According to the Dallas News, experts predict that by 2030 about one million Dallas County residents — nearly one-third of the population — will not be literate in English. Aside from the day to day challenges associated with illiteracy, it presents a nearly insurmountable challenge for individuals looking to enter — let alone thrive in — the Dallas workforce.
Last month on Prime5.org, we introduced you to a remarkable organization, ACE Scholarships, which is working hard to curb that trend by expanding educational opportunities for low-income families.
ACE believes too many low-income students are trapped in schools which cannot provide them with the resources and environment they require, while other students thrive because of the educational opportunities afforded to them by their school of choice.
So, in 2000, ACE embarked on its mission to help low-income students in grades K-12 gain access to quality private school education.
Shortly after publishing that story, we were thrilled to announce ACE as a Prime 5 Catalyst, and spoke with their chief program officer, John Oliver, to learn more about their vision for the organization in Dallas.
When asked about the state of education in America today, Oliver said it’s a matter of opportunity — or lack thereof depending on your income. “Middle and high-income families can either move to school districts with high-performing public schools or pay private school tuition. Low-income families do not have these options available to them and often live in neighborhoods with poor performing public schools.”
This disparity creates a harmful gap where low-income students fall behind their middle and high-income peers in virtually every academic measure. Oliver said most educators call it the “achievement gap” when it’s really an “opportunity gap.”
“Low-income children simply do not have the same opportunities to attend-high performing public and charter schools,” he said. “And as this gap continues to grow, the national high school graduation rate is slowly ticking up each year, while the rate for minority and low-income students remains static.”
The situation is the same in Dallas. The Independent School District (ISD) reports a high low-income graduation rate (87%), but Oliver does not believe all diplomas are created equal.
“What’s the value of that diploma?” he asked. “More Dallas students may be earning one, but most are ill-prepared for college or the workforce. On the ACT college-readiness exam, Dallas Hispanic and African American students average a 15 out of a possible 36 points — which is not college-ready — and only 9 percent of low-income, minority Dallas students are college ready, according to the College Ready rate, which is the ACT score for math and English.”
Sadly, this is old news for most of the country’s low-income communities. In fact, it’s the very same challenge that brought ACE to Houston last year. Both Houston and Dallas are very large districts with a high percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced-cost lunch. And with 393 students on scholarship in 32 private schools, ACE is already starting to make an impact in communities in Houston — results they expect to replicate in Dallas.
Becoming an ACE Scholar
Each school year, ACE awards a number of scholarships to each of its partner schools, based on budget and other factors. Parents of low-income families then apply for a scholarship to an ACE-approved private school, and once ACE confirms the child’s enrollment, ACE issues partial scholarships directly to the school in the name of the child.
This raises an important point: ACE’s success depends not only on motivated students, but motivated parents. They require parents and guardians to be “all-in” for their child, as they will ultimately be responsible for contributing a portion of dollars towards tuition. Engaging busy parents has long been a challenge for schools, so ACE makes it a priority.
“We leverage our relationships through the schools,” said Oliver. “Our schools do a fantastic job of engaging parents and our research shows that the longer a parent has a child on scholarship, the more they are engaged in the activities at the school. We also engage parents in our evaluation process as we ask them to complete annual surveys that track meaningful data points such as parent satisfaction with the school of their choice, and specific behaviors that have changed since their child has been on scholarship.”
That’s precisely why Oliver touts partnering with exceptional schools as the next most important part of the ACE model.
“We rely on schools to find the families that need our support the most,” Oliver said. They also help by hosting site visits with prospective donors, collecting student and parent stories, and serving as ambassadors to ACE and our mission to expand school choice.”
Thus, ACE schools must provide not only the academic rigor to effectively prepare students for life after graduation, but also the comprehensive support necessary to get them there.
It is this collaborative effort between the student, parent, school, and ACE that Oliver believes makes the program so effective.
Bringing ACE to Dallas
Currently in a “soft launch” phase in Dallas, ACE is already serving 46 students at 6 partner schools, and Oliver has high hopes as the program continues to grow.
“We expect to see similar results we’ve been tracking for years in Colorado, Montana, and our other states as they mature: Increased proficiency scores, higher high school graduation rates and ACT scores, more kids going to and persisting through college, as well as important family and community impacts such as higher rates of volunteerism.”
When asked to pinpoint why ACE continues to be so effective from state to state and city to city, Oliver notes similar factors that we’ve observed in every Stand Together Catalyst: A compelling case, an impactful mission supported by strong leadership, and, specific to ACE, an unwavering commitment to leveling the educational playing field in America.
ACE also stands out from similar programs, in part, because they offer diversity in their school partner portfolio. Many scholarship programs only partner with a certain type of private school, so the added variety expands options for families.
To ensure the highest standard of excellence in every program across the country, ACE works closely with industry experts and emphasizes the use of rigorous metrics to measure success.
“We are effective at delivering on the mission because we invest our time and resources in quantifying the impact that we intend to create with our scholarship,” Oliver said. “The threefold partnership between the family, the school and the business community is unique, and we firmly believe that when we support a quality school that aims to serve low-income kids and parents of those kids are willing to give up 10-20 percent of their annual income to send their child to the school of their choice, the level of engagement on all parties is strong.”