Taylor Smoots is an energetic 4-year-old who loves to sing, dance and use his imagination. He’s so active that when it was time for him to enter preschool, three private schools questioned whether he would be successful in their voluntary pre-kindergarten programs.
It was already summer, and his parents were desperately seeking an educational environment that would help Taylor, who is on the autism spectrum, make the most of his unique abilities.
Then they discovered St. Patrick Catholic School in Jacksonville, a relatively small campus of 270 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. They found the school welcoming, and the staff allowed a behavioral specialist to accompany Taylor and help him throughout the school day.
Their decision to send their son to St. Patrick was solidified when they found out he qualified for a Gardiner Scholarship, which families can use to customize an educational program for their children with certain special needs including autism, Down syndrome and spina bifida. Approved expenses include tuition, therapy, curriculum, technology and a college savings account.
Half a year later, Taylor is thriving. His communication skills have improved. He’s made new friends and is excited to see his teacher every morning. And every afternoon, he tells his parents how much fun he had at school that day.
While Gardiner Scholarship enrollment is thriving statewide – the program currently serves more than 13,000 students and another 3,500 are on a wait list – it is experiencing notably rapid growth in Florida’s Catholic schools. According to figures provided by the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, the number of students attending Florida Catholic schools on Gardiner scholarships has increased 229 percent since the 2015-16 school year. That increase is consistent across the Archdiocese of Miami and the state’s six dioceses – St. Augustine, St. Petersburg, Orlando, Pensacola/Tallahassee, Palm Beach and Venice.
The Diocese of Venice realized the largest percentage increase in the past three years, growing from one Gardiner student three years ago to 33 students this year. The Diocese of Pensacola/Tallahassee had the second-highest percentage increase, growing from six Gardiner students to 40.
Meanwhile, the Diocese of Orlando, which grew from 65 Gardiner students to 201, boasts the largest Gardiner Scholarship enrollment.
Florida Catholic school officials cite a willingness to devote the type of individual attention Taylor is experiencing as one reason Catholic schools are seeing rapid enrollment growth among Gardiner families. They also theorize that the availability of Gardiner scholarships may be responsible for keeping Catholic school enrollment steady in Florida while other states are experiencing declines.
“Our schools provide a place where children are loved as part of a school family,” said Christopher Pastura, superintendent of Catholic Schools and Centers for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, which serves nearly 13,000 students. “I believe that it’s the Catholic emphasis on educating the whole child that attracts our Gardiner families.”
David Kimbell, parish manager and director of Catholic Immersion for Sacred Heart Cathedral Parish and School in Pensacola, agrees that Gardiner scholarships have made it possible for more children with unique abilities to reap the benefits of a Catholic school education.
“The scholarships allow a student with special needs to bring with them the funding necessary to ensure they have access to a great education,” said Kimbell, who will begin serving this fall as administrator for brand-new Morning Star Catholic High School in Pensacola. His school joins five other freestanding Morning Star schools across the state that cater to children with special needs. Several other Catholic schools have education for students with special needs embedded in their overall programs.
Morning Star schools first opened in the late 1950s when then-Archbishop Joseph P. Hurley of St. Augustine asked the Sisters of St. Joseph to launch schools for children with special needs. While Morning Star schools are a great fit for many parents of students with special needs, they’re not the only Catholic schools with the resources to help children with unique abilities. Many others, including St. Patrick, strive to accommodate individual needs, including rare conditions such as osteogenesis imperfecta, known as brittle bone disease, and phenylketonuria, which causes an amino acid to build up in the body and can lead to brain damage.
“We look at the children as having unique abilities,” said Jeffrey Kent, principal at St. Patrick. “We feel if we can give children opportunities, these kids can be the best versions of themselves.”
Exemplifying the growing enrollment trend of Gardiner Scholarship students in Catholic schools, St. Patrick had one Gardiner student last year; this year it has seven. Kent said the school expects Gardiner enrollment to be in the double digits next year.
Taylor Smoot will be among those students.
“We appreciate all the support St. Patrick has given our family,” his father said, “opening their doors when everyone else shut them.”
Lauren May, Manager of Catholic School Initiatives for Step Up For Students, contributed to this story.