Editor’s note: During this holiday season, redefinED is republishing our best articles of 2019 – those features and commentaries that deserve a second look. This student spotlight from Step Up For Students’ strategic communications manager Scott Kent originally published Jan. 14.
LAKE PLACID, Florida — Jordyn Simmons-Outland is a fifth-grader who was in need of a lifeline.
The 10-year-old has a sweet demeanor and a love for the online video game Fortnite. However, his lack of self-confidence made him a target for bullying in his public school since the second grade. Teased about his weight. Tripped and hit. Complaints to teachers and administrators failed to bring relief.
In the past year, the physical and emotional abuse had become so bad, he told his grandparents he wished he were dead. He began seeing a therapist.
A new state school choice scholarship, the first of its kind in the nation, provided him with hope – literally.
“I don’t know what I’d do if the scholarship wasn’t available,” said his grandmother, Cathy Simmons, who has been a fierce advocate for her grandson most his life.
Jordyn is the first recipient of Florida’s Hope Scholarship, created by the Legislature in 2018 to give K-12 public school children relief from bullying and violence. More than 47,000 students in Florida reported being bullied during the 2016-17 school year.
The program provides families with financial assistance to send a child to an eligible private school, or to transport him to a public school in another district. The scholarship value depends on the grade level: $6,519 for K-5, $6,815 for 6-8, and $7,111 for 9-12. The transportation scholarship is worth up to $750 and can be used to attend any out-of-district public school with available space. The scholarships are funded by consumers who choose to redirect up to $105 of their motor vehicle purchase taxes to the program. (Editor’s Note: Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, administers the Hope Scholarship.)
Applications for the new scholarships opened Nov. 1, which proved timely for Jordyn. In September, a girl in school slapped him. That was the last straw for his grandmother, who along with Jordyn’s grandfather Danny Simmons has helped care for the boy for much of his life. She needed to get Jordyn into a new school pronto.
She went to Lakeview Christian School in Lake Placid to inquire about tuition costs. With Cathy and Danny in the process of selling their furniture business, money has been tight. However, Lakeview’s school administrator, Christena Villarreal, and her assistant told her about the new Hope Scholarship.
The Simmonses immediately enrolled Jordyn into Lakeview Christian, then began the process of applying for the Hope. They became conditionally eligible Nov. 2. Cathy received the acceptance letter Nov. 30.
It was like Independence Day.
“I was sitting (upstairs) in the rocking chair when I got the email,” she said. “I just wanted to scream, ‘Hallelujah! Thank you, God!’”
The scholarship means Jordyn can stay in the school where he now fits in. He feels welcomed and comfortable.
“They knew how he was when he got there,” Simmons said of the Lakeview Christian staff. “Jordyn didn’t just go there from the old school. He took baggage with him, too. He took stuff with him to that school.”
Nevertheless, Jordyn says he wasn’t nervous his first day there. “I knew it was going to be good.”
He doesn’t like to talk about his previous school, but he lights up when the subject turns to his new one.
“The people are nice,” he says.
Since the change, not once has he complained he didn’t want to go to school. In fact, after being laid up in bed with an inner ear infection followed by the stomach flu near the end of Christmas break, Jordyn was excited to return to school Jan. 7.
Simmons and Villareal both point to Lakeview Christian’s smaller class sizes as making a big difference for students like Jordyn.
“I like to think we’re a safe place for bullied students,” said Villareal, who noted the school has had several students transfer there because they were bullied elsewhere. “In other schools they might get lost in the shuffle.”
Simmons shows pics of a smiling Jordyn in his fifth-grade class, getting hugged by his teacher, interacting with classmates during their holiday party. According to a Nov. 14 school progress report, Jordyn “is a pleasure to have in class” and “is very polite and courteous.”
A fresh start in a more welcoming environment has boosted Jordyn’s confidence.
Two months ago, he did a mile run at school in 17 minutes. By mid-December, with the help of his new classmates, he completed it in 14 minutes.
