Zoe Jenkins hasn’t seen her mother or father in person in years. But a few months ago, she saw her father on TV.
On a crime show.
The 18-year-old was watching “Live PD,” a popular A&E program that follows police officers from around the country, often during nighttime patrols. This episode was being shot in Moon Lake, a blighted, crime-ridden community in Pasco County, Florida.
The camera zoomed in on a man being questioned by officers. It was her dad, about to do meth in a car, with her brother in the passenger seat.
“I had to do a double take,” Zoe said. “It was just crazy.”
Zoe’s life has been filled with shockers. Her mom struggles with alcohol. Her 16-year-old brother, the one in the car with Dad, is missing. Her childhood was marked with so much chaos and violence she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Yet this may be the biggest shocker of all: Zoe has risen above. The young woman with the contagious smile just graduated as her school’s inaugural valedictorian, with a GPA above 4.5. Through dual enrollment classes at nearby Pasco-Hernando State College, she finished high school one credit shy of an associate degree. And this fall, she’ll attend Florida State University, where she plans to major in information technology.
The difference maker? Dayspring Academy, a PreK-12 charter school in New Port Richey that puts an emphasis on the arts and accelerated academics. Zoe says it transformed her from a troubled girl who struggled to read into a decorated student with boundless potential.
“We give personal attention to all our students. We invest as much in them as they allow us to,” said Dayspring’s principal, Tim Greenier. “They’re here because their parents wanted something different – a choice. There’s nothing wrong with (district) schools, but they wanted something different and sought us out.”
It was Zoe’s grandmother, Bonnie Hansen, who made the decision. But for all his flaws, her father agreed. “The one good thing her dad did,” said Hansen, who has raised Zoe since ninth grade.
Zoe doesn’t remember much of her childhood. Thanks to PTSD, memories typically come to her in dreams and flashbacks. Visions of a bike ride to the park with her brother, Camryn. A random conversation. Her dad, yelling at her.
From the incident broadcast on TV, Zoe’s father was arrested for possession of methamphetamine and child neglect. Her brother was subsequently removed from Dad’s custody and sent to a group home in Tampa. He ran away from the facility in January and is now missing.
“He could be anywhere,” Zoe said.
So could her mother. Zoe said she doesn’t know where he mother lives. She said her drinking issues grew more serious as her marriage unraveled.
“Before, she always made sure we got fed and showered, but as we got older, she would start drinking earlier and earlier,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone. “One time, she passed out before we got out of school, so we had to get another ride home.”
Turbulence at home spilled over into school. At her neighborhood district school, Zoe’s grades began to tumble. Her grandmother, who works in a dental office, got her math and reading tutors, but they said Zoe would probably always need academic help.
An independent charter school, Dayspring was founded in 2000 by John Legg, a former Florida state senator and representative, and his wife Suzanne. (Full disclosure: John Legg serves on the board of directors for Step Up For Students, a scholarship funding organization that employs the author of this story.)
This year, the school serves 735 students, about half of them eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch. Despite the challenging demographics, it has been A-rated by the state since 2013 and now has a waiting list of 1,100 families.
Zoe enrolled in sixth grade, and in the beginning was quiet and reserved.
“She was very determined, even then, but you could tell she had faced her share of adversity,” Greenier said. “As she got more comfortable here, she just exploded. She started to open up and trust people, and she made friends. Her personality really grew.”
Greenier described Dayspring as an “arts charter.” The school puts a premium on music, visual arts, dance and theater, to allow kids to be creative, express themselves and grow in confidence.
“Here, we show you that it’s cool to be part of the arts,” he said. “It’s OK to be smart and want to try and be part of musical theater – even if you’ve never danced before. The arts help open people up to other things.”
Besides helping develop her interest in computers, the school instilled in Zoe a deeper love of music. She has been playing guitar for several years and recently began learning piano. For her, emotional therapy can come in the form of learning guitar licks by British musician Ed Sheeran.
Dayspring also puts many of its students on a rigorous academic path. Most eighth-graders, for example, complete geometry. By 10th grade, math students either take Advanced Placement calculus or pre-calculus. The school also helps many of its students register for the dual enrollment classes.
“The students are asked to send us weekly updates on their grades, so if the grades slip, we know immediately and can work to address whatever issues there are,” Greenier said.
Zoe thrived in this environment. She said the teachers simply seemed to care more at Dayspring than at her previous school. Although the work was more rigorous, she said she grew to appreciate it.
“At my old school, we never had one spelling test in the fifth grade – because we had Google,” she said. “The teachers here helped me more. By seventh grade, I was doing ninth-grade math and eighth-grade English. They pushed me more and there was more interaction with us. They invest more time with each student.”
Zoe’s accomplishments have allowed her to put her upbringing in perspective. She harbors negative feelings about her father, but hopes her mother can get sober for good so they can communicate again.
In the meantime, though, she feels good about the direction of her life.
“You can’t change the past,” she said with a shrug.
But with help, you can change the future.
About Florida’s charter schools
Florida is home to more than 650 public charter schools in 46 of its 67 districts. They enroll more than 280,000 students, 62 percent of whom are black or Hispanic. More than half qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches. As of September 2017, the state classified 171 charter schools as academically high-performing. More information is available from the Florida Department of Education.