How Private Schools Adapt to Vouchers: St. Patrick of Heatherdowns

The third year that St. Patrick of Heatherdowns accepted state-funded voucher payments from students assigned to “failing” public schools, a small group of parents considered circulating a petition opposing the decision.

The mistake the critics made is that they assumed they knew which families were getting the assistance—and which weren’t.

Rita Kijowski, fifth-grade teacher at St. Patrick.
Rita Kijowski, fifth-grade teacher at St. Patrick.

Mistaken in their assumptions, they took their plan to parents who were getting the money, said Cindy Lloyd, office manager at St. Pat’s. The conversation—held on a baseball diamond—did not go well. The petition was never drawn up.

Today, 106 of the 422 students at the K–8 Catholic school near Toledo receive EdChoice Scholarships from the state.

“This is what our Christian faith teaches us,” said Deb O’Shea, the school’s principal, who sees serving voucher students as part of the church’s ministry. Most of St. Pat’s voucher students are poor and are not members of the parish; nearly all would have attended a Toledo Public School or charter school.

O’Shea is adamant that the 2006 decision to accept vouchers has changed the school for the better—making it more diverse racially, socially, and economically.

Once an all-white school, St. Pat’s is now almost one-third minority, and 30 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches. The school has two students who are Jewish, and three former students are Muslim.

Keeping the school’s Catholic identity is nonnegotiable, however, and that’s a point that Lloyd emphasizes to prospective families.

All children have daily religion classes and attend Mass weekly. “They don’t have to go through the sacraments,” O’Shea said. “But they do have to go through the learning.” O’Shea said families are happy to have their children participate in the religious instruction.

Lloyd said that touring the school with prospective families before they enroll is revealing, because she learns quickly what they’re looking for and can guess whether a child is going to be happy.

“We don’t have a public-school mentality,” she said. “Your shirt is tucked in. It’s, ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘No, sir.’”

When children enroll at St. Pat’s as Kindergartners, they typically stay for their entire school career. However, if they enroll later, Lloyd believes they are more likely to change schools.

O’Shea, who is in her third year as principal, said that not everyone in the church agrees that vouchers have benefited the school.

“Some people who belong to our parish think our culture is changing,” she said. “I don’t believe it’s true. I have as many discipline problems with parishioners’ children as with EdChoice children.”

Lloyd agrees. “We have less incidents with people who don’t have to learn the Hail Mary,” she laughed.

While not everyone agrees about the impact of vouchers, the decision to accept them has unquestionably helped to stabilize the school financially, while also taking pressure off the church’s budget. (St. Patrick of Heatherdowns Church directs 30 percent of its revenue to the school.)

Having a larger enrollment also helps pay for services—a psychologist, for example—and programs such as band that the school wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.

Because of vouchers, “We’re not in as dire straits as some other Catholic schools,” said Judy McEwen, the school’s assistant principal.

Tuition at St. Pat’s is $4,350, though parishioners pay $2,700 if they attend Mass regularly, contribute at least $520 annually, and volunteer fifteen hours per year at the school or church.

O’Shea, fifty-seven, rejects the possibility that St. Pat’s would close without vouchers, suggesting that the more likely option would be to downsize further. In its heyday during the 1980s and 1990s, St. Pat’s had twice as many students as today—well over 800.

While supporters of vouchers defend them as providing needed competition for poor-performing public schools, O’Shea points out that she has plenty of competition, too.

Toledo has six Catholic high schools, four of which have middle-school academies. When families are deciding where to send their children to high school, they see the end of sixth grade as a natural break, even if they like their experience at the K–8 St. Pat’s, O’Shea said.

In addition to the academies, there are three other diocesan Catholic elementary schools within a two-mile radius of St. Pat’s.

* * *

Kelly Davidson, who is the School Advisory Council president, said academics, athletics, and the parish culture are what draw families to St Pat’s.

fordham_2014_cs4_img02“You walk in, and people know your name,” she said. “It’s like that Cheers song.”

Multiple parents praised the school’s athletic programs, and Davidson said parents are deeply involved in coaching. O’Shea said the school’s no-cut policy is important to families that want their children to be involved in sports.

“You don’t have to be a ‘jock’ to play,” she said. “You don’t have to be the best.”

The school does not use vouchers to recruit families, Davidson said. “Our marketing is just around the school—the community feel, the diversity, the foreign languages, the opportunities with our technology. It’s more about selling the school.”

