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20 years of Educational Opportunity: Once a beneficiary of education choice, Ashley is now an advocate

BY ROGER MOONEY

The first time Ashley Elliott realized her story could make a difference was when she found herself in Washington, D.C., moving from the office of Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Orlando) to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) to talk about the importance of education choice.

It works, Ashley said. You’re looking at proof.

It was a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship that changed the trajectory of her life for the better. She went from being a bullied student with failing grades at her district high school to one who aced her classes and made friends after enrolling in a private school as a junior. She was a college freshman when she was invited to Washington to share her story, and she didn’t hold back.

“If I could change the hearts of legislatures then it meant that things could change for kids in Florida, as well,” Ashley said.

Once a beneficiary of education choice, Ashley is now an advocate for education choice.

“I think where I see myself (in the future) is just always trying to make educational opportunity a continuing option, at least within Florida and hopefully in the U.S.,” she said.

Step Up For Students celebrates its 20th anniversary this school year. Last year, it funded its millionth scholarship. Many have used the FTC scholarship, provided by corporate tax contributions to Step Up, to combat economic hardship and graduate from high school.  And many of those high school graduates have pursued a college education.

Once a beneficiary of education choice, Ashley Elliott now advocates for education choice.

Indeed, research shows Ashley is hardly alone. A 2017 report by the Urban Institute found that FTC students were up to 43 percent more likely than similarly disadvantaged students in public schools to attend a four-year college, and those who were on the scholarship for at least four years were 99 percent more likely to attend college. They also were more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees.

 Ashley counts herself among that group of FTC alumni. She already has an associate degree from Valencia College and is on pace to graduate this spring from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor’s degree in history. She would like to pursue a master’s degree in history or education policy, and possibly continue on for a Ph.D. She currently works part-time as a writer for the American Federation for Children and would love to continue working for the nonprofit after she graduates UCF.

Ashley said that “ninth-grade Ashley” never thought any of this was possible.

“She wouldn’t know how I got here. She would be confused,” she said. “But ninth-grade Ashley would be happy for me.”

Growing up in Lakeland, Florida, Ashley described her life as the “epitome of American poverty.” She and her younger brother were adopted by their grandmother. They both call Juanita McKinnon “Mom.”

 Despite the love at home and the sacrifices made by Juanita, who gave up her retirement years to raise her grandchildren, Ashley didn’t see much of a future for herself. She didn’t think she would graduate high school. She was resigned to being what she called “a statistic.”

But the principal and a teacher at the alternative high school she attended took an interest in Ashley. When they moved to a private school, they asked Ashley to move, too. With the help of the FTC scholarship, Ashley entered Victory Christian Academy as a junior and went from a student with failing grades and discipline issues to one who earned A’s and B’s and graduated with honors.

“Your education determines your future,” she said. “When I received school choice, it changed my future. I want that opportunity for everyone, not just me.”

Ashley and her mom, Juanita McKinnon.

Ashley forged tight bonds with her teachers at Victory Christian. She remains in touch with many of them. She’ll ask some to proofread a paper before she turns it into one of her college professors.

“They’re always there when I need them,” she said. “I know I can go back and get the help I need at any point in my life.”

Ashley is quick to recount a parent/teacher conference during eight grade where she and Juanita met with seven of her teachers. Two thought Ashley could salvage her grades and graduate. Ashley felt the other five had given up on her.

It was only recently when sharing that story with a couple of her college friends when one asked, “Did you ever think you weren’t receiving the proper help?” that Ashley fully grasped what it meant.

“And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re right,’” she said. “Because when I went to Victory there were the proper teachers to help me. A lot of it was about finding the right environment that worked for me.”

That’s what Ashley advocates for: The proper learning environment for every student. It can be achieved, she said, if families have a say, a chance to choose the education environment for their children.

In February, Ashley spoke to lawmakers in New Mexico. She told them that according to social statistics she should be a high school dropout, not someone who is a few credits shy of a college degree.

“It makes me really frustrated and upset that while our kids are going through the system and suffering, (lawmakers) are saying, ‘Wait. Wait. Just wait for it to be fixed. We’re working on it. Give it some time,’” she said.

“While legislators are saying that, school choice will be there to give an option for students who don’t have that time to wait. There’s no time to wait for a kid who’s trying to get through school. You have to be educated. I want to make sure that educational opportunities are always an option.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at rmooney@sufs.org.

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