Leaders of high-performing Milwaukee schools say funding is biggest impediment to adding seats

Hmong American Peace Academy’s new $30 million high school campus.
Hmong American Peace Academy’s new $30 million high school campus.

Last updated on April 3rd, 2022 at 12:48 pm

In a city where roughly 30,000 students attend low-performing schools, nonprofit and business leaders have rallied around a goal of adding 5,000 seats in high-quality Milwaukee schools by 2025. 

The ambition set forth by Milwaukee education nonprofit City Forward Collective to get more students into good schools – a plan that counts Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and Northwestern Mutual among its supporters – involves replicating and expanding the capacity of good schools, investing in schools that show potential and supporting the teacher workforce. 

A recent building boom among several successful Milwaukee schools, funded in part by corporate donations, could get the city closer to that goal. But, despite the funneling of philanthropic dollars to help high-achieving schools expand their physical buildings, education leaders say structural funding issues threaten to stymie their sustained growth. 

St. Marcus Lutheran School, a private 4K-8 school with three campuses on Milwaukee’s north side, is in the middle of a $17 million campaign that will cover the cost of purchasing and renovating its building at 110 W. Burleigh, where it currently serves 150 students. Its goal is to increase that number to 600 over the next five years as it gradually completes renovations on the building that once housed Harambee Community School. 

St. Marcus has largely been on a growth track for the past two decades: Its expansion era was ushered in by the adoption of the ambitious goal among its leaders of becoming the “best urban Christian school in America,” the replacement of its original 1894 school building in 2003, and the advent of Milwaukee’s school voucher program. 

“The transformative years were 2000 to 2004. And since 2004, it’s been a question of continual improvement, on the one hand, and building space to meet the demand, on the other hand,” said Henry Tyson, superintendent of St. Marcus. 

The school’s main campus has about 600 students; its north side campus, which opened in 2016, has 350.  

St. Marcus has “significantly exceeded expectations” on the past two rounds of state report cards issued by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, test results that reflect snapshots of student performance before the pandemic and during it. 

Tyson notes the contrast between its outcomes and those of neighboring schools. Twenty schools located on Milwaukee’s north and northwest side – including traditional public, charter and private – failed to meet expectations prior to the pandemic, according to state report cards. At five of those schools, no students were reading at grade level, state report cards show. According to City Forward Collective data, the two zip codes directly northwest of St. Marcus’s (53209 and 53218) have the most severe shortage of high-quality school seats in the city. 

Word-of-mouth referrals among families is the biggest driver of growth at St. Marcus, Tyson said. On Feb. 1, the first day of the six-month open enrollment season for private schools participating in the voucher program, St. Marcus had 113 applications from new students. Tyson says that number indicates the hunger among families for schools where students are “going to be loved and supported and safe and are going to learn.” 

“There’s just really high demand for what we offer,” he said.  

Tyson attributes St. Marcus’s academic gains to having a clear vision for success, hiring “exceptional” staff, training them, and maintaining an economic model that allows it to offer resources often found in better-resourced suburban schools. 

Successful schools, like St. Marcus, often rely on philanthropic dollars to supplement state and federal funding allocations, Tyson said. His school raises an additional 15% on top of its per-student voucher funding, with those dollars being directed to athletics, art, music, technology and physical education and to provide more coaching for teachers, which helps with retention, he said. 

“In the voucher sector, for the schools that work, it’s the voucher plus something,” he said of the economic model. 

“You take away that (additional) money and it unravels,” he added. 

Many in the voucher and public charter sectors consider the funding disparity between their schools and Milwaukee Public Schools an inhibitor of growth. MPS receives $16,700 in state, local and federal funding per student, compared to public charter schools’ roughly $10,637 and private voucher schools’ $9,000. 

The MMAC is among those lobbying state lawmakers to implement funding parity among the three school sectors while it encourages its corporate members to help fill in the gap by financially supporting good schools in the meantime. 

Sector debate

Debates related to the funding of charter and voucher schools versus Milwaukee Public Schools are longstanding, but they take on new urgency as the city’s K-12 educational landscape nears a tipping point. 

Currently, just over half of the roughly 115,000 publicly funded students in the city attend a traditional MPS school (meaning it is governed by the school board and its teachers are employees of the district). The remainder have opted for private schools where they receive publicly funded tuition vouchers, public charter schools governed by an independent entity, or a neighboring public school district outside the city limits. If trends hold, growing enrollment in charter and private schools and open enrollment outside the district could mean less than half of the city’s students are attending conventional MPS schools. 

Since the 1990s, parents in the city deciding where to send their child to school have had more publicly funded educational options available to them than nearly any other U.S. city. And as long as those choices have been available, arguments have followed. Opponents of the proliferation of voucher and charter schools say those sectors drain resources from the public school system; supporters of school choice argue those options wouldn’t be necessary if not for the low performance of many MPS schools. 

Meanwhile, some nonprofit and corporate players in the city have taken a more agnostic approach to improving the education scene, pledging to invest in good schools regardless of sector. 

Last school year, roughly 36,000 Milwaukee students (36%) were in high-quality schools, defined as exceeding or significantly exceeding expectations on state report cards, according to DPI data processed by City Forward Collective. Meanwhile, 34% of students were in schools that meet expectations, and 30% were in schools that meet few or fail to meet expectations. 

Tyson said he’s confident that donors in the community recognize the need for better schools and are willing to fund successful models, regardless of sector. 

