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Phoenix kicks off National School Choice Week

School Choice advocates kick off National School Choice Week Jan. 25 at the Phoenix Convention Center. Students from 32 Catholic schools were present for the program followed by a performance by the Jonas Brothers. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

School Choice advocates kick off National School Choice Week Jan. 25 at the Phoenix Convention Center. Students from 32 Catholic schools were present for the program followed by a performance by the Jonas Brothers. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

Arizona served as the kickoff venue for National School Choice Week Jan. 25. Governor Jan Brewer proclaimed the days following as Arizona School Choice Week too.

The national celebration began with a free after-school “picnic in the park” hosted by Catholic Education Arizona in the plaza area between the Diocesan Pastoral Center and St. Mary’s Basilica. Festivities followed live and online across the street at the Phoenix Convention Center where students and leaders touted the benefits of offering effective educational options — private, Catholic, public, homeschool — for all children.

Denise Denogean and Rae Bell, juniors at St. Mary's High School show their support for school choice.

Denise Denogean and Rae Bell, juniors at St. Mary’s High School show their support for school choice.

National school Choice Week, which happens to coincide with Catholic Schools Week, is in its third year. Expect to find 3,500 independently planned and funded events across all 50 states Jan. 27-Feb. 2 to celebrate school choice and jump-start registration for the following school year.

In a video message to the more than 7,200 students and parents gathered at the Jan. 25 kickoff, Andrew Campanella, president of National School Choice Week called it a time to “celebrate what’s working, the transformations that are happening.”

A few students at area private and charter schools affirmed the education they’re getting and Arizona’s tuition tax credit that helps make it possible.

Campanella said every 26 seconds, a kid drops out of public school. He said it’s important for a school to challenge its students, “a school that can only be described as one that will give you your ticket to the American dream.”

Michelle Bernard, a political analyst who created, co-produced and hosted MSNBC’s historic television program, About Our Children, which explored poverty and education reform in 2009, is a long-time advocate of school choice. She echoed Campanella’s thoughts about the American dream.

“Every human being, it doesn’t matter what age you are, you have a dream,” Bernard told The Catholic Sun, noting most kids know what they want to be when they grow up. “If you don’t have equal access to an excellent education, then you start to feel your dream is out of reach.”

Hers wasn’t. Bernard remembers moving from D.C. to Maryland as a child because of the inferiority of the public school system where she lived.

“I remember how lucky and blessed I felt that my parents were able to move to a better school system,” she said.

Families living paycheck to paycheck aren’t afforded that luxury. Tuition tax credits can help keep that dream alive for some students. Jorge Solis, a graduate of Glendale Christian Academy, praised the help of organizations like Arizona School Trust, which helped him with scholarships.

Students from 32 Catholic schools represented

Local Catholic school students, one of whom admitted his mom who can’t work made a lot of sacrifices to keep her son in Catholic school, repeatedly told The Catholic Sun they were grateful their school challenges them. “Catholic Schools Raise the Standards” is the theme of this year’s Catholic Schools Week.

Rae Bell, a junior at St. Mary’s High School, transferred out of the public system as a freshman. She said she has learned a lot more about her faith. She loves how St. Mary’s treats students to special surprises — such as free donuts — during Catholic Schools Week.

Her friend, Denise Denogean, also a junior, has grown up in Catholic school. She said faith is important to her and she wouldn’t trade the Catholic school experience for the world.

“It shapes who we are today, to grow up to be mature young ladies,” Denogean said.

Catholic school students enjoy the pre-concert hype during the Jan. 25 School Choice Week kickoff. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

Catholic school students enjoy the pre-concert hype during the Jan. 25 School Choice Week kickoff. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

The friends attended the National School Choice Week kickoff to have a good time and support the night’s main attraction: the Jonas Brothers. The trio, which many of the high schoolers grew up with, performed a brief concert for school choice fans.

Hunter Jones, a junior at Bourgade Catholic High School, said he got pushed to the front and caught three picks during the performance. He gave all three of them away to strangers in the crowd who he said looked like they would cherish it more.

“It’s a good night to celebrate, thank and have fun,” said Jones, who has never set foot in a public school.

He echoed Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton’s urging to make time to thank parents and teachers for their sacrifice and efforts. Jones called his teachers, especially his math teacher who also bears the title of tennis coach, his “second mother away from home.”

“She really pushes me to strive for excellence,” Jones said noting that all teachers “put in the extra effort and that makes all the difference — all the difference.”

Carolina Cisneros, a seventh-grader at St. Louis the King in Glendale, agreed that teacher commitment is paramount in Catholic schools. She attended the National School Choice Week because she wanted to represent her school and because she likes social events. It also gave her a chance to meet up with Riley Andrews from nearby Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The pair was once schoolmates.

Catholic school students traveled from as far away as Nogales and Tucson for the festivities. Luis Ramos, a sophomore at Lourdes Catholic School in Nogales, said in his eight years of Catholic school he has learned how to live in a small, connected community.

Brian Campbell, an eighth-grader at St. Cyril in Tucson, was one of 12 who represented his school at the kickoff. The life-long Catholic school student said his faith has improved, he has met some great friends and he has received a good education, especially in math and science. Campbell is proudly in the process of getting into the fourth best high school in the nation as a result.

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