Mom of special needs student grateful for NC school voucher program


By Mary C. Tillotson |

When the state Legislature approved a budget allocating more money for a new school voucher program in late July, it was the answer to one North Carolina mom’s prayer.

Waiting for the initial school choice law to pass last year was a nailbiter, said Kena Cooper, and waiting to see if her son Keenan — one of 4,200 qualified applicants in a lottery for about 2,400 seats — received a scholarship was “nerve-wracking.” She wasn’t done praying when he was awarded his scholarship.

“When I checked, it said, ‘Congratulations,’ and I was like, ‘God, I thank you,’” she said. “I prayed that the other parents that didn’t get picked, that extra money would be available for them to get picked, because as passionate as I am, they are, too.”

The original law provided $10 million for scholarships to help students from low-income families attend private schools. After the program proved extremely popular with families and a lawsuit put a hold on the program for two months, lawmakers budgeted an additional $840,000 for the program and allowed for more students to transfer to private schools on scholarship in January, between semesters.

“I’m totally disappointed when it comes to the school district. I really am, and I’m glad he’s my last child that will have to experience this school. It’s just sad. They are really failing the children, they really are,” Cooper said.

She said her first “red flag” at her son’s public school was his teacher’s focus on money. When she attended parent-teacher conferences, the teacher didn’t seem interested in discussing Keenan’s academic progress but instead discussed her class’s standardized test scores and why those needed to improve so the school could get more money.

The school began removing art and music classes, and students were not allowed to take textbooks home. Any “homework” was completed in class.

She also didn’t want to keep her son, who just finished sixth grade, in the same school environment.

“He has experienced being bullied, beat up, jumped on ever since he’s been in the state school system,” Cooper said. “I’ve gone and talked to teachers and talked to counselors and talked to principals and talked to superintendents. It’s just really ridiculous. It’s been so many different reasons why they can’t really do anything or they’re doing their best.”

“The only thing the student can do is stay and bear with it, and I don’t think that’s right,” she said.

Once, on the drive home from school, when she asked him how his day was, “he just looked at me and his eyes were full of tears and he just started crying. I pulled over and said, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘I just can’t take it no more.’ He said, “I’m trying, I just can’t take it no more.’”

Cooper began researching options for schooling Keenan. She couldn’t afford a private school, and charter schools had so many children enter the lottery for so few seats it didn’t seem possible to enroll him there. She even researched homeschooling, even though she works at the local radio station and would need her mother to do most of the schooling.

“I kept coming to dead ends, then the circular came,” she said.

Between the Chinese takeout menu and the pizzeria advertisement was a flyer for the scholarship program. She didn’t believe it at first, so she read both sides and examined the fine print.

Keenan Cooper is excited for seventh grade at Cornerstone Christian Academy.

“I was waiting for them to say, like a time-share pitch, the ‘psych’ or whatever,” she said. “This is not a psych. This is serious. This is a serious program. They’re really wanting to help people.”

She went to the website and found there’d be a meeting in her town. She posted it on Facebook, and several parents she knew told her they couldn’t make the meeting but asked if she could bring them information.

“This is a no-brainer,” she said. “What are the public schools doing? Are they training McDonald’s workers or Burger King workers, paper or plastic workers? What do you want in your cappuccino (workers)? For taxpayers to put this money out there, quality education should be given.”

Keenan will attend Cornerstone Christian Academy this fall. Several Cornerstone students had job-shadowed with Cooper at the local radio station, and she was impressed when she toured the school and spoke with the principal.

“She was telling me how each child, they go at their own pace. They don’t rush them through. They do tutoring and everything else. They have books they can bring home; they do encourage parents to work with the child. It was everything that I wanted. … I was like, this is what I want for him,” she said.

Keenan’s teacher was disappointed that Keenan would be leaving, Cooper said.

“She said, ‘Please don’t take your son out of our school.’ I looked at her, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘because when people take their children out of the school, we lose money.’”

The last day of school, Cooper had a final meeting with the team of teachers helping with Keenan’s special education. He had just finished sixth grade, but Cooper was told he was reading at an eighth grade level. When Cornerstone tested him, they found he was closer to a third-grade reading level.

Almost half the private schools in the state have registered to participate in the program, said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. Because the lawsuit delayed the program for a couple months, all the registration had to occur during the summer, when school offices have reduced hours and many school administrators are on vacation. Allison said he expects more private schools to sign up in the fall when they return to regular school hours.

Recently, Cornerstone held a lock-in, where new and returning students went rollerskating, then spent the night at the school playing games. Keenan had a blast.

“‘He said to me last night, he said, ‘Ma, I didn’t think they were going to like me. I didn’t think the kids was going to like me. But Mom, they like me,’” Cooper said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, they like you.’ He said, ‘Yeah, they like me, and they’re nice to me, and I can’t wait to go to school.’”

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at