Author Archive | Lisa A. Davis

Thanks to “voucher,” girl and great-grandma find a school that’s like family

Editor’s note: Every month, Step Up For Students – which co-hosts this blog – profiles a family that benefits from Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. Here’s the latest:



Vivian Calhoun is raising a princess. She didn’t plan on it, but it’s working out just fine.

She gets to give and receive lots of hugs and kisses from her 6-year-old great-granddaughter, Anastasia, who came into the world to parents who couldn’t take care of her. But with Vivian’s help, the young girl is living much more of a fairy tale than was ever expected.

“She thinks she’s a princess,” Vivian said with a chuckle. “If you ask, she’ll tell you she’s royalty.”

Anastasia’s mother wasn’t able to care for her and her father has never really been a part of her life, Vivian said. And Anastasia’s grandmother, Vivian’s daughter, had problems of her own, so the great-grandmother did the only thing she could: Become Anastasia’s guardian and only true parental figure.

“It was an easy decision,” Vivian said.

Still, Vivian, 68 and a widow after 35 years of marriage, lives on her disability checks. She had to retire from working as a manager for staffing company because back surgery left her with permanent nerve damage. She gets less than $200 monthly from the state to help with Anastasia and does all she can to make the money stretch, she said. But seeing the effects of drugs and violence up close with loved ones, she wanted to ensure that Anastasia had a safe learning environment, and received individualized attention in smaller classrooms in a place that could instill similar values as Vivian was trying to teach at home. She also wanted Anastasia to feel like people at school were an extension of her family.

Vivian yearned to send Anastasia to a local private school that matched these needs, but she didn’t have the financial means until a neighbor told her about Step Up For Students, Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program that helps send low-income Florida students to private K-12 schools or out-of-district public schools.

During the 2011-12 school year, Anastasia started kindergarten at Christ’s Church Academy, formerly called Mandarin Christian School, in Jacksonville and is now 6 and in the first grade.

“Everybody is just so wonderful. It’s been smooth sailing,” Vivian said of the school and Anastasia’s adjustment to school life. “She’s so happy and doing so well.”

Anastasia loves CCA so much, her great grandmother said, that she doesn’t like school vacations and early dismissal days.

“She doesn’t want to leave the school, and that tells me a lot about the school,” Vivian said. Continue Reading →

Private school “vouchers” give siblings fresh start, new foundation

Editor’s note: Every month, Step Up For Students profiles a family that benefits from Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. This month it’s the Jenkins family of Tampa.

Sharla Jenkins and her family at school.

Sharla and Donald Jenkins are raising six children, but less than a year ago, they were parents of two.

After relatives wound up in a personal crisis, Sharla and Donald became guardians to their three nieces and nephew. With all of the children ages 9 and under, including one active 3-year-old boy, her life is busier than ever– and the family’s home is louder for sure.

On Oct. 18, the courts finalized the arrangement. Sharla and Donald are now permanent legal guardians to their nieces and nephew, but would love to one day take it a step further and adopt the children. In the meantime, the new additions to the family are treated like they have always been a part of the Jenkins’ clan. For Sharla, that meant providing all the school-aged children with an education that she felt suited the children best.

All five are now Step Up For Students scholars attending Bible Truth Ministries Academy in Tampa, a small private school serving pre-K through eighth grade children. Even Demarcus, the 3-year-old, attends preschool there.

“There was no way I could afford to send them to private school,” said Sharla, who is a full-time volunteer at the school where she teaches and even fills in for the principal when she’s away. Her husband’s income supports the now large family.

The couple’s biological children, Sarah, 9, and Elijah, 7, have been attending Bible Truth since they were in preschool.  And it was important to them that their nieces and nephew got the same education.

“It’s a more personal environment of say being in a classroom with 35 kids,” Sharla said, adding that the average classroom size at Bible Truth is 16 students. “The teachers know how to better help them.”

The second part, she said, was especially important with the new youngsters who now share her home. Continue Reading →

‘It was always my dream to put my kids through private education’

Davion Manuel-McKenney

Davion Manuel-McKenney

Editor’s note: Behind all the debate, real kids benefit from school choice, whether it’s a voucher, a tax credit scholarship, a charter school or a more traditional public school choice option like a magnet school or career academy. Here’s but one example: Davion Manuel-McKenny, who was profiled this month by the Step Up For Students marketing team. 

Davion Manuel-McKenney was just weeks away from starting his new life as a college student when he was flipping through a family photo album and came across an image of his mother and him from many years ago. In the photo, the toddler is perched atop his mother’s lap, her arms are wrapped around his tiny body.  And both flash electric smiles.

The reminiscing inspired Davion to post the photograph on his Facebook page with a note to his mother: “We have come a long way. Love U Ma.”

In the beginning, the odds to attend college weren’t in his favor if only the basic facts of his life were considered. He was born to an unwed teenaged mother, who at the time hadn’t completed her own education. But with the love of his mother and family, the determination that was in their genes and the help of many along the way, Davion is now a freshman at Florida State College at Jacksonville.

A younger Davion and his mom

A younger Davion and his mom

“There was never a doubt I would go to college,” Davion said during a telephone interview from the new apartment he now shares with three roommates.

Both mother and son said they were saddened to have Davion move about 85 miles north of his home in Ormond Beach, but it was time for him to live out what they have been working toward since his mother, Faith, was just 15. Faith Manuel’s first name seems to guide her. While she became pregnant at age 14 and gave birth at 15, she remained hopeful it would all workout. She married Davion’s father, Nicholas McKenney, and they went on to have two more children. While the couple’s marriage didn’t last, their dedication to their children remained intact and does today. Still, for Faith, the financial struggles that often come with being a single mother were very much a challenge, and when it came time for her eldest child to go to middle school, Faith didn’t like what she saw. Continue Reading →