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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Denisha’s story

Education is the civil rights issue of our time,” said President Trump in his speech to Congress. He called for funding “school choice for disadvantaged youth, including millions of African-American and Latino children,” saying, “families should be free to choose the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school that is right for them.”

Denisha Merriweather

He introduced Denisha Merriweather, who “struggled in school and failed third grade twice” before she was able to use a tax-credit scholarship to enroll in a private school. Merriweather became the first in her family to finish high school and college; in a few months, she’ll earn her master’s in social work, said Trump. “We want all children to be able to break the cycle of poverty just like Denisha.”

Merriweather told her story on The 74. Her life changed the summer before sixth grade when she went to live with her godmother, who provided a stable home, a responsible role model and a new start in school. Using a Step Up for Students scholarship, Merriweather enrolled her in a private Christian school in Jacksonville, Florida.

The “faith-based environment taught me that God was interested in all my actions,” she recalled.

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.

Her godmother enrolled her in an afterschool program at the Police Athletic League, which provided structure.

As a high school student, she took “dual enrollment” classes at a local community college. Her school helped her find college scholarships.

Merriweather is an eloquent advocate of school choice, including traditional public schools, homeschooling and charters.

I believe all these venues and more need to be accessible to kids growing up in poverty, who need more high-quality school options. But I also believe they need healthy community support, stable home environments and individuals who can serve as mentors. I hope to see all schools serving children in poverty embrace a wraparound model, providing not only education but also health, social, dental and other community services such as after-school programs.

If Denisha Merriweather’s “biological mother” had been offered “high-quality school options,” would she have chosen something better than the neighborhood school? It doesn’t sound like it. Sometimes, it takes a godmother.

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