Stephanie and David Gilbert exercise education choice to its fullest, having selected two different private schools, a school for children with special needs, a traditional district school and homeschooling for their five children. Pictured center front is Becca; left to right in the second row are Thomas, Mackenzie, Melissa and Hailey.

PENSACOLA, Fla. — Florida’s hurricane season begins in June, but in the Gilbert household, the wind starts blowing in August.

The family’s perfect storm of activity will commence next week with the first day of the new school year. Stephanie Gilbert will load her five children into the car at 7 a.m. for a 30-minute drive to take Melissa and Thomas to West Florida Baptist Academy in Milton.

From there, it’s a 15-mile drive to get Becca to Phoenix Learning Academy by 8, followed by a quick jaunt back to Pensacola to get Mackenzie to Washington Senior High by 8:30. Gilbert then returns to where she started with her youngest, Hailey, who she homeschools.

All told, the morning sojourn distributes five children to one public school, two different private schools, and finally back to a home school. Gilbert travels 80 miles per day, 180 days a year, putting her in the eye of a cyclone of school choice.

“If there was one school I could send all my kids to, that would make my life a lot easier,” said Gilbert with a laugh. But there is nothing easy about raising five children, some of whom have special needs.

Over the last 20 years Florida has become a national leader in school choice. Every year, parents choose from a variety of public and private options including open enrollment, magnet schools, charter schools, virtual schools, home schools and private schools. Roughly 40 percent of Florida’s K-12 students who are funded by the taxpayers now attend schools other than their assigned neighborhood school. A growing number of those students are enrolled different educational options, even while living  under the same roof.

The Gilbert family is one such household. With five children (four adopted) having five unique needs, multiple educational choices were a necessity.

Gilbert and her husband, David, ran a foster home for several years with the hope of adopting a neurotypical child under the age of 6. But such adoptions are extremely rare. Gilbert’s step-daughter Mackenzie, 15, who was being raised by grandparents who could no longer care for her, was the first to join the family.

After years of trying to adopt, it wasn’t a neurotypical toddler who joined the Gilbert family but sisters with special needs: Hailey, 12, has autism and her sister Becca, 15, has cerebral palsy, autism and remains nonverbal.

The Gilberts soon added Thomas, 12, and Melissa, 13.

Each child came with their own exceptional needs that made it impossible for one public school to serve all of them.

Mackenzie is neurotypical and attends Washington Senior High, where she is on A-B Honor Roll. Public school works wonders for her, but it wasn’t always the right fit for her siblings.

Thomas ran away from school and the police would haul him back. Melissa got mixed up with the wrong crowd while trying to fit in. Hailey wasn’t ready academically, socially, or emotionally for sixth grade. Becca was bringing home geography and even algebra homework when she was incapable of reading or writing, let alone even holding a pencil on her own.

Becca spent much of her early years in a wheelchair, unable to speak, communicate or make eye contact. Stephanie described Becca as angry and aggressive when they first met, but after years of ABA, OT, PT, and speech therapy, Becca has become “a total goofball” according to her mom.

Developmentally she has the mind of a 2-year-old, but she smiles, walks, runs and even communicates with the help of a mobile app called Verbal Victor, which translates images into words.

At Phoenix Learning Academy, a private school for children with special needs, Becca focuses on life skills, which include tasks such as learning to brush her own hair. Students at the school even have jobs at a local thrift store where they learn to fold clothes and sort items.

Without the McKay Scholarship the Gilberts could not afford the school’s tuition.

“Adopting children with severe learning disabilities is a lifetime commitment,” says Gilbert, but it is also a life-changing experience.

Becca’s special needs have influenced her siblings to learn empathy and embrace differences. Becca has even influenced the career paths of her sisters. Mackenzie wants to be a behavioral therapist, while Hailey wants to be a home health nurse when she grows up.

Private school worked well for Becca, but Hailey’s first attempt at a private school using McKay didn’t go as well. Hailey struggled academically and remains behind her peers. If she returned to public school Hailey would be a sixth-grader, but according to Gilbert, Hailey is working on a third- and fourth-grade level. Because the local public school won’t accept her in any grade lower than sixth, her mom home-schools her. Home education allows Gilbert to keep Hailey’s focus on academic material she needs to master so she can be set up to successfully graduate with a high school diploma one day.

Thomas had already been in-and-out of seven different foster homes and was returned by three additional prospective adoptive parents before he found a home with the Gilberts. He lashed out with anger as a result of his unsteady upbringing. He has been enrolled in public school, private school, and was even educated at home by his mom. He’s made considerable progress on his behavioral issues recently, and his mom believes he’s destined for college if he can remain in control. Thomas is attending West Florida Baptist Academy for the second year this fall with the help of the Tax Credit Scholarship from Step Up For Students (which hosts this blog).

His sister Melissa will be joining him at West Florida. After getting lost at a larger public school and joining the wrong crowd in an attempt to fit in and make friends, Gilbert believes her daughter will benefit from the smaller school and smaller class sizes.

Educational choices made all the difference in the world to the Gilberts.

“I don’t know how we could have adopted all these kids with special needs if public schools were our only option,” said Gilbert.

She harbors no ill-will toward public schools; in fact, she believes they are under-resourced. But she also knows that not all children can learn in the same way, or within the same environment.

Before she started this family, Stephanie had no idea how much each child would each change over time, or how their needs would transform as well. The ability to find different schools to meet those unique and changing needs became invaluable.

As a new school year begins, Stephanie Gilbert prepares to ride the whirlwind again, but she knows her children reap the benefits. 

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