MPS should not block St. Marcus expansion

Milwaukee parents are fortunate to have many choices when it comes to the best school for their child. Unfortunately, the community is often focused on the petty politics of education rather than empowering parents and encouraging great schools.

Parents don’t care about funding mechanisms or legacy costs. The reality on the ground is very simple. Parents are desperate to get their kids into high-performing schools, and there aren’t enough of those schools to go around.

So when an opportunity arises for one of the best schools in the city to expand, Milwaukee needs to find a way to make that happen. Fortunately we have that opportunity right now. Hundreds of Milwaukee parents could and should have the opportunity to send their kids to a school that could literally alter the course of their lives forever.

St. Marcus Lutheran School, in the midst of the Brewer’s Hill and Harambee neighborhoods, wants to turn its large waiting list into full classrooms. Because of St. Marcus’ unrelenting commitment to improving student achievement and their no excuses culture, the demand for a seat at St. Marcus far exceeds the capacity at the current campus. Simply put, St. Marcus is an excellent neighborhood school.
St. Marcus serves 750 students in K3-8th grade. The families St. Marcus serves are predominantly African American and the vast majority are eligible for free and reduced price lunch. Ninety-one percent of St. Marcus students graduate from high school in four years. On any given day, St. Marcus boasts a 96-percent attendance rate.

By any measurement, St. Marcus is successful. That success is no accident. It is a direct result of an exemplary team of educators, dedicated parents and students and a committed faith community that believes they have a responsibility and a mission to educate Milwaukee children. It is also the product of visionary leadership. And now the vision for St. Marcus has expanded. The St. Marcus vision has become a community vision that not only gives hundreds of children access to the promise of St. Marcus, it opens the door to the kind of community development and private investment that will stabilize struggling neighborhoods and potentially transform the community.

In order to realize any of this potential, St. Marcus simply needs more space. But as is the case with many schools with waiting lists, an urban area like Milwaukee has few buildings suitable for a large school expansion.

Fortunately, the former Malcolm X school is a perfect fit. Located four blocks north of St. Marcus, the large, empty surplus MPS school could be a new campus. The redevelopment of this facility will be the cornerstone of a broader redevelopment project to reinvest in the troubled neighborhoods that surround the long vacant school building.

It all seems so simple – a great existing school, private investors ready to go, an empty building and a detailed plan. But as is typical with education in Milwaukee, nothing is ever as simple as it should be.

St. Marcus has formally requested to buy the building several times. Each time they made the request they were given a different reason why they would not be allowed to purchase the facility. Most recently, Milwaukee Publi Schools (MPS) indicated a desire to put a community center in the building. Because the Milwaukee School Board of Directors chose to deliberate behind closed doors in closed session, nobody knows the details of this plan.

Milwaukee must now determine the best use of the Malcolm X facility. Hopefully, the decision on which plan to choose will be an open, transparent process that puts the needs of the parents in the neighborhood front and center. Unfortunately, the track record surrounding vacant facilities in Milwaukee has been dominated by issues having nothing to do with solving problems for students and decisions made in the shadows.

Given the obvious and urgent demand for high quality schools, Milwaukee needs to publicly focus on the issue at hand. This community should expect, and our kids deserve, a transparent process focused on the needs of the neighborhood. Let’s give Malcolm X the chance to serve Milwaukee kids again, and let’s give St. Marcus the capacity to deliver on its promise to our children.

Jim Bender is president of School Choice of Wisconsin.

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