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.”
Semaj attends Trinity Christian Academy in Jacksonville, which is the same school he attended in preschool when his mother had the better-paying job.
“He’s getting the one-on-one attention he needs,” Bridget said. “The school is small so all of the teachers and principal know him.”
Kingergarten teacher Jennifer Isaac speaks very highly of Semaj.
“Semaj is just one of those students when he walks into the room, he has a presence. He has a big personality. He’s always positive. He is very sweet, very nice, very loving,” she said.
Jennifer has seen much improvement in Semaj since the beginning of the year. “He struggles with his fine motor skills, but academically, he’s one of my top students,” she said. “He’s really progressing.”
Some of that progress is noticed when he has an easier time hanging his coat up on a hook, or closing the top of his snack container. His frustration caused from not being able to easily perform certain tasks, like opening his school folders, has mellowed.
“If he was anywhere else,” said Jennifer, “I think he could get lost in a crowd.”
About Trinity Christian Academy
Established in 1967, Trinity Christian Academy currently serves over 1,500 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Nearly 310 of those students are Step Up scholars. Trinity Christian is dedicated to educating the entire student, academically, spiritually and socially, and hires qualified teachers to provide that strong foundation. The school also offers chapel services, music, physical education classes, and numerous athletics programs. For the 2013-14 school year, tuition ranges from $4,399 for kindergarteners to $6,358 for 12th-graders. The school uses Stanford Achievement Tests to measure academic success. It is accredited by Southern Association of Colleges and Schools – Council on Accreditation and School Improvement, as well as through the Florida Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Inc.