Christian campuses’ goal is to prepare children for college
It’s easy to miss the school tucked into the corner of a strip mall at N. 25th St. and W. North Ave. and its sister building a few miles away, an airy gray metal and brick structure that doesn’t have a sign yet.
The most noticeable school of the three may be at the south end of a nonprofit building on N. King Drive, and that’s because a large banner outside proclaims the high school’s name.
But within these unassuming spaces, HOPE Christian Schools are quietly expanding and changing, figuring out the best way to make sure every child – from kindergarten through 12th grade – is on the path to college.
The schools are without frills because energy and resources at this point are better spent on the elements more closely tied to student success: strong teachers who want to stay year to year, innovative and empowered administrators, testing tools that provide day-to-day and week-to-week feedback about how fast kids are progressing and which ones need more attention.
“We’re still focusing on what our model looks like,” said Andrew Neumann, president of HOPE Christian Schools.
Neumann also is president of the umbrella nonprofit Educational Enterprises, which plans to establish schools nationwide that help populations of disadvantaged, minority children get to college. The schools in Milwaukee are a testing ground; this year, Educational Enterprises opened a HOPE-inspired college prep charter elementary school in Phoenix.
The HOPE network began in 2002 with 50 students in an elementary school facility. Now the nonprofit is running three schools that serve about 600 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Almost all of the students participate in Wisconsin’s private school voucher program, meaning that HOPE receives about $6,400 in public funding per qualifying pupil.
HOPE, which stands for Hold Onto Promises Everywhere, is affiliated with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.
The newest building – HOPE Christian School: Fortis – opened this school year at 3601 N. Port Washington Road. It was a big step for the organization, which raised about $3.2 million from foundations and private sources for the project. The building features energy-efficient concepts and a factory loft-style design with exposed pipes and large windows.
Fortis has students in kindergarten through second grade and in middle school, and it will add classes each year until the building is a full K-8 school.
Spokeswoman Wendy Greenfield said the school serves the Harambee neighborhood in the same way that HOPE Christian School: Prima, 2345 N. 25th St., serves the surrounding Amani/Metcalfe Park neighborhoods.
“Our goal is to develop that sense of community and have as many kids walking to school as possible,” Greenfield said.
HOPE’s high school is located near Fortis, at 3215 N. King Drive.
Many people learned about the HOPE schools lately when Fortis children landed on CNN with a “Scholar Ladies” parody of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” video, where one of the lyric changes included replacing the words “put a ring on it” with “get an A on it.”
Last spring, Fortis sixth-graders participated for the first time in Danceworks’ Mad Hot Ballroom and Tap competition and walked away with the overall championship.
In class, the children are generally more serious. At an eighth-grade writing class at Fortis on a recent morning, students in uniform performed writing exercises, shared samples, commented on each other’s prose, and responded to prompts from teacher Jessica Tess.
In both English and math, students receive twice as much instruction as they do in science and social studies. The design helps students, most of whom come to HOPE testing behind grade level, catch up to their higher-performing peers, Greenfield said.
Saturday school is held twice a month, and parent outreach is critical. Teachers at the K-8 schools do home visits, and both of the schools have 100% parent-teacher conference attendance. HOPE’s high school sees 87% of its parents at conferences.
Neumann said the schools have been tweaked a lot over the past three years, and that he envisions building HOPE-like schools in pockets of underserved areas all around the country.
“In the first four years, we opened three schools and took on a lot of new students,” said Neumann, who also is the son of state gubernatorial candidate Mark Neumann. “That created the necessity to slow down our growth and improve our current model.”
For instance, HOPE started with longer-than-average school days, then decreased instructional time slightly because of a high burnout rate among staff. Now teachers have more time to collaborate. In exchange, they run highly efficient classrooms with little to no down time.
The standardized tests that HOPE uses to track student progress show that most pupils tested made average or above average growth gains in math, reading and language between 2008 and 2009. Next year, voucher schools will have to start administering the state’s annual standardized test – the Wisconsin Concepts and Knowledge Exam – and making those results public.
Resources are still a concern. Prima’s “library” consists of books on a rolling cart, and $140,000 is needed for playgrounds at both K-8 schools. Currently at Fortis, kids at recess run around parked cars on a small lot, and the school won’t have a cafeteria or gymnasium until $2.5 million can be raised for the second phase of construction.
HOPE schools also are facing a $230,000 shortfall because of a cut in state funding for the voucher program, Greenfield said.
But despite the lack of some resources, a group of HOPE high school students interviewed touted the benefits of the small-school system: They felt safe, supported by their teachers, pushed to go to college, and supported in their faith.
“My grades are just now getting to where they should be,” said Diallo Mayo, an 11th-grader.
When asked if they were going to college, every student said yes, and that in-state, out-of-state, public, private, and Ivy League schools were all options.
HOPE’s two graduating classes so far posted college acceptance rates of 87% in 2008-’09 and 92% last year.
According to Principal Tommie Myles, more than half of this year’s senior class has received acceptance letters. He knows, because the updated list of what colleges have accepted his students is read into the morning announcements each day.
“We say we’re college prep, so that’s what we do,” Myles said.