Parent Voices

Commentary: Florida needs more scholarships for special needs students


Editor’s note: Amanda Bryant of Polk City and her husband are raising nine children, six of whom are homeschooled and three of whom have special needs. Bryant wrote this commentary for the Lakeland Ledger explaining her family’s reliance on the Gardiner Scholarship, which provides education choice to families of special needs children regardless of income. 

When it comes to blended families, “The Brady Bunch” has nothing on mine.

My husband and I are parents or guardians to eight children under our roof. We also have a daughter who is away in college.

Six of them are home-schooled. Four of those are the children of my late sister-in-law. Two are my (very) younger sisters, who needed a more stable home life than what my mother could provide them.

Three boys have special needs: Eli, 14, has cystic fibrosis. He and his biological brother Ellis, 12, were both born with common variable immune deficiency (CVID), which makes them highly susceptible to infections. Ellis also has been diagnosed with level 2 autism. Their adopted brother, Easton, 6, is developmentally delayed. He has been diagnosed with apraxia of speech disorder (AOS) and is being tested for autism.

Eli and Ellis briefly attended public schools in their early elementary years, but their health issues eventually made it impossible to continue. They missed too much time being ill, and they were unable to obtain all the services they required. Home schooling is by far their best option. Easton is beginning kindergarten at home.

Read more here


A perfect school for a quirky girl

school choice
Dawn Everly’s daughter Debbie.

Editor’s note: Each Saturday in September, redefinED is dipping into the archives to revisit a compelling story written from the perspective of a parent advocate. In today’s post, mother Dawn Everly reveals how she found a perfect fit for her daughter at a private school with help from a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.

My daughter Debbie is a wonderful 7-year-old with an old soul.

She’s cooperative, creative, compassionate and loving. Debbie is intelligent, articulate, quirky, unique and artistic. She loves crazy knee socks. She doesn’t like crowds and can be very shy at times, especially in new surroundings and with people she doesn’t know.

She makes everyone she meets smile.

We’ve been very lucky in finding educational environments that suit her well. When it was time for Debbie to attend school, I searched everywhere. I did background research on every place we could find, both within our means and outside them for perspective. I am a single mom, and it is a rough go sometimes.

I was getting very discouraged. The places I knew would fit her had either a long wait list, or were so far out of my budget I couldn’t figure a way to make it work. I dreaded the thought of public school, not because the options were necessarily bad but because I knew it wasn’t the right environment for Debbie.

I have two older children, and have plenty of experience with the public school system. One child excelled and one struggled. I wanted an alternative for my youngest. I was afraid the public school system would swallow her, so to speak, and that wasn’t going to work for either of us.

Then a miracle (well, two really) dropped in our laps. We discovered a brand new private school was opening that I KNEW would be a perfect fit – For The Love of Learning. And if I balanced the budget and rearranged some things, it would be doable, no matter how tight. We went to check it out, and Debbie was a perfect fit. We HAD to make this happen.

And then we came across a scholarship administered by Step Up For Students.

I read through all of the information, took a deep breath and applied. When we were approved, I cried tears of joy and relief. My child was going to get the education she deserved.

I am excited to say this is our third year at For The Love of Learning, and we couldn’t be happier. Thanks to the school and Step Up for Students, my youngest daughter is happy, loves school, is learning and growing in a way that is perfect for her.

Debbie has loved every teacher, her environment, and makes friends so easily there. She has quite the following! Debbie is a special child (as they all are!) and we have found her the perfect place. For The Love of Learning has a wonderful mix of Montessori, Waldorf, and home schooling curriculum.

Looking back, I wish I had more knowledge of this type of school earlier, and just maybe my middle child would’ve had an easier time and received what he needed to excel.

We are so thankful for both Step Up for Students and For The Love of Learning private school.

Dawn Everly is a parent in Martin County, Fla. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.

Hating school no more

school choice
Alberto Cruz and Ramona Ceballo

Editor’s note: Each Saturday in September, redefinED is dipping into the archives to revisit a compelling story written from the perspective of a parent advocate. In today’s post, a single mom explains how a scholarship for students with special needs changed her son’s life, academically and emotionally.

No words can express how thankful we are for the McKay Scholarship.

