Adoption plus education choice scholarships give Conner and his siblings a chance to be 'best version of themselves'
BY ROGER MOONEY
The transformation of Conner Davis from a young boy filled with social anxieties to an honor roll student and class leader was achieved through two life-altering events.
First, he was adopted by a relative, which brought stability to his life.
Second, Conner received an education choice scholarship. That allowed him to attend a small private school where he emerged from the protective shell he had formed around himself during his unstable early life.
Conner is now a sixth-grader at Discovery Academy, a K-8 school near his home in Edgewater, Florida. He is a two-time school ambassador, and a member of the debate team, chess club, and student congress.
“The scholarship has truly changed his life,” said Renee Davis, who in January 2022 adopted Conner and his younger siblings, Cayden and Cheyenne, after their parents relinquished their parental rights. Renee is the children’s second cousin.
Conner attends Discovery Academy with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Cayden, second grade, and Cheyenne, kindergarten, receive the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options, and in August began their first years at Discovery Academy. Both scholarships are managed by Step Up For Students.
“I'm hoping that the younger two will receive the same positive benefits from this school setting as Conner has,” Renee said.
There is one class per grade at Discovery Academy, and those classes are capped at 20 students with an average class size of 10. The students know all the teachers, and the teachers know all the students.
“They have an active thespian department, which was a perfect fit for Conner. He's really into costume design, roleplay, anything that's fantasy fiction, make-believe,” Renee said. “They have this major idea of supporting uniqueness and individuality there, and I think that is what encouraged him to be confident in his own skin, which allowed him to really overcome a lot of his anxieties.”
They’ve been through so much
The children were born into an unstable environment where visits from the sheriff’s department and the Department of Children and Families (DCF) were common. Conner had little contact with his biological parents and lived with his grandmother since he was an infant. In December 2019, Cayden and Cheyenne were removed by the DCF after the death of their 9-month-old brother due to parental negligence.
DCF tries to place children with a relative when possible. Renee readily agreed to be their foster mom. DCF also tries to keep siblings together, so when they asked Renee if she would also take in Conner, she quickly said yes.
“Everyone in the family started trying to decide how to help, and I didn't have a reason to not take the kids. I was in my mid-30s, and traveling all the time and getting to enjoy the best of what life has to offer,” she said. “But I hadn't really taken on any serious responsibility in life, certainly not to this level.”
At the time, Conner was 7, Cayden was 3 and Cheyenne was 2.
Suddenly a single mom with three children under the age of 8, Renee bought a larger house and traded her Jeep for a minivan.
“These kids have been through so much. My job is to set them up for success in life,” Renee said. “That success starts with education, and the Step Up scholarship has allowed me to provide the best academic opportunity that I could never have afforded on my own.”
Conner was in second grade at his assigned school and struggled academically when he moved in with Renee. The school suggested he repeat the grade.
Conner lacked age-appropriate social skills, Renee said, because outside of school he didn’t interact much with children his age. He was painfully shy around strangers, refusing to make eye contact or answer simple questions. He didn’t have a relationship with Cayden or Cheyenne.
“Conner had trust issues,” Renee said. “There was fear and vulnerability. He definitely had this reserved, protective shell, and that didn’t really change until he came to live with me.”
Taking down the wall
Renee didn’t think Conner needed to repeat second grade. She thought he just found himself lost in the mix of the larger student population and larger class sizes at his assigned school.
One of her priorities was finding the right academic fit for Conner. She and Conner toured Discovery Academy and liked everything about the school. But the tuition was too steep for Renee, a co-manager of a restaurant. A school administrator told her about the FTC scholarships. She applied and Conner was accepted.
“Starting at Discovery Academy was the biggest steppingstone for him, because he found himself in a social environment that he was able to perceive as safe and nourishing,” Renee said. “So, while getting that on two fronts, the home front and the school front, he was able to find his confidence and that really brought out his abilities. It let him take down that wall and really shine.”
Now, the boy who would look at his feet and fiddle with his fingers if asked a simple question by a stranger (“What’s your dog’s name?”) was making speeches in front of classmates as part of the debate team, was a member of the student government, and contributed to the school’s weekly in-house TV show.
As a school ambassador, Conner meets with families who are touring the school and spends the day with someone who could be his future classmate.
“He’s just the sweetest kid and very respectful,” Discovery Academy Principal Heather Lyman said. “You can count on him to do anything. A lot of that comes from the home.”
Lyman recalled a speech Conner wrote as a fifth-grader about safety.
“It was two-and-a-half pages, very well written. He really got the point across,” she said. “Holy moly, it was very impressive.”
The best versions of themselves
Conner loves to play chess and read. The library, Renee said, is his happy place.
As the summer ended, Conner was eager to begin the sixth grade.
“I'm very excited to go back to school because I have a lot of friends that I really, really enjoy playing with and being with,” he said.
He’s also looking forward to Cayden and Cheyenne joining him.
Renee said the three are forming bonds siblings should form. Conner taught Cayden how to play chess. He builds forts out of blankets and pillows for Cheyenne. The family goes camping as often as possible.
“I remind myself daily that we have finally achieved the things I hoped and prayed for and wished for those first few years because everybody is so grounded and comfortable,” Renee said. “I see how much they have changed. They overcame a lot of their personal and emotional issues and anxieties because they had finally found a forever place that’s safe. They’re finally getting the attention and acknowledgment and encouragement that had been otherwise completely lacking in their lives.”
Cayden’s anxieties are the opposite of Conner’s. “He seeks attention (and) not always in a good way,” a result, Renee said, “of being neglected while living with his parents.” Renee hopes Discovery Academy has the same effect on Cayden as it did on Conner, but in the opposite direction.
“He’s hot sauce and hand grenades,” Renee said. “But he also has the biggest personality. He has a huge heart.”
She described Cheyenne as “sugar and spice and everything nice,” adding that because she was so young, she might be the least affected by the trauma of her early life.
Renee is intent on giving Conner, Cayden, and Chyenne the loving home life that every child deserves. And, with the help of the Step Up scholarships, she can give them an education that she feels will enable them to thrive.
“Instead of these kids becoming a product of their environment or another statistic, they now have the chance to become the best versions of themselves,” she said. “Conner is excelling where he had previously been failing. I couldn't be prouder, and more grateful for the role of this scholarship organization.”
Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at [email protected].