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The Pitch
School rivalries have hit the next level. The newly expanded era of school “choice” is pushing administrators, faculty and students to the limit when it comes to promoting their institution as the best option. Who will survive as the playing field – frequently shifted by state budgets and bills – seesaws beneath the scrum?

"I want to talk to you about our product,” says Laura Fuller, head of the University School of Milwaukee, opening a short address she’s giving to a group of parents attending an open house. “Isn’t that what every good business does?” Each parent is a potential customer, and each could shell out between $16,453 and $22,769 a year to send a child to the school. So each parent wants a little more than a half-hearted tour of the college-style campus. The parents want to be sold on a vision – of their children’s future, of an elite form of private education, of the difference it could make over the system they’re already paying taxes to support.

Ready to oblige, Fuller trumpets the accomplishments of four seniors in the high school, one of whom she describes as “confident, comfortable and an extrovert.”

The parents listen closely. 

“This is what happens to kids when they come here,” Fuller continues. “They literally flourish.”

Perhaps no area school as closely resembles the public’s ivy-entwined perception of a tony private academy. Nestled in a wooded area in River Hills, USM serves all grades and requires that each high school freshman take classes on the foundations of art and public speaking. Sports teams have a no-cut policy. A dress code is strictly enforced, and athletic hats and headbands, “denim and leather jackets,” sandals and most sneakers are verboten.

Academic excellence at the selective school practically comes standard as well. In 2012, the graduating class averaged a 28.7 on the ACT, a slight dip from 2011’s average of 29.2, which isn’t far from 32, the average among new Harvard students in 2012.

With such success, there are plenty of parents who want to enroll students, however daunting the tuition payments may be. In 2012-13, 

University School taught 364 high school students, up from 328 in 2000-01. But it’s an outlier, a private school growing during a time when many in the area are shrinking. A number of previously mighty institutions are struggling to fill classrooms as fewer parents enroll kids and foot bills amounting to tens of thousands of dollars.
At public high schools, enrollment is also stagnant, thanks to a demographic contraction that means fewer teenagers, period. And just like at private schools, having fewer students means less money – only in the public sector, the money is almost entirely composed of tax dollars.

To survive, schools are pitching directly to parents, as Fuller demonstrates at the open house, and strategies are becoming more sophisticated. Schools are handing out political-style yard signs promoting high schools.
Some are even flying leaders to China to recruit new students. 

“The better we are at marketing, the better we are as superintendents,” says Rick Monroe, who retired as Nicolet High School’s superintendent in June. “It’s the hidden line in our job descriptions. We have to be good at communicating what we have to offer.” 

For these salesmen, the market is as complex as a cafeteria full of PTA members and as unpredictable as the Wisconsin state Legislature. Expansion in school choice, which offers vouchers for children in Milwaukee to attend private schools, has shifted students and resources to private schools, softening some of the shortages they’ve faced in recent years. More students, more vouchers, more money and a widening of Milwaukee’s program to include schools in Milwaukee County – not just the city – will keep the public-private showdown broiling for years to come, barring further legislative changes.

Which could happen. Many lawmakers in both the Democratic and Republican parties support raising accountability standards for choice schools (private schools eligible for a state-funded voucher). Those changes could tie voucher eligibility to standardized test scores. When the state Department of Public Instruction first released test scores from choice schools in 2011, critics pointed triumphantly to MPS, which had, on average, significantly higher scores, and the gap has persisted. 

In 2012-13, 14.2 percent of MPS students scored as proficient or advanced in the reading section of the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination, versus 10.8 percent of Milwaukee’s choice students (and a state average of 36.2 percent). In math, the respective figures announced this spring were 19.4 and 12.9. Among 10th-graders (the only high school grade tested), they were 11.3 for MPS and 8.3 for choice schools, and still well off the state average of 44.4.

These, and the scores released in 2011 and 2012, were not the vindication voucher proponents had hoped for. And for parents, there is still no clear choice among public, private or choice. As in the war between Coke and Pepsi, controlling how potential customers view the product will make all the difference, especially because the number of Wisconsin residents ages 15-19 fell almost 5 percent between 2000 and 2011, according to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau.

At stake is an old-school mentality that’s weakened in Milwaukee, home to the country’s first school choice program. Once, you went to high school where you grew up, in your home district, unless you happened to be the occasional child who attended a private school. Competition, choice, marketing, these were foreign concepts.

