Archive | Parental Choice

With the right school and a portable scholarship, she found her voice and graduated with honors

Eliya McDonald was in ninth grade when everything fell apart.

First her mom was diagnosed with frontal lobe epilepsy, a condition that caused frequent seizures and forced her to quit working. Before long, the family was homeless and car-less, living in a roach-infested hotel with most of their possessions gone. Then Eliya was diagnosed with Graves disease, a thyroid condition that caused symptoms like insomnia, mood swings, weight and hair loss.

Eliya McDonald graduated in May 2017 from Tampa Bay Christian Academy.

Until that point, she had been an excellent student, first at a charter school for the performing arts, and later – with a Florida tax credit scholarship – at Academy Prep, a highly regarded private middle school in Tampa. But now in a top-tier private high school, and rocked by everything she and her family had to endure, she began to fall behind.

Her GPA fell to 2.33. Worse, the once-boisterous girl with the loud, infectious laugh and Cheshire Cat smile crawled into a shell.

“That year was really rough,” Eliya said. “I was in and out of school, and when I was in school I didn’t really fit in. I wasn’t able to keep up.”

“It was really heartbreaking,” said Eliya’s mom, Ebony Smith. “That was not my daughter. It was totally out of character. Her nerves were horrible.”

Thankfully, the scholarship helped Eliya and her family rise above. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the scholarship program.)

Ebony raised Eliya and two older sisters in West Tampa, a neighborhood she described as “drowning in poverty.” She was determined to lift them out, using school choice as the ladder. She enrolled them in charter schools, where Eliya discovered a talent for singing and acting, then secured Step Up scholarships so they could attend private schools.

“My girls are not going to live the way that I have had to live, and I made that pledge to them,” Ebony said. “Education is the only thing that’s going to save them.”

Things finally stabilized for Eliya when she and her mom began to find the right medications, and a non-profit charity donated money to get the family into an apartment that is still home today.

Eliya transferred to Tampa Bay Christian Academy to get a fresh start and a better fit. But she was still in her shell. She didn’t know if she was in the right school, yet.

“In 10th grade, you hardly knew she was there,” said Natasha Sherwood, head of TBCA. “She was scared to move or talk. Her eyes didn’t look up. You’d see the top of her head more than you could see her face.”

Eliya isn’t sure how, but an English and drama teacher named Selma Grantham found out about her performance background and pushed her to sing in a chapel service.

Slowly the shell began to crack, as Eliya started asking questions in class. But the big breakthroughs were performances as Baloo in “The Jungle Book” and Rafiki in “The Lion King.”

As Eliya stretched her vocal chords, she rediscovered her self-esteem.

She became a leader. Her grades bounced back. She earned two scholarships, one for $10,000, to Southeastern University in Lakeland. Continue Reading →

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From street life to college life – thanks to a private school scholarship

Deion Washington still frequents Betton Hills School in Tallahassee, Fla.

Deion Washington didn’t plan to speak to lawmakers. But as he sat with classmates in a committee meeting about school choice in the Florida state capitol, the urge overtook him.

The eyes of lawmakers and the lenses of cameras trained on him as he stepped to the podium and told his story.

How he skipped classes almost every day in his neighborhood school. How a private school straightened him out. How a Florida tax credit scholarship made it possible. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the scholarship program.)

“I just felt like I had to do it,” Deion said. “They never got to hear the voice of someone who actually needed the scholarship to go to school.”

Three years later, Deion’s story of hope and opportunity includes moving new chapters. Now 20, he’s working his way through college. He’s also a frequent visitor to Betton Hills School, the tiny Tallahassee school he credits with turning his life around.

“If I didn’t go to Betton Hills,” he said, “I probably wouldn’t have finished school.”

Deion’s early education came on the streets. He was the youngest out there late at night, small and skinny and quiet, hanging around grown men.

To some in his neighborhood, success meant selling dope, and at the age of 8 he occasionally counted the money. He got paid for it a couple of times. Mostly it was just something to do.

