You could drive past Elijah House Academy hundreds of times without ever taking note of it. The parts of the school that face Jahnke Road in South Richmond would fit in well at any airport industrial park. The low-slung taupe buildings look like a place where the employees make something small— tarpaulin grommets, maybe. Which is funny, because the people at Elijah House are actually doing something very big. They're giving poor kids a shot.
The school has fewer than 200 students, but that is almost 200 more than it had when it started its first class, of eight. The median family income of a student at EHA is around $30,000. Eighty-four percent of the kids would be eligible for free or reduced-price lunch in a traditional public school setting. It costs EHA about $10,000 to teach one student for one year, which is lower than what it costs the city of Richmond (more than $12,000), but quite a bit higher than what the average student's family pays in tuition: $1,500.
"A lot our kids live in two different worlds," says Jesse Kell, the head of school. They come from the surrounding neighborhoods of South Richmond, which include Section 8 housing developments, apartment complexes, and some pretty rough neighborhoods. Sometimes there can be "a big disconnect between home and school," according to Teresh Wilson, the dean, who describes some students' "disjointed circumstances."
Kell says one major reason parents send their children to EHA is all the bullying that occurs outside it, so the school tries to create "a safe emotional place." Fernando, a student at Elijah House, says he "used to be really mean." The school taught him it's "better to help. I learned to have a more open door." A young lady sitting across the table from him, named Special, confesses she "learned to be kinder" at Elijah House as well. The school puts a great deal of emphasis on character education.
Not all of the students who enroll are ready for EHA's rigor, however—which includes uniforms and "a lot of writing assignments," in the words of Sean Patrick, another student. One well-spoken older boy was a rising seventh-grader when he enrolled and was told he would have to repeat the sixth grade first. He talked his way out of that and into what you might call seventh grade on probation. He caught on, and didn't have to look back.
Stories like that help explain why the staff at EHA and the board members who oversee them are enthusiastically—almost gratingly—gung-ho about the school and the good work it does, despite a curriculum that sounds, from the outside, a mite touchy-feely. The school tries to "empower teachers to be autonomous," Kell says. The "teacher is a living curriculum."
Still, it seems to work. The school uses Terra Nova, a standardized test, and its students, as a group, score far above the national proficiency rate for students from similar backgrounds. So far, Elijah House students have a 100 percent college acceptance rate—and every student who has graduated EHA has gone on to an institution of higher learning.
All of which raises the issue of school choice—and vouchers. EHA is able to charge poor families a fraction of the cost of education thanks to charitable giving. But it could teach even more, if parents could take their per-pupil expenditure and spend it at any school they wanted to, the way Medicare recipients can spend their Medicare at just about any doctor's office they want to.
Virginia does have a scholarship tax-credit program, which lets donors write off 65 percent of the value of their gift to a scholarship program that helps students attend non-public schools. But that's a considerably more circuitous approach than a straightforward voucher, or even a tuition tax credit. (Many poor families don't pay much in taxes, of course— but a refundable tax credit could entitle them to a check that would cover much of the cost of tuition.)
The debate over vouchers has been around a long time, and it has several standard lines of argument and rebuttal. The chief argument is that we should be trying to fix failing public schools—not providing a small number of families with an escape from them. This sounds like saying fewer lifeboats would have kept the Titanic afloat. In any event, perhaps you have noticed that people have been trying to fix failing public schools for many years now, with limited success at best—while alternatives such as charter schools have been making great strides.
Besides, EHA's model might not be replicable at the scale of an entire school system, even if you took the religious component out. And it wouldn't work for every student anyway. Some kids need a military setting; others need Montessori. Perhaps we should stop thinking about school systems and consider an alternative Kell describes as "a system of schools." In the meantime, it's hard to see a downside in finding a way for more kids to make Elijah House a second home.
This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.