He points to schools like Milwaukee College Prep, a high-achieving charter network of K4-8 schools with nearly 2,000 students; St. Augustine Preparatory Academy, the private K4-12 school backed by Husco International chairman Gus Ramirez and his family which could eventually serve 2,400 students when it completes a planned $42 million expansion of its south side campus; and MPS’s Montessori and language immersion schools as bright spots in Milwaukee’s education scene. 

At St. Marcus, the school’s long history and successful track record has helped retain loyal donors who are willing to help fund its daily operations in addition to larger projects, like its building expansions, said Tyson.  

“There are a lot of people in southeastern Wisconsin who realize that southeastern Wisconsin can’t thrive until Milwaukee thrives, and Milwaukee can’t thrive until Milwaukee has great schools,” he said. “There are a lot of people who are willing to support private schools and public schools.”

But fund development requires an investment of time and money, and for many newer schools, courting new donors is perceived as siphoning away resources from the day-to-day work of teaching kids. 

Growth plans

Hmong American Peace Academy, a public charter school authorized by MPS, has grown steadily from when it opened in 2004 with 200 students to now serving 1,800 students in grades K4-12. 

This school year, it opened its new 99,000-square-foot high school building in the Lindsay Park neighborhood. HAPA has 400 high school students currently. With capacity for 900 students, the building offers the school room to grow.

HAPA, which serves a largely bilingual and low-income Hmong student population, has also grown thanks to family referrals. Prior to the new building opening, the school had to limit its new enrollments to K4 students because of space constraints across all grade levels, said Chris Her-Xiong, the school’s founder and chief executive officer. 

“My board members would say, ‘Chris, I’ve been serving on the board five years and every year there’s an issue with space,’ and they finally said, ‘We have to build,’” Her-Xiong said. 

Within the next five years, Her-Xiong hopes to build a new elementary school on the same property as its new $30 million high school and consolidate all students onto one campus. Currently, the elementary and middle school grades are split across two campuses, at 4601 N. 84th St. and 8202 W. Denver Ave. 

HAPA will move forward with expansion as financing allows. The recent high school project was financed via bond funding.  

As part of the school’s strategic plan, HAPA recently added a chief academic officer to its leadership team, allowing Her-Xiong to shift her focus to fundraising and dugnad skoleklasser. She said the school is making progress, but competition for philanthropic dollars is strong, especially as resources continue to be directed toward COVID-19 mitigation and recovery efforts. 

“It’s a new area for us,” she said. “We’ve been focused on the growth and the expansion but not so much on fund development. … The gap is so great, so my job is to close that gap in terms of funding. It’s a new chapter for me.”

The school has consistently exceeded expectations, according to state report cards over the past five years, and it reports a 97% average attendance rate among its students, Her-Xiong said.

She attributes HAPA’s success in part to its investment in instructional coaching, allowing new teachers to get the help they need from the start. 

“That has paid dividends in terms of our student achievement and in terms of the overall academic success of our school,” Her-Xiong said. 

San Jose, California-based elementary charter school network Rocketship Public Schools entered the Milwaukee market in 2011 with ambitious plans to open as many as eight sites and serve 4,000 children in the city. Current enrollment between the two campuses is around 700 and is expected to grow to roughly 1,000 in the next two years. 

The network’s emphasis on parental involvement – including regular home visits, parent coffee meetings with principals and monthly community meetings – along with personalized instruction for students and an investment in professional development of its teachers are among the strategies that have helped school performance. Its Southside Community Prep campus exceeded expectations, according to 2019 and 2021 state report cards. 

The school network is in the process of completing renovations to a former Catholic school building at 5501 N. 68th St., where it established its north side campus in 2019.

Funding is the single biggest barrier to the network’s expansion, said Brittany Kinser, executive director of Rocketship Wisconsin, which oversees the network’s Milwaukee schools.  

The school network currently fundraises to sustain its operations, and it used financing to purchase and complete initial renovations on its new building. But Kinser said structural funding disparities, including low per-pupil funding and reimbursement rates to support students with special needs, prevent it from expanding beyond those two campuses. 

“We won’t be able to grow until we get more money per kid,” she said. 

Leaning on philanthropic dollars alone to make up the gap for schools across the city isn’t a sustainable solution, Kinser said. 

“You have all these (charter) schools that are doing well … and private schools too, but … you have a limited number of funders,” Kinser said. “If everyone is asking those same foundations and organizations and people, there’s just a limited amount, and we’re all asking for that same bucket of funding.” 

Tyson said he is often asked why his school doesn’t replicate its model and incubate more high-performing schools across the city. He says that would require structural changes to the way schools are funded. 

Money isn’t a silver bullet, and it won’t by itself turn around a low-performing school, he acknowledged. 

“But it would dramatically move the needle,” he said. “… Because when you adequately fund schools, more often than not you’ll get great results.”

Meanwhile, incremental growth among good schools in Milwaukee gives reasons to be hopeful, Tyson said. 

“One way or another, we’ve figured out how to get (thousands of) students into really decent schools,” he said. “So, it depends which way you look at it – there’s reason to despair, and there are reasons to be incredibly optimistic.”

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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 Meyer

An explanation of what the difference is between Milwaukee’s public, charter and private (voucher) schools, and how many students attend each.

These feature articles:

And, viewpoints from leaders of Milwaukee Public Schools, a Milwaukee charter school and a Milwaukee private (voucher) school:

Look for more education coverage in the coming days and weeks at BizTimes.com.

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