Letters

The Reform Alliance helps passionate parents become advocates for children in Arkansas. Below are a collection of letters to the editor shared by families and educators in communities across our state who understand that every child has unique needs that need to be met for them to thrive.

School Environment

Cindy Watson, Rogers

I am writing to share my family’s experience with Education Freedom Accounts (EFAs) this year, hoping it might be helpful for new families who are becoming eligible for EFAs next school year. My daughter, who has autism, faced significant challenges in the public school system, especially after moving to a larger middle school following the pandemic. Despite our efforts and the school administration’s kindness, she experienced relentless bullying, which led to depression and thoughts of self-harm.

Feeling helpless, my husband and I began looking for another school for our child. We knew that this would be a financial commitment for our family because a smaller environment is typically where she does best, and to access that, we would need to consider private schools in our area. Thankfully, we were able to access EFAs to help pay the tuition. While EFAs do not cover the entire tuition, they do provide significant assistance, allowing us to bridge the financial gap and provide a more suitable environment for our daughter. While we are supporters of public schools, we believe in finding the right fit for each child.

Since transitioning to a private school with the help of EFAs, our daughter has transformed. The smaller student-teacher ratios and the school’s focus on supporting her social and academic needs have made a world of difference. She is now thriving academically and is a much happier and more confident student.

While EFAs may not be the solution for everyone, I am grateful they were an option for our family. I encourage other families facing similar challenges to consider EFAs as a way to find the right educational environment for their children.

April 2024, Link 

So Children Flourish

Erin Holleman, Malvern

My husband and I understand how every child needs a specific learning environment to succeed. Our oldest son was an academic achiever who never needed help on homework and has successfully earned multiple college degrees. But our youngest has had a different journey.

Diagnosed with autism and dyslexia, he struggled in public school. His kindergarten teacher was phenomenal, working closely with him, keeping him a second year and even coming to our home for tutoring.

But that classroom was just not the environment for him. He could not learn there. And that’s not a criticism of the teacher or the school. It simply wasn’t working.

After connecting with an incredible therapy practice, we eventually found a homeschool academy where he is thriving with smaller classes and individualized instruction.

It’s meant a 45-minute commute and does not come without expense, but since we were considering quitting our jobs and leaving the state–anything for our son–it’s truly been a blessing.

While our son’s school cannot yet participate in the educational freedom account program created by the LEARNS Act, my husband and I both applaud the law for what it is doing and will continue to do for parents who, like us, felt scared and even hopeless. Parents need options, because every child has unique needs.

Seeing your child truly flourishing, particularly after so many doubts and fears, is a joy every parent should know.

November 2023, Link

Watch the Holleman family’s story

A Weight’s Been Lifted

Christina Johnson, Jonesboro

When covid started, I was a single mom trying to teach two special-needs children with two very different abilities by myself. Trying to juggle work, teaching, and taking both my boys to their different therapies alone was defeating. But I knew they could not reach their full potential with just my help.

I started looking into alternative education opportunities for my non-verbal son Eli as he was about to transition to kindergarten. I found the Lighthouse and knew it was the best place for him. He may not learn and understand the same things as other children his age, but I didn’t want him isolated. I wanted him to be in an environment where he could learn to his ability but be around other children who would love and accept him.

I worked extra hours on the weekends while my sons visited their dad in order to pay tuition. I told myself I would work as many hours as I could for Eli to stay, but ultimately I knew I could not do it for his entire educational experience.

Getting the Succeed Scholarship, and now the LEARNS educational freedom account, was a weight lifted off my shoulders and such a blessing! Like any parent, I want my child in a place where he will benefit the most. I want him to be safe, understood, and loved. The EFA program allows that to happen where he is. It allows him to be exactly where he needs to be.

October 2023, Link

Educational Journey

Brenda Randle, Trumann

Individualized education is vital to a child’s success. This type of education helps both the child and their family, whether parent or guardian, feel a sense of pride and commitment because they are able to embark on a journey unique to each but common to both. They are able to set high goals individually and work together to achieve those goals collectively.

My child needs creative spaces, assistance with conflict-handling skills and time-bound learning. As his parent, I must be a motivator, encourager, guide and disciplinarian for these needs.

I find the lack of flexibility in traditional school curriculum unsatisfactory, and this has led me to become interested in our state’s new educational freedom account program, which offers families resources to find educational services that meet their child’s needs. Beginning next year, this will extend beyond private school tuition to include other, flexible learning products or providers that parents can select to build something specific for their child through home­schooling or microschooling.

