Thanks to “voucher,” girl and great-grandma find a school that’s like family

Editor’s note: Every month, Step Up For Students – which co-hosts this blog – profiles a family that benefits from Florida’s tax credit scholarship program. Here’s the latest:


Vivian Calhoun is raising a princess. She didn’t plan on it, but it’s working out just fine.

She gets to give and receive lots of hugs and kisses from her 6-year-old great-granddaughter, Anastasia, who came into the world to parents who couldn’t take care of her. But with Vivian’s help, the young girl is living much more of a fairy tale than was ever expected.

“She thinks she’s a princess,” Vivian said with a chuckle. “If you ask, she’ll tell you she’s royalty.”

Anastasia’s mother wasn’t able to care for her and her father has never really been a part of her life, Vivian said. And Anastasia’s grandmother, Vivian’s daughter, had problems of her own, so the great-grandmother did the only thing she could: Become Anastasia’s guardian and only true parental figure.

“It was an easy decision,” Vivian said.

Still, Vivian, 68 and a widow after 35 years of marriage, lives on her disability checks. She had to retire from working as a manager for staffing company because back surgery left her with permanent nerve damage. She gets less than $200 monthly from the state to help with Anastasia and does all she can to make the money stretch, she said. But seeing the effects of drugs and violence up close with loved ones, she wanted to ensure that Anastasia had a safe learning environment, and received individualized attention in smaller classrooms in a place that could instill similar values as Vivian was trying to teach at home. She also wanted Anastasia to feel like people at school were an extension of her family.

Vivian yearned to send Anastasia to a local private school that matched these needs, but she didn’t have the financial means until a neighbor told her about Step Up For Students, Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program that helps send low-income Florida students to private K-12 schools or out-of-district public schools.

During the 2011-12 school year, Anastasia started kindergarten at Christ’s Church Academy, formerly called Mandarin Christian School, in Jacksonville and is now 6 and in the first grade.

“Everybody is just so wonderful. It’s been smooth sailing,” Vivian said of the school and Anastasia’s adjustment to school life. “She’s so happy and doing so well.”

Anastasia loves CCA so much, her great grandmother said, that she doesn’t like school vacations and early dismissal days.

“She doesn’t want to leave the school, and that tells me a lot about the school,” Vivian said.

Through school, in addition to her love for princesses and Barbie dolls, Anastasia has become passionate about reading and excels in it. And, Vivian noted with pride, she enjoys homework.

But what she probably enjoys most, Vivian said, is the love and support she gets from CCA faculty and its students.

As the school’s Princess Ball, a father-daughter dance for the kindergarten through fifth-grade girls, approached in April of 2012, Anastasia had a request from Gene Gottlieb, the campus minister.

“Will you be my princess?” he asked her.

By all accounts, Anastasia’s smile at the ball sparkled more than her tiara.

“You could see it in her face. She was lit up,” said her kindergarten teacher Amy Keating. “She was a princess. She felt like everyone else.”

Gene remembered the evening fondly.

“I think it didn’t even matter that I wasn’t her biological father,” he said. “She was in her glory. She acted like any 6-year-old girl. She’s a doll.”

Vivian said that evening created a lifelong memory for Anastasia. But for the great-grandmother, it’s further proof that she’s made the right decision sending her to CCA.

“I thought it was wonderful. That’s just the kind of people they are,” she said. “It’s just a beautiful place.”

About Christ’s Church Academy, Jacksonville, FL

Christ’s Church Academy, a college preparatory school, opened in 1995 as Mandarin Christian School with a mission to foster well-rounded students through Christian values, excellence in academics, athletics and the arts. It began with kindergarten through fifth grade, gradually adding upper levels and now goes through 12th grade.  CCA is set on a nine-acre campus on Old St. Augustine Road in Jacksonville, and is comprised of more than 30 classrooms, plus four music rooms, two art rooms, two Mac labs, a media center, auditorium, gymnasium and two playgrounds. Additionally, the school boasts a 10-acre athletic complex with baseball, softball, soccer and football fields. Spanish is introduced in kindergarten and is included in the curriculum through elementary school, with an option in middle school and a foreign language requirement in high school. The school is a ministry of Christ’s Church of Jacksonville and is accredited by the Florida Council of Independent Schools, Florida Kindergarten Council, Association of Christian Schools International and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Tuition for the 2013-14 schoolyear is $7,570 for K-fifth grades; $8,655 for sixth through eighth; and $9,450 for ninth -12th grades. The school uses TerraNova tests to measure academic success. About 444 students are currently enrolled, 11 of which are Step Up scholars.

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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.