Editor’s note: This commentary from Patrice Whitfield of Jacksonville explains how her three younger children have benefited from state scholarship programs – and how her three older children could have benefited had the scholarship been available sooner.
As a mother of six, I’ve seen my share of struggles, especially when it comes to raising and educating my children. Thankfully, I received help through several state scholarship programs for low-income students and children with special needs.
Having tried multiple scholarship programs, I can say without a doubt that the flexibility the Gardiner Scholarship offers makes it my favorite.
The Gardiner Scholarship program is an education savings account program. Florida provides funds that I’m able spend on school tuition, tutoring, therapies, books, curriculum and more.
My sons Laurence (12th grade) and Christian (third grade) are both on the autism spectrum and qualify for the Gardiner Scholarship. My daughter Ghayda (fifth grade) is on the income-based Tax Credit Scholarship program. My oldest three have also used the income-based scholarship and gone on to graduate from high school.
Laurence and Christian each have unique needs. Though Laurence struggles with social settings, he performs better in the classroom than Christian. The Gardiner Scholarship has allowed me to afford tuition at Morning Star School in Jacksonville, where Laurence gets the help he needs.
Prior to Morning Star School, Laurence was a D-F student, but today he’s a senior on the A-honor roll. He wants to become a video game programmer when he grows up and he’s already off to a strong start. He even helped me pass my IT fundamentals certifications when I decided to start a new career path.
Christian is different. He is hyperactive and bounces around everywhere. I have to be more hands on with his education and that is why I decided to homeschool him for now.
Gardiner gives me flexibility to teach him things I want to him to learn, like focusing more on Black history as well as math and science. The funds help me afford curriculum and materials for science and math lessons where Christian is now excelling. He has mastered his multiplication tables and is learning division.
And next year we are looking to add ABA therapy, which can increase language and communication skills and improve attention, focus, social skills, memory and academic.
When I heard the Florida Legislature was going to merge the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and the Family Empowerment Scholarship and give them the same spending flexibility as Gardiner, I thought that was a great idea.
With Ghayda’s income-based scholarship, we are restricted to only tuition and fees at Morning Star School. I don’t want to take away from anything Morning Star offers, I only want to add to it. I’d love to be able to use the scholarship to buy more books for Ghayda so we can focus more on her reading and spelling at home. The added flexibility would allow me to supplement and support my child’s already excellent education.
In fact, I wish I had the Gardiner Scholarship long ago for my oldest children.
One of my adult children still struggles with reading and writing today. Back when she was a student, she didn’t have the full support she needed. After seeing how Christian and Laurence have grown with the help of Gardiner, I know she would have done much better if I had the funds to supplement her learning at home.
I know that flexibility would have a big impact on many other families, too. I’d love to see the Legislature make all state scholarship programs as awesome as Gardiner.
Another student dies from virus, pool virus testing urged in schools, reopenings, graduations and more
As COVID-19 sent brick-and-mortar education into a tailspin this spring, students at one North Florida school realized what they missed most was a creature with four legs and a wet nose.
That’s why staff at Morning Star Catholic School in Jacksonville featured Nova, a golden retriever who likes to lean into humans’ legs while being petted, in a video created to help families feel connected during distance learning.
Trained by Project Chance to help students on the autism spectrum, Nova and another service dog, Corbin, have coaxed anxious students out of cars, lunched with students who met behavior goals and served as an audience to beginning readers to build their confidence.
Graduating seniors had a chance to hug Nova goodbye when they came to the school one at a time for cap and gown photos.
“They miss her terribly, and she misses them terribly, too,” said principal Jean Barnes.
The school, one of six Morning Star Catholic schools in Florida that specialize in teaching students with special needs, serves 138 children with learning differences, including 20 who receive Gardiner Scholarships for students with unique abilities. (Gardiner Scholarships are administered by Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.)
Despite missing out on the usual end-of-year activities, students at other Catholic schools that serve children with learning differences haven’t been deprived of therapies and services traditionally provided.
Fourteen-year-old Hannah Halperin, in her third year at St. Mary Academy in Sarasota, is continuing to receive weekly speech therapy as well as occupational therapy remotely.
