A student with many interests has many options thanks to his Personalized Education Program

Mar 18 2024 • By Roger Mooney

Cooper Campen is the spelling bee champion of Alachua County who plays the trumpet, reads John Grisham novels, and would like to be a mechanical engineer. Or a doctor. Or a lawyer.

He is 12 years old, a young man of many interests. Science. History. Music. Words.

And this: Education choice.

Cooper, 12, is homeschooled in Gainesville and uses the Personalized Education Program (PEP) that comes with his Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. The scholarship is made possible by corporate donations to Step Up For Students.

Cooper managed the intensity and placed first at the Alachua County spelling bee.

Cooper is so invested in his education that he followed House Bill 1, which included the historic PEP, as it made its way through the 2023 Florida Legislature.

“We watched every single subcommittee,” Cooper said. “Everything.”

How many preteens do you know who did that?

“Cooper understands it more than most kids. He understands school choice,” Shirley said.

He gets that from his parents, Shirley and Brad. Shirley is a former teacher. Brad is an auctioneer. They both watched the progress of HB1 on TV.

“I thought it was a very monumental bill,” Shirley said.

HB1 allows for an Education Savings Account (ESA) for homeschooled students. This gives families flexibility in how they spend their scholarship funds, enabling them to tailor an education to best meet their children’s needs.

Shirley and Brad homeschool Cooper and his brother, Alexander, 9.

“PEP has allowed us and other families to provide a unique home education for each child,” Shirley said.

Cooper met House Speaker Pro Tempore Chuck Clemons, R-Newberry, while serving as a student page during this year's legislative session.

The Campens use PEP to pay for the curriculum for their sons – sixth grade for Cooper and fourth grade for Alexander. They purchase textbooks and science and math kits. PEP covers fees for flag football and basketball leagues to satisfy the physical education component of their homeschooling. It pays for field trips to museums. Cooper and Alexander attend music classes at Cornerstone Academy in Gainesville, using the school’s à la carte program.

They also use PEP to pay for music lessons for Cooper (the trumpet) and Alexander (guitar).

“The trumpet is also a really, really, really cool instrument,” Cooper said. “Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie played it. All of these really, really, really cool guys played the trumpet.”

Cooper has been a fan of Armstrong for as long as he can remember. He has yet to read a book about Armstrong, which is surprising since he’s read a book about everything else.

Science fiction, historical fiction, history textbooks, survival books, biographies … the list goes on.

“My parents read to me a lot when I was really little, and I ended up learning how to read when I was three years old,” Cooper said. “I absolutely love reading, and I read pretty much anything I can get my hands on. If you can read it, you can learn anything.”

Cooper and Alexander always have a book in hand. They’re the type of kids who are told to close the book, turn off the light, and go to bed.

Cooper and Alexander with one of Cooper's heroes, Rep. Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid, who sponsored HB1 in 2023.

Cooper said reading all those words on all those pages is what led him to the regional spelling bee March 25 in Jacksonville. The winner advances to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May in Washington, D.C.

Cooper became the Alachua County champ in February when he correctly spelled “rasorial,” which is the adjective used to describe what birds do when they scratch the ground in search of food.

The contest was intense for Cooper and his family. His dad walked out of the room a couple of times while his mom sat on the edge of her seat. Brad Campen snapped a picture of Cooper sitting among rows of empty seats. Most of the other contestants had been eliminated. As he waited his turn, Cooper leaned forward and put his head in his hands.

Deep in concentration?

Praying,” he said.

There were 35 contestants in the spelling bee. Cooper was the only one who is homeschooled. He prefers that, he said, over attending school. He did attend a private school in Gainesville for a few years but didn’t like it because he would finish the work ahead of the other students. He would spend the rest of the class reading a book.

“With homeschooling, the curriculum is definitely more challenging,” Cooper said. “If I’m having trouble in one subject, we can work on that. And if I'm really good at another subject, and don't need to really do any more in it, then we can move on.”

Plus, Shirley said, the curriculum can be customized to meet the child’s interests and needs.

“We love that Florida has become so education choice-friendly and so innovative in education because every student is different,” Shirley said. “Every student needs a different kind of education. And it's really, really awesome that we have so many options here.”

Shirley said homeschooling is not for every child or every family. But for those who do well in that setting, the PEP program is a boon. That’s why the family watched the 2023 legislative session. And that’s why Cooper served as a student page in Tallahassee during the first week of this year’s legislative session.

“Cooper has always been a kid who’s really interested in the law and politics and how all of that works,” Shirley said.

He received a taste of that because the student pages had to present a mock bill and participate in mock sessions. Cooper met several lawmakers, including House Speaker Pro Tempore Chuck Clemons, R-Newberry, and state Rep. Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid, who sponsored HB1 in 2023.

The family followed the legislative session this year, as well, hoping PEP would be expanded.

“We believe learning is a lifestyle, not just a means to obtain a diploma or degree,” Shirley said. “PEP is allowing our boys more learning opportunities than ever, and we are very thankful for that.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at [email protected]

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