Positivity: Denisha Merriweather, in Her Own Words — The Private School Scholarship That Changed My Life
February 28, 2017
… Denisha Merriweather … is a beneficiary of the Florida tax credit scholarship, Merriweather has long advocated for school choice legislation, arguing that other students should have access to the same opportunities and choices that she enjoyed.
… Here’s Denisha’s story in her own words:
I grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., mostly on the Eastside. My old neighborhood sits along the St. Johns River, just east of downtown. It’s near EverBank Field, where the Jaguars play. It was once a haven for black families during the time of segregation. The community thrived, with black-owned businesses and spontaneous cookouts. In the years before I was born, drugs and alcohol infiltrated the community. Crime rates soared. Drug abusers and police interventions became normal sights. The Eastside became a place people avoided at night.
The Eastside has become the focus of many urban projects in the City of Jacksonville, but statistics tell a sad tale. The median household income in the ZIP code where I grew up is about half the citywide average. According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, 41 percent of Eastside residents receive food stamps, compared with 16 percent of Jacksonville residents overall.
Now that I’m in graduate school, I can look up statistics that suggest I’ve beaten the odds. I’ve read about the studies showing that students who don’t read proficiently by the third grade are four times as likely to drop out of high school as those who do, and those in poverty are 13 times less likely to graduate on time than their more proficient, wealthier peers.
That was me. I failed third grade — twice.
I’ve written many times about how a school choice scholarship helped me turn my academics around and escape the pull of generational poverty. But as I work toward a master’s degree in social work and reflect on my experiences, I’ve come to understand how multiple community institutions helped me get where I am today.
The Eastside is full of abandoned homes and stores. People walk the neighborhood aimlessly with seemingly little hope. There are three zoned schools for the neighborhood, which were underperforming when I attended and still are, despite the best efforts of Duval County Public Schools. There are few real school options on the Eastside, though there are some in other surrounding neighborhoods. There are hardly any job opportunities for adults, and it feels like there is no way out for many who live there.
People from the Eastside know one another by name. Community members proudly chant “Eastside” while throwing up a hand symbol representing the letter E. Gatekeepers, or those who maintain Eastside culture, claim “status” if their family name is chanted in the same manner.
It seemed the Merriweathers had status. My family had lived in poverty for at least four generations in the same place, which isn’t uncommon on the Eastside. My relatives had earned a reputation for defending their own.
While the name may have protected me in the neighborhood, it also followed me into the classroom. One adult at school might turn to another and say, “She’s a Merriweather.” The name seemed to justify my behavior and hold me to a stereotype. Many teachers on the Eastside had been around a long time. I guess some of them assumed I was destined to drop out of school as a teenager, like my mom and her brother.
The earliest memory I have of school was in the second grade. I remember being puzzled and angry because I didn’t understand the lessons being taught. I remember wanting to ask my teacher to repeat herself, but I got the sense that she didn’t want to help me understand. I feared being ridiculed by the other students. My classmates were very critical. I did my best to just fit in.
It was during that time I began to hate school. The next couple of years felt like I was in a daze. Things at home were unstable. The time I spent with my biological mother was often in a Jacksonville hotel room. We moved more than five times over the next few years.
With every move, I’d wind up in a different school. With every new school, I had to meet new teachers, administrators, and classmates. I never expected to stay in one school for very long, so I often assumed the rules didn’t apply to me.
I remember days when I would walk into the classroom and everyone would sigh, including my teacher.
I grew disheartened. To hide my hurt, I often lashed out in physical fights with my classmates. The principal’s office became my new classroom, and I got used to being suspended. D’s and F’s filled my report cards.
Despite my facade, I wanted to learn, to be accepted, happy, and motivated.
In fourth grade, I had a gleam of hope. I was admitted into the school district’s STAR program. Its name stands for Students Taking Academic Responsibility, and it’s designed to help students get back to grade level. I was told the program was competitive and that if I behaved and got my grades up, I could be promoted to middle school, with other students my age.
I started writing myself letters in the voices of teachers, who reprimanded me: “Denisha, don’t talk today.” “Be good.” “No playing in class.” “Come on, you can do it.” I wanted to beat the teacher to it.
At the end of the year, I received notification that I wouldn’t be promoted to middle school. That news wrecked my self-esteem. But the summer before my sixth-grade year, the trajectory of my life began to change. I began living permanently with my godmother. We moved into a Habitat for Humanity home. She enrolled me at Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, a small, private school on the Northside of Jacksonville, using a Step Up for Students tax credit scholarship.
Now my life had something it hadn’t had before: stability. I had my own room at home, which provided me a place of solace. I didn’t have to change schools anymore. Living with my godmother didn’t separate me completely from my life on the Eastside. But she had a job at a Brooks Rehabilitation facility, made an honest wage, and set a good example for me.
Esprit de Corps is affiliated with the church I attended with my godmother. On the first day of school, I was racked with nervousness and embarrassment. I decided I was ready to defend myself no matter the cost. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew some students from church, and I was anxious because I thought they’d find out I was dumb. However, to my surprise, I never had to defend myself or my intellect. Esprit de Corps was unlike any school I’d ever experienced.
We had chapel every Tuesday and assembly every Friday. The faith-based environment taught me that God was interested in all my actions. I gradually gained confidence and consistently made the honor roll. I joined the basketball team, served in student government, and participated on the yearbook committee. Administrators chose me to become a cadet — a designation reserved for student leaders who wear red sweaters and help out on campus. It seemed like I finally had a normal life. …
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