MPS is deciding whether to sell the unused Lee Elementary School building to St. Marcus Lutheran voucher school.
St. Marcus says it’s bursting at the seams and needs another site. It did not get its first choice – a different MPS building because the district decided to convert it into a community center. Now, St. Marcus has its sights set on the former Lee School, located 10 blocks west of their current campus.
St. Marcus Lutheran School bills itself as a nationally recognized leader in urban education.
Senior fellow at Marquette University’s Law School Alan Borsuk has visited frequently. Borsuk says there’s a waiting list to get into St. Marcus and attendance is already high.
“It’s way above what you’d expect for a school dealing with children from the high needs homes that these kids are coming from," he says. "They’re very insistent about parental involvement. It’s very definitely a strongly Christian school, for parents it’s not everybody’s cup of tea but there’s clearly a high demand for that and in general they have very strict policies on behavior."
When it comes to student test scores, Borsuk says St. Marcus has an edge on Milwaukee’s public schools.
In reading, 19 percent of its students are proficient compared to 16 percent in MPS. In math, 31 percent are proficient, compared to 20 percent in MPS. Borsuk says St. Marcus aggressively pursues alternative programs.
“They deserve credit for doing a lot of work in trying to find curriculum choices and classroom management techniques that work for them and being flexible about that in the sense of trying something, if it’s not working, let’s try a different reading program in a couple years or let’s switch what we’re doing in science or social studies,” Borsuk says.
Yet Borsuk says one of the most influential policies St. Marcus has enacted, is that it does not tolerate bad behavior. Private schools have such freedoms, according to former MPS board president Peter Blewett.
“St. Marcus, if they expel a student, if a student leaves that program, they come to MPS and we deal with them, so they don’t have to deal with the same problems that Milwaukee Public Schools’ mission is to deal with. They’re at an advantage there,” Blewett says.
Blewett says St. Marcus can also require parental involvement, and, the school is not tied to a narrow curriculum, as are Milwaukee’s public schools. He says, when you combine all those ingredients – plus a religious emphasis, he understands why enrollment is high at the private school.
Blewett adds that MPS has its share of great schools, but the public generally hears only about its failings.