When she walked across the stage as a freshly minted graduate of Tampa Catholic High School in May 2017, Cheyenne Daphney looked out at the audience cheering in the downtown theater and thought about all the help she got along the way.
Her mom, DJ Ruhland; her basketball coach, Matt Rocha; her teammates; and the rest of her Tampa Catholic family – they were all there giving a standing ovation.
Cheyenne also thought about the tax credit scholarship that made private school possible, and how she will soon start a new scholarship this summer at St. Petersburg College.
“I’ve got butterflies,” she said after the ceremony. “I’m so grateful. Tampa Catholic turned me around. I really don’t feel I would have made it to college without Tampa Catholic or Step Up.”
In ninth grade at her neighborhood school, Cheyenne’s grades slipped so badly her mom told the basketball coach to bench her despite being the best player on the team.
The discipline didn’t work and Cheyenne’s grades continued to slide. She even earned an F in one class and had to take an online summer course to make up for it.
DJ decided to make a change.
She secured a Step Up scholarship, which helps low-income and working-class students pay for private school tuition. Then she enrolled Cheyenne at Tampa Catholic, something she had always dreamed of but never thought she could afford.
Results were immediate.
“Within the first month, it was a whole different child,” DJ said. “She was calling me and telling me, ‘Mom, my homework is done,’ instead of me practically standing over her at 9 o’clock at night screaming about getting her homework done.”
There were higher expectations at TC, a warm atmosphere and smaller classes with more one-on-one attention.
It took time for Cheyenne to fully adjust, as girls basketball coach and theology teacher Matthew Rocha could clearly see.
“I could definitely tell that she felt like, ‘Oh, I’m in a school with a bunch of rich kids,’ ” he said. “She didn’t know necessarily where she fit.”
Thanks to her basketball family, though, Cheyenne started to open up. She told friends and teammates about the financial struggles that led her mom to move them into an extended stay hotel.
“I was kind of nervous for them to find out where I live,” she said, describing carpools that started off picking her up a couple of blocks from the hotel. “After a while, once I started to know the people here, I was more open to letting people know where I live.”
New challenges arose. A few months after arriving at TC, Cheyenne suffered a major knee injury, had surgery, and spent a week in the hospital with a life-threatening infection. A few months after that, DJ suffered a major stroke.
“It was a lot to go through,” DJ said, “but we got through it.”
Medical bills and time away from work, however, caused a financial strain.
Cheyenne “basically didn’t have things that we consider to be necessities,” Rocha said. “She didn’t have rides to go places. There were several nights where she wasn’t sure she would have dinner. One of our coaches would stop and get her something to eat to make sure that she had food.”
The team helped in other ways. Older teammates gave Cheyenne their uniforms and textbooks when they graduated. Carpools from a friend’s parent meant less time on the bus, and more time for DJ and Cheyenne to spend together on weekday mornings.
“Everybody treated me as a family,” Cheyenne said. “It was embarrassing to me (to be homeless), but my mom was so strong. It was a struggle, but we overcame it together as one. So now, I own it. It doesn’t make me sad or embarrassed anymore.”
Now Cheyenne is a graduate coming off a 3.1 GPA in her final year. It took two seasons to recover on the basketball court, but she hit her stride during her senior season and earned a scholarship to play for St. Pete College. She starts on July 1.
“The weight just lifted off my back,” Cheyenne said of her new scholarship. “I felt so free knowing I can continue school.”
That was always been the plan.
“I am so proud of her,” said DJ. “She’s turned out to be an amazing young woman who has a lot of amazing things ahead. Without moving her to Tampa Catholic, which was only possible because of Step Up For Students, I don’t think we’d be saying those same things today.”
“Even with Step Up For Students there was still tuition to be paid, and there were times when making that tuition payment was not easy. It was an investment – a do-able investment. Without Step Up For Students it wouldn’t have been do-able.”
About Tampa Catholic High School
Established in 1962, Tampa Catholic serves 754 students in grades 9-12, including 100 on the Step Up For Students scholarship. The average class has 24 students and a student/teacher ratio of 14:1. TC’s campus is at 4630 N. Rome Ave. in Tampa. Accredited by AdvancED, TC offers a wide-ranging curriculum with three programs tailored to each student’s performance – honors, college prep, and academic assistance – as well as 15 Advanced Placement courses and seven dual-enrollment courses. Depending on grade level, Tampa Catholic uses either the PSAT or PACT test. Tuition is $12,950 a year with discounts for parish members. The school annually gives $500,000 in need-based tuition assistance.
Jeff Barlis can be reached at email@example.com.