Charter school grad thrives at FSU despite horrific past

Geoff Fox

Zoe Jenkins, pictured with her Great Pyrenees, Lady, overcame a difficult childhood but now looks forward to a promising future.

NEW PORT RICHEY, Florida – Warrior.

That’s the word inscribed on a shaft of arrows Zoe Jenkins recently had tattooed on the inside of her left arm. It perfectly describes the 19-year-old Florida State University student.

“She designed it herself; it reflects the struggles she’s been through and how she’s come out on top,” said Bonnie Hansen, Zoe’s grandmother. “I’m amazed at how well she’s handled everything.”

Zoe is on pace to earn a bachelor’s degree in information technology at FSU by May 2020. Her future wasn’t always so bright. She continues to struggle to heal the wounds of a horrific childhood that left her with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If not for Hansen, who became her legal guardian, and the dedicated educators at Dayspring Academy, an independent New Port Richey charter school where she became its inaugural valedictorian in 2018, her path may have been much different.

On a recent weekday, she reflected on her troubled past, her fulfilling present, and what appears to be a promising future.

“My first year at FSU went pretty good,” she said.

The self-effacing 19-year-old had understated her academic performance in Tallahassee, a roughly four-hour drive from her New Port Richey home.

Zoe Jenkins, right, and her grandmother, Bonnie Hansen, during a visit to Florida State University, where Zoe is on track to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in information technology.

Pressed to elaborate, she said: “I got all A’s and one A-minus. It was just a big change, moving away and not really having anyone there. Eventually, I made two really good friends and have a group of people I enjoy being around.”

This summer, she is taking a brief break from FSU, working part-time in the technical department at Calvary Chapel Worship Center in New Port Richey and spending time with her grandmother. It’s a well-earned breather.

To imply that her childhood was jarring is an understatement on par with Zoe’s academic self-assessment.

She was partially raised in a household marked by chaos and occasional violence.  She has personally seen neither of her divorced parents in ages, although last year she saw her father on an episode of “Live PD,” a popular A&E program that follows police officers from around the country. She watched as her father was pulled over and about to do meth in the crime-riddled Moon Lake community in Pasco County; her younger brother Camryn was in the passenger seat.

Zoe has not seen her mother, who also struggles with substance abuse, in years, although they recently had brief contact.

“I told my mom that if she wanted to have a relationship with me, she has to prove to me that she’s not doing drugs or alcohol,” she said. “She said I should accept her as she is.”

For a brief moment, her voice trembled.

Then, she added: “She clearly didn’t want to see me enough to stop.”

Zoe doesn’t want any contact with her father, and Camryn, 17, has been missing for over a year.

“He’s run away so many times that he’s not a high priority” for law enforcement, Zoe said.

Before living with her grandmother, troubles at home contributed to struggles at her traditional neighborhood school, where teachers told Hansen that Zoe would probably always have academic difficulties, especially with reading.

That’s when Hansen said Zoe’s father did one positive thing: He allowed her to enroll at Dayspring, which she entered in sixth grade.

Zoe was quick to credit her grandmother for much of her turn-around in life, and the educators at Dayspring for providing a nurturing environment where she made spectacular academic gains.

(A pre-K-12, arts-based charter, Dayspring was founded in 2000 by John Legg, a former Florida state senator and representative, and his wife Suzanne. John Legg serves on Step Up For Students’ Board of Directors. Step Up hosts this blog.)

When Zoe graduated from Dayspring in 2018 with a 4.5 GPA, she was taking dual enrollment classes at Pasco-Hernando State College and was one credit shy of earning an associate in arts degree, which she completed last summer.

Her tuition to FSU is paid through the state Department of Children and Families. Zoe qualified for free tuition because she was an 18-year-old student in the custody of a relative.

Hansen, who struggled to cope without Zoe at home during her first year at FSU, is understandably proud of her granddaughter. When the two are separated by over 200 miles of Florida highway, they regularly connect on FaceTime.

Hansen acknowledged that both she and Dayspring educators have helped change Zoe’s life, but added that if not for Zoe’s own fierce determination, she could be in a much different place.

“She still goes back and visits Dayspring sometimes,” Hansen said. “She loves the people there, and she recently spoke to this year’s graduating class.”

It was an inspiring speech delivered by a young woman with a warrior’s spirit.

“Zoe doesn’t quit; she doesn’t ever give up,” Hansen said. “She’ll always succeed. She likes a challenge. I couldn’t be more proud of her.”

Here is a previous story on Zoe:

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