Transferring from a 660-student public school to a 47-student private one was a big shock for Kayla Belser.
At her old school, the sixth-grader had lots of friends, liked her teacher, and didn’t have much homework. At Christ Emmanuel Christian Academy in East Walnut Hills, [Ohio], preparing for college is daily, hard work.
Kayla, 11, is one of 830 Cincinnati students taking advantage of a new state program that allows kids in poorly performing public schools to transfer to private schools at no cost to them. Students get state-funded vouchers worth up to $5,000 to pay the private school tuition. Parents whose children are assigned to low-rated schools no longer have to feel stuck.
Eight weeks after the program began, Ohio figured to spend $10 million on a voucher program to assist 3,141 students across the state. Locally, students assigned to 17 Cincinnati Public Schools were eligible. They make up the largest number of voucher recipients of any district in the state.
All over town, the impact is widening: Dozens of private schools are adjusting to hundreds of new students. Public and charter schools are coping with student losses and the millions of dollars in state funding that went with the kids.
Children are navigating new schools and trying to make new friends, while adjusting to new discipline codes and challenging coursework. Some kids are encountering religion classes, perhaps for the first time.
“My old school was way bigger than my new school,” Kayla says. But size is just the start of it.
“I would usually see a fight every day,” Kayla says of life at John P. Parker School, a low-rated Cincinnati Public School in Madisonville, where 100 students took vouchers and left.
Change is happening all over.
At St. Francis Seraph School in Over-the-Rhine, enrollment increased from about 150 students last year to 169 this year, including 21 voucher recipients. Students are learning the tough discipline policies of Principal Wanda Hill and why she refers to her office as “boot camp.”
At St. Boniface School in Northside, with 29 voucher recipients, enrollment jumped from 150 to 170. Principal Sister Ann Gorman held open houses and a breakfast to help students fit in.
At John P. Parker School, Kayla’s old school, the exodus of 100 students helped lead to the loss of eight staff positions, including teachers and instructional aides.
Parker is rated in “Academic Emergency,” the state’s lowest grade for achievement. Teacher turnover was so great last year that Kayla’s fifth-grade class had three different teachers. Still Kayla begged her mother, Chanda Heard, to let her stay at the only school she had ever attended.
“She was extremely apprehensive and then teary-eyed the first couple of weeks,” says Heard, who enrolled another daughter and a niece at Christ Emmanuel, too. Heard also has an 11th-grade daughter at Walnut Hills High School and an eighth-grade son who was at Walnut Hills but returned to Parker because of slipping grades.
The Rev. Carol Dantley, Christ Emmanuel’s principal, says she expected some new students to struggle. The changes affect staffers, too, she says.
School enrollment jumped by 56 percent this year, from 30 to 47 students. Most of the increase was because of the voucher program, which pays tuition that varies from $2,800 to $3,350 a year, depending on grade.
Despite its benefit to certain schools, the voucher program has come with challenges. Notably, most private schools [had] not received state voucher payments, expected [in October]. Some schools also are experiencing overcrowding.
Cincinnati Junior Academy in Clifton, which saw enrollment more than triple from 19 students last year to 65 this year, is at capacity. Adding any more students will mean taking away the library to use for a classroom, Principal Sherree Herdman says. Herdman instead is considering adding classroom trailers to make room for more children.
Schools like Christ Emmanuel are getting by on their old budgets and staffing levels. Like last year, the school has just four teachers. The $45,000 in voucher money expected from the state eventually may help pay for additional supplies, support staff, and technology, but not yet, Dantley says.
Many students also are behind their grade levels, Dantley says.
“The amount of homework itself has been overwhelming to many children. The message is, ‘This is the standard. This is what you are going to meet, but we will help you get there.'”
Dantley says she turned away a handful of students because she worried they would not be successful.
She says the staff now is working hard with the new students. If a child is stuck on something, the teacher works with the student until he understands. That’s the beauty of having small classes of just 12 to 14 kids, Dantley says. She also frequently calls children aside to offer support. Kayla says she was one.
“She really got me going in the school,” Kayla says. “She said not to be afraid and that I was smart. Every time she saw me looking gloomy or down, she took me aside and said, ‘Kayla, you can do it.'”
Other schools are working to help new students adjust as well.
At St. Boniface School in Northside, students are organizing themselves in “families.” Older students are assigned to help younger students, and seventh- and eighth-graders walk hand-in-hand with kindergartners and first-graders to Mass.
For Catholic schools, the voucher program is welcome after years of declining enrollment. But the program has not been the boon that some thought it would be.
Locally, more than 7,000 students were eligible for the voucher program in this first year, but only 830 took advantage. Catholic schools enrolled about 580 of the voucher recipients but still, enrollment was down. Some 48,358 kids were enrolled on the first day of school in Archdiocese of Cincinnati schools, a 2 percent drop from last year.
Still, Brother Joe Kamis, the Archdiocese’s superintendent, says the program is bringing much-needed money to his schools. Tuitions vary so widely that he couldn’t estimate how much the schools will receive in voucher money this year.
He knows the schools will welcome the cash. “We were running good programs but with classes that were half-full. To bring in five new students doesn’t really cost anything,” Kamis says.
Jennifer Mrozowski ([email protected]) is a staff writer at the Cincinnati Enquirer. This article originally appeared in the October 8 edition of the newspaper. Reprinted with permission.