As an eighth grader growing up in Chicago’s Little Village (La Villita) neighborhood, I learned through personal experience a civics lesson that I never forgot. After grade school, my dream was to continue my education at a Catholic high school. The school’s faith component and academic rigor was the best fit for my family, but as I began to navigate the admissions process, I realized that this dream was out of reach. My family could not afford my school of choice. As an educator, and now president of Nativity Jesuit Academy, giving students access to high quality education is personal. No family should have the realization that the education they desire is inaccessible due to income.
Thankfully, Milwaukee students and their families have a different narrative than I experienced. Milwaukee’s education landscape is strengthened because of its distinct sectors - private Choice, charter and public schools. Each family deserves a choice -- regardless of income -- when it comes to something as important as educating their children.
Ninety-eight percent of students at Nativity Jesuit Academy attend our school because of private school Choice. With eligibility based on a family’s financial means, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) and Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP) provide funding for students to enroll at a private school that accepts Choice vouchers. All students enrolled in Choice programs must go through the school’s standard application process. However, as required by the Choice programs, participating schools are all non-selective, meaning that they cannot set admissions requirements based on student performance or behavior.
Families in Milwaukee are not a monolith - each has different needs and educational priorities. Thanks to the availability of Choice programs, Milwaukee parents are informed and empowered to choose the school that is best for their child’s individual needs. From my perspective at Nativity, parents choose our school for a variety of reasons. Nativity is in the heart of the Latino community on the southside of Milwaukee. Currently, 100% of Nativity students are Latino and 99% identify as Catholic, so having a school which celebrates these aspects of their identity is highly valued by parents. As a private school, we have the flexibility to provide a unique educational model that is different from a typical K-8 school and is tailored to the needs of our students and their families. Coupled with a safe learning environment and strong parent engagement, Nativity has developed a reputation for academic excellence.
Any student who accepts state funding utilizes Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction’s accountability structures, including annual standardized testing. As evidence of our students’ academic success, Nativity’s eighth graders consistently score on-par with their peers from neighboring suburban districts including Wauwatosa and Shorewood. This accountability is important to ensure that schools in Milwaukee and across the state provide high-quality educational opportunities for those we serve. As nonprofits, private schools have additional accountability to their Board of Directors who maintain fiduciary responsibility and fidelity to the school’s mission. This is one of many examples of how members of the Milwaukee community can get involved in our schools.
These academic results are made possible by our unique model of education and community investment. At Nativity, our students enjoy an extended school day, extended school year including an academic residential summer camp experience, and comprehensive graduate support services through their high school careers.
Choice programs provide an important portion of funding to support our school. We rely on community investment to fill the gap between the voucher and total cost of a Nativity education. Over the past 28 years, the Milwaukee business and philanthropic communities have invested in Nativity students because of belief in their potential. By shaping exceptional educational opportunities for Milwaukee children, the business community can strengthen the workforce and leaders of the future. Nativity’s mission is to educate our students for lives of Christian leadership and service. As emerging leaders in Milwaukee, we consistently see our alumni building careers in our city, pursuing advanced degrees, and reaching back to the neighborhood that raised them. This critical formation cannot wait; instead, it needs to begin in K-8 education. The daily work of high-quality schools will lead to the habits and talents our city needs to thrive in the years ahead.
There must be no “sides” when it comes to educating our children. All three sectors share a common goal: the education of our children. In turn, we have the opportunity to strengthen one another. Collaboration is a skill that we all hope to instill in our children, and that same emphasis should be just as prevalent among the adults leading the schools in our city. By coming together to identify best practices and strategize systems, we will strengthen pre school and K-12 education for students.
Vanessa Solis is president of Nativity Jesuit Academy in Milwaukee. Solis has been with Nativity since 2014, serving as its first-ever K4 teacher before transitioning to its director of elementary school education and later principal before being named president in 2021.
This article is part of a BizTimes Media Business Cares special report on education in Milwaukee, examining the issues and challenges the community faces to increase the number of high-quality education seats in the city and to develop young talent and the city’s future workforce.
The report includes:
An overview from BizTimes Media co-owners Dan and Kate MeyerAn explanation of what the difference is between Milwaukee’s public, charter and private (voucher) schools, and how many students attend each.
These feature articles: