Gov. DeSantis proposes new program to end FTC wait list

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Gov. Ron DeSantis speaking this morning at Calvary City Academy in Orlando.

ORLANDO — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday called on the Legislature to create a new state-funded program that would reduce the number of families on a waiting list to receive the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC) for lower-income families.

Speaking at Calvary City Christian Academy & Preschool, DeSantis, proposed establishing an “equal opportunity scholarship” funded in the state budget to ensure that demand from lower-income and working class parents for educational choice can be met. It would provide scholarships in the same amount as the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, and the program’s enrollment would be capped at 14,000 students in the first year.

There are currently about 13,000 families on the waiting list for the FTC, the nation’s largest school choice program.

“I’m asking the Legislature to send that bill to my desk,” DeSantis said. “Let’s build off this and continue to make Florida an innovation center for education.”

The announcement was met with applause from the audience of 400, which included Calvary City students and faculty, as well as policymakers, media and local black and Hispanic faith leaders; two-thirds of FTC students are black or Hispanic.

The FTC program (administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog) currently serves nearly 100,000 lower-income K-12 students around the state, helping families pay for private school tuition or transportation costs to an out-of-district public school. A recently released study by the Urban Institute showed that students on the program are enrolling and completing college at higher rates than their public school peers.

In 2018-19, enrollment in the FTC program dropped for the first time in 14 years. In the preceding 13 years, the average annual enrollment increase was 20 percent. The enrollment dip was due to slower growth in corporate contributions, according to the state Department of Revenue.

Demand for the program remains strong. Parents for more than 170,000 students had started applications by the time Step Up halted the application process in June.

Step Up has already awarded 76,980 scholarships for 2019-20, approximately 20,000 students ahead of last year. Another 12,505 new students have started applications since the process opened Feb. 8. Since Monday new students are starting applications at a rate of more than 1,000 a day.

“Parents vote with their feet, and we have parents who are lining up for a tax credit scholarship,” DeSantis said. “They would not do that if the program was not succeeding.

“The question for us now is, should we be satisfied there is a growing wait list, or should we build off the successes?”

The governor’s words gave hope to wait list parent Shareka Wright, single mother of Zion and Jadyn, who struggles to pay for tuition at Miracle Grace Academy, a private school in Orlando. Wright often works 60 hours a week driving a garbage truck for the city.

“We live paycheck to paycheck, and sometimes I have to choose between buying food and paying tuition,” she said, adding that she chose the school because both boys struggled academically and that Jadyn was bullied in kindergarten by older students.

Wright noted that her sons are among roughly 1,200 students on the waiting list in Orange County.

“Miracle Grace is wonderful,” she said. “Zion and Jadyn have shown so much improvement. They’re getting A’s and B’s now. They get along with everyone, learn discipline and spirituality. But I don’t have the money to keep up with tuition, and the school’s patience can’t last forever.

“I am calling on lawmakers to work with Gov. Ron DeSantis to fund the scholarship program so that families like mine won’t have to wait and suffer.”

Llanel Newman, a U.S. Army veteran and single mother of Hasaan, 5, and Amelia, 7, who is on the autism spectrum, agreed. Hasaan, a kindergartener at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School in Orlando, is on the FTC scholarship.

“When it was time to choose a school for Hasaan, I toured and researched for weeks to find the best options for my son,” Newman said. “The school needed to be safe. It needed to reflect the values he was learning at home. It needed to feel like a family.”

After one visit to St. Charles Borromeo, Newman knew it would be the right fit.

“Thanks to this scholarship, I was able to enroll Hasan in St. Charles and have watched with great pride as he improves in reading, writing and social skills,” she said. “As someone who proudly served our country, and is at the ready to fight for my children, it’s a comfort – a blessing – to know that I’m no longer alone. I have teachers, administrators, my son’s school and a governor by my side.

Friday morning’s audience included a number of prominent guests, including Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, state Rep. Kim Daniels, D-Jacksonville, Glen Gilzean, president and CEO of the Central Florida Urban League, and the Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church and director of Bethel Community Christian School in St. Petersburg.

DeSantis’s stop at Calvary City, located in one of Orlando’s most hardscrabble communities, was the first of two scheduled media conferences Friday. Scheduled for a 2:30 p.m. is a speech at Greater Miami Adventist Academy.

