When St. Thomas More Catholic Academy in Washington, D.C., hosted a Feb. 26 congressional hearing on the 15th anniversary of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the expert witnesses on the stage were not the only ones to testify to its effectiveness. The hearing came one month after legislation was introduced in Congress to reauthorize the Scholarships for Opportunity and Results (SOAR) Act and fund the program for the next five years.

Before and after the hearing, people in the audience impacted by the scholarships, including students, parents and school officials, described the impact the program has had on the lives of children receiving the scholarships.

Ethan Lane-Blake, a junior at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, said receiving the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship enabled him to attend the school and take classes in its demanding International Baccalaureate program.

“It has pushed me to work harder. It’s opened doors I’ve never thought I’d be a part of,” said Lane-Blake, who hopes to be a biochemist some day and study ways to deal with chemical imbalances in the brain that cause things like depression.

His classmate Dia Harris said the scholarship enabled her to leave a school where she didn’t feel like she was getting a good education. “OSP gives me an opportunity I never had before,” she said. Harris who is interested in becoming a pediatric surgeon or a nurse or a journalist, said when she got to Archbishop Carroll, that gave her a chance to prepare for college and the future.

After receiving a D.C. Opportunity Scholarship, Carroll sophomore Eboni Goring said she is now in all honors classes. Goring, who has braces on her teeth, hopes to go to college and study to be an orthodontist. “I want to start a clinic so I can help people in my community,” she said.

Rita Washington, an OSP recipient and senior at Archbishop Carroll, said her education there has helped her strive to be successful in her future. “Carroll has pushed me to do more and get out of my comfort zone,” said Washington, who hopes to study finance or business in college.

Her classmate Keron Campbell said his scholarship “has allowed me to get a good education.” At Carroll, he has served as student body president, and he is also a D.C. youth mayor. He hopes to study political science in college and dreams of a political career, perhaps on Capitol Hill. Campbell said his education at Carroll has fostered his growth as a person, and he added that seeing the everyday struggles of some District residents, has “inspired me to help change those things around our community and really make it better.”

Larry Savoy Jr., the president of Archbishop Carroll High School and a 1993 graduate of the school, attended the hearing with the Carroll students. The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, he said, “balances the scale. It gives students an opportunity to be successful academically without having any financial concerns.”

The 183 OSP recipients at Archbishop Carroll constitute just over one-half of the student body.

Father Raymond Moore, the pastor of St. Thomas More Parish, said he sees firsthand the impact of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships on students at the parish’s school, which hosted the hearing. Ninety-one of the academy’s 158 students receive the scholarships.

“This (scholarship) is their lifeline. It’s life-changing,” said Father Moore, who noted that at St. Thomas More Catholic Academy, students are “connected with Jesus every day and connected to a positive family community, and they’re given the opportunity to be more successful.”

After testifying at the hearing, the academy’s principal, Gerald Smith Jr., said, “The Opportunity Scholarship Program provides each of the scholars and each of the families with a chance. It opens up endless possibilities they may not have gotten anywhere else.”

During the question and answer session at the hearing, a St. Thomas More student stood at the microphone and said, “I just want to say thank you.” She said after receiving her OSP scholarship and attending the academy, “now my reading got better.”

Several parents likewise praised the program. Derrick Carter, who has two sons receiving Opportunity Scholarships – a son at St. Thomas More and another son graduating from Archbishop Carroll this year, said, “As a parent, I always want to have a choice for where I can send my children for their education.”

Lija Stewart’s daughter Katlynn is in the sixth grade at St. Thomas More Catholic Academy and has been an OSP student there since the first grade. The scholarship and the school’s impact on her daughter have been inspirational, she said.

“I’m very passionate when it comes to my children’s education. I wanted to provide her with the best education possible,” said Lija Stewart, who noted that at St. Thomas More, Katlyn “is an excellent student... Her life is going to be wonderful. She loves school, she loves learning, she loves being challenged, and St. Thomas More does all of that.”

Jem Sullivan, the Archdiocese of Washington’s secretary for education, said, “The Opportunity Scholarship Program allows parents to exercise their God-given right to choose the best education for their child. The word ‘opportunity’ is part of Catholic education, as it evokes hope, endless possibilities (and) new horizons.”

That point was echoed by Brian Radziwill, the director of government programs in the archdiocese’s Catholic Schools Office, who said that the goal of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and the mission of the 19 Catholic schools in the city that participate in the program “go hand-in-hand, to make sure a quality education is available to every child in the District, regardless of economic status.”

In the 2018-19 school year, about one-half of the 1,645 students receiving the scholarships are attending Catholic schools in the District of Columbia.

Elise Heil, the principal of Sacred Heart School in Washington, which provides a bilingual English and Spanish Catholic education to its 215 students in pre-kindergarten through the eighth grade, noted that about 60 percent of them receive the Opportunity Scholarships.

“It allows parents to make the choice for their children (based on) what the best educational path is for them, instead of them being locked into (attending) one neighborhood school,” she said.

Another principal, Michael Thomasian of St. Anthony Catholic School, said the scholarship program “levels the playing field” for parents seeking the right school for their children.

“It’s just allowing us to open our doors to more families,” he said, noting that about 40 percent of St. Anthony’s 228 students are OSP recipients.

The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program “has worked,” Thomasian said. “We’ve seen them going on to great high schools and colleges.”

The Opportunity Scholarship recipients, he added, have included students who have gone on to be the valedictorians of their high school classes, and after graduating from college, they are working in many professional fields, including business, education and medicine.

Nakisha Thompson – a parent with four children who are receiving D.C. Opportunity Scholarships – speaks at a Feb. 26 congressional hearing at St. Thomas More Catholic Academy in Washington marking the scholarship program's 15th anniversary. (CS photo/Javier Diaz)

Another parent attending the hearing, Nakisha Thompson, noted that she has had children in the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program for the past 12 years. This year, her two oldest sons, Deshean and Sherman Hatton, are OSP recipients at Gonzaga College High School, and she has a son and a daughter, Michael and Keishai Hatton, receiving the scholarship at St. Thomas More Catholic Academy.

And with the help of the education made possible by the scholarships to her children, “the sky’s the limit to them,” she said, noting that her son Deshean is a senior and honors student at Gonzaga, where he plays saxophone and is on the rugby team.

“It has assisted me in my biggest investment that I can give my children, and that’s their education,” Thompson said, later adding, “the Opportunity Scholarship has saved our life… We should extend it and keep it here.”