Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The first D.C. students to graduate from a school of their choice through a new voucher program were honored yesterday, with classmates and parents saying that being accepted to the program was like “hitting the lottery.”

“On a scale of one to 10, this program was a 10 — very important,” said Mercedes Castillo-Fuwa, whose daughter, Amie Fuwa, is among the students receiving money from the Washington Scholarship Fund to attend one of the nonpublic D.C. schools participating in the program.

Amie attended Garrison Elementary and Shaw Junior High schools in Northwest before getting into St. Augustine Catholic School. She will attend Archbishop Carroll High this fall.

“The environment at Shaw, it was not safe,” her mother said at the ceremony yesterday at the Lincoln Theatre in Northwest. “And I wanted to send her to a Catholic school, which I couldn’t afford.”

The scholarship fund has two programs, one federally funded and one privately funded. Students may receive scholarships from only one of the programs.

“It’s been a blessing for me and my family,” said Amie, who rattled off a list of career aspirations, among them becoming a judge or a dancer. She said the program also helped her mother develop better relationships with her teachers.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program, approved by the Senate in January 2004, is the country’s first federally funded K-12 scholarship program.

It provides low-income D.C. children with as much as $7,500 a year for tuition, transportation and fees.

To qualify, students must live in the District and have a family income of no more than $28,990 for a family of three.

More than 1,000 students received scholarships in the first year of the program, including the two high school graduates.

“It’s about choices and options,” said Sally J. Sacher, the fund’s president and chief executive officer. “Public schools may or may not be the best choice for the student. This program gives another 67 choices.”

The privately funded program, in existence since 1993, provides eligible D.C. students with as much as $2,000 each for tuition in kindergarten through eighth grade and a maximum $3,000 each for grades nine through 12. To qualify, students must be D.C. residents and have a family income of no more than $43,443 for a family of three.

About 750 students participated in the program this past school year, and 85 more are expected to participate this fall.

“Where we live, the public schools are not good at all,” said Andrea Burden, whose daughter, Keyanna Howard, graduated from Bishop McNamara High School. “I went to those schools, so I know what they’re like.”

Miss Burden, a legal-instruments examiner, said she would drive her daughter about 30 minutes across town every morning from their Southeast home just to keep her out of public schools.

“I wanted to send her to private schools,” Miss Burden said. “This [scholarship] definitely eased the financial burdens. It was like hitting the lottery.”

Keyanna, 17, who has attended private schools since elementary school, began receiving the vouchers in ninth grade.

“I know my life is different now because of it,” said Keyanna, who plans to major in business marketing at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore this fall.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings also attended the ceremony yesterday and said children should have the chance to become “whatever they want to be.”

“It’s my job to help give each child the opportunity to learn and succeed,” she said. “Education is the ticket to life. It helps you give back to your community and your country…. All of you are going to change the world; it’s just a matter of how.”

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, who sponsored the House bill funding the voucher program for D.C. public school students, also attended the ceremony.

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