Save Our ESA: ‘If the ESA went away it would be a blow to the gut’

Nolan Family with logo
“People want to say, ‘You’re choosing private school.’ No, I’m not choosing private school. I’m choosing to educate my son in the way that he needs to be educated.”


Whatever it takes.

That’s how Kristi and Yancey Nolan of Madison explain the lengths to which they will go to provide for their son’s education.

The Nolan’s middle child, John Brady, was diagnosed with autism at age six when the family was living in Louisiana. Yancey was working for a non-profit agency that cared for adults with mental disabilities and also had an extension program for working with young children in early intervention. At the age of three John Brady was still not talking.

“I worked on the human resources side and was describing some of the things we were seeing with John Brady to the director,” said Yancey. “We thought there was a possibility of some sensory issues there. The director asked us to bring him up to the office so she could meet him, and they began very delicately helping him with his sensory issues as well as with other issues.”

The tantrums and meltdowns with John Brady occurred on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, and the Nolans did not know how to reach their son.

“It was frustration building up in him because he couldn’t tell us what he needed,” said Yancey.

“I must have read 17 parenting books in nine months because I thought I was doing something wrong,” said Kristi. “Nothing worked.”

An autism diagnosis

After a series of evaluations, John Brady was diagnosed with autism.

“It feels like a punch in the stomach when you get that diagnosis,” said Kristi. “It takes your breath away. I can still remember the psychologists calling me into a conference room and sitting down with me. I remember they went through his evaluation and said, ‘Unfortunately, autism is a black hole for medical care because a lot of the therapies are not approved by insurance.’ I can remember them sliding his report across the table to me and saying, ‘Best of luck.’”

For a moment, time stood still for Kristi.

“So, you’ve heard these words that change the course of your family’s life, and then it’s ‘Best of luck to you.’ That was a really hard day,” she said.

In Louisiana, John Brady attended public school for the first three years and then attended a private school for children with special needs for a year before the family relocated to Mississippi. In 2014, the Nolans moved to Madison.

A move to Mississippi

John Brady spent two years at a new public school. He had received an IEP and was working with a resource teacher there.

“He did fairly well in elementary school with the way they had the resource classroom set up,” said Kristi. “He had a fantastic resource teacher that worked as well as she could with his IEP with the resources available.”

By the time John Brady reached middle school, a whole new set of challenges arose. Longer classes and a different structure made it nearly impossible for him to keep up with his classmates.

“He has high-functioning autism, but not Asperger’s, so he does not have the high IQ,” said Kristi. “He is delayed developmentally and academically. There came a point where we had to make a choice of whether we wanted him on a special education track where he would never receive the kind of education we knew he could handle or we wanted him to struggle in a regular classroom where he would never succeed because he would not keep up.”

Those choices, said Yancey, were based off of the limited resources the public school had to provide for John Brady.

“So, you have a written IEP that you truly want followed. However, you would find out it wasn’t being followed and when you inquired why not, it was communicated that they needed to pull resources in other areas so they weren’t following his IEP exactly as we had written it,” said Yancey. “We had no way to really measure if the IEP would have been successful as it was written because they were not able to follow it because of their limited resources.”

Hope with an ESA

By sixth grade John Brady’s math struggles were only growing. That’s when his elementary resource teacher told Kristi about the state’s Special Needs Education Scholarship Account (ESA). The ESA allows parents to direct a portion of their state tax dollars to a private educational setting that better suits their child’s needs.

“We had heard about New Summit School, but because the schools are so great in Madison we didn’t think we would need it,” said Kristi.

The necessity of a specialized school for John Brady’s needs quickly became obvious. That’s when the Nolans looked into New Summit, a private school which serves students with special needs. Kristi did her own investigating and determined that was the best place for John Brady. At the same time, they applied for the ESA which was awarded by a lottery at the time. The Nolans went through three rounds of the lottery before receiving an ESA last year when additional funding was allocated for the program.

“We heard on the news that they had given additional funding for the program, so I called to find out if we were going to get an ESA,” said Kristi. “The lady told me she had our letter on her desk ready to go out that said we were going to be receiving the ESA.”

For the Nolan family, a burden was lifted with that phone call.

“It was the Friday before Father’s Day when I found that out,” Kristi said, “and I immediately broke down in tears. I called Yancey and told him that I didn’t know what to get him for Father’s Day but that I was about to give him the best gift.”

“Financially, it just took away a huge, heavy burden,” Yancey said. “But even more so as a parent, not having to communicate to your child that you aren’t sure you can provide the education he needs year after year is really a relief.  They aren’t at an age where they pay attention to financial matters, but they pay attention to stress.”

New Summit has given the Nolans hope.

“There are so many things you think of as a parent,” said Yancey, “when you hear that diagnosis. What will he have to overcome? What will we just have to accept in his world? We have been amazed at some of the things he’s been able to do thanks to New Summit.”

The Nolans worked tirelessly with the staff at New Summit to implement plans and strategies that would benefit John Brady.

“They would call us in and tell us what happened and how they were going to address it and how we could enforce it at home. After about the fifth meeting like that, I remember asking them if we were about to be kicked out of the school. The man looked at me and said, ‘Heavens no. Sir, we handle this daily. This is what we’re here for,’” said Yancey with tears welling in his eyes. “It’s their wheelhouse and they understand. It’s so much more individualized, and with a combination of God, their investment, and our investment, we’ve seen things get so much better.”

“New Summit didn’t just change John Brady’s education, it changed our family,” said Kristi. “There is so much less stress at home because of New Summit and the ESA.”

Save Our ESA

The popular ESA program, passed as a five-year pilot program, will expire in June of 2020 without legislative action. As legislators consider the future of the ESA program during the 2020 session, the Nolans urge legislators to remember their son’s education is no less important than any other child’s.

“My child deserves an education that is appropriate for him,” said Kristi. “Federal law allows for him to have a free and appropriate education. I’m not even asking for free, I’m just asking for help. The ESA doesn’t cover his entire tuition, but to say that it helps tremendously would be an understatement. I’m paying my tax dollars so all these other kids can go to public school, but why can’t some tax dollars pay a portion of what I’m having to do because public school doesn’t work for my child?”

The Nolans are fearful of the financial strain that would be placed on their family if the ESA program were to die.

“If the ESA went away, it would be a blow to the gut. My child is not a program that should be written out of a bill,” said Kristi. “My child is an individual who deserves what all other kids deserve. People want to say, ‘You’re choosing private school.’ No, I’m not choosing private school. I’m choosing to educate my son in the way that he needs to be educated.”

Click here to sign the petition to #SaveOurESA.