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Jazz Concert Among Enticements for Voucher Program

Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page C05

The challenge is to create buzz for an inherently dry topic: school vouchers.

How do you get parents to come out on a cold winter evening after work or on a Saturday to fill out mind-numbing application forms and go through a lengthy list of private schools?

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Officials at the Washington Scholarship Fund have been working since the fall to woo more children into the District's one-year-old voucher program next fall.

After months of holding meetings at community centers and churches, program officials are ratcheting up their marketing strategy as the end of the application period nears.

If the idea of receiving a $7,500 scholarship to a private school isn't incentive enough, program officials are trying to associate vouchers with festiveness and fun.

On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the scholarship fund will hold a series of informational meetings at the Renaissance Washington, D.C. Hotel downtown.

Parents who attend one of the meetings will have an opportunity to win two tickets for fourth-row seats to a concert by R&B/jazz diva Jill Scott.

"We always are brainstorming new ways for people to come learn about our program," said Sally J. Sachar, president and chief executive of the Washington Scholarship Fund.

Scott is "an inspirational musician for many of our families. We wanted to give them an opportunity to go to a concert," said Sachar, adding that the tickets were paid for with private funds.

Congress established the voucher program in January 2004, appropriating $14 million a year for about 1,600 low-income D.C. children to attend private schools. But the scholarship organization wasn't selected as the program's administrator until March, giving it only 21 days to recruit students. Program officials managed to sign up about 1,000 students, which critics held up as evidence that the community was only mildly interested in vouchers.

This school year, program officials, hoping to fill all slots, blitzed the community with meetings, billboard advertising, fliers and radio spots. They've printed applications and materials in five languages.

And they've enlisted parents of current voucher students to host Tupperware-style gatherings at their homes to promote the program.

"I told them how my kids are doing [well] in the program. I told them the difference between going to Assumption [Catholic School] and a D.C. public school," said Pamela Battle, whose two sons are enrolled in the voucher program. "Thirty people put in applications."

With the 1,000 students halfway through their first school year, supporters and opponents of vouchers are awaiting studies on the program's effectiveness. The first of five studies required by Congress is expected to be completed this month, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

"It will include . . . demographic information on the students, where they came from, parental involvement and parental assessment of previous schools," said Mike Bowler, spokesman for the Institute of Education Sciences, an independent agency established by the Department of Education which is conducting the study. Bowler added that future reports will include test scores.

Voucher officials are attempting to raise the level of urgency among parents, saying the 2005-06 school year might be the last one in which there will be such a large number of open slots. They would not say how many students have applied.

Program officials will select the voucher students through a lottery system. They have not set the application deadlines and dates for the lottery.

Sachar said they will unveil another new promotional tool -- wristbands -- at this week's meetings.

"The slogan [on them] will be 'GR8 schools 4 D.C. kids,' " she said, adding that the wristbands are aimed at raising awareness and money.

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