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

Coronavirus: Milwaukee Voucher Schools Work To Educate, Support Students During Closure

Emily Files
St. Marcus Lutheran School serves about 900 students in grades K-8. The school is attempting to switch to virtual learning during the coronavirus closure. This picture was taken in September 2019.

Schools across Wisconsin are shut down until at least April 24, as directed by Gov. Tony Evers. It’s one way the state is trying to flatten the curve of the coronavirus outbreak.

During the long closure, Milwaukee Public Schools has prioritized meeting families’ basic needs with free meal distribution. In terms of student learning, the district has given families printed and online "enrichment" materials that won’t be graded.

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The city’s private voucher schools are also trying to figure out how student learning and support can continue during the closures. About 30,000 children attend private schools through the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which provides low-and moderate-income families with taxpayer-funded tuition vouchers.

Saint Augustine Preparatory Academy, a voucher school on Milwaukee’s south side with more 1,000 students, is trying to continue student education online, from home. Lisa Bolton, an eighth-grade science teacher at the school, sent WUWM a recording of the lesson she taped for students Monday morning.

“Hi guys, welcome to your second day of online science lessons,” she said. “The question we should be able to answer by the end of the day today is: why is research important to us?”

Bolton and the other middle school teachers have been pre-recording their lessons on the video conferencing platform Zoom. The teachers also hold live advisory periods in the morning via Schoology to check in with students, play games and talk about the day’s learning schedule. Students have a rotating schedule — math and science lessons one day, reading and “specials” like art, music, and physical education the next.

"I miss my students a lot. I miss my classroom and my day-to-day routine that we've built over this year." - Lisa Bolton, Augustine Prep

Augustine Prep started distance learning March 19, and Bolton says the transition is going pretty well. She says the hardest part is not being around her students.

“I miss my students a lot,” Bolton said. “I miss my classroom and my day-to-day routine that we’ve built over this year.”

Augustine Prep was able to make this shift to online learning because it has enough Chromebooks to give to every student who needs one. Disparities in technology access, also known as the digital divide, is one major barrier to virtual learning for big districts like MPS. 

Another large voucher school, St. Marcus Lutheran on the north side, has one-to-one technology for its middle schoolers. St. Marcus enrolls about 900 K-8 students. Superintendent Henry Tyson says fifth through eighth graders will continue their learning using school-issued Chromebooks.

“We’re staying as close to normal as we possibly can,” Tyson said. “The student schedule starts from 8 to 9 with math class, 9:05 to 10:05 is ELA [English Language Arts] with livestreaming, and so on. The school day looks very similar to what it would be if they were in school.”

Tyson says distance learning is more challenging for the younger children. The school is surveying families to find out which children need Chromebooks, and is hoping to hand out technology to those who need it soon.

"This situation [of school closures] is almost certain to widen the achievement gap between wealthy kids and poor kids." - Henry Tyson, St. Marcus Lutheran School

There's one major reason why St. Marcus is trying to continue instruction despite the challenges: they don't want students to miss out on learning.

“Lower-income kids have far less opportunity to continue learning, for all kinds of complicated reasons, than middle- and upper-income kids,” Tyson said. “This situation [of school closures] is almost certain to widen the achievement gap between wealthy kids and poor kids.”

Jim Piatt, the president of Messmer Catholic Schools, says it’s inevitable that many students will start the next school year father behind because of the coronavirus shutdown. Messmer is made up of three schools serving about 1,400 students from elementary to high school. Piatt says educators need to be flexible and understanding about how much learning they can accomplish during this time.

“We’re all gonna have to figure out how we adjust the expectation of how much content we can get to over the next 10 weeks,” Piatt said. “There’s no reason to sit still and throw our hands up, but we also shouldn’t be unrealistic and add to students’ anxiety that somehow you’re a failure if you don’t master 100% of what we’ve done.”

Messmer is launching its online instruction Thursday, although the network is still trying to figure out which families lack access to computers or laptops. Piatt says Messmer will hand out school Chromebooks to as many students as possible, but will prioritize the older grades, especially high school seniors who need to graduate this year.

"We shouldn't be unrealistic and add to students' anxiety that somehow you're a failure if you don't master 100% of what we've done." - Jim Piatt, Messmer Catholic Schools

Milwaukee voucher schools are also trying to provide social services to families in need. Carly Hertel, the principal at St. Martini Lutheran School, said during this public health crisis, school staff have helped one family find baby formula and another find housing. 

"Right now, a lot of our families are saying, 'We’re doing OK right now,’ ” Hertel said. “However, in the next couple weeks, we can anticipate that they might need some food, they might need shelter and other resources, just day-to-day necessities. So we’ve been providing those resources as they come in by request from families.”

St. Martini, part of the LUMIN school network, is directing families who need meals to go to the Milwaukee Public Schools distribution sites, which will serve anyone with school-aged children. Other private schools, like St. Marcus and Augustine Prep, are providing their own meals for families.

During this time of uncertainty, Augustine Prep teacher Lisa Bolton says she’s glad she can still connect with students, even though they’re not together in person. At the end of her lessons, Bolton tells her eighth graders, “Please reach out if you guys need any help, I miss you guys a lot, and hope to be back at school soon.”

During this pandemic, WUWM's Bubbler Talk is focusing on the coronavirus and its impact on the Milwaukee area. If you have a question, submit it below.


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