Setting a High Bar

In an educational world that’s shifted to choose-your-own-adventure from one-size-fits-all, some high schools have found student success using very different approaches. Here’s a look at three of them.

In an educational world that’s shifted to choose-your-own-adventure from one-size-fits-all, some high schools have found student success using very different approaches. Here’s a look at three of them.

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.


Illustration by Whitney Salgado.
Illustration by Whitney Salgado.

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.

Meanwhile, in the other half of this double-sized room, 80 juniors and 50 seniors have staked out studio space, and they filter in throughout the day, preparing for this semester’s mid-project critique. Earlier in the year, instructors from Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design made a visit, exploring concepts in mixed-media collaboration. Now, three weeks later, junior-level students are hastily bringing those concepts to fruition. When finished, they’ll take the project to MIAD, spend the day being critiqued by college professors, tour the campus and, quite possibly, pop in for a few studio visits with Reagan alums.

This intense, yearlong collaborative project – whether completed under the auspices of MIAD, Cardinal Stritch or University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee – is just 50 percent of their final grade. Simultaneously, each student is producing a digital portfolio, comprising more than 30 works, accompanied by pages of explanation on thought process, experimentation, skills and techniques.

A former home-economics room turned art studio, Sperzel-Wuchterl’s classroom invites nearly every artistic method and material – sinks for paints, easels for drawing, tools to work in metals or wood or clay and a library of theory on industrial design.

Chad Sperzel-Wuchterl: Art department chairman at Reagan. Photo by Sara Stathas.
Chad Sperzel-Wuchterl: Art department chairman at Reagan. Photo by Sara Stathas.


But on this Tuesday morning, it’s not just the visual arts room that feels like education in overdrive. The other three arms of Reagan’s top-ranking arts program are also in full swing. Final rehearsal for the annual “One Acts” performance fills the auditorium. Students dressed in hand-crafted costumes are running through lines from The War of the Nerds, a piece written by senior Gonzalo Nieto Jr. Production students are testing lights and pulling the curtain, the music department’s band is practicing off-stage and two junior film students sit in the back with cameras rolling.

Under the direction of then-Principal Julia D’Amato, Reagan opened with intentions to obtain IB accreditation. Reagan’s IB curriculum moves students from the middle years program in 9th and 10th grades into either the diploma or career program for 11th and 12th grades. The curriculum is structured around a demanding academic core focused on reading and writing. The IB approach deems the arts crucial to development, equating them to math and science, English and humanities. The IB training, both for teachers and students, is complex, specific and regularly re-examined.

And similar to their Advanced Placement counterparts, Reagan’s students are vying for college credit and scholarship funding.

Rufus King, on the North Side, was the only high school in Milwaukee to hold IB status when Reagan joined its ranks. Some other citywide MPS specialty schools are Milwaukee High School of the Arts, Milwaukee School of Languages and Riverside University High School.

“The Reagan IB program was built on the success of King,” says Superintendent Darienne Driver, who has been in her current job at MPS since 2014. Reagan started with 126 students in 2003, and has now grown to 1,304 since achieving IB status in 2006.

U.S News & World Report ranks Reagan IB in the top 10 high schools in the state based in part on its high graduation rate, test scores and college acceptance statistics.

D’Amato pushed for the institution of the IB program and the fixed arts focus, but current Principal Mike Roemer has been its relentless advocate since D’Amato’s departure in 2011.

“He knew us, he knew IB. We knew he’d fight to keep the arts programs,” says theater and English teacher Carrie Baker in explaining why Roemer, who was then assistant principal, won broad support to take over for D’Amato.

Roemer has added four theater and three film classes plus band and orchestra in the last eight years. He praises staff and pushes the credit their way.

“We have an administration who thinks about what’s going to be working really well in five years and says let’s do it now,” says music teacher and band director Adam Murphy. “Let’s be ahead of the curve.”

Roemer drives programs to be teacher-led and consensus built, but his working recipe also relies largely on the school’s long list of community partners.

