Author Archive | Sherri Ackerman

A ‘really special’ school, plus some extra help

Note: This student spotlight originally appeared on Step Up For Students’ “Stepping Beyond the Scholarship” blog.  Step Up For Students is also host of redefinED.

Liam Thomas has Down syndrome and benefits from weekly occupational and speech therapies. But the 9-year-old whirl of energy wants to do what other kids do at school like walk down the hall with friends, eat lunch in the cafeteria and sit at his own desk.

He gets all of that and more at Morning Star School, a small, private Catholic school in Pinellas Park that serves students with special needs.

“He loves it!’’ said Liam’s mom, Stacey Thomas, a licensed speech therapist who discovered the school while interning as a graduate student.Stacey and Liam family photo

Because of his disability, Liam qualified for the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA) through Step Up For Students. The state-funded program works like an educational savings account, letting Liam’s parents choose how to spend the additional dollars – on average, about $10,000 a year per child – from approved options.

Liam’s scholarship covers Morning Star’s annual $9,850 tuition and another $855 in dues and fees for books, technology, speech evaluations and more. Money left over can go toward future expenses, including college. Families are eligible based on their children’s need, not household income. Continue Reading →


Making academic progress at an ACE Academy

shawnayShawnay Glenn’s neighborhood school seemed like a good fit as she began her formal education.

Prekindergarten through first grade were good years for the little girl with the big smile, her mother recalled. But by second grade, there were signs of struggle.

“We started getting called in for conferences,’’ Melody Rodriguez said. “I had always heard, ‘She’s wonderful. We love her.’ ’’

But now teachers also were telling her Shawnay was having a hard time with reading and math.

So the single mom devoted more time toward sharpening Shawnay’s skills. They shared books and focused on telling stories to bolster Shawnay’s reading comprehension and memory. They practiced addition and subtraction relentlessly. Still, a third-grade state assessment showed Shawnay wasn’t improving – she was falling further behind.

“And I said to myself, ‘If she’s struggling now, in elementary school, what’s going to happen in middle school?’ ’’ Rodriguez said. “I’ve got to see if I can turn this around.’’

Mother and daughter continued to study together. But when Shawnay started sixth grade, they agreed to try something new. Continue Reading →


School choice scholarship helped her get the support she needed

School choice scholarship keyante


Of the 11 children Dorothy Stephenson has raised – two hers and the rest relatives – all but one attended Orange County public schools.

“They did really well,” Dorothy said. “They all got their diplomas.”

But niece Keyante Scott, diagnosed with a learning disability, couldn’t keep pace with her neighborhood elementary school peers – and her teachers couldn’t seem to help.

“They just kept retaining her,” said Dorothy, a reimbursement specialist for 4C Community Coordinated Child Care in Orlando.

When Keyante was headed into the sixth grade – and another year of struggles – her aunt searched for options. A private school with small classes and a strong academic focus seemed like the perfect solution, until Dorothy, a single parent, saw the price tag.

That’s when she discovered she could receive tuition assistance with the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, a program Step Up For Students helps administer.

After qualifying, Dorothy enrolled Keyante into Bridge to Independence, a college-preparatory private school in Orlando that accepts the scholarship.

“I liked what I saw,” Dorothy said. Continue Reading →


School choice scholarship helps family overcome tragedy

Derek SchroederAfter a decade of their son using a Step Up For Students school choice scholarship, Lisa and Michael Schroeder wanted another student to benefit from the opportunity.

So with their family-owned radio station back on solid ground, the couple decided not to reapply for the tuition assistance that helped keep their son, Derek, enrolled at Trinitas Christian School in Pensacola since kindergarten.

“Things were turning around for us, financially,’’ Lisa said.

But shortly after Derek began his sophomore year in 2011, his father, who managed the radio station, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He died three months later.

“Everything went upside down,’’ recalled Lisa, who works as a special events coordinator at the small private school that graduated her two older sons (who weren’t on scholarship). Continue Reading →


Thanks to school choice scholarship, “he’s where he needs to be”

The BluesWhen Julie Blue agreed to be a foster parent to brothers Logan and Mason, she knew she wanted to send them to a high-performing school.

Blue attended a private elementary school as a child and later worked as a private school P.E. coach after a decade employed by Broward County public schools.

A private education with individual instruction and a safe environment seemed the best fit for the boys, who had been abused and neglected by their biological family before social workers took custody.

Today, the children are legally Blue’s sons and enrolled in Calvary Christian Academy, a private pre-K-12 school in Fort Lauderdale. Logan is a third-grader catching up quickly with his peers and Mason is thriving in a pre-K class.

“To be able to give them this same opportunity is a gift,’’ said Blue, a single parent who relies on tuition assistance from the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, a parental school choice program administered by Step Up For Students (which co-hosts this blog). “I would not be able to send them to this school without it.’’

