Dr. Alberta Wilson had become emotionally drained.
Nearly every afternoon, distraught parents would come into her office, “crying and wringing their hands” because a lack of funds was forcing them to withdraw their children from the independent school she ran in her hometown of Philadelphia. The solution, the religious educator-turned-school principal decided, was to run for mayor of the city.
“I wanted to revamp the educational system in Philadelphia, facilitating school vouchers so parents could choose the schools like the one I had the privilege of being a part of,” says Wilson.
But the idea of running for mayor was shelved when Wilson learned about Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit, a corporate tax credit scholarship program approved by legislators last year. Instead, she started an assistance organization to help parents from her school and other private schools take advantage of this new school choice option. Faith First Educational Assistance was incorporated in December 2002.
A devout Christian, Wilson feels she was led to this mission through the many difficulties of her life. She grew up in a tough area in the inner-city, and notes she has “a scar on my nose from a gang fight to prove it.” At 22, she was a young, single mother, struggling to raise her six-year-old daughter. She had just completed her GED and had promising job prospects through the Navy Hospital of Philadelphia when her daughter was killed in a house fire.
Four years after her daughter’s death, inspired by the leaders of the Mt. Erie Baptist Church in San Diego, California, Wilson entered seminary, ultimately earning her master’s and doctorate degrees in religious education. By 1996, she was a professor of religious education at the Tabernacle Baptist Theological Seminary in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She returned to Philadelphia a year later.
“God led me back to my hometown of Philadelphia in 1997,” she says. She helped to establish a day school for the children from the Beulah Baptist Church’s preschool program so they would not be funneled into the city’s troubled public schools, which would later (2001) be taken over by the state. The enrollment at the new school steadily increased from 14 kindergartners in 1997 to 92 children in grades K-6 today.
“We have a good Christian school. It is tops!” says Wilson, noting kindergartners read at first-grade level and beyond. The school’s curriculum is “doctrinal,” crafted around biblical principles, but it also is academically well-rounded, with science, drama, the arts, and physical education.
A great number of the parents are single, explains Wilson. They want a better education for their children than they received, but many of them simply cannot afford to keep their children in the school.
“I am of the firm belief that parents are solely responsible for their children, and they are the ones who must, then, make a choice in education,” she says. The primary mission of Faith First is to aid parents in making those choices.
Wilson is currently the administrative support person for the organization–as well as being First Faith’s “grant writer, clerk, typist, solicitor, press secretary, parent educator, and more.” She organized the first parent information meeting on December 17, 2002.
“The parents have volunteered to become ‘parent leaders’ so they may rally other parents for school choice,” she reported. “It was a very successful meeting, the first of many.”
Laura J. Swartley is communications director with the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation in Indianapolis, Indiana. Her email address is [email protected].