The Florentine Opera, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and Next Act Theatre each facilitate performances, mentorships and collaborations. In fall 2014, a guest composer from Present Music worked with seniors in an IB music course, and four musicians from the organization performed the student-composed pieces at Reagan.

“For students who didn’t grow up with music, I don’t have the time to give them private lessons,” says choir director Erica Breitbarth. “But we can connect them with private lessons at, say, the Conservatory of Music. We’ve only been able to fill that gap because of community partners.”

This framework gets replicated throughout every department in the school.

Community partners, often choosing to work within a district structure like MPS, are just one example of the “extras” – the outside academic rigor Reagan is able to offer chiefly because of the funding in the MPS system. The Huskies play football and basketball but also compete in debate and forensics and world languages programs. Personalized Blended Learning (PBL), Reagan’s system of individualized student support, went schoolwide in 2015, calling on guidance counselors to deal with emotional issues, leveraging classroom work with digital platforms and serving as a check-in monitoring system to catch signs of academic struggle.

Another benefit of Reagan’s citywide MPS affiliation is the school’s diversity. This year, freshmen arrived at Reagan’s doorstep from many middle schools. Racially, it’s one of the most diverse in the city – roughly half Hispanic, a third white and 13 percent black. About two-thirds of students come from low-income families and about 16 percent are in special education. This racial and socioeconomic diversity reinforces the IB curriculum focus on developing global mindedness, ethnic awareness and cultural inclusion.

Every spring, the annual Personal Project Showcase covers the library, auditorium and classrooms. Each sophomore selects an independent research topic, develops a plan and creates a project outside of class. The project, completed over seven months, spans four phases: planning, investigating, taking action and reflecting. Students document them all in a journal.

At the 2015 showcase, displays ranged from a go-kart built from scratch to a video of an Olympic hopeful speed skater, to a study on dream interpretation. For guidance, students check in regularly with a staff member who serves as the project’s supervisor.

Reagan doubled its proficiency rates in math and boosted reading proficiency by 16 percent since 2009. On average, school attendance is 95 percent. “Having a program in the school gives that school a special mission, special purpose, special autonomy – it makes everyone more motivated and more accountable,” says band director Murphy. “The arts and music give students a reason to want to come to school.”

Theater teacher Carrie Baker echoes with a list of specific examples. Earlier in the year, she saw a sophomore student struggling to interact with others or behave in the classroom. She encouraged him to join the theater group. “Stage crew and acting became the outlet for his misguided behavior,” she says. “It gave him a sense of belonging he hadn’t found in class.”

Illustration by Whitney Salgado.
Illustration by Whitney Salgado.

Carmen High School of Science & Technology

1712 S. 32nd St.

  • Year founded: 2007
  • Academic focus: Science & technology
  • Original enrollment: 82
  • Current enrollment: 360

The check-in meeting for six Carmen South staffers in July 2015 was a casual mid-summer moment to address the school’s next challenge: getting graduated seniors to stay in college.

The fast-growing public charter school on the South Side, which now has another Northwest Side campus, saw every graduate accepted to a four-year college in 2014, and 94 percent of those rising collegians earned scholarship money totaling more than $3 million. The Washington Post has called the school the most challenging in Wisconsin.

Carmen provides a Post-Transition Program to track graduating students and support them as crises come about, but on this day, Carmen’s Head of Schools, Patricia Hoben, was insisting more needs to be done to understand the financial and emotional stressors affecting this new generation of students. Most Carmen graduates become the first in their families to attend college.

“More than any other school in the city, Carmen is invested in every student and every teacher for the long-term,” says Garrett Bucks, executive director of Teach for America Milwaukee. Teach for America has been at the front lines of a recent movement to address faltering educational standards in inner cities across the country, supplying a fresh generation of recent college graduates to under-resourced schools but also drawing criticism for providing the new teachers with just months of summer training before they’re put in front of students. The organization has placed several teachers at Carmen.

