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School choice: A success story

By LIZ TOLSMA | Dec. 2, 2015

Sahara Aden is a St. Joan Antida success story.

Aden graduated from the all-girl, Catholic school on N. Cass St. in Milwaukee earlier this year and just completed her first trimester at Milwaukee School of Engineering, studying electrical engineering.

“I don’t think I’d choose this path without the choice program,” she said in a recent interview. Ninety-eight percent of St. Joan’s enrollees are choice students, meaning many of them come from low-income households.

“My family wanted private schools because private schools take education seriously. They offer a more rich education and prepare me for my future,” said Aden, of Milwaukee. But her family couldn’t afford the steep tuition.

Her parents, born in Somalia, never went to school. Aden was born in Kenya and came to the United States with her family when she was 9. Her parents had nothing. Half of her 14 siblings either never went to school or dropped out.

“I’m doing whatever I can with whatever opportunity I get to make my life better. I want to do the same thing for my brothers. I’m changing the trend in my family,” she said.

Head of School Paul Gessner has set out to make St. Joan’s a school where parents want to send their daughters. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a choice or a public school. If you’re not performing, you shouldn’t demand kids attend,” said Gessner, who spent 15 years teaching in public schools before taking over at St. Joan’s in 2012.

The school has 170 enrollees this year. Over 90% are Latina or African-American; 94% of them graduate; over 85% go on to higher education. By comparison, Milwaukee Public Schools has a graduation rate of under 60%.

If students come in “with openness and a willingness to dive in head first and run at 50 mph into the wall, they’ll find success,” Gessner said in a recent interview.

The school employs a rigorous international baccalaureate program. Every ninth-grader takes Introduction to Engineering Design. Five engineering classes are offered.

Students also study environmental science, biology and chemistry. Physics will be offered soon. Algebra, geometry and trigonometry as well as English literature, world language, history and visual art are graduation requisites.

Over the course of two years, students are expected to perform 150 hours of community service. Seniors must write a 4,000-word original research paper or literature review.

That, along with mentorship from an alum, sets many girls on the path to great achievement.

 “Counseling and tracking are key,” Gessner said. The girls who don’t go on to higher education indicate they can’t because their families need them to work. With encouragement, they might figure out a way to go to school part time or discover other creative ways to keep learning. And it’s working.

Aden, who juggled two jobs throughout high school to help her family, continues to go to school, work and volunteer in the community. Guidance counselors also keep track of the girls in college and support them along the way.

In addition, MSOE partners with St. Joan’s, accepting girls who might not perform well on the ACT, providing an academic bridge for future success. Nine graduates are currently enrolled in the program, including Aden. “The connection with MSOE helped me become stronger and enabled me to have the confidence to go to college,” she said.

St. Joan’s services go beyond the students. The school also offers support to parents with English as a Second Language classes and wellness programs.

About 60% of the girls enrolling at St. Joan’s are significantly delayed. But the school doesn’t turn away any student based on academic performance.

Twelve percent of the students had IEPs (individualized education plans, required to get special educational services) in the public schools. Those are the documented cases. Gessner guesses the actual number is closer to 25%. He feels parents don’t disclose that information, afraid their daughters won’t get into the school if they do.

When the girls first walk through St. Joan’s doors, many score under the 20th percentile on standardized tests in reading, math and writing. There, the staff is committed to helping them catch up, even without much in the way of special services aid from the public schools.

Because the campus is small, with an average class size of 14, the teachers formulate individualized, targeted work for their students. Teachers meet with students before school, after school and even during lunch.

Gessner cited an example of teacher dedication to student success. One student struggles with reading comprehension. Her understanding of the material increases significantly when she reads aloud. A math instructor gives up prep time so the student can come in and read. Over time, the student has needed this help less and less.

Tailor-made education makes a difference, and it made a difference for Aden. “My math and chemistry teachers taught me in a way I can learn. Because of that, I enjoy doing what I do. I came in with low confidence in being able to do math.”

School choice turned Aden’s dreams into reality. “If not for the choice program, I wouldn’t have gone to St. Joan’s, and I wouldn’t be an engineer,” she said.

Liz Tolsma is a New York Times bestselling author from Washington County.

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