School choice changed our lives

Holy Name School in Omaha, Nebraska, is one of 222 private schools in the state serving more than 41,600 students. Holy Name provides a learning environment of faith, knowledge and service by promoting Christian values, individualized opportunities, and community engagement.

Editor’s note: This commentary from Jayleesha Cooper and Brandon Villanueva Sanchez, members of the American Federation for Children’s 2023 Future Leaders Fellowship cohort, describes the life-changing possibilities of education choice and advocates for Nebraska’s Opportunity Scholarships Act.

Our stories are unique, but we have many things in common. We were born to parents who loved us but could not afford what many take for granted — a good education.

We both grew up surrounded by peers full of potential and big dreams, whose parents also loved them and worked hard, but who had less opportunities and therefore took very different paths. We were zoned to schools that have been underperforming for decades, so our parents worked multiple jobs, struggled, and sacrificed so that we could attend private schools.

That’s an opportunity that is denied to thousands of children each year.

Recently, opponents of giving families more educational options wrote a misleading piece on the Opportunity Scholarships Act (LB 753). The authors represented Westside Community Schools, which many students who are zoned for Omaha Public Schools attend thanks to option enrollment.

While the authors would support that form of parental choice, they oppose an even more equitable form of choice: the Opportunity Scholarships Act.

This bill would provide opportunities for children from lower-income families to attend non-public schools. We were both blessed with that opportunity. But every year, children with similar backgrounds are turned away because existing scholarships cannot meet the need or demand by families.

Except for the lucky few, true options are limited to families who can afford to move or pay tuition. More students in Nebraska deserve the chance we had.

Everything we have today can be attributed to school choice and the sacrifices our parents made for our education. But parents should not have to sacrifice time with their children, working multiple jobs simply to provide them with the education that best fits their needs.

We have been the fortunate ones, but we shouldn’t be anomalies. Any child living in Omaha can be as successful as one in Westside, Millard, or Elkhorn. The Opportunity Scholarship Act means more children, regardless of family income or zip code, can grow up to be neuroscientists, lawyers, or anything else they dream.

Nebraska: it is time that we take a stand for all children and support Opportunity Scholarships.

Jayleesha’s story

Jayleesha Cooper

Jayleesha attended Omaha Public Schools until second grade. It worked for her — until it didn’t.

Her mother knew Jayleesha was smart but not being challenged, often helping other kids with their homework instead of learning something new herself. Jayleesha’s mother searched for ways to afford private school and finally got the children enrolled in Holy Name in North Omaha.

To afford tuition, Jayleesha’s mother worked multiple jobs, while in school herself, on top of receiving aid from Omaha’s Children Scholarship Fund. It wasn’t easy, but attending private school was life changing. Jayleesha skipped a grade, got involved with sports and extracurricular activities, came out of her shell, and made all As.

She went on to receive another private scholarship to attend Duchesne Academy and is now a sophomore at the University of Chicago on a full-ride scholarship. Despite being born into a low-income family to a teen mom and a dad who was in and out of jail, she has interned for congressmen, testified multiple times at the Nebraska Legislature, and even introduced notable figures like Malala. Her life was changed because of a good education.

Brandon’s story

Brandon Villanueva Sanchez

Brandon’s story is similar. His parents always stressed the importance of a quality education, having grown up in rough conditions that forced them to drop out in middle school to find work to help support their families. They wanted better for Brandon and his siblings.

They worked multiple jobs to afford private schools, a sacrifice they say they “would do all over again.” Because of their hard work and sacrifice, Brandon and his siblings attended private schools in South Omaha and received a quality education, something that changed their lives and the trajectory of the family forever.

In these schools, class sizes were smaller, there were teachers who cared about students outside of the classroom, and students had mentors and tutors who guided them. Most importantly, there was a community of students and faculty who were supportive and pushed each other to be more.

Brandon graduated with honors as the class president and enrolled at the University of Nebraska. He is currently studying neuroscience with minors in chemistry and computer science and has an internship at Johns Hopkins University, exposing him to the highest level of scientific research.

Last spring, he was awarded the Barry Goldwater Scholarship, which has been identified as the most prestigious scholarship for undergraduate students pursuing a career in STEM and has highlighted him as a future leader in scientific research.

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BY Special to NextSteps