It worked well for her daughters, Malkia and Rukiya. But her son, Osakwe, really struggled in the third grade.
“He needed more help in math and science,” Christopher-Garnes said. “He was falling behind. When I asked what the school could offer, they really didn’t have anything.’’
So Christopher-Garnes made up her mind. It was time to find another school.
“I just knew in my heart I needed to make a change for my son or he would fall through the cracks,’’ she said.
She turned to her church, Pentecostal Tabernacle International, which operates a small private school for children in prekindergarten through eighth grade called PenTab Academy. Christopher-Garnes, a native of Trinidad, had volunteered at the school, which serves a diverse international community, and eventually became an assistant in the VPK program.
Separated from her husband, she didn’t think she could afford private school tuition. But Principal Barbara Sharpe told her about the income-based Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program through Step Up For Students.
With Malkia heading into high school, Christopher-Garnes liked the idea of keeping Rukiya and Osakwe together.
“I applied for the scholarship and as a family we prayed,’’ she said. “When I did get the award letter, I started jumping up and screaming and, of course, the kids joined in. I was so excited! PenTab is our church home and now it would be our children’s school home.’’
She enrolled Osakwe and Rukiya in the fourth and fifth grades, respectively. Both children responded well to the academy’s small classes, individualized curriculum and caring teachers, who took time to understand their needs. Osakwe still struggled with math, but his seventh-grade teacher made an extra effort to work with him.
“She opened up a whole different part of how he thought about math and how he looked at it,’’ Christopher-Garnes said. “She really made a great impact on him.’’
Today, Osakwe is a sophomore at Miami Norland Senior High School, a traditional public school where Rukiya is a junior. They both earn A’s and B’s and take honors classes, said Christopher-Garnes.
A bigger school brought larger classes, but having a good foundation from PenTab helped, said Osakwe, who also plays on the junior varsity football team. Now he’s focused on earning athletic and academic scholarships to help pay for college, and appreciates the assistance he and his family received through Step Up For Students.
“It’s a big opportunity and it helps a lot,’’ Osakwe said.
And PenTab truly has become a home for his family. Malkia, 23, teaches 4-year-old students in the school’s prekindergarten program. Ngozi is a third-grader and Naima is a first-grader, thanks to their scholarships. Anaya also is a Step Up scholar, but the fifth-grader moved this school year from PenTab to nearby Holy Cross Lutheran School.
“She was getting a little too comfortable with mom at school,’’ Christopher-Garnes said. “Everybody knows everybody here. I needed her to be challenged a bit more.’’
The youngest in the family, Aakil, is only 1 ½, but his mom plans to enroll him in PenTab, too, when he’s old enough.
“Without the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, I would not be able to afford to have them in these wonderful learning environments – environments I can trust,” Christopher-Garnes said.