So far, my child has benefited from several tutors while in public school. We have also purchased other educational resources. This new program will enable me as a parent to do much more by building a truly individualized educational experience.

I hope to see my child exceed any limitations that may be placed on him. I also hope to see my child excited about the learning process again.

As a parent, I will be right there on the journey with him the whole way.

September 2023, Link

Paying for Education

Jo Roth, Sherwood

My husband and I are so grateful for all the donations to the Philanthropic Investment in Arkansas Kids (PIAK) scholarship, and we were really delighted to hear that it has grown this year and can help more students like our great-granddaughter Angelina.

She has had some turbulence in her young life, and for that reason we are very protective. We not only provide care for her in a safe, loving environment in our home, we also want her to be safe and loved at school.

Last year, as she entered fifth grade, it was very important for us and for her to find a place where she could have her spiritual needs met along with her educational needs. Too often these days people have nothing to fall back on, but we wanted to ensure that she found that in God.

Now in her second year at Immaculate Conception, she’s not only excited to have made new friends and joined choir last year, she tells us when a priest comes to visit with the class and what she learns from him, growing in her faith as she approaches confirmation.

I’ve worked to instill the importance of education in her, and I believe she’s taken that to heart and is putting education first, making plans for her future at Mount St. Mary Academy. I tell her, “God willing, we’ll see”–and remind her to keep her grades up.

Simply put, as financial providers for her, we could not afford these blessings for her without the assistance of this scholarship, which you’ve helped make possible.

Education is so vital. You cannot do anything in life without an education. To those who contribute to and prioritize education, particularly for others, God bless you, and thank you so much.

February 2024, Link

Finally Feeling Seen

Mary Catherine Paulus, Little Rock

Our family had a unique experience seeking an Educational Freedom Account (EFA) for not just one, but two children after the LEARNS Act passed. We have one child who qualified, having received the Succeed Scholarship. The financial support it provided to send our child to a school that was an ideal fit was a blessing. It was as if the state was saying to us, “We see you, we support you as parents, and your child matters.”

Additionally, we have a second child who, just starting school, also would have qualified for the Succeed Scholarship had it continued. When that program was replaced by LEARNS, we hoped that this child would still qualify for an EFA.

Most families applying did not have both of these cases at the same time. We had many questions, but nevertheless filled out separate, but not cumbersome, applications for each of our children. The applications were both linked under our family’s account, but specific to each of our children’s needs and qualifications to apply. Thankfully, both were accepted.

Being able to contribute funds from our tax dollars directly to support our family’s school gives us a tremendous feeling of parental empowerment and pride. We are so thankful for the LEARNS Act creating the EFA opportunity for children in Arkansas.

As an encouragement to any family who is considering the EFA program, we have found that this program exists to empower parents to make the best scholastic choice for their children and give students their best chance at success. Funds received through the EFAs go directly to relieving the financial costs associated with schooling and open up greater avenues of educational choice for families.

– November 2023, Link

Watch the Paulus family’s story

Meeting Special Needs

Arron Paduaevens, Jonesboro

I want to thank Arkansans everywhere who have contributed to the Philanthropic Investment in Arkansas Kids program and encourage others to do the same. By designating your sales-tax bill for scholarship funding, you create something special for my granddaughter Teegan and hundreds of other students across the state.

Teegan, who has autism, attends the Lighthouse, which provides not just learning but growth. She receives all her therapies–speech, physical, occupational–there on scholarship. More importantly, she is loved there, and she is safe. It is a place where progress is not measured in test scores but beginning to verbalize after a year.

Her mother and I constantly weigh the sacrifices we must make for her well-being, and that includes the cost of these invaluable services. We will do whatever it takes, whether that’s working another shift or even forgoing a meal if it comes to that. Because others care about education, we don’t have to make those sacrifices.

When you don’t have these needs, it can be hard to imagine wondering where you will come up with this money, always wanting what’s best for this child. It is perhaps easier to imagine all private schools as elite students in matching uniforms sitting around reading Greek classics, but that’s not what my granddaughter’s school is. In fact, they avoid using the word school at all.

We’re so incredibly thankful to have found the learning environment that meets her needs and for those who have helped her find her place there.

October 2023, Link

Educational Innovation

Lauren McDaniel-Carter, Jonesboro

This fall I’m launching a microschool in northeast Arkansas called ACRES, meaning aspire, create, revolutionize, explore and succeed. It’s not just an acronym; it’s a mission.