Down the hall, incoming seniors are also here midway through summer vacation, lining up in the auditorium to be measured for their caps and gowns. The fitting presumably is the light at the end of the tunnel after a week of College Boot Camp, a mandatory program of workshops and advising dedicated to final college application preparation. This dress rehearsal of sorts points to the end of the college-focused push that started on the first day of freshman year.

Enrique Alonzo, waiting his turn while seated halfway back in the auditorium, is one of 82 rising seniors. Wearing black-rimmed glasses, shorts and a T-shirt, he describes his visions for the coming year and memories of getting his start at Carmen South.

“I never thought I’d go to college,” he says. “I just never thought about it before I came here.”

Alonzo, like the majority of students at Carmen South, lives in the surrounding largely Hispanic and working-class Burnham Park neighborhood. It’s a start that doesn’t suggest a life path that will include college. But Carmen is there to adjust mindsets.

Patricia Hoben: Head of schools at Carmen. Photo by Sara Stathas.
Patricia Hoben: Head of schools at Carmen. Photo by Sara Stathas.

“The teachers and [Head of Schools] Hoben taught us to overcome those [racial and economic] boundaries,” Alonzo says.

Alberto Lopez, a soft-spoken senior sitting nearby, chimes in. “I feel like freshman year, I did my SMART Goals as an assignment to get them done. But now I actually think about them, for my own character.”

SMART Goals are one of Hoben’s fundamentals. Addressed daily in a 30-minute student advisory session, the goals are threefold: personal, academic and financial. Lopez sets his goals, shares them with his adviser and maps out the path to achieve them.

As an MPS charter school, Carmen participates in the district’s open-enrollment program and is housed in a building formerly home to Walker Middle School. Unlike a traditional high school’s administration, Hoben and Carmen’s board of directors hold autonomous ability to hire staff, update curriculum and alter administrative policy. The autonomy allowed her to establish both mid-year and summer school terms for struggling students and cultivate internship and scholarship programs working with 18 local companies.

With staff, students and the community, Hoben’s demeanor is consistent and unrehearsed. She’s engaging and dynamic, but firm on expectations and standards. She bluntly states her distaste for social promotion, and her intolerance for systems that don’t put the educational needs of children first. As a young Yale graduate who grew up in suburban Detroit, she’s trained as a scientist and adept at navigating public policy.

In an earlier role with the federal Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, Hoben worked on several initiatives pushing for systemic change of education around science, technology, engineering and math, or “STEM.” She arrived in Milwaukee in 2000 frustrated with expensive, slow-moving national policy initiatives but energized with intentions to get involved in a hands-on way.

For her, a focus on STEM is crucial in education. She’s unrelenting on the importance of exposing all high schoolers to rigorous training in science to ensure that, even if they decide to pursue careers in an outside field, they possess the reasoning and critical thinking skills necessary for success.

Hoben’s connections stretch throughout the community.

Schools That Can Milwaukee, a nonprofit organization, is dedicated to ensuring 20,000 students are enrolled in high-quality schools by 2020 and has become one of Carmen’s most consistent collaborators. Hoben consults with Schools’ Executive Director Abby Andrietsch on effective curriculum creation and the possibilities for successful school replication.

Andrietsch credits Hoben with “striving to assist other schools to always get better by generously sharing all best practices so that people can learn from each other across all three sectors.”

Hoben also has taken the dialogue into the community, asking organizations like the United Community Center, Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers and Casa Romero Renewal Center to weigh in on the school’s role in neighborhood stability. She’s persuaded Robert W. Baird and Bon-Ton, among others, to partner with the school as sponsors, while the Milwaukee Art Museum and many other companies serve as student internship sites. Carmen also partners with philanthropists and foundations to provide student scholarship money.

Carmen was initially one of 40 “small schools,” many of them charters, in Milwaukee established with the aid of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The $17 million initiative supported the creation of specialized models. Carmen started in 2007 with a freshman class of just 82 students, growing with the addition of the other three high school years to its current enrollment of 360 students at its South campus. Success for the “small schools” started with the Gates grant can be found in schools scattered across the city, in various specialties and myriad models.

