Brand-New Milwaukee School Spurs Excitement In Parents, Rather Than Nerves

Sep 6, 2016

It’s “back to school” time across Milwaukee.

For about 100 students on the near south side, this fall marks a brand-new experience – not only for them, but for their school, Stellar Collegiate.

It’s the brainchild of a local educator, and many parents are putting their faith in her program that, this time last year, they knew nothing about.

What persuades a parent to put their child in an untested school?

It’s only the first week of school. But Maria Rivera says so far, her six-year-old Aaliyah is a fan.

“My daughter loves it!” Rivera laughs. “Yesterday was the first day, she wouldn’t stop talking about the school.”

Students and teachers go through the alphabet in a K5 classroom at Stellar.
Credit Rachel Morello

Rivera is one of the few dozen parents who has put her trust – and her child’s future – in the hands of the staff at Stellar. It’s a brand-new school. New building, new curriculum, new schedule, new teachers.

Without a track record of test scores or graduation rates, it's not really possible to compare Stellar to nearby schools.

Yet for most parents, it's not about the statistics, but rather the feeling the school has given them.

“They’re going to do good, they’ll be ok,” Rivera says confidently. “Just the way that they started the school year [reassures me]. Everything that they’ve shown me and us, the parents, what they’re going to accomplish, what they can accomplish. So, I’m giving them a try.”

Rivera’s daughter had been a student at Longfellow, the nearest public elementary school. While mom wasn’t necessarily seeking out an alternative, she says she couldn’t pass it up, when she heard about Stellar.

The same goes for Bethany Gagliano. She switched her first grade son to Stellar, after hearing enthusiastic staff members talk about their goals to emphasize reading and Spanish.

“I chose Stellar because they sounded like a good school,” Gagliano says. “Everybody I talked to about this school, that was working through the school, were very committed, and who doesn’t want the best for their kid?”

Post-Its tacked to a "vision board" assembled by new teachers at Stellar Collegiate, during professional development this summer.
Credit Rachel Morello

Stellar principal Melissa McGonegle says she wants to work with parents to make sure they all do what’s best for each student.

To address concerns parents might have had about joining a new school, she invited them and teachers to talk before classes started, and to ask each other questions – such as, ‘what do you hope your child gets out of this school?’ and ‘what are your goals for your child’s education?’

McGonegle’s philosophy: she says education should be all about relationships.

“This work is not just about children, it’s also about really connecting with adults,” McGonegle says. “This is a great way to kick that message off.”

It’s that emphasis on communication that many parents say drew them to Stellar.

"This work is not just about children, it's also about really connecting with adults."

For Maria Rivera, she says she’s felt involved ever since a staffer knocked on her door to tell her about the school. She says the exchange has been constant – paper materials, phone calls, text messages.

“We actually came to like three orientations before they even started the school, so us coming for orientations and stuff like that, they got me!” she reflects. “I wanted to give it a new try, something different for my daughter.”

Six-year-old Aaliyah hasn’t been at Stellar long, but already says she loves it.

Her favorite part? “The cafeteria and, like, learning,” Aaliyah lists. “I learn about writing and stuff like that.”

Aaliyah can barely get through two sentences without turning to smile or wave at a teacher or new classmate.

Her mom says she hopes it lasts. She’d like to keep Aaliyah at Stellar until fifth grade.

Stellar is starting with just K4, K5 and first grade classrooms. If all goes as planned, the school will build up to fifth grade over the next few years.

We’ll continue to follow Stellar Collegiate, as staff and students make their way through the first year of school. You can listen for those stories on the air, and on wuwm.com.