Five Questions for Sally Hazelip and Ciaran Sontag of North Florida School of Special Education

By: Andrew Campanella

Sally Hazelip and Ciaran Sontag from the North Florida School of Special Education spoke with Andrew about the happiness at their school, where a new addition to the team, Zenbowie the therapy dog, has made a happy place even more joyful.

Read more and see more pictures of Zenbowie here.

Andrew Campanella: What was the inspiration behind the founding of the North Florida School of Special Education? What gave this school its start?

Zenbowie and students at North Florida School of Special Education

Sally Hazelip: Back in 1992, there were three or four families who had children that were born with intellectual differences. They wanted something different and something better for their children. And they banded together and decided to create the North Florida School. Now we’re in our twenty-seventh year.

Andrew: It seems that everyone at the school is really dedicated to inspiring students and to giving them what they need to pursue their own happiness. Is that part of your school’s culture?

Sally: In the last 10 years, we’ve been really intentional about strategic planning. Part of doing a strategic plan, you really begin to look at your mission and your vision and you also look at your core values. I think that our kids see things so differently and the way they respond in many instances, I think it’s very unconditional love that is really displayed, not only from our staff to our students but also from our students to us. Our school has really grown being very small and very self-contained to this really infectiously happy place where people come who have intellectual differences to learn, but people who are typical come in our doors to really learn from our students, and do that in a variety of different ways.

Ciaran Sontag: Looking at this community and seeing how profoundly our students impact the people in the community…sometimes it seems like they’re blindsided with how happy and how positive it is around campus. It really transforms the energy of the community. That’s been just incredible to see the impact that our students have.

Andrew: Tell me a more about how having hands-on learning opportunities for students, such as Berry Good Farms and your music programs, are beneficial?

Sally: Berry Good Farms has really helped students to learn where food comes from, to look at seeds and put them into dirt and watch things grow, and to learn to taste new things. It’s also given volunteers a real sense of purpose in coming out to the farm and working alongside our students and it has brought a lot of joy and happiness to our kids as well.

Ciaran: I have a lot of opportunities to take our students out into the community on collaborative musical performances. We’re currently working on a performance at the local church where our students will be able to sit in with a choir, and I’m already looking forward to seeing how our students will impact those people in the most unexpected ways.

Andrew: What does school choice mean for students at your school?

Sally: I have a son who has Down Syndrome. At age thirteen, I started looking for a school that would give him as much possibility as my other children who were entering high school at that time. So I wholeheartedly believe in school choice and I think our families are very thankful to our state government for the McKay and Gardiner scholarship programs. All of our kids receive some form of scholarship and it helps significantly with the tuition, and gives families a chance that they otherwise might not have had.

Andrew: What recommendation do you have for other schools in how to make the most out of National School Choice Week?

Ciaran: I would say do the dance! It’s a great, fun way to get your students and staff excited. Host a small flash mob and celebrate each other and spend some time together doing a fun dance. It’s easy, anyone can learn it, and the kids love it.

Sally: Creating an event at your school can get you local media coverage. We’ve had media coverage every year for something that we do during School Choice Week.

Find out more about the school, Zenbowie’s role, and the students’ relationship with him here.

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