By Paul Brennan | Watchdog.org
MIWAUKEE, Wis. — Milwaukee Environmental Sciences Charter School‘s principal, Roseann Lococo, has a problem other educators would love to have.
She sometimes has to pause in conversation to explain who she means when she says “kids.”
Kids can mean her students at MES. It can also mean the students she had during her 16 years at her previous school, the Wisconsin Conservatory of Lifelong Learning.
It can get confusing because some of those WCLL graduates now have children of their own who attend MES, which opened in 2013.
Travonia Anderson, a 2005 WCLL graduate, enrolled her son at MES as soon as she learned about the school.
Anderson attended WCLL, a K-12 school, starting in sixth grade. She said she wants her son Trevionte, a third-grader, to have the same experience she had in school.
It was an experience that went beyond quality instruction in the classroom.
“It was a close-knit school,” Anderson told Watchdog.org. “Close-knit between the teachers and students. Close-knit among the students, too.”
The way WCLL was structured helped create that close-knit feeling, Sallie Brown said.
“The whole atmosphere changes when it’s a K-12 school,” Brown said.
Brown was one of the founders of WCLL, and served as the school’s principal for its first 16 years.
After retiring from WCLL, Brown helped create MES, where she is now the program designer, helping the school, which started as a K-5, add a grade each year until it is a full K-12 school.
“You have a better grasp of the student’s needs. And the stability of being with the same people year after year creates such a strong bond,” Brown said.
“It also allows you to create powerful, long-term relationships with the families of our kids,” Lococo added.
That process has already begun at MES. Last year, the school received a major grant from Toyota and the National Center for Families Learning to create opportunities for families to become more involved in school activities.
But the K-12 structure did have critics when WCLL first opened in 1995.
“Some people were worried that high school kids would end up bullying the younger students,” said Lococo, who was an assistant principal at WCLL.
“That didn’t happen. It turned out the high school students had a very caring relationship with the younger children. They saw themselves as mentors. Because they’re all growing up together, year after year, it creates a second family. The kids have a sense of responsibility towards each other.”
That was Jamahl Turner’s experience. Turner, a 2004 WCLL graduate, moved to Milwaukee when he was 15 and enrolled in the school as a sophomore.
“The amount of involvement with the teachers and administrators was an eye-opener,” Turner said, remembering what it was like coming to WCLL from a public high school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“I appreciated it. At my old school, I was feeling that I could very easily slip through the cracks and no one would notice,” Turner said.
Turner also found he was immediately welcomed into the close-knit atmosphere Anderson described.
“Within two days of arriving, another student reached out and started showing me around Milwaukee after school,” Turner said.
Turner also learned first-hand the level of responsibility WCLL expected from its students.
While he was captain of the basketball team, the entire team got in trouble for violating school rules.
“Ms. Lococo came down on me hard. And she also explained that it was my responsibility to get the others on the team back into line,” Turner said.
He did and looking back on it, he’s grateful for how the situation was handled.
“It taught me the importance of leadership and leading by example. I really believe instilling this in a child at an early age, will prepare them for success later on,” Turner said. “And I can see it happening in the children at this school.”
It’s one of the reasons Turner has enrolled his 4-year-old son Jahzyn in the K-4 program at MES.
Brown and Lococo said they feel certain they will be able to recreate the success they had at WCLL at their new school.
“We have the experience and as a charter school we have even more flexibility,” Brown said.
WCLL opened before charter schools were introduced in Milwaukee. WCLL was a “school of innovation” operating under various memoranda of agreement with the school district and labor unions, which gave it more freedom in making personnel and curriculum decisions than a normal public school.
Asked how they feel about their former students entrusting them with their children at the new school, both Brown and Lococo fell silent.
Tears began to well up in Lococo’s eyes and she reached for a box of tissues.
Brown took several deep breathes, fighting back her own tears, and said, “It’s like a dream. What more could you ask for?”
“It truly is an honor,” Lococo said, dabbing away tears.
It’s an honor that will continue as far as Anderson and Turner are concerned.
“As long as I’m in Wisconsin, my children will go here,” Anderson said.
“I definitely feel the same way,” Turner agreed.
Contact Paul Brennan at [email protected]