“I’m probably the last one to finish, so I’d get really tired and out of breath,” he said. “And they would all get up and try to help me finish it.” They’d cheer him on and run with him.
He says he’s now shooting for finishing in 11 minutes, “maybe 10.”
At Lakeview Christian’s elementary school Christmas concert Dec. 18, Jordyn was one of six students chosen to sing at the front of stage. He wasn’t forced to do it – he volunteered.
So far, 469 private schools have signed up to participate in the Hope Scholarship, and 67 students have been awarded the scholarship. Jordyn and his grandmother are excited and thankful that he was the first.
“Hope is the best description. I keep thinking ‘There is hope, there is hope, there is hope.’ ” Simmons said. “I can’t wait to tell everyone what a blessing the Hope Scholarship has been. Now there’s peace.”
Editor’s note: To learn more about Eli and to hear his story in his mother’s words, please watch the video at the end of this post.
LaBELLE, Fla. – In his family’s backyard, Eli Conner, 13, wobbled across a 20-foot tightrope, pretending to be the hero in a rescue scene from a “Despicable Me” movie.
Using foam hand grips hanging from another rope, he pulled himself toward a big oak at the end of the line. “You’re getting closer,” encouraged his mom, Stephanie Conner. “Now touch the tree.” Eli finished with a triumphant tap.
“One handed,” said Mom. “Nice.”
Eli, who communicates mostly through sign language, has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy and other developmental delays. A few years ago, he was scared and struggling in a traditional school. A few weeks ago, he couldn’t do the tightrope.
Now he can.
And now, thanks to a cutting-edge education choice scholarship, his family is confident they will see his growth continue to accelerate.
Even in this remote town near the Everglades, there are more educational resources than meet the eye. It just takes the right tool to assemble them. The Conner family did that with the Gardiner Scholarship, Florida’s education savings account for students with special needs. It gave them flexibility to devise an education regimen – therapy, home school, private school – that was just right for Eli.
The scholarship, Stephanie Conner said, “changed everything.”
Stephanie Conner describes herself as a stay-at-home mom. She is a former public and private schoolteacher. Her husband, Joel Conner, is a graphic artist and adult education teacher from a family of educators, including his father, a former superintendent of the local public schools. The Conners have four children, three of them adopted. All four use education choice scholarships.
Eli and his sister, Madeline, 9, use the Gardiner Scholarship, the largest education savings account program in America. Created by the Florida Legislature in 2014, it now serves 13,112 students, including 449 in rural counties. Three thousand more are on a wait list. The Conners’ 5-year-olds, Meizi and Gideon, use the new Family Empowerment Scholarship for working- and middle-class families. Created by the Legislature this year, it’s already reached its cap of 18,000 students.
Without intending to be trendsetters, the Conners are using the Gardiner Scholarship in a novel way that underscores the potential for schools to unbundle their services – and better serve families. (More on that in a sec.) Their experience also shows the upside of giving parents more power to shape their children’s educational programming – even in rural areas – where myths about education choice not being viable persist despite this, this and this.
LaBelle, pop. 4,640, is not postcard Florida. It’s laid-back, fringed with cabbage palms, a pit stop between Lake Okeechobee and Fort Myers. It’s also the county seat of Hendry County, a patch of farm country blanketed by sugar cane that holds fewer humans per square mile than Kansas.
The Conner kids are fourth-generation Hendry County. They have plenty of family nearby, which is why, pre-Gardiner, the Conners were on the verge of a heart-breaking decision. Family? Or therapy? To be closer to the therapists Eli needed, they kept thinking they’d have to uproot to the city. “It was always a terrible feeling to have to even consider giving up one or the other,” Conner said. “Family support, when you’re dealing with special needs, is indispensable.”
Thanks to the scholarship, they never had to make that choice. This is Eli’s third year using the Gardiner Scholarship, and the first for Madeline, who has been diagnosed with bilateral congenital deafness.
