It is 8 a.m. and 250 Milwaukee College Prep elementary pupils are gathered in the gym at the school’s 36th Street campus for morning assembly. After a brief message from the principal, it’s time to get started. Grade by grade, they stand and perform cheers. Each cheer is focused on education as a key life goal.
“We step it up, and strive to the top, making sure we’re never going to stop, we don’t stop, stop, cause we want to learn, learn, to go to college and beyond,” the first-graders chant. The third-graders bellow: “Get knowledge, get knowledge, get knowledge so we can go to college.”
Milwaukee has some of the lowest-performing public schools in the nation. With the hope of reducing Milwaukee’s race-based achievement gap, Milwaukee College Prep opened its doors as a single charter school 18 year ago, chartered by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“The city of Milwaukee is in a lot of chaos right now and unfortunately our kids are at stake,” said Tony Gonzales, elementary dean of students at the 36th Street campus.
Milwaukee College Prep has grown to a four-campus network of K4 to 8th-grade schools that serve nearly 2,000 children. Two of the schools are chartered by Milwaukee Public Schools, and two by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The network’s student population is 98 percent black and 83 percent economically disadvantaged, according to its website. The network has a 97 percent attendance rate, and 94 percent of graduates finish high school, school officials said.
With a mission that states, “Knowledge plus character pave the road to college and the road beyond,” Milwaukee College Prep strives to allow students to determine their own destiny.
Hanging on the walls are images of different college emblems and motivational texts. Step into a classroom and you might hear the fight song of a university such as Indiana, Wisconsin, Marquette or Kansas. Above every classroom door is a banner with the year those students will graduate high school and go to college.
Gonzales said one of the problems in education is students are not exposed to high expectations.
“We discuss that college is not this foreign language or mysterious location,” he said. “It should be a place that is actually able to be seen and accomplished with hard work.”
One alumna who believes in the school’s mission is Deja Peavy, now a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “It was seriously one of the most positive experiences I’ve had in life,” Peavy said.
Kristen Foster, principal at the 36th Street school, said the teachers deserve a lot of the credit. “As a teacher, you’re either here because you’re here for the kids, or you’re not here at all,” Foster said. “That can’t always happen at other schools.”
Yvette Denson, a 12-year Milwaukee College Prep teacher, said the charter school is different than other public schools. “When teachers talk, I can actually hear the love they have for their kids,” Denson said. “We want to show them there is something besides what’s going on in the community.”
Djdade Denson, a Milwaukee College Prep graduate, remembers the impact college exposure had on him. Denson, now a sophomore at Marquette University, said there was a big difference between him and the kids in his neighborhood who went to school elsewhere.
“I had a firm foundation that made me believe I could go somewhere,” he said. “It molded me into believing I could do something for myself and the community.”
He added, “Looking back at it, MCP is the kind of place where you feel like you have to go back,” he said. “They’ve given you so much, you feel like it’s almost an obligation to go back.”
Foster said that even with its success, the school would keep pushing forward. “We stay in touch with our own realities, in what we do well and what we have lots of room to improve on.”