Friday Feature: Steps Learning Center

Colleen Hroncich

Alexandra Batista was ready to quit teaching. Over the years, she had taught at various schools geared toward autistic children, but she kept seeing the same pattern. Everything was academically based, and basic living skills the kids needed were left behind. “I felt like I was just doing a disservice to my kids,” she says. “It felt like a waste of time all around. They were wasting their time and not learning anything functional that would serve them any purpose when they grow up. And I was just frustrated wasting my time and spending countless hours just filling out paperwork and data that nobody really looks at or goes by.”

But Alexandra didn’t want to quit. “I love teaching. This is what I love,” she explains. “But I don’t love the school. I don’t like the education system.” Then she saw something called a microschool open near her house. She had no idea what it was, but she started looking into it. She realized she could open a learning center that wasn’t based on conventional standards.

“This is what I’m going to do. I am going to create a setting that is especially for the kids that are labeled mid‐ or low‐​functioning,” she decided. She would focus on helping them learn to be the most independent adults possible. “That’s what we’re going to teach. Because we want to give our kids the opportunity to have a better future than going to a group home or being abused as an adult. And that’s how Steps Learning Center came to be.”

Students at Steps Learning receive training in areas like life skills, home living, literacy, communication, and learning strategies. Alexandra started offering her services in August 2022 and officially became a microschool the following year. This past year she had twelve full‐​time students and five in her after‐​school program. Most of her students participate in Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship for Unique Abilities, an education savings account program.

The full‐​time program at Steps Learning meets Monday to Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. This year Alexandra welcomed kindergarten to grade 5, but she is extending to grade 8 next year. She’s also moving to a year‐​round schedule because it can be hard to re‐​establish the routine and expectations after the children are out for two months.

The after‐​school program is geared toward students who attend other schools and focuses on basic living skills and targets areas where the students need support. “For example, if they are not potty trained yet, we start working on that,” Alexandra says. “If they have AC [communication] devices, we bring out the device and we just give different situations where they use the device functionally. It might be just to choose between activities that they like. And they do some academics, but it’s like a 30‐​to‐​45‐​minute period just to reinforce basic skills and that’s it. Because they’ve been in school for six hours when they get here.”

Alexandra has been leasing a good‐​sized space that is two doors down from a nonprofit called OCA that provides services for children and adults with autism. Alexandra partners with OCA to use the organization’s playground and indoor gym. On Fridays, OCA does a special learning activity with the Steps Learning students. There’s also a public library across the street and the children go there for programming.

This summer she’s moving to a new standalone location with a nice backyard area that she’s excited about since it will give the kids better outdoor access. There’s a YMCA nearby, so she’s trying to arrange enrichment programs for the children there. She’s planning to sublet her current location, but if that doesn’t work out, she may be able to offer programming at both locations in the coming year.

Alexandra says parents are surprised and relieved to find out how simple she makes everything because they’re used to jumping through a lot of hoops in the school system. “It’s the reality of special education. You ask any parent and when they are getting ready for an IEP meeting, they are getting ready for a fight,” she says. “You have a child that you know will struggle in their life, and knowing that every year you need to have a fight so your child gets the minimum of what they need, that’s just draining.”

But Alexandra makes a point to create a welcoming environment. “That’s what we’re here for,” she explains. “Why am I going to make you go through loops and hoops to get your child in here? I want your child in here so we can construct something for them.” There is no one‐​size‐​fits‐​all in special education, she adds.

Alexandra participated in the KaiPod Catalyst program to help get Steps Learning Center up and running, and she’s extremely grateful for the support she’s received there. When she joined, she was already planning to open and already had her location. But the Catalyst program helped her navigate the ins and outs of running a business, provided templates for various documents, helped her create a handbook, and more.

“There is not one situation where I haven’t brought it up and they haven’t found a solution for me,” Alexandra says. She also appreciates that she’s now connected with all of the other Catalyst members, so they can offer each other advice and support as they continue their efforts. And if she ever decides to open a Steps Learning Center in another state, she has access to a network of colleagues who can help her get it going.

Creating her microschool has helped Alexandra rediscover her love of teaching while providing a supportive learning environment for children who urgently needed it.