Logan, who just turned 10, received a full scholarship this year. The award covers roughly half of the academy’s $8,500 annual tuition plus fees. Blue pays about $6,500 for Mason, 4, who will become a Step Up scholar next school year when he is a kindergartner.

The private school price tag is an adjustment, said Blue, a swim school operator. She works harder growing her business, rarely eats out, rents movies instead of going to the theater and shops with coupons.

“It’s a sacrifice,’’ she said, “but it doesn’t feel like one when you see the fruits of your labor.’’

Continue Reading →


School choice scholarship student pays it forward



When Lynden Simmons was in the eighth grade, his family had to move into a homeless shelter. It was the longest three months of his life.

At school, he smiled like he always did and joked with friends. At the shelter, Lynden kept to himself. He had chores, like the rest of his family, and a curfew. Homework became a refuge.

“I just did what I had to do,’’ he said.

Instead of letting the experience disrupt his life, Lynden called upon it for motivation. That year was among his best, academically.

“It encouraged him to work harder,’’ said the teen’s mom, Linda Jones, a sporadically-employed housekeeper from the Bahamas who battles Lupus and struggles to read and write English. “It pushed him.’’

Lynden went from a high-performing public middle school to Christopher Columbus High School, a prestigious Catholic school with a student roster made up of some of Miami’s wealthiest and most notable families.

He made it there – and has stayed there – due to a tremendous work ethic and a little extra help, including a school choice scholarship from Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog. Now he’s the junior class vice president vying for a coveted spot on the varsity basketball team.

And at just 16, Lynden’s also the president of 305-United, a relatively new nonprofit founded and operated by students predominantly from Catholic schools across South Florida. Their mission: to help less fortunate families by doing good deeds like raising money to buy toys for children in shelters.

For Lynden, the outreach is especially poignant.

“It makes me remember to never forget where I came from,’’ he said. “And I was there.’’ Continue Reading →

Private school in Haiti gets help from U.S. charter school company

Charter Schools USA is one of the nation’s largest for-profit charter school management companies, with 58 schools in seven states. But the Florida-based organization also has a charitable arm that’s helping a hardscrabble private school in Haiti.

Students of the Genecoit School of Excellence in Haiti may have a new school building by the end of this year. Charter Schools USA, through its charitable arm, is raising money to help build the private, tuition-free school.  PHOTO: Charter Schools USA

Students of the Genecoit School of Excellence in Haiti may have a new school building by the end of this year. Charter Schools USA, through its charitable arm, is raising money to help build the private, tuition-free school. PHOTO: Charter Schools USA

The Giving Tree Foundation has pledged to raise $250,000 to build a new tuition-free school in Francois, a remote mountain village about an hour and a half outside of the capital of Port-au-Prince. In addition, Charter Schools USA founder and chief executive officer Jonathan Hage has offered to match the funds.

The new school is slated to open in the fall.

A half-a-million dollars will go a long way in a village where few residents have access to running water and electricity, said Richard Page, vice president of development for CSUSA. Page traveled to Haiti in December with his wife and their two daughters to see the school and help deliver 700 Christmas presents to the local children. For many, it was the first Christmas gift they had ever received.

For now, the Genecoit School of Excellence is in a one-room, dilapidated building. It employs about a dozen teachers and serves 119 students in K-6. There are no laptops or Smart Boards, or even enough books.

“The conditions are so far from what we as Americans could ever imagine,’’ said Page, whose recent trip was documented on CSUSA’s Facebook page. “Yet, the children are bubbly, excited and happy. They put on a fashion show for us. They were on fire for life.’’

Continue Reading →

Military-style charter schools sprouting across Florida

From Acclaim Academy's facebook page: Students at the Duval school participating in a cadet promotion ceremony.

From Acclaim Academy’s facebook page: Students at the Duval school participating in a cadet promotion ceremony.

Like they are in other states, military-style charter schools are gaining a foothold in Florida.

There are new ones in Broward, Sarasota, Osceola and Duval counties – and more on the way. With a focus on rigor, structure, responsibility and respect, supporters say such schools experience fewer behavioral problems and better academic success.

Acclaim Academy, a fairly new charter schools outfit that embraces that formula, opened its first school in 2012 in Kissimmee, followed by another in August in Jacksonville. Local school boards, which authorize charter schools in Florida, recently approved three more academies to open next fall with one each in Duval, Orange and Palm Beach counties.

The schools feature high-tech equipment, with SMART boards for every teacher and take-home laptops for every student. But organizers defer to an old-school philosophy of discipline and rules, looking to the Army’s JROTC program as a format to promote structure, character and confidence.

Students are known as cadets. They wear Army fatigues. They participate in drills. It’s an experience that may lead some participants to the armed forces, but that’s not the academy’s mission.

“We’re not creating little soldiers,’’ said Bill Orris, Acclaim Academy’s director of education. Instead, the school is working to change the learning habits of 600 of the state’s most struggling students, he said. Continue Reading →