Private school “vouchers” give siblings fresh start, new foundation

Editor’s note: Every month, Step Up For Students profiles a family that benefits from Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. This month it’s the Jenkins family of Tampa.

Sharla Jenkins and her family at school.

Sharla and Donald Jenkins are raising six children, but less than a year ago, they were parents of two.

After relatives wound up in a personal crisis, Sharla and Donald became guardians to their three nieces and nephew. With all of the children ages 9 and under, including one active 3-year-old boy, her life is busier than ever– and the family’s home is louder for sure.

On Oct. 18, the courts finalized the arrangement. Sharla and Donald are now permanent legal guardians to their nieces and nephew, but would love to one day take it a step further and adopt the children. In the meantime, the new additions to the family are treated like they have always been a part of the Jenkins’ clan. For Sharla, that meant providing all the school-aged children with an education that she felt suited the children best.

All five are now Step Up For Students scholars attending Bible Truth Ministries Academy in Tampa, a small private school serving pre-K through eighth grade children. Even Demarcus, the 3-year-old, attends preschool there.

“There was no way I could afford to send them to private school,” said Sharla, who is a full-time volunteer at the school where she teaches and even fills in for the principal when she’s away. Her husband’s income supports the now large family.

The couple’s biological children, Sarah, 9, and Elijah, 7, have been attending Bible Truth since they were in preschool.  And it was important to them that their nieces and nephew got the same education.

“It’s a more personal environment of say being in a classroom with 35 kids,” Sharla said, adding that the average classroom size at Bible Truth is 16 students. “The teachers know how to better help them.”

The second part, she said, was especially important with the new youngsters who now share her home.

After her nieces and nephew were removed from their parents’ home more than a year ago, they were placed together in a group foster home.One of the girls had such an aversion to going to school that eventually the home leaders just let her stay home, missing countless days of school, Sharla said, because it was easier to let her stay home rather than battle. But she now enjoys going to school.

“They all hit the ground running. They all started doing really well,” she said of the nieces and nephews who had all been in their neighborhood school.

Suzette Dean, the school’s principal, is pleased with their progress, too.

“It hasn’t been a year yet, and they weren’t reading when they came and those who could were barely reading,” she recalled. “And they’re reading down to the youngest girl. They’re doing very well in class.”

Back at home, Sharla said, things are going well and the children – who hadn’t even met before the family troubles – are more like siblings than cousins.

Those outside the family from the case workers to attorneys weren’t so sure the two families would blend so well, Sharla said.

“They held their breath. They were waiting for it to fall apart, but it didn’t,” she said. “It’s been great.”

Sharla explained to her children that something “bad happened” in their cousin’s family and that they could no longer stay with their parents. The Jenkins children immediately said that their cousins were family and that they should come live with them. After many months of weekend visits, that’s exactly what happened in November 2011.

“They all get along. They all did well together and work together,” she said.

Sharla is most in awe of the changes she sees in Shemara, 9, Eboni, 8, Maresha, 6 and Demarcus, 3. When they first arrived, the children were so uncertain of what the future would hold.

“Now, they are more like carefree, happy-go-lucky (children).They say hi to everyone, and at the end of the day, they know where they’re going.”

On an early, rainy fall day, the children gathered in a small classroom after school, girls lined on one side of the table and the two boys on another, and talked about their new life. Demarcus climbed atop Elijah’s lap and the pair looked content.

“He is his shadow,” Sharla said, with a slight smile.

The girls giggled.  They talked about being part of a big family now.

“The girls are fun,” said Sarah enthusiastically, adding there are benefits to having more members in the family. “The good thing is we pick up faster, so we can watch TV faster.”

They all agreed.

About Bible Truth Ministries Academy

Principal Suzette Dean started Bible Truth Ministries Academy in 1999 with eight neighborhood children in a converted upstairs apartment of her home in East Tampa. The following year, she and her husband, the Rev. Daniel Dean, moved the school into an abandoned house beside a church on East Ellicott Street, and in January 2006, they relocated to their current location, which they built with their own hands, on North 22nd Street. The pre-K through 12th grade school’s first graduating class in 2008 consisted of only one student  The school currently has about 86 students, of which about 20 are Step Up scholars.  The academy has a multi-grade learning environment rather than traditional grade-specific classrooms, and the average class size is 16 students. The school uses the Stanford Achievement Test to measure individual academic success. Tuition for the 2012-2013 school year is $4,300.

Avatar photo

BY Lisa A. Davis

Lisa A. Davis, a Massachusetts native, cut her journalistic teeth in the Boston market as a student reporter for The Boston Globe and moved to the Tampa Bay area in 1994, where she continued her nearly 20-year career. For more than a decade, she covered crime, courts and local government for The Tampa Tribune, and most recently was a correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). She joined Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that oversees the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program for low-income children, in May 2012 as the public relations manager and chief storyteller.