Politics & Policy

Voucher Valedictorian

Tiffany's hope.

Tiffany Dunston just graduated from Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C., at the top of her class — but she wouldn’t have been able to attend the school at all without D.C.’s school-choice program, now on the verge of extinction.

“I know if my scholarship had stopped halfway through, my family would have had a hard time paying for Carroll,” says Dunston, 18, who received the aid through all four years. “I just hope the scholarship continues.”

#ad#If the program vanishes, hundreds of low-income students like Dunston will lose the opportunity to escape failing public schools. Dunston’s story shows how much school choice can mean to a student: She will attend Syracuse University in the fall to study biochemistry and French, and hopes to pursue a career in scientific research.

Before arriving at Carroll as a freshman, Tiffany had attended a charter school. Her aunt entered her for a D.C. Opportunity Scholarship. “I started praying every day because I didn’t want to go to a neighborhood school,” she says. “I was so nervous — there was no way to know if I was going to get the scholarship.”

After hearing the good news, she consulted a trusted school counselor. He had attended Carroll, and encouraged her to consider it. Looking back, she’s happy she took his advice. “The environment at Carroll is so different from other schools,” she says. “The way people act toward each other, the activities, the curriculum.”

The rigorous environment suited her. “At a public school, there would be fights every day. That’s the difference — Carroll has limited distractions. Plus, it gives you a moral education: what is right, and what not to do,” she says.

Dunston used her valedictorian commencement speech as an opportunity to reflect on these values, and on how Carroll had prepared her class for the future. “I was nervous; I hadn’t practiced at all,” she confides. “But it went well. At every point I hit in the speech, people clapped. They clapped through the whole thing.”

She attributes her inner drive to her family’s encouragement. “They want me to strive for everything,” she says. “‘Pro-active’ is a word I hear every day.”

Her family’s experience includes tragedy. Her cousin, James, was shot and killed when he was 17. He was planning to go to college and play basketball. Dunston, who also plays basketball, notes the parallels between their lives: “He was going to be the first college graduate in my family, but he died before his opportunity. Now I’m trying to step in his shoes, to finish what he started.”

Dunston knows her story is remarkable, and she has become accustomed to the school-choice spotlight. In April, she met President Bush as part of the White House Summit on Inner-City Children and Faith-Based Schools.

But she emphasizes that hers is not the only success story. “I have friends who are in the same place as I am,” she says. “They’ve had the scholarship for four years, and they’re so happy with their experiences.”

This summer, she’s preoccupied with placement exams, required summer reading, and looking for a job. She’s hunting scholarships, too — despite her achievements and a financial-aid package, money is still a concern. She needs another $15,000 to afford Syracuse.

But with all this to worry about, Dunston still plans to monitor the school-choice debate in D.C. Her chief concern, she says, is having the program continue for other students. “The other, little kids with scholarships are in jeopardy of having them taken away,” she says.

— Elise Viebeck, a Collegiate Network intern at National Review, is an editor emerita of the Claremont Independent at Claremont McKenna College.

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