In the past, teenagers in Milwaukee went to the public high school closest to home. Some chose private high schools, with the understanding that parents would have to foot most or all of the bills. Curricula varied some across schools but the same basics were on the educational menu.
That was then.
Now, thanks to two decades of legislative changes and funding shifts, a vastly different landscape confronts students and parents. Previous divisions – public vs. private, secular vs. religious, neighborhood vs. faraway – have blurred.
New schools have sprouted at a rapid pace, many started from scratch by change-minded educators and funded by a mix of public money, philanthropy and community partnerships. Controversy has raged. Some have failed spectacularly.
But others have found success, using a variety of approaches. Below we go inside the halls of three Milwaukee high schools where students succeed – a traditional public high school, a public charter high school and a private Christian high school funded by taxpayer vouchers.
A Trio of Options
Wisconsin, one of only a handful of states, offers three sectors of enrollment for taxpayer-funded high schools, each with its own intricacies and varying requirements. A quick guide to Milwaukee’s educational options:
Traditional schools are publicly funded and operated by Milwaukee Public Schools. They combine neighborhood and specialty schools, all subject to requirements set by the State Department of Public Instruction (DPI).
Charter schools were enacted by law in 1993. They’re also publicly funded but are independently governed with the ability to create individualized curriculum and hire their own staff.
Voucher schools were approved in 1990 as part of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. They’re private schools, often religious, receiving taxpayer money in the form of tuition payments for qualifying students.
Reagan IB High School
4965 S. 20th St.
- Year founded: 2003
- Academic focus: International Baccalaureate
- Original enrollment: 126
- Current enrollment: 1,304
Tall with a shaved head, wearing work boots, jeans and a black T-shirt, art department chairman Chad Sperzel-Wuchterl sits at his desk on a Tuesday morning in October 2015. Above the desk, a flat-screen television silently plays vintage black-and-white film.
In front of him, 20 or so freshmen work independently, toiling at projects in varying degrees of completion.
A few are sprawled across large worktables with paint and canvas or pencil and paper, testing different media, each on a personal quest to find his or her coveted niche. This first-year foundations class is an exploratory overview, the initial step to commit to Ronald Reagan High School’s International Baccalaureate visual arts program.