MOUNT PLEASANT - Stephanie Cecil couldn't find a North Carolina public school that fit the needs of her autistic, epileptic son who also has a mood disorder.

Want to donate to one of the four scholarship funding organizations? Want to apply for a scholarship for a special needs student to attend a private school? These four scholarship funding organizations can provide more information.

Advance Carolina, Inc. in Columbia: (803) 798-7558.

Palmetto Kids FIRST Scholarship Program, Inc. in Mount Pleasant: (843) 501-1842.

St. Thomas Aquinas Scholarship Funding Organization in Charleston: (843) 853-2130 ex. 231.

South Carolina Corporate Coalition for Community Service in Columbia: (803) 661-2977.

Source: S.C. Education Oversight Committee

She searched across the country for the right school, and she found Trident Academy, a K-8 grades private school in Mount Pleasant that caters to students who have disabilities such as dyslexia, ADHD, Asperger's syndrome or high-functioning autism.

She and her 7-year-old son, Aiden Clark, moved last fall to South Carolina to see whether the school would be a good place for him.

"It has been a life saver," Cecil said. "His social skills are completely different from a year ago. He can talk with other kids, and his behaviors are well under control. He's made so much progress in the short amount of time that he's been there. We've been very thankful for that."

Aiden was the first student in the Lowcountry to receive a $10,000 scholarship to the $27,000 per year school as a result of the state's new private school choice program.

Students with disabilities who want to attend private schools can receive up to $10,000 as part of the program that went into effect Jan. 1.

For the first time, state law allows residents to receive tax credits for donations toward scholarships for special needs students. The donations can be made to one of four scholarship-granting organizations, and those groups dole out money to eligible students to attend private schools.

Controversial program

The tax credit scholarship program has been controversial because some see it as a first step toward the state expanding private school choice with public money. Others are supportive because they say parents deserve choice beyond public schools.

The program was approved for only one year, and lawmakers will have to decide whether to extend it past its June 30 expiration. Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, who chairs the K-12 education subcommittee, said the program probably will be extended as part of the 2014-15 budget, and there may be efforts to make it permanent.

He said he hasn't heard any conversations about expanding the program to other students or raising the tax credit cap, but he said "that's going to be the next battle."

"I think those who are behind the program want to make sure it's a success and it's done properly, and they will try to build on that in the future," he said.

Support for the program has been across the board and bipartisan, and he said the only concern he's heard is the fear that this will lead to vouchers or tax credits for at-risk students. But many school districts recognize specialty private schools can do a better job with students with disabilities than anyone else, he said.

Jeff Davis is one of the volunteers behind Palmetto Kids FIRST, one of the four organizations that have been authorized to receive donations and award scholarships.

Davis said his is a nonpartisan group, but he would like to see the program renewed and the $8 million tax credit cap raised to $15 million or $20 million.

"As the information gets out there, we're getting more and more applications every day," he said. "We see the momentum growing."

The tax credits will be administered on a first-come, first- serve basis. An estimated $7.4 million is available for 2014 tax returns, according to the state Department of Revenue.

Getting started

The program has had a few hiccups as it started, and the four scholarship funding organizations didn't begin to operate until Jan. 13.

The state Education Oversight Committee initially interpreted state statute to mean it needed to ensure the nonprofits met specific requirements, but the committee later learned it didn't need to do so, said Melanie Barton, executive director of the committee. That means no organization has evaluated those four groups to see whether they have met the requirements in state statute.

"I told (lawmakers) 'If you want more accountability and to make sure the (scholarship funding organizations) are meeting the definition in the (budget) proviso, then you need to consider who in the state would do that,'" she said.

Some scholarship funding organizations also have decided to wait to hand out scholarships until the state can guarantee donors will get credit, and lawmakers are working on a bill to do that. The state Department of Revenue has provided formal tax credit "approval" letters, and that is enough for at least one of those groups to continue accepting donations and awarding scholarships.

Davis at Palmetto Kids FIRST said lawmakers' intention is to protect donors, and his group has ensured its donors received the necessary paperwork for their donation.

His group has distributed 61 scholarships worth $450,000 for students attending schools statewide.

Helping local students

Clark's class at Trident Academy has five students in it, and each student receives intensive therapies that are tailored to their individual needs.

His class was practicing "skip counting," or counting in increments. After doing a worksheet, Clark's class went to the gym and practiced the concept by hopping among pads that were labeled in multiples of five while saying the numbers aloud. Clark jumped so fast across the pads that he finished before he could say the number sequence. He played with the other boys in his class as they traveled across the pads.

School officials say they've seen a dramatic improvement in Clark's social interactions and behavior since he started this past fall. He had been quick to react and show aggression, but that hasn't happened in months, they said.

"We're not seeing the same Aiden," said Nicole McLain, program director for the school's Asperger's and high-functioning autism programs.

Trident Academy has been so good for Clark that Cecil and her husband, Mark, have rearranged their lives so he could be there. They're living in a travel trailer in a campground while they try to sell their house in North Carolina. Mark's employer also has agreed to open up a satellite office locally so he can be with his family.

Cecil has been a stay-at-home mom, and that has enabled her to be present for doctor's appointments and therapies. If her son hadn't received the $10,000 scholarship, she said she would've had to look for part-time or full-time work to help cover the cost of tuition.

"We were concerned if we didn't receive the scholarship what we were going to have to do," she said.

She said she's hopeful that her son eventually will be able to transition into another public or private school, and she's grateful for a place where he can learn to function with other developing children.

Kathy Cook, the head of Trident Academy, said the school had eight students enroll since January, and that represents a nearly 20 percent increase in its overall student population. Part of the reason those students enrolled can be attributed to the scholarships, she said.

She said she wants people to understand how important the scholarships are to prospective students who need the services that the school offers.

"(Without it), our students are going to flounder," she said.

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.