‘Historic’ private school conference kicks off in Lakeland

Geoff Fox

Elementary school teacher Michael Bonner, now a nationally recognized education spokesman, delivers the keynote address at the Step Up For Students Gardiner and Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Conference in Lakeland.

Lakeland, Fla. – More than 850 private school educators packed Victory Christian Academy this morning for a two-day conference featuring national speakers and workshops on teaching, learning and student assessment in Florida.

The conference, organized by the state’s largest scholarship funding organization, draws its audience from educators whose schools participate in state scholarship and voucher programs serving roughly 140,000 students. As such, Doug Tuthill, president of that organization, Step Up For Students, called the event “historic.”

“Our Office of Student Learning has worked incredibly hard to put this together,” Tuthill said. “Educators from every corner of the state have come together to learn how to better serve their students.”

Scheduled topics at the “Step Up For Students Gardiner & Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Conference” include how to use data to drive instruction, teaching silent reading fluency, and transitioning students from high school to college. Additional sessions will include classroom management, social and emotional learning, and how to create an equity-focused school. 

In a keynote address, elementary school teacher Michael Bonner, now a nationally recognized education spokesman, explained how he uses the power of self-reflection and creative thinking at a high-poverty elementary school in North Carolina, stressing that “poverty is not a learning disability.”

“It takes a special teacher (to educate impoverished students) and those teachers are here today,” Bonner said. “I held my students to high expectations, because they’re going into a society where there are stereotypes and implicit biases, and I refuse to let them fall victim. Every student deserves a great education by design.”

Carol Macedonia, vice president of Step Up’s Office of Student Learning, said during opening remarks that the size of the audience demonstrated educators’ passion for teaching children using the effective methods available.

“Our hope is that the experiences you will share these next two days will in some small way help with making those difficult educational decisions, aid you as you zero in on a much-needed key school improvement initiative or perhaps nudge you to make an organizational or philosophical course correction to ensure that the underserved – those students who struggle to learn – are given every possible opportunity and support they need to thrive,” Macedonia said.

Stacy Angier, principal of Abundant Life Christian Academy in Margate, came to the conference with six other educators from her school to learn how to more effectively teach students and keep teachers motivated.

“It should be a great time to learn professional growth strategies and build relationships with other school leaders, as well as the Step Up team,” Angier said.

JaDean Stricker, principal at Jubilee Christian Academy, traveled to Lakeland from Pensacola eager to learn more about cognitive training, which provides strategies for helping students who struggle with hindrances to learning.

“It’s a vital tool that is helping a lot of schools these days,” Stricker said. “Anything that helps you reach those kids you struggle the most to reach is worthwhile.”

National speakers in addition to Bonner scheduled to appear include Katie Swingle, mother of a son diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, who will speak about the value of school choice, and in particular, positive ways the Gardiner Scholarship can assist families of special needs students. 

Rebekah Phillips, author, illustrator and founder of Pawz Publishing, also will appear.

The common denominator among conference attendees is their participation in the nation’s largest school choice program. More than 1,800 private schools this past year served 140,000 students in four different programs: the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for economically disadvantaged students, the Gardiner and McKay scholarships for students with special needs, and the Hope Scholarship for public school students who have been bullied.

Step Up president Tuthill noted that more educators applied for a seat at the conference than the host school could accommodate.

“We’re already making plans for a bigger and better conference next year,” he said.

To view the full conference agenda, click here.

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