I have been a single mother of four for a long time. ln the past my son Alberto Cruz struggled with the family’s marital turmoil, as well as with a speech impediment and a form of attention deficit disorder. He went from one school to another, one counselor to another.

He struggled academically and socially in class because he couldn’t find the right programs to fit him, and he failed to receive the emotional support he needed. Plus, he was intimidated by the bigger size of the traditional public schools and the crowds of students.

By age 9, my son hated school. Sometimes he would just sit by himself in a corner, not interacting with any of his peers. He could relate to few teachers.

Worst of all, he said he wanted to end his life. He said almost every day that life didn’t have sense.

For many years, we had a very hard time.

Then one day about nine years ago the director of a private school recommended that I apply for a McKay Scholarship, which is for students with disabilities. Our life has been better since we received the scholarship, which has allowed Alberto to attend The Learning Foundation of Florida, a private school in Royal Palm Beach, since the beginning of middle school.

Now, my son never complains about school. He loves the smaller class sizes, and the small groups of friends he has made. His grades have gone from F’s and D’s before the scholarship to A’s and B’s. He has studied math for college, as well as economics, leadership skills, and English IV. He can learn at his own pace – he likes that there is no hurry to finish class. He’s given a due date to complete a learning module. If he finishes it early he can move on to the next assignment. He also loves the teachers he has had and the personal attention they give him.

I have seen him change, and so have his teachers. He has made progress academically and socially, and his self-esteem is better.

Now a senior in high school, Alberto has the opportunity to go to job training, take driving lessons, receive counseling, and so much more. The McKay Scholarship is helping us — the teachers, and me, the parent — understand my son. It is helping us get Alberto where he needs to be to have a bright future!

Where he once hated school, now Alberto doesn’t want to leave school. He has developed a very strong bond with his teachers and his classmates. It will be hard for him to leave them behind. However, the scholarship is helping him to prepare to move on to a better future. Although he hasn’t settled on a post-graduation path, whatever Alberto decides to do l am confident that the McKay Scholarship will have guided him in the right direction. l am grateful for all the teachers at Learning Foundation and their hard work and dedication, and thankful for the McKay Scholarship.

Ramona Ceballo lives in West Palm Beach.

Commentary: Gardiner Scholarship provides crucial support for children with special needs

Gardiner Scholarship
Florida Gov. DeSantis, flanked by Andy and Camille Gardiner and their son Andrew, reiterated in February his pledge to end the waitlist for special needs children who have qualified for a state-funded Gardiner Scholarship.

Editor’s note: In this commentary, published Sept. 11 in the Naples Daily News, the mother of a child with autism tells of her family’s decision to leave their home in Puerto Rico for the mainland so she and her husband could get better jobs and their son, Omar, could get the educational instruction he needed. Shortly after arriving in Naples, the couple learned about the Gardiner Scholarship for children with special needs, which allowed them to enroll Omar in the Montessori Academy of Naples.

Arely Burgos and her son, Omar

More than two years ago, my husband and I left our native Puerto Rico because we were searching for better opportunities for our young son, Omar, who is on the autism spectrum.

We found them in Naples, thanks in large part to Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship for children with special needs.

The Gardiner Scholarship, created in 2014, serves students with autism, Down syndrome, spina bifida and other special needs, regardless of their family’s income. Although the scholarship amount varies by county and grade level, the average amount for most students this school year is $10,400. That money can be spent on private school tuition, therapists, specialists, curriculum, and technology. The program will benefit more than 13,000 students this school year.

Unfortunately, there are 4,000 more on a waiting list for scholarships. They deserve to experience the kind of relief Gardiner brought us.

Omar was diagnosed with autism when he was 1-1/2 years old. Now 5, he’s intellectually very high above his age. He reads and writes, and he understands Spanish and English. However, he struggles with comprehension. For example, if he falls down and gets hurt he can’t describe his pain. He requires occupational and speech therapy on a weekly basis.

Read more here.

Ed choice scholarship was ‘a Godsend’


Editor’s note: Each Saturday in September, redefinED is dipping into the archives to revisit a compelling story written from the perspective of a parent advocate. Today’s post features a mom who utilized a Gardiner Scholarship to provide her special needs son with educational resources he would not have received otherwise.