Florida schools roundup: Day of sorrow and hope, textbooks, naloxone and more

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A day to remember: Valentine’s Day 2019 was a day of sorrow mixed with hope at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 people were gunned down a year ago. The few students who showed up at the school, the staff, and students from around the state and country marked the anniversary with a moment of silence. Families of the victims visited gravesites, and many Stoneman Douglas students devoted a day of community service to honor those who died. Sun SentinelMiami Herald. Palm Beach Post. Orlando Sentinel. News Service of FloridaAssociated Press. WFTX. WSVN. Tallahassee DemocratMiami Herald.

Textbook adoption schedule: The Florida Department of Education is telling state school districts that it is postponing the textbook adoption schedule, which is what districts use to determine when to purchase new textbooks and from whom. Under the new schedule, new elementary math books won’t be available for four years, and language arts materials for three years. Districts can opt to go outside the state-approved process, which some districts are doing. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent call for an end to the Common Core standards has complicated the process for buying textbooks, which reflect the standards. Daytona Beach News-Journal. Education Week. Two central Florida school district superintendents say DeSantis’ decision to eliminate the Common Core standards could be a welcome opportunity to re-evaluate school testing and all the things tied to it, such as school grades and teacher evaluations. Orlando Sentinel.

Florida schools roundup: Call for grand jury, security order, solemn day and more

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Call for a grand jury: Gov. Ron DeSantis is calling for a statewide grand jury to investigate the actions of districts on safety and security in schools, and has issued an executive order relating to security in schools and the shooting deaths of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland a year ago. He’s ordered a state review of all school district discipline diversion programs, a reopening of the application period for districts to ask for funds from the armed guardian program, and is authorizing the Florida Department of Education to collect and maintain a database for timely school safety information. “We’re not where we need to be,” DeSantis said. “We want to make sure we’re doing all we can so folks can have safe schools.” Sun Sentinel. Miami Herald. Palm Beach PostGradebook. News Service of Florida. Associated PressFlorida TodayWPTV. WTLV. Orlando Weekly. Sunshine State News. Florida Phoenix. WLRN.

Parkland, one year later: Families of the 17 Parkland shooting victims will visit graves, work on community projects and mourn privately to observe the one-year anniversary of their deaths, while schools around the state pay their respects with moments of silence, memorial services and more. Associated PressFlorida Today. Sun Sentinel. Palm Beach Post. Daily Commercial. WLRN. WTSP. One year later after the massacre, students and teachers reflect on what’s changed. Education Week. Victims’ demands for accountability for the shootings has yielded mixed results. United Press International. This teacher changed schools after Parkland. But she can’t escape the memories of that day. Palm Beach Post. It’s a new world for school policing, too. Florida Today. Six things we’ve learned about safety in schools since Parkland. The 74. The Broward district will be implementing the camera software system named Avigilon in high-risk school. It allows security officials to easily track a student around campus by his appearance. Washington Post. A top Florida teachers union official praises Stoneman Douglas students for their activism after the attack. The Hill.

Commentary: Widen the circle, broaden the conversation

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Parents rally outside the Florida Supreme Court in January 2016 to protect school choice options.

Recently, I was invited to a local coffee and conversation-type event in Florida between my former state representative and former neighbors who are predominantly white progressive women.

Then I was invited to a conversation at a late-night dinner event in New Jersey with five conservative white men.

Both discussions were more similar than different.

Both discussions involved topics about educational choice and branched off from there.

Both groups have heard a lot about people like me.

On the left, they like my work with the ACLU and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense. Then they hear that I organize parents who choose something other than their district school. That means I’m a union-buster out to destroy public education.

On the right, they like my advocacy for education choice , but then they learn I’m a democratic socialist. That means I’m trying to turn the United States into Venezuela.

Over coffee, I looked around and noticed all that we have in common – white, progressive, living in a highly valued neighborhood with stellar schools. And we could take time off to attend such an event in the middle of a workday.

Or between salon appointments.

Most women attending were against parental choice in education.

Of course. Our opponents are almost always privileged white liberals.

I watched these participants struggle to understand as I explained why I supported educational options for everyone, not just those who could afford it.

One mom tried to sum up their opposition.

“We support the democratization of the public school system,” she said.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means we support free public schools that are open to everyone.”

