Our Vision

Our vision is to be a source of inspiration for special and unique scholars.

Our Mission

To provide ESE scholars with the opportunity to become knowledgeable and productive members of society through a curriculum that promotes academic and social growth.

Our Purpose

To facilitate access to behavioral, speech, and tutoring services within the educational setting, encourage well-being, and maximize their academic growth.

Our Transition Program


A transition program is offered to third and fourth year high schoolers, and adults up to age 22, to gain knowledge, explore different career options and practice life skills through internships. There are several pathways to choose from and can be tailored to meet the students’ specific goals.

"Not just monetizing skills, but learning how to integrate oneself into the community in a positive way."

Students will learn adult competencies and skill development, such as daily living skills, basic employment skills, and community integration.Eligible students are coached through the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test (PERT), a college placement test, and may enroll in a "wraparound" model in the Dual Enrollment program for no cost, including books, at Polk State College. They may choose to begin earning college credits and/or complete their AA degree before graduating from high school. (ESE students may remain in school until they are 22 years old and retain their scholarship.)

Our Curriculum


The curriculum adheres to the Florida B.E.S.T. Standards for Math and English Language Arts (ELA) and the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards (NGSSS) in Science and Social Studies. Standards-based learning is important for our exceptional education students because it keeps them on track for high school graduation; however, LIfL students are not required to meet the Florida Assessment requirements.

Student report cards reflect standards-driven classroom instruction in ELA, Math, Science, and Social Studies, keeping students aligned with their functioning level similarly to their peers. Since Reading is essential to learning across all curriculums, all students are initially tested in a small environment using a reading program, STAR Assessment, with a proven track record of determining their strengths and weaknesses in basic phonics, vocabulary, and comprehension.

Students’ growth is measured three times a year through a Florida state-approved progress monitoring tool called STAR Assessments. After each test, students access an individualized recommended lesson path to bridge their learning gaps and bring them closer to grade level.


Leadership Team

Donna Lee Buckner M.S.

Founder / President / Principal

My journey in education wasn't a linear path, but it all stemmed from witnessing a need, even as a  student. As I observed exceptional needs students, particularly those from underserved communities, navigate the public school system, a frustration grew within me. The impersonal environment, limited resources, and a one-size-fits-all approach left me yearning for a more individualized and nurturing space.

Fueled by a deep belief in every child's potential, I embarked on a journey to make education accessible to all. I dedicated 30 years to the Polk County Public School system, and it equipped me with the knowledge and experience to make a difference. I had many roles within the academic community, from education to administration. During my tenure I was active on many Florida Department of Education committees for the advancement of the public education system. I was a member of the Florida Educational Research Association (FERA) for over ten years as the President and member of the Board of Trustees. Witnessing the profound impact tailored learning had on special needs students solidified my vision. The community, I realized, desperately needed a school that offered a "hand up," not just a handout.

That's how Lakeland Institute for Learning came to be. It wasn't just a school I founded; it was my dream manifested. Here, students with diverse learning styles and backgrounds could flourish in a supportive and inclusive environment. As the principal, I strive to be more than just an administrator; I'm a champion, a mentor, and a beacon of hope for my students. My unwavering dedication and infectious enthusiasm, I believe, foster a space where exceptional needs aren't limitations, but unique strengths waiting to be unlocked. Principal might be my title, but to my students, I'm simply Mrs. Buckner – the architect of a future where every child has the opportunity to thrive.

  • A thirty-year veteran of the Florida Public School, charter school, and private school systems
  • Completed her undergraduate work at Villa Maria College in Erie, PA
  • Completed her Master’s in Educational Leadership and Doctorate (ABD) in Organizational Leadership at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, FL
“It has always been in my heart to help those students who need a hand-up in education. I strive to ensure ALL students are provided the opportunity to be successful in both school and later adulthood.”

