In his address to a joint-session of Congress this week, President Trump celebrated the success of Denisha Merriweather, a graduate student at the University of South Florida.
It's because she participated in Florida's tax credit scholarship program, Step Up For Students, which targets assistance for low-income students. Merriweather has been a longtime advocate of school choice.
“I was super excited to just to be there, and to embody all of these stories of students who have succeeded because of other options,” she said.
Merriweather attended Jacksonville public schools until fifth grade. There, she said she and her classmates struggled with academics and behavior problems.
“We were all poor. We all came from dysfunctional families," she said. "We all came into school not focused on school. And that's really stressful.”
By the time she reached sixth grade, Merriweather didn’t know her multiplication tables and felt uncomfortable reading out loud. That same year, she moved in with her godmother and got involved with Step Up For Students, Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program. It paid most of her tuition at a private, religiously-affiliated school called Esprit de Corps.
Merriweather said she appreciated the school’s kind teachers and high expectations. She began to thrive academically. But her siblings stayed in the public school system.
“I'm the oldest. My youngest sister, who's fourteen...She's failed three times," she siad. "One of my brothers dropped out of school. My other two brothers have been in and out of jail… They didn’t have the same opportunities I did.”
This spring, Merriweather will graduate with her master's degree in social work. She said she hopes to incorporate school choice advocacy into her social work.
“I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, how I can bridge my alter ego,” she said.
Merriweather said she has many connections in Washington, D.C., including Indiana Congressman Luke Messer and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. She attended DeVos' confirmation hearing and has been involved with the American Federation for Children, a charity that DeVos used to chair.
“I've been close with Ms. DeVos over the years, with sharing my story at AFC conferences and I even went to the west Michigan policy summit to share my story in her hometown in Grand Rapids," Merriweather said
She's sure DeVos had something to do with her being invited to and mentioned in the president's speech.