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Navigating Tampa Bay K-12 Education with a Military-Connected Child

Dr. Kristy Verdi, Executive Director, Learn and Serve Tampa Inc

My first teaching assignment in a Florida school was a popular destination for the final PCS before retirement. Hence, I watched many military-connected students settle into a permanent school situation for the first time after multiple moves.

Although not a military-related relocation, my 2006 move to Tampa had me searching for the best schools, and we ended up in that same popular destination. As a teacher, and having watching my two sons cope with change, I wanted to ensure all new students got a warm welcome. It was the only school change they ever experienced. On average, military personnel experience a PCS every 2.5 years. Change is the norm for the military-connected child. However, veterans can finally stay put once discharged or retired if they find the right fit for their kids. This article is intended for veterans coming to the greater Tampa Bay area with military-connected school-aged children looking for the best educational opportunities.

Education in Florida has experienced significant changes in the past year. The 2023 Florida legislative session resulted in laws designed by lawmakers to expand educational choice and support schools by eliminating rules. There are also changes in teacher certification requirements. In short, parents can move students into charter, private, and home education using public funds if it best suits the child. These options are connected to scholarships, and the best tool available to learn more is StepUpForStudents.org. This website provides a very user-friendly version of Florida’s school choice options, including public, private, charter, and home education. If you prefer, you can also visit the school choice section of the Florida DOE website.

As a parent, you probably want to know what all this means to you and your child. Well, it means you have options.

First, explore your local public schools, as most are wonderful institutions with excellent teachers and strong community connections. If you have already picked a new home and proximity is important, go to the Florida DOE website and use the mapping tool. Tampa Bay actually connects several gulf coast counties, but there are three public school districts in the VAN footprint: Hillsborough, Pinellas, and Pasco. All three districts have their own mapping tools on their websites. The Florida DOE website also shows school grades, but note that school grade criteria have significantly changed and should never be your sole indicator. You can learn more about school accountability from the DOE website as well.

The great news for veterans and their children is that Florida initiated a Purple Star School of Distinction program in 2021, joining 38 states who have established a Purple Star School Program. The purpose of the Purple Star School of Distinction designation is to recognize schools that support the unique needs of military families, help military-connected students navigate critical challenges, and provide resources for military-connected students when transitioning to a new school environment. Purple Star Schools must have a designated point-of-contact for military families, maintain a dedicated resource webpage, establish a student-led transition program, and provide professional development for staff regarding military-connected students. They must also have plans to fast-track the ESE IEP process and allow for late-term school choice applications. Pasco and Pinellas do not currently have any Purple Star Schools. Hillsborough County has nine district schools and one charter school.

Additionally, Military Family Life Counselors are at nineteen schools in Hillsborough County. While these counselors serve active duty dependents primarily, veterans know that the school is in tune with the unique concerns of the military-connected child. Hillsborough also has a District Military Liaison, Ms. Kim Sukach, in the Department of Strategic Planning and Partnerships. Ms. Sukachs works diligently to ensure military-connected students have timely and appropriate access to education resources via the district website. She also assists schools with personalizing these resources for their student populations.

Whether active-duty, veteran, or civilian, the School Liaison Office can assist you if you work at MacDill Air Force Base. Even if you are not working on the base, the liaison website offers an amazing newsletter filled with great resources.

Are you looking for Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK)? While many states still do not offer universal free VPK, Florida, fortunately, meets the benchmark for free universal Pre-K education with more than 70 percent of 4-year-olds enrolled. To find a high-quality program in your area, visit the Gold Seal Quality Care Program website. The challenge in popular locations is space. If you need additional support, contact the Early Learning Coalition in your county. They may be able to help you find that elusive seat in a high-quality VPK.

One last note before school begins: all parents need to be aware of changes to the school lunch policy. During COVID, school lunch was free for all students, but that was rolled back last year.

Students will still receive free breakfast, but lunch will return to the pre-COVID free-and-reduced lunch format. Learn more about the requirements and make sure you complete your application before school begins.

The bottom line is that the best way to find the right school is to schedule a tour and see it for yourself! Talk to the administration, the teachers, and parents of current and past students. Every child is unique, and finding the right fit for you and your family might require extra time, but it will be worth it in the long run.

K-12 Education Websites

Florida Department of Education

https://fldoe.org

Hillsborough County Public Schools

https://hillsboroughschools.org

Pasco County Public Schools

https://pasco.k12.fl.us

Pinellas County Schools

https://pcsb.org

Step Up For Students

https://stepupforstudents.org

MacDill Force Support Squadron

https://macdillfss.com/school-liaison

Additional online resources

https://www.fldoe.org/schools/family-community/activities-programs/parental-involvement/purple-star.stml

https://www.hillsboroughschools.org/militaryfamilies

https://edudata.fldoe.org/ReportCards/Mapping.html

https://www.fldoe.org/accountability/accountability-reporting/school-grades/

https://www.stepupforstudents.org/

https://www.fldoe.org/schools/school-choice/k-12-scholarship-programs/fes/

https://macdillfss.com/school-liaison-officer/

https://www.fldoe.org/schools/early-learning/parents/gold-seal.stml

https://www.elchc.org/

https://freeschoolmealsfl.com/

Dr. Kristy Verdi, Executive Director, Learn and Serve Tampa Inc

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