On Lawrence Avenue in Chicago, sandwiched between a quesadilla restaurant and Helen’s Hair Design, sits a tiny, nondescript storefront. Inside, at Asian Youth Services (AYS), quiet miracles have been taking place for more than a decade.
AYS was born back in the mid-1990s to serve children from Southeast Asian refugee families. Executive Director Shari Fenton had worked with Chicago’s Cambodian community for many years before venturing out on her own, offering after-school and summer programs primarily for children in the Cambodian, Vietnamese and Lao communities, but open to all comers.
Though Fenton had always offered kids in need a safe place to be after school, through AYS she began working hard to improve their school options, too. She has spent decades raising scholarship money to send kids to schools she knows and trusts. Though she has built relationships with local public schools, her go-to schools are generally Catholic and Lutheran schools on Chicago’s north side and in the northern suburbs.
After more than two decades at it, Fenton can see results. Way back, before she made scholarship money a priority, “most of my kids were dropping out in fourth grade,” she recalls. (This was Chicago in the 1980s and early 90s, when the public schools were known as “worst in the nation.”)
Today, those kids have kids, and their educational experiences are very different. “Now I have kids of parents with fourth-grade educations going to college,” she says. She credits the difference to the level of personal attention her scholarship kids get, not least because of her relentless advocacy on their behalf.
My Parents Wouldn’t Use Vouchers
Despite all her work to raise scholarship money for students, she’s no fan of vouchers. Here’s why: “My parents wouldn’t use them.” Today her parents are second-generation Southeast Asians and first-generation Mexican families. Distrust of government, based on lived experience, runs so deep that convincing them to access basic safety-net services is a big challenge.
But they trust Fenton, and if she says a school is good, they believe her. Plus, she handles the paperwork to make sure they get the scholarship money to go to the school of their choice. AYS serves as a trusted broker to help families who wouldn’t be able to access school choice in more traditional ways.
Much of the recent discussion around how to expand school choice has focused on which method can clear the most policy hurdles. For an example, see Thomas Carroll’s recent Fordham post on the potential of federal tax-credit scholarships. Tax-credit scholarships work for all the reasons Carroll outlines, plus one more: they make room for trusted nonprofit community leaders like Fenton to build relationships that not only help more families exercise choice, but also ensure their choices work for the best over the long haul.