We had become parents a second time. This time it was a boy.

Kevin was a vivacious, wonderful baby full of laughter and joy. His development took the usual course. He was a bit behind in language, but we were told it was of no concern yet. A littler later, however, we noticed Kevin had repetitive behaviors, was lining his toys up and, well, had a very strong “personality.”

When we sought the assistance of a speech therapist, she referred us to Early Steps, an organization to screen autism.

The day we were told our son was autistic, my husband and I were shocked by the words, but at the same time we knew.

We immediately began therapies to help his speech and decided to place him in a public school program for pre-schoolers with autism.

At the time, we were completely satisfied with his progress.  We found that he adapted well to the learning environment.

However, with our move, we had to change schools. Furthermore, once he exited the pre-kinder autistic class, where there were only five children and two instructors, he was assigned to an inclusion class with 25 students and only one instructor and a “floating” inclusion teacher.

Kevin was left soiled, was not fed for over a month, and continuously eloped to the parking lot.

We finally decided to place Kevin in an ABA center to help him with his behaviors, which were seriously impeding daily life.

Since the ABA was six hours a day, we decided to register him in homeschool. At first, this was very difficult, but when I learned the Gardiner Scholarship helped families like us, we were immediately alleviated.

The Gardiner Scholarship is an education savings account for students with special needs such as autism and Down syndrome. It has been a Godsend to our family. Not only do I have the ability to choose homeschool for my son, I have resources that I would not have been able to afford to give him otherwise.

The public sector is not a good fit for Kevin, who is now 9 years old, as his needs extend beyond what it can provide.

Now I have the tools and resources to provide my son with diverse curricula, private tutors, sensory and physical materials, and technological devices.

I attribute the great strides Kevin has made in his development to the Gardiner Scholarship. It enabled us to help him not only become verbal, but fluent.

I cannot imagine a world without Gardiner.

Ana Garcia is a mother in Homestead, Fla.

Finding the right fit for an atypical learner

school choice
Sonja Baker and her son Enoch.

Editor’s note: Each Saturday in September, redefinED is dipping into the archives to revisit a compelling story written from the perspective of a parent advocate. Today’s post features a fearless mom who questioned the status quo to ensure her special needs son received the education he needed and deserved. 

If anyone were to ask me this time last year if I thought Enoch, my 12-year-old son, would receive Honor Roll, I would sadly say “no.” Not because he did not try, but because he was not the “typical learner” and was being passed along. Watching your child deteriorate emotionally, academically and not knowing how to help them is the worst feeling. This has been our painful narrative for the past six years.

We hear the saying “No Child Left Behind” but that is the exact opposite. I felt as if no one understood my child’s needs when it came to his learning style. It is easy to place the label of “ADHD” or “behavior issues” on a child without determining a root cause. Does this child really have an attention disorder? Maybe they have a learning style that differs from the average?

I was angry at the systematic practice of passing children through school when they do not understand the fundamentals. But I also accept responsibility for not educating myself to help my child. I didn’t challenge the school enough when its reasoning did not make sense. I didn’t live up to the advocate I should have been because I trusted the school to guide us.

First grade is when I noticed Enoch was not progressing as he should. He was not grasping the concepts. The lessons were not clicking for him and sticking. The school felt he had a generalized learning disorder, and he was given an IEP. An IEP is supposed to be the legal contract between the parent and school of what will be done to help remediate a child’s deficit. As I learned, if not executed properly, the IEP could be just another “trail” that does not improve the child’s outlook.

As we prepared for sixth grade, we had our annual IEP meeting with the “IEP team” you never see until it is time to add something to your child’s “paper trail.” Enoch had substantial deficits in math and reading comprehension. He also had emotional challenges. But as they discussed the transition plan for sixth grade, the support Enoch would receive appeared to be lacking substance. They also wanted to take a reactive approach to his anxiety issues, such as seeing a counselor after he had a meltdown. I knew I could not allow him to be moved through the system anymore!

This was around the time of open enrollment. I previously heard of open enrollment but when I glanced at the application, I can admit the mere appearance of the process was overwhelming. But I knew I had to make this change for Enoch, so I started to apply to various charter schools. With the new law passed about school choice, I was able to apply to charter schools inside and outside of our county. Unfortunately, he was not selected in the initial lottery drawings to any of the chosen schools, so we had to prepare for transition into a traditional middle school. We were disappointed.