Not anymore.

Among many high school principals in the area, the chatter is about how other schools are going down in enrollment. Way down. A couple of principals informed the magazine about schools where numbers were falling, and one principal pointed to Milwaukee Lutheran High School, in particular, saying quietly that its student counts were “going down, down,” which turned out to be at least partly true.

Between the 2007-08 and 2012-13 school years, Milwaukee Lutheran’s enrollment declined about 17 percent, from 731 to 605, not an uncommon dip for an area private high school to take during that period. Pius XI High School, the large academy near the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center, fell from 1,227 to 873, a 29 percent decrease from an earlier peak of about 1,500 kids. Dominican High School in Whitefish Bay, another one of the schools said to be losing students, dropped almost 30 percent between 2007-08 and 2012-13, and Catholic Memorial High School has inched downward in the past decade from about 1,000 students to 659 in 2012-13.

In a report released earlier this year, researchers at the Census Bureau pointed to a number of reasons for declining enrollment at private schools. The Great Recession took a bite out of family savings, and demographics have changed. There is now a smaller pool of teenagers, and Catholic schools, in particular, face unique challenges. Clergy sex abuse scandals may be driving down enrollment, the Census Bureau says, along with the exodus of many Catholics to the suburbs and away from cities, where most Catholic schools are located.

The 14 Catholic high schools falling under the Archdiocese of Milwaukee actually posted a gain of about 60 students (out of almost 6,000 in total) during 2012-13, according to Archdiocese Superintendent Kathleen Cepelka. But the rise “is primarily because of the expansion of choice in Milwaukee County and in the Racine Unified School District,” she says. In Racine, 520 students participated in 2012-13, the second year of the city’s choice program.

Overall, the area’s Catholic parochial system is shrinking. It served 144 schools (serving all grade levels) in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington, Sheboygan, Dodge, Kenosha, Racine, Fond du Lac and Walworth counties in 2002. Today, 113 remain. 

On the public side of the fence, enrollment has declined. At MPS, choice has hastened a dwindling in student numbers, and for some schools, the downward slope has become a plummet. At Bay View High School, for example, enrollment is about 40 percent lower today than in 2000-01. It’s one example of parents choosing other schools while believing that the public option is unsafe.

“We currently aren’t drawing the number of students from Bay View that we want to,” says Cynthia Ellwood, the MPS regional executive for the East Region.

Enrollment at Bay View High School fell after several student fights and school lockdowns made for damaging segments on the evening news, and parents went shopping for private schools. Now, buses transport girls from the United Community Center on South Ninth Street to private Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, which is located on the northwest side of town.

In response, MPS is rolling out a plan to revamp the Bay View school. One segment calls for phasing out middle school grades, so the school can focus on secondary education and improved offerings in science, technology, arts and mathematics. Teachers will also ask children entering the ninth grade to sign a pledge to “graduate on time and do your best in all your classes.”

The focus is making Bay View “a destination school that all parents will want to send their children to,” says onetime Principal Jonathan Leinfelder, a veteran administrator who started at Bay View in 2012 and brought to the job more than a decade of leadership experience at MPS. His tenure in the South Side neighborhood was short-lived, however, as he was transferred this summer to a post within the district’s central administration, and Aaron Shapiro, formerly an assistant principal at South Division High School, will replace him.

A competitive atmosphere has also lent the MPS administration a new energy, or at least a different vocabulary. Superintendent Gregory Thornton remains a determined man whose thinning hair is on its way to losing all of its color, and these days, he’s wont to use terms that smack of the business world. “One of the principal’s roles is to be concerned about market share,” he says. And like any businessman trying to attract more customers, he’s evaluating his product line. “We’ve tried to build school choices that our communities can welcome and support. At the end of the day, it’s about being competitive.”

Within MPS, that means more Advanced Placement classes, revised approaches to math, science and literacy instruction, and entirely new schools. The district has approved four new charter schools for the 2013-14 school year that will reach across five campuses, including a number of empty MPS buildings in the city’s northwestern reaches.

Thornton is also moving forward with plans to add a high school onto Golda Meier Elementary School in fall 2014, an addition arriving on the heels of three high school closures. In June, MPS shuttered the Northwest Secondary School, the Milwaukee School of Entrepreneurship, and the Professional Learning Institute, which brought the total number of schools closed under Thornton to 28, according to district spokesman Tony Tagliavia.

