College for Kayley Simonsen is a single classroom in a nondescript building off Coachman Road in Clearwater. It's no one's idea of fancy, but it's every bit as meaningful to Kayley as the big-name universities her little sister is choosing from.
And right now, her parents are searching for the right words to explain to Kayley, 24, that her "college" is shutting down because the state has decided to stop funding a program that teaches life skills to adults with disabilities.
"I can't tell you how much help the school has been for her in terms of socialization and self-confidence. She's come out of her shell," her father, John Becker, said. "And now we're worried if she's essentially sitting home alone all day, she's going to regress."
After several weeks of searching for alternative funding, the Pinellas County School Board, which administered the program with state grant money, has sent out letters to students and caregivers to announce its closing.
The program, which has been around for two decades, was a rare option for families whose children had outgrown the traditional school system but were still on the waiting list for Medicaid waiver funds that provide resources for adults with disabilities.
Funding for the statewide program has been steadily cut through the years, but the entire $10 million allocation was recently whacked from the new budget.
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, complained during the legislative session that too much of the money was allocated to teacher salaries and benefits, which is a bewildering argument for a program whose entire existence is based on teaching rudimentary job and life skills, such as counting money, folding clothes and gardening.
Senate officials say overall funding for disabilities is still at an all-time high, and other programs would be available to pick up the slack.
For some, that might be true. But there are also families who say they can't afford to pay for the adult programs without state or federal funds, and say they have been on the Medicaid waiting list for years and years.
The nonprofit group AFIRE has helped bridge funding gaps in the past, but it doesn't have the resources to run the program by itself.
"Taking away a program like this can have a dramatic impact on the students' feelings of self-worth," said Mark Hunt, the executive director of Career, Technical and Adult Education for Pinellas County schools. "One of the issues that goes unspoken is there is a significantly higher rate of suicide for this population when they're put in situations where they feel their lives have no value, and they slip into depression."
Susan Ortiz says her son John, 45, has been attending adults with disabilities classes for more than five years since moving here from Pennsylvania. He's been on the Medicaid waiting list the entire time.
Ortiz, who is retired, says she recently explained to John that his school was shutting down and he would have to spend his days with her, including the hours she puts in at her husband's hospital bedside.
"To have this pulled out from under them is horrible, just horrible," she said. "He's so upset, he told me to take him to the classroom and he would just sit there and wait."