Sunday, July 29, 2007

Jordan White was a troublemaker in middle school — at least, according to some of her teachers.They called her mother, Wendy Cunningham, to say that Jordan had bad classroom behavior. She didn’t pay attention during class because she was always doodling, they said. The quiet, straight-A student couldn’t put down her pencil.

Takoma Education Center, the D.C. public school she attended, didn’t offer art classes, so Jordan, 15, just kept drawing in the margins.

Then she received a D.C. Opportunity Scholarship, a federally funded school voucher for D.C. families living near the poverty level that faces an uncertain future in the Democrat-controlled Congress.

Jordan began attending Georgetown Day School, and instead of being scolded for sketching in class, she was encouraged to enroll in art courses.

Suddenly, her mother said, she discovered a talent.

“I didn’t know my daughter was an artist until she went to Georgetown Day School,” said Miss Cunningham, 42. “She wouldn’t have gotten those needs met in public school. When I think about that, it brings tears to my eyes.”

Jordan is one of 1,800 students who used a D.C. Opportunity Scholarship last year to leave the District’s struggling school system for private academies they could not otherwise afford. The program has received applications from 7,158 students since its inception.

The $7,500 vouchers are awarded by lottery, with preference given to students attending public schools designated as “in need of improvement” under the federal No Child Left Behind education initiative.

But now many families are beginning to worry that the change of power in Congress means the end of the scholarship program, and some parents say they’re willing to fight to keep that from happening.

Deborah Green, whose daughter Tanisha Bethea, 16, attends private school with the scholarship, said she is ready to hit the streets in protest when the program comes up for reauthorization in Congress next year in what is expected to be a fierce confrontation.

“We’re going to have a battle,” she said. “I’m ready to do that because they need to keep the program going. Without it, the students don’t have a choice, and I don’t think that’s fair.”

The $14 million-a-year initiative, the first federally funded voucher program in the country, was passed by a Republican-led Congress in 2004 and championed by the District’s mayor at the time, Anthony A. Williams, a Democrat.

The voucher bill set aside $13 million a year for teacher training and recruitment for public schools and $13 million a year for charter schools, in addition to funding for vouchers.

Norton opposed

Many Democrats in Congress opposed the program, including the District’s nonvoting representative, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. Vouchers take precious funding away from public schools, she said.

Congress authorized the program for five years, and must reauthorize it next year if it is to continue. Mrs. Norton said she will do her best to make sure that doesn’t happen, and now that her party holds the majority in Congress, she could be more successful than she was in 2004.

“I think there’s very little chance that, when this runs out, it will be renewed, ” she said.

Mrs. Norton met with officials from the Washington Scholarship Fund, which administers the scholarships. “I have said to them that I think the only responsible thing to do is to prepare the parents to understand that the program is unlikely to be funded, that it was experimental, it was never meant to be permanent.”

Mrs. Norton acknowledges the low test scores and low graduation rates of the District’s public school system. Instead of offering a limited number of students each year the chance to attend private school, she wants to use every penny allocated for D.C. education to improve public schools for all students, she said.

She said she supports school choice, but in the form of charter schools, not vouchers.

Many parents of voucher students said they weren’t opposed to public schools, just skeptical about whether improvement would come in time to benefit their children.

‘Not going to wait’

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a Democrat, has vowed to improve D.C. schools. He relegated the school board to an advisory role in June and took control of the system, appointing a “chancellor” to replace the schools superintendent. Enrollment in D.C. schools has declined for at least the past 10 years from roughly 77,000 to 56,787 in the 2006-07 school year.

Tesha Legore, a single mother whose daughter, Jadaica Godfrey, 8, attends St. Gabriel School in Northwest with a voucher, said she wanted to see D.C. public schools improved.

“But I’m not going to wait on them to get [the school system] together,” said Ms. Legore, 30. “I want the best for my daughter. From when Jadaica was born, I knew I wanted her education to be solid, but from an income basis, I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford it.”

Jadaica is vivacious. On a recent afternoon, she bounced around the cheerful house, decorated mostly in pink, that she shares with her mother and grandmother in Northeast. She’s bright, her mother says, and in public school, she breezed through without any problems.

Only after Jadaica switched to private school did her mother realize she had problems in reading and math. Jadaica’s teacher called Ms. Legore to tell her what her daughter needed to work on at home, she said. Now she works with Jadaica to make sure she has a solid foundation in the essentials.

“I think this school has been very beneficial,” she said.

Gregory M. Cork, president and chief executive officer of the Washington Scholarship Fund, said vouchers are part of a larger effort to reform D.C. education.

“We support better D.C. public schools and better charter schools,” said Mr. Cork, whose children attend public schools in Northwest. “What parents need are options. The fact that whether kids deserve an option has become a political football is just regrettable.”