I smiled at them.

“We all know these schools aren’t free,” I said. “We pay for them in our rents and our mortgages.”

They stared at me.

“And our schools here don’t accept everyone. They only take kids from a particular ZIP code.”

“That’s not true!” one mother objected. “Our high school took Tony Dungy’s kids from Avila.”

I almost spit out my coffee. Tony Dungy is a black man, the former coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and a millionaire. Avila is a gated community north of town.

“That’s true,” other moms nodded in agreement. “They accepted Tony Dungy’s kids.”

“How nice of them,” I said. “But they don’t take kids from the projects around the corner. Do they?”

Silence.

“Do any of you know anyone who desperately needs a good school for their children? Do you know at least one mom who can’t afford to move into this neighborhood, who’s trapped in her ZIP code and can’t afford private school?”

Silence.

“If you met anyone like that, what would you say? How would you explain your position to them?”

More silence.

A few weeks later, in a very different conversation with conservative men, it didn’t take long before they found out I leaned far to the left. Naturally, they wanted to know my views on transgender issues.

Instead of speaking for a group of people who do a much better job speaking for themselves, I tried a different tactic.

“That’s why we support educational options for all students, right?” I asked. “So every student, even those you can’t quite understand yet, will find a school that’s the best fit for them. Choice is beginning to accommodate students based on gender identity – and really, isn’t our message that we all benefit when all our kids are succeeding in school?”

Lots of mumbles and one guy looked at the ceiling.

“Do any of you know anyone who identifies with a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth? Have you talked to them about this?”

Silence.

“If you met anyone like that, would you listen? Would you try to hear their point of view?”

More silence.

Perhaps we should open any and all conversations to include those who’ve typically been excluded. If you’re convinced you know where you stand on any issue, including educational choice, perhaps you should talk to someone who’s affected by it. Invite them into a conversation. Ask them their opinions, and then listen for a while.

We’d all learn so much, and I could go back to answering only for myself.

Florida schools roundup: Arming teachers, superintendent hire, security poll and more

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Arming teachers: A bill that would broaden the state’s 2018 armed guardian law and allow some teachers to carry guns in schools clears the Senate Education Committee in a 5-3 vote along party lines, with Republicans in the majority. Last year’s bill specifically prohibited the arming of teachers, but calls grew to change that after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission recommended arming willing teachers. Senate Bill 7030 also broadens state oversight over districts’ compliance with the law’s security rules, and would require sheriffs to train teachers in districts that opt in. The bill may get a hearing in the appropriations committee before heading to a Senate floor vote sometime after the Legislature opens March 5. News Service of Florida. GateHouse. Associated Press. Tampa Bay TimesGradebook. Politico Florida. Tallahassee Democrat. Florida Politics.

Superintendent’s contract: Cynthia Saunders is approved as school superintendent in a 3-2 vote by the Manatee County School Board. The contract runs through June 30, 2021, and pays her $196,000 a year. She had been acting as interim superintendent since Diana Greene left last summer. Her ascension was delayed last year when Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart accused Saunders of manipulating student data to inflate the district’s graduation rate. Saunders is negotiating a settlement with the DOE in which she would neither admit nor deny the charge. Bradenton Herald. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Charter takeover helped students ‘have a chance at life’

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Jefferson County schools came under the management of Somerset Academy in 2017.

TALLAHASSEE — Three students from rural, impoverished Jefferson County on Tuesday testified before Florida’s House Education Committee about dramatic improvements at their schools since 2017, when the local district relinquished control of its traditional public schools to a charter school operator.

Prior to the historic transformation, Jefferson County had been among the state’s lowest-performing districts for about a decade. More than half its high school students had been retained in a grade at least twice. In 2016, just 7 percent of its middle schoolers scored on grade level on state math assessments compared to 26 percent in the next-lowest performing district.

In 2017, the Jefferson County School Board voted unanimously to turn over management of its lone primary and secondary schools to Somerset Academy, based in South Florida. Although the state is home to dozens of charters that were converted from traditional public schools, never before had converted charters comprised an entire school system.

Ayana Bradley, a junior at the Jefferson County K-12 high school, told lawmakers Tuesday that before turnaround efforts, students were unmotivated, as many teachers dressed unprofessionally and seemed more interested in gossiping with students than educating them.

