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One Cleveland Mother’s School Choice

“You want your kids to get the best education possible,” Robyn Allen says, “but that costs. And sometimes, you have to settle for mediocre.” To explain why, she shares simply, “we live in a low-income neighborhood.”

But over eight years ago, a teacher at her son’s Head Start program—St. Philip Neri in East Cleveland—began badgering her to apply for the Cleveland Scholarship Program, which gives every family in that city an opportunity to consider private school options, regardless of income or neighborhood.

“When I first got that scholarship in the mail,” Robyn shares, “my heart skipped all sorts of beats. I felt like the chosen one.”

School choice policies like the one Robyn’s family uses expanded significantly in 2020-21, as Mike McShane and others have chronicled. And while Robyn is just one example of the kind of parent who uses school choice programs, they are a special kind of public policy precisely because they render education more personal than one-size-fits-all options historically have.

Personalizing Education in Historically De-Personalized Communities

“The scholarship lets him know that he is important,” Robyn explains. Demario, now in eighth grade, attends St. Thomas Aquinas, a Partnership School, not because the family’s address dictates it, as it would their zoned public school, but because his mother chose it with Demario, his sisters, and her aspirations for them in mind. “I hope that Demario can be the best he can be, as professional as he can be. I want him to know that he can push himself.”

She chose St. Thomas because “they make the students feel comfortable, and they also work hard.” She also sees that her children are treated as individuals by those at the school, including her second grader Skhi’s teacher. “Ms. Pippins goes above and beyond to ensure that my daughter can be on the same level as everyone else. She provides extra work for me, because Skhi struggles with reading, and Ms. Pippins doesn’t ignore it.”

Robyn adds, “I love that they teach them about religion, even though we’re not Catholic. My daughter comes home and tells me stories she learns in class-I’m blown away, I am learning from them.”

The choice of school for Skhi carries an extra significance for Robyn. Skhi became hers as an eleven-month-old baby, when her mother—Robyn’s sister—was murdered. “I know my sister would choose St. Thomas too,” Robyn shares. In addition, Robyn’s youngest daughter will start Kindergarten there next fall.

Parent-School Alignment

Demario knows that the choice of St. Thomas has as much to do with his mom as with him. “My mom cares about us and does everything she needs to do for us. When we do something wrong, we know that there will be a consequence–we need to own up to it. The teachers at St. Thomas Aquinas, they care so much too—” and teachers like Mr. Wylie, one of his favorites, share his mom’s uncompromising expectations.

“The principal runs a tight ship,” Robyn declares. She shares a story of another student who was causing challenges for his classmates; when her son and others went to talk to Ms. Dengler about it, “she took care of it right away.” She adds, “I expect my son to feel comfortable talking to the principal, because I’m not there. Then they call and fill me in, and I appreciate that a lot. Ms. Dengler really cares about all the students.”

Robyn has been able to achieve what so many parents clearly crave this year: obtaining an education for her children that aligns with her priorities.

A New Normal

The family is facing another school choice this year: where Demario will go to high school. He likes St. Thomas Aquinas so much that he told his mom he wishes the school continued through twelfth grade. Still, they are both excited about what is to come—although that choice comes with its own new dilemmas. Some advocates in his life hope Demario goes to Benedictine High School, while his mother is leaning toward St. Martin de Porres. One thing is clear, however: his teachers and Demario share the same aspiration Robyn has had for her son since Head Start: “He will be the first one in our family going to college.”

When we shared with Robyn the fact that parents at our seven Partnership Schools in New York do not have access to the same kind of scholarships she does, and are therefore more constrained in the choices they can make for their children, she was incredulous: “Really? They don’t?”

The scholarship program in Cleveland has been around since 1997, and perhaps Robyn’s reaction points us to another crucial sign of the progress made by policy decisions like tax credit scholarships and education spending accounts as they mature: on the east side of Cleveland, a striving, working class mom now assumes that having a full range of school choices is normal for all parents, even in the neighborhood where she lives—so much so that to be without those choices, as parents in New York and other cities are, seems unbelievable.

Wealthy families have long had many options of where to send their children to school. This week, during National School Choice Week, we celebrate the power of all parents to make the kinds of decisions for their children that Robyn Allen has.