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Milwaukee Voucher Program Turns 25: MPS School on the Rise

Erin Toner

Thousands of students and hundreds of millions of public dollars that might have gone to Milwaukee Public Schools instead went to private schools in the last quarter century. Still, several MPS schools are showing improvement.

Milwaukee's 25-year-old parental choice program has has allowed low- and middle-income families to enroll their children in private schools, almost all of them religious. In both systems, there are great schools and severely underperforming ones. And in both, you’ll find educators battling to help students succeed.

This week, as part of our series on 25 years of vouchers, we’ve visited a few private schools that think they’re on the right track. Today, we stop by a public school making gains in the toughest part of town – Benjamin Franklin School. It sits in Milwaukee’s 53206 zip code, an area ravaged by poverty, crime and an astonishing incarceration rate.

Enrollment here is 330 students, kindergarten through 8th grade. Many show up hungry, or tired or unprepared because of problems at home.

Credit Erin Toner
Principal Katrina Fisher has led improvement gains at MPS' Benjamin Franklin School on Milwaukee's north side.

Katrina Fisher is principal.

“Milwaukee Public Schools will take any student. Bring me the student and we will work very hard to ensure that from the time that they get here they grow into where they need to be when they leave,” Fisher says.

Fisher took the job four years ago, fully aware of the social issues that can put kids at a disadvantage.

“I wasn’t the strongest learner myself growing up. But the determination and the drive to learn how to do something was always in me. And so believing that in my own students, and believe that it doesn’t matter where you come from, that you can learn and you can come out of your current situation, whether it’s bad or good, you can improve. So I never walked into this job thinking that it couldn’t be done. I’ve always believed it can be done,” she says.

Fisher says her beliefs are rooted in experience – 24 years as an educator in Milwaukee Public Schools. Her grandmother, mother, and father were also MPS teachers, although in eras when city families were prospering and the school district had thousands more children.

Today, enrollment is way down and fifth of students are classified as having disabilities, from learning to emotional to physical. Fisher’s school also faces competition from private, voucher schools nearby.

Still, during the four years she’s been principal, Franklin has moved up on the state report card.

The school has gone from “met few expectations” to “meets expectations.” How did she do it?

“I attribute that to my amazing staff. I have a very committed and dedicated staff who understand what the vision is for the school and they make it a point to implement the strategies, to care about the children, to support the families in order to make that happen,” Fisher says.

To showcase staff dedication, Fisher leads me into teacher Glenda Stacker’s classroom of second and third graders. They’re working in small groups. Some are on computers. Stacker’s in a corner, helping three girls through a reading exercise.

Credit Erin Toner
At some classrooms at Benjamin Franklin School, students work in small groups or at different stations during the day.

“OK, everybody look at the yellow word and point to it. That’s one of our target vocabulary words,” Stacker tells the group.

The principal says her school works to identify kids who are struggling and give them more one-on-one time with teachers.

In a hallway at Franklin, 9-year-old Antonio and 8-year-olds Henry and Lorenzo are working with their teacher Connie Koutras. She spends about 30 minutes a day with kids who need extra help in reading and math. Sometimes, tutoring continues after school.

The ingredients at Franklin that make it school on the rise are exactly what education experts tell you is needed – a strong principal, committed teachers and new approaches to help struggling students.

Credit Erin Toner
MPS teachers like Connie Koutras spend 30 minutes a day with students who are struggling in reading and math

The other vital piece is parental involvement. Principal Fisher says she’s working on it.

“I remember, when I first got here, my first literacy night, I had maybe 15 parents and it’s grown to as many as, as high as 100 parents,” Fisher says.

Franklin’s rise on the state report card may not sound like a big victory. It’s a gain of about four points on a 100-point scale. But the increase is noteworthy, for one, because it’s been driven by gains among black students. Racial disparities here are among the worst in the country. Also, moving up even one category can influence parents shopping for schools.

So, if the mix at Franklin has nudged up achievement in the most challenging part of Milwaukee, why doesn’t MPS replicate the formula in every school?

Fisher says, if it were only that simple.

“When we talk about schools, there are so many different variables and so many different nuances and the cultures are so very different that you know what, it’s about finding the right formula for your own school,” Fisher says.

While strong academics is a crucial part of Fisher’s formula, she also wants children in the central city to have experiences like she did. She says there’s no money for a bunch of after-school programs, so she finds volunteers willing to teach chess or forensics, or lead Girl Scouts.  Fisher hopes this notion of “educating the whole child” helps kids here succeed in school, and throughout their lives.

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