If Ashley Elliott’s story continued to unwind the way it began, it was sure to be labeled as a tragedy. She was born drug addicted to a single mom whose love of escaping reality in the most unnatural of ways was greater than her maternal instincts.
“Statistically speaking, I should be on drugs, be dropped out and be pregnant or even have a baby right now,” Elliott said. “But I don’t.”
Fortunately for Elliott, she had the help – and as it turns out, the strength – to spin her story in a different direction. “I grew up in the epitome of American poverty. But I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up anyplace else because it taught me to be humble; it taught me to get out of tough situations; it taught me to help others to get out of these situations,” said Elliott, now 19 and a 2016 high school graduate freshman in college. “That’s why I want to be a teacher.”
At a young age, Elliott was adopted by her grandmother, who also lived in poverty and struggled with health issues. She did the best she could and showered Elliott with love. But as the saying goes, sometimes love just isn’t enough.
By the time Elliott was a teenager, she didn’t feel like she belonged at her neighborhood school and was being bullied. As a result, her grades plummeted. It was at a “last-resort” alternative public school in Polk County where she met teacher Jen Perez, who saw the hurt in Elliott’s eyes and the daily struggle she faced. Mark Thomas, an administrator at the school, noticed it, too.
After Elliott had a fistfight with a boy in ninth grade, Perez reached out to her. “I told her everything that was going on,” Elliott said. “That’s when I knew I could trust her.” The trust quickly became mutual, as Elliott began babysitting Perez’s children. Thomas earned that trust by showing that he cared for Elliott’s well-being. When her family’s power was shut off, for instance, he stopped by with a chicken meal. So, when Thomas accepted an opportunity to lead Victory Christian Academy in Lakeland, it shook Elliott.
“I ran and said, ‘You can’t leave; you can’t leave!’” she said. “I knew the next administrator wouldn’t be someone I could lean on. “Two days later, Ms. Perez called me and said, ‘I think I’m leaving.’” As Elliott’s world froze, Thomas and Perez talked about their special student. “What are we going to do with Ashley?” they asked each other. The answer hit them. “We take her with us,” Perez said.
When Perez first suggested it, Elliott, armed with misconceptions about the private school, resisted. She worried about rich kids and snobbery and, once again, not fitting in. She also thought it was infeasible, until she learned about the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program through Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps administer the program funded by corporate donations. Suddenly, she was a private school student with Perez and Thomas by her side.
“These two people have been in my life and led me in the right direction before I even knew it,” Elliott said. Things started to change. Elliott began to change. “In my first year, as a junior, I got A’s, B’s and C’s,” she said proudly. “I had my grandma come to school for an open house. She was like, ‘Oh Ashley, A’s, B’s and C’s! You haven’t done this well in a long time!’”
She also ran track and started to tell her story. She made friends and earned the respect, and perhaps admiration, of the so-called “rich kids.” Her confidence grew. And she learned the biggest life lesson one could ever learn: “Your situation does not define you,” she said. “You define your situation.”
When Elliott arrived at Victory, her GPA was 2.16. When she walked across the stage and turned her mortarboard’s tassel from right to left, she had a 3.3 GPA, an acceptance to Valencia College and a plan to continue and complete her teaching degree at the University of Central Florida.
She eventually wants to earn a master’s degree.
“At Victory with the Step Up program, it gave me a chance to succeed because they told me I was worth it,” Elliott said. “Step Up and Victory have changed my life.”
Lisa A. Davis can be reached at email@example.com.
By GEOFF FOX
Darius Cook wants to someday become an entrepreneur.
He isn’t sure yet what type of business he wants to run, but the outgoing recent graduate of Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando said he feels confident that his communications skills will be used.
Cook, 18, is working as a cashier at Publix, while he waits to start classes at Valencia College in August. After completing two years at Valencia, he plans to transfer to the University of Central Florida in Orlando. The costs will be covered, in part, by a tuition-reimbursement program at Publix.
His mother, Amy Cook, takes pride in her oldest son’s bright prospects. In 2008, as Darius prepared to enter fifth grade, the single mother of four worried he wasn’t getting a quality education at their neighborhood school.
“It was the worst of the worst,” she said. “My daughter went there, so I was kind of involved, but the environment and the other kids there were not nice kids. And there was no personalized attention. There was no art and music, just math and reading, and tutoring to pass the FCAT.”
At the day care center where her youngest children stayed, administrators told Cook about Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that helps manage the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. The program helps expand educational opportunities for lower-income children.
Cook was skeptical. She said she applied for the scholarship in 2008, mostly so the day care workers would stop “pushing me to sign up for it.”
She is now thankful for their perseverance.
“It wasn’t difficult; it was too good to be true,” said Cook, who works as a server at a local deli. “I didn’t think it was going to happen.”
Thanks to the scholarship, Darius was enrolled at Saint Andrew Catholic School, a kindergarten through eighth grade school in south Orlando.
“It’s literally in my backyard. I mean, we can literally jump the fence to get there,” Cook said. “And it is a (National) Blue Ribbon school. When Darius started going to Saint Andrew, I noticed how much of a better education he got than my (older) daughter. It’s a huge difference, especially among their peers. There’s no bullying. It’s friendly and a nice environment.”
Darius said the differences between Saint Andrew and the public school were obvious from Day One.
“It’s a more controlled learning environment,” he said. “The classes are smaller and the teachers are a lot more available to help you. Multiple times, I went in earlier in the morning and my math teacher came in early to tutor me, just because I asked her to.
“To this day, I feel close enough to go in and talk with them.”
Besides excelling in the classroom at Saint Andrew, Darius participated in soccer, volleyball, basketball and track.
“Darius was always a gifted communicator and leader in his class,” said Andy Sojourner, assistant principal at Saint Andrew. “I’ve seen him a few times since he graduated and gone onto the public high school. He talks about how much he valued his time here and wants to be involved in alumni (groups) in a leadership capacity.”
While Dr. Phillips High is a public school, Cook said that Saint Andrew helped Darius make a smooth transition.
“They really work on your individual needs,” she said. “The school’s eighth-grade class was small – 30 kids. Some of them went to another private high school. Darius and four other kids went to Dr. Phillips, and (Saint Andrew) did a very good job of preparing them.”
Cook’s youngest sons, A.J., 13, and Nicolas, 8, now attend Saint Andrew, thanks again to Step Up and the scholarship program.
According to Sojourner, A.J. is also a gifted student-athlete.
“He balances (sports and academics) really well,” Sojourner said. “Nicolas is a great young man. Their family is just very involved in the community. They’re always at our fundraisers and volunteering for activities at the school.”
Nowadays, when he isn’t working or studying, Darius said he most enjoys attending a local ping-pong club, where he takes lessons and competes against high-level players.
While his future aspirations are formulating, he has a general idea that his communications talents will come into play.
“At a young age it was cultivated that I had good skills in talking to people and handling situations,” he said. “I’ll find what’s best for me, based on my skill set.”
Geoff Fox is always looking to tell a great story about our scholarship programs. Have Step Up students, partner school, therapist, teacher or other related news you to see a story about? Please reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.