Like growing numbers of parents with education savings accounts, the Conners are “customizers.” They use the funds to mix and match educational products and services in addition to, or beyond, school. In their case: home school materials; therapy sessions and equipment (for speech, occupational and sensory integration therapy); and partial tuition at International Christian Academy, a private school a block from their home.
Several times a year, Stephanie Conner takes Eli to Orlando for three weeks of intensive therapy. The rest of the time, she does daily therapies with Eli and Madeline, many involving tools purchased with Gardiner funds. “Peanut balance balls” help them both improve motor skills. A microphone helps Madeline better enunciate words. An array of spoon-like tools helps Eli with his speech, with Mom using them to strengthen muscles in his mouth.
For Eli, the positive effects spill over into academics. Depending on the subject, his proficiency ranges from a first- to fourth-grade level. He reads at a third-grade level. But over the past three years, he’s gained a year’s worth of knowledge in a year’s worth of time. And sensory integration therapy has made it possible for him to learn in more settings, from field trips to classrooms. “His ability to sit still and not be overwhelmed by sights and sounds … has allowed him to participate,” Conner said.
The private school piece is key. So is the way the school offers its services. The youngest Conners go full time. Eli goes for PE, lunch and a science/social studies class. Madeline goes for PE. For the older siblings, the school charges partial tuition. It has unbundled its services in a way that more and more parents will appreciate and other schools, public and private, would be wise to consider.
“If someone wants to be part of our school, I’m going to let them,” said International Christian Academy founder and principal Tracy Co. “I thought it was a good fit for them and it’s worked.”
The school serves 80 full-time students in K-12. More than half are non-white. More than 80 percent use state scholarships. (Sixty use either the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students or the Family Empowerment Scholarship. FTC, FES and Gardiner are administered by nonprofits such as Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog.)
Eli has been warmly welcomed. During a recent kickball game, his classmates erupted in cheers when he booted a low liner up the middle. At first base, he fist bumped the coach.
The boost to Eli’s social skills is also bolstering his academics, giving him more confidence and more ability to focus and learn, Conner said. Between therapies, home school and part-time private school, she said, “this has just been the perfect combination.”
Perfect combinations really are possible. Even out here.
MIAMI – Christopher Bermudez likes plants. Like, really likes plants. The thought of reviving a droopy sprig of mizuna inspired the 17-year-old to riff: “When you kind of have faith in the plants, and you keep taking care of it, and you see it spring back up to life, that’s one of the biggest fulfilling feelings ever.”
How gratifying for Bermudez that he gets to pair that infatuation with real-world research. Among other projects, he and his classmates at BioTECH High School are helping scientists with a mammoth, years-long venture to determine which cultivars of edible plants will make the best crops for – no joke – space travel.
“Our research helps supplement their research,” said Bermudez, who’s aiming for a career in experimental horticulture. “You’re kind of helping the future of our species.”
BioTECH and its lovable science geeks make for a compelling narrative. So does the back story.
First pan to Florida, which has expanded charter schools, private school scholarships, education savings accounts and other varieties of educational choice as much as any state in America. Then zoom in to Miami-Dade County, home to a forward-thinking school district that chose to surf this “tsunami of choice” rather than fight it. The result is a rich, evolving, educational ecosystem where a slew of new educational cultivars are vying to find their niches.
If the theory holds, ever more students will choose from ever more options – including district choice options like BioTECH – to find the one that fits their needs and fuels their passions.
“Choice is very important in human nature, right? And I think that for students, choice is of utmost importance,” said BioTECH principal Daniel Mateo, a chemist by training. “When you force a child to do something, it never really works out quite the way you think it’s going to work out. But when you give them the flexibility of choice, you allow them to select what it is they want to do based on that natural affinity that they have for that particular subject. It’s a given. They’re going to perform.”