“I’m getting to hear her speech therapy, and I can tell it’s very good,” said her father, Gary Halperin.
Occupational therapy has proved a bit more challenging because it relies on hands-on activities. Still, Hannah, who has Down syndrome, was able to take therapy supplies home before the campus shut down in March. Therapists are encouraging her to squeeze a tennis ball and do floor exercises to maintain muscle tone. She also works on fine motor skills by writing and picking up toothpicks, and she attends group therapy sessions via Google Meet.
“They use computers at school, so that made the transition easier,” Halperin said.
St. Mary serves 74 students in grades K-8, nearly a third of whom receive a state scholarship. According to the school website, it’s the only Catholic school providing services for students with special needs in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry and Highlands counties. Its slogan is “Where Dreams Are Free.”
In addition to live Zoom classes, teachers are holding “office hours” for student questions, scheduling small group sessions for interventions and conducting assessments.
“Our school counselor meets with me once a week to discuss students’ needs (and) both my counselor and I attend meetings with teachers once a week to identify students at risk,” principal Rebecca Reynolds said. “A plan is then made for follow-up interventions and care.”
At Morning Star Catholic School in Orlando, specialists have created service plans for each student based on their individual education plans, which are required by law for qualified students. The plans also are based on current assessments, teacher observations and therapists’ recommendations.
“All the teachers have been using these to help individualize instruction for their students and allow any accommodations or flexibility needed to reach their goals and the mastery of the skills being taught,” said principal Alicia Abbey.
Of the school’s 66 students in grades K-12, 20 percent receive Gardiner Scholarships.
Other ways students are being accommodated include allowing extended time to complete assignments, holding small group instruction via Zoom videoconferencing for reading and math, and one-on-one instruction, with parents present for safety protocol.
Additionally, a guidance counselor has reached out to families to let them know they’re available if needed, and the school’s transition program for students moving from high school to life after school has remained in place.
Abbey said the school has continued to provide speech, language and music therapy as well as occupational and physical therapy through a virtual program.
“Some students have even been able to continue to see their behavior therapist at home,” she said. “It depends on both the comfort level of the therapist and family, as well as their availability.”
Charters security ruling: An administrative law judge rules that the Palm Beach County District must assign security officers to charter schools in order to comply with a state law passed last year. The school board had refused to provide officers for Renaissance Charter School Inc., which operates six schools in the county. “(The law) clearly and unambiguously requires school boards and superintendents — not charter school operators — to ‘establish or assign’ SSOs [safe-school officers], with the assistance of local law enforcement agencies, to every public school within their respective jurisdictions, including charter schools,” wrote Judge John Van Laningham. He did not rule on who is responsible for paying for the officers. News Service of Florida.
Guns at schools: Two bills that widen the ability of people to have guns on the grounds of schools are approved by the House Criminal Justice Committee. H.B. 403 would allow people to carry concealed weapons in churches that also have schools on the same property, and H.B. 6005 would require school districts to allow anyone over 18 years old to store a firearm in their vehicles on school grounds. Both were supported by the National Rifle Association. The current law allows districts to prohibit guns at schools and their parking lots. News Service of Florida. Sun Sentinel. Gradebook. Florida Phoenix. WFSU.
Threat assessments: Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School teachers say they noted alleged school shooter Nikolas Cruz’s aggressive behavior more than a year before 17 people were shot to death at the school a year ago. And Cruz himself told school officials that shooting guns helped relieve his stress. But none of those observations were forwarded to police or to mental health workers who were evaluating him for possible hospitalization. Sun Sentinel.
School choice poll: A survey shows that Florida parents support the state’s steps toward expanding school choice. Seventy-eight percent of those responding to a poll by the pro-choice Foundation for Excellence in Education say they favor “giving parents the opportunity to choose where they send their child to school rather than assigning children to schools based on zip code.” The poll also shows strong support for education savings accounts for parents to use at a school of their choice, voluntary prekindergarten vouchers, and tax credit scholarships for low-income children and Gardiner scholarships for children with disabilities. Gradebook. Florida Politics.