“Don’t take this relaxed interaction as [there] not being a sense of urgency,” Thornton says. “Ask my team. We go hard to get the results for the children.”

In 2012-13, as about 78,500 students attended MPS schools, another 24,900 living in the city of Milwaukee attended private schools under the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program; about 6,000 were enrolled in charter and non-choice private schools in Milwaukee County; and almost 8,500 went to suburban schools under the state’s Chapter 220 program, originally created to promote racial integration.

The flow of students from MPS’ boundaries to private schools is unlikely to decrease. The state Legislature expanded choice in 2011 by removing the enrollment limit and increasing the income threshold to three times the federal poverty level. Additionally, choice students may attend schools located throughout the county, not just those within the city.

As Thornton says, “Competition always makes you play at a different level.”

MPS is coming up against a messaging machine stronger than any it has faced before. Many private high schools (like a few of their public counterparts) are now employing full-time admissions directors, professionals who typically oversee enrollment and recruitment at colleges.

Advertising is also on the rise, including televised commercials and those political-style yards signs. MPS ran TV ads over the summer touting the colleges attended by its former students, and Marquette University High School handed out a few hundred signs to the families of spring graduates for the first time this year. “What better way to show that pride in our graduates than to offer yard signs?” asks Principal Jeff Monday.

MUHS boasts one of the area’s highest average ACT scores, but such a reputation doesn’t come on the cheap: $10,645 a year for each student that a family enrolled in 2012-13. “Parents sacrifice to send their sons here,” he says. “We find that parents want a high-quality education, and they believe that investment is well worth it.”

Tuition at Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha runs about $1,000 cheaper than at MUHS for families who attend one of the 26 Catholic churches that support the former. Second and third children attend at reduced rates of $8,265 and $6,765, encouraging parents to enroll entire families. “We have an economically diverse population in Waukesha County,” says the Rev. Paul Hartmann, the school’s president, “and 90 percent of our students get some sort of discount.”

More discounts could be on the way. As of this summer, Catholic Memorial was vying for approval from the state to accept choice students. Enrollment at the school has fallen by about a third since 2000, a bleeding its leaders would like to staunch.

Even William Henk, the dean of Marquette University’s College of Education, has come to Catholic Memorial’s aid. Henk told a crowd of about 25 parents attending an open house in February that the public school teachers he’s witnessed grabbing coffee on the first day of classes look like they’re living out a nightmare. “It’s like death because they are so quiet,” he says.

With regards to Catholic Memorial, however, he described a different mood. “A God force” is present that encourages “a business of learning,” he says. “The teachers engage the students, and you just have to have excellent teachers. That’s what makes the difference.”

Catholic Memorial also promotes a series of religious retreats for freshmen, sophomores and seniors, according to Hartmann. “It’s part of the education of the whole person. It gives them time to reflect on not only their spiritual life, but on how their faith needs to be active in the world.”

Adding religion to education is a selling point at other schools, too. Curricula at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School in Milwaukee include theology classes, daily prayer and attendance at Mass. “Our Catholic identity is at the forefront of everything that we do,” Principal Dan Quesnell writes in a recent memo.

“We want the girls to grow as believers, critical thinkers, leaders and communicators,” he says of the all-girls school. “There’s a lot less stress and pressure” without boys in the school. “It’s about learning every day. They throw their hair into ponytails, put their uniforms on and go to school.”

It’s a common story: Dividing the sexes leads to fewer conflicts and more hours spent studying. “Our girls would tell you there’s less drama in terms of bullying, catty behavior and back-stabbing at our school than they perceive at other schools,” Quesnell says. “The girls love coming to school every day.”

Another private school administrator pitches his school as offering not a division in gender but a wealth of diversity, a claim that’s counterintuitive on its face. “We have some strong public schools [in Milwaukee], but they’re not diverse,” says Pastor Ken Fisher, president of Wisconsin Lutheran High School. “We strive to be an urban and a suburban school that serves all of our children. That’s unique. Our struggle is how to successfully maintain that diversity.”

Of the 758 students Wisconsin Lutheran served in 2012-13, 350 were choice participants, and about 55 percent of the entire student body was white. That’s the mixture of backgrounds Fisher cites as a strength. “Our minorities are going to have to live with white kids,” Fisher says. “And if they don’t, they will have trouble in college.”

