The Power to Choose

School Choice gives students the chance to thrive

By Mariah Kline

For the last 20 years, School Choice Scholarships has made the impossible possible for children from low-income families. Thanks to the program’s donors, students attending kindergarten through eighth grade qualify for assistance paying for school, allowing many to choose the education that’s right for them.

School Choice Scholarships Executive Director Heather Huddleston.

Founded in 1998, School Choice was spearheaded by five local business people, including the late Baylor Landrum Jr., the celebrated Louisville philanthropist. Founding members Jim Patterson, Ann Wells, Phil Moffett and George Fischer still serve on the board of directors for the organization. In its 20 years, School Choice has awarded scholarships to almost 8,000 Louisville students, allowing kids to attend private and parochial schools they couldn’t afford otherwise. 

The need for the nonprofit’s services has grown exponentially. There are currently more than 6,000 students  in the area on the waiting list to receive scholarships. Five years ago, there were only 500.

“We are unique in that we’re the last one still standing that is still operated in the same way,” said Executive Director Heather Huddleston. “We’re still privately funded, and all of the other organizations like ours, as far as we can tell from our research, exist in states that have passed some kind of legislation that helps encourage funding from more donors – so the programs got much, much larger because there were tax credits for donors – or they merged or they no longer operate.”

School Choice boys during a parent education meeting

Huddleston currently spends a great deal of time in Frankfort advocating for the organization and the families’ it benefits.

“We’ve been working on scholarship tax credit legislation, which would be such a big incentive for donors,” she explained. “That’s really the purpose of (the legislation): to encourage more private donations to scholarship programs like ours.”

While the nonprofit paves the way for students to go to private schools, Huddleston affirms that nothing about the mission discourages people from going to public schools.

“The purpose is not to put every child in a private school,” she said. “It’s to empower families and provide opportunity for children who need a different school and couldn’t afford it any other way. For families with very low income, it’s not something that they even think is in the realm of possibility. They have a hard time choosing what to have for dinner because those options are so limited. Choosing the school their child is going to go to – particularly a private school with tuition – is completely out of that realm.”

Mr. Charles,” as he’s affectionately known, with four graduates from the West End School and School Choice Scholarships

The families of children in the School Choice program say that the entire household dynamic changes once education is made attainable. Everyone in the family becomes more invested not just in terms of money but in time and energy, too.

Local parent Kes Hatcher’s five children have all received School Choice scholarships. 24-year-old twins Aminah and Akilah are both college graduates; 20-year-old Ailiyah is a junior at Centre College and has been traveling abroad for the last six months; 19-year-old Ayesha is a freshman at Sullivan University; and 7-year-old Rashad is currently in the School Choice program.

“I know that I could not have done any of this without School Choice,” said Hatcher. “They helped me make a difference in my children’s lives and helped me to establish a solid foundation on which my children could flourish.”

School Choice students from several schools on the playground at St. Francis of Assisi during a parent education meeting.

While assisting the children financially, School Choice also prioritizes getting to know the families they are working with and helping them thrive as a unit.

“We run parent education classes and meetings that we require the parents to attend four of during the school year,” said Huddleston. “They cover all kinds of things – opioid abuse, teen drinking, social media, family finances, etc. We’re not just giving scholarship money but we’re also trying to get to know the families and give them even more tools to empower them.”

“The meetings are great because they’re based on current life situations and what’s going on with kids right now,” Hatcher affirmed.

A School Choice family at an event at St. Nicholas Academy

Since Hatcher’s family has benefited so much from the organization’s work, she now sees it as her duty to give back to School Choice and share her testimony with other parents.

“As a parent, I have learned the importance of making sure that our children are educationally sound,” she stated. “I know that someone helped pave the way for my family, so I must pave the way for someone as well. My family is truly honored to be part of this life-changing program.”

School Choice opens up doors for families in Louisville. Regardless of their parents’ income or which zip code they live in, students are able to choose the education that is right for them. 

“People understand that the pathway out of poverty is education,” Huddleston said. “I think that there’s a misconception that families in programs like this are families who aren’t working or who are not trying to help themselves, but it’s completely the opposite. We have so many grandparents raising their grandkids, disabled parents, children with medical crises, special needs kids and foster children. We run the gamut.”

Though students cannot apply after eighth grade, Huddleston has seen the scholarships set children up for success long after middle school.

L to R from back: Ailiyah, 21; Ayesha, 20; and Kes’s husband Robert. Second row: Akilah, 24, and Aminah, 24. Front: Kes and Rashad, 7.

“A lot of children get scholarships to high school or they get into a top program,” she said, “but also part of the philosophy is that you give the child a solid foundation in education so they they’re going to thrive wherever they go. So, even if they don’t get into a private high school or top program, they’re going to do well wherever they go.” V

To learn more about School Choice Scholarships, visit schoolchoiceky.org or call 502.254.7274.