- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The grades for the D.C. voucher program are not yet in, but if anecdotes were A’s, this city’s experiment in school choice should make the honor roll.

Congress created and President Bush signed the D.C. school choice initiative in 2004, fashioning the first federal program of its kind. Formal evaluations of the 2-year-old program are not expected until sometime early next year. And even after that, the policy and political food fights will no doubt continue between advocates of the no-choice status quo and those interested in helping many D.C. kids enjoy the same options as those with more economic means. Yet if Holy Redeemer School, located just a few blocks north of the Capitol, is any indication of the hope, enthusiasm and early success of the program, the D.C. voucher pilot program is off to a cum laude launch.

Right before the school year ended in June, I took a field trip of my own and visited this K-8 Catholic school to take part in its annual technology fair. The “fair” displays the results of numerous class projects, integrating technology and science with real-world student interests. This is just one of several month-long learning modules the school conducts throughout the year that utilize creative, hands-on experiences to boost student interest in various academic adventures. I was impressed. The smiles and laughter inside the school matched the buzz of learning in that old brick building.

As I meandered through the classrooms during the open house, the pride and hunger for knowledge was infectious. Kindergarteners demonstrated how a pie chart changed before their eyes when they added new data into a computer from a survey the 5-year-olds conducted of parents and visitors who stopped by the classroom. I even watched some of the older kids play junior sleuths, learning the basics of how crime-scene investigators use modern technology. Each class demonstrated the results of an age-appropriate project, integrating technology and learning in some imaginative way. The school’s determined and gifted teachers also generated a palpable thirst for learning among the students.

The resident quarterback for scholarship at Holy Redeemer is its intrepid principal, Daniel Stabile, a retired civilian federal government employee who spent over 20 years managing domestic and overseas education programs for the Navy and the Department of Defense. After leaving the government, Mr. Stabile wanted to apply his years of experience in education and his love for kids to create some new pearls of accomplishment. Holy Redeemer became his oyster. He took on the role of principal/coach/cheerleader in fall of 2004, after enrollment had dropped by nearly 30 percent over four years. But the numbers are rebounding — thanks in part to the D.C. school choice initiative and the financial assistance it provides.

The school enrolled the largest number of voucher students in D.C. last year — more than 100 kids, according to Mr. Stabile. Not only does the financial assistance provide students with the economic resources needed to attend a school of their choice, but Mr. Stabile has another tactic in his arsenal of success — a growing recognition among parents that the school catapults kids to some of the best high schools in the District. Last year alone Holy Redeemer placed most of its 8th graders into quality high schools like Gonzaga, Visitation and DeMatha. For parents interested in a vehicle to boost their kids’ chances of escaping the vortex of failing educational institutions, Holy Redeemer represents a high-octane engine.

Mr. Stabile summed up his vision this way: “My strong conviction is that the program empowers the parents who are economically struggling with children in low performing schools, to select a school that best meets their kid’s needs. Otherwise they are handcuffed and cannot move their children forward into a competitive mode for higher education and the workforce.”

Whether the D.C. choice program will translate to higher objective educational success remains unclear. Yet early anecdotes from places like Holy Redeemer provide bright rays of hope. Enrollment is up; kids are moving on to quality high schools; and parents see the institution of choice as a powerful weapon to combat the culture of failure.

So when members of the House and Senate return in September and want the congressional equivalent of a parent/teacher conference to gauge the impact of the D.C. voucher program, go see Mr. Stabile — he’s just up the street.

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