A parent’s story: Thankful that Florida’s school choice programs offer hope to special needs students

STARS Autism School in Miami aims to prepare students to become as independent as possible, offering enrichment programs such as robotics, chess, yoga, music, art, dance and sports in addition to academics.

Editor’s note: This first-person essay from Florida mother Stephanie Rodriguez was adapted from the American Federation for Children’s Voices for Choice website.

Stephanie Rodriguez

I have three children. My younger two, Giana and Javier, have autism. I am thankful for the scholarship my children received to attend STARS Autism School.

Before STARS, Giana was in a traditional district school. She was isolated in a corner and living in timeout because the teachers didn’t understand her. We ultimately were asked to leave because the school didn’t know how to handle her special needs.

Giana was nonverbal when she arrived at STARS. Now, two years later, she speaks in full sentences. She knows her colors, her numbers, and can distinguish animals. But best of all, she can express her wants and needs.

She sometimes needs to be told to stop talking.

STARS staff members are intentional about everything. When you walk into the school, you smell calming essential oils. There are many windows to let in natural light. And it’s a one-stop shop. I used to have to leave work early to take Giana to occupational and speech therapy, but she gets everything she needs at her school.

When my daughter is having a bad day, the staff knows how to work with her to get her back on track. She feels loved. And she has friends. We have play dates, which is a big deal.

There was a time when we couldn’t go to restaurants because of Giana’s meltdowns. Now, we can sit and have a meal as a family.

I have hope for my son, who was recently diagnosed with autism. My hope is that STARS will help him as it has helped Giana.

Just because my children have a special need doesn’t mean they deserve less than other students. Thanks to Florida’s choice scholarship programs, they are getting the opportunities they need to be all they can be.

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