high quality education to Florida’s children. Orlando Advocate.

florida-roundup-logoFundamental schools: Is St. Petersburg’s fundamental school within a school working? Tampa Bay Times.

District schools: Escambia County’s Warrington Middle School continues to fail its students – and improving the school will take a community-wide effort that must begin this week, writes the Pensacola News-Journal. Hillsborough County’s Brandon High celebrates 100 years. The Tampa Tribune. A Duval County high school hosts a conversation about volunteerism, bridging disparities and the community roll of a historic African-American school. StateImpact Florida.

Teachers: Hundreds of thousands of Florida teacher evaluation scores that measure effectiveness on student learning are released after the Florida Times-Union wins lengthy legal battle. The Department of Education sends teachers a message about the release of records. Florida Times-Union. This Duval County teacher’s class is all about goals. Florida Times-Union.

Ed leg: If the Legislature adjourns after its upcoming session without passing a single education-related bill, there will still be big changes coming to Florida classrooms this fall. Tallahassee Democrat. Pop-Tarts law is gun lobbying we don’t need at school, writes Sue Carlton for the Tampa Bay Times.

State testing: Florida’s students are getting ready to write the final chapter in a 17-year saga known as the FCAT. Sun Sentinel. FCAT season begins this week with a low-stakes writing assessment that over the years has seemed to have little purpose. TC Palm. Sen. John Legg aims to address over-testing in Florida public schools. Tampa Bay Times. This coming week marks the beginning of the end for the four most hated letters in Florida education: FCAT. Palm Beach Post.

Common Core: Why less is more for a rural Florida school preparing students for the new education standards. StateImpact Florida.

School boards: Hillsborough County School Board member April Griffin decides to seek a third term after all, citing issues within the school district’s transportation and special education departments that she believes have not been resolved. The Tampa Tribune. The Black Educators Caucus of Palm Beach County still backs the district superintendent, but wants progress report. Palm Beach Post.  For Polk County’s assistant superintendent, it’s all about the kids. The Ledger.

Continue Reading →

School choice scholarship ensures he doesn’t get lost in a crowd



Editor’s note: As we point out often, this blog is co-hosted by Step Up For Students, which administers Florida’s tax credit scholarship program for low-income students. Step Up periodically profiles students who benefit from the program, and though we strive not to be a vehicle for self-promotion, we think it’s important for policy makers and the public to hear more from families who benefit from school choice. Here is the story of one of them.

Even in the womb, doctors noticed Semaj Iwan Mack was considerably smaller than other babies. By the time he was 3, physicians decided it was time to start growth hormones, but before they began decided to perform an MRI – just in case.

That’s when they discovered a cyst growing on the toddler’s pituitary gland, said his mother Bridget Geiger Pye. The pea-sized gland sits at the base of the brain and naturally produces, among other things, the growth hormone.

“It was causing him not to grow well,” she said.

Three weeks after the cyst’s discovery in 2011, surgeons performed a procedure not to remove the cyst, but to puncture it and create a drainage system to alleviate pressure on Semaj’s brain. But, Bridget said, something went terribly wrong.

“The doctor accidentally nicked a vessel in his brain,” she said.

The result was similar to a stroke, causing paralysis on Semaj’s left side.

“He was on life support for two days,” Bridget said. “He woke up and had tubes and everything draining from him. We lived in the hospital and he couldn’t move. He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t do anything.”

He had to learn to walk and talk all over again. Still, Semaj was home by that Christmas and was able to run again for the first time that January.

“They said that he was healing so fast because he was a child,” Bridget recalled. “Of course, I believe in the power of prayer.”

More than two years later, Semaj, now a kindergartener, is doing beautifully. He still doesn’t have full mobility and needs to use his two hands to perform a simple task such as holding a school folder, and he still requires speech and occupational therapy, but he has come a long way since those days immediately following surgery. And while he once didn’t even register on the growth charts for his age group, he is within the 10th percentile in height. He’s still the shortest boy in his class, but he’s on par with some of the girls, Bridget said.

When it came time for Semaj to start kindergarten, Bridget, who also has two grown children, wanted to make sure he would get the extra attention he needed. She toured the neighborhood school.