BioTECH, all of five years old, is a magnet school and the nation’s only high school specializing in conservation biology. Its aim: to develop successive generations of researchers who will apply their ingenuity and training to the conservation of life on Earth.
Heady stuff. Which makes it all the more remarkable, maybe, that BioTECH has no entrance requirements; serves a student body that is mostly low-income; and shares a campus with a once-struggling middle school.
Richmond Heights Middle, 14 miles southwest of gleaming downtown Miami, was perpetually C-rated by the state. Over the years, scores of school choice options mushroomed around it – and parents responded accordingly. Enrollment fell by half.
In turn, the Miami-Dade school district responded accordingly. It considered what academic programming students and parents wanted; what college degrees and jobs were hot; what community partnerships it could forge or strengthen. With help from a $10 million federal magnet schools grant, BioTECH was born.
The middle school is home base. But BioTECH’s 400 students spend big chunks of time doing research at three partner institutions: Zoo Miami, Everglades National Park and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Their lab equipment is college-caliber. Half their teachers are working scientists. They’re expected to shoot for publication in a scientific journal by the time they graduate.
Some of BioTECH’s “junior scientists” are studying the intestinal flora of spider monkeys to develop diets that make captive monkeys less prone to stomach problems. Others, like Bermudez, are doing research for Growing Beyond Earth, a partnership between Fairchild and NASA. Still others work in micropropagation labs at Fairchild, growing rare orchids that can be reintroduced into slices of South Florida where they once thrived.
“Who thought plants could be so fun?” said senior Peyton Ecklund.
Ecklund, 17, who plans to pursue botanical research in college, chose BioTECH over other high-performing schools in Miami-Dade. She liked that it was “trying to do something special” and emphasized student-driven learning. “We have to make the projects from scratch. And we have to figure out what works and what doesn’t,” she said. “If you learn how to be independent and figure it out on your own now, who knows what you can do in the future?”
Judging by demand, BioTECH is a smash. Last year, it reeled in 600 applications for 150 seats. So far this year, it’s on pace for 1,000 applications for 100 seats.
It’s no surprise the school took root in Miami. Miami-Dade has the highest rate of charter school and private school students of any urban district in Florida. It has one of the highest rates of students exercising district choice. More than 60 percent of Miami-Dade students are now enrolled in hundreds of district options, from magnet schools and career academies to international programs and K-8 centers.
“We recognized … the choice tsunami was upon us,” Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said in April. “And I was not going to do what lot of my colleagues did. Which is, ‘Let’s hope and pray it doesn’t hit us.’ “
BioTECH earned an A from the state this year. (Richmond Heights earned a B.) Its demographics mirror the district’s. Eighty-nine percent of its students are non-white (it’s 93 percent for the district). Sixty-three percent are eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch (it’s 66 percent for the district). Forty-two percent, meanwhile, receive special education services or accommodations.
“That’s 100 percent by design,” Mateo said. “It’s not about having elite students … If you have a passion (for science), we can cultivate that.”
The district does not provide transportation to BioTECH. That’s not a plus for equity. But HVAC repairmen and nursing assistants find a way to get their kids there just like radiologists and military officers do.
Daniella Lira, 17, a junior at BioTECH, said her parents left poverty in Peru for a better life in the U.S. A love for animals and a desire to be a veterinarian led her to the school. Diving into hands-on science has her considering other possibilities.
“Being part of the research and being treated as an actual scientist has opened my eyes,” Lira said.
BioTECH should open some eyes, too. There’s no end to the variety that can sprout in choice-rich soil.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Every day, they cut him with slurs. Almost every day, they tried to block him from the boys’ locker room. For Elijah Robinson, a soft-spoken kid with mocha skin and almond eyes, the harassment at his high school was cruel punishment for his sexual identity.
It started in ninth grade and continued through most of 10th. It eventually turned physical, with boys pushing and kicking him, hoping to provoke a fight.
