by Sherri Ackerman
Public Relations Manager for Step Up For Students

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 Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA). Step Up helps administer the state-funded program that serves students with certain special needs.

Liam’s family was able to use their award – on average about $10,000 a year – to enroll him into Morning Star School, a small, private Catholic school in Pinellas Park that offers in-house services and individualized curriculums.
“He loves it!’’ said Liam’s mom, Stacey Thomas.
Liam is especially excited because “it’s a real school!’’

The PLSA works like an educational savings account, letting Liam’s parents choose how to spend the award from a menu of approved programs and providers. The money 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 PLSA for homeschooling, but students cannot receive the scholarship while enrolled in public school or participating in any other state-sponsored scholarship program.

The PLSA is one of two statewide scholarship programs Step Up For Students helps manage. The other is the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC), which serves low-income children in Florida. The FTC helps families pay private school tuition or fees, or transportation costs to attend another public school in a different county. The tuition scholarship is worth up to $5,677 this school year. The transportation scholarship is $500 a year.

If a family’s household income qualifies for the free or reduced-price school lunch program (185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines), or if the family receives SNAP (food stamps), TANF, or FDPIR, the student may be eligible for the FTC.

Students entering kindergarten must be 5 on or before Sept. 1. Students entering first grade must be 6 on or before Sept. 1.  Children who are homeless, or in foster or out-of-home care also may qualify for the PLSA or the FTC.

Both programs are designed to alleviate education expenses for families so they can focus on helping their kids not just survive, but thrive.

“When you have a child with special needs, you want them to be the best they can be,’’ said Thomas, a speech therapist who lives in Tampa with her husband, Trey, and two other children. “Kids with special needs need more.’’

Liam receives at least two different therapies about three days a week at Morning Star. Without the scholarship, Thomas said her family might have to choose between extra therapies and the school’s nurturing educational environment.

“It breaks my heart to think of families who can’t give their child what they need and deserve due to their financial situation,’’ Thomas said. “The special needs scholarship is amazing because NOW they can!’’

Families or caregivers interested in the PLSA or the FTC are encouraged to visit our website at www.StepUpForStudents.org.