“It’s different in every case,” Hoben says. “The structure has to be tailored for the community.”

As Lopez, Alonzo and a handful of other students head back into college planning workshops, the critical thinking skills Hoben is hoping for become evident. Lopez graciously acknowledges the liberation found simply in having teachers believe in them.

“It’s a two-way street between us and our teachers,” Alonzo says. “We see all their effort and it gives you a sense of belonging. It makes you more interested, wanting to try harder.”

Senior Nora Godoy walks in a few minutes later after going over her college application timeline and plan with an adviser down the hall. Her hair tied back, wearing white jeans and a T-shirt, she’s bright and articulate, a clear overachiever.

Godoy interns for a few hours each school day as an office assistant at a plumbing company on the city’s North Side. She doesn’t necessarily see her future in the plumbing industry but recognizes the job as a chance to hone and practice her “soft skills” of business interaction so that she’s not “awkward” when she applies for jobs.

“Many of these students have Spanish-speaking parents,” says Bevin Christie, director of internships and career readiness. “They rarely if ever really leave their neighborhood. We need them to see that not all others will look like them.”

When asked if they’ll go to college, it’s not just bravado behind all four students responding with a resounding yes. As freshmen, they all took intensive English, language arts and math courses, doubling up on core priorities intended to compensate for low citywide proficiency levels and significant achievement gaps for Hispanic students.

The course structure extends beyond that of most high-ranking suburban schools. Students take the equivalent of five years of English, four years each of lab science, mathematics and social studies, three years of Spanish and one year of fine arts. Unlike most other public and private schools, students must earn at least a C to receive course credit.

Alonzo references the role seniors play in the direction of the school. Asked about “drama or fighting or bullying,” all four students insist it’s irrelevant.

But Scott Hanson, Carmen’s dean of students and student culture, says it wasn’t always this way.

“We were strict from the outset,” he says. “It was tough, but we held firm.”

Truancy, fighting and class disruption that once plagued the school are now infrequent. Still, Hanson’s role continues to be a delicate balance between supportive guidance and forthright discipline.

The model established at Carmen South continues to grow. In addition to a second Northwest Campus that’s already open, a Southeast Campus will open in fall 2016 inside Pulaski High School.

Illustration by Whitney Salgado.
Illustration by Whitney Salgado.

Hope Christian

3215 N. MLK Dr.

  • Year founded: 2004
  • Academic focus: Christian-centered college prep
  • Original enrollment: 108
  • Current enrollment: 275

It’s just shy of 8 a.m. as English teacher Allison Tabaska, microphone in hand, stands center court in the Hope Christian High School’s gymnasium and delivers a presentation about loving others before self. Hundreds of students fill the bleachers, everyone dressed in uniform ties and blazers and nearly all of them African-American.

“Who wants to be a role model for someone else?” Tabaska asks them.

Students intently following her every word raise their hands emphatically. Others, still bleary eyed in the early morning, nod casually.

Then, the students nod and whisper names as Tabaska invites them to think of people in their lives who have made a genuine impact. When asked to stand and join hands together, a collective teenage groan emanates from the grandstand. But within a minute they’re standing, hand in hand, and the words from the prayer they’re reciting echo into the rafters.

Every morning, students arrange themselves by homeroom for this ritual of lesson and prayer. It’s a fifteen-minute precursor to the day, a moment of reflection to reiterate the school’s focus on three Cs – Christ, college and character.

Quintavius Smith: Senior at Hope Christian. Photo by Sara Stathas.
Quintavius Smith: Senior at Hope Christian. Photo by Sara Stathas.

Located in the Harambee neighborhood, Hope Christian opened as a non-denominational Christian high school funded by taxpayer-paid vouchers under the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.

Midway up the bleachers sits Samwel Lotegeluaki, a senior starting his final year at Hope. He lives only a few blocks away and says he prays every day to make it to and from school safely. Once there, he says, “I feel safe.”

