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Time to celebrate how Pepin Academies benefits society

For a mother who has sat in a principal's office and heard, "This school can't help your special-needs son," it's a beacon.

For a father who observes a traditional classroom setting and concludes, "There is no way my autistic daughter can succeed in this environment," it's a shining light.

For all the parents who find themselves lost in the fog of their child's learning-related disabilities, Pepin Academies is a guide that helps lead them through uncertainties.

But how does the academies' light shine for all the folks not dealing with these challenges?

In ways you may not realize.

As the four schools — Pepin Elementary, Pepin Middle, Pepin Academy and Pepin Transitional — prepare to celebrate their 12th year with a gala on May 19, there is no doubt that grateful parents, key donors and doting celebrities, including former University of Florida football coach Urban Meyer, will come together to celebrate the academies' success stories.

But there's a reason everyone should share in that appreciation.

This collection of public charter schools on E Hillsborough Avenue provides a viable alternative to conventional educational approaches for kids diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactive disorder, autism and Asperger's syndrome, as well as hearing, speech, language and sensory deficiencies.

A school tour reveals an atmosphere free of chaos. Engaging teachers lead active and eager students, though rarely in classrooms where desks are lined neatly in rows. Sometimes you find students tuning in while lying on bean bags or sitting on couches — efforts to help them deal with their sensory issues.

The uncommon approaches reflect the school's commitment to using different methods to help students learn. But it also offers many of the activities you find at other schools: athletics, art, honor society, yearbook, student government and even pizza parties.

"The students don't believe there's a place like this until they get here," said Crisha Scolaro, the academies' founder and community liaison. "Some of them have friends for the very first time."

The results? The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools has accredited all four schools. A host of legislative and government commendations line the walls of its main lobby. Its approach serves as an official model for the state's other charter schools.

Eighty percent of its students graduate with a standard high school diploma, and all students receive transition plans upon completing their studies. Pepin Transitional helps provide the necessary life skills to move on to postsecondary education and successful careers.

Students intern with different companies, including the office of Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt. Holt has given full-time jobs to four of the students, including Scolaro's son Anthony. She calls the opportunity one of the most rewarding aspects of her job.

Yet Holt also has seen the flip side. Too often, her attorneys find themselves defending clients who read at a second- or third-grade level. Juveniles perceived to have behavioral issues actually suffer from a lack of cognitive skills.

Perhaps their lives could be different if they could escape the fog and find their way to Pepin Academies.

And that's why we should all share in the joy of the gala. Kids with learning disabilities don't constitute a throwaway population, and many have become productive citizens because of Pepin.

Winthrop Town Centre developers John and Kay Sullivan have a son enrolled at Pepin Academies, but Kay Sullivan says she serves as co-chair of the gala because of the realization the schools not only help children, but society as a whole.

"I ask myself, 'Can it be true that the right education at the right time makes the difference between a child who is successful and one who becomes a burden forever on society?' '' Sullivan said. "I have come to believe that the answer is, 'Yes.' "

Clearly, the light at Pepin Academies shines for us all.

That's all I'm saying.

.Fast facts

If you go

What: The Pepin Academies 2011 Community Gala

When: May 19, 6:30 p.m.

Where: TPepin Hospitality Centre, 4121 N 50th St.

Who: Emcee, Gayle Sierens; keynote speaker, Urban Meyer; celebrity appearances by Tony and Lauren Dungy, Skip and Jennifer Holtz, state Reps. Rachel Burgin and Will Weatherford and Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt.

More information/RSVP: Call (813) 236-1755.

Time to celebrate how Pepin Academies benefits society 05/05/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:50pm]
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