D.C. Family Finds Voucher Journey Well Worth It

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

At 7:30 a.m. on a Wednesday in May, the four children of Nikia Hammond -- Zackia, Asia, Ronald and London -- sat in the small living room of their public housing townhouse in Southeast Washington, straightening their school uniforms and watching TV while their mother put sausage and biscuits in a plastic bag for their breakfast.

"We're running a little behind this morning," Hammond said.

She told Asia, 9, to get her book bag. Ronald, 8, had to be reminded to find his coat. Zackia, 11, checked her homework and London, 5, kept her eyes on the television. Soon all five were out the back door, ignoring the yellow caution tape shreds, empty malt beverage cans and other debris along the sidewalk as they hiked a block and a half to the Anacostia Metro station.

After a one-hour bus trip, including one transfer, they reached the private Nannie Helen Burroughs School in Northeast Washington, which the children began attending in the fall under the D.C. school voucher program. Then their mother took a 45-minute bus trip to her job as a store clerk in Pentagon City.

In the evening, she did the same bus commute in reverse, picked up her children from the school's day-care program at 6 p.m. and escorted them home. The next day, she would rise at 6:15 a.m. to do it all again.

Nine months into the experiment, it is too early to know how the nation's first federally funded voucher program is affecting the academic achievement of the hundreds of D.C. children who won the private school scholarships. But spending time with the Hammonds provides a glimpse of the benefits and the sacrifices that the program entails for one family.

Thanks to their federal vouchers, the four children are getting a free education at a school where annual tuition normally would cost $4,500 for each of them -- a total of $18,000, which is more than Hammond's annual income. And Hammond is impressed by the differences between the Baptist-oriented Nannie Burroughs and the public school her children attended the previous year -- smaller classes, more enthusiastic teachers and fewer discipline problems.

But the bus trips are long and crowded, with sometimes raucous high schoolers from three public schools sharing the ride. The travel schedule also has made it impossible for Zackia, a tall, lean and talented runner, to join a track club, as she had in the past. There is also the strain on Hammond, 28, who spends nearly four hours every day on a bus.

Hammond said she is determined to take full advantage of the voucher program, no matter what the difficulties. "I am just focusing on what I am doing it for, to pull myself up and to pull my children up," she said.

Under the program, low-income District children receive grants of up to $7,500 per student to cover tuition and fees at private or religious schools. The Hammonds are among 1,029 children who began using the vouchers in the fall, and officials expect to award an additional 1,080 scholarships for the 2005-06 year.

Forty-six voucher students have left their private schools since September, according to officials of the Washington Scholarship Fund, the nonprofit group that is managing the $12.5 million program. They said some of those families left the area, while others decided the commute to their new school was too far or rejected the idea of repeating a grade, which some of the private schools insisted they do.

The Hammonds were among eight voucher families whose names were supplied by the scholarship fund in the fall after they said they were willing to talk to a reporter about their experiences in the program. Like Hammond, those parents said in recent interviews that their children generally are adjusting well to their new schools and have found good teachers and challenging lessons. The fund has declined to release the names of all the vouchers students, saying that doing so would breach their privacy and violate federal law.

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