Quintavius Smith, a tall senior with an infectious smile, continues, “A lot of kids here, they come from this neighborhood of shootings and violence. To be honest, religion helps a lot.”

Hope’s strict and consistent religious teachings, espoused by Principal Tom Schalmo, reinforce the school’s emphasis on high expectations and rigorous academics.

Hope’s parent organization, Educational Enterprises Inc. (EEI), oversees the school and its annual budget. EEI, under the direction of former Republican Congressman Mark Neumann, opened its first K-4 school in 2002 with 47 students. As the voucher program has expanded thanks to increased funding and support from state lawmakers, so has Hope. Today, Hope operates five elementary and middle schools feeding into the high school. All are in low-income communities and all draw funding from vouchers.

EEI also hands out private grants, as does Partners Advancing Values in Education (PAVE), a privately funded scholarship and advocacy group in Milwaukee.

“We did an extensive analysis at Hope looking at leadership, their role in the community and academic infrastructure,” says Dan McKinley, president and CEO of PAVE. “We found the rigor and resulting test scores to be steadily increasing and exceeding norms.”

With state taxpayer dollars providing funding for a private, religious based education, Hope is front and center in the controversial debate over school choice versus public education.

Zach Verriden, formerly the principal at Hope, is now an executive at EEI. “We’re focused on setting up a business model, a facilities model, an academic model, a character formation model that is replicable across our schools and across the country,” he says.

Hope opened the high school in 2004. It took six years of struggling with size and structure, staff issues and student behavior problems before it found its stride.

Schalmo, a young and ambitious Teach for America grad who previously taught at MPS’ Burbank Elementary School, arrived at Hope in 2012 as the dean of instruction. The administration overhauled the academic program, downsized the incoming freshman class and facilitated five weeks of professional development focused extensively on culture in the classroom.

As students are dismissed from morning chapel, they file out of the gym beneath a wall of four banners, each recognizing a recent year when 100 percent of Hope graduates won acceptance to college. Once in the hall, students pass college pennants from UWM, Yale and Oregon State as they make their way to their lockers and then first period.

Other prominent posters advertise each grade’s daily attendance rate, a friendly competition to encourage perfect attendance. Today, all four grades are coming in at 97 percent or better.

Common Core and ACT readiness standards guide student curriculum. Schalmo acknowledges that schools shouldn’t be teaching only to a test.

“But you have to think about it,” he continues. “The ACT is a life changer for our kids to get to college, to make a better life, to get a good job.”

Teachers stay late, providing one-on-one direction to students after the school day. Some of those sessions focus on college acceptance. Over the last five years, average scores on ACT tests have increased two points from the beginning to the end of the school year. HOPE students are outpacing the Wisconsin averages for African-American students by two points. The class of 2016 increased ACT scores by an average of four points from freshman to junior year, starting at 13.6 and ending at 17.8, Schalmo says.

On a Friday, the majority of Hope students are out of uniform, wearing jeans and T-shirts. Smith pulls his merit and demerit card from his pocket. The card serves as an instant report on behavior for the week using a straightforward system of pluses and minuses – students are rewarded for anything from guiding other students in their studies to arriving well-dressed. Incentives include treats, privileges and dress-down Fridays. “If you do right, our teachers never let us down,” Smith says. “It’s like we’re a family. And in the same way, if we don’t do our work or come out of uniform, they hold us accountable.”

Lotegeluaki is wearing his uniform, preferring the professional attire of gray slacks, blue blazer and a striped tie, despite having earned a full card of merits this week.

It’s not hard to see where his preference for being in uniform takes root. Every day he and other Hope students pass the school’s entryway filled with dressing-room mirrors and mannequins displaying appropriate attire. They are instructive: Here’s how you should look. But they’re also suggestive: You’re now entering a school where order and neatness are expected and required.

Maureen Post is a freelance writer. Contact her at

‘Setting a High Bar’ appears in the April 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the April issue on newsstands beginning March 28.

Be the first to get every new issue. Subscribe.