It’s the late 1990s and Journey House’s two buildings are falling apart. Its youth center is a converted theater, and its learning center a transformed church. Both are regularly dealing with leaky ceilings, flooding and no heat. Up the road at 1021 S. 21st St. H.W. Longfellow School is struggling with overcrowding. The brick school, opened in 1886, has a noisy and distracting gym on the third floor, conducts classes in the hallway and feeds students in a makeshift cafeteria and kitchen with a ceiling so low that adult visitors crouch to avoid hitting their heads.
Twelve years later, Journey House and Longfellow, both in Clarke Square, still use those same facilities (though Longfellow expanded in 2006) and deal with similar problems, but that will soon change. This spring, the Journey House Center for Family Learning and Youth Athletics will break ground. The center, a collaboration of Longfellow School and Journey House, will serve the two institutions by providing a new cafeteria, kitchen, gym, computer labs and classrooms.
The idea was hatched by then-Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, who was meeting with Journey House representatives to discuss their need for a new building. Norquist spread a map of Clarke Square across his desk in City Hall, pointed to the playground at Longfellow and declared it a perfect location, according to Michele Bria, Journey House CEO. Norquist, who at the time lived in Clarke Square, suggested that the organization approach Longfellow and try to join forces to build a facility on the blacktop playground that he hated looking at each day.
Journey House approached Longfellow, and the dream they shared became one of the early models for the Milwaukee Public Schools’ newly created Neighborhood Schools Initiative. “We had a vision of cooperative space at the time,” said MPS Chief Financial Officer Michelle Nate. “We’d make an investment in the neighborhood where the kids lived and reduce the cost of busing and then use that money to pay for repairs on building projects.” But Journey House, like most of America, was hit hard by the economic downturn and forced to delay the plan to build a new addition to share with Longfellow.
The original plan, featuring an addition even grander than the one that will soon be built, was shelved for almost eight years. “We needed to focus on core and staff development, and serving the needs of the neighborhood,” said Jim Schlater, who joined Journey House’s board of directors in 1999. “Once we’d gotten a solid team together, we could once again focus on the project and raising the capital funds for the campaign.”
While Journey House solidified the structure of the agency, its buildings continued to deteriorate. Founded in 1969, Journey House was serving thousands of clients each year, providing youth athletic programs such as soccer, football and baseball; English language learning and GED classes for adults; and a variety of other resources and programs. The economic downturn and increased clientele were making it nearly impossible to keep up with repairs on the aged facilities, according to Bria.
In the meantime, Journey House and Longfellow continued to nurture their relationship, partnering to run one of MPS’s first Community Learning Centers at Longfellow. The center provided a safe place, as well as educational, recreational and social activities for both youth and adults in Clarke Square. Soon after, in March 2003, Wendell Smith was named principal at Longfellow.
A new beginning for Longfellow
Before receiving the midweek call from MPS informing him of his new assignment, Smith had been the assistant principal at Kagel Elementary School, also on the south side. Arriving at Longfellow like a cowboy on a blazing saddle, Smith initiated changes quickly. Money for building improvements had been left unused by his predecessors, leaving Smith with capital to begin repairs on the building. Soon gone was the 12-foot rusted chain link prison-style fence, along with the rotting, asthma-inducing wood chips in the playground. The building’s interior and exterior were repainted and brightened. An addition built in 2006 enabled Smith to move the library out of a classroom and a bilingual class out out of an office, and add a second cafeteria.
MPS teachers took notice of the changes. “Suddenly we’re having 80-90 applications for a single opening here,” Smith said. Still, overcrowding persists. The music teacher pushes a rolling cart from room to room, lunch is served on a rotating four-hour shift that means some students eat as early as 10 a.m., and small groups — including speech, language and special needs students — are still taught in hallways on occasion.
