Alliance School receives top charter school excellence award

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Representatives of Alliance School display the 2011 Charter School of the Year Platinum Award from the Wisconsin Charter School Association. Pictured from left are: Brian O’Neil (teacher), Jill Engel (teacher), Wantanesha Lee (student), Steve Klebar (parent), Francis Wyne (administrative secretary), Adam Stewart (student), Beth Wellinghoff (teacher). (Wisconsin Charter School Association photo)

The Alliance School, best known for its safe and accepting climate, has been awarded the 2011 Charter School of the Year Platinum Award at the 4th Annual Wisconsin Charter Schools Awards gala at Discovery World.

Alliance was selected as the most accountable, autonomous, innovative and involved charter school of the year, said Sarah Toce, executive director of The Wisconsin Charter School Association, a nonprofit organization that provides services and advocacy on behalf of public charter schools.

A small year-round charter school serving students in grades 6-12, the seven-year-old school at 850 W. Walnut St. ranked highest in this year’s voting process, followed by Carmen High School, 1712 S. 32nd St., and Veritas High School, 3025 W. Oklahoma Ave. “The platinum award in particular recognizes the charter school that has best achieved its mission,” Toce said. “Alliance in and of itself is a remarkable community that has proven that bullying doesn’t have to take place and kids can be loved for exactly who they are.”

Of the 165 students enrolled, 74 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, 72 percent are students of color and 23 percent have special education needs. About half of the school community is also self-identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer, according to Tina Owen, founder and lead teacher at the Alliance School. Alliance is an “instrumentality” school chartered by Milwaukee Public Schools.

“I like it here because it isn’t as oppressive as my previous school was in terms of expressing yourself,” said Kelly “Chewie” Herald, 17, who attends Alliance with her elder sister, Amber “Bambi” Herald, 18. “People can behave how they want as long as you don’t harm or insult other people’s beliefs.”

Thriving at Alliance

“We’ve lived our mission in creating a safe and accepting place for all students and at the same time our academic, attendance and graduation rates have been going up in past years,” Owen said. “A lot of our students are thriving, and that’s the most beautiful thing.”

About 90 percent of students remain enrolled in consecutive years and more than half of Alliance graduates attend four-year-colleges, according to Owen. UW-Milwaukee, Kansas City Art Institute and Alverno College are among the top choices. The Alliance School also beat the Milwaukee Public Schools district score in the 2009-2010 Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examinations, a statewide standardized test administered to all students enrolled in public schools.

“Our scores have been increasing each year despite the fact that we serve a very at-risk population and despite the fact that many of our students had stopped attending school altogether before coming to Alliance,” said Owen.

Owen founded Alliance to create a support system for many LGBTQ students and other children who were being ostracized and bullied in traditional school environments. The hardest part was getting people to understand the true mission of the school, she said.

“A lot of people wanted to call us the ‘gay school’ because many of the students who attend Alliance are LGBTQ students,” Owen said. “Once people started to understand that Alliance is a safe and accepting community for all students, then people started to really work to support us and our mission.”

A shared history

Behind the colorful hair, androgynous outfits and raucous laughter not uncommon in Alliance’s hallways is a shared history. Many students were physically bullied and emotionally abused at their previous schools before finding refuge at Alliance.

“I came here because this was a small school and I’ve been in big schools before and I was bullied because of my sexuality,” said Kendra Jones, 18, who recently graduated from Alliance. “I was picked on and boys and girls would throw unwrapped condoms and stuff at me.”

Things were not very different for Robbie Moore, 17, who identifies as a “shim” and wears both male and female attire to classes.

“I came to Alliance because I have a sense of respect here. At my previous schools I was always called a fag, gay,” Moore said. “I was always teased about what I wore, or just how I looked. I really didn’t talk to anyone, I couldn’t find any friends and when I came here everyone just showered me with love.”

Nina Yang Hall, 17, said she also went years without talking to anyone. Hall is afflicted with the Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and would miss months of school due to the lifelong connective tissue disorder. Teachers here are completely willing to change things around if it would just help one student, said Hall, who only attends half the regular school day and e-mails her homework to instructors. Hall also has a girlfriend – she said no one batted an eyelid at Alliance.

“In my previous school, it’s more like, ‘you’re dating another girl, does that mean you’ll make out in front of me?’” Hall said. “No, it means I’m in love with someone else, but that does not mean I’m your walking porno,” she recalls responding.

For Ernesto Garcia, 17, Alliance is a haven.

“What I faced in previous schools is I would get into fights and arguments with people because of how I dress,” Garcia said. “I would have black pants with the chains and all that other stuff and they would say ‘oh my God, you’re a Satan person.’ Here nobody judges me or says anything about it.”

Other students who did not have a history of being bullied or abused said they came to Alliance because of its inclusive climate.

Isaiah Wilborn, 16, said it’s all about personal freedom and the lack of unnecessary judgment.

“I’ve never been bullied in my life and I’m not gay.  I just like that it’s a school for anyone and everyone,” Wilborn said. “It’s a positive environment and they’ve got good teachers here – they care about you and they want you to see they would try anything to get you into class.”

Building safe schools

Owen said the school, which has only 12 staff members, will keep focusing on helping students get into good colleges. Owen and her staff also plan to help more schools create accepting environments.

“These educational philosophies that were part of our proposal for the start of the school – when put into practice, can really build a strong community,” Owen said. “I’m just thrilled about the award because it’s a testament to how hard everybody has worked together.”

Toce said Owen and the staff at Alliance fight each and every day to get things done in the classroom for their students.

She added, “The school of the year award is a prestigious award and this year it certainly went to a school that embodies the charter school spirit.”

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