Denisha Merriweather

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 afterschool 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.”