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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Neighbors Fight To Keep Military-Style Voucher School Out Of Riverwest

Michelle Maternowski
The former Wisconsin Avenue School is one of eleven vacant MPS buildings currently listed for sale by the City of Milwaukee. Right Step is trying to buy another of those buildings, on Center and Holton.

The fight for school turf continues on Milwaukee’s Northeast side.

A military-style school for at-risk kids wants to buy a former Milwaukee Public School building in the Riverwest area.

Earlier this week, the City of Milwaukee approved the sale but still has to decide whether the school is the right fit for the neighborhood.

Many residents in the area say it’s not, and they told city officials as much during a meeting Thursday night. They’re concerned about some of the program’s tactics. 

Selling 'Surplus' Schools

As we reported in April, when an MPS school closes, it goes on a list of “surplus” properties. MPS has tried to hang onto these vacant buildings, and refused several offers from private schools in the past. District leaders have insisted that the community may someday need these facilities.

But, it’s not up to the district. The city owns public school buildings, and therefore facilitates sales of any unused district properties.

Furthermore, Republican legislators recently created a law forcing the city to sell off empty MPS structures to interested charter and voucher school operators. They are the only buyers that qualify.

Who is Right Step?

Right Step is a military-style, all-male voucher school. It serves “at-risk” kids, particularly students who have been expelled or suspended – many from MPS schools.

The school already operates out of one building near Brown Deer, and leaders want to expand to Riverwest to serve fifth through twelfth grade students. They have been working for a few years now to buy a vacant MPS building near the corner of Center and Holton.

But, the school recently found itself in some hot water.

A group of parents sued the school last summer, saying their kids were subject to abuse and humiliation by school personnel. That triggered a federal investigation into right step, led by the FBI in Milwaukee.

Fighting For the Neighborhood

This history has some of the school’s potential new neighbors fired up. Some people living near the building Right Step wants say they don’t want that kind of atmosphere in their neighborhood.

“I’m concerned not so much about the students themselves, but about the safety of the students,” says Melissa Tempel, a local resident and teacher at a public school two blocks from the proposed site.

“There’s a liquor store right across the street, there’s a lot of residents waiting for the bus around there, there was a drug bust there a few years ago, right near the school," Tempel explains. "That’s the kind of thing that the students would be exposed to, and if they’re students who are trying to turn their lives around and whatnot, I don’t think that being on a busy corner in a neighborhood where people don’t welcome them is really the best situation for them.”

A group representing Right Step made its case for the school building Thursday night before the Common Council’s Board of Zoning Appeals.

Attorney Patrick Brennan pointed out Right Step has operated in its current location for nine years without incident. He says the school has an ‘outstanding’ track record given the at-risk students it serves.

“We’re afforded here an opportunity to transform that vacant building into something that will give positively to this community,” Brennan said. “I think that’s at the core of what the Northeast side plan is all about.”

Neighbors seem to be having at least a short-term impact.

So many people showed up to discuss the sale Thursday night that the Board of Zoning Appeals postponed its decision until September. That may slightly delay Right Step’s original plans to open for the 2016-17 school year.

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