—Robert C. Johnston
Public schools worked well for Trinidad and Jacqueline Casas’ two daughters. But when things started to go wrong for their 8-year-old son in a local public school, they wanted a change.
The turning point came after the boy, John Eric Oranday, was in a classroom fight. When his parents asked where the teacher was during the incident, they discovered she had left the school to feed her baby, leaving her class under the supervision of the teacher in the room next door.
“I said to myself, ‘My son should be removed. That should not happen,’ ” Jacqueline Casas recalls. The school honored her request to move John Eric to another class, but his grades plummeted.
With a limited income and no option for changing schools within the San Antonio school district, the Casas did what hundreds of families in this area have done: They turned to a local group that offers privately financed scholarships to help pay for private school.
The family qualified for a $110 monthly scholarship, but it fell $200 short of tuition at their first-choice school, the Christian Academy of San Antonio.
To raise the difference, Trinidad Casas, 46, began selling blood four times a month. His petite 36-year-old wife fainted when she tried; she ended up in a hospital, and gave up the idea of selling her blood.
Trinidad Casas says he’d rather work overtime to earn the rest of the tuition money, but he can’t get enough hours at the hospital where he is a security guard.
He is not ideologically opposed to public schools and says that some day, if John Eric wants, he can attend public high school. For now, though, he says of the Christian Academy: “I just feel we need this kind of school, at least for our son. It’s important.”
Willing parents like Trinidad and Jacqueline Casas have helped make Bexar County, the expansive south Texas jurisdiction that includes San Antonio, a laboratory for school choice.
The groundwork was laid in 1992, when the Children’s Educational Opportunity Foundation of Bentonville, Ark., a clearinghouse for local private scholarship providers nationwide, opened CEO San Antonio.
With a limited income and no option for changing schools, the Casas turned to a local group that offers privately financed scholarships to help pay for private school.
Today, CEO San Antonio offers two grant programs. The one the Casases take part in gives partial-tuition scholarships to students from low- income families throughout the county. The second, better-known program offers full-tuition scholarships of up to $4,700 a year to students in the nearby city of Edgewood.
Today, more than 2,200 of the county’s 250,000 students are using the scholarships to attend public or private schools of their choice.
“We want what’s best for each individual child,” says Teresa Treat, the program director for the CEO Foundation. “In the real world, all politics aside, we should focus on each child’s individual needs.”
Rolando Martinez, a spokesman for the 55,000-student San Antonio schools, says the district is not turning a blind eye on students who leave district schools.
In workshops and open houses, city schools are showing off the $500 million in construction projects the district has in the works. The district is also implementing a five-year plan to earn the state’s highest accountability rating by 2005. “We must promote what we have and hope that families stay here or come back to the inner-city,” Martinez says.
Mr. and Mrs. Casas say the grant allowed them to stay in San Antonio, where they grew up. Jacqueline Casas’ father reached the 2nd grade and her mother finished 5th grade in Mexico before coming to Texas. Jacqueline dropped out in 11th grade to have her eldest daughter, Crystal, now a college freshman.
As for the Christian Academy of San Antonio, they found that by word of mouth.
“We were eating at a restaurant and asked a young waitress where she went to school,” Jacqueline Casas recalls. “She said, ‘CASA.’ We asked her how she liked it, and she said, ‘I love it.’ ”
The 2-year-old school is housed in a renovated former strip mall. The freshly painted and tidy site has 400 students; school leaders hope enrollment grows to 600. Yolanda Molina, the principal, says the academy hasn’t needed to advertise.
Molina, who was a public school principal before taking over CASA, has no qualms about heading a private school where the controversial scholarships help pay students pay their tuition.
“I wanted to do the same [kind of work], but without the state restrictions, like mandates for testing,” she says.
For starters, Molina wants the school to be personal. That’s why teachers sit with their students and hold conversations during breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria.
The school also has a religious component that’s not found in public schools. Parents are encouraged to attend a weekly chapel service with their children. Every student and parent also receives an award at the end of each grading quarter.
The Casas family feels welcome at the school. And, what’s most important, they don’t see the teasing that used to bother them so much.
“Sometimes, I feel like I’m overprotective, but it’s not that,” Jacqueline Casas says. “Teasing and bullying damages kids. I see it happen. You hear about it in the news.”
Amanda, John Eric’s 11-year-old sister, says her brother has matured since he began attending CASA. “He’s not as hyper, and his grades are up,” she says. “He talks about God now. Sometimes, he even teaches me and my mom and my stepdad.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2001 edition of Education Week as A Ticket Out of Public Schools