American Federation For Children future leader Nathan Cunneen on second chances, counting blessings

redefinED staff

Nathan Cunneen

Editor’s note: This profile is the first in a series featuring former Florida Tax Credit Scholarship recipients who are included in the 2020 cohort of the American Federation for Children’s Future Leaders Fellowship.

In hindsight, Nathan Cunneen recognizes the decision he made to leave his small private school for the vastness of his neighborhood public school was the worst mistake of his short life.

But after eight years at Tabernacle Christian School in Bradenton, where he attended on a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, he wanted to play football. He persuaded his parents to let him transfer.

He knew almost immediately it was a bad call.

“It really hit me the first time a teacher didn’t know my name,” said Nathan, who is now 21. “I remember going up to a teacher’s desk and having him look at me like, ‘Who is this kid?’ I was so used to having my teachers know me on a personal basis, knowing all the kids in my class.”

With no one there to give him the nudge he needed to do his best, it wasn’t long before he started slacking off. He realized he could do his homework in class the day it was due and still get a decent grade. Even though his workload was light, his grades started to slip.

He was fortunate that after two years, his parents once again were able to secure a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship so he could return to private school, this time Bradenton Christian School. He felt a huge relief right away.

“I remember administrators and teachers making an effort to get to know the new kid, to make sure I was comfortable,” he said.

Now, as he finishes his senior year at Loyola University Maryland where he’s working on a degree in economics and global studies, Nathan is counting his blessings.

“Those final two years back in private school not only set me up to go to college, they also set me up for my professional career,” he said.

He also learned the importance of sharing with others the benefits of a private school education, courtesy of Florida’s robust education choice scholarship programs. When invited, he jumped at the chance to become an education choice advocate for the American Federation for Children, a national nonprofit that seeks to empower families, especially lower-income families, with the freedom to choose the best K-12 education for their children.

He became a member of the organization’s Future Leaders Fellowship, a 12-month advocacy training program for graduates of publicly created K-12 private school choice programs. A key component of the program is identifying and developing tomorrow’s leaders in the education choice movement.

Along with a dozen other young people from across the country who comprise the 2020 cohort, Nathan has had the opportunity to engage with elected officials and learn the potential for education choice to expand through policy change. He’s written – and has had the joy of seeing published – several opinion pieces in national outlets such as the National Examiner and Education Post. And he’s done “a fair bit” of interviews with local and national radio hosts.

“The program was built on the idea that we’re all recipients of school choice scholarships ourselves,” Nathan said. “We feel the argument for school choice is bolstered by that fact. We’re not talking about facilitating a better education for kids in the abstract; we were those kids just a few years ago.”

Looking into the future, Nathan sees himself in the political arena, possibly as an elected official. But his heart – and his ambition – will stay rooted in the education choice advocacy field.

“I can’t imagine not working in this space in one capacity or another long term,” he said.

He credits his family for always backing him and for allowing him to pursue his dreams. He understands that it’s because of their sacrifice and effort that he is only the second in his immediate family to attend a four-year university. Soon, he will be the first member of his family to be a college graduate.

“My parents have worked extremely hard to give me these opportunities,” he said. “As much as I want to be successful for myself, I want to be successful for my family as well.”

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