Even after René Harris Stevenson had the acceptance letters in her hand, the dream still seemed out of reach.
Her two children were admitted into Augusta’s Heritage Academy for this school year, but the single mother had no way to pay the $5,800 tuition per pupil.
“I guess I’ll have to work two jobs, get some help from grandma and granddad,” Stevenson said she thought.
It’s a scenario often played out in low-income families. Parents want an alternative to a public school education for their children, but are blocked by the high costs of private school.
A new initiative created under the 2008 Georgia Tuition Credit Scholarship Program is aiming to help give families access to a private education no matter their income bracket.
Funded in 2010, the Arete Scholars Fund, known as a Student Scholarship Organization, provides scholarships to families from money donated by corporations, which then receive a full tax credit for their contributions.
Arete representatives visited Heritage on Wednesday to meet with Stevenson and her two children, who are among 14 students who received the scholarships totalling $80,000 at the school.
In its first year of existence, Arete awarded 262 Georgia students a total of $1.2 million in scholarships in fiscal year 2010.
“That was one less burden as far as my children getting a better education,” said Stevenson, whose children received the scholarship shortly after being accepted to Heritage.
Arete differs from other Georgia scholarship organizations in that the program awards money directly to families instead of schools. This year, scholarship organizations across the state have come under fire because of gaps in the law’s structure that don’t require them to report financial information about their donors or recipients.
A study released in June by the Southern Education Foundation says the law allows for abuses in the system, although that claim was strongly rebutted by several scholarship organizations.
Arete co-founder Gregory G. Beadles said his
program will avoid that criticism by publishing its yearly audit on its Web site and for whoever requests it.
As a board member for Dominion Classical Christian Academy in Lawrenceville, Ga., Beadles helped launch Arete after seeing how dedicated parents would get turned away from the school when they couldn’t afford tuition.
“The plight of low-income families, we’re trying to make systematic changes to that, and that’s the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Beadles, who is also the chief financial officer for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
To qualify for Arete, students must have previously attended a public school and be eligible for the federal free and reduced-priced lunch program.
Last year, 70 percent of Arete recipients were minority students and had an average household income of $30,000.
With Beadles’ corporate connections and the work of the board of directors, the program was able to recruit sponsors solely on word-of-mouth.
By the time the program reached Stevenson, she said it was like a blessing had finally fallen on her family.
In public school, her children were active and high achieving, but Stevenson said the environment hindered their learning.
Her son, Cornell K. Harris, and daughter, Nastasia Stevenson, would come home complaining of bullying and constant distractions in the classroom.
Cornell, 10, who wants to become a paleontologist, said students at his previous school would curse in class and not listen to the teacher.
Cornell’s sister, 11, who is deciding whether to be a dancer, choreographer or doctor, said the other kids didn’t treat her with respect.
At Heritage, however, things are different. It’s a change that Stevenson said wouldn’t have
been possible without a little help.
“It has given my family the opportunity to a better life,” she said.