School choice scholarship gives FL family more nurturing options

The Nelson family
The Nelson family

After looking at the school options for her firstborn, Benjamin, Autumn Nelson of Yalaha in Lake County, didn’t like what she saw.

“We wanted an environment that was really nurturing and we just didn’t see that in our neighborhood school,” Autumn said.

 The neighborhood school they were zoned for was a D and has since fallen to an F, so she started homeschooling. When it got closer for her younger children, Nathaniel and Meghan, to start school, she rethought that option, too.

“Looking down the pipeline and seeing that I had two more coming up, I knew that it was going to be a little too stressful for me for me to homeschool all three,” Nelson said.

She and her husband, Daniel, started looking at private schools and learned about Step Up For Students school choice scholarships, but at the time students had to attend a public school for a year prior to becoming eligible for the scholarship. The Nelsons obtained a zone waiver for Benjamin, so he could attend a public school outside of his neighborhood for a year and become eligible for Step Up. This one was rated a C.

“He cried every day. Every day,” Autumn recalled.

Nathaniel, however, was able to start at kindergarten at Liberty Christian Prep School in Tavares with the help of a Step Up school choice scholarship. The family immediately fell in love with the school, even Benjamin, who looked forward to starting there the following year. He would attend fairs at the school and was very impressed the teachers knew his name even before he began attending.

When he could start at Liberty in third grade, everything changed for Benjamin.

“His first day at Liberty he said he loved his teacher, and he wanted to stay at the school forever.  As a mom, that sealed the deal for me,” said Autumn.

Now all three of her children attend the school and are doing well.

Back at the public school, Benjamin’s grades started slipping to B’s and C’s, he acted out in class. But once he started at Liberty, his grades and behavior improved.

“As far as his academics here at Liberty, he typically never scores less than a B on a tests, and has always received straight A’s on report cards.”

Nathaniel and Meghan are also Dean’s List regulars, she said.

Autumn now works at the school as a secretary, so she really gets to see the teachers up close and personal.

“I can tell they really, really want the children to excel,” she said. “Not just to get them through the school year, but give them a foundation for their futures.”

It’s that kind of commitment and atmosphere that makes the Nelsons even more thankful for the opportunity to send their children to Liberty with the help of Step Up.

 “It’s just a huge blessing for our family. We definitely wouldn’t be able to have the kids here at Liberty without the scholarship; even with both my husband and I working,” Autumn said.

This year, 115 of 269 students enrolled at prekindergarten through 12th grade school are Step Up scholars. School administrator Debra Zischke said the Step Up students are some of the better performing and their parents are quite involved.

“They feel very blessed,” she said. “They appreciate the fact that there’s no other way they would be able to do this.”

Working in the school office, Autumn gets to see fellow Step Up families when they go into endorse their Step Up tuition checks each quarter and hears the same thing time and time again: “Thank God for this program. I don’t know where we would be without it.”

Said Autumn: “And I feel the same way.”

About Liberty Christian Prep School, Tavares

Liberty Christian Prep School opened in August 1987, and today serves 269 children, in prekindergarten through 12th grade. The school has 115 Step Up scholars enrolled for the 2014-15 school year. Liberty Christian Prep students enjoy a broad course offering that combines both a solid academic foundation with Christian values. Students have access to iPads and a fully functioning computer lab. The school also welcomes international students to help with the administration’s goal to provide an education with a world view. Tuition for K-12 ranges from $5,000 to $5,250 annually. The school uses the Stanford Achievement Test annually to measure academic success. It is accredited by the Florida Association of Christian Colleges & Schools and the National Council for Private School Accreditation.

The tax credit scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog and employs the author of this post.

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BY Lisa A. Davis

Lisa A. Davis, a Massachusetts native, cut her journalistic teeth in the Boston market as a student reporter for The Boston Globe and moved to the Tampa Bay area in 1994, where she continued her nearly 20-year career. For more than a decade, she covered crime, courts and local government for The Tampa Tribune, and most recently was a correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). She joined Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that oversees the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program for low-income children, in May 2012 as the public relations manager and chief storyteller.