“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” said Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) Superintendent Morton Sherman, referring to T.C.’s “Persistently Lowest Achieving” label. “It is an opportunity.” At an Agenda: Alexandria meeting on May 23, Sherman and members of the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria (SFA) discussed the changes and challenges in the school system and the various ways in which the community can support students. Founded in 1986, the SFA serves as an example of community support for students who need financial assistance.
SFA Trustee Sindy Benavides is among the 3400 Alexandria residents who have benefited from the organization’s scholarships. Benavides’ parents emigrated from Honduras to Los Angeles; they later decided to move to Virginia after hearing that Virginia had a strong public school system. “I attended a school that was very supportive,” said Benavides. When Benavides was in fifth grade, her teacher transformed her education by placing her in honors classes. “[My teacher] saw in me a potential I did not see in myself,” said Benavides.
When Benavides entered 12th grade, she wanted to attend college but knew that her family, who at one point had been homeless, could not afford tuition. Although a school counselor encouraged her to join the military or learn a trade, a teacher guided her through the college admissions process and encouraged her to apply for scholarships. “This is where the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria stepped in,” said Benavides. “[It] provided financial help and hope that I could actually go and access a higher education. It changed my life.” Benavides attended Virginia State University, graduated as Valedictorian in three years and went to American University. She continues to be grateful for her scholarship. “There are thousands of students who crave…that opportunity to succeed [but whose families need financial assistance],” said Benavides.
Assistant Secretary of Education Douglas Garcia also benefited from the SFA’s work. He and his family emigrated from El Salvador to escape the civil war and seek opportunities in America. “We came from very humble backgrounds,” said Garcia. He helped his father manage his family’s Italian restaurant and attended Northern Virginia Community College after receiving a scholarship from the SFA. After two years he transferred to James Madison University and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and international affairs.
On Garcia’s graduation day he was unhappy to see that his parents were not in the audience. “As I [was] walking up, they called my name. I was so upset,” said Garcia. “[Then] all I heard was this loud roar from the back of the crowd. My parents had brought 25 or 30 family members.” Garcia’s relatives were almost late because they had to find parking spaces.
“All of their struggles [and] sacrifices paid off,” said Garcia. “It wasn’t just [me] graduating; it was all of us.”
The Scholarship Fund of Alexandria ensures that all students have the opportunity to attend college, even if they cannot afford to do so.
“A small group of Alexandria citizens, including school board members, decided to do something about academically qualified ACPS graduates who could not afford college [tuition],” said SFA Director Susan Yowell. “We are building an educated workforce to ensure the vitality of this city. There are no jobs for young people without higher education in Alexandria.”
Such support is essential to the school system. According to Sherman, the ACPS student population has increased by more than 13 percent during the past three years; the fastest growing group is English Language Learners (ELL), 29 percent of whom drop out. Fifty-six percent of ACPS students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch.
In the 2009-2010 school year, the Virginia Department of Education designated T.C. as “Persistently Lowest Achieving” based on English and Math Standards of Learning (SOL) scores. “It was their way of reaching out,” said Sherman.”[ACPS has] underserved thousands of students for decades.” According to Sherman, T.C. has three years to transform into a school that can be “held as a model for the rest of the country.”