Archive | Private Schools

School choice scholarship student enjoying the calm after the storm

TJ Butler is all smiles as he nears graduation from Hillsborough Baptist School in Seffner, Fla.

The lean, angular kid arrived at his new school three years ago, whip-smart and rage-filled. TJ Butler didn’t want to make eye contact, didn’t want to make friends, didn’t want to follow the rules. Instead, he screamed, slammed doors and threw things, including, one time, a desk.

For a boy diagnosed with bipolar disorder, whose father was in prison, who grew up with police lights flashing in his front yard, maybe that’s no surprise. But the teachers and administrators at Hillsborough Baptist School weren’t going to give in.

Nearly every day for the first year, the principal, Jessica Brockett, talked with TJ – and listened. For a boy who never thought anyone would listen, this was therapy.

“I wanted him to have a fresh start,” Brockett said. “I said, ‘Look, we’re not kicking you out of here, so let’s just get past all that.’ That developed a trust and a connection that he could come down here and say what he needed to say.”

Three years later, a visible calm has settled over TJ. Now 18, he walks the halls with the confident, purposeful stride of a young man who’s on the verge of graduating from high school and going to college. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: School security plans, budget blues and more

School security: The Sarasota County School Board approves a plan to create an internal school security department over the next two years. The plan, which would cost the district $3.1 million, calls for hiring 30 officers and placing them in elementary schools for the 2018-2019 school year, and adding 26 more the following year and putting them in middle and high schools. Superintendent Todd Bowden proposes negotiating with local law enforcement agencies to provide coverage in middle and high schools for 2018-2019, which could cost as much as another $2.5 million. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Both the Duval and Pasco school districts are considering plans to place safety “assistants” in elementary schools as a less-costly alternative to using sworn school resource officers. These assistants would receive less training and be paid less than SROs, and work only when schools are in session. Florida Times-UnionWJCT. WJXT. Gradebook. The Volusia County School Board is asking the county council for $2 million to help put a resource officer in every school. Daytona Beach News-Journal. Putnam County School Board members delay a decision on arming school employees until May 1 to wait for a recommendation from a school advisory committee. WJXT. Students are among about 50 people protesting against Brevard County School Board members who want to consider arming school employees. Florida Today. Broward County school officials are hosting the first of several school safety forums tonight. WLRN.

Budget problems: The Duval County School Board is facing a $62 million deficit in its $1.7 billion budget for next year, districts officials say. Last year the district dipped into its reserves to cover a $23 million deficit. Interim Superintendent Patricia Willis says overspending, higher costs for security, transportation, raises and money to charter schools are contributing to the deficit, and she’s asking department heads to look for 5 percent savings in their budgets. Florida Times-Union. Broward County school officials say they’re facing a budget deficit of nearly $15 million for the next school year, and are considering asking voters for an additional half-mill in property taxes so teachers can get raises. If approved by the school board, the tax measure would go on the November ballot. Officials estimate it would raise $93 million a year over its four-year life. Sun-Sentinel. Lake County School Superintendent Diane Kornegay is proposing to trim $2.1 million from the district’s budget by eliminating non-teaching positions in administration and support services. Daily Commercial.

Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: School removing teachers, amendments and more

All teachers to be removed: Every teacher at a struggling Hernando County elementary school will be removed at the end of the school year, school officials said at a meeting Friday. Administrators decided to give Moton Elementary School a “fresh start” after it has received D grades from the state the past two years. District spokesperson Karen Jordan says without the move, the state would have taken over the school. Veteran teachers will be transferred, while newer teachers will have to apply for other open jobs in the district. Tampa Bay Times.

Education amendments: The Constitution Revision Commission will consider 12 ballot proposals this week. Two of them address K-12 education. Proposal 6003 would place an eight-year term limit on school board members, allow an alternative process for approving public and charter schools, and require civics education in public schools. Proposal 6008 would allow “high-performing” school districts exemptions from following some laws that apply to districts. The commission must send its ballot proposals to the secretary of state by May 10. News Service of Florida. redefinED. The proposal to bundle three education proposals into a single amendment for voters to consider in November is drawing criticism from education leaders around the state. Gradebook.

Charter schools’ troubles: Even as the Eagle Arts Academy charter school missed making a payroll for its teachers, it continued to pay another company owned by school founder Gregory Blount for the use of the school name, logo, website and data-processing system, according to school records. The company has been paid at least $42,000 since last June by the Wellington school. Palm Beach Post. Eagle Arts Academy teachers got a full paycheck Friday, though they remain concerned about the checks they’re due at the end of the month. District officials say they’ll close the school within the next 90 days unless it can balance its budget and pay more than $700,000 in back rent. Palm Beach Post. The Brevard County School Board will decide Tuesday whether to close the Legacy Academy Charter School in Port St. John. District officials say the 200-student K-6 school is in a financial emergency, employs noncertified teachers and operates without basic instructional materials. Florida Today. Continue Reading →


Montana moms get their day in court

Shortly after Montana created its first tax credit scholarship, Mike Kadas, head of the state’s Department of Revenue, unilaterally declared that scholarships could not be used at religious private schools. Kadas argued the state’s Blaine Amendment, a 19th century relic of Catholic discrimination, barred “direct or indirect” appropriations to religious organizations.

