How one question and four education choice scholarships changed the lives of Emmaline's children
BY ROGER MOONEY
MIAMI GARDENS – The seismic shift in Quran Wright’s life occurred in a South Florida Walgreens while shopping with his mother.
He was in the third grade at the time and not faring well in his district school. Emmaline Reddick and her son were talking about his classes. Emmaline told Quran that he was smart.
Then she asked, “Do you think you’re smart?”
Quran stunned Emmaline with his one-word answer: “No.”
“Right there, that moment, I was like, wait a minute, if I keep him in that school, it’s going to destroy him,” Emmaline said recently as she recalled the conversation.
Using the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, Emmaline was able to move Quran to Alternative Education Foundation (AEF) in Davie. AEF operates three private schools in the area (AEF Preparatory Lower School, AEF Preparatory High School and AEF Westham Academy).
“Each campus caters to students of different ages and needs and offers a structured, nurturing environment that focuses on academic, social, life, and cognitive skills," AEF’s Executive Director, Dr. Lance Fein said.
Around that same time, Quran was diagnosed as autistic. That qualified him for what is now the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA).
“I'm just so grateful because, without the scholarship, I wouldn't have been able to afford the tuition,” Emmaline said. “And I'm telling you, that school is amazing. I mean it. The staff is amazing. The kids are amazing.”
Quran was the first of Emmaline’s children to attend AEF. He wasn’t the last.
Zakhouri, a senior who is also on the spectrum and receives the FES-UA scholarship, soon followed. Daughters London (ninth grade) and Laila (seventh grade) have attended the school since 4th and 2nd grade respectively, on Florida Tax Credit Scholarships (FTC).
Both the FES-UA and FTC are managed by Step Up For Students.
“School choice, you can’t beat it,” Emmaline said. “As a parent, you have a say in your children’s education.”
Emmaline is thankful she found AEF, which is a 30-minute drive from the family’s home in North Miami. While the school caters to students with unique abilities, it does accept students who do not have a diagnosis or Individualized Education Plan (IEP) but perform better in a smaller school setting. That includes London and Laila, who are both honor roll students.
Quran was overwhelmed at his district school. The classes were too big and noisy. The overstimulation made it hard for him to pay attention. It wasn’t that he couldn’t learn the lessons - he couldn’t keep up with the lessons.
At AEF, he found an educational setting that was a better fit.
“(AEF) is small, but not too small. Students are not overwhelmed. They are comfortable with the size of the school and the pace we work at,” AEF Principal Lynette Van Heyzen said. “It is a normalized environment but has the support systems that the students need.
“These supports are offered when needed during the school day. This enables the student to overcome whatever is bothering them and not have it impact their day.”
Van Heyzen said Quran was shy and withdrawn when he first attended the school. Now, he participates in class and socializes with his peers.
“It changed me as a person,” Quran, now a 10th-grader, said. “It taught me that I like to be challenged by certain subjects. I learned my favorite subjects require critical thinking. I’ve learned more about myself.”
The COVID 19 pandemic was especially hard on Emmaline and the children. She lost her job as a library specialist, and Zakhouri nearly lost his way.
“He’s a hands-on learner,” Emmaline said. “Virtual school wasn’t working for him.”
Zakhouri has social anxieties and suffers from depression. His mom said losing the in-person connection with his classmates and teachers caused his depression to come to the forefront during the pandemic.
Zakhouri would log on each day and attend his virtual classes, but he wouldn’t do the work. As a result, he failed his classes and had to repeat the 10th grade.
“He just gave up,” Emmaline said.
The seismic shift in Zakhouri’s life occurred when AEF returned to in-person learning.
“It was like night and day,” Emmaline said.
AEF Vice Principal Patrick Goodrich agreed.
“Absolutely. Both Quran and Zakhouri are great examples of how strong educational environments can shape and change behavior for the better,” he said. “Both students, socially, like many others, were negatively impacted by the pandemic. Since then, they have grown in confidence, improved their communication skills, and established strong connections with other students and staff. This has resulted in them appearing to be more extroverted.”
Zakhouri graduated with his class last May but attends AEF this year to make up credits and to be better prepared to handle the next step of his education.
His high school diploma allows him to attend a college or vocational school. He’s interested in the Build Your Future program at Sheridan Technical College in Fort Lauderdale, FIU Embrace Education at Florida International University in Miami or Project TOPS at Robert Morgan Educational Center and Technical College in Miami. Each program is designed for students with intellectual disabilities.
“At AEF individualized instruction does not only apply to academics but also to college and career preparedness,” Goodrich said. “Beginning this year, graduating students like Zakhouri are enrolled in a state-approved course, Career Preparation, which is solely focused on their transition from students to professionals in their careers. Additionally, AEF has begun to partner with local technical colleges, including Sheridan Technical Colleges, to provide students with opportunities in the technical and trade fields.”
Zakhouri is interested in a career in cyber security.
Like his brother, Zakhouri said attending AEF has positively impacted his education and life.
“It’s made me a better person,” he said. “I started talking to people more. I became less introverted.”
Van Heyzen said Zakhouri’s growing self-confidence is reflected in how he interacts with his classmates and his grades, (which have improved).
“He’s even helping his peers,” Van Heyzen said.
Emmaline is making ends meet as a driver in the food delivery industry – DoorDash, Uber East, Grubhub. Her sons need the FES-UA scholarships to help pay for their therapies.
“I’m so thankful for the scholarship because all the money I make goes to their school and paying bills,” she said.
Family members in Georgia and South Carolina have encouraged Emmaline to move her family to those states, but Emmaline has declined.
“I’m not leaving Florida because of that scholarship,” she said. “Taking them out of AEF is not an option. I’m going to pour everything I have into their education.
“I want them to make it because so many kids don’t make it. They just get lost. That won’t happen to my children.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at [email protected].