ORLANDO – Renee Oliver started sending her children to St. Andrew Catholic School in 2004. At the time, it drew Catholic families from surrounding communities in the western part of Orlando. But it remained financially out of reach for many who lived nearby.
Over the years, that’s changed.
The nation’s largest private school choice program has enabled schools like St. Andrew to open their doors to hundreds of families who couldn’t previously afford tuition, including some from its predominantly black neighborhood of Pine Hills.
“The school community came to reflect the community that it was in,” Oliver said.
She had to support her family on a single income after an on-the-job injury forced her husband out of work. Tax credit scholarships helped her send three of her five children to St. Andrew.
When President Donald Trump came to visit the school on Friday, she told him similar options should be available to all families.
Started in 2002, the tax credit scholarship is administered by Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog and pays my salary. It helps nearly 98,000 students across Florida — and the vast majority of students at St. Andrew — attend private schools.
While he hasn’t backed a detailed plan, Trump made a pitch to expand similar programs across the country. Parents like Oliver joined him around a table with Sen. Marco Rubio. The president expressed interest in the lawmaker’s efforts to create a nationwide tax credit scholarship.
At one point, Trump turned to Denisha Merriweather, a Florida scholarship alumna he highlighted during his recent address to Congress.
“We want millions more to have the same chance to achieve the great success that you’re achieving, right now,” he said.
Latrina Peters-Gipson, St. Andrew’s principal, is a product of Catholic schools. She developed a love of education as a college student in New Orleans. Weeks into her first year as a full-time classroom professional, Hurricane Katrina struck. Her family lost almost everything. The storm destroyed the Hyatt hotel where her husband worked. The hotelier helped her family relocate to Orlando.
She took the job as principal at St. Andrew in February 2015. Since then, she’s tried to instill the college-going culture promoted by the Notre Dame ACE Academies.
As president witnessed on Friday, St. Andrew has become the kind of place where fourth-graders can tell a visiting dignitary about their plans to attend Boston University or Johns Hopkins.
“He saw that we really do strive on college being one of our goals,” Gipson said during an interview on the St. Andrew campus Friday evening.
Teachers like Stephanie Jean-Jacques, who also met with Trump, help reinforce that culture.
“We’re taking little steps that are showing [students] now what it’s like to be a scholar,” she said. “We’re showing them now that every little thing you do now will affect you later.”
Like many of her middle-school English students, Jean-Jacques is the daughter of Haitian immigrants.
She was a first-generation college student — something she expects many of her students will become. She’s heard them say: “‘Oh my God, she’s Haitian too!’ It makes them more excited to reach their goals, to go to college.”
Haitian immigrants often want their children to have educational opportunities they didn’t have themselves. On the island nation, Catholic schools enjoy a reputation for academic excellence.
Trump’s visit drew protests from residents of the predominantly black surrounding neighborhood. Community activist Robin Harris declared the president “officially evicted from Pine Hills.”
“We don’t like school choice,” she said during a rally captured on video by an Orlando Sentinel reporter. “We don’t need it. We don’t want it.”
Numbers suggest otherwise. Pine Hills overlaps with the 32808 ZIP Code. It’s home to more students using tax credit scholarships than any other in the state. A neighboring ZIP code, 32818, is home to the second-most. Nearly 2,200 scholarship students live in the two ZIP codes combined.
Some protesters who spoke after Harris said they had children who struggled in public schools, and even turned to alternatives like home schooling.
But they were still concerned scholarship programs would steer money away from public schools. Wendy Doromal, the president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, punctuated the argument, accusing the president of backing an “anti-public school agenda.”
Local Catholic leaders tried to address this concern. Gipson wrote in the Sentinel that she believes public and private schools can work together as partners. Henry Fortier, the school superintendent of the Diocese of Orlando, made the same point in a conversation with Trump.
During a press conference after Trump’s visit, James Herzog, who works on education policy for the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Catholic schools don’t exist in every community of the state. Florida students need good public-school options, too, he said — including district, charter and magnet schools.
Florida’s tax credit scholarship program serves some of the most disadvantaged students in the state. The typical parent using the program is a single mother earning less than $25,000 a year.
But Renee Oliver said she’s advanced her career, working in sales, since she first received a scholarship. As her income grows, the amount of scholarship money she can receive falls. That inspired part of her message for the president.
In interviews, she said middle-class families still face tough decisions if they want to enroll their children in schools like St. Andrew.
“It shouldn’t be a program just for lower-income [people] and the disadvantaged,” she said. “If you are a taxpaying citizen you should select a school of choice for your child.”
She said faith-based schools are the best option for some children.
“Our children are instructed in that faith on how to be kind, good neighbors and respect one another,” she said. “The overall goal is to develop someone that is going to be giving back to this society.”
Trump also heard the story of Marcus Millien, a St. Andrew alum and eleventh-grader at Bishop Moore Catholic High School. His mother missed the income cutoff for a school choice scholarship. She worked two jobs to help him afford a Catholic education. Millien is a three-sport athlete who volunteers in local soup kitchens.
He said he wanted the president to see a school that instilled civic virtues in his fellow students.
“I would say I’m a very community-oriented, family-oriented person,” he said in an interview. “St. Andrew helped me develop that.”
RedefinED Associate Editor Livi Stanford contributed photos and reporting.