Editor’s note: During this holiday season, redefinED is republishing our best articles of 2019 – those features and commentaries that deserve a second look. This student spotlight from Step Up For Students’ strategic communications manager Scott Kent originally published Jan. 14.
LAKE PLACID, Florida — Jordyn Simmons-Outland is a fifth-grader who was in need of a lifeline.
The 10-year-old has a sweet demeanor and a love for the online video game Fortnite. However, his lack of self-confidence made him a target for bullying in his public school since the second grade. Teased about his weight. Tripped and hit. Complaints to teachers and administrators failed to bring relief.
In the past year, the physical and emotional abuse had become so bad, he told his grandparents he wished he were dead. He began seeing a therapist.
A new state school choice scholarship, the first of its kind in the nation, provided him with hope – literally.
“I don’t know what I’d do if the scholarship wasn’t available,” said his grandmother, Cathy Simmons, who has been a fierce advocate for her grandson most his life.
Jordyn is the first recipient of Florida’s Hope Scholarship, created by the Legislature in 2018 to give K-12 public school children relief from bullying and violence. More than 47,000 students in Florida reported being bullied during the 2016-17 school year.
The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district. The scholarship value depends on the grade level: $6,519 for K-5, $6,815 for 6-8, and $7,111 for 9-12. The transportation scholarship is worth up to $750 and can be used to attend any out-of-district public school with available space. The scholarships are funded by consumers who choose to redirect up to $105 of their motor vehicle purchase taxes to the program. (Editor’s Note: Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, administers the Hope Scholarship.)
Applications for the new scholarships opened Nov. 1, which proved timely for Jordyn. In September, a girl in school slapped him. That was the last straw for his grandmother, who along with Jordyn’s grandfather Danny Simmons has helped care for the boy for much of his life. She needed to get Jordyn into a new school pronto.
She went to Lakeview Christian School in Lake Placid to inquire about tuition costs. With Cathy and Danny in the process of selling their furniture business, money has been tight. However, Lakeview’s school administrator, Christena Villarreal, and her assistant told her about the new Hope Scholarship.
The Simmonses immediately enrolled Jordyn into Lakeview Christian, then began the process of applying for the Hope. They became conditionally eligible Nov. 2. Cathy received the acceptance letter Nov. 30.
It was like Independence Day.
“I was sitting (upstairs) in the rocking chair when I got the email,” she said. “I just wanted to scream, ‘Hallelujah! Thank you, God!’”
The scholarship means Jordyn can stay in the school where he now fits in. He feels welcomed and comfortable.
“They knew how he was when he got there,” Simmons said of the Lakeview Christian staff. “Jordyn didn’t just go there from the old school. He took baggage with him, too. He took stuff with him to that school.”
Nevertheless, Jordyn says he wasn’t nervous his first day there. “I knew it was going to be good.”
He doesn’t like to talk about his previous school, but he lights up when the subject turns to his new one.
“The people are nice,” he says.
Since the change, not once has he complained he didn’t want to go to school. In fact, after being laid up in bed with an inner ear infection followed by the stomach flu near the end of Christmas break, Jordyn was excited to return to school Jan. 7.
Simmons and Villareal both point to Lakeview Christian’s smaller class sizes as making a big difference for students like Jordyn.
“I like to think we’re a safe place for bullied students,” said Villareal, who noted the school has had several students transfer there because they were bullied elsewhere. “In other schools they might get lost in the shuffle.”
Simmons shows pics of a smiling Jordyn in his fifth-grade class, getting hugged by his teacher, interacting with classmates during their holiday party. According to a Nov. 14 school progress report, Jordyn “is a pleasure to have in class” and “is very polite and courteous.”
A fresh start in a more welcoming environment has boosted Jordyn’s confidence.
Two months ago, he did a mile run at school in 17 minutes. By mid-December, with the help of his new classmates, he completed it in 14 minutes.
“I’m probably the last one to finish, so I’d get really tired and out of breath,” he said. “And they would all get up and try to help me finish it.” They’d cheer him on and run with him.
He says he’s now shooting for finishing in 11 minutes, “maybe 10.”
At Lakeview Christian’s elementary school Christmas concert Dec. 18, Jordyn was one of six students chosen to sing at the front of stage. He wasn’t forced to do it – he volunteered.
So far, 469 private schools have signed up to participate in the Hope Scholarship, and 67 students have been awarded the scholarship. Jordyn and his grandmother are excited and thankful that he was the first.
“Hope is the best description. I keep thinking ‘There is hope, there is hope, there is hope.’ ” Simmons said. “I can’t wait to tell everyone what a blessing the Hope Scholarship has been. Now there’s peace.”