To be eligible for a voucher, families must qualify for food stamps or meet other income requirements.
Through the D.C. program, the federal government pays about $8,000 a year for each elementary school student and $12,000 for high schoolers. That’s less than the $18,000 a year it costs to educate one child in the D.C. Public Schools. Many of the participating private schools do not offer costly services for children with disabilities, who make up about 18 percent of the DCPS school population.
The voucher payments are enough to cover tuition at most Catholic schools, which enroll about 52 percent of D.C. voucher students. But they pay only a fraction of costs at elite institutions such as the Sheridan School in Northwest D.C., where charges can reach about $30,000 a year.
Tiblez Berhane has a daughter in eighth grade who is attending Sheridan with a voucher and financial aid from the school. “It’s wonderful,” said Berhane, an immigrant from Eritrea who works in a day-care center. “We could never afford this.”
While Sheridan, Sidwell Friends and the Washington International School each have one voucher student, the Academy for Ideal Education depends almost entirely on the federal program.
Founder Paulette Jones-Imaan created the school more than two decades ago, aiming to provide a nurturing environment with small classes and a learning model known as “Suggestopedia,” a philosophy of learning developed by Bulgarian psychotherapist Georgi Lozanov that stresses learning through music, stretching and meditation. Jones-Imaan melds that philosophy with an African-flavored approach that includes students addressing teachers as “Mama” and “Baba,” honorifics meaning mother and father.
Jones-Imaan also founded a K-12 public charter school, Ideal Academy, based on the same educational philosophy, in 1999. She served on the board for more than a decade.
But the charter school ran into trouble. Last year, the D.C. Public Charter School Board threatened to close it because of chronic poor performance. Ideal Academy agreed to shutter its high school, which had a particularly poor record, in order to keep its lower grades open. The preschool-8th grade Ideal Academy was classified as “inadequate” this year by the city’s charter officials, which means it could be closed if it doesn’t improve.
Meanwhile, the private Academy for Ideal Education continues on. More than 90 percent of its approximately 60 students are paying the $11,400 tuition with vouchers, Jones-Imaan said. “If this program were to end, this school would end,” she said.
While some schools have libraries, art studios and athletic fields, the Muhammad University of Islam occupies the second floor of a former residence east of the Anacostia River. The unaccredited K-8 school is supported by the Nation of Islam, according to director Stephanie Muhammad.