In 2006, Alberta C. Wilson, head of Faith First Educational Assistance Corporation in Philadelphia, was facing a tough choice. The dilemma involved Philadelphia resident Tonya Jones. Tonya’s husband had passed away several years before, leaving her with a family to raise alone on the proceeds of his small life insurance policy. She had good reason to fear for the future of her 10-year-old son, Raymond. By the time Raymond had reached fifth grade, Tonya’s money was running out, and she faced the prospect of having to remove him from the private school that had been a source of stability for him.
Philadelphia’s public school system was not an inviting alternative. Philadelphia is one of the most violent cities in the United States, and there was no guarantee that the "free" school to which the government assigned her son would be safe. Tonya was also aware that the public school system in Philadelphia was so deplorable that Pennsylvania’s state government had felt compelled to take it over. In Philadelphia in the 2005-2006 school year, only 33 percent of 11th-graders tested proficient on state tests in reading. For math, the figure was a dismal 27 percent.
Hoping for the best, Tonya had applied for a scholarship for Raymond from the newly formed nonprofit Faith First Educational Assistance Corporation, which helps provide privately financed scholarships to poor families determined to purchase a better primary and secondary school education for their children. But Tonya had ended up on the bottom of the list: Funds were very limited, and other applicants had had an even greater need.
When Tonya found out her son would not receive the money, she desperately pleaded her case to Alberta. Alberta was now in a difficult position. She knew she had made the right decision when she’d ranked the other families above Tonya’s — but this didn’t make Tonya’s predicament any less real. Raymond’s future hung in the balance.
Alberta was not one to give up easily. She was operating Faith First on a shoestring, long hours and lots of prayer. She saw herself, in her own words, as "allowing God to use me to ensure that children are given a chance at a quality Christian education."
So Alberta chose to give Tonya hope: She invited Tonya to tell her story at a Faith First scholarship reception, where children were awarded their scholarships in the presence of their peers and other parents.
The result was everything Tonya and Alberta could have asked for. Tonya spoke movingly as an engaged parent who was determined to pursue what was best for her child. Hearing Tonya describe her plight, a good Samaritan attending the reception decided to donate the funds to keep Raymond in his current private school. "It saved his education — and maybe his life too," says a grateful Tonya.
It wasn’t the first time that Alberta had made a difficult choice that had turned out for the best. Alberta’s long road to founding Faith First had involved not just drive and self-sacrifice, but also many tough choices — and some bad choices — that came out right in the end.
Alberta spent her childhood in the inner-city Philadelphia of the 1950s. She was showered with toys, but her father was aloof, and her mother was an alcoholic. Since she had little adult supervision, she would often play with other children at the home of one of her mother’s drinking buddies. The sadness of those years left an indelible mark on her memories.
At first, Alberta rose above the chaos in her life. In fourth grade, she was a straight-A student who seemed to win all the awards, but by the time she reached junior high, her life had begun spiraling downward. Her neighborhood was torn by racial riots, and "Barrett Junior High was like a gladiator’s arena," she recalls. Alberta joined a local gang and became a ringleader. At 16, she dropped out of high school, and at 17, she gave birth out of wedlock to a daughter, Kentina.
Alberta sank into a life of alcohol, sex, violence, drugs and government welfare, yet something inside her, she says, yearned for peace and order. In 1976, when she attended a church at the invitation of a friend, she rushed to the altar and became a "born-again" Christian. Although her earlier vices proved tough to shake and she later suffered the crushing pain of losing her daughter in a house fire, she slowly began to change her habits, constantly assuring herself that God could improve her life, because, she told herself, "God makes no mistakes."
On Christmas Eve in 1980, Alberta married Woody Wilson, whom she describes as "a kind, sensitive and loving man who looked beyond my past." His naval career took the couple to San Diego for a few years and then to Virginia Beach, where Alberta, a high school dropout, earned three postsecondary degrees, including a doctorate in religious education. As her life stabilized and her faith deepened, Alberta was transformed. By 1997, she and Woody were back in Philadelphia, and Alberta was looking for a position as a school administrator.
It was perfect timing. A friend who was a former middle school teacher and now a local pastor was in the early stages of starting a Christian day school. He wanted to provide character training and an educational refuge for parents seeking an escape from the decaying Philadelphia public schools. He offered Alberta the position of principal.