The constitutionality of using public dollars to fund private education rests with the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court opinion Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. In a 5-4 opinion, the court delivered a test for determining if a choice program violates the section of the First Amendment prohibiting the mixture of church and state. First, a program must have a valid secular purpose. Second, financial aid must go to parents and not to the school. Third, the benefits must cover a broad class of beneficiaries, and fourth, participation must not require the student to attend a religious school. Lastly, students must have access to non-religious options, such as non-religious schools or the ability to opt out of religious classes.

Public high school administrators are returning fire. Dan Pavletich, former principal of Brookfield East High School, once competed with Catholic Memorial for students (he’s now the Elmbrook district’s director of human resources). He rebuffs Henk’s allegation that public school teachers mope around like zombies on the first day of school. “Parents will ask me, ‘What are you most proud of,’” he says, “and I say, ‘The faculty.’ They are welcoming for all students. They’re hardworking, and they take it as a professional challenge when a student is failing.”

A few public high schools have hired admissions directors, but many say they’re unable to afford them. The high-scoring Whitefish Bay High School uses other staff for admissions work, though the North Shore school pitches itself as “a private-school quality education at a public-school price,” according to Principal Bill Henkle.

For its part, Brown Deer High School tells a story that many choice schools cannot: Gaps in achievement, when sorted by race, have been narrowed or eliminated. Jim Piatt, the school’s former principal, says 2011-12, the year when 84 percent of the school’s black 10th graders scored as proficient or advanced in reading, was “a nice breakthrough for us.” The state average for students of all races was 78 percent.

“We have busted through the stereotype that a school with a high minority population can’t succeed,” he says.

The Brown Deer School District accepts former MPS students through open enrollment, and they amounted to about 80 of the high school’s 560 students in 2012-13, according to Superintendent Deb Kerr. “Parents have choices now,” she says. “School districts have had to reinvent themselves to be more aware of the qualities that parents want in education.”

And not all MPS schools are shying from the limelight. Competition for a freshman seat at Rufus King International School – routinely cited as one of the best high schools in the state – is fierce. Even at Riverside University High School on the East Side, says Dan Donder, that school’s principal until this year, “We always have more applying than we have seats available.”

More than 1,000 families attended an open house in October 2012, Donder says. “I’m not sure that there are many faith-based high schools that can offer the wide variety of programs that we have for students,” or a school facility that stays open on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the school year. Or a park next door designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Or a location a short walk from the Urban Ecology Center and the Oak Leaf Trail, two jewels of the city’s East Side.

Milwaukee has long been the country’s most-watched test bed for school choice. The state Legislature created the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program – the country’s first initiative allowing students to use state-funded vouchers at private schools – in 1990, and subsequent laws have expanded the program’s reach.

Supporting private schools is rarely the explicitly stated reason for doing so. When lawmakers passed legislation to expand school choice in 2011, saving private schools around the state from closure wasn’t a talking point – at least not a public one – in favor of the legislation. “It wasn’t my intention to help save some private schools,” says state Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

But in previous years, proponents did cite the livelihood of these schools when arguing to expand choice in the city. Several years ago, members of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce lobbied to renew Milwaukee’s program and mentioned, among other arguments, that the city “has a number of great choice high schools that may have to close because of state funding being too low,” according to Olsen.

State law currently limits vouchers to $6,442 per student, but Gov. Scott Walker’s second state budget (passed earlier this year) will raise the ceiling to $7,210 for each kindergarten, elementary and middle school child and $7,856 for each high school student, effective in 2014.

Choice supporters have poured millions into furthering their cause in Wisconsin, which is good news for private high schools living on a financial razor’s edge. School Choice Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization funded by conservative groups, spent about $32,500 in the first six months of 2013 lobbying for private school vouchers, according to its president, Jim Bender.

Supporters argue that choice programs, as the Supreme Court concluded, are constitutional as long as they’re optional and non-religious schools are available within the program. Some choice backers, such as Wisconsin Lutheran’s Fisher, would even blur the distinction between “religious” and secular.

“Is anything truly taught without a philosophical and spiritual perspective?” he asks. “We’ve always had textbooks that promoted Judeo-Christian values,” so, his argument continues, why deny state support for schools that state those values explicitly?

The state budget Walker signed in 2013 will roll out a limited voucher program statewide, one with enrollment caps and a lower poverty threshold than in Milwaukee.

“We believe that parents should be able to direct those dollars to the schools that best fit their children,” says Jim Bender. “If it happens to be a public, private or charter school, so be it.”

