From genocide to graduation: School choice changes trajectory of sisters’ lives

By Jim Waters - Bluegrass Beacon

How does a Rwandan refugee brought to the city of Louisville to escape horrific genocide to which she lost both parents in her troubled native land go from being a poor 10-year-old orphan in a strange new country where she didn’t even know the language to delivering the commencement address while graduating this year with a master’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University?

With a first-rate education, that’s how.

Sylvie Umuhoza and her younger sister, Pacifique, were under 5 years old when rescued from their home in the jungles of Rwanda during the genocide in 1994—in which nearly 1 million people died—by their compassionate grandmother, who carried them across Rwanda and into the Congo, where they escaped rampant death and disease in their native country.

After living in Africa for a few years, the girls and their grandmother were finally allowed into the United States, where they landed in the River City and became among the first participants in the Louisville-based School Choice Scholarships program, which gives privately funded scholarships allowing children in grades K-8 from poor homes in Jefferson and Oldham counties to attend private schools.

Such scholarships meant that these two sisters escaped not only the war and poverty of their homeland but also the mediocre education they likely would have received in a Jefferson County public school—where minorities from low-income homes disproportionately find themselves in failing schools.

“I have to give all the credit to School Choice (Scholarships), because I don’t think that without the first opportunity to choose a school of our choice—where we would be able to receive the education that we received—we would be where we are right now,” Sylvie Umuhoza told legislators at the October meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on Education.

She encouraged policymakers to give more kids across Kentucky the same opportunity that school choice offered her and her sister, who will soon graduate from the University of Louisville.

“So I think that school choice is a program similar to School Choice (Scholarships) is a great opportunity for individuals like myself from low-income families to get the education that they deserve or that they need that they may not otherwise get from another institution or another school,” Umuhoza said.

If a nonprofit organization can raise private funding to grant more than $7 million in scholarships to 6,500 low-income children just in Jefferson and Oldham counties since 1998, imagine what could happen with a scholarship tax-credit policy that offers the opportunity of a private education to thousands of children and their families across the entire commonwealth?

Incentivizing individuals and businesses by offering a tax credit for each dollar given to a scholarship-granting organization means that School Choice Scholarships “could handle 20 times the number of applications and scholarships,” Heather Huddleston, the group’s executive director, told me.

It also would encourage the creation of scholarship-granting organizations to serve students across the commonwealth.

It’s not uncommon to hear public-school bureaucrats scold parents for not being informed and involved in their children’s education.

However, Huddleston in her own testimony before the committee stated that not only are 345 children in two counties currently receiving scholarships to attend 51 different schools, but the program has a waiting list of 2,800 parents.

That doesn’t sound like uninvolved parents to me.

Parents have ways of discovering successful ventures like School Choice Scholarships—where the number of children proficient in grade-level math increases, on average, from 28 percent to 81 percent while reading proficiency skyrockets from 40 percent to 96 percent after three years in the program.

Considering the growth of this program with, as Huddleston describes it, “very little marketing and mostly by word-of-mouth,” what could happen if thousands of children born and raised in Kentucky—including in the city where Sylvie and Pacifique Umuhoza arrived 15 years ago with little more than a dream—had the same opportunity?

By Jim Waters

Bluegrass Beacon

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at [email protected] Read previously published columns at

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at [email protected] Read previously published columns at

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