American Federation for Children future leader Nanya Morris-El on the importance of role models in beating the odds

redefinED staff

Editor’s note: This profile is the third 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.

Ask Nanya Morris-El the secret of his success and he’ll respond without hesitation: powerful role models and a state scholarship that allowed him to attend a private school.

Both were crucial, he says. But if it hadn’t been for the scholarship, the role models would not have appeared in his life.

As one of six children, Nanya had become accustomed to going without the extras his peers enjoyed. His parents sometimes struggled to put food on the family’s table. There was no educational option for Nanya beyond his zoned public school, despite the fact it was overcrowded and didn’t always feel like a safe place.

Nanya had difficulty learning to read, and to comprehend what he was reading. He was held back in second grade, which only served to further undermine his confidence. By the end of fourth grade, he felt he was swimming against a strong current he was powerless to overcome.

“I was unable to receive the help and attention from teachers that I needed,” recalls Nanya, who is now 23. “Because I came from a lower income family and this elementary school was the only one in my school zone, I had to continue going there.”

Then his family learned about the education opportunities available to Nanya and his siblings through the state’s system of education choice scholarships. One, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, had a track record of assisting low-income families like Nanya’s by providing them with financial resources to send their children to private schools that could be a better fit for them.

Nanya started attending Academy Prep Center of Tampa and his life changed.

Among the resources available to him at Academy Prep was an additional English class that helped him with grammar and reading comprehension. He had the opportunity to go on field trips to museums that expanded his world. Most important, he established relationships with teachers who were willing to go out of their way to guide and nurture him.

One of those teachers was Regina Fuller, who introduced him to a book he still remembers fondly, “We Beat the Streets.” The book recounts the story of three boys growing up in a neighborhood choked with guns and gangs. The boys overcame these obstacles, went to college and became doctors.

“I started to learn that just because you’re in a challenging situation now, it doesn’t mean you can’t get ahead in life,” Nanya said.

Another mentor was his science teacher, Ralph Moore. Under Moore’s careful tutelage, Nanya reveled in hands-on activities that “went beyond the textbook” and kindled in him a love of science and nature.

Also on Nanya’s list of role models was Chris W. Altenbernd, a former appellate judge who had served more than 27 years on Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal. Nanya came to know Altenbernd in his role with the Greater Tampa Bay Area Council of Boy Scouts of America.

“He taught us how to tie knots and volunteer in the community,” Nanya recalls.

Nanya graduated from Academy Prep and earned a seat at highly competitive Jesuit High School in Tampa. He continued to excel academically and was accepted at Florida State University, where he majored in chemical engineering. He graduated in December, one semester ahead of schedule.

Now, he’s participating in General Electric’s Operations Management Leadership Program, which consists of three eight-month rotations that allow students to build leadership and functional skills through challenging assignments. He just finished a rotation at a healthcare manufacturing plant in Florence, South Carolina, and has moved on to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he’ll be immersed in the manufacture of X-ray imaging and CT scanners.

He’s also deeply involved in advocating for the type of education choice he says is responsible for getting him where he is today. As a member of the American Federation For Children’s Future Leaders Fellowship, Nanya travels the county meeting with families who struggle, as his did, with finding the best education options for their children. He writes op-eds for media outlets and talks to policymakers, all in an effort to dispel myths and spread the word about education choice.

For Nanya, this type of advocacy work has become second nature.

“Once I grasped its importance, I thought to myself, ‘If this is taken away, students just like me are not going to have the opportunity to go to a school like Academy Prep or Jesuit,’” he said. “You go to your public school, and if that doesn’t provide for your needs, that’s it. You just have to deal with it. I didn’t think that was the right way to go about it.”

For more information about scholarship programs administered by Step Up For Students, click here.

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