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A Tale of Two Schools

Two completely different schools co-exist side by side, just two blocks away from each other, right in the middle of the neighborhood. Still, many students here bus out of the neighborhood to go to school. Both schools would like to change that.

by Sonya Jongsma Knauss and Jackie Detloff
Messmer Catholic Preparatory School Type: Catholic; all faiths welcome Curriculum: Catholic; emphasis on basic skills Serves: K-4 through 8th grade Students: 330 Average class size: 20 Tuition: $2,100 / year Accreditation: ISACS Messmer Preparatory Catholic School: A new neighbor in an old school house by Sonya Jongsma Knauss It has a nice, old-schoolhouse feel to it, and it’s a warm learning environment. That’s how Principal Jeff Monday describes the new Messmer Preparatory Catholic School. Fresh off a $4.5 million campaign, the school is a strong presence in the neighborhood. It sits between Fratney and Pierce and runs the length of the 3100 (??) block. Last year, the school’s first year of operation, it added nine new classrooms, a before and after school daycare center, a library, computer lab, gym, playground with fencing, parking lot with secure fences and gates, landscaping, and more green space. Carmie Ciofani lives across from the school, and she says the improvement is remarkable. “There are all flowers and trees and bushes, all the way down the block. . . and it’s so clean! There’s no trash around.” She attended one of the school’s open houses and approves of the renovations. “It’s a beautiful place now!” she says. “They did so much to it.” “The building was redesigned in as many ways as possible,” says assistant principal Mary Anne Rudella. Messmer Prep is the third school in just five years to use the school building. It originally housed a parish school for St. Mary’s, which became All Saints when the two neighborhood parishes combined because of low attendance and a financial crunch. All Saints, which had about 125 students and an ethnic mix representative of the neighborhood, wasn’t able to make it and closed its doors in 1997. The building then was leased by Woodson Academy, which primarily served African American children. When Woodson Academy closed, Messmer High School bought the building and moved students from Blessed Trinity Catholic School, formerly located on Green Bay Avenue, into the building. Rudella, who served as principal at the school for six years when it was All Saints, says it’s great to be back at the school. “When I saw it again after being gone for four years, it was even more beautiful than I remembered,” she says. “It had a newness and vitality that wasn’t there before.” Now in its second year, most students are former Blessed Trinity students, and the school has a way to go in attracting neighborhood children and regaining a more diverse population. But that’s a top priority. “One of our main goals is to attract more students from the Riverwest community,” says admissions and enrollment counselor John Stollenwerk. “I’d really like to see kids walking to school. . . so many kids around here bus out of the neighborhood.” Neighbors say they appreciate the way the block has been cleaned up, though some could do without the busy traffic every school-day afternoon. Ciofani notes with appreciation that she has seen a teacher greet the children every morning at the door when they arrive and stand outside to say goodbye to them when they leave. Principal Jeff Monday, who also serves as principal of Messmer High School on Capitol, says the reasons Messmer decided to buy the school are several. “We appreciate the richness and diversity of the neighborhood,” he says. “It has great potential and is rich in so many ways.” He says another reason the high school decided to purchase the building was because it saw an increase in students without the basic skills needed to do well in high school. The school’s board of directors, which had been operating Blessed Trinity Catholic School, decided to buy the Riverwest school building when Blessed Trinity closed. It then moved the students into the neighborhood. The school is completing a $4.5 million capital campaign for expansions and renovation. They’ve raised all but half a million already from local foundations, businesses, and individual donors. It’s obvious there’s strong support for a catholic school in the neighborhood. The school is unique in that it’s independent of the diocese since it is not supported or administered by it. However, the school does receive curriculum and operational support from the archdiocese. “The curriculum is pretty traditional,” Monday says. “It’s best explained as a strong basic curriculum.” The school is accredited by the Independent School Association of the Central States (ISACS), the same body that grants accreditation to the University School of Milwaukee and Brookfield Academy. Messmer Prep takes a phonics-based approach to reading, puts a strong emphasis on writing, and offers “updated and innovative” technology labs. The majority of students at the Catholic school are non-catholic. Teachers are not required to be Catholic, and students are not forced to participate in prayer or mass. The school does, however, offer a weekly, optional prayer service that is led and planned by students, and monthly masses. About three-quarters of the students who attend the school use vouchers. Despite threatened cuts to the voucher system at the state level, Monday is confident the school will be able to continue to operate. Tuition at the school is $2,100 per year. The school’s budget this year is $1.8 million. “We hope to be a long-term asset to the neighborhood,” Monday says. “It’s a great place.” Messmer Preparatory Catholic School is located at 3027 N. Fratney St. and will continue to register new students in grades K-4 through 8 through June. Call 264-6070 for more information. La Escuela Fratney Type: City-wide Public School with Neighborhood preference Curriculum: Two-way bilingual education with emphasis on English and Spanish literacy Serves: K4-5th grade Students: 380 Average class size: 25 students Tuition: Free Accreditation: MPS La Escuela Fratney by Jackie Dettloff Walk two blocks north of Messmer Prep and you come to La Escuela Fratney, a public school which draws 15% of its enrollment from the neighborhood, 10% from the East Side, and the remainder from throughout the city. Families from as far away as Mequon, Wauwatosa, and Shorewood have also enrolled their children in Fratney because they are drawn to the program, which is an innovative curriculum called two-way bilingual education. Spanish-speaking children learn English and English-speaking children learn Spanish — together. The idea is that each group has a rich linguistic tradition to draw from; since children learn so much from one another, the students can enrich the language development of each other. And they do. As the pioneer of this program in Wisconsin, Fratney has been hugely successful. Numerous national educational journals have focussed on the school; the U.S. Department of Education has highlighted the school; Milwaukee’s Shepherd Express named Fratney “Best Public School” in 2000; and the results of Wisconsin’s 3rd grade reading tests have consistently shown that 90% of Fratney’s English-speaking students read at proficient and advanced levels. The school is proud of its track record of parent involvement: when it comes time for conferences, three out of four Fratney parents come in to talk with the teachers. Teachers remark on what a child-centered school Fratney is; they value the team spirit among the faculty. They also complain about the condition of the building. The school cafeteria is no bigger than a classroom. To deal with overcrowding, lunch has to be served in three shifts; kindergartners eat in the hallway. The gym/auditorium is on the 3rd floor, sometimes making it difficult or impossible for older relatives to attend student performances and all-school ceremonies. Right under the gym on the 2nd floor, the library resounds with the sounds of bouncing balls or active physical education classes upstairs. To ensure that the teacher-student ration is 1-15 in the lower grades, every available office and hall space has to be used. The school council and administration has campaigned for 10 years to get relief, pointing out that Fratney’s building is in dire need of renovation. The response from the MPS Central Services: “Sorry, but there’s no money.” In fact, money from MPS is so tight that Principal Celín Arce projects that she will have to eliminate five positions next year in order to meet the budget shortfall of $250,000 that looms ahead for next year. Along with the parent council and the teachers, she is determined to keep the art teacher, music teacher, and librarian who are currently on staff. “We are a small school,” she says. “We already operate very close to the bone.  We don’t have any fat to trim!” For more information on Fratney School, call 267-1100.

Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 4 – May 2002