I had the opportunity to sit down with Deb Natale, Co-Founder & Executive Director of New LEAPS Academy in Wesley Chapel, Lutz, and New Tampa, FL to discuss what their groundbreaking program is all about. New LEAPS Academy is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, private, K-12 (and adding preschool-VPK in Jan 2019) school, specialized for children with special needs.
The Story Behind the School
Deb was inspired to start New LEAPS Academy when her granddaughter, who has special needs, was unable to continue in the public school system after Kindergarten. "They wanted to send her 45 minutes away on a bus to a school that could better service her", Deb began, "we let her go one day, it was horrendous." After agreeing with her son & daughter-in-law that it was not going to work out, Deb explains, "I got home and I said: we've got to do something, we've got to find a place for her to go to school." Ironically enough, Deb picked up a copy of a local newsletter and on the front page was an article about a mom who recently opened a school for children with special needs in New Tampa. Deb immediately called the woman, a mom of a child with special needs, who was in a similar predicament. They enrolled immediately. Deb's granddaughter thrived at the school, learning an array of skills that helped her to gain confidence, which is pertinent for all children, especially in the school setting. Sadly, the school closed down after a few years as they just could not stay afloat. Deb and her family were determined to find another program for her granddaughter and the other students, however nothing similar in the area existed. So Deb took matters into her own hands, creating New LEAPS Academy in February 2013. Along with her daughter-in-law and a teacher from the previous school, they hit the ground running. "It's [the school] my heart", Deb beams. As far as how Deb's granddaughter is doing now? "My granddaughter is now 13 and doing well; she has so many more words today".
New LEAPS Academy not only employs teachers but also in-house Speech, Occupational and Physical Therapists. Applied Behavioral Analysis, (ABA) are also available when necessary. "We have sensory & therapy rooms at both schools. We can sometimes even work it into the classroom, depending on the activity. The students also get Speech & OT services from Pasco county, because we are a school under the Florida Department of Education", Deb explains.
Scroll through the slideshow above for photos of the Lutz location.
NOTE: Photos were taken during Halloween season, hence the festive decor!
What Makes New LEAPS Academy different from other programs?
"I think what pulls us apart from everybody is that we have the smaller classrooms; there are other schools similar to ours but they still have 12, 15, 20 kids to a classroom. We only have 6 students to a classroom. We do a lot of one-on-one and we educate to the child's ability, which means that every child is on a different level and that’s exactly how we're teaching. Most of the parents want that for their child because that’s going to help them succeed." Deb continues, "if you keep teaching a child in a direction that their not able to learn, then they are going to fail, you can't set kids up for failure, especially kids with special needs. We want all our children to succeed. That’s what makes us different."
What are the qualifications to send your child to New LEAPS? Do they need to have a diagnosis?
"There’s two parts: they need to have an IEP or a 504 plan." Deb explains, "our director does do assessments, so she is able to assess a child that maybe was home schooled, so we are able to do that. The other criteria would be that the child does not necessarily have a diagnosis; either they need to have a diagnosis or could be at genius level, so we also have a gifted program. That is a special need as well and people don't recognize that. If a child doesn’t get what he/she needs, they will regress." Deb elaborates, "public school cant give one child something different, they have to keep everyone on the same level, and that doesn’t work for everybody, we aren’t a cookie cutter society anymore, everything plays a role in a child’s development. Gifted children need to be challenged more than the typical child and public school system can't do that".
Is there assistance for tuition?
What is the new Preschool/VPK Program at New LEAPS Academy?
The New LEAPS Academy is opening a Half-Day Preschool/VPK program in New Tampa in January for children ages 3-5. "We feel that if kids can get that early intervention, they may not have to stay at a school like this, we may be able to capture them at a very young age and redirect them, help them with some of their learning issues and then they’ll be able to go into public school & be with their peers. We'd like to give kids the independence to get back into a public school"
Grades K-12 are at the following locations:
Wesley Chapel location: Kindergarden - 4th grade
Lutz location: 5th grade - 12th grade
What is the future like for New LEAPS Academy?
With passion in her eyes, Deb expressed, "my goal is to eventually have my own building, where I can have 100 kids, and have all the things that they need; a music room, a library, and a gym; and ALL of it, I want all of it for these kids because they really, really, need this, the community needs it".
How can you support New LEAPS Academy?
"We run fundraisers to do the extras for the kids", Deb notes. New LEAPS Academy is a non-profit program, 501(c)(3). They accept donations on their website and they carry out a few fundraisers through the year, including the 2nd Annual Reindeer 5K Fun Run/Walk on December 8, 2018, and the 4th Annual New L.E.A.P.s Academy Golf Tournament on Saturday, April 6, 2019. Flyers for both events are below. Deb also opened Hailey’s Family services, adjacent to the Lutz school location, which hires Speech and OT Therapists. These professionals can work within the sensory & therapy rooms at both schools, or even within the classroom setting, depending on the activity.
The Tampa area is so fortunate to have a program like New LEAPS Academy, with such a passionate and dedicated team behind it. Please contact New LEAPS Academy for any further additional information, and please share this post with others in the hopes it touches someone who is in need of a service like this.