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School Choice Doesn't Mean Public Schools Are Failing

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Denisha Merriweather.jpg

Guest blogger Denisha Merriweather* received the Florida Tax-Credit Scholarship awarded by Step Up For Students where she is currently the Family Advocate.  Here, she shares her story and her views on how tax credits and community interventions go hand in hand.

Growing up in poverty set me up for a bleak future. I failed third grade twice. Statistics suggested I was destined to drop out before high school. My friends and I couldn't play in neighborhood parks because they'd been taken over by drug dealers.  Crime seemed normal, and life was stressful.

I was assigned to a public elementary school that did little to address the influence my community had on my temperament and academic performance. Looking back from an adult's perspective, I understand the teachers and administrators at my public elementary school were overwhelmed.  They shared my sense of hopelessness and despair.

My story has a happy ending thanks to a combination of school choice and other community institutions, including my extended family, that created better opportunities. I now work as an advocate for parental choice in education. I also just received a master's degree in social work from the University of South Florida. Communities like the one where I grew up need new educational options as well as other resources. I'm endlessly baffled at how few politicians seem to understand that we need all of the above.

My biological mother didn't have the option to send me to a better school in my neighborhood. Her mother gave birth to her in prison.  She grew up in generational poverty and never got the social and emotional support she needed.  She lacked a sense of hope and motivation. She gave birth to me at 16 and dropped out of school. 

It's taken me years to understand the impact a lack of community support had on my bio mom. It's taken just as long to realize that she did want the best for me. She simply lacked the means to provide it. She had no educational options, scarce opportunities for empowerment and no understanding of how to change that.

When I was 13, my biological mom allowed me to live permanently with my godmother. Although she never told me, I am sure my bio mom knew my godmother could offer me something she couldn't--a safe, secure, and nurturing environment.

During my elementary school years, attending a high-poverty, low-performing public school was just one of the many challenges I faced. It wasn't until I began working toward my masters degree that I started to truly understand how the hand I was dealt affected my struggles in school, and my overall life story. I now have a better understanding, both emotionally and cognitively, of how difficult it is to break the bonds of generational poverty. We need more effective ways to increase the odds that someone like me can succeed in school and life

I've come to believe that a community-based education model is essential to the success of children in poverty. Schools  should be hubs for low-income communities, providing physical, social, and emotional support for parents and students.

I know the importance of having interventions that involve the ideas, values, and beliefs of its community members. Where possible, we can give communities the power to meet their own needs, rather than relying on outsiders who might embrace a deficit-based approach that ignores their inherent strengths.

Families should have the ability to decide where they get those services. Their child may be educated by their school district, at home, or at a faith-based institution founded by a local pastor. They may get health consultations at a community health center, or through a school-sponsored clinic.

I can't believe these ideas have become so politically polarizing. I am a passionate advocate for more education options for children in poverty. I've shared many times about my education experience on the Step Up For Students Scholarship.  

In 2010, as high school student, I served as master of ceremonies for a massive school choice rally in Florida's capital.  That rally fostered a sense of community for low-income families. Democrats rallied alongside Republicans. Rabbis rallied alongside pastors. Young people like me marched alongside veterans of the Civil Rights Movement like Rev. H.K Matthews. Our voices united to call for more school options for low-income families. I remember sitting on the stage seeing parents who felt newly empowered by having the right to choose. People like then State Senator (now Congressman) Al Lawson (D-Florida), taught me school choice isn't anti-public school, and doesn't mean that public schools are failing. It means students, especially low-income students of color, coping with the effects of generational poverty, need more schooling options. That year, much of Florida's Democratic party and legislative Black Caucus supported the 2010 legislation to expand Florida's tax-credit scholarships.That was six years ago, and it seems like such a long time.

In February, I was honored at the President's joint address to Congress.  He cited my life's journey as evidence of the success of parental choice. Many left-of-center political figures have denounced parental choice (and even sometimes its beneficiaries, myself included). Some seem to be doing so only because President Trump supports it. As a political independent, this looks to me like knee-jerk, tribal politics.

What people call school or parental choice is a means to an end.  By allowing me to attend a private school that nurtured me academically, the Florida tax credit scholarship helped change the course of my life. But other organizations also helped along the way, including the Police Athletic League of Jacksonville (PAL). Their after-school programs and summer camps gave me a safe, structured environment to play, do my homework, have a meal, and give back to my community. PAL became the hub for my family and showed us that we could have positive relations with the police.

Having the right educational options is necessary, especially for those in poverty. Having a safe, secure environment is too. Afterschool programs, extracurriculars and wraparound services provided by community schools, like Mort Elementary in Tampa, Florida all play a role.  

The political left seems to focus on bettering individual needs in communities. However, it often fails to recognize that education choice gives communities the ability to use their own strengths as a starting point for change. The political right seems to see a lack of educational options as the barrier facing low-income families, but often fails to recognize other community needs for low-income families. 

I am a school choice advocate and a social worker who understands the challenges individuals of low-income backgrounds face. We should level the playing field by giving parents access to all educational options and the resources they need to meet their child's other needs, too.

*You can find Denisha on Facebook  and her podcast at RedefinEd .

Photo used with permission from National School Choice Week.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

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