Even with a Gardiner Scholarship in hand, Karen Vega grew increasingly worried as she was unable to find a school for her three young boys who have high functioning autism in Ocala, Fla., a small city in North Central Florida.
Although she looked, no school provided a good fit. One even refused to enroll students with the state scholarship for students with special needs. (Step Up For Students, the publisher of this blog, helps administer that scholarship.)
“We were trying to find a school that did not exist,” said Vega.
But when she couldn’t find the right school, Vega teamed up with another mom, AnnMarie Sossong, to create one.
Vega serves as the executive director of the Outreach Autism Services Network, a nonprofit providing support services to parents and students with autism. She had long dreamed of starting a school. Sossong, a 27-year education veteran and mom of an autistic child herself, shared the same dream.
The two moms’ vision for a school aligned, and in August 2016, they founded Ocala Preparatory Academy.
The academy serves 50 students in grades K-12. Of those, 24 are on a Gardiner Scholarship, and 12 are on Florida tax credit scholarships, also administered by Step Up For Students. The remaining students are enrolled with support from McKay scholarships.
“We don’t have an autism school,” said AnnMarie Sossong, lead teacher at the academy. “We have a school.”
At Ocala Prep, students and teachers don’t like to use labels.
“We don’t have students with special needs,” Vega said. “We have students.”
The school integrates personalized learning, which tailors the pace of activities and instruction to the needs of each student. Every student has an individual program designed exclusively for their needs and abilities, as well as a say in how that program is designed.
Students are grouped in classes based on academics, not age or grade. A ninth grader with autism and struggling to read may be in a class with mostly middle school students. The students help and encourage each other, the school founders said.
“Small class sizes are good for all students — students that need additional supports, gifted students and typically developing students,” said Vega.
Vega said having students of different learning types work together increases their awareness and respect of one another.
“They are looking at the heart of the kid,” she said. “There is no bullying. The kids all love each other here. Here everyone becomes extended family.”
There is one teacher for every 10 students and a number of teacher aides to help facilitate learning, Sossong added.
The small classrooms are certainly beneficial in facilitating more one-on-one learning, according to educators at the school.
At the same time, grading is standards-based and mastery-based. Students are expected to take standardized tests.
They are also taught life skills such as gardening, where they plant their own vegetables. The school teaches cleaning, social skills and how to balance a checkbook.
Stories of success
Sossong said creating an individualized program for each student can improve student achievement.
“You are meeting them where their individual need is,” she said. “You are meeting them where their interests are.”
She shared the story of Sam, a 13-year-old who came to the school reading and performing math at the fourth-grade level. Sam is now performing two and half grades higher in math because of the school’s personalized learning program, Sossong said.
Sam said he used to be horrible at math. But after enrolling in the Academy, he now understands the concepts.
“I am a math nerd,” he said with a grin, explaining he hopes to help his father with his auto parts store when he grows up.
Sossong said Sam is one of many success stories at the school.
Isaiah, 14, also struggled when he arrived at the academy. He was understanding concepts at a middle school level.
Now he is taking high school courses and scored above high school level on the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test, Sossong said.
Isaiah said the pace of learning at the academy helps him grasp new concepts.
“You can learn more what you need to learn at your own pace,” he said.
Isaiah said he gravitates toward English and history classes, explaining he is interested in writing.
When he graduates he wants to become an electrical engineer.
“They are just loving every minute of being here,” said Vega. “This is what these choice schools can do for these kids. It can make them excited about learning again.”
The school also focuses on helping students overcome challenges, Vega said.
“A lot of what you do is based on grit,” she said. “You get to the bottom of your heart and soul and say, how are you going to overcome it?”
Vega said she expects the school will become accredited in three years.
“We want them to go on to … an Ivy League school, or state school,” she said of her students. “We want them to be prepared to go onto the next level. We are really preparing these kids for the next level, whatever that next level may be.”