I’m thankful for school choice today and every day 

This year, Toni Richardson of Jacksonville, Fla. is celebrating school choice and the joy of watching her daughter thrive in a school that equips and challenges students to reach their dreams.

Toni Richardson is a single mom to Taylor, a sixth-grade student in Jacksonville, Fla. After a sudden move, Toni was in doubt about her daughter’s educational future. She shares how a special transfer opportunity made the difference in her daughter’s life, leaving Toni thankful and inspired to become an advocate for universal public school choice. We asked Toni a few questions about this journey.

Toni and Taylor Richardson image

Toni Richardson with her daughter Taylor.

 What’s been your experience with school choice?
It has not been an easy road, but thankfully, I have been able to choose the best school for Taylor each year. When she started kindergarten, she attended one of the highest performing schools in Jacksonville. However, three years ago when Taylor was in third grade, I lost my job and could no longer afford to stay in my home.

We had to move in with family across town in order to make ends meet. After the move, I hoped to keep Taylor enrolled at her first school as the school near my family’s home was low-performing and would not have been able to meet her unique needs. Simply because we changed addresses, however, Taylor was no longer eligible to stay. That’s when I begged school district officials to give Taylor a special assignment. Fortunately they agreed, and I thank God every day they did.

This past fall, Taylor started sixth grade. What was it like choosing her middle school?
Taylor has an IEP for a learning disability that requires special accommodations, and not all schools are equipped to meet them. The middle school she is zoned for now is satisfactory but still not a great fit. After being waitlisted at three magnet schools, she was admitted to some private schools, but they were either cost prohibitive or did not offer the accommodations she needed. I began to fear the worst.

Then, after researching a number of other public schools in the area, I finally found a solid option for Taylor, but again, I had to apply for a special assignment. This time, it was up to the school’s principal to approve, and fortunately she agreed. Taylor’s middle school offers high-quality fine arts instruction, which has given her confidence and new friends, all while she continues to excel academically.

You have fought hard for educational choices. How has having these choices impacted Taylor?
She was a struggling reader early on, and I’m convinced her learning would have suffered had she been forced to leave the teachers who knew her when we moved. In her special assigned schools, she has been surrounded by peers with common goals of graduating from prestigious colleges and having high professional ambitions. Sadly, not all schools have these same cultures of high achievement. I wanted my child in that kind of environment, and her being there has made a difference.

Today she is an honors student. She excels in her extracurricular activities. She is an active literacy advocate and is pursuing her dream of becoming the first African-American woman astronaut to go to Mars. Last year, she attended space camp in Huntsville, Ala. The sky isn’t even a limit for her!

What challenges remain ahead for ensuring Taylor continues to receive a high-quality education?
My office and her school are 15 miles apart, and because of my work hours I can’t pick her up for at least two hours after school gets out. Luckily, she is able to spend that time at the Boys and Girls Club across the street from her school.

I also worry her special school assignment could be revoked at any time if circumstances, district leadership or policies were to change. And we’ll have to go through this process again when she reaches high school, just over two years from now. The magnet programs in our community are world-class but highly selective and have limited slots.

Why should parents have more public school choices?
My experience with Taylor affirms why I believe all parents ought to have a choice in where they send their kids to school. While I am grateful her school district has magnet schools and charter schools, they all had long waiting lists. Florida even provides special scholarship programs Taylor qualified for, but none of the private schools that would have met her needs accepted these scholarships. We still needed more options.

Taylor couldn’t help that her mom lost her job, and kids like her shouldn’t have to suffer just because of their zip code. For every kid like Taylor who is fortunate enough to get a special assignment, there are probably 10 more whose moms and dads want that special assignment but aren’t given it for one reason or another. It doesn’t have to be this way, and I hope school districts and states offer more transfer and special assignment options so more parents can be empowered to do what’s best for their children, and not feel confined by their zip code or inability to pay for private school.

Taylor Richardson

Taylor Richardson sharing with the next generation of learners.

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