With his mom typically working three jobs, including one at night, most days it was up to Deion to get his younger sister and brother ready for school; to and from school; and then fed and put to bed.

Then he went out. Continue Reading →

Ga. Supreme Court the latest to reject tax credit scholarship lawsuit

Another state high court has rejected a lawsuit challenging tax credit scholarships that help students pay private school tuition.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports:

Under an opinion by the Supreme Court of Georgia, the program that provides tax exemptions to those who contribute to scholarships for students to use at private schools, including religious schools, will remain in place.

With today’s decision, the high court has unanimously upheld a Fulton County court ruling that says taxpayers who challenged the program as unconstitutional had no standing, or right, to bring their constitutional challenge.

“Plaintiffs’ complaint fails to demonstrate that plaintiffs are injured by the program by virtue of their status as taxpayers,” Justice Robert Benham writes for the Court. “Consequently, plaintiffs’ taxpayer status fails to demonstrate a special injury to their rights so as to create standing to challenge the program.”

Continue Reading →

Scholarship, Kingdom Academy spurred turnaround for Miami student

Henezy Berrios

Eleven-year-old Henezy Berrios’ sparkling brown eyes crinkle in the corners when she smiles, which is just about all the time. She has boundless, contagious enthusiasm. She loves to dance and crack jokes.

She’s the girl that everyone in school likes.

But you would have hardly recognized her in first grade at her neighborhood school in Miami. She was quiet and withdrawn, afraid to ask for help, made fun of because she couldn’t read.

The D’s and F’s and diagnoses of ADHD and dyslexia set off alarms for her mother, Liliana Arguello. She resolved to find a better fit for Henezy’s education, and thanks to a Step Up For Students scholarship was able to access a private school called Kingdom Academy. Continue Reading →

Florida’s private schools are growing at a faster rate

Florida’s private schools saw their biggest enrollment growth in 15 years.

Enrollment grew by 22,525 PreK-12 students in the 2016-17 school year. That’s a 6.5 percent increase over the previous year and the second-highest enrollment growth since 2000. According to the new report from the Florida Department of Education, private school students now make up 11.6 percent of all preK-12 students in Florida.

Enrollment ranged from 0 students in rural Liberty County to 76,022 in Miami-Dade. Continue Reading →

Diverse, inclusive & all for school choice

Cyrus Grenat, 10, had fun liberating this component from some gizmo during his “Taking Things Apart” class at the Magnolia School in Tallahassee, Fla. Cyrus attends thanks to a school choice scholarship.

This is the latest post in our series on the center-left roots of school choice.

With a few deft twists of a screwdriver, Cyrus Grenat, 10, detached one gizmo from an old microwave and another from a vacuum cleaner. At The Magnolia School in Tallahassee, Fla., this is school work.

Cyrus isn’t tested or graded in “Taking Things Apart,” an elective of sorts where out-of-commission radios, smart phones and other gadgets are sacrificed to curiosity.

His tiny private school doesn’t do those things. It doesn’t assign much homework either. But once Cyrus gets home, the kid with the gears-turning grin and Ghostbusters T-shirt is planning to blow torch the copper out of one of his liberated components, and see if the other can be retrofitted for use in a remote-controlled car.

“It’s just fun,” Cyrus said. “I learn what’s in stuff, and how stuff works.”

With school choice in the national spotlight like never before, kids like Cyrus and schools like Magnolia could offer a lesson in how vouchers, tax credit scholarships and education savings accounts work.

And who benefits.

The K-8 school in a leafy, working-class neighborhood resists political labels. (I wish we all did.) But every year, its 60 or so students “adopt” a family affected by HIV. Its middle schoolers participate in a camping trip called EarthSkills Rendezvous. Nobody has issues with which bathroom the transgender student uses, or the school’s enthusiastic participation in National Screen-Free Week.

