(Valerie Lewis is a senior at Petra Academy and recently spoke at a capitol briefing in Helena as part of National School Choice Week, January 21-25, 2019. The following is the manuscript of her message.)
When I first began attending Petra Academy, I was an angry eleven-year-old determined not to like her new school. I was infuriated at my mom for forcing me to leave my friends and move away from the small town I had lived in for my entire life. The thought of going to a school where I had to wear a uniform, recite long paragraphs, and study Latin made me utterly disgusted. And, being the dramatic sixth grader that I was, I constantly told my mom that she was “ruining my life,” that I would “never forgive her,” and that, “as soon as I became a high schooler, I would go to public school like a normal kid.”
Standing here today, I cannot be more happy to admit how wrong I was six-and-a-half years ago. I cannot express how grateful I am that my mom chose to send me to the school that she did and how hard she worked in order to make this happen, but I can confidently say that I am a better person because of the education I have received.
One of the reasons I began to enjoy my school was that I did not feel like a statistic or another face in the crowd. I have personally witnessed that every student is listened to, and has a chance to speak and contribute to class discussions. I know all of the seventh through twelfth graders by name, and students in the older grades are encouraged to talk to and become friends with those who are younger. It has truly been a welcoming environment that I have not been able to find anywhere else.
Beyond the benefits of its environment, my school has given me an education many can only dream of. I have read and now own an entire bookshelf of western classics and have been taught by some of the most brilliant and caring teachers I wish everyone had the opportunity to know. My teachers have challenged me daily and have taught me many things that still, and always will, amaze me. They are willing to help and answer questions no matter how busy they are, which is something I appreciate more than words can say.
My education has helped me to have a new outlook on the world, and has given me a desire to learn more. I now truly understand how incredibly fortunate I am to have been given all of these opportunities.
I could continue talking about the benefits I have experienced through my education at a private school; however, I cannot ignore the fact that for most families, attending one is a financial impossibility. This reality could not be more true for my family. My mom has certainly never had, nor now has the means to pay for my full tuition. But, for almost seven years, I have been incredibly blessed to receive financial aid. Every year I have received two scholarships, one from my school directly, and one from ACE Scholarships. These have significantly decreased the amount my mom has had to pay and have ultimately made private school a possibility for me.
As I mentioned before, my time at Petra has changed me more than I could ever have imagined. When I first began, I did not want to be there, but by the end of every year, attending another school the following fall was no longer a thought in my mind. However, at the end of my sophomore year, a few weeks before finals, my mom and I were incredibly worried that I would not be able to return. After my mom had filled out the financial information needed to apply for a scholarship, there was a mistake. Somehow her income was recorded to be almost $20,000 more than what it actually was, and she was sent an email that I would not be receiving the previous scholarship amount from my school.
The night that she opened this email, I was working late on a Biology lab report. I remember walking into the kitchen to find my mom crying. She explained to me that we had not received enough scholarship money and that I might not be able to finish my last two years of high school at Petra. I remember lying awake the entire night and going to school the next day constantly on the verge of tears. I could not imagine the possibility of leaving and did not know what I would do if I had to. Thankfully, my mom was able to find the problem in the processing of the application and everything was sorted out.
As I start my last semester of high school, and begin to prepare for college and my future professional career, I want to express how important I now believe it is that parents be able to send their children to the school of their choice. I do not know what my life would be like if I had not been able to attend a private school, but I am fairly certain that I would not be as motivated, hardworking, and goal-oriented as Petra has taught me to be. Petra Academy is an incredibly challenging school, but it has helped me to think critically and wisely about everything.
I believe that all kids should be allowed to have the same opportunities that I have had, regardless of their financial or family background. I am sure that there are countless parents who are just like my mom – parents who desire to send their children to a school like Petra, but simply cannot afford to do so. I wonder how life might be different for the children of these parents if they could have the opportunity and the freedom of attending the school and education of their choice. I sincerely hope that more will be done to aid parents who seek to provide their children with the type of education they feel best meet the needs of their children and family, and I hope that in the future, more and more kids will be able to experience all that I have.