By GEOFF FOX
Ten years after graduating from The Rock School, a K-12 Christian school in Gainesville, Alani Charles is working to ensure that some of Florida’s most vulnerable residents are cared for properly.
At 27, Charles is married to wife Tara and has a 4-year-old son, Olin. For several years, he and Tara Charles worked as family teachers at Boys Town North Florida in Tallahassee. Boys Town is a nonprofit that offers a variety of services to at-risk children and troubled families.
“We were basically like foster parents for four to seven children at a time,” Alani Charles said. “We’d take them to school, take them to dinner. Whatever was needed. I’ve always kind of had a desire to help people.”
A couple years ago, he accepted a new job as a licensing specialist at Daniel Memorial, Inc., in Jacksonville. Daniel Memorial is considered Florida’s oldest child-serving agency.
“What I do is I go out to foster homes and license them; I make sure they’re in compliance to take care of children,” Charles said. “I go into people’s homes. I make sure they’re up-to-date on training, and make sure that things like fire extinguishers and alarms are working. We ensure that parents have all their needs met, as well as the children. I make sure they have the basic necessities.”
While Charles was not raised in foster care, he had personal experience with a broken home, as his parents divorced around the time he entered high school. That left his mother, Maureen Charles, to alone raise Alani and her older son Carlos by herself.
Although Alani Charles wasn’t a troublemaker, he said that period of his life was full of distractions. He didn’t care much for his neighborhood school and was mostly out to have fun.
That’s when administrators at The Rock School in Gainesville told his mother about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship through Step Up For Students. The scholarship provides financial assistance to low-income families for private school, or assists with transportation costs to attend a public school outside their home district.
Charles said he was comfortable going to The Rock School, as it is affiliated with his family’s church, The Rock of Gainesville.
Maureen Charles said her sons did well in school before they started attending The Rock, but that they both flourished there.
“The atmosphere (at The Rock) was a lot more challenging and people expected more of you,” Alani Charles said recently. “Between going to church and school, I was there six days a week.”
Not only did Alani Charles become co-captain of the basketball team, captain of the soccer team and a track and field participant, who competed in shot put and discus, but his study habits were also bolstered and refined.
The same went for Carlos Charles
In 2006, Alani Charles graduated from The Rock – in a class of 13 – with a 3.8 grade point average. He was named the school’s top scholar-athlete and won awards for exemplifying commitment, trust, excellence and leadership.
Jim McKenzie, principal at The Rock, said he is not surprised by Alani Charles’ continued success.
“He had a great experience here,” McKenzie said, adding that the former student still occasionally visits his old school. “We hope that his experience will be like that for a lot of the kids who come here on scholarship. (Alani) is just a really personable, charismatic guy – friends with everybody. He was always very compassionate and had a big heart; he’s like a big teddy bear.
“He had a big, larger-than-life personality that went with his (physical) stature, but he was very gentle, as well.”
Spurred by his success, Charles enrolled at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, where he graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology.
In May 2015, Carlos Charles graduated from Huston-Tilliotson University – a private, historically black university – in Austin, Texas, where he earned a degree in music, his mother said.
“He stopped (going to college), but he went back,” Maureen Charles said of Carlos. “I always told them you must finish what you start. It took him a little while, but he finished good and that’s the main thing.”
Both her sons have made her proud.
“If you work hard, it pays off. I always told them you don’t get anything for free.”
By JEFF BARLIS
As early as sixth grade, Lacey Nowling knew her love for children was calling her to become a pediatrician.
Living in the tiny town of Jay, Fla., in the far northwestern reaches of the panhandle, she had a clear vision of her future.
But certainty turned to doubt as her school work got harder and harder in ninth grade.
“She had bad grades,” Lacey’s mom, Elizabeth Nowling, recalled. “She was running D’s and F’s most of the school year. She was just barely making it by the skin of her teeth.”
At the same time, Lacey was feeling more and more out of place at her neighborhood school. Because of the bad influences there, she was becoming distracted from her schoolwork. Then, the only thing that was keeping her at that school – band – fell apart as well.
“Band was my safe place,” she said. “Band was what kept me going.”
The last straw was at band camp when Lacey, a piccolo player, unwittingly broke a rule by drinking Gatorade on the field. The director chided her in front of the band and made her stay in a push-up position for the rest of practice.
“After practice we went back to the band room, and I went into the bathroom and cried,” Lacey said, still emotional as she recounted the event years later. “It was a few weeks later when I quit.”
For months, Lacey’s mother had been pushing her to transfer to Faith Christian Academy, a private school at their church. Lacey was now open to the change.
Her younger brother, Zack, was already attending FCA with the help of the Step Up For Students scholarship, which gives parents the ability to choose from more than 1,600 participating private schools statewide.
The Nowlings, with dad Obie in construction and mom Elizabeth a homemaker, were among the first families at Faith Christian Academy to receive the scholarship. They would not have been able to afford the tuition otherwise.
“I’m so grateful we have that opportunity, that choice,” Elizabeth said.
Lacey transferred to FCA for 10th grade and slowly started improving the 2.30 GPA she had in her neighborhood school. Along that road to recovery was a lot of catching up on the school work she couldn’t master before.
