A young student participates in a Sept. 30 rally on Capitol Hill supporting the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.
A young student participates in a Sept. 30 rally on Capitol Hill supporting the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. CS PHOTO BY RAFAEL CRISOSTOMO
More than a thousand District students stood within view of the U.S. Capitol building on Sept. 30 and urged members of Congress to "put kids first" when they decide the future of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

The "Save School Choice" rally, held at the U.S. Capitol upper Senate park, was a grassroots effort to save the endangered federally-funded scholarship program that provides 1,700 low-income students with an opportunity to attend the school of their choice in the District.

Some of the rally speakers included Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio); D.C. Councilmember Marion Barry (D-Ward 8); former D.C. Councilmember Kevin Chavous; former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings; Howard Fuller, the Founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options; Bruce Stewart, the former Head of School at Sidwell Friends; State Sen. Anthony Williams (D -Pa.), and numerous students and parents.

Students wore bright yellow T-shirts that read "Put Kids First," and protesters also chanted the slogan in between the speakers.

Fuller rallied the crowd saying, "We are here to tell the president, and (U.S. Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan, and Congress that our children are our most precious gift from God." He added that legislators must make sure, "every single one of you is educated."

Sheila Martinez, principal of Our Lady of Victory School in Northwest Washington, carried a megaphone with her to the rally so she could voice support for the voucher program. She said the program is "a chance to change a life."

About 19 Opportunity Scholars attend Our Lady of Victory, a Blue Ribbon school. Blue Ribbon schools are singled out by the U.S. government for academic excellence.

Martinez said Opportunity Scholars receive "the best education that's available in the nation ... how many could have attended a Blue Ribbon school in the District of Columbia? They are learning values and morals, and how to care for society and other people."

Martinez added that Catholic schools have been building character and forming leaders for generations.

Ryan Donnellan, a seventh grade student at Our Lady of Victory, said one of his closest friends at the school is an Opportunity Scholar.

"She is one of the smartest people I've ever known," he said. When he needs help with homework, his friend helps him understand it, Donnellan added.

Claudia Baker, another Our Lady of Victory student, said Opportunity Scholars understand the true value of education, and they have taught her to appreciate her own education more.
Stefano Escoto said he attended a failing public school before becoming an Opportunity Scholar at Our Lady of Victory. He said his scholarship is the "greatest blessing God could give us."

"The reason my mom immigrated to this country (from Honduras) was to receive a better education," he said. Escoto added that he loves going to Catholic school.

He said he would like the opportunity to "graduate high school, go to college and have a good job."

Bill Eager, the principal of St. Anthony's School in Northeast, brought more than 200 students to the rally from his school, representing all grades there except pre-kindergarten and kindergarten.

Eager said St. Anthony's currently educates 51 Opportunity Scholars, and students came to the rally to show legislators that "this is a cause worth fighting for." Looking over the large crowd of spirited students, he added, "A picture is worth a thousand words."

The principal said many of the Opportunity Scholarship students would be in a failing school if they hadn't received the scholarship.

"Their parents want them to get a quality education, and they see St. Anthony's as a provider of that ... without that choice they would be going back to a failing school," he said.

Rudolph Knott, who has three children in the Opportunity Scholarship Program, said the scholarships give students an opportunity to receive a high quality education while the public schools are in the process of improving. Knott has one child at Gonzaga College High School and two at St. Anthony's.

LaTasha Bennett, a parent of an Opportunity Scholarship student and another student who had her scholarship revoked this year, spoke at the rally. She said just because parents of voucher students are low-income, that doesn't mean they will accept "low standard(s)."

The scholarship students "are able to excel above and beyond what they believe," she said.

Bennett added that a majority of the crowd supported the election of President Barack Obama. "We want him to know our future depends on this scholarship," she said.

Ronald Holassie, an Opportunity Scholarship student and the deputy youth mayor for legislative affairs in the District, spoke during the rally. He said he wouldn't be "standing before you if it wasn't for the Opportunity Scholarship Program."

"I have evolved into the young man who stands before you now. This is what the program has made of me and others -- a success," said Holassie, who is in the 11th grade at Archbishop Carroll High School in Northeast Washington.

But the scholarship program faces an uncertain future. In July, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to allow current scholarship students to remain in the program, while barring new students from enrolling in it. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted similarly, but they also added restrictions to the program that some scholarship supporters say could kill the program. Both votes follow closely with President Barack Obama's proposal to allow students already in the program to remain there until they graduate from the 12th grade, but not permit any new students to enroll in it. Federal funding for the program is decided from year to year, and there is no guarantee of students remaining in the scholarship program until they graduate.

But if a reauthorization bill -- introduced by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (Ind.-Conn.) and five other senators -- passes, it would trump earlier votes to end the program. The scholarship program is part of a three-sector approach to improve education in the District. Five years ago federal dollars were given to the city to support public and charter schools as well as the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Holassie concluded his speech saying, "Failure is not an option. It's not an option to send our kids to failing public schools ... We will stand together and save our children's future."