The new Beulah Baptist Christian Day School started with just five children in the fall of 1997, but by the time Alberta left five years later, the school boasted nearly a hundred students, many of them from broken homes. Parents who wanted discipline and focus for their children found it at this school, just as Alberta had found purpose in her personal life.
It was at the school that Alberta came face to face with a stream of parents dissatisfied with public education, yet unable to afford a private alternative. Wanting to tackle that problem head-on, she decided to get involved in the school choice movement by founding Faith First Educational Assistance Corporation in 2002. The organization’s mission was to aid parents in making decisions regarding their children’s education and to grant families scholarships so their children could afford the private school of their choice.
Alberta’s inspiration for Faith First came from an Old Testament proverb: "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it." She saw no way parents could abide by that admonition without being free to choose the education best suited for their children.
After a brief flirtation with the idea of running for mayor on a
school voucher platform, Alberta decided to pursue her reform goals in the
private sector when a new Pennsylvania law passed granting corporate income tax
credits to businesses that contributed to education scholarship funds or
educational improvement organizations. The law allowed businesses to receive a
tax credit of as much as 90 percent of their contributions to such groups, up to
$200,000. These credits increased the business community’s willingness to
donate. The number of participating businesses has now risen to
more than 2,500, and they have contributed almost $300 million to organizations in Penn-sylvania similar to Faith First.
That doesn’t mean that Faith First has had an easy road to success. Alberta, with husband Woody often at her side, spends much of her time raising the private contributions that allow the organization to fulfill its mission. Still, in 2006, Faith First awarded more than 100 school choice grants at an average of $500 each to low-income children in Pennsylvania and Virginia. The organization has provided more than 300 scholarships since its inception.
A $500 scholarship may not seem like enough to make a difference. But as a Faith First parent once explained, "Little becomes much!" Since tuition at a private school can be as little as $3,000 — still a steep price for a poor family — a scholarship from Faith First often tips the balance.
And there is more to Faith First than just scholarships: Alberta recognizes the importance of involving parents in the educational process, so they will have the skills to ensure that their children succeed. "If money is just given away without an engaged parent," she says, "nine times out of 10 the child will not succeed." Hence, Faith First holds "parent engagement meetings" twice a month in Philadelphia, once a month in Virginia and quarterly in Scranton, Pa. Sometimes as many as 100 parents come to these meetings to seek scholarship applications and advice.
In July 2007, I had the privilege of spending time in Philadelphia with Alberta and Faith First’s board of directors, along with some of the parents and children the organization has helped. It was a moving experience to meet the people whose lives have been transformed by Faith First and by the generosity of others they hardly know.
I met Nancy Rumer, a quiet but confident 13-year-old whose favorite class is English. Her brother Wesley is 10 and enjoys computers and science, as well as any sport involving a ball. Their parents tell me that the public school Nancy and Wesley once attended exhibited little interest in their development or in addressing Wesley’s learning disability. Thanks to Faith First, the Rumers say, Nancy and Wesley now have access to quality education and personal attention.
What most impressed me about Nancy and Wesley Rumer and Raymond Jones, Tonya’s son, was not what they told me, but how they told it. Friendly, polite and eager to talk, they smiled and looked me in the eye. It was apparent that they loved to learn. When saying goodbye, I saw all three cheerfully help clean up the office without being asked.
Clearly, Faith First doesn’t just dole out money to faceless names on an application. Alberta, Woody and the organization’s growing number of volunteers build strong personal relationships with the recipient families. Educating for character, not just for knowledge, stands out as a central feature of the Faith First program.
Alberta has expansion in mind. The organization’s headquarters remain in Philadelphia, with a second office in Virginia, but Faith First is also in the "data building stage" for an office in San Diego in 2008. Faith First may even assist people in Uganda who want to adopt the organization’s model there. The cause of school choice as a civil right of parents and children everywhere will be the theme of Faith First’s fifth anniversary banquet, scheduled for November 2007 in Philadelphia.
Though Alberta has set her sights high, she is a humble woman who lives frugally with her husband and seeks neither fame nor fortune. Instead, she is living the American Dream by helping the less fortunate make their dreams a reality. This success stems from difficult choices that Alberta made years ago — choices that changed her life, and that now change the lives of hundreds of others. Alberta is quick to give the credit to God, but as the success of Faith First shows, credit must also go to Alberta for possessing an uncommon courage both to change and to lead.