Student spotlight

Gardiner scholarship

Gardiner Scholarship ‘a Godsend’ for Lake Mary family

Ashton Fernandez couldn’t contain his excitement. The 7-year-old was ready to decorate his yard with inflatable Christmas decorations with twin sister Audrey, and he bounded around his family’s living room with obvious glee. Diagnosed at an early age with autism spectrum disorder, Ashton communicates almost completely non-verbally. He smiled wide and tugged at Audrey’s arm, imploring her to play until it was time to decorate their sprawling Lake Mary lawn. As he did so, Arlo, a laid-back golden retriever, sauntered through the room, casually taking in the pre-holiday cheer. “Arlo is Ashton’s therapy dog,” said Jennifer Fernandez, Ashton and Audrey’s mother. She is...

Adopted siblings thriving in private school after severe neglect in early childhood

Editor’s note: To mark National Adoption Awareness Month, RedefinED is highlighting a choice scholarship that serves children who are or were in Florida’s foster care system. INVERNESS, Fla. – There is no hiding from the nightmarish stories of his early childhood, but Diego Cornelius is grateful to have forgotten most of the details. Some things he can’t forget, like the time he smelled smoke in their mobile home and woke everyone, saving them, before all of their possessions burned. Or the time he fell from a boat without a life vest, and nearly drowned before his mom jumped in. Most of the...
Gardiner Scholarships

Military family on mission to raise awareness for Gardiner scholarships

  TAMPA, Fla. – Two months after her son was diagnosed with autism, Laurie Guzman felt broken and defeated, exhausted from searching for the right school. A scholarship made her whole, if only for a short time. Ezra was a tall, slender 4-year-old when he and his mom took a tour of LiFT Academy, a private school in Seminole that serves children with special needs. Meeting the school’s executive director, Ezra furrowed his brow and narrowed his deep brown eyes. “I’m a bad boy,” he stated as a matter of fact, “so I know you won’t let me come here.” Kim Kuruzovich, equal parts caring...
charter school

Against all odds, Jo’Keal Sweed found hope at a Tampa charter school

Jo’Keal Sweed has a quick mind, polite nature and gentle voice. You can’t immediately tell she’s been through hell. A senior at Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High School in Tampa, Jo’Keal can’t remember ever seeing her father, although he occasionally emails her from a Michigan prison. Nor does she have any memories of her mother. She doesn’t even know if she’s alive. She was adopted as a baby, and the family soon moved from her native Flint, Michigan, to Tampa. While the weather was much warmer, life was turbulent. In Tampa, her adopted mother, along with five adopted siblings, moved often. Jo’Keal attended seven elementary...
private school

A scholarship and a small private school led a tormented girl to happiness

MIAMI – It’s hard to miss Nicole Meneses at Pneuma Christian Academy. If she’s not front and center in every photo on every social media post, she’s stealing the show with her exuberance. Her smile, so wide it almost looks painful, is full of braces. But she doesn’t have the slightest hint of self-consciousness. “I’ve come a long way,” she said. “I’m thankful every day to be here.” The happiest student at the school says you wouldn’t recognize her before Pneuma. She was bullied, depressed, and hated going to her neighborhood school. Then her mother found out about a scholarship that would change...

From bullied and failing to Hope, honors and college

GROVELAND, Fla. – The sign at their church trumpeted the opening of a new private school: HOPE ACADEMY NOW ENROLLING For Adaijah Jackson and her mother, Sheila James, the word Hope was all they saw. “It was an answer to prayer,” Sheila said, smiling and shaking her head at the memory. “The timing was just perfect.” Adaijah (pronounced ahd-asia) was desperate to leave the neighborhood school where she had nearly failed 10th grade. Sheila was a single mom with two children and a job working the overnight shift at a convenience store. She never thought she could afford Hope. But the school told her about...

Gardiner Scholarships give students with autism a homeschool lifeline

Every day was a battle for Jared Wendlberger in school. The 7-year old, at the time, would come home in tears, after his backpack and lunch were stolen by his classmates. Jared, who has high-functioning autism, was placed in an emotional behavior disorder class in the second grade. Some of the students in the class were two years older and several of them were violent, his mother, Sandy Edwards, remembers. Jared was bullied regularly and it affected him on many levels. He was self-conscious about everything and became withdrawn. He was unable to finish his school work and was performing poorly. But the...

With school choice, ‘I could strive for greatness’

I never imagined I’d leave my beautiful home country of Venezuela. My dad was a pharmacist while my mom was a teacher. My brother and I were in a school we loved. However, as the political climate of Venezuela worsened, so did the living conditions. Safety was no longer something expected by citizens trying to live their daily lives. My parents knew there was a chance of a better life in the United States, so when I was six years old they left everything they ever knew behind for us. At the time, we had no idea how tough the...