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State scholarship benefits special needs students
Academy opened in 2007 with the passing of Senate Bill 10
Alex House, 13, picks out photographs Wednesday for the school newspaper with the assistance of paraprofessional Katie Powell at the Ava White Academy in Gainesville. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Ava White has tutored children in the Hall County area since the early 1980s. She was encouraged to start a school of her own, but it wasn't until 2007 when the opportunity opened up.

That was the year the Georgia legislature passed Senate Bill 10, which established the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program. The scholarship gives students money, usually between $2,500 and $13,500, to offset private school tuition and fees.

"I've seen a lot of students come and go, and the parents asked if there was something more that could be done for their child," White said. "This really spoke to me as the right thing to do. Public schools have the incredible job of educating everyone with less money and fewer teachers. This gives students with learning differences the opportunity to get what they need with smaller groups and a highly specialized program."

White opened her school, the Ava White Academy, a private school for kids with special needs after SB 10 passed.

The range of money provided by the scholarship program is based on the amount students would have received to be educated in public schools, said Jerri Nims Rooker, director of the Center for an Educated Georgia.

"It is a very simple process in that parents go to the Georgia Department of Education website and go on the calculator," Nims Rooker said. "The private schools take it from there."

In order to receive the scholarship, students must have Individualized Education Programs from the previous year. There are 190 private schools participating in the scholarship, Nims Rooker said.

The academy, which costs $11,500 a year to attend, serves students with a multitude of learning differences, including attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, Asperger's Syndrome and language impediments. Right now, there are 17 students in third through eighth grades enrolled.

"We have a few home-schoolers and some from private schools. The vast majority are coming from public schools," White said. "Our goal is to get them to return to the setting of their parents' choice."

Hannah Voyles, 14, attended Martin Technology Academy of Math and Science from kindergarten to fifth grade and has been at Ava White Academy for the past four years.

"I have ADHD so it made it hard to concentrate. Kids picked on me," Voyles said. "I had nightmares about all the mean girls ... I have a higher self-esteem now. My teacher usually tells us to be the best we can be."

At Ava White Academy, students are grouped by skill level as opposed to grade levels. They're "double-dosed" with math and reading instead of spending lots of time on science, social studies and extracurricular subjects. White said this is because if students are well prepared in language and math, they'll be able to tackle the other areas.

Voyles said her teachers would give timed math quizzes but would use them to see where students are learning, not necessarily to grade them.

"(The academy) makes me feel like I'm catching up instead of left behind," said Autumn Nettles, 10. "I can be up to speed and not rushed."

White said the academy gives students "gifts to succeed" and the chance to showcase their talents.

She said it wasn't the academy's objective to enhance self-esteem, but she said that was sort of a default to students doing well in the school.

"If they're able to read for the first time, their confidence level rises," White said.

One such student last year would not speak on camera for a project because he was embarrassed of his speech impairment. This year, however, he was the first to stand up and talk, she said.

The academy employs two unorthodox teaching methods that give students jobs and currency.

"We each have jobs. I have the kitchen manager job helping Ms. Katie," Voyles said. "We had to sign up. They gave us job forms we had to fill out and pick our top three jobs."

As kitchen manager, Voyles cleans up after the academy students eat lunch. She also comes in early some mornings to make coffee. Other jobs students can have include veterinarian, line leader, teacher's assistant and alternate, who does the jobs of students who are absent.

Teachers at Ava White Academy "help us more," said Courtland Stover, 10, who until this year attended Sardis Enrichment School. He said teachers seem less strict and there's less pressure on completing homework.

Stover said teachers reward students for good deeds - cleaning supplies, helping others with math problems and showing respect.

For these good deeds, the teachers credit students with "money" they write in their checkbooks. Every Friday, students are able to participate in an auction where they use their money to buy things from the Treasure Box.

"That teaches us to deal with money, so it's like real life," Voyles said.


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