“I felt like my son would get pushed aside and forgotten,” said the single mom. “Maybe even pushed into a special (needs) class.”

And she didn’t think she could send him to a private school. While Semaj was still recovering in the hospital, Bridget lost her job in the U.S. Navy when her position was deemed non-critical after the Navy restructured due to overstaffing. After her dismissal, she took on a job paying $25,000 less a year.

She thought private school was impossible at this point, and then her son’s babysitter told her about the Step Up school choice program. “The Step Up program has eased my mind so much that I can’t put into words how thankful I am,” Bridget said. “My son is loved at that school and he’s getting the extra attention and time he needs.” Continue Reading →

Florida schools roundup: Vouchers, charter schools, tech ed & more

Vouchers: Three weeks after Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford promised a “massive increase” in school choice scholarships for underprivileged schoolchildren, his chamber releases a 40-page bill. redefinED. The proposal is expected to be one of the most-contentious education battles of the 2014 legislative session. The News Service of Florida. More from CBS Miami.

florida-roundup-logoCharter schools: Hillsborough County charter school operators organize their first school choice fair for parents and students to learn about nontraditional public school offerings. The Tampa Tribune. 

Technology: Leon County and other school districts across the state begin to realize the potential of putting a computer in every student’s hands, and the obstacles they will have to clear to make that happen. Tallahassee Democrat. Pasco classrooms are opening up to new technology coaches. Tampa Bay Times.

Rick Scott: As a Florida governor, Rick Scott will never be confused with Jeb Bush. Tampa Bay Times.

School boards: Palm Beach school board members should be careful bypassing the superintendent to deal with district personnel issues, writes the Palm Beach Post.

2014 session: Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg tells the Gradebook there is no must-pass bill this year. House Democrats say session will be ‘class warfare.’ The Florida News Current.

Continue Reading →

More access & oversight proposed for FL tax credit scholarships

Jon East

Jon East

Three weeks after Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford promised a “massive increase” in school choice scholarships for underprivileged schoolchildren, his chamber has released a 40-page bill. By common political measurement, he has lived up to his word.

The bill takes broad aim at the Tax Credit Scholarship, which has tripled its enrollment in the past six years but is still struggling to keep pace with demand. This year, the scholarship is serving 59,674 K-12 students in 1,414 private schools, yet applications were shut off nearly two months early with 34,000 more students who had already started.

The main reason the enrollment is limited is because the scholarship is financed by corporate contributions that receive a dollar-for-dollar state tax credit, and those credits are capped by budget writers. That puts them on a different footing than scholarships for disabled students or charter schools or most any other choice option, none of which have statewide enrollment limits. So the bill takes a stab at accelerating an already ambitious rate of growth.

Under current law, the cap is set to increase from $286.2 million this year to $357.8 million next year, under a formula that allows it to grow by 25 percent following any year in which 90 percent of the cap is reached. The House bill would up that ante by roughly $32 million, taking the cap in 2014-15 to $390 million and allowing the program to serve an estimated 75,000 students. In turn, the cap in the following three years would also be increased beyond current law by roughly $30 million, which means it could grow to $475 million, $590 million and $730 million. By that fourth year, enrollment could have doubled, to nearly 120,000 students.

Regular readers of this blog will know it is produced by Step Up For Students, which helps administer the tax credit scholarship (three other nonprofits have also signed up to do that next year). So we can claim a thorough working knowledge of the scholarship and how the bill might affect it, even as we acknowledge our obvious potential for bias here.

The increase in the cap is but one of at least a half-dozen bill features that are worthy of note.  In no particular order, the bill would also:

•             Increase the scholarship amount. The current scholarship, $4,880, is the lowest-cost education option in the state and covers only about two-thirds of the average tuition and fees for participating schools. Every year, thousands of students are approved for scholarships but then turn them down because their families cannot afford to cover the gap. The scholarship is pegged to the unweighted average of the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP), which is the technical description for how much operational money the state budgets for each public school student. The scholarship is on a path to reach 80 percent of the FEFP in 2015-16. The bill would take that one step further, to 84 percent, in 2016-17.

