Filling A New Milwaukee School, One Front Porch Conversation At A Time

Jul 25, 2016

A number of people in Milwaukee are creating schools. It’s possible, in part, because of the community’s thriving charter and voucher school programs, which provide public funding.

Melissa McGonegle is working to open a brand-new school on the near south side: Stellar Collegiate. She’s made it past the first few hurdles – securing a charter, finding a building, hiring staff, even picking school colors.

Now, with the fall semester approaching, the challenge is to find students.

'We knock on every door'

Even before Principal McGonegle got to this point, she’d heard educator colleagues say how hard it is to recruit families in Milwaukee.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” she says.

Stellar Collegiate's new logo
Credit Stellar Collegiate Official Facebook page

Stellar Collegiate will occupy a former Catholic school building on the corner of 7th Street and Washington Avenue. After some research, McGonegle selected the area based on census data showing only about three percent of local residents 25 years or older have a college degree.

“One of the places that starts is in elementary school – a solid foundation for making better educational choices going forward,” she explains.  

So, rather than rely solely on marketing or outreach at local events -- both tactics school leadership are also trying – McGonegle and her growing staff are employing a much more hands-on approach to recruit what they’re calling “founding families”: they’re hitting the pavement.

A few times a week, Stellar staffers, board members, local college students and other volunteers roam the targeted neighborhood in teams of two or three, knocking on doors and giving their pitch to local parents. Since Spanish is a predominant language in the area, teams try to divide up so there’s at least one Spanish-speaker in every group.

They’ve been at it since February. Yes, even in the snow.

“We get excited when we see signs of kids, but we knock on every door!” McGonegle says.

Making the Pitch

On this particular day in mid-summer, McGonegle hits the road with her right-hand man, school operations manager Patrick Mooney. McGonegle carries a black tote bag, stashed with route map, informational pamphlets, enrollment forms – she’s come prepared for any question or any level of interest they might find.

The duo parks near the corner of 22nd and National Avenue. Today, they’ll cover about three or four blocks, working their way West.

A group of kids is playing outside the first house they approach, just a few doors down. Mooney asks about their game, explains why he and McGonegle are here, and waits while the kids get their dad.

After just a few minutes, it’s easy to see why Stellar staff have had so much success with this canvassing method.

They’re friendly, their pitch is concise, and they’ve got an answer for any question that comes their way. They know parents might be skeptical of a new school, so they’re sure to highlight what they’ll do differently from existing schools in the area. They’re also sure to mention their past experience in the classroom; both Mooney and McGonegle are teachers.

“Eighty-six percent of the school at year one, limited English,” Mooney says, tossing out stats from a charter school McGonegle previously opened in San Jose, California. “By the end of year one, 66 percent of the school was on grade level. So we may be new, but we’re very experienced.” 

The first parent they talk to is intrigued. He asks how he can go about enrolling his young daughter.

“Great question!” Mooney exclaims.

“I do have an application right now, if you’re interested in signing up,” McGonegle smiles. “And then, we actually have an orientation tomorrow night…”

Many of the front porch conversations end this way. Parents aren’t quite ready to commit, but they’re interested in learning more. And Stellar staff members are prepared for that response. They’re armed with flyers, and rattle off dates & times for info sessions.

“It generally takes three or four conversations before someone is willing to sign up,” McGonegle explains. “We might get a phone number, or we might not. We might just get a sense of interest.”

And sometimes, the unexpected happens.

“Some people are just hanging out on the porch and are open to a conversation,” Mooney says.

“Or,” McGonegle chuckles, “they open their door, they’re making dinner, and a chicken comes running at you!”

Seeing early success

But the biggest challenge in finding new students this way isn’t the weather, the language barriers or even the unforeseen animal encounters. Staff say it’s getting the message across, and they’re willing to go through a little discomfort to do so.

"I find it really easy to talk about the school, why I care, why they should care, what we offer the community long-term. I just find that really energizing."

“The first time, it was a little awkward -- I felt like I was intruding,” Mooney says. “But this is like my favorite part. I find it really easy to talk about the school, why I care, why they should care, what we offer the community long-term. I just find that really energizing.”

Despite the unpredictability of recruitment, Stellar has already signed up 80 kids for its K4 through first grade classes this fall, and counting. More than half those kids - 45 of them - signed up after meeting a Stellar staffer at their own front door.

Mooney says, if he can establish a connection from the get-go, he can reassure families that they are wanted.

“I think a lot of families either get passed over, or don’t get heard for whatever reason,” he says. “So when they have someone that’s part of an organization that is actually listening, is actually responding, is reaching out constantly, I think it does take a lot of them by surprise.”

By the end of this particular day, Mooney and McGonegle talk to more than 30 families and leaves materials on doorsteps for a handful of families who weren’t home. The duo don’t succeed at signing up anybody today, but say they’re hopeful they’ll see a few of these families again.

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 here on wuwm.com.