Florida’s School Choice Program Saved This Girl’s Education, and Her Future

By the time she’d reached sixth grade, Denisha Merriweather had already attended five different public schools. It was mainly because her mother shuttled the family to different residences across the Jacksonville, Florida area. It was also because either she or her younger brother got expelled for behavioral problems. Her mother’s rule: if one got kicked out, the other transferred, too. Merriweather was held back two grade levels, struggling to read and multiply on par with her peers.

“In school, the teachers didn’t really want to help me,” Merriweather told Opportunity Lives. “I had behavioral issues and so it was ‘Oh, this is a bad child.’ When I came into the classroom there were sighs. I could feel that rejection. There were teachers that did care, but by the time they started to make a difference, it was time to move to the next place.”

denisha bush

Denisha Merriweather greets former Florida Governor Jeb Bush at an education summit in November, 2014.

Remarkably, at age 23, today Merriweather is a college graduate planning on grad school next year. Her turnaround started with a Florida voucher program for low-income students that enabled her to study at the Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, where she said the environment was “opposite” of her public school experience. She blossomed under the compassion of teachers in the private school from sixth grade onward.

“My first couple weeks my heart was comforted,” she said. “It paid off, because by nine weeks I wasn’t their best reader, but I was better than when I came in. It was very different.”

“They said not only ‘I believe you can do it, but God gives you the strength to do it’”

After moving in with her godmother, who knew about the charter program in which students are able to opt out of their local public school for a private or public school outside their district. Yet her brother stayed with their mother, and their paths diverged.

“He didn’t have the same opportunities I had,” she said. “He wasn’t in the same environment I was, so I think that really played a part when he dropped out of high school.”

The siblings’ story is a testament to the power of surroundings and presents support for the argument that these vouchers should be expanded. Yet there is an effort underway in the state to repeal this unique $357 million program, the largest of its kind in the country. It is wholly funded through charitable contributions, offset by tax credits. Student enrollment has grown more than fivefold in the past ten years.

florida charters

Source: Step Up For Students

Merriweather has worked with the American Federation for Children, an advocacy group fighting for school choice. She shared her journey in an OpEd for The Wall Street Journal and in a video by Step Up For Students, the nonprofit administering the scholarship program.

“If it wasn’t for the scholarship, if it wasn’t for the school, you would probably meet me on the corner, with a baby trying to make ends meet,” she tells the camera. “I would probably have a job, McDonalds.”

According to Step Up data, nearly 70 percent of the scholarship students are African-American or Hispanic and 54 percent live with only one parent. On average, their families are just nine percent above the poverty line, and they rank among the lowest-performing students in the public schools they leave behind.

The scholarship program is under attack by at least two lawsuits from the state teacher’s union, the Florida Education Association (FEA), which has argued against the legality of its expansion.

“We don’t pay the teachers, we pay for the children to be educated,” she said. “It’s not a business to pay teachers, it’s a business to educate students.”

A second lawsuit also argues against the use of public money for religious schools. Yet for Merriweather, the faith component of the Christian school she attended proved helpful.

“For so long, I was hearing ‘You can’t do it, you’re not smart enough,” she said, but at Esprit de Corps, “They said not only ‘I believe you can do it, but God gives you the strength to do it’. It was encouraging based on faith. Believe you can do it because there’s a god that believes you can do it. Although there are the same kinds of pep talks for non-faith based schools, for me it added a sense of pride.”

“They have the opportunity to do better because somebody believes in them.”

Merriweather said she agrees with recent comments by Condoleezza Rice on how Notre Dame receives federal dollars from Pell Grants, and that it would be troubling to strip away funding from these types of high-caliber, faith-based schools.

The FEA lawsuits seem to be driven by a desire to keep money in public schools, Merriweather argued, and this desire for money is superseding the desire to help students. To these teachers unions, “I would tell them that there are nearly 70,000 children who are benefiting because they have the means to attend the schools that are working for them,” she said.

“They have the opportunity to do better because somebody believes in them. I would tell them to think, although money makes the world turn, I would tell them to put their focus on kids. Put their focus on the next generation. I would tell them, ‘Consider the child.’”

Carrie Sheffield is the Senior Writer at Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @carriesheffield.


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Winning the War on Poverty Through Community and Enterprise

Bob Woodson hopes Comeback series will lead to “sea change” in looking for answers to poverty
COMMUNITY EMERGING LEADERS Winning the War on Poverty Through Community and Enterprise

Bob Woodson, founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE), hopes the Comeback video series released by Opportunity Lives will inspire both vulnerable and powerful people alike.

