‘It was always my dream to put my kids through private education’

Davion Manuel-McKenney
Davion Manuel-McKenney

Editor’s note: Behind all the debate, real kids benefit from school choice, whether it’s a voucher, a tax credit scholarship, a charter school or a more traditional public school choice option like a magnet school or career academy. Here’s but one example: Davion Manuel-McKenny, who was profiled this month by the Step Up For Students marketing team. 

Davion Manuel-McKenney was just weeks away from starting his new life as a college student when he was flipping through a family photo album and came across an image of his mother and him from many years ago. In the photo, the toddler is perched atop his mother’s lap, her arms are wrapped around his tiny body.  And both flash electric smiles.

The reminiscing inspired Davion to post the photograph on his Facebook page with a note to his mother: “We have come a long way. Love U Ma.”

In the beginning, the odds to attend college weren’t in his favor if only the basic facts of his life were considered. He was born to an unwed teenaged mother, who at the time hadn’t completed her own education. But with the love of his mother and family, the determination that was in their genes and the help of many along the way, Davion is now a freshman at Florida State College at Jacksonville.

A younger Davion and his mom
A younger Davion and his mom

“There was never a doubt I would go to college,” Davion said during a telephone interview from the new apartment he now shares with three roommates.

Both mother and son said they were saddened to have Davion move about 85 miles north of his home in Ormond Beach, but it was time for him to live out what they have been working toward since his mother, Faith, was just 15. Faith Manuel’s first name seems to guide her. While she became pregnant at age 14 and gave birth at 15, she remained hopeful it would all workout. She married Davion’s father, Nicholas McKenney, and they went on to have two more children. While the couple’s marriage didn’t last, their dedication to their children remained intact and does today. Still, for Faith, the financial struggles that often come with being a single mother were very much a challenge, and when it came time for her eldest child to go to middle school, Faith didn’t like what she saw.

“He was going to be zoned for a school that I was not comfortable with,” she said, adding that there were instances of violence at the school.

Desperate not to send Davion into such an environment, she started researching alternatives – and a way to pay for them. She found Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that administers school choice scholarships to low-income students (and co-hosts this blog).

“It was always my dream to put my kids through private education,” said Faith, who now has an associate degree and plans on soon furthering her own education.

She wanted to find a school that she felt would be the best fit for her son. She was thrilled when Davion received a Step Up scholarship. When his first scholarship school didn’t work out, he was easily able to transfer with the scholarship to Calvary Christian Academy, which was part of their church in Ormond Beach. The fit was perfect.“We really got into a family, a network and it spilled into church and school,” Faith said.  “He was immediately embraced by the students and teachers, which helped him excel and go for it.”

At Calvary, Davion had fewer distractions than at his previous schools and was able to focus more on academics.   He also was on the school’s track and basketball teams, took on the role of student chaplain and enjoyed spending time with the pre-school children. He graduated from high school in the spring of 2012.

Ronda Crickenberger, his former teacher, guidance counselor and assistant principal recalled Davion, whom she said she considers a son.

“He is one of the most unique young men I have had the good fortune to work with,” said Crickenberger, who recently became principal at The Tabernacle Christian School in Sarasota. “His smile could light up a room. He is intelligent, inquisitive and humble. I think that’s what makes him special.”

She recalled the love and support Davion and his family,especially his mother, had for one another and also credits that with his success.

“I think he knew going to a private school gave him an edge and gave him the opportunity to do something more, to give back to his family and make their life better,” she said. “Davion will be successful at whatever he chooses to do. He’s got the drive to get it done.”

Davion is considering a career in teaching and knows if that’s what he sets out to do, he will do well because of the solid foundation he has built with the help of others. He  points to people like Ms. Crickenberger, whom he described as having so much love and passion for her students,  his Calvary family as a whole, and the Step Up scholarship as things that have made a difference in his life. But he always goes back to his mother on the one who has truly blessed his life.

When he held the photograph of his younger self and his 17-year-old mom in his hands recently, he reminisced about his life and the woman who made it the best she could.

“I was thinking about everything we’ve gone through together. She was so young when she had me. She chose to keep me. She gave up a lot. Growing up, I always had food on the table and clothes and so much love,” Davion said. “I have so much love for my mom I could go on for days about her.”


Calvary Christian Academy first opened its doors in 1985 with 110 students enrolled in kindergarten through eighth grade.  The initial construction of the school included the school office building, library and elementary and high school wings on 28-acre property. More facilities, including the gymnasium, cafeteria (fellowship hall) and church office were built three years later. The first high school class of eight students graduated in 1989. For the 2012-2013 schoolyear, 270 students are enrolled including 110 Step Up students. Tuition is $5,250 for grades K- fifth and for grades six through 12 $5,950 annually. They administer the Stanford Achievement Test to gauge students’ progress annually.The school is accredited by both the Florida League of Christian Schools (FLOCS) and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on colleges (SACS).

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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.


Nekeaya Jacobs Quann

I want to thank you for posting such an inspirational story! I know a lot of young mothers will benefit from knowing that it’s possible to raise a child and have him/her be a success! As a mother of a Step-Up-For-Students recipient, I am grateful to know that its a working tool towards my daughter’s success!

Hi Ms. Quann, thanks so much for taking time out to write. Frankly, we should be writing more stories like the one about Davion and his mother. There are so many inspiring success stories out there. More folks need to hear them. Take care, and thanks again.

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