2 MPS high schools get major athletic upgrades, thanks to federal pandemic funding and private donations
Students at two MPS high schools are getting long-overdue improvements to the athletic facilities they use for practices and games.
Last week, MPS held ceremonial groundbreaking ceremonies at Reagan High School, on the south side, and Washington High School in Sherman Park.
Reagan High School is getting new athletic facilities and a science wing, estimated to cost $25 million. Washington High School is getting a new track and field, costing $2.5 million. Both projects required private donations, but were pushed across the finish line by federal pandemic aid known as Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief, or ESSER.
MPS received $770 million in ESSER and is spending about a third of it on facilities. MPS buildings are, on average, more than 75 years old.
At Washington High School, athlete Geaira Donald said running on the school’s old asphalt track took a physical toll.
"Last year it was real bad," Donald said. "Running on it, it was so injuring. I didn’t even wanna do track no more."
Next year, when Geaira is a junior, the Washington teams will have a new, state-of-the-art track. Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said it sends a message to students.
"We’re telling the students that they’re important, that they matter and they too deserve high-quality facilities," Johnson said at the groundbreaking press conference. "It isn't just schools in our suburban communities, but schools right here in the city of Milwaukee also deserve those sorts of high-quality facilities."
The campaign to build the $2.5 million track and field started seven years ago with Common Ground, a coalition of community and faith groups that has been active in Sherman Park.
Common Ground sees the new playfield as an important resource for community health. But lead organizer Jennifer O’Hear said it was hard to convince people who were already paying taxes for MPS to donate more money.
"Other people thought they should be giving money only for academic programs," O'Hear said. "We really had a vision of kids having a full set of opportunities, academics plus extracurriculars. A lot of people didn’t believe it was going to happen."
The federal ESSER funds helped the project finally come to fruition, after the seven years of fundraising by Common Ground. MPS is using $1.4 million in ESSER, and the rest is from private donations.
The renovations at Reagan High School are also driven by a combination of public and private funds. The magnet high school is in a middle school building, and students say it is overcrowded and outdated.
At the Reagan groundbreaking ceremony last week, Milwaukee Bucks player Pat Connaughton was a guest of honor. Connaughton’s foundation donated to the $25 million project, which includes new athletic facilities and a science wing addition.
"To me, this opportunity, why I’m so excited about it – and the Pat Connaughton Foundation and the things I’m trying to do to give back – it all centers around the power of sport." Connaughton said.
In addition to private donations, MPS is using approximately $9 million in ESSER funding for the Reagan upgrades, which is the largest amount the district is spending on a single renovation project.
The athletes at Reagan are excited about a new, smooth, soccer field that doesn’t cause them to trip and twist their ankles, and tennis courts that allow them to practice at their school.
"For practice we [sometimes] have to go all the way to West Allis, Waukesha, around that area because Greendale, all the suburb schools have their own courts and we can’t just take control of that, right?" said Ayush Patel, captain of the tennis team. "And a lot of MPS courts are also in use...And if we had a tennis court in the back, we’d just have to walk with our feet, which would be so much easier for all of us."
The renovations at Reagan and Washington are just two of hundreds of ESSER-funded projects underway at MPS schools this year. Thor Misko is with Selzer-Ornst, one the construction contractors doing the work.
"Some of these are obviously very large projects like the one here at Reagan, others are as simple as putting in a water bottle filling station, or doing some window screens," Misko said. "So we have lots of different projects, all in about 544 projects we're working across MPS alone, with ESSER."
The timeline is accelerated because MPS only has until the fall of 2024 to use the ESSER dollars. That means MPS students will start seeing large and small improvements in their schools in the coming years.
Editor's note: MPS is a financial contributor to WUWM.
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