Arieale Munson and Steven Cole: Hope for the Future Because of the ESA Program


April 26, 2023 11:38AM

If you live in the Memphis area, you might know who Arieale Munson is—a fierce advocate, a community organizer, and a devoted single mother to two boys.

With her older son happily enrolled in a charter school in Memphis, she began to wonder if his younger brother Steven might need a different educational path. Arieale has a heart for all types of education—her nonprofit organization goes into both traditional and charter public schools all over Shelby County teaching students life skills. But she also knows that not every child is the same, and the evidence of that can be found in her own house. 

“You need to know the difference in your children, both academic and social,” Arieale said. “If I didn’t take it up a notch, Steven would get bored and drown in the system. He wants to be a paleontologist, and his school didn’t offer what he needed to thrive. With his learning ability, I didn’t feel right letting him sit there and lose his momentum.” So, Arieale did what she does best: research. That’s when she found Tennessee’s education savings account program. The ESA program offers K-12 scholarships of just over $8,000 to families that fall within a certain income bracket to be used for education-related expenses including private school tuition. 

St. George’s Independent School was a perfect fit for Steven, but with the tuition costing over $20,000 per year, Arieale knew she couldn’t do it on her own. With a scholarship from the ESA program and financial aid, Steven is thriving at his new school, making straight A’s and playing on the soccer team. “The ESA program has made this possible for my child. The tuition is a lot. You shouldn’t have to choose between feeding your family or education. 

One thing I admire most about Arieale is that she isn’t slowing down now that her son is in the ESA program. Her passion is with her community, and she’s dedicated to making sure people in her community know about the programs available to them. She was one of the first parents in Shelby County to sign up for the program, but she knows that other parents in her situation aren’t aware that ESAs might be available to them. So she’s planning a resource summit in Memphis to bring the ESA program to low-income neighborhoods, coupling her outreach with programs on financial literacy and employment opportunities. 

“I’m bringing these resources to the community to share the wealth of what I’ve learned,” Arieale explained. “Look at the success stories and the families ESAs are helping in Tennessee. Look at the data and the kids who are active in the community. I am in the community, and I see what the community needs. I’m very excited about this program, and I hope it doesn’t stop here.” 

If we want to see more stories like Arieale’s and more kids like Steven getting the opportunities they’ve so long waited for, it’s time to expand the program statewide and give an ESA to all children regardless of income level or zip code. According to Arieale, “These children are our future. Why not offer them every opportunity they need?” Why not, indeed.