Millennium Academy, located on Florida’s west coast, has become a sanctuary for students whose needs were not met by public schools, according to grateful parents. Ashley Gregg, a parent with two children attending the academy, expressed her appreciation for the school’s acceptance of her 6-year-old son with autism. She described how the school understands his tics and provides a safe environment for him. Jessica Williams, another parent, shared how both of her children have thrived at the academy, realizing their potential and becoming who she always believed they could be.
Unfortunately, the future of this small private school, affectionately referred to as the “island of misfits,” is now uncertain. Owner Lori Ekblad, who has invested her personal savings including her 401(k) into the school, fears that the school may not survive the challenges posed by the state’s new voucher system. Millennium Academy relies heavily on state voucher money to cover tuition fees for 99% of its 100 students. However, despite being three months into the new school year, only 10 students have received state funding, leaving the school with a financial deficit of at least $100,000.
This predicament is not unique to Millennium Academy. The newly expanded school voucher system in Florida is struggling to meet the unprecedented demand, affecting other small private schools and families. In September, we highlighted the issues faced by the voucher system. Currently, approximately 300,000 students are enrolled in the program.
Amie Henry, an employee at a small school in Lake City catering to students with unique abilities, shared her school’s experience of not receiving any funding from the state since the beginning of the school year, despite providing all the necessary paperwork and information. The school, established only two years ago, is now at risk of closure. Henry expressed her frustration with Step Up for Students, the contractor responsible for managing and distributing the state’s voucher money, criticizing their inability to provide adequate funding, which ultimately affects the students.
Step Up for Students, in response to the concerns raised, stated that just over 95% of school invoices from the first installment of funding have been paid, with the second installment currently underway. They acknowledged the existence of payment issues and assured that they are working diligently to resolve them.
However, time is running out for the schools and families still awaiting funding. Millennium Academy recently sent a letter to parents, explaining the dire financial situation the school is facing and urging them to contact their lawmakers for assistance. The response from the students was unexpected but heartwarming. Some students donated their own savings or earnings to help the school. Lori Ekblad, deeply moved by the gesture, shared her determination to keep the school afloat while they wait for the state to fulfill its promises.
Parents, staff, and Ekblad are now collaborating to determine the next course of action. They are exploring the possibility of staging a protest, recognizing the importance of this school for the children it serves. Parent Ashley Gregg emphasized their determination not to surrender without a fight.
During the upcoming special session in Tallahassee, lawmakers will be discussing the state’s school voucher program and potential expansion to include more students with unique abilities. This session presents an opportunity for the voices of Millennium Academy and other affected schools to be heard, as they strive to secure the future of their cherished educational institutions.