BROOKSVILLE - Sara Scozzafava wasn't expecting much in 2006 when a fellow parent told her about the Step Up for Students scholarship program.
Like many parents she wanted her children to receive a faith-based education with smaller class sizes and more one-on-one time with teachers, Scozzafava said.
But to get that you have to pay for it. Tuition at her choice K-12 school, Hernando Christian Academy, ranges from $4,000 to $7,000 annually depending on grade level, according to the school's website, and Scozzafava wasn't trying to cover tuition for just one child.
"It's expensive," she said, but she set aside an hour to dig up copies of her tax returns, and sent them off in the mail with an application and a prayer.
Three months later an approval letter was in her mailbox, and now all three of Scozzafava's children attend the private school with the scholarship, and have since kindergarten, she said.
"I'm just thrilled with it," said Scozzafava. "It's an opportunity to put your kids in when otherwise you wouldn't be able to ... and I know a lot of people I've talked to thought they probably wouldn't qualify and whatnot, but it's definitely worth looking into before you just assume you can't get anything."
With about 71 percent of middle and elementary students in Hernando County qualifying for free or reduced lunch, the vast majority may be eligible under Step Up for Students scholarship guidelines to receive up to $4,763 in private school tuition, or $500 for travel expenses to attend another public school, typically in another county.
The Step Up for Students scholarship program, created with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2001 by the Florida Legislature, was budgeted to provide $286 million in Tax Credit Scholarships this year to K-12 students from low-income families.
The state estimates the average scholarship award for 2014-15 - the next application period - will be even greater at $4,491 per student per year, with 90 percent of those scholarships being awarded based on income factors.
"I think a lot of parents don't know Step Up for Students is available," said Maria Rybka, principal of Entirety K-12 in Brooksville, which is one of 11 private co-ed schools in Hernando participating in the program. "That's good information for parents and the general public, that it's something they're eligible for, and could be good for their students."
Rybka, who previously served as principal at Chocachatti Elementary, said Entirety K-12 has a reputable program for students with learning disabilities, particularly dyslexia.
But there are a variety of students at the school, she said, which appealed to many parents for its smaller class sizes, safe environment and different teaching and learning methodologies.
"We do see a lot of growth," Rybka said of the handful of Step Up scholarship students there. "Students will come in sometimes unable to talk at a young age, but (the dyslexia program director) really works with them to get that learning going and see improvements in math and reading, but generally we see a lot of improvement and growth."
Step Up scholarship students in third through 10th grades are required to take a nationally norm-referenced test approved by the state, according to Step Up, and scholarship students' academic gains in reading and math are measured and reported by a research team with the University of Florida.
Those measures are in place to ensure accurate reporting of private schools to the state, of which 99 percent were in compliance last year, as well as to generate accurate comparisons in learning gains to those in the public school system.
This summer, the UF research team reported between 25 and 30 percent of scholarship students showed improvements in individual reading and math scores between 2010-11 and 2011-12.
The report also shows new program participants eligible for free lunch in the 2011-12 school year scored an average of 2.5 percentage points higher than eligible nonparticipants.
Past reports support the trend that the typical scholarship student more frequently maintains his or her relative scoring position than other students nationwide, and not just students from low-income families.
Private schools such as Hernando Christian Academy refund all payments made toward a new school year should a student not qualify for financial aid, its website states.
And now that Step Up's scholarship application process is mostly online, new applicants can expect to know if they've been approved in about a month - or even sooner for those like Scozzafava who are reapplying, she said.
"You still have to go back and enter your current financial information, but they save your previous information, so you don't have to re-enter everything," Scozzafava said.
Scholarships are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, giving priority to renewal families, so new applicants are encouraged to apply as early as possible. New families can apply for the 2014-15 year beginning in February.
For more information or to apply, go to www.step upforstudents.org
To initially receive a scholarship, a student's household income cannot exceed 185 percent of the poverty line, which is the standard for free or reduced lunch.
Districtwide, about 65 percent of all Hernando students receive free or reduced lunch, with the vast majority of elementary and middle school students receiving free lunch, which requires income at or below 130 percent of the poverty line.
This age group also represents most of the 59,674 Step Up scholarships awarded this school year, as in past years, with more than 42 percent in grades K-2 and 71 percent in grades K-5.
By law the scholarships are based on financial need, not how well a child performs in school, the organization states; although state-commissioned research shows scholarship students tend to be among the lowest-performing students at their prior schools.
Scholarships also are not based on whether a student's public school is judged as succeeding or failing, but whether the funding would help students at a disadvantage in modern education, or who learn better through different teaching methods practiced at another public or private school.
More than 331,000 scholarships have been awarded so far to low-income students in grades K-12 since 2002, state data shows, and there are 1,414 participating private schools in Florida, of which 71 percent are faith-based.
There are 11 co-ed schools in Hernando County that participate in the program, which include Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, nondenominational Christian and non-faith-based schools, according to Florida Department of Education data.