By Edgar Zaragoza
Wisconsin’s private school choice program has benefited my family and—through my work at the Green Bay Area Catholic Education School System (GRACE)—I’ve personally seen it change the lives of hundreds of families for the better. Why not bring the blessing of choice to more families?
About a decade ago, I worked at a public school, but hoped for a different quality of education and faith-based environment for my oldest daughter. By asking many questions about our options, I learned about Wisconsin’s School Voucher Program and applied for it through GRACE. When we received a voucher, I thought the benefit of it was so great, it must just be for a single year. Upon learning we could renew the voucher until my daughter graduated, I was amazed.
What I thought a decade ago, I still think today: All families deserve to know about this choice program’s benefits. To respond to that need, I started volunteering in a bilingual capacity, and eventually working full-time with GRACE, to share information with families who felt they couldn’t afford to choose the learning environment they desired.
It gives me chills to think of the lives in my community I’ve seen changed through choice. For example, one immigrant family from Puerto Rico came to the U.S. hoping for better opportunities for their children, but didn’t find a nurturing learning environment in their assigned school. They nervously applied for vouchers through GRACE. When I called to share that their children had received vouchers, they began to cry from joy. Access to a school of their choice meant so much that the parents bought balloons to surprise their children with a celebration of the good news.
I am proud of our work to raise community awareness of choice, and I believe GRACE’s growth can serve as a model for any learning community. At heart, the key to success is attentiveness and responsiveness to parents. We meet moms and dads where it’s best for them, whether that’s in the language they are most comfortable in or the communication medium, like texting, they most prefer. We exist to walk the journey of education with parents—seeing their needs and advocating for them.
We are a close-knit community. As I work with all of GRACE’s nine schools and 23 parishes, I’m blessed to talk with principals and parents, kitchen staff and custodians, educators and students, sometimes on the same day. Our close community allows us to be uniquely involved in our families’ lives—even inviting parents to apply if there are open jobs at our school they are a good fit for.
Importantly, we do not tell parents what the best choice is for them; we simply open the menu of schools and support families in knowing they have options, regardless of income. We ask them what they’re looking for, what matters to them, and we listen.
When I ask families what brings them to us, I hear two recurring messages. The first is a desire for a better quality of education. The second is a desire for a learning environment that supports their faith and culture. For thousands of families each year, especially in the Hispanic community, Wisconsin’s School Voucher Program is answering both needs.
Still, there’s more work to be done to bring information about this opportunity to families who haven’t yet heard. That’s why, this School Choice Week (Jan. 23-29), I ask you to spread the word about Wisconsin’s learning options, including the voucher program. Access to a school of choice is a tremendous blessing. If we can bring that benefit to more families, why wouldn’t we?
Edgar Zaragoza is a father of three and Outreach Administrator at GRACE.