At some point, Elijah said, the bullying made him too “scatterbrained” to focus on academics. His A’s and B’s fell to F’s. But bad grades were the least of it.
The bullying led to depression. Depression spiraled into a suicide attempt.
Once Elijah got out of the hospital, his mom decided to take him out of the assigned public school that had become his nightmare and send him to a place called The Foundation Academy. A friend assured Elijah’s mom that the eclectic little private school was warm and welcoming – to all students.
To pay tuition, the single mother and nail salon worker secured a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income students. Funded by corporate contributions, the scholarship is used by 100,000 students statewide, two thirds of them black and Hispanic and typically the ones who struggled the most in their prior public schools.
Without it, Elijah’s mom said, she wouldn’t have been able to afford the school.
Without it, Elijah said, he wouldn’t be alive.
“If I had stayed at my previous school,” he said, “I honestly think I would have lost my life.”
Elijah is 18 now, and a senior. The bullying is behind him. His academics are back on track.
The students and teachers at The Foundation Academy “didn’t see me as a label. They saw me for me,” he said. “I definitely am in a better place.”
Elijah’s story would be compelling any time, but it’s especially poignant now as there has been increased criticism of the scholarship program and religious schools with policies adhering to their faith.
According to the most recent survey from GLSEN, 72 percent of LGBTQ students in public district schools said they experienced bullying, harassment and assault due to their sexual orientation, compared to 68 percent of LGBTQ students in private, religious schools. For bullying, harassment and assault based on gender expression, the corresponding rates were 61 percent and 56 percent.
Those numbers speak to an urgent need for more awareness and action across all types of schools. But in the meantime, this fact cannot be ignored: The growing availability of choice scholarships has given more students like Elijah the ability to find a safe haven.
Elijah is tall and thin, with a shock of hair that makes his mixed-race features even more striking. He likes to jog. He likes to read. He likes “Call of Duty,” and salmon sashimi, and fishing with his uncle. He exudes a quiet confidence that sometimes comes to those who have endured so much, so young.
Elijah thinks he was harassed in his prior school because he liked to wear girl’s jeans and sweaters and was not “acting like the stereotypical guy.” He said he didn’t fight back. Instead, he did what bullied kids are advised to do: tell the adults in charge. The teachers and administrators said they told his tormentors to stop, but they didn’t stop. Elijah said when he continued to complain, the teachers and administrators told him to “just ignore it.”
The Foundation Academy is 15 minutes from Elijah’s old school, but in terms of school culture it’s on another planet. It serves 375 students in K-12, with 86 percent using choice scholarships. Thanks to those scholarships, the school is remarkably diverse, and has served at least two dozen openly LGBTQ students.
In a 2018 story about another LGBTQ student who found refuge at the school, founder and principal Nadia Hionides noted she has a son, a brother and a niece who are LGBTQ. “We love Jesus, and Jesus loves everybody,” Hionides said. “We must affirm and accept everybody.”
Elijah isn’t sure exactly what he’s doing after graduation, but he’s planning on college and wants to be a nurse like his aunt. He likes the thought of helping people in pain. He already knows a lot about hurt and healing.
PENSACOLA, Fla. – Twin brothers Alan and Axel Escobar-Medina grew up so shy that when their mom took them to playgrounds as toddlers, they preferred to play with each other and wouldn’t talk to anyone else.
Rocio Medina knew this would be a problem when it came to school. She is a firm believer in education choice, but when it came to middle school, she didn’t give her twins one.
She and her husband, Atanacio Escobar, moved from Mexico to the United States in 2000 to start a family and find more opportunity. They get by on his income from construction work but want more for their four kids.
Four years ago, near the end of fifth grade at their neighborhood school in Pensacola, she knew exactly what needed to be done about the C’s and D’s her oldest boys, Alan and Axel, were earning.
“I wanted them to go to private school because they were so shy,” she said. “The public middle school was much bigger. I didn’t want them in an environment with so many kids.”
