The new paths to college for Florida students with ‘unique abilities’

Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner

Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner

We’ve written in the past about Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner’s agenda to expand educational opportunities for children with special needs, aka unique abilities.

Now, he’s preparing to leave office, and a new center at the University of Central Florida, aimed at helping families navigate college options for their special needs children, is getting started.

This week, he explained the new options the state has created at Gov. Rick Scott’s Degrees to Jobs summit, a gethering of business and higher education leaders, in Orlando. An excerpt of his remarks is included below, lightly edited for length and clarity.

You probably know a family who has struggled with the public-school system, or vocational training, who has a child with autism, or spina bifida, or Down syndrome. And you’ve had an opportunity to hear their story: “What is my child going to do?”

I have a 12-year-old son who was born with Down syndrome … As a father, you start thinking about, what do you do next? What is my son going to have for him, going forward? …

We found that as a state, we did a pretty good job when it came to early intervention, speech therapy, occupational therapy, but as I said 12 years ago…”What next? What happens when that child, that we did so much for when it comes to early learning services, what happens when that child becomes 15 or 16 years old?” …

We started to look at how we prepare a child with a unique ability for the future — for the opportunity to go to school, to be educated with their peers, to be inclusive. …We started to look at, what is the special diploma in the state of Florida? … What can a child do with a special diploma? The reality was they had very little options. And so [former state Sen. John Thrasher] and I decided we were just going to eliminate it.

A lot of the school districts and others pushed back on that, and said, “What are we going to do with these children with unique abilities? We have them in a separate location, now we’ve got to bring them into the regular classroom and put them on a regular diploma track?”

Yeah. … [W]e sent a bill to the governor a bill that said “No, you have to educate these children, just like you educate everybody else.” What that has done is, it has changed the dynamic when it comes to individuals with unique abilities.

The reason we’re here today is to talk about the next step for a child with a unique ability. … What can we do to truly empower a parent when they’re on this journey, just like we started 12 years ago?…

This program, which we started 3 years ago, was originally called the Personal Learning Scholarship Account. [It’s now called the Gardiner scholarship, and Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the program].

That scholarship program is $10,000 that the parent controls, and the parent can say, we want to use half of the money towards tuition at a school, or we want to use all of it for speech therapy, occupational therapy, whatever is best for their child at their particular time, because every child is different, and that’s why we say they don’t have disabilities. They have a unique ability, and our job is to figure out exactly what that is, and to capitalize on that.

… If they want to, parents on this scholarship program can only use $5,000 for a particular fiscal year, and they can keep rolling those dollars over for the sole purpose of helping pay for post-secondary options in the state of Florida.

This is an exciting opportunity for the family, and an exciting opportunity as we start to think about how we create degrees and jobs for individuals with unique abilities. …

What do we do for individuals with unique abilities that want to go to college? It happens, and it happens very regularly. … How do we incorporate all the great to opportunities to actually go to college, and not just go to college, but actually have an experience, actually receive something to go on to work?”

Last year … we created, at the University of Central Florida, the Center for Individuals with Unique Abilities.

As a parent, whenever that diagnosis happens, you are overwhelmed by too much information, and lack of information, all the way across the board.

The center … will be a clearinghouse for all the different programs around the state of Florida, and it will set standards. We want you to have these kids on your campus, but what are they going to learn, and what are they going to be able use, to get a job? That’s why they’re here: to talk about that independence, and having that opportunity for having a wonderful future. …

Right now there are 10 individuals with unique abilities — several with Down Syndrome, several in wheelchairs, who have gone to the University of Central Florida for a year, have lived on campus, and who are working towards a degree and an option for their future.

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