SEBRING — When Jennifer Payne and her husband bought the Lake Placid Montessori Academy in 2008, they had 34 students and ended at first grade.
Since then, Payne has added four more grades, and, come August, will add middle school to the academy, which serves about 175 students from age 2 upward.
Payne’s daughter went to the Montessori school and the former parent-volunteer and now school director is a big believer in the Montessori type of education, which stresses hands-on learning and teaching kids at their own pace.
“Children don’t learn at the same pace. Every child is taught individually,” she explained.
Under Montessori, students are taught in three-year age groups, “forming communities in which the older children spontaneously share their knowledge with the younger ones.”
Payne is in talks about moving her grades four to eight to a former daycare facility off DeVane Circle in Lake Placid, and said she can accommodate 50 students in the new grades she is introducing.
Tuition is $5,000 a year but the school accepts McKay scholarships for special needs students with an Individual Educational Plan and the Step Up for Students scholarship, a quasi voucher program under the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program for economically disadvantaged students. The school also specializes in students with special needs, Payne said.
Over time, Payne’s hope is to add high school classes and round off her school, from pre-K to 12th grade.
“It’s always been the long-term goal,” she said. “This is our next step.”
The Montessori school is not the only Highlands County private school that is growing.
A few others are adding new grades this year as more parents look at private school options while the landscape gets more competitive for those running these schools.
Community Christian Academy’s principal, pastor Tom Schankweiler, of Community Bible Church in Avon Park, said the school is adding grades seventh and eight and will be a kindergarten- to eight-grade school.
Walker Memorial Academy’s Principal Bill Farmer is starting his 29th year with the school, which has been in continuous existence since 1947.
He said the school, which sits on 15 acres, is “aggressively” thinking about adding a new building to expand high school classes and better utilize the space they have.
In the last 10 to 15 years, things have gotten more competitive for private schools, Farmer said.
Part of the reason is availability of scholarships, such as McKay and Step Up. In 2006, 36 Highlands County students had Step Up scholarships. That number has been steadily rising, from 118 in 2009 to 198 in 2013 and 236 in 2014, according to Florida Department of Education figures.
Another impetus, Farmer said, are parents who want their kids to have a Bible-centered education.
The grading of public schools during this time period also has forced parents not happy with their kids’ school grades to “look in different directions,” he said.
When he came on board, Walker Memorial had about 100 kids. Now it’s well over 200, and about 40 to 45 percent of them have McKay and Step Up scholarships.
Farmer said they take pride in the caliber of their teachers, many of whom have master’s degrees; their emphasis on a rounded education and use of technology, such as iPads for students.
“Nothing is going to be more important in a classroom than a good teacher,” Farmer said.
Schankweiler, who reopened the school last year after returning to the area, said while the economy is still recovering, the church supports the school and that helps.
“Our tuition is half of the tuition of other schools,” he said. “We also have volunteer staff.”
In 1993, the Community Bible Church started Community Christian Academy.
“At that time there were several families attending Community Bible Church with school-age children, and the need for a Christ-centered education with academic excellence was apparent,” the school’s web site states.
Their emphasis on academic excellence with a Bible world view remains, he said.
“We have an excellent track record,” he said, adding one of the school’s former students is a doctor at Mayo Clinic.
According to a Department of Education list, there are about 15 private schools in Highlands County, although DOE warns it cannot verify the accuracy of the data since the private schools are not licensed, approved, accredited or regulated by the Department of Education.
“Florida private schools establish their own system of school accountability, grading, reporting, and evaluating and are not included in the state’s measurement of public schools,” the department explains on its web site.
Florida’s private schools also issue independent school diplomas that do not require approval from the state, it adds. “Private elementary and secondary schools are structured as private corporations, churches or private businesses that only report directory information and the enrollment of compulsory attendance aged students to the Department of Education.”
Farmer, who said Walker Memorial is dual accredited, said one of the first questions parents eyeing a private school should ask is whether their credits will transfer to another public school or public university.
He said a student who went to a private school in Alabama had to redo one school year in Florida because course credits from the school, which was not accredited, would not transfer in Florida.
The student not only had to spend one more year redoing a grade but wasted tuition money, he said.