“There was no one there for us,” she said. “We had to learn to push ourselves, and some kids didn’t know how to do that. Sometimes they just wouldn’t come to school. Somerset taught us we have a chance at life.”

She added: “We’re not just numbers, we actually mean something. Now, people believe in us – that we can become better and mean something to someone.”

Ayana is now taking dual enrollment classes through Doral College. She wants to attend the University of Central Florida and become a nurse.

The schools’ turnaround was assisted by Academica, a charter school service and support organization in Miami, and Doral College President Doug Rodriguez, who has acted as a consultant since the charter takeover.

“The district had consistently low performance and it was under oversight of the Department of Education,” Rodriguez said. “The district had shrunk in size. There should be about 1,500 students in the district. In 2016-17, there were about 715 students. It’s grown as the school became more successful.”

Rodriguez described Jefferson County as a community with many needs. All students in the district are on a free and reduced-price meal program, and many families in the area do not have their own transportation.

Changes that spurred improvement included hiring new teachers, while retaining many with 25 or more years of experience; philanthropic and logistical support from Academica; and an investment of $5.1 million from Somerset Academy – money that came from loans and grants, Rodriguez said.

“And we changed the teachers’ pay scale,” he said. “We made them among the highest-paid teachers in the state, while they had previously been among the lowest.”

Principal Cory Oliver said major renovations to the schools’ campus have been instrumental in the district’s turnaround.

Students said they wanted a culinary arts program, so a state-of-the-art cooking lab was added, as were eight new portable classrooms, an arts building, a new band room, and a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) lab.

The district has begun seeing academic gains.

In 2017-18, Jefferson County’s passing rate jumped 60 percent in math for grades 3-8. No other district in Florida came close to that rate of improvement. The previous year, Jefferson County was the state’s lowest-performing district in that category.

In 2017-18, six Jefferson County high school students were taking dual enrollment classes; this year, the number has grown to nearly 40. And this year, for the first time in a decade, two seniors have been accepted to the University of Florida.

Jamal Washington, an eighth-grader, told legislators that before the charter takeover, students didn’t have educators they could talk to about personal issues.

“There was no one to share our feeling or emotions with,” said Jamal, who wants to be an air-traffic controller. “Since Somerset came, everybody’s trying to get on track and graduate with their class. I want everybody to graduate with me.”

Freshman Alexis Arnold, an aspiring pediatrician, agreed.

“It’s now a contest of who gets the highest grades,” she said. “Everybody’s paying attention in class and nobody’s skipping anymore. You don’t see as many fights.”

Responding to a question from committee vice chair Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, Oliver said the decision to allow a charter school organization to take over the district wasn’t overwhelmingly popular.

“The school district is the No. 1 employer in the county,” he said. “That community bridge is something we’ll continue to work on. But we’re building a huge network of support, so people can see the changes and growth.”

Committee chairwoman Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mt. Dora, said she was moved by the students’ testimony.

“They are why we make sacrifices to be here,” she said. “This is the fruit of the good consequences of good policies that have been passed.”

Florida schools roundup: Board speaks, Parkland stories, school security and more

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Board speaks out: Members of the Broward County School Board have said little about the Parkland shootings in the past year, letting Broward school officials and lawyers take the lead in deciding the public response and, by and large, supporting their efforts. Now the nine board members have finally agreed to talk about the controversies, the pace of the reforms to secure schools and Superintendent Robert Runcie’s performance. Only two are calling for Runcie’s dismissal. Sun Sentinel. The board is considering hiring a security chief whose background was investigating Google workers who divulged company secrets. The district has routinely withheld information about the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and even launched an investigation into who leaked the academic records of the accused shooter. Sun Sentinel.

Parkland stories: Here are some of the events planned to commemorate the anniversary. WTVJ. Remembering the 17 victims of Parkland. Sun Sentinel. Survivors of the shootings and their families launch a petition drive to ban the sale of assault weapons. Sun Sentinel. Two mothers of Parkland victims captured in an iconic photo after the shooting now find themselves on opposite sides of the gun control issue. Associated Press. Lori Alhadeff, mother of a victim and now a Broward County School Board member, says she feels her daughter “that Alyssa is still coming home.” Associated Press. A survivor says her life remains filled with fear and panic. WLRN.