Never say never
Smith and Bria, who knew each other from working together at Journey House in the early ’90s, continued to believe that the much-needed space would come, and pushed to bring the issue back to the forefront. “One thing that we always had on our side was optimism and resilience,” Smith said. When roadblocks arose Bria and Smith kept each other’s spirits up. “We knew that we can’t let others water down the vision to the point that we’re losing the impact that we want to have,” Smith said.
“Some colleagues had encouraged me to give up or try another strategy but at the end of the day I knew that the right thing to do for kids and families of Clarke Square was to have a unified Journey House and Longfellow at one site where we could all be together,” Bria agreed.
Then, in June 2008, the Walter L. and Grace M. Merten Charitable Trust reenergized the Journey House capital fundraising campaign by donating $500,000. Soon after, the Zilber Family Foundation named Clarke Square as one of the first neighborhoods to be revitalized as part of the Zilber Neighborhood Initiative. Between 2008 and 2009 Journey House raised $3 million more, which included a $1 million donation from the Burke Foundation and $250,000 from the Zilber Family Foundation. Journey House was well on the way toward its goal of $6 million, and in late 2009, approached MPS to revisit the idea of the new building.
MPS well runs dry
The problem was that MPS had fallen on even harder times, dealing with low enrollment and crumbling school buildings across the city. Though many of MPS’s schools were underperforming at the time, Longfellow was outperforming other schools in the system, and remained a high priority for MPS, according to Nate. However, the school system simply could not fund new construction projects, she said.
“Our new construction/building maintenance budget has been cut severely over the last five years. We used to get $10 million every year from the city; that was then cut to $4 million and that has now been gone for several years,” Nate said. “The idea for any kind of addition … wasn’t even in the cards,” she added.
Then came a windfall for MPS, as well as for many other school districts across the nation. In 2009, the Qualified School Construction Bond (QSCB) was introduced as a new tax credit, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) launched by the Obama administration. The low interest bond provided a new, quick money stream for MPS, which was allocated more than $72 million for 2009-10.
Mayor Tom Barrett, a proponent of the QSCB program, said that though the bonds were helpful, the plan likely would have gone forward without it. “I know that the Zilber foundation has been committed to this so I think there would be a good chance that it still would have gotten done. But yes, I do think that the construction bonds helped move the process along,” Barrett said. Nate, of MPS, doesn’t share his optimism. “It would still be on our wish list,” she said.
Vision becomes reality
Armed with a budget proposal for the new project, MPS brought the plan up for a vote during the 2010 June budget session. It did not make the cut. “Unfortunately, there were a lot of potential projects and it did not come through on the first cut on the budget,” Nate said. Finally, during the October budget session, MPS approved the $2.95 million needed to begin construction on the long-envisioned structure, more than $2.5 million of which came from the QSCB program.
With the funding now in place, it was time to put the plan into motion. Journey House had already hired Eppstein-Uhen Architects to design the new building. “It’s been a lot of work adjusting to the budget constraints,” said John Miceli, an architect at Eppstein-Uhen and a member of the Journey House board.
The addition will be built on a section of Longfellow’s playground, the same area where Norquist envisioned it 12 years ago. “I think it’s going to be a breath of fresh air for this neighborhood. It’s a place where families can come and almost spend the entire day and evening, where you can come in the morning and work out and take your kids to school and even take classes of your own whether they be ESL or GED,” Bria said.
The center, which both organizations are hailing as the new heart of Clarke Square, should be open by the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, according to Miceli. Once it is complete, Journey House plans to sell the buildings currently housing the Youth Center, 2212 W. Greenfield Ave., and Adult Learning Center, 1900 W. Washington St.
Public-private partnerships such as the one between Journey House and Longfellow seem to be an emerging model for space- and resource-strapped entities. “I think this is absolutely in line with President Obama’s ideal of a public-private partnership for educating our youth,” Smith said. “We need to be absolutely working as a coalition to meet the needs of kids.”
Barrett agrees. “This has been a great marriage between schools and non-profits.”
(Background image: 2011, Artist rendering of Journey House Center for Family Learning and Youth Athletics)