I’ve been a teacher my entire professional career because I want to inspire others and instill in them the same love of learning I’ve always had. But after 10 years in the traditional classroom, I felt more and more frustrated every year.

I used to believe that I was making a difference, but every year I felt like I had less impact on students because of the limitations placed on me as a teacher always checking the required boxes. But trying to teach grade-level content to kids who can’t even read on grade level, kids who have been shuffled along year after year, is not serving anyone.

So I’m creating a school where learning is self-paced, learner-driven, hands-on and project-based. I want this experience not just for my daughter, who is entering kindergarten, but other children as well.

I want to see more options for K-12 students that allow them to truly receive education at their level and interest. Students need to be able to move at their own pace and be encouraged to find passion and develop problem solving and critical thinking. Educators with the freedom and resources to innovate can provide that.

I’m really excited about the years to come, especially as educational innovation grows in Arkansas, and I can’t wait to share it with those joining me on this journey.

August 2023, Link

Educational Options

Barbara Tabor, Conway

I want to thank the donors to the Philanthropic Investment in Arkansas Kids (PIAK) scholarship program. Because of you, I see a night and day difference in my child, now in an educational environment that meets his needs.

Those needs include being diagnosed with autism and ADHD. It is hard for him to focus on tasks without reminders of those tasks. He also needs help with speech and fine motor skills like writing.

Previously, he was being sent home daily due to disruptive behavior. In therapy, he didn’t have these issues, but his school would not allow me or his therapists to assist or even observe in class, nor was he assigned a paraprofessional to keep him on track.

With help from the scholarship, I was able to place him in a school where he’s now able to be in a classroom and stay focused on assigned tasks and complete them. He even gets ahead of the class sometimes in their work, and I do not receive reports of disruptive behavior.

I have had to make financial sacrifices, as all parents do for their children. It’s been tight, but we are able to manage, thanks to the PIAK scholarship.

As the voice of my child, I know I must advocate for him. Each child is different in how they learn and progress. I appreciate those who understand that a parent can recognize what’s best for their child’s learning and who support programs that improve parents’ access to options.

February 2024, Link

A Different Dynamic

Alisha Neddo, Batesville

When we talk about how every child has different educational needs, we must also remember that these extend outside the classroom.

In our family, that means time together, which might have been very limited since my husband often works afternoons, nights and weekends. Separation was not the family life or dynamic that we wanted, so I began homeschooling when my oldest of three kids entered kindergarten, and we have really enjoyed our journey and what it’s producing.

For one, flexible school hours mean we might do schoolwork on Saturday so we can be together on Monday if that’s my husband’s day off.

Another major benefit that has come out of homeschooling is being able to adjust our curriculum and teaching style/techniques for each of my kids and their learning needs to help them not only succeed but also excel. For instance, my daughter struggled to read. But we adjusted the lessons and catered to her interests, and now she’s an avid reader above grade level. My kindergarten son is fascinated by geology and archaeology, so that’s the science he learns–and he loves to learn!

Sacrificing my income to be their teacher and having the expense of curriculum and supplies isn’t easy, but we manage.

However, I look forward to the expansion of the new educational freedom account program under LEARNS and, when my children qualify, exploring access to resources that will help meet all their needs, including those of our family’s unique dynamic.

October 2023, Link

Must Be Advocates 

Shannon Ormiston, North Little Rock

Our family embraced the new educational freedom account program for the opportunities it will afford our youngest, Jaxon, 11, who in addition to ADHD and dyslexia, was diagnosed with high-functioning autism this spring.

Our experience with both the local school district and a public charter school indicated they were not able to provide what Jaxon needed. The environment provided to him was detrimental, placing him in alternative learning with the “bad kids” rather than in a supportive special education environment. Here he started to mimic unacceptable behaviors. They then only offered a wait-and-see approach to meeting his immediate needs.

Due to my willingness never to give up on my son, I have had job loss, change from full- to part-time, and paid medical costs to make sure Jaxon gets the care he needs. This financial burden is not insignificant.

Like any parent, I just want what’s best for my child. The role of a parent is to advocate for their children, because no one else is going to take the issues to heart and put them first and foremost as a parent will.

Children with needs like Jaxon’s are often placed in environments where they do not receive proper specialized services, but are simply lumped in with problem students. Why are we placing these children in such environments due to their disabilities?

I’m grateful for a program that enables me to make the decisions that I know are best for my son and provides him an opportunity to thrive.

August 2023, Link