She knew the right fit was at her Catholic church, St. John the Evangelist. She visited the 145-year-old K-8 school and talked to teachers and administrators. Thanks to a family member who sent her kids there, Rocio knew she could afford tuition with a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship from Step Up For Students (which hosts this blog).
“When they came here, you could barely get them to talk to you,” guidance counselor Caroline Bush recalled. “They struggled in most subjects. There was still a language barrier, because they spoke Spanish at home.”
At 12, the identical twins were painfully aware of their strong accents. Once, a student at the neighborhood school told Alan his voice was different and weird.
Shyness was a defense.
“I didn’t really like talking so much,” said Axel, now 15. “I was nervous and scared that my teachers and classmates wouldn’t understand what I was saying.”
Despite the quiet, teachers noticed perseverance and tenacity. They encouraged the twins while Rocio pushed at home. Teachers tutored every day after school. Bush was there regularly to translate.
“It was incredible,” Bush said. “They were very focused. They never gave up.
“When a teacher sees that in a child, you push them further to see how much you can get out of them. You could see their grades going up, and they grew a lot, too.”
They were socializing, participating in after-school activities like the 4-H Club. They tried out for basketball.
“They had never played before in their life,” Rocio said with a laugh. “Everyone was so encouraging. No one ever said they weren’t good. They always told them to keep trying.”
In seventh grade, they were inducted into the National Junior Honor Society. In eighth grade, Alan and Axel continued to be on the honor roll. They had friends they talked and joked with. They even found a sport that was a better fit, thanks to the PE teacher, Sydney Murphy.
“She told me I was fast,” Alan said. “At first, I didn’t want to join the track team, but she said we should, and she stayed after us, so we did. We both run cross country (in high school) now.”
After graduating from St. John in 2018, a proud and content Rocio gave her boys their choice of high schools. They had figured they’d go to Pensacola Catholic High, but a visit to a district magnet school, West Florida School of Advanced Technology, changed their minds.
They liked the school’s 12 career academies (both chose the Critical Care & Emergency Medicine academy) and, ironically, the size and diversity of the student body (more than 1,300, including about 400 in their freshman class) was now a draw.
“It’s a big high school, but I wasn’t worried because they are more secure than they were before,” Rocio said. “I couldn’t be happier.”
She and her sons give much of the credit to three critical years of development at St. John.
“I feel comfortable,” Axel said. “Entering high school, I told myself I’m going to be a new person. I just go right up to people and start talking now.”
About St. John the Evangelist Catholic School
The oldest Catholic elementary school in Florida was established on the former Pensacola Navy Yard in 1874. Part of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, the school moved into its current building in 1948. The school administers the MAP Growth test three times a year as well as the Terra Nova Spring test. There are 250 K-8 students, including 118 on FTC scholarships. Tuition is $5,200.
She impatiently waits for the day she can spread herself thin
For the day when her momma says,
“You can do anything you want to if you sacrifice a bit”
— “I.O.U.” by Mercedes Ferreira-Dias
Notes bounced from an upright bass as Mercedes Ferreira-Dias strode to center stage at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.
The spotlights were trained on her before a full house at a performance for the National YoungArts Foundation, but if the 18-year-old was nervous, it didn’t show.
Nerves aren’t a struggle for Mercedes, 18, who is so academically gifted that she will enroll at both Harvard University and Berklee College of Music in August. A 2019 Presidential Scholar, she was valedictorian of her graduating class at Mater Academy Lakes High School, a charter school in Miami.
She commanded the Kennedy Center stage with the grace of a show business veteran. Smiling and grooving, she soon had the crowd clapping along as she belted out a jazzy version of “No Roots” by progressive pop artist Alice Merton:
I like digging holes and
Hiding things inside them
When I grow old I hope
I won’t forget to find them
‘Cause I got memories
They travel like gypsies in the night
On the song’s final note, Mercedes was showered with applause.
