She took four buses from Ward 8 in inner-city Washington, D.C., to get to the Dirksen Senate Office building early one cold February morning. She was 20 minutes late, but finally made it, taking a standing spot in the back of the committee room.
The hearing was for the SOAR Act, which would ensure a future to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship voucher program. The woman was the mother of one of the students in the program.
“I usually try to see the argument on both sides . . . but I can’t,” she heard Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I., Conn.) say.
To which she audibly replied, “Amen.”
That senator, who did not know her or her child, a D.C. Opportunity scholar, cared enough to fight for the program that made the child’s education possible.
Thanks to that scholarship, her child attends St. Thomas More Catholic Academy, one of the Consortium of Catholic Academies schools in Washington, D.C. James Cardinal Hickey established the consortium in 1997 to ensure extra help for the schools that need the most financial help to thrive. The four schools have changed over the years, but have always been in poor areas, with most of the students enrolled below or at the poverty level in a city that has the highest child-poverty level in the United States.
On Wednesday night in Washington, supporters of the consortium schools will gather at the Capital Hilton for an annual fundraiser, started in 2003 by John Boehner, who is now speaker of the House, and the late senator Ted Kennedy. The dinner is without political speeches, starring students from the consortium schools. A year’s tuition at a consortium school is $5,600. On average, $2,300 is collected from the parents. And it actually costs $8,100 to educate each student. So “we’ve become dependent on the dinner,” said Vincent Burke, managing director of business development and counsel at the Bank of Georgetown and chairman of the consortium board.
Each school in the consortium “provides a caring learning environment where children are encouraged to be their best and that anything is possible — our schools provide the ladder for students to reach their goals,” says Marguerite Conley, executive director of the consortium. “This is evident in our graduation rate and Catholic, private, and magnet high-school acceptance rate — 100 percent graduation rate and 91 percent acceptance at Catholic, private, or magnet high schools in the Washington area.”
“Our academies provide an option for parents who want their children to receive a quality education in a safe, faith-filled environment,” Conley explains. Accountability is the word most commonly used to describe the consortium difference by those familiar with the schools in these underserved areas. “Students enrolled are expected to work, to behave, and they do . . . have a product that works, and we deliver it at a cost about half the public schools’,” Burke happily boasts.
But that’s harder to do than it used to be, of course. Remembering the religious sisters who were once the mainstay of Catholic education in the United States, Burke says: “We had free labor when I went to school. That doesn’t happen anymore.” But “we benefited from what the nuns did for us.” And now it’s our turn “to give back what we got,” he explains.