RIVERVIEW - Every year, there is a waiting list of parents hoping to get their children into the Pepin Academy charter school in Tampa, a school that specializes in instructing students with learning disabilities.
"We had an informational open house at school toward the end of last school year and ended up with hundreds of families showing up and wanting information," said Pepin Academy founder Crisha Scolaro. "We were taken aback."
A great many of those seeking enrollment for their children live in southeastern Hillsborough County, prompting Pepin Academy to open a new campus in the Lake St. Charles subdivision off of U.S. 301. Registration is now open. For the first year, the school will accept students in third through seventh grade and add a new grade level each year.
"We got together and had a board meeting and decided we needed to do something," Scolaro said. "We were only going to have six or seven openings at our Tampa campus at Hillsborough Avenue and 40th Street," where 120 students attend school, including a number of Brandon students. "But, the only time you have turnover is when students are transitioning to a regular school or moving away," she said.
Pepin Academy is unique in that it serves students in kindergarten through age 22 and is the only school in the state for students with learning disabilities that doesn't charge tuition and offers a standard high school diploma, Scolaro said.
"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."
Some 80 percent of the students graduating from Pepin Academy receive a standard diploma, as opposed to a special diploma for students with learning disabilities, Scolaro said.
And the teacher to student ratio is low, about one instructor for every 12-15 students, she said.
"We look at the whole child, rather than just the academics," said Caroline Scott, Pepin's director of expansion and development. "Schools like this are few and far between."
Scolaro said her motivation for founding Pepin Academy was her son, who has learning disabilities. "There was really no place for him. Students with learning disabilities learn differently. If they sit in a regular classroom, they won't participate. A lot are Aspergers autistic. A lot hide in the back of the room so they don't get bullied and they don't want to look stupid."
Most students with learning disabilities just need the right learning environment, she said.
"This year at Pepin, we had 41 high school graduates, six bright futures scholars and 11 in National Honor Society. It is awesome when they are in the right element. We are a perfect example of what school choice is all about."
The school staffs therapists for social or mental health issues, such as anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder and has a licensed clinical social worker, Scolaro said.
Beyond what students are doing, the parents of Pepin Academy students are typically very involved, Scolaro said. Each parent volunteers at the school and helps with fund-raisers, like an annual golf tournament, barbecue and fall gala.
"We also have informational seminars for parents, especially on ways to help them navigate through learning disabilities and we provide guardianship information," Scolaro said.
The school is located at 10530 Lake St. Charles Blvd., Riverview. To learn more, call (813) 677-6700.
"We are going to start with 135-150 students," Scolaro said. So far, about 80 students have enrolled.
"One size does not fit all," she said. "And shame on us, as a society, if we don't step in and save this population."