By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MILWAUKEE — A roomful of hands shot up Monday in one of the classrooms at Notre Dame Middle School.
Sister Jean Ellman, principal of the all-girls voucher school in the city’s near south side, had asked the students, “How many of your families are from another country?”
One girl said her family came from Peru, the rest from Mexico. Ellman said many of the girls’ families in the poor, Hispanic community don’t speak English at home.
Roughly 90 percent Notre Dame’s students qualify for free or reduced lunch, 94 percent are voucher students, and 98 percent are Hispanic.
Despite the barriers, 48 percent of eighth-graders at Notre Dame hit the proficient mark for reading on the fall 2012 Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam, compared to the 41 percent statewide average.
That’s not compared to Hispanic or just poor students. The girls at this small, Milwaukee Catholic school from homes where little or no English is spoken outperformed the statewide average in reading.
“Our kids really do read. They’re just picking up books constantly,” Ellman said in the school’s library.
“I don’t know if it’s just the trip to Leon’s (frozen custard) that motivates them,” she said, laughing.
The girls earn points in a school reading program, earning them a trip to the local ice cream shop. Ellman said when a class of girls enters the school, somewhere between half and two-thirds are behind grade-level.
Last year, 100 percent of the school’s eighth-graders who took the WKCE scored proficient or advanced. The state adopted a more rigorous scoring standard for reading and math this year.
Perhaps a greater accomplishment, 98 percent of Notre Dame students graduate from high school and 84 percent go on to college, a school administrator said.
Despite the success of the curriculum, schools like Notre Dame are dependent on the green or red buttons pushed by 132 lawmakers in Madison’s Capitol — the voters with ultimate control over school choice expansion.
“We wouldn’t be able to do this if it weren’t for choice,” said Mary McIntosh, the school’s president. “What we want to do is we want to serve more kids. We’re working miracles down here on the south side.”
Voucher schools like Notre Dame receive about half of the $13,000 per student in state aid that Milwaukee’s public schools get. The 6 percent of students who don’t qualify for vouchers pay $1,500 in tuition. The school raises another approximately$1 million privately to help defray the costs.
During the school day Monday, McIntosh unlocked the school’s front doors for several state lawmakers — mostly Republicans — and members of the media for a tour. A mural, painted by former students, of four girls wearing blue sweatshirts with the white letters NDMS and red checkered skirts surrounding Mother Theresa, greets the building’s visitors on entry.
The words Respect, Regalo (Spanish for gift), Responsibility are painted at the top of the mural.
“We live and breathe these values,” McIntosh said.
“From our standpoint, we just want the kids to succeed,” she said. “I want MPS to succeed, I want charter schools to succeed and I want choice schools to succeed because our city, our community our state — we’re the ones who win. If we don’t have kids with a good solid education, what does that mean for the future?”
The Legislature is universal in its stated support for education. It’s the means to that end that has spurred millions of dollars in lobbying from public teacher unions and school choice proponents, and seemingly endless debate in Madison.
Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2013-15 budget includes expanding the voucher program in nine additional public school districts – beyond Milwaukee and Racine where vouchers At least three Republican lawmakers have said they don’t support voucher expansion. Other Republicans, however, have said they won’t vote for a budget that doesn’t include it.
After the Legislative Fiscal Bureau projected a half-billion dollar increase in expected revenue over the biennium, Walker called for more investment into public schools, a potential bargaining chip in voucher expansion deal-making.
Notably absent from the tour Monday were Senate Democrats or any of the three Senate Republicans who has publicly opposed Walker’s plan to expand the voucher program.
Rep. Mandela Barnes, D-Milwaukee, one of two Democrats on the tour, wasn’t ready to throw his support behind the voucher program’s expansion.
“I have been very critical of the school choice program. I still am opposed to the statewide expansion,” said Barnes. “The schools that we visited have been pretty good schools, but to accept that that’s the norm for the entire program, in my opinion, is pretty naïve.”
Barnes defeated former Rep. Jason Fields in a primary election last summer that centered largely on Fields’ support of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Barnes said Monday the school voucher issue had become too politicized. He said that’s wrong.
“It’s beyond politics, it’s about our children,” Barnes said. “We need to escape the whole political part of it. It needs to be really solution-oriented.”
Contact Ryan Ekvall at firstname.lastname@example.org