Then our luck changed! About three weeks before school started, we received notice from the Imagine Charter School that Enoch’s name had been selected from the lottery.
After his enrollment, I received a phone call from the principal to welcome Enoch and to invite us on a tour. During our tour, I discussed concerns related to his academic progression and overall anxiety. The principal addressed every concern. For the first time, I felt the school was not against us but a partnership.

We are now into the second semester and it is a miracle to see what a change of environment has made on my son. Enoch’s teachers appreciate and implement any advice to help him. His science teacher noticed he moved around in his seat a lot, and so brought in a medicine ball to replace his seat. His other teachers allow him and other students to stand instead of sit, as long as they are not disruptive. The classrooms are Google classrooms, which means the lessons are done digitally and are more engaging. The entire staff is close, and they treat the children like a close-knit family.

For the first time, Enoch received A’s and B’s in core academic areas (not electives) and received the Honor Roll Award. His demeanor and outlook about school is so positive, all thanks to the opportunity to choose where my child attends school.

It is important to match our children with a support system that can meet their needs. I encourage all parents to make and demand the best school choice for their child.

They depend on us!

Sonja Baker lives in Pasco County, Fla.

Commentary: Special education is more complex than many realize

Despite being told her son, Brandon, would never learn to read, Donna Berman persisted in her quest to find an appropriate education setting for him where he could thrive. Brandon died Sept. 10, 2017, at the age of 19.

Editor’s note: The Orlando Sentinel recently published commentary arguing that private schools that accept vouchers discriminate against children with special needs. A Volusia County parent of a special needs child begs to differ. Donna Berman’s son, Brandon, who had autism and a brain tumor as well as muscular dystrophy and seizures, was denied admission to a local public school. Berman tells Brandon’s story in a response to the Sentinel, published Thursday, noting that until Brandon received a Gardiner Scholarship to attend a private school, he was “a space-age kid stuck in a stone-age system.”

Special education is a complex topic, dealing with dozens of laws, hundreds of unique needs and thousands of children across the state. It’s a topic that deserves better and deeper discussion than recently presented.

A recent column by Scott Maxwell (“Voucher schools can reject kids with disabilities,” Aug. 7) argued that private schools can discriminate against children with disabilities. However, individual public schools can also reject students with disabilities. I know this from personal experience. Worse still, the column was published while Volusia County public schools are under investigation by the Justice Department for discriminating against students with autism.

Read more here.

To read more about Brandon, click here.


Families, advocates rally for education choice at BOE meeting


Advocates for school choice and protesters who want more money spent on public schools assembled at the Florida Board of Education meeting Wednesday at Polk State College in Lakeland.

More than a dozen parents and students representing Florida Voices for Choices gathered outside the entrance to the college’s technology building wearing bright orange T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Parent Power” and holding signs that read “Empower More Parents With Choice” and “Choice Helps Public Schools.” They countered a protest organized by groups that argue the state is “starving public schools” of money and have demanded a “moratorium on vouchers and charter expansion.”  

Five choice advocates spoke before the board and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. They included Ashley Elliott, a Lakeland native and Florida Tax Credit Scholarship alumnus. Elliott gave a moving account of her life – born drug-addicted to a single mother, adopted by her grandmother who faced health problems while living in poverty.

“By all rights I shouldn’t be here today,” she said.

Elliott said that after struggling in one public school she transferred to another, where she was bullied for wearing the same “hand-me-down clothes” twice in the same week. She got into fights with other students, skipped class, and saw her grades decline to D’s and F’s.

“Not even I believed in myself anymore,” she said “I was destined to become a high school dropout, a disappointment, or worse. Just another sad statistic.”

It was then that a teacher told her about the tax credit scholarship, which allowed her to afford to attend Victory Christian Academy, a private school in Lakeland, where she thrived. She graduated with a 3.3 GPA, and is currently in her second year at Valencia College in Orlando. She said she plans to transfer to the University of Central Florida next spring and major in history.

“None of this would be possible without school choice,” she said. “Just as we have choices in what we eat or our career path, we need a choice in our education. Education is a human right on which our futures depend.”