Years ago, when LaRhonda Bearden-Steward graduated from Marquette University with a journalism and public relations degree, she never thought she’d end up in education.
Now, she has a long list of accomplishments as an educator and recently became the first site director for Wisconsin Initiative for Neighborhoods and Schools that Work for Children (WINS).
WINS, modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, will foster family and community support for children living and attending school in the 110-block Lindsay Heights neighborhood. Its purpose is to help those children “gain access to social and economic opportunities and transition into productive adulthood,” according to Bearden-Steward. The main focus is to raise academic achievement.
“Our organizational goals are around serving kids from birth to age 25, and making sure that what we decide for them now is the right starting point,” she added.
The WINS office is housed in Bearden-Steward’s alma mater, North Division High School. “It is nice to be back in the building on a regular basis,” Bearden-Steward said. “I have wonderful memories of classmates and the staff.”
As the first and only WINS staff person, Bearden-Steward’s role is to identify resources for children and families, work with school leaders and community-based organizations that serve youth and look at “best practices” to develop a strategic plan for WINS. Within the year, three more staff members will be hired.
More than $260,000 has been raised from public and private sources for WINS, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
“One of the huge goals is to have families that live in Lindsay Heights send their kids to school in Lindsay Heights,” said Bearden-Steward. “When we start to see an increase in that happening, we know we’re headed on the right path.”
After earning her degree at Marquette, Bearden-Steward worked for several nonprofits and taught English in Germany for a year for a YMCA program. When she returned home, she found a job working at a corporation.
“I just hated it,” said Bearden-Steward. She left the company with no job lined up, and decided to apply as a paraprofessional with Milwaukee Public Schools.
Bearden-Steward’s first teaching job was at a school she attended as a child, Keefe Avenue Elementary School. She taught for five years before accepting a position to mentor new teachers with the Compton Fellowship Program, and eventually became the program director. Bearden-Steward also co-managed a $17 million project as the co-director of Technical Assistant and Leadership Center (TALC), which worked with educators starting small high schools.
She also worked at Marquette’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning, and holds two master’s degrees in Curriculum Instruction and Administrative Leadership from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Alverno College. Most recently, before joining WINS, she was the principal of the Milwaukee Renaissance Academy, a middle school in Lindsay Heights with fewer than 100 students that closed in June 2011.
“I thoroughly enjoyed working with her,” said Jon Osman a former colleague at Milwaukee Renaissance Academy who is now at CEO Leadership Academy. “She’s committed to improving education in the city.” Osman added that her “open leadership strategy” gave the staff at Milwaukee Renaissance Academy a voice that made them feel involved. “It wasn’t just about her,” he said.
When Bearden-Steward isn’t working, she volunteers on the North Division Hall of Fame board, and takes care of her 15-year-old son who attends Marquette University High School. Spending time with family is important, Bearden-Steward said. “My home tends to be the gathering place on the weekends for movie watching and playing Family Feud via the iPad,” she added.
Two years ago, Bearden-Steward visited the Harlem Children’s Zone, where staff members advised her that “whatever work that was going to be done needed to start slow.” She plans to heed their advice. Bearden-Steward added that it took Harlem Children’s Zone 20 years to get to where it’s at now.
Bearden-Steward will report to the WINS board of directors, comprising 13 community leaders, senior public officials and civic leaders.
“She is going to be an excellent choice for the board going forward,” said Dan Lanzdorf, board member and Oshkosh Corp. retiree. “She’s highly motivated, and someone who will have an impact on the neighborhood.”