Denisha Merriweather's Journey
The daughter of a teenaged mom and high school dropout, Denisha Merriweather thought she was destined for a similar path. Receiving a scholarship from Step Up For Students changed her life. Today, the 24-year-old college graduate is working toward her master’s degree.
“I’m just so grateful,” Denisha said. “This never would have been possible without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program.”
She’s on a mission now educating others about Step Up and seeking support so the nonprofit can continue to help disadvantaged students like herself realize their dreams.
“So many doors of opportunity have been opened for me that I feel the best way to say thanks is to make sure other children are given the same chance,” Denisha said.
Her chance came as a sixth-grader, when she went to live with her godmother, Johnell Jones.
Jones believed Denisha, a troubled student held back twice at neighborhood schools, needed something different.
“My poor grades and the fact that I was two years older than most of my classmates angered and embarrassed me,” Denisha recalled. “I was disruptive and fought with other students.”
Her teachers tried to help, but nothing seemed to work.
“I was unmotivated,” Denisha said. “Learning became a nightmare – a punishment for being a child.”
Jones found a private school she liked, but couldn’t afford the tuition. So she turned to Step Up and applied for the scholarship. Denisha was accepted and soon enrolled in Esprit de Corps Center of Learning, a small school in Jacksonville known for its academics.
“At Esprit de Corps, making the honor roll was expected,” Denisha said. “The school’s motto is: Where Learning is a Joy, excellence is the norm, and superiority is our goal.”
That environment was so different for Denisha, “but I rose to the challenge.”
As her grades improved, so did her attitude and outlook on life. In May 2010, Denisha graduated with honors and became the first in her immediate family to receive a high school diploma.
“Reaching that goal changed my thought process,” Denisha said. “I never thought I would be here – that I could make something of my life.”
But she wasn’t finished setting the bar.
Denisha went on to graduate in 2014 from the University of West Florida with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary social science. Since then, she has worked for the Duval County public school system as a teacher’s assistant for children with special needs and as an after school youth instructor for the Police Athletic League (PAL).
Along the way, Denisha has become a national symbol for school choice, headlining events with Florida governors and other advocates of the scholarship program. She also has appeared in public service announcements promoting the scholarship and Step Up For Students, and served as a guest speaker for the National School Choice Week and American Federation for Children.
Each time she shares her story of struggle, she grows stronger and more determined to ensure every child succeeds.
“I will continue to fight for everyone …” Denisha said at a recent school choice event. “Everyone deserves K-12 educational options and an opportunity for success, no matter what their family’s income level.”
About Step Up For Students
Step Up For Students is a state-approved nonprofit scholarship funding organization that helps administer two scholarships for Florida schoolchildren: the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program (FTC) for low-income families and the The Gardiner Scholarship, previously known as the Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts (PLSA) for children with certain special needs.
The Gardiner Scholarship helps parents individualize the educational plans for their children with certain special needs.
The FTC scholarship program was created to benefit children whose educational options are limited by household income.
We believe every child has the right to a quality education. A quality education should not be determined by financial means or disability. Through its scholarships, educational support services and advocacy, Step Up empowers parents to give their children a chance at a brighter future.
Today, 73,338 children from low-income families are receiving support from SUFS to attend a school of their parents’ choice. In addition to serving students from low-income families, Step Up For Students also provides thousands of scholarships for students with certain special needs so they can receive an education that addresses and maximizes their unique abilities.
But our dedication to students doesn’t end when we give them a scholarship. Through our Office of Student Learning, we offer continued educational support services and professional development to strengthen partnerships between home and school, fostering student success. With these services, Step Up is able to maximize the impact of the scholarship by helping to ensure learning continues beyond the classroom.
Your support will enable us to offer these programs and more in an effort to maximize the value of our scholarships so families across Florida have the freedom to choose the best learning options for their children.
We have achieved much, and impacted thousands of lives, but there is more work to do, and we can’t do it without your support. Legislation governing our scholarship programs only allows us a very tight three percent administrative overhead. This provides very little non-restricted funding for us to develop new or expand existing initiatives.
Donors can feel secure knowing that their gift is going to a nonprofit with sound fiscal management. Step Up For Students commitment to accountability and transparency have earned it a four-star rating from Charity Navigator, America’s largest independent charity evaluator, for eight separate fiscal years. In 2014, Step Up earned 99.92 out of 100 possibly points, which ranked it 4th among all nonprofits nationally.
Step Up For Students is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization as determined by the Internal Revenue Services (IRS) code; contributions are fully tax-deductible up to the amount allowed by law. Our financial records are audited each year, and an audited financial statement is available upon request.
We invite you to join us in this vital effort as we seek to ensure every child achieves their maximum potential. By getting involved, you can give families hope, and their children a chance to make their dreams a reality.
Thank you for sharing our commitment to educational opportunities for all children!
What Parents & Students Are Saying:
Joel receives the (FTC) income-based scholarship
Liam receives the Gardiner special needs scholarship.
Braelyn receives the (FTC) income-based scholarship.
Sara receives the Gardiner special needs scholarship.
Briana & Jeremiah receive the (FTC) income-based scholarships.
Daniel receives the Gardiner special needs scholarship.
Shawnay receives the (FTC) income-based scholarship.
Julian receives the Gardiner special needs scholarship.