Woodson, a longtime activist in impoverished urban and rural areas, was instrumental in brokering the meetings between stellar social entrepreneurs and Rep. Paul Ryan. Their stories unfold in our Comeback video series recently released online and covered in outlets ranging from Fox News to Yahoo to CBS News and New York Magazine.

“I hope that, first of all, people who are living in crime-infested, drug-infested neighborhoods will have some renewed hope that redemption and transformation is possible,” Woodson said in an interview with Opportunity Lives. “When they see people looking at these tapes they will see pictures of themselves and what they can become as opposed to what they are … that’s the role that Opportunity Lives, in partnership with the CNE, can take to them directly, to these healing agents …it’s letting people know that there are thousands of healed and redeemed individuals.”

Woodson is wary of poverty scholars from think tanks and universities that offer pessimistic surveys of the American poverty landscape and rely on second-hand data without directly interacting with those affected by poverty and those fighting on the frontlines.

“For policymakers, I hope they will look beyond the Heritages [Foundation] and the AEIs for solutions and talk about shifting funds to grassroots centers of excellence so that we can begin to generate more of these healing factories,” he continued. “Politicians, people who believe in limited government and then spend a billion dollars to run big government will shift some of that money to local, community-based efforts …. I’m hoping that these videos will provoke an entire sea change in where do we look for answers to poverty.”

Woodson’s work, which has been heralded by broadcasting powerhouse Oprah Winfrey, includes building a Center that provides training and capacity-building technical assistance to more than 2,600 leaders of community-based groups in 39 states. Woodson helped push for resident-management and ownership of public housing, and organized grassroots groups to work with Congress on historic 1996 welfare reform. He also helped create Violence-Free Zones to reduce violence in many of the nation’s most troubled schools.

“We want you to see the best approach to reducing poverty can be found among the people suffering the problem,” Woodson said in an Instagram posting about the Comeback series.

Focused on solutions rather than partisanship or ideology, Woodson is the sole recipient of high-powered awards from both liberals and conservatives – the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation Prize. He was also awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal.

“If they were to invest money and talent to expand … I think that these islands of excellence could expand geometrically”

Woodson recalled how during the 2012 presidential campaign he was approached by Ryan, the vice presidential nominee, who asked him to assemble a group of 20 leaders assisting low-income people for a meeting held at Cleveland State University. Woodson said Ryan was moved by the experience and after the campaign asked Woodson to help create a listening tour, which entailed Ryan visiting sites across the country about once a month over a 2-year period to discuss poverty solutions. Woodson sought diversity in how he selected the site visits: variety in geography, racial composition and the various types of struggles, from drug addiction to gangs to homelessness.

“When he went on these tours, he didn’t want any press because he said he wants the focus of attention to be on the groups and not on Paul Ryan coming there,” Woodson said. “And again that spoke volumes about the kind of character Paul Ryan has. And the very fact that he came and took the time and listened and walked the streets and took his time and didn’t rush in and rush out and the interplay between these groups was one of utter respect.”

Woodson said he had known Ryan indirectly since the congressman was age 22 and working for then-Rep. Jack Kemp. Woodson’s son, roughly the same age as Ryan, worked with him on Capitol Hill. Woodson said his relationship had been indirect through Kemp, who spent his public life as a well-known poverty fighter. Woodson has been critical of current government-centered solutions for poverty, which he says too often do not require an investment from those on the receiving end.

“The foundation of any healthy relationship is reciprocity,” Woodson said in an online series by PovertyCure. “Grassroots people instinctively know that because they always help people with the expectation that people have to give for what they receive, because they know that the person’s dignity is protected. But a traditional social service program that is based upon the therapeutic model, where the person helped is defined as a ‘client,’ and the helper is the all powerful, autonomous person who is acting on that person.”

Woodson said since Comeback’s release, he has seen the series generate “a lot of excitement” and interest from a public hungry for stories and evidence that impoverished communities can improve through a focus on character development and an inside-out approach to healing and economic empowerment.

“What drives me is I know that if this society were to change and begin to aggressively invest in some of these institutions that I have been serving for years, if they were to invest money and talent to expand so that a group that is helping 500 kids could expand to help 50,000, I think that these islands of excellence could expand geometrically,” Woodson said. “That’s what keeps me going. I know that we’ve got the solution. It’s like having the platform for the iPhone without having the money to take it to market.”

Woodson helped Ryan craft his poverty plan released last summer, a series of proposals that includes shifting poverty fighting away from a federal paradigm and more toward a state-based and localized approach.

“I see Paul as our ambassador to the policy community. Paul has the ability to help policymakers understand that they have been looking into the wrong places for the solution,” he said. “The assumption is that the more we spend the more we help the poor, the less we spend the less we help the poor and everything we do challenges that simplistic paradigm. We have illustrated that it is possible to do more with less.”