As a mother of two, president and interim director of the Missouri Coalition for School Choice, and founder of the Ptah Academy, Donayle Whitmore is heavily involved in school reform. She experienced the benefits of private schools firsthand and puts her own education to good use by working to give others more opportunities.
Whitmore grew up attending private schools in Missouri. Her parents divorced late in her high school career, and she was then forced to attend public schools for the first time. “Academically, it just couldn’t match what I’d been getting [in private schools],” she says. In addition, she didn’t enjoy her new environment, calling it “hell.” That combination led to poor academic performance on her part.
Before graduation, Whitmore visited her high school counselor, who suggested she not go to college. “She told me I wasn’t college material, my grades weren’t good, and it would be a waste of money,” Whitmore says.
About a semester after graduating from high school, Whitmore decided to give higher education a try. It turned out she was college material after all. She managed to stay on the Dean’s List throughout her college career and graduated with two degrees. Later, she visited her old high school counselor to show her just how much she’s accomplished. “Of course she has no recollection of saying that to me,” Whitmore says. “But I had my taste of what public schools are like, and I’m not real pleased.”
Few Good Education Options
After living briefly in Atlanta, Whitmore moved back to St. Louis and realized there were few options for school choice. She began calling her friends in the area and saying “we need to do something.”
In the late 1990s, Whitmore attended the first symposium on school choice options in Milwaukee. She remembers now that there were only around 100 people there, and they were just “looking for people to join in the fight.” Whitmore took some of what she learned there back to St. Louis, but she quickly realized her hometown was not as far along as Milwaukee was.
After Whitmore had her first child, she decided to do something more. “I was blessed to have children, and that took it to the next level,” she says. “After you have a family, you’ll do anything.” Her goal was to open a school. Charter school laws in Missouri had recently changed, so she originally decided to start a charter school. She says now that it was “so hard. I had a stack of rejection letters.”
Ultimately, Whitmore and her husband decided to use their own money to open a school. In 2000, the Ptah Academy opened with 19 students. “We didn’t have the same type of funding [as a charter school], but there were a lot of people interested in offering something more to kids,” she says.
Today, the Ptah Academy has 36 students, including both of Whitmore’s children. The academy serves children ages 4-13 and is described as a “unique and holistic learning environment” on the school’s Web site.
Overall, Whitmore is encouraged by education reform in the nation today. She especially likes seeing the return of community-based schools. “There was a time when that was everything,” she says. “People worked there, went to school there, and were part of a community.”
Too Much Mud-Slinging
Her frustration comes from “too much mud-slinging” in politics and what she sees as a gap in the school choice movement. “There is a huge push by people who come from wealthier communities to make [school choice] happen,” she says. “But there is no connection between those people and the people who need help.”
She illustrates her point by saying she has traveled all over the country “and it’s the one thing that exists in every state.” She is typically met by someone from a wealthier community, who will take her to a poorer community that needs help and explain what is happening there. “We need to be on the same page, get rid of being uncomfortable and join hands,” she says.
Whitmore sees further problems in her home state. “Because the educational system is so bad in Missouri, it’s becoming a situation where people are willing to do anything” to fix it, she says, noting she isn’t sure whether that’s a good or a bad thing. Although people are willing to do anything, they can’t seem to agree on what to do. She is interested in seeing what happens next and says she will be there to help push for reform.
In addition to having had a positive private school experience herself, Whitmore believes her advocacy of school choice to have another important source: “I’m privy to statistics most people don’t look at,” she says. She believes that if the general public saw the numbers she sees–graduation rates and college attendance, specifically–they would “be more interested in privatizing education in some manner.”
In the meantime, Whitmore knows parents are deciding every day which educational path is best for their children. She gives this advice to anyone debating a choice between private or public schools: “Make sure you study. Make sure you research and read, and don’t make your decision based on tradition. Make an educated decision based on truth.”
Sarah Faulkner ([email protected]) is an adjunct fellow with the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation.