Being able to choose
Because of the Education Scholarship Account program, Scott and Monique Pietrowski were able to choose the right school and education tools for their child.
Their son Logan, who is now 14 years old, was diagnosed with autism in 2010. As you would imagine, their seven-year journey since then has been one of highs and lows, of setbacks and steps forward.
Before Logan was diagnosed with autism, his parents began to notice he was struggling in school. He was always a bright kid, but he had difficulties in keeping up with the other kids in his class.
After being tested, Logan received an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, but that did little to provide the help he needed even though he attended schools in two different highly-rated school districts in Harrison County.
Passing through the system
Scott and Monique want what is best for their son. That means they want to see him challenged in school so he will be prepared for life.
“Logan was stuck in the back of the classroom and they made it easy for him,” Scott said. “He was receiving A’s and B’s. He would have graduated without knowing how to spell his name. But we didn’t want him to have it easy because life isn’t easy.”
Part of the issue was that Logan was not receiving all of the services outlined in his IEP. Monique said the district didn’t think he was “needy enough.” Testing showed that Logan was far behind in some areas, but excelling far beyond grade level in other subjects.
The Pietrowskis decided to move Logan from the county school district, where they were assigned based upon an arbitrary line, to the Biloxi city schools.
But even that change did not provide the individualized education Logan needed.
The ESA provides a way forward
“We began to do what any parent would do and that is to try to find the best school and the best educators to work with our son to help him with his specific needs,” Scott said.
But private school or private tutoring comes at a cost.
“After looking at our options, we learned that the next hurdle was the financial hurdle and that is where the Education Scholarship Account (ESA) fits in,” Scott added. “This enabled us to put him in the school that we were able to choose to accommodate him so that the education was individualized so he could succeed. We found teachers that were trained in dealing with his needs and teachers that were there to challenge him because that is what he needs.”
The Pietrowskis enrolled Logan in the ESA program in 2015, the first year of the program.
ESAs are available to students who have received an IEP in the past five years. For the current school year, 430 scholarships, each worth about $6,500, have been awarded. Due to the popularity of the program, more than 300 families are on the waiting list after the most recent ESA lottery in July.
They allow families to customize their children’s education. Funds can be used on education-related expenses such as private school tuition and fees, tutoring, therapy, textbooks, online classes, etc.
The Pietrowskis have utilized the scholarship for multiple needs. Not only do they use it for tuition, but they have money left over to pay for tutoring and computer software.
Logan suffers from dysgraphia, a learning disability which leads to trouble with written expression. Because of this, the family has purchased Dragon Naturally Speaking, a dictation program that transcribes speech to text, removing a major barrier for Logan.
Because of the ESA, Scott and Monique have been able to tailor Logan’s education so that he can enjoy learning and be set up for success.
“The ESA allowed us to get some other tools in our belt to help Logan outside of school and with the school which will help him stay on pace with where he needs to be,” Monique said.
Educational freedom for all families
While the program is currently limited to students with special needs, the Pietrowskis would love to see it be available to every student.
After all, they’ve seen it benefit their family firsthand and know the potential impact it could have across the state.
“This program should be available to all students, absolutely,” Scott said. “Whether you’re challenged, or you need to be challenged, every parent should be able to use their funds the way they see fit for their own child’s specific needs.
“These children shouldn’t be placed in one bucket.”
During the next legislative session, the legislature should expand the ESA program and give all families this option: the option to choose the right school or educational setting for their child.
As for Logan, the future is bright.
“I don’t know what people think about when they think about an autistic child,” Scott said. “But I know when I think of Logan today, particularly as a result of him having the opportunity that he’s been given by this grant and being able to have a chance to get a better education, I see a sky that has no limits with him now.”