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Futures for Students with Unique Abilities Are Brighter Than Ever

• Kate Wallace


Sandra Casson and her husband are proud parents of five children, ages 18, 17, 10, 7 and 3.

Long before she was married or had children, Casson would have never guessed she would become a home school mom. Today, all five of her children are home schooled, and their oldest two are part-time virtual school students.

After earning a degree in elementary education, Casson landed a teaching position in inner-city Chicago as a young adult. It was an experience that would make a lasting impression.

“When I was teaching, I saw how diverse of a range of abilities and learning styles was in my class, and it was difficult to reach every one of my students,” Casson said. “This little girl in my first-grade class could read an encyclopedia, and then another boy in the same class could barely read. It was frustrating.”

That frustration, Casson said, is what made her decide she would one day home school her own children. “I wanted my kids to have the most customized, individualized education as possible.”

adeline1When it was time to home school her older children, Casson, who now lives in Florida, said she was able to find the curricular and educational resources she needed to serve her children’s needs. However, when Adeline, her fourth child, was born with Down syndrome, Casson was worried about meeting her educational needs.

“I was concerned I would not be able to educate her on my own. I had a lot of questions. I was scared. I didn’t really know the territory I was entering into,” she remembered.

That’s when Casson met Camille Gardiner, a fellow parent of a child with Down syndrome and the wife of future Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner. Casson said their meeting was a divine intervention.

“She helped me feel confident that I could educate Adeline too,” Casson said.

While Gardiner’s directions were helpful, Adeline had health complications from birth to age four which interfered with her socialization and speech development. She needed an array of therapies, particularly speech therapy.

Then, in 2014,  Sen. Gardiner sponsored a bill to authorize the Personal Learning Scholarship Account program, now known as the Gardiner Scholarship Program for children with special needs. The new scholarships would not only cover tuition and home education resources, but they would also cover the therapies Adeline desperately needed to thrive.

Once Adeline was enrolled in the program, Casson said their lives changed.

“Before we had the scholarship, I had to create a lot of educational products myself for her and spend so much time figuring out how to create tools that would help her with her fine motor skills, for example.”

“Now, it’s so much easier because I can afford to buy an item that would help her with her fine motor skills or speech that I never could have considered before,” Casson said.

Casson believes Adeline has developed further academically and physically than she would have without the resources the Gardiner Scholarship has afforded.

The scholarship’s creation also brightened prospects for Casson’s youngest son, Landon, 3, who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Thanks to the program’s availability to pre-K students, Landon is already on the scholarship and using his funds to receive critical occupational therapy.

“With Landon, he has been able to access the services he’s needed from the beginning, which has made it easier on us and for him and his future,” Casson explained.

Casson said before Adeline was born, she didn’t know anyone with Down syndrome and had common misconceptions about the community.

“People with Down syndrome can be just as productive as any other person or child in our society, and they desire to be included and to contribute no different than any other person,” she said.

“Sometimes they may need a little extra assistance or help straightening things out. But once those things are corrected, the opportunities for them are huge, and what they can do is amazing.”

Casson said people should know that students with Down syndrome are high achieving.

“They can get a high school diploma, play sports, live independently and get a job,” she said, enthusiastically. “The challenge is ensuring we provide opportunities for these children to reach their full potential.”

To Casson, the Gardiner Scholarship has made the difference for her family and many others.

“We are so grateful for the scholarship,” Casson concluded. “The future of the kids in Florida with special needs is so much brighter. The possibilities for them are so much greater now.”

About the author

Kate Wallace @kstreetfla

Kate serves as the Director of Community Engagement (North Florida) for the Foundation for Florida's Future (AFloridaPromise). Prior to joining AFloridaPromise, Kate served as Legislative Coordinator for The Fiorentino Group, a Florida government affairs firm based in Jacksonville. Previously, Kate served as government affairs assistant for the Washington office of Triadvocates, an Arizona government relations firm, and as staff assistant for the Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., federal government relations office. As a college student, Kate interned for the White House in Vice President Dick Cheney’s Office of Domestic Policy and for former Florida Congressman Adam Putnam’s Capitol Hill office. A central Florida native, Kate graduated from University of Florida in 2007 with a B.S. in Public Relations. Contact Kate at