Like most mothers, M’liss Ferlita’s main wish for her son, Taylor Wells, is that he lives a happy, fulfilling life. Sadly, she said, he experienced neither during his early childhood.
“In kindergarten, he couldn’t recite his own name — he was nonverbal. He also couldn’t write, and he would sit in the back of the room while the other children raised their hands when the teacher asked a question. He never interacted with the other kids,” Ferlita said.
Taylor has a form of autism that resulted in his inability to communicate and intermingle with others. Year after year Ferlita worked feverishly with his teachers at an area public school where he was enrolled, hoping for improvements in her son’s learning dysfunction and his anti-social behavior
It never happened.
“He had no friends, and I’d cry myself to sleep at night, not knowing what his future would be like and if he’d ever have friends.”
It was then that Ferlita discovered Pepin Academies, a unique gem in the Tampa Bay community and beyond. Founded in 1999, with the support of the philanthropic Pepin family, Pepin Academies is a tuition-free, award-winning, public charter school for students who have specific learning and learning-related disabilities, elementary age to 22-years-old. To apply, students must have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) and be failing in their current educational environment.
Taylor recently graduated from Pepin Academies in June and, aside from the accomplishment of receiving his high school diploma, he had a compiled 4.0 grade-point average and scored in the 95th percentile on his SAT exams. With this, he earned a Bright Futures Scholarship — Taylor will be attending St. Leo University in August.
“My son has gone through a complete transformation,” Ferlita said. “He’s far exceeded everyone’s expectations! Pepin Academies is a true gem and a place where miracles happen.”
And for those who may not graduate with a standard high school diploma, Pepin has a vocational training program called Pepin Transitional, for 18 to 22-year-olds. A dozen business partners throughout the community have signed on to offer free, hands-on job training assistance for young adults with learning disabilities. Some of these partners include Publix, TECO Energy, CVS, Law Offices of Julianne Holt, and Moffitt Cancer Center. The objective is to teach them the skills necessary to be successful in the workforce and empower them toward living independently. Pepin Transitional is currently offered in Hillsborough County and there are plans to open additional training sites in each county where Pepin Academies is located.
Pepin Academies already has two locations in Hillsborough County: on Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa and on Lake St. Charles Blvd. in Riverview.
“It has been a dream of ours to open several Pepin Academies throughout Florida, and save as many children as possible. And thanks to the support of our families, staff, community partners, elected officials and friends, this dream is finally a reality,” said community liaison Crisha Scolaro, who helped start the school over fifteen years ago.
Pepin Academies is currently enrolling students at its new campus in New Port Richey on Little Road. The school, which will begin classes on August 18, serves students who have learning or learning-related disabilities, 3rd through 10th grades.
The Pepin Academies Inc. of Pasco County has been receiving applications from all over Pasco County, and is open to students from outside Pasco County as well, if the parents receive the necessary “out-of-county” paperwork from the district where their child lives.
Pasco Principal Celeste Kellar has been in special education for 25 years and nine of those at Pepin Academies, serving as director of the school’s elementary school in Hillsborough, director of its transition school for 18-to-22 year-olds, and most recently, as director of student services.
Some of the disabilities Pepin Academies serve include: Asperger syndrome, attention deficit disorder, attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity, educable mentally handicapped, pervasive development delay, or a medical condition that affects learning, such as Tourette syndrome.
“Children with autism and other health issues that prevent a child from being successful at school receive specialized services in elementary school,” said Scolaro. “However, those services stop after the fifth grade and the children are mainstreamed into the regular classroom.” But mainstreaming isn’t always in the student’s best interest, explains Scolaro.
“They can feel frustrated as they fall behind. They’re teased and they lose their confidence,” she said. “This inability to succeed can be very devastating for a child. In addition, the student suffers from the lack of specialized services such as speech therapy and individual instruction.” Scolaro knows this for a fact because she has lived it and has seen it with her own son, who has Asperger’s.
Scolaro is especially proud of the fact that nearly 80 percent of Pepin’s students graduate with a regular diploma and 20 percent with a special diploma.
“We are the only school that does what we do,” she said. “We have all services; from speech and language pathology to mental health counselors and a registered nurse. We provide a sensory environment center for those with sensory issues and a Skills Lab to hone in on critical thinking skills. “
The Skills Lab incorporates a variety of brain-based games, puzzles, and technology to improve higher critical thinking skills, and was designed to engage students in an enjoyable learning experience without realizing they are in a learning environment.
The Multi-Sensory Environment Center is a first of its kind in a public school environment in the State of Florida. The center focuses on social behaviors: tackling sensory disorder issues, promoting wellbeing, and decreasing anxiety and stress — at no cost to the child. If a child is unable to focus in class, the sensory lab is designed for occupational and physical therapists to address the needs of each individual.
The school philosophy focuses not only on the students’ academic needs, but also on their social needs. Students thrive in this therapeutic educational environment and are prepared to face the future confidently, competently, and competitively. At Pepin Academies, students are allowed to be themselves and discover their many talents, social skills, and unique traits, without the fear of being bullied or being looked at as different.
Aside from the unique population Pepin Academies serves, Pepin Academies has also created a separate not-for-profit foundation, Pepin Academies Support Services, which was created with the sole purpose of raising money and providing services to all Pepin Academies. In order to ensure that federal educational dollars stay with the child, Pepin Academies Support Services develops several fundraisers throughout the year to provide financial support to each campus. Pepin Academies wouldn’t be the successful institution it is today without the annual support of Pepin’s donors, the Pepin family, and Florida business leaders.
To learn more about the Pasco campus and openings, please call 727-233-2961; for the Hillsborough Campus, please call 813-236-1755; for the Riverview Campus, please call 813-677-6700; and for the vocational training program, Pepin Transitional, call 813-236-1755 x 179. Visit Pepin’s website: www.PepinAcademies.com.
A Pasco campus ribbon cutting will be held on August 14 at 11 a.m. (9804 Little Rd. New Port Richey, 34654).
Call 813-236-1755 extension 153 for more information.
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