By Christina Walsh
In January, during National School Choice Week, IJ celebrated the 15th anniversary of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) at our annual D.C. Winter Carnival. Nearly 1,400 parents and children attended, doubling last year’s turnout and making it the most widely attended event in IJ’s history.
At the carnival, children played games, had their faces painted, won books and prizes, and enjoyed a 27-foot slide, balloon artists, and tons of carnival food. Meanwhile, their parents had the opportunity to meet with a dozen different schools at a private-school fair organized by the program administrator, Serving Our Children (SOC). This is a much anticipated event every year in the community and an opportunity for current OSP families to reconnect and for new families to learn about the program.
In light of the program’s milestone anniversary this year, we significantly increased our outreach in the community in advance of the event. We canvassed early (freezing) mornings at Metro stops; appeared on a local urban radio station; mass-mailed thousands of homes; dropped off bookmarks, flyers, and slap bracelet invitations to dozens of libraries, participating schools, and public housing developments; and much more.
This year’s carnival was particularly momentous as we celebrated the launch of a new initiative in collaboration with SOC: Serving Our Families (SOF). SOF is dedicated to helping families with scholarships navigate the school application process, ensuring these families realize the full potential of the program. The process can be challenging and intimidating for many parents: The timing of scholarship awards can cause families to miss school application deadlines, finding a good school match for a student can be tricky, and establishing a new school routine is logistically tough. As a result, there are hundreds of families who are not using their OSP scholarships.
It is a tragedy that so many families are missing out on this opportunity to get their children into schools that better meet their needs. That’s where SOF comes in. Staffed by IJ’s dear friend Natasha Yeargin, a participating OSP parent who has already helped many other parents navigate the process, SOF will provide the personal, hands-on support needed to allow the program to grow and thrive. It will also survey parents who are not using their scholarships to identify other problems that could be addressed, cultivate an alumni network, collect student stories, connect families with existing support services, and help identify spokespeople to advocate for the program.
As the OSP prepares to face yet another reauthorization battle before Congress, this is a critical time to build the program’s capacity and keep it on solid footing so future generations can enjoy the opportunities it creates. Our work with the D.C. program is yet another opportunity for IJ to advocate for long-term, life-changing changes to the law—and to create immediate, real-world benefits along the way.
Christina Walsh is IJ’s director of activism and coalitions.