School choice moms struck back with a lawsuit claiming religious discrimination.

“The rule also violates both the state and federal Constitutions because it allows scholarship recipients to attend any private school except religious ones,” Erica Smith, an attorney with the institute, said in a press release at the time. “That’s discrimination against religion.”

Now two years later these moms will have a chance to make their case before the Montana Supreme Court today.

The case may have national implications. To date, cases hinged on whether the use of school voucher programs violated so-called “separation of church and state” requirements in the U.S. and state constitutions. Sixteen years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that vouchers did not violate the U.S. Constitution. Several other state supreme courts have ruled the same.

While choosing a religious school with vouchers, or tax credit scholarships, is constitutional, is it constitutional for states to prohibit parents from choosing religious options only? Continue Reading →


School choice amidst the sugar cane

There’s a lot of school choice going on in some of the most remote places in Florida. Here, Danyelle Juarez teaches her Kindergarten class at Harvest Academy Christian School in Clewiston, one of a string of small towns on the edge of Lake Okeechobee.

CLEWISTON, Fla. – It’s hard to think of anywhere in Florida more off the beaten path than the string of blue-collar towns on the rim of Lake Okeechobee. They’re snugged between the grassy, 30-foot-high dike that corrals America’s second-biggest lake, and a 450,000-acre sea of sugar cane that rolls south towards the Everglades. This is not palmy, beachy Florida. This is burning fields and smoking-sugar-mills Florida.

This is also school choice Florida.

The half-dozen towns that ring Lake Okeechobee are home to 10 private schools that serve more than 600 students using school choice scholarships. Four charter schools in the area serve another 600.

Harvest Academy Christian School in Clewiston, a town too small for a Starbucks, is one of these schools. It opened nine years ago with 12 students. Now it has 120. About 90 use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students.* Five use McKay Scholarships for students with disabilities.

“I think it’s the best thing that could have happened,” said Sanjuanita Morales, 29, a stay-at-home mom whose three children attend Harvest Academy with tax credit scholarships. “There’s a lot of people that ask about the school and the scholarships and they say, ‘Oh that’s really cool you have options.’ “

The choice schools here are myth chippers. There’s the myth that school choice can’t work in rural areas because there are too many hurdles – including too few students – to make non-district schools viable. Then there’s the myth that rural school districts, often their area’s biggest employers, are especially hostile to choice because they need to keep themselves viable.

Both myths solidified during last year’s confirmation hearings for Betsy DeVos. Both continue to endure in stories like this, this and this. Yet both seem at odds with what’s happening in Florida, which has one of America’s most diverse educational ecosystems.

School choice war? Not here.

Thirty Florida counties are defined as rural, and this year they’re home to more than 80 scholarship-accepting private schools (like this one). Together, those schools are serving 3,828 tax credit students, 999 McKay students and 287 students using Gardiner Scholarships, an education savings account for students with special needs.* Many also serve students using Florida’s pre-K voucher.

Three of those counties abut Lake Okeechobee.

Hendry County, home to Clewiston, has 39,000 residents scattered over 1,190 square miles. If Hendry were a state, its population density would rank near Nevada’s. Okeechobee County on the north end of the lake is a tad less remote (on par with Colorado); Glades County on the west, two tads more (think New Mexico). The east end of the lake rests in Palm Beach County, but Pahokee and Belle Glade are 40 miles, and a galaxy, from the glitz of West Palm Beach.

As for the other myth: Listen to Jesse Windham, principal of Harvest Academy.

“Everyone thinks it’s a war,” he said about school choice. “It’s not here.” Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: ‘Hope’ operators, school security and more

Hope operators: Two charter school companies have been named the state’s first “Hope operators” in a unanimous vote by the Florida Board of Education. Somerset Academy, managed by Miami-based Academica, and IDEA Public Schools of Texas will now have access to low-cost loans for facilities, state grants, a streamlined application process and exemptions from some state laws if they apply to open “Schools of Hope” within five miles of persistently low-performing public schools. Somerset based its application on the work it’s done since taking over the Jefferson County School District, and IDEA puts on emphasis on college preparation. IDEA has already identified Tampa and Jacksonville as possible locations for schools. redefinED. Tampa Bay Times. Politico Florida.

