Even out here, education choice for Eli

Eli Conner, shown here with his mother, Stephanie Conner, and his sister, Madeline, benefits from the flexibility offered by the Gardiner Scholarship, Florida’s education savings account for students with special needs. The Conners have crafted an education regimen that includes therapy, home school and private school for Eli. PHOTO: Lance Rothstein

Editor’s note: To learn more about Eli and to hear his story in his mother’s words, please watch the video at the end of this post.

LaBELLE, Fla. – In his family’s backyard, Eli Conner, 13, wobbled across a 20-foot tightrope, pretending to be the hero in a rescue scene from a “Despicable Me” movie.

Using foam hand grips hanging from another rope, he pulled himself toward a big oak at the end of the line. “You’re getting closer,” encouraged his mom, Stephanie Conner. “Now touch the tree.” Eli finished with a triumphant tap.

“One handed,” said Mom. “Nice.”

Eli, who communicates mostly through sign language, has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy and other developmental delays. A few years ago, he was scared and struggling in a traditional school. A few weeks ago, he couldn’t do the tightrope.

Now he can.

And now, thanks to a cutting-edge education choice scholarship, his family is confident they will see his growth continue to accelerate.

Even in this remote town near the Everglades, there are more educational resources than meet the eye. It just takes the right tool to assemble them. The Conner family did that with theGardiner Scholarship, Florida’s education savings account for students with special needs. It gave them flexibility to devise an education regimen – therapy, home school, private school – that was just right for Eli.

The scholarship, Stephanie Conner said, “changed everything.”

The Gardiner Scholarship has allowed Eli to gain a year’s worth of knowledge in a year’s worth of time for each of the past three years. PHOTO: Lance Rothstein

Stephanie Conner describes herself as a stay-at-home mom. She is a former public and private schoolteacher. Her husband, Joel Conner, is a graphic artist and adult education teacher from a family of educators, including his father, a former superintendent of the local public schools. The Conners have four children, three of them adopted. All four use education choice scholarships.

Eli and his sister, Madeline, 9, use the Gardiner Scholarship, the largest education savings account program in America. Created by the Florida Legislature in 2014, it now serves 13,112 students, including 449 in rural counties. Three thousand more are on a wait list. The Conners’ 5-year-olds, Meizi and Gideon, use the new Family Empowerment Scholarshipfor working- and middle-class families. Created by the Legislature this year, it’s already reached its cap of 18,000 students.

Without intending to be trendsetters, the Conners are using the Gardiner Scholarship in a novel way that underscores the potential for schools to unbundle their services – and better serve families. (More on that in a sec.) Their experience also shows the upside of giving parents more power to shape their children’s educational programming – even in rural areas – where myths about education choice not being viable persist despite this<thisand this.

LaBelle, pop. 4,640, is not postcard Florida. It’s laid-back, fringed with cabbage palms, a pit stop between Lake Okeechobee and Fort Myers. It’s also the county seat of Hendry County, a patch of farm country blanketed by sugar cane that holds fewer humans per square mile than Kansas.

The Conner kids are fourth-generation Hendry County. They have plenty of family nearby, which is why, pre-Gardiner, the Conners were on the verge of a heart-breaking decision. Family? Or therapy? To be closer to the therapists Eli needed, they kept thinking they’d have to uproot to the city. “It was always a terrible feeling to have to even consider giving up one or the other,” Conner said. “Family support, when you’re dealing with special needs, is indispensable.”

Thanks to the scholarship, they never had to make that choice. This is Eli’s third year using the Gardiner Scholarship, and the first for Madeline, who has been diagnosed with bilateral congenital deafness.

The combination of therapies, home school and private school have been the perfect combination for Eli. PHOTO: Lance Rothstein

Like growing numbers of parents with education savings accounts, the Conners are customizers.” They use the funds to mix and match educational products and services in addition to, or beyond, school. In their case: home school materials; therapy sessions and equipment (for speech, occupational and sensory integration therapy); and partial tuition at International Christian Academy, a private school a block from their home.

Several times a year, Stephanie Conner takes Eli to Orlando for three weeks of intensive therapy. The rest of the time, she does daily therapies with Eli and Madeline, many involving tools purchased with Gardiner funds. “Peanut balance balls” help them both improve motor skills. A microphone helps Madeline better enunciate words. An array of spoon-like tools helps Eli with his speech, with Mom using them to strengthen muscles in his mouth.

For Eli, the positive effects spill over into academics. Depending on the subject, his proficiency ranges from a first- to fourth-grade level. He reads at a third-grade level. But over the past three years, he’s gained a year’s worth of knowledge in a year’s worth of time.  And sensory integration therapy has made it possible for him to learn in more settings, from field trips to classrooms. “His ability to sit still and not be overwhelmed by sights and sounds … has allowed him to participate,” Conner said.

The private school piece is key. So is the way the school offers its services. The youngest Conners go full time. Eli goes for PE, lunch and a science/social studies class. Madeline goes for PE. For the older siblings, the school charges partial tuition. It has unbundled its services in a way that more and more parents will appreciate and other schools, public and private, would be wise to consider.

“If someone wants to be part of our school, I’m going to let them,” said International Christian Academy founder and principal Tracy Co. “I thought it was a good fit for them and it’s worked.”

The school serves 80 full-time students in K-12. More than half are non-white. More than 80 percent use state scholarships. (Sixty use either the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students or the Family Empowerment Scholarship. FTC, FES and Gardiner are administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.)

Eli has been warmly welcomed. During a recent kickball game, his classmates erupted in cheers when he booted a low liner up the middle. At first base, he fist bumped the coach.

The boost to Eli’s social skills is also bolstering his academics, giving him more confidence and more ability to focus and learn, Conner said. Between therapies, home school and part-time private school, she said, “this has just been the perfect combination.”

Perfect combinations really are possible. Even out here.

Avatar photo

BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director of Research & Special Projects at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times).