Somewhere in her first year at Faith Christian, Lacey revived her dream. And to keep it alive, she made a remarkably mature decision to repeat 11th grade.
“She had such a desire to go to college and to do more with her life that she came to us and said, ‘I’m just going to stay another year,’ ” said principal Sandra Lassiter. “She knew it was going to be very hard to just try to cram in everything. What she had left to do she could have easily thought it was too much and just quit, but she didn’t.”
“Her grades were good. She was really wanting to get those harder classes in, instead of just getting a general diploma, to strive for a college prep diploma. She knew that would really help her in going to college.”
That it did. Lacey graduated FCA in 2015 with a 3.37 GPA. and became the first in her family to attend college. She began studying nursing last year at Jefferson Davis Community College, just across the state line in Brewton, Ala. She had a B average in her first year.
“I did have some reservations with her going out into the big world,” Elizabeth said. “I didn’t know how it was going to be. Her goal is to get her nursing degree and then as she’s working, continue on with her education to be a pediatrician. She truly loves children and they love her.”
Thanks to Lacey’s perseverance and help from a Step Up scholarship, her dream of becoming Dr. Nowling is on its way to becoming reality.
About Faith Christian Academy
Originally called Cobbtown Christian Academy, the school opened on Aug. 25, 2010 with six students. In the 2015-16 school year, Faith Christian Academy had 33 students enrolled in grades K-12, 13 of whom were on the Step Up For Students scholarship. FCA, located at 13050 Highway 89 in Jay, Fla., is expecting to grow to 53 students this fall for the 2016-17 school year. The school employs two curriculums – A.C.E. (or Accelerated Christian Education) and A Beka – and is switching from the Stanford 10 standardized test to the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Annual tuition is $3,000 a year.
Editor’s note: Around here at the Step Up For Students office, Denisha Merriweather is a household name, so to speak. Since she became a scholar in sixth grade, we have cheered for her, watched her grow, celebrated her achievements, and best of all, gotten to really know her. Now we’re thrilled to call her a colleague as she recently joined us as an intern and as the first Step Up scholar to join our staff. We’re proud to have her here. And we hope this is the first of many scholars to become part of our team.
By Denisha Merriweather, Step Up For Students Intern
Hi! I am Denisha Merriweather, recipient of the Step Up For Students scholarship, high school graduate, master’s student at the University of South Florida in Tampa and the newest member of the Step Up team as intern!
I was a Florida Tax Credit scholar from the sixth through 12th grade. Before receiving the scholarship, I attended neighborhood schools, which changed often because my family moved around my hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. constantly. Due to that lack of stability, support and attention, my performance in school was below average. As a result, I ended up failing the third grade. Twice. Being two years older than everyone in my class was discouraging. I felt like a failure, and no matter how hard I tried to do better in school nothing seemed to help. Having no hope for the future, I could really see myself headed down a dark path, dropping out of high school and living my life full of constant struggle.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
Upon my entry in the sixth grade, my godmother found out from a family friend about the Step Up For Students scholarship, and applied. This allowed me to choose to attend Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, a private school on the north side of Jacksonville. The school was such a great fit for me. The classroom size was small and the teachers were extremely engaging. Esprit became my home away from home. Thanks to the scholarship, my confidence soared at Esprit de Corps. I knew I could do anything I put my mind to. I was exposed to many different opportunities, which changed my attitude about school completely – and life. I now knew I could go to college and maybe one day even receive a Ph.D.
Due to my life experiences, I have dedicated much of my free time to support the tax-credit scholarship program. I have shared my story with donors, legislators and people of affluence, but most importantly, I’ve opened up to other students. This has allowed more and more opportunities for these groups of people to gain an understanding about the Step Up For Students program and hopefully for them to get involved, so that Step Up can continue to make a difference in children’s lives across the state of Florida.
I also share my story to give hope to those students who may be like me, but still struggling to find their paths to success. The children like me who have the potential to be more than they are, but just need someone to help lift them up, and show them they can change their life’s course for the better. For all of the kids who are like this, I urge you to realize that nothing is too hard for you to achieve. Things may look challenging and you may not see a way out, but know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You have a purpose and your struggle is pushing you closer and closer to it. Seize it.
Now that I am a part of the Step Up team, I am excited to learn more about the scholarship program. Being a scholarship recipient, I had had some knowledge about the duties of the scholarship program staff. However, upon my first days in the office, I became quickly aware that Step Up is so much more, and a lot of work goes into making scholarships, and other school choice programs, possible for families in Florida. It has been surreal meeting all of the individuals who labor tirelessly for parents and children to have opportunities they never knew they could have. I have a new appreciation for the commitment of the Step Up team. Thanks guys!
I am now ready to be a part of this great team and assist in making this program even better. Someone recently imparted great words of wisdom to me, saying that “People rarely succeed by themselves.” Understanding this, I zealously accept the role as an advocate for parents and children, standing in the gap, working for them, as someone once did for me.
When Denisha isn’t hitting the books or standing up for school choice, she enjoys spending time with friends and attending bible study at her church. However, like most college students she loves to watch television and sleep. Denisha says she dreams to speak fluent Spanish and to one day learn how to play the Chinese violin.