Parents satisfied

Whether vouchers enable students to achieve more academically and push public schools to reform remains debated. Studies of voucher programs have shown mixed results, and many show no statistical improvement in standardized test scores for students who receive vouchers.

A U.S. Department of Education report on the District’s program released last month found that after one year in the program, vouchers students scored no better than their public school counterparts on standardized math and reading tests.

It also found that parents are overwhelmingly satisfied with the program.

Miss Green is one of them. When she was not satisfied with her daughter’s education, she took advantage of the only option she could afford — enrolling Tanisha in a charter school during middle school.

However, teachers at the charter school told the 53-year-old single mother that her daughter could do better in a more challenging environment and urged her to put Tanisha into private school.

“Her teachers were feeling she had potential, and I needed to get her out of there,” she said.

The only problem was Miss Green could not afford it. In 2005, a co-worker told her about the Opportunity Scholarship.

She jumped at the chance, and when Tanisha won a voucher, she enrolled at Dupont Park Adventist School, a small Christian school in Southeast.

Big changes

The difference was dramatic, Miss Green said.

Tanisha had to learn how to do more homework because her schoolwork was more demanding. She learned self-discipline and stopped procrastinating. Her mother said she began working harder when more was expected of her.

“More so with the private school, I see she’s working to get that grade,” Miss Green, inside her small but cozy apartment in Anacostia, said at the end of May, just before school let out for the summer.

Tanisha spends hours in the afternoon doing her homework, she said.

“Private schools expect a lot more than public and charter schools, so that’s good,” said Tanisha, a shy but articulate teenager. “It was more about applying yourself, and I wasn’t used to that. It seems like they’re preparing you for college.”

There were differences outside of academics, too.

“It’s strict,” Tanisha said. She was home from school for the afternoon, and had changed from her school uniform into a camouflage tank top. “I have a little trouble with that, but I can adjust.”

Tanisha is the youngest of Miss Green’s four children, and the first to attend private school. One of her older brothers went to Ballou High School, the school for which Tanisha’s neighborhood is zoned.

Before his sister entered ninth grade, he made it very clear that was no place for her, Miss Green said.

“My son said if she was going to Ballou, he’s going to come over here and do something about it,” she said.

Miss Green said she would do whatever she could next year to lobby Congress to reauthorize the program. Though it is guaranteed for her daughter’s last two years in high school, she wants other children to have the same opportunity.

Dupont Park Adventist only goes through 10th grade, so Tanisha will transfer to Archbishop Carroll High School in the fall for her junior year. About 15 percent of the students there have a D.C. Opportunity Scholarship, said Mary Elizabeth Blaufuss, vice principal for academic affairs.

Too soon to tell

During the last academic year, Archbishop Carroll conducted a study comparing students with vouchers to the rest of the student body. There was no difference in academic achievement between the two groups, she said.

“For some of the students there have been some social transitions, but for us institutionally it is impossible to differentiate them from the student body as a whole,” she said.

The Department of Education study on the District’s vouchers, which showed no gains for voucher students after one year, will show more conclusive results next year, Grover J. Whitehurst, director of the Institute of Education Sciences at the Department of Education, said when the study was released.

The study analyzed student performance after only one year with vouchers. Though previous voucher studies have been inconclusive, in studies that show improvement with voucher students, gains emerge after the students’ second or third year at private school, he said.

That makes sense to Jordan, the student who discovered her talent for art when she began attending Georgetown Day School. It took her some time to adjust to the heavier workload at her new school, she said.

When her grades slipped to Bs, Jordan — who wants to pursue graphic design or animation — became more motivated. She plans on studying at least 45 minutes more each day when she enters 11th grade in the fall to bring her grades back up, she said.

Jordan also talks about attending elite colleges such as the Rhode Island School of Design, which she probably would never have known about if she hadn’t transferred to Georgetown Day School, she said. She enjoys spending spare time painting in the school’s studio.

Miss Cunningham said thinking about the opportunities her daughters now have brings tears to her eyes. Her younger daughter, Nile, an energetic 7-year-old, also received a voucher. She will attend second grade at St. Anne’s Academy in Northwest this fall.

Her mother said she’s afraid of what might happen in Congress next year.

“I am concerned for the program because I feel like if it’s not funded, children aren’t given an opportunity,” she said. “Everyone deserves at least a choice, whether we take advantage of it.”

Like many families who have experienced what school vouchers can offer and don’t want to lose those opportunities, she said she’s ready to fight for the program.

“Whatever I have to do, I’ll be out there speaking for it,” she said. “You see the changes that it makes in your child’s life. That’s what I would be fighting for — to look in my daughter’s eyes and see how happy she is and that she’s learning.”

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