When Racine’ San Juan Diego Middle School shuttered its doors in June 2009, approximately 70 low-income students and their parents were left wondering where the students would attend school the following year.
The choice was difficult for Blanca and Raunel Albiter, who were concerned that their son, Raunel, a seventh grader at the time, would not do as well academically, emotionally or spiritually in a public school setting. While they wanted him to attend John Paul II Academy, it was cost prohibitive for them to send him and his sister Blanca, then a kindergartener, to the school.
“It was very important to us to have both children, but especially Raunel, because he is older, to go to a Catholic school,” said his father, Raunel. “But the cost of tuition and books and everything was way too much money for us, especially with the two kids.”
Thanks to a generous sponsor through an innovative Racine non-profit organization, both children attended John Paul II Academy last year, and the family could not be happier.
“We didn’t know what we were going to do because the Catholic schools are so good for him; he behaves and he is good a lot,” said Raunel. “We are so happy that Raunel is able to continue attending John Paul and I think he has even become more focused on studying because he is so happy.”
Without help from SOAR (Scholarships, Opportunities & Access in Racine), Raunel would attend Mitchell Middle School and, according to his parents, might have fallen into the wrong group of kids.
“We would have had no choice, but to send him and Blanca to public schools,” said Raunel, adding, “But now he has a chance at succeeding and doing his best in a school that really cares about him. He loves it so much that he even wakes up early every single day because he is excited to go.”
In its first year, SOAR aimed to provide opportunities for education through scholarships awarded to families with limited financial resources in the greater Racine area.
Plans began in 2005
Plans for the organization began five years ago when Tom Knitter, the former president of St. Catherine High School, Randy Baganz, executive director of Lutheran High School, and Laura Sumner Coon, executive director of San Juan Diego Middle School, convened community leaders at a series of breakfast discussions regarding private school funding in greater Racine.
“The achievement gap between children in poverty and more affluent students was alarmingly wide and growing,” said Sumner Coon. “Yet nearly all of our private schools were struggling financially and did not have the resources to serve many families who could not pay the tuition.”
Unlike Milwaukee’s PAVE (Parents Advocating Values Education), a scholarship foundation for children in poverty, and the Parental Choice Voucher Program, Racine schools were faced with the unlikelihood of appealing to state leaders to expand the voucher system or looking to the public for help.
“A steering committee gathered for a year to study what PAVE had done and to see what we would need to do in Racine to replicate the idea here,” said Sumner Coon. “In April of 2006, a number of people gathered to discern the first board of directors for SOAR. That group then pursued creating the organization with bylaws, outlining the organization’s philosophy and pursuing 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, which they achieved in May 2007.”
After San Juan Diego closed, Sumner Coon offered to help implement the program, and was named executive director on Aug. 1, 2009.
Students’ progress is monitored
SOAR strives to provide students from low-income families an opportunity to attend a network of approved, area private schools; grow in their academic achievement; and find success. Its mission is to build a network of schools to serve eligible students by providing quality education. SOAR schools will assess the progress of students receiving SOAR scholarships.
“These schools will be accredited and hold themselves to high academic standards,” said Sumner Coon. “And they will work with SOAR to provide the compassion and support necessary for scholarship recipients and their families so that students will succeed.”
Currently, 10 schools work with SOAR by opening their doors to children unable to afford a private education. The half Catholic and half Lutheran school systems are committed to expanding their populations to include more low income children and, according to Sumner Coon, are dedicated to working with SOAR to strengthen support to the children in the program.
“We want to ensure that the students who receive scholarships will be entering a welcoming environment with a school committed to helping them succeed,” she said. “We know that the private schools in our area will need assistance to support SOAR students and families. They will need translation services, mentoring support and other kinds of help to expand their student population. SOAR will assist them in this. We will also track scholarship recipients’ progress and help the schools and families to remove stumbling blocks to their success.”
Funding the scholarship program includes building relationships with organizations, corporations and individuals willing to enhance educational opportunities for children in poverty.
Fell short of first-year funding goal
Although SOAR was unable to meet its first-year goal of $300,000, the $116,000 raised enabled 10 children to attend three private Catholic schools. Thanks to the weekly mentoring services, students collectively had a 95 percent attendance rate and maintained a B- grade point average. Additional funding this year will enable former San Juan Diego Middle School and other low-income students who wish to continue their middle-school years in a private school.
“Blanca and Raunel Albiter were the first San Juan Diego parents to seek a Catholic school for their children,” said Sumner Coon. “We have a couple others with sponsors, but several students are still awaiting sponsors.”
With tuition at private elementary schools running $2,500 to $3,500, the need is great in the Racine area where it is estimated that half the student population among public school students are living in poverty.
“That is about 10,000 students who qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program,” said Sumner Coon. “Families living on income that is 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines and below qualify. That means a family of four living on $40,783 qualifies for reduced lunch prices.”
90 children on program’s waiting list
The success of SOAR is evident in the 90 children on the program’s waiting list, all who qualify for the federal lunch program. Of those children, one-third are African American or bi-racial, one-third Latino and one-third Caucasian.
“We have only enough funds to send 13 students to four schools this year,” admitted Sumner Coon. “But we are hoping that with our successes so far that funding will come in so that we can place all students on the waiting list in private schools.”
On average, Sumner Coon said income levels for an average family of four attending San Juan Diego were less than $22,000.
“Another indication of need is that when we first started, parents began contacting me about the possibility of scholarships before we even announced where our offices would be,” she said.
An annual campaign and an ongoing series of fundraising events, grant writing and building relationships with prospective supporters will keep SOAR growing.
“Our budget is $450,000, roughly $150,000 to cover operating expenses and the remaining $300,000 is what we hoped to raise in scholarship money in the first year,” said Sumner Coon. “However, with additional fundraising programs and a recent back to school carnival, we hope to raise money and awareness of the work we are doing to educate our area children.”
While the overall need in Racine is great, SOAR’s primary goal the first year was to help displaced San Juan Diego students.
“San Juan Diego was the only private school whose student population was living in poverty,” said Sumner Coon. “Since many of these students are still displaced, SOAR wants to help them find a new private school. We are earnestly seeking sponsorships of $2,500 to support a student in a private school.”
Advisory board offers leadership
New this year is the SOAR’s education advisory board. In addition to providing mentoring services, the board will provide students, teachers and administrators with counseling services, anti-bullying programs, teacher in-service training, mental health prevention programming, parent workshops and mental health referral services.
Giving students a chance to experience the benefits of private school education is close to Sumner Coon’s heart. As a child, she attended St. Joseph Catholic School in Big Bend during an era when no tuition was required.
“The School Sisters of St. Francis, particularly Sr. Jean Becker, did an exceptional job of teaching us about social justice and Gospel living,” she said. “Every single person deserves the opportunity to have the kind of education that will nurture his or her God-given abilities. Every single person is obligated to help each other develop. We can’t just say we are one in the Body of Christ and not live it.”
For Sumner Coon, the need for a solution to the educational problem became evident years ago when she was involved in her parish community and serving on the parish council.
“I was someone who suddenly found herself a single parent unable to send my two children to the parish school,” she admitted. “My children, now grown, had the support of someone fortunate enough to have the education to be able to help them. Many of our families struggling in poverty have not had that advantage. Everyone deserves it.”