Parent Voices

A mother’s plea for education choice


Editor’s note: This is a transcript of the moving speech Shareka Wright gave at Gov. Ron DeSantis’s education scholarship event at Calvary City Christian Academy & Preschool Feb. 15 in Orlando.

Good morning. These are my two boys. This is Zion, he’s 8. Jayden, he’s 6.

Shareka Wright with son Jayden on her right and Zion on her left

I’m a single mother of three. I drive a garbage truck for the city of Orlando, usually working more than 60 hours a week. I’m doing it to send my two youngest sons to private school. We live paycheck to paycheck, and sometimes I have to choose between buying food and paying tuition.

I choose private school because Zion and Jayden were struggling so much in their public school last year. They were bringing home D’s and F’s. Zion had a substitute teacher for his entire second grade year and fell way behind. Jayden was bullied in kindergarten by the very kids in his school and was afraid of having his lunch money taken every day.

I found Miracle Grace Academy here in Orlando, and I knew it was the right place for my boys. We applied for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, but sadly we were left on the waiting list. There isn’t enough funding for all the families in Florida who need these scholarships. My boys are among almost 13,000 students on the waiting list this school year. There are 1,200 just in Orange County.

Miracle Grace is wonderful. Zion and Jayden have shown so much improvement. They’re getting A’s and B’s now. They get along with everyone. They have learned discipline and spirituality. But I don’t have the money to keep up with the tuition, and the school’s patience can’t last forever. That is why I’m calling on lawmakers to work with the governor, Ron DeSantis, to fund the scholarship program so that families like mine won’t have to wait and suffer.

Being a single mom of three boys is hard, but I never want my kids to feel like they can’t go to college, they can’t get a better education, where they have to stay in school and be bullied or to stay in school and just have a different sub every 30 days. I do my best. I always tell my boys, “Be better than me. Don’t be below me, don’t stop where I stopped at on achievements. Go higher than me. Make goals. Anything you set your mind to you can do.”

Being a single mom isn’t easy. It’s hard. I always do it because I remember I have three boys that depends on me. All they know is Mother makes the way. Money, money, money. I get up every morning, I thank God. I can thank my supervisors, they have worked with me, they have been patient with me because it’s stressful with me having all the stress on my back and operating a heavy garbage truck every day with no accidents, no fatalities. It’s hard. but to keep these two happy and to try to give them the best in life, and try to make them know that they can go to college, they can become doctors, lawyers, pastors, whatever they put their minds to be, I’ll do it every day with smiles and no regrets.

Finding the right fit for an atypical learner

school choice
Sonja Baker and her son Enoch.

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a week-long series of posts from students and parents who’ve benefited from school choice. For yesterday’s story, click HERE.

by Sonja Baker

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.

charter school
We’ve turned over redefinED this Thanksgiving to the important voices in ed choice – parents and students.

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.

Ed choice scholarship was ‘a Godsend’


Editor’s Note: This is the third in a week-long series of posts from students and parents who’ve benefited from school choice. For yesterday’s story, click HERE.

by Ana Garcia

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.

school choice
We’ve turned over redefinED this Thanksgiving to the important voices in ed choice – parents and students.

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 accounts 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. The Gardiner Scholarship is administered by nonprofits such as Step Up for Students, which hosts this blog.

Coming tomorrow: The daughter of a single mother devotes her future to giving back, in hopes her story on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship can inspire others.

Hating school no more

school choice
Alberto Cruz and Ramona Ceballo

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a week-long series of posts from students and parents who’ve benefited from school choice. For yesterday’s story, click HERE.

by Ramona Ceballo

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.

school choice
We’ve turned over redefinED this Thanksgiving to the important voices in ed choice – parents and 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.

Coming tomorrow: A boy with autism finds a lifeline thanks in part to a Gardiner Scholarship.

A perfect school for a quirky girl

school choice
Dawn Everly’s daughter Debbie.

This is the first in a week-long series of posts from students and parents who’ve benefited from school choice.

by Dawn Everly

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.

We’ve turned over redefinED this Thanksgiving to the important voices in ed choice – parents and students.

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 the Step Up for Students Scholarship. 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.

Coming tomorrow: The parent of a student with learning disabilities explains how her son went from hating school to loving it, with help from a school choice scholarship.