Before she started fifth grade, Stephanie Gaitan said she had trouble focusing in school. Then her family discovered a a new option was available. Stories like Gaitan’s are familiar among school choice supporters.

“My grades got better, and so did my behavior,” said Gaitan, now a high school senior contemplating college. “Here I got my focus, and started paying attention more.”

On Tuesday, she was surrounded by a sea of students, many with stories sounding a lot like hers, as some 10,000 people rallied in Tallahassee to defend the scholarships that make academic turnarounds like hers possible.

Champagnat was founded to serve the children of Cuban exiles. To this day, it welcomes students who emigrate to South Florida from South and Central America. Isabel Alonso, the principal, estimates about two-thirds of its students have parents who are first-generation immigrants. Tax credit scholarships, now used by more than 78,000 low-income students statewide, have allowed the school to serve families in those communities, for whom a private education would otherwise be out of reach.

That helps explain why 170 students and staff felt strongly enough to take a seven-hour ride to Tallahassee, joining a caravan of nearly three dozen buses that made the seven-hour trip from South Florida. All told, more than 220 buses made the trip, but few traveled as far as the three from Champagnat.

Alonso said that for her students the trip — like a similar one in 2010, when Gaitan was also among thousands of students marching — served as a civics lesson.

“We can get 150 kids together and say we want to support this movement,” Alonso said. “Unless you participate, you really don’t understand what our civic duty is.”

Alonso’s parents started the independent Catholic school under the auspices of the Marist Brothers. She said the religious order espouses two main values: Educators must love all children, equally, and they must look after those most in need.

Those values have spawned a new initiative, in which Gaitan and some of the school’s older students take part. They work with younger children at a nearby charter schoolin Miami-Dade County, where many of the students are still learning English.

Alonso said working in the community helps students grow not just intellectually, but also spiritually. He said that kind of education should not be a luxury available only to families of means.

Author: Travis PillowTravis Pillow spent his early professional career reporting on the inner workings of state government for a variety of news organizations, and became immersed in Florida’s education policy debates while covering schools and the Legislature for the Tallahassee Democrat. A product of Seminole County Public Schools, he received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida in 2010. Reach him at tpillow@sufs.org or (407) 376-3105. Also, follow him on Twitter @travispillow.