In the art room at Milwaukee College Prep’s Lloyd Street campus, middle school students stand in front of hanging panels, absorbed in painting colorful butterflies.
In a nearby classroom, students take turns reading aloud from an historical novel about an African captive sold into slavery on her 15th birthday.
Down the hall, younger children use playing cards to do multiplication activities and count by fives and 10s.
One by one, students finishing a hula hoop class in the gym call out affirmations: “I am vivacious. I am tenacious. I am ambitious. I am grateful. I am hopeful. I am determined, I am excited. I am joyful.”
Although the Tuesday dismissal bell signaled the end of the day for most MCP students several hours earlier, the participants in the Future Urban Leaders Foundation program chose to stay and continue learning.
Teacher Ross Romenesko and his friend Brandon Vonck founded the program in 2014. Their goals include providing central city youth who show ability and an interest in becoming leaders with the tools and opportunities they need to excel. The program offers academic support, mentorship, mindfulness training and community engagement opportunities. By reinforcing positive behaviors and providing resources for self-development, Future Urban Leaders aims to help participants become role models and create positive change in their community.
When Romenesko was a first-year teacher, he found that building relationships with students through basketball helped him become more effective in the classroom. He enlisted Vonck, a management executive, in taking students to a basketball tournament they grew up attending in Appleton. Impressed by the effect the experience had on the students, they began to build a program so that more students could participate.
Gradually growing from fewer than 10 to more than 70 participants from MCP and other schools, FUL now meets after school at MCP one or two afternoons weekly and one weekend day a month. FUL also offers quarterly activities, including reading and discussing books about youth grappling with urban issues, exercise sessions and tutoring. Romenesko takes students on field trips to museums, plays, athletic events and nature destinations, and to connect with employers in STEM fields.
Tina Romenesko, a certified yoga therapist and mindfulness meditation teacher —and Ross’ mother — oversees FUL’s health and wellness program. It includes a focus on healthy eating and mindfulness, a practice that helps individuals reduce stress by raising awareness of students’ physical and mental state. Mindfulness allows individuals to calm themselves and gain control over their responses to outside stimuli.
FUL recently started a two-year collaboration with a medical student at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health’s Training in Urban Medicine and Public Health (TRIUMPH) program. She will evaluate FUL’s mindfulness program and help create a best- practice model, said Wendy Washington Hamilton, FUL’s executive director. Hamilton noted that teachers often reprimand children for behaviors that arise from trauma without understanding their root causes. The collaboration will also help FUL develop a sexual health program, Hamilton said.
“Trauma and anger management are two of the specialty focuses of our mindfulness training. It’s very effective with kids who have suffered trauma,” Ross Romenesko said.
Hamilton, who was hired part-time last summer, is pursuing nonprofit status for the organization and working to build its financial foundation and student capacity.
Jayla Washington, a Milwaukee High School of the Arts junior, has been involved in FUL since Romenesko was her seventh-grade teacher at Business and Economics (BEAM) Academy of Milwaukee, a charter school that closed in 2017.
Jayla said that Romenesko knows what individual students are interested in and looks for opportunities for them. He helped her get a scholarship at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design’s pre-college program this summer.
In addition, she and other students visited the Chicago and Milwaukee offices of dciArtform, where Vonck is director of operations and finance. The students observed its engineers and designers at work and talked with them over lunch about what they do.
“The (FUL) program is amazing. It helps me get where I want to get in life and I’m really grateful for that,” Jayla said.
“I was all for Jayla participating (in FUL), knowing Mr. Romenesko as an individual, how he interacted with the kids, and his passion for helping (them) and making sure they had what they needed,” said Kim Davis, Jayla’s mother.
FUL helps its participants attend top–quality high schools and stays connected with them. It is also reaching into the younger grades to accommodate families that drive their students to and from MCP.
Treshawn Harvell, an MCP eighth-grader, started participating in FUL in seventh grade.
“Mr. R … told me about how (FUL) will prepare me for the future. I was thinking about being an obstetrician and I still am. (The program leaders) help me with my schoolwork and with communication skills,” Harvell said. He has a scholarship to attend Pius XI High School next year.
The “Big Sibs” program matches two adult staff with three students to provide a small ratio of adults to youth. Older students also meet with middle-school students to give them tips on making a successful transition to high school.
MCP eighth-grader Erin Frazier, who wants to teach science or work as an environmental engineer, participated in the national Future City Competition at MSOE this year. The competition has sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students design and build cities of the future.
“It gave me more insight into the process of engineering, where we tried things out and if they didn’t work we would go back and redesign them,” said Frazier, who will attend Rufus King International High School in the fall.
This year was the first time FUL participated in the competition but it will do so again next year, Romenesko said. “Presenting to an audience of adults is a college-level skill we (were able to) give to middle-schoolers,” he added.
Kasim Alexander, a FUL participant and seventh-grader at MCP, said he used to be “a very quiet kid.”
“FUL helped me increase my social skills and … it boosted my confidence.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct an error regarding the TRIUMPH program. It is located at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, not the Medical College of Wisconsin. We apologize for the error.