SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Missouri’s expanded school choice program began rolling out only in July. But at least one parent already says she’ll never forget what the program has done for her – and, more importantly, for her daughter.
Becki Uccello was a public school teacher for 25 years, and put her son through public school, where he excelled and eventually graduated high school a semester early. However, Uccello says public schools aren’t for every student, including her daughter – and that’s where the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) program comes in.
The ESA program, called MOScholars, is administered by the state Treasurer’s office and offers scholarships for qualifying students to attend the school of their choosing. If the student qualifies, they are awarded a scholarship of $6,375 to put towards tuition and other related costs.
Physical or learning disabilities prevent many students from achieving progress in a traditional public school setting. But up until this year, those students were either stuck at those schools or their parents had to foot the bill for a school their children could benefit from.
Whether it be financial or geographical issues holding students hostage at a school where they may not be making adequate progress, Missouri’s new ESA program fixes those issues for many families.
Uccello’s daughter Izzy has spina bifida, a congenital condition in which her spine and spinal cord didn’t form properly, causing her to use a wheelchair. When she enrolled Izzy at age 3 into Springfield Public Schools’ (SPS) early childhood program, “things were great,” and half of Izzy’s classmates also dealt with physical or learning disabilities.
Then came kindergarten.
Not only did it take four months for Uccello to even meet her daughter’s special education teacher, but during the first parent-teacher conference with Izzy’s primary instructor, “the teacher told me, ‘your daughter is an academic failure.’
“Those were the first words out of her mouth,” Uccello said.
Her daughter also was taken out of class for special education, but wasn’t allowed to catch up with her peers after being gone. Nor was there access to the playground for a student in a wheelchair – and her daughter also was unable to wash her own hands after using the bathroom because the sinks’ water was controlled by foot pedals.
Near the end of the year, Uccello requested that Izzy remain in kindergarten for one more year, but was strangely denied the opportunity. “I had been a public school teacher for 20 years at that point, and I know that kids don’t get caught up by being passed on,” Uccello said.
The final straw: In May of 2016 she gave the district 11 recommendations to be more inclusive to Izzy and other disabled kids in the future. By August, none had been implemented.
Uccello immediately enrolled Izzy into St. Agnes Catholic school, although “the tuition was not something we could handle reasonably without making some lifestyle changes.” She picked up an extra block of daily classes to teach, along with giving after-school tutoring, just to keep up with the costs of the new school.
But she instantly knew it was the right choice.
“We enrolled her into St. Agnes, and the very next day the school handyman built a ramp for her to access the playground,” Uccello said. “As soon as he found out there was going to be someone in a wheelchair, he did it.”
Not only was she going to be able to play with friends at recess like a normal kid, the school had no objection to Izzy returning to kindergarten to make sure she was comfortable with the concepts before moving to first grade.
“The principal said, ‘If you want to put her in kindergarten, we’re fine with that because you’re the parent and you get to make that decision,’” Uccello said. “That was empowering. We know Izzy better than anyone else.”
That was six years ago. Since then, Uccello has been completely satisfied with the way St. Agnes handles her daughter’s education – and, most importantly, Izzy is excelling.
“Every teacher that she’s had has met her where she is academically, and they do not remove her from class. She is with her peers. Her P.E. teacher includes her in everything. I mean, she feels like she belongs, and she feels like she makes progress.
“She has some learning disabilities, but she doesn’t feel like she’s separate from her peers.”
That is the most important thing, she says, because one of Izzy’s doctors told Uccello years ago that when considering kids with severe disabilities, those with spina bifida have the highest attempted suicide rate – likely due to intense alienation from their peers while growing up.
“I tell her teachers every year, we want her to do her best and learn as much as she can,” Uccello said. “But more importantly to us, we want her to feel like she belongs and that she is cared about.
“We don’t fight anymore, taking her to school today. She loves it.”
Uccello retired from teaching in May of this year, decreasing her income and raising serious doubts around where the money would come from to continue sending Izzy to the school of her dreams.
Providentially, 2022 just so happened to be the year when Missouri was rolling out the ESA program, which was purposely designed to help students like Izzy succeed – no matter the circumstances.
“Having the ESA counterbalanced that [loss of income],” she said. “So, I don’t have to worry about a monthly tuition bill coming out of my bank account because it’s paid for. The ESA has relieved a lot of financial stress on our family. It relieved a lot of the emotions of it as well. We would never put her back in public school again after our experience.
“I would stand in the gas station parking lot selling Avon if that’s what it takes. I’m going to do whatever it takes to keep her in Catholic school. Having the ESA relieves that anxiety.”
Uccello and many other parents say their support of ESAs is not outright opposition to the public school system. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that private, charter and other schools offer benefits to children with additional needs that many public schools cannot – and parents often need financial help with tuition for those schools.
“I know people hear our story and think, ‘Oh my goodness, they’re anti-public school.’ But our son graduated from Ozark High School a semester early. Public school fit him. We had talked about transferring him to Springfield Catholic High School, and we all decided as a family that it wouldn’t be a good fit for him. Again, that goes back to parents know their kids, and they know what’s best for them.”
“Public school can still be an option. I’m not saying close down public schools. But on the flip side, there are some major issues that need to be addressed, and if those aren’t addressed then parents need to have options. I think parents need to feel like their choice matters.”
ESAs are awarded by non-profit Educational Assistance Organizations certified by the Treasurer’s office. The Uccello family went through the Herzog Tomorrow Foundation, which has led the pack in scholarships awarded since the program came to fruition. Since July 1, the Herzog Tomorrow Foundation has given out 259 full scholarships to students from 43 different schools around Missouri, totalling out to an impressive $1,651,125 awarded.
Families interested in learning more about MOScholars and/or to see if their children qualify for an ESA can visit moscholars.com or HerzogTomorrowFoundation.com.