You can view Mercedes’ performance here.
“My dream career is to be a working musician and performer,” she said. “If that doesn’t happen with my own music, I’d like to write for others or manage other artists. I’ve been writing songs since I was about 8. I started with just superficial stuff, but they’ve gotten more complex as I’ve grown.”
Mercedes had a taste of the limelight last year when she was a contestant on NBC’s popular show, “The Voice,” where country star Blake Shelton told her that her voice was “personal” and “unique.” Pop singer Kelly Clarkson said Mercedes had “an angelic kind of style.”
This year, she also performed during “A Salute to the 2019 U.S. Presidential Scholars” at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
But academics are as important to Mercedes and her family as the fame and fortune that may come with a big-time recording contract.
The youngest daughter of Venezuelan immigrants Fernando and Maria Ferreira-Dias, she graduated in May from Mater Academy with a stunning 5.47 GPA.
At Harvard, Mercedes plans to major in either history or literature and minor in psychology. She will study songwriting at Berklee, where alumni include music stars such as Branford Marsalis, Melissa Ethridge, John Mayer and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan.
Mercedes is as thrilled about her pending move, and the opportunities it will bring, as her parents are anxious about their daughter living on her own in Boston; her older sister Catalina, 19, also attends an Ivy League institution: Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
“Oh my God, I’m going to cry,” said her mother, Maria. “Of course, we’re very proud of her. She’s a very unique person, but she’s more than just a girl going to Harvard and Berklee at the same time. There’s no one else like her. She’s more mature (than most teenagers) and she’s a deep thinker. She can see things from different points of view.”
Mercedes attended her neighborhood school through fifth grade, but when it came time to enter middle school, her parents opted for Mater Academy, where the class sizes were much smaller. A B-rated school, Mater Academy is managed by Mater Academy, Inc., a charter school operator based in Miami; operations are overseen in part by Academica, a charter school service and support organization.
Mercedes’ parents were impressed by Mater Academy’s welcoming, nurturing environment.
“She’s one of the most outstanding students I’ve had in my entire career,” said Ayleen Charles, a history teacher who taught Mercedes in middle and high school. “She’s dedicated to academics. She has great character, she’s very kind, compassionate. Anything positive, that’s what she is.”
At Mater Academy, Mercedes also sang in the choir and held leadership positions in several clubs, establishing the school’s first Women’s Empowerment Club and Gay-Straight Alliance.
Outside school, she has voluntarily performed at countless local government functions and benefit concerts.
Charles even recruited her to sing in her band.
“When I heard her sing in class, I encouraged her to pursue it,” Charles said. “I said to myself, ‘I just want to sing with her.’ She’s outstanding.”
While Mercedes and Catalina, a visual artist, are intensely interested in the arts, Mercedes said her parents are not. Maria was mostly a stay-at-home mom, while Fernando is a banker at BB&T. Maria and Fernando met in Boston after each left Venezuela in their 20s.
Most of Mercedes’ family still lives in Venezuela, a once-prosperous oil-producing country that has descended into political unrest and crime-riddled chaos after the collapse of its economy.
“Although some (of my family) are trying to flee, most of them can’t see themselves living anywhere except the country they spent most of their lives in despite all the turmoil,” Mercedes said.
In Washington last month, she met a man who has often had a lot to say about her family’s homeland: President Donald Trump, who recently said he was exploring the possibility of granting temporary asylum to thousands of Venezuelans who have fled to the United States.
“It was surreal when you see someone you just associate with articles and videos,” she said. “I’m still wrapping my head around the feelings I have. He’s a character.”
In a few weeks, Mercedes will head to Boston to start the next chapter of her life. She spoke of the pending challenge with great excitement.
Like the words to her own song, “I.O.U.,” she can’t wait to spread herself thin.
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.
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: http://www.redefinedonline.org/2018/06/charter-school-couldnt-change-zoes-past-but-it-changed-her-future-2/