A science project and a hit movie has this scholar reaching for the stars

By ROGER MOONEY

PENSACOLA, Fla. – Zanaya Chase wants to be a fashion designer. Or a scientist.

Or, a fashion designer and scientist.

“I want to make products that can better this world,” she said.

For as long as she can remember, Zanaya wanted to design outfits that are mall-hip or red carpet-chic. Lately, she’s thought of another avenue for her creativity: spacesuits. Functional and stylish.

“If a lady wants to go into space and she wants to look good, I got something for her,” said Zanaya, 12, a sixth-grader at the Dixon School of Arts & Sciences in Pensacola.

“Why not?” asked her mother, Zoila Davis, who is thrilled to hear her daughter talk confidently about her future.

The science project at nearby Carpenter Creek has opened a new world for Dixon students Zanaya Chase, Ty’Shawn Jenkins and Jayla Brown

“I always tell her, ‘You do what makes you happy. Do what you like and what interests you and not somebody else,’” Davis said. “Just do something productive. That’s all I ask.”

Getting Zanaya to this point was not easy. It took three schools, one hit motion picture, her inclusion in a school science project and a chance encounter with an African-American female scientist at NASA.

“It’s turned out wonderful, just as we hoped it would,” said Margo Long, Zanaya’s aunt and the parent liaison at the Dixon School.

Expanding minds

It was former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, “The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of bigger ideas, never returns to its original size.

Dixon School principal Donna Curry embraces that concept.

Curry believes there is a switch inside each student that once flipped, unleashes unlimited potential.

She sees the Dixon School as a launching pad of possibilities for her students, nearly all of whom come from lower-income households and attend the K-8 private school with the help of a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, managed by Step Up For Students.

Dixon principal Donna Curry

“Many of our children have lost hope (because of their economic situation),” Curry said. “They don’t see themselves going anywhere or doing anything other than what they see (on the streets). So to turn that light on and for them to say, ‘I want to be an engineer,’ or ‘I want to be a scientist,’ or ‘I want to be a fashion designer,’ or ‘I want to be a chef,’ and know that the light is on, we found the switch.”

For Zanaya, who has a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, flipping that switch came in steps, the first of which was when Davis enrolled her daughter in the Dixon School.

Finding the switch

Zanaya attended her neighborhood school for two years and passed her classes, but said she didn’t feel as if she was learning anything. She attended a private school in third grade but didn’t think it was a good fit.

Life away from school during that time wasn’t easy. Her parents had starts and stops trying to make it as a family, and Zanaya spent time with her father in Miami and her mother in Pensacola.

Long noticed her niece never seemed happy.

“You could tell she had a lot of heaviness on her,” Long said. “She was in a dark place.”

Zanaya, who lives with her mom just north of Pensacola, was going into the fourth grade when her aunt joined the Dixon staff. Zanaya, enticed by the school that emphasis art and science and is heavy on project-based learning, quickly followed.

The art side of Dixon appealed to Zanaya. Davis said her daughter would spend hours cutting construction paper and, using her imagination, made things she wanted, like a laptop or a cell phone.

“She is very, very creative,” Davis said.

The move “Hidden Figures,” with its strong African-American female characters, had an impact on Zanaya.

Step Two occurred when Long took Zanaya to see the movie, “Hidden Figures,” a film about a trio of African-American female mathematicians and engineers who worked at NASA and played a pivotal role during the early 1960s when John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth.

“That actually inspired me,” Zanaya said.

Step Three happened in 2017 when Curry allowed Zanaya to join Jayla Brown and Ty’Shawn Jenkins, Dixon students who are a grade ahead of Zanaya, in a science project that required them to test water samples at Carpenter Creek, measure the width and depth of the creek and interview fisherman to determine which fish swim there.

Their findings earned them the status of “citizen scientist” and landed them a spot on the exhibition floor at the American Geophysical Union, held that December in New Orleans.

According to the organization’s website, the conference is “the largest worldwide conference in the geophysical sciences, attracting more than 22,000 Earth and space scientists, educators, students, and other leaders.”

For Zanaya, the switch was fully flipped at the convention when she met a NASA scientist.

“When I saw her, I said, ‘Oh my gosh. She’s a lady, and she’s African-American,’” Zanaya said. “I do want to learn about science and outer space. I always wonder if there is more than this universe.”

Hope for the future

Working alongside Jayla and Ty’Shawn in the mud at the creek served as motivation for Zanaya.

Dixon science teacher Michaela Norman, Jayla, Elizabeth Eubanks (who coordinates the science project), Ty’Shawn, Zanaya and Margo Long at Step Up’s Rising Star event in February.

Phase II of their Carpenter Creek project required them to identify the insects that are part of the food chain. Once again, they were invited to the American Geophysical Union conference, held December 2018 in Washington D.C.

The trio have begun work on Phase III, which requires them to develop their own questions about life at the creek and research the answers. A trip to the America Geophysical Union conference this December in San Francisco rides on this phase.

Both Ty’Shawn and Jayla, who attend Dixon on Florida Tax Credit scholarships, are excellent students, and both are excited about their future.

Everyone who knows Jayla, 12, tells her she would be a perfect fit as a criminal profiler at the CIA. She agrees. She enjoys watching crime shows, and she describes herself as the quiet observer in class.

“I like to get in people’s head and figure out why they do the things they do,” she said.

So, a future with the CIA?

“One day,” she said.

For Ty’Shawn, also 12, it might be a life studying living things.

“I really want to start learning what insects and other animals do to our world, our lives,” he said.

Great Expectations

Long, who came to Dixon after a career in law enforcement that included stints as a police officer and a prison guard working death row, is excited to work with students who have high expectations for their futures.

“It is amazing that for all of the negative that is on TV that these children still have the hope and the dream,” she said. “As far as they’re concerned, it is possible. No one has taken that innocence away from them or dulled that possibility that it can happen, so go for it.”A

Zanaya returns home from school each afternoon eager to tell her mom about what she learned that day. Davis said her daughter never talked like that before she began attending Dixon.

“Her mind has really opened,” Davis said. “It’s been a complete turnaround. She’s very independent. I don’t have to check on her with her schoolwork. She’s on top of her assignments. She communicated with her teachers. She gets good grades.

“They really did find that switch.”

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

About the Dixon School of Arts & Sciences

Founded in 2008, the private K-8 school offers a fine arts, science, technology, engineering, arts and math. The school blends core academics with field trips and the arts. Tuition is $4,600 plus an additional $2,400 in registration, fees, books and supplied, transportation and field trips. More than 90 percent of the students are on Step Up scholarships.

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