Donelle Brewer

Vice Principal

I have been an administrator at LIfL for three years, after serving as an eleven year veteran teacher of Polk County Public Schools, where I was honored to earn Teacher of the Year at Griffin Elementary in 2014. Over the years I taught 2nd, 4th, and 5th grades and was selected yearly as one of the top 30% Reading/Language Arts teachers in the state. I earned my Master of Education in Educational Leadership from the University of South Florida, and became a member of the Florida Association of School Administrators (FASA). I hold a Practitioner 2(P) Certificate with Professional Crisis Management (PCM).MyFlorida Educator Certificate includes: Elementary Education (K-6), Educational Leadership (All Levels), Reading and an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Endorsements.

Throughout my years in the public school system, I observed a growing emphasis on standardized testing and state-driven curriculum. While these measures have their place, I felt a yearning to provide a more individualized learning environment. I noticed that some students, particularly those with exceptional needs, struggled within this framework. It sparked a deep desire in me to bridge that gap. Now, in my role as vice principal, I have the privilege of ensuring students receive the foundational skills they need to demonstrate progress and build confidence. This personalized approach empowers them to move forward without feeling limited by their exceptional needs.

Adrianna Rivera

Officer of Admissions and Student Support Services

My personal journey has provided me with a nuanced understanding of neurodiversity. Throughout my own academic years, I navigated the challenges associated with undiagnosed ADHD. While I achieved academic success, I often felt like the existing support systems weren't tailored to address my specific learning needs.

This experience, combined with being a parent of a neurodivergent child, has fueled a strong desire to advocate for and empower others facing similar challenges. My studies in developmental psychology have equipped me to truly grasp the unique challenges faced by those with special needs.Currently, I serve a dual role at the Lakeland Institute for Learning, a school dedicated to supporting students with exceptional needs (ESE). As the Officer of Admissions, I have the privilege of welcoming students and families into a supportive environment. Additionally, heading the Student Support Services department allows me to champion resources and programs that empower these students to thrive.

At the heart of my work lies a fervent belief: every child is capable of achieving great things. In the right setting, with tailored support and understanding, ESE students can truly blossom. I am honored to be a part of the journey to understanding and empowerment, to create a space where neurodiverse students know they are seen, heard, and valued for their unique strengths and contributions.

Teresa (Tere) Vázquez Martinez

Director of Community Development

Teresa pioneered the founding of the Lakeland Institute for Learning and is most known by her friends and close associates as a person who inspires others to follow their dreams. Since its founding she has served as the treasurer on the LIfL Board of Trustees. Mrs. Martinez  began her career as a Spanish teacher at Lakeland High School.

Her family emigrated from Cuba in 1970 to Central Florida. She is a published author of Success in Exile, a book that showcases other families who also fled from their homeland. Tere has been an active member of  Polk State College Board of Trustees since 2009, where she has served as the Chair and Vice Chair. She is the founder and President of the Institute of Spanish Communications, Inc., and serves as Publisher/Editor in Chief of ¡Viva Polk! magazine. 

She currently sits on the Polk Vision Executive Board  and has served on the boards of the Lakeland Area Chamber of Commerce, the Central Florida Speech and Hearing Center, the Imperial Symphony Orchestra, and Heart of Florida Regional Medical Center, and is a graduate of Leadership Lakeland and Leadership Polk.

From the Blog

Empowering Young Minds - Why Lakeland Institute for Learning?
Want to read more? View Full Blog Archive →

Upcoming Events

Seniors Last Day
HOLIDAY (Memorial Day) STUDENT, Teacher, and Staff
Award Ceremony for grades 3-11
Last Day for Students - Student Early Dismissal

We Have Sports!

Extra-curricular experiences, similar to a traditional school, include sports, fall festival, homecoming, themed dances, Fun Fridays, student clubs, student council, field trips and prom.

This allows students to develop socially in real life scenarios. Parent participation is required through volunteer hours and by choice.