“We are definitely different,” said director Nicole McDermott, in an office barely bigger than Harry Potter’s bedroom under the stairs. “There are kids on the playground right now who are neurotypical, playing with kids who have autism, with kids who have social issues, with kids who have all kinds of differences. We are inclusive and diverse.”

School choice makes it even more so. The Magnolia School participates in three private school choice programs – the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students, the McKay Scholarship for students with disabilities, and the Gardiner Scholarship, an education savings account for students with special needs such as autism and Down syndrome.* About half the students at Magnolia use them.

That has made the school and its approach accessible to a wider array of families, said Susan Smith, the school’s founder. They, in turn, have enriched the school.

“This gives us the opportunity to reach further outside our little walls, so that our community reflects more of the community our children are going to grow up in, and work in, and make their families with,” said Smith, who has master’s degrees in humanities and elementary education. “It’s part of learning. Not just who you meet, and know, but who you solve problems with, and grow up with.”

The dominant narrative about choice would have America believe it’s a boon for profiteers, a crusade for the religious right, an ideological assault on a fundamental pillar of democracy. But if critics, particularly on the left, took a closer look, they’d see a more lively story – and one that has always included progressive protagonists. “Alternative schools” like Magnolia are among them, and there’s no reason why, with expanded choice, an endless variety of related strains couldn’t bloom. Continue Reading →

The price of liberty is vigilance

Wendell Phillips. Source: Wikimedia.

“External vigilance is the price of liberty, power is ever stealing from the many to the few,” said American abolitionist Wendell Phillips in a speech in 1852.

Sadly, at least when it comes to school choice, my fellow libertarians and conservatives appear to have misplaced their priorities while standing vigilantly against the encroachment of bad government.

Lindsey Burke, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, worries that “furthering federal entanglement in the funding of education through new federal programs would be unsound and would come at the expense of state, local, and parent decision-making.”

Max Eden, a scholar from the Manhattan Institute, worries that a federal program would prohibit scholarship organizations from setting aside funds for specific schools or groups. “This restriction would not only limit donor interest to well under $20 billion a year,” he wrote. “It would also exert pressure on existing state programs to drop their moral mission and conform.”

Free-market conservatives and libertarians have retreated on school choice, leaving Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and President Trump alone holding the banner for a federal program.

Their worries would make sense if the Trump Administration were still contemplating a $20 billion voucher initiative. But there’s good news. Recent headlines suggest the more likely path to federal school choice would a tax credit scholarship program. This is an approach to school choice that relies on private, voluntary contributions rather than direct government subsidies.
Continue Reading →

Florida schools roundup: Teacher pay, true costs, safe schools and more

Teacher pay: Prospects for a statewide $200 million raise in pay for teachers have dimmed after proponent Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, says he is no longer pursuing the hike. Instead, Simmons says, he is backing an expansion of the teacher bonuses program, known as the Best and Bright Teacher Scholarship. Both the Senate and House are considering bills that would increase the money for bonuses and widen eligibility. Naples Daily News.

Public education spending: The true cost of educating one public school student in Florida for a year is $10,308, according to a report from Florida TaxWatch. The Florida Education Finance Program funding formula expenditure was $7,178 per student for the 2015-2016 school year. But TaxWatch says other tax dollars spent by districts take the total spending per student to more than $10,000. redefinED.

Protecting undocumented: The Miami-Dade County School Board declares its district a safe zone for undocumented immigrant students, and will review what else it can do to protect those students from U.S. immigration officials. The intent, says board member Lubby Navarro, is “to ensure that our schools are safe havens for all students and that this message resonates throughout entire communities, our neighborhoods, our barrios, so that everyone knows that our schools are safe for our children and our families.” Miami Herald.

Teacher program: The Palm Beach County School District and Nova Southeastern University will partner to create a teacher-training program that promises students jobs in the district after graduation. Students will be paid substitute teachers during their senior year at Nova, and will be offered fulltime teaching positions when they graduate as long as they meet certification and other requirements. Nova is hoping to enter into similar partnerships with Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Sun-Sentinel. Continue Reading →