•             Partial scholarships for higher-income students. The scholarship is targeted at students whose household income qualifies them for free or reduced-price lunch, which is 185 percent of poverty or $44,122 for a household of four. These students can remain on the program, as long as their household income does not exceed 230 percent of poverty, with the scholarship amount being reduced in the process. But there is no way for a new student with income greater than 185 percent to get any scholarship help. The bill would change that by allowing partial scholarships for both new and existing students. The scholarship amount would be reduced in proportion to the size of the income. At the top, a student whose household income is 260 percent of poverty, or $62,010 for a household of four, would be eligible for a 50 percent scholarship. The bill mandates that students in the lowest-income category, 185 percent and below, receive first priority. It also would require that any new partial-scholarship student have attended a public school the prior year, except for those entering kindergarten and first grade.

•             A sixth tax source. The bill would add the sales tax to the other five tax sources for which companies can receive dollar-for-dollar state tax credits for contributions to scholarship organizations. The potential sales tax pot would be the biggest of the six, but adding it to the mix has no impact on the state budget because the tax credits are capped across the board. In other words, the size of tax-credit pie is the same, but this change would allow it to be sliced into six pieces, not five. The sales tax credits would pose no legal obstacles under the 2006 Bush v. Holmes decision outlawing Opportunity Scholarships, according to constitutional attorney Barry Richard, because they are not earmarked or appropriated specifically for public education. Continue Reading →

Mr. Gibbons’ Report Card: Ed leaders tout school choice, professor outraged about informing parents of choice

MrGibbonsReportCardJohn Huppenthal and John Deasy

John Huppenthal is the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction. John Deasy is the Superintendent of the LA Unified School District. They’re both leaders of public education.


They’re also big supporters of school choice.

Huppenthal participated in a phone campaign in Arizona that targeted low-income parents (and upset many school choice critics). The call informed parents of their right to choose a private or public school through the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program.


Meanwhile, Deasy spoke at the School Choice Week rally in L.A. and told the crowd, “We believe that every single family and student has the right to a choice of a highly effective school in Los Angeles.”

These two men represent a “new guard” of education leadership that sees public education in a better way. To them (and many others), public education is not a destination, but the idea that the public helps children find the best possible education, wherever that might be.

Grade: Satisfactory

Continue Reading →

Florida schools roundup: Charters, religious schools, Common Core & more

Charter schools: Three Broward County charter schools could owe the state as much as $1.5 million for failing to provide sufficient instructional hours and receiving funds for ineligible students, and the district is worried it may get stuck with the bill. Sun Sentinel. More from the Miami Herald.

Faith-based schools: The University of Notre Dame and the Alliance for Catholic Education park their national tour bus at Sacred Heart in Pinellas Park to promote Catholic schools. redefinED.

florida-roundup-logoBetter Ed: Let’s remove the hurdles, reduce the bureaucracy, and empower teachers with the resources and autonomy to allow them to do their jobs, writes former Florida Sen. Paula Dockery for The Ledger. Florida students of all races Continue to meet higher standards in education. Sunshine State News.

Common Core: Florida Parents Against Common Core co-founder Laura Zorc says she is undaunted by the Florida State Board of Education’s vote pushing forward the Common Core State Standards and will continue to fight to stop implementation of the new measures. TC Palm. An Orlando mom explains why Florida’s testing policy needs to change. StateImpact Florida.

School boards: Palm Beach County School Board members warn the superintendent that if he doesn’t hire a chief of staff soon – they will. Palm Beach Post. Charles Brink, the businessman-turned-education advocate, is not running for the Hillsborough County School Board after all. Tampa Bay Times.

School spending: The Manatee County School District Audit Committee calls the internal information technology department “outdated and inflexible.” Bradenton Herald. Rising prescription drug costs and coverage plans for retirees may add up to higher health insurance costs for Pinellas County school employees next year. The Tampa Tribune.

Teachers: Hillsborough County’s top teacher of the year finalists welcome the challenges of modern education. The Tampa Tribune.

Bullying: Harlem Globetrotter Shane “Scooter” Christensen talks to Pensacola elementary students about bullying and its impact on schools. Pensacola News-Journal.

Conduct: The Broward School Board dismisses its complaint against a Weston teacher accused of sleeping at his desk after an administrative law judge says it’s impossible to prove the educator dozed off. Sun Sentinel.