New resource dedicates scholarship to special-needs children

Families with special needs children have a new resource in Florida's Personal Learning Scholarship Account. Parents can use the allotment to customize learning and therapeutic services for their children.

And that answers a prayer for Delray Beach resident Mary Zambrano. She hopes to use the PLSA to put her autistic daughter, Celine, 19, in a transition program at the North Florida School of Special Education.

Celine will be able to prepare for a GED, take culinary arts and prepare to live independently. The family wouldn't be able to afford the tuition without the PLSA.

“Everything feels right,” Mary Zambrano said about the school. “But we have very little to pay for it. This would be a prayer answered.”

The PLSA allows funds to be directed toward a combination of programs, providers and tools such as technology, specialists, private school and a college savings account. The scholarships are worth an average of about $10,000. Those with severe disabilities may receive a higher amount.

“Students are very unique and need an education as unique as they are,” said Patrick Gibbons, public affairs manager with Step Up For Students, the nonprofit administering scholarship applications.

Students in kindergarten through 12 grade with eight specific learning disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, intellectual disability and developmental delays deemed high risk are eligible.

Under the PLSA, students can receive scholarship payments until they graduate from high school, reach age 22 or return to public school. Funds roll over from one year to the next.

Fulltime public and charter school students aren't eligible, since the state is already paying for that, Gibbons said. Part-time students are accepted and allowed to purchase services beyond the school's core courses.

“Parents are dialed in to what their child needs,” Gibbons said. “They have ideas on how they want to use the money to shore up deficiencies. Some parents are happy with their public, charter or private school and want to do more. For unhappy parents, this allows them to do something different.”

Nancy Linley-Harris, of Lauderhill, has a 15-year-old daughter with Down syndrome.

“The scholarship accounts are a great thing because some children don't always get the academic help they need from schools or programs,” Linley-Harris said.

The scholarships are the brainchild or Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who has a son with Down syndrome. Gardiner modeled it after Arizona's program, which makes Florida the second state to offer the model. It is expected to serve about 1,800 students.

The application period opened July 18 and is on a first-come, first-served basis. Applications are free. Students need either an Individual Education Plan from a school district or a formal diagnosis from a physician or psychologist. Home-schooled students are also eligible.

“Personalizing education is what it's really about,” Gibbons said.

For more information call 877-735-7837, email or visit

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