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Article of Interest - Vouchers

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Bridges4Kids LogoHolders of Vouchers Go Shopping for Schools
More than 500 families in the District's school voucher program packed a Monday night school fair staffed by representatives of 44 D.C. private schools.
by Jay Mathews, Washington Post, June 23, 2004
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The doors of the former YMCA building on 12th Street NW were not supposed to open until 6:30 p.m. Monday, but Erica Shorter arrived an hour early, joining a line that soon stretched half a block to T Street.

Once she got inside, she rushed to a small table in the corner of the light-green gymnasium. Grabbing a pen, she signed up her two children for the St. Francis de Sales School on Rhode Island Avenue NE.

Shorter, 33, could not have afforded the Catholic school's tuition in the past. But her children were among 1,249 low-income students selected last week to receive the District's first tax-funded private-school vouchers, and she wanted them to be first on the school's list.

The public schools in Southeast Washington that her children have attended have low scores and limited programs, she said, "and I want them to be able to get all kinds of learning."

Shorter and the families of more than 500 other voucher recipients jammed into the small building, now called the Thurgood Marshall Center Trust, Monday evening and yesterday afternoon to visit tables staffed by representatives of 44 private D.C. schools that have agreed to participate in the program.

She and the other parents soon learned that arriving early did not boost their children's chances of getting into any particular school. The voucher holders still need to submit formal applications to the schools that interest them, and the schools will determine which students qualify for admission after reviewing their records.

But the line to get into the school fair was an indication of the excitement among the families who will be pioneers in the school-choice initiative, which Congress approved in January.

Ruth Martin, 68, was there yesterday with three grandchildren who have won vouchers to switch out of their public schools. She asked questions and collected information packets at several tables, saying later that she was most impressed with the Preparatory School of D.C. in Northwest. "I am looking for a place where the class sizes are smaller and they give more attention to each child's studies," she said.

The vouchers are worth up to $7,500 per child. Of the students who won grants for this fall, 1,049 attend public school or are about to start kindergarten, and those entering a grade in which the program had more applicants than slots were selected through a lottery. The remaining 200 voucher winners already are enrolled in private school but met the income guidelines for the federal assistance; they also were picked by lottery.

Sally Sachar, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Washington Scholarship Fund, which was selected to run the voucher program, said "we are absolutely thrilled" with the results of the two-day fair.

But she emphasized that the fair was just a first step in the process of matching applicants from the public school system with their new private schools. Applications to the schools are due July 9. After the schools have determined which students meet their admissions criteria, another lottery will be used in cases where a school has more qualified applicants than spaces.

Archdiocese of Washington schools, which account for almost half of the schools participating in the program, were particularly active at the fair. A large city map mounted on a stand in the middle of the gym floor showed the Catholic schools' location, and their information packets emphasized that all kinds of students were welcome.

A handout from St. Francis de Sales noted that "70 percent of our students and 40 percent of our faculty are non-Catholic."


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