Tax-credit program benefits school serving children dealing with trauma

September 30, 2019

Ray Carter

At an event that included presentation of scholarships to students who are beneficiaries of Oklahoma’s tax-credit scholarship law, officials at Hope Harbor Academy near Claremore were praised as being the “hands and feet of Jesus” in serving children who’ve experienced trauma.

Speaking at a Sept. 28 open-house event at the school, First Lady Sarah Stitt said those who work at or partner with Hope Harbor “are truly making a difference in the lives of families and children here in Oklahoma.”

“It’s so important that we focus on the next generation in our state,” Stitt said. “Many of them have lives filled with adverse childhood experiences, but research shows that we can actually undo the trauma of ACEs. And how do we do that? We do it by love and care and offering of hope.”

Hope Harbor offers an “immersive trauma-responsive Family Reconciliation program” that includes an on-site academy. The facility’s website says its purpose is to “assist the entire family in making changes that will result in lasting reconciliation.” The facility’s publications note the program is “not for the faint of heart,” and includes weekly individual and group therapy for participating teens that include parental participation at least once a month.

Seventy percent of students at Hope Harbor Academy have previous school discipline issues, 60 percent are on Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), and 75 percent enter the school 1.5 years academic years behind schedule.

On a measurement of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that uses a 1-10 scoring range, with 10 indicating the worst level, students at Hope Harbor have an average 6.8 ACEs score. Having four or more ACEs is associated with an increase in depression, suicide attempts, and decrease in work performance, academic achievement, and health-related quality of life. Having six or more ACEs is associated with a 20-year decrease in life expectancy.

Referencing her own childhood, Stitt said Hope Harbor offers youth an intangible asset with incalculable value.

“Hope: Just saying that word changes your perspective,” Stitt said. “And I know because as a child, I lived an experience that didn’t have a lot of hope. And so I know. When I was about 14 years old, I had a very real experience with God, and he told me if I would focus on him, that he had a hope and a future for my life. Everything that I walked through as a child would be used for good later in my life. And I have seen it, time and time again. But many families here in Oklahoma do not have hope. Many children here in our state, their future is a dark and lonely place filled with pain and uncertainty.”

She noted the Bible talks “a lot about hope,” and quoted Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”) and Isaiah 40:31 (“Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and will not faint.”).

“What Hope Harbor does for families in our community and children is they restore the hope and help these children soar,” Stitt said. “You all at Hope Harbor, you’re the hands and feet of Jesus, and you’re giving these children an ability to see a brighter path.”

During the open-house event, Robert Sellers, executive director of the Opportunity Scholarship Fund, presented $8,000 in scholarships that will help two students attend Hope Harbor.

Under Oklahoma’s tax-credit scholarship law, those who donate to scholarship-granting organizations receive a tax credit. After accounting for all local, state and federal dollars expended on public schools, independent research has found that the tax-credit scholarship program saves $2.91 in government school spending for every dollar issued in tax credits.

However, the amount of tax credits is capped, which has limited the program’s impact and resulted in many needy children going without the financial aid they need to attend schools tailored for them. Legislation, which advanced in 2019 and now awaits final approval in the 2020 legislative session, would raise the amount of tax credits that can be issued.

Sellers told attendees the need for scholarships exceeds available funds today.

“This number, to me, could be 10-fold. It would be 20-fold,” Sellers said. “There are so many kids that we can help and support at Hope Harbor.”

Dr. Bob Whiddon Jr., executive director of Hope Harbor, noted the tax-credit scholarship program maximizes the impact of donations to schools like Hope Harbor, calling it an “amazing” and “fantastic, fantastic program.”

Beneficiaries of the tax-credit scholarship law say it can be life-changing.

Stephanie Steward’s son, Judson, was one of those receiving a scholarship from the Opportunity Scholarship Fund. Steward and her husband originally worked as house parents at Hope Harbor before she later took another position with the school. At the same time, Steward said her son’s needs were not being met in a traditional school setting.

“We really struggled,” Steward said. “We did a couple of inter-district transfers and it just wasn’t working out. And so when they decided to open up this school, we asked if he could come here, and they said, ‘Yes.’ However, we did need to pay the tuition, and it was way out of our cost range, obviously. So the scholarship just allowed us to send our son to a school where we felt comfortable. He knows all his teachers. He loves the school. He’s doing very well, making straight As, and he’s able to get the education we want him to have. And we’re able to do that with our funds and our limited amount of money, so it was very helpful.”

Tonette Thornton’s son, Case, also received a scholarship. Thornton said Case has special needs “and I wasn’t really comfortable putting him into the public schools.” She learned Hope Harbor Academy would take her son, but paying for it was a challenge.

“The cost of the school would have been too much for us to pay,” Thornton said, “so the scholarship means a lot of us for that reason.”

She said her son “loves” the school and has greatly benefitted from his time there.

“He knows all of his teachers and he gets so much one-on-one attention in class,” Thornton said. “I’ve seen him grow, and the teachers that he had last year, they say he has grown so much. It has broadened his horizons. It’s really helped him come along.”