By Step For Students staff writer
Liam Thomas has Down syndrome and benefits from weekly occupational and speech therapies. But the 9-year-old whirl of energy also wants to do what other kids do at school like walk with friends down the hall, eat lunch in the cafeteria and sit at his own desk.
He gets all of that and more thanks to Step Up For Students and the Gardiner Scholarship, formerly Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA). Step Up administers the state-funded program that serves students with certain special needs.
Liam’s family was able to use their annual award – on average about $10,000 in 2015-16 – to pay tuition at Morning Star School, a small, private Catholic school in Pinellas County that offers Liam in-house therapies and an individualized curriculums.
“He loves it!’’ said Liam’s mom, Stacey Thomas.
The Gardiner Scholarships program works like an educational savings account, letting Liam’s parents choose how to spend the money from a list of approved programs and providers. The award can go toward private school tuition, certain therapies, specialists, curriculum – even a college savings account.
The program is for Florida schoolchildren ages 3 through high school graduation or age 22 – whichever comes first. To qualify, students must be diagnosed with one of the following: autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, muscular dystrophy, Prader-Willi syndrome, spina bifida, Williams syndrome or an intellectual disability (severe cognitive impairment).
Students in kindergarten who are deemed “high risk” due to developmental delays and not older than 5 on Sept. 1 may be eligible. Parents can use the scholarship for homeschooling, but students cannot receive the scholarship while enrolled in public school or participating in any other state-sponsored scholarship program.
The Gardiner Scholarships program is one of two statewide scholarships Step Up manages. The other is the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC), an income-based program serving K-12 disadvantaged children in Florida. Both programs are designed to alleviate education expenses so families can focus on helping their kids thrive.
“When you have a child with special needs, you want them to be the best they can be,’’ said Thomas, who lives in Tampa with husband Trey, a sales director for a medical device company, and their children, Liam, daughter Sydney, 8, and son Laine, 3. “Kids with special needs need more.’’
To learn more about our scholarships and to apply, go to www.StepUpForStudents.org