Denise Johnson, a 17-year-old senior, said her life would be vastly different if not for a program that has helped pay for her tuition and uniforms to attend the private Heritage Christian Academy in Colorado Springs.

“It was basically a miracle,” she said of Parents Challenge. “I don’t know if I’d be the same person I am today. I felt like a target in public schools, and I was very restrained. Going to a Christian school, I’m able to grow in my religious beliefs and surround myself with like-minded people.”

Denise is one of 210 K-12 students in El Paso County benefiting from Parents Challenge. The nonprofit organization’s mission: provide vouchers, or scholarships, for low-income students to attend a school of their choice.

Steve and Joyce Schuck, primarily known for their residential and commercial development company, started Parents Challenge 18 years ago.

“The fundamental goal is to empower low-income families to take control of their lives, one step at a time,” Steve Schuck said.

The idea of school vouchers has been controversial, but Schuck sticks with the same premise he’s always had: All children, regardless of where they live or their family’s socio-economic status, should be able to attend whatever school would best fit their needs, just like their wealthier peers.

“We’ll introduce you to people, but it’s your choice, not ours,” Schuck said. “It’s a lifeline to designing your education.”

“We are not a charity,” said Deborah Hendrix, executive director. “We are a parental empowerment, or parental choice, organization.”

Parents Challenge provides qualifying students with vouchers of up to $2,000 a year and offers parenting and life classes conducted by experts, to teach families to become better “education consumers,” Hendrix said.

“We help prepare them for parent-teacher conferences to eliminate the confusion and be in control of what’s happening in their child’s education,” she said. “We teach financial fundamentals, job interview skills, becoming better communicators.”

As a result, parents form a partnership with teachers, instead of an adversarial relationship, Hendrix said, and are more apt to ask their employer for a raise or get a better job.

The program struggled to survive during the recession. Five years ago, only 28 students received assistance. Topping 200 students this year, the organization is serving more families than ever, Schuck said.

Believing the unique, successful model is worthy of replication, Schuck is working on similar setups in other communities.

“We think this is the best model to emulate,” he said.

The organization has created a “how to” turnkey manual that can be altered to fit individual communities, Schuck said.

“Instead of starting a program from scratch, they can learn from ours,” he said. “School choice has grown, but not nearly at the rate and extent any of us would like.”

About 60 organizations nationwide supply education vouchers, but Schuck said his is the only one that doesn’t dictate the type of school students can attend.

Parents Challenge recipients can use the supplemental money to send their children to private, traditional public, charter public, religious or home schools.

About half of the 210 students choose private schools; 20 percent, public charter schools; 15 percent, traditional public schools; and 10 percent, home schools, Hendrix said.

“We are totally agnostic,” Schuck said.

“We don’t care what school the students choose,” Hendrix said. “The parents are their children’s first teacher, but it’s important they get a quality education by being involved. What happens at home impacts what happens at school.”

The vouchers defray the costs of tuition, school uniforms, transportation to and from school, participation in sports or other activities such as Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, technology such as laptops for schoolwork and tutoring.

“It’s assistance for programs that help their kids academically as well as socially,” Hendrix said. “It goes beyond the money.”

Donations from more than 250 individuals as well as grants from foundations fund the organization, Schuck said.

Private school education otherwise wouldn’t have been possible for Shaina Johannsen’s children.

“It affords parents like myself an option to have that door opened, not just financially, but emotionally as well,” said the mother of three who works as a tutor in public schools. “The support we get is huge.”

It’s the only program in the nation that has accompanying classes for families, Schuck said.

“Parents tell us what they’d like to have, and we find the experts from school districts, community organizations, to fill that need,” Hendrix said.

This year’s topics include mental health astuteness, college preparedness, renovating your finances, emotional intelligence, improving student learning, getting ahead and community resources.

Parents are required to keep a journal of what they’ve done that semester to be part of their child’s schooling, such as helping with homework and school projects, attending parent-teacher conferences, going to child’s sporting events or reading with their child.

Families must attend at least four classes and receive free dinner and child care during the sessions, which also are open to the public.

About 50 students and parents showed up for Thursday night’s class on “Succeeding at Home and in School without Feeling Overwhelmed.”

Amelia and E.J. Roberson brought their three children. Their 7-year-old twin boys are in the Global Village Academy, a charter school that specializes in language immersion.

“Parents Challenge is unique,” Amelia said. “Parents can glean useful information from these sessions. The organization gives you all these resources in one spot — how to advocate for your child, how to talk to teachers. It puts the power back into the parents’ hands.”

“They give us the right parental tools to raise our kids,” said E.J., a dental assistant who also runs a cleaning business.

“Who would have thought there were schools out there your child could go to and didn’t have to go to the one down the street?” Amelia asked.

Joshua Gifford, a graphic designer, said his kids weren’t doing well in a traditional school, so two are attending a charter school, the Academy for Advanced and Creative Learning. Another child is home-schooled.

“We’re proponents of school choice because our kids were extremely unsuccessful in their first school,” Gifford said. “They fell behind because they’re hands-on learners. They’re doing a lot better now.”

He said he and his wife, Daisy, enjoy the classes because of the variety of subject matter. But they all have one common thread: “They encourage us to stay involved in the children’s education because education is our responsibility.”

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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