School security: An increase of nearly $100 million in the state budget for school security probably isn’t enough to put an armed resource officer in every school, according to a report from the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. The superintendents are asking the Florida Board of Education to support their request that they be allowed to use the $67 million that’s in the so-called guardian program to train and arm school personnel, much of which will likely go unspent because many districts oppose the idea. News Service of Florida. The Palm Beach County School District expects to receive $6.1 million from the state as part of the new law requiring resource officers in every school. District officials say that will be enough to hire 75 officers and cover every school. Palm Beach Post. Brevard County school officials expect to get $2.4 million from the state, but say the cost of putting an officer in every school will be $7.8 million. Florida Today. U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, asks Attorney General Jeff Sessions to direct $75 million in the federal spending bill toward putting police officers into schools. Gradebook. School board in Martin and Leon counties vote to allow only trained law enforcement officers to carry guns in schools. TCPalm. Tallahassee Democrat. WFSU. The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Department is looking for 14 candidates to become school resource officers at 12 elementary schools in the unincorporated areas of the county, at a cost of $1.1 million. Sarasota Herald-TribuneBradenton Herald. School security will receive extra funding if Marion County voters renew a 1-mill property tax that was approved in 2014 to provide $15 million a year for more teachers and for art, music, physical education and vocational programs. Ocala Star-Banner.

Extension denied: Oscar Patterson Elementary School won’t get an extra year to turn around its string of failing grades, the Florida Board of Education decides. Bay County School Superintendent Bill Husfelt appealed to the board for an extra year to get the school’s grade up to a C, so a decision on whether to close the school or turn it over to an outside operator could be delayed. Principal Darnita Rivers called the state’s decision “disappointing but not discouraging.” Panama City News Herald. WMBB. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Teacher housing, court case, signs and more

Housing for teachers: It’s becoming harder for Miami-Dade County teachers to find a place they can afford to rent in Miami-Dade County. So the county and the school district are collaborating on a plan to build apartments for teachers above a new school. The first phase of the plan would be to tear down an abandoned public housing project near Southside Elementary School in the Brickell area and build a school for grades 6-8. One floor would be used for apartments, with other floors devoted to parking and classrooms. “When you look at teacher salaries, it’s just impossible for them to get into the housing market,” says Ned Murray, associate director of Florida International University’s Metropolitan Center. If it’s successful, the county and board will propose building a 300-apartment complex next to Phillis Wheatley Elementary, just north of downtown. Miami Herald.

Education court case: Now that the legislative session is over, the Florida Supreme Court will resume its review of the lawsuit that alleges the state has violated its constitutional role to fund an “an efficient, safe, secure and uniform high-quality education.” Legislative leaders asked the court to suspend its review during the session. The plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court after an appeals court ruled that the question of financing was not an issue for the judicial branch. The case, Citizens for Strong Schools, was filed in 2009. Gradebook.

Atheists offer signs: The Tampa-based group Atheists of Florida is offering to provide signs with the saying “In God We Trust” free to every school in Florida to fulfill a requirement in the recently passed education bill. “We want to help educate about the First Amendment and the establishment clause, as well as about the diversity in our country,” says executive director Judy Adkins. One of the versions would state “E Pluribus Unum, In God We Trust” in a circle with red, white and blue stars and stripes. The outside of the circle would contain words from the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Gradebook. Continue Reading →


Jacksonville School for Autism helps students adapt to outside world

Teachers and therapists at the Jacksonville School for Autism often work one-on-one with students.

Michelle Dunham was troubled as she watched her son, Nick, struggle in school.

He had autism and was grouped in a classroom with children with different learning disabilities at a public school.

Dunham described her son as a gentle giant who hovers around 6’3. But he’s also non-verbal. She felt he needed one-on-one support to succeed academically. She didn’t fault his teachers, who were doing all they could to help. But to thrive, Dunham said, he needed an intensive learning environment.

“They had no resources to support him,” she said.

She talked things over with fellow parents. They encouraged her to start a school of her own.

Dunham and her husband opened the Jacksonville School for Autism in 2005, as a nonprofit K-12 educational center for children ages 2-22 with Autism Spectrum Disorder — a neurological condition characterized by a wide range of symptoms that often include challenges with social skills, repetitive behavior, speech and communication.

In 2007, the CDC reported 1 in 150 children were diagnosed with autism. Now, 1 in 68 children get diagnosed.

Dunham views the school as one part of a growing societal recognition that, with the right support, people with autism can flourish.

She started the school with the Schuldt family, which has an autistic daughter named Sarah.

“We were two families that could not find the right environment for our children,” Dunham said. “Our kids needed to have more intensive therapeutic support. We wanted it to be an environment that was full of enrichment and resources: a safe environment for kids to learn.”

Individualized learning Continue Reading →