Two Catholic schools join Florida's growing list of Purple Star schools that accommodate military families

Dec 20 2023 • By Roger Mooney


These four words serve as a beacon to military families stationed in Florida who are searching for the right educational fit for their children: A Purple Star School.

“It lets them know that we want them here and that we want to honor them and support them,” said Stasia Holzbaur, the office manager/registrar at St. Paul’s Catholic School in Jacksonville who serves as the liaison for military families.

Some of the military families that attend St. Paul’s Catholic School in Jacksonville gathered recently for Mass, breakfast and a group photo.

The pre-K-to-8 private school is one of 73 public and private schools in the state this year to receive a Purple Star School of Distinction designation for supporting students of military families. Another is The Basilica School of Saint Mary Star of the Sea, a pre-K-to-10th grade private school in Key West.

More than 200 schools across the state have received the Purple Star designation since 2021, when Florida lawmakers authorized the program. Students in military families can attend private school with the help of education choice scholarships managed by Step Up For Students – the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship (FTC), Family Empowerment Scholarships for Educational Options (FES-EO), or Family Empowerment Scholarships for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-UA).

“I would imagine it's going to be like a beacon, hopefully, for the families that are searching for schools when they're (in Jacksonville). … We have the Step Up scholarship. We have the Purple Star designation. I think it's only going to help us grow with them,” Holzbaur said.

Purple Star schools are required to:

  • Establish a point of contact at the school to assist military families.
  • Set up and maintain a military webpage linked to the school’s home page that includes information about transition planning, academic planning, resources and educational opportunities for military students, student-led transition programs, services for students in exceptional education programs, military recognition events, mental health challenges facing military students, and ways to access school-based mental health services.
  • A student-led transition program.
  • Training for faculty and staff on how to identify and respond to the needs of military students.
  • Open enrollment policy that reserves at least 5% of seats for military students.
  • Involvement in at least three activities that recognize and support military programs and families.

For Saint Mary Star of the Sea, this has been the norm for some time.

“Military families have been a part of the fabric of our school for decades,” Saint Mary Principal Robert Wright said.

Related reading: Purple Star program lets Florida Catholic schools nurture military families

With the Naval Air Station Key West located a few miles east on Boca Chica Key, military families have sent their children to Saint Mary Star of the Sea for years. The high cost of living in Key West, including housing, has made private school tuition a strain on the families stationed there. The expansion of the FES-EO and FTC scholarships to automatically include military families has helped ease that burden.

“These scholarships have been just a tremendous, tremendous help to our military personnel,” Wright said. “They’re not wealthy families, and the cost of living here is so extreme.”

Wright said 8% of this school’s student body comes from the naval and Coast Guard bases.

The Military Child Education Coalition estimates that a child of a military family can move six to nine times between kindergarten and 12th grade. That constant transition strains students trying to fit into a new school every three years or so, as well as their parents searching for a new school in an unfamiliar city.

“I think one of the biggest fears or concerns of parents is, ‘Will my children be able to attend a good school that understands the dynamics of our family?’” Wright said. “I think the Purple Star designation provides legitimacy to those schools and for the families, who know the school is going to take care of the family and take care of the student.”

The Wattams are one of the many military families that use the FTC scholarship to attend The Basilica School of Saint Mary Star of the Sea in Key West.

Lt. Cmdr. Vincent Rolletta and his wife, Paige, have two children enrolled in Saint Mary – Lucille, who is in the second grade, and Jack, who is in kindergarten. Lucille entered Saint Mary as a first-grader after spending kindergarten at a district school.

“She is thriving, absolutely loves school,” Paige said. “And we are so, so thankful for this type of scholarship.”

Jack Reed, the son of Cmdr. Matthew Reed and his wife Colleen, is a third-grader at Saint Mary. Colleen said Principal Wright and the staff at Saint Mary have created a welcoming atmosphere that makes it easier for military children to “slip into.”

“Military families are also a little bit of outsiders,” Colleen said. “But they’ve created a community for us. I just feel very comfortable with the way they pay attention to my son.”

At St. Paul’s in Jacksonville, that job falls to Erwin Pascual, a guidance counselor. He said teachers and staff keep a constant watch on students from military families and let him know if he might need to spend time with one of them.

“I really admire these families for what they do, the sacrifices they make for our freedom,” he said. “I want them to know that their children are safe and being looked after.”

St. Paul’s currently has children from 23 military families, drawing from the Naval Air Station Jacksonville and the Naval Station Mayport.

Holzbaur’s husband spent 23 years in the Navy, so she understands what the parents are going through and what they are looking for in terms of education when they first tour St. Paul’s.

“It’s a transition coming to a new school, but I want them to know it’s not a hard transition,” she said.

Having the scholarship helps ease at least some of that burden.

“It can be quite a struggle for families if they didn’t have the scholarship,” she said. “Especially for those families with more than one child.”

Lt. Cmdr. Ben Wattam and his wife, Devon, live in Key West and have two children at Saint Mary. Ben has been stationed there for five years and it’s time for the family to move on. Devon said they are hoping his next assignment takes the family to Pensacola, where they have already looked into Catholic schools.

One reason they want to move to Pensacola: the scholarships.

“That actually influenced our decision,” Devon said. “We want to stay in Florida for that reason.”

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

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