At this time of year, we like to highlight stories of families who have felt the impact of educational choice programs. This year, we talked to two Indiana families about their journeys with school choice.
The Ito Family – A School Choice Success
In our Thanksgiving 2014 blog post, we highlighted one school here in Indianapolis, The Oaks Academy. This holiday season, we spoke with a family whose roots run deep there thanks to the state’s robust educational choice environment.
The Ito family has sent four children to The Oaks Academy. After homeschooling their eldest daughter through first grade, Kirk and Ratana were unsure of the next steps to take. They lived near highly-rated public schools, but those just weren’t the right fit for their child. Then, Kirk visited The Oaks.
“The first time I was there, there was something that just happened,” he said. “There was this sense of not just safety, but inclusive presence and a great environment for learning.”
After the Itos’ first encounter, they quickly found more to love about the school, including a strong sense of parent partnership. Eventually, all four children attended; the three elder children graduated from the Oaks and the youngest, Jared, is currently trying out another classical-model private school.
“The Oaks has had such a powerful impact on our family, on our kids,” Kirk said. “I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t be where they are today—educationally and in the schools they’re in—if they had not gone there.”
Affording the tuition to send all of their children to private schools didn’t come without its problems. Kirk said he balked when Ratana and he first discussed the possibility of private schooling.
At the time, Ratana was homeschooling their younger children, and Kirk was working for a suburban church. Even later when Ratana began working as a physical therapist and Kirk moved into a position at Ivy Tech, putting four children through private school seemed like an unattainable goal.
“When I was a kid, the unwritten rule was you save your education dollars for college,” he said. “So that’s the way I was going into it with our kids.”
The Ito family tried other educational options, including public school, but found the classical style of education to be the best fit for their children, so Kirk and Ratana set out to provide that for their kids. At first, the family relied heavily on donor-funded scholarships from The Oaks Academy for a short while. But after their school joined Indiana’s school voucher program, they were able to access a more sustainable and equitable avenue to fund their children’s education.
Without financial aid through donors and the state’s school choice program, Kirk said private schooling for their four children would have been far out of reach for the family. With all their children thriving personally and academically, the Ito family is certainly grateful for school choice this holiday season.
And where are the Ito kids now?
The two eldest children, Rebecca and Micah, graduated from private high schools—Park Tudor and the International School of Indiana—funded largely with merit-based scholarships. Rebecca is currently studying education at Wheaton College. Micah is studying aviation technology at Purdue University. Both students are taking advantage of merit-based college scholarships, and Kirk estimated that the family pays a quarter or less out of each child’s tuition bill out of pocket.
Kathryn is currently following in her sister’s footsteps by attending Park Tudor, again largely funded by merit-based scholarships. And Jared is in 6th grade at Highland Latin School.
Tamika Bennett – Learning Along the Way
Unfortunately, not all school choice journeys have happy endings. Some families’ experiences exemplify how programs must improve. This story, from Indianapolis mom Tamika Bennett, speaks to the struggle of many families still hoping for truly equal educational opportunity.
Tamika’s school choice journey began with her first son, Isaiah, who is now 20, and continues with her younger son, Rico.
“Really early on,[Isaiah] was diagnosed with anxiety, bipolar, and ADHD,” she said. “It was difficult because he was young, and I was a single mom. And I knew very little about any of this. It was difficult to try to get help.”
Tamika figured out how to get her son the mental health support he needed fairly quickly, but getting help academically was a different story.
“My biggest frustration was that he’s not ‘special needs,’” she said. “He has a mental illness, but he functions just like anyone else. He learns the same way. He may just have some challenges socially that cause for him to need a little bit more redirection or help.”
After fighting for appropriate services for her son in their native Alabama to no avail, Tamika moved her family to Indiana. She was excited as she expected Indianapolis schools to have more resources to serve her child’s needs. Unfortunately, the fight wasn’t over.
First, Tamika enrolled Isaiah and her daughter, Michaela, in public school, where she had to push for access to Title I services for Michaela, including extra teaching time, supplementary teaching methods, and special instructional space.. She said she experienced doors slamming in her face at every turn, and Isaiah and Michaela had to switch schools often—first traditional district schools, then a magnet program and charter school, respectively.
Finally, Tamika found out about the Choice Scholarship Program, a school voucher program that allowed her to send Isaiah to Scecina Memorial High School and Michaela and her younger son, Mericko, Jr., to Little Flower Catholic School. Tamika said she chose the Catholic schools because she received a great education in a Catholic school and because those schools had higher expectations for their students.
“Scecina was a great school. So was Little Flower,” Tamika said. “But the cost outside of the voucher was so expensive that I couldn’t afford it any more.”
Indiana’s school voucher program currently offers families only about 41 percent of the per-pupil education funding their children would have received in public school. So for financial reasons, Tamika had to pull her children out of Catholic school, where Isaiah, especially, was showing progress. Isaiah went back into the public school system, and Michaela and Mericko attended charter schools. Mericko is thriving, and Michaela now lives out of state, but for Isaiah, the last switch did not work out well.
“[Isaiah] is an intelligent young man, and actually he did not graduate,” Tamika said. “He got to his senior year, and he quit. … He failed a math class three times in spite of going to tutoring, me having conferences with the teacher, me trying to solicit help for him.”
She said that because he was so behind by high school and without supportive teachers and school staff to encourage him to finish, Isaiah just decided to stop trying. Despite her best efforts, her son lost hope in himself.
Fortunately, Tamika was able to learn from her experiences with Isaiah, and to apply her knowledge to finding the right educational fit for Rico, her youngest child. Rico currently attends Tindley Renaissance Elementary, a charter school Tamika chose for its supportive staff and high level of transparency. She hopes Rico’s educational journey will be much different, now that she knows her way around school choice in Indianapolis.
As a mother, Tamika said she has many regrets about Isaiah’s educational journey. And, in fact, she launched a nonprofit called Restore the Role in 2013 to help other parents avoid the problems she encountered along the way.
“I never want to see another parent have to hop from school to school with their child just in order to get a quality education,” she said.
To prevent that, Tamika runs a variety of parent trainings through Restore the Role. She educates parents about their rights and responsibilities in the educational process and helps them make good educational choices for their children. Besides helping parents become better advocates at the school level, Tamika also helps them advocate for their children in their communities and beyond.
In the coming year, Tamika said she hopes to see expansions of Indiana’s school voucher program that would make private schooling truly affordable for parents. She also plans to press for more transparency from schools, both district schools and public charters.
Stories like Tamika’s show that even involved, informed parents are not always as lucky as families like the Itos in accessing the best educational options for their children’s needs. Advocates and policymakers should listen to those families and ensure school choice policies serve them better. As we prepare to usher in a new year, our foundation commits to continuing the fight to improve educational choice for all. Like Tamika, we look forward to a time when parents no longer have to fight an uphill battle to get their kids the education they deserve.