Displaced Puerto Rican family desperate for Gardiner Scholarship

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Gardiner scholarship
Aleena Martinez and her mother, Damaris Lorenzo, pose with Aleena’s beloved stuffed animals. Aleena is one of nearly 1,900 Florida students on a wait list for the Gardiner Scholarship for children and young adults with certain special needs. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently vowed to end the wait list for 2019-20.

TAMPA – Aleena Martinez bounded into her family’s small, sparsely furnished living room as if it were an inflatable bounce house. A pair of blue rabbit ears crowned her dark curls and a menagerie of stuffed animals filled her arms.

The 12-year-old abandoned the animals on the couch and ran to the kitchen, where she began rummaging in the cabinets. She returned waving two boxes of cake mix – one vanilla, one brownie.

“We’ll bake one, then we’ll put them together,” Aleena told her mother, Damaris Lorenzo. “It’s science!” she announced with enthusiasm.

Aleena had just arrived home from her neighborhood school in east Tampa, a bundle of energy. She doesn’t dislike the school, but she’s finding it much different from the one she attended in her native Puerto Rico. Aleena, who is on the autism spectrum, is more comfortable in a smaller school setting. Distractions can trigger her post-traumatic stress disorder, a result of her family’s harrowing exodus to Florida in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Her mother would have preferred to send Aleena to private school but cannot afford the tuition. The fifth-grader, along with nearly 1,900 other Florida children, has landed on a wait list for a Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs in the wake of a demand that has outpaced state funding.

Damaris received encouraging news last week when Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged to eliminate the wait list for the 2019-20 school year. In speaking engagements in Jacksonville and Orlando, DeSantis said he has allocated enough money in the 2019 state budget to provide relief to families eager to find the most appropriate educational environment for their children.

Administered by the nonprofit Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, the scholarship serves nearly 12,000 special needs students. Families can use the funds to pay for a variety of educational services, including private school tuition, tutoring and therapies, in addition to contributions to the Florida Prepaid College Program. The scholarship has enjoyed broad bipartisan support since its inception in 2014 and was expanded in 2015 to include students like Aleena who are on the autism spectrum. Those students now account for 66 percent of scholarship recipients.

Damaris learned about the scholarship when she saw it advertised on benches near her neighborhood.

She began envisioning using the money, which this school year averages $10,400, to pay for private school tuition and speech, occupational and group therapies for Aleena.

“I know of a private school here where she would be better off,” Damaris said. “It’s a smaller setting with one-on-one (instruction), and all the students get iPad tablets and there’s music and arts. I know she would like it there.”

Damaris didn’t leave Puerto Rico with Aleena and Aleena’s older brother voluntarily. Five days before Hurricane Maria devastated the island, she underwent a complicated abdominal surgery. When the island became flooded and lost power, Damaris scrambled to find hospital care. Her surgical wounds became infected, and without access to a doctor or antibiotics, her condition rapidly deteriorated.

“I caught sepsis in my whole body,” she said.

Damaris eventually found a doctor who approved her departure from the island, but travel out of Puerto Rico was limited. She had to leave her extended family behind.

After arriving in Tampa, Damaris spent a couple of months in a hospital while the family adjusted to its new home. None of it was easy.

“Aleena doesn’t really like a lot of change,” Damaris said, adding that post-hurricane, her daughter began experiencing hallucinations triggered by post-traumatic stress disorder. The girl is undergoing evaluation for bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia.

Despite Aleena’s challenges, Damaris is happy her daughter has made progress – and friends – at the neighborhood school. But she is convinced the private school will be a much better fit.

Meanwhile, Aleena who has disappeared into another room, suddenly reappears in the living room singing and “flossing,” doing the popular side-to-side dance move inspired by the online video game “Fortnite.”

She interrupts her recitation of things she loves, including painting and riding her purple Schwinn bicycle, with a panicked cry.

“The solar-system project! I left it at the therapist,” she says. “I need it; it’s a project. I don’t have any more paint.”

Damaris assures her they can return to the therapist’s office to retrieve the project, but the trip will have to wait. The weary mother, still recovering from a medical procedure she endured the previous day, sighs with a grin.

“It’s like this all the time,” she says.

A Gardiner Scholarship would provide some much-needed help.