Bullied students find better education thanks to Illinois’ school choice program

Bullied students find better education thanks to Illinois’ school choice program

Jerry Valdivia’s children were scarred in a fire that killed their mom. They avoided bullying and found a nurturing private school thanks to Illinois’ school choice scholarship program.

Korissa Valdivia Chupp died in 2015 when the family home caught fire in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood. Her son, Jerry Valdivia Jr., 6, was left with burns over 30% of his body. Her daughter, Kiara Valdivia, 2, was burned over 15% of hers.

Jerry Valdivia Sr. was severely burned trying to save his family. Then he was left with two hurt, grieving children to care for.

Jerry Jr. was wearing special clothes and a compression mask to deal with the burns. Public school presented a problem.

“Initially, I wanted Jerry Jr. to stay with his friends, because there was already so much change,” Valdivia said. “We were moving. He had just lost his mom.”

In addition to potential bullying about his burns, Jerry Jr. had an Individualized Education Plan and was one of 33 students in his public school class.

Valdivia later met Teresa, who had also lost her husband. They married, built a blended family and Teresa recommended Catholic school for their kids.

“Keeping him in public school did not work whatsoever,” Valdivia said. “The staff was not on top of things. We switched them over to St. Ann’s. The principal at that time also spoke to the classroom and the same students have stuck with Jerry Jr. ever since.”

“If Jerry Jr. had stayed in the public school system, I don’t feel like there would have been a lot of attention on him, making sure he wasn’t bullied.”

The Valdivias were able to afford tuition at St. Ann Catholic Grade School for their children thanks to help from Invest in Kids, a scholarship program which offers donors a 75% state tax credit when they help low-income students attend private schools. State lawmakers created the scholarships in 2017.

“The principal told us about the Invest in Kids scholarships the year it came out, and thankfully we received them,” Valdivia said.

A family’s income cannot exceed 300% of the federal poverty level to participate. While that income threshold translated to a maximum of $78,600 for a family of four in 2021, the average family income was $38,403 for those granted scholarships through Empower Illinois, the state’s largest scholarship granting organization. More than half of recipients are minority students.

“My main motivation for switching to private school was for them to have that safe space to learn and grow. My stepson, Aiden, had lost his dad the year before I met my wife and the three of them: Jerry Jr., Aiden and Kiara, needed to know their parents were behind them and they had a community supporting them.”

The Valdivia family was lucky enough to receive three of the roughly 7,600 Invest in Kids tax credit scholarships available in Illinois. There were another 26,000 K-12 students who qualified but were placed on a waitlist in 2021. The Valdivia kids are on the waitlist for next year.

Invest in Kids scholarships not only enriched the educations of their kids, but also gave the adults a chance to invest in their future.

“My wife decided to be a full-time mom to care for our kids because Jerry and Kiara still have to undergo skin grafts and procedures. While she’s been at home she finished her bachelor’s degree in social work. Now she will graduate in May with her master’s degree,” Valdivia said.

“Our family is economically moving forward because of the education that my wife has been able to obtain and they’re opening doors for our kids.”

But Invest in Kids will end in 2023 unless state lawmakers act to save it through Senate Bill 3618, introduced by state Sen. Antonio Muñoz, D-Chicago. Lawmakers through the bill could make the program permanent, increase the emphasis on supporting students already in the program, expand it to pre-K students, increase the credit to 100% of a donation and allow business donors to target their gifts to specific schools, as individual donors presently can.

These scholarships have provided additional education options at a time when low-income students have fallen far behind their peers thanks to remote learning and other disruptions caused by the pandemic.

The Valdivia family has faced tragedy and come through it with the help of lawmakers and thousands of donors who put in place the ways and means to help them. They still need that help, as do those 26,000 other kids trying to choose a school that best fits their educational needs.

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