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Milwaukee’s Best: A Lesson In School Choice

Part 1

As a Blogger, I’ve had the privilege of traveling to many places around the country to learn about various issues.  While it’s always exciting going to a new place, I admit to being a little torn upon finding out The Franklin Center’s School Choice Conference would be in Milwaukee.  Not that there is anything wrong with Milwaukee, I just didn’t know anything about it and wasn’t really sure why we were headed there of all places.  Okay well, I knew two things – something about cheese and football.  But schools?  Generally when I think about schools I’m pretty focused on the ones around me and the lack of choices therein.  So let’s just say I went into the conference a bit skeptical.  And while I did see someone with a block of cheese on his head watching football in a pub, the schools in Milwaukee took me by complete surprise.

We were treated to a ride on bright, yellow school buses which, being the geek I am, I fully enjoyed; although looking back, not leading everyone in a round of, “The Wheels On The Bus,” was an epic oversight on my part.  Next time…  Our first stop was Hope Christian High School, located in an unassuming building downtown.  Hope is part of Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program and almost all of their students are attending through the voucher program.  After a brief introduction and a fun video the students made, we were let loose to explore the school.

School Choice The first thing we all noticed was a sign showing that attendance for the day was at 96%.  Hope is very open about data and they utilize it with their students to keep everyone on track.  For instance, if a student hasn’t mastered an objective (noted by a system Hope calls “exit tickets”) they must stay after school to study with the teacher so they don’t fall behind.  Typically students come to Hope a couple grades behind where they should be so the school works hard not only to catch them up but get them ahead.  The next display we saw at Hope showed their model is paying off – it was the Hope Wall of Acceptance.  Pictures of students holding acceptance letters from colleges adorned the wall, which our guide said would be overflowing by February.  In fact, every one of Hope’s graduating seniors have been accepted to college for the last two years.

Keeping track of data is, of course, not the only way that Hope rises above so many other schools.  Their focus is on the three Cs: Christ, College and Character.  So accompanying the college pennants found throughout the halls are other signs giving encouragement and listing the Trending Topics.  In my own college days, we had Core classes that were a requirement for graduation; and Hope’s Trending Topics were reminiscent of Core for me – classes designed to foster the growth of a student on the inside as well as the outside.  All the Trending Topics Hope had listed were inspirational, but “embrace the struggle” stood out to me.  Can you imagine seeing that in a typical public school? Embracing the struggle is an idea that resonates far beyond high school.

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After checking out the halls and peering into a couple quite classrooms full of attentive students, I found my way into an empty classroom but for the teacher at his desk.  It was a religious studies class and probably the only time I have wished to be back in high school.  Christian high school didn’t exist where I grew up and today we couldn’t possibly afford to send our children to the Christians schools in the city.

The teacher (who’s name I failed to get) was happy to speak with me and I was glad to get one on-one-time to dig deeper into some school choice basics.  Not having any choice programs in my area, it’s a lot to understand.  My first question being, how on earth are students allowed to attend a religious school with public money?  And does Hope endure any hardship from outside sources over what could easily be a sore spot?  The teacher, my teacher for the time being, confirmed for me that not everyone is in favor of Hope (irony alert) with the union being high on the list of disapproval.  “They lose power,” was how he correctly stated it.  Without union involvement, teachers must perform to high expectations lest they lose their jobs.  In his words, “The motivation is completely for the kids and the service provided to them.”  The public schools aren’t cozy with Hope either, as the school presents competition – something they’ve never had to deal with.  Schools have had to improve to keep up with Hope or risk losing students (and funding) to a better school.

I also wondered about the Christian aspect of the school.  Was it forced on the students or did they have the ability to choose their level of involvement?  Personally I don’t find forcing Christianity on anyone to work very well and I was satisfied with the teacher’s answer that, while religious studies are part of the requirements for graduation, not only are students given the option to opt-out by law, the depth of student spiritual growth is an individual matter.  The Christian part of the three Cs previously mentioned fits in with the character part and, in this particular teacher’s experience, he noted that the kids seemed to really embrace it.  Further, no student in his nine years at Hope has chosen to opt-out of the religious studies that are part of the curriculum.

The crux of our conversation came when the teacher admitted he could make more money at a public school but chooses to stay at Hope.  He explained:

Honestly, to be able to be part of a team that really is of one mind, where the vision is very clear, and the goals are really well stated, just creates an empowerment all it’s own.  So I could probably go to a school and be successful in my own classroom, but when I walk out how successful can that be?  You really need everybody rowing in the boat in the same direction in order for the boat to go anywhere.  And I think that is a big challenge that education today has.  I don’t see that oneness of mind like I do here.

I was pretty much in love with Hope by the time I left the classroom but to be fair I hadn’t heard from any students yet.  So I, along with the other bloggers, went to the gym to hear two students give their perspectives and answer any questions we may have.  The first young lady spoke of how she woke at 4 am and traveled by three city buses every day to attend school.  The next young lady opened by admitting she had a bad attitude coming into the school.  However, through embracing her struggles, she turned things around.  She spoke of how her experience at Hope has taught her how to be a leader and has built her character.  She also was thankful for walk in faith that strengthens and encourages her.  Overall, the emphasis the school puts on the three Cs was evident in both women and they agreed that they wish their friends could all attend Hope.

Truly my experience at Hope Christian High School was amazing.  I had no idea a school could be that great and I was jealous for my kids.  I sincerely felt like there was no point in me going to the next school on the agenda, I was sold, but Milwaukee is cold and the bus was my only mode of transport so… off to the next school we went.  Really by then though I should have known, I was about to be impressed all over again.

To Be Continued…


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