School officials did, however, publicize Ohio’s expansion this year of the voucher program, which applies only to incoming Kindergartners. The new offering, which provides for up to 2,000 vouchers statewide (and will also be available to Kindergartners in 2014–15), differs from the original EdChoice program in that a child doesn’t have to be assigned to a poorly performing school to get the financial assistance. Income is the only qualifying consideration.

Eight children at St. Pat’s ultimately received this particular voucher, although all had registered for Kindergarten at the school before they knew they could get the financial support, O’Shea said.

St. Pat’s gives Ohio’s proficiency tests only to EdChoice students, while all students in grades 3–8 take the Scantron Performance Series twice each year.

O’Shea and teachers said that the school’s overall Scantron test scores have slipped, but they’re reluctant to attribute this to the infusion of voucher students.

Last year, of the twenty-four voucher students in grades 3, 5, and 8, fifteen students were proficient in reading, while eight were proficient in math.

St. Pat’s classes are small, and any room that has more than twenty-five students has a teacher’s assistant. Salaries start at $23,255 and top out at $41,771. Eight of twenty classroom teachers have taught for more than twenty-five years.

Brenda Rayfield, who teaches middle-school language arts, began teaching at St. Pat’s after voucher students were accepted. She said an emphasis in the profession generally on individualized instruction makes it easier to integrate voucher students, who typically aren’t as academically advanced as the non-voucher students at St. Pat’s.

“Teachers in general are changing the way we teach,” said Rayfield, whose daughter attends St. Pat’s. “We’re not looking at a universal design for learning….Differentiated instruction is a big thing.”

Elena Pappas, the school’s Spanish teacher, sees students in all grades, including the school’s thirty-two preschoolers, at least once a week. The oldest students get the most class time with her, and in seventh and eighth grade, students may elect to take Spanish or French.

All eyes were on Pappas as she bounded around her room, questioning, drilling, and laughing—mostly in Spanish. She exclaimed “excelente” often, and beamed about what the youngest students could recall from the week prior.

Rita Kijowski has been at St. Pat’s for thirty-five years where she teaches fifth graders. She said that, during her career, she has had to become “more of a disciplinarian,” and she finds she must repeat instructions more often than she once did. Those changes were occurring before vouchers were introduced, though, she said.

Kijowski remembers a “handful” of families leaving the school after the decision to accept vouchers. But today when parents are upset about something that has happened at school, most will point to the offending child, they “don’t blame” voucher students, she said. “They name the child,” she said. “Our parents are very good.”

fordham_2014_cs4_img03New students are on probation for the first quarter, though they’re unlikely to know that.

Fourth-grade teacher Eileen Anning said she’s aware of just two students who’ve ever been asked to leave the school.

“I do think we try to open the doors and meet the needs of everybody,” she said. “It’s a good thing, until you can’t take care of the other kids, too.” On occasion, she said, the school has been slow to address a child who was a discipline problem.

Anastasia Willey has a son in Kindergarten and receives a voucher. “I’m definitely grateful,” she said. If she didn’t get the financial help, her son “probably would be in a charter school.”

Another mother, who was waiting to pick up her six-year-old after school, said that she supports vouchers; however, “if you’re going to give one person a voucher, then everybody should get it….I don’t feel some children should have to pay to get a good education.”

Pat Johnson said she resents the occasional stereotyping of voucher children. An assistant in a St. Pat’s first-grade classroom, Johnson’s grandson receives a voucher and attends a different Catholic school.

There are misperceptions, she said, that “the kids are unruly, that they’re not smart, that parents don’t get involved like the parents who pay tuition.”

Her grandson, she said, is “very into school and extremely well-behaved. Our daughter is beside herself with gladness that he can go to a parochial school.”

Lloyd, who said tardiness is a persistent problem with some voucher families, is the point person when a voucher application gets mistakenly denied or if there’s a paperwork snafu. She has experienced frustrations from time to time, though she’s not particularly critical of the processing that’s required.

One family, she said, had two children in the EdChoice program, but when it came time to enroll the third, the acceptance took forever. “How can two go through and the third not?” she asked.

Another family she has assisted lives with the student’s grandmother and has no bills to prove their residency. They had to get notarized letters about where they reside, but multiple statements were rejected, resulting in the parent having to keep returning to a notary.

Davidson, the School Advisory Council president, said she understands why glitches and roadblocks don’t deter parents.

“If I lived in a declining school district, you can bet your bottom dollar I would be sending my kids to St. Pat’s,” she said.

This case study is drawn from Pluck and Tenacity: How five private schools in Ohio have adapted to vouchers, by Ellen Belcher, published by the Fordham Institute in February.  The book’s introduction is available here. Additional case studies are available here, here, and here.

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