Special needs program offers renewed hope

Thomas Dickerson got labeled as a student who couldn't learn, receiving A's and B's but being told he was performing below grade level.

His mother, Vicki Dickerson, was worried.

"I was worried how was he going to make it in this world," she said, concerned that her 16-year-old son was being passed grade to grade without being taught by the Richmond County school system.

But two years ago, the Georgia General Assembly gave her renewed hope with the passage of Senate Bill 10, the state's first voucher program. The legislation created the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program, which allowed her to send Thomas to Hope Christian School.

Statewide, the scholarship program grew by 77.5 percent this school year with 1,596 parents choosing to transfer their children to private schools. That's up 697 students from a year ago.

"The scholarship is just a godsend," Ms. Dickerson said.

She recalled driving around town last week, looking into the rear view mirror and seeing Thomas reading a book.

"I have never seen him pick up a book and reading it," she said. "He was just so proud of himself. Tears rolled down my face."

Hope Christian accidentally gave Thomas a general education test recently rather than a special education test. He scored an 89.

"I know Thomas can learn now," Ms. Dickerson said, commending the school for believing in her son.

In Richmond County, the percentage of students participating in the program more than doubled, with 41 students now in the program. Participation in Columbia County jumped from six last year to 25 this year.

Parents, however, often don't realize that private schools are an option and that the scholarships are available, said the Rev. Ron Burton, the executive director of Hope Christian School.

Most of his pupils' parents learned about the program through word of mouth and the newspaper, he said.

Senate Bill 10 goes to the heart of Hope Christian's mission, the Rev. Burton said. The school specializes in working with children with special needs and children with behavior problems.

Principal Veronica Stanford said the school has the ultimate accountability. Parents not satisfied with how their children are doing can take them elsewhere, which parents often can't do in a public school.

Of the school's 130 students, 30 are in the scholarship program.

The state scholarships are offsetting downturns in donations to the school, the Rev. Burton said. Donations average $84,000 a year, but Hope Christian received $126,000 last year from the scholarship program alone.

Funding follows the student, so money the Georgia Department of Education would have given to a public school is instead given to the private school.

"It's growing like we thought it would," said state Sen. Eric Johnson, a school choice advocate and sponsor of the legislation.

Mr. Johnson is already anticipating introducing new legislation when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

"Yes, we're going to continue to expand school choice," he said. "We're going to come with some sort of expanded voucher program for everybody."

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.