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A Helping Hand

With the beginning of this school year, Florida students will be eligible for two new statewide grants.

When the Florida Legislature passed HB 7055 in March, two new scholarship programs were created for Florida students: the Hope Scholarship and the Reading Scholarship.

The Hope Scholarship is possibly the first of its kind anywhere. Fueled by a tax credit program through car sales, the scholarship provides vouchers to bullied children so they can move from their current school to another public school or to a private school.

Meanwhile, the Reading Scholarship, designed to bolster the English language skills of students in third through fifth grade, will provide eligible public school children $500 to spend toward instructional materials, tutoring or literacy programs.

Both scholarships are expected to get up and running this school year, but some are still questioning how effective either will be and hurdles for implementation still remain.

The Reading Scholarship
“The idea essentially is to give these kids a little extra help to boost them, so they can catch up to their peers,” Patrick Gibbons, public affairs manager for the nonprofit Step Up for Students, says.

Step Up for Students is a Jacksonville-based organization that has been tasked with administering the Reading Scholarship.

To qualify for the program, students must be enrolled in third, fourth or fifth grade at a public school and must have scored a 1 or 2 on the third or fourth grade English language arts section of the Florida Standards Assessment in the prior year.

In Orange County alone, 46 percent of third-and fourth-graders received a 1 or 2 on their language arts exams, which makes a total of about 15,083 students eligible for this scholarship. Meanwhile, 47 percent of Osceola County students scored the same, a total of 4,785 students, according to data from the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE).

Although the program is on a first-come, first-served basis, students who are classified as English language learners at their schools will receive priority. The families of children who are accepted into the program will be given access to education savings accounts, each worth $500, to pay for tuition or fees for part-time tutoring, summer and after-school literacy programs, or reading instructional materials.

The Legislature has allocated $9.7 million for the program, which will provide 19,400 students with the funds. But unfortunately, that is only about one-tenth of the approximately 190,300 third-and fourth-graders who are eligible based on their scores from the language arts exams administered in spring 2018.

The Hope Scholarship
The Hope Scholarship is intended to help children escape the stigma that bullying puts on them.

“What we’ve heard from parents in our other scholarship programs,” Gibbons says, “is that when a child starts getting bullied that bullying kind of sticks to the child like a tar. And the more bullying that happens, the more that it builds up and it builds up and builds up. And sometimes the only way to escape that tar that is stuck to the child is to just leave the school entirely.”

To be eligible, a qualifying incident must have taken place at the child’s school, at a school-related or school-sponsored program, on a school bus or at a school bus stop. As defined by FLDOE, qualifying incidents include battery, harassment, hazing, bullying, kidnapping, physical attack, etc.

The parent or child must report the incident to the school and allow the school to investigate. When the investigation is complete or within 15 days of the report, the school is required to notify the parent about the program.

The Hope Scholarship gives parents and their children three options: The child may transfer to another public school within his or her school district, transfer to a public school in another district, or use the money to attend a private school.

If choosing an out-of-district public school, the scholarship awards up to $750 for the cost of transportation. If the family chooses the private school option, the amount of the voucher depends on the child’s grade level.

Elementary school children receive $6,519. A middle school child would receive $6,815 and a high school student will be given $7,111. These amounts are derived from what the state would appropriate back to school districts for a child enrolled in public school.

Although some have applauded the state’s effort to address bullying, organizations such as the Florida Parent Teacher Association (PTA) have raised concerns about efficacy of the program. Angie Gallo, legislative chair for the Florida PTA, says moving a child from one school to another doesn’t address the root problem: bullying.

“Why does the child who’s being bullied have to leave to feel safe?” she says. “Why aren’t we doing a better job to make them feel safe in the school that they’re currently in? That’s what we should be focusing on.”

Gallo said the PTA also felt the parameters of the Hope Scholarship could allow some families to take unfair advantage because the reports of bullying do not have to be substantiated. And, because a family’s income level is not taken into account, the money could be given to those who can already afford private school, robbing children who do not have the means of the opportunity.

Ultimately, the Florida PTA would like to see other solutions be funded by the Legislature including a comprehensive anti-bullying curriculum.

“This really is just a Band-Aid,” Gallo says. “It’s not sustainable.”

The vouchers provided to bullied students will be funded by car sales. When someone buys a car in Florida, they will have the option to give $105 of what they would otherwise pay in sales tax to the program.

But, because this tax credit will not be available to car buyers until October, the scholarship’s coffers are currently empty.

“There’s going to be zero dollars when we start the school year this fall,” Gibbons says.

Even though there is currently no money to distribute, 793 people have already signed up for the Step Up for Students interest list for this scholarship.

“Frankly, I don’t know what car sales are like during the winter months here,” Gibbons says. “So, it may not be a fully funded program until the following year.”

Learning Curve
The 2018 Public High School Report Card
As Orange County and Osceola County public school students head back to their classrooms on Aug. 13 and Seminole County students start on Aug. 10, it’s time to once again take a look at how our educational institutions are doing. Using information from the Florida Department of Education, we’ve compiled lists on key data points so you can see how your child’s school is performing compared to others in Central Florida. We’ve also dug up details on two new scholarship programs recently created by the state that could be right for your child. So, grab your pen or pencil and be sure to take notes.

Average SAT Score
High School  |  Average Score
Hagerty High School  |  1110
Oviedo High School  |  1079
Winter Park High School  |  1076
Timber Creek High School  |  1065
Lake Brantley High School  |  1053
Celebration High School  |  1047
Olympia High School  |  1041
Seminole High School  |  1041
Lake Mary High School  |  1037
Lyman High School  |  1031
Boone High School  |  1030
West Orange High School  |  1029
Lake Nona High School  |  1014
Lake Howell High School  |  1011
Dr. Phillips High School  |  1003
Winter Springs High School  |  1000
University High School  |  997
Freedom High School  |  985
Edgewater High School  |  964
Apopka High School  |  957
East River High School  |  953
Wekiva High School  |  945
Cypress Creek High School  |  944
Ocoee High School  |  937
Colonial High School  |  890
Oak Ridge High School  |  864
Evans High School  |  862
Jones High School  |  859

Graduation Rate
High School  |  Graduation Rate (%)
Timber Creek High School  |  98
University High School  |  97
Boone High School  |  96
Cypress Creek High School  |  96
Freedom High School  |  96
Lake Nona High School  |  96
Olympia High School  |  96
Hagerty High School  |  95
Dr. Phillips High School  |  94
Winter Park High School  |  94
Colonial High School  |  93
Lake Mary High School  |  93
Ocoee High School  |  93
West Orange High School  |  93
Apopka High School  |  92
East River High School  |  92
Celebration High School  |  91
Edgewater High School  |  91
Oak Ridge High School  |  91
Oviedo High School  |  91
Wekiva High School  |  91
Lake Brantley High School  |  90
Jones High School  |  89
Seminole High School  |  89
Lyman High School  |  88
Lake Howell High School  |  87
Winter Springs High School  |  86
Evans High School  |  84

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s August 2018 issue.