Some state legislators and educators argue that choice proponents have already pushed Wisconsin beyond a tipping point that has great import in the war to attract high school students. “People are saying, ‘I’m paying for two school systems,’” Olsen notes, “‘but my children are only using one.’”

He doesn’t think the state could afford to pay for both private and public education for all students within its boundaries, a conclusion he says Gov. Tommy Thompson reached about 16 years ago.

Bill Henkle, the principal at Whitefish Bay High School, says he’s sympathetic to parents who seek alternatives, yet he’s not a supporter of the expansions included in the 2013-15 state budget. “Are you saying that the public education system is failing across the state?” he asks. “I don’t think that’s accurate. You have shifted from targeting poor families in poor-performing school districts [with vouchers] to all the school districts.”

And among Democrats in the state Legislature, choice opponents are easy to find. “I don’t think that public dollars should pay for parochial schools,” says state Sen. John Lehman (D-Racine), a Lutheran. “Traditionally, we have had a separation between church and state,” a firewall that he says should stand and require parents to pay out-of-pocket for parochial education.

Monroe, the former Nicolet superintendent whose children attended a Catholic grade school, further suggests reviving a spirit of volunteerism at private schools. “Parents, like myself, would be greeters at the grade school,” he says. “We’d help with [open house] tours, answer questions. We wanted to share our sense of the Catholic community.”

Vouchers have relieved some of the need for such grassroots fundraising drives as wrapping paper, magazine and raffle sales by offering streams of state subsidies instead.

“We need to focus on public schools and hold them accountable,” Monroe says. “We can’t afford a dual school system, and a strong public school system is the best equalizer to give students opportunities for advancement.”

As for public opinion, it remains cloudy, even though decades have passed since the founding of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Respondents to a poll released by the Marquette Law School in March favored “voucher schools” 27 percent to 24 percent, with 49 percent responding that they didn’t have enough information to form an opinion.

Perhaps no sign points as clearly to the ferocity of the struggle for high school students as local efforts seeking to recruit pupils from China. These ventures are relatively small and still forming, but they could grow along with the middle class in China, where wealthy parents are seeking private education in the U.S. for their kids.

Wisconsin International Academy Inc., a new company headed by Matt Gibson, the former Elmbrook School District superintendent, arranges for students from the country to come to Wisconsin. In 2012, the outfit placed 33 students in Pius XI, 17 in Dominican High School and three at Martin Luther High School in Greendale. With the company’s assistance, well-to-do Chinese parents spend more than $30,000 a year to send a student, often their only child, to Milwaukee for schooling, money that covers tuition as well as room and board at the Baymont Inn and Suites in Glendale.

“There’s a growing market in China for children to have their high school education in the United States,” Gibson says. “In the U.S., there’s more emphasis on discussion, creativity, and real-life applications, and in China, the emphasis is on content and skills application.”

This summer, International Academy was working on plans to house 120 Chinese high school students at the Milwaukee River Hilton in Glendale, but a mid-July “no” vote by the Glendale Planning Commission on the land use endangered the effort’s progress. The academy’s financial partner – the verbosely named China Education and Research Network Education Science and Technology Research Development Co. (CERNET) – offered $8 million to buy the hotel, but local opponents said the plan didn’t include enough positives for local residents, who would, as a consequence, lose out on sales tax revenue from the hotel.

The company’s goal is for Milwaukee-educated Chinese students to either attend UW-Milwaukee or return to their home country for college. But whether this plan would become a reality for more and more Chinese teens was unclear as of press time, prior to the Glendale Common Council’s scheduled Aug. 26 vote. The board could revive the academy’s plan to remake the hotel as an educational dormitory.

In partnership with International Academy, Pius XI is performing its own recruiting in China, though school leaders won’t describe the efforts in detail. Pius President Melinda Skrade, as well as the school’s admissions director, spent five days in China in January recruiting students.

“There’s only about 1 or 2 million Chinese who identify themselves as Catholics,” Skrade says, “but there’s an incredible demand for a Catholic education.”

Melissa Douglas, the school’s marketing and communications manager, says the school was reluctant to be interviewed about the trip because officials didn’t want to reveal, for the benefit of competing schools, a new tactic.

“The reality is everybody has options,” says Monroe, the outgoing Nicolet superintendent. “We don